A PARTY UNDER THE FULL MOON
As the day wore on the traffic in the store continued to pick up, but most of the new arrivals had no interest in purchasing anything. They were on their way to the party, had heard of Phoebe’s return to the store, and just wanted to pay their respects.
Reverend Tuck poked his bald head in the door at about 5:30, and seeing Phoebe at the cash register, came forward with the formality of an official visit. He wore his dark coat and white collar, but his solemnity was broken by the good humor in his eyes and his odd messiness and awkward gestures. He just couldn’t seem to get a new pair of shoes, or keep his shirt tucked in, or keep his voice down.
“Phoebe Hood! I hope you don’t mind my stopping in on the way to the party. I just wanted to say hello, and, well, to say how pleased I am that you’re back in the store. And Gilligan, I want to thank you for giving this girl a chance. You’re doing the right thing.” Reverend Tuck shook Gilligan’s hand vigorously. “You know, I’m going to give your store a little… well, visibility, in my next sermon. You deserve it. I don’t want to interrupt, though. Carry on. I’ll see you later.”
As he turned toward the door Phoebe said, “I enjoyed your sermon last Sunday.”
“Did you now,” he replied, suddenly losing his odd fussy manner and looking closely at her.
“It was important to me,” Phoebe went on. “I really needed to hear all that.”
He nodded and smiled. “Not many have said so. I appreciate you’re telling me.”
“I mean it.”
“Well, now, we’ll have to talk some time soon,” said Tuck, continuing his careful scrutiny of Phoebe’s face.
“Yes, I’d like that.”
“I’ll come by again.” He dipped his head almost like one of Chi Chi’s bows, and turned toward the door.
We’ll see what comes of that, thought Phoebe.
Later on Rose and Rob from the pre-school, Glenda and Tiny, and George’s sister Ellie all dropped by to encourage Phoebe. Finally Jerome Peabody, editor of the Middletown Standard, crossed the street from his office to gather some news for his next weekly edition. Wearing a pale three-piece summer suit and a straw hat with a black band, he seemed to be a visitor from a bygone world.
“I heard the news and just had to see for myself. A Hood back in the toy store! What a surprise! They say you’re going to bring back the old days. What do you say to a little interview? You too, Gilligan. How did you come up with such an idea? Like hiring the daughter of a Kennedy – bound to capture the attention of everyone. I’ve just got to get an article ready. What are your plans?”
Phoebe and Gilligan looked at each other with puzzled alarm, not knowing what to say.
“Don’t be shy, it can’t do the store any harm to get some publicity.”
Phoebe jumped in: “I want your readers to know that I’m thrilled to be back here working for Gilligan. We’ll be running activities for children, inviting people from the town to do out-loud readings of famous children’s books, and we’ll work with the Middletown community to organize holiday festivals. Tell everyone they’re invited, we’re eager to see them, so come by the toy store and bring the children!”
Jerome Peabody was making notes, and after a pause he looked up and smiled. “That’ll do fine. Very good. Now, to give the article a little juice, folks in our town will want news of your parents. What are they up to these days? Just a few details to keep the public happy.”
Phoebe felt thrown off balance for a moment, but recovered quickly and forced a smile. “Well, you know my parents are always available to speak to you directly. I think it’s best if they speak for themselves.”
He gave her a sly, appraising look. “Now Ms. Hood, what would you say if I told you that your parents have avoided my requests for interviews? What would you say if I told you that folks in this town don’t know what they’re doing, or even where they live?”
“Mr. Peabody. That’s a little unfair. I hope you’re coming to the party tonight at my sister’s house. My parents will be there, and you can gather your news first hand.”
“Why thank you. I actually wasn’t invited, but I’m sure that was an oversight. I know your family is very busy, no hard feelings. I’ll be glad to come, and I’ll count on you for the first hand news. I appreciate it. And thank you for the interview, Gilligan. I know you’ll be happy with the advertising this article will give to your business.” Peabody nodded politely and turned back to Phoebe. “Don’t forget your promise!” he said. That was a strange look in his eyes, she thought. Like he was giving me an order.
Gilligan stared at the retreating figure in shock. “What’s all that about?”
Phoebe’s mind was racing.
“Do you understand what’s going on?” asked Gilligan nervously. “I hope it works out in our favor.”
Dusk began to settle over Middletown. Gilligan and Phoebe closed the store and drove in Gilligan’s ancient Mustang down Bridge Avenue. The scars of many repairs, both old and new, were visible all over the body. Pieces of leather were sewn over the frayed upholstery.
“This car is like a work of art,” observed Phoebe.
