Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven


  The whole time I was looking after injured cows and leading circle meetings and praying for those less fortunate, I tried not to have resentment in my heart—at the Little White Church, at Harley, at Jesus himself for keeping us here in this place, rooted like a tree or a shrub. The outside world seemed far away—all those towns and hollers we used to visit. And, more and more, Harley seemed far away. I missed him—the Harley who had time for me, for us; wicked Harley; fun Harley; wild Harley; bad Barrow gang Harley. This new Harley was more serious. He cared too much what people thought. He didn’t want to do wrong. He wanted to do good. He wanted me to do good and his daddy to do good. He wanted to live up to Jesus, who he thought was watching over him, making sure he had earned that church.

  By the end of July, we were out of money. I hated to bother Harley because he was in such a good mood, but I had to go to him in his mudroom and tell him we didn’t have any more. Harley sat at his desk, a notebook open in front of him, tapping his chin with his pencil. Levi was out on the back porch, shaving and talking to himself, and Harley said, “Daddy, will you hold it down? I can’t think with you making all that noise.”

  Then he looked at me and frowned a little and I knew he was in danger of losing his good mood. He said, “Can it wait till tomorrow, Velva Jean? I’m right in the middle of my sermon.”

  I thought of the groceries that were needed, the things Harley would want and expect—his coffee, his cigarettes. We owed the Rayford boys two weeks pay for helping out around the farm. I thought of my Nashville money, upstairs in my hatbox. I guess it’s just sitting there, not being of much use to anyone. I guess I can just use that. I said, “It can wait.”

  Every summer, on the last Saturday afternoon in July, everyone on Fair Mountain and Devil’s Courthouse and even some folks from Blood Mountain and Bone and Witch gathered for the summer social on the grounds of the Alluvial School. People arrived on foot or on horseback, whole families, bringing cakes and cookies and sweet breads and guitars, if they had them, coming to eat and talk and sing and dance. Linc, Ruby Poole, and baby Russell walked over from Sleepy Gap with Aunt Zona and Daddy Hoyt. Granny followed behind on Mad Maggie, carrying a box of fried pies from Aunt Bird. Boys came down from the Scenic—colored boys and Italians with dark hair and dark eyes and Yankee boys with funny accents and local boys from other counties. Men came up from the band mill and over from the Indian nation. Butch Dawkins was there with his guitar.

  Uncle Turk came just to celebrate because the Cherokee had won their five-year battle with the government over the route of the new road. He found Granny and Aunt Zona and me in the crowd and said, “They wanted to bring that road through the heart of Cherokee lands, but we won. They have to stop at the front door of the reservation. They can’t come in. This time, they won’t be taking our land from us.”

  Other news wasn’t as good. The road they were cutting from Seniard Mountain, near Yellowstone Falls, over to Silvermine Bald was almost finished, and Aunt Junie had gotten notice. Buck Frey carried the news to the social, along with a banana pudding his wife had made. He stood under a shade tree, next to Harley and me, and said, “Did you hear about Junie? The government offered her forty dollars per acre for her land.”

  The smile dropped off Harley’s face. He said, “Aunt Junie?”

  Buck Frey was an old man. He was missing all his teeth and because of this his face looked like a fist, the way it folded in on itself in the middle. He said, “She ain’t the only one. A government man named Sam Weems was up to see me about taking my land, all thirty acres, and then he went over to see the Toomeys. No one said nothing about forty dollars per acre, though. He said my land was only worth six.”

  At that Buck Frey spat right on the ground.

  I was thinking about the Wood Carver. He lived up there on top of the mountain, near the Freys and the Toomeys.

  No one expected Aunt Junie to come to the summer social. She hardly ever came down the mountain for anything other than the rare trip to Deal’s, but this hot afternoon she appeared out of the woods, long after everyone else had gathered, carrying a spice layer cake. She marched up to Harley and me, and he leaned down to talk to her. His face was still cloudy. His eyes were flashing. He said, “I heard about your notice. I could kill those government men. What can I do?”

