Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven


  “Thank you,” I said. I was afraid to move because I was afraid if I did she might take it back or change her mind and go away.

  She touched the back of her neck, which was clean and bare because her hair was pinned up on her head like it always was. “Mama would have loved that song. I remember when she taught it to you.” Her face was closed up and hard to read.

  I felt the tears spring up then, and all of a sudden I forgot about being mad at Sweet Fern. I wanted to run to her and wrap my arms around her. But I stayed still, barely breathing, because she didn’t like people flying at her and surprising her. “It was just a few months before she died,” I whispered.

  Sweet Fern nodded and then looked up at the ceiling. She blinked several times, like she had something in her eye. “We’ll be having another baby next year,” she said finally. She rested her hands on her stomach. “This house is too much for me to keep on my own as it is. I’ll need your help with the babies and the chores.”

  I said, “Is that why I can’t go to Atlanta?”

  “That and other reasons. I was thinking that this next year of school should be your last. You already got a good education, more than most, and I need you to stay home and help me here. You can finish the seventh grade, but after that I need you home.”

  “The convention is only two days,” I said. “Plus one day there and one day back. I’ll be home long before you have the baby.”

  She picked at a loose thread on her dress and then she smoothed it flat. She cleared her throat. “Sometimes you got to learn, Velva Jean, that not every dream is supposed to come true. Mama and Daddy coddled you so much that you think you got more right to dream than anyone else, but you don’t.”

  I didn’t know what to say. I felt like I’d just been slapped across the face, like the time Johnny Clay accidentally hit me in the nose with his elbow and gave me a black eye.

  “It’s nice to dream, but you can’t dream too big,” Sweet Fern said. “It was a real nice dream to go down to Alluvial to sing at the fair. But it’s unreasonable to think you’re going to ride a train to Georgia.” She sighed so deep that it was like all the breath went out of her. “And it’s unreasonable to think you’re going to go all the way to Nashville to sing at the Opry.”

  I felt the handles of the dresser pressing into my backside. I thought they felt just as cold and hard as Sweet Fern.

  “Besides, there’s other kinds of dreams,” she said. “Someday you’ll meet a nice boy and get married and have a family of your own. Then you’ll see what I mean.”

  “And get old and die here on Fair Mountain without ever having seen anywhere else,” I said. “That’s not my life ambition.”

  “Don’t be dramatic, Velva Jean. Mama’s not here.” Her voice had that final tone that meant she was done discussing it. “But I am. Daddy left me in charge of you, and as long as I am, you’ll listen to me.”

  I was mad. Good and mad and hurt. I said the only thing I could think of. “You’re not my mother!” Sweet Fern’s face turned as red as Ruby Poole’s lipstick. And then I pushed past her and ran down the stairs and out of the house.

  “I wish to God that was true,” she shouted after me, and her voice sounded tired. “More than you know, Velva Jean!”

  “So Sweet Fern doesn’t understand your dreams.” The Wood Carver stopped in front of a tall balsam fir. He tipped his hat back and studied the tree, and then reached out and chopped off one of the long and knotted limbs. He patted the trunk of the tree and then walked back to his house, the branch over his shoulder, and I followed him. For the first time, I noticed that he favored his left leg and walked with a limp. We sat down and I tried not to stare at his leg.

  “No,” I said, “she don’t. She don’t even want to. I’m so sick and tired of her telling me what I can and can’t do all the time. I want to run away and be a hermit in the woods, just as far away from her as I can get. Just as far away from everything and everybody.” I glanced at his face. I was hoping he might invite me to come live up here with him. No one would bother us and he could teach me to carve and I could teach him to sing. We would be two bad, evil outlaws, out of everybody’s way.

  “And you think running away will fix it?” the Wood Carver said. He picked up his knife and held it over the branch.

  It was the kind of question Daddy Hoyt liked to ask, one I knew I had to be careful answering because it had a hidden meaning. “No, but it will help me feel better. I’m not sure I’m fit to live down there.” Ever since I was saved, I thought to myself. Ever since Mama. Ever since Daddy.

