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The Continuing Saga of The Toenail Ridge Shortline
Chapter 33
The Gossip
Page uploaded June 29th, 2004

There’s a certain type of fella whose life revolves around keeping other people’s business for them. He can go by the name of preacher, editor, public servant or just plain sticky-beak busybody but regardless of nomenclature every society since the Garden of Eden has had one.

And in the Valley of the Toenail Ridge and in particular in the town of Selbyville the prime poke-your-nose-in-where-it’s-not-wanted purveyor was an old geezer by name of Stan Smith, a retired old coot who had spent most of his active life getting in the way and in general being a nuisance in the Toenail Ridge Shortline yards where he had been employed as a switcher. He had lived a charmed life as he was probably the only man in that trade to have reached retirement with all of his fingers, hands or other extremities still intact, it being an inherent part of life in that occupation prior to the invention of the automatic coupler that one hadn’t finished one’s apprenticeship until at least one arm finished in a blunt bit. It probably says a lot for Stan’s approach to his daily vocation that he not only didn’t lost an arm or even a finger but never got a callous or a splinter either, said injuries requiring some physical effort to attain which immediately had ruled him out of contention for the whole 40 years he had drawn a paycheck from the Shortline.

Since he had quit showing up to the yards on reaching his 65th birthday he had spent his time in his favourite pursuit, sitting on the bench outside Dwight’s barbershop and casting aspersions on the morals and activities of his fellow Valley denizens. He was often accompanied in this activity by one or more cronies with whom he had spent his supposed-to-be -working life, cronies whom he had managed not to upset too much with his opinions and gossip. And that was a pretty hard thing to accomplish given that Stan delighted in not just passing on every juicy morsel of gossip but if juicy morsels were a little thin on the ground that week he’d dream some up. However, let us not paint too dark a picture of him, he had been known to give his all if a compatriot was in need, especially if said compatriot was in need of unwanted advice or instruction.

Now, it so happened that one fine morning when Stan and old Bob McGroin were slandering away out in front of the barbershop that a fine looking young woman drove by in her sulky, inbound from the whistlestop of Fenster where she lived on her little allotment, heading to Cotton’s General store to buy some staples. The story around the Valley was that she was a young widow woman, her husband having lost his life in France during the Great War. She kept herself to herself and had made no friends or contacts since she had moved in to the Valley of the Toenail Ridge a few months before, with the result that she might as well have painted a target on herself for Stan to take aim at.

“Huh! Widderwoman! Reckon she keeping them no-good miners up in the hills purty happy, what you reckon, Bob?”

“Yup” replied McGroin, ever the fount of loquaciousness. It should be pointed out here that Bob had the intellect of a burnt out light bulb. If the IQ test had been invented already he would have come in at about room temperature. Due to his considerable lack of grey matter between his ears he had spent his life in particularly non-demanding jobs, his last employment before his retirement being political analyst for a current incumbent in Washington, a postion for which he was eminently qualified. He was the consummate yes-man.

One of the worst things about unmitigated gossip is that what is spouted as Gospel by the gossiper can be very painful to the gossipee at such time as he or she becomes aware of it and such was the case with the young widow. In the few weeks that she had resided in the Valley she had been unknowingly linked with every male from the Reverend Jeremiah Little all the way down to Chilly John, and that was a long way down. And of course, as every fire fighter and housewife knows, there isn’t any smoke without fire, so some of it had to be true if you hear it often enough. With the result that while the young widow preferred to keep herself to herself she was the subject of glances and glares as she entered Cotton’s Emporium in Main Street. Even fair minded folks like Florence Golightly and Ken Blunt had wondered at the proliferation of nasty rumours that Stan seemed to perpetually reveal about the woman. But amidst all the innuendo and back-stabbing one person remained fair and friendly. Mary-Jo Pears had been on the other end of snide remarks when she had first opened up her diner back before she’d hooked the good reverend in Holy Matrimony and when it came to her attention that that nasty old coot outside the barbershop was doing his damnedest to blacken the young widow’s reputation she took it upon herself to intervene.

Now the wife of the local God-botherer is in a powerful position when it comes to influencing the hearts and minds of those around here, especially those in her husband’s flock. She is invariably the chairwoman (sorry, that’s chairwoman, not chair-person, this was in an age before political correctness…) of the Women’s Guild, the Sewing Circle, the Church Picnic Committee etc. etc. and so is in a position to gently and persuasively imply that “.. it will be so!”…
…and so she did.
“Ladies, I call to order this meeting of the Flower Committee. Before we commence with our usual business I need to say a few words about a nasty rumour that has come to my attention…”

Stan used to have a wife but she managed to die in self-defense after suffering him for 40 years and since her coil-shuffling-off he’d lived a lonely life in his old cottage on Main Street. However, being a man normally endowed with the usual allotment of hormones he found that every now and again he’d feel a certain urge, the need for comely companionship and cute camaraderie. In other words, he’d hie himself off to Rowel on the afternoon varnish of the Toenail Ridge Shortline, then transfer to the Portland and Great Eastern for the journey to the state’s capital to taste the fruits of illicit liaisons. Following his most recent trip to Portland in pursuit of that manly itch he found that a few days after returning to Selbyville he had another itch altogether, this time not for more winsome companionship but rather for calamine lotion. He endured the irritation for as long as he could but by about the second day he took himself down to Doc Johnstone’s place to get an opinion.

