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"Hallelujah," Mariah Moon said as the endless line of cars began moving forward. Twenty feet away, the Monterey exit shimmered like a desert mirage. She flipped on her blinker and waited impatiently to turn into traffic, brave the tunnel, and make her way to Lighthouse Avenue, where her mother was no doubt already preparing for the lunch crowd. Her grandmother, bless her heart for trying, was either filling saltshakers or replacing sugar packets, stopping to rest when her legs ached. If the café was slow, she might be saying novenas for Simon, the gay cook she was certain she could get to defect to the other side. To Gammy, success hinged on bolstering his spiritual life. God and beauty products were what she believed in, which was why creams and abandoned potions cluttered the upstairs apartment. She wanted to turn back the clock, not just on her face but on the varicose veins that plagued her legs as well. To say it was hard watching someone you loved grow old didn't begin to cover it.
Traffic stopped again. Mariah rested her forehead on the steering wheel and sighed. Highway One, the two-lane scenic byway on California's Monterey coast, was two lanes too narrow to accommodate the tourists and commuters. A person could waste a whole morning here, breathing exhaust fumes and getting exposed to God knows what. And time was money. From now on every tick of the clock would remind her of that. This morning at six forty-five she had awakened as a thirty-three-year-old term assistant professor of sociology about to start the fall quarter. She had her master's, and fully intended to finish her doctoral dissertation, as soon as a chunk of time came her way coinciding with a blue moon, or a four-leaf clover, or a flying pig. By ten-fifteen am she was another unemployment statistic due to budget cuts. Her checking account was in the dismally low three figures. Of course it was. All summer she waitressed at her mother's café and lived on tips. When fall rolled around, the coffers were low.
And then this morning the dean had called her in and explained that the term post she'd held for eight years was being phased out. Michael Howarth, Ph.D., freshly graduated from the University of Louisiana, would now cover her classes. He was twenty-eight years old and had already published a book. After eight years of promises that her job would be made permanent as soon as they got more funding, Mariah wanted to call Michael up and tell him not to get too cozy, not to hang any pictures on the walls until he got tenure.
If Mariah were to make the monthly car payment on the Subaru, the condo she and her daughter, Lindsay, rented would have to go. She could COBRA their insurance benefits that is, if she could find a way to pay for them. At the heart of her worries was Lindsay's tuition for Country Day Academy for Girls.
Her twelve-year-old daughter's I.Q. tested at 175. That kind of intelligence was as much a burden as a gift. Mariah was determined to provide the right environment for her daughter's intelligence to flourish, meaning public school was not an option. The stress would be traumatic, and such a drastic change had the potential to seal Lindsay's fate as the too-smart geek girl to be avoided at all costs. Mariah knew that popularity was based on nothing more than the callow whim of youth. Other twelve-year-olds went to the movies, played soccer, slathered on fruit-scented lip gloss, and begged for trendy clothes. Not her daughter. Lindsay lived, breathed, and ate science. Quantum theory science. Bioethics science. Science fiction. Scientific essays with words longer than most sentences. The kinds of science a normal person could go a whole life without understanding and get along just fine.
The driver behind her leaned on the horn, startling her out of her daydream to pull forward maybe six inches. Since when did a measly half-foot merit blasting your horn? Control freak. Without even looking she knew it was a man at the wheel, ramming the palm of his hand into the horn. Just for that she'd drive slower.
Lindsay had her father's strawberry blond, curly hair. She was four feet five inches and had not grown in almost a year. At her checkup, the doctor joked that maybe Lindsay's intellectual growth had stunted her body's progress, but Mariah didn't think that was funny. Lindsay had skipped grades four and seven, and now she was in eighth. No way was she ready for high school, Mariah thought, picturing Lindsay's beloved posters of Carl Sagan and Lewis Thomas. Lindsay so often asked to be quizzed on the periodic table of the elements that Mariah had the poster laminated. Then there was the Darwinian theory poster, and her two-by-three-foot print of the saltwater fishes of Monterey County. When they left the condo, where would the posters go? For that matter, where would she and Lindsay go?
