Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven


  Aunt Junie began waving her hands over Harley. “God sent three angels coming from the east and west,” she said.

  “God sent three angels coming from the east and west,” Levi croaked. His old fingers waved back and forth, the knuckles swollen like the knots of a tree.

  Junie said each line and Levi repeated it, and at the end of the last one he added, “Amen.”

  “I need a third,” she said. “I need another man.”

  “There ain’t no other men,” Johnny Clay said. “All the men are over at Bone Mountain, helping with the accident.”

  “I need three for this to work, not counting me,” she said.

  “You’ll have to use Velva Jean,” said Johnny Clay.

  She stared at me over her glasses, her blue eyes searching.

  “She’s the luckiest person I know. Our mama said she was born under a lucky star. Granny says she’s charmed. She’s got a voice that could soothe a wild bear and make grown men cry. If Velva Jean can’t heal someone, I don’t know who can.”

  Junie’s hands were working—one hand kneading the knuckles of the other. Worry hands, Granny called them.

  “It’s either that or Elderly Jones, the Negro. He’s all the way down in Alluvial, and there ain’t no way he’s coming up here to do witchcraft.”

  Junie sighed. “Repeat after me,” she said in my direction.

  “I don’t have to repeat it,” I said. “I know it by heart.” I held my hands over Harley’s chest. I lowered my voice so that it was barely a whisper. “God sent three angels coming from the east and west. One brought fire, another salt. Go out fire; go in salt. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” I said it three times in all while I waved my hands and blew on the burn.

  “Now what?” I said.

  “Now,” she said, “we wait.”

  One hour later, Harley’s breathing was easy and clear. The blisters were gone and his skin was white and smooth and new, like a baby, like the marble of a statue. Aunt Junie laid her hand over his heart and cocked her head, as if listening. “Yes,” she said. “Good.” She fixed her eyes on me. “It shouldn’t have worked but it did. You are charmed like your brother says. That can be good and bad. I hope for you it’s always good.”

  Then she shuffled out of the bedroom, down the stairs, and outside into the night.

  At four o’clock that morning, there was a knock on the door. “I’ll get it,” I told Johnny Clay. Harley was asleep upstairs, and Johnny Clay and I were sitting up talking. I’d made us coffee, which we mixed with sugar and milk, just the way Mama used to make it for us on our birthdays or Christmas. We were eating jam cake and divinity, left over from two days ago, and trying to pretend like everything was okay, like so many people hadn’t died over at Terrible Creek, like I hadn’t seen a woman become a widow. The truth of it was, I was sad for everyone, but I was grateful for myself. Thank you, Jesus, I was saying over and over in my head. It was all I could think of. I was too full and tired to think of anything else. Thank you for taking care of Harley.

  Daddy Hoyt stood on the front porch, hat in hands. Beyond him was Linc in some car I didn’t recognize and a strange man behind the wheel. The man had brown hair on his head and a long beard that was silver in the moonlight.

  Daddy Hoyt had always seemed so tall to me, like the tallest man I’d ever known. But every now and then I saw him as he really was instead of how he’d always been, the way he looked to me in my mind. It was like sometimes—every once in a while—he moved into focus and I saw that the years had stooped and bent him some, and I noticed the way he touched his hand to his back where I knew he felt the rheumatism.

  He said, “How’s our patient?”

  “He’s sleeping,” I said. “Aunt Junie talked the fire right out of him.”

  “Good,” he said. He turned his face just slightly so it caught the moonlight. The lines on his face were little hollows around his mouth and eyes. “Velva Jean. Johnny Clay. You need to come with me.”

  Danny Deal was lying upstairs over his daddy’s store, covered in an old gray blanket. He had crawled underneath the mail car, trying to reach a man trapped there, when the car shifted, crushing both of them. Danny had died instantly, as far as they could tell. He was cold when Daddy Hoyt found him. My granddaddy had wrapped him up and brought him home.

