Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  “It’s funny,” Johnny Clay said finally.


  In the moonlight, Johnny Clay looked like both Mama and Daddy. He had Mama’s high cheekbones, which was the Cherokee in her, and he had Daddy’s strong jaw and straight nose. “When Mama died I promised never to leave you, but now you’re getting ready to leave me.”

  “No I ain’t, Johnny Clay.” I took his hand and laid my head on his shoulder. “I’m always going to be right here.”

  “Promise?” he said. His voice sounded sad and distant.



  I leaned in close to the bathroom mirror and studied my face. I didn’t look any different. “Now I am a woman,” I said out loud. But I didn’t feel any different either. I wondered if it took a while to sink in. I paused as I was buttoning my dress and pinched at the skin on my chest. Thank God I had grown bosoms after all—not big ones like Sweet Fern’s, thank goodness, but not flat ones like Rachel Gordon’s either. Now that I was married, I hoped Harley wouldn’t expect me to start rouging them like Lucinda Sink. I pinched over and over until my skin was a faint pink and then turned this way and that to see how it looked. I didn’t think it did a thing for me.

  On November 5, I turned sixteen. On the sixth we were married, and on the seventh we were on our honeymoon, a word I thought every bit as pretty as ambrosia or glory or heaven. Honeymoon. I liked to say it to myself over and over again.

  The Balsam Mountain Springs Hotel was a three-story Victorian inn. It had been built in 1905 and opened in 1908 as a tourist attraction at the highest railroad depot this side of the Rockies. It sat on twenty-three acres, at 3,500 feet, looking out over the hills and hollers—proud, sprawling, beautiful, so large and lovely and grand that it didn’t look real. It was like something from a fairy story.

  There was an iron four-poster bed that filled most of the room and a modern bathroom just down the hall that you didn’t have to go outside for and that we shared with other guests. On our first night there, we sat in the restaurant and ordered a steak with lime-pepper sauce, one for each of us. It was the best thing I ever tasted and I ate every last bite. Afterward I purchased some picture postcards in the lobby and we went up to one of the long porches that ran the whole length of the inn on the first and second floors, and sat down in rocking chairs. Harley watched me while I wrote a card to every single member of my family—even Celia Faye and Clover, who could barely read—telling them about the bathroom, the inn, the steak, and the train ride there. When I was done with each one, I passed it to him and he signed his name at the bottom right beside mine.

  Then we sat there and looked down the hill and across the railroad tracks and out across the holler at the mountains beyond, at the little houses that dotted the hillside—chickens running in the yard, smoke winding from chimneys, figures moving in and out of barns and smokehouses and homes. In front of one of them, there was a woman pulling wash off a line. I was too far away to see her face, but her hair was falling down and her back was bent. She didn’t look old, but she walked old. I wondered how many fancy people had sat here in this same chair and watched that woman and thought how poor she looked and how poor her house looked with chickens running wild in the yard and wash hanging out on the line for everyone to see. These primitive mountain folk, these rural mountain poor . . .

  “The inn sits on twenty-three acres,” Harley was saying, “and is known for its healing springs. There are seven springs, and people come from all over the country to bathe in them and feel their powers.”

  I couldn’t look away from the woman. I watched as she walked up the steps to her house, laundry in her arms, and disappeared. Over the mountains, the sun was setting. The sky was turning pink and gold and orange. Down in the valley, it was getting dark. It seemed strange that the sky could still be so light and bright when the valley was already turning black. The air was chilly. Winter always came faster to the mountains than it did down below. Harley stood up and held out his hand. He said, “You’re cold. Let’s go back to our room, honey. We can find the springs tomorrow.”

  Then it hit me that this was the first time I was completely alone with Harley—no Johnny Clay, no family, no Glory Pioneers, no fellow travelers. It was just us, husband and wife. We went back into our room and sat on the bed and held hands and then he leaned in and kissed me. Before I knew what I was doing, I put my arms around him and kissed him back.

