Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven


  “Where will you go?” Harley said. He was glaring into his teacup, his face dark as a storm cloud.

  “To Flower Knob, high up where my sheep can graze and where I can be left alone,” she said.

  He said, “How are you getting there?”

  “I’m walking it with my sheep and my bees and everything I own on my back.” It was a far way to Flower Knob. When Harley offered to help her, she waved her hands and shook her head once and said, “No. Thank you. I don’t want what I can’t carry myself.” Then she looked around at her house and said, “I’ve never spent a night outside of this house. I was born here. I was married here. My husband died in that bed. We slept in this house all my married life. I’ve never known another place.”

  Harley said, “You can’t leave.”

  She said, “I’m afraid that’s not a choice I have.”

  Harley got up, set the teacup down with a bang, and walked outside.

  I said, “But can’t you cast a spell or turn the government men into goats?”

  She stared at me and then her eyes grew wide and she threw her head back and laughed. She said, “Oh, child, I wish I could.”

  I pretended like she hadn’t just laughed at me. I said, “What will happen to your house?”

  She said, “Maybe they’ll keep it, turn it into some sort of history site. The home of the devil’s witch.” She smiled and the lines of her face shifted and changed so she suddenly looked much younger than one hundred. I thought, she’s magic. ~

  Three days later, on a Monday, Harley announced that he was going down to Alluvial and that he wouldn’t be back until nightfall. He gave me a kiss and then he walked out of the house like he was already somewhere else. He had been angry and distracted for days. I stood in the doorway and watched him as he climbed into the DeSoto, legs folding under the dash, and drove off.

  I couldn’t imagine what business he had down there. Since Damascus King’s revival, he had been spending each day at the church and each night locked in the mudroom, hard at work on his sermons, most of which preached against the evils of the Scenic. He walked through the house bleary-eyed and pale, looking like a ghost.

  Arizona Rayford and his brother Terry came that morning like they did three days a week. When I walked outside to give Arizona the week’s pay, he pointed at the yellow truck and said, “Someone ought to drive that truck. It’s just a shame to see that truck sit there.”

  I looked at the truck. It was covered in leaves from the fall, which no one had bothered to brush off. Weeds had grown up around the tires. Pine needles poked out of the windshield. There was a splatter of bird droppings on the front window. The yellow of the paint was dusted a faint brown from the Carolina soil. That poor truck looked a sight.

  I said, “You’re right, Arizona. At the very least, someone ought to clean it.”

  “You want us to wash it today?”

  “No,” I said. “You all got enough to do. I’ll take care of it if I find the time.” I tried to sound casual, like I might get around to it, like the idea wasn’t burning a hole in my brain. Just looking at that truck made me feel guilty. How could I have abandoned it? How could I have forgotten it? Wasn’t that just as good as forgetting Danny? If it was the last thing I did, I was going to march into the house right now and tear up some old rags and get some soap and water in a bucket and come right back out and wash off that truck.

  I sang as I washed. I sang the song I had written about the truck, for the truck.

  Yellow truck coming,

  Bringing me home again,

  Yellow truck going,

  I’m on my way

  Outside the barn, Terry Rayford stopped what he was doing and listened. Inside the chicken house, Arizona came to the door and leaned against the doorway and closed his eyes.

  Yellow truck coming,

  Bringing me joy again,

  Yellow truck going,

  Taking me home . . .

  I was standing in the truck bed, bucket at my feet, dressed in one of my old, faded dresses, with the sleeves rolled up past my elbows. I had my hair pulled back, but here and there it kept escaping and I stopped now and then to blow it out of my way. I was washing the roof of the cab. It was all that was left to do. I had washed the tires and the windows and the hood and the sides and the bumpers and the fender and the grill and the wheel wells. I had even washed out the bed. My arms and shoulders ached and I was hot, even though it wasn’t yet spring and winter still hung in the air, and wishing for some overalls like the ones Arizona and Terry wore.

  I finished the last line of the song with the last rub of the roof. I stepped back to look at my work. The sun hit the cab and made it shine. The yellow truck caught the reflection and beamed it back to the sun, like they were talking, having a discussion, trying to decide who was brighter.

