Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven


  “Behave yourself, Daddy.” Harley looked over his shoulder at me, nodding for me to join him. “Come on up here, Velva Jean.”

  Levi peered past his son and looked me up and down. “What she ever sees in you, I don’t know.”

  Harley set the suitcases on the ground. I reached the porch and stood next to him, clutching my hatbox and mandolin. I had almost left the mandolin at home, but I thought better of it at the last minute. Even an unwanted instrument was better than no instrument at all.

  “How do,” I said to my father-in-law, wondering what to call him.

  Levi grunted and stumped off into the house, where we could hear him slamming things around. The muscles in Harley’s jaw twitched and then he smiled. “Allow me.” He swooped down and picked me up and carried me up the porch steps, over the muscadine stains that were still there in the wood, and toward the front door.

  I wrapped one arm around his neck while the other held on to my hatbox and mandolin. “What are you doing?”

  “I’m carrying my bride over the threshold,” he said, kicking the door all the way open. “Welcome home, Mrs. Bright.”

  The next day, I woke up in a strange bed in a strange room in a strange house. The walls and ceilings were made of hand-planed yellow poplar, aged to a deep gold. For a moment, I couldn’t remember where I was. Then I saw the family photographs on the walls—Harley as a boy; Li’l Dean and Levi on their wedding day; a set of baby pictures. Harley was already up and I could hear him moving around downstairs.

  Li’l Dean’s daddy and his brothers had built the house. I thought about the woman who used to sleep in this same bed in this same room, Harley’s mama. I tried to picture her lying here on this cherry four-poster, atop this mountainous feather bed, underneath this quilt and woven coverlet. I tried to picture her with Levi, talking about all the things they would do and all the places they would go, the way Harley and me did before falling asleep. I tried to picture Levi lying on top of Li’l Dean the way Harley liked to lie on top of me. And I tried to picture the young Harley living across the hall from them in the great big room—the one where Li’l Dean and all her brothers and sisters had slept when they were kids, the one that was Levi’s room now.

  I swung my feet over the side of the bed. On one wall, there was a cherry chest of drawers and a cherry chifforobe, Li’l Dean’s pride and joy. On the wall closest to the bed hung three baby pictures, which looked like they were of the same baby in different poses. Harley, I guessed, lying in his crib. But when I looked closer I could see it wasn’t a crib at all, but a coffin—three coffins, three babies. Of course: I had three brothers that died before I was born.

  I pulled back and looked close at the photograph of Harley, age ten or eleven. His tie was crooked, and his wild hair was slicked into place. A young-old boy. He looked itching to burst out of the frame, to come to life.

  I stared hard at the picture of Li’l Dean. She was young in the picture but she looked just the same as when I’d seen her sitting on the porch in her rocking chair. She peered out of the photograph with eyes the size of dimes. Her lips were pursed up so tight it looked like she’d swallowed lemons. I leaned in close and said, “I am not afraid of you.”

  Then I unpacked the record book from my suitcase and wrote down: “November 20: Velva Jean moves to Devil’s Kitchen.” After a minute I added, “Heart breaks.”

  The trees and the sky were starting to close up for winter, and this felt right because just as soon as my life had opened wide, it felt like it was closing. The first day in Devil’s Kitchen was long and lonely. Harley worked a short train down to Sylva while I milked the cows, separated and stored the cream, gathered eggs, fed and watered the hogs, and swept and straightened the house. As I worked, I sang, just so I could hear the sound of someone’s voice, even if it was my own.

  Outlaw Joe, don’t you forget me,

  After all that we been through,

  After the train I robbed, the loot I stole,

  The folks I killed for you . . .

  It was a song Johnny Clay and me wrote years ago to pass the time while we worked. When we were little, we used to sing it on purpose as loud as we could because it made Sweet Fern mad to hear it. I thought about Johnny Clay over there in Mama’s house now, all alone. It made me sad to think of him, and I wondered what he was doing.

