Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  I wiped my eyes and thought: The Lone Ranger rides again.


  Harley and I were the perfect family, running the perfect church. Our world, the new one Harley was building for us, stayed in perfect order until the fourth of July. But on the afternoon of the fourth, Levi was arrested for carrying whiskey down the mountain on a wagon bed covered with a load of fruit. He was taking it to the train so he could send it to Civility, to a man there who shipped it for him to New York City, when Deputy Meeks caught him and locked him up.

  Sheriff Story arrived at our door, looking worn out. He said, “Harley Bright, I should really take your daddy down to Hamlet’s Mill this time and lock him up. We should put him on trial and send him over to Butcher Gap for a while.”

  Harley said, “What if I promise to look after him, Sheriff? Keep him out of trouble? I know I can keep him on the straight and narrow.” Harley looked as fierce as a wild dog.

  The sheriff sighed and scratched his head. He said, “It’s late and he’s an old man. You can come down and get him, take him home. But don’t let me see him back there again.”

  The sheriff got into his car, and Harley and I got into the DeSoto and we rode down to Alluvial and found the old man sitting in the same cell Harley had once sat in himself, back when he was Clyde Barrow, leader of the bad Barrow gang. There was the same bench Johnny Clay and me had sat on while we waited for Sweet Fern to come and fetch us home.

  Then Harley sent me over to Deal’s to get him some cigarettes because he wanted to have a word with his daddy in private. The night was warm and alive—the sounds of tree frogs, firecrackers, shouting, music. As I walked up onto the wide wooden porch of Deal’s, the music got louder.

  From inside there was a sound like a dog howling, like a panther wailing. Folks were scattered everywhere—on chairs, across the floor, in windowsills, on the counters. They were all staring at Johnny Clay’s friend Butch Dawkins—half-Choctaw Indian, half-Creole—who leaned against the cold potbellied stove, guitar in hand, playing the meanest blues I’d ever heard. Mean, low-down, roll-around-in-the-street, get-down-in-the-gutter blues. Boys from the Scenic were gathered all around, stomping their feet, clapping their hands. Some of the local boys were there, including Johnny Clay. Some of the old men were there, too, people like Mr. Gordon and Hink Lowe’s daddy. There were a few women, but I didn’t recognize any of them.

  I’d never heard music like that. It was raw and angry and sweet all at once. It made me think of a thunderstorm and lightning and the way I felt after a good cry. It made me think of the bad women who lived in cities—women who rouged their bosoms—of hobo jungles, of riding the rails. It made me think of mean corn liquor that didn’t leave a hangover. It made me think of running from a panther, of blood streaming down my leg, of a train wreck in the dark, dark night. I saw Danny Deal’s body lying cold under a blanket. I saw his bright yellow truck and me behind the wheel.

  That music stirred me up inside, all the way down to my feet. It made me want to shout and run and sit down and listen and sing along—if there had been any words. It made me want to make up words. I wanted to find Harley and kiss him hard and long and do other things with him, out in the night, in the open, not just in our bedroom. I wanted to dance and dance and dance. That music just stirred me up, both good and bad.

  The whole time he played, Butch never once looked up. He closed his eyes or he looked right at that guitar, his hair hanging down around his face. It was a steel guitar, the most gorgeous one I’d ever seen—nickel-plated brass as shiny as Three Gum River on a sunny day. He was playing it like a slide guitar, holding it up against him and not horizontal, and he worked the fingerboard with a slide made from a broken bottle neck. His work shirt lay on a nearby chair. He had stripped down to a white undershirt, and I stared at the tattoo on his arm—a guitar with writing on the neck and flames shooting out of the pegbox. “The Bluesman,” it said.

  Then he started to sing—it was soft and low, like a growl; then it got louder, stronger, still a growl; then a moan, then a howl, like it came from somewhere private, where all his feelings were stored up. I felt strange and unsettled, like we shouldn’t be listening to him, like we were all of us witnessing something too personal. All the time, his eyes were closed or he sang to that guitar. The hairs on my body stood up. I wanted to yell at him to stop it, to stop it right then and there. I wanted to take that guitar and smash it.

