Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  The next morning, I was still stewing over Johnny Clay and Lucinda Sink. When I came downstairs, I heard unfamiliar voices. Harley stood out on the porch with a man of about fifty, built thick like a washtub. He wore little spectacles and a brown Stetson felt hat, a blue button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and blue jeans rolled up over rubber work boots.

  When he saw me, the man took off his hat. He had a thick head of hair, one of the thickest I’d ever seen, and a no-nonsense face that had seen too much sun.

  Harley said, “Velva Jean, this here is Getty Browning from the Scenic. He’s come to invite me to go up top to Devil’s Courthouse and see what the boys are doing.”

  Mr. Browning said, “We thought someone like your husband might be a good influence in the community and might help the people understand the benefits of this road. We’ve had some trouble and we’re anxious to put that behind us.”

  I looked at Harley and lifted one eyebrow, but Harley wasn’t looking at me.

  Mr. Browning said, “We’ve asked some of the preachers and community leaders from the surrounding valleys. Reverend Bright’s name came recommended.”

  Harley was beaming like he’d been asked to meet the president. I said to him, “Are you going to go?” After what you did to that road?

  He said, “Of course.”

  Mr. Browning was looking at me. He said, “I know your daddy. Before there ever was a road or a plan for a road, back when we were still trying to figure out what we were doing and where we were going, I walked these mountains with him. He was very helpful.”

  I didn’t say anything because I was remembering a long-ago conversation on my old front porch: “I walked from there to Virginia, across the top of the mountains, with a man who’s building a road. He’s building it right across the mountains, right across the tops of them. That road is going to reach from Virginia all the way down here, right down through these mountains we live in. It’s going to be the greatest scenic road in the world. A road of unlimited horizons.”

  Mr. Browning said, “He’s a good man. I’d like to see him again, to thank him for what he did.”

  I said, “He’s not here anymore. He hasn’t been here for a long time.” I thought of the man I had seen at the CCC camp, the one with the long legs that danced and the way he’d walked away from me even after I’d called to him.

  He said, “I’m sorry,” and I could tell he thought that Daddy had died. I felt bad about this, but I wasn’t going to correct him because to me it felt like the truth.

  Before he left, Harley kissed me and said, “I won’t be back till late. You be good.” He smiled, dimples flashing, and something came over me—a wave of love and longing, and a homesick feeling that started in my throat and made it hard to swallow. When he walked away I ran after him. He turned and I threw my arms around his neck. He said, “Velva Jean? What’s this?”

  I kissed him and hugged him. I said, “Nothing. I just miss you, I guess.”

  He laughed. “I’ll miss you, too. But I’ll be back before you know it.”

  Then he folded himself into the DeSoto and winked at me and spun off in a cloud of red dust. No, I thought, I didn’t say I’ll miss you, as in just today. I said “I miss you,” as in every day.

  I went into the house and did my chores and fixed the lunch and set it out for Levi. Then I went outside and climbed into the truck and waved good-bye to Terry Rayford, who was on his knees in the vegetable garden, and drove down the hill—slow and steady this time. I was driving to Hamlet’s Mill. I’d decided it the minute Harley told me he was going up to the Scenic. I was going to drive through town and then turn around and come back home. I was going to look for Johnny Clay.

  I rolled down the window. I let my hair blow. I sang:

  Yellow truck coming,

  Bringing me home again . . .

  I passed through Alluvial, waving to Elderly Jones and Dell Haywood and Mrs. Armes and Mr. Finch and Sweet Fern, who was sitting on her front porch with Coyle Deal, watching the children play in the yard. Sweet Fern’s jaw dropped as I drove by. She yelled something but I couldn’t hear it because I was singing so loud.

  Yellow truck going,

  I’m on my way . . .