  He looked at me, and I wondered if I’d answered correctly. “ ‘And I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth.’ ” I waited for more, but that was all he said. He held the balsam branch this way, then that. He had told me how important that first cut was, finding just the right place to start carving the wood. He was quiet for a long time.

  “Nature doesn’t deal with straight lines,” he said finally, setting down his knife. “Everything is a curve. Nothing is what you expect. There are no straight lines anywhere, and that goes for pathways too. You can look and look for them, but they don’t exist.”

  I sat staring out into the laurel thicket where I used to hide and spy on him. I thought how long ago that seemed. “ ‘Whenever God closes a door, he opens a window.’ Mama used to say that. Is that what you mean?”

  “I’m just saying look at this piece of wood.” He handed it to me. “Look at the way it twists back and forth and goes this way and that. Some people might think there’s only one way to make a cane or a crutch—the straighter the better because you have to be able to lean on it. And if I handed them something like this, they’d say, ‘Oh, that can’t be a crutch! It’s too crooked! It’s not at all what a crutch should be.’ Because they think there’s only one way, you see.” He took the branch from me, “But I say you have to expect nature to curve and have bumps, and that’s the thing you can count on. Life is that way, too.”

  Like when I was born again and thought it would make everything right forever, only it didn’t—it made things wrong. “Are you saying that I could still get to the Opry?” I said.

  His fingers rested on a knot in the wood. He wore a gold band on the ring finger of his left hand. It was nicked and scratched, but it shone like the sun. I wondered where his wife was and what had really happened to her.

  He picked up his knife again. “I’m saying there are plenty of other ways to get there.” He touched his knife to the balsam branch, and I watched as he made the first cut.

  ELEVEN

  The day after the fair, Beachard got up at dawn and did his chores and ate his breakfast. As soon as he was finished, he picked up his plate and glass and carried them into the kitchen, and then he told us he was leaving. He had packed a small bag, which he threw over his shoulder. He walked to the doorway and even when Sweet Fern hollered at him, he didn’t raise his voice. He said, “I’m going to make sure the men building the Scenic don’t do anything horrible to these mountains.”

  Sweet Fern followed after Beachard as he set out across the porch and into the yard. She said, “When will you be back?” I stood behind her and from what I could see of her face, I was worried she was going to cry. Beach was sixteen, almost seventeen. He was getting old enough to be on his own, but he was still her responsibility. Already I wanted him to come back. I wanted Sweet Fern to do something, but I knew there was nothing she or any of us could do because once Beach made up his mind about something there was no moving him.

  Beach said, “I don’t know. I’ll write if I can. This has nothing to do with you, Sweet Fern.”

  Her face fell in on itself then and she covered it up with her hands. I crept forward and laid my hand on her back, light as could be, and watched Beach go. He had the bag up over his shoulder and he was heading down the hill toward Alluvial, where I guessed he was going to meet Stanley Abbott and the rest of the men from the Scenic.

  “Beach will be okay,” I said. I was
still wearing my crown, which was bent from where I had slept on it. Johnny Clay and Danny came out onto the porch and I looked around at them. I patted Sweet Fern a little, but not enough to make her mad. I said, “He’ll be back.”

  She took her hands away and her eyes were wet. Her face was fixed in anger, and she stared off toward the mountains and didn’t say a word. I knew it would be a bad day for the rest of us.

  That night, Johnny Clay came to my room and sat on the foot of my bed. The moonlight fell on his face and the gold-brown hair hung down over his eyes. “We got to run away from here,” he said, low enough so as not to wake Dan Presley and Corrina, asleep in the other bed. Sweet Fern and Danny had turned in an hour ago. “I can’t stand it anymore, the way she treats us.”

  I laid my book aside and propped myself up on my elbows. I was almost too upset to read The Motor Girls on Waters Blue, which I had borrowed from Dr. Hamp’s library. The Motor Girls was a wonderful series of books. In each one, Cora Kimball and her friends drove off on different adventures in their automobiles. Cora Kimball also had an older brother named Jack who drove a red and yellow racing car that Cora called “giddy and gaudy.” I wished Johnny Clay had a car. I wished I had one too, just like Cora. We could drive far away from Sweet Fern and she would be sorry.

