THE DOOR TO THE TOY STORE OPENS
I don’t look very presentable, Phoebe thought, trying to imagine a new way of asking Gilligan for a job. But does it matter? Gilligan needs help, everyone says so. She brushed the pine needles from her jeans and her Northern State Women’s Soccer jersey, and ran her fingers through her hair, slicking it back behind her ears. In what seemed less than a second, Phoebe stood at the gate to the courtyard of the toy store. She took a deep breath and walked forward, swung open the front door, and stepped into the store. Her head was as empty as the open sky.
Once again Gilligan was sitting behind the cash register reading a book. He looked at Phoebe and muttered, “Good afternoon.”
“Hi,” said Phoebe. “Good to see you.” She thought her voice sounded very loud, as if someone else was speaking in her place. “I’m… I’m ready for work.”
“Well, to tell you the truth, I’ve thought it over, and we don’t have many customers in the summer. Maybe we can talk about it again in a couple of months.”
“A couple of months!” Phoebe stared at Gilligan in disbelief. “I can help you, you know. I’ll bring you customers!”
Gilligan found it difficult to meet her eyes and looked down. “I’m sorry, you see, but we don’t have much money.”
Phoebe continued to stare at him in mounting anger. “Well! If the store were more interesting, more people would come in!”
Her eyes bored in upon Gilligan and he finally looked back, growing angry in turn.
“We can’t all be like your parents!” he shouted. “I’m doing the best I can!”
Phoebe paused and took in this new side of Gilligan, feeling the first glimmerings of sympathy. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to snap. It’s just that I’m so eager to work. I have my heart set on it. Let me just try it for a week. I won’t ask for any money. Let’s see how I do. I’ll work for free.”
Gilligan sighed. “Well… indeed, that’s hard to refuse,” he said. “I do need help. Things haven’t been going so well lately. I thought I’d made a hit with some of the new games, but that store opened over in Half Moon and specializes in them. They’re taking all the business.”
“I’m ready to start. You won’t regret it. Where should I begin?”
“You’re the one who wants to work. We don’t have any customers to wait on, so you’re going to have to think about what needs to be done.”
“Hmm… okay. First, let me redecorate your windows. I’ll make signs advertising a sale, and announcing activities to bring people in. After that I’ll clean the place, and then I’ll rearrange the arts and crafts section so that people can see the paints and brushes and crayons and markers better. Maybe I’ll call rose from the pre-school to see if she’ll bring the children down for a visit. I hear rose and Rob have groups of kids doing activities this summer.”
And so Phoebe got to work, feeling almost as if she were dreaming. After filling one of the front windows with illustrated books for children and teens, and the other window with games and arts and crafts materials, she walked to the hardware store and bought a large bulletin board and poster board of different sizes and colors. She displayed new signs, and gathered all the miscellaneous announcements and advertisements scattered around the shop for everything from babysitting to fishing tackle, and organized them on the bulletin board, and hung it on the courtyard gate. By the time she’d finished a handful of people were there to take a look.
As Phoebe stood in the courtyard admiring the effect of her bulletin boar an old woman walked up to her and said, “Hello dear! I don’t think I’ve seen you in a long time, have I? Sometimes I can’t trust my memory. But I used to come by and see you here.”
“Yes, you’re Mrs. Wittison. I’m Phoebe and just back at work today. I haven’t been here in a year. Your memory is very good.”
“I’m so glad. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure. I’ll see you again soon.
As they spoke a mother came in with a girl and three small boys. “I see you have a sale on games,” the woman said. “Does that include the old-school games? Candy Land, Connect Four, Uno, Monopoly? We’ve lost so many pieces. Phoebe walked them into the store and up to Gilligan at the counter. As they spoke she pushed her open hand down toward the floor, and Gilligan came through with attractive prices. The woman ended up buying a whole shopping bag full of games as her children said, “Please. Please…” and“Yes! Yes!” and “Can’t we have just one more?”
