Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven


  “There are so many of them,” I said. We were cruising down the street, past the line of people. There were young people and old people and people in between. They came in buggies, on horseback, in automobiles, on foot, carrying their guitars and fiddles and banjos. Suddenly, I wanted to turn around, but we were here and we had come a long way and Johnny Clay was parking the car and we were staying.

  After an hour waiting in line—wet and freckled from the blazing sun—I said to Johnny Clay, “I don’t think we’re going to make it. This line moves so slow and there’s more folks waiting inside, and at this rate we’ll never get in there. I can’t be late home or Harley will have a fit.”

  Johnny Clay was standing behind me with his guitar slung over his shoulder, his arms crossed over his chest. He narrowed his eyes at me and then at the line ahead of us. Then he grabbed my hand and said, “Come on,” and he stepped out of line and dragged me around toward the side of the building.

  “Johnny Clay! Now we lost our place!” I watched as the people behind us moved up.

  He said, “Come on, Velva Jean.”

  There was a door on the side of the building. Johnny Clay kept one hand on my arm and tried to open it. It was locked. He pulled me with him and went around back. There were some rickety, rusty iron steps and a door at the top. He let go of me and sprinted up the steps, which made a sound like a saw waving back and forth—a spooky, metal sound of wind and rattle. He tried the door and it opened and he waved at me, “Come on.”

  “No,” I said.

  “Get up here.”

  “I will not. I don’t want to do this the wrong way, Johnny Clay. I only want to do this the right way.”

  “Who’s to say this ain’t the right way?” He shifted his guitar. “You want to sing, don’t you? Or do you want to get back in the car right now and drive home and think for the rest of your life about what might have happened if you’d just walked in this door?”

  I was standing in the middle of a tall patch of weeds, on a mound of red clay. All around me back there was nothing but weeds and overgrown grass and red spots of earth. The paint on the sides of the theater was crumbling. It looked like it hadn’t been used in a while, like maybe it had sat abandoned till Darlon C. Reynolds came along and decided to pack it full of hillbillies. That was how I felt up on the mountain sometimes, like I was sitting empty, my voice going to waste. I set my foot on the bottom stair and my hand on the railing and climbed up after my brother.

  We came out in the second-floor balcony. Down below on the stage were three girls and a boy. Two of them had guitars and the boy had a banjo, and the three girls were singing “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” It was just awful—slow and flat and out of key. There were two men running the recording machine and a round man, with round glasses and thin brown hair, sitting in the front row.

  Johnny Clay and I stood still as we could till the bad singers were done, and then we moved down to the edge of the balcony. I fanned myself a little and held my hair off my neck and then fanned my neck before I dropped my hair back down. The round man didn’t stand up. From his seat he said, “Thank you. But I’m afraid we can only use original tunes.”

  The boy said, “We got an original tune. One I wrote tother day.” The boy’s voice was halfway between a bark and a wheeze. He sounded like he had the croup.

  The man said, “I’m afraid we can’t use you. Thanks for coming in though.”

  Suddenly, a woman appeared—also with glasses and light blond hair piled high up on her head. She was wearing a smart green suit and green high-heeled shoes. She smiled and guided the singers off the stage. Johnny Clay’s guitar shifted then and bumped against the balcony railing and the round man looked up. He said, “What are you doing up there?”

  Johnny Clay said, “That line was too long. We got to get home soon and you need to hear her before we go.”

  The man said, “You have to wait in line like everyone else.” He stood up and stretched his arms and rubbed his neck. He was short with only four or five strands of hair combed over his head. Underneath that hair, his head shone just like he had rubbed it with a cloth. He said, “I’d be in a fine mess if everyone decided to cut in line.”

  Johnny Clay looked around. The theater was empty except for us and the three men. Johnny Clay said, “Yeah you would. But you’re not because we’re the only ones that are doing it.”

  The round man crossed his arms and leaned with his rear end against the seat back. He looked at the other two men, a look that said watch me mess with this hillbilly. He said, “Let’s hear her then. But stay right up there. Don’t even bother coming down. I may need to send you out as quickly as you came in.”

