Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven


  Harley’s eyes were closed. His hands were held up to the sky. He said, “The kingdom of heaven was snatched away by violence. ‘Ven geance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.’ We need to cast out the devil that’s entered our house. Now that this road has come through, that devil is free to come and go. We need to find the devil and cast him out and make certain that he can never enter our house again.”

  “Praise the Lord!”

  “Amen!”

  I made my way toward the front of the crowd, pushing against people, bumping into one person after another. The crowd got thicker and tighter the nearer I got to Harley. Folks were trying to get closer to him, trying to hear him and see him. I was reaching for Daddy Hoyt, who was standing to the side, by the railroad tracks, with Mr. Deal and Reverend Broomfield and Reverend Nix and Linc and Uncle Turk. I pushed my way through until I reached them.

  “Why is no one stopping him?” I said when I did. Daddy Hoyt held out one arm and pulled me close.

  “We’re outnumbered,” said Mr. Deal.

  Daddy Hoyt said, “As soon as they heard that an outlander attacked Janette Lowe, that was all the excuse they needed. They went up Blood Mountain and pulled the miners from their shacks, and then they went up there to the CCC camp and the band mill camp to round up the outlanders and send them off this mountain.”

  Butch. I looked but didn’t see him anywhere.

  “Mr. Deal called the sheriff’s office in Hamlet’s Mill and they’re sending someone up here,” said Linc. “They’re calling the police chief in Civility to help us out.”

  “ ‘A house divided against itself will collapse.’ Are we divided?” The sun was disappearing over the trees, behind the mountains. Up on the mountain it would still be light, but down here in the valley, darkness was coming fast.

  Some shouted, “No!”

  “ ‘Every house or city that disagrees with itself shall not stand.’ Do we disagree?”

  More people: “No!”

  “ ‘The house that remains standing is the one that stands together.’ Do we stand together?”

  Everyone: “Yes!”

  “ ‘Whosoever is not with me is against me.’ Are you with me?”

  “Yes!”

  Something was happening in this valley, in the faces of these people I had known all my life. There was a hunger as they leaned in close for Harley’s every word. He was feeding them. There was a strange, unsettling energy in the place that made me want to leave, except that I couldn’t turn away from it.

  Listening to Harley, I thought that this was maybe his greatest moment, that he had finally broke free of his mama and Damascus King and his own low and wicked past—a past spent searching for direction and vision and purpose. He had even broke free of Jesus. Harley Bright had finally arrived. But instead of thrilling me and making me love him, it made me hate him. I felt something turn in me and a coldness come over my heart like a door closing or a wall building fast, brick by brick, where there wasn’t one before. I saw him as a poisoned person, like someone filled up with snake venom. I thought: What if the poison starts to work on me, too?

  Then I thought: Quick. These are the things to feel joyful about:

  my family

  my music

  my truck

  my hatbox

  making a record

  writing down my songs

  Butch Dawkins

  the Wood Carver

  the Grand Ole Opry

  Nashville

  But none of it helped. I could see that Harley Bright, standing under the lantern lights in his Barathea white suit, eyes ablaze, was alive with the devil. It was shining out of him just as strong as could be.

  And then, just when I thought it couldn’t get more horrible, Harley said, “There’s another outlander that’s been living on this mountain for some time, trespassing in our home. He’s been haunting us, spooking us. But he’s just a man. He’s got fingerprints, just like you and me. He’s got a heart that beats, just like you and me. He’s got blood that bleeds, just like you and me. He stays up there on Devil’s Courthouse. He’s a runaway murderer. It’s time we round him up and send him home with the rest of them.”

  After Harley was finished, there was a great buzzing and everyone tumbled about and pushed forward, trying to talk to him and to each other. The men gathered together while the women, clutching their shawls and their children, moved out into the night. They went up toward home in groups of three or four: close together, looking over their shoulders, and jumping at the night sounds they knew so well—the same night sounds they had always heard since they were babies.