After they finally departed Phoebe called the Middletown Pre-school. To her delight Rose answered the phone, and Phoebe said, “Hi Rose, this is Phoebe Hood. My sister and I are having a little party tomorrow night at 6PM, dinner in the backyard at 12 Main Street, and I want to invite you and Rob.”
“Phoebe Hood! Well, well. Your mother phoned just the other day. Of course we’ll come. It’s been a few years now. What made you think of us?”
“Oh, for one thing, some friends are thinking of enrolling their children in the school. My generation is starting to become parents, amazing as it seems.”
“Bring them over! We’re just forming a new class. How nice.”
“Also, I just wanted to let you know that I’m back in the toy store now working for Gilligan, and I was thinking about the arts and crafts projects we ran for your classes when they visited in years past. Gilligan has given me permission to invite your classes here again, almost any day that you could take a little field trip. It would be great if you and rob could invite the parents along, or have them pick up the children here at the store after the session.”
“That’s free as before?”
“Yes, of course, just a part of the good will of the store.”
“How nice. We’ll get out a letter announcing the visit.”
“Wonderful! Any day you can arrange it, let us know. See you tomorrow night!”
“Thanks so much, bye!”
Phoebe turned to Gilligan. “Okay! We’re going to get a group of children here soon for an art project.”
Gilligan looked carefully at Phoebe and stroked his short reddish beard. “you know, I may not be able to do the kinds of things you are doing, but I can appreciate them. And I want to apologize for the waay I treated you before. I’ve been struggling with the store’s finances, and… I’m afraid I wasn’t as polite as I should have been. Really, to have you work here free of charge just seems unreasonable now that I see your talents. Let me start paying you minimum wage as of tomorrow.”
“Thank you. I accept.”
“And I just want to say that it’s a pleasure to have you here.” He walked over and shook her hand. “Now, I hope you’ll fill me in on the details. I gather that these projects will be free. But we’ll have to pay for them. What do you have planned? What are their parents likely to buy? What should we order?”
It was after seven o’clock. As they talked Gilligan put things away and counted the money in the register. As he was about to close more customers entered the store. Looking out the window, Phoebe noticed the street traffic spilling into the courtyard.
“You should stay open at least until eight. You know, we used to stay open past nine in the summer. The evening is the best time.”
“I know, I know,” muttered Gilligan, as if speaking to himself. “Someone was telling me that just the other day. Back when I first bought the store I promised my wife I’d make it more like a regular job, ten to six. We aren’t even together anymore, and I’m still trying to make this into a normal job. Does such a thing even exist?” He waved his hand and looked up at Phoebe. “It’s time to cut loose! Let’s stay open another hour and see how it goes.”
During the next hour they made half a dozen sales, and customers were still coming in. A couple of kids Phoebe had seen on the street rolled in on small silver scooters and took over a corner of the courtyard for a hackysack game. Phoebe admired their skill juggling the little bag of beans and joined them for a few minutes.
“We’re the Flores brothers,” announced the older one, as if Phoebe should have heard of them.
“I’m Phoebe. Come back and play anytime.”
“She took a few minutes to carry folding chairs and a small round table up from the basement to the courtyard. The group that had been standing around took seats and traded banter and gossip with passers-by. Some of these new arrivals then entered the store, and Gilligan made more sales. After seven o’clock they did by far their best business of the day. Phoebe thanked the crowd in the courtyard as she eased them out to close the gate by eight-thirty.
“We’ll be here tomorrow,” she said.
“Welcome back,” said an older white-haired man.
“Chester Peterson!” returned Phoebe. “Good to see you.”
“Yeah, welcome back,” said another man. “Get us some cards and dominos out here like your father did in the old days.”
“Phoebe, where ya been? How come your parents don’t visit?”
“Are you going to stick around?”
“Back inside Gilligan was counting the money in the register again. “This has been some day! Let’s open from eleven to eight from now on.”
Out on the sidewalk, he turned to Phoebe in embarrassment. “Let me think you again. I hope you’ll stay with it. Tomorrow at ten-thirty then, to open by eleven?”
“Yes, yes, see you tomorrow morning,” she assured him. Phoebe refused a ride and walked home in the twilight, almost dizzy with happiness.