Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  I drove backward and forward and over the hills and around the trees. I drove round and round the house. I bumped and bounced all over the meadow, mowing down the flowers. I felt bad about that, but the field was perfect for driving. It was flat and wide and open. I drove in straight lines and circles. I backed up and drove forward again and again.

  I got to know that truck like the back of my hand. I learned that once it got going, you almost couldn’t hear yourself think for all the wind noise. I learned to be careful turning corners because you could catch your pinky between the steering wheel and the door. I learned that the truck had a tendency to wander from side to side if you weren’t careful because the kingpins on the front axle were worn down. I learned that if you got to going above twenty miles per hour, it took on a real serious shimmy.

  The one thing that had stuck in my head from the driving manuals was that I needed to know how the truck worked. What if I was out somewhere on the road by myself and something happened? What if I had to change a tire or change the oil or the radiator fluid? I decided to teach myself about the engine. So I studied the books. I took How to Drive with me when I crawled underneath the truck to learn about what went on down there. And I propped it up next to me when I opened the hood and studied each and every spark plug and connecting rod. I laid it on the ground while I took off one of the tires and put it back on again, just to learn how.

  I sang while I worked on the engine and I sang while I drove. I sang old songs but I also sang the new ones I had written myself. Sometimes on days or nights when Harley had a meeting, Butch would come over to Devil’s Kitchen when he wasn’t working, and we’d meet up on the hill where I liked to go and sing—the one where I could really hear myself. There, he would help me put my songs down on paper and we would sit and talk about music, about what it meant to us. I tried to ask him questions about where he came from, about where he was going, about his family, his work on the Scenic, his guitar, his tattoo—but he never answered. Instead he sang me songs he had written and taught me to play the blues on the mandolin. I taught him to pick the guitar like Maybelle Carter and showed him how to buck dance. Sometimes he sat beside me in the truck and played me a song while I drove us around and around. Sometimes we sang together.

  Emily Post said, “Is there anything more exhilarating than an automobile running smoothly along?” By now I knew exactly what she was talking about except that I would have added “and writing and playing your own music” to that, too.

  It was hard not to mention my driving or my music to Harley. At supper we talked over our days and I listened to him go on about the work he was doing over at the church, about Brother Harriday and the revival they were planning or the homecoming they were planning or the money they were trying to raise or the cow they had rounded up for Berletta Snow.

  When he asked me about my day, instead of telling him I had taught myself to drive the truck in reverse or to turn the truck around without stalling or that I had learned to change the oil—something I was especially proud of—or that I had written a new song and learned a mean, low-down blues riff on my mandolin, I told him about doing the shopping or working in the barn or mentioned that it was almost time for a new broom, that the bristles were wearing down on our old one.


  By the second week in June, the heat was all anyone could talk about. No one could remember it ever being so hot in our mountains, especially so early. Harley said we were being punished for something, that something was brewing and we were all paying the price. It was the Lord’s way of reminding us who was in charge.

  The Rayfords worked with their shirts off and I tried not to stare. I thought: So that’s what it’s come to. You’re as bad as Lucinda Sink. You might as well go down there right now to the Alluvial Hotel—if only you had the energy to move—and ask her if you can just come live with her and start up business.

  I turned on the radio, bored with the heat, bored with my life. I sat on the porch with the mending and rocked and fanned myself and I thought about what Ruby Poole had said about how she would live in a tree as long as she could be with Linc. I wondered now if I could live in a tree with Harley. I could barely live in a nice house with him lately, what for the heat and the feeling so stuck and alone.

  Lately, since the heat spell, I had been having horrible thoughts along the lines of: Well. I suppose this is it. I will spend the rest of my life up here on this mountain all by myself. There is nothing else to look forward to. I will just live out my time driving that old yellow truck around this house and talking to myself and singing along to the radio, as long as the battery works, and looking after these men who don’t pay any attention to me and taking care of this farm and writing my songs down on paper. Every once in a while I will see my family, but it will never be long enough, and maybe one day Harley will decide we should try to have a baby, so then at least there will be someone else to talk to up here, even if it will be a while before it’s able to hold a conversation. And then I will raise the baby by myself while Harley is off at church and Levi is off at the still, and then that baby will go off somewhere and leave me behind here in this house on this mountain, and then I suppose I will die. Yes. I guess that is how it will go.

  I was too hot to even pick up a pencil and write down my songs. I was too hot to even think of any. That is what the heat of June and living in Devil’s Kitchen had done to me.

  To make myself feel better, I had started playing a game. It was a way to make myself feel more linked to the outside world, like I belonged in it and wasn’t trapped up here in Devil’s Kitchen. I started with Troublesome Creek, which ran just past the house and then fed into Panther Creek, which fed into Three Gum River. I liked to think of how Three Gum River then emptied into the Pigeon River, which flowed into the French Broad River, which merged with the Green River and then with the Broad River, which eventually flowed into the ocean. When I sat on the porch and looked out at Troublesome Creek, running right through my front yard, and thought how that little bit of water ended up feeding into the great big ocean, I felt easier.