  I felt a hand on my arm. I turned to find Harley standing there. I blinked at him, trying to focus. He said, “Let’s go home, Velva Jean.” Levi was standing just beyond, sleepy, rubbing his eyes. I followed Harley to the car and helped him put his daddy into the backseat. We drove home, the three of us, not talking the whole way.

  Harley was madder than I’d ever seen him. When Levi went up to bed, joints cracking, Harley yelled after him, “We’ll deal with this in the morning, old man.” He walked into our room, and I followed him and he slammed the door behind me. Then he opened it and slammed it again.

  I sat down on the bed and said, “On the bright side, your daddy is a genuine businessman.” I just couldn’t get over it. You could say what you would about him, but Levi Bright was not lazy. “What’s more,” I said, “as a person whose own daddy has been thrown in jail a time or two, I am here to let you know that you will survive this.”

  Then I thought of the music that I’d heard down at Deal’s—full of pain and anger and feeling, so much feeling that it hurt to hear it. I reached for Harley. I said, “Let’s forget about your daddy. Let’s not think about him. Let’s think about us.”

  Harley said, “What’s got into you, Velva Jean?”

  I pulled him down and kissed him and conjured up the rhythm of the song in my mind. I said, “I just don’t want you to be upset. I just love you.” I just want you to look at me like Butch Dawkins looked at that steel guitar, I thought. Like I’m the only thing to be loved in this whole wide world and you can’t bear to look away from me.

  I wanted to get the music out of my head. I wanted to remember it forever. I kissed Harley and he kissed me back. We moved to the rhythm of the song in my head, the song that wouldn’t get out now even if I wanted it to.

  We ate breakfast in the morning at the dining room table, the light coming in from every window, and Harley sat with his arms folded, not touching his food. He looked right at his daddy and said, “Your bootlegging days are over.”

  Levi reached for the grits and helped himself to more.

  Harley said, “I mean it.”

  Levi chewed and swallowed and wiped his mouth. He leaned in, his elbows on the table, and he said, “You touch my still and I’ll shoot you.” He went right on eating.

  Harley said, “You wouldn’t shoot your own son.”

  Levi said, “I would if he tried to take what’s mine. ‘For God commanded, saying, Honor thy father and mother: and, he that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.’ ” Harley sat there in shock at his daddy knowing any of the Bible by heart. Levi said, “I wouldn’t be casting stones if I was you. I’d be keeping quiet and honoring your father.”

  Harley wouldn’t speak to his daddy for days afterward. Then he started worrying about how we acted—not just Levi, but all of us. Harley stopped swearing, stopped drinking whiskey, and tried to stop smoking. He said we had to be an example to the folks at the Little White Church. “They’re looking to us to lead them,” he said one morning. “We got to put our best foot forward. How would it look if I’m up here swearing and smoking, with a bootlegging convict for a father?” He picked up a pack of his cigarettes—Lucky Strikes—and tossed them into the wastepaper can across the room. “No more smoking for me. I got to set an example.”

  I knew he meant it and that he was trying because this was important to him, because Jesus himself had finally spoken to him and had shown him the Little White Church and had probably saved him from the Terrible Creek wreck besides. Harley felt he owed a lot to Jesus and he didn’t want to let h
im down. He wanted to do right by the Lord and that church and its people.

  But later that night, Harley dug the cigarettes out of the trash and stood on the porch, the lit end of his cigarette glowing in the dark. He stood with his hands on his hips, staring out at the mountains, then took a long, deep drag and blew smoke rings into the night. His eyes were closed. He crossed one arm over his stomach and held the elbow of the other arm. That other arm hung out in the air, cigarette dangling. He was still mad about his daddy and it showed on his face.

  The next morning, the cigarettes were back in his pocket. He didn’t mention quitting again.

  That afternoon we worked together outside, side by side in the barn, in the chicken house. We were gathering eggs when, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, Harley said, “Velva Jean, I don’t want you running wild around the mountain, especially with your wild brother.”

