Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven


  I stood up and went inside the house, right over to Harley’s office. I looked at the neat stacks of paper, the notebooks where he sometimes wrote his sermons because he was too insecure to just let the Lord lead him, the sharpened pencils that he kept in an old milk bottle. Quiet as I could, as if someone might hear me or see me—even though there was no one home but me—I reached out and picked up a pencil and then I opened one of Harley’s notebooks and turned it to the back where the blank pages were. I tore out a page, neat as possible, and then put the notebook back.

  I had never written down any of my songs before. Outside, I sat back down in the rocking chair and looked at the paper and wondered how to begin.

  The next day, after Harley left to go down to the church, I sat out in that rocking chair and I kept on writing. Suddenly I realized how much I had in me—all these words I’d saved up. I started on a song about a boy named Old Mule who loved a girl called BeeBee, about how she sang while he buck danced on a mountain that was named for her and how they lived happily together until the day he broke her heart and left her there to die. When I finished it, I cried for half an hour. Then I took out a new sheet of paper and wrote another song.

  The words came fast and easy, but the music was harder. I got out my mandolin and fiddled around with the strings and tried to put the melody that was in my head down onto the paper. I could read and write basic notes—Mama had taught me—but when I wrote them down, they stopped working together. On the page, they split apart and went their separate ways and when I tried to play back the tunes, they sounded different from the way they sounded in my head.

  At the end of the week, on Friday afternoon, I sat there in that rocker and looked at the stack of papers in my lap. All I had was words and a few notes. I was trying to remember the melodies and keep them in my head where they sounded good, where they worked. Something in me had been stirring around for the past few days, ever since I’d started writing songs. It felt great big, much bigger than me, and it made me feel small but worthy at the same time. I felt just like Janette Lowe, dancing in the Spirit.

  That night I lay in bed, wide awake, curled on my side, waiting for Harley. Just before midnight, he slipped into the bedroom. I heard him undressing and I felt the bed sink as he sat down on it, and then he slid his body between the sheets and I could feel the cool of his pajamas and the heat of his bare chest as he moved behind me and wrapped his arm around me and breathed in my ear.

  There was a song that I’d been singing all day. It was a song I’d written about him, about when we’d first met. I thought I might try to sing it for him. As I lay there next to him, I felt the hard, cold knot start to melt a little—the one that had been building in my chest ever since he wrecked the Scenic. I let my body shift into his, but I kept my back to him. I went over the tune and the words, trying to get it right in my head.

  He tightened his hold on me. The tune started going away from me a little. I tried to get it back.

  “I’m sorry I’m away so much, Velva Jean. It’s just that there’s so much to do. I’m tired, honey. Sometimes I just want to get back on that settee, listen to the radio. But I’m needed there.” His voice was getting blurry, drifting away.

  I said, “You’re needed here.”

  Harley yawned.

  I opened my eyes and stared out into darkness, nothingness, out toward the wall with Harley’s little boy picture and the pictures of his three dead brothers and his mean, dead mama. Every day I meant to take those pictures down and put them away somewhere so I didn’t have to look at them. Every day something happened that made me forget to do it. I ought to put my Opry picture up on that wall where I can look at it all the time, I thought.

  I said, “I wrote a song today. About us when we first met.” I’m writing lots of songs. I’m teaching myself to drive. I had the tune in my head. It was waiting. When he didn’t say anything, I said, “Harley?”

  His breathing had shifted and he was asleep, his arm around me—weighing me down, pushing me down like it weighed one hundred pounds—his breath heavy on my neck. I lay there the rest of the night, warm and uncomfortable, and too disturbed to sleep.

  THIRTY

  Two weeks after Janette Lowe was saved, I walked to Alluvial to do the shopping with what was left of the money I had saved from my apron fund. The first thing I noticed was that the boys from the Scenic were back. I saw them hanging around on the porch at Deal’s and rocking in the chairs at Lucinda Sink’s.

  I looked for my daddy, to see if he was with them, but he wasn’t. And then I looked for Butch, and I didn’t see him either. After I did the shopping, I went to call on Mrs. Dennis and Dr. Hamp. I sat with them and had tea out of the little rose teacups that Mrs. Dennis was so proud of, the ones that had belonged to her grandmother.

  I left with a stack of books from their library—The Motor Girls on a Tour; a collection of stories on auto journeys (including one about Alice Ramsey, the first woman to drive coast-to-coast in 1909); and Emily Post’s By Motor to the Golden Gate, telling about her motor trip from New York to San Francisco in 1917 and her tips for driving across country by automobile. I also left with two manuals: How to Drive and Man and the Motor Car. I figured if I was going to learn to drive, I was going to do it right.

  As I came out of Dr. Hamp’s house, I saw Butch sitting on the steps of Deal’s. He was tuning his steel guitar and drinking from a bottle of root beer. When he saw me, he waved me over. He said, “What you got there?”

  I said, “Just some books.”

  He nodded. He kept tuning, his hands sliding up and down the guitar, working the strings.

  I said, “Have you had any sings lately?” I missed hearing about them.

