Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven


  There was only the flickering light from the lantern that night, but sitting in the middle of that clearing, the little white church seemed to glow. It was like Jesus himself was there, lighting it up from the inside. Harley and I walked to it together, hand in hand. I thought: The Holy Ghost is with us. He is here with us right now. He is in this church. I suddenly felt like crying.

  Harley opened the door to the church and I stepped inside. I had been in old churches before, abandoned ones without a congregation or a preacher. I knew the smell of them—musty, dusty, mildewed, forgotten. This church smelled clean. It smelled like life. The pews were solid and the floor was wood, freshly swept, and there was one stained-glass window, under the steeple, of the Virgin Mary, her head bowed in prayer. That window was lit up like it was on fire, even though there was no moon or sun, nothing to make it shine like that. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. The minute I saw it, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I stood there in the aisle and stared at it and I started to cry.

  Harley sat down on the front steps of the church and said, “I want to tell you a story.” I sat down beside him.

  He said, “I went walking this morning, up toward Junie’s, when I felt the call to come over this way. In all my years of living in Devil’s Kitchen, I’ve never been down this trail. But I felt something come over me and it was so powerful that I couldn’t resist it. I didn’t know what I was looking for, so I asked Jesus to show me what it was he wanted me to see. I said, ‘If you don’t show me now, Lord, I’m going to turn back, because this leg of mine is starting to ache and I don’t know how much longer I can walk on it.’ ”

  Harley rubbed at his sore leg while he talked. “Now you know the Lord and me ain’t always been on good terms. I never really felt the calling—not a true one, not the kind of calling a preacher should feel. So I thought I’d test him. I said, ‘Okay, Lord, let’s just see what you’re made of. Let’s just see if you’re real. You want me to believe? I’m listening. Something pulled me from that wreck. Something made me survive. You got my attention. You want to convince me once and for all? Now’s your chance.’ ” His eyes were shining.

  “So I kept walking, and not ten yards later I saw it.” He patted the step. “And sitting right here was a woman and a man holding service. Just the two of them. Brother Jim Harriday and his wife, Sister Gladdy. They said this church belonged to Sister Gladdy’s granddaddy, and that he built it himself with his own two hands. She’s the only one left of the family now and she and Brother Jim come all the way over from Blood Mountain to take care of the church. They come every Saturday and they hold service. I offered to preach them a sermon, so we went inside the church and I preached. I never in my life held service for only two people, but I tell you, I never felt so moved.”

  He looked up at the sky. The stars seemed to be growing brighter. He said, “They asked me to come back next Saturday and I said yes. I told them I’d come to preach as long as they wanted me to.”

  I didn’t speak because I couldn’t—I was afraid of disturbing this beautiful thing, afraid it would go away.

  Harley said, “And I know I can fill those seats. It may take time. But me and Jesus can fill those benches. It’s God’s will, just like it was his will that I find this church. And if it’s not—well, I guess I’ll just keep preaching to the Harridays. But if it is—well, this little white church won’t know what hit it.”

  The next Saturday, I walked over to the Little White Church with Harley. Back through the woods, over hills, across Panther Creek, down, down, down, up again, through trees and bramble and brush, over the old Indian trail. In the light of day, I thought it was even more of a miracle that he had found the church at all or that he could find his way back to it a third time.

  The door to the church was thrown open. A short, round woman stood on the steps, sweeping. Her gray hair was pulled into a bun at the base of her neck. She wore sturdy black shoes, which her feet swelled out of, and a long dress that reached nearly to her ankles. She turned at the sound of us and squinted and then her face lit up in a smile. She said something into the church and then she came to meet us.

  A man appeared in the doorway. His white hair was thick on the sides but thin on top. He wore black glasses that sat on a nose so round and bumpy that it looked like it was shaped out of clay. He was tall and skinny, but his stomach stuck out and hung over his pants.

  Mrs. Harriday took my hand in hers. Her hands were warm and fat. When she smiled, most of her front teeth were missing. She said, “For years I been sitting on this doorstep and praying to Jesus and asking him to make my granddaddy’s church a living church again. I almost gave up, then one day, just last week, there come preacher, just as tall and handsome as could be, walking down the lane, like something sent from heaven.”

  Over her shoulder, the light from the stained-glass window was blinding. The Virgin Mary shone like an angel. Sunshine poured into the church. The wood on the benches and the floors gleamed.

  Harley went inside and preached that day, just for the Harridays and me. His voice echoed as he spoke about signs and faith and God’s goodwill. There was a painting of the Last Supper on one wall and one of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns on another. A simple wooden cross was nailed to the pulpit. Harley stood behind it in his shirtsleeves. He wasn’t wearing a suit. It would have seemed out of place. He didn’t pace or jump and he didn’t shout or gasp. Instead his hands rested easy on the wood of the pulpit, his voice strong and clear. He looked at home.

  I gazed up at the Virgin Mary. Her hands were folded. Her head was bowed. She looked so peaceful, framed in bright gold light, like nothing could ever harm her. I thought that not since Mama died had I felt so good and happy.

