Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  Johnny Clay said, “Velva Jean has the prettiest voice in the valley.”

  Butch looked at me for a long moment. Then he nodded like he’d been thinking this over and decided Johnny Clay was telling the truth. He stuck the cigarette in his mouth and lit it. He took a drag. Then he flashed me a smile. A slow and lazy grin that brightened up his whole face. It was like he’d been saving up for it all this time. His teeth were a little crooked, which made his smile look crooked, too. He had a gap between the two front ones. He said, “You’ll have to sing me a song sometime.”

  Johnny Clay let go of the brake and rolled the truck forward a little. I held on tight. I forgot about Butch Dawkins right then and started thinking that even though I didn’t know how to drive and even though Harley and I already had a car, I wished I could have this bright yellow truck. I thought of Cora Kimball and the Motor Girls and all their motoring adventures. But then I thought about poor Danny, and I felt horrible.

  “Don’t it make you feel bad to drive it?” I said to Johnny Clay.

  “No,” he said. “Because Danny loved this truck and it was meant to be driven. He wouldn’t want it just sitting there, and Sweet Fern will only let it rust.”

  “Where are you off to?”

  “I wanted to see if you want to go for a drive.”

  I wanted to more than anything. “I can’t,” I said. “I have to take Harley his breakfast.”

  “How’s he doing?”

  “Better. I wish I could go for a ride.” If I had a truck, I thought, I wouldn’t walk anywhere ever again. I would drive everywhere, even if it was only from the house to the barn.

  “Some other time,” he said. He turned the engine back on and it sputtered and shook.

  “It sure is loud,” I said. I thought it sounded wonderful. I wanted to write a song about it right then and there, all about a man with the blues who paints his truck yellow and then gives it to a brave and lovely boy who dies. Something about how you could see it coming and going, and how that truck was still here to cheer us, even after Danny was gone. I stepped off onto the ground.

  Johnny Clay backed up the truck and turned it around. He waved his hand out the window to me—just like the queen of England—and drove on down the hill. I stood there with the tears running down my face till I couldn’t see the truck any longer, and then I picked some daffodils—not quite as bright as the truck but almost, nearly—and took them inside to put them in a vase for Harley.


  Harley didn’t heal quick enough to suit him. By March he was strong enough to come downstairs. He would hop down on his one good leg and lie on the settee and try to write in his notebooks, the ones he used for his sermons. I would walk through the room to bring him some coffee or tea, and he would usually be staring into space or sleeping or listening to the radio, the pages blank, the wastepaper can filled with others he’d thrown out. He tore whole pages out of his notebooks, and then ripped the notebooks in half and threw them in the garbage. He said he wasn’t inspired.

  By April he didn’t even bother picking up his notebooks. He just sat in the living room, listening to radio shows—Hour of Charm, Life Can Be Beautiful, Burns and Allen, The Jack Benny Program. His favorite was The Lone Ranger. He would lie there and talk to the radio, just like the people inside could hear him, just like they were real. He loved the story of the Lone Ranger—that he was the only one of six Texas Rangers who had survived a deadly ambush. That nearly dead, the Lone Ranger was nursed back to health by the Indian who found him. That, when the ranger woke up, he asked Tonto what happened and Tonto said, “You only ranger left . . . You lone ranger.” This got to Harley because that’s how he felt. As far as he could see, he and the Lone Ranger had a lot in common.

  The railroad made it clear that his job was waiting for him anytime he wanted to come back. He told them he’d be back as soon as he was strong enough, as soon as he could move around on both feet. He needed all his strength to be a fireman. But I could look at him and see he didn’t have it in him. He didn’t have much of anything in him anymore.

  Clydie and Marlon and Floyd came to check on him one day, bringing along the map they’d marked up with places to preach. I could tell they were worried about Harley, too, just lying there, not even thinking about the Glory Pioneers. He told them not to spread out that map in front of him, that he wasn’t up to looking at it.

  “If it’s the distance you’re worried about,” Clydie said, “we can just stick you in the back of Floyd’s truck. Hell, you can preach from there, sitting on your ass, for all I care.”

