Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  I rode on Mad Maggie, up behind Granny. I wrapped my arms around her birdlike waist, thin yet strong. I rested my head against her back, and turned away from the fire and the crowd. I closed my eyes. Harley had brought those men up here. Harley had just as good as killed the Wood Carver.

  Granny turned Mad Maggie around and let her lead us home. I felt us going down, down, down the mountain, away from the little cabin and the dogwood tree and the laurel thicket. The smell of smoke began to fade. Soon it was just Granny and me and my brothers, walking behind us, and the night. The hoot of an owl. The rustle of a creature in the underbrush. And somewhere in the distance, the high, lonesome cry of a panther.


  Long after everyone else had gone to sleep, Linc and Beachard and I sat out on the porch of Mama’s house, just like we used to, looking at the stars and watching Hunter Firth walk around in the yard, sniffing at bugs. He moved slow, like his bones hurt, like Aunt Bird or Elderly Jones. I guessed he was getting old. I think he missed Johnny Clay like I did.

  Beach told us that after he finished his work on the Scenic he had roamed up to Kentucky. He had gone into Virginia and Tennessee. He had worked on the railroad and traveled by rail, and he had written on trees and rocks and barns and walls wherever he felt like it. He was in Del Rio when he got the urge to come home. He said he somehow knew we needed him.

  He found his way at first by the train and then by the trees he had marked: “Jesus Weeps.” “Jesus Mourns.” “Jesus Grieves.” Before pushing on through the woods toward home, he took time to carve another: “Jesus Heals.” That was when he heard the voices and saw the fire. He said that from far away it looked like Devil’s Courthouse was burning.

  When he got done telling us all this, I said, “There’s one thing I don’t understand. Where was Daddy?”

  Linc said, “What do you mean, ‘Where was Daddy?’ ”

  I said, “I thought I saw him once when Harley and I went to the CCC camp to preach. I didn’t get a good look, but there was a man there that looked like him.”

  Beach said, “Daddy was here. But now he’s not. I reckon Daddy’s down at Soco Gap now or maybe up in Virginia. There are some parkway sections starting work up there soon.”

  “Why didn’t he come home?” I said. “All that time he was up here.”

  Beach said, “He came as close as he could. Why do you think he wanted to work on this particular piece of the road, Velva Jean?”

  I thought of Daddy nearby, all that time—how long was he here before he’d left again? And then I thought of Daddy off somewhere, walking on those mountaintops. I pictured him buck dancing against the sun.

  When morning came, we walked over to Granny’s for breakfast—eggs and bacon and grits. Aunt Bird brought fried pies, and Aunt Zona brought mint jelly, and the twins and Ruby Poole made cinnamon rolls that fell apart in our mouths. Sweet Fern—her lips painted a rosy pink, a flower in her hair—came up from Alluvial with the children. For the first time in a long time, we were all together, all but Johnny Clay. It was like Thanksgiving or Christmas.

  Afterward I walked up to the Wood Carver’s house. He was gone just like I knew he would be. It was like he had never been there at all. There were just four walls and a dogwood tree that had survived a tornado and would survive much more.

  Inside, the little cabin was bare. His books were gone: burned in the fire. The bed was stripped bare; the shelves emptied. Only the little camp stove remained to remind me that anyone had been there. I stood in the middle of the room for a minute, listening to the great silence, feeling the emptiness of the space, which weighed down on me until I couldn’t breathe. And then I walked outside and closed the door behind me.

  I picked through the ruins of the fire, but there were only bits of wood—scraps that used to be a cane or a carving or a dancing man or a birdhouse. In the ashes, something glinted—a flash of silver. The only knife I had ever seen the Wood Carver use. I picked it up and rubbed the blade clean on my skirt. I polished the handle. I worked that knife over till it shone like it was new, then I laid it on the step where he used to sit, where I’d first seen him all those years ago, just in case he ever came back.

  The sun was up and blazing by the time I came down the mountain. I stood on the shores of Three Gum River and heard my mama’s voice.

  Oh, they tell me of a land far beyond the skies . . .

