Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  I finally spoke. I said, “Who’s saying these things? Where is this coming from?” My voice sounded far away. I could barely hear it.

  Harley said, “That don’t matter. What matters is that I don’t want that man coming around here anymore.”

  I opened my mouth and closed it. I told myself to tell him he was wrong about all this. But nothing came out.

  He said, “I don’t want to know why he’s coming around, but I can imagine. On his side at least. I’d like to kill him, and don’t think I haven’t thought of it.” He smiled again, a horrible smile. He stood up and walked to the chest of drawers. He picked up my hairbrush, my comb. He played with the hair ribbons that lay there, the few pieces of jewelry I had. “I want to trust you, Velva Jean. And I do. But part of the trouble with you is that you trust other people too much. That can be a fault. Too much of anything can be a fault.”

  I said, “He’s my friend. Nothing would ever happen. Nothing could ever happen.” I suddenly felt ashamed and silly and stupid, like a little girl. What had I been thinking, having Butch up here while Harley wasn’t around?

  He sat back down on the bed. He said, “I don’t aim to share you, Velva Jean, not even for a minute.” He touched my head. “Even in there.”

  When I could find the words, I told Harley he was crazy to talk that way. I heard myself saying all the things you were supposed to say—“I love you. I only love you. I only think of you.” But I felt upset and unsettled, like he had somehow seen into my private thoughts. I didn’t like it. And what did he mean, “part of the trouble” with me? I burned hot on the inside and prayed it didn’t show in my face. The truth was, I didn’t know how I thought of Butch, but I did get excited working with him on a song and I liked being with him. I liked talking to him about music because he understood what it was to put yourself down on paper and because he listened. Did this make me a bad wife? A bad person?

  Harley moved in close then, kissing me so hard and holding me so tight that the breath went out of me. I thought about that first time, on our honeymoon, when we were just like a couple of animals rooting around in the bushes. He was like that again, reaching for me, like he couldn’t quite find me. I kissed him back, my eyes closed, not because I wanted to but because I felt like I owed it to him for causing him so much pain, and then Butch’s song started up in my head. I opened my eyes, trying to stop the song, and instead of Harley, with his green eyes and dimples and straight white teeth, there was Butch’s face—the dark eyes, the high cheekbones, the crooked, gap-toothed smile. I felt the medicine beads against my chest. I heard him sing, Moving here beside me, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

  I blinked hard and there was Harley again. He said, “What? What’s wrong, Velva Jean?” I wrapped my arms around him and held on.

  That night, while Harley slept, I lay in bed and thought about Butch. He was just my friend. Only my friend. He and I never talked about anything outside of music. And with Harley there was more than that. When I was sick, it was Harley I wanted. When I was scared or sad, when the ghosts of my daddy or mama got too much to bear, it was Harley I needed to send them away because he had been there from the beginning.

  How dare Harley make me feel bad about Butch and make me doubt myself and accuse me of being too trusting, like that was some sort of sin he needed to wipe out of me. Butch cared about my talent and my voice. Butch had helped me write down my music when Harley wouldn’t even listen to it. Harley told me not to sing, but Butch was helping me write down my songs.

  And then, because I didn’t want to think about any of it anymore—Harley or Butch or my own mixed up self—I thought about the Scenic. Instead of picturing myself up on it in Johnny Clay’s convertible, I put myself there in my mind in my yellow truck. I was driving and there was no one in that truck but me. No Harley, no Butch, no Johnny Clay. Just me. The entire road was paved, from Big Witch Gap near Cherokee on up into Virginia. I drove the length of it, along the mountaintops, the whole world spread out below me.


  On August 19, the day the trouble happened, a dozen of the boys from the Scenic came down the mountainside for the afternoon, including Blackeye and his brother and some of their friends. At first no one looked twice at them, except me, hoping to see my daddy. We were used to the Scenic boys hanging around in the late afternoons or weekends, sitting or standing on the steps of Deal’s, smoking and drinking, flirting with girls, rocking on the porch of the Alluvial Hotel.

  The day started with a sing in front of Deal’s. Some of the boys were drinking, and Butch was playing his steel guitar. A few of the others had banjos or guitars or harmonicas. A colored boy was singing. I came down to do the shopping, to pick up some salt and sugar and a new pair of work boots for Harley. When Butch saw me, he waved me over. He said, “Come over here and sing with us, Velva Jean,” and kept on playing.

  I said, “I got shopping to do.” My heart was speeding up and my cheeks had gone hot. I was happy and nervous at the sight of Butch Dawkins and feeling just like a sinner. I couldn’t get Harley’s words out of my head, and I couldn’t forget the feeling of those medicine beads—real and imagined—against my chest.

  I went into Deal’s and saw Dan Presley and Corrina poking around at the candy display, just like Johnny Clay and me all those years ago. Sweet Fern was sorting through a box of dress patterns, and when she turned I had to look at her twice because she was wearing lipstick, a bright and rosy shade of pink. Before I could say anything, she said, “Don’t tell me I shouldn’t wear it because I’m a widow. I know I’m a widow. Everywhere I go I hear, ‘There goes the Widow Deal.’ Or, ‘Good morning, Widow Deal.’ The Widow Deal. It’s horrible. It sounds like a gruesome old haint tale Granny would tell to scare us to sleep. Well, there’s more to me than that. I didn’t stop being Sweet Fern just because my husband died.” Her cheeks were as pink as her lips.

  I thought: Who said anything about your being a widow? It’s strange enough that you’re plain old Sweet Fern wearing lipstick.

  I bought the sugar and the salt and picked out the work boots and tried not to listen to the music from outside. I wanted to start dancing all over the floor and out the door. Coyle Deal looked at me and said, “What’s wrong with you, Velva Jean? Are you sick? Your face is red like you have a fever.”

  I said, “No, it’s just this heat,” even though the heat had broken and it was cooler now.

  I took the bag from him and walked outside. Butch sat there, brown-black hair shining in the light, head bent over the guitar, beads on one wrist, leather band on the other, silver ring on his finger, legs splayed out, feet planted on the ground in dusty work boots. I thought of Harley’s new boots wrapped up in the brown-paper bag I carried. The top three buttons of Butch’s shirt were unbuttoned and you could see the medicine beads thumping against his chest as he played. He was singing the song he’d played me up at the Devil’s Tramping Ground, the one he wrote for a girl he knew. He said, “Come on over here, Velva Jean Bright, and help me.”

  I stood there like a dummy, like one of those mannequins in the windows of L. B. George & Company down in Hamlet’s Mill. Some of the men snickered. Butch started singing.

  I know a girl from high on a mountain,

  Who’s lovely and loving and loved . . .

  I walked out and set the bag down and stood beside Butch where I could look at him. He was beautiful, I thought. I didn’t know why I hadn’t seen it first off. Gold-brown skin. Dark eyes. Wide cheekbones. Crooked smile, with a gap between the two front teeth.

  I started singing harmony. We sang loud, our voices soaring, his low and mine up high, and then meeting in the middle, blending, merging just like they were one voice so you couldn’t tell whose was whose, and those boys got quiet, not a one of them snickering now.

  After the last chord, Butch looked at me and I looked at him and it seemed to last a minute or a week, the way he stared right at me and I stared back. I wanted to just keep looking at him. Then he said, “You w
ant to sing another? How about the one you wrote about living up in Devil’s Kitchen? Or the one about the yellow truck? Or one of those you wrote about your mama or your daddy?”

  And then I realized what I’d done. This man here knew all my innermost thoughts. He knew the music in my heart and every word inside my head, and there wasn’t anything he didn’t know by this point. He knew more about me than Harley did. I didn’t know a thing about him, like how long he was staying or where he was going next or did he have any family or was he married or had he ever lost anyone close to him. I didn’t even know when and where he’d got his tattoo. And now I’d sung a song with him in front of everyone, a song we wrote together. I felt like I was suddenly stripped naked for everybody to see, most of all him. Singing with Butch was worse than kissing him. It was the most personal thing I could have done with a man who wasn’t my husband.

  I said, “No. I’m done.” I picked up my bag and started for the truck.

