Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  Harley and I were pent up at home, unable to go anywhere. We stood on the porch and stared out at the mountains, covered in snow, and went places in our heads. He snapped at me and I snapped back, and Levi stalked off into the woods in the bone-chilling cold so that he didn’t have to listen to it. Something I learned about my husband was that he didn’t like to feel pent up. The minute he felt boxed in by anything, he got restless and edgy, like an animal in a cage.

  At the end of the week, just before New Year’s, I was out in the chicken house, hands freezing, breath blowing out like smoke. I heard the crunch of footsteps in the snow and went out to see who it was. Floyd Hatch and Clydie Williams came walking up over the hill.

  “Harley around?” Floyd said.

  “He’s in his office.” I followed them to the house, praying they had somewhere for us to go that would get us out of Devil’s Kitchen, away from the snow and the sameness.

  The four of us sat down in the front room, Harley and me on the settee, and Floyd and Clydie across from us in the matching chairs.

  Floyd said he wondered if we should bring our message up to the CCC camp, where the Scenic workers were living. The Civilian Conservation Corps had set up a camp on Silvermine Bald as part of their work-relief program, the one President Roosevelt had started for the young men of families that didn’t have jobs. The CCC camp was one of thousands around the country, each one made up of around two hundred men paid to do outdoor construction.

  “The men up there could use some inspiration,” Floyd said. “They’re far from home. They’re missing their families, especially right about now, what with the holidays. Tempers are running high because they are all types of men from so many places. Boys up from the South, down from the North. Whites, Jews, Italians, Germans, Indians—”

  “Nigras,” Clydie said. “But they got them living at another camp.”

  Floyd said, “The work they’re doing is the worst type of work I ever seen. Breaking through the mountainside with sledge hammers and drills—shit I wouldn’t do for a gold nickel.” Floyd had this skinny face with great big eyes. He was so serious now, he looked like a haint.

  Harley listened to him talk. He didn’t say anything about the Scenic, about how much he was against it, although I knew him well enough to know he wanted to. He just sat there, tipped back in his chair, smoking a cigarette, and afterward he said, “I don’t believe in this road; you know I don’t. I think it’s a piece-of-shit idea. Those ass-holes coming in here to give us their charity like we can’t take care of ourselves. I’d like to blow their heads off.” He took a long drag on his cigarette before crushing it out in the old jar lid he used as an ashtray. “But if it’ll get us the hell out of here, then let’s go.”

  The CCC camp was on the north face of Silvermine Bald, protected by high, dark trees. No railroad ran up that way, and there weren’t any roads except for the one they were building. This time Floyd, Clydie, Marlon, Harley, and I traveled on horseback.

  The camp was managed like an army base, with barracks that housed not only the men but the camp store, lobby, commissary, office, kitchen, supply room, and dining rooms. Men got up at 6:00 a.m. and went to work by 7:45. They worked until 4:00 p.m., with a break for lunch. Peace officers tried to keep order in the camp by threatening workers with dishonorable discharge, but lately tensions were running high and mean between the men. One of the leaders was a boy from Texas, a fellow named Blackeye. He had a redheaded half brother, Slim, who was almost as bad as he was.

  Harley preached in the lobby, which was a barracks with a large heating stove in the middle of the room and benches along the wall. The men marched into the room in lines, just like soldiers, and took their seats. They even wore uniforms like soldiers. While Harley preached, the men sat on those benches and watched him, some of them smoking and chewing tobacco. Sometimes Harley prepared sermons and other times he just made things up as he went along. I knew he had prepared a sermon for today, but when he started talking I could tell he’d laid it aside.

  He said, “As I was traveling here, I looked at the smoke coming down over the mountains. Those mountains were smoking. They looked like they were on fire. It looked like the fire might be coming up from the earth itself, or from down below the earth. Up we went, up the mountain, and the further up we came, the more it seemed like we might be going to see the Lord himself. But all that smoke called to mind a warmer place. Maybe we were going to see Old Scratch instead.”

