Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven


  I watched after him and thought: I should have run you over when I had the chance.

  THIRTY-THREE

  Three days after he had left to get married, Johnny Clay was back. I heard he was home from Lally Hatch, who heard it from someone in town. She said the wedding never happened, that Lucinda changed her mind at the last minute, and that they had come back up to Alluvial in the middle of the night and he had dropped her off at the hotel with her powder blue cases and hadn’t been back since.

  I waited for him to find me and tell me himself. But days passed and he didn’t come. “He’s stubborn,” Sweet Fern said, “and embarrassed. He’ll come eventually.”

  I couldn’t stand it. I didn’t like the thought of Johnny Clay off somewhere and hurting. But I wasn’t about to go to him myself. I hadn’t forgiven him yet for going off and leaving me and not even trying to say good-bye. I thought he owed it to me to apologize.

  Instead of feeling relieved, I was feeling just like I felt before a storm. I was cold right down to my feet—even though the thermometer on the side of the barn read eighty-eight degrees—and I had a feeling of dread way deep down in my stomach. Something was getting ready to happen.

  On the afternoon of June 23, I stood on the porch and looked up at the sky, as if I would be able to see the storm clouds coming. It was blue and clear. The sun was shining. You couldn’t tell, to look at it, the trouble that lay ahead. ~

  On the last Friday in June, I was in the yard, cleaning out the milk buckets, washing them, scalding them, and hanging them in the sun to dry. I was trying not to look at the yellow truck because every time I did I felt guilty for not driving it. So far I hadn’t so much as started the engine, but I missed the feel of the wheel in my hands, of the pedals under foot, of the rumble of the motor, and the way I still felt it run through me even after I had turned it off.

  Jessup Deal whistled as he came up the hill. He could whistle louder than anyone. It was the kind of whistle that hurt your ears. He was grinning when I turned around. He had the mail bag he sometimes carried slung over one shoulder. “There’s a package here for you, Velva Jean.”

  “For me?” I hung up the last of the buckets and then I dried my hands. I tried to imagine who would send me a package.

  He held up a wide square wrapped in brown paper. The label said: “Velva Jean Hart Bright c/o Deal’s General Store, Alluvial, Fair Mountain, North Carolina.”

  “Are you expecting something?” he said.

  “Oh,” I said, “I don’t know.” I didn’t want to tell him that I was waiting for something every day—that Johnny Clay and I had gone to Waynesville and a man had recorded my voice and paid me money and I had been waiting ever since for him to send me the record of it. “It’s probably some handkerchiefs I ordered.”

  I waited till Jessup was gone, watching as he walked away, back through the trees, and then I went inside the house and shut the door and sat down on the settee. I tore open the brown-paper wrapping and there it was—my very own record. Black, round, with writing in the middle. On one side, “Yellow Truck Coming, Yellow Truck Going” by Velva Jean Hart, on the other, “Old Red Ghost” by Velva Jean Hart. They had left Harley’s name completely off it.

  There was a note inside from Darlon C. Reynolds. It said:

  Dear Mrs. Bright,

  Here is your record! It was one of the best ones I recorded in my search. I only wish we could have recorded more songs. I hope you haven’t lost my card because I would love the chance to record you again. Please get in touch with me.

  Sincerely yours,

  Darlon C. Reynolds

  P.S. Sorry we had to leave off the “Bright,” but we didn’t have room.

  I ran my fingers over the grooves—lightly so as not to hurt anything. I couldn’t wait to hear it. My voice. It was on here, captured on this flat, round disc. I had sung into a microphone and this was where it ended up. I thought it was a miracle. I put the record on the player and cranked it up and there came my voice, wheezing out, crackling and spinning, sounding higher than normal, and not at all like I thought it did in real life.

  I listened to it twice through. Even if I did sound funny, I thought it was just about the best thing I ever heard. The only thing that would have made it better was if Mama was there to listen to it with me.

