Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  I could tell he was proud of this. “Let me smell your breath.”

  Johnny Clay put his hand up to his face and then blew into it. He shook his head. “You’re too young.”

  “What else did he say?”

  “Just that some revenuers have been up on the mountain sniffing around.” I knew from Johnny Clay that revenuers were even worse than convicts because revenuers worked for the government and carried guns and came onto the mountain and got rid of the stills and took people to jail and sometimes killed them. “He said Burn McKinney’s been closing up stills left and right, every which way, ever since they found that branch walker in the creek.”

  Burn McKinney was famous in the Alluvial Valley. He was filling the Hamlet’s Mill Jail and Butcher Gap Prison full of shiners, and chopping up their stills, selling the copper for junk, and burning the wood so that there was nothing left but a pile of ashes.

  “He also said his wife thinks he’s going to hell for making whiskey, but that it don’t seem to stop her from living off the money he makes or trading down at Deal’s with a jug now and then. He said she tells him all the time that his soul is doomed to hell, but he don’t seem to care. He said if he is going to hell, he might as well do all he can to earn it.”

  This was the most shocking thing I had ever heard. After all the work I put into praying to be saved, I couldn’t imagine a man who knew he was going to hell but didn’t even care.

  “The son’s just as bad. He’s been to jail once already and he ain’t much older than me.” Johnny Clay seemed both jealous and impressed. He kicked the dirt up as he walked. “Shit.”

  All the way home, past Alluvial and Deal’s General Store, I thought about that moonshiner who didn’t care that he was doomed to hell and his son the convict.

  As we reached Sleepy Gap, the sun dropped behind the trees, turning the sky pink and orange and red. We walked the last half mile staring up at it.

  We got near to the house and could see it up in the distance with the lights through the windows. Granny was sitting on the front porch, and when she saw us coming she stood and waved.

  I brushed the gold dust from my skin. I said, “You think Mama’s going to die?”

  Johnny Clay didn’t say a word, just took my hand with his free one and kept walking.


  On July 28, six days after Mama took to her bed, Daddy Hoyt and Granny sat me and Linc and Beachard and Johnny Clay down. Sweet Fern stayed upstairs with Mama, with the door closed. Johnny Clay told me he had a bad feeling when he saw Sweet Fern come up from Alluvial without Danny or her baby.

  Daddy Hoyt did the talking while Granny sat, stiff as a post, and stared angrily at the floor. Every now and then she blinked her eyes real hard as if there was something in them.

  “I’ve done all I could for your mama,” Daddy Hoyt said. “Me and Granny both have done everything we know to do.”

  “What about the whiskey potion?” I said.

  Daddy Hoyt shook his head.

  “What about Aunt Junie? Dr. Keller?”

  “She’s too far gone,” Daddy Hoyt said.

  My brothers and I just looked at him.

  “You children need to say your good-byes.”

  I didn’t understand what he was saying. Daddy Hoyt was the best healer on the mountain and he had been working on Mama all week. We had prayed, all of us, to God. How could that not have saved Mama? Hadn’t God heard us? If he heard us, why wasn’t he listening? Why wasn’t he doing something?

  Linc stood up. He was the oldest boy, and although he was quiet, he was stubborn and liked to take charge. “We’ll take her to another doctor. We should have took her long ago. We’ll take her to Hamlet’s Mill or to Waynesville. We’ll take her to a hospital.”

  Johnny Clay looked like he was fixing to punch something. Beachard sat with his eyes closed, and I knew that he was somewhere far away because even when Beach wasn’t out wandering, he was wandering in his own mind. Beach was just like our daddy that way. He liked to ramble off and go exploring all alone, and although he didn’t talk much, he wrote messages to God and about God on rocks, trees, and walls: “Look for the Lord.” “Search out God.” “Where Is Jesus?” Mama said it was his very own way of communicating.