  Mrs. Dennis and Dr. Hamp were rounded up and forced onto a train with the McKinneys and the boys from the Scenic and poor old Elderly Jones, who someone decided at the last minute was a threat just because his ancestors must not go back quite as far as some of the rest of us. And then I saw Butch, standing in the crowd next to Dr. Hamp, steel guitar across his chest, silver ring glinting, corners of his mouth turned down. I wanted to see that lazy, crooked smile. I wanted him to look in my direction. See me, Butch, I thought. I’m over here. Over here. Look my way. Here I am. I’m not a part of this. This is Harley’s doing, not mine. Please don’t think I have anything to do with this. Please look at me.

  Look at me.

  Look at me.

  Look at me . . .

  He stared straight ahead and didn’t once look my way, this man who had listened to my words and my music, who had given me my songs. And then, just like that, he was gone. The doors to the train were closed with the help of men I had known all my lives. Men with faces that were changed and strange. Men I didn’t recognize anymore.

  The mob was forming, swarming, heading up Devil’s Courthouse. Harley suddenly brushed by us, walking quickly ahead. Daddy Hoyt shouted, “Velva Jean!” I ran away from him into the night, away from the lights and the noise and the crowd, up the mountain after my husband.

  Harley was moving fast through the house. He went up the stairs two at a time and into his daddy’s room and pulled out the dresser drawers, rifling through the clothes.

  He said, “Velva Jean, I want you to stay here.” He got on his knees and looked under the bed and then moved to the old army trunk and threw back the lid. He worked fast, shuffling through every paper or boot or hat. He slammed the lid shut and stood up and crossed the hall to our room, a flash of energy, of electric white.

  I was after him. I said, “What are you doing?”

  He said, “You need to stay here and promise me not to leave this house.” He was reaching into drawers, turning them upside down, and then back into the chifforobe, back behind the clothes. He pushed aside my hatbox and knocked it onto the floor so that it opened up and the things inside went everywhere. He said, “I know Mama kept a pistol.”

  I grabbed his arm and I said, “Harley,” sharp and loud, just like I’d slapped him. He stopped and looked at me. I took his hand. I got down on my knees beside him, right down on the floor, and I said, “Look at me.”

  “Velva Jean . . .”

  “Look at me.”

  He sighed a little. His other hand stopped working in the back of the chifforobe. “What is it?”

  “I want my old Harley back. The one I could believe in. The one I married. The one who rode up to Sleepy Gap in his shiny blue car and swept me off my feet and counted stars with me and never could get the dirt out from under his fingernails and worked an honest living and bought me a radio so I wouldn’t be lonely and gave me a wall of windows so I wouldn’t have any more darkness and wouldn’t let me be till I married him. I want the man who saw right into me and promised to love me and swore he’d be true to me forever.”

  Harley sat back, leaning against the door of the chifforobe. He rested his arm on his knee. He looked like he’d had the wind knocked out of him. His green eyes were sad. He looked like a little boy, like a young-old man, lost and unsure. Seeing him like that touched my heart. I wanted to put my arms around him and tell h
im it was going to be fine.

  Instead I said, “I miss you. I want you to come back to me. I want to go back to the beginning, back to the way it was. I want to get back to us, Harley. Somewhere along the way we got derailed, just like a train—just like the Terrible Creek train—and we need to get back on track. I know we can, but I can’t do it by myself.”

  Even as I said it, I wondered if I believed it. What if there was too much between us now? Too many silences, too little said, too much said? My songs? My driving? Butch? Things I could never forget or go back from. I picked up Harley’s hand and put it on my heart. I laid my hand over his and through it I could feel my own heart beating.

  He said, “You know I love you, Velva Jean. I love you more than anything.”

  I said, “I love you, too.” I could feel the stinging behind my eyes that meant I was getting ready to cry. I wanted to believe that we could be like ourselves again, just Velva Jean and Harley. Velva Jean Hart and Harley Bright forever. Forever and ever. Happily ever after. The end.

  He said, “I’m sorry if I’ve let you down. I know I ain’t been around much.”

