Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  By the time he was thirteen, Johnny Clay had been the youngest gold-panning champion in North Carolina for four years running. He was nine when he first entered a competition at Blood Mountain Mining Company—where our daddy and his daddy and his daddy before him had worked when they weren’t doing blacksmithing—and beat men more than twice his age, ones who had come to Blood Mountain from far and wide to work the mines. They lived up in shacks on the mountain, and Johnny Clay always pointed them out and said, “You won’t catch me living in a shack, mining someone else’s gold. By the time I’m as old as them, I’ll have my own mine and my own mountain.”

  He knew that the best place to test for gold was at a sharp curve in a stream. I sat on the bank of Sleepy Creek and watched him and didn’t say a word because this would have distracted him and made him mad. He didn’t like anyone to talk while he was panning.

  I didn’t mind because I liked the woods in the daytime. They were peaceful and quiet and I could think there, out of sight of our house and Mama’s grave. I liked to lie there and stare up at the sky and think about how I lived in the center of the world because there was the sun right above me. These were the moments I would listen to the creek and to the mourning doves and I would breathe in the sweet, clean smell of the pines and think that I always wanted to stay in Sleepy Gap and never leave in all my life.

  Johnny Clay was bent over the water, shirtsleeves rolled up, arms wet and red from the cold, shaking the pan away from him and toward him. Buried in the grains of sand there were tiny flecks of gold, glittering now and again in the light.

  Johnny Clay worked the water like he was part of it. He was smooth when he panned, not wild or urgent like some of the other gold pan ners. He could do it faster than anyone if he had to, but he didn’t believe in fighting the water. If you fought the water, you ended up losing the gold and being left with nothing but a dirty panful of sand. This was the most peaceful he ever was—when he was panning. Unless he messed up and lost some gold. Then he got mad at himself and brooded and fell into a silence so deep and distant that you couldn’t go near him for hours afterward.

  I was half-asleep in sunlight when I heard a step behind me. I sat up and turned and looked just over my shoulder to see the moonshiner’s boy standing there. He said, “What are you doing?”

  I said, “None of your business. Go away.”

  He said, “There ain’t no more gold up here.”

  I said, “That shows how much you know. He’s a champion.”

  Johnny Clay said, “Shut up, both of you.” He kept working.

  The moonshiner’s boy sat down beside me. He was smoking a cigarette. He held it out to me like an offering. I shook my head. Smoking was dirty.

  “I seen you before,” the moonshiner’s boy said.

  “No,” I said. “I don’t think so.” I didn’t want him to think he had any reason to know me.

  He shook his head. “I have. You and your brother come over to my house once to get some whiskey for your mama.”

  “You got me mixed up with someone else,” I said.

  “I don’t think so,” he said. “How is your mama?”

  “She died.”

  “That’s too bad. You loved her?”

  “Of course!” I thought to myself, what kind of question is that?

  “Don’t get offended, sister. I can think of worse things happening than losing my mama.”

  “I think that’s an awful thing to say.”

  The moonshiner’s boy just shrugged.

  Johnny Clay tilted the pan toward him and the sun caught the gold that was there. He counted the nuggets and then wrapped them up in a handkerchief and stuffed the handkerchief in his pocket. He looked at the moonshiner’s boy. “What do you want?”

  The moonshiner’s boy said, “I just wanted to see what you all were doing.”

  There were voices moving toward us in the woods. Three boys appeared. One of them was skinny, one of them was fat, and one of them was short like a child. They looked as wild and dirty as the moonshiner’s boy. They all three had knives hitched into their belts. The skinny one carried a bottle that he was drinking from. The little one was smoking. Each of them looked right at me.

  Johnny Clay bristled just like a dog. He went rigid all over like he was expecting trouble.

  The short one said, “Who’s the girl?”

  The moonshiner’s boy stood up. He said, “Come on.” He went off with them and didn’t look back. We heard them whooping and hollering in the woods even after they disappeared from sight.

  I said, “Let’s follow them and see where they go.”

  Johnny Clay said, “They ain’t nothing but trouble.”

  I said, “Don’t tell me you’re scared.”

