Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven


  He shrugged, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Like I should punch him in the jaw.”

  I said, “Don’t you dare, Johnny Clay.” But my thoughts were racing. I was replaying that smile over and over in my mind.

  When we got to the café, we found Crow in the kitchen by himself, stacking the clean dishes into a neat pile. Johnny Clay went on upstairs, but I got myself a Coca-Cola and then stood there watching Crow. I said, “Do you ever miss playing music?”

  He turned and looked at me, his arms full of plates. He said, “I still play music.”

  I said, “I know, but I mean on stage. Like around town. At the Opry.”

  He said, “I only played the Opry once.” He was as smiling and easy as ever, like we were talking about the weather or tomorrow’s menu. He stacked the rest of the plates and then began putting them away in the cupboards. “Don’t get me wrong, it was a thrill to end all thrills, Velva Jean, but I did it and they never asked me back and that was enough for me.”

  I tried to imagine being happy with playing the Opry only once. I said, “Didn’t you ever want to record songs? Make records?”

  He said, “I did make records. I made two records, and they were good ones. Not great ones, or maybe I wouldn’t be standing here.” He waved his hands at his apron, at the kitchen itself. “But I ain’t too upset about where I am either.” And then he went back to work, wiping down the counters.

  I said, “Did you know since you were little that you wanted to sing?” I wanted to keep at him, to make him talk about this, to explain to me how he could be okay with making meat loaf and fried chicken when he’d once played at the Opry.

  He was rolling up his sleeves, pushing them higher over his elbows. He plunged his hands into the sink water, starting in on the dirty dishes. He said, “Velva Jean, sometimes dreams change, either because they have to or because life has something else in mind for you. You’ll realize that as you get older.”

  I thought, I hope not. It was the very worst thing I could imagine.

  ELEVEN

  I met with Travelin’ Jones and his orchestra every day until the Fourth of July. Johnny Clay made sure to tag along, saying he wanted to spend all the time he could with me now that he was here in Nashville and before he left again, but I knew he was really just trying to keep an eye on things.

  He didn’t have to worry, though, because Travelin’ Jones was nothing but a gentleman. We met at Bootsy’s, and sometimes Bootsy was there too. I showed up to work and we practiced our set and then afterward he stayed on stage with the band and told me I could go on home, that they had things to work out—instrumental numbers and ones he sang himself—that they didn’t need me for.

  On the last day of rehearsal, as we were getting ready to go to Bootsy’s, Crow asked Johnny Clay to help him with a delivery, and before Johnny Clay could say anything I ran right off without him. My heart was pounding when I got there, from running and from leaving my brother behind. I knew he’d be mad as a snake when I got back, but I didn’t care. I wanted to see what Travelin’ Jones might do if Johnny Clay wasn’t around.

  We ran through the set and when we were done, Travelin’ Jones said, “How about I buy you a drink?”

  I said, “Ginger ale, please.”

  He smiled at this and said, “All right, then.” He ordered me a ginger ale and then got himself one too, even though I knew he’d probably rather have whiskey. We sat at a little table right by the jukebox, and it was so small that my knee kept bumping his under the table. Every time it did an electric shock went right through me.

  He said, “How old are you, Velva Jean?”

  I said, “Nineteen.”

  He said, “You don’t mind me asking?”

  “I don’t care. You can ask me anything. How old are you?”

  “Twenty-seven.”

  I thought he looked at least thirty but didn’t say so. I tried not to imagine all the things he’d done in his life to make him look older than he was.

  He said, “You’re one hell of a singer.”

  I said, “Thank you.”

  We sat there drinking our ginger ale, and he took his hat off and set it on the table. He ran his hand through his hair and scratched his beard, and the whole time I tried not to look at his tattoos.

  I said, “Why do you have two bands?”

  He picked up his glass and swirled it around, just like I’d seen people do with whiskey. He took a drink and said, “One represents one side of me, and one represents the other. The orchestra’s for business. It makes me money. But I also like that kind of music. It makes me feel romantic, and I don’t always feel that way.” My knee bumped his again and I moved it away fast.

  He said, “The Travelin’ Jones Band is my own raw self, though, with all the bad habits and bruises and scars. The two together tell my whole story.”

  He put his hat back on, brushing wisps of hair out of the way, off his face, back behind his ears. He said, “Any other questions?” His knee bumped mine under the table and stayed pressed against it. This time I didn’t move away.

  I said, “What’s your real name?”

  “Charlie,” he said.

  On the Fourth of July, Charlie Jones and me played the Tulane Hotel with his orchestra. Johnny Clay said that for his part he didn’t trust a man with two names and two bands, but I was so excited I could hardly stand myself. I wrote to everyone back home and told them what I was doing. “You are on your way, Velva Jean,” Ruby Poole wrote back. I wore a dress Gossie had borrowed from Gorman’s—a strapless gold dress that glittered in the light. It was the most beautiful dress I had ever seen in person or anywhere. I promised not to eat or drink while wearing it so we could give it back to the store in perfect condition. She never would tell me if Gorman’s knew she was borrowing it or if she’d taken it without asking.