  “Where can we go?” I said. I’d never been anywhere in my life except down to Hamlet’s Mill. I wasn’t sure what all was out there, but I knew I wanted to go see. Maybe there were other ways to get to the Opry, like the Wood Carver said.

  Johnny Clay considered. He was even more fed up than me because he was almost fifteen and already thought of himself as a man. “We could just jump the train and see where it takes us. Beachard used to do it all the time. Hundreds of kids our age and younger are riding the rails from one state to another.”

  I liked the sound of jumping a train. It sounded wild and dangerous and in keeping with the wickedness I felt inside. I thought briefly of Jesus and how I’d pledged myself to him two years ago. Then I thought: Where was Jesus when I was shelling the corn and scrubbing the floors and parboiling the hog, all of which I did before supper? And where was he when I prayed for him to save my mama? And where was he when I asked for this one thing—just to let Sweet Fern say yes to the National Singing Convention? I was as sick of Jesus as I was of Sweet Fern.

  The next morning, while Sweet Fern was on the back porch, giving the children a bath, I packed up my hatbox with all my treasures, including the little wooden singing girl, the money I was saving for Nashville, the emerald Daddy had given me, my Motor Girls book, and the dress I’d worn to the fair. I figured I could mail the book back to Dr. Hamp once I finished reading it. I slipped the mandolin strap across my chest, and then Johnny Clay and I said good-bye to Hunter Firth and went down to Deal’s and jumped a freight train.

  Johnny Clay pulled himself up first, kicking open the door, and I ran beside him, on the ground, holding out my free hand. The train was going too fast, and I was scared to death of being left behind. “Johnny Clay!” I yelled and felt the train starting to outdistance me. The hatbox and the mandolin made it hard to run. Then I felt Johnny Clay’s hand lock with mine. He pulled me in, and my feet swung above the moving ground, and then I was sitting next to him with my hatbox in my lap.

  It took me a minute to realize that the car wasn’t empty. There were three old men and seven or eight boys of various ages sitting back against the sides of the car, hands resting on knees or curled on their sides as they slept. Most of them looked dirty and tired, and I tried not to stare. I wondered if they were train robbers or bandits, just like the ones Granny had told me stories about, or if these were the kids Beach had spoke of to Johnny Clay, the ones riding the rails from one side of the country to the other.

  “Someday we’re really going to ride this train, Velva Jean,” Johnny Clay shouted above the noise. “Not in the freight car with the hoboes but as real passengers with tickets and a destination and people knowing we’re going and coming to tell us good-bye.”

  When the train picked up full steam, I forgot about whether the hoboes were outlaws and whether I would get sent to prison if the train detectives caught me. I even forgot about how much I was going to miss Daddy Hoyt and Granny and Ruby Poole and the rest. Instead I just concentrated on the landscape whizzing by. I hope Sweet Fern is happy, I thought. I hope they realize this is all her doing.

  I held tight to the door and to my hatbox and sat cross-legged beside Johnny Clay, watching the trees and hills whir past. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the feel of rushing air on my face, and then opened them again so I wouldn’t miss anything.

  “Let’s just keep going,” I said. “Let’s go as far as we can.”

  We got off seven or eight miles later in the next town over, a place called Civility, which looked a lot like Hamlet’s Mill, only much bigger. It was the biggest city I’d ever seen. There were two diners, two cafés, a bank, a beauty shop, a grocery, a hardware store, three department stores, a doctor’s office, a law office, a soda shop, a flower shop, a drugstore, a courthouse, three churches, and a movie theater.

  Johnny Clay and I went to the theater and read the marquee: Top Hat starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Johnny Clay emptied his pockets and found enough for two tickets, and as I lowered myself into the seat I thought: This is my new life. Picture shows every day and not a soul to tell me no.

