Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  No, I thought. If I’m going to pick someone, it’s going to be someone new and dangerous. Someone that makes the hairs stand up on my arms. Not one of these old mountain boys. I was holding out for Roy Acuff or Gary Cooper.

  Come one, come all, and rejoice in his name!

  The hairs on my neck bristled a little and a voice in my head said Danger! Danger! I was so caught off guard that when Daryl Gordon came up behind me and asked me for a dance, I said yes without thinking. That’s how far away I was in my mind.

  According to Johnny Clay, the Glory Pioneers were a God-fearing, devil-hating people who shunned music and dance and fun of any kind. He had heard one of them preach on the radio and said the man was so wild that just hearing the name Glory Pioneers gave me a case of the shivers. For a name so joyful, they sounded like wicked, frightening people. I pictured dangerous moonlight rituals, animal sacrifices, and the drinking of blood.

  Glory Pioneers.

  The night I saw the sign at Deal’s, I lay in bed and said it again and again, enjoying the prickling sensation the words caused at the back of my neck.

  Glory Pioneers.

  It was too good to be true that these mysterious people were actually coming all the way to my very own valley. I heard the preacher was from somewhere else—“off somewhere,” as Aunt Bird called it, which was what she called anyplace that wasn’t on Fair Mountain—and he was supposed to be young and handsome and possessed by the spirit of God.

  I didn’t sleep at all. I got up before the rooster and slipped out before breakfast, before anyone else was up. I opened the door to Johnny Clay’s room, but it was empty. I went downstairs and he wasn’t in the kitchen or the front room or on the porch. I went outside and searched the barn, and then I went down to Cobber’s Creek and found him panning for gold.

  “I want to go to that revival,” I said. “But I know Sweet Fern will say we’re to stay away from it. She’ll say we’re forbidden.” Sweet Fern didn’t like strangers and she didn’t trust people of other religions, even though her own husband was a Baptist.

  Johnny Clay didn’t say anything because he was concentrating. He had the pan under the water and his hands were working below the surface.

  For three years, I had been on my best behavior, trying to get along with Sweet Fern and not upset her because of the way Johnny Clay and me had run away from home, and because of how sorry I was that her whole life had been disrupted by having to raise my brothers and me. On hard days—the days I felt sorriest for her—she got out the catalog plans for her future house and looked at them, her chin in her hand. “Someday,” she would say, “I’m going to be here with all my babies—my own babies, not you and your brothers.” She would point to each of the rooms one by one. Then she would fold up the plans and put them back in the cloth wrapper she had made just for them and walk around sighing and looking sad the rest of the day.

  I had been on my best behavior because of those catalog plans all folded up in that cloth wrapper, but I had reached my limit. I said to Johnny Clay, “I really want to go.”

  Johnny Clay swished the pan back and forth. His arms were wet and shining in the sun. “Let’s us go without telling her then,” he said.

  I could barely sleep the night before. I just lay in bed, wide awake, staring at the ceiling and scaring myself nearly to death, picturing the Glory Pioneers. Would they be dangerous? Would they be wicked? Would they be as fierce as Johnny Clay said? It was thrilling just imagining them. I wasn’t sure what would happen to me at the revival, but I had a feeling, deep in the pit of my stomach where my good, true feelings come from, that it would be something big.

  The mountains were dark except for the lanterns made out of brown root beer bottles hanging from the trees, the lightning bugs that dotted the blackness with twinkling pinpricks of light, and the moon reflected on the surface of nearby Three Gum River.

  I stood in front of one of the benches lined up beneath the brush arbor, hymnal open in my hands, sawdust shavings covering the ground under my feet. The musty, bittersweet smell of the shavings burned my nose and helped keep me awake. It was warm, even for June. The air was still and sticky hot.

  “We’re going up there when the healing starts,” Johnny Clay said.

  “All right,” I said.