  “I ain’t worried about the distance,” said Harley. But I thought that was part of it. He didn’t seem to want to be far from home. He didn’t even want to go outside much, not even to sit on the porch or to check on the DeSoto. More and more, he just lay there on that settee and listened to the radio until, one by one, the stations signed off for the night.

  Harley had given up, but I didn’t know why. Right before my eyes, he had just given up. It was a side of him I hadn’t seen before, a whole new self. It was as if the burns from that train wreck had burned some of his old selves away and left others behind—wounded Harley, hurt and resentful Harley, angry Harley, and new versions of him I didn’t recognize: weak Harley, scared Harley, mean Harley.

  For the very first time in my life, I wished I was a boy—a man. If I was a man, I would teach myself to drive, and then I would go out preaching and singing and spreading the word of God for all to hear. You wouldn’t catch me lying around on some settee listening to the radio. You wouldn’t catch me with the blankets pulled up over my legs, thinking I was the Lone Ranger.

  On Sunday morning, April 7, I got up early and walked down to Alluvial to meet Sweet Fern and the children at the catalog house. Sweet Fern said she was too tired to go all the way up to Sleepy Gap Church, so instead we were going to Free Will Baptist. There was a knock on the door as we were getting the children ready, and it was Coyle Deal, come to walk us there.

  After the service, Sweet Fern had us back to the house for coffee and sweet bread. We walked up the steps and wiped our feet on the mat, and then we went inside and the rooms seemed empty, even when the children began running through them.

  “Please,” Sweet Fern said. “Mama can’t hear herself think.”

  Coyle and Sweet Fern and I sat at the kitchen table, which was neat and tidy with a pretty blue cloth, pale like a robin’s egg. The children went outside to play and suddenly it was quiet.

  Coyle cleared his throat. “That was a nice service,” he said.

  It was a lovely service.

  The house was too quiet. I kept expecting Danny to walk in, smiling his easy smile, shaking the sandy blond hair out of his eyes, coaxing a laugh out of Sweet Fern. She was always softer around him. Now she was closed up, so far away from all of us that I didn’t know how to talk to her.

  “The sweet bread is delicious,” I said.

  “This coffee is good,” Coyle said.

  “Thank you,” said Sweet Fern. Her eyes were tired. There was gray in her hair. The color of it—just a dusting of gray on brown—reminded me of the man at the CCC camp. There were lines around her eyes, underneath and in the corners. She looked thinner. She wasn’t even eating, just watching Coyle and me, and every now and then sipping at her coffee. She looked too thin.

  “Are you eating?” I said. “Do you eat anymore?”

  She looked surprised. Then her face gave a little and she cleared her throat. “When I remember to,” she said.

  All the way home, I told myself that Harley would be up and dressed when I got there. He would be sitting at the table, eating the breakfast I left on the stove for him and reading the newspaper or talking to his daddy. He might be out for a walk or sitting on the porch or taking the car down to town. Or, even better, he might be in his office, drinking coffee and making notes on a sermon, planning our next preaching trip to Hazel Bald or Center Pigeon or Long Swamp Creek. I started walking faster.
  When I got home, I didn’t see him outside. The DeSoto was parked out front, just where it was when I’d left, just where it had been for weeks. I walked toward the house and I could hear the radio before I got there. I opened the door and saw Harley lying on the settee, the blanket over his legs.

  Levi was in the kitchen, helping himself to the sugar. He didn’t think I noticed that every time I came back from Deal’s he walked away with half the sugar supply, taking it up to the woods to his still.

  I sat down next to Harley, and I said, “I could learn to drive. That way you can still preach wherever you want to.”

  Harley stared at me. It was like he had never seen me before. He said, “What the hell are you talking about, Velva Jean?”

  I said, “I thought if you were worried about getting back on the train, I could drive you. I know you can’t drive yourself yet because of your leg.”

  He said, “I ain’t going anywhere, Velva Jean.”