  After Harley was finished, I sang “Sweet Heaven in My View.” It was an old mountain song about a girl who finds her way in the world after her mama dies and her daddy goes away.

  Mrs. Harriday stood up and rocked back and forth and waved her hands, eyes closed. She said, “Lord, I thank you for bringing us preacher and dear, sweet Sister Velva Jean. Lord, I thank you for answering my prayer.” She jerked and swayed and then she spoke in tongues.

  Afterward Harley and I helped the Harridays close up the church. I asked about the stained-glass window, and Mrs. Harriday said, “My granddaddy was a glassblower. That was the only stained-glass window he ever made. Said it was the hardest thing he ever done. After he done it, he swore never to make another. He just wasn’t happy with the way it turned out.” We all stood looking up at it for a long time. The sun caught the colors and sent blues and reds and greens and golds shining down onto the floor and the pews and the white walls of the church. The light danced so that the church seemed alive.

  Harley and I went back every Saturday after that and held service with the Harridays. Each Saturday it was just the four of us. When Harley and I would leave, as we would walk home, he would talk about his plans for the little church. He said, “If it’s God’s will, I’ll keep preaching to those empty benches. But I pray that he’ll see fit to fill those benches with people.”

  It was strange to hear him talk about God all of a sudden, to know that he believed and wasn’t just pretending or half-believing or trying to believe because he was supposed to.

  “The benches aren’t empty,” I would remind him.

  “Of course not,” he’d say, but I knew it bothered him, all those empty seats. He was itching to fill them. His mind was busy trying to think of ways to get people in there.

  “I thought you didn’t want to be tied down to one church,” I said. “What happened to reaching as many people as you can, not just the same old souls every week?” I was happy Harley had found the Lord and I was happy he’d found the church, but I missed being out on the road. I wanted to go from town to town, from holler to holler, just like we used to before Harley’s accident. I’d been waiting for him to get stronger, for him to be ready to travel again, and now I was suddenly feeling a panic, deep in my chest. I coul
d see my life in Devil’s Kitchen and each day looked the same as every other day—the cooking and the cleaning and the farm work, picking up after Harley and Levi, and every weekend coming over to have service with Harley and the Harridays.

  “That’s how I used to feel,” he said. “But I’m supposed to be here. I’ve been called here for a reason, Velva Jean.”

  The very next Saturday, when we got to the church, there were a man and two women waiting with the Harridays. The man was gnarled up and ancient. The women looked exactly alike, only one was old and one was young. Both were pale and soft, like they weren’t used to the sun.

  Sister Gladdy was beaming. When she saw us coming, she stood up and walked forward to meet us. “We have brought you some new members, preacher,” she said.

  The old man was named Mr. Finch. The women were Oderay Swan, a widow, and her daughter Pernilla, who lived with her mama and took care of her.

  Harley didn’t exactly show off when he was preaching, but you could tell he liked having the extra people. He lit up a little. His voice grew louder. He paced back and forth behind the pulpit. Something in him had caught fire.

  Harley and I sang a song called “Just Over in the Gloryland.” We kept our eyes on each other while we sang, and I forgot all about everyone else. After service that day—after Mr. Finch and the Swans promised to return the next Saturday—Harley and I told the Harridays we would close up the church ourselves. When they were gone, Harley prayed over each bench that more people would come and that the little church would be filled.

  That night, he woke me deep in sleep to tell me he’d had a dream. He sat up in the bed and the light from the moon came in at such an angle that it outlined his arms and his shoulders. I suddenly had the urge to kiss him and pull him down on top of me. His lips were full and his eyes were spinning away, across the room and beyond. He was working on being somewhere else.

  He said, “I dreamed that the church was filled with people, so many that they couldn’t all fit inside. They were spilling outside onto the grass, and we opened the windows and they lined up beneath them and listened to my sermon.” His voice was full. His eyes were full. He picked up my hand and held it. “They came from all over the mountain, just like they were going to the healing springs. And I healed them, Velva Jean. I healed their souls.” And then tears slipped down his cheeks, first one lone tear and then more, coming quickly, so many that I couldn’t count. I gathered him close because he was with me in the bed and not gone. He was right there with me, and I held him as tight as I could and told him everything was going to be okay.

  To prepare for all the people that would come, Harley moved services to Sunday mornings and added services on Monday and Wednesday nights. On Sunday, Harley preached to the Harridays and the Swans and Mr. Finch and me, and on Monday and Wednesday Harley and the Harridays and I waited in the little church, oil lamps burning, mosquitoes and moths fluttering in and out. When no one came, we held service anyway.

  Afterward I said, “Maybe we should cut back and just stick to Sunday. That would leave us time to travel during the week.”

  But Harley was stubborn. He said, “They’ll come. Just give them time.”

  He and Mr. Harriday cleared a wide trail leading to the church so that people could find it easier. Sister Gladdy and I planted flowers, making a path right up to the church steps. While I planted, I prayed in my head. Thank you, Jesus, for showing Harley this church. He’s always needed to believe, and now he does, and that’s a wonderful thing. Please let people come and fill these seats. But if they could just come only on Sundays so that we could travel during the week, I surely would appreciate it.

