Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  I said, “Of course not. I went up to see the work they’re doing and then I came back home. I guess I just forgot myself and sang along the way. The day was so pretty.” I prayed that would be the end of it. I closed my eyes and finally he fell back against the pillow. We lay side by side, not talking, not touching. I said, “Harley?”

  He said, “Good night, Velva Jean.”


  Johnny Clay stood in back at Daryl Gordon’s funeral, dressed in his work pants, the ones with the holes in the knees, and one of Daddy’s old shirts with the sleeves pushed up. His feet were bare. His hair had grown long and hung in his eyes, and every now and then he shook his head hard so he could see.

  Harley and I stood right up at the front. It was a simple service—just the Gordons and Lou Pigeon holding Rachel’s hand and Alice Nix on her other side, and Johnny Clay and the Lowes and Daddy Hoyt and Granny. Harley said we needed to be there, that it was good in a time like this to show our support.

  It was a snakebite that killed him. By the time Lester found Daryl, he was barely breathing. Daddy Hoyt said it was most likely a rattlesnake, that their poison killed the quickest. Mr. Gordon talked about what a good hunter Daryl was, how he could shoot a deer at two hundred yards and never miss. Mrs. Gordon cried and Rachel cried and Alice Nix cried and Janette Lowe, standing by her family, cried and offered up prayers for Daryl and the rest of his family.

  Afterward, while Harley was shaking hands and passing out his little white calling cards, I ran after Johnny Clay. He was already headed home, beating a pathway through the grass with a stick. I fell into step beside him.

  “Listen,” I said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened between you and Lucinda Sink, but I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”

  He said, “You could have shook her hand.”

  “I guess I should have. But I was mad. You were going off and leaving me without even saying good-bye.”

  He beat the grass hard with the stick. Then he stopped suddenly and said, “I was wrong to do that.” He was blinking up at the sky. His skin was tanned, his nose freckled. His hair fell down into his eyes again and he left it there. “I love that woman, Velva Jean. I love her with my whole heart. I wanted to marry her and make her life easy. I wanted to take care of her and make her happy. She was going to marry me. I’d finally convinced her, after all these years.” He looked at me and smiled. “But we got down to Hamlet’s Mill and she said she couldn’t do that to me. She said I have my whole life ahead of me and she’d never forgive herself for holding me back. She said, ‘I’ve made my choices and I have to live with them. People can’t change that much. They have to own up to who they are.’ ”

  His eyes grew wet and he rubbed them hard with the backs of his hand. “She made me bring her back up here. She wouldn’t even let me touch her. She wouldn’t even look at me. I brought her back here and dropped her off and I haven’t seen her since.”

  “What are you going to do?”

  “Nothing to do.” He started walking again, beating the grass as he went. “Just go on, I guess.”

  We were almost to Mama’s house. I laid a hand on Johnny Clay’s arm. “I’m glad you’re home,” I said. “I missed you.”

  “I missed you, too,” he said, but I wondered if it was true.

  We walked on in silence. I thought how right it felt to be back in Sleepy Gap, how good and familiar. I knew that place better than any other place. I knew its sounds and colors. I knew the feel of the earth and the slope of the land and the shade of the trees and the pattern of the light as it slanted through the leaves and then hit the ground. I knew every trail and every cave and every stream and flower. I was home. For a few minutes, I could believe that I was Velva Jean Hart again and Mama was still alive and Daddy hadn’t left and Beachard wasn’t off somewhere. Johnny Clay wasn’t twenty, almost twenty-one, and I wasn’t eighteen, almost nineteen. We were young and our hearts were fresh and innocent. No one had touched them or hurt them. Any minute now we would play spies. He would be Red Terror. I would be Constance Kurridge. We would go on our next daring mission.

  “My record came,” I said.

  “How about that? Does it sound any good?”

  “Not really. I don’t think so, but everyone says it’s good.”

  “You’ll have to play it for me,” he said.

  I was so glad he was home. Now that he was back, I didn’t know how I ever stood him being away.

  “Guess what I did?” I said. “I taught myself to drive that yellow truck.”