  Blackeye and his brother Slim and the rest of their gang stood along one wall and chewed tobacco and glared at Harley. They glared at him even when he talked about how he was an ex-convict and how if it wasn’t for the Lord he might never have been a free man, free to make his own choices out in the world, to work with his hands, to hold down a job, to do honest work like they were doing here on the Scenic. Then he told the story of the prodigal son, who wasted his life with riotous living and when he had lost everything returned home to seek his father’s forgiveness.

  Then Harley sang a song he’d made up to the tune of “Give Me That Old Time Religion.” It said the same kinds of things his sermon had, all about doing honest work and seeking God’s forgiveness and trying to get along with one another in a CCC camp.

  When the others came forward afterward to shake Harley’s hand and thank him for being there, Blackeye and his boys still stood against the wall. I thought, Lord, just let us get out of here without any trouble. And then the men walked out in a line, one by one, and Blackeye and the others fell in and I watched them go.

  As I did, I noticed a man walking one line over. I could only see him from the back. He had brown hair, dusted with gray, and long legs that looked like they wanted to dance instead of walk. There was something about the way he moved that made my heart clutch up in my chest.

  We hadn’t seen Daddy since I was eleven, that time he came back and I sent him away. Two more months had passed, and then three, and then four, and before I knew it, he’d been gone a year, then two years, then three years, then five. On every birthday, my stomach jumped a little and I waited for him to come walking in, traveling sack slung over his shoulder, grinning that big old grin. I didn’t really think he would, but I still watched for him. I wondered if he was dead or alive, if he was off somewhere with another wife and family, maybe even a daughter he liked better than me, and if I would know him if I saw him again.

  I pushed forward now toward the man. He was almost to the door. I was trying to find my voice but it was stuck down in my chest, down around my heart. There were men in between us and I lost sight of him over their heads. Finally, I shouted, “Daddy!”

  The man turned just a little, enough for me to see one ear and part of his cheek.

  I shouted, “Lincoln Hart!” A couple of the other men turned around now and stared at me. But the man with the brown-gray hair looked straight ahead. He picked up those long legs and walked right out of the room. ~

  On the way home, Harley closed his eyes and gave his horse his head. I said, “Thank you for doing that. That was good what you done.”

  He said, “I still don’t believe in that road. They got no business coming in here like this. But I don’t want anyone killing anyone neither. Besides, it was good to get out for a while, wasn’t it?”

  “It was.”

  He took my hand. He wasn’t feeling caged or pent up anymore. He sang a song, very low.

  Come take a trip in my airship

  Come take a sail among the stars . . .

  I watched the trees and valleys go by, blanketed with snow. I thought: This is one of the great beauty spots in all the mountains. I am lucky to get to live here.

  Harley swung my hand back and forth as he sang.

  Come have a ride around Venus

  Come have a spin around Mars . . .

  I thought of all my husband’s moods and selves—so many I already knew in such a short time. This was happy, contented Harley. There was the restless one, the caged one. And there was the wicked one
—Clyde Barrow. There was also the Hurricane Preacher; the wounded, resentful son; romantic and passionate Harley; the thoughtful and kind friend who knew everything about me; the charmer; the Harley who could turn on a dime with a quick, quick temper; the Harley who got on his soapbox. I learned a new one every day. I wondered if I would ever know them all.

  Then I thought about the man with the long, dancing legs and wondered if he was my daddy, and if he was, why he had turned away like that.

  ~ 1940 ~

  Soon he will call me to his side,

  My burdens I’ll lay down,

  Until then I wait faithfully,

  Remaining homeward bound.

  —“Homeward Bound”


  On the night of February 24, 1940, I was down in Alluvial, sitting with Sweet Fern and Danny in their catalog house next to Deal’s. Harley had left that morning on the Terrible Creek passenger line, even though you didn’t get paid as much to work the passenger line as you did to work freight. I didn’t go with him because it was a short trip, and he didn’t plan to do any preaching. He was supposed to be back in time for dessert.

  The house was pretty and clean—a tidy white box with a broad front porch, three bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a sewing room, which was Sweet Fern’s pride and joy. Sweet Fern loved to show off her house. She walked around beaming and patting her hair in a self-satisfied way, and she was almost civil to everyone, including me.