“You wouldn’t believe how old this thing is,” said Gilligan, his voice laden with longing and regret. “I’ve kept it up since I was a teenager. But you know, it’s sad. A car like this isn’t suitable for these times. But my ex-wife took the new car, so here I am.”
“I like it,” said Phoebe.
“I secretly still love it,” admitted Gilligan, patting the dashboard as if it were an old horse.
Peering into the failing light, Phoebe muttered, “Whoa! Could all these cars be for our party?”
They stared at the rows of cars lining the street. Gilligan slowed down to a crawl as they passed 12 Main Street. Cars blocked the driveways of Dr. Bear’s house and Penny’s house. People were milling about the gigantic wagon parked on the front lawn. Gilligan continued down the road to an open parking spot. They walked back toward the party, listening to the murmur of voices in the distance. A full moon rose over the horizon before them.
“Just stick with me,” said Phoebe. “We’ll make this work.”
As they approached the driveway Jeremy and Jim jumped up from the front steps.
“You’re here!” cried Jim. “Lights, camera, action!”
“That’s my cue,” said Jeremy, and disappeared.
“Just wait a bit with me,” said Jim. “We’ve got to give them a moment.”
The noise of the voices sank to a low hum. People in the front yard hurried to the back. Across the lawn by the wagon Chester Peterson waved to Phoebe, and she waved in return.
“Okay, here we go,” said Jim, and escorted them around the corner of the house. The backyard was in shadow. Nothing moved. Suddenly the lights came on, and a chorus of voices yelled, “Surprise! Welcome home, Phoebe!”
Crowded around the table were all sorts of people. Phoebe and Gilligan blinked in the spotlight, and a hundred voices began talking at once. Her mother and father and sister stepped forward and hugged her. Then her father climbed up on a wooden picnic table and raised his hands. Slowly the hubbub subsided.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” came Peter Hood’s deep voice. He raised his glass. “First, I’d like to propose a toast to the most wonderful wife and daughters anyone could ask for. I want to thank them for putting up with me.” People laughed and cheered as he drank a swallow from his glass.
“And second! And second!” he boomed. “I’d like to welcome Phoebe back to Middletown! Come on up here Phoebe.”
She stepped onto a bench and up onto the table next to her father. The crowd was thick under the spotlight and extended into the darkness at the edge of the lawn.
Phoebe stared about in disbelief, her eyes welling up with tears. The little speech she had planned escaped her, but she managed to find a few words. The crowd hushed. “This is so much more than I expected,” she said in a voice so soft that people strained to hear. Silence came over the backyard. “I know I’ve done nothing to deserve it, but you’ve made me very happy. Thank you to my family and everyone.” Then she remembered her mission. “And I want to thank Gilligan today, in front of all of you, for giving me a job at the toy store.” Her happiness radiated. “I’m very grateful for such a wonderful opportunity, and I hope to see all of you there, just like the old days! We’ll be starting new classes and activities next week.”
Phoebe hugged her father and stepped off the table. The crowd clapped and whistled and hooted, and then slowly began to disperse into conversations and trips for additional helpings of food. Phoebe stood next to Gilligan in a daze.
Her father urged them to take a seat at the head table with her mother and sister, Reverend Tuck, Alison, Chi Chi, and a bald headed man with a gray mustache that Phoebe recognized as William Wyndaman, the lawyer who used to attend the meetings of the Protectors of the Wood Foundation. Other guests were squeezing onto the bench and pulling up chairs. Jim and Jeremy moved another table over and joined it to the first.
Phoebe turned to her father’s ear and said, “Dad, watch out for Jerome Peabody. He tried to pump me for news about you and Mom, and I invited him to the party. I promised we’d tell him something.”
“Ugh! He’s a busybody! But don’t worry, we can handle him. By the way, I’m so happy you’re back in the toy store. I knew you could do it.” They smiled and hugged.
Meanwhile, Jim and Jeremy and George brought trays of food, plates, utensils, cups, and pitchers of drinks to the table.
Suddenly Peter Hood stood up and pointed. “Make way there at the head of the table! Let them join us!”
A new group gathered and arranged some chairs. Phoebe recognized Mayor Wilcox, his brother Jimmy, and Police Chief Santiago waiting to shake hands with her father.
“Make room!” boomed Peter, and the crowd of guests shifted their chairs. Chief Santiago leaned over to Phoebe and whispered in a gentlemanly way, “Let me beg a seat with the family tonight,” and he pulled his chair between Peter and Phoebe. He doesn’t seem to have changed a bit, she thought. Always In uniform. Well, maybe he’s put on a few extra pounds.
Mayor Wilcox, looking distinguished as usual in a gray vest and gray pants to go with his full head of wavy gray hair, rose and raised his glass. “To old times!” he declared. “And more of them in the future!”