  “Darlon C. Reynolds has come all the way from Nashville via New York City to find the best hillbilly talent off the mountains,” the radio announcer was saying. “For the next five days, he’s taken up residence in the Waynesville Grand, an old vaudeville theater in downtown Waynesville, hearing anyone who can pick or fiddle or sing.”

  I didn’t like the term “hillbilly.” I thought it sounded mean. I wondered who Darlon C. Reynolds thought he was to come here and call people that.

  “If you can sing and play,” the announcer said, “Darlon C. Reynolds wants you to come make a record.”

  I pricked my finger over and over. There were little red dots where the blood kept springing out. I set the mending on my lap. I hated sewing. I thought sewing was one of the stupidest things a person could do.

  “He’ll pay fifty dollars per record to the best of the bunch.”

  I threw the mending down and went into the front room and stared at the radio. Fifty dollars was a fortune. What did Darlon C. Reynolds mean coming down here and offering up that kind of money?

  The train ran from here to Waynesville or we could take a car. I knew Johnny Clay would go with me if I asked him. After all, he wasn’t working regular now that he was so rich—just panning for gems here and there when it suited him, and driving around in his convertible. But I could never tell Harley. Harley wouldn’t like it one bit. “How would it look, Velva Jean?” he’d say.

  “Get yourself down there to Waynesville,” the announcer was saying. “Get yourself down there right now.”

  It was far enough to Waynesville that Johnny Clay thought we should spend the night, but I told him that was impossible. Harley would never stand for it. I didn’t plan for him to know I’d even left the Alluvial Valley. I got up before the rooster, up before Harley or Levi. I fixed the breakfast and left Harley a note. It said: “I’ve gone to Granny’s. Back before supper.”

/>   The birds were awake and singing. The sun was just starting to creep into the sky, which was colored pink and gold and blue. There were clouds off in the distance, off toward Sinking Mountain, but overhead it was clear. I walked down the hill, all the way to the bottom, carrying my shoes. I carried my mandolin in the other hand. I wanted to wear my dress with the bolero jacket, even though it was hot as the devil, but I didn’t want to take the chance that Harley would see me. So I was wearing Mama’s old flowered dress. My Magnet Red lipstick rattled in the bottom of one of my shoes. I picked a flower and stuck it in my hair.

  Johnny Clay met me at the bottom of the hill in Alluvial. By the time I reached him, the sun was up and the sky was blazing white and blue. The sun warmed my skin, turning it pink. I could feel it freckling already. Johnny Clay was sitting in the car with his head tipped back against the seat, eyes closed, sun lighting up his face. I climbed in beside him and said, “Well. Let’s go to Waynesville.”

  We were a mile past Hamlet’s Mill, speeding along in the Nash, wind blowing our hair, when the words started running through my head: “Who can find a virtuous woman?” It went on, getting louder and louder. Who can find a virtuous woman?

  I began to talk, hoping that would put a stop to it. “How many people you think will be there?”

  “Hard to know.” Johnny Clay was holding the wheel with one hand and reaching over the seat with the other to check on his guitar, to make sure it was secure on the backseat and wouldn’t fall onto the floor. He’d brought it along because he said he might play something himself.

  The Nash bumped along the dirt road curving down the mountain to Waynesville. We wound up and down hills, the car bouncing so much we could barely talk. All the time, the sun beat bright overhead. Johnny Clay was a wonderful driver. He could fly over those mountains. I was holding my mandolin in my arms like a baby. I thought I would go black-and-blue from swinging against the sides of the car.

  Who can find a virtuous woman?

  I began to speak louder, “I don’t know what I’m going to sing. What if I forget the words?”

  Johnny Clay gave me a look. “What’re you shouting for?”

  “I just didn’t think you could hear me over all the noise.” I was trying not to think of Harley up at the church. I was trying not to think what he would do or say if he found out about this.

  I pictured him coming home and asking me what I did today. I pictured lying to him, to his face. He would kiss me and it would be done and I would have to live with it, carrying the lie around inside myself until it grew heavier and heavier.

  “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.”

  I thought of the time I ran away from Sweet Fern and got chased by the panther. Years later I still had a scar down my leg. It had faded some, but Daddy Hoyt said I would probably always have it, the scar I still wore for lying and running away.

  I said, “Stop the car.” We were driving round a high hill, closing us off on both sides. There was no room to stop. The sun disappeared and there was only the hill, looming over us, shutting out the sky.

  “What’s wrong?” Johnny Clay kept driving.

  “I can’t go,” I said.


  “I can’t.”

  His grin faded and then he sighed. “Harley?” I nodded. He rubbed at his jaw.

  “I been hearing this voice in my head ever since we started down.” I thought of Darlon C. Reynolds and his recording machine, but mostly I thought about Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry. I’d brought along the words to some of my best songs, like the one about the yellow truck and another about an orphan girl who runs away and becomes a famous singing star, and I’d painted my lips with lipstick and then rubbed them with Vaseline so that they shone. “Harley would kill me.”

  “Well.” He waited till we were past the high hill and back on the open road, and then he stopped the car completely. “Shit.”

  “I’m sorry, Johnny Clay. You go on.”

