Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  “It’s a Jesus tree,” he said and looked up for the first time. “More commonly known as a dogwood.”

  “It don’t look like a dogwood.” There were dogwoods up and down the mountain, but I’d never seen one like this. Its trunk was nearly black and it grew up tall and full like it couldn’t wait to get to heaven. When the breeze blew, the leaves trembled so that it looked like the tree was dancing.

  “I planted it myself to carve from,” the Wood Carver said, “but its brace roots are too strong. If a tree has enough support, I don’t cut it because it needs to become a tree, which is what it was meant to do. But a tree with one root—even one large root—will never be supported, so I make something else out of it, like a cane or a toy.” He paused, his knife still working. “You’ve got good brace roots. Your mama, your brothers, your sister, your grandparents. Even your daddy.”

  Suddenly, I was sorry I’d come. He was nice and easy to talk to, but he was a murderer after all. I should have just sat still when he called to me or slipped back down the hill without saying anything.

  I stood up. “My mama’s gone,” I said and kicked at the dirt with my bare foot. And my daddy killed her, I added in my head. I had never said it out loud, not even to Johnny Clay.

  “She’s not gone in here.” He tapped himself on the head with the piece of wood. “Or here.” He pointed at his heart.

  I wondered if this was true. Mama felt gone. Completely gone. Mama felt nowhere to be found. I thought about Beachard asking where God was and wondering if he was anywhere and if Mama was anywhere, too. Suddenly, the loneliness came over me, so sharp and fast that I almost lost my balance.

  “Yep,” the Wood Carver said. “Good solid brace roots.” He continued to carve and I stood watching him until I knew Sweet Fern would be worrying and it was time to go home.

  Before I left, I could see that the piece of wood he was working had become a little girl with long, curled hair and hands folded as if she was praying. It’s beautiful, I thought, but I didn’t say it.

  He closed the girl’s eyes and opened her mouth so that it looked like she was singing. He blew off the loose shavings and smoothed it with his fingers, and then handed the figure to me.

  “I can’t take it,” I said, thinking Sweet Fern would tan my hide for taking something from a runaway murderer. But I wanted it very much, more than anything.

  He touched his knife to the brim of his hat in a kind of salute. It was then that I saw his eyes were a dark midnight blue, the color of a starless sky. “Yes you can,” he said. “She was waiting, you see. She was in there all the time.”

  When I got home, Johnny Clay was leaning against the front porch railing, his hands jammed into the pockets of his trousers. When he saw me, he stood up straight and waved me on. I thought I would tell him about the Wood Carver and how I’d talked to him and watched him use his killing knife. I imagined Johnny Clay would be proud and also jealous that I’d spent the day with a murderer. I might even take him up there with me one day so that he could visit the murderer, too. I ran up the steps, my right hand wrapped around the wooden girl that I was carrying in my pocket.

  “Where the hell have you been?” Johnny Clay looked mad as a hornet. He talked so low I could barely hear him. “I been looking everywhere for you.”

  “Why?” I said.

  “Keep your voice down,” he said.

  “No I will not. Why don’t you speak up? A person can barely hear you.”

  “Hush, Velva Jean!” He looked toward the house and then back at me.

  “What’re you so mad about?”

  “You’ll see.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  I was getting good and angry now. I couldn’t believe he was being so hateful. Just for that, I decided I wouldn’t tell him about the Wood Carver.

  “Velva Jean?” Sweet Fern opened the front door and stepped out, shutting it behind her. Her face was pink and rigid, which was how it looked when she was upset. I waited for her to yell at me, too. “Velva Jean,” she said again. Her hands worked at her hair, as if searching for loose pieces. Her hair was neatly wound into a braid and pinned off her neck, just as it always was. I thought about how she was never messy and how she always smelled just like a daisy, even when it was hot as Jupiter out, and how her hair never came down like other people’s. “Daddy’s here.”

  “What?” And then I looked down and saw the sack lying by the door. It was large and brown and just like the one my daddy always carried when he was traveling. I shot Johnny Clay a look to kill. “You couldn’t tell me?” And then I shoved past Sweet Fern and opened the door. There was Danny and Aunt Zona and Granny and Daddy Hoyt, all looking grim and serious, and there by the fireplace was my daddy. It had been one year since he’d left us with Sweet Fern.