  After it was over, we stumbled out into the daylight, singing songs from the film. When we couldn’t remember the words, we made them up. I danced along the street like Ginger Rogers. I swung my hatbox back and forth by its string and thought how happy I was that I would never have to see Sweet Fern again or have to listen to her ordering me around or telling me what I could and couldn’t do. I thought how nice it was to be free from Sweet Fern and to have the whole world opened up to me so that anything was possible.

  “Okay,” Johnny Clay said as we walked. “Since we’re starting a new life, I say we make some new rules.”

  “Rules? You have lost your mind. Why do you think we ran away?”

  “But these are good ones. Like, we eat ice cream before dinner.”

  I thought for a moment. “And we don’t wash our hands.”

  “And we always keep our elbows on the table.”

  “And chew with our mouths open.”

  “And stay up as late as we want.”

  “And go to the National Singing Convention,” I said.

  There were four or five automobiles parked on either side of the street. Johnny Clay paused at each one, shielding his eyes with his hand so he could see the dashboard. I covered my eyes and peered in the windows, too, but all I saw were dials and buttons that I didn’t understand.

  I said, “One day when I’m a famous singer, I’m going to have a shiny automobile, and I’m going to let anyone who wants to ride in it. When I drive past everyone’ll say, ‘There goes Velva Jean Hart. Just look how fancy.’ ”

  We walked and danced down the street to the soda shop and sat on stools at the counter and ordered milk shakes and potato chips. I set my hatbox and my mandolin on the seat next to me and we propped our elbows up and made sure to chew with our mouths open. I felt very grown up.

  “Get out of here now,” we heard the man behind the counter say. He sounded angry. We looked up to see one of the hobo boys from the train standing at the counter.

  “I’ll work for it,” he said.

  “I don’t have any work for you, kid,” the man said. “Now get out of here.”

  The boy had that hungry look about him that dogs got when they came round after Granny’s hens—the kind of dogs that were all bones and skin, not fat ones like Hunter Firth. The boy looked no older than fourteen, with ears that stuck out and arms he hadn’t grown into yet. I stared down at his shoes and saw that they were full of holes.

  “Give him what he wants,” I heard Johnny Clay say. I looked at my brother and he was staring at the man behind the counter, the man who had been so nice to us when
we ordered our food and paid him money up front for it.

  “He with you?” The man said. His face was closed up like Sweet Fern’s when she didn’t believe you.

  “That’s right,” Johnny Clay said.

  The man eyed Johnny Clay and then the kid. He sighed. “What do you want?”

  The boy barely even glanced at Johnny Clay. He looked like he wanted to die right there on the spot. “A hamburger,” he said, just like a mouse.

  “Make it a cheeseburger,” said Johnny Clay. “And a vanilla milk shake.”

  The man turned without a word and began to fix the food.

  “Thanks,” the kid mumbled. He said it into his hat, which he still held in his hands.

  Johnny Clay shrugged. “Where you from?”

  “Ohio,” the kid said.

  “Where you headed?”

  “California.”

  Johnny Clay nodded at me to move my things so the boy could sit down. I handed them to my brother and he set them on the stool next to him. The boy sat on the stool beside me.

  “I’m Gary,” he said.

  “I’m Johnny Clay and this here’s my sister, Velva Jean.”

  “Hey,” Gary said.

  “Hey,” I said back.

  “Why’d you leave?” Johnny Clay said to him.

  Gary set his hat on the counter and rubbed his hands on the legs of his trousers. “My dad lost his job and told me they couldn’t feed any more kids. He said I was old enough to look after my own self now.”

  I said, “What’re you going to do in California?”

  “Pick fruit. I heard there’s jobs out there.”

  Johnny Clay and I had finished our drinks by the time the cheeseburger came. We sat there with Gary while he ate, and Johnny Clay paid the man behind the counter what he owed him and not a penny more because he said the man didn’t deserve it.

  I’d never seen someone eat so fast in my life. Gary ate like he hadn’t eaten in months. After he was done, Johnny Clay told the man to make one more cheeseburger and to throw in a bag of chips and to put them in a paper bag.

 
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