  Johnny Clay whistled.

  “I drove all the way down to Hamlet’s Mill and back.” I didn’t tell him that I’d come down there looking for him.

  He threw his arm around my neck. “Well now that’s fine,” he said. “That’s about the finest damn thing I ever heard.”

  The next day, I was under the hood of the yellow truck, going over the engine—checking the oil and the radiator fluid. I wanted to make sure the truck stayed in good working order since it wasn’t being driven. Suddenly, there was the crunch of rocks and the honk of a horn. And there was Johnny Clay in his Nash convertible. I jumped ten feet and banged my head on the hood. He hollered, “Come for a ride, Velva Jean!”

  We left the Alluvial Valley on the old cattle road, heading out toward Hamlet’s Mill, and then we cut across to the brand-new dirt road that Johnny Clay said had been made by the government for the Scenic workers. The access road cut up Silvermine Bald, which was just one ridge over from Devil’s Courthouse.

  The trees grew heavier and fuller the higher we climbed, a dark midnight green. Here and there, a splash of bright yellow lime. In just three months the leaves would catch their glory and the colors would come alive and the mountains would look completely different. As we drove, we sang “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Girl on the Automobile” and “Red River Valley.”

  As we made our way to the Scenic, we came out onto a wide-open space, half a mile long, curving along the top of Silvermine Bald and Devil’s Courthouse. There was nothing soft about the land here. The high, sheer faces of the mountains were craggy and clifflike, and they seemed wild and overgrown, like no person had ever set foot here before. We could see where the workers had blasted through the mountainside and started work on the Devil’s Courthouse tunnel. The trees were cleared and the earth was cleared and for part of the way there was a road.

  Johnny Clay said, “Welcome to the Blue Ridge Parkway, Velva Jean. The road of unlimited horizons.” He pulled the Nash onto the road and we drove as far as it was paved. At the end of the pavement, we sat and looked out over the valleys and the mountains that lay beyond, layer on layer. I wanted to hate that road for all it had done to us—for the worry it had caused, for taking Daddy away, and for changing the lives of people like Aunt Junie and the Toomeys and the Freys, who just wanted to stay in their homes and not be bothered.

  I looked to the west, over toward the Indian nation, where I knew the road was reaching. I looked to the east and to the north, and the road wound up and onward, as far as the eye could see. I looked directly to the north—just below me—and tried to pick out my mountain, to see Alluvial and Sleepy Gap and Devil’s Kitchen. Sitting up on that road, with the whole world spread out around me on all sides, I couldn’t hate anything.

  And then it hit me. I said, “This was what Mama meant when she said to live out there.” ~

  Johnny Clay drove me home just before dark. The convertible top was down and the air was fresh and cool. The crickets were humming and the night was alive. Johnny Clay was back—the storm had passed. Maybe that would be it. Maybe that had been all there was ever going to be. Maybe I had worried for nothing.

  “Let’s keep driving,” I said. Harley would still be at the church. He wouldn’t be back for hours. I wasn’t in any hurry to get home. Suddenly, all I wanted was to run away like we had when I was twelve and Johnny Clay was fourteen.

  My brother was quiet as we passed through Alluvial. He kept his eye
s straight ahead as we drove by the hotel and didn’t look back once, but I could feel him thinking and churning and I could feel his anger. You always knew Johnny Clay’s anger was there, even if he didn’t show it.

  “Where you want to drive to?”

  “Anywhere,” I said. “Anywhere in the world.”

  “What about Nashville?”

  “Nashville’s as good a place as any.” Yes. Let’s go to Nashville. Let’s go.

  “Used to be it was the only place.”

  I got quiet then. I didn’t know what to do about Nashville. What if Johnny Clay was right all those years ago? What if I really couldn’t be Mrs. Harley Bright and be a singing star too? I was beginning to think that maybe you couldn’t do both. But who said I needed to? I had an actual record with my name on it—Velva Jean Hart—even though Harley had made me promise not to sing. If I never did another thing, I thought that was something. Besides, I was happy driving my truck and writing my songs. Maybe that could be enough.