  The hairs up and down my arms—the little ones that were still gold from summer—were standing straight up. I felt like my entire body was on alert, like Hunter Firth when he was tracking something. Harley pulled me in tighter and we fell back on the bed so I was lying on top of him. Even as I felt myself spinning, floating, I thought, there we are like two wild animals, as if I was watching us from up above or from across the room.

  No one had ever talked to me about sex—not even Granny—but I knew it was something men and women did when they got married, and something men sometimes did with Lucinda Sink before they had a wife to do it with. When Harley rolled on top of me, for just a second I wondered what on earth I was supposed to do, so I just lay there and tried to breathe with all that weight on my lungs. He certainly don’t look like he weighs this much, I kept thinking. I wondered what was so good about this that made Sweet Fern want to keep having all those children.

  But then he kissed me again and he shifted his weight and suddenly he wasn’t suffocating at all, but strong and manly and I wanted to be covered by him, by my husband, by this big, dark, sturdy man. I felt a strange tingling in my toes that was working its way up my body—just like when I was saved—only it was more like a lightning bolt because it was happening everywhere all at once.

  And then we were rolling and rolling and the bed seemed to have grown, and I lost my breath, and all I could think was, Harley, Harley, Harley. The moonshiner’s boy. The Hurricane Preacher. Harley Bright. And then it became a kind of rhythm, and we moved to it, and it wasn’t really beautiful, but more like two animals rooting around in the woods after something. I was surprised at myself. I am worse than Lucinda Sink, I thought.

  Afterward we lay side by side in the dark and I stared at his profile and fit my fingers into his dimples, the twin ones right by the corner of his mouth. My dimples, I thought. My face. My husband. I thought I would be embarrassed to look at him, after what we had done, but I wasn’t.

  “Harley?” I was too awake to sleep. “Do you think we just made a baby?” I knew enough to know that this was how you made one.


  “How do you know?”

  “Because it’s too soon. We’re barely married, Velva Jean. You don’t mean you want a baby right away.”

  “No.” And I didn’t. I’d never thought of babies except to pray that I myself wouldn’t have any. I saw what they did to a person. And what would I do with one once I went to Nashville?

  “Because now is not the time,” he said. “We need to be married for a while first.”

  “But how do you know we didn’t just make one?” I was suddenly worried. Suddenly the last thing I ever wanted was a baby.

  “Because I made sure of it.” He pulled me close, my head on his chest. “Get some sleep, Velva Jean.” His voice was blurred, drifting.

  “Harley?” I laid a hand on his chest. His heart was still beating fast, but I could feel it slowing. “Harley?” I said again.

  He was already asleep. ~

  There was billiards, Ping-Pong, lawn tennis, card parties, and a box social on the front lawn. During the day, we took long walks over the grounds and splashed in the springs up to our ankles. We held hands and talked about the house we would build, up behind Mama’s—a pretty house with a wraparound porch and dormer windows and blue shutters the color of asters. There would be flower boxes at each window and yellow gingham curtains blowing in the breeze and sunshine spilling in and out of every room. We talked about it so much that I could see every detail in my mind, just like the house
was already put together and waiting for us.

  In the evenings, an orchestra played in the grand ballroom on the first floor. I tied back my hair and put on my nicest dress—one that Harley had bought me for the trip: swirling navy skirt, red plaid Celanese taffeta blouse, short-sleeved navy bolero jacket. It had cost $2.98 and was as cute as anything Ruby Poole owned. Then Harley and I went downstairs to join the other guests. Mostly we just held on to each other and rocked back and forth to the music—“Pennies from Heaven,” “Stardust,” and “Moonlight Serenade.”

  The third night we were there, we stood out on the balcony and listened to the music coming up from downstairs—soft and sweet in the early November air—and I watched for the woman to appear out of her house. I wondered if she could see the dancers and hear the music and if so what she thought of them. I wondered if she hated looking up here at such a beautiful, grand place, if it reminded her of how poor she was and of all she didn’t have, or if the sight of it made her glad. I thought that if I lived across from the Balsam Mountain Springs Hotel I would both hate it and love it, that it would make me both angry and happy at once.

