Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  Johnny Clay cleared his throat. He scratched the back of his neck where it was sunburned. “You preach a good sermon,” he said loudly.

  “You enjoyed yourselves, then?” the moonshiner’s boy was staring right at me, just like he’d stared at me during his sermon on the first day of the revival.

  “Oh yes,” I heard myself say. “Yes.”

  “I like to make a difference where I can,” he said. He looked at me like he was waiting for something.

  “You did. It was . . .” I knew what I wanted to say but I wasn’t sure whether I should say it, especially in front of Johnny Clay, who would never let me hear the end of it. I lifted my right foot and scratched the back of my left calf, where the panther scar was. It still itched sometimes. The reverend just looked at me, his mouth crooked up in a grin. He looked at me like he knew me and like he understood and like whatever I was going to say was fine with him. So finally I said, “It was like you were talking right to me.”

  When I opened my eyes the next morning, the first thing I saw was the framed picture Johnny Clay had given me for my last birthday. It was the first thing I saw every morning, propped up on the chest of drawers next to the bottle of perfume from Ruby Poole: Paris, by Coty (“a perfume that knows how to be tender and sparkling, witty and feminine, all in the same fragrant moment . . .”). It was a framed photograph of the Grand Ole Opry stage, empty except for a microphone.

  “That’s where you’ll be one day, Velva Jean,” Johnny Clay had said. “See there? That’s where you’ll stand.”

  It was the best present I’d ever got, and I loved to stare and stare at it until I could see myself on the stage, dressed up in my rhinestone outfit and holding my Hawaiian steel guitar.

  For as long as I could remember, being on that stage had been my biggest dream, and after a while, my only one. But now I had two dreams. I was still going to be Velva Jean Hart, star of the Grand Ole Opry, but I was also going to be something else. I didn’t know if I would ever see the Reverend Harley Bright again. But I’d made up my mind that if I ever did, I was going to be his wife.


  Work on the Scenic had made its way south from Deep Gap all the way down to Bull Gap, right around Weaverville, just north of Asheville. Johnny Clay climbed up to Old Widow’s Peak nearly every day with a set of binoculars that Daddy had brought him years ago, and then he came back down and gave us a report over supper. The binoculars barely worked anymore and you couldn’t see far with them, but he swore he could see the construction men at work—boys as young as him and men as old as Daddy—cutting down trees and blasting through the mountain and making way for the road to come.

  When I looked through the binoculars myself, I couldn’t see a thing, but Johnny Clay said I was doing it wrong and didn’t know how to use them. What I didn’t tell him was that I wasn’t trying to see Bull Gap. I was trying to look at Devil’s Courthouse. I thought maybe those binoculars would pick up the moonshiner’s house in Devil’s Kitchen, and maybe I could see the Reverend Harley Bright. Now that the revival was over, I wondered if I would ever see him again.

  Whether you could see it or not, the way that road was making its way down toward us had everyone on edge. The flags were back on Devil’s Courthouse. I thought about going up there again and taking them down and burying them, but I knew somehow it wouldn’t matter. They would only keep planting more.

  Hink Lowe said the Scenic was a rich man’s road. Root Caldwell said it was a sign of the devil. Old Buck Frey said he didn’t care if there was a depression and they were giving people jobs, it just wasn’t worth it—they were taking away more than they were giving. Even Uncle Turk said it would be the end of us. He said the government was trying to run that road right through the Indian nation to the gates of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Cherokee were fighting it and he was joining them. On June 25, he packed up his gems and his polishing tools and all his earthly belongings and moved to the reservation.

  On June 27, we got a postcard from Beach: “Am working on the Scenic near Altapass. Earning thirty cents per hour, six days a week. Digging stumps out of steep slopes, laying drainage tile in the mud, lifting five-hundred-pound rocks with hand cranes, planting trees and shrubs and flowers. Have been spreading my message up here where all can see. No sign of Daddy. Love, Beach.”