  “And you go up there with a limp and pretend to be lame. And I’ll pretend to be blind. Then when he lays his hands on us to heal us, we switch and pretend he’s made you blind and made me lame.” He laughed at this and I couldn’t help it, it made me laugh, too. Johnny Clay never did care about his mortal soul. “You promised,” he said again.

  “All right,” I said. I wanted him to be quiet so I could concentrate. I was feeling nervous and excited, and his talking was getting on my nerves.

  Johnny Clay had said the Glory Pioneers didn’t believe in celebrating God with music, but here they were, songbooks in hand, singing loud as you please.

  So far the Glory Pioneers were a big disappointment. They didn’t at all live up to their name and the legend I’d created for them in my imagination. They looked like normal people, just as shabby and down home as me and Johnny Clay. I hadn’t seen one bloodletting or even a hint of animal sacrifice.

  After the hymn singing was over, we all took our seats and I lowered myself onto the hard wooden bench. I was starting to envy the people sitting on the ground. Because so many people had come to the revival and there wasn’t enough room on the benches, some folks sat on quilts that were spread out over the sawdust shavings. Except for my own family, it looked like everyone from Sleepy Gap and Fair Mountain—and then some—had turned out. I didn’t recognize half of them and figured they must have come down from Witch and Bone and Blood mountains and from Devil’s Courthouse too.

  “Fellow pioneers, please join me in welcoming the Reverend Harley Bright.” I jumped at the sound of the man’s voice. He was short, small as a boy, only with thick blond hair and stubble so you knew he was full grown. He was so short that I wondered if he might not be the shortest person in the world, shorter even than Iona, “the Human Baby Doll,” who was only thirty-four inches tall. I’d seen her at the fair when I was thirteen and liked her almost as much as the armless fiddler who played the violin with his feet.

  A tall man came forward and placed his hand on the short man’s shoulder. He had to stoop a little to reach it. “Welcome, everyone.” Suddenly, the congregation was standing again. I couldn’t see his face, but I could tell the preacher was young and dark. He wore a pair of gray pants and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He looked like he had just stepped right out of the audience. He opened his arms wide, the Bible clutched in one hand. “How wonderful to see so many pioneers of glory before me on this night, this beautiful night.” He was quiet and calm. He motioned for us to sit.

  “They call him the Hurricane Preacher,” someone whispered behind me.

  The Hurricane Preacher. This sent a chill up my spine. Maybe the revival wouldn’t be a complete disappointment after all.

  “ ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’ ” The preacher stood before us, one hand extended, the other holding the Bible to his chest. He emphasized each word and there was an undercurrent of something in his voice—anger, defiance.

  As he stood facing me, I sat up straight on the bench. It was the moonshiner’s boy. Or he used to be, last time I saw him three years ago. Only he was different. He was clean and confident. He was a grown man now—tall and broad with shadow on his chin. He looked like he’d stepped right out of a movie magazine, every bit as handsome as Gary Cooper. I wondered what he was playing at, with his face and hands washed, pretending to be a preacher, calling himself a Glory Pioneer.

  “I’ll be a son of a bitch,” Johnny Clay said, and I knew he’d recognized him, too.

  Even from where I sat, I could see that his eyes were a sharp, bright green. My own eyes were a mixture of green, brown, and gold like they couldn’t decide what to be. Mama’s eyes had looked just like a sunflower set a
gainst a soft blue sky. Johnny Clay’s were as dark as coffee. But this man’s eyes were like flashes of clear green fire.

  I sat up perfectly straight because Granny said that made you seem majestic, like an Indian princess, and I carefully fingered my hair to make sure it hadn’t curled too much in the humidity. The Reverend Harley Bright. Reverend Harley Bright. It sounded divine.

  “ ‘Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.’ ” The moonshiner’s boy skimmed the crowd. He seemed to be daring us to argue with him, daring us not to respond. “Who do you think you’re worshipping when you partake of worldly things? The Lord thy God?” He laughed and shook his head. “Who do you think you’re honoring when you drink or smoke tobacco or steal from your neighbor? Who do you think you’re celebrating by dancing or shortening your hemline or painting your face?”