  His face brightened when he saw me. He walked over to me and I thought he seemed shorter than I remembered—and older. “What do you think? I’m back. I got myself a job on the Scenic. Did you hear? They’re building that road and your daddy’s going to help them. From Virginia through North Carolina, even though Tennessee wanted it bad, they did. But Carolina got it. The government just announced it, made it official. ‘Will need labor,’ they said. That’s me. I’m going to work on it, do whatever I can do. I came back to tell you. They’re moving mountains up there, Velva Jean. You can’t believe what they’re going to do.”

  Daddy always did talk fast. He talked like he buck danced—hard and quick and excited and joysome. It had been a long time since we’d had that kind of energy around here. He didn’t say anything then, just held out a hand as if he was going to pat my head, and then he pulled it back. “Is that my little girl?” he said, and he tried to smile, but it seemed strange on him, like the rest of his face didn’t want to. “Is that my baby?”

  I could feel Johnny Clay and Sweet Fern behind me, feel the look Johnny Clay was giving Daddy, the dislike that he didn’t even bother to hide. I thought I should be nice to Daddy because he was my father and deep down he was still sad, but he’d left us and he’d killed Mama, and I realized that after all this time I had nothing to say.

  “Is that my baby girl?” I could tell he wanted me to say something, to reach out, to somehow make it better.

  Where have you been? I wanted to say. Why did you leave us with Sweet Fern? What did you write in that note? What did you say to Mama to make her so sick like that? Why did you leave her and go away?

  “No,” I said instead. “It’s not.” And then I went into my bedroom and shut the door and moved a chair in front of it so that he couldn’t get in. I waited, but he didn’t try. My heart was racing and my face was hot. I was not his baby girl. I wasn’t a baby at all. I was a grown-up person who had been to jail and drunk hard corn liquor and visited with murderers.

  How dare he come back? I thought. How dare he come back here?

  I sat up on the bed by the headboard, with my knees squeezed up tight against my chest, and listened to the rise and fall of voices. There was Johnny Clay yelling and slamming out of the house, Sweet Fern sounding cold and upset, and Daddy Hoyt, like always, trying to calm and soothe. And there was another voice, the voice of a stranger. The voice of my daddy.

  I lay in bed that night, turning the wooden girl round and round in my hands. When my eyes got used to the dark, I held the little figure up in front of my face and studied every angle. I thought about what the Wood Carver had said about brace roots and how I had good ones.

  “Your mama, your brothers, your sister, your grandparents. Even your daddy,” he had said.

  I thought about what kind of world it was where you could ask God to save your Mama, but he wouldn’t listen and would just let her die. And what kind of world it was where a daddy was so heartless that he could leave his own children, but a murderer was nice and kind. I thought about Johnny Clay and how sometimes he went away from me, too, just like Mama, just like Daddy. I thought about brace roots and weak roots and what made some trees grow one way and so
me another. I prayed that this new road might take Daddy away forever so that he didn’t have the chance to come back and hurt us anymore.

  I tucked the wooden girl under my pillow and kept one hand on it as I rolled onto my side. I felt the anger begin to wash away and my body start to go limp and my brain grow fuzzy. Just as I drifted off into sleep, I heard the Wood Carver’s words again: “You’re Hoyt’s girl, aren’t you?” “Zona or Turk or Corrine?” “Your mama, your brothers, your sister, your grandparents. Even your daddy.”

  Even your daddy.

  How did he know my mama’s name? How did he know Daddy Hoyt and Aunt Zona and Uncle Turk? Not from anything I’d ever told him, because I had never, not once, talked to him about my family.

  Daddy left the next morning before I was awake. I looked outside and his traveling sack was gone. There was a fresh bouquet of witch hazel on Mama’s grave, but otherwise there was nothing to show that he’d even been here at all.

  I opened the family record book and wrote, “November 30, 1934: Daddy left.” The book was just as full of bad things as good ones.