  One Sunday morning, Janette Lowe walked down that path and climbed up the steps to the church. I could not have been more surprised if Jesus himself had walked in because, as far as I knew, no Lowe had ever set foot in church except for Janette’s mama, who used to dance with the Spirit for hours back in the day before she met Frank Lowe and had fourteen children and was forced to take to her bed.

  Janette appeared in the doorway of the Little White Church, looking lost and nervous. Her feet were bare and dirty, and her dress was the same one she always wore, an old one handed down from her sisters Marvel, Praise Elizabeth, and Jewelette. But she had made an effort. Her hands and arms looked like they’d been spit washed, and her yellow hair was combed back and tied with a ribbon at her neck.

  The next Sunday, Buck Frey and his family appeared, all the way down from the top of Devil’s Courthouse. The following Sunday, two more families came, making their way from Bearpen Creek. Somehow word was spreading throughout the valley—Harley Bright was an inspiring preacher. Jesus himself had called him to reawaken the Little White Church, which had sat empty for so long.

  Harley was beside himself. At home he was nicer to his daddy and sometimes he walked around singing. He’d sing right out—when he was washing the car or working in the field—like he couldn’t help himself. As guilty as it made me feel, I kept up my prayers. Jesus, thank you for bringing us all these people. Can you please, though, if it’s not too much trouble, make sure they come only on Sundays so that Harley and me can go on the road again during the week?

  But together Jesus and Harley couldn’t be stopped. Within a month, the benches of the Little White Church were filled with men, women, and children—some I knew and some I didn’t—dressed in their very best clothes. They came from Hogpen Gap and Panther Hole, from Laughing Holler and Snake Hook Den, Sleepy Gap, Alluvial, and Devil’s Kitchen. They showed up for service on Sunday, on Monday, and on Wednesday.

  When there were too many people to fit inside the church, we opened the windows and they stood outside or sat on the grass. Standing up at the pulpit, Harley looked like a movie idol. They hung on his words, and they sang along with us while he played guitar and I played mandolin. During services they stood up to testify. Sometimes they wanted to be prayed for, sometimes they wanted to give thanks, and sometimes they wanted to say something about the world we lived in, like Mr. Harriday, who feared for the spiritual welfare of young people, especially now with the new road coming through, making it possible for them to go anywhere.

  All the while the Virgin Mary looked down on us from her stained-glass window—the one Gladdy Harriday’s granddaddy never could get right to suit him—and seemed peaceful and pleased that we were there. The little church was, at last, alive.

  On the last Monday night in June—four months to the day since the train wreck—Harley stood at the front of the church, skin tan from working in the sun, handsome in his white shirt, dark hair waving, green eyes shining, white teeth flashing. He said, “I want to talk to you about choice.” He laid his hands, broad and calm, on the pulpit. “That night in Terrible Creek, I didn’t have a choice about what happened to me. Neither did the thirty-four people that died in that accident. Some would say Straight Willy Cannon was the only one with a choice that night, and he made it when he took that curve at sixty miles per hour instead of forty-five. I guess you could say he chose for all of us.

  “But now it’s my turn to choose what I do with the rest of my time. I could sit at home and give up. Or I could get up and say that maybe I lived for a reason; maybe Jesus spared my life so I could do some good and come here today and talk to folks like you and help you just like the Lord helped me.”

  Harley’s voice was growing stronger. I could hear the fire starting to burn beneath the surface of it. “There’s a woman from Hamlet’s Mill that lost her husband and her mother in the train wreck. And now she’s turning tricks over in Civility, a scarlet lady.” Harley thumped the pulpit with his hand. “That’s her choice.

  “There’s a man from right here on Fair Mountain that broke some ribs and lost a finger in the Terrible Creek wreck. Now he’s serving time down there in Butcher Gap.” He thumped the pulpit. “That’s his choice.

  “Well I was in that wreck, too, but you know what my choice is? I’m choosing to go toward life.” He banged the pulpit an
d several people jumped. “That’s my choice.”

  I suddenly forgot to look at the Virgin Mary and I forgot to look at the women looking at Harley. Instead I looked right at my husband. He was pacing back and forth. He looked angry and happy all at once, like he could barely contain himself. The Hurricane Preacher.

  “You’ve made choices, too, and that’s why you’re here, not down in Butcher Gap Prison. But maybe you need to hear that someone believes in you for a change. After my accident, I just laid up on my settee and felt sorry for myself. I kept thinking, why did this happen to me? Why me? Well, you know what? The Terrible Creek train wreck didn’t happen to me. It happened to all of us, especially to the thirty-four people who died. But it took my wife—that woman right there,” Harley pointed to me and I sat up straight, “to believe in me before I would get up off that settee and believe in myself.” People craned their necks around and stared at me. “Maybe what all of us need is for someone to believe in us like Tonto believed in the Lone Ranger.”

  Harley held up his Bible and closed his eyes. “ ‘I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing . . .’ Amen.”

  Sweat was beading down his face, dripping onto his white shirt. His hair was curling and his eyes were blazing and his cheeks were flushed pink. He looked like a hellcat, all taut and pent up and ready to dance.

 
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