The condo and the car were expendable things not vital. In the immediate future she would temporarily return to waiting tables at her mother's café, The Owl & Moon. The restaurant was a Pacific Grove landmark. Francis Moon, 1883, read the painted marker on the front wall, a distant relative on her grandmother's side. The exterior was weathered cedar and peeling paint, and all summer the window boxes spilled over with geraniums, pansies, phlox, and Cecil Brunner miniature roses. The Owl & Moon Café offered a wide variety of soups, all organic. Their pastries were baked on-site, daily. On Saturday mornings, the line of people waiting for a table could spill halfway down the block, even though Pacific Grove was prone to fog year-round, even when just a few blocks up the sun was shining. Mariah hated waitressing. She looked at every customer and couldn't help placing him or her in a sociological context this one an upper-socioeconomic misogynist, that one an abandoned wife when her husband hit his mid-fifties. But she could keep her head down and do it until she found a better-paying job. She'd given up a lot more to meet Lindsay's needs. Men, movies, manicures; it did no good to think about it.
How could the university do that to her after eight years? How dare they wait until the last minute to tell her? Each year Mariah felt she was that much closer to a permanent hire. It was too late to apply for a teaching job anywhere else. The adjunct positions had already been snapped up. She would gather her family together and tell them...and then what? Try not to choke on her broken heart. She had sacrificed having a social life, given up time with her daughter because working hard now allowed her to invest in Lindsay's future. Mariah was a product of public schools, marking time until she could get to college. She was determined to give Lindsay the best of the best despite having no father in the picture. Gammy Bess and Mariah's mother had worked hard for Mariah to rise above their stations. And now she had failed.
Breathing car fumes was muddling her thinking. What she needed was a lemon tart and a cup of coffee. She'd tell Gammy the news first, grateful for any homespun wisdom her grandmother might have. "God shuts doors right and left, Mariah. I won't tell you He doesn't. But somewhere you least expect it, a little mouse is gnawing a hole, and right there's the gateway to freedom." Gammy was straitlaced and old-fashioned, but protective as a mother tiger.
Mariah's mother was a different story.
Mariah's head was filled with memories of her mother's embarrassing escapades. The opposite of Gammy in every way, she was a professional protester. Sit-ins, gay pride parades, testifying before the city council on chemical runoff into the bay, defending trees slated for removal. She even fought the initiative to eradicate the deer that roamed the El Carmelo cemetery, although they were truly nuisances, causing car accidents and ruining landscapes. Though she supported causes Mariah herself believed in, such as the homeless shelter and the no-kill animal shelter, Mariah still couldn't get over the way her mother told dirty jokes in the café. She'd gone topless on the beach and was issued a ticket for it which she fought and won after she pulled up her shirt to show the court that her tiny bosoms could not possibly be offensive. Later, the judge had asked her out. Her mother, in her fifties now, was moored in the "Hey, babe, what's happenin'" way of speaking. Every Friday night she went dancing, whooped it up and closed down the bars when other women her age were taking up knitting.
Her mother's name was actually Alice, but she insisted everyone call her Allegra, including Lindsay. "Gammy's the only grandmother around here," she'd said. In music, the term allegro meant quick, lively, and she was that. She didn't wear a bra. She didn't shave in any of the conventional places. "I'm a peace-loving, left-leaning hippie," she'd proudly tell anyone who asked about her political affiliation. But while hippies had a reputation for being laid-back and accepting, Allegra was bossy and loud. She drove Mariah crazy with her advice. On more than one occasion, she'd told Mariah to "loosen up, and have more sex." As if sex was nothing more than jogging, or painting your nails, and something you couldn't wait to discuss with your mother.
When Mariah was seven years old, her mother had leaned a ladder against the café building in order to reach the sign. "All the way to the top, babe," she said, and Mariah, who'd never been scared of heights, did as she was told, with her mother climbing up after her. But once up there, the world looked different. Cars on Ocean Avenue hurtled by so fast Mariah was sure they could never stop in time for a pedestrian. The cemetery across the street looked huge, dotted with dozens of gravestones that stuck up out of the earth like dead men's tongues. Just to think there was a corpse under each grave made her light-headed. What if a sudden wind came up, or an earthquake knocked her off the ladder? Mariah's stomach tied itself into a Gordian knot, but did Allegra notice? Of course not.
Her mother painted "sizing," a substance that looked like glue, all over the carved wooden moon in the café sign. Then Allegra took from her apron pocket a perfectly ordinary package, and peeled away the tissue paper to reveal what must have been the thinnest sheet of gold in the world.