As the people drank Chief Santiago said, “You can say that again. It’s been over three years and still no Middletown Fair. It just isn’t right. This vacation has gone on long enough, Peter.” The Chief gave him a friendly slap on the back. When Peter smiled but said nothing, the Chief turned to Patti for support, saying, “Tell him something. He won’t listen to me. The kids don’t have enough to do! Pretty soon we’ll quit, right Wilcox?”
“Right, Chief. What about it, Peter? We had the best town in the universe with you on the team. I’m the mayor, but you’re our captain. We want you back.”
Phoebe stared as her father’s face lit up with a sad smile. “Believe me, gentlemen, I hear you. But let’s not get sidetracked. This is a night for my family. This is Phoebe’s welcome home.”
“I just had the pleasure of interviewing her at the toy store today!” came the high, sharp voice of Jerome Peabody somewhere in front of them. “And she promised the Middletown Standard a word with her parents.” Suddenly the table fell silent. “Isn’t that right, Phoebe?”
She felt her cheeks burn. How could I have been so stupid?
“Of course,” said Peter. “She was just mentioning it to me. Pull up a chair.”
A standing room only crowd now surrounded the table. Peabody pushed his way in opposite Peter, where he could see Peter’s face in the spotlight. Phoebe noticed two more men pushing in on either side of Peabody, and one she recognized as Scutter. The other, a man with high shoulders, round cheeks, long hair, and a baseball cap, seemed faintly familiar.
“So our readers just want to know what you and your wife are doing these days.”
“Of course. You know Patricia here has a show opening in a couple of months at the Modern Art Society Galleries in Evansville. She’s been working hard, and I’ve been doing my best to support her. You’re all invited to the opening on September 10th.”
“We wish Patricia every success. We’ll be reviewing her show for the Standard. But tell us something of your own interests. For example, aren’t you a trustee of an organization known as the Protectors of the Wood? What does this organization actually do?”
“Jerome, you’re way out of bounds,” came the weary and cynical voice of William Wyndaman. “You know what our foundation does. What do you think you’re doing, intruding like this on a social occasion."
“Well, well. I’m sorry, Peter. I didn’t realize you’d brought your lawyer to the interview.”
“William is here as an old friend, just as you are. This is a friendly gathering. I’m happy to talk.”
“That’s the spirit! I’ll keep it short. We understand that you and your wife no longer live here at 12 Main Street. Where do you reside these days?”
“Jerome, please!” interrupted Patricia. “This is growing tiresome. You know perfectly well – as do most of the people of Middletown – that we live at the garden center. I have my studio in the greenhouse. I hear you and your reporter have been bothering Alison. Why are you harping on this subject?”
“Because you are never there.”
“Jerome. You’ve known me for years. I’m a landscape painter. My husband and I are retired. We hike and camp at scenes I want to paint. Why don’t you come by the garden center on Monday and I’ll give you a preview of my paintings?”
“That’s very generous. I am happy to accept. In the afternoon sometime? Say, two o’clock?"
“Perfect! Now, let’s get back to enjoying our dinner.” She stood up, and looked at the faces around the table, and raised her glass. “Penny,” she declared, “you and our friends have done a marvelous job.”
“I second that,” put in Mayor Wilcox. “You folks do serve the best food I ever tasted. This fish and mushrooms dish is marvelous. And where do you get corn like this… and at this time of year?”
No one replied. Phoebe could see Peabody, Scutter, and the third man edge closer, staring in expectation. Oh no, she thought.
Finally Fred Peterson, the bearded giant, rose above the crowd like the patriarchs of old, and spoke out in a deep voice that carried over the backyard: “All the best food is grown in private gardens and small farms the traditional way. My family is proud to donate food for this party, and our wagon is still out front and open for business. We invite you all to walk up to Bridge Avenue and George Street to our roadside stand some day soon, and we’ll show you a thing or two you won’t find in Scutter’s store!”
“Bless the man!” said Peter behind his hand to Chief Santiago and Phoebe, as people laughed and cheered.
“Will you donate to us too?” someone yelled, and the laughter went on.
“That donation part is stretching the truth,” said Penny in a low voice, meant only for a few to hear.
Someone turned up the music on the other side of the yard, and the sound of splashing and voices of young children floated through the air. Peabody and his friends backed out of the crowd. The show was over, and people scattered around the lawn in small groups.
Phoebe leaned over and said in her father’s ear, “I’m so sorry, Dad. I just didn’t know what to do.”
“It’s all for the best,” returned her father, patting her hand. “We’ve been putting that problem off, and voila!” He snapped his fingers. “Things turned out better than we could have planned.
“Thanks. I hope so.”