  “Isn’t the music beautiful?” I said. I was full from the lime-pepper steak, but I still felt like dancing. “Let’s go down there right now,” I said. I thought that while I was here in this world I might as well enjoy it. I would be back in the other soon enough.

  “Mr. Bright?” A man from the inn came running down the porch. He waved something in his hand. “Harley Bright?”

  “That’s me,” said Harley.

  “Telegram for you.”

  The man handed him a square of paper. It said: “Son—Come home. Your mama’s dead. Levi Bright.”

  I looked at the lights on the porch, at the warm lights of the inn. I looked at the stars in the sky—at the North Star, which never moved and always stayed the same—and at the black outline of the mountain across the holler. Inside we could hear music and laughter. It sounded like a celebration. ~

  On Friday, November 11, I woke up in Mama’s old house and went to the window. The sky was dark with clouds and the ground was wet. There were red-brown puddles all across the yard, and whenever the wind blew, water showered down from the trees. The air had turned bitter cold overnight. Harley would be over at his house, arranging for the casket and writing the eulogy and comforting his daddy while Mr. Cabe, the undertaker, got Li’l Dean ready for the funeral.

  She had died of a heart attack. Li’l Dean Eufasia Milner Bright dropped dead on the steps of her own front porch, her arms weighed down with buckets of muscadine grapes she’d been picking. Harley said she made what she called her “muskydine wine” for medicinal purposes, but I wondered. Levi found her in a pool of muscadine juice, and wiped the grapes off his wife’s face before even checking her pulse, because he knew she would far rather be dead than untidy. As soon as he heard the news, Harley was sure his mama had done it on purpose so that we would have to cut our honeymoon short.

  Instead of putting on my navy and red dress with the bolero jacket and eating a lime-pepper steak, I pulled on my old work clothes and spent the day helping Sweet Fern and Danny pack up their things so they could move back to the apartment over Deal’s.

  “We can wait till after the funeral,” Sweet Fern said. “We don’t have to go yet, Velva Jean.”

  “No,” I told her. I knew how excited she was about going home after all these years. I knew the sooner she got there, the sooner Danny could begin building her house and the sooner she could get on with her life. “There’s no reason you need to stay.”

  Danny drove his yellow truck up to the house and Johnny Clay and Linc and me helped load their things into the back of it. When it was time for them to go, Danny picked up Corrina and then Justice and put them in the cab of the truck, and Dan Presley climbed in after. Danny said, “Sweet Fern, get on in this truck.”

  She said, “Absolutely not. The baby and me are walking.”

  Sweet Fern was holding baby Hoyt as she hugged Linc and then Johnny Clay. When she got to me, there were tears in her eyes. She didn’t say anything, just pulled me in tight with her free arm, and then pulled away just as quick. Then she turned and followed the truck as it started off. We stood and waved as they headed down the hill.

  Johnny Clay said, “I guess that just leaves me.”

  “And Beachard,” said Linc, although we knew this didn’t count for much. Beach was still gone. And even when he was there, we always knew it wouldn’t be for very long. He was gone more than he was home, just like Daddy always had been.

  The three of us, Linc and Johnny Clay and me, walked back into the house. It looked empty, like the life had suddenly gone out of it. The newspapers were yellowed and curling on the walls; the cushions on the settee were faded and worn; the curtains Sweet Fern had made when she and Danny moved back in were frayed at the ends.

  My honeymoon things sat, still packed and waiting, in the middle of the front room. I hadn’t known what to pack so I had taken everything—all of my dresses and undergarments, which were inside the little brown suitcase Daddy had once bought for Mama but that she never used because he was the one to go places, not her. And all the treasures from my hatbox, including the little singing girl the Wood Carver had given me, the emerald from Daddy, my Magnet Red lipstick—which I’d never returned—and my Nashville money, which wasn’t much but which I’d started to save up again whenever and however I could over the years.

  “It looks different,” Linc said. “Smaller somehow.”

  “Think of all the people that used to live in here,” said Johnny Clay. “Us, Mama, Daddy, Sweet Fern, Beachard.”