  I drove past the Baptist church and the school and the Alluvial Hotel and then I bumped on over the cattle road, banging my head against the windshield every time I went over a rut or a rock. I slowed down and took my time and dipped down the hill and tried to keep to the faded old trail that ran through weeds and bramble. I felt brave and daring like Constance Kurridge or Carole Lombard. I thought of each of their faces as I drove by—Sweet Fern, Coyle, Mrs. Armes, Mr. Finch, Dell Haywood, Elderly Jones. I supposed Mrs. Armes and Mr. Finch would report this back to Harley. I supposed he would have something to say about it—something about me turning him into less of a man and about a wife doing her husband good and not evil all the days of her life.

  Hamlet’s Mill was quiet. Hardly anyone was out. The trees were green and full, and the phlox and coneflowers and lilies and sunflowers and fairy wands were blooming in the center square. I drove around the square and through the three blocks of town. I drove past L. B. George & Company and the movie theater, the drugstore, diner, bank, grocer, and the two churches. I looked everywhere for that Nash convertible but I didn’t see it. I stopped in front of the Hamlet’s Mill Inn and then pulled into the parking lot and circled around and looked at all the cars, but I didn’t see the Nash anywhere. I pulled back out onto Main Street.

  I drove to the very end of downtown, to the very last building, to where a sign stood saying: “Now leaving Hamlet’s Mill. Knoxville—112 miles.”

  I slowed the truck down. I looked at the sign. I thought: I could just keep going. I could go all the way to Knoxville. I could go past Knoxville. I could keep going till I run out of gasoline. And then when I do, I could just buy more and keep on going again. There isn’t any place I can’t go.

  I looked on up the road, past the sign, up toward where Knoxville must be. Then I turned the truck around and headed home.

  I knew something was wrong the moment I headed back into Alluvial. I was coming up past the Alluvial Hotel, up near the school, getting close to the Baptist church. The first thing I saw that was wrong was Reverend Broomfield standing outside the church, dressed in a jacket and tie. Now what is he doing here? I thought. He should be up on the Scenic with the rest of the community leaders. Then I saw Mr. Deal walk out of the general store, pick up a case of Coca-Cola, and walk back inside. Why isn’t Mr. Deal up there on that road? He should be there, too.

  How long was I gone? It couldn’t have been more than an hour or so. Maybe two at the most. I looked at the clock on the Baptist church and realized with a heartsick feeling that I had been gone close to three hours. And then I saw Mr. Getty Browning. He came out of Deal’s, nodding and talking, hands in his pockets, hat on his head. He stood there a minute and called back to someone, and Harley joined him on the porch.

  I swerved a little but kept my hands on the wheel. I thought: Just keep driving fast as you can. Just speed up and maybe he won’t notice this bright yellow truck going past him up the hill.

  I slammed my foot on the gas pedal and the truck sped up and I could see in my mirrors the dust flying behind me. I was passing the church and passing by Deal’s when I saw Harley turn and catch sight of me, saw him clear the steps and run past Sweet Fern’s and disappear from my sight. I was starting uphill now, and I prayed I could get home before Harley got there. I prayed maybe he hadn’t seen me after all, that maybe he’d taken off after a sinner or a squirrel, instead. But then suddenly there was Harley, big as day, right in front of the truck, standing just feet in front of me. He was smiling. It was a waiting kind of smile. I took my foot off the gas. The truck started rolling backward. I pressed down hard on the brake.

  We stared each other down, him smiling and me not smiling. I kept my hands on the wheel and the engine on. Finally, he walked over and patted the
hood and leaned in the window and said, “What do we have here?”

  I said, “I taught myself how to drive.”

  He said, “I can see that.”

  I said, “All by myself.”

  He said, “Why?”

  I said, “Because this truck needs to be driven. It was just going to waste.”

  He pulled off his hat and fanned his face and turned to look over his shoulder. Most everyone we knew was gathering around in front of Deal’s.

  I prayed for the earth to open up and swallow me whole right then and there. Harley turned back around and said, loud enough for everyone to hear: “ ‘Drive, and go forward; slack not thy riding for me, except I bid thee.’ ”

  I said, “What?”