  We went on at eight o’clock that night, standing on a stage in the Tulane’s ballroom, which was enormous and painted white. The floor was a dark wood, almost black, and there were palm trees sitting in great, fat pots in the corners. People danced or sat at tables with starched white tablecloths, and everyone but me was eating and drinking.

  Johnny Clay, Gossie, Nori, Crow, Tommie Lou, and Marvina came and also Harold Lee, all dressed in a suit that he had already outgrown. I sang five songs with the band: “You Are My Sunshine,” “And the Angels Sing,” “Over the Rainbow,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” and “God Bless America.” Charlie Jones sang the other songs himself, the ones that had words, and it was strange to hear him singing something that wasn’t about murdered prostitutes or whiskey.

  At nine o’clock we played “In the Mood” and everyone danced. Then we all went up to the roof to watch the fireworks over the river. Men and women shouted and clapped and kissed whether they knew each other or not. I thought it was the war that was making everyone so patriotic. I looked around and it hit me that I didn’t have anyone to kiss, not in Nashville and not in this world. I thought of Harley and wondered what he was doing at just this moment. I pictured him sitting at home, working in his mud room, while Levi snored upstairs.

  It was 1942. We were at war. I was far away from almost everyone I knew and loved. I was still a married woman, but I didn’t feel like it. I’d just sung my first concert. Across the roof I could see Gossie and the girls, their arms linked through my brother’s, and instead of making me feel less alone, the sight of them made me feel small and far away.

  “You were good tonight.” I looked up and there was Charlie Jones.

  I said, “Thank you.” I had to shout it over the fireworks and the noise.

  A waiter in a white tuxedo passed by with a tray of champagne. Charlie Jones took two glasses and handed me one. I drank, careful not to spill a drop. The champagne went right to my head. I drank more.

  He finished his glass and said, “Maybe we can play together again.”

  I looked at his straight nose, the blond-brown hair that was circling his cheek, the cupid’s bow mouth
underneath the beard, and I tried not to fall in love with him. Charlie Jones looked rough and talked rough, but he was smart and he knew who he was. He could also be nice, but deep down I wasn’t sure he was nice. And that made me like him even more.

  I said, “I’d like to.”

  He said, “Why don’t you come to Bootsy’s next week and sit in with the band?”

  “Okay.” I finished my champagne in one long, burning gulp. The fireworks were cracking and popping and booming, and everyone around me was laughing and kissing and clapping their hands. I felt like I was suddenly on a carnival ride I couldn’t get off, like when Johnny Clay and I would push each other down Fair Mountain inside an old tire—going faster and faster—and halfway down I would wonder why in the world I ever wanted to do it in the first place, especially when I knew I was only going to crash at the bottom.

  I thought: This man is like being inside a tire going too fast down a hill. This man is every bit as dangerous as Harley. What is it with you, Velva Jean? What is it about this kind of man?

  There was a cold panic rising in me and the roof was spinning. I could smell Charlie Jones, and he smelled sweet but deadly—fresh like spring with a kind of muskiness underneath that made me want to run.

  Suddenly I felt his lips on mine, and there was a jolt like a lightning bolt and I felt my feet go out from under me, only they didn’t. Somehow I was still standing. I hadn’t kissed a man since Harley. I hadn’t ever kissed a man but Harley. Charlie Jones was the second man I’d ever kissed in my life.

  I said, “I have to go.” I ran back inside the hotel, down and down and down the stairs and through the ballroom. I didn’t stop running till I got back to the café.

  For weeks after the concert, I jumped every time the door to the café opened or the telephone rang, hoping it would be Darlon C. Reynolds or some other record producer come to find me and offer me a contract. The most that happened, though, was that I sang one more show—this time at Bootsy’s—with Charlie Jones. He didn’t try to kiss me again. On July 22 he signed up with the Marine Corps and the next day he left Nashville. On July 24 Tommie Lou and Marvina joined the Red Cross and said they’d be shipping out in August.

  The next evening Johnny Clay and I went to the Opry. He’d been here for a while already, and I held my breath all the time, afraid I would wake up and he would tell me it was time for him to go. I told myself to make the most of it, not to waste time missing him when he was still here.

  Johnny Clay and I walked to the Opry and stood watching the people going in. It was a cool, clear Saturday night. The sky was turning a dark, deep blue, the color of the very best marbles. It had been a cloudy day, but the clouds were starting to go away and now you could see the moon and the stars.

  I said, “Do you ever write to her?” I knew he’d know who I was talking about without me even saying her name.

  He said, “No.”

  “Not even once?”

  “No.”

  “She might want to hear from you and know you’re okay.”

  “If she wanted to hear from me, she would’ve married me when I asked her.”

  He looked so closed away and silent then that I told myself I wouldn’t bring Lucinda Sink up again, so I changed the subject fast as I could and asked him to see that picture in his wallet, the one of the paratrooper. And then I asked him a hundred and one questions about jumping out of airplanes and what kind of training would he have to do and whether he was scared or just excited. I knew this would make him happy and make him forget I’d asked anything, even if I hated like the devil to hear it.

  Suddenly we heard a distant roar, and there was a flash of silver across the sky. Everyone froze and stared upