Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  “We don’t have that kind of money, Johnny Clay,” I whispered.

  “Hush,” he hissed back. “We got more than he does.”

  Gary took the paper sack and rolled it up tight and placed it inside his hat. The three of us walked outside. He said, “You all got a place to sleep tonight?”

  Johnny Clay shook his head. “Not yet.”

  “There’s a hobo jungle just up the track from here. You can’t see it from the track, but it’s about a quarter mile up from where we got off, on the left-hand side, hid in a grove of trees. You’re welcome to stay there tonight if you want.”

  “Thanks,” Johnny Clay said.

  “If I ain’t there, just tell them I said it was okay. But watch out for the buzzards.” He kind of half smiled and then he turned around and headed back toward the tracks.

  “What’s a hobo jungle?” I whispered. It sounded like a terrible, dangerous place. I pictured a wilderness with buzzards circling overhead.

  “It’s where the hoboes camp,” Johnny Clay said.

  I watched after Gary. He was almost out of sight. “He kind of walks like a dog that’s been kicked, don’t he?” I said.

  “Yeah.” Johnny Clay sighed. “It makes you think.”

  “About what?”

  “That things could be worse, Velva Jean.” With a dead mama, a daddy who didn’t want me, a Lord that betrayed me, and Sweet Fern for my new mother, I really didn’t see how.

  I thought how proud Daddy Hoyt would have been of Johnny Clay, to see him step up like that and help a friend in need, like Daddy Hoyt was always telling us to do. He liked to say it didn’t matter how much money a person had, as long as they were willing to part with it to help someone who needed it more. He said that the richest people on earth weren’t always the ones with money.

  At the thought of Daddy Hoyt, I felt a hollowing in my stomach, as if it wasn’t full of potato chips and milk shake. I wondered what Daddy Hoyt was doing up on Fair Mountain and if he’d missed us yet.

  Hours later, when the sun dipped behind the mountains, Johnny Clay said, “We should get to the jungle before dark.” A shiver ran up my spine at the word “jungle.”

  We stood outside the Bluebird Café, where we’d shared a plate of chicken and dumplings for supper, and studied the sky over Fair Mountain, our mountain. It was the first time I’d ever seen it from below. Down where we were, buildings, streets, cars, people were bathed in gold.

  Together, we walked back toward the train tracks. A freight train had stopped and men were unloading. The engineer leaned against the side of the engine with his eyes closed, hands in pockets. A voice called out, “We got enough coal to last us to Dillsboro, but we’ll need to take on more there.” A face appeared, shaded with coal dust, the eyes rubbed white. Two long legs swung down from the train and two blackened hands reached in trouser pockets for a cigarette.

  After the cigarette was lit, the boy looked up and saw us.

  “What’s he doing here?” I said.

  “Who?” asked Johnny Clay.

  “The moonshiner’s boy.”

  Johnny Clay frowned at this.

  The boy had caught sight of us and was smiling. He took a drag on the cigarette and nodded at us. “There a singing contest around that I don’t know about?”

  Johnny Clay and I stopped in front of him. Johnny Clay looked him in the eye. Johnny Clay was shorter by barely half an inch, which I could tell made him mad. “You work on the train?”


  “How long you been at it?”

  “Since I was twelve. Almost four years now.” The moonshiner’s boy looked at me again and smiled. His teeth were white against the gray-black of his face. “There a singing contest here today?” he repeated.

  “No,” I said. “We left home.” Johnny Clay punched my arm. “Ow! What?”

  The boy nodded. “If I didn’t work this job, I’d a left home a long time ago.”

  A crewman came running up the tracks. He didn’t even look at us, just coughed in front of the engineer till the man opened his eyes. “Ready, boss,” he said.

  The engineer swung himself up into the engine.

  “You all going back tonight?” the moonshiner’s boy asked.

  “No,” Johnny Clay said. “We ain’t going back.” It sounded final, the way he said it.

