Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven


  Your uncle,

  Lincoln S. J. Hart

  I read it over three times and then I reread his note to Mama. I read both letters again, searching for the answer to Mama’s sickness, for the reason I was sitting here on this bed right now, getting ready to leave my husband and my home. There was so much I hadn’t known back then. Mama sick and needing a hospital. Daddy going to earn money to make her well. Beach leaving school. Linc giving them money. Daddy writing to a nephew to borrow money to help Mama get better. And then—later on—Daddy sending money to Sweet Fern and to Daddy Hoyt to keep for me.

  All those hours and weeks and months I had worried about that note and blamed my daddy for killing my mama. All those years I’d put into hating him for making her sick and then leaving her to die. After all that, Daddy had been trying to save her. And I had sent him away.

  I crumpled up the notes and stuffed them into the box. I was crying angry, hot tears. The lump in my throat was loose. It was sliding away. I was so mad, but there was no one to hear me—no one anywhere.

  That afternoon I stood in the yard outside the house, a knife in my hand, and thought I should mark the trees just in case I ever needed to find my way back. I was thinking about the Cherokee who were forced to leave their mountain home for the Trail of Tears and how they bent and shaped the trees along the trail so they could find their way home someday and how they called them “day stars” because they could see by them.

  I looked at the old oak where Beachard had carved his message. “You Are Loved.” In my mind, I walked past this to the field where I taught myself how to drive; past the trickling end of Panther Creek where Harley had saved Janette Lowe and where Johnny Clay and I had once collected fairy crosses. I saw my way down to Alluvial and Sweet Fern’s house, past Deal’s and Lucinda Sink’s, up the hill to Sleepy Gap and home—a place I would never forget as long as I lived, a place I would never need any help finding.

  I decided my trees were already marked. I had plenty of day stars to see by. ~

  For supper that night, I served fried chicken and angel flake biscuits and stewed tomatoes and for dessert we had half-moon pie. Harley was in a good mood because the sheriff and the Lowes had caught the outlander—the one they called the German—coming out of a house just outside of Murphy. Harley said the Lowes had wanted to string him up right then and there, but the sheriff had sent him to Butcher Gap Prison for safekeeping. Harley said, “He’ll be kept under heavy guard so nothing happens to him.” Harley called this a waste of time. He said everyone knew the boy would get the chair.

  When he was finished eating, Harley had to undo the top button of his pants. He said, “That was some meal, Velva Jean.”

  Afterward, when we were getting ready for bed, I felt sick to my stomach. I didn’t know if I could go through with leaving. I looked at Harley, standing in the moonlight. He was still in a good mood from the meal and the day. He kept saying we were turning over a new leaf, making a fresh start. A lot of people thought he was a hero. To folks who had been down to see and be healed by Damascus King, he was better than that—he was a savior. Harley had cast out the demons and, at the same time, rescued everyone on the mountain. It didn’t matter that the outlanders were back at work on the Scenic. They had been warned and the one that had attacked Janette Lowe had been caught.

  He was my husband. His wedding ring flashed in the light. He took off his shirt. He was wearing the bottoms to his pajamas but not the top because it was so hot outside and inside that you couldn’t get away from it. He lay down on the bed and he bent one elbow underneath his head on the pillow. He flexed his muscles a little.

  I said, “Remember when you first found the Little White Church, back when it was just getting started? Remember when you talked to them about making choices and keeping the faith, about the Lone Ranger and fighting a good fight?”

  He closed his eyes. “ ‘For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.’ ” He opened his eyes again. “Why?”

  I said, “I just wanted to see if you remembered.”

  I got into bed and lay down next to him for the very last time. He lay there, smiling up at the ceiling, every now and then flexing his arm muscles. I turned on my side, facing him. I said, “I want you to know that I have truly loved you.”

  He turned his head to look at me. He grinned his big white grin. He rolled on his side to face me. He said, “I love you, too, Velva Jean. We got us a fresh start.” He pulled me close, wrapping his arms around me. He started singing: Come take a trip in my airship, come take a sail among the stars . . .

  I could feel his warmth. I could hear his heartbeat. It beat strong and fast. I breathed him in. I was wide awake for a long time after he went to sleep.

  Early the next morning, I got up and fixed the breakfast, pitted Levi’s prunes, stirred his oatmeal in a bowl, and waved good-bye to Harley as he walked off toward the church. As soon as he disappeared into the trees, I tore off my apron and dropped it onto Daddy Hoyt’s rocking chair and flew down the porch steps, over to the truck.

  According to How to Drive, there were five things to make sure of before you took your car on a journey:

  1. There is gasoline in the tank.

  2. The radiator is filled with water.

  3. There is enough oil in the crankcase.

  4. The tires are inflated to the pressure prescribed by the tire manufacturer.

  5. The lights are working—if you are to make a night trip.

  I knew that there was enough gasoline because I had already filled up the tank. I lifted the hood. I checked the level of the water. It was low, so I added more. I checked the oil, and it was fine. I walked around the truck and studied each tire. Also fine. And then I checked the lights. Fine.

