Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  “What did he mean by that?” Harley said.

  “Oh,” I said, “he wants me to have that truck.”

  “That’s silly,” said Harley. “You don’t even know how to drive.”

  “I know,” I said. But I’m going to learn.


  The truck sat by the barn. I walked by it. It seemed to be looking at me. I looked at it. I walked by it the other way. The truck seemed to be watching me go past. I stood in front of it and stared. We sized each other up.

  I walked over to the window and stood on the running board. I rubbed the dirt and the dust off the glass and looked inside at all the gears and the knobs. I tried the door handle. The door opened. I set one foot inside and then pulled myself up and sat down behind the wheel. I sat up straight and tall because I had no choice, because that’s the way the seat was made. The windshield was right up near my face. The windshield frame was hinged at the top and could be swung out toward the hood. I opened this up and let some air in. I put my hands on the wheel. It felt cool and big and slick.

  I reached across the seat and pulled the Ford Truck Instruction Book out of the visor. I opened it to the page that read “Owner’s Responsibilities.”

  The Ford truck has been designed and built so that it will furnish a safe, comfortable, carefree, and economical means of transportation for many thousands of miles.

  Comfortable and carefree sounded good to me. I kept reading. What followed were suggestions to assist in the operation of the truck, such as:

  Avoid driving with your foot resting on the clutch as this may cause the clutch to slip, causing premature wear of the fac ings and clutch release bearing.

  Depress the clutch pedal while starting the engine, particularly in cold weather.

  Wheel and axle shaft nuts must be kept tight at all times.

  Check the oil level every 100 miles when operating under high speeds or heavy load.

  Do not add cold water to an overheated cooling system.

  Avoid racing the engine while it is cold.

  I tossed the book aside. “Comfortable” and “carefree,” my left eye, I thought. I might not learn to drive after all if there were that many things to remember. I put my hands back on the wheel and twisted it back and forth. I set my foot on the gas pedal, which looked just like an upside-down teaspoon with the widest part at the bottom. I moved the long-knobbed bar that came up from the center of the floor, the gearshift lever, and rested my foot on the brake, which looked like a little round rubber target. I pretended I was going for a drive.

  I rolled down the window and let my hair down, just like it was blowing free. I thought of the people I would pass. I would speed up when I went by Alice Nix and Rachel Gordon. I looked in the rearview mirror and imagined their faces, staring at me.

  I would wave at the people as I went by them. “Hello, Sister Gladdy!” “Hello, Sister Dearborn!” “Hello, Sister Oderay and Sister Pernilla!” Their mouths would pop open in surprise and shock. They would run to tell Harley: “There goes Velva Jean Hart Bright. Just look how fancy.” I looked at my reflection in the rearview mirror. Some lipstick would go with this truck, I thought. A nice shade of red. Magnet Red. And maybe a pantsuit. That would really get the women talking. Then I thought: I could drive this truck all the way to Nashville. Just like that. I don’t know what made me think it.

  Somewhere along the way, I’d stopped planning for the Opry and I’d stopped saving my money. I wasn’t exactly sure when or why it happened. I sat there and tried to think where the framed picture was that Johnny Clay had given me of the Opry stage, all those years ago. Was it at Mama’s? Had I brought it with me to Devil’s Kitchen? I couldn’t remember.

  I stopped steering. I picked up the instruction book and put it in the visor. I pulled the windshield frame closed. Then I rolled up the window. I opened the door and climbed down, shut the door, and walked back into the house. I stood inside at the kitchen window and looked out, staring at that truck. I stood there for a long time before I let the curtain fall and started fixing dinner.

  ~ 1941 ~

  Oh who will come and go with me?

  I am bound for the promised land.

  —“Promised Land”


  Damascus King, famous evangelist preacher, came to Alluvial on February 22. This wasn’t like the Glory Pioneers dragging their circus tent from one little mountain holler to another. This wasn’t like Reverend Nix or Reverend Broomfield leading camp meeting or even Harley preaching to the congregation in the Little White Church. This was the biggest name in religion since Billy Sunday. This was a man so charged with the power of the Lord that he had once saved fifty thousand people in a single night in a revival meeting in New York City.