  He said, “Velva Jean, I don’t want you driving.”

  Someone—I’m not sure who—called out, “If the good Lord had meant for women to drive, he would have given them some sense.” I wished now I’d memorized that passage about men being worse drivers than women. I would have leaned out and yelled it at them right then and there.

  I started rolling up the window. Harley pulled back. To the right of me, Sweet Fern came out of her house. She was standing on her porch, watching. “Let’s see what you can do, Velva Jean,” Harley said. “I want to see you drive.” Shorty Rogers climbed onto Deal’s porch, like he was hurrying to get out of the way; like “Oh no, here comes Velva Jean! Best get up on the porch!”

  Harley stood in front of the truck, hands on hips, grinning like a fool. I had never been so mad at him. He was so puffed up and full of himself, telling me what I could and couldn’t do, and in front of all these people, even Mr. Browning, a stranger. I released the clutch and pressed on the gas and downshifted and the car jumped forward and then stalled, which caused a few of the men to laugh.

  I leaned in close to study the gears. Suddenly, I couldn’t remember how to shift or what to do with my feet. The truck was making short, jerky starts and stops. I was trying to concentrate on the pedals but I was only getting them confused. I kept seeing Harley out there in front of me, standing so smug and self-righteous. The Reverend Harley Bright in his Barathea white suit. Hurricane Preacher. Brave preacher of the rails. Saver of souls. Mean Harley. Spiteful Harley. I lurched forward and banged my head and Harley just about died laughing. That did it. I thought: What if I had hurt myself?

  I narrowed my eyes in his direction. I popped the clutch and smashed the gas pedal and shifted gears and headed straight for him. Harley scrambled out of the way, stumbling over his feet, nearly landing in a bush. When I was two inches away from him, I slammed on the brake.

  Harley was white as a sheet. He shouted, “Goddammit, Velva Jean!”

  I sat there in shock. One by one, I released my knuckles from the steering wheel. I gave Harley a little shrug and a smile—the most that I could muster—as if to say, “Sorry,” which I wasn’t. Not one bit.

  That night at supper, Harley didn’t say a word to me. I thought he was acting like a baby, that I was the one who should be mad. He said, “Daddy, did you know that in some places they use thirty-five thousand drills to make that road? In some places, as much as one hundred thousand cubic feet of solid rock is drilled and blasted.”

  And then I learned the real reason Mr. Browning had taken Harley up there to the Scenic. “They want to build a tunnel through Devil’s Courthouse,” Harley said to Levi. “Right through the mountain, below the summit. Just right through.”

  I sat straight up and threw my fork down. I said, “So suddenly you like this road and think it’s a good thing?” I wasn’t so much mad at the road as I was mad at Harley. I couldn’t stand the way he was pretending I wasn’t even there.

  Harley took a bite of food and then washed it down with the water he was drinking. He leaned in toward Levi and said, “I can’t imagine another feat of engineering as miraculous as the Scenic.”

  I thought Mr. Browning’s plan had certainly worked. Harley was impressed. When I tried to say so, Harley talked over me to the old man. He said, “Maybe I can take you up there to ride on it, Daddy, as soon as it’s done.”

  Levi said, “You’d better not.” He looked angry at the thought of it.

  I wanted to say, “Take me. I’ll ride on it.” I was already imagining driving on it. But I didn’t say anything because Harley wasn’t talking to me.

  Later, as we undressed and got into bed, I said, “Are you still sore at me for almost running you over?”

  He said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Then: “You didn’t almost run me over.”

  Because I couldn’t leave well enough alone, I said, “Actually, I almost did.” He didn’t say anything to this. I said, “It’s just that you made me so mad. Do you know how hard it was to learn to drive? How proud I am of myself for learning? For teaching myself without any help? And then you came along and laughed at me, Harley. In front of all those people.”

  I got into the bed, under the sheet, and pulled it up. I pulled up the blanket even though it was summertime and warm out. I always got cold when I argued with Harley—so cold that my teeth practically chattered.