  Even though I knew he was a no-good moonshiner’s boy who smoked tobacco and had dirt under his fingernails and who had gone to jail and prison more than once, I could feel my cheeks turning pink. I tugged my skirt down over my knees and thought of the Magnet Red lipstick that was on its way to me, the one I’d ordered from an advertisement in one of Ruby Poole’s movie magazines. I was afraid the Reverend Harley Bright would see the guilt on my face. If he knew about Magnet Red, he would probably never want anything to do with me. He would think I was a wicked, shameless woman like the women who lived in cities. I wondered if I could send the lipstick back.

  “Who do you think you’re gratifying by swearing or cheating or fighting? Jesus? No! ” Several people jumped. “Satan!” He pointed at a lady in the front row. “Satan!” He pointed at an old man to his left. “You don’t honor the Lord by dishonoring yourself, you only honor Satan.” There were gasps. One lady fanned herself and another one dabbed at her upper lip with a handkerchief. “Get thee hence, Satan!” the Reverend Bright shouted, and waved the Bible up at the roof of the brush arbor.

  There were mutterings and stirrings from the crowd.

  Johnny Clay nudged me in the ribs but I ignored him. I was thinking that I hoped I was good enough for the Reverend Harley Bright and that he wouldn’t find me common or sinful or shameful in any way. I thought I would write to the company that had sold me the lipstick just as soon as I got home that night. I wouldn’t even wait for it to get there before telling them I didn’t want it.

  “What do you call a man who makes and sells whiskey in sight of his home—in sight of his own wife and child—and has done time in jail? Would you say he’s worshipping the Lord or that he’s courting the devil?”

  “The devil, oh Jesus.” An old woman in a blue dress began to cry, her shoulders shaking, her hands pressed to her face.

  I wondered if there was any way the Reverend Harley Bright could find out I had ordered Magnet Red even if I was able to stop them from sending it to me. I was angry at myself now for doing something so vain, so reckless. Why hadn’t I saved my money for something else—like a new Bible or a shape-note hymnal, something Jesus himself would have approved of?

  “ ‘Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.’ But the important thing is that he doth come! There is work to be done to ensure that you welcome him, not push him away.”

  A trickle of sweat made its way from my neck down the small of my back. My face was hot and damp and my hair was starting to curl, but the paper fan with the Bible scene lay still in my lap because I couldn’t move. I felt rooted in place, like all my limbs had gone to sleep.

  “But let us be careful of false fronts, of trickery, of those who misrepresent themselves as children of God. Like the men from the cities who are coming here to these mountains—our mountains—tearing down our houses and cutting down our trees and taking what belongs to us, even though they say they’re building this road for us, to give us work and to help connect us to the rest of the world. Well, we didn’t ask for work and we didn’t ask to be connected. Jesus said, ‘Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.’ Let us not be among the deceivers and let us not be deceived.”

  I wondered if it was deceitful to order a lipstick and then send it back before you even had a chance to try it on. I wondered if it was deceitful to do that and then pretend like nothing ever happened and like you hadn’t even done it in the first place.

  “Do we dare deceive? No! Do we dare be deceived? No!” The Reverend Harley Bright wiped his damp brow with a handkerchief and stared directly at me.

  The palms of my hands started tingling and I felt my stomach jump like there were bugs inside it. My face started to burn so hot that I wanted to crawl under my seat. He looked at me like he recognized me, like he knew I was there all along, like he had every right to look at me, like he could see into my mind and into my heart. I thought I was going to faint right there on the pew. Please God, I thought, don’t let him know.

  “I am asking that you join me in banishing Satan, that you join me in worshipping and praising God, that you cast aside your sinfulness and realize your goodness, that you let me help you reach for that goodness, and that you reach deep inside yourselves and pull out the good and the true.” Then he raised his Bible and pointed it so clearly and obviously at me that people turned around to stare. “I am asking that you hasten to God’s side and get right with him and shun the devil.”

