Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  After a long moment, Harley said, “My mama said I was chosen by the Lord to be a preacher. She said I was destined.” He sounded matter-of-fact, even a little cold. He rarely talked about his mama.

  I stared at his profile, the way it was lit up by the glow of the stars and the moon.

  “I nearly died when I was born,” he said, “just like my brothers. I guess I told you that already. I was puny and weak and the doctor said I wouldn’t live. Mama prayed over me and made a promise to the Lord that if he would spare my life she would make sure I entered God’s service. All the other preachers I know were called by Jesus. But I was called by Mama.” He shifted, brushing closer against me so I felt warm and weak all over. His voice got big and loud and irritated. “ ‘Your brothers died so that you could lead,’ she said. ‘You cannot let them down.’ ”

  “How old were you when she called you?” I asked.

  “Five. Maybe six. But I didn’t start listening till I was sixteen.” He said, “I always wondered why I lived when my brothers didn’t. Mama said I lived for a purpose, but I always thought that was her way of making herself feel better because they died.”

  I thought about living for a purpose and how mine was to sing at the Grand Ole Opry. Daddy Hoyt’s was to heal, Granny’s was to deliver babies, Linc’s was to farm, and Beachard’s was to spread the word of God as far and wide as he could, writing messages like “Find Jesus” and “Search for the Lord” on rocks, trees, railroad trestles, and old rundown buildings. Johnny Clay’s purpose changed all the time, but he always had one. Like being a pilot or a cowboy or a gold-panning champion. I guessed Sweet Fern’s purpose was to have babies and make my life miserable. My mama’s purpose had been to love and be loved.

  Harley went on: “I got so sick of living for a purpose. I did every wicked thing I knew to do because it made Mama mad. Mama said parties and dancing would only lead you to the devil. So I danced and I drank. She said Daddy was going straight to hell for making whiskey, but he’s always been nicer than her so I helped him make moonshine. She said stealing was wrong and sinful, so I stole. She said music went against God, that it was a sin to sing. So I took up guitar and sang as loud as I could. She said don’t smoke tobacco, so I smoke. She said home is where the heart is, that my duty is to my mama and daddy who only got but one child, and that I got to stay close and look after them. So I took a job on the railroad when I was twelve. I lied about my age, told them I was older than I was, so they would hire me. I took the most dangerous job I could think of—fireman—just to make my mama worry. If there’s a wreck on the line, it’s the engineer and me that are the ones most likely to get hurt or killed. I knew that would keep her up at night.”

  He laughed, but I could tell he felt uncomfortable. “I’m telling you every bad thing. If Sweet Fern could hear me. Or your brother up there, trying so hard to listen.”

  “I don’t care,” I said. And I didn’t. Sitting next to him was more exciting than sitting with the Wood Carver who was an actual murderer. I felt a thrill right down to my bare red-brown toes.

  “Well,” he said. “When I was sixteen, the freight stopped in Clear-water. There was a Baptist preacher holding a revival right there by the tracks. He shouted and the people screamed and fell to the ground. Every word was bullshit, pulled out of his ass to make those people love him. But they needed it. They were lost souls, all of them, poor and miserable and hungry. I knew just how they felt. I was one of them. That preacher gave them what they needed to hear and when he left, you should have seen them—they looked like the richest folks in the world. And so did he, and not just because of the money he collected. That was when I knew I’d found my calling. I wanted to do that, to reach people that needed it, even if I had no idea what I was talking about. I wish I could tell you I was called by some higher power, but I wasn’t. I just wanted to do what that preacher did. Make money and make people feel good.”

  “Did you ever want to have a church of your own?” I knew he traveled from town to town, up and down the mountains, and sometimes over into Tennessee. I knew he went on his own and sometimes he went with the Glory Pioneers.

  He just shook his head. He stared up at the North Star again. “I want to reach as many people as I can, not just the same old souls every week. I just want to preach the word of God, as best I can, anywhere people will listen. The fellas on the railroad call me Preacher of the Rails. Each town we stop in, I blow the engine whistle as a call to prayer and then I preach to whoever answers.”

