(This is a short serial — it will be complete this week — so we’ll go right into a much longer serial next Monday.)
From the Relief Society Magazine, 1957 –
By Olive W. Burt
Helen Lund was just a bit breathless as she hurried up the school-building stairs and into the auditorium where the P.T.A. meeting was to be held. As she opened the door, however, the buzz of conversation and the confusion of moving people told her that she was in plenty of time. She glanced quickly about to see where Lettie Young, her particular friend, was sitting.
Lettie was off to one side, standing by a group of talking women. She was looking down at them, but not joining in the conversation. Helen strolled over to her friend’s side.
“Hi, Lettie. I see I’m early for once. It’s such a chore to get Jill cared for for the evening. I don’t know how you manage with three!”
Lettie smiled. “You’ll find it gets easier with each one,” she said. “Come on, let’s find a seat before they’re all taken. It looks like a real crowd tonight.”
As they started toward the rear of the room, May Turner, who was the center of a chattering knot of women, looked up.
“Hello, Helen!” she called eagerly. “I’m so glad you’ve come. We were just talking about Tess Carlson’s new car. You know they’ve just bought a new Cadillac, and I can’t see how they can afford it. They live right by you, Helen – what do you think? Give us the low down. We’re just dying to know …”
Lettie gave a slight tug on Helen’s arm and started to whisper something. But Helen looked down at May’s upturned, eager face with eyes glinting in anticipation of what she thought she was about to hear. And Helen spoke pleasantly enough, “I don’t know a thing, May.”
May’s voice showed no disappointment; in fact, it was even more urgent. “Don’t pretend with me, Helen. You and Tess are good friends – and close neighbors. You must know what goes on over at their house. Where did Jim get the money for a seven-thousand dollar car?”
Helen’s voice was cool now. “I’m going to find a seat before they’re all taken and I have to stand during the meeting. I’m too tired to do that, May,” she said, and moved toward the rear of the big room.
“She’s been talking about that car ever since she came into the room,” Lettie said softly, “trying to make something of it. She’s a born gossip.”
Helen smiled with amusement. “Come now, Lettie!” she teased. “What do you call that remark of yours?”
Lettie flushed slightly. “It’s catty, I know, and I shouldn’t have said it. But if you’d been here the past ten minutes …” She stopped abruptly, shrugged, and ended firmly, “Skip it. Here’re a couple of seats together.”
They settled themselves, nodding and smiling at acquaintances around them. Then Principal Gleason stood up and called the meeting to order.
It was an interesting meeting because the Parent-Teacher Association wanted to promote a project for raising funds to provide eye, ear, and dental care for the children who could not afford the proper treatment. Nearly every parent present had some scheme to suggest, and the discussion was animated and enthusiastic.
Helen listened attentively, because she knew she would have a large part in whatever project was decided upon. But, though she was listening, one half of her mind was still occupied with May Turner. May was becoming a real problem, and Helen was deeply concerned about it.
For it wasn’t as if May were just a gossip and nothing else. She had many fine qualities – was cheerful and generous and a willing worker. She could be counted upon to do her share in any school or neighborhood project, and to do more than her share, if someone was in trouble or had sickness in the house.
And yet she did gossip – had gossiped ever since she moved into the neighborhood five years ago. At first, the other women had just smiled at her eager questioning, her quick interest in all their affairs. She’s just trying to get acquainted – to be one of us – they had said charitably. She’s new, and has to sort of catch up on the neighborhood background.
But as her prying became more and more determined, and the stories she retailed grew more and more fantastic, they had gradually come to leave her alone as much as possible. She wasn’t too close to them, anyway, as most of the women in the neighborhood were Church members and had their Relief Society and other Church activities to draw them close together. May Turner did not belong to any of these groups excepting the P.T.A. But she was a neighbor, they met her at the market, on the corner waiting for a bus, in various neighborhood activities. And it had always been such a pleasant, friendly little community that none of them wanted really to “cut” the newcomer. They had just hoped that their example would cure her of her shortcoming.
But it seemed that the very opposite had happened. The more they avoided May, the more careful they were what they said in front of her, the more persistent and malicious grew her stories, until now she was truly unwelcome in their little friendly gatherings on porches of a summer evening, or at the back-yard barbecues, or the small neighborly get-togethers around a living-room fireplace on a winter night.
Helen was abruptly awakened from her reverie by the buzz of conversation as the women around her stood up and began the inevitable chatter that followed every meeting. Lettie laughed down at her.
“Did you drop off to sleep, Helen?” she asked, amused.
Helen, too, stood up. “No, I was just thinking …”
They started toward the front of the room, stopping to speak to a friend here and there. As they reached May Turner’s seat, they found her standing in the aisle, blocking their path.
“I just couldn’t let you go, Helen!” she gushed, “until I wrung out of you the story behind the Carlsons’ car. I know Jim’s just a young lawyer – and young lawyers don’t make much money in this town – not unless they’re in some sort of racket. What’s Jim’s, Helen? Only thing I can think of is some crooked uranium deal!”