  Mr. Deal thanked us for coming. He was always polite, even at the worst moments in his life. Jessup sat by the window, smoking cigarette after cigarette, his one blue eye leaking single tear after single tear, and I heard Coyle tell Linc he planned to sue the railroad line and the family of Straight Willy Cannon. The children were nowhere to be seen. “Granny and Ruby Poole are looking after them at the house,” Linc said.

  Sweet Fern sat beside the body in a straight-backed chair, her face gone white. She wore a soft brown shawl—the exact color of her hair—pulled around her shoulders. Her hands were folded in her lap. Her ankles were crossed neatly, one over the other. She looked like a lady, proper and prim. Except for her white, white face, she looked like she might be expecting teacakes and coffee and the latest conversation.

  She wouldn’t speak to anyone. I went right to her and threw my arms around her and cried and cried. I said, “Sweet Fern, I’m so sorry. I can’t believe it. I’m so sorry. Oh, Sweet Fern.” I smoothed her hair and held her and rocked her.

  She said, “We can’t have an open casket. He’s not fit to be seen.”

  I said, “Oh, honey.” I put my cheek against hers. It was cold and so dry, like paper.

  She said, “I don’t know what people will think. He can wear his blue suit, the navy one he wears to church.” She glanced down at the body. “Wore,” she said. She blinked and looked away. I picked up her hand. It was shaking.

  Downstairs, the store was dark and cozy and crowded wall to wall with goods. The counter ran the length of it and was covered in displays, large scales for measuring, and an old-fashioned cash register bought long ago by Mr. Deal’s daddy. Shelves ran floor to ceiling behind the counter, stuffed full of shoes, hats, and yard goods; headache and tooth powders; ammunition; seeds and tools; cigarettes; bottled and canned foods and drinks; weed killer; paint and candy.

  A group of men was sitting around the radio, listening to the news and talking over the announcer. Reports kept coming in from Terrible Creek. Thirty-three people dead. Thirty-four now.

  “The railroad should have done something about that curve by the creek,” a man said.

  “It was God’s will,” somebody else said. “Something this awful happens for a reason our eyes aren’t meant to see.”

  “Well, if you ask me,” Mr. Gordon said, “the Wood Carver had a hand in this. Mark my words.”

  Root Caldwell said, “Oh, it’s his conjuring, to be sure.”

  I stopped right then and almost said something. I thought of the Wood Carver carrying out the dead and laying them on the ground, of the way he shut their eyes for them and crossed their arms over their chests and laid them to rest.

  Instead I went outside and sat down on the wood of the porch and wrapped my arms around my knees. I closed my eyes and rocked back and forth, trying to breathe.

  In a few minutes, Johnny Clay came out after me. He sat down beside me and didn’t say a word. Just sat next to me so that I knew he was there.

  I walked home to Devil’s Kitchen later that morning, long after the sun had come up. I was so tired I could barely make it up the hill. I talked to myself the whole way: Just one more step. You can do it. Just one more. You’re almost there. I didn’t remember ever feeling so worn out.

  When I finally reached our yard, there was someone sitting on the porch steps. As soon as I got close, the figure stood up and started toward me. It was a man, lean and taut, like he was made of wire. His skin was dark like an Indian’s, but the sun caught his hair and it shone like a copper penny. His long legs worked like he was walking through water, not twigs and grass. I’d forgotten how he moved—graceful, like a dancer, like a br
anch in the breeze, like something of the earth. Beachard.

  I was trying to think of when I’d last seen him and how much had changed since then. Danny was dead and Sweet Fern had all those children, and Linc and Ruby Poole had Russell, who was almost two years old. Granny still rode up and down the mountains on Mad Maggie the mule, bringing babies into the world, and Daddy Hoyt was still healing everyone who needed it and making fiddles. Johnny Clay was a gold miner, the best one in the state; the best they’d ever had at Blood Mountain Mining Company. Mr. Doolen, Johnny Clay’s boss, said Johnny Clay could even be world champion if he wanted to. And I was a married woman.

  Now Beach was back, having ridden and walked through the night, hitching rides like Johnny Clay and I had when we were kids, riding in the freight cars with the hoboes. He said he came just as soon as he heard about the Terrible Creek wreck.