  “I been thinking about what to do. I might sign up for the army,” Johnny Clay said.

  I said, “What?”

  He said, “I can’t stay here all my life. I think I might be a paratrooper and jump out of airplanes.”

  I said, “Johnny Clay Hart, why would you go away from here?” It was one thing to dream it—it was another to do it. In my head I thought: Why would you leave me again? You only just got back.

  “There’s nothing for me here. I need to get out there and see what I can find. It’s a great big world, Velva Jean.”

  “You sound like Daddy,” I said. I meant it in a bad, mean way.

  He said, “That’s about the one thing Daddy was right about. I don’t plan to stay here on this mountain for all my days and only know the same people and the same places.”

  I looked away from him. I tried to pretend he didn’t exist, that he had already gone.

  “Okay,” I said after a while. “Let’s go to Nashville.”

  “Velva Jean,” Johnny Clay said, “if I thought for one minute you were serious, that you really and truly meant that like you used to, I would pack up all my money and my zoot suit and you and me would hit the road right now. I’d forget all about the army and turn this car around so fast your head would spin. And Harley Bright would be out of luck and out of a wife for good.”

  I tried to picture myself in Nashville, wearing my rhinestone suit and playing my Hawaiian steel guitar. For some reason it seemed funny now, just a funny little faraway dream.

  I said, “Or we could just go to Asheville.”

  Johnny Clay sighed. He said, “Hang Asheville,” and started up the hill toward Devil’s Kitchen.

  Toward the end of July, I spent nearly every day at Berletta Snow’s, leading a prayer circle for her wayward daughter Merry Ashley, who had run away from home to join the Mormons. I came home one afternoon—worn out, sick and tired of Berletta Snow, Merry Ashley, Jesus, and myself—to find Butch Dawkins sitting on my front porch, smoking a cigarette, guitar by his side.

  I sat down beside him.

  He stood up and shook his head. “Uh-uh.” He stuck the cigarette in his mouth, picked up his guitar, and held out his hand. “Come on.”

  He led me up the mountain to the Devil’s Tramping Ground, that barren circle of earth where no plants grew, where the devil himself was supposed to walk nightly, forming his evil plans. Butch said it was an inspiring place for a blues musician always searching for good material. He said the tramping ground was almost as inspiring as the cross-roads in Rosedale, Mississippi, where bluesman Robert Johnson had sold his soul.

  I had only been here once, years ago with Johnny Clay, and it was a place that still terrified me. But I pretended to be brave as we sat on a dead log and Butch plucked at his guitar, and sang some of a new song.

  You down in the valley,

  You down by the stream,

  You down by the river, seems just like a dream.

  You just like a vision,

  When I need it most,

  Moving here beside me, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

  The song was blistering and sexy. It made my mouth go dry just hearing it. He said, “That’s all I got. The words aren’t coming out right.”

  I said, “Who are you writing this for? Some girl back in Louisiana?” For some reason I hoped not.

  He said, “It doesn’t matter.”

  I said, “It does. You need to know who this is for. If you don’t know who the words are about, how do you expect to find them? No wonder you’re having trouble.”

  He said, “It’s for a girl I know. She’s about the loveliest girl I ever met. She’s as loving and loved as she is lovely. But sometimes I think she’s got no idea. I want to write a song for her.”

  Something about the way he said it made my heart race a little. After a moment I said, “I like myself best when I’m writing songs or singing. I like the feeling of being lost in the words and the music. Anything can happen because I can make it up. I can go anywhere—far away from Devil’s Kitchen—I can be anything, not just me.”

  Butch was quiet. He picked out a melody on the guitar. He strummed a few chords. Then he said, “Johnny Clay told me you’re going to Nashville. Or you were. He wasn’t sure which.”

  I could have killed Johnny Clay. I thought about Darlon C. Reynolds and my songs. Then I thought about Harley and Levi and the Little White Church. “Things change. Now I’m not so sure.” I sighed because I was remembering what it felt like to stand in front of the recording microphone.