  After I played it the second time, I picked up the record and put it back in its wrapping and closed up the phonograph cabinet. And then I sat right down on the floor and cried.

  I walked over to Sleepy Gap to show Johnny Clay. The house was empty when I got there. I ran all through it, calling his name, but got no answer. Hunter Firth came barking from the woods, and then I heard a shout from Linc’s house. I ran in that direction and found Linc and Ruby Poole working the field while Russell crawled in the shade.

  We, all of us but Johnny Clay, gathered in Daddy Hoyt’s parlor, around the old Victrola, to listen to the record. When I asked where he was, Daddy Hoyt said, “Your brother needs time. He’s been off by himself ever since he got back. He’ll come around to you soon.”

  I tried to be satisfied with this, to focus on the record and listen to it with the part of my family that was there. I kept saying, “That’s not how I sound. I don’t sound like that.” But everybody kept shushing me. Granny was sitting with her hands folded in front of her mouth, her feet tapping, her head shaking back and forth. Her eyes were wet and she was barely breathing. Daddy Hoyt was sitting tall and proud.

  They made me tell the story, from start to finish, about how we’d gone to Waynesville, about the theater, about sneaking in through the balcony, about Darlon C. Reynolds, and about singing on the stage into the microphone. I even told about how Mr. Reynolds wanted me to stay for a few days to keep making records, but how I’d told him I had to get home in time for supper. I missed Johnny Clay even more after I told the story. He would have told it better.

  Daddy Hoyt said, “Your Mama would be proud of you, Velva Jean. No matter what happens, this record will always exist.”

  I liked the sound of that. On the walk home, I kept it close to me, pressed against my chest. I had wrapped it up carefully so that it didn’t get too hot in the sun. This is something no one can take away from me, I thought. I hadn’t decided whether or not to tell Harley. I knew he wouldn’t be happy about it—especially about Velva Jean Hart having a singing career all on her own without his name, and cutting records behind his back. But I wanted to think that a part of him, somewhere deep inside, could be happy for me because it was what I loved to do and he knew it was what I loved to do, no matter how much he didn’t want me to sing.

  No one can take this away, I told myself as I climbed up the hill toward Devil’s Kitchen, as the house came into view. I was already thinking of ways to slip the record into the house past Harley, of places to hide it, and of how I would keep it in my hatbox with all my other secrets.

  That night at supper Harley was in a good mood. Afterward, as I sat up in bed, watching him pulling off his shirt, pulling on his pajamas, I thought of the record lying in my hatbox in the chifforobe nearby. All I had to do was stand up and walk over to it and bring out my hatbox and say, “Look, Harley. Here it is. I made a record. Can you believe it? An actual record. Let’s go downstairs and listen to it.” But I couldn’t imagine Harley thinking that was a thing to be happy about.

  So I let him climb into bed next to me and turn out the lantern light and kiss me good night. I didn’t say anything. And I lay next to him as he put his head on the pillow and started drifting off into sleep, his body twitching slightly, his breathing growing deeper. And still I didn’t say a word.

  The next morning, after Harley was out of the house, I picked up my record and hiked to the top of the mountain. The Wood Carver was sitting on his stoop, staring out toward the horizon, concentrating. He didn’t have a phonograph or a Victrola, but I wanted to show my record to him. He had always believed in me, even when no one else had the time to. He had seen the little singing girl before anyo
ne else, except Mama.

  I sat down next to him and said, “They’re working up on this mountain, over by Tsul ’Kalu’s cave.”

  He said, “Are they?” But the way he said it told me he already knew.

  I said, “Everyone up here has had to leave but you. You’re lucky the road just missed you.” He had always been on top of this mountain and I hoped he always would be, no matter what kind of tunnel they blasted or what kind of road they built.

  The Wood Carver didn’t say anything to this. Instead he pointed to my record and said, “What do you have there?”

  I said, “You won’t believe it. I made a record. Two songs, one on each side.” I unwrapped the paper and held up the disc. The sunlight grabbed it and held it and made it seem shinier than it was.