  I walked into the water until it covered my ankles and then my calves, washing up over the scar where the panther had got me, and then my knees. My skirt pulled me toward the bottom but I pushed on till I was standing waist deep in the river. The water felt cool and calm. The sun beat down from the great wide sky. I opened my arms as if I could take it all in, as if I could hold it and carry it and pull it close. There was blue but no clouds. The storm had passed.

  I fell backward and let myself float. My skirt billowed up around me and then filled with water and sank back down. My hair sailed out around my head like seaweed. I was a mermaid. I was a girl captured by the cannibal spirits, made to live below the water, looking at the world from my watery home.

  Floating, I felt like I was ten years old again. I could almost hear and see the people on the shore—Johnny Clay thumping his guitar, Linc and Beachard clapping, Sweet Fern standing up the bank with Danny, Granny dancing like a wild bird, Daddy Hoyt and Clover and Celia Faye. I could feel Reverend Nix sending me under and pulling me up again, the snakebite scars on his hands and arms. I could see my mama’s face and hear her voice as she sang to me.

  I went under. I wanted the water to make me feel fresh and new, like I did when I was ten years old, back when I was saved the first time, before anything bad had ever happened. I wanted to come back up and see my mama and Danny Deal and Butch and Aunt Junie and the Wood Carver, standing off in the distance, and my daddy too. I wanted to see Johnny Clay standing there with his arm around Lucinda Sink while Janette Lowe danced up and down the shore with Daryl Gordon and Straight Willy Cannon. I wanted Harley to be there, his face dirty from coal dust, pinching the end of a cigarette and wrapping it up in his handkerchief for later.

  I held my breath as long as I could. When I could no longer breathe, I came up to the surface and filled my lungs as quick as I could, short and gasping at first, and then taking long, deep breaths until I was breathing normal again. The shoreline was empty. I was alone.

  I smoothed my hair back off my face and waded out of the water, feeling heavy from the weight of it, but peaceful and clean.

  I went back to Devil’s Kitchen and tried to act like nothing had happened. Harley greeted me at the door. He took me in his arms and held me and kissed me on top of my wet head. He said, “I missed you, Velva Jean. I’m glad you’re home.”

  I sat with him in the front room and listened to him while he told me things would be different. “My eyes are open now,” he said. “I’m going to be better and more deserving. Calling or no calling, Jesus or no Jesus, I’m just an ordinary man. But there’s nothing ordinary about you. Sometimes that’s hard on a person. That ain’t your fault, though. That’s not what I’m saying. I just got scared. I just lost track. Like the Terrible Creek train. I think you got off track, too, but mostly it was me. I’m willing to own up to that. Well I’m back on track now. I’m here. And I may be ordinary, but I’m going to try to be as good as I can be for you. Just know this, Velva Jean. No man on earth will ever love you like I do.”

  I listened and I tried to feel something. I felt bad about Butch Dawkins and bad about getting derailed myself, but mostly I thought: Why didn’t you say this to me months ago? Why are you saying this to me now? Why does it feel like—nice as those words are—I’m still being accused of something, like you’re blaming me for what’s wrong with you and us? Why should I believe you now, when you’ve let me down so many times? And what do you mean no man on earth will ever love me like you do? Why does that sound like a warning rather than something sweet and true?

  Later that morning—the Thursday
morning after the Wood Carver and the outlanders were run off the mountain—Harley went down to the church to talk to Brother Jim. They were thinking of holding a new revival, of traveling to neighboring cities. Harley said he missed life on the road. He said he thought things would be better if we went back to the way it was, just him and me, traveling like we used to, taking our music and our ministry to the people. He was all fired up about it. It was a Harley I hadn’t seen in a while.

  I thought: Finally. It’s about time. I’ve been waiting for this, for you to take me out of here. Then I thought: But you waited too long. We’ve hurt each other too much. There’s too much built up between us. It’s too late now. And besides, Harley Bright, it isn’t enough to stay here and just drive my truck and write my songs. I do want more than this.

  I spent the next two hours trying to do the same things I always did every single day of my life. I did my chores and I pretended that nothing had changed, that I was the same Velva Jean as before, and that Harley was the same Harley.