  “Nothing,” she said. Then she laid her hand on his chest, where she had healed him. She closed her eyes and grew still. After a minute, she opened her eyes and smiled. She said, “You’re good and strong, Harley Bright.”

  “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you,” he said. He took her hand and held it. She looked up at him with her bright blue eyes, and then she walked away.

  Pretty soon the music started. Harley brought out his guitar and Daddy Hoyt pulled out the fiddle and everyone else took out whatever he or she had brought, and we sang and played and people danced, everybody from little children on up.

  When Butch Dawkins leaned up in the doorway of the school and started to sing and play a song he wrote himself, folks got quiet and stood still to listen. It was a different kind of song from the one he’d sung at Deal’s—fast and quick. His fingers flew over that guitar with a speed you never would have expected from him. His voice was rich and deep. I can’t remember the words of the song—something about coming home to the place where you’d been all along. All I remember is the way his hands flew over the strings and the way he stared at the guitar as he played. The guitar shone in the sun and I wanted to take it from him and play it myself, but mostly I wanted to be that guitar, to be able to make music that was wild and free and thrilling.

  When the song was over, Harley said, “Sing with me, Velva Jean.”

  The last thing I wanted to do was sing in front of Butch Dawkins. He might laugh at me or think my songs were silly. I said, “I don’t feel like it just now.”

  Harley said, “Suit yourself,” and started playing without me. And then everyone was singing and dancing again.

  At some point, I looked up, up toward the sky and the sun. Near the peak of Devil’s Courthouse, I could have sworn I saw a dark figure with the sun behind it, so high atop that mountain that it was nothing but a silhouette. It circled up and down, up and down, back straight, arms and hands waving as they kept the rhythm, long legs moving to the music, buck dancing. ~

  The next morning, I found a five-dollar bill in my apron pocket. When Harley came down to breakfast, I could tell he had something on his mind, that he was somewhere else. He said, “We’ll talk about money in a little while, Velva Jean. Just let me eat and take care of a few things first. I got some things to think about,” and I knew the five dollars wasn’t from him.

  When the table was set and the food was ready, I stepped onto the back porch to call Levi, who was asleep in his favorite chair. I stood and watched him for a minute—hat drawn over his face, chin on his chest, bony hands folded on top of his stomach, feet crossed at the ankle—and then I leaned in and kissed him, light as I could, on his head. He stirred a little and then pushed his hat back. He opened one eye. “What is it?”

  “Breakfast,” I said.

  TWENTY-FIVE

  The word spread fast through the valley—Johnny Clay was back. I heard it first from Butch and then from Lally Hatch and Sweet Fern. He had been gone two months, working toward three, but it had seemed like forever to me. I’d been worried that Johnny Clay had really left me for good this time, gone off like Daddy and Beachard. When I heard he was back, I dropped everything I was doing and ran all the way up to Mama’s, but there was no one home.

  The newspapers were yellowed and curling off the walls. The Grier’s Almanac still hung on a nail by the fireplace. Mama’s old cross-stitch, the one she’d done as a young bride, hung on the wall in a wood frame: “Bless Our Home.” Behind the glass, the cloth was fading, browning a bit at the corners. I thought about Mama’s fingers making each stitch—a young bride’s hopes and dreams and happiness fading on the wall.

  From outside I heard a
familiar rumbling. Then there was barking and a long whistle. I ran out of the house.

  Johnny Clay looked wonderful. It was like the gold had rubbed off on him—on his skin and on his hair. He said, “Velva Jean, what do you think? I’m rich as hell.” He slid out of the yellow truck and slammed the door. He was holding a package—a big, white box tied with string. “Guess what’s in here? A zoot suit. Fanciest thing you ever saw. I look like something out of a Fred Astaire picture in this suit.”

  “What on earth do you need with a suit, Johnny Clay?”

  He wasn’t listening. He was walking ahead of me, whistling. Hunter Firth was at his heels, jumping up now and then, trying to get his attention.

  “So you got to the vein before anyone else.”

  He waved his hand. The palms were blistered, the knuckles scraped. A miner’s hands. “That vein was all dried up. I found something better. Tracked it down myself. I’m a gem miner now. Garnets, rubies, topazes, sapphires.”

