Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  “I’m here,” he said. “I was just thinking.”

  “What about?”

  “Going to jail.”

  I hunched over again and pulled the blanket up around myself.

  “I reckon we’re different now,” said Johnny Clay. A chill crept up my spine all the way from my toes and I pulled the blanket tighter. “I reckon we’re changed forever, Velva Jean. There’s no going back to the way we used to be. The old us is gone.”

  The thought of this made me sad because so much was gone now and I had liked the old us. “How so?” I said. I whispered it. “You think we’re mean forever now?”

  It took him a minute to answer. “Not mean exactly. But not soft either.”

  There was a lump in my throat as big as a bullfrog. We both sat there in silence, on either side of the wall.

  “If you want,” Johnny Clay said finally, “I’ll stay awake till I know you’re asleep.”

  My eyes teared up at this, and I squeezed them shut so that the water stayed in. “Okay,” I said. I lay back down and rolled on my side so that I faced the wall. I pulled the covers up to my chin and closed my eyes. I thought about the moonshiner’s boy, about the meanness that was in him. “See you soon, Bonnie,” he’d said. I thought about the meanness that was in me. I wondered if I would be able to sleep at all.

  One week later, Johnny Clay found me under the porch, playing Daddy’s mandolin, pretending it was a Hawaiian steel guitar and I was Maybelle Carter, the greatest guitar player that ever lived. I sang a song I’d just made up that morning. It was about a girl who had no parents and went to live on the moon with a race of moon-eyed people who could only see at night.

  I saw Johnny Clay’s feet before I saw the rest of him. He came up from the direction of the creek, where he’d been panning for gold with Hunter Firth. He squatted down and looked at me and I ignored him, went right on singing.

  “I’m afraid the meanness in me has taken over,” he said.

  “That’s okay,” I said. “I reckon I’m mean, too.”

  “We been sneaking over to a still in Devil’s Kitchen. The one you and me went to last year. Daddy Hoyt was right, Velva Jean. It’s the purest corn liquor you ever tasted, and it don’t leave a hangover. Not even a headache.”

  I felt sick and excited all at once. I wasn’t sure I wanted to start drinking regular. But I also wondered if I had a choice now that I was on a wayward path. I said, “You just want to steal from the moonshiner’s boy.”

  He ignored this and said, “I’m going back over there now, and you can come with me if you want or you can stay here.”

  I sang a little louder to make it clear that I was busy and not to be bothered.

  “Velva Jean.”

  I stopped playing. I lay there looking up at the sky through the slats in the porch floor. I thought that this particular moment felt a lot like the night before Dr. Keller’s nurse came to give us shots—that same feeling of dread sat like a weight in the bottom of my stomach.

  I could hear the pounding of the waterfall long before I saw it. Then suddenly we were there, and the water was pouring down the face of the rock, fifty feet or so, and it all looked so peaceful. You would never have known there was a still hidden back of there. Johnny Clay and I sat down in the laurel bushes at the side of the falls. Behind the water was a narrow ledge that led to the mouth of a cave, which you could barely see.

  “What now?” I said, and I tried to whisper it but still be heard.

  Johnny Clay said, “You wait here.” He pulled a watch out of his pocket—an old gold watch of Daddy’s. He rubbed his nose. The skin had healed nicely from his late summer sunburn and was now as brown as the rest of him. He checked the watch and said, “The moonshiner just went home for lunch.”

  While I played lookout, Johnny Clay slipped across the ledge and into the cave. He was gone for five minutes. I was holding the watch and didn’t take my eyes off it. I jumped at every sound—every bird and creature that rustled by in the underbrush—sure it was the moonshiner come back to catch us.

  Finally, Johnny Clay came out of the cave, jar in hand. He grinned, his hair wet from the spray, and edged back to me. He shook his hair like a wet dog, spraying me with water, and unscrewed the lid of the jar. He held the jar out to me. My head swam. It smelled like gasoline. He said, “We’ve got to be men about it, Velva Jean.”