  The birds were singing. The butterflies were floating from flower to flower. The air was warm and cool at the same time, a combination of sweet and grassy smells, and if you breathed in deep it made your head spin. It was the most peaceful place I’d known since my mama died. And in the middle of it sat the Wood Carver, looking a part of it, like some ancient woodsman, working his knife in a piece of wood.

  He laid his knife down and took the record from me and turned it back and forth. He studied it close, every groove. After a long time, he nodded. “That is some record,” he said. “Since I can’t hear what’s on there, why don’t you treat me to the songs?” He picked up his knife again. He continued carving.

  I sang “Old Red Ghost” first and then I sang “Yellow Truck Coming, Yellow Truck Going.”

  Afterward he didn’t look up, just kept on carving. I watched the way his hands held the knife, the way his fingers felt the grain and knew how to cut and where to cut. He said, “Did you write those songs?”

  “Yes.”

  “Velva Jean, you must never stop singing.”

  I thought about Harley telling me not to sing, and then, before I could stop myself, the words came out. I said, “I’m not sure I married a good man. I sometimes think he’s changed from the man I married, that he’s gotten off course since then and become someone else, that he’s lost himself along the way, and because of that he’s lost me and us. You’d think that when he found Jesus it would have helped, but somehow it only made things worse—made him worse. But then I sometimes wonder if he just wasn’t very good to begin with—or if he wasn’t as good as I thought he was and hoped he was, the way I colored him to be in my mind.”

  The Wood Carver sat there and listened, as he always did, his hands working the wood.

  “When I first married him, there were all these different Harleys, and it was exciting, even if I didn’t like every single version of him. But now there seems to be just one version—the one that stands still. The one that’s tired and busy and rooted to the Little White Church and Devil’s Kitchen and doesn’t ever have time for me or us or to remember the old Harley anymore. I’d rather be married to the bad Barrow gang Harley than this one. I’d rather have him tipping over privies and stealing moonshine and getting into fights.

  “Each night I wait for him to come home and I think, ‘This will be the night that he’ll be like the Harley I remember. The one I thought I was marrying.’ But then he comes in the door and he’s this other Harley, the one who’s serious and tired and who doesn’t have time for me, who can’t be bothered because his mind is on other things, who wants me to behave myself and not trouble him and just make things easier for him at the end of a long day. And then I wish he hadn’t come home at all because it’s better when he’s away. Because at least when he’s away I can think of him as he was, and at least when he’s away I can breathe.”

  I pulled my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms around them. I hugged myself tight. “It’s like this time I accidentally killed a lightning bug. I didn’t know it was a lightning bug. I thought it was a beetle. I picked it up in a piece of paper and I squeezed it and then its light went off. It was already dying, but it couldn’t help flashing its light. I had no choice because I’d already hurt it—I had to kill it all the way, and before I did, it flashed its light again.” I started to cry—big, rolling, silent tears that plopped onto my legs.

  “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so horrible in my life as when I killed that lightning bug. I watched its light go out. I put out its light.” I looked at the Wood Carver. He had stopped carving. He had laid down his knife and was sitting with his wrists hanging off his knees. I said, “I’m afraid I’m like the lightning bug and Harley is like me. I’m afraid he’s starting to put out my light.”

  I didn’t wipe my eyes, but let the tears roll. The Wood Carver didn’t say anything. When I had cried myself dry, we sat for a few minutes, not speaking. Then the Wood Carver tilted his hat back on his forehead and pointed the knife at the dogwood tree.

  “Do you see our old friend there?”

  I looked at the lean black trunk, the heaven-reaching limbs. “Yes.”

  “Remember when the tornado came through in 1935, taking down half the trees up on this mountain?”

  “Yes.” That was the year of the Alluvial Fair, the one where I’d sung by myself for the first time.

  “I had to chop down the trees that were broken in half and replant where I could. But this tree,” he pointed at the dogwood, “remained standing. Why do you think that was?”

  Because it’s a magic tree, I thought. “Because it has good brace roots?”