  I was used to my big family and all their noise. It was too quiet at Harley’s house—no radio, no laughing, no singing, no shouting or talking over each other, no babies crying. I almost missed Sweet Fern. I didn’t see hide nor hair of Levi. He had disappeared into the woods after breakfast. I thought that I didn’t need to find a mountaintop or a hill to sing on like I used to do back on Fair Mountain, because I could hear myself just fine right here.

  When it got on toward supper, I went into the kitchen and rolled up my sleeves and started cutting up vegetables for soup. For some reason, it was the only thing I could think to make.

  There was an actual icebox, not just a springhouse, but the stove was the same—an old comfort stove just like Mama had and just like Ruby Poole had. Granny still used a Dutch oven. I tried not to think of what Granny would be fixing over at home. Here there were sauce stains on the stovetop and biscuit crumbs on the counter. Levi had been living on his own for almost two weeks and, by the looks of things, not cleaning up after himself. I walked into the front room and looked at the matching green and ivory settee and chairs, the rocking chair, the bookcase, the side table, the framed pictures of Jesus on the wall.

  Above the fireplace, there hung a portrait of Li’l Dean that Harley said she had ordered herself from a traveling artist. Her fat, disapproving face stared out of it like she could see and hear everything and didn’t appreciate any of it. That picture gave me the spooks.

  Levi’s house was bigger than anything I was used to. Besides the bedrooms and kitchen and front room, there was Harley’s office (an old mudroom off the back porch), a dining room off the center hall with a long table, and a screened porch in the back, where Harley kept his shaving table and mirror. The dining room was dark as a cave because it faced out onto the wraparound porch. That room was so dark, it made me mad. It made me feel like I was being buried alive.

  I’m hiding out,

  I’m heading south,

  I’m coming now to fetch you, Outlaw Joe

  “Soup for supper?” Harley said when he walked in the door. I jumped and nearly dropped the carrots, and then he picked me up and twirled me around and kissed me for a good five minutes. “How did you know that’s what I wanted?” I knew he was lying, but I loved him for it. He put me down. “What was that you were singing?”

  “ ‘Outlaw Joe,’ ” I said. “Something Johnny Clay and I wrote a long time ago. I’ve been singing it all day so I wouldn’t go crazy. It’s so quiet up here without anyone to talk to and no radio to listen to. Your daddy’s been up in the woods all day and I got no one but your mama’s picture for company. I had to sing to myself just so I could hear the sound of a voice.”

  Harley didn’t say anything, just went into his study and sat at his desk and stared at the wall. All during supper he didn’t say more than five words, and after the meal was over he walked onto the porch and smoked cigarette after cigarette. When I went out to check on him and call him to bed, he said, “I’ll be along in a while, Velva Jean.”

  Harley was gone the next morning when I got up. When I walked downstairs, Li’l Dean’s picture was missing and nowhere to be seen. When I walked outside, the car was also missing and there was no note to say where Harley had gone off to or when he’d be back.

  I worked all day just like the day before, and I sang every song I could think of. In the afternoon, I wandered outside, across the stream and through the woods and up and down, until I found a hill where I stood and sang for a while in a bright patch of sunlight, just to hear myself. Then I walked back to the house and sat out on the porch in Daddy Hoyt’s rocking chair because it felt like home. Harley had said, “We??
?ll put it here on the porch so you can sit and watch the sun rise or set,” but I knew he didn’t want the chair in the house because he thought it was ugly.

  Late that evening, supper was already on the table when I heard Harley’s car pull up outside. I was trying not to be mad, trying not to wonder where he’d gone to all day. I promised myself I wouldn’t fly off the handle and get angry at him as soon as he walked in the door. Especially not in front of his daddy, who sat spreading butter on the gin gerbread even though it didn’t need it.