Mariah remembered thinking that her mother must have found the treasure at the end of the rainbow. Gold was the stuff of pirates, Spanish doubloons, or the queen of England's crown. Allegra showed her how to brush gently over the fragile gold paper, teasing it away from the package, and then lightly laying it down on the now sticky wooden moon. "Go on, babe," she said. "Paint."
Mariah hesitated. "What if I make a mistake?"
"You can't make a mistake," Allegra told her. "There are no mistakes in art, just unplanned outcomes."
Mariah painted, watching the gold catch the light. Its wrinkles disappeared as they melded with the sizing. Down on the sidewalk, the café sign had looked like a wooden plank with a badly painted owl. Up on the ladder, however, Mariah saw that the owl's feathers were individually carved, and all together they made up the outstretched wing.
Her mother hugged her from behind, and Mariah felt the ladder wobble. "Whoops!" Allegra said, and wiggled it a second time just for fun. "Mariah Janis Joplin Moon," she said, "you just gave that old moon a second life!"
Except Mariah had done nothing of the sort. Things weathered quickly in the beach climate, and every six months the sign required maintenance.
Her mother was open and easy with everyone else, but from Mariah she kept secrets. How many times had Mariah asked her who her father was just his name and each time Allegra gave a different answer. He was a vagabond sailor. An Irish traveler hiking his way across Europe. And when Mariah pushed too hard, her mother said, "He was the man in the moon! Now stop with the questions before I lose my temper." And do what? Mariah wanted to ask. Punish me by making me listen to another Grateful Dead Live bootleg?
Her heart heavy, Mariah parked in the slot behind the café next to her mother's ancient VW bus. Gardener's Alley was narrow and cobbled, and fragrant with garbage. As she walked around front she looked up at the sign. It was eye-catching. Decorative, like the window boxes stuffed with miniature meadow grasses that defined Pacific Grove and its neighbor, Carmel-by-the-Sea. But The Owl & Moon wasn't like any other place. Inside it became its own little country.
Like the kitchen of an Iowa farmhouse, the bead board walls had been painted over so many times that they looked doused with cream. The floor was old planked pine stained the color of chestnuts, and deeply distressed from years of foot traffic. On the street entrance threshold, Allegra had painted a mariner's compass in primary colors, its needle fixed on true north. Mariah walked inside and slipped behind the counter where two customers sat on stools.
Gammy was deep in conversation with one of them, a man in his forties. Mariah waved hello and went into the kitchen. Simon, in his chef's apron, held an industrial-size tin of ground cumin seed above a large soup vat. Yawning like he hadn't woken all the way up, he spilled some into the soup, not even bothering to measure.
"Hi, Simon," she said. "Where's Allegra?"
He nodded his head toward the stairway that led to the upstairs apartment. "Catching a few z's before the lunch crowd arrives."
That seemed odd to Mariah, because Allegra rose with the sun and partied until last call. "Are you sure?"
Simon rolled his eyes. "Why on earth would I waste my time telling you a lie?"
"Forget I asked," she said, making her way upstairs. Snippy as usual. I'd be like that, too, she thought, if Gammy was on my case all day about sexual preferences. Ha. At least Simon had a sexual anything. Mariah began to count up the years since she'd had a romance and quickly stopped because it was too depressing. As usual, the door was unlocked. Monterey County's history was rich with trouble. Thieving pirates, Spanish invaders, and blatant abuse of migrant workers were a few of its more notable sins. But unlocked doors and helping strangers remained part of the town's charm.
"Mom?" she said as she closed the door behind her. "Everything okay?"
Her mother sat up on the sofa where she'd been sleeping, her cheek branded with the weave of a throw pillow. "Babe! What a nice surprise. I didn't expect to see you today. Let me give you a hug."
All in the same moment, Mariah endured the too-tight hug, worried what Allegra would say when she told her the bad news, and noticed how pale her mother's face was. "Are you catching a cold?" she asked.
"Of course not," Allegra said, grinning. "I stayed out too late last night, but let me tell you, it was worth it. Mm-mm, do I love a hunky fireman! Please tell me you came over here to help serve the lunch crowd. Your grandmother means well, but she just can't move all that fast anymore. We're going to have to hire a waitress."