  “No,” he smiled. “Because instead of standing rigid against the wind, trying to fight against it, this tree bent with it.”

  I looked at the tree, looked at him.

  “The strongest trees are the ones that bend with the storms, Velva Jean. Those are the trees that remain after the storm is gone. At the same time,” he said, “the tree knows not to give itself up. It stands its ground. It bends, but it doesn’t break. And it’s still there.”

  It’s still there.

  I suddenly felt like hugging the Wood Carver and laughing and crying at the same time. Who are you? I thought. What is your real name? Where did you come from? I know even less about you than I do about Butch Dawkins, but you know everything about me. You always have. Instead I said, “I should get going.”

  “Yes, you should, Velva Jean. You have many things to do.” The way he said it made me look at him funny. His eyes were dark and hard to read. He had the darkest eyes. There was barely any light in them at all.

  This time he walked with me through the laurel thicket and down a ways, for about a half mile. Then he stopped, gazing beyond the ridge as if there was a boundary only he could see. “I have to be getting home. Good luck, Velva Jean. I would say that your light is never in danger of going out.”

  I watched his back, strong and broad, as he hiked up the trail toward his cabin. I watched him walk away, with a slight limp, till the woods swallowed him and I could no longer see him, and then I made my way down the hill toward home. ~

  I walked home singing. I sang funny little songs that I had made up and songs Mama had taught me when I was a girl. I was happy in the sunshine, feeling like it had somehow reached inside me and was filling me up, feeding me like it fed the plants and the trees and the flowers.

  The nearer I got to Devil’s Kitchen, the slower I started walking. My chest started to close up. It got tighter and tighter. I didn’t want to go home to that house where I felt locked in by four walls and a ceiling and the woods that surrounded it, where I lived like a treed raccoon, all alone and shut off from everyone except for someone who told me no and told me not to sing and not to drive. I didn’t want to go back where someone would try to squeeze my light out and press it down till it didn’t exist anymore and kill it till it was gone.

  That was one reason I loved that yellow truck. Because it could take you anywhere, away from those four walls and the woods and that tree. And it was bright and lovely and no one could take that brightness away, unless they painted over it, and even if they painted over it, it would still be bright underneath. No one could s
top it from being bright, like Harley was trying to stop me.

  But there was nothing to do but go home. “It’s a great big world,” Johnny Clay had said. I couldn’t very well live in the woods and I couldn’t go back to Mama’s. I couldn’t live in a tree or in a cave, and I couldn’t live at the top of the mountain in a house I’d made with my own two hands like the Wood Carver. So I would have to go back.

  When I finally got there, dragging my feet all the way, the DeSoto wasn’t in the yard. When I walked into the house, I called Harley’s name and waited. I called it again and went to the mudroom and upstairs, just to be sure, but he was nowhere and neither was his daddy. Then I went into the front room and turned on the record player, the one Harley had bought me when we first got married, and put on my record. I turned the volume up as loud as it would go, and then I danced out onto the porch and into the yard.

  Yellow truck coming,

  Bringing me home again,

  Yellow truck going,

  I’m on my way . . .

  I just danced and danced and sang along at the top of my lungs, like mountain trash, like some kind of wild and wanton woman, like one of those harlots down in Atlanta. I danced until my feet hurt, and even after they started hurting, I kept right on dancing. You are not going to put my light out, Harley Bright, I thought. I am not going to let you.

  “Where were you today, Velva Jean?” Harley’s voice came out of the dark and nearly made me jump out of bed. I had thought he was sleeping. He said, “Lally Hatch saw you go up the mountain this afternoon. She said you came back down sometime later and that she heard you singing.”

  I lay still and quiet, trying to think of what to say. He said, “I been trying to think who’s left up there now that the Toomeys and the Freys and Aunt Junie are gone.” He leaned up on one elbow and looked at me. “Did you go up to the Scenic? Were you visiting someone up there? That friend of Johnny Clay’s maybe?”

 
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