Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  “Well,” I said.

  Johnny Clay started laughing then and wouldn’t stop. Soon Danny got started, and that got me started—the sight of my quiet brother-in-law behind the wheel of his bright yellow truck, just laughing till the tears rolled down his face. We all started waving. We just waved and laughed, waved and laughed, driving through town. And then we turned around and headed on up the mountain, back on up toward home.

  When we got there, Sweet Fern said, “Daniel Deal, what on earth?” And then her mouth fell open so wide a bird could have flown in there and made a nest.

  Johnny Clay laughed so hard he fell down. He rolled and rolled all over the ground until Sweet Fern noticed him.

  She snapped her mouth shut and ordered us both inside. Then she held out an arm and pointed at the truck. I noticed that her finger shook a little. “Park it behind the barn,” she said to Danny. “Out of sight of the house.”

  That night I couldn’t sleep a wink. I had decided Danny Deal’s truck was the most exciting good thing to ever happen to me, more exciting even than almost going to jail. I lay in bed and thought about a Greek woman from the fifth century that Mrs. Dennis had told me about. Her name was Hypatia and she was a philosopher and an astronomer who dressed in men’s clothing and drove her own chariot through the streets of Alexandria. I thought about a story I’d read about a woman named Genevra Mudge who, in 1899, became the first woman driver in the entire United States of America, and another story about Bertha Benz, wife of Karl Benz, the father of the automobile, who was the world’s first woman driver and the first person to drive an automobile over a long distance, more than sixty miles in Germany in 1888.

  I was going to be just like all of them, I decided, only instead of men’s clothing I would wear my costume with rhinestones, and instead of a chariot I would drive a car or, even better, a truck. That way I could leave whenever I wanted and go far away from Fair Mountain and, most of all, Sweet Fern. I could come and go just as I pleased, like Beachard, who disappeared now and then and wandered like our daddy. I could see the world and there wouldn’t be anything Sweet Fern could do to stop me.


  Every June folks came down from each of the five mountains for the three-day Alluvial Fair. They arrived in buggies, on horseback, in trucks, or on foot, carrying baskets of food, which the women spread on tables with white tablecloths, underneath a tent in the grassy area between Deal’s and the Baptist church.

  On the third day of the fair, the day of the singing, I put on the only pretty dress I owned. It was one of Ruby Poole’s hand-me-downs, almost too small because, at twelve, I was already as tall as her. It was pink with a green sash at the waist and a green satin collar, and inside the collar there was a label that said “Bon Marche.” While Sweet Fern was getting the children ready, Ruby Poole dusted my lips with lipstick and squirted my neck with Irresistible Perfume (“It stirs senses . . . thrills . . . sets hearts on fire!”), and then I sat in front of her mirror, looking at my reflection from different angles, and decided I didn’t look half-bad, even if I did have freckles and curly hair.

  With the help of Mrs. Dennis, I had saved up nearly five dollars for Nashville. I kept it tucked away in my hatbox, wrapped up in one of Mama’s old handkerchiefs. I had decided to sing a solo at the fair, all by myself, without my family. I thought it would be good practice for when I got to the Opry, plus I wanted the prize money, which, if I won, would be an additional five dollars.

  When we got down to Alluvial that morning, everyone was abuzz because some men from the Scenic had come. One of them was in front of the school talking to Shorty Rogers and Wiley Butler. He was kind of medium height and medium build and had thick brown hair and glasses. I thought he looked a little like Buddy Rogers. He was handsome like a movie star. A group of old men stood up on the porch at Deal’s and picked “Bringing in the Sheaves” on the banjo, guitar, and washtub bass.

  When we came walking up, Wiley Butler waved us over. He said, “That’s the one you want to talk to—Beachard Hart.”

  We all stared at Beachard in surprise. Beachard was shy and didn’t like to be singled out. He looked like he might want to run and hide. He said, “Excuse me?”

  Wiley said, “This man’s asking about you.”

  The man with the glasses nodded a greeting at Daddy Hoyt. Then he looked at Beach and said, “Beachard Hart?” That man frowned at Beachard like he was expecting someone older than sixteen.