Mariah bit her tongue before she told her maybe not. "As it happens, I can work the rest of the day."
"Hot damn!" Allegra said, twisting her long black hair into a bun and securing it with chopsticks. "Let's haul our gorgeous asses downstairs and get to work."
Asses. Mariah winced at her mother's choice of words, and the scent of patchouli floating in Allegra's wake. Her thumping wooden clogs beat out a rhythm Mariah could never keep up with.
Growing up with twenty-four-hour access to food that regular mothers reserved for special occasions didn't rot Mariah's teeth. Before she was Lindsay's age, she'd tired of sugar. Her Achilles' heel, however, was her mother's lemon bars. Lemons are fruit, she told herself as she ate two, then three of the powdered sugar-topped delicacies. Between her schedule and Lindsay's, eating right came second to simply eating. Judge Judy, a sociological gold mine, had once publicly stated that "no child ever died from having McDonald's for dinner," and that was good enough for Mariah. Some days all Mariah managed was vending machine chips. And drinking eight glasses of water a day? No problem, if Diet Coke counted.
"How do the bakery cases look?" Allegra shouted out from the kitchen.
"Not bad," Mariah said. "We could stand a few more peanut butter cookies."
"A dozen Jumbo's coming right up."
The man at the counter smiled at Mariah. "I hate to bother," he said, "but could I possibly get a take-away tea?"
Take-away? Just when she thought she'd heard all the idioms, here was another. So many tourists visited the Monterey Coast that there really was no such thing as off-season. Mariah took a new tea bag from the box under the counter. "We don't get a lot of hot tea drinkers this time of year," she said as she filled a paper cup and fitted it with a cardboard sleeve.
"I see," he said. "I'm afraid Guinness was absent from your menu."
"Sorry to disappoint you," she said, thinking he was probably just another alcoholic fostered by the stress of working to afford living in one of the richest counties in America. "Anything else I can get you?"
He shook his head no, and then took out his wallet to pay. "Tea and scones have fortified me to go unto my day and slay whatever dragons await me."
Scottish, Mariah noted. A land whose history was written in war. "Dragons are in short supply around here, but come back and see us again."
He smiled once more, and she couldn't help thinking of Sean Connery, who looked attractive and dangerous all at the same time. "Count on it."
The unexpected thrill of a man flirting with her lifted her spirits. With that crooked smile she'd bet her last dime he was already in a relationship. In a week's time of asking customers she could find out everything about him from his marital status to his shoe size, if she cared to. A small town could triple in population, turn its Victorian houses into bed-and-breakfasts galore, but the core of people who lived there remained a merrily dysfunctional family. She filled napkin dispensers and monkeyed with the automatic dishwasher everyone knew was dying. Either they'd have to get a loan for a new one or hire someone to do the dishes by hand. Money. Why was it so hard to earn and so easily spent?
From years of teaching Mariah knew that when the economy faltered, families weakened, and sometimes split up. It was the twenty-first century. "Downsizing" had made it into the lexicon. Schools were overcrowded. In her Intro to Sociology text a map of the geometric increase in global population told the story: too many people, not enough space. In 1798, Thomas Malthus had predicted overpopulation would lead to social chaos. His theory was dismissed as flawed failing to take into consideration medical advances and lower death rates but just try to find a parking place in Pacific Grove and his point was clear.
Her mother, counting the register till, suddenly shrieked. "There are three one-dollar bills in here! How are we supposed to make it through lunch?"
Off she ran to the Bank of America on the corner, while Gammy watched the tail end of All My Children on the tiny counter television and complained it was high time they gave poor Bianca back her baby.
"That is an immoral story line," she said hotly. "I feel like writing ABC a letter."
"Soap operas are dripping with sin," Simon called out through the order bar.
"It's make-believe, you dodo," she said.
Simon laughed. "It's probably a sin to watch them."
Gammy huffed. "God and I have things all worked out. Can you say the same?"
Though in the pit of her belly the job news sat like a cold lump, Mariah's dysfunctional family was doing all right. She'd find a way through this.
"God better grant me a bale of patience this afternoon," Gammy said later that day, coming out from the kitchen with a tray full of bowls of artichoke soup. "If I make it through the day without killing Simon Huggins it will be a miracle."
"What did he do now?" Mariah asked, adding a handful of cracker packets to the tray.
