Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven


  I said, “What is it?” I looked right at Brother Jim.

  He said, “Preacher Bright, there has been a tragedy up at the church. Sister Janette Lowe was up there laying flowers at the pulpit. She was all by herself.” He pulled the glasses off his face and started fussing with them, rubbing at the lenses with a handkerchief. He wiped his eyes quick with the back of one hand. His head was bowed. He said, “Someone came after her. They found her up there alone. He had a knife. He held it to her throat. She began praying and he said, ‘It’s all right if you pray, but don’t pray too loud or I’ll kill you.’ She said it was her prayers that saved her.”

  Harley was saying, “Who found her? Who came after her?” His face had gone white. Levi was standing in the doorway to the dining room, his mouth working like he was talking to Jesus.

  Brother Jim said, “Sister Lowe didn’t know the man. She said he was an outlander. Preacher Bright, that man attacked her.”

  Harley said, “As preacher of that church, you can be sure I’ll get to the bottom of this. I’ll find out who did it. I’ve got some ideas. That man Blackeye or one of the other Scenic boys.”

  I said, “You can’t blame all the Scenic boys just because some of them are rotten.”

  Harley looked at me. He said, “How do you know not all of them are rotten, Velva Jean? Since when can you speak for each and every one of them? Or is it just one in particular you’re concerned with?”

  I didn’t say anything to this. I didn’t trust his expression, the meanness in his eyes.

  Brother Jim said, “Hink Lowe and her daddy and her uncles and the sheriff are on the hunt for that man right now. We thought you could come with us. There’s fixing to be some trouble in town. This has got folks worked up. We need you.”

  Harley said, “Velva Jean, I want you to stay inside and lock the door. Daddy, you’re not to leave her. That man could be anywhere.”

  Levi was already heading up the stairs, muttering under his breath. I knew he was on his way to his room to fetch his Luger.

  I waited for Harley to kiss me, but instead he just walked through the door and went with the Harridays out into the night.

  In my dream I heard hammering, like someone pounding a nail. Then the hammering got louder until it felt like it was in my head, and I woke up and heard the knocking at the front door. Harley still wasn’t home. I felt a moment of panic. What if it was the outlander? The one that attacked Janette Lowe? I lay there in bed, my heart beating wildly. The hammering continued.

  Slowly, carefully, I raised myself up on my knees and peered out the window. There, down below, was Johnny Clay’s Nash convertible parked in our front yard.

  I slipped out of bed and found my old bathrobe and ran down the stairs. He was banging on the door now, just as loud as could be, slapping his whole palm against it.

  I threw the door open and said, “You’re going to wake the entire holler. Are you drunk?”

  He looked drunk. His hair was messy and his clothes looked like he’d thrown them on in a hurry. He was acting like he had the fidgets, looking over his shoulder and glancing all around. He leaned one hand on the doorframe and said, “Velva Jean, I got to go.”

  I said, “Go where? Why’re you waking me up in the middle of the night?” I leaned in to smell his breath.

  He pushed me away. He said, “I want you to listen. I didn’t kill him, but I hurt him good. They’ll be after me.”

  I said, “Who did you hurt?”

  He said, “Blackeye.”

  I said, “Why would you do something so stupid?”

  He said, “Because he tried to hurt the woman I love.”

  I said, “Is he dead?”

  “No. And he ain’t going to die. But he’s as close to dead as I could make him without killing him, although I wanted to kill him. And you better believe they’ll come after me. That’s why I got to go.”

  I said, “Where? Where will you go?”

  “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe New York. Maybe California. Somewhere I can get lost. I’ll send you a postcard, let you know where I end up.”

  I was standing there, in my bare feet, trying not to cry like a baby. “You can’t leave,” I said. I knew that if he left the most important part of my world would be gone. I knew that if he left nothing would ever be the same again.