  “Dr. Keller said the sickness is too widespread.” Daddy Hoyt sighed. His face looked sunken, as if it might fall in at any minute. “It’s taken her over.”

  We all just sat there and Granny blinked fast and hard, and I stood up in the middle of them and shouted, “How am I supposed to tell Mama good-bye? What am I supposed to say to her? How can you tell someone good-bye like that?” And then I ran outside and crawled under the porch.

  The tears stung my face but I didn’t wipe them away. I just sat there and rocked back and forth, back and forth, and thought how much I hated being born again. This is what you get for giving yourself over to Jesus, I told myself. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before I was saved.

  Later that night, after everyone had gone on home or gone to bed, I crawled out from under the porch and went inside. I’d heard Granny and Daddy Hoyt arguing earlier. “Let her be,” he’d said to her. Granny had wanted to pull me out and make me go in there and talk to Mama like my brothers were doing. “She’ll do it when she’s ready,” he said.

  “What if Corrine don’t hang on that long?” I could tell by Granny’s voice that she’d been crying.

  “Corrine ain’t going anywhere until that child comes to see her.”

  So they let me be, and I sat out under there through supper. I sat there and listened to Sweet Fern as she came out of the house crying and walked across the porch, and I watched her as she ran down the hill. I sat there listening to Linc go home to Ruby Poole and Johnny Clay run off to the woods, Hunter Firth howling after him. I sat there while Granny crouched down above me and peered at me through the slats in the porch floor and called out to me and told me she loved me and to come on over to her house if I needed her. I sat there until the night was quiet and still and I didn’t think anyone was around to see me come out.

  I pushed open the door to Mama’s room and saw Daddy Hoyt in the corner, wide awake and watching. When he saw me, he just stood up and walked past me. He laid a hand on my head and then went out, closing the door behind him.

  Mama was sleeping. I sat down beside her and watched her face in the light of the oil lamp. I pulled a fairy cross from my pocket and rubbed it, just like I’d been rubbing it ever since I picked it from the creek. I had already placed another one under her pillow. I tried to breathe soft and quiet so that she wouldn’t hear me, and I didn’t touch her because I was afraid I’d wake her up. I almost prayed that she wouldn’t wake up because I didn’t know what to say to her.

  While I sat there, I tried to remember the words to the song I’d started the day before.

  Sweet young Sue, eyes of blue

  Don’t be mine cause I ain’t true

  I’ll only leave and make you sad

  I don’t want to make those blue eyes mad

  I went over it and over it in my head, but that was all I could remember. The song wasn’t finished yet, but there had been more yesterday. What if I didn’t finish it in time? What if Mama never got to hear it?

  After ten minutes or so, Mama opened her eyes and saw me. Her eyes, wide and blue, were hazy at first and then sharpened as they looked at me so that I knew she was really seeing me. She held up her hand so I could take it. I wanted to cry and throw myself on her and tell her to get better, that she had to get better, and have her wrap her arms around me and tell me it was all going to be okay, just like it used to be. But instead I sat there and held her hand and bit the inside of my lip so that I wouldn’t cry.

  “How’s my girl?” Mama’s voice was just a whisper. I had to lean in close to hear her. She still smelled like Mama but there was another smell, the smell of sickness. She smiled at me, a small, gentle smile, the corners of her mouth barely lifting. “I will always be here, Velva Jean. Big
things will happen for you, and I’ll be there to see them.”

  I couldn’t help it. I cried, even though I fought the tears as they came out and cursed myself blue for letting them show. I didn’t want anything big to happen to me, not if Mama wasn’t here. “Don’t go. You can’t go,” I said, and it sounded like a baby thing to say. “I love you.”

  “I love you, too,” she said. She squeezed my hand just a little. “Go to the window now.” She let go of my hand. “Go and look out there and then come back and sit by me.”