  Afterward I crossed the yard, back to the house. I picked up my apron and went upstairs and dressed. I pulled the only clothes I wanted from the chifforobe—Mama’s flowered dress and my old dresses that were my very own (not the ones Harley had picked out for me) and the suit with the bolero jacket that Harley had bought for me because that one I liked. Then I put on my black shoes with the bows across the top and I packed away my clothes—all my underthings as well—into Mama’s old brown suitcase. And, at the last minute, I put the apron in too, because it had belonged to Mama. As I did, something fell out of the pocket and onto the floor. I picked it up and unfolded it—a ten-dollar bill. My eyes started stinging and then they went blurry, and for just a moment, I thought I would have to sit down on the bed and cry.

  Instead I took the hatbox and mandolin out of the back of the closet and I put Mama’s little keepsake box inside my hatbox along with my record and the ten dollars. Then I set my wedding ring on the dresser.

  Harley would be at the Little White Church now, surrounded by Brother Jim and Sister Gladdy and the rest of them. He would be working on his next sermon, trying to decide who to save next or avenge next or condemn next.

  I pulled out the family record book and opened it and read over the last few entries—there was Mama’s death, Daddy’s leaving, the first time I was crowned Gold Queen, the first time I sang by myself at the Alluvial Fair, the time Johnny Clay and me ran away from home, the panther, my marriage to Harley Bright, the Balsam Mountain Springs Hotel, the Terrible Creek train wreck, the death of Danny Deal, learning to write my music, my first recorded songs, learning to drive, Janette Lowe, Johnny Clay leaving, Butch leaving, the Wood Carver going away. I thought: There is my life. All summed up in those few lines. There it is, captured right there.

  Beneath it all, I started to write: “August 22, 1941: Velva Jean . . .” And then I stopped myself because I wasn’t sure what to put next. “Leaves home”? “Sets out for the Promised Land”? “Goes in search of her destiny?” I didn’t know what was going to happen next, so I decided to just leave it for now. I would fill it in later, once I found out for myself.

  I packed the book in
to my suitcase. Then I picked up the suitcase and my hatbox and my mandolin and I walked down the stairs. Levi was sitting at the table, eating his oatmeal. He looked at me over his spoon and I looked at him. He looked down at my suitcase and my hatbox. Then he looked back at his paper and kept eating. I started to walk away and then I turned back around. I went up behind the old man and leaned right down and kissed him on his head.

  I walked outside and threw the suitcase into the bed of the truck and climbed into the cab, setting the hatbox and the mandolin down on the seat next to me. I sat there for all of a minute, staring up at the house, at the window of Li’l Dean and Levi’s old bedroom on the second floor where Harley and I had slept.

  Then I turned the key in the ignition and started the yellow truck. When it sputtered and shook, I prayed that Harley wouldn’t somehow hear it all the way over at the Little White Church. I glanced back up at the house. The curtains in the bedroom window blew a little in the breeze, but otherwise they didn’t move. There was no one there to bother them. I put my foot on the gas pedal and headed down the hill.

  I passed the field where I had taught myself to drive and where I sometimes drove with Butch, singing my songs. And then I came down into Alluvial one last time and I passed Sweet Fern’s house and then Deal’s and the old school and the Baptist church and the Alluvial Hotel, where Lucinda Sink sat rocking on her front porch. As I drove by, I waved and she waved back. I passed the road up to Sleepy Gap and Daddy Hoyt and Granny and my family and my home. My heart lurched and I felt the lump in my throat grow back.

  I gathered up speed through the valley and didn’t stop to wave to anyone else who happened to be out this early and who called to me, wondering where Velva Jean Hart Bright was off to so early on a Friday, hair flying out the window, lips painted Magnet Red, and singing loud enough for everyone to hear.

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

  Oh, they tell me of a land far away . . .

  Then I left the valley on the bumpy old cattle road, which wasn’t even a road—just a narrow line between two high mountains—and headed outside my world to the one beyond. On the way to Hamlet’s Mill, I met up with the access road that cut up toward Silvermine Bald. I wound around the mountain, up to the top. I prayed the truck would go all the way and get me there.

  Oh, they tell me of a land where no storm clouds rise,

  Oh, they tell me of an unclouded day . . .

  I reached the Scenic, up where the road twined across the mountain like a gray-black ribbon. I waved to the workers—the outlanders who were a part of this place now, like it or not. There were guards standing over them, walking nearby, making sure that no one bothered them.

  There was one long section of the road just finished where it was paved and smooth. I turned up onto it and drove as far as I could. The truck floated. It soared. It practically flew. Then, too soon, the road went bumpy and rough and gravelly, and then it was dirt and barely a road at all, but I kept driving anyway because it felt so good to be up there, on top of the mountains, with the great wide world spread out on all sides. From up there, I could see everything—not just North Carolina and Tennessee and South Carolina and Georgia, but Johnny Clay and Nashville and Butch and the Wood Carver and Daddy and even Mama, just over a cloud, so close I could almost reach her.