  I thought: Don’t you take this out on me.

  I said, “What do you mean, ‘running wild’? What do you mean, ‘wild brother’? I’m not the one that got arrested.”

  He said, “No one faults you for it, Velva Jean, what with your mama dead and your daddy gone at such a young age, but everyone knows you Hart kids grew up running loose with no one but Sweet Fern to watch you.” He was trying to say it funny, like a joke, like he was on my side, like we were in it together.

  He might as well have slapped me in the face, talking about my brothers and me like we were nothing more than a bunch of chickens. I said, “Is that what you think of me?”

  He said, “Lord no, Velva Jean. You know better than that.”

  I said, “And I suppose you’re nothing but a moonshiner’s son and an ex-convict.”

  He stared at me and then he colored. He looked like he would blow his top, and then he laughed. “I guess I ain’t. A moonshiner’s son with the devil for a mother. And a prison record to boot.”

  “Well, we’re a pair,” I said.

  “And now we got to lead this church,” he said.

  Neither of us said anything. I was still smarting. I gathered eggs one by one. I hated chickens—the smell, the noise, their beaks, their beady eyes, their feathers. They made me nervous. I hated taking the eggs from them. Granny always said if you heard a hen crow instead of cackle it meant someone in the household would die. This was reason alone to hate chickens. I moved down the line, gathering one egg after another, adding them to my basket.

  Harley came along behind me. He was tossing in some feed. He wasn’t even looking to see that it got into the cages. Finally, he said, “You are going to have to do something about your brother, though. About these rumors I been hearing.”

  I didn’t ask what rumors he meant. I didn’t want to know. I said, “Harley, don’t worry so much about your daddy or me or my brother or us or about that church. Just worry about yourself. Those people like you fine just the way you are. You opened up that little church and gave it life again. Just be as good and true as you can. That’s all anyone can expect.”

  The very next day, Johnny Clay came rattling up to my house in the yellow truck. He told me he was chasing a gold vein he’d heard about, down near Toxaway Mountain. He didn’t even turn the truck off, just leaned out the window and yelled to me. He seemed to be in a hurry.

  I said, “Why don’t you come in for a minute. Or why don’t we go for a ride somewhere first and talk about it?” I was itching to get out of there for a while and take a ride in that truck.

  He said, “There’s nothing to talk about, Velva Jean. I got to hit that vein before someone else does. I got to make me a fortune.”

  “Why?” I was leaning in the truck window, feeling the rumble against my skin like it was a part of me. I wanted to hang on and climb in and tell Johnny Clay to hit the gas and just start driving.

  “Because I got to make something of myself.” He had a mad look about him. He looked like he was ready to fight.

  “You’re good the way you are,” I said. “You’re perfect. You’re the best there is.”

  “I can be better,” he said. And there was that mad look again.

  “Who’s telling you that?” I said.

  “I’m telling me that. Now get down. I got to go.” He kissed the flat of his fingers and then laid them against my forehead and pushed me out of the window. “Git.”

  “You better come back soon,” I said.

  “I will. As soon as I drain that vein dry.” He winked at me and then shifted gears and drove like wildfire down the hill. I stood there waving after him, just like the queen of England, but he was already gone.

  The Sunday after Johnny Clay left, Butch Dawkins showed up at the Little White Church. The minute I saw him, I could hear his music in my head. I could see him, guitar in hand, tattoo flexing, leaning up against the stove at Deal’s. I watched him during the service, looking for signs of the song I’d heard—the raw emotion, the way-down-in-the-gutter blues. To look at him, you couldn’t see a lick of it. He was loose-jointed, unhurried, easy in the way he moved.

  After the service, while Harley was shaking hands all around, Butch walked up to me and said, “We’re going to have a sing down in Alluvial. A group of us are playing. I thought you might want to come.”

  “I don’t think so,” I said.