  Johnny Clay looked at me and said, “Well. Go ahead.”

  I said, “What do you mean ‘go ahead’? Why don’t you go ahead?”

  He said, “You’re the one he’s waiting to hear.”

  Down below, the men started laughing to themselves. That made me mad. I was mad at them and mad at Johnny Clay. I pulled out my mandolin and started playing. I played the song I’d written about the panther because that was one of the maddest songs I’d ever written. After I was done, I looked at Johnny Clay and said, “I ain’t speaking to you anymore today.”

  The men were standing up and staring. They were all three looking up at me. The round man said, “Young lady, do you have any more songs like that one?”

  I said, “Yessir. All I got is songs.”

  The song I ended up singing on the front side of the record was “Yellow Truck Coming, Yellow Truck Going.” The one I sang on the back side was “Old Red Ghost,” which I’d rewritten some with Butch’s help.

  I stood right up next to the microphone and directed my voice into it, and on “Old Red Ghost” Johnny Clay stood at his own microphone and accompanied me on guitar and sang harmony.

  When we were done, the round man, who turned out to be none other than Darlon C. Reynolds, said, “I’d like you to stay over for a couple of days and record some more songs. I’d like to give you a recording contract.”

  I said, “I have to be getting home. If I’m not home tonight in time for supper, my husband will pitch a fit. He thinks I’m at my granny’s right now.”

  Darlon C. Reynolds looked at me like he couldn’t understand a word of what I’d just said. He said, “I will pay you fifty dollars per song. I want to put you on the radio.”

  I said, “I have to get home to cook supper.”

  Mr. Reynolds looked at Johnny Clay like he wanted some help. Johnny Clay just shook his head. He said, “You’d have to meet her husband to understand.”

  I said, “Will you be paying me now?”

  Darlon C. Reynolds smiled. He nodded at Lesley Hall, his secretary, the woman in the green suit. She brought out a checkbook and a fancy black pen. “What is your full name, dear?” she said.

  “If it’s all the same,” I said, “I’d prefer cash. I don’t have any place to put that check.”

  Miss Hall and Mr. Reynolds looked at each other and he nodded. She said, “Of course.” And then she counted out one hundred dollars and stood up and handed it to me.

  “Thank you,” I said. I handed twenty-five of it to Johnny Clay for his half of “Old Red Ghost.”

  I said, “Can I have a copy of my record?”

  Mr. Reynolds said, “Of course. You give me your address and I’ll have it sent to you.” Then he said, “You ever come to Nashville or New York, you look me up. We could use someone like you—someone with actual talent. We’ll make more records. There’s no telling what we’ll do.” He handed me a card. I looked at it and there were all sorts of numbers and his name in slanting letters, just like Harley’s on the little white cards he liked to carry around and leave for people.

  I said, “Thank you.” Then I sighed. For one afternoon, I’d been a singing star. I had let myself think of rhinestones again. I had pretended my worn black shoes were high-heeled cowboy boots and that Mama’s old dress was a satin costume.

  The
n I shook Darlon C. Reynolds’s hand and asked to borrow a pen and paper. I wrote down my name “c/o Deal’s General Store, Alluvial, Fair Mountain, North Carolina.” I handed it to Miss Hall. Then Johnny Clay and I picked up our instruments and walked out of the theater and into the sunlight, which blinded us for just a moment after being inside for so long. Then we ran for the car, fast as we could, past the long line of people still waiting to be seen.

  “How was your day, Velva Jean?” Harley asked that night. We were sitting on the porch after supper. It was still so hot out that the tree frogs were barely humming. I had gotten home late, in a panic that I would be found out. But Harley got back just after me and Levi after that. By the time they walked in, supper was on the table.

  “It was fine,” I said. “Hot.”

  “Yeah,” he said. “This heat is bound to break sometime.”

  “You would think,” I said. I wondered when I had stopped talking to him or wanting to try. I wondered when I had started keeping everything inside of me. I wondered if it was his fault or mine or if it was both of ours.