“Doc, hate to bother ya but I got this itch that’s ‘bout drivin’ me crazy..” said Stan

“OK. So where is it?”

“Ummm….. well,…ummmmm….”

“I see” said the good doctor. “Alright, drop ‘em and let’s have a look” and he reached for his rubber gloves.

Now, Gentle Reader, penicillin was still a good 15 years in the future (except for those green spots on Joe Dempsey’s bread ) with the result that Stan was faced with a couple of awkward situations. Firstly, Dr Johnstone had to report the case to the State Health Commission and of course that meant naming names. And secondly, Stan had to apply to himself various and specific unguents and ointments prescribed for his condition, said unguents and ointments being prepared for him by the local druggist, old Sol Furick. And Sol was not one to respect the personal privacy of the Valley’s biggest gossip, especially not since he himself had been the victim of Stan’s mouth on more than one occasion.

By the end of a week, Stan Smith was not a happy camper. He had irritations in places where it wasn’t polite to scratch in public, his trips to the privy made him feel like he’d been drinking razorblades instead of Billias’ Beer (Supremely Healthy, Invigorating, Truly Tasty, Yeasty!) and to make matters worse he found out from Bob McGroin that the whole Valley knew about his condition courtesy of the druggist. Men he’d known for years sniggered as he walked down the street to the barbershop or Parker’s saloon, women turned their backs on him and made comments behind raised hands, kids crossed the road to avoid meeting him and then taunted him as he passed. (especially that brat Bart Shay).

What a cruel thing it is for the disher-out of malicious gossip to suddenly find himself the recipient of the same! And how it hurt poor old Stan to know that he couldn’t deny one iota ‘cos unlike the bits and pieces of information he loved to disseminate the story going about the Valley like wildfire was every word true!

Now the story happened to reach the ears of the young widow woman one afternoon while she was passing the time of day with Mary-Jo Pears outside the General Store. Mary-Jo had gone out of her way to make the widow’s acquaintance and while they were exchanging bits and pieces Stan happened to shuffle past on his way up to the saloon for a small prandial imbibance. Ken Blunt’s wife just then came through the double doors of the General Store with her arms full of parcels wrapped in brown paper and string, espied Stan and said to Mary-Jo “Disgraceful! Dirty old coot walkin’ around our town after foolin’ around with them loose women in Portland! No tellin’ where he’s gonna spread his disease next! Shame on you!” she yelled (in a ladylike fashion, of course…) in his general direction.

“….but…” said the young widow woman “ is that a Christian thing to do, yelling at that poor distressed soul so? Oh, my name is Angelina Lawson, by the way, pleased to meet you.”

Well, here was this young woman who had been denigrated (….which, incidentally, comes from the same Latin root as Negro, meaning ‘to blacken’ …..interesting heritage, the English language, not all of it very nice….) with charity in her heart taking the side of the old curmudgeon (no relation to that surly old local judge Dave Goodson over in Rowel) who had sought to blacken her name just because he couldn’t find something useful to do and she was an available target. Now some people come to glory through good works, some through faith, and still others via the influence of others. Stan Smith heard this interchange between the women (he’d happened to have his hand by his ear at the time to stop it from raking flesh from his groin in supplication to the itch…) and it crossed his mind (which took a vanishingly small period of time..) that under similar circumstances he might have made different comments than those he’d just overheard.

In the fullness of time Stan found that the infection he had managed to acquire cleared up, fortunately being of the variety that responded to the ministrations of Doc Johnstone and Sol Furick and he was able to resume his normal lifestyle without one hand permanently in a clawed posture ready to rip the skin from certain areas of irritation. He’d had some time to think while he’d been in the position of social pariah and, while these type of conversions usually only happen on public television Sunday morning revivalist shows (although they did happen to Michael Cotton…) it seemed that some major change had overtaken the old boy.

In the fullness of time, as many readers of these chronicles of the Saga of the Toenail Ridge Shortline may have already guessed (.. Ah! Hah! You’re WRONG this time!!!) Stan and the young widow woman didn’t finish up as a couple, all forgiven and they all lived happily ever after.
But Stan did moderate his behaviour re slandering his fellow citizens of the Valley of the Toenail Ridge, Mrs. Blunt did curb her tendency to criticize ( ‘abuse’..) her fellow Selbyville dwellers, and surprise, surprise! That young widow woman kept on makin’ a whole bunch of them no-good miners from the hills REAL happy when they came into civilization with a full poke in their pockets.

And a full bag of gold dust too.

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