  “But you will,” I said. “You’ll get back up and preach again, and I can drive you. I’ll teach myself.” I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Ever since Danny had brought that yellow truck home, and then ever since Johnny Clay drove it up here, it was an idea I had been working on. Just like Bertha Benz and Genevra Mudge. Just like Hypatia driving her chariot through the streets of Alexandria.

  “No wife of mine is going to drive,” said Harley. He leaned around to look at his daddy. “Can you just imagine the shit I’d get?”

  I stared at him like he’d gone mad. Ever since the accident, he came out with the oddest things. This is Mean Harley, I thought. I was learning to identify the new selves.

  Harley started laughing. “Velva Jean, you should see your face.”

  Levi said, “If the good Lord had meant for women to drive, he would have given ’em sense.”

  They both howled at this. I raised one eyebrow at Harley, Johnny Clay-style. This was my way of letting him know I was unhappy with him without having to say so in front of Levi.

  “What?” Harley said. “It was funny.”

  The next evening, I sat down and waited for The Lone Ranger to be over. As soon as it ended, I stood up and turned off the radio. I said, “Harley Bright, God didn’t call you to work as a fireman and he didn’t call you to work as a farmer. He didn’t call you to work moonshine like your daddy and he didn’t call you to sit on that settee. He called for you to preach.”

  Harley didn’t say anything for at least a minute. He smoothed the shirt over his chest and then patted the area over his heart with his fingers—kind of thumped it—where he had been burned the worst. It was something he did now, ever since the accident, like he was reassuring himself that he was still here.

  Then he said, “I ain’t up for a lecture.”

  “Seems to me you ain’t up for much these days.”

  He stopped patting himself and his eyes flashed at me, angry. “Seems to me I’ve earned the right to sit here on this settee all day if I want to, after all that’s happened. Besides, we ain’t hurting for money. The railroad paid me off pretty good.”

  “Yes. You’re right. A lot has happened. And it was all very bad and very terrible. But you got to stop feeling sorry for yourself, Harley Bright. You got to start realizing how lucky you are to be here. What if the Lone Ranger had just sat at home on his settee instead of leading the fight for law and order? You think the Lone Ranger would have just given up?”

  Harley didn’t say anything, just sat there and fumed.

  “I just wondered how long you were planning to sit there. I don’t mind if it’s another week or even another three weeks, so long as you’re planning to get up eventually. But if you’re just sitting there with no idea of when you’re going to move again, then I mind.”

  “And what do you expect me to do? Go back out there and talk to people? Get them all fired up about the Lord? Save their souls?”

  “Yes,” I said. “I do.”

  “Then you believe in me more than I believe in myself, Velva Jean.”

  I said, “Maybe that’s what you need. Maybe you need someone to believe in you just like Tonto believed in the Lone Ranger.”

  Harley looked at me long and hard. He said, “I’d like to listen to some music.”

  I stood up and walked over to the radio. I remembered how happy I was, once upon a time, back when he first brought it up here for me. I thought how much I hated it now. I turned it on.

  The Carter Family was singing. I tried to think where my mandolin was or when was the last time I had picked it up and played. I almost never thought about the Opry anymore. I had stopped saving my money for Nashville.

  He settled himself back and closed his eyes, which meant he was done talking and done with me.

  I thought I would go upstairs and find my mandolin and maybe play a song or two, but instead I went into the kitchen and finished washing the dishes that were stacked up from supper.

  The next day, Harley got up early and got himself dressed and limped to the car and drove down to the railroad office to officially quit his job as fireman. And then he announced that he was dedicating himself full time to the Lord. He opened the mudroom and dusted off the desk. He shuffled through his papers and hopped around, filing things in his cabinet, emptying his wastepaper can, and then he sat down and began to write. He wrote all the way up until supper. The radio stayed off the entire day.

  I was so glad to see him working—to see him up and off that settee—that I didn’t say anything like, “Where do you expect to earn the money to live on?” I didn’t know any preachers, other than the famous evangelist Damascus King, who preached full time without doing other work. There just wasn’t any money in preaching. Of course there sure wasn’t any money in sitting on the sofa and pretending you were the Lone Ranger.