  I walked over to it and stood there. The window was half-open and I rested my chin on the sill, my forehead against the pane, and looked out, wondering what I was supposed to see. I looked back at Mama, who just watched me. I opened the window more and stuck my whole head out and gazed at the dark sky, the stars, the moon just disappearing through the trees, the long slope of the hill, black in the night, as it rambled down toward the bottom of the mountain. The blackness of the horizon where I knew other mountains grew. In the daytime, they would be there, layered in the distance, one after another, separated by narrow valleys and hollers like ours, with clear, cold springs and wide, rushing streams, and wildflowers. The crickets were humming and the lightning bugs were blinking here and there. I took a long, deep breath of the heavy honeysuckle air and closed my eyes. Then I sat back down by Mama and took her hand again.

  “Live out there,” she said finally. “That’s where you belong, Velva Jean.”

  I had no idea what she meant, so I just looked at her.

  “Promise me,” she said, and her eyes were watery.

  “I promise.” I was scared not to. I wanted to promise her whatever I could.

  “My daddy heals people with plants,” she said. “You do it with your singing voice. It’s a power, just like healing.”

  And then she squeezed my hand once more and pursed her lips so I could kiss her. “I wish I’d never been born again,” I whispered into her ear. “I want everything to go back the same way it was.”

  We prayed together then, one more time, and I wondered how Mama could speak to Jesus when he was letting her die and leave us all alone. “Look after my babies for me,” she said. “Amen.”

  I kissed her again and watched her drift off into sleep. She looked peaceful, like the pictures of Mary, the mother of Jesus, that were painted on our church fans. I thought about the promise I’d made to her, how she made me look out the window and told me to live out there. Did Mama want me to live outside on the porch or under the stars?

  I thought about her prayer to Jesus. Just one week ago, I thought he had smiled down on me and chosen me to be saved, to be lifted and to begin again. But now I wondered where he even was to let something like this happen to Mama and to me and whether I really wanted to live my life for him after all.

  And then I thought of my daddy, somewhere out in the world, not knowing that Mama was lying here like this and that he had done it to her. If only he had been here and not gone off again, I thought. If only he hadn’t written that note.


  Mama had been in the ground for a week when Daddy got home. We heard his footsteps on the porch sometime after supper. Johnny Clay and me were shooting marbles, Beachard was reading, and Sweet Fern was cleaning up from the meal. Even though Sweet Fern and Danny Deal were living in their apartment above Deal’s General Store, they had come to stay with us till Daddy got back.

  He walked in and grinned that big grin of his and we all just stared at him like he was a ghost. He was dusty and tan and there were sweat stains under his armpits. He smelled like apple brandy. Johnny Clay left the room and Beachard looked back at his book and kept reading, or pretended to. Sweet Fern slammed a dish down on the counter so hard that it broke, and Daddy looked confused but happy and said, “I’m home.”

  When Sweet Fern told him about Mama, Daddy ran out of the house and up the hill to the cemetery, and Sweet Fern followed him, and then he sat right down on the dirt, right on top of Mama, and just cried and cried. I stood on the edge of the cemetery and watched him. I’d never seen Daddy cry before and it made me nervous. It sounded like a dog or a panther, this wild, lonely sound, like he was turning inside out.

  “Go back to the house, Velva Jean,” Sweet Fern snapped. She was standing over Daddy with her arms crossed, the breeze blowing her hair. She was crying too, but not making any noise. As I turned back down the hill I saw her lean in and put her arms around him.

  Thank you, Jesus, for sending Daddy home, I thought. I went home and sat on the settee, the one my mama had inherited from her grand-mamma, and waited for him to come back in and make everything right again. Thank you. ~

  Daddy always said he knew in his bones when it was time to set off again. He told us he didn’t know why he couldn’t sit still like other men and be happy right where he was. Sometimes he tried. A path still led from our house up to an old mine he had dug himself. The mouth of the mine was dark. An animal had built a nest there. All around the opening, the ground shone like a rainbow—black and blue and reddish pink and yellow, depending on how the sun hit it. This was from the gems that weren’t good enough, the ones he’d tossed aside and that were now a part of the dirt—garnet and sapphire and beryl and black tourmaline and gold. Just past the mine was the little cabin where Daddy sorted the gems and where he did his blacksmithing. It was overgrown now and falling in on itself. One corner of the roof touched the ground and the floor had rotted away. One wall was completely gone.