  I took the jar from him and raised it to my lips. I took the smallest sip I could. The liquor tasted better than I expected, but it wasn’t good. It was strong and sharp and it hurt my throat. I took a bigger drink, and this one burned going down. I started coughing so hard that my eyes watered.

  At that moment, we heard a gunshot. I screamed and dropped the jar.

  “Run, Velva Jean!” Johnny Clay hollered, and I did. I ran so hard and so fast that I didn’t pay attention to where I was going. All I knew was that I had to get out of there and get away as fast as possible. The moonshiner was after us. He would kill us if he caught us. He would kill us and then he would take us up to his cave and bury us in there or burn us up in his still and turn our blood into whiskey. I wanted to get home to Daddy Hoyt, who I knew would take care of me and keep me safe and who wasn’t one bit afraid of bootleggers.

  I ran so hard that I couldn’t breathe. I ran up and down and this way and that and here and there until I didn’t know where I was anymore. I turned back to look for Johnny Clay, but he was nowhere to be seen.

  “Johnny Clay!” I began to shout it over and over again. “Johnny Clay!”

  The woods were still and silent.

  “Johnny Clay!” I knew I should keep my voice down because I didn’t want the moonshiner to hear me. My heart was beating as fast as hummingbird wings and as loud as a drum, so loud I couldn’t hear.

  I threw my head back and shaded my eyes from the sun. I was high up Devil’s Courthouse, near where the giant lived, near where the devil held court. I could see the dark, jagged peak of Tsul ’Kalu’s cave, above and to my left. Up here you could see as far away as Georgia and South Carolina and Tennessee. Some people said that on a clear day you could even see the ocean.

  The trees around looked dead and black. Their limbs reached up and out like witch hands, skeleton hands. Smoke was rising from the ground. Sixteen years before, a man was murdered on this very same path, higher up Devil’s Courthouse, and some said he still wandered this trail. I prayed that the haint of the trail wouldn’t come out just then, that he was somewhere far away, wherever haints went when they weren’t spooking people or searching for their killers. I prayed that the devil and the cannibal spirits and Spearfinger, the great witch of the woods, and Tsul ’Kalu the giant wouldn’t find me, and that the Nunnehi, or little people, might help protect me and get me home, even though I knew they only came out at night. I prayed that Mama might somehow guide me to safety from heaven.

  I turned around and ran forward, and suddenly I hit something. I hit it so hard that I fell down. Then two great hands lifted me and set me on my feet. A man stood in front of me—so tall that he blocked out the sun. His hair was long and black and his beard was wild. He wore a hat that was pulled down over his eyes. My first thought was that it was Tsul ’Kalu himself, but this was a man, not a giant.

  “Slow down,” he said. “What are you running from?” I couldn’t make out his face because the sun was behind him. But I knew exactly who he was: the Wood Carver. I had run from one murderer right into the hands of another.

  I stared up at him and didn’t say a word. I looked down at his hands, still holding my arms. They were nicked up and scarred and he wore a bright gold wedding ring on his left one.

  He dropped his hands and took a step back. I turned around and ran.

  After supper Johnny Clay and I stood on the front porch with Hunter Firth. The door to the house was open and there was the sound of Daddy Hoyt starting a tune on the fiddle; of Linc strumming his guitar; of Granny beginning a song in her thin, raspy voice; of Sweet Fern and Ruby Poole washing the s
upper dishes; of Dan Presley banging on a pot lid; and of Danny laughing and playing with baby Corrina.

  “The bootlegger’s probably forgotten all about it by now,” Johnny Clay said. There was a question in his voice. I knew what it was—we might not have gotten away with his moonshine, but that didn’t mean the moonshiner would forget that we tried to steal from him. In his eyes, we would be as bad and as hated as branch walkers now. We would never know where or when the moonshiner might find us.

  We could hear the stomp of Granny’s shoes as she danced and Beachard’s shouts as she whirled him around. He was staying away from home more and more lately, no matter what Sweet Fern and Danny told him to do. Beach was fifteen now and said they weren’t his parents and he didn’t need to mind them. He didn’t mean anything unfriendly by it—Beach never did—he said that’s just the way things were.