  Butch stood up. He said, “Velva Jean?” I could hear him start down after me and then stop. I didn’t turn around. I didn’t want to see him.

  I reached for the truck door and that’s when I saw Harley. His car was parked in front of Sweet Fern’s, and he was halfway up the walk. He was standing with his hands down by his sides. They just dangled there like they were dead and forgotten, and he was staring at me. The look on his face told me he’d been there for a while. Without moving his face away, he turned his eyes toward Butch, then back to me. I started toward him.

  It was that exact moment that Blackeye stood up and rambled over to the hotel. Someone yelled at him, “She ain’t answering the door.”

  Blackeye stopped and looked back toward Deal’s, where the yelling had come from. “What d’you mean?”

  “She’s closed for business,” one of the boys said. “Ever since she gone away all those weeks ago to Hamlet’s Mill and come back.”

  Blackeye narrowed his eyes and looked at all of us looking at him. He said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “She’s going to open the door for me. I’m going to go over there and make the whore come out.”

  I saw Blackeye go around back of the hotel and disappear. A minute later, he came back around front and climbed up on the porch and whistled to his friends. Four other men joined him—his brother Slim, the German, a towheaded boy I hadn’t seen before, and a boy I thought I recognized from a nearby valley—and they started banging on the windows and the front door, hollering things at Lucinda and yelling at her to let them in. When this didn’t work, one of them picked up a rocking chair and threw it off the porch and into the dirt, and another one picked up a chair and threw it at a window. There was the sound of glass breaking.

  Harley and the Deal boys and Butch and Mr. Deal were in the road. Some of the other Scenic boys were standing around outside the general store, smoking and drinking, looking like nothing much had happened. Elderly Jones stood on his front porch, praying to Jesus as loud as he could.

  Harley and the Deals were up on that porch in a heartbeat, swinging over the railing and grabbing hold of Blackeye and the others that were causing the trouble. My heart jumped. There was a crash and swearing and shouting and another crash and, from inside the hotel, a woman’s scream. I started running for Lucinda. Butch caught me halfway there, grabbing me round the waist and pulling me back. He said, “You stay here.” The he joined the others on the hotel porch just as Harley and the Deals came down off of it, dragging Blackeye and Slim and the German and the other two. Harley looked mean and happy. He was grinning and his eyes were wild. There was a thin, red line on Blackeye’s cheek where he was bleeding.

  Harley said, “You get out of here. Go on. Get back to Silvermine Bald. And don’t you come back here again.”

  Behind Harley, up on the porch, hovering in the doorway, was the outline of a woman. I couldn’t see her clearly, but I caught a glimpse of red hair just before she turned and went back inside, shutting the door. I heard the click of the lock being turned.

  The German spat on the ground and blood came out along with one of his teeth. Slim sat right down on the ground until the towheaded boy kicked his boots and then pulled him up. Blackeye didn’t look back at Harley. He held his head up and pushed through the crowd and walked over to the train tracks and started walking along them. Then he cut across them and over them and disappeared into the woods, followed by his friends.

  Harley got home ahead of me, racing his DeSoto up over that hill so fast I thought he was going to fly off the mountain. I parked the truck behind the barn and came into the house just after him and stood outside the closed door of his mudroom. “Harley?” I said. I knocked. I held my breath. “I’m sorry. Please open the door. We got to talk about this.”

  He didn’t answer. There wasn’t a sound from inside the room.

  Finally, I went to the kitchen to fix the supper. Levi was on the back porch, sleeping off a late-night whiskey run. I could hear him snoring as I moved around, making the biscuits, pouring the tea, pretending we were a happy family, all in its place, that Harley wasn’t trying to freeze me out, that I wasn’t walking on eggshells. I was scared to death of what he might do.

  We hadn’t been home an hour when there was a pounding on the front door. The door to the mudroom flew open and Harley appeared. He walked right past me, my arms full of silverware and plates, on my way into the dining room to set the table.

  From the hallway, I heard Johnny Clay’s voice. He was yelling. I ran into the hall and stood there. Johnny Clay said, “Did they hurt her?”