  Daddy had tried to be a gem miner in that little cabin. He had tried to set up a blacksmith shop. But then he would feel the urge start to well up in him, and he said he just had to follow it. Sometimes he was called to work and sometimes he just went because the urge was too great. He traveled up and down North Carolina, across the line to Georgia, and all over Tennessee.

  Mostly he did blacksmithing. But sometimes he picked up work digging wells, laying railroad ties, farming, mining for gold and gems, to earn money to bring back home. While he was away, Mama and my brothers took up whatever work they could find. Linc farmed, Beachard did chores for the neighbors or did blacksmithing or took work on the railroad, Johnny Clay went panning for gold, and Mama took in washing and sewing. She never asked where Daddy wandered to.

  Whenever he came home, I searched his pockets for the gold dust that always seemed to be there, and even though Mama never did, I always asked where he had been. He started telling me: “I’ve just come from London, England, where I talked with the king,” or “I’ve just got back from Constantinople, where I met with the prince.”

  Afterward I would pull out the map of the world that Daddy Hoyt had given Beachard on his tenth birthday and look up the places Daddy had been. I put my finger on North Carolina, right toward the very bottom left corner of the state where I knew we lived, and then followed the route to England or France or Egypt or wherever it was with my other hand. I tried to picture my daddy in those far-off countries, doing important work that kings and whole governments needed him for.

  “Do you think Daddy is in Africa by now?” I had asked Sweet Fern one day when Sweet Fern was seventeen and I was seven. I’d been lying on the ground, trying to see pictures in the clouds. I was supposed to be helping Sweet Fern with the wash but I’d gotten sleepy because me and Johnny Clay had stayed up all night catching lightning bugs in a jar and watching them till their lights went out.

  “What on earth are you talking about, Velva Jean? Daddy’s not in Africa.”

  “Oh yes he is. He told me so.”

  “Daddy is over in Copperhill or Waynesville.”

  This made me mad, and I thought Sweet Fern was mean for saying so. “He is not. He told me he’s in Africa. He’s going to bring me back a real live nose tusk like the natives wear.”

  “Well, he isn’t. He’s right over there on the other side of the mountain or in Hazel Bald or somewhere else around here that he can get to by walking.”

  “I don’t believe you.”

Jean,” Sweet Fern had bent over and looked me straight in the eye. “Sometime you got to learn that what folks says and what’s the truth ain’t always the same.”

  That was when I learned that Daddy didn’t go anywhere far or interesting or important when he left us. He barely even went past our own mountain. And all those things he brought me back from his trips—from Africa or China or Ireland—were just things he’d picked up over the hill or down in Georgia or across the line in Tennessee, things that suddenly had no meaning once I knew where they were really from.

  Daddy was still crying when he walked in the door. He sat down next to me and took my hand and gathered me close, and for a few minutes we cried together. Then he wiped his eyes and stood up and ran his palms down the fronts of his pants to dry them. I watched him as he walked to the front door, just as calm and quiet as you please, and went out into the night. He took off faster and faster, his long, buck-dancing legs pulling him down that hill. Sweet Fern followed after him, yelling, “Where do you think you’re going?” But he didn’t answer. We all knew he was going to get his hands on the meanest third-run sugar liquor he could find, the kind that made you drunk fastest and hardest.

  Hours later—along about three o’clock—Sheriff D. D. Story came up to the house from Hamlet’s Mill. He said, “We found Lincoln Sr. down in town, liquored up and causing trouble outside Baskin’s Bar. He got into an automobile with a woman he didn’t know and scared the wits out of her.”

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