  When Damascus King came to preach in Alluvial, there weren’t fifty thousand people to turn out. There were maybe five hundred. We walked down the mountain, Harley and me, with the Harridays and Sister Oderay, and sat in the front row, so close you could feel that man’s sweat as it flew off his brow and see the lines of his muscles underneath his fancy white suit. After the sawdust had settled and the shouting had stopped and Damascus King had claimed to save each and every one of us, we walked home, me behind, listening to Harley and Brother Jim and Sister Gladdy and Sister Oderay talk about what a great man Damascus King was and what a great and dutiful woman his wife, Julia Faith, was and what a great and momentous day it was, how it had changed their lives.

  I was worried that just being close to Damascus King had undone my being saved all those years earlier in Three Gum River. I was worried that being “saved” by him had somehow taken away the time I was really and truly saved when I was ten. I had been praying ever since Damascus King took my hand and held it and then pronounced me saved before winking at me just like one of the Gordon boys or Hink Lowe when they were trying to get me to go off into the woods with them. For the first time in my life, I just wanted to get back up to Devil’s Kitchen, that place I couldn’t stand.

  I would never forget his words. After he got done cursing the moon-shiners for turning men drunk and the prostitutes for turning men blind from venereal disease, he said: “The Lord himself has told me that the time of Revelation is coming. The sun will turn black and the seas will turn red with blood before they dry up and vanish forever. I saw Alluvial burn to the ground and all the drunkards and the whores and the sinners run crying in the streets. I saw these mountains crumble to the earth and all the smokers and the bootleggers and the backsliders fall.”

  And then everyone dropped to their knees, eyes closed, cheeks stained with tears, hands raised toward the sky, knees pressed into the earth—men, women, children, old people. I’d never heard such a sound. Those people were howling and crying and wailing while Damascus King shouted over and over again, “Repent!”

  I had kneeled like everybody else, staying silent while Harley and the Harridays and Oderay Swan wailed. All around me was the sound of great despair, of hundreds of people in mourning, crying for their souls. I thought Damascus King was a horrible man to do that to them, to make them feel so fearful.

  That night, after we got home, Harley locked himself in his mudroom. I stood outside and knocked on the door and said, “Harley, you’ll wear yourself out. You won’t be worth anything tomorrow.” He didn’t answer. I said, “How are you going to give a sermon if you don’t get any sleep?” When he still didn’t answer, I went upstairs to bed.

  The next morning I sat on the front row at church, just as I always did, but that was about the only thing that felt the same about Sunday’s service. Something had come over Harley. He was filling up that little church with enough pomp and bluster to run a steam train from here to Asheville.

  All of a sudden, in the middle of his sermon, he marched right down the aisle and out the door. Everyone started buzzing and craning their necks around, trying to see where he’d gone. Butch Dawkins leaned up from the pew behind me and said, “Are we supposed to follow?”

; I turned around and stared out the open door. Harley was nowhere to be seen. He was probably standing out there waiting for us. I said, “I guess.”

  I got up and walked down the aisle and Butch and the Harridays followed. Soon everyone came blinking out into the sun, and there was Harley, his pants legs rolled up, wading into the waters of Panther Creek. He held his arms out to his sides like he was carrying something we couldn’t see. He said, “Come on in. The water’s clean. I feel so healed and new. God loves us! Praise Jesus! Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!”

  We all stood there on the banks, dressed in our Sunday clothes. I thought: I am not taking off my shoes and going into that cold water. Brother Jim sat down on the ground and started rolling up his trousers. He pulled off his shoes and socks and set them aside and then waded in next to Harley.