Gammy sighed. "What he said doesn't bear repeating. He's just trying to get my goat."
Allegra slid by them toward the kitchen, throwing over her shoulder, "Then quit leaving your goat tied up where he can get to it!"
"Ha, ha," Gammy said, taking the tray to table four. "Mariah, your mother is as funny as a crutch."
"You'll get no arguments from me," Mariah said, then turned her attention to table two, where she opened her order pad. "Everyone decided?"
A middle-aged, brown-haired woman looked over her reading glasses. "I'd like a cup of artichoke soup, but not if it has MSG in it."
"All our soups are organic," Mariah said.
"So that means no MSG?"
The woman turned to the elderly man with her. He had to be at least eighty, Mariah thought. He was a sweet-looking old guy in his red shirt and blue suspenders. "Daddy, have you decided?"
"I want a bowl of artichoke soup."
"Daddy, you can't finish a whole bowl," the woman said.
"Don't you tell me what I can't do. I damn well want a bowl, and what's more, I want an oatmeal cookie to go with it."
Mariah waited while the argument ran its course. There it was, her future staring at her, the day when parent became child, and there was another lifetime of mothering to do. The definition of family was complex these days, what with blended families and single mothers galore. Gammy and Simon feuded constantly. What kind of soup to make, spotted owls, strip malls, gay rights, and Jesus. Except for each other, no one took them seriously. Mariah thought of her daughter, Lindsay, fortunately absent from this fray. She would be in art class about this time, the only class she detested. Just that morning, Mariah had listened to yet another plea.
"For example, while others are learning to throw pots, I could be memorizing the periodic table of the elements."
"I know you hate art, sweetie," Mariah had said. "Just try to hang in there this one last time and I promise I'll make a date to talk to Mrs. Shiasaka and see about getting you switched."
"Why can't you talk to her today?"
"Because today I have an appointment with the dean. We're already running so late I'm going to have to drive ninety miles an hour, and I have to sign my contract today or our benefits will lapse, and next week we start second quarter scheduling "
Wow. Didn't all that feel like a lifetime ago? The father-daughter table was not making headway. It was time to step in. "How about I bring you a cup of soup, sir, and if you want more, then I bring you a refill?"
"Now that's the first intelligent thing I've heard all morning," the father said. "And don't forget my cookie."
"Daddy!" the woman said. "Here I am trying to help you watch your sugar "
"Mariah! Where's my cinnamon roll?" one of the regulars asked, and she nodded and ran to fetch one hot from the baking tray.
"What good's a bagel without cream cheese," another customer announced as Mariah was trying to take a to-go order over the phone.
"Coming," she said, resisting the temptation to yell that if they wanted fast food, drive through Taco Bell. Running back and forth from the kitchen to the cold case, she had no time to think about her problems. When there was a lull, she looked to see what needed to be restocked. Among items in the glass cold case were cheesecake, marzipan candies, The Owl & Moon's famous Chocolate Cherry Thunder fudge, and a round of sharp cheddar for the apple tarts. The nonrefrigerated case held all manner of pastries, sweet rolls, and berry pies. When the buckwheat rolls came out of the oven they went directly into pink boxes tied with kite string.
Out of the corner of her eye she watched her mother answer the phone, tickle a customer's new baby, wrap fudge, and box up cookies like she was working every station on the assembly line. Her face looked drawn. Sometimes Mariah couldn't bear how hard Allegra and Gammy worked. The Owl & Moon was Faustian, ruling over their souls. Mariah had vowed never to let it take over hers, but the aroma in the café was comforting. The soup warmed you to the core. The pastry melted on your tongue. Conversation was always interesting. It was easy to become addicted, which meant regular customers eventually turned into demanding regular customers, and there you were, stuck in a loop of supply and demand with no time to rest.
From 11:40 until 2:25 she refilled coffees, emptied three pitchers of iced tea, and served artichoke soup until the last of it was gone. Her own stomach growled, her feet throbbed, and her arms ached. She couldn't wait to have a bowl of soup herself, even if all that was left was beef barley.
