The Gossip Train

Submitted by Sandra Lester to Contest #12 in response to: Write a story that takes place in a small town where news travels fast.... view prompt

The little general store was buzzing with activity as Jeanie entered through the door. The smell of apples and spices filled her nostrils with the sweet scent of autumn. As she glanced around her at the baskets filled with delectable apples, the walls decorated in a wide variety of spices, potpourri with its host of scents mixing together in the air, Jeannie sighed at such a sight, breathing in the wonderful array of scents.   

 

Jeannie Watkins loved the fall in the small, but quaint town of Harding where she’d grown up. Everyone knew everyone else. If you were to observe it from a stranger’s perspective, it was as though the entire town was one big family. At least that’s how Jeannie had always felt.   

 

She sat down at one of the small, empty tables in the café. She ordered coffee, and looked around at her surroundings. Those who were in the store, were mulling about the counter where the container of hot apple cider. She recognized everyone in the small group, sipping the cider from small paper cups.  

 

As Jeannie sat there, it came to her how much the town had stayed pretty much the same as it had been when she was younger. Sure, many people had aged as the years had gone by, obviously, and others had passed away. There were some new faces that she’d seen a few times. Yet, everyone in that group were smiling and happy. 

 

Jeannie knew, that even though everything seemed peachy on the outside, there were troubles brewing in some of their lives behind closed doors. The general store was the place to be if someone was interested in knowing what’s going on with other people. It was the main gossip hub of the town.   

 

It was obvious when someone was saying something about another person. The group would lean close together, speaking in hushed tones. Every week it was the same, but they would be talking about someone new, come Saturday morning.   

 

Jeannie was one who didn’t like the gossip. By the time it had made its way into the ears of almost everyone, it had become misconstrued and turned around. Sipping her coffee, she tried to focus her mind on the words in the book she had in front of her. It was difficult not to listen to the hubbub that was floating around her.   

 

In her teenage years, she knew that gossip had been spread about her. Thankfully, it wasn’t something horrific. When it did finally come around getting to her, of course, it had gotten misconstrued, as it always did. She’d been the last to know, but the one who laughed the most. Her thought had been, if they only knew the truth.   

 

It had been a hard lesson learned. But it was a lesson well taught, because it got her to open her eyes. She’d learned to keep her business to herself from that point on. She’d gotten to enjoy the solitude and peace that came with it.   Now, whenever she hears the gossip train going around, she listens but with a different tone.   

 

“Good morning, Jeannie,” Paulette Anderson said cheerfully when she’d stopped in front of the table where Jeannie’d been sitting. Jeannie turned her eyes to look up at the petite, strikingly red, long, curly haired woman who stood in front of her.   

 

Paulette was a couple of years older than herself. “Mind if I join you?” she asked. “I mean,” she started turning her head in all directions, sweeping the room with her eyes. “it looks to me like this is the only seat left,” she finished.   

 

Jeannie smiled politely, motioning the woman to sit down. She took another sip of her coffee, eying the woman as she sat down across from her. Just then, Rita Keller, the waitress walked up to the table, setting a fork, knife and spoon, wrapped in a napkin in front of Paulette.  “Can I get you something?” Rita asked. 

 

“Uh, yeah, can I have a large iced tea with a whole lemon, please?” asked Paulette. Rita nodded, turned around and went toward the small kitchen, disappearing through the swinging door. Paulette unwrapped the napkin and placed the silverware in front of her, and the napkin on her lap. She, then looked at Jeannie with a slight smile.   

 

There was an awkward silence for a short time before Jeannie was the first one to speak. “What do you have planned for today, Paulette?” she asked. The woman took a long sip of her iced tea before she spoke. “Nothing much,” was her answer. “Thinking about putting up some fall decorations later on. Nothing much, though. What’s your plans, Jeannie?” 

 

“Hmm, not much myself. It's so nice out...I love the Indian Summers...I’m......well, I’m going to go find some perfect, orange pumpkins, gourds, straw and whatever fancies me from Hanford's Farm,” Jeannie answered.   