  Harley grabbed hold of Brother Jim and splashed his forehead with water. He said, “We baptize our brother, Jim Harriday, in the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Ghost.” Harley splashed him again. He closed his eyes and began to speak in tongues. It was a wild sound, like an animal unleashed in the woods.

  Sister Gladdy, standing next to me, burst into tears. She ran right into the water without taking off her shoes. Harley grabbed hold of her. He splashed her on the forehead. She cried and cried and waved her arms and praised Jesus and began to wail.

  Sister and Brother Dearborn and Sister and Brother Armes and old Brother Marsh and Brother Finch and Sister Turner, who was a widow, all ran into the water. Clydie Williams scrambled up and down the bank, speaking in tongues and praising the Lord. He looked just like a rabid dog. Just like something you would shoot if you didn’t know better.

  Butch and I stood back, away from everyone, and watched all this happen. In front of us, the boys from the Scenic whispered to each other and one of them laughed. At that moment, I hated them, these strangers. I caught Butch’s eye and looked away.

  Pernilla Swan moved over beside me, watching. Her eyes were so pale they were barely a color. Her eyebrows faded right into her skin. Her hair peeked out from under her hat—wisps of strawberry yellow that curled against her face. We were getting sprayed by the people in the water. She moved back a step. “Someday I’ll be saved,” she said. I couldn’t tell if she was talking to me. She was staring at the water and at the people and at Harley. Her eyes were all lit up. Harley was walking up and down, saying: “Thank you, Lord, for this beautiful day! Thank you for helping us to see the light!”

  From somewhere behind us, Pernilla’s mama started calling. “Pernilla! Come help me. Where did you get off to, girl? Ungrateful child. Get back here.”

  Pernilla Swan said, “Someday. But not today.”

  Early the next morning, Harley drove off in the DeSoto without a word about where he was going. In the afternoon, I was working in the chicken house, singing Butch’s blues song, the one I’d heard at Deal’s. I was making up my own words and dancing while I cleaned the cages, when all of a sudden I felt someone watching me. Harley stood there with a funny look on his face.

  He said, “That sounds sexy.”

  I said, “Thanks.”

  He said, “Did you write that song?” There was a strange sort of smile on his face, a baiting sort of smile.

  I said, “No.” I thought it was a silly question because he must have recognized the song from that night down at Deal’s.

  “Sometimes you sound real sexy when you sing, Velva Jean,” but the way he said it didn’t sound like a compliment. It sounded like something to be ashamed of. It made me feel just like one of those Atlanta harlots Granny was always talking about. He turned around and walked out.

  I thought: Oh no. Here we go. I followed him. He stood in the yard, leaning against the porch. The sunlight beat down on him and I could see he was dressed in an ivory white suit. It was a three-piece suit with a vest. It looked like it was cut for him.

  I said, “Where’d you get that suit?”

  “Do you like it?”

  “It looks good.” I thought: It looks like something Damascus King would wear.

  “It’s a Palm Beach suit. The color’s called Barathea white. I went down to Hamlet’s Mill to L. B. George & Company. I need to start thinking about how I look.”

  “How much was it?”

  “You let me worry about that.”

  “We can’t afford it,” I said.

  “I bought it on credit,” he said. “I’m supposed to have this suit, Velva Jean. Little White Church. Little white suit. It was the only one on the rack, the only one in the whole goddamn store. And it was my size. I told the man I wanted to try it and he said, ‘Mister, I don’t know if that’s going to fit you.’ ”

  Harley looked like a god of some sort, come down from heaven, with all that dark waving hair, and his green eyes like emeralds, and his white teeth, and that ivory suit. I felt my heart skip a beat in my chest—literally like it was jumping over a fence. Suddenly, I could smell myself. I smelled just like chickens.

  I said, “It fits.”

  After supper Harley and I sat on the porch, just the two of us. He had taken off the white suit and hung it upstairs in the chifforobe next to my old dresses. We sat in the rocking chairs, side by side, looking out at the night. Harley lit a cigarette and said, “Velva Jean, our lives are about to change.” His voice was low and serious.