  We all looked at each other. Beachard said, “Yes.”

  “I’m Stanley Abbott. I’m working on the new scenic road. You had a conversation with Getty Browning a few months ago. He enjoyed meeting you. He was mightily impressed. He said he knows your father and that your father is a good worker who’s been of help to him already on our project.”

  We were all staring at Beach, staring at Mr. Abbott.

  Beach said, “Yes?” like this was the most usual thing in the world, like people said this to him all the time.

  “We need men to cut survey lanes to locate the final path of the road so we can incorporate it into a map and Mr. Browning suggested we talk to you. This country is so isolated that it’s hard for us to find our way. It’s the largest unbroken wilderness area in the proposed path. We want to protect it, but we also need to put this road in. Mr. Browning is in the wild, flagging lines right now, but we need help. Do you think you’d be willing?”

  “Where’s my daddy now?”

  Mr. Abbott’s eyebrows drew down. I could tell he was trying to remember. “Hard to say. I believe he’s helping scout and survey the areas north of Linville Falls.”

  Beach studied Mr. Abbott like he studied all people, really taking him in. It took Beach a while to decide on folks. Beach said, “I don’t know.”

  Mr. Abbott looked uncomfortable. There was a fancy air to him, like he was from a city, like he wasn’t sure how to talk to people who weren’t from cities, like he thought you had to talk to people like us different. He said, “It’s my responsibility to decide which trees will be sacrificed, which cliffs will be blasted, which lands will be purchased and used as overlooks. We could use your help as someone who knows the area—not just this immediate area, but beyond.”

  Beach said, “That’s a lot of responsibility they’ve given you. That’s an awful lot for just one person.” He looked like Daddy Hoyt when he said it. I thought that he had just about made up his mind about Mr. Stanley Abbott. I almost felt sorry for the man, standing there looking so hot and nervous.

  Stanley Abbott realized he was losing Beachard, and it was clear he didn’t want to do this even if Beachard was only sixteen, so he started to talk. He told him all about his plans for the road and about how he planned to cause the least amount of harm to the mountains and the trees and the hollers (he called them “hollows”) and the landscape as it was. He said, “I want to fit the road into the mountains as if nature had put it there.” He could see Beachard cared about this, that this was important.

  While Mr. Abbott talked, a quartet of men was singing “Jesus, the Light of the World.” Afterward, the True sisters sang “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” accompanied by Pa Toomey on dulcimer and his son Claude on autoharp.

  Beach didn’t say yes, no, or maybe, and Mr. Abbott was still talking. Finally Beachard said, “I have to go play banjo now,” and walked away. Beach was like that. When he was done with a conversation—that was the end of it.

  Daddy Hoyt, Linc, Beach, Johnny Clay, Aunt Zona, and me played and sang “The Girl I Left in Sunny Tennessee” together while Granny danced. Granny could buck dance as good as any man in Alluvial Valley, as good as Daddy. She kicked her feet up, her back straight as a rod, hands at her side, holding her skirt, and moved with a rhythm and grace you wouldn’t have expected from someone so old and wiry.

  I had never thought twice about singing in public, but when our song was ending and folks were clapping and I suddenly pictured myself singing up on a stage by myself, I felt washed over by a cold wave of fear. Th
e stage of my imagination was enormous, and I saw myself as just a tiny speck in the middle of it, barely visible in my satin and rhinestones and my cowboy hat with red trim. I pictured opening my mouth and nothing coming out but a squeak.

  Earlier that day, Johnny Clay and me had our fortunes told by the Cherokee fortune teller. She told Johnny Clay that he was destined for greatness, which made him almost unbearable to be around. She also told him to be careful with his heart and his temper. She told me that I was charmed and that this could be both bad and good. She said I needed to be careful I didn’t lose my way, because that would be easy for me to do, especially because I had a long way to travel. I asked her how I would do in the singing contest, but she said she couldn’t answer things like that. I told Johnny Clay as we were leaving, “Some fortune teller.”