  “It felt bigger then,” I said. “I don’t know how, with all those people, but it did.”

  That night, I took down the family record book and, below my wedding date and “Velva Jean leaves for her honeymoon,” I wrote: “Sweet Fern moves back to Alluvial.”

  The next morning, the rain had gone away, taking the clouds with it, and leaving only bright blue skies behind. I woke up to the sun in my old room where I slept with Harley because I couldn’t bring myself to sleep in Mama’s. We had somehow fit ourselves into the two narrow beds, pushed together to make one, Harley’s feet hanging off the ends. I slipped out, careful not to wake him. Johnny Clay had gone off somewhere early, gold pan in hand. He had been avoiding Harley ever since we came back.

  I stood on the porch in my bare feet and stared up toward the trees and toward Mama’s grave. I used to think about Mama all the time and wish for her. I thought of her saying that she would be there for all the big things that happened to me. But I wasn’t sure I believed it. Mama still felt gone. Was she there with me when I walked down the aisle of Sleepy Gap Church holding on to Daddy Hoyt’s arm? Was she there when Reverend Nix shouted out to everyone that Harley and me were husband and wife? If she was there, was she happy? Did she like my Harley Bright?

  I heard a humming sound—a sound like bees—and knew the mountain was making music. As I stepped off the porch into the clear white light of day, I covered my eyes to block the sun. It was so bright that I couldn’t see, and I stood there for a moment, blinded.


  One week later, on November 20, we moved to Devil’s Kitchen. The day before we left, I went up to Old Widow’s Peak by myself, where no one could see me, and cried like a baby. I didn’t want to leave my home, this place I loved more than any other place on earth, and I didn’t want to give up my dream of the house with blue shutters and dormer windows. But we had to go and I knew we had to go. We couldn’t leave Harley’s daddy on his own, much as Harley wanted to. Besides, Mama’s house belonged to Johnny Clay now, and to Daddy, if he ever came back. And the house with the blue shutters didn’t even exist, except in my own mind. I guessed now it never would. Meanwhile, over in Devil’s Kitchen, there was a sad old man who had just lost his wife and who needed looking after. Moving was the right thing to do. Harley and I would just have to be men about it, as Johnny Clay liked to

  The next morning, I went from house to house and told everyone good-bye, and then Harley and me loaded up our belongings and drove three miles in his automobile to Devil’s Kitchen. I stared out the window of the dark blue DeSoto all the way and did not cry once.

  When we got there, Levi was sitting on the front porch steps, talking to himself or to Jesus, it was hard to know. Harley saw his daddy and swore under his breath. “Daddy, we’re home,” he shouted out the car window.

  Home. I couldn’t believe it. This was going to be my home from now on. I took in the house and the barn, the chicken house, springhouse, cornfield, and meadow. Levi’s house was big, bigger than Sweet Fern’s that Danny was going to build for her. Wisteria and roses grew all the way around the front of the porch. The vines twined around the railings and posts. Even in winter, it was pretty. But it wasn’t home. I climbed out of the car and shut the door.

  Levi stood up and waited on the edge of the porch, hands on hips, his bony elbows pointed heavenward. “I can live on my own,” he hollered. “I don’t need babysitters.”

  “We’re here to stay, Daddy,” Harley said, lifting two suitcases out of the backseat—one packed with his clothes, the other, my Mama’s, filled with all my earthly belongings. “You’d best get that straight.” He set the suitcases on the ground and untied the rocking chair that was strapped to the top of the car. It was the one piece of furniture I wanted from Mama’s house. Daddy Hoyt had made it himself out of the leftover wood from his fiddles.

  Levi walked down the steps, hands still planted on his hips. “Goddammit, boy, I don’t need you here.”

  My legs felt shaky from the ride. I focused on smiling, but the old man terrified me. He’d never said more than two words to me, and he always seemed to be barking at Harley or cursing or muttering to himself. I was scared he was going to think of me as a whiskey thief, scared he might shoot me or turn me over to the sheriff. For the first time that day I felt a tickling in my nose and behind my eyes that meant I hadn’t cried myself completely dry.

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