 

“That sounds fun, Jeannie. I hope you have a fun day,” Paulette said, her voice growing soft. Her eyes turned away, glazed over as her mind drifted away. She continued to sip her tea in silence. Jeannie wondered why it seemed as though the other woman had something heavy on her mind.   

 

Jeannie figured it this way, if she’d wanted to talk about whatever it was on her mind, she would. If she didn’t, it wasn’t Jeannie’s business to know. That was part of the lesson she learned about gossip. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, was Jeannie’s philosophy.   

 

Throughout the week, Jeannie’s mind had been on Paulette. Her expression was seared into her mind, and she found it hard to escape it.   Why had Paulette’s eyes seemed to be filled with a sadness, yet her face didn’t show any emotion?  Jeannie’s heart was heavy.   

 

Then, it began. The whispers, the look of loathing imbedded into other resident’s eyes, the turning eyes of disgust, the leering. All the telltale signs of the gossip train getting ready to run its course. It had all started when Paulette entered the general store.   

 

Jeannie was horrified. What could Paulette have done that was so bad? In all her years, she’d never seen such nasty faces on those who were like family. Paulette had sat down, again, with Jeannie. The woman who sat before her wasn’t the same woman who’d sat before her only a week before.   

 

Paulette had always had a beaming personality. One that shined whenever she was in a place. She was the one who led the crowd in laughter, normally. She was the one who fluttered around the store, like a butterfly, greeting everyone who walked into the place with a smile that beamed with friendliness.  It had always seemed like her joy was contagious.    

 

There seemed to be a dark, heavy cloud hovering over Paulette now. Her eyes had become dull, the joy seemingly snuffed from them. She wasn’t herself. She wasn’t the busy, social butterfly that she always was on those Saturday mornings. She kept picking at something on her purse. Her mind was obviously far away, and not in a good place.  Jeannie couldn’t even bring herself to speak, not knowing what the other woman was going through.   

 

Paulette stood from the table, after she’d drunk her iced tea quickly. “I have to go, Jeannie. It was nice seeing you, today.” Then she was gone. Jeannie could only sit in her seat and wonder.   

 

Jeannie usually would be at the store until her coffee was finished. This day, however, Jeannie felt the need to stay there at the store for a while longer. She didn’t know why she felt that way, but she sure was going to find out. She ordered another cup of coffee. She sat back and watched those people around her.   

 

The others were obviously aware that Jeannie was watching them curiously from where she sat. No one was grouping together, which made her think that she’d been wrong about everything she’d assumed earlier. She turned her attention toward the novel she was reading. She didn’t, however, read it though. She kept her mind focused on the crowd listening. 

 

As though the others sensed that she was engrossed in her book, they started forming a group. Jeannie continued to listen without making herself seem she was eavesdropping. She flipped the pages as though there was nothing beyond the book. 

 

When the whisperings began, Jeannie paid close attention. She could only hear a few words, others were silenced. But what she could hear, it was easy to get the jest of their conversation. What Jeannie was hearing shocked and broke her heart deeply.   

 

She finished her coffee, slipped the money she owed under the saucer beneath the cup, and got up to leave. She simply waved at the others as she walked out silently, stunned by the words that kept echoing in her mind. How could all that have started?   

 

When she got home, behind her closed doors, she dialed Paulette’s phone number. It rung quite a few times, when Jeannie was about to hang up, she answered the other line. “Hello, Paulette?” Jeannie asked into the speaker of her phone.  

 

Paulette answered, her voice sounding weak. “Hi Jeannie.” 

 

“Paulette, can I come over? I need to talk to you. It’s ...uh.... kind of important,” Jeannie hesitated.  The silence on the other end of the line was almost deafening.   

 

“Yeah,” was her answer.   

 

“I’ll be there in a few minutes, ok?” Jeannie said.   

 

“Yeah, ok,” was the answer. Paulette hung the phone up before Jeannie could say anything more.   