  He said, “I got to, Velva Jean. I did a bad thing, but it was a thing I had to do. No one’s got the right to touch her if she don’t want them to.” Standing there, he looked like the best of our mama and daddy. He looked gold even in the moonlight. He said, “I brought some things to give you. I been saving them for you.” He handed me a green box, the kind you put recipes in, and a folded road map. He said, “This should get you where you need to go.”

  Then, before I could stop him, he pulled me close and hugged me tight and then pushed me away so that I went spinning into the door and had to throw out my arms to catch myself. He was gone then, in a cloud of dust, one arm waving like the queen as he disappeared from my life and into the night.

  I sat down in the front room with the things Johnny Clay had given me—the map and the green recipe box. I opened the box and looked inside, but it smelled so much like Mama—like lavender and honeysuckle and lye soap—that I closed it right back up again. Opening that box made me want to cry, and I was already wanting to cry over Johnny Clay leaving. But I wouldn’t cry. I knew that if I started I might not stop.

  I picked up the map. It was an Esso gas-station map. I unfolded it and there was the state of Tennessee with part of North Carolina next to it. I found a little dot that said “The Alluvial Valley.” Johnny Clay had circled it. From there, he had marked the route to Nashville along the only road that came anywhere near us—the Blue Ridge Parkway.

  I put my head down and started crying, and I didn’t stop for an hour. I cried so hard that my eyes swelled almost shut. All the while, I rocked myself back and forth on the settee, my arms wrapped tight around my knees. Finally, when I had cried myself out, I lay back and tried to breathe. I thought how strange it was that you could cry like your heart was breaking and then all at once feel like stopping, even when you were still so sad and lonely that you weren’t sure you would ever be happy again. I held up that map and looked at the route and tried to figure out how long it would take to drive from here to Nashville.

  THIRTY-SIX

  The next morning, just after breakfast, Brother Jim came to the house to talk to Harley. There were other men with him—I couldn’t hear who they were. Harley was needed in Alluvial and while he was itching to go, I could tell he didn’t think he should leave me. I was still lying in bed, long after the rooster crowed and the sun had rose over the mountains and into the sky. I didn’t want to be awake, because being awake meant that I would have to face the day for the first time since Johnny Clay had gone for good.

  Downstairs, the men argued with Harley. When he came upstairs to check on me and bring me some water, I said, “If you need to go, go. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be safe.” I was beginning to get tired of lying there, but I felt so heavy and worn down that it was hard to get up.

  Harley studied my face. He had taken to doing this lately—taking it in with long looks, not saying a word, as if he was trying to get to the bottom of things, as if he didn’t quite trust what he saw there. Downstairs, Brother Jim coughed and cleared his throat impatiently.

  Harley was a hundred miles away from me. Finally, he said, “All right, Velva Jean.”

  As I lay there, I made myself stop thinking about Harley and Johnny Clay and I thought instead about Janette Lowe. I thought about the first time she came to the Little White Church and about the day that she was saved. I thought about dancing with her after she’d received salvation, about the way the two of us danced up and down the shores of Panther Creek.

  The more I lay there, the guiltier I felt for lying there and feeling sorry for myself after what had happened to her. So I got up out of bed and got myself dressed. I washed my face and
brushed my hair, and then I walked into the canning room at the end of the hall and chose three of my nicest jars of fruit. I put them into a basket and tied the handle with a bow and then I walked down the hill toward Alluvial.

  The Lowes lived way up in Sleepy Gap, up past Mama’s and Daddy Hoyt’s. There was a trampled-down path that wove under the tree cover. I picked my way over and through this and about six hundred yards or so later I came to the house, which was set back in the trees so you could barely see it. The house looked like it might fall down any minute. It had the look of being just barely propped up. Here and there in the yard lay wide rings of leaves and tree limbs and animal bones and the gray-black dusting of ashes, leftovers from the fires Hink and his brothers liked to burn.