  ~ 1935 ~

  Sing on, sweet voice, in storm and calm,

  In grief and gladness sing . . .

  —“Sing On, Sweet Voice”


  In the middle of April the damp lifted, and Danny Deal and his daddy announced that they were taking the train all the way to Asheville to buy a truck. They were buying it practically new from a man Mr. Deal had known for ten years, a man named Lenny Philpot, who owned two drugstores and a movie theater. They were going to stay the night at Mr. Philpot’s house and then start back in the truck early the next morning. Johnny Clay and me thought we should be allowed to go, too, because he was fourteen and I was twelve, but Danny said we had to stay at home.

  Sweet Fern was so on edge, all you had to do was walk up behind her and say boo and she jumped about ten feet. She did not believe in trucks or cars or driving, especially since she had heard about a woman in Swain County who was run over by a car that was “out of control.” The very fact that a car could run out of control was enough for Sweet Fern. She would have none of it, especially with young children to think of. She told Danny he had another think coming if he thought he was going to bring that truck up there to her house.

  It was the first time I ever saw Danny stand up to her. He said, “With all due respect, I am getting this truck, Sweet Fern,” and then he just walked out and left the front door wide open and walked right down the hill to Deal’s. Johnny Clay and I ran after him, fast as we could. We didn’t want to miss a minute. Danny banged on into Deal’s and hollered to his daddy that he was ready to go, and then he banged on out and stood there, hands on hips, squinting off into the distance.

  “The train’s not even here yet,” I said to him, and Johnny Clay punched me.

  Danny looked down at me like he didn’t know who I was. “It’ll be here soon,” he said finally.

  “She’s a piece of work,” Johnny Clay said to him, and I pinched him hard because I thought he was talking about me.

  Danny looked at him and one corner of his mouth crooked up like he was trying to keep it back but couldn’t help it.

  Mr. Deal appeared, and I looked instantly at his hands for candy or soda pop, but all he had was a rough brown satchel, which he pulled up over his shoulder. In the distance, we could hear the train coming.

  Coyle Deal stood in the doorway, the oldest and not as good-looking as Jessup, the baby, who had one green eye and one blue eye. Coyle smiled. Maybe we could get some candy out of him. I could hear my mama’s voice: “All those Deals are nice boys.”

  The next morning, Johnny Clay and I got to Deal’s early so as to have good seats. We woke up at dawn and left the house before Sweet Fern could catch us. First we sat on the edge of the porch outside the store, and then on the Coca-Cola cooler that was pressed up against the window, then on the bottom step, and then finally on the middle of the top step.

  Little by little, everyone started coming. Almost everyone on the mountain came out to wait for Danny Deal and his daddy to get back with that truck. Everyone but Sweet Fern.

  I was tired of sitting, but I didn’t want to move for fear I’d lose my seat. I had the feeling that something very big was about to happen, and everyone else seemed to feel it, too. It was a warm April day, clear and blue. Birds. Butterflies—yellow on blue sky. Except for where my hair was heavy and hot on my neck, except for where my right butt cheek had gone to sleep, except for where my leg was itching from an early mosquito bite, I felt I could sit here forever.

  The truck was the brightest yellow you ever saw. It was the color of goldenrod or dandelion or black-eyed Susan or the burnt gold of birch leaves in fall. Granny said it looked like Aunt Bird’s secret mustard recipe, but Martha True said it made her think of summer squash.

  “That’s the damnedest color I ever saw,” Dell Haywood said.

  “Why is it painted like that?” Mr. Lowe said.

  “Because Len Philpot is a man prone to the blues,” said Mr. Deal. Danny kind of hung around the truck, like he didn’t want to leave it. He leaned on the front end like he was saying, Hey, this is my truck. “When he bought the truck, it was a dark navy, the color of the reverend’s shirt.” Mr. Deal waved at Reverend Broomfield. “He tried to live with it, but it just depressed him. He’s not a cheery man to begin with, and he said he needed something to snap him out of his funk, to keep him happy.” Everyone was staring at the truck, afraid to touch it, afraid to run their hands over it. Danny was grinning fit to beat the band. I’d never seen him look so full of himself. Sweet, nice Danny Deal. Shy and quiet. He was as puffed up as a balloon.