  By May, Harley took to walking to build up his strength. He set out in the mornings, at first with his cane, hobbling up through the field in back of the house, toward the tree line, up toward Aunt Junie’s. Or he would head over toward Blood Mountain or Bone Mountain or over toward Cemetery Fields or Falling Rock, up toward the forest and the ridges and the sky. Or he would go down the hill toward Alluvial, skipping a little so as not to fall, putting most of his weight on his one good leg, going sideways down the slope.

  He would come back around lunchtime, his sleeves rolled up, his arms turning brown from the sun, his face and shirt wet from the effort of it all. He pretended like his leg didn’t hurt him still and like it didn’t frustrate him to have to depend on a cane. But I knew better. One morning I watched him go and he had left the cane behind. He was limping, but barely. His jaw was set. I knew his limping days were numbered.

  He started preaching to himself while he was out. I would hear him coming back. His voice had taken on a booming quality that it never had before. He would come roaring up the hill or down the hill or over the hill, shouting to the heavens. It was like he was trying hard to be heard and like he thought shouting was the only way to do it. He was shouting at Jesus like he was angry at him. I could tell Harley had some things he and Jesus needed to work out.

  One day he didn’t come in to lunch but stayed outside in the yard, pacing. His limp was almost gone. He stood strong on that bad leg. He was raising up his fists to the sky and saying, “Get the fire burning, Lord! Get the fire burning!” Something about the way he said it, over and over and over again, made me get chill bumps.

  The next morning he left after breakfast, just as he always did, but when lunchtime arrived, he hadn’t come back. I walked out onto the porch and looked and listened. I walked around the house and up the hill toward Junie’s. I walked over to the forest, over toward Blood Mountain and Butcher Gap. I walked the old dirt path the DeSoto had worn that went on down to Alluvial. I waited and listened, but I didn’t hear anything but birds chirping and a hawk somewhere close and a rustling in the ground cover, which I knew was a squirrel or a snake.

  Harley didn’t come back till su
ppertime. I was upstairs, folding the laundry, when I heard his voice. “Velva Jean!” He was yelling my name down below. “Velva Jean Bright!”

  I poked my head out the window and said, “What are you yelling for? Where have you been?”

  He was standing in the yard, hands on his hips, head thrown back, shirt sleeves rolled up, skin tanned and glowing. He was beautiful, all lit up in the fading pink-gold sun. He said, “Get down here right now. I got something to show you.”

  I followed him into the woods, and soon the light was dying away. I said, “Harley, it’s dark. I can’t see. The chiggers are out.” I hated chiggers. The bites were hard and mean and itched worse than mosquito bites. But Harley wasn’t listening. He was leading me over and down the hill, somewhere above Alluvial. He had found a lantern in the barn, and we were picking our way through the brush and the trees, here and there over an old Indian trail that you could barely follow. It was a black night. There was no moon. The stars were faint and far away.

  Harley was pulling me by the hand. He wouldn’t tell me where we were going. He hadn’t wanted any supper, had just told me to come on, hurry, that he had to show me something and it couldn’t wait.

  I gave up and let him lead me. The woods were thick around us. I didn’t think of panthers or convicts or bears or haints because I never thought of those things with Harley. I knew he would protect me. I knew he wasn’t afraid. Weak and scared Harley had gone away.

  We must have walked a mile, maybe two, through the dark and the woods, over the hills and hollers up above Alluvial. Finally, Harley slowed down, holding the lantern in front of him, up over his head. He said, “We’re here.”

  He pointed and I saw the sign. It was painted white and there were letters written on it: “The Little White Church.” Harley pulled me forward, and we walked past the sign, down an overgrown dirt road now covered with grass and wildflowers. The earth’s floor was soft like a carpet. Our feet didn’t make any sound. We walked a few yards under a canopy of trees and then came out of the trees, and the ground leveled off and we were in a clearing. It was a sweet little slip of a holler, just a small, round space of land, and in the middle of it sat a one-room building painted white. “Pathways” it said over the door.

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