  I said, “Johnny Clay, you are crazy. You’re a gold miner. You can’t change just like that. You can’t just become a gem miner.”

  He said, “There’s no more gold, Velva Jean. We’ve mined it all. But these mountains are packed full of gems. When I got to Toxaway, there wasn’t nothing but a few sad miners drinking and fighting and turning around for home. But I’d come that far and I wasn’t about to go back empty-handed. I climbed to the top of Toxaway to see what I could see, and up there I found a trail winding along into the horizon, disappearing into the clouds. Well I ain’t never been saved, Velva Jean, but I figure that was the closest I’ll ever come. I just started walking to see where it would take me, up along the top of those mountains. I must have walked thirty miles, and when that trail came to an end there were the men working on the Scenic. I wound down through the trees to the valley below, and a man there told me I was on Mount Pisgah. Just like Moses when he first saw the promised land. I said, ‘What can you tell me about this mountain?’ And the man said, ‘It’s made of garnets and rubies and sapphires.’ He was a retired miner so that’s how he thought of the mountain—what it was made of. He let me stay with him and his wife and he taught me how to mine. Gem mining’s harder than gold mining. It’s more dangerous.”

  His eyes lit up at this. He held his hands out, spreading the fingers so I could see the nicks and cuts that went right up his arms. “I went into the mountain, down deep in the dark, and hit that vein so wide open, you’d a thought someone left it there just for me.” He fished something out of his pocket. “I brought you one. It’s a sapphire. It ain’t as dark as the others I found. To me this one looks like the blue of Mama’s eyes or the sky over Sleepy Gap just after it rains.”

  I held the stone and turned it in the light. It was rough but in the sun it shone a clear, bright blue the color of asters. I thought of the emerald Daddy had brought me long ago, still rugged and uncut in my hatbox.

  Johnny Clay grabbed my hand. “I got to show you something.”

  “Don’t pull me so hard,” I said, but my heart was pounding. I was so happy to see him, so happy to be home, I thought I might start crying.

  He yanked me around the yard and toward the barn. “You won’t believe it,” he said.

  “This better be good, the way you’re pulling my arm right out of the socket.”

  He dropped my hand and dragged open the barn door. The light was dim and I blinked, trying to adjust my eyes. He pushed me inside. “Go on,” he said.

  I could make out two headlights, a grill, a silver bumper, a dark red hood. “What have you gone and done?” I said.

  He laughed and took my hand, guiding me. He opened a door and sat me down and then he sat down next to me and threw the package in the back and turned on the engine. I felt the wind and sun in my hair as we drove out of the barn. “There’s no top, Johnny Clay!”

  “It’s called a convertible.” He laughed again. The car was smooth, not bumpy and loud like the truck. He drove it this way and that around the yard. It was beautiful—creamy insides, dark red outsides, the color of skin and blood, only inside out. Skin on the inside, blood on the outside. It was fancy and shiny and sleek. “It’s a Nash LaFay ette,” he said. “Get out and I’ll show you something.”

  He turned off the car and we walked around back and he opened up a little hatch. “That’s called a rumble seat,” he said.

  “That’s the cutest thing I ever did see,” I said. And it was. “Johnny Clay, how on earth did you afford this?”

  “I told you. I’m rich. I reckon I’m richer than anyone else on this mountain next to the Deals. I told you I was going to make something of myself.”

  “You’re ridiculous,” I said. “How’d you get home?”

  “Butch came and met me and drove the truck back. I rode on the Scenic, Velva Jean. It ain’t close to being done, but it’s the most incredible thing I ever saw. You ride across the mountaintops just like you’re in the clouds.”

  “Did you see Beach?”

  “No. But you wouldn’t believe it. There were people driving on that road, people from around the country, here to see these mountains—our mountains. You could see the whole wide world up there.”

  He was climbing in and out of the rumble seat. He was telling me about something called a travel bed, where the seats folded down and window screens could be slid into place and attaching tents could be purchased for added living space, but I had stopped listening. I was staring at Danny Deal’s truck and wondering what he was going to do with it.