  We sat there for a while in silence. He had already told me the latest news of the Scenic and the fact that he was pushing the revival from August to September. He said, “I think I’ll go on up to bed. Are you coming?”

  I said, “In a minute.”

  He stood up and kissed me on the head and then he went inside. I sat there, staring out into the dark across to the mountains—to my mountain, the one named for my family—and thought about my actual day, not the one I’d told Harley about. The first thing I’d done when I got home was open the family record book and write it down in there: “Velva Jean records her songs.” I never wanted to forget it. I thought it was just about the best day I ever had.

  THIRTY-TWO

  Suddenly, all I could think about was Nashville. And rhinestones. And high-heeled cowboy boots. And Hawaiian steel guitars. I was letting myself dream about the Grand Ole Opry again. I carried Darlon C. Reynolds’s little white card around in my apron pocket and took it out when no one was around and stared at it. “Darlon C. Reynolds, Decca Records, New York, New York; Nashville, Tennessee.” I memorized the numbers that were printed there, and sometimes, when I was down at Deal’s doing the shopping, I thought about asking Mr. Deal to use his telephone. I imagined placing a call to Mr. Reynolds himself to tell him I was on my way to Nashville, that I would see him soon so we could record more songs. I would just leave the grocery bags with Mr. Deal and hop the train and go. Or, better yet, I’d go back up the hill and climb in that yellow truck and drive to Nashville myself.

  It was getting harder and harder to sit still. On the morning of June 20, Harley was at the church and Levi was up in the woods. I climbed behind the wheel of my yellow truck and headed to Alluvial. I could make it ten times around the house now without stopping and I figured I was good enough to drive down the hill.

  I felt such a thrill that I could hardly breathe. I thought Harley might kill me if he found out. I thought Sweet Fern might faint if she saw me. Heaven knew what people would say. But I didn’t care. The thought of shocking everyone only made it more exciting. It was my truck and I was going to drive it.

  I changed my mind the minute I started down the hill. It was too soon. I still didn’t know how to drive. I wasn’t ready to leave the yard. Going downhill was a lot different from driving on flat ground. But once I got started, I couldn’t stop. The truck went faster and faster, picking up speed till I couldn’t feel the ground anymore. I kept slamming my foot on the brake, but that truck just took off like it had a mind of its own. It acted like it couldn’t wait to get back down there to Alluvial, back to where it used to live. I closed my eyes and prayed to Jesus to let me live to see the bottom. Then I opened my eyes and saw the blur of trees and sky and green, green, green go flying by.

  I shouted, “Old truck, you are not in charge here!” There were too many things in charge of me. I was not about to let some truck be in charge of me, too. I grabbed hold of that wheel and started wrestling with it. I grabbed on to the gearshift and pumped the brake and finally the truck slowed down.

  I came to a stop just outside Deal’s, the breath knocked out of me. I turned the truck off and put the keys in my purse and climbed down to the ground on shaky legs. A few of the boys from the Scenic were standing outside Deal’s, loading up with some sort of supplies that I guessed they were taking back up the mountain. A couple of old-timers sat on the porch, chewing tobacco and reading the paper. They stared at me like they had never seen a yellow truck before or a girl driving.

  I walked past them, trying to make my legs go straight. One of the Scenic boys whistled and another boy called out to me, but I ignored them too and went right into Deal’s.

  Jessup was stacking boxes toward the back. He was wearing a blue shirt that turned his green eye almost blue, almost the same color as the other one. “Hey, Velva Jean,” he said. “You just missed your brother.”

  “Which one?” I said.

  “Johnny Clay.”

  I looked out the window. There was his Nash parked in front of the Alluvial Hotel. I picked up a basket and pulled out my list and began to collect things. I walked very calmly, like I hadn’t just driven all the way down the mountain in a truck, and like my own brother wasn’t at the local whore-lady’s house in broad daylight for everyone to see, probably just this minute getting a venereal disease that would leave him blind.