  The door flew open and all I could see was a large brown box standing on one end. Levi didn’t even turn around, just kept on eating, but I set my napkin down and walked into the living room. The box was actually a kind of cabinet. It stood as high as my waist and was made of a rich brown wood. It was the largest, most beautiful radio I had ever seen. Harley was pushing it into the room. I just stood and watched him, my mouth hanging open.

  When the radio was all the way in, he said, “Where do you want it, Velva Jean?”

  I tried to say something, but nothing came out.

  “It’s a radio and a phonograph,” he said. “I didn’t know which you’d rather have, so I got one with both. Had to go all the way to Hamlet’s Mill for it.” He squatted down and wiped it off with his handkerchief, rubbing at the wood, making it shine. “How about over here?” He waved to the wall by the door and pushed the radio up against it. He turned a knob and there was the scratchy sound of static. “It runs on battery.” He kept turning the little knob till there was the faint sound of music. He turned the volume up loud so that the music filled the house and went out into the night.

  He wiped his forehead with the handkerchief and then wiped his hands. “I don’t ever want you to be lonely.” And then he took me in his arms and we danced right out onto the porch.

  NINETEEN

  At the end of the large upstairs room where Levi slept was a little room, directly over the kitchen, that could fit exactly five hundred canned-food jars. There were shelves all the way around and the flue came up through the room to keep the food from freezing. There was a window in there that faced due west and got all the afternoon sun.

  Sometimes when Levi was up in the woods, I went into the canning room and stood at this window and looked out. Standing there felt like being at the top of the world, far away from everyone and everything else.

  A week after I moved in, I was in there looking out when I saw Johnny Clay come walking toward the house. From where I stood, he looked like Huck Finn or Heathcliff, someone brave and bigger than life, come to rescue me.

  Just then he looked up and saw me. He raised one hand and waved. “This is the goddamnedest place I ever saw,” he shouted. “Goddamn briars and brambles and shit. Miles away from anywhere. I don’t know how you live here, Velva Jean.”

  Johnny Clay stayed for supper, which gave Harley a chance to ask him what he knew about the Scenic. Johnny Clay didn’t like Harley and Harley didn’t like Johnny Clay, but Johnny Clay always knew everything about everything, and there were things Harley wanted to know and things Johnny Clay wanted to tell.

  Harley started right in. “Are they cutting through Silvermine Bald?” He had strong opinions about the Scenic, which he didn’t believe in.

  “Not yet, but they’re setting up camp there,” Johnny Clay said. “They’re starting construction soon between Seniard Mountain and Reinhart Gap.” I set down my fork. Seniard Mountain was just to the east of us, Reinhart Gap to the west. Our mountains and the Alluvial Valley were right in between. It was one thing to see little green flags along those mountains. It was another to hear that construction was starting.

  Johnny Clay laughed. “It’s going to be the worst section of the road to cut. Good luck, I say.”

  Harley said, “They’ll need it.” Then he swore to himself. “What did they expect, coming here?”

  I said, “If they’re running that road from Seniard Mountain through to Reinhart Gap, that road must be coming right through our mountains.” Even after the flags on Devil’s Courthouse and Beachard coming to measure and make his maps, I hadn’t wanted to believe it. I had told myself it wouldn’t happen, that—in the end—Stanley Abbott and his road would stay away.

  Johnny Clay said, “They’re going just south of us. Kind of winding around past us in a half circle.” Then he asked Levi to pass him the biscuits, like nothing else was happening in this world. He soaked one in gravy and took a bite. “They’re bringing men in from all over. Stone masons from Italy and Spain. Men from up north and from the Midwest and from other parts of the South. Everyone wants to work on this road.”

  Harley said, “Idiots.” He swore again.

  Johnny Clay said, “I don’t know. Some of the work they’re doing is exciting.” I couldn’t tell if he was baiting Harley or if he meant it. I suddenly wished I hadn’t invited him to supper.

  Harley glared at him. Before he could say anything, I leaned over the table and said, “Don’t you think for a minute you’re going to be one of them.”