  Butch played a little more then stopped, his hands resting on the guitar. “I’ve been on the road a while now. Before that, I sat at home for a long time and waited for something to happen to me, but nothing ever did—not the big things I expected or wanted. I knew what I wanted my life to be, but it wasn’t turning out that way. Then I figured it out—if my destiny wasn’t going to come to me, I had to go to it.”

  I said, “So now you’re on a journey.” Something about this made me sad. He would finish his work on the Scenic and move on one day, maybe to Chicago or New York, some place far away from Devil’s Kitchen.

  He didn’t say anything, just played a few more chords. Then he handed me the guitar. He said, “Why don’t you play me something?” The guitar was heavy—it weighed a good ten pounds. I opened my arms up wide and rested it on my knee. It felt big and awkward. I plucked the strings and tried to pick out a tune. “The music’s in there, same as in your mandolin,” Butch said. “It just feels different at first.”

  And then I started to play. I played “Yellow Truck Coming, Yellow Truck Going,” and I did it without a broken bottle neck or pick. When I was done, I handed the guitar back to Butch, and it looked right on him—it fit him like that white suit fit Harley. I could still feel the pulse of the strings deep inside my fingers, still feel the thump of the guitar on my legs, against my chest. I thought: I can’t wait to get my own just like it.

  “Maybelle better run like hell,” he said. He played a lick. The guitar sang for him in a way it hadn’t for me.

  I handed him my record then, wrapped in the brown paper it had arrived in. I didn’t say a word as I passed it to him. I watched his face as he opened it.

  He read first one side and then the other and then he looked at me. He said, “When did you do this?”

  I told him about Darlon C. Reynolds advertising for hillbillies and about going to Waynesville with Johnny Clay. I told him what Mr. Reynolds said about wanting to make more records with me but how I told him I had to be home for supper. We laughed at this and then he looked at the record again and whistled. He said, “Girl, you up to somethin’. You going in search of your destiny yet.”

  Then he set the record down and stood up and held out his hand. He helped me to my feet. He spun me around and pulled me close—so close the breath almost knocked right out of me and I could feel the medicine beads he wore around his neck pressing against my chest—and we danced there on the Devil’s Tramping G
round while Butch sang my yellow truck song in a get-down-in-the-gutter blues style. I rested my hand on top of that tattoo—“The Bluesman,” it said—and held on to him hard and fast.

  Suddenly, there was the sound of leaves underfoot, of twigs snapping. We both turned. There was no one there, no one I could see, but I let go of Butch and stepped away, my back as rigid as Hunter Firth’s when he got to tracking. I picked up my record and wrapped it up tight. I said, “I’d best get on home.” I almost whispered it. We walked back down the hill, not talking. I walked far away from Butch, putting as much distance as I could between us.

  Harley was quiet during supper, barely saying a word. After the meal was over, he followed me upstairs to the bedroom and watched as I washed my face and pulled on my nightgown. He leaned against the closed door, his arms crossed over his chest. He looked wired but worn out, like he hadn’t slept in a week.

  When he spoke, his voice was calm and low and it sent a chill right through me. He said, “Do you have something to tell me, Velva Jean?”

  I got into bed and sat up against the pillows. I said, “What do you mean?”

  He said, “I need to know what’s going on with that Indian friend of Johnny Clay’s.” I felt a cold panic rising in my chest. “Because I’m hearing things that I don’t like, and I’d rather not believe them. I’d rather hear what you have to say before I go making up my mind about this.” He sat down next to me. He was smiling a little, but it was a dangerous sort of smile, the kind he smiled when he was trying to protect himself.

  I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know what to say. I had sudden flashes of Butch and me at the Devil’s Tramping Ground or down at Deal’s or here at this very house—Harley’s house—working on my songs. Had someone seen? But there was nothing to see. We’re just friends. Just friends.

  Harley said, “I don’t want you seeing him. I don’t even want you thinking about him.” His smile was gone. He said, “I know you wouldn’t betray me, Velva Jean, that ain’t in your nature, but I don’t want you thinking about that man and I don’t want you seeing him when I ain’t around.”

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