  He stood up. He picked up his gold pan. He said, “Since when in your life have you ever known me to be scared?”

  I didn’t say anything to this because he hadn’t been scared a day. We started after the moonshiner’s boy, careful not to make a sound. My heart was beating so loud that I was sure everyone on the mountain could hear it. I was trying to prove that I was strong and brave, which I wasn’t, and that I wasn’t afraid of everything, which I was.

  In the months since Mama died, Johnny Clay and I had taken to doing every bad or wicked thing we could think up to do and had got ourselves an impressive reputation as terrible children who couldn’t be controlled, something folks were always complaining about to Sweet Fern or to each other. “Those children are running wild,” we heard them say to her. “Sweet Fern needs to keep better hold of them,” we heard them say to one another.

  We smoked rabbit tobacco and stole snuff from Hink Lowe, and Johnny Clay taught me to spit long-distance. We talked back to Sweet Fern and stayed out past supper so that she had to call and call for us to come. We lay down in the high grass outside the True house, waiting for Miss Martha or Miss Rowena to set fresh-baked pies out to cool on the windowsill, and then we took the pies and ran off to the woods to eat them. We trapped snakes—water snakes and garter snakes—and wrapped them around our waists and necks just like they did at the church where Reverend Nix preached on Bone Mountain. We went down to Alluvial and hung around outside the hotel to spy on the whore-lady. I colored my cheeks and lips with red clay and paraded up and down Sleepy Gap until Sweet Fern caught me and gave me five lashes with an old switch of Daddy’s.

  Being bad was nothing new to Johnny Clay and me, which was why we decided to follow the moonshiner’s boy and his friends down the hill toward Alluvial. They drank and smoked and sang dirty songs and chewed tobacco and just as Johnny Clay said, “There ain’t nothing to see here, Velva Jean,” the moonshiner’s boy pulled out his pistol. He held it up over his head and put one hand on his hip and said, “I’m Clyde Barrow. I’m a wanted robber. Come out with your hands up.” Johnny Clay and me ducked into the woods, down behind some mountain laurel. The moonshiner’s boy pointed the gun at the trees just east of us and pulled the trigger. My heart jumped up into my throat just like it did when I was homesick and couldn’t swallow, but the gun didn’t make a sound.

  “It ain’t even loaded,” said Johnny Clay.

  The moonshiner’s boy shoved the pistol into his belt. He said, “Let’s go. We’re the Barrow gang. We got a bank to rob. Time’s a wastin’.” And then he walked over to where I was hiding. “I wish I had a Bonnie,” he said. “You can’t be Clyde without a Bonnie.” He pulled the branches of the laurel bush apart and stood there grinning. He said, “Well, looky here.”

  Johnny Clay stood up and said, “Let her alone.”

  The moonshiner’s boy said, “I ain’t bothering her. Am I?” And then I felt a strange tingling in my heart. Underneath all that dirt, he wasn’t bad looking.

  I said, “Yes, you sure are.”

  He shrugged. “Okay. I guess that’s why you been following me all over this mountain then.”

  He turned around and started back down the hill. Johnny Clay shook his head at me. “Shit,” he said under h
is breath.

  We followed the moonshiner’s boy and his friends down to Alluvial, sneaky as spies. Johnny Clay said, “Hang back. Don’t let them see you. And if it looks like trouble, I want you to run, Velva Jean.”

  On the way down the hill, the moonshiner’s boy and his gang tipped over outhouses and stole clothing off of clotheslines and helped themselves to whiskey from a still hidden in the woods.

  When we got down to Alluvial—Johnny Clay and me careful not to be seen—a small crowd of men was gathered on the steps of the general store, waiting for the train to come in, waiting to look at the railroad passengers, to find out if anyone was actually staying in Alluvial or just getting right back on and going somewhere else.

  The moonshiner’s boy said, “We should go into Deal’s and get some candy and cigarettes, as much as we can walk out with.” He started up the steps and the short boy and the two taller boys followed him.

  I said to Johnny Clay, “What does he mean ‘walk out with’? Does he mean steal?”