  She was twenty-seven years old now and she had four babies. Danny was working at Deal’s, with his daddy and brothers, and on weekends he got into his yellow truck and drove down to G. P. Reynolds Grocery in Hamlet’s Mill, where he was learning to be a butcher. Mr. Deal said the wave of the future was to sell meat.

  We were eating Sweet Fern’s honey fried chicken and three-week slaw. She was fussing at Dan Presley and Corrina for pulling each other’s hair, and Johnny Clay and I were arguing over the war in Europe.

  “This is going to change the world,” he said. “The entire world, including here. It’s only a matter of time before we get involved. I’m going to be the first to sign up just as soon as we do.”

  “I want you to listen to me good,” I said. “If you sign up, so help me God, I will never speak to you again.”

  He just laughed at this and stuffed his mouth full of slaw. “You’ll change your tune when I’m a hero,” he said.

  “Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Sweet Fern said. “You look like mountain trash.”

  Sitting there with them felt familiar and comfortable. I’d never said a word about the man at the CCC camp who might have been our daddy. I told myself it wasn’t Daddy, it was someone else, because it was worse to think about Daddy being close by and not wanting us than it was to think about him being far away and not wanting us. I had put it out of my mind and I tried not to think about it again.

  After supper, we sat outside on the porch, drinking coffee and eating Scotch cake with chocolate icing. As I finished my cake, I stared into the night, over toward the railroad tracks, and thought how much I didn’t want to walk home by myself. I thought: Harley Bright. Just this once I’d like you to be on time.

  “I can walk you home,” Johnny Clay said. His eyes had a smirk in them.

  “No,” I said. I did not want him thinking I needed him to fix this, that there was anything to fix. “I’m comfortable here.” I rocked back and forth a little. “It’s such a nice night. I think I’m just going to sit here a while longer.” It was actually chilly and raining a little, had been raining off and on the entire day. Weather like this made me blue and angry. Johnny Clay knew this, but it was too late—I’d already said it.

  “It’s getting on toward ten o’clock,” Johnny Clay said.

  “Ten o’clock?” Sweet Fern stood and shooed Dan Presley into the house. He complained and rubbed his eyes. The other children were already asleep.

  “I know what time it is,” I said. Rock, rock, rock. I looked out into the rain like it was the most fascinating thing, like it didn’t make me feel desperate and sad. Dammit, Harley. I hated him being late and I hated being left behind, just like when I was little and Johnny Clay used to leave me at home when he would go off with the Gordons and Hink Lowe. Even on a short trip, I hated being left all alone.

  Danny Deal was smiling as he ate his second helping of cake. I sat there rocking and watching the rain and ignoring Johnny Clay. “What?” I said to Danny.

  “Nothing,” he said.

  Johnny Clay laughed.

  Then—out of nowhere—the night exploded. There was a blast louder than thunder. Johnny Clay was standing and he lost his balance for a minute, like the earth knocked him sideways. I covered my ears. I thought: That’s it—the Germans have got us. They’re here and we are at war and we are all going to die. Then there was the scraping of metal against metal. No matter how I pressed on my ears, I could hear it—like nails on a blackboard, like a woman’s scream, like the panther cat, only worse. It was a sound that you felt more than heard, right down to your fingertips, right down to the soles of your feet. It vibrated through your bones.

  Then the sky lit up over toward Bone Mountain. It was like a glowing red ball that grew bigger and brighter, like the sun had fallen from the sky and crash-landed on earth.

  We were all on our feet, Danny, Johnny Clay, and me. Sweet Fern was back outside, holding Dan Presley by the hand. Coyle Deal raced down from Danny and Sweet Fern’s old apartment. Dr. Hamp and Mrs. Dennis—her hair up in pin curls—appeared. Just after them came Reverend Broomfield and his wife, who wore coats over their nightclothes. Elderly Jones, the only Negro on the mountain, stood on his front porch. Next door to him, at the Alluvial Hotel, a woman with red hair ran outside. Her hair spilled around her shoulders and she was dressed in pink silk. When Sweet Fern saw her starting toward us, she took Dan Presley into the house.