  He stayed with Harley and me the rest of that day and night, and I fed him breakfast and lunch and supper and fussed over him and made him all his favorites. That night after the wreck, the two of us stayed up talking. We sat on the porch and rocked and I stared at him, trying to memorize his face—this new face, the one I didn’t recognize because it looked so grown up to me.

  “Did you ever sleep in hobo jungles?” I asked him.

  “Sometimes,” he said. “And sometimes I took my pack and went on my way.”

  Beach told me about his travels. When he was done surveying the route for the Scenic and had helped them finish their maps and measure their levels, he took off on his own and went as far southwest as Alabama and as far north as Kentucky. He had been to Georgia and South Carolina and Tennessee, mostly by foot and sometimes by train. He had written his messages on trees and rocks and barns. To earn money, he picked up work here and there on railroad crews, and then he came back and took more work on the Scenic. They had just finished a section up near Gooch Gap, and he told us how the tourists were already turning out to drive on it.

  “What was it like,” I said, “the world out there?”

  “It’s just like it is here, Velva Jean,” he said. “For the most part, the people are the same. Everyone wants something to believe in. Everyone wants someone to love.”

  “So you’re back now,” I said. I was thinking that it was amazing what could happen in twenty-four hours. Danny was gone. Harley had nearly died. At least there was one good thing to put in the record book for February 25: “Beachard came home.”

  “For now. For a while.” Beach scratched his head. His hair had grown long, brushing his shoulders. He pulled it back in a ponytail at the base of his neck. His face was thin and lined from the sun. He looked older than nineteen. His eyes were dark, flecked with gray and blue. They were Mama’s eyes except for the color. “That’s a good road they’re building. A road of unlimited horizons. That road is a miracle in the making.”

  I looked at Beach and I said, “You can’t leave,” and even as I said it I realized how silly it sounded, like telling the wind it couldn’t blow or telling the sun it couldn’t shine.

  Beach just looked at me and smiled. “I can’t believe you’re married,” he said. “Look how much I missed while I was gone.”

  On February 28, Danny was buried in the little Baptist cemetery next to his mama, back beyond Deal’s in a heart-shaped grove under a ring of beech trees. Linc and Beachard and Johnny Clay and me stood around Sweet Fern, who held hands with the children, her back straight and fixed against her grief. The children cried and she didn’t, although her eyes were so red and swollen that I knew she was crying when no one else was around. Around us, she pretended she was fine, that everything was fine, refusing to talk about Danny or the accident.

  After the funeral, Mr. Deal took me aside and said, “I just want you to know that I’m going to do everything I can to look after her.”

  I walked Sweet Fern and the children home, trying to think of the magic thing to say to get through to her, to reach her, to make her reach out to me. But all I could think to say was, “It was a lovely service.” I knew anything more than that wouldn’t have been welcome.

  “Yes,” she said.

  When we got to the catalog house, there was something on the steps that led up to the front porch, something blue. Dan Presley ran the rest of the way to see what it was. “Don’t run,” Sweet Fern called. She shifted baby Hoyt on her hip.

  Dan Presley picked it up and waved it, and then he put it on his head. It was Danny Deal’s Christmas hat.

  “Where did that come from?” Sweet Fern said. Her face had gone white. Her lower lip was trembling.

  “I don’t know,” I said. “Danny lost it that night. Someone must have found it and brought it back.”

  “Of course someone brought it back,” Sweet Fern said. “But who?” She looked around us at the train tracks, at the woods, at the old overgrown cattle road down the mountain, at the hill leading up to Sleepy Gap. She walked past Dan Presley, grinning in his hat, at Corrina and Justice, lined up to take their turns. And then she walked into the house that Danny had built her and shut the door.

  That night I dreamed about Johnny Clay, about the time when we were children and Daddy Hoyt sent us to Harley’s for whiskey. Only in the dream, Daddy was there and he was the one who sent us instead.