  Harley said, “They never got to her. We stopped them in time.”

  “Did they have a knife? I heard they had a knife.”

  “That don’t matter, Johnny Clay. They weren’t ever able to use it,” Harley said.

  “Did they have a knife?” Once he got something in his head, Johnny Clay was like a dog with a bone. He just would not let it go.

  “Maybe one or two of them did.”

  Johnny Clay was down the steps at this point. Harley went after him.

  “Don’t do anything stupid,” he said. “Don’t make it worse than it already is.”

  I could tell Harley was getting madder. I put my hand on his arm and pulled on the muscle. I said, “Don’t.” Then, to Johnny Clay, I said: “She’s okay. They didn’t hurt her. Harley and the Deals got there before they could do anything.”

  “Why didn’t you tell me, Velva Jean?” I’d never seen Johnny Clay look like that—equal parts upset and sad and hurt and mad.

  I said, “Harley took care of it. Lucinda was fine. He chased them away.”

  Johnny Clay said, “Who was it?”

  I said, “Those boys from the Scenic.”

  He said, “Which one started it?”

  I didn’t say anything at first. I knew if I told him, he would go after him.

  “It was hard to tell. It was all of them,” I said finally.

  “I’ll just find Butch and make him tell me.”

  I waited, hoping he might let it go, but knowing that he wouldn’t. I sighed to let him know I wasn’t happy about telling him. “It was that one they call Blackeye.”

  Johnny Clay said, “Chasing him away was for me to do, not Harley.”

  I said, “You weren’t there.”

  This shut him up. He stood glaring at the ground. Finally, he said, “He had a knife?”

  Harley said, “You’re welcome.” He had his arms folded across his chest.

  I said, “Go in the house.” I said it loud and sharp, like I was talking to a dog or a child that wasn’t listening.

  Harley looked at me in surprise, but he went into the house and closed the door.

  Johnny Clay was staring off at the woods, his jaw set, his eyes fixed. He was madder than I’d ever seen him, so mad it curled my blood. I said, “Johnny Clay? What are you going to do?” When he didn’t answer, I felt the fear rising up in my chest like the thing he was going to do—whatever it was—was already done. “Johnny Clay?” My voice came
out high and loud. “Answer me.”

  He said, “That’s not for you to worry about.”

  I said, “Don’t be stupid. If you go up there to the CCC camp, you’re going to get yourself killed.” I knew how his mind worked. I knew what he was thinking.

  He said, “Not if I send Red Terror instead.” He winked at me and smiled, but that smile was ice cold. Then he got into his car and slammed the door. He sat there for a minute, looking down.

  I called out, “Johnny Clay? Why don’t you come back up here? Why don’t you come inside?”

  He didn’t say anything. He started the car and drove away.

  I told Harley we needed to go see Daddy Hoyt right now, right this minute, that there was no telling what Johnny Clay might do, but Harley would not be hurried. He wanted to finish his supper and eat every bite.

  Long after Levi and I were done eating, I watched Harley scrape the crumbs off his plate and wipe up the last bit of gravy with his soda biscuit. I watched him drink it down with sweet tea and then wipe his mouth with a napkin. I knew now he’d want an after-dinner cigarette, even though he liked to pretend he didn’t smoke. He’d stand out there on the porch and stare off at the mountains and he’d drift off to someplace else in his mind and there would be no talking to him for a while.

  “Harley,” I said, after he threw down his napkin, just as he was standing. “Let’s go now.” I wanted to see if Johnny Clay was home or if he had gone off, like I was worried he had, to the CCC camp.

  “I got to digest first,” Harley said, which meant he wanted that cigarette. He looked at me, cold and hard, before walking away from the table.

  Just then there was a banging on the door and I thought for one minute it might be Johnny Clay—that he had come to his senses. But when Harley opened the door, it wasn’t Johnny Clay at all but Mr. Harriday and Sister Gladdy. Sister Gladdy was crying. Right away, she moved past Harley and came into the house and threw her arms around me and just heaved and heaved, her enormous bosom moving up and down. My first thought was oh, my Lord, Johnny Clay has got himself killed.

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