  The boy nodded. “If you change your mind, there’s a midnight freight that’s passing through on its way to Alluvial.” He took one last drag on the cigarette, then pinched it out and wrapped it up. As he swung up into the engine, he looked right at me and grinned. “Prettiest face on Fair Mountain,” he said. “Fair Mountain or anywhere else.”

  “What the hell does that mean?” Johnny Clay said as we watched the train roll out. He was staring after it as if he could still see the moonshiner’s boy.

  “Nothing,” I said. Prettiest face on Fair Mountain.

  The hobo jungle sat in a deep gorge several hundred yards from the tracks. The brush grew up high and the trees grew thick around it, so that we didn’t see the jungle until we were almost in it. There were twenty or thirty boys of all ages—and three or four old men—cooking food in front of a campfire or sleeping on the ground or sitting in small groups and playing cards. A stream ran through the gorge and a few men were bent over it, scooping water into pots or flasks. Two girls sat on the edge of the group, smoking cigarettes and watching everyone with bored expressions. There was a smell to the camp—a tired, stale smell of rotten food and too many people.

  Johnny Clay and me sat down by the fire, and I slipped my hatbox under my legs and bent my knees over it. I kept a firm hand on my mandolin and thought about how mean and dangerous I felt. And scared. “Are they all runaways?” I asked Johnny Clay. If Sweet Fern could see me now.

  “Most of them,” he said. “Or cast outs. Just stay close to me, Velva Jean.”

  I stared at the girls. They couldn’t have been much more than nineteen or twenty, but they looked worn down. Their skirts were pulled up so their knees were showing. The girls were staring at me and at Johnny Clay and blowing smoke in our direction. There were two old men hanging around them. One wore overalls with no shirt and looked the same age as my daddy. The other was a lot older—at least as old as Daddy Hoyt.

  Gary came up from the creek, his form just an outline in the darkening night. “Put that fire out,” he said to someone. He carried a coffee can, which he set on the ground gently so that the water didn’t spill. He sat down next to us. “Glad you made it,” he said. “Are you thirsty?”

  Johnny Clay shook his head. “A little,” I said.

  I thought Gary seemed different from when we’d seen him in town, more sure of himself. He pulled a cup from his pack, dipped it into the can, and handed it to me. It was a chipped yellow teacup with a blue handle and tiny daisies painted around the rim. I wondered where the cup came from. Was it from his mama? Did she miss it? Had she given it to him before he left? Were there others somewhere in Ohio—shelves lined with yellow teacups with blue handles and daisies around the rim? Was there an empty place where this one used to be?

  Gary and Johnny Clay played a hand of cards with two other fellows. When I started yawning, Gary gave me his bed, which was no more than a blanket on the ground. I placed my hatbox under my head for a pillow and wrapped my arms around my mandolin.

  I lay there for a few minutes and listened to the voices. Then the words began to blur together as I stared at the moon, which was white and glowing, casting a ghostly light over the sky. I tried to keep myself awake, telling myself I needed to come up with a song about a hobo jungle—a place where buzzards were grown men and the boys were old before they were young. As I was drifting off, I heard Johnny Clay and Gary agree to take shifts while I slept.

  An hour or so later, I woke up and realized I had to go to the bathroom. Most everyone was asleep, including Johnny Clay and Gary. The new moon cast a cool glow on the camp and the people in it, so you couldn’t see the dirty faces and the
tattered clothes. I stood up and hopped around to get the life back into my limbs, and then I tiptoed to the other side of the creek where the grass grew high.

  I squatted on the ground, trying not to jump at every sound. The night was still, but every now and then the breeze rustled the trees and I could hear the “hoot hoot hoot” of an owl. I tried to keep my eyes on my hatbox and mandolin and my brother who lay sleeping beside them. I was just finishing my business when I heard a twig snap behind me. I stiffened like I’d seen Hunter Firth do when he tracked a squirrel. “Johnny Clay?” I whispered.

  I turned to see one of the girls standing behind me. She had hold of the buzzard with the overalls and no shirt, and he was grabbing her around the waist. “What’re you doing here?” she said to me, and her voice was cold.