  One week after the revival, on Saturday, June 29, there was a rumble like far-off thunder, even though the sun was out and it didn’t look like rain. The rumble grew louder and louder, like it was coming fast toward us, and I rushed out of the house, followed by Sweet Fern, Granny, and Johnny Clay. We stood there watching the cloud of dust that rolled toward us. Behind it came an automobile, a dark blue one.

  Other than Danny Deal’s truck and Dr. Keller’s truck, we’d never seen an automobile this high up the mountain before. I couldn’t imagine who it could belong to. The car came to a stop in front of the porch, and as the dust settled, the Reverend Harley Bright opened the door and swung his long legs out, the other half of him still leaning into the mirror.

  “My goodness,” Sweet Fern said. “Who on earth?” Her voice trailed off. I suddenly felt my face grow hot. My palms tingled, just like they had when I’d first seen the Reverend Bright, and I could feel my heart start to race. I’d never imagined he would come to call or that I would ever even see him again.

  “It’s the moonshiner’s boy,” Johnny Clay said. “From the revival.”

  “Revival?” said Sweet Fern. “Moonshiner’s boy?”

  “He’s turned preacher,” said Johnny Clay.

  Sweet Fern fixed a look on Johnny Clay, on me, on Johnny Clay again, her eyebrows shooting up toward her hair. “What in the great blue yonder would a revival preacher want with you?”

  “Oh, I don’t think he wants me,” Johnny Clay said.

  Sweet Fern looked straight at me and only at me. Before she could say anything, Granny gave a low whistle. “All the way up here. And in an automobile.”

  Sweet Fern stared back at the car and at the man inside it and suddenly I could see exactly what she was thinking. Moonshiner’s boy or no moonshiner’s boy, revival preacher or no revival preacher, Harley Bright looked like a gentleman. Danny Deal’s yellow pickup truck wasn’t anywhere as nice as this blue automobile.

  Johnny Clay muttered something and went back into the house. I stood there thinking that never in my life did I expect a man like Harley Bright to come calling on me, much less in a car.

  Granny cleared her throat. “Don’t think you’re riding in it,” she said.

  “Certainly not,” said Sweet Fern. “You’ll stay right here and entertain him on the porch.” But her eyes were bright like the gold found at the bottom of Johnny Clay’s gold pans.

  As the Reverend Harley Bright walked toward us, I thought that I was just like a girl in a movie. I suddenly felt glamorous and grown up, as if I was wearing a pretty new dress and had no freckles. Just look how fancy.

  “Afternoon, Miss Hart,” he said. Miss Hart. He pulled a spray of flowers from behind his back and held them out to me. He was wearing the same gray pants and white shirt from the revival, and on his head he was wearing a hat tipped down at an angle. He looked right at Granny and Sweet Fern. “I wondered if I could sit with her for a while.”

  Sweet Fern held his gaze for several seconds and then nodded. “That would be fine.” She was putting on her best manners, the kind she reserved for company.

  Harley Bright and I sat down on the porch, my bare legs swinging over the side. Granny and Sweet Fern watched and listened through the open door. I had never talked to a man before, not a grown-up man like this who looked at me in a way that made my stomach jump. I tried to remind myself that he was wicked and forward, that he was just a dirty moonshiner’s boy who’d been to jail and who said things he shouldn’t, who didn’t care if his own mama lived or died and who was fresh to girls he barely knew. I sat there and tried to hate him.

  He didn’t say anything and I didn’t say an
ything. He reached in his pocket for a cigarette. Then he took his hat off, setting it next to him on the porch. He ran his fingers through his hair. He lit the cigarette and took a drag.

  I thought he couldn’t possibly be interested in the things me and Johnny Clay talked about—spies and murderers and movie stars and the Grand Ole Opry and playing tricks on Sweet Fern—so for a long while I just sat and said nothing.

  “Look,” he said finally. “I hope you know that what my daddy does, that ain’t me.”

  I thought about the old man with the still in the woods and the fat woman on the porch.

  “Does he still make and sell moonshine?” I said.


  “Have you tried to save him?”

  “Mama has, but he ain’t interested.” The cigarette hung on his lip as he rolled his shirtsleeves up to his elbows. He smoked for a minute. “You know, I done things in my life that I’m not proud of. I ran wild for a long time.”