  I said, “How so?”

  He said, “I’m going to pick up this church and carry it with me on the road to salvation, on the path to glory, on the journey to the glory land. I got a lot to do and I’m going to need your help.”

  I said, “All right.”

  He said, “Something is building in me and I can’t explain it.”

  I said, “All right.” What I didn’t—couldn’t—tell him was that something was building in me too, and I didn’t think I could stop it. I had the need to move, to go. Harley was standing still and I was standing still with him. I stood still in the yard, hanging the laundry, looking out over the mountains. I stood still in the canning room, putting away the jars, looking out over the top of the world. I stood still on the hill near our house, singing songs to myself where I could be heard. I stood still at the kitchen window as I washed the dishes, staring out at that yellow truck, which stood still waiting for me. Even when I was praying for people and looking after the sick and running after loose and injured cows and leading the circle meetings, I was standing still.

  Sometimes I took the truck keys out of my hatbox and held them in my hand, pretending I could go out there to that truck if I wanted to, that I knew how to drive. And then I’d picture myself driving down the hill, my hair flying out the window. Sometimes I sang my thoughts out loud because there was no one around to hear them. I tried to dig out my deepest feelings, just like Butch Dawkins had in his song that night at Deal’s. I’m going down to town in an old yellow truck, I’d sing. Going to teach myself to drive it one day, even though Harley says to park it by the barn. Guess he wants to park me by the barn, park me up on this hill forever. The songs didn’t rhyme and they weren’t pretty. Sometimes they were messy and sad and lonely and mean, but they were all my thoughts and they were filling me up so full that I had to get them out. I didn’t know what else to do with them.

  On the porch beside me, Harley was still talking. He said, “I can be better. I got to make a difference, Velva Jean. I got to give back, and with this church I finally have that chance. But I need to know you’re with me.”

  I wasn’t sure about the way he was talking. Something about it made me nervous deep down. I thought he was losing track of himself.

  I looked at Harley now and said, “Just promise me one thing.”

  He said, “What is it?”

  I said, “Promise me you won’t forget the moonshiner’s son who married the orphan girl and took her to Balsam Mountain Springs Hotel on their honeymoon.” As I said it, I heard a voice, from somewhere deep inside myself: What about the little girl who planned to wear a costume mad
e of rhinestones and sing at the Grand Ole Opry? Did you forget? What ever happened to her?

  The next morning, two dollars appeared in my apron pocket and we were good for another week. That evening I pinned my hair back and put on my church dress, one that Harley had picked out for me. I stared at myself in the mirror, trying to recognize the girl I saw in there. The navy of the dress washed me out, chasing all my colors away. My skin looked pale underneath my freckles. My hair looked dull pulled back like that, like the life had gone out of it.

  Harley and I walked to the Little White Church. In the moonlight, he shone beside me in his Barathea white suit. I barely recognized him either. He moved in the darkness as jaunty, as fluid as a panther cat, standing out as the only bright thing against the black of the earth and the trees and the sky. The moon sent down its light and caught him in it, and his suit reflected light back to the moon like Harley and the moon seemed to have an understanding. I felt jealous and admiring at the same time, clomping next to him in my black pumps and my dowdy blue dress, the pins poking into my head. I felt like a girl playing dress-up, pretending to be someone she wasn’t, walking beside her glorious husband who was carrying on a secret conversation with the stars.


  Aunt Junie left the Alluvial Valley for good on March 8. The day before she moved, Harley and I walked up the mountain together, to where she lived with her sheep and the bees she kept in a little log cabin covered with trumpet vines and wisteria. Roses, tiger lilies, dahlias, and larkspurs grew wild.

  We stayed an hour. The cabin was plain inside—just a stove and a bed and a table and chairs and vases of wildflowers in the windows. Bees buzzed in and out. Two sheep slept curled up in one corner. Junie served us tea with honey and fresh honeycomb, which tasted sweet and warm.

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