  “Okay,” he said. “I just thought you’d like the music. Give you a chance to hear some things you maybe don’t get to hear too often. Some of the boys play original tunes. Like the one I played the other night when you were there.”

  My face grew hot. “I just stopped in to buy cigarettes for Harley.”

  He said, “You should have stayed. Next time bring your mandolin. Johnny Clay says you play. He says you write songs and sing them, too. You should bring one along.”

  I thought I would rather die than sing and play my mandolin in front of Butch Dawkins with his steel guitar and his tattoo and his howling and his mean down-in-the-gutter blues. I thought how silly my mandolin would sound and my songs about panthers and moon-eyed people and orphan girls. Suddenly all my songs seemed silly. I said, “Maybe. We’ll see.”

  The next Sunday, Butch came back with some of the boys from the Scenic—a colored boy and an Italian boy and two boys from up north somewhere. Some folks stared, but Sister Gladdy took their hands and squeezed them, and I invited them to sit up front near me.

  Before Harley started his sermon, Butch leaned over to me and whispered, “You missed a real good sing.” He didn’t take his eyes off Harley. “Some of the best blues I ever heard. Was a man there all the way from Reedsville who picked the guitar with his teeth. And another fellow who could play the harmonica without using his hands.” I looked at Butch to see if he was teasing me. He was staring straight ahead. “Yessir,” he said. “It sure was something to see.”

  I sat there, the rest of the service, trying to imagine such things.

  Afterward Harley shook hands with Butch and his friends, but when we were alone walking home—just us—he said, “What did that boy say to you before service?”

  I said, “Nothing.”

  He said, “Was he talking about that road?”

  I said, “No. He was just talking about music.”

  “Music?” Harley shook his head. “I don’t know why they want to come down here. They got a church up there at their camp. I hope that’s the last time I see them.”

  Sometimes Butch came to church, and sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he brought friends with him, and sometimes he came alone. Each time, he told me things about music, the sings they had and about the men who came to them—a blind man who played the banjo and the fiddle, a one-armed guitar player, a man who could play harmonica and stand-up bass and tambourine at the same time. Harley never asked again what Butch said to me, but I would catch him watching us after the service if Butch and I were talking, and every now and then he would preach against outlanders and interlopers and roads coming in where they had no business being.

  It got to where I looked forward to going to church, just in case But
ch might be there, because he knew about things that no one else did. He knew about music that was raw and real, that stirred you up in good and bad ways, and people who played guitars with their teeth. Each time he was there, I heard his song in my head and the goose bumps rose up on my skin. Each time he wasn’t, I sat through the service distracted, wondering what he was doing, when he might be back. I hoped he would invite me to another sing. Maybe, just maybe, I would go. I wouldn’t have to take my mandolin or any of my songs. I could just go and watch.

  Every Sunday I sat in the front row at each church service, and afterward I stood with Harley and greeted people. I prayed for their loved ones who were sick and I prayed for the souls of those who were lost on the wayward path, those that had backslid and those that were down in Butcher Gap Prison. I visited the sick and I went to the funerals of those who died. When someone’s cow went dry, I took them milk from ours. Harley and I helped Mr. Finch get up his hay before a storm came in and ruined it. For a week every night before supper, I walked a mile through the holler to treat the Swans’ injured cow. When Jerlivee Betts took sick, I fetched Granny to tend to her so that Jerlivee wouldn’t lose her baby.

  I hosted weekly circle meetings at our house for the ladies of the church. We would sew or knit things for the needy—quilts or blankets or gloves or socks—and then we would send them to the poor or to lost souls in danger of going to hell. These people usually lived in New Guinea or some other foreign place that we had heard of from Brother Jim. Every few weeks, I would take a mission box down to Deal’s and Mr. Deal would mail it for me.

  I learned to make extra at mealtimes because you never knew who might stop in. As hungry as we were sometimes, there were always folks hungrier. While I did all this, Harley helped fix barns that were falling down and roofs that were leaking. If someone needed a ride somewhere, he drove them. If someone needed praying over, he went to them and prayed all night if he had to.

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