  I had only been here once before, long ago with Johnny Clay. Fifteen people lived in that little house and not all of them were right. The only one with any sense was Hink’s second sister, Praise Elizabeth, who had gotten out years ago by marrying a traveling salesman and moving to Tennessee. She had never once come back.

  There were at least three Lowes hanging off the porch, staring at me. There was another one in the front window and two more that ran around back. They were just like rabbits, Granny always said. They just multiplied before your eyes.

  I walked up onto the porch. The floorboards creaked and I thought I might fall right through. I knocked on the door.

  “Daddy ain’t in there,” one of the Lowes on the porch said. He was filthy—small and mangy with hair that stuck up all over.

  “Where is he?” I said.

  “He gone off after a bear.” The three Lowes came creeping over. They stood around me. One of them was chewing on his thumb. The other one was smoking even though he wasn’t any older than nine. “We think the bear probably killed him. We think he’s probably dead somewhere, chewed up by an animal.”

  “Is your mama home?” I said.

  “Mama’s in there lying down,” the oldest boy said. “On account of what happened with Janette.”

  Actually, Mrs. Lowe was always lying down. She was either resting in bed because she was just getting ready to have a baby or because she was just getting over having one. “Can I see her?”

  There was a shuffling sound and Javeen appeared at the door. She was fourteen or fifteen, but she was taller and fatter than Janette. She hollered at the boys on the porch, “Get down offa there and go away. Janny’s trying to rest.”

  I said, “Javeen? Can I come in please?”

  She looked me over and then nodded. She said, “She won’t want to talk to you.”

  I followed her into the room inside where Mrs. Lowe lay on one bed and Janette lay on another, turned on her side, face to the wall, a thin brown blanket pulled up over her shoulder. There were six or seven other beds—wide enough for just one person—all around, and another room beyond with more beds.

  I looked right at Janette, then at Mrs. Lowe, who was staring at me from her pillow. I said, “Ma’am, I didn’t mean to disturb anyone. I came to see Janette.”

  Mrs. Lowe said, “She ain’t up to company.”

  I said, “I’m so sorry to hear about your trouble. I want you to know that I’m here to offer any help I can. I care about Janette. She’s my friend. I’m sorry she was hurt, that anyone would hurt her. I’m sorry that someone would do such a thing in this world.” I started to cry even though I hadn’t meant to. I said, “I want her to know that I’m here for her if she needs anything or if you need anything at all.”

  Mrs. Lowe was crying now. Javeen sat down and held her mama’s hand. Mrs. Lowe said, “That man attacked my daughter. He’s going to pay for it. My husband and my brothers and my son have gone to find that man and make sure he gets what’s coming to him.”

  I glanced at Janette, still lying in her bed. She hadn’t moved since we came in.

  I said, “Does she know the man who did this?”

  Mrs. Lowe said, “She never seen him before. She said he was a stranger. She called the one that did this the outlander. The sheriff come up here last night after Hink found Janette. The sheriff and Frank and Hink, they took off toward Cherokee. They figure that boy is going to try to run through down there to the railroad, and then to Bryson City or on over to Tennessee.”

  I thought: The storm isn’t over. It’s only just coming. Heaven help us all.

  From the Lowe’s house, I climbed the rest of the way up our mountain to Old Widow’s Peak. Standing there, I missed Johnny Clay all over again. I felt the familiar homesick lump in my throat and for a while I couldn’t swallow. There at the top of the peak, I had a good view of the Scenic. No one was working—no men, no guards—which was strange for the middle of a weekday.

  I stood there for a little while longer, looking out past the new road and over the valleys and the mountains that grew up one after another as far as the eye could see. I wondered where Johnny Clay was, if I could see him from where I stood. I wondered about Beachard and Daddy. And then I turned toward home.

  I heard Harley before I saw him. The train was stopped in Alluvial, the doors to the boxcars standing open. A crowd was gathered beside the tracks, outside Deal’s. Not just a crowd—there were at least a hundred people, maybe more. It looked like everyone had come down off our five mountains, like they were gathered for the Alluvial Fair.