  “Ain’t Daddy brave?” I said to no one in particular as I watched him go off into the woods. His shoulders were straighter and broader than in real life. He seemed taller too. “Ain’t it good that he never left us? Ain’t it wonderful the way he takes care of Mama?” Daddy turned around and waved at me, shouting something that I couldn’t understand. There was sound but no words, and before I could ask him to repeat it, to say it slower, louder, so I could understand, he disappeared.

  When I woke up the next morning, Harley was still asleep. I tried not to think of Mama, her face fading into the pillow. I sat with him a while and held his hand and sang to him.

  Come take a trip in my airship

  Come take a sail among the stars . . .

  Get better, get better, get better, I thought. Get up, get up, get up. I went downstairs. I was restless, all cooped up. I wondered when Harley would be able to get out of bed, when things could get back to normal. I wanted everything to be like it always was. I wanted to know he would be well and strong again like he was supposed to be. I wondered when we could get on the road to go preaching. I missed the singing. I missed him. Then I thought of Sweet Fern, down in Alluvial, whose normal days were over.

  I wrapped myself in Mama’s shawl and walked outside and stood on the porch, and it was then I saw the tree—a large oak standing directly across from the house. There on the trunk, scratched into the wood, it said: “You are loved.” And I knew Beachard was gone again.

  One week later, Harley was propped up in bed, still weak but beginning to get his appetite back. I stood in the kitchen, pouring coffee and stirring oatmeal in a bowl. I got out some bread from the bread box and some butter from the icebox and added them to the tray. I was just wondering if I should slip out back and pick a few wildflowers, maybe put them in a little vase to give the tray some color, when I heard a rumbling from outside.

  By the time I got to the front door, the rumbling stopped. I opened the door, and there sat Johnny Clay, looking like the cock of the hen-house, behind the wheel of Danny Deal’s truck.

  I walked onto the porch. The window on the driver’s side was rolled down and Johnny Clay’s elbow was hanging out. There was someone with him. It was a long-haired boy who wasn’t one of the Gordons or Hink Lowe. He sat beside Johnny Clay, loose-limbed and easy. He was Indian, maybe Cherokee. He was saying something to my brother and my brother was laughing. I felt a sharp stab of jealousy.

  Then Johnny Clay leaned his head out and grinned at me.

  I climbed up on the running board and held on to the side. I said, “What are you doing with Danny’s truck?”

  “It ain’t Danny’s truck. It’s mine. Sweet Fern gave it to me.”

  “Why would she do that?”
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  “Said she didn’t want to look at it anymore. Couldn’t stand the sight of it. She told me to take it away and never let her see it again.”

  The long-haired boy leaned forward a little and looked at me. He had sleepy dark eyes; wide, high cheekbones; and an unshaved face. I didn’t know what to make of him at first because he sat there staring, like he was taking everything in, running his eyes up and down our house, our yard, me. He wore beads around his neck—burned red beads like the ones Daddy Hoyt offered to the earth when he took his plants. His hair was brown-black, the color of chestnuts, and almost reached his shoulders.

  Johnny Clay said, “This is Butch Dawkins. He’s from Louisiana. He’s working up on the Scenic. He’s a blues singer.”

  I looked at Johnny Clay, thinking he was pulling my leg. Who ever heard of an Indian singing the blues?

  I said, “Hey.”

  Butch said, “Hey.” He didn’t say, “How do you do,” or “Nice to meet you, ma’am,” like the other southern boys I knew.

  I said, “Are you Cherokee?” He didn’t look like any Indian I’d ever seen.

  Johnny Clay laughed. He said, “Jesus, Velva Jean.”

  Butch said, “I’m half-Choctaw, half-Creole.” He sounded lazy when he talked, like he’d just woken up.

  I said, “Why did you come out here, all this way?”

  He said, “I’m on a journey. This is part of it.”

  I said, “Where’re you headed?”

  He said, “I figure I’ll know when I get there.”

  Johnny Clay said, “He’s going to Chicago, home of the blues. Or maybe New York City.” Butch didn’t say anything to this. He took something out of his pocket—a dark brown paper the size of a small square—and began rolling a cigarette right there on his leg.

  I wanted to ask him other things, like did his family know where he was and how long had he been on this journey and did he play guitar or harmonica or both.

 
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