  Something came over me then. I couldn’t help it. I suddenly wondered if he had a girl in every town, on every mountain, a girl just like me he sat with under the stars and told things to. A girl who thrilled at the touch of his shirt sleeve against her bare skin or the shine of his shoes in the moonlight. A girl who loved the smell of his soap and tobacco and the way he swore and sometimes fell silent when he felt like he was talking too much. I wondered if he called on these girls in his blue car, if he brought them flowers he picked or a cold Cheerwine because he knew it was their favorite.

  I sat there and thought this, and the more I thought it, the more upset I felt. How dare he come up here and make me care about him. How dare he make me think I was special when there were hundreds of other girls just like me sprinkled all over these mountains. Girls without freckles. Girls who weren’t orphans. Girls with daddies who stayed home and didn’t wander off. Girls with pretty dresses and clean feet. Girls with nice sisters and brothers who were polite and cordial and made him feel welcome. Girls who didn’t order lipsticks from cata logs. While I was sitting there, frowning down toward the ground, he sat up and took my hand.

  “I almost didn’t preach here in Alluvial,” he said. “My mama says, ‘There’s nothing up there in those mountains—all the ones but Devil’s Courthouse, of course—but a bunch of holy rollers and heathens, no better than a flock of geese.’ ” He said it in such a funny voice that we both laughed. Then he looked right into my eyes and I felt a chill run through me. “But maybe the Spirit actually called me.”

  No, I thought, it was written. And then I looked down at our hands, the fingers laced and intertwined. The sight of them was almost more wonderful than the feel of his flesh on mine. You almost couldn’t tell whose hands were whose by looking at them.


  On a clear blue morning one month later, Daddy Hoyt found me sweeping the front porch. After that it was help Linc round up the cattle and bring them home. And then, if there was time, help Sweet Fern with the sewing. Today, though, I didn’t mind the work because later I would see Harley and the world was bright, just like it had been ever since he’d first come calling. Today I didn’t even mind Sweet Fern.

  Daddy Hoyt had on his herb-gathering pants, overalls with what seemed like a hundred pockets, which meant he would spend the day in the woods, collecting the plants he needed, and not reappear till sundown. He cleared his throat and I stopped sweeping. “That boy came to me at dawn, Velva Jean, and asked me for your hand.”

  I felt my stomach leap, but I didn’t say anything because Daddy Hoyt looked serious and he wasn’t smiling. My heart started beating so fast I thought I was going to have to sit down.

  “I told him you were too young, that he’d have to wait till you were sixteen, but he’s got his heart set on marrying you. He said he’ll wait forever, as long as it takes.” He walked up onto the porch, kicking one boot and then the other against the steps, careful not to track dirt where I’d swept. He lifted my chin in his hand and looked right into my eyes. “Your daddy may have left Sweet Fern in charge of you all, but your mama asked me to look after you. She laid in there in that bed and took my hand and said, ‘Daddy, you watch over them after I go to heaven.’ ”

  The tears came and I tried to blink them away. “Mama told me she’d be here to see the big things happen.”

  “And she is. She’s still around you, Velva Jean. But she can’t give her blessing to this young man. That’s for me to do.”

Daddy Hoyt pulled out his handkerchief and dabbed at my eyes. His hands were big but gentle. “You hardly ever ask me for a thing, Velva Jean, so if you ask me for this I know it’s important. I can’t say no to you. I want you to think good and hard about this. I got my reservations, but I’m not marrying him. I’m not living with him. I’m not the one that’s got to be with him for the rest of my life. All I ask is that you’re sure.”

  I wanted to say, I’m sure! I’m sure! I was surer than I’d ever been about anything. But I kept silent.

  “When I married your grandmother, I knew I could have done without everything but her if I’d had to.” I thought of something Ruby Poole had said once, when I asked her how on earth she could live in Sleepy Gap after coming from such a big city. She said that she would live in a tree as long as she could be with Linc. I finally knew just what she meant. I thought I would love to live in a tree with Harley. I thought I would live with him anywhere.