  I wrapped my arms tight around my waist and shivered, even though the evening was warm. I thought about the moonshiner over in Devil’s Kitchen and the bitter taste of his whiskey and about his son who was a bad and dangerous criminal. I thought about the Wood Carver—tall enough to block out the sun—walking the haunted trail. I wondered if he was out there now in the dark.

  Johnny Clay caught a lightning bug in his fist and then slowly opened it so we could see the light. “It’s late in the season for him,” he said. “He should be dead by now.” He let it go and we watched it wobble into the air and then light up, go dark, light up, as it headed away from us.

  I never wanted to go back to the jail ever again or get chased through the woods or shot at, and I knew Johnny Clay felt the same way. Still, someone had to say it out loud, so I told him I was bored rigid leading a life of crime and, what’s more, that I was swearing off liquor. He said he was too. I think he was glad I said it first.


  School started on a cool day in early September. I was in the sixth grade now. I had two more years at the Alluvial School, and then I would be done forever. Johnny Clay was in his last year, but he threatened to quit every day, just like Beachard had when he was almost fourteen.

  We went to school according to the planting cycles. We were there through December, then out again until March while we picked peas, dug potatoes, and rounded up the free-roaming cattle from the woods. Then we were back at school again until summer when we waited for the crops to grow.

  The school itself was a one-room building, painted white, that sat between Deal’s and the Baptist church. The classroom was one large room with a blackboard along one wall and desks for thirty-six students, ages six to fourteen, in eight grades. Our teacher was Mrs. Avery Dennis, and her husband was Charles Hampton Dennis, nicknamed Dr. Hamp because he was a doctor, but a doctor of books not medicine. They lived on a hill above Deal’s General Store, in a house that Dr. Hamp had built himself, filled with bookshelves floor to ceiling and old books from the library in Philadelphia, where Dr. Hamp and Mrs. Dennis were from. Everyone on the mountain was allowed to come in and borrow what we wanted and take the books home or read them right there in the fat overstuffed chairs that could fit three of us if we sat close and snug.

  On the first day of school, Johnny Clay found a seat in the back with Daryl and Lester Gordon and Hink Lowe and the other boys who were older and liked to stretch their legs out into the aisle and stare out the windows, and I sat up front behind Rachel Gordon and Alice Nix and the others in the sixth-grade class. Everyone buzzed and chattered and Mrs. Dennis let us talk on and asked us how our summers were.

  Then she walked up and down the aisle and passed out lined pieces of paper, laying one on every desk. “I want you to write down your life dreams,” she said. Some of the kids just sat there staring at the paper, like Davey Messengill, who never thought much beyond lunch or recess; and Janette Lowe, who couldn’t read or write even though she was a year older than me; and her brother Hink, who couldn’t seem to pass the seventh grade and who everyone knew would be a down-and-out just like his daddy. The Lowes had been mountain trash for generations and, according to Sweet Fern, they weren’t about to change when it suited them so well.

  At the back of the room, Johnny Clay was bent over his paper, writing. When he was old enough, I knew he planned to hitch a ride on the rails and travel around the country, picking fruit and mining gold. He was going to be a cowboy out west, and when he got to California, he was planning to look up Tom Mix and William S. Hart and get a job riding horses in films. Johnny Clay said Mr. Hart would have to hire him because we had the same last name and were probably family. When I asked to go with him, he said I was too young but that maybe he’d send for me one day.

  Rachel Gordon and Alice Nix sat side by side, as always, matching blue ribbons in their hair. I guessed they would write something about being dutiful wives and mothers. And I guessed that aside from my brother, I would be the only one who didn’t write “to be married and have children,” or “to help my daddy with the farm,” or “to buy that new bait line I saw down at Deal’s.” Personally, I thought these were stupid dreams, but Daddy Hoyt was always saying that what was ugly to one was beautiful to another, and it was a good thing or else we’d all want to live in the same place and do the same kind of work.

  I picked up my pencil and wrote, “I would like to one day be a singer at the Grand Ole Opry.” Afterward, I crossed it out and wrote, “I plan to one day be a singer at the Grand Ole Opry.”