  “Look at me,” Daddy Hoyt said now. His eyes were blue with gold around the center, like Mama’s. “Just sing right to me. Or to your mama.”

  And then I was alone on the porch at Deal’s, where I’d stood one hundred times or more. I looked out over the crowd at all the faces. Some I recognized; some I didn’t. I hadn’t expected to see my daddy, but I looked for him just the same. It was hard not to, even though I knew it was my own fault for helping to send him away.

  The song I chose was a murder song, “Pretty Polly,” because that was how I felt inside. It was a song Mama had taught me not long before she died, about a girl who was stabbed in the heart by the man she loved and buried in a grave he had dug for her.

  As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I felt like the bravest person in the world. Even though I was singing about murder, I felt lifted. Music did that to me, just like God was supposed to, because music seemed both magic and holy. Just like the Wood Carver knew what was in the wood, I knew what was in the music. Whenever I sang, I forgot about being an orphan and having freckles and how much Sweet Fern hated me and how I wasn’t right with God or Jesus. I forgot that I was singing in front of friends and strangers or that I had ever been afraid. I just wanted to open my whole self up and sing as full as I could.

  When I finished, there was silence. I stood for one horrible moment wanting to disappear. Then people began cheering and one woman was crying so loud, you could hear her over the clapping.

  I had never seen or felt a ghost before, although Lord knows I’d tried my mighty best. But as I stood there singing underneath the trees and the sky, to folks in their hand-me-down clothes and bare feet, I could swear I felt my mama beside me.

  I made my way through the crowd to where my family was waiting. Strangers stopped me to say congratulations or to tell me how much they loved my voice. They said they couldn’t believe that such a little girl, just twelve years old, could sing like that and that I seemed much older than I was.

  Suddenly, a tall, dark-haired boy stepped in front of me. He was covered in coal dust and had two white spots around his eyes and held a lit cigarette in his hand. The moonshiner’s boy. He had to be fifteen years old now, almost a grown man. I looked but didn’t see his friends anywhere.

  “You sing good, Bonnie,” he said.

  “Thanks.” I felt my cheeks turn red.

  “I sing a little, but not as good as you. My mama don’t believe in it. She says singing is an insult to the Lord and swears I’m going to hell.”

  “That’s a horrible thing to say.”

  “Yeah, well.” He took a puff on the cigarette and kept his eyes on me. “You still living a life of crime?” His eyes were a pure, light green made even lighter by the black of the coal dust on his arms and face.

  “No,” I said. “I gave it up.”

  He kind of smiled. “That’s too bad. You’d make someone a real good partner.”

  “I’d rather save myself for the Grand Ole Opry,” I said.

  “The Opry?”


  He nodded. Then he pinched the end of the cigarette so that it burned out and took a handkerchief from his pocket. I watched as he wrapped up the cigarette butt, very carefully, and placed the handkerchief back in the pocket of his trousers. “You know what, Bonnie?” He smiled, sweet as could be. “You’re the prettiest girl on Fair Mountain,” he said.

  That’s a fresh thing to say, I thought. I was shocked and thrilled all at once. “Why’re you so dirty?” I said.

  He dropped his smile. He looked at me like I’d slapped him. And then he walked away.

  Mrs. Dennis and Dr. Hamp stood with Sweet Fern and Danny under a tree. When I walked up to join them, Mrs. Dennis put her arm around me. She said to Sweet Fern, “My husband and I promise to look after her and keep her safe and to ensure that she returns home in one piece. I think the National Singing Convention could be a wonderful opportunity for Velva Jean—not only a chance for her to gain more experience, but a chance for others to hear her.”

  “Atlanta is a far way to go,” Sweet Fern said. Her voice was cold but polite. “I’m afraid we don’t have that kind of money.”

  “I was thinking that Velva Jean could earn the money for the train ticket herself,” said Mrs. Dennis. “Perhaps by working for me in the mornings or after school.” I looked at her in surprise, afraid she was going to give away our secret, but she gave my shoulder a little squeeze and kept looking at Sweet Fern.

  When Sweet Fern didn’t say anything, Mrs. Dennis said, “She will be one of the youngest people there, singing with people who are far older and more experienced, many of whom are well known. Even some who have performed on the Opry.”