  When I couldn’t stand another minute of it, I got into the yellow truck and drove to Sleepy Gap. I went first to Daddy Hoyt. I found him, as if he was waiting for me, on his front porch. He was sitting in his rocking chair, but he wasn’t rocking. He had his feet flat on the floor and his palms resting on the arms of the chair. His face was set in grief.

  I stood on the step and said, “Where’s Granny?”

  He said, “Hiram and Betsy Lee are having their baby.”

  I said, “I was thinking about something the Wood Carver said, about how they’ve violated the sanctuary of his home and the spirit of who he is. I can’t get those words out of my mind. All I can think is that’s what’s been done to me. That’s how I feel. All I can think is that I must be an outlander, too, because unlike Harley and the rest of those people, I see that road as going out, not just coming in.” Down in Alluvial, I could hear the sound of a train whistle—a sound that made me lonely down to the very bottoms of my feet. But it was also a sound of possibility. I said, “I can’t stay here.”

  Daddy Hoyt stood up. He touched his hand to his back where his rheumatism was bothering him more and more. He went into the house and then came out a moment later and handed me a coin purse.

  “What’s this?” I said.

  “It’s to help you on your way.”

  I opened it. There was twenty dollars and fifty-five cents. I said, “I can’t take this.”

  He said, “It’s yours to take. I’ve been entrusted with it.”

  I said, “I’m not taking your money.”

  He said, “It’s not my money, child. It’s your money. Your daddy sent it to me to put aside for you, just like all those years he sent Sweet Fern money to pay for things for you children. I got some here for each of you and that right there is yours. But if it’s not enough, Reverend Broomfield offered me one hundred dollars for one of my fiddles. Clydie Williams offered me one hundred fifty, but I’d sooner sell to a snake. I’m thinking of taking the reverend up on his offer. I could go to him today, Velva Jean.”

  “I won’t let you do that. No more than you would ask me to give up my own music.”

  He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Promise you’ll let me know how to find you if you ever want for anything. There are always more fiddles.”

  I threw my arms around him and hung on. He was like a tree—solid and sturdy. But he was warm and I could hear his heart. I kept my ear against it, listening to the beating of it, trying to memorize it, trying to memorize the smell of him—cedar and pine and oak and the forest with a hint of Granny’s lye soap thrown in.

  He put his hands on my shoulders and gently pushed me away. He patted me on the back. He cleared his throat. He said, “You let us know where you are when you get there.”

  I didn’t say anything because the lump in my throat was too big. The tears had filled my eyes. All I had to do was blink and they would fall. I kept them there, blurring my vision, keeping my cheeks dry just a second more. Then I blinked, and down came the tears and I couldn’t stop them. I ran away from Daddy Hoyt, my throat so sore I couldn’t swallow—and I was afraid I’d never be able to swallow again.

  By the time I climbed into that yellow truck and drove back down toward Alluvial, the lump in my throat felt permanent. Daddy Hoyt was going to say good-bye to everyone for me. The fewer good-byes I had to say, the better.

  I held the money in my skirt. Twenty dollars and fifty-five cents. I couldn’t get over it. Money from my own daddy. Money he’d earned and sent for each of us over all these years.

  The train had pulled into Alluvial. From every door, boys came down off the steps and lined up together—the boys from the Scenic—and this time there were guards with them. Men with guns to make sure no one hurt them or got near them. I sat and watched as the boys finished spilling off the train, as they grouped together and stood glaring at Deal’s and at the locals who were there, and then as they started marching up the mountain, up to the camp at Silvermine Bald and back to their work at Devil’s Courthouse and beyond, guards surrounding them, protecting them from us. Butch Dawkins was nowhere to be seen.

  I leaned out the window and called to one of the boys I recognized, a colored boy who’d come to church with Butch once. “Hey,” I said, “Did Butch Dawkins come back?”

  The guards moved in closer to him, protecting him from me. The boy yelled, “Nah. He’s long gone by now.”

  I sat there watching those men march up the mountain, wondering where Butch was, wondering if wherever he was he was playing his steel guitar and singing our song, my song, the one he wrote for a girl he knew. I wondered who was singing it with him. I hoped, wherever he was now, that I had mattered to him. Somehow that was important to me, to know that I had meant something—even a little something—that I wasn’t just another stop on his journey, just another person he’d met along the way.