  I paid Jessup for the groceries and walked out of Deal’s. I meant to go back to my truck and back up to Devil’s Kitchen, but I was barely down the steps of the wide-open wooden porch when Johnny Clay and Lucinda Sink came out of the hotel. They were carrying suitcases, which Johnny Clay threw into the back of the convertible—powder blue suitcases with white trim. Lucinda was wearing a green satin dress with high-heeled shoes and a hat. She was wearing white gloves, just like a lady. Johnny Clay held the door open for her and she climbed into the car. He leaned down and kissed her and she kissed him back.

  I threw the groceries down in the back of the truck and started right over to him. He wasn’t even around to his side of the car before I was there, beside him. I said, “Where are you going?” I didn’t look at Lucinda Sink, even though I could feel her looking at me. “Where are you going, Johnny Clay?”

  He said, “We’re getting married, Velva Jean. We’re going down to Hamlet’s Mill to the courthouse and then we’re leaving on our honeymoon.” He picked me up and spun me around and then he put me down. “Sorry I didn’t come up to tell you. We been so busy. Velva Jean, this is Lucinda. Lucinda, this is my favorite sister, Velva Jean.”

  I looked at her then—the whore-lady. Her skin was so pale you could almost see through it and was lightly dusted with freckles, like she had sprinkled them there with powder. Her hair was more of a deep cherry brown than a red, and her lips were painted to match. She had blue eyes and long lashes and little lines around the corners of her eyes where her age was showing. She was softer and prettier than I’d expected. She leaned over and held out her hand and she said, “How do. It’s nice to meet you.” Her accent was foreign to me—southern, but like no accent I recognized. It was an accent that sounded like sea air and swamps and the low country.

  I told myself to take her hand. Johnny Clay was watching me, a grin on his big dumb face. The sun was catching his hair and lighting him up from the outside, and love was lighting him up from the inside. I didn’t think I’d ever in my life seen him look happier, which only made me mad. I kept hearing his words from when we were young: “I’ll never leave you, Velva Jean. Don’t you ever worry about that.”

  I said, “If I hadn’t come down here when I did, you would have been gone without ever telling me. You’re rotten, Johnny Clay Hart.”

  I had never in my life been so mad at my brother. I could have killed him. Instead I turned on my heel and walked away. He shouted after me, over and over, but I walked right back to Deal’s, right back to the truck. I slammed in behind the wheel an
d turned the key and started on up the hill before I even thought about it. I didn’t know how on earth to drive uphill. I didn’t have the faintest idea. I just put my foot on the clutch and my foot on the gas and my hand on the gearshift, and I climbed right up the mountain. I was so mad that I didn’t even stop to think about what I’d done until I got home. I went all the way up that hill and then I came to a stop back behind the barn and I sat there and thought: Look at what you’ve done. You just went to Alluvial. You just climbed up that hill all by yourself. You just got yourself back home.

  I marched into the house, up the stairs, into my bedroom, and opened the family record book. I took a breath. I calmed down. And then I wrote: “June 20, 1941: Velva Jean learns to drive.”

  I lay awake all night. It was too hot to sleep covered up, so Harley and I slept flat on the bed with the blankets and sheets folded down at the bottom. Every now and then he’d throw an arm across me and I’d pick it up by a finger or wrist and give it back to him. It was too hot to be touched. I could barely stand my own body heat, much less his.

  “Can’t you sleep, Velva Jean?” he said at one point, his voice muffled and his face against the pillow.

  “No.”

  “Don’t worry,” he said. “He’ll be okay. You’ll be okay. He loves you.”

  I was surprised—but grateful—that Harley was being so nice about Johnny Clay, considering how he felt about him. I lay there listening to him breathe and I stared at the ceiling, at the way the moonlight moved across it, and I thought about my brother and That Woman, as I was calling her in my head. I tried not to think about how pretty she was or how happy he’d looked or the way they’d gazed at each other.

  I wondered what Mama would say. She’d always had such a soft spot for Johnny Clay. He could always make her laugh, even when he was driving her to distraction. I called up the image of Mama, of her cornflower blue eyes with the sunflower centers. I felt her hands rocking me, holding me, soothing me, making things better, heard her voice singing me to sleep until eventually I drifted off for just a little while.

 
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