  Mrs. Dennis was quiet then, and we all looked at Sweet Fern and waited. I held my breath and prayed to Jesus. Jesus, if you are there, please hear me. Please let Sweet Fern say yes. Please. Please. Please. Please.

  “No,” Sweet Fern said.

  “Mrs. Deal, perhaps . . .”

  “No,” Sweet Fern said again. She smoothed the front of her dress. “I’m sorry.”

  Johnny Clay walked up. He said, “What’s going on?”

  I said. “Why not? Why can’t I? Sweet Fern, please . . .”

  “No,” she said again, this time to me. Danny looked at me and shook his head. The way he did it, I could tell he was on my side. “Velva Jean,” Sweet Fern said. “It’s time to go home.”

  We all went back to Daddy Hoyt’s to churn ice cream. He and Granny lived in an old log house connected by a dogtrot—one side of the house for cooking and eating, the other for living and sleeping. We sat outside—on the porch, on the steps, in the grass—and Granny and Sweet Fern and Ruby Poole served the food. Dan Presley and Hunter Firth played chase while we watched, and Corrina, who had just started walking, picked flowers, her bottom up in the air.

  I sat on the steps, drinking Cheerwine and ignoring Sweet Fern. Every now and then I patted the Gold Queen crown that sat atop my head. It was made of wire painted yellow. Little gold nuggets shone like stars at the very tip of each point.

  You’re the prettiest girl on Fair Mountain.

  Rachel Gordon had sold greeting-card subscriptions to earn enough money for a china doll she saw down at Deal’s. It cost $2.75 and she made enough in two weeks to pay for it. I was thinking I might start selling greeting-card subscriptions to earn money to get to the National Singing Convention, no matter what Sweet Fern said. If there was any left over, I would buy that Hawaiian steel guitar and save up for my trip to Nashville. The guitar cost fourteen dollars and was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. Once I could afford to buy it, I planned to get rid of Daddy’s old mandolin for good.

  “One day when I get out of school,” I said, “I’m going right up there to Nashville and get me a job at the Opry.” I didn’t feel one bit shy anymore. I felt like I couldn’t wait to sing again, and not just in front of people here on Fair Mountain.

  “You don’t even need school,” said Johnny Clay from where he sat on the porch railing. He didn’t think school was worth anything, even though he was so good at it. “Granny didn’t go to school, did you, Granny?”

  “Not like you childr
en do,” she said, setting her glass of sweet tea on the floor by her foot. She rocked back and forth in her rocker. “But I still had lessons.”

  Johnny Clay waved his hand at this like he was slapping away a bug. “You don’t need school if you’re going to be a famous singer like Velva Jean.”

  I liked wearing a crown. When Mama died, I never thought I would feel happy again. A part of me felt guilty, like I had no right to feel happy now, with Mama gone. I hoped she knew that I was still just as sad over her death and that I missed her just as much. I hoped she understood that this good feeling didn’t have anything to do with not missing her.

  After the last pie was eaten and we all went home, I slipped up the stairs to my bedroom and opened the family record book and wrote down the date followed by: “Velva Jean sings at the Alluvial Fair. Wins first place. Crowned Gold Queen.” I slid my hatbox out from under my bed and added my new five dollar bill to the money I was saving for Nashville. I wrapped it up, good and tight, in the handkerchief and closed the hatbox away. Then I stood in front of the mirror that hung over the chest of drawers. Was I really the prettiest girl on Fair Mountain?

  I knew that vanity was a sin, but I leaned in close to the mirror over the washstand and examined my face. This time I didn’t look for the marks of being an orphan or losing my mama. I tried to see past them and past the freckles and the hair that got too curly in the summer heat. I tried to look past the fact that my nose was straight and didn’t have a bump on the bridge and that my eyes were more the color of Three Gum River than sunflowers against a blue sky.

  I looked up and Sweet Fern was standing in the door, watching me. “You sounded real good today, Velva Jean,” she said, and her voice was so low that I almost didn’t hear it.

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