  O they tell me that he smiles on his children there,

  And his smile drives their sorrows all away . . .

  I thought: Look at me, Harley Bright. I’m singing and driving. The map was spread out on the seat beside me. The tank was filled with gas. I thought: I am running to something, just like the Wood Carver said. I am running to something just as fast as I can.

  I wiped the tears off my cheeks as I went round the bend that would take me toward the highway, the one that came up and across Wagon Road Gap and intersected the Scenic. Down there on Fair Mountain—my mountain that had been in my family for generations—sat my mama’s old house. Down there on the hill above it stood the cross Daddy had carved out of his pain and grief, keeping watch over Mama’s grave.

  And they tell me that no tears ever come again,

  In that lovely land of unclouded day.

  I was still crying as I drove over the mountains above Hamlet’s Mill, where Johnny Clay and Danny Deal and I had driven up and down in this same yellow truck, waving like the queen of England.

  Oh the land of cloudless day

  Oh the land of an unclouded sky

  Oh they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise.

  Oh they tell me of an unclouded day

  I was ten years old when I was saved for the first time. I was fifteen when I was saved for the second. But I was eighteen before I was found. All it took was eight years, a panther cat, a tent preacher, a blues singer, a murderer, an old yellow truck, and a road that could take you anywhere.

  I pressed my foot on the gas pedal and sped along the mountaintops, heading up the road to “off somewhere,” out into the great big world. Only this time it had a name—Nashville. I thought it sounded beautiful, like music. I didn’t know anyone in Nashville. I didn’t have a place to stay and I didn’t have a job—not yet. But I had plenty of gas and a map and $121.11, most of which I’d earned myself.

  The truck started climbing higher and higher. The world was spread out before me. As I reached Wagon Road Gap, my voice grew stronger. By the time I got to the highway, I was singing louder than I had ever sung before.

  “Yellow Truck Coming, Yellow Truck Going”

  (words and music by Velva Jean Hart)

  The Mean Devil Blues,

  they’re the worst kind of blues,

  the kind that won’t leave you alone.

  They smack you down

  and hold you fast

  and chill you to the bone.

  Over in Asheville

  there lived a man

  struck down by the Mean Devil Blues.

  He drove a dark truck

  and dressed all in black

  from his hat down to his shoes.

  The Mean Devil Blues

  had him down on his knees

  out of fun, out of hope, out of luck.

  “I’ve gotta change something

  or die,” he said.

  “I’ll just start with this old truck.”

  He painted that truck bright—

  yellow like the sun,

  and then he started to pray;

  and before he knew it

  bad luck changed to good

  and chased those blues away.

  Then a boy named Danny

  drove into town,

  hoping to find good luck;

  money changed hands

  and Danny drove home

  proud of his new yellow truck.

  Danny was a family man—

  loyal and loving,

  good, kind, and true.

  He died a hero in

  the Bone Mountain wreck,

  saving people he never knew.

  Before Danny died

  he gave his truck keys

  to a boy named Johnny Clay

  who was made of

  gold and magic dust

  and drove that truck away.

  You can see that truck coming,

  see that truck going.

  Yellow truck coming,

  bringing me home.

  Even though Danny’s gone,

  that truck is still with us,

  yes, even after he’s gone.

  Johnny Clay drove

  that bright yellow truck

  to the promised land above,

  mining for garnet

  and rubies and gold

  to win the woman he loved.

  Then the truck sat cold

  and empty and dead

  until his sister came along.

  Velva Jean learned to drive

  in that yellow truck,

  teaching herself while singing a song.

  Yellow truck coming,

/>   bringing me home again.

  Yellow truck going,

  I’m on my way—

  on my way to tomorrow

  and dreams come true,

  leaving my yesterday.

  Velva Jean drove

  over holler and hill and

  through the valleys and streams,

  to the tops of the mountains

  and then through the clouds

  on a road forged from dreams.

  Yellow truck coming,

  bringing me home again,

  Yellow truck going,

  I’m on my way.

  Yellow truck coming,

  bringing me joy again.

  Yellow truck going, taking me home.

  ROOTS

  If my great-great-great-grandfather, Samuel McJunkin, had not had a stormy first marriage, divorced his tempestuous Cherokee wife, become an Indian fighter, and then married a serene and pretty young woman twenty-five years his junior, I would not be here. That quiet second marriage produced his last son, Samuel James, a blacksmith like his daddy, who died young of typhoid, leaving his wife to take in boarders and finish raising five children alone. One of those children was my great-granddaddy, Samuel Jackson, whose fondness for alcohol and tendency to run wild drove his poor mother—a strict disciplinarian and devout teetotaler—to distraction. Samuel Jackson (called Papa by our family) was hard-drinking, hard-loving, and hard-working. And he loved to buck dance.

 
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