  He closed his eyes then and I slumped against the back of the bench. He had been talking right to me.

  The preacher held up his hands, one palm open, the other embracing the Bible. He spoke loud and fast. “Jesus said, ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that shall believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.’ ” The word “damned” nearly rattled the rafters of the brush arbor and rang through the air like a small explosion.

  We were all on our feet with the force of his words. I could see why he was called the Hurricane Preacher. I felt like he was reaching out from his pulpit and wrapping that voice of his—afire with damnation and the promise of salvation—around my neck like a glittering scarf. It was like he’d been speaking just to me—only to me—and for a moment, he had been.

  He took up his guitar and started to sing “The Glory Song,” only he changed the words of the verses, making up his own words to suit the day and the crowd and the sermon. He left the chorus the same. He closed his eyes and he banged the guitar and his voice was strong and rough.

  Afterward he announced the altar call and those that wanted saving went forward to receive it. I got up and walked to the front with most everyone else. Johnny Clay got up and walked behind me.

  The line was moving slow across the stage. The Reverend Harley Bright was shaking people’s hands and touching their foreheads and saying prayers over every person. Each one went off crying and raising their hands, praising the preacher and Jesus. Johnny Clay poked me. He said, “You can be blind if you’d rather. I don’t care.”

  I said, “I don’t think he’s healing people like that. I’m just going to shake his hand.”

  Johnny Clay didn’t say anything for a minute. I didn’t turn around or look at him. I could hear what he was thinking. I could hear him being mad. Then he said, real low, “Where’s the fun in that?”

  I stood there waiting my turn, waiting for the Reverend Harley Bright to lay his hands on me and make me whole again. When he finally touched me—his hand on my forehead—it was quick but electric. He pressed something into my hand. A handkerchief. It was folded into a square. It smelled like lilacs. On it was written: “Special Miracle.”

  Johnny Clay and I sat back down and watched as the rest of the people made their way across the stage. Johnny Clay slumped down low in his seat. He was sulking, but I didn’t care because I knew then that I was in love. It would be forever, and it would be true, and it would be the most glorious, powerful thing on earth.

  I had already been saved once, back in 193
3. But now, on the banks of that very same river where I thought I had found salvation, I had just been saved for a second time.

  Johnny Clay and I sneaked away every night that week to go to the revival, and Sweet Fern didn’t find out. On the very last night, after the service, the short man walked up to us where we sat and said, “The Reverend Bright would like to see you.” He looked right at me when he said it. Something about him was familiar. I thought of the day we followed the bad Barrow gang, of the moonshiner’s boy and his skinny friend and his fat friend and his short friend, the one that was small as a child.

  “What does he want?” Johnny Clay said.

  “He likes to meet the members of his congregation,” the man said. “Especially two such faithful attendants as you.”

  I looked at Johnny Clay and his eyebrows shot up. “He’s already met her. You were there. You both met her that day I beat the tar out of him in Alluvial.”

  The short man didn’t say anything to this, just started coughing. When he was done, he stood frowning up at us, waiting.

  Johnny Clay turned to me. I gave him my sweetest look. He said, “Fine.”

  The Reverend Bright was sitting in a chair behind the altar, waving a fan back and forth, back and forth at his temple. His eyes were closed. I thought how smooth and white his skin was now that it was free of all that dirt, and how I wished I could reach out and touch it.

  “Harley,” said the short man.

  The Reverend Bright opened his eyes and smiled. It was a smile that spread across his whole face. He stood and I tilted my head up to look at him. He was still taller than Johnny Clay by a half inch, something I knew would only make Johnny Clay madder. Harley Bright held out his hand to my brother, who almost didn’t take it, and then he turned to me and did the funniest thing—he bowed.

  “Prettiest face on Fair Mountain,” he said right to me. I just looked at his own face, the way one side dimpled when he smiled, and the way he cocked his head to the side and kind of lifted one eyebrow in a way that made him seem real and human and more like the moonshiner’s boy and less like the Hurricane Preacher.

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