  “She looks real pretty,” Arizona said from the chicken house. “She’s just shining like a dime.”

  I nodded. I couldn’t speak. Something in me was filling up and for just a minute I thought I might cry. The sun was so hot and bright, beating right down on this very spot, like this was the only spot on the whole of the earth that it was choosing to shine on. The truck seemed to glow. I picked up my bucket and my rags and walked to the edge of the truck bed and hopped down onto the ground, sloshing the water onto the dirt, turning the red-brown soil into little rivers everywhere.

  Three hours later, the Rayfords were gone. I watched as they walked up the hill and then cut through the trees toward the house they shared with their mama and daddy and their nine brothers and sisters. I waited till they were out of sight and then I went upstairs to the bedroom and from the back of the chifforobe I pulled out my hatbox and opened it up.

  There were the pictures of Carole Lombard and Buddy Rogers, now starting to yellow. There were the painted thimble, the silver whistle, my Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring, the fairy crosses, and the clover jewelry Mama and I had made. The little singing girl given to me by the Wood Carver, her mouth still open in prayer or in song, I couldn’t be sure which. Daddy’s emerald. Johnny Clay’s sapphire. My Nashville money. I opened up the handkerchief and counted. $15.56, after what I’d had to spend for the groceries and pay the Rayford boys. I whistled. Not bad. I put the money away and told myself I just might start saving again. I took out the keys to the yellow truck.

  I slid the hatbox into the back of the chifforobe, behind my clothes and my mandolin. Then I pulled Mama’s brown suitcase out from under the bed. There, mixed in with a couple of old dresses that didn’t fit me anymore, was my framed picture of the Opry.

  “Okay,” I said. “All right.”

  I put the key in the engine. I turned it. The engine sputtered and shook, coughing like Levi on one of his early morning jags. Then it smoothed out and steadied and it kind of hummed like Linc’s old tractor or like Mama’s old cat, Percy, when he purred. I sat there, not steering, listening to the hum, feeling the rumble, the unfamiliar power of it.

  I rolled down the window and let the day in. Then I leaned across the seat—across the framed picture of the Opry, which sat propped up next to me—and took the owner’s manual from the visor. I sat there and read the book from cover to cover. When I was finished, I slid the book back in the visor and said, “That was no help at all.”

  What I needed was a driver’s manual, but Johnny Clay didn’t have one of those. I studied the dash. I put my hand on the gearshift. It rattled and shook with the engine. I yanked my hand away and laughed out loud. I put my hand back and held on to it this time. I put my foot on the brake.

  “Clutch, brake, gas.” I tapped each pedal. I knew which one was which from the manual. “Clutch, brake, gas.” I tapped them again. I pretended to shift while I tapped them. The heat came up from beneath the floorboards and through the firewall. I thought I would melt into the seat. I tried to get the feel of the truck. The engine growled and hummed. I did this over and over and over again.

  Then I rolled up the window and turned
the key until the truck went quiet. I am going to learn to drive this truck, I thought. And the thought was real, like it came from somewhere else, someplace other than me and my own mind and heart. I shivered. I climbed down from the cab of the truck and shut the door. I leaned there for a minute, feeling the heat of the sun and the heat of the truck. Someday. But not today.

  The noise came from the woods. I woke up and reached for Harley, but he wasn’t there. I pulled the covers up around me and listened. It was a bright night—a full moon. The sky was lit up. In the distance, from up in the woods, I could hear the gunshots. One. Two. Three. I slipped out of bed, the floor cold and hard. I found a robe and pulled it on and saw from the clock on the wall—the one that had belonged to Li’l Dean’s mother and her mama before that—that it was just past midnight.

  I put my ear to Levi’s door but I couldn’t hear anything from inside. I cracked the door and looked into the room, but his bed was made and there was no one in it.

  Now I was starting to get scared. Was I alone in the house? I went down the stairs, one at a time, pausing on each step to listen. I made my way through the front room to the kitchen to the back porch, but Levi wasn’t there. Harley’s mudroom was dark—the door open, the desk tidy.