  Johnny Clay handed me his gold pan. He said, “You wait here.” He was up in front of them in a flash, blocking their way. He said, “Mr. Deal’s son is married to our sister. You ain’t robbing his store, and I ain’t standing by while you do.”

  Johnny Clay and the moonshiner’s boy were practically nose to nose. Johnny Clay won every staring contest he ever entered because he didn’t believe in backing down. The moonshiner’s boy said, “You better get out of my way.”

  Johnny Clay said, “No.”

  The moonshiner’s boy gave Johnny Clay a mean look and then walked to the edge of the porch and jumped off. He stood there in the dirt and looked around him, one hand pushing his hair back, the other on his pistol. He said, “Why don’t you come down here and fight me like a man? If you ain’t too chicken.” He laughed at this. The rest of the Barrow gang laughed, too.

  Johnny Clay was on him in a minute. They were rolling all around in the dirt and there was blood mixed in with the red clay. Someone from the front porch of Deal’s let out a yell. I ran over and tried to kick the moonshiner’s boy but kicked Johnny Clay instead. He yelled, “Goddammit, Velva Jean!” I started screaming.

  Suddenly Mr. Deal was outside with his three sons, Jessup, Coyle, and Danny. They were in the middle of everything, pulling those boys apart. The moonshiner’s boy had a scrape on his head and one on his chin and he was bleeding from his nose. Johnny Clay had a bloody lip. But the moonshiner’s boy looked worse. I couldn’t help it—I was proud of my brother.

  The moonshiner’s boy was mean. He was maybe even as mean as Junior Loveday, who sat over in Butcher Gap Prison for murdering six men. When they asked Junior why he did it, he said he guessed there was a meanness in him and a meanness in the world that just couldn’t be helped.

  Mr. Deal sat Johnny Clay and me down on the hard bench in the Alluvial Jail, a one-roomed building in back of the store. This was where they held drunkards and other folks who broke the law while they waited for the sheriff to come up from Hamlet’s Mill. My own daddy had been here too many times to count. We watched while Mr. Deal locked up the moonshiner’s boy and the rest of the Barrow gang in the one and only cell. The moonshiner’s boy was saying, “You can’t lock me up. No one locks up Clyde Barrow.”

  Mr. Deal said, “You get in there right now, Mr. Barrow, and shut your mouth. I don’t want to hear another word.” He slammed the cell door shut and then he wheeled around to face Johnny Clay and me. He said, “What do you think you’re doing? Since when do you start hanging around with that sort?”

  I said, “We are that sort. We’re just as mean and bad as they are.”

  Johnny Clay kicked me.

  Mr. Deal sat down on the bench beside me and said, “I’m tempted to lock up the both of you right now and send you down to Hamlet’s Mill, down to the real jail. You’ll wish I had once Sweet Fern gets done with you.” Mr. Deal was one of the kindest men I knew. He had never in his life spoken to Johnny Clay or me this way. He said, “Do you realize you all are almost convicts? That you’re just a step away?” He pointed to the jail cell. He said, “Look how far. Just a couple of feet, by my guess. Do you realize once you become a convict you can’t ever take it back?”

  He stood up. He set a hand on my head, just briefly. He said, “I don’t want to hear that either of you has been hanging around with them anymore.” He nodded at the moonshiner’s boy and his friends. “Is that understood?”

  I thought it was shameful to have to agree to something like that in a jail in front of hard criminals like the bad Barrow gang, just like we were children, but Johnny Clay and I both said, “Yessir.”

  When Mr. Deal left, I leaned over and whispered to my brother, “This is the most exciting thing to ever happen to me.”

  Johnny Clay said, “We’re almost criminals now, Velva Jean. Did you hear? Mr. Deal almost sent us to the jail in Hamlet’s Mill. You know what’s next after that—Butcher Gap Prison.” Johnny Clay was watching my face for a reaction. I kept my expression blank on purpose even though my heart started racing at this, and I hoped that Johnny Clay wouldn’t somehow notice.