  Then I remembered Mama telling me to “live out there,” and I wondered if this was what she meant. I couldn’t imagine anything more exciting or wide open or big than loving Harley Bright. I thought about my daddy and how I hoped he was safe somewhere even after all he’d done to Mama and to us, and I thought about how I used to think I’d never feel this happy ever again.

  “You’re choosing for life,” Daddy Hoyt said.

  “I know,” I said.

  We stood there not talking. I’m sure. I’m sure.

  He sighed and stretched his head back so he was looking at the ceiling of the porch. I looked up, too. There were still little bright blue aster flecks where Mama had painted it once, long ago—“to keep the bad spirits away.” The paint clung to the ceiling and the front door in patches, but it seemed, at last, like the bad spirits were leaving.

  Harley asked me that night after supper. We were sitting on the front porch and he took my hand and he said, “Velva Jean Hart, I want to spend my life with you. Don’t think for a minute I think I deserve you. But I love you, and if you’ll have me, I’ll spend the rest of my days trying to earn your love in return.”

  “Don’t be silly,” I said. “I love you. What do you mean you don’t deserve me?”

  And just like that, we were engaged.

  After Harley left, I sat up waiting for Johnny Clay, who had gone down to Alluvial with the Gordons. Finally, Sweet Fern came out onto the porch.

  “You coming to bed, Velva Jean?”

  “I’m going to wait up for Johnny Clay.”

  She leaned against the doorframe. I could tell she wanted to say something—she was the only one of the family who hadn’t congratulated me, the only one who hadn’t hugged me or said how happy she was over my news. But I knew she had to be happy because now, sooner than later, she and Danny and the children could move down to Deal’s to the catalog house Danny would build, and she could just think about herself and her husband and her babies for a change. We’d taken up so much of her life.

  For the first time that I could remember, I felt bad for Sweet Fern, for all she had gone through being left with us, a responsibility she didn’t want when she already had so much of her own. So I said, “You’re such a good wife to Danny. Tell me how to do it. I want more than anything to be a good wife to Harley.”

  For a moment, I was afraid she was going to cry. Her face started to crumple and her eyes got wet, but then something passed behind them and I could see her draw herself in.

  “There’s a passage from the Bible that you need to remember,” she said, and her voice was soft. “ ‘Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil. She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.’ You remember those words, Velva Jean, and you’ll do just fine.” ~

  By midnight, Johnny Clay still wasn’t home. I had already added the entry to the family record book: “August 30: Harley Bright proposes to Velva Jean Hart.” Now I sat on the front porch steps and counted the stars and tried to remember the constellations. I sang songs, low enough so that I wouldn’t wake anyone, and I thought about the kind of wedding I would have.

  “I’m going to wear Mama’s dress and have Ruby Poole do up my hair,” I said to Hunter Firth. “And we’ll decorate Sleepy Gap Church with flower garlands, and afterward we’ll have singing and dancing till the sun comes up.” I scratched him behind the ears and his back leg made a dull thumping on the wood.

  By twelve thirty, I thought I would just go inside even though I wasn’t sleepy one bit. I was so happy and excited that I doubted I’d ever sleep again. “Good night, brown dog,” I said, and kissed him on top of the head. I walked to the door and it was then that I heard a crashing in the trees, up the hill from the house, on the edge of the woods near Mama’s grave. It sounded like something had come down from the sky and hit the leaves hard. I froze and listened and there was silence.

  “Johnny Clay?” I said, but too soft for anyone to hear but me. Hunter Firth pointed his brown nose at the woods, and I watched as the bristly hairs on his back stood up. “Just a rabbit or a coon,” I told him, but I still stood there listening.

  Suddenly, there was a scrambling and scraping of leaves, and the sound of something or someone running away. I turned cold down to the bone. Hunter Firth took off after whatever it was, barking and growling.