  Harley was preaching about something, but I couldn’t make out the words. Dusk was coming; the sun was moving lower in the sky. Lightning bugs were beginning to appear, flickering on and off here and there. The crickets were starting to hum, like fiddles just warming up. Men stood with arms folded. They leaned on shotguns. Some of the boys from the Scenic crowded together in groups, surrounded, gathered up around the boxcars, guns pointed at them. There were miners and boys from the band mill staring out from inside the train. I saw Burn McKinney and his family, and Burn looked mad as a hornet. Then I saw Mrs. Dennis and Dr. Hamp, and Mrs. Dennis was crying.

  The first person I recognized in the crowd was Coyle Deal, standing outside the store, arms folded. From the back, he looked just like Danny, sandy blond hair, sturdy shoulders. For a moment, you could almost believe he was Danny. He turned and then he was Coyle again. I ran to him.

  “What’s happening?” I said. Beyond him I could see everyone I knew—everyone from the mountains. Harley stood at the front of the crowd, up on the back of someone’s truck.

  “Harley’s preaching against the outlanders. Everybody’s calling for blood. There are a lot of people who want them gone, Velva Jean—anyone who isn’t from here—and Harley’s leading it. He’s talking about casting the demons out.”

  “Demons?” I said, too loudly. A couple of people—Ez Ledford, Shorty Rogers—turned and gave me nasty looks.

  Jessup walked over to us and said, “If you ask me, there’s more than one demon needs casting out here.”

  Coyle said, “They’ve rounded up the boys from the band mill and the boys from the CCC camp, the ones that aren’t local. They’re sending them south on the train, out of Alluvial, out of North Carolina.”

  I felt light-headed. The air started swimming and I thought I might have to leave or sit down with my head between my legs. I said, “Why doesn’t anyone stop them? What about the men who run the band mill? The men who run the camp? What about whoever it is that’s in charge of building that road?”

  “They couldn’t plan on anything like this happening. These men went up there like an army and took what they wanted.”

  “Where’s the sheriff?”

  “On the manhunt, trying to find the outlander, the one that attacked Janette Lowe. He and Deputy Meeks and the Lowes are in Murphy. They sent word that they’ve got a lead on a man down there.”

  “What are they doing with the McKinneys? With Mrs. Dennis and Dr. Hamp?”

  “They’re outlanders, too. They’re not from here so they’re making them leave.”

  “They can’t do that,” I said. “Where’s your daddy? He can stop this. Where’s Daddy Hoyt?”


  “Trying to stop your husband from making matters worse,” Coyle said. “They been fighting this thing all day. They been shot at and swore at and pushed out of the way.”

  Jessup said, “Someone even came after Ruby Poole because she’s from Asheville, but Linc threatened to kill them, and everyone knows he’d keep his word.”

  I was trying to understand everything they were telling me. I felt like the air had run out of my head and like my brain had shut off and like I couldn’t understand anything at all, no matter how I tried.

  Up on the back of the truck, Harley was barnstorming. He had shed his white jacket and was standing only in his shirtsleeves and vest. There were damp circles underneath his armpits. There were little drops of water winging off the ends of his hair. “We need to ban together,” Harley said. “We’ll flush them out of their hiding places. They’ll have to face us. And then they’ll see the light. We’ll make them see it. They’ll pay for what they’ve done. And then we will be free—not only the souls of those they’ve harmed, but those of us that are left here to mourn them. We will be free once again in our homes.”

  Harley was completely carried away with himself, and he was carrying everyone else away with him. I watched as now and then they raised their hands and said: “Tell it, preacher!” “Come on, preacher!” “Amen!”

  I strained to find Daddy Hoyt or Linc or Mr. Deal in the crowd. I stood on tiptoes and peered above heads and shaded my eyes and studied faces. I pushed my way through the people, row by row, trying to find someone else to explain this to me, someone to put a stop to it.

 
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