  My heart swelled and I suddenly felt like it was going to be okay. The tears came then, slipping down my face one at a time. I tasted one as it ran into my mouth.

  He wiped a tear away with his thumb. Then another. He said, “But I got to see this through.”

  I sat back a little. No no no no no. “See what through?”

  “This. All of it. I been given a gift, a calling, a purpose. You know that. You were there to see it. Sometimes I don’t want it, Velva Jean. It’s making me tired. What they did to Junie—that road. The responsibility of it all. Sometimes I just want to lie down and give up and go to sleep, not ever go back to that church, just get back out there on the rails and preach—or not. Just do something else altogether. Maybe lie back on that couch and listen to the radio again. Listen to The Lone Ranger. But I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been chosen in some way. I’d be dead like Straight Willy Cannon and the others, and I’m not. So I got to see this through.”

  I said, “What you did to the Scenic—when you went up there and caused all that damage—you did that for Aunt Junie, didn’t you?”

  He nodded. “For Junie, and for all of us.” He said, “I won’t have Satan, destroyer of all that is good and just, upset a part of my home.” He looked right at me and his voice turned hard. “Or anyone else for that matter.”

  And then he stood up and he gazed down at me and it seemed like he was doing so from a long, long way away. Suddenly my tears were dry. And then, at the same moment, we both of us saw my record lying on the floor: Velva Jean Hart, “Yellow Truck Coming, Yellow Truck Going.” Harley stooped down and picked it up. He held it in his hand and studied it. He turned it over and looked at the other side. Then he looked at me—a look full of hurt and sadness and blame.

  I said, “I can explain.”

  He said, “I ain’t interested.”

  I said, “I was going to tell you, but I didn’t know how you’d react. I wanted to play it for you, but I didn’t know if you’d want to hear it. I gave them my full name, but they left it off, not me. They said it didn’t fit.”

  Harley wasn’t listening. His eyes had glassed over and he was looking at me, but looking past me, too.

  I said, “We can go downstairs right now and I can play it for you. Harley, I want to play it for you. I’m so proud of this record. You’re the person in this world I most want to share it with.”

  He said, “I wonder if that’s true.”

  Then he stared down at the record and kind of tipped it back and forth in his hands. I thought for a minute he was going to break the record in two. But instead, he handed it to me—just handed it over like he couldn’t bear to touch it anymore—and walked out of the room.

  I ran after Harley down the stairs. Right before my eyes, I could see my life going away from me and there was nothing I could do. I was thinking: Harley Bright, if you walk out of this house, there is no telling what will happen. I think that will be it for us, so you’d better not leave. I felt helpless to stop him, helpless to do anything, and I felt terrible and guilty over my record. At the same time, I wanted to kill him for trying to spoil it for me, my one and only record that I had made and that was supposed to be forever, something no one could take from me, not even him.

  THIRTY-SEVEN

  In the distance, I could hear the voices of men gathering. The night was a warm one, the kind Harley and I should have been spending on the front porch, holding hands on the swing, looking up at the stars like we used to. The crickets were humming so loud that the air was vibrating. I usually loved to hear them, but now it sounded like they were building toward something dark and horrible.

  I picked up my skirt and I ran up the mountain, following the men up the hill as close as I dared. It was clear they didn’t know where they were going. They just knew they needed to go up toward the very top of the mountain. It was Lester Gordon and his daddy, Dell Haywood, Clydie Williams, Lou Pigeon, Ez Ledford, Shorty Rogers, Marlon Day, Floyd Hatch, Root Caldwell, Brother Dearborn, Brother Armes, Brother Marsh. There were others—too many. I never saw if Levi was there. He may have been. So many were there, but some weren’t. Most were, though. That was the unsettling thing. Harley was nowhere to be seen.

  Floyd said, “The outlander is up by the giant’s cave. He built a cabin near there. I know where he is. We’ll go up there to get our bearings, but I know where he is.”

  I broke off from them as quiet as I could, and I cut through the woods. I would get there first. I would warn the Wood Carver. I stopped every few feet to listen, thanking God and Granny for the Cherokee in me that helped me track a trail in the dark. I tried not to think of panthers or bears or convicts or haints. I thought only of the kind, peaceful man who was my friend.