Helen tried to sidle past the woman, but May stood her ground firmly.
“Look, May,” Helen said reasonably, “I don’t know a thing about Jim Carlson’s business, and I wouldn’t even try to guess. It isn’t any of my affair, you know. Now, if you’ll just let me get by, I’ll skip along home. Jill had a little cold, and I’m a bit worried …”
“Oh, no, you don’t!” May laughed, still good-natured, though Helen thought there was an undertone of stern determination. “I can’t understand you, Helen. This is all between friends, you know. I wouldn’t breathe a word …”
“No?” Lettie said sarcastically. “Then why …?”
May’s look was suddenly angry. “I don’t understand either of you! Why should you be so close-mouthed? Everyone can see that big car – it’s no secret, is it? And if Jim got it honestly, he shouldn’t care if the whole world knows about it. I’m sure that we don’t have anything to be so cagey about. My life’s an open book – and so is Ted Senior’s. Anyone can ask us where we got anything – we live within our means! The only reason I can see for anyone’s being so scared of telling about his affairs is if there’s something shady – either in his present activities or in his past.”
Helen smiled wryly. “There’s such a thing as privacy, you know.”
And Lettie added maliciously, “And the invasion of privacy!”
May ignored Lettie and looked at Helen. “What have you got to be afraid of, Helen Lund? Is Tony mixed up with Jim Carlson’s deal? Or is there a skeleton hiding in your own closet that you are afraid someone will stumble across?”
Helen managed a short laugh. “I guess that’s it, May. Come on. We’ll have to get out or we’ll be locked in here for the night.”
She and Lettie pushed by May, and as they went on toward the door, they heard her mutter to the few stragglers who had stood by, listening to the exchange of words, “These pious people make me sick. If you could only see what’s behind their pretense of righteousness, you’d be surprised!”
As they walked down the pleasant street with its well-kept lawns and gardens, its neat houses and friendly atmosphere, Lettie said crossly, “Something ought to be done about her, Helen. Really!”
Helen shrugged. “I don’t know what we can do, except ignore her. I don’t think she really means any harm.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that, Helen. The way she looked at you – and those remarks about skeletons in closets.” Lettie laughed a little. “If you do have anything to hide, Helen, better hide it well or she’ll dig it out.”
“I’m not worried!” Helen answered quietly.
They parted on the corner and Helen walked on to her own house, her brow wrinkled in thought. Maybe she should be worried about May’s gossip, for the woman could certainly concoct a fantastic yarn out of nothing. Uneasily, Helen reviewed Lettie’s last comment. Lettie – her best friend – had there been a slight hint of a doubt in her voice? Had May’s poison already tinged Lettie’s thoughts?”
Tony was in the living room reading the paper. He laid it aside as Helen came in, got up and came toward her.
“How was the meeting, honey?” he asked, and then, seeing her face, “something go wrong?”
“No, nothing,” Helen answered. “We really got a lot done – the whole plan for a three-day bazaar laid out. I’m on the sewing committee.”
“As usual!” Tony teased. “But why the frown?”
“Oh, Tony, was I frowning? It’s nothing …” She stood silent a moment and then looked up into her husband’s eyes. “Tony, I was just trying to think – trying to remember if there’s anything – if I’ve ever done anything that could cause talk among the neighbors …”
Tony’s concerned look gave way to an amused smile, as he ran an exploring finger along the smooth arch of her brow.
“You, honey? Well, if you had, you wouldn’t have to cudgel your brain to remember it. It would be such a weight on your conscience that you’d be thinking about it all the time. Why the probing, anyway?”
He sat down on the settee, gently pulling his wife down beside him. “Come on, sweetheart. Tell me what this is all about.”
Helen tried to laugh. “I know it’s silly, but May Turner was at the meeting. She’s upset about Jim Carlson’s new Cadillac – began tossing hints around that he’d been in some shady uranium deal. Said he couldn’t afford a car like that on honest earnings. Well, when I would not talk about it, she began on me – said I must have something to hide, and then Lettie said that if I did, I’d better hide it well – and, well, I just began to wonder …”
Tony’s laugh was hearty and genuine. “You women!” and then more gently, “you little goose, Helen!” He kissed the top of her head. “That’s just May Turner – don’t think about it. And if she finds anything in your past that should be kept a deep, dark secret, I’ll treat the neighborhood to a barbecue supper. And speaking of supper – I’m hungry!”
Helen jumped to her feet. “Oh, darling, I’m sorry. I completely forgot about dinner. But it’s all ready – won’t take a jiffy to get it on the table. You get Jill.”
She dashed into the kitchen. Tony was right – forget May Turner and her gossiping. Feeding her hungry family would certainly help. She tied an apron over her good dress and set briskly to work.