  I was now officially a wicked person. I had backslid so far that Jesus himself couldn’t save me. I almost had a prison record. I was almost a convict. I was practically like Bonnie Parker. People would write songs about me and sing them for years to come. I tried not to think of what Sweet Fern would do to us. I tried not to think of Granny or Daddy Hoyt. Instead I concentrated on Jesus and how upset he must be, especially since I had pledged myself to him. For months, I had been trying to upset Jesus. I wanted him to feel betrayed, just like I did because he had taken my mama away.

  We heard Sweet Fern before we saw her. “Where are they?” she said. She wasn’t using her company voice, the one she put on for other people. She was using her everyday voice, the one she used all the time for us. And then the door to the jail was thrown open and there she was, her face a round, white cloud, smoke swirling up and out of her like the mountains on a misty day. She said, “If Mama weren’t dead already, this would be enough to kill her.”

  She looked us over from head to toe and then turned on her heel and walked back outside. As we passed by the moonshiner’s boy, he came to the bars and leaned against them and said, “See you soon, Bonnie.”

  I didn’t say anything. I wondered if anyone would come to get him and take him home, if anyone would care that he was here, or if they would even miss him at all.

  When we got home, Sweet Fern marched right into the house and said, “Johnny Clay, I want you to get your things and move them back out to Beachard’s room.”

  It was the most horrible thing she could have said or done. It was worse than the switch or getting hollered at. Johnny Clay said, “No.”

  “I’m not going to tell you again. You’re getting too old to share a room with Velva Jean. You’re as tall as Linc now, and Velva Jean’s practically a woman.”

  “I am not,” I hollered.

  “Hell no,” Johnny Clay said.

  “Johnny Clay Hart. Don’t you swear at me.” Sweet Fern led Johnny Clay and me up the stairs and into our bedroom. She and Danny had moved right in after Daddy left, taking over the room he’d shared with Mama.

  “Dan Presley will move in here with you,” she said to me.

  “He’s only three!” I said. “He’s a baby!”

  “I want your things out of here by supper,” Sweet Fern said to Johnny Clay. When we just looked at her, she said, “You all are about to kill me, the way you run around. Every single person I know has an opinion on how I should raise you. Every single person thinks I don’t know how to be a mother.”

  She spun out of the room, leaving Johnny Clay and me to look at each other. “What are we going to do?” I said.

  “Nothing, I guess. We got to listen to her now.” Johnny Clay looked like he wanted to spit.

  “She ain’t our mother.”

  “She’s the closest thing we got, though, ain’t she?” He mumble
d something under his breath. “Like it or not, we live in her house now. Not Mama’s house, not Daddy’s house, not our house. Sweet Fern’s house. And that means we got to do just what she damn well says.” Until we’re old enough to leave, I knew he was thinking.

  I watched as my brother packed up his clothes and his few belongings and stalked out of the room. In a minute, I heard him next door, moving around in his old room. I sat down on my bed until Sweet Fern called us to supper. ~

  That night I lay in bed listening to Dan Presley sleep and concentrating hard on a Cherokee spell. It was a spell to drive away a witch and get her to do your bidding. I thought I would use it on Sweet Fern so that she would let Johnny Clay move back into my room. Even after Mama dying and Daddy leaving, I had never felt so lonely. Why did things always have to change? Change was almost always bad and I was tired of it. I just wanted things to stay the same for a while.

  I tapped on the wall beside my bed. “Johnny Clay?” I sat up on my knees and leaned over, putting my face to a crack between the planks. “Are you there?”

  From the other side of the wall, I heard a rustling. “I’m here.”

  “Is Beach asleep?”


  I leaned forward on my elbows and shook my hair down so that it covered my face. I pulled one of the strands out and tried to straighten the wave so that it lay flat.

  Johnny Clay said, “You okay?”

  No, I wanted to say. I’m not. I want Mama and I want Daddy, and if I can’t have them, at least I can have you, Johnny Clay. He was too far away on the other side of the wall. I needed to know he was there in the same room, just an arm’s length away.

  “I’m okay,” I said.

  There was silence. When he didn’t speak, my heart skipped a beat and I sat up. “Johnny Clay?” Had he gone to sleep already?

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