  He looked down the road and then back at me. “I’m in love with Lucinda Sink,” he said, all of a sudden. We sat there looking at each other.

  I said, “What did you just say?” I thought maybe I’d heard him wrong.

  He said, “You heard me. I’m in love with her. I always have been. Ever since I was thirteen years old and Daryl Gordon dared me to go knock on her door. I want to marry her. I keep asking her, but she keeps saying no.”

  I said, “You could have any girl on Fair Mountain or Devil’s Courthouse or Witch or Bone or Blood mountain. You could have any girl in Asheville or Atlanta or even New York City. Why do you want her?”

  He said, “Because I love her. She’s my life’s dream, Velva Jean. Just like singing’s your life’s dream.”

  “She’s not your life’s dream. Gold panning’s your dream. Or gem mining. Or being a cowboy. Or a pilot. Or a spy. Or an adventurer.” Or my hero.

  He looked off toward the distance. The sun was beating down on us. My hair was starting to curl up. I was starting to feel hot from the inside. I wanted to feel the wind again. I wanted to go.

  He said, “Those are just things I want to do. But they don’t mean much when you get down to it. I only chased that gold vein and mined those gems and bought this car to make something of myself, so she’d see I was serious, so I could take care of her. ‘What will it take, Lucy?’ I said to her. ‘What will it take to get you to marry me?’

  “ ‘There’s nothing you can do, honey,’ she said. ‘You’re too good for me. I’m too old for you. Too used up. You’re young and beautiful and have places to go. Your whole life is ahead of you. Get out of here while you can.’ ”

  I said, “I don’t understand it.” I folded my arms up around my mandolin and looked away from him. The more I sat there, the hotter I got. I wanted to punish him for loving Lucinda Sink when he should have loved someone nice and normal, someone we all could have approved of.

  He said, “I only told you because I thought you, out of anyone, would understand.”

  I didn’t say anything.

  He said, “Let me ask you something. You still want to be a singer at the Opry?”

  I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t speaking to him.

  “Answer me, Velva Jean.”

  “Why you asking me that, Johnny Clay?”

  “Because I sure as hell haven’t heard you mention it since you met Harley Bright.”

  “Johnny Clay, what do I want to be famous for? I’m a married woman.” I shot him a look and then turned away again and stared out the window. I said it to punish him, to make him angry. What I wanted to say was, yes, I do. I still want to wear rhinestones and stand on that stage and sing my songs for everyone. I just forgot for a while, but now I remember. The only thing is I don’t know how to make that dream come true anymore because I am planted just like a tree up there in Devil’s Kitchen.

  “I ought to make you get out and walk home.” Now he sounded mad.

  “You wouldn’t.”

  “Oh, but wouldn’t I? All your life, all you’ve ever talked about was the Opry, till Harley came along. And then suddenly it’s like you forgot you ever spent your whole life planning to go there one day. You should just get out and start walking home right now.” He turned his face away and looked ahead, his hands on the wheel. His hands were broad and tanned and nicked up with scars around the knuckles. We didn’t speak for a long time.

  “I been working on songs,” I said. I was so mad at him. I wished I had all my songs with me so I could throw them in his face. “I’m writing them down this time. Music and words. You wouldn’t believe how many I’ve written. Good ones too. Ones to stir people up. I can even play the blues some.”

  He looked at me. “Where’d you learn to play the blues?”

  I said, “Butch Dawkins taught me.”

  He stared at me but didn’t say anything. He said, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

>   I said, “Don’t you talk to me. Don’t you try to make this cheap.” You, in love with a whore-lady, I thought. I turned away. “Lucinda Sink,” I said. “So what now? You think you can make her change her mind?”

  “I don’t know. I hope so. If I can’t, I just don’t know what I’ll do.” He rubbed at the steering wheel, back and forth, back and forth. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back in the sun. The light caught him and lit him up all over and showed only what was best and good about him, and I thought, Lucinda Sink is the stupidest woman that ever lived.

  I turned around and looked back up the road to home. It wound so much that you couldn’t even see where we had come from. I couldn’t tell which of the mountains was Fair Mountain. It just blended in with all the rest. Who can find a virtuous woman? I looked at the road in front of me. Darlon C. Reynolds is looking for musical acts—fifty dollars per record to the best hillbilly talent he can find.

  I looked at Johnny Clay. I looked down at my daddy’s mandolin, and then at my wedding ring. I looked up at the trees, at the sky, at the sun. And then I said, “Let’s just keep driving.”

  Waynesville was beautiful. It sat at the bottom of high mountains that swept away and upward from its downtown. Main Street was one long block of storefronts and churches with steeples that reached up toward the mountains. The theater was on the corner of a downtown street. Folks spilled out of the double doors and onto the sidewalk, winding down the street through town. They carried instruments and some of them were dressed like they were from Atlanta or New York, in fancy clothes bought at department stores. I wished now that I’d worn my dress with the bolero jacket after all. I felt silly in Mama’s homely, worn-out dress, and Johnny Clay in his overalls. We looked like hillbillies. We looked like exactly what they were expecting.

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