  I looked down at the books I’d borrowed from Mrs. Dennis and Dr. Hamp, the ones I still had on the floor of the truck. I wondered what would happen to their library, to their home, and if they would be allowed to come back, too.

  As I drove past Sweet Fern’s, I slowed the truck. For a moment, I thought about stopping. After all, she had raised me like her own. She was as good as my own mama. She had been my mother almost as long as Mama had. Sweet Fern was standing on the porch. Dan Presley and Corrina were playing in the front yard, running round and round, being chased by Justice and little Hoyt. I almost stopped the truck and got out. Then Coyle Deal walked out onto the porch from inside the house and stood next to Sweet Fern and she smiled up at him with her painted pink lips and he smiled down at her. He wasn’t as lean as Danny. He was more solid and square. But he looked at Sweet Fern the same way Danny had. And she looked right back at him.

  I kept on driving.

  The house was quiet. Levi was gone. Harley was gone. It felt like no one had ever lived there. I let myself in and went up the stairs to the bedroom. The lump had settled in my throat—it was still there, but not as big. I could swallow now. I had to. I had to be able to think and to plan. I reached into the chifforobe and pulled out the green recipe box that Johnny Clay had given me. It was just a small box—an old, green American Home recipe box. I sat on the bed and held that box in my lap and opened it.

  Suddenly the room was filled with lavender and honeysuckle and lye soap. Mama. Inside was a handkerchief and two little hair combs that Mama had worn—Bakelite with pale blue stones. And then Mama’s wedding ring and two folded pieces of paper. I slipped the wedding ring on the ring finger of my right hand. It fit perfectly. I opened the first piece of paper. It said:

  Dear Velva Jean,

  Daddy left this in the message tree by Mama’s grave. He’s come back now and then over the years, I guess to check on her and us, only he never wanted us to know. Did you ever feel like you was being watched? That was probably him. It was him that killed the panther that chased us, that twisted its neck till it died. Him that found Danny’s blue
hat in the train wreck. I saw him out in the woods one night and caught him and he said the ring was for you. I’m going to give it to you sometime when the time is right. Whenever that is, I guess it’s now because you’re reading this. Don’t be too hard on him. He’s been working on the new road that’s coming into the mountains. So you see, depending on how you look at it, I guess he’s done at least one good thing in his life. As Daddy Hoyt likes to say, it’s an incoming road, but it’s an outgoing road too. Anyway, the ring is yours. Daddy looked exactly the same as ever, just older.


  your brother,

  Johnny Clay

  P.S. I found these other notes hid in the house where Sweet Fern must have put them years ago.

  I folded the note away and put it back in the box. Then I opened the other notes, which were folded together. The first was crumpled and the writing was faded and hard to read. It was written in pencil in a loose, slanting hand.

  Dear Beebee,

  I am going up the mountin to git som work. Don’t you wurry. Soon you will be in the Hospitial and on the mend and gitting along all right. You will see. I’ll be home wen I can.

  Yurs furever,

  Old Mule

  The other note had writing on both sides. On one side, in neat printing, it said, “July 29, 1933. Dear Uncle Lincoln, Enclosed please find the sixty dollars. I hope Aunt Corrine feels better soon. Your nephew, Toss Bailey.” On the other side, in my daddy’s slanting hand, was the following:

  July 16, 1933

  Dear Toss,

  I hope you are well. I shur am having a time. I don’t know hardly what I will do. Corrine is sick and poorly. I think she needs to go to the Hospitial so that she can get on the mend. If she does, hir bill will be about $200 if she gits along all right. I can pay $50 on it. Linc is getting me $25 mor tonight tho he don’t know what it’s for. Corrine don’t want the family to know. She don’t want anyone to wurry. Now I am going to ask you to send me $60 and charg me with enerst. If you need thebefore then I can pay it. I am taking Beach out of school and he is helping me. We both make $9.50 per day so you know we can pay you back most any time. I am taking a job in Weaverville also, leeving next week. You can male the money to Sleepy Gap c/o my oldest son, Linc Jr. Don’t say why you are sending it. Just say it’s for me.

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