  “She’s a pretty one,” the man said. “Worth more than fifty cents, that one.” He laughed at this.

  She slapped his arms and pushed him away. He only grabbed her tighter. She said, “Oh, but she ain’t selling, are you, sister sunshine?”

  They both looked at me, waiting, but I didn’t know what to say.

  She said, “She can’t be selling because Sheryl and me has this place covered.”

  The man took his hands off her and started toward me. “I don’t know. Seems there’s plenty she could do around here.”

  I started to back up. I kept my eyes on them and tried to feel my way with my heels. When I reached the edge of the stream, I turned around and jumped across, landing on my right knee. I felt the rawness of a new scrape and the bruise that would be there by tomorrow, and then I picked myself up. I heard the man laugh again and lunge for me, and I scrambled away right into the arms of Johnny Clay. He pushed me aside and punched the man in the face, sending him flying backward into the stream, where he landed with a splash and a flood of curse words.

  Johnny Clay grabbed my hand. He dragged me through the hobo jungle, scooping up my hatbox and mandolin, and didn’t stop till we were at the train tracks. I looked back toward the camp, but all I could see were the trees and the grasses, grown up high and thick.

  My heart was racing so fast I couldn’t catch my breath. I looked behind us again, and no one was coming. I looked up and the trees were swaying gently back and forth against the sky. The moon had changed positions and the breeze was picking up. My scraped knee stung as the air hit it.

  “Where’re we going, Johnny Clay?” I asked.

  “Home,” he said.


  The clock on the Baptist church said 12:40. A lone lightbulb burned bright over the door to Deal’s General Store, but the school, the church, and the houses were completely black. The moon shone from a different angle in the sky, the same moon we saw in Civility. I had never seen Alluvial so dark and silent before. Somewhere I could hear the sound of an owl calling his mate, and then, seconds later, her answer.

  As we started up the hill and into the trees toward home, the night closed in as the woods snuffed out the light of the moon. I had never been out so late in my life. Johnny Clay pulled out his flashlight, the one he always carried with him, and lit the way.

  “You know Sweet Fern’s gonna tan our hides,” he said.

  “I don’t care I guess.” I told myself I could still go home and be free of her. I would just ignore her when she talked to me and pretend like I couldn’t hear her. I wouldn’t do anything she said or even look at her until she finally got the idea that she and I were done.

  I began to sing one of the songs from Top Hat. I hoped it would make me forget about Sweet Fern and about being scared of the woods and the dark. The closer we got to home, though, the less I sang and the less we said. We were both thinking about what kind of punishment would be waiting for us.

  I tried not to jump at every sound. I was used to the noises of the animals and the bugs, but everything familiar seemed scary in the black of the woods. I kept my eyes focused on the beam of light that danced across the ground in front of us.

  “What’s that?” I said now and then, at the snap of a twig or the hoot of an owl.

  “Nothing,” Johnny Clay would say. “Nothing’s going to hurt you, Velva Jean, not with me here.”

  I thought of the way he had punched the jungle buzzard, the way the man had fallen backward, feet over head, and the way he’d cursed a blue streak when he hit the stream. I told myself that Johnny Clay knew what he was talking about, so I left him alone.

  There was a dark patch of woods in the center of the forest where the trees were especially thick and completely blacked out the sky. I knew home was on the other side of them, but I was always nervous walking through there, and until now I’d only been there in the daytime. This was where Spearfinger lived, the witch woman. Sometimes you could hear her shrieking in the distance, up above the wind and the treetops. She took on the shape of anything she liked—a bird or a fish or a person you loved—but underneath it she was made of stone. She roamed the woods looking for children, hoping to touch them with her bony finger and steal their souls.

  As we stepped into the thick of the woods, I walked a little closer to Johnny Clay and tried not to look about me. I thought it would be just my luck, after all those years of wanting to see a haint, to finally see one now.