  “Velva Jean?” he said. He knocked me on the head with his hand.

  “Sorry.”

  “You want to go for a ride?”

  “Sure.”

  “What’s wrong?”

  “Nothing’s wrong. I was just wondering.” I tried to keep my voice casual. “What are you going to do with the truck?”

  He looked at the yellow truck. He shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I could give it back to Sweet Fern.”

  “She don’t want it,” I said. “She told you she never wanted to see it again.”

  “Well hell’s bells, Velva Jean, I don’t know. Do you want it? If you want it, it’s yours,” he said.

  I looked at that yellow truck. There were little dings in the doors and scratches in the paint. It was still in good shape, but it looked its age. Johnny Clay had promised Danny to take good care of it. I thought: If he could see his truck, Danny Deal would roll over in his grave.

  “Yes, I want it.” I wanted it more than anything. I wanted it almost as much as I wanted Harley, even more than I wanted Nashville, which I never thought much about anymore anyway. Sometimes I loved and sometimes I hated that part of myself that was like my daddy, that couldn’t be content to sit still and quiet and be happy with the way things were. If I had that truck, I could go anywhere. I could get out of Devil’s Kitchen and go to Alluvial or come up here to Fair Mountain to see Granny and Daddy Hoyt. I could even go to Hamlet’s Mill. But you can’t drive, a voice inside me said. What on earth are you going to do with an old yellow truck?

  Johnny Clay handed me the keys. “Just so you know,” he said, “I ain’t giving it to Harley or to you and Harley. I’m giving it to you.”

  I nodded.

  He said, “What am I giving you the keys for? You can’t drive. I guess I’ll have to drive you home now. Just hold on a minute while I put the Nash back in the barn. Then we’ll drive that truck up to Devil’s Kitchen. We’ll take the Nash out some other time.”

  “Is it hard—to drive, I mean?” I said.

  “It ain’t bad,” he said. “I been doing it for so long. The instruction manual’s in the visor. It tells about how to run it, about the care and operation and all that.” He climbed back into the Nash and turned on the engine. He grinned at the sound. “You hear that?” he said. “Like music.”

  “If you drive me, you’ll have to walk home,” I said. I was already thinking about that truck, about how I was going to learn to drive. I would teach myself. I’d alre
ady decided.

  “I don’t care,” he said. “I’m so goddamn happy, I feel like I could fly.” He was already aiming the Nash toward the barn. He yelled, “One thing I learned when I was up there on that skywalk and up there on the Scenic, crossing all those mountaintops—there’s a great big world out there, Velva Jean. It’s so beautiful and big, it made me cry. What we got up here is only a little part of it. It’s a good part, but it’s just a little part.”

  Harley said, “That’s real nice of you, Johnny Clay. But we already got a car.”

  Harley was sitting on the front porch, making notes in one of his notebooks. He had the Bible open on his lap. I stood next to him. My feet were practically dancing with excitement. The yellow truck looked even better from up on the porch.

  Johnny Clay leaned out the window of the truck. He was tapping his fingers on the outside of the door, waiting. “Where should I put it?”

  Harley sighed. He stood, picking up his notebook and his Bible and setting them down in his chair. “Park it over by the barn, out of view of the house.” Just like Sweet Fern, I thought. He turned to me, “What is this about, Velva Jean? We can’t have that bright yellow truck up here for all the world to see.”

  “Why not?” I said. “I think it’s beautiful.”

  Johnny Clay drove the truck behind the barn and left it there. He got out and walked toward the house. I noticed that he kind of swaggered now like a movie star or a cowboy, like someone with money. I thought, heaven help us all.

  I said, “You want to come in and have supper?”

  Johnny Clay said, “No thanks. I got to be getting back. It’s a long walk home.” He came up the steps and handed me the keys. “Remember what I said, Velva Jean. I’m giving this truck to you.”

  “I remember,” I said.

  Johnny Clay hugged me hard and fast and then took off down the porch steps, long legs flying. He bounded off down the hill, outrunning the dying sun, hair shining like gold.

 
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