  He squinted up at me. “We’re having one tomorrow night. You should come.”

  I said, “I don’t think so.” What I wanted to say was, “I’ll be there.” I shifted under the weight of the books. They were heavy in my arms. I wanted to ask him about the music I was trying to write, but I didn’t know how. I said, “I been writing songs.”

  He said, “Words?”

  “Mostly. Something happens when I try to put the music down. The notes get scattered.”

  He nodded. He put the broken bottle neck in his mouth and played a few chords. He took the bottle neck back out and twirled it in his fingers before sliding it into his pocket. “You want me to help you?” He had this look about him like a cat that just swallowed a bird. It was a look he wore a lot, like he was thinking things to himself—dangerous things or racy things or things that only he knew—that he wasn’t about to share with anyone else.

  “Yes.” I said it without thinking.

  “You got any with you?”

  “No.”

  “I’ll come up to the house then. But I don’t want to see Harley. Nothing against you, but I got nothing to say to him.” I thought about the Scenic, about all Harley had done.

  I said, “He’s got a meeting at the church tonight. I don’t have to go with him.” My heart sped up. What would Harley say if he knew I was telling Butch Dawkins to come up there while he was gone?

  Butch said, “I’ll see you then.”

  I went home that afternoon and finished my work, and then I took the books outside to the truck and set them on the seat next to my Opry picture. I sat in the truck and, one by one, picked up the books and flipped through their pages.

  Alice Ramsey taught herself to drive her husband’s car, one he had never learned to drive himself. She had already driven it six thousand miles, in the summer of 1908, before she ever drove it across the country—which she did without even using a road map. She once said, “Good driving has nothing to do with sex. It’s all above the collar.”

  I read parts of Emily Post and parts of the Motor Girls book, and then for a while I studied the driving manuals. They both said the same thing—do not learn to drive without a teacher. According to the books, not only couldn’t I drive a car without a teacher, I couldn’t possibly drive a car unti
l I understood the engine and all of its “mechanical possibilities” and “limitations.” I was supposed to know how to read the water temperature gauge, the oil pressure gauge, and something called the ammeter. There were words like “throttle valve,” “crankshaft,” “choke valve,” “flywheel,” “differential pinion,” and “combustion chamber.”

  There were five steps to starting the engine. After that there were seven steps to putting the car into drive. Then the steering began.

  There were five steps for stopping the car from low gear; four steps for shifting from low to second gear; five for shifting from second to high gear; three to stop from high gear; five to shift from high to second gear; seven when turning around; and six when parking on an angle.

  I was so confused by the time I was done reading that I wondered how on earth I had ever even got the truck started. I thought I would just put the books away and never open them again and that maybe I would give up driving. I threw the books onto the floor. When I did, Man and the Motor Car fell over and opened to a page in the middle.

  As I leaned down to pick it up, I read, under the heading: “Are Women Worse Drivers Than Men? According to available statistics, the answer is No. The average man is four times as likely to have an accident as the average woman, and five times as likely to have a fatal accident.”

  “Maybe men are the ones without sense,” I said out loud. Then I hit the clutch, flipped the ignition switch, released the starter pedal, and pressed my foot on the gas as I downshifted and started steering myself forward toward the front yard. My heart was pounding. I got scared and stopped, jerking forward so hard that my head nearly hit the windshield. I started over again. Brake, clutch, gas, shift, steer. The truck pulled to the right and I steered to the left to make up for it, and all of a sudden I was sailing right past the house. I turned the wheel as hard as I could so that I could go around the side. My arms ached. I forgot what to do with my feet. I jerked to a stop again.

  I was breathing hard. Sailing past the house was exhilarating. It was like hanging upside down from the chinquapin trees or spying on the Wood Carver and feeling like I was about to be discovered and killed only to find out I was being saved instead. It was like singing in front of strangers and having them clap for you. It was like writing the words to a song and seeing them on paper for the first time.

  I sat there trying to catch my breath and then I started over from the beginning. I steered my way around the other side of the house. I made it all the way around without stopping, and then I started at the front of the house and circled it again. I thought: I’m “harnessing the engine!” It was something I had read in one of the books.

  I drove around the house five times in all, and each time it got easier; each time I stopped and stalled less. Finally, on the last trip, I made it all the way around without stopping. I put that yellow truck in gear and set my foot on the gas and laid my hands on the wheel, and I just sailed around the house, finding the rhythm of the clutch when I needed to shift gears, feeling the rhythm of the truck, the rhythm of the land beneath the tires. I thought: Driving is like music. You just have to feel it. When you drive there’s no such thing as counting steps or worrying about money or feeling alone.

  After I made it all the way around once without stopping, I thought I should quit while I was ahead—let myself end on a high note. I told myself that next time I would go around the house five times without stopping. And then I would drive down the hill. One day I would drive down to Alluvial and maybe even as far as Hamlet’s Mill. But I thought: That’s enough for now. You can stop here. You don’t have to do it all today.