  Johnny Clay didn’t say anything to this because he was leaning over his plate to study the table. He was looking at the sweet potatoes. He said, “Could you pass me those? Whatever they are, they sure look good.”

  This made me mad. That road coming through my mountains. My brother so full of himself. And a room so dark you couldn’t tell what you were eating. I looked right at Harley and said, “Please excuse how dark it is in here. It’s just the worst kind of dark.”

  The next day, I awoke to a horrible banging and hammering. When I came downstairs, Harley was standing in the dining room, which was flooded with light. Squares of all sizes were cut into the wall and he was fitting panes of glass into the squares. He said, “I don’t want you to have any more darkness, Velva Jean. You’ve had enough already. I don’t want you to have anything but light.”

  When he was finished, none of the windows matched in size, but the light just poured right in. The dining room was the brightest room in the house. We didn’t even have to use the oil lamps at supper.

  Harley preached all through December, working the freight as fireman, and we rode with him—Clydie, Marlon, Floyd, Floyd’s wife Lally, and me. We rode from nearby town to town and holler to holler. Long Swamp Creek, Nacoochee, Bethel, Retreat, Cruso, Center Pigeon, Spring Hill, Owl’s Roost, and Hesterville. I thought about what the Indian fortune teller had said about traveling. I figured my fortune was finally starting to come true.

  No matter where we went, people were hurting from the Depression. I noticed it now that I was out of the Alluvial Valley and away from home—there was a look these strangers had, these people I didn’t know, a look about their faces that seemed haunted, like they had, just barely, lived through something horrible.

  It was Clydie’s job to drum up the crowds. He went up and down the streets or worked his way in and out of the hills and hollers, starting at the general store or train depot and moving outward from there. He had the charisma and color of a circus barker and knew how to fill seats. He would promise people anything he thought they wanted to see or hear.

  The week before Christmas, Harley found an actual circus tent to buy for the Glory Pioneers. It was torn at the corners, with holes in the roof. He and Clydie haggled with the circus owner until they got it for cheap, and then Lally and I patched up the holes with old feed bags. Even with the patches, it was a beautiful tent—brightly colored in orange and red and blue. Harley said that once we put it up people would be able to see it for a good mile. And it was true. People saw that tent and couldn’t stay away.

  Harley was just like my daddy—he couldn’t sit still in one place. As soon as we got home, he wanted to leave. We weren’t back a day, and he was pacing the floor, walking the porch, staring out across the mountains, holding that cigarette, off somewhere in his head. Much as I hated to admit it, I yearned to be gone, too. Devil’s Kitchen was quiet—too quiet. I found myself standing on the porch with Harley, gazing out over the trees and
the valley and way out above the mountains and wondering where and when we were going next. I guessed it was my daddy in me that made me want to roam.

  The last week in December, the snow settled over the mountain like a great white blanket. It bent the trees and buried the mounds of Cemetery Fields and froze the water that slid down the face of Falling Rock. It covered the bald at the very top of Fair Mountain, and it turned the dark peak of Devil’s Courthouse white, up where the Wood Carver lived all alone. It worked its way into the crevices of the rock face and, we imagined, probably chilled Old Scratch himself, deep in his cave.

  With the snow came a great, overwhelming quiet. The world seemed dead and still. Up on the mountains, work on the Scenic stopped. We stayed in our houses and watched the world from the inside and the snow kept coming, and when it was finally done falling, it covered us and smothered us and the weight of it left us barely breathing.

  It was in the midst of this that revenuer Burn McKinney’s house burned to the ground—fierce red in the midst of all that blinding white. No one would say who did it, but everyone knew Swill Tenor was involved. Afterward Swill said, “Just you wait, he won’t stay here now.” But Burn McKinney stayed. And there were those—Hink Lowe and the Gordons, who were bored and angry at the snow and trying to stir up trouble—who claimed they had seen a giant, long-haired man in the woods, crawling away from the fire on all fours. There was always someone itching to blame the Wood Carver for anything bad that happened on the mountain.

 
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