  I got there just before them. I found him standing on his front step, hands on his hips, staring out toward the horizon, as if he knew what was coming. His hat was pushed back on his head. His knife was in his pocket. He stood completely motionless, like Hunter Firth when he was tracking something. He didn’t even look at me.

  I said, “A girl was attacked by an outlander. Now they’re on the hunt for other outlanders. They are coming. You need to leave. I’ll go with you. I can’t stay here.”

  He said, “I’m not going anywhere.”

  I said, “These men have blood on their minds. They’ve turned vicious. My husband has helped turn them that way.” I felt like spitting after the word “husband,” just like Johnny Clay did whenever he swore.

  He said, “I’m not going because I’m not guilty of attacking that girl. I am not going to run from something I didn’t do.”

  I was starting to get angry. I said, “They don’t care that you didn’t attack her. What matters to them is that you’re an outlander. They want them all gone. They have guns. They’ll kill you!”

  He crossed his arms in front of his chest. He was dark against the porch, against the sky. “It’s not your fight, Velva Jean. Go. Fly. And remember—there is a difference between running from something and running to something. Never run from something, if you can help it.”

  I went to fetch Daddy Hoyt as fast as I could, my feet flying over earth and clay and leaves and grass. Suddenly—halfway down the mountain—there was a beam of wavering light and Linc appeared at the other end of it, and over his shoulder Daddy Hoyt. Then I saw the Deals—Mr. Deal and Coyle and Jessup, carrying their rifles. And beyond them Reverend Broomfield and Reverend Nix and Uncle Turk and his Cherokee wife, Nomi, and Granny, who was riding Mad Maggie and clutching her handheld ax.

  We headed up to the Wood Carver’s house together. Daddy Hoyt didn’t ask me how long I’d been coming there or how I had found the Wood Carver or why it had started. What he did say was, “What do you know about the Wood Carver, Velva Jean?”

  I said, “I know that he’s my friend. And I know that for as long as I can remember, he’s been up on to
p of this mountain.”

  Daddy Hoyt walked in silence. I could hear him breathing harder than normal as we climbed. He said, “I remember when he showed up. Ten, maybe twelve years ago. I don’t think anyone knows his real name, but there have been rumors, of course.”

  I said, “People say he’s a monster that walks on all fours. They say he breaks into their houses at night and steals from them.”

  Daddy Hoyt said, “People will always invent stories about things or people they don’t understand. It makes them feel better about not understanding.”

  I said, “Who do you think he is?”

  “Henry Able,” said Granny.

  Daddy Hoyt picked up a large stick and used it as a cane, letting it work him up the mountain. We were moving fast, the Deal boys and Linc up ahead of us. Daddy Hoyt said, “Henry Able or Hank Able. From up near Spruce Pine. Young man working in the mines there about fifteen years ago. Fought with a fellow name of McAllister after McAllister tried to seduce Able’s wife.” Daddy Hoyt fell silent as he caught his breath. I didn’t say anything, just waited for him to continue. “After May Able rejected him, McAllister tried to kill Henry Able, but he fought him off with a knife, hit an artery, and McAllister bled to death. Able disappeared into the woods, turning up later in Kentucky and then Chicago. Tried to return for May, but she was gone and he was a wanted man. She lives down near Pinhook Gap now, right by Bee Tree Fork, just over the ridge there. She never remarried. I think he came up here so that he could look out for her, so that he could see her.”

  “How do you know all that?” I said.

  “Most of it was in the newspapers. He’s still a wanted man. The McAllister family had influence.”

  “But what makes you think it’s him?”

  “Something I read—just a line. Hank Able had a hobby. He liked to work with wood.” I listened to his breathing. We were almost there. Daddy Hoyt said, “I could be wrong, of course. I think, more than anything, he is a man in need of forgiveness. I think he came here to this mountain to seek it. Who do you think he is, Velva Jean?”

 
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