  No one spoke, and then we all talked at once.

  “What was it?”

  “Where was it?”

  “Bone Mountain?”

  “The Germans?”

  “Are we at war?”

  Lucinda Sink hovered in the yard, behind the Broomfields and Mrs. Dennis. I could tell she was cold and maybe embarrassed. She had a little pink shawl over her pink silk robe. She wrapped it around her and stood there, listening. I glanced at Johnny Clay. He was watching her, but not so anyone could see. He would look at the floor and then up at one of us and then out at the yard real fast. Over and over again.

  All of a sudden, Daddy Hoyt was there, down from Sleepy Gap, Granny right behind him, her face white as a sheet, and then Linc and Ruby Poole after them. Ruby Poole was holding their baby. Lucinda Sink backed away into the shadows. I thought: What on earth is everyone doing here? Why did Ruby Poole bring baby Russell out into the night air? What is happening to us? Are we going to die?

  Then there came the Gordons and the Lowes, the whole mess of them, and the True sisters. Reverend Nix and Alice and Dell Haywood and Hiram Lee and the Messengills and the Freys and the Toomeys and Shorty Rogers and his daddy. Then Mr. Deal came running out of his house, in back of the store, his overcoat pulled over his pajamas. Jessup followed after him.

  “It’s a train wreck,” Mr. Deal said. I looked down at his feet. He was barefooted in the wet grass. The rain was coming down. “A passenger train jumped the track over on Bone Mountain. I got a call from the depot in Waynesville.”

  “Any dead?” said Daddy Hoyt.

  “I don’t know.”

  “Where on Bone Mountain?” asked Danny. He was still holding his cake plate in one hand and his fork in the other. His arms just sat up in the air like they weren’t even part of him.

  “Just past Terrible Creek.”

  Harley. It could be Harley trapped or even killed up there.

  “We need to call the Terrible Creek Depot,” Mr. Deal said, and he and Daddy Hoyt went hurrying through the wet grass to Deal’s to use the telephone. The rain fell harder. Reverend and Mrs. Broomfield
moved up onto the porch. From the shadows, Lucinda Sink looked at Johnny Clay and he looked at her so long and obvious that anyone could have seen it. I stared at both of them and thought, what is going on here? Then she turned around and went home.

  The front door of the Alluvial Hotel swung closed. Johnny Clay flinched. In the distance, the sky glowed red.

  We all stood or sat and waited for Daddy Hoyt and Mr. Deal to come back; Sweet Fern fluttering around, tidying up, taking away the cake plates. She passed behind me once and placed a hand on my shoulder, just for a moment, letting it hover there.

  Finally, we saw Daddy Hoyt and Mr. Deal coming toward us. I got up and ran to meet them. Daddy Hoyt took my hand and together we walked up onto the porch. He was stooping a little from the rain—it always gave him rheumatism. “No one answered,” he said. “We had the operator dial it over and over again, but no one picked up.” He gave my hand a squeeze.

  “Lines must be down,” said Coyle.

  “We’ll just go there, to Terrible Creek,” said Linc. He looked at Danny. “You coming?”


  “I’m going, too,” said Johnny Clay.

  “Me too,” I said.

  “No,” said Sweet Fern. “You stay here, Velva Jean. I don’t want you going over there.” She looked at Danny, at Daddy Hoyt, at Granny. “We don’t know—we don’t know what it’s like there.”

  “I’m going,” I said, letting go of Daddy Hoyt’s hand and moving past her. I went inside and took my coat from the peg by the door and came back out, slamming the screen door behind me. I walked right over to Danny’s yellow truck and climbed into the cab. A minute later, my granddaddy and my brothers and Danny appeared. One by one, they climbed into the truck bed. None of them said a word.

  The train zigzagged, an angry red blaze, across a deep cut of Bone Mountain, just past the mouth of the Miry Branch Tunnel where, sixty years earlier, nineteen convicts hired to build the tunnel drowned in the creek. Now they lay buried on top of the tunnel in unmarked graves. From the start it had been a place marked with sadness and death.

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