  “That’s the damnedest color I ever saw,” Dell Haywood said again.

  “He wanted a truck you could see coming or going,” Mr. Deal said.

  “Well,” Granny said. “He got it.”

  Behind me, Johnny Clay snorted. I turned to look at him. He was snickering and shaking his head like an agitated horse. He looked like he was about to get carried away with himself.

  “What’s wrong with you?” I said.

  He pointed at the truck. “Sweet Fern is going to have a fit.”

  Along about four o’clock, Danny climbed into the truck and said it was time to be getting home. Johnny Clay and I stood there and stared at him until he waved us over. “You want to take a ride first?” he said.

  I climbed in and sat in the middle, tight between Danny and Johnny Clay. Inside, the truck was navy—the seats and the dash. Everything looked so shiny, I was afraid to touch anything. There were some dials on the dashboard and two long sticks coming up from the floor.

  “That’s the shifter,” Johnny Clay said. “And that’s the hand brake.” He was resting one arm on the door. He had a smug look on his face because he’d been driving Linc’s farm truck for years.

  “Where you want to go?” Danny said.

  “Anywhere,” I said. “Let’s go to Waynesville.” Or Nashville, I thought.

  “Before supper?” Johnny Clay rolled his eyes.

  “Hamlet’s Mill then.” I wanted to go someplace far. Now that I was in the truck, I didn’t ever want to leave. “Let me sit by the window, Johnny Clay.”


  “Why not?”

  “My legs are too long to sit in the middle. I got to stretch them out.” He stretched his legs out in front of him as much as he could.

  Danny started the truck and I nearly jumped out of my skin. For one moment, I thought about that car that ran out of control, killing that woman in Swain County. Then we started to drive. I gripped on to the seat with both hands. “Whoa,” I said. Johnny Clay leaned around and waved to everyone still standing outside Deal’s. I stared at the road ahead—just an overgrown cattle road with weeds and grass growing over it—concentrating on staying alive. I thought if I concentrated hard enough, that yellow truck wouldn’t go out of control.

  Danny picked up speed. Johnny Clay rolled the windo
w down halfway and his hair started whipping around. Danny went faster and faster down the hill till the speedometer said thirty. We flew past Lucinda Sink’s, down around the curve toward Hamlet’s Mill. I shut my eyes and started to pray to Jesus right then and there to get me off the mountain safely. The truck rattled and bumped and at one point it flew up in the air a little and kept right on going.

  “Open your eyes, Velva Jean,” Johnny Clay said. “For criminy’s sake.” He swore under his breath.

  “Shut up,” I said. But I opened my eyes and kept them open. We hit level ground then. Trees raced by, a green blur, and streaks of dark black-brown, the railroad tracks. I watched them till I got dizzy. We left our ring of mountains and came out into a valley, and suddenly there were our mountains behind us and we were surrounded by little houses and barns and cows dotted here and there. The road became dirt and I liked the feel of it under the wheels. There were other valleys, other hollers—like ours, only out here in this other world—sweeping up toward the mountains, our mountains, as we drove around them from this other side. The land out here was wider and more open and the mountains looked different, sheer and steep and wild and sharp. I felt a sudden rush of homesickness. I wanted to go back.

  Then suddenly we were in Hamlet’s Mill, which was a pretty little town of old brick buildings, just three blocks long. Danny slowed down and the needle went to fifteen, and we cruised through at a respectable pace. The main street—with its drugstore, diner, café, bank, grocery, two churches, motion picture theater, and department store—grew up around a neat town square, and in the center of that was a courthouse.

  Everyone on the street stopped and stared at the truck. Their mouths fell open and their eyes popped wide, like they were looking at a naked lady or a man with three heads. Danny slowed down to ten so they could get a better look. I picked up one hand, leaving the other gripping the seat below me, and waved. I waved at everyone the way Ruby Poole said the queen of England did, moving only my hand back and forth, but keeping my arm perfectly still. I turned from side to side and waved to everyone and not a single person waved back.

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