  Half an hour after Harley left for church, Butch came ambling up the hill, guitar over his shoulder. I met him outside on the porch and we sat in the dusk, side by side on the steps—just like Harley and me years ago when he used to come calling. Butch laid his guitar down beside him and took his time rolling a cigarette. Even in the fading light, the guitar gleamed. I wanted to ask him where he got it and how much it cost. I wanted to hold that guitar and play it myself. When he was done, he offered the cigarette to me, and I shook my head.

  “How long you been smoking?” I said. I was nervous. I had a nagging feeling I was trying to ignore, like I was doing something wrong having him up here with Harley gone. I wanted to make conversation. He had me on edge. I thought: I don’t know anything about this boy.

  He said, “I can’t remember.” He put the cigarette in his mouth and lit it, taking a drag. He shook out the match and said, “Show me what you got written down.”

  I brought out my papers even though I didn’t want to show him. I felt shy. I thought: What if he laughs at my words and these sad little notes that are running all over the page? The notes looked like they wanted to escape, like they couldn’t wait to get free. I thought he might tell me I was crazy for trying to write my songs down at all.

  He took the pages and thumbed through them. He wore a large silver ring on his left hand. It was shaped like an eagle. On his right wrist he wore three strings of beads, the color of the earth, and on his left wrist he wore a band of old, worn leather. Around his neck, he still wore those beads of burned red. Harley didn’t wear any jewelry except for his wedding band. Sitting close to Butch, I smelled the heavy green smell of woods and the smell of tobacco, sweet and bitter. I tried not to think what Harley would do if he came back and saw me sitting here like this, even though I wasn’t doing anything wrong. After all, Butch was a friend of Johnny Clay’s, even if I didn’t know much about him.

  I said, “Who’s coming to the sing tomorrow? Is that man that picks the guitar with his teeth going to be there?”

  He said, “I’m not done reading.”

  I got quiet. Finally, he was finished. He tapped the papers against his leg so that they stacked back up and then he handed them to me. He said, “These are good songs. You write exactly what you know, which is what you should do. You write the truth, Velva Jean.” I didn’t tell him that one reason I did was because of him, because of the song he’d played at Deal’s. “The words are there. But the notes aren’t working for you. I want you to close your eyes right now and sing me one of these songs. Just pick one. Don’t look at the page. Don’t worry about the words. If you can’t remember them, just sing anything that comes to mind. It doesn’t even have to be a real word—just sing la or so or sing stump weed over and over. I just want you to think about the music.”

  I sat there and didn’t sing because I was embarrassed. I wasn’t about to sing anything in front of him, much less anything as ugly as “stump weed.”

  He said, “What are you waiting for? I’m not going to laugh at you, girl. I’m here to help.”

  I said, “If you laugh at me, I’ll kill you.”

  He laughed and held up his hands. I thought how nice he looked when he laughed, even if his teeth were uneven and not straight like Harley’s. “I’m not going to laugh at you. I swear. Go on.” And he rearranged his face so it was serious.

  I took a breath and began to sing. It was a song about living up on Devil’s Kitchen, all closed up and quiet, about how I used to go places like my daddy but now all I did was hang up the laundry and serve the food and dream of riding that road of unlimited opportunity, when I dreamed at all. I didn’t think it was very good.

  When I finished he was staring at me. I said, “What?” He was making me nervous.

  He said, “Your brother’s right. Your voice is something special, Velva Jean. I wonder if you know how good it is. Song’s good, too. Now let’s put it down on paper.”

  I could barely breathe. I said, “But I don’t know how.”

  He said, “Yes you do. You felt it when you sang it, didn’t you? You just got to put those feelings on the page. Don’t worry about the notes.”

  He set the cigarette down, its end burning off the porch, and took the paper and pencil from me. He said, “Sing.” I sang. While I sang, he drew. He drew big sweeping lines and low lines and soft lines and hard lines, all
following the ups and downs, crests and valleys of the melody. When I was finished singing, when he was finished drawing, he held it out to me and said, “You can put the notes in later. But this right here? This is your song, Velva Jean.”

  I looked at the paper and he was right. I said, “How did you know to do that?”

  He said, “It’s just something I taught myself. Sometimes you got to not overthink things. Sometimes you got to just feel, especially when it comes to music. Notes, scales, they can just get in the way.” He leaned toward me and for one minute I thought he was going to touch my chest, right over my heart. I stopped breathing then. He gave me one of those cat-swallowing-the-bird looks. I couldn’t read him at all. Then he sat back and picked up his cigarette and stuck it between his lips. He took a smoke. He knocked himself lightly in the chest. He said, “This is where it comes from. The trick is getting it from here,” he tapped himself again, “to here.” He touched the paper.

  We worked a while longer and then he stood to go, picking up his guitar.

  I said, “Did you ever know a man who worked on the Scenic name of Lincoln Hart?”

  He leaned against the railing. “The name ain’t familiar. Why?”

  I gathered up my papers—my songs. “No reason,” I said.

  It got to where I couldn’t wait for Harley to leave and for Levi to leave and for the Rayfords to go on home after they were done with their work. I would watch them walk off and then I would write down my songs. I covered pages and pages with words and lines. When I was done, I would run for the truck.

 
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