All afternoon Mariah replayed the brief moment with the dragon-slaying Mr. Tea-and-scones. Since she didn't date, she felt it was perfectly acceptable to indulge in fantasies. A real kiss would probably make her cry. Ever since Lindsay was born, she told herself she didn't have the time, the right clothes, but Lindsay was the reason she didn't date. What did men call the children of single women? Baggage. Lovely word. Spoiled rotten babies that men were, most of them wanted a mommy, and they wanted to be that mommy's only child.
"Attention, everybody!" Allegra called out, tapping a spoon against a glass. "Time for our daily joke. What did Confucius say when he saw the man standing on the toilet?" She waited a moment, and then finished with, "That man high on pot!"
The customers laughed, but Mariah found nothing humorous about marijuana. Working here permanently would drive her mad. She'd look for a job in an office, a research position, learn to write grants, substitute teach, anything but waitressing. But what skills did she have? A hunt-and-peck typist, she needed Lindsay's help to get anywhere on her computer. Decent jobs of any kind were hard to come by in Monterey County. The daily joke laughter was soon replaced by pleas "I haven't been helped yet" and "What do you mean you're out of Chocolate Cherry Thunder fudge?" She edged by her mother to get to the cold case.
Allegra patted Mariah on the behind as she walked by with more cinnamon rolls. "Chill out," she said. "Take life a little less seriously and you'll have a lot more fun."
What do you get when you cross a hippie with a mother, Mariah wanted to ask, and then let Allegra have it for every embarrassing comment since the day she was born.
A businesswoman tapped the counter. "Excuse me, I'm still waiting for my fudge."
"There's probably more in the back," Mariah said. "Let me ring up this check and then I'll go look."
The Owl & Moon would never lack for customers. If a person came in for Chocolate Bomb cookies for her daughter's birthday, while she waited to have them boxed she'd smell the paper-thin rosemary-garlic Cheese Pennies, and pick up two dozen. Then she'd ask for a taste of the gleaming slab of Chocolate Cherry Thunder fudge. She'd buy a small piece, unwrap it in the car, take one bite, and turn up Monterey Jack on KMPG, the drive-time radio DJ who played old Nat King Cole vocals and plenty of Ella. Pinch-by-pinch, the fudge would disappear.
Mariah knew firsthand how that fudge made for a moment of pleasure no one could take from you. When had her life come down to settling for moments? Why did she live at the beach when she had no time to swim, or sunbathe, or even take a walk? So eager to make a career, she'd spent the early years of her daughter's life reading student papers so late into the night that Lindsay had learned to put herself to bed.
Around two-thirty there was a lull, and Mariah noticed Gammy was limping. "Go sit down," she told her.
Gammy chose the same stool Mr. Tea-and-scones had inhabited. "Gammy," she said, wiping down the counter with their bleach-smelling cleaner, "who was the Scottish guy this morning?"
Her grandmother grinned. "Oh, you mean the one who looks like a movie star?"
"I really didn't notice."
"Careful, Pinocchio. Your nose is growing."
Mariah scrubbed hard at a stain. "Never mind."
Gammy clasped her hands to her chest. "Maybe he came all the way from Scotland to fall desperately in love with you and give me more great-grandchildren to spoil and Lindsay some siblings to play with."
"Stop it," Mariah said.
"A girl can hope."
"Gammy, the last thing I need in my life right now is a man."
Her grandmother untied her stained apron. As she brushed off crumbs, she said, "Dating wouldn't kill you. You could try that internet dating service. Who knows? You might make a friend. If you ever want to "
"I lost my job!" Mariah blurted out, and there she stood, her last customers of the day sipping coffee with no idea that their waitress was on the verge of tears.
For a moment or two, Gammy's face looked every one of its sixty-eight years. Her snow-white hair was teased and sprayed into a proper old-lady helmet hairdo, but no amount of product could hide the baby-pink scalp peeking out.
"Go give that fellow his check," Gammy said, as if her granddaughter had told her nothing more important than the mail had arrived. "Go on, now. I'll make us some cocoa. Then we'll talk. You can tell me all about it."
Mariah composed herself, looking out the window as the fog started to roll in, erasing the sunny day that had begun so promisingly. There was a screech of brakes and a narrowly missed fender-bender that probably involved a protected deer with a mouthful of flowers, and someone started cussing. And then, just like she did at the end of every business day, Allegra started singing, "Come on people now, smile " But she never finished the verse, because she fainted dead away behind the counter.
Copyright © 2006 by Jo-Ann Mapson