  The nearest neighbor was Floyd Hatch, a quarter of a mile away. I went out onto the porch and wrapped my arms around myself and listened to the night. I said out loud, “Are you there, Lord? It’s Velva Jean. I don’t know what’s happening, but someone’s shooting up in the woods. Harley and Levi are gone. I’m here by myself. I don’t know what to do.”

  Suddenly, Harley and Levi appeared from the woods above the house, rising out of the dark like a couple of spooks. I almost screamed, but then Harley ran for me, damp and laughing. He kissed me hard on the mouth. Then he kissed me softer and took my hand.

  I said, “Where do you think you’ve been, Harley Bright? Did you hear those gunshots? What on earth is going on?”

  We went into the house and Levi came in after us. In the oil light, I could see their hands and arms were scratched bloody and smeared with dirt.

  “What have you been doing?” I said. Harley went into the kitchen to wash his hands. Levi scuffled up the stairs one at a time, talking to himself.

  Harley walked back into the room, drying his hands on a towel. “Let’s go to bed,” he said. He had a look in his eye—a mean, happy look. It was the same look he’d had years ago when he was leading the bad Barrow gang. In spite of myself, my knees went weak.

  I said, “Where have you been? Are you bleeding? Why are you so dirty?” But I let him lead me up to our room.

  In bed he was rough and urgent. Butch’s song started up in my mind. I couldn’t remember any of the words, but I could feel it running inside me. Harley couldn’t get close enough to me, like he was trying to crawl up in me and through me and across me to the other side. Something had gotten him all stirred up. At one point, he pulled away from me and said, “You’d better be thinking of me, Velva Jean. Only me. I don’t want you ever thinking of anyone else.” And he sounded both angry and sad when he said it—his voice far away and lost.

  I said, “Honey, what are you talking about? Of course I’m only thinking of you.” I tried to block out the song. I said, “I love you, Harley Bright,” but by then the moment had passed and he was back and focused, his eyes wicked and laughing, and then wide open and full, and he said, “I love you, too.” And then he collapsed on top of me and I rocked him gently, gently till he fell asleep. For the rest of the night I lay there, wide awake, wondering what on earth had got into him and where on earth he’d been.

  The following afternoon, Sheriff Story came up the mountain on behalf of the National Park Service and the federal government and went from house to house, asking everyone questions. He said that twenty-three trees had been cut down and piled across the fresh-carved scenic roadway, along with logs and other garbage. So far no one would say who did it. When I heard this, my stomach turned over. Suddenly, the night before made sense—the gunshots, the blood and dirt on Harley and Levi’s hands. I tried to push it out of my mind, to tell myself they couldn’t have been involved in something so horrible.

  The sheriff and I stood looking at each other. He was a nice and decent man. He had taken care of my daddy many a time, cleaning him up, keeping him out of trouble, making sure he got home safe. He had taken care of Levi.

  He said, “The government is thinking of hiring park rangers to protect the Scenic. I just don’t understand who would want to cause such damage to a road, especially one that ain’t even built yet. Just because some folks don’t believe in it, don’t mean they have the right to ruin it for the rest of us. I ain’t been many places in my life or seen many things, but I figure that road might give me the chance. I don’t appreciate whoever did this trying to take that chance away.” The sheriff was watching me close. He said, “You know what I mean?”

  For nearly a full minute I couldn’t say anything. After all this time, I had never once thought about it that way. Not even once. When I finally found my voice, I said, “Yes. I think I do.”

  Later that day, after the sheriff was gone, I tiptoed out of the house and down the porch steps and across the yard. Harley was at the church. Levi was up in the woods at his still. I was all alone as usual, stuck up on that hill.

  I got into the yellow truck and turned the key and brought that old engine to life. I hit the starter pedal, letting it go. I put my hand on the gearshift and my left foot on the brake and my right foot on the clutch. I downshifted and felt the truck lurch, and then I took my foot off the brake and hit the clutch and moved my right foot to the gas. I thought: I have no idea what I’m doing. Yellow truck, show me the way.