  I said, “I remember.”

  He laughed.

  I said, “Don’t you preach against tobacco?”

  He said, “Yeah. Nasty habit.” He winked at me and took a long drag. Then he pinched the cigarette out and wrapped it up. Then he began to talk. He said he didn’t usually like to talk about himself—as a rule, he didn’t like anyone knowing his business—but for some reason he found himself talking to me more than he’d ever remembered talking to anyone, outside of giving a sermon. He told me about Devil’s Kitchen, about the legends and myths of the place itself, and what it was like to grow up with a mama telling you the devil was close by, ready to come get you if you did something bad or wicked. He told me about working on the railroad, which he still did, and of his mama and his daddy—how he couldn’t stand either one of them—and he told me about all the places he’d been to preach.

  I was happy just to listen and to sit there beside him. He was even better looking close-up, and he smelled fresh and clean, like soap with a hint of tobacco. He sat with his palms flat against the porch, on either side of his legs, and his feet hanging down in front of him. His shoes were so shiny they caught the reflection of the sun. The veins in his arms tensed whenever he leaned forward or shifted. He had a way of gazing out into the horizon like he could see what lay past it.

  He said, “How old were you when your mama died?”

  This took me by surprise. “Ten.” I was fifteen now, but I didn’t miss my mama any less. If anything, I missed her more. I wondered if Harley Bright would think five years was too long to be sad about someone dying. I wished I could tell him I lost my mama last week or even last year so he would know how much it still hurt.

  “Was it after you came up for the whiskey?”

  “Not long after.”

  He nodded.

  I turned my face away and stared out at the trees. I hadn’t planned on talking about Mama. Even though I couldn’t stand Sweet Fern, sometimes I liked to pretend that she or Granny was my real mother and that I’d never had one that died and went away.

  Harley Bright was watching me. “I had three brothers that died before I was born.” He looked down at his hands. “I miss them,” he said to the trees. “That probably don’t make sense. But I think about them all the time.”

  I didn’t speak a word. I didn’t move. I barely breathed. “It does make sense,” I said finally. He looked at me and then he looked away again.

  “It broke my mama’s heart.” His brow pinched up in the space above his eyes. “It nearly killed her. A baby born dead means a taint in the blood or a taint in the moral life of the parents. That’s how Mama saw it. She blamed herself. She blamed Daddy more. The doctors said I wouldn’t live.”

  “But here you are.”

  “Here I am.” He smiled. I liked how white his teeth were and the way the little lines around his eyes crinkled.

  “I didn’t think I’d live after my mama died,” I said. “I felt like I died, too.” I had never told that to anyone, not even Johnny Clay.

  “Ten years old is too young to lose a mama,” Harley Bright said.

  I nodded. I was afraid if I said anything I might start crying, and even though I didn’t know much about how to act with a man, I knew that crying probably wasn’t something you should do. At least not the first time he came to call on you.

  “But here you are.” He was smiling at me. I smiled back. I glanced at his hands, strong and rough and graceful, and wondered what it would be like to hold one of them. I couldn’t believe I was sitting with the Hurricane Preacher, the moonshiner’s boy, and that he was gentle and sweet. He hadn’t said one fresh thing.

  And then, for some reason, I opened my mouth and started talking. “When Mama died, everyone said things happen for a reason, that it was part of God’s plan and that he needed her in heaven. It used to make me mad when they said that because I needed her here on earth, and what kind of plan takes a mama away from her children? What kind of plan takes three little babies away from their mama? What reason could there be for something like that?” What reason could there possibly be for leaving me with Sweet Fern?

  He unwrapped the cigarette and lit it back up again. “Sometimes we don’t know it right off.” He took a long drag on the cigarette and then he blew the smoke out in circles. Without thinking, I stuck my finger through the middle, which made the circles break off into snakes that slithered away, and he laughed. “Do you still believe in the Lord?” he asked. “After all he’s taken from you?”