  I watched until he disappeared into the black of the trees. I could still hear him howling, but the sound got further and further away. “Hunter Firth?” I called out. I walked down the porch steps and stood in the yard. I couldn’t see that dog anywhere.

  Then I saw a shadow come moving up the hill from the direction of Alluvial. As I watched, it grew larger and larger, and out of it there suddenly came the dark figure of a man. Before I could scream or run back to the house, I recognized the broad shoulders and the gold-brown hair in the moonlight.

  “What’re you doing, Velva Jean?” Johnny Clay called.

  “Waiting for you.”

  “Something wrong?”

  “Just a noise in the woods. Probably an animal. Hunter Firth took off after it.” I rubbed my arms where the chill bumps were and told myself it was fine now that Johnny Clay was here and whatever it was had gone away.

  “That old dog. He’ll go after anything.”

  We sat down on the steps and watched the woods.

  “Why are you waiting up?” Johnny Clay said. He wiped at a dirt spot on his pants.

  “Just wanted to see how your night was.”

  He shrugged. “It was okay.”

  “Was Alice Nix there?”


  “She’s sweet on you.”

  “She’s sweet on everyone.”

  We sat there. Johnny Clay yawned. I tried to think of a way to tell him what I had to tell him. “Harley Bright asked me to marry him,” I said at last.

  He stared at me like I had a possum on my head. “You’re only fifteen.”

  “We’ll wait till I’m sixteen.”

  “You said yes?”

  “Of course.”

  “Daddy Hoyt said yes?”

  “He asked me if I was sure and I said I was, so he gave us his blessing.”

  He shook his head. “He just did it because he can’t say no to you.”

  I didn’t say anything. But he could probably tell I was getting mad because I squared up my shoulders and narrowed my eyes. Daddy always said I looked like Mama when I was mad—that my eyes and lips disappeared just like hers did.

  “Look, Velva Jean, you know how I feel about the Reverend Harley Bright.” He said “the Reverend Harley Bright” like he was saying collards or pig innards or head lice, or something else disgusting.

  “You’d feel that way about anyone I wanted to marry. Because you’re jealous. You want me all to yourself.”

  “Maybe so. And maybe there’s no one good enough for my sister. Maybe if Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers came up here himself in that airplane of his from Wings, he wouldn?
??t even be good enough. Or Fred Astaire in his dancing shoes. But it ain’t just that. It’s him, Velva Jean. I don’t trust him.”

  “You said yourself he preaches a good sermon.”

  “I think he tells people what he thinks they want to hear.” I could feel my lips disappearing. “What about the Opry?”

  I hadn’t even thought about the Opry, but I wasn’t about to tell him that. “I’m still going.”

  “How? You really think he’ll let you once you become his wife?”

  I shot him my fiercest look, the one I secretly practiced on Sweet Fern when her back was turned. “No one’s got to ‘let’ me do anything, Johnny Clay. I’m still going when I turn eighteen. Now Harley’ll just go with me.” I thought about what the Wood Carver had said: “There are no straight lines anywhere, and that goes for pathways too.”

  Johnny Clay laughed. “The Reverend Harley Bright, moonshiner’s boy and railroad fireman, in Nashville.”

  “I’m serious, Johnny Clay.”

  “Okay, Velva Jean. But I don’t see it.”

  I didn’t say anything, just sucked in my lips, narrowed my eyes, and pulled my shoulders back so far that it felt like my shoulder blades were touching.

  Johnny Clay sighed. He said, “Does he really make you happy?”

  I looked at him then. “Yes.”

  “And there’s nothing I can say?”


  He blinked, looked down at his hands, looked back up at me, up at the stars, and then back at his hands. “Well. I guess what’s done is done and I got to live with that.”

  Hunter Firth came running out of the woods then, his tongue hanging out. He ran right up the steps and jumped into Johnny Clay’s lap. We watched that old brown dog as Johnny Clay rubbed him behind the ears. It was easier to watch him than it was to talk to each other right then, so we just looked at him till he closed his eyes and went to sleep.

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