  The truck started moving backward and I hollered. I hit the brake and moved the gearshift and then eased up on the brake and tapped the gas, and this time I moved forward just a little. I hit the brake. I tapped the gas. I hit the brake. I tapped the gas. I hit the brake. I did this over and over again, my head jerking back and forth, until I had inched past the barn and the chicken house and out toward the front yard. I stopped the truck and adjusted the rearview mirror. I looked at myself. I said, “Look what you’ve done, Velva Jean Hart Bright. You just drove this yellow truck.”

  Then I backed up, one inch at a time, until the truck was back behind the barn, right where it started. Where no one would know it had ever been driven at all.

  TWENTY-NINE

  In one week’s time, the twenty-three trees and the garbage and logs were cleared off the Scenic and construction began on the stretch that wound from Devil’s Courthouse to Buckeye Gap. Miles away, to the west of us, over the ridgeline, crews moved in toward the Indian nation around Soco Gap and down toward Big Witch. We felt surrounded. The road was now closing in and coming at us from two sides. Aunt Junie was already gone from her land, and one day Buck Frey and his family were gone, too, followed by the Toomeys.

  After the damage done to the Scenic, the outlanders stuck to the top of the mountain. For a little while, they didn’t come down to Alluvial, and Butch and the other boys stopped coming to church. Harley was back at work, back to preaching, just like nothing had happened. We never talked about what went on that night. He never offered, and I never asked.

  Janette Lowe was saved on a Sunday in the middle of May. She was born again in the waters of Panther Creek. One minute Harley was talking, not even trying to save anyone—he hadn’t even got up to steam yet, hadn’t even hit his stride. The next minute, Janette went tearing out of the church and was dancing up and down the banks of the stream. She passed over quicker than anyone I’d ever seen, dancing in the Spirit, with love and joy and a fire so pure and wild it could make a doubter believe. “Just like her mama,” Sister Dearborn said. We all stood watching her, especially Harley, who I could tell by the look on his face was wondering what went wrong.

  Janette Lowe danced by me and suddenly I wanted to join her. I thought how silly it was that we just stood staring
at her while she rejoiced, like she was something to be watched, like a carnival show. I wanted to rejoice along with her. For the first time, Janette Lowe didn’t seem worried about how dirty she was or how poor she looked. She didn’t seem to care who watched her dance.

  As she spun by me, she brushed my arm and I grabbed her hand. She looked surprised and then she took hold of my other hand and together we started dancing. I heard Harley call, “Velva Jean.” I caught a glimpse of his frowning face as we spun around and around in happy circles—dizzy, laughing, spinning madly. We laughed and yelled and jumped up and down, and I started to sing. We splashed through the creek and back up on land and our feet moved up and down and didn’t rest.

  On the way home, Harley said, “The two of you looked like fools.”

  I said, “Only to you maybe, but not to the Lord.”

  “To me and the rest of the congregation,” Harley said. “I didn’t even save that girl. How did she know she was saved?”

  I said, “When you’re saved, you know it. You don’t need anyone to tell you.” I thought Harley was being awfully possessive of Jesus these days, just because Jesus had given him a church.

  He didn’t say anything for a minute. Then he said, “You could make ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ sound sexy, Velva Jean.” I could tell he didn’t mean it as a good thing.

  The hem of my skirt, where it was still wet from the creek, smacked against my leg and stuck to it. I focused on that feeling—smack, stick, smack, stick—and in my mind I put myself back in that creek, dancing with Janette, so that Harley couldn’t bring me down.

  The day after Janette Lowe was saved, I sat on the porch in Daddy Hoyt’s rocking chair and thought about the joy in her face as she danced. That joy made me want to sing everywhere, all the time. But suddenly I was fed up with the songs I knew. I had probably sung every song there was to sing on the radio and every hymn and murder ballad at least five times. My own songs seemed silly. I wished I could write a song like the one Butch Dawkins played down at Deal’s—a real song with real feeling, one that would stir people up. Except for the thoughts that I sang to myself now and then, it had been a long time since I’d tried to write anything. I thought: It’s time to change that.

 
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