  “Of course I believe,” I said. I didn’t want the Reverend Harley Bright to know that I ever questioned the Lord, even if Harley Bright, the moonshiner’s boy, might understand. “God didn’t take Mama from me.” My daddy did. I looked down at my feet so that he couldn’t read what I was thinking. They were stained red and brown with dirt. His shoes swung back and forth, shining bright in the sun. Please don’t ask about my daddy, I thought. I didn’t want him knowing my daddy had left when I was eleven and never come back, that I wasn’t wanted by my own father. If Harley Bright knew that, he might think something was wrong with me and then leave and never talk to me again.

  I said, “They say his voice is a trumpet that heralds great things. That it can open the doors to heaven, as long as you’re willing to listen.” It was something Mama had told me once.

  We sat in silence. The flowers he gave me were making the air smell sweet. My head was spinning a little from the scent of them, from his cigarette, from him. The only sound was the click of Sweet Fern’s knitting needles from inside the house.

  “I can tell you something right now, Velva Jean Hart,” he said. It thrilled me to hear him say my full name. The Reverend Harley Bright was looking into my eyes, so deep and intense that I had to think to breathe. In the sunlight, his green eyes were clear and sparkling, like Three Gum River in the shallows. His dark hair waved across his forehead in the heat. There were little dots of sweat along his brow and on his upper lip. His voice was steady and firm. “Reason or no reason, plan or no plan, nothing on earth would ever make me leave you.”

  The Reverend Bright came over every evening for the next three weeks, and we sat on my porch and talked. Once in a while, we walked—never drove—down to Deal’s to get a soda, and Johnny Clay always came with us so that we wouldn’t be alone.

  Every night when we got home, Johnny Clay would start in. “What do you see in that slick-talking weasel?”

  “Shut up, Johnny Clay,” I told him before closing the door to my room and pulling the covers up over my head to let him know I wasn’t speaking to him anymore. The only thing I didn’t like about being courted by Harley Bright was that Johnny Clay couldn’t seem to stand him.

  “Be nice,” I’d tell my brother just before Harley came to call. “I mean it. You better behave.”

  He would cross his arms and roll his eyes, and it got to where I had to ignore him when I was with Harley and just pretend that he wasn’t there at all.

  “Johnny Clay’s just jealous,” Sweet Fern told me. “He li
kes having you all to himself. All his life, it’s been just you and him, and now he can’t stand someone getting in the middle.”

  Harley wanted to take me to a restaurant in Hamlet’s Mill, but Granny and Sweet Fern said absolutely not—they wouldn’t let him drive me anywhere. “A car’s no place for a lady,” Granny said. She herself had never set foot in a car and, at seventy-two years old, she didn’t plan to. She went everywhere on the back of Mad Maggie, her mule.

  Because we couldn’t go to all the places he wanted to take me, Harley would tell me about them in detail so that I could picture them. My very favorite was an inn in Balsam, twenty-five miles down the track, where he said they served the finest steak in Carolina, large and lean and smothered in a lime-pepper sauce. My mouth watered every time he told me about it, and I said, “One day I’m going to go there and eat one for myself.”

  Harley smiled at me then, so sweet I almost cried. “And I’m going to take you.”

  One night we took an old blanket and sat out under the stars a few feet from the house. Johnny Clay sat down in the rocking chair up on the porch, watching us. We talked low so he couldn’t hear.

  I pointed to the sky. It was nearly black except for the moon and the stars that were sprinkled across it like jewels. Mrs. Dennis had taught us about the stars, and one time, back when I was in seventh grade, we’d all met down at school at night and climbed onto the roof and she showed us where they were, one by one. “That right there,” I said to Harley now, “is the North Star. It’s the only star in the sky that never moves.” I lowered my arm and we stared upward.

  “Mama always said that things are written up there in the stars for each of us, that everyone has a story and it’s all right there waiting,” I whispered. I’d always wanted to believe it, but I’d never been sure. I knew it was written in the stars for me to be a singer, but had it been written somewhere that Mama should die when she did and leave us orphans? We leaned back on our elbows. I could feel Harley’s arm pressed against mine, feel the material of his shirt against my skin.

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