 

It didn’t take any time getting over to Paulette’s, as she lived nearby. She walked to the front door, and rang the doorbell. It took a little time for Paulette to answer. When she did, she looked haggard, hadn’t gotten dressed, or brushed her hair, Jeannie noted.  Paulette, holding her robe closed with one hand, motioned Jeannie to go inside.   

 

The two women sat on the couch. More silence. Jeannie couldn’t take it anymore. She hugged Paulette tightly. When she released the other woman, she looked into her eyes, searchingly. “Paulette, oh my dear friend, I’m so sorry. I heard the others at the store talking, after you left this morning,” Jeannie started. 

 

Paulette’s eyes grew big with concern. “Oh, please, please don’t judge me by what those people say. You know, as well as I know, that anything that gets the gossip train going, is going to go fast and crash hard,” she said softly. 

 

“Paulette, I would never judge you. Sure, you were a couple of years older than me, but I have known you all my life...well since I started school, that is...and what they are saying is so untrue. How’d this all get started anyway?” Jeannie stated in a soft tone.   

 

Paulette managed a small laugh. “It’s crazy. You’d never believe it,” she said. Paulette went on to explain how the ugly rumors had started. Though it wasn’t really funny, Jeannie found herself giggling uncontrollably.   

 

“I’m sorry I’m giggling, Paulette, I don’t mean anything by it,” Jeannie said, reassuring Paulette that she was still on her side. “Remember all the crap that was said about me, back in the day when I was a teenager?” Jeannie asked. 

 

“Like it was yesterday,” Paulette replied.   

 

“Well, believe me, it got started just like now, with you,” Jeannie said.   

 

“I never did believe any of that, Jeannie,” Paulette assured. “I was appalled at it. “ 

 

“Right, just as I am now, with what was said about you, this morning. It’s not right that they sit there, week after week, talking about something they may know about or don’t know anything about,” Jeannie said.   

 

The two conspired a plan to end the gossip train once and for all. For too many years, it had gone on. No one ever thought to put a stop to it. But, after it affected one too many innocent people, the two women decided to get the gossip train moving one last time.   

 

This time, however, it was going to involve each and every person who’s participated, and it was going to be a doozy. When the women had put their plan together fully, they smiled at each other, giving one another a high five.  “I believe this’ll do it, for sure,” said Paulette. 

 

Two weeks later, the plan had been in motion. Paulette and Jeannie sat at a table hidden in the corner of the store, sipping their coffee and tea. They pretended that they were indifferent toward another, doing their own thing. They were, however, ready to focus their attention, secretly on the group. Thankfully, no one spotted them in their secluded spot as a fake tree blocked their view. 

 

The train got started that day. Both women heard it all. Then set the next step in their plan in motion. Jeannie found herself anxious during that week, as the plans were going smoother than she’d thought. Everyone was piqued in their interest of the gossip.   

 

The original gossip had begun that Jeannie had gotten pregnant, but wasn’t letting anyone know. There was speculation about who could be the father, but no one confessed to it. The gossip turned that there was some ‘mysterious’ guy from another town, and after a night of drinking and partying, Jeannie found herself pregnant.   

 

The story kept turning. When it finally came to the second Saturday, Paulette was poised. Jeannie was ‘absent’, for the first time, because she was experiencing morning sickness. There was speculation that Jeannie would abort the child because she wanted to party more. There was speculation that she’d keep it, go into hiding until after she gave the baby up for adoption. There was speculation that it had been some ‘bad boy’ type guy because Jeannie’d met him at one of those wild, out-of-town parties.   

 

Paulette almost couldn’t contain her composure from laughing. The things people were saying, and all of it was hogwash.  She got up and left, heading to Jeannie’s to report on the fake gossip train.   

 

This was when Jeannie felt it was the best time for Paulette to learn her secret to keeping out of the gossip train’s way. She explained to the other woman just how easily it can get out of hand. “This is why I learned to keep my business to myself. Dirty laundry can spread quick in a small town where everyone knows everyone and everything that goes on. Think your dirty laundry doesn’t get aired? It sure does.” Paulette couldn’t have agreed more. 

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