  “What was that?” I asked again. Somewhere behind us, there was the snap of twigs, the crunch of leaves. I was terrified to look, sure I would see a ghost or maybe the Wood Carver roaming the woods on all fours. Would he remember me? Or would he even recognize me in his animal form?

  “Nothing, Velva Jean. Jesus.” Johnny Clay liked taking the Lord’s name in vain. He thought it made him sound grown up. With my free hand, I held on to the back of his shirt, light enough so that he wouldn’t feel it.

  “Great Holy Moses!” he yelled, so suddenly I jumped straight into the air. He slapped at his face and chest. “They got me, Velva Jean! The cannibal spirits got me!” He danced up and down and laughed like a donkey.

  I slugged him good and hard across the back. “Johnny Clay!” But it got me thinking about the Nunnehi, the moon-eyed people. Sometimes they played tricks, but more often than that—according to Granny—they protected wanderers lost in the mountains, guiding them home with their drums and their lanterns. I started to pray in my head for them to help us and guide us home safely.

  And then we heard it—a kind of high-pitched scream that made us both jump. I knew what panthers sounded like—“painters,” Granny called them. They sounded just like a woman being murdered. I’d heard them all my life, way up on the mountain, and Granny had always told us tales of the panthers that lived in the woods and hunted at night. Sometimes, she said, they waited in trees for people to pass by and then they would drop on them and carry them away. Sometimes they reached in the windows or doors of houses and stole human babies and dragged them off to their dens. Sometimes they would follow a person for miles until you didn’t know where you were, and then you would turn around and there they would be, and they would drag you off and bury you in the leaves.

  There came another howl, this one close by, somewhere to the left of us or the right of us, we couldn’t be sure in the dark. We froze.

  “Holy shit,” Johnny Clay said, very low, and I knew now it was okay to be scared. I was trying to remember what it was we were supposed to do if we saw a panther. I couldn’t remember if we were supposed to stand still like statues, like when you saw a mad dog, or if we were supposed to run. I knew Granny carried around a small ax whenever she went out midwifing, just in case she ran into one, but all we had was Johnny Clay’s flashlight.

  To the side of us, there was the sound of four legs, of pacing back and forth, first to the right of us, then to the left, suddenly in front, then behind. There was a flash of light red-brown—the color of the earth—the thud of leaves being crushed, of heavy breathing. There was a low growl, almost a hum. Then, it lunged, and I felt the hem of my dress tear right off and something cold and wet on my leg.

  I screamed and we ran, crashing into tr
ees and limbs. Johnny Clay was faster than me, but my legs were long and I ran hard behind him, keeping my eyes on his back and on the light bobbing in front of us. When it all of a sudden went completely dark, I smashed right into him so that we both almost fell over.

  “Light’s dead,” he said. He clutched the flashlight with his hand like a weapon and grabbed my hand with his other one. There was a scrambling behind us, a scraping of nails, a pounding of feet. “Throw something at it,” he shouted. “Hand me that mandolin.”

  And then I remembered something Granny had told us. “Take your clothes off, Johnny Clay! Granny said to take your clothes off and throw them at the panther cat so it’ll attack the clothes instead!”

  Johnny Clay tore off his shirt, throwing it backward over my head. I didn’t look back at the sound of ripping cloth, just kept right on running. All I had on over my underclothes was the ugly green-brown dress Sweet Fern had made me last summer that was already too short in the arms and the hem. I tried to decide what was worse—being killed by Sweet Fern for coming home without that dress, or being killed right there in the woods by that panther.

  “Throw something else, Velva Jean!” Johnny Clay yelled. We could hear the panther coming along again behind us, faster than it had before.

  I decided that dress or no dress Sweet Fern was already going to kill me. I pulled that ugly green-brown dress over my head and let it drop behind me. Then I tore off my slip and threw that too. I ran, feeling terrified—but also light and free—in my undershirt and shorts.

  Together, Johnny Clay and me ran as hard and fast as we could, my hatbox banging into my bare leg and my side. I ran blindly and by instinct, my free hand reaching out in front, trying to slap away the tree limbs that were hitting me in the face.

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