  Harley sat down on the other side of the bed, right on top of the sheet. He said, “I’m old-fashioned. I can’t help it. I don’t want my wife driving.” His voice was hard but there was something else behind it that almost made me feel sorry for him, and this also made me hate him a little.

  I rolled on my side, away from him. I waited, hoping he would come after me, but he didn’t. He just sat there until I finally went to sleep. ~

  The next day, Harley sat me down on the settee in the front room. He sat down beside me and took my hand. He seemed calmer, like maybe he had forgiven me. He said, “Velva Jean, you’re a leader in the community. You’re my wife. We got to set an example for people to live from. I got a responsibility.”

  I said, “I know that.”

  He said, “We got to have some new rules around here.”

  I thought: Oh no. Not more of them. How many more rules can there be?

  I said, “I don’t know how I can do more. I’m already leading the circle meeting and calling on the sick and going to the funerals and sitting in the front row at church. I’m leading the prayer groups and giving suppers and making quilts for the needy. And when I’m not doing that, I’m trying to keep this house and the farm in working order for you and me and your daddy.”

  Then he looked me deep in the eyes with his green eyes, the color of Three Gum River, the color of emeralds—like the one my daddy had brought me years ago—the color of the greenest green on earth. For a minute, I saw only his eyes and his warm skin and the little lines in his face, the scar above his eyebrow that he’d got in the railroad accident, the dimples on either side of his mouth, the full lips, the waving dark hair. I wanted to lean in and kiss him, to remind him of us as we used to be, of him as he was when I met him. I wanted him to smile and breathe and let go of all the tightness inside of him that was making both of us cross and unhappy.

  He said, “I don’t want you driving off this property. I don’t want you driving at all.”

  I said, “What?”

  He said, “I don’t want to hear about you driving anywhere or see you driving anywhere. I don’t know why you even feel you have to, Velva Jean. I don’t know any women that drive up here. I think you should just give me the keys.”

  “I’m not giving you the keys, Harley Bright.”

  He frowned at this and moved his mouth around a little, like he was chewing something. I could tell he was trying to think just how much to fight with me on this one. He said, “Well, then, you have to give me your word that you won’t drive anymore.”

  I didn’t tell him that now that I knew how to drive there was no going back. I couldn’t very well teach myself how not to drive. I said, “I can’t promise that.”

  He said, “You’re going to need to.” He winked at me and flashed me a smile. He was charming Harley now. But his voice was firm. Then he said, “You’re go
ing to need to promise me something else. You know I think you got a pretty voice. Prettiest voice in the world.”

  I waited. He was saying nice things the way someone did before they told you something bad about yourself.

  He said, “But, Velva Jean, sometimes it sounds sinful when you sing.”

  For a minute, I sat there wondering if I’d heard him right. Then I said, “What?”

  He let go of my hand and sat back a little. “It sounds sinful when you sing. Sexy. I mean I like it, I do.” He winked at me again. “I love your voice, but you’re a preacher’s wife. Not just a preacher’s wife, you’re my wife. I think it’s best that you don’t sing.” He leaned forward and patted my knee.

  I could tell he was waiting for me to say something, but my throat was starting to close up. My chest felt tight and empty at the same time, like my heart was both too big and too small for it. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. They felt miles away from me, way down at the ends of my arms, heavy and useless. They lay crumpled in my lap, palms up, as if holding some great weight.

  “You mean when we’re out somewhere or with people?” My throat felt tighter and tighter, like someone was squeezing it. I was thinking about my songs, all the ones I’d written. I was thinking about my trip to Waynesville. I was thinking about the Opry and the framed picture in my truck and the money I’d been saving off and on ever since I was little that was tucked away safe in my hatbox. There was ninety dollars and fifty-six cents, counting the money I’d earned making a record for Darlon C. Reynolds.

  “I mean, I don’t want you to sing at all.” He was already up and moving toward the kitchen, stretching, yawning, searching for something to drink in the icebox.

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