  I sat and reread the line over and over again. It was one thing to dream it; it was another thing to write it down where someone else could read it. By now everyone knew I had been to the Alluvial Jail and that I was a bad and wicked person, that I had backslid so far that it didn’t matter if I was saved or not and that I was surely going straight to hell, just like my daddy had warned me. I wondered what Mrs. Dennis would think of what I’d written and if she would laugh at it. I thought of Mama and how she never laughed, no matter what I said. I thought of writing something else instead, but I didn’t know what it would be. I folded up the paper and shoved it into the pocket of my dress.

  Everyone else passed their papers forward and then Mrs. Dennis told us what a good class we were and how much she was looking forward to the months ahead.

  One week later, as school let out for the day, everyone ran for the door and freedom. I collected my pencil and my lunch bucket and hurried to catch up with Johnny Clay, who was already outside with the Gordon boys.

  Mrs. Dennis called to me. “Velva Jean? Do you mind staying after?”

  I watched the others leave, running out into the sunshine, screaming and wrestling, those that could afford it heading over to Deal’s for candy or an ice cream. I searched for my brother and saw him go off with the Gordons without even looking to see where I was.

  Mrs. Dennis asked me to sit down at my desk, and then she sat down next to me. “Velva Jean,” she said, “why didn’t you hand in your paper?”

  “I wasn’t sure what to write,” I said.

  She tilted her head to one side. In a few moments, she nodded. “I see.” I was now used to her voice, which had a slight northeastern twang to it, but when she’d first arrived we all thought she sounded very strange. Her dresses were always neat and nicely starched and she had a smart-looking nose, long and straight with a bump in the middle.

  I glanced at the open doorway and beyond to the sunshine and the crowd of my classmates gathered at Deal’s. I saw Johnny Clay come back out from the store, holding an orange Nehi and wondered where on earth he’d got the money to pay for it or if Mr. Deal had given it to him for free.

  “I’ll let you go in just a minute,” Mrs. Dennis said. She stood up and walked to her desk and then came back. She set a blank piece of paper down in front of me and tapped it with her fingers. Her nails were painted a soft pink. “I’d like you to write something down for your life dreams.”

  I stared at the paper. “What if I don’t know what I want to do?”

  “I’m sure there must be something you’ve thought about.” Her voice was
bright and she was smiling, but she was looking at me the way Granny did when she knew I was lying.

  “What if I write something down and then I change my mind later and decide on a different dream?”

  “If you change your mind later, there’s no harm done. It’s never too late to change your mind.”

  She left me alone then and returned to her desk. She sat down behind it and picked up a book and began to read. I pulled out my pencil and held it over the paper, rolling it round and round between my thumb and fingers. I thought about writing something simple and acceptable like “to one day get married and have ten babies,” or “to be a missionary and help save the heathens.” But I didn’t want to write those things when they weren’t true.

  Although I still wasn’t sure what my mama had meant about living “out there,” I was beginning to think it had something to do with not making my life’s dream buying the new bait line down at Deal’s. Ever since Mama died, I’d felt the need to do something outside myself, so that people would know I had been in the world and so that they wouldn’t forget me. Mama had made an impression. Everyone still talked about how good and how special she was. I wanted people to remember me like that. But my daddy had gone away without anyone paying attention. We never mentioned his name and we never discussed him. I figured he was as good as dead, and now he was forgotten. I didn’t want that to happen to me.

  “I plan to be a singer at the Grand Ole Opry,” I wrote. “And play Hawaiian steel guitar as good as Maybelle Carter. And wear a costume of satin and rhinestones and high-heeled boots. I plan to go to Nashville just as soon as I save up enough money.”

  I sat back and reread it and considered folding it up and slipping it into the pocket of my dress, just as I had done with the first one. I read it again, and then I stood up and walked to the front of the room and handed it to Mrs. Dennis. I didn’t even look at her, just turned around fast and walked out of school as quick as I could. By the time I got out, Johnny Clay and the others had already gone.

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