In the morning Phoebe walked to the gas station to chat with Jim and Jeremy and find out some news. She swung open the office door and there was Jim sitting at his desk reading a newspaper.
“Phoebe Hood!” he cried. “Now isn’t this a pleasure. I was just feeling a little bored. Nobody’s coming in, I’m not pumping any gas, a nice summer’s day is coming on… With Jeremy here working on the cars I’ve got time on my hands. He works non-stop. I can’t get him to socialize.”
As if on cue the young man in the thin, stained, faded red jacket and tight jeans appeared at the inside door to the garage. The quiet stare of his slightly protruding eyes already felt familiar to Phoebe.
“Here he is,” said Jim. “Join us for a minute, Jeremy. I was just telling Phoebe you’re an artist at fixing car engines. But I can’t get you out to meet anyone.”
Jeremy looked down and seemed embarrassed by the attention. He was clearly too shy to start a conversation.
Jim turned to Phoebe and asked, “What’s new? How do you like Middletown?”
“I like it a lot, but I’d like it more if I had a job.”
“Giving up school already?”
“Well, maybe later on I’ll go back. Right now I just want something I can do for awhile.”
“But… you’re not interested in cars…”
“Well, no,” she admitted. “You know me, Jim. I never could understand motors.”
Jim smiled. “Oh, come on, Phoebe. I was only joking. We all know what you can do – should do, in fact.” Jim suddenly had a strange glint in his eye. “You might be in just the right place at the right time. Why don’t you go into town and talk to Gilligan? He’s had that store from your parents for almost a year now, and he could use some help. That place used to be jammed.”
Oh! I had no idea it was so obvious. Here I am trying to keep my plans a secret.
“But that’s just the trouble!” exclaimed Phoebe, beginning to get excited. “There’s probably nothing to do, and no money either.”
“Oh, please,” returned Jim, “that’s why he needs you. He used to have George Thompson working there, and they both sat around doing nothing.”
“What happened to George?” Phoebe felt her heart thumping in her chest. She could barely breathe.
“Gilligan let him go. George would bother him with big plans, but Gilligan would never follow through. They started arguing and getting on each other’s nerves. In the end Gilligan couldn’t make any work for him to do… I’m telling you, he hasn’t the faintest idea how to run that place. Unless he hires you he hasn’t a chance.”
“I’m afraid he won’t see it that way.”
“Have you asked him yet?” came Jeremy’s voice all of a sudden.
Phoebe turned and stared. There was something soft but penetrating about that voice that took over the room.
“The reason I bring it up,” Jeremy went on, “is just that I was thinking of myself. I’m even afraid to ask Jim here for a job.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Jim in great surprise. “You’re already working!”
“Yeah, but I want to stick around after the summer. I’m tired of college and my hometown.”
“Well…” Jim struggled to reply. “I don’t know if I’ve got enough work, month in and month out. We’d have to drum up some business.”
“You see,” said Jeremy to Phoebe, “that’s my point. You’ve got to drum up some business.”
“Just give me a chance!” cried Phoebe. “What I wouldn’t give for a chance!”
Jeremy smiled and nodded to Jim as if to say, ‘That’s all I need too, just a chance.’
“You know, I was already thinking of talking to Gilligan,” Phoebe admitted. “I just needed a push, a little confidence. I’m going to do it. And you too,” she gave Jeremy a playful punch in the arm. “Do it.”
Jim stared at the two of them, amazed by the changes taking place right before his eyes.
“Don’t forget my party Saturday night,” she said, moving toward the door. “You come too, Jeremy.”
He smiled and waved, and Phoebe was gone.
She rushed along Main Street as if she were late for a wedding, swinging her right leg awkwardly and bouncing along. She knew her hurry was a bit ridiculous. Nothing prevented her from speaking to Gilligan at any other time. The situation reminded her of Glenda finally visiting Teachers College the day before. Both she and Glenda depended on that extra push from fate.
We’ve got no plan B. It’s lost or found, all or nothing.
George flashed back into her mind. George! Oh no. She felt a twinge of an old, familiar sadness. Why was it that her fate seemed to be wrapped up in George’s misfortune?
She reached the avenue and sat for a minute on a bench in front of the office of the Middletown Standard, the venerable and very conservative local newspaper. The nearby sidewalks were deserted. It felt like the moment of fate was coming. She could almost touch it, the magic of the crossroads. No one can know that moment in advance. It must be lived.
Suddenly she heard the roar of a huge eighteen-wheeler coming up Hobart Avenue behind her. It turned right on Bridge Avenue and passed directly in front of her. She wondered if the colossal truck could make the turn on the narrow street. The cab bounced one wheel up over the curb in front of the church, and straightened out to finally roll to a stop in front of Scutter’s Market, taking up more than a whole lane. She read the letters on the enormous container as it went by: ARMA AGRICORP. The truck seemed out of scale with the town, just like Scutter’s Market, and made her all the more anxious to work at the toy store, right across the street from this bully.
Phoebe took a few deep breaths, summoning her nerve for the last lap. Her agony of suspense was increasing with every step she took. Looking into a toy store display window, she wondered why there were no children’s books, no art materials, no signs announcing events or classes or activities for kids. She marched through the courtyard and into the store. Gilligan was sitting behind the counter reading a book. His navy blue pants and red and black striped shirt looked a bit rumpled, and his goatee a bit scraggly to the critical eyes of Phoebe. The store was empty of customers. Uh oh, she thought. There’s nothing for anyone to do.
“Uh… hello,” said Phoebe.
Gilligan’s eyes opened wide. “Phoebe Hood!” he exclaimed and stood up. Welcome to the store.”
“Great to be here,” she replied, feeling stiff, almost numb.
“I’ll bet it’s changed a lot since you used to be around here,” he said with a smile. “How do you like it?”
“Well… basically, of course, I like it very much… but…” she stood there helplessly. Gilligan stared at her with his mild, watery blue eyes, and became aware that some unpredictable change was brewing around him.
“Yes?” he said hesitantly.
“Well. I… would like to work here.”
“I see. And… what would you do?”
“I could do anything. Anything at all. I could fix your display windows and make them more attractive. I could put toys around and move things up from the basement and stock the shelves. I could clean the store and sell things and wait on customers, and why, we could even do things like we used to do like have classes and a summer festival or a winter carnival or a Halloween Fair and bring the children in, and… things like that.”
They stared at each other. He seemed rooted to his spot next to the counter.
“That’s… very nice,” said Gilligan. “You know, business is a little slow, but let me see.” He stroked his thin beard uncertainly. “Why don’t you let me give this some thought…”
Phoebe realized that she was supposed to reply, and managed to murmur, “Okay.”
“We’ll talk about it another time then,” said Gilligan. He resumed his seat near the cash register.
Phoebe stood there without moving.
“In a few days,” he suggested. After an awkward moment his eyes returned to his book.
Phoebe wanted to say something, to argue some point, to at least walk further into the store. But she realized she had been dismissed. Feeling almost paralyzed, she made a tremendous effort and said, “There’s lots of things I can do.”
He glanced up, a look of irritation obvious on his face. “I’m sure there are…”
“I’ve got a lot of experience,” pleaded Phoebe. Here, in this very room where she had been a queen, she was now a beggar.
“Yes, yes,” said Gilligan impatiently, “but I don’t think…” he paused, looking for the right words.
Suddenly the door opened with a bright jungle of bells, and he greeted the arriving customer with relief. “Can I help you? Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
Phoebe stepped aside and waited, completely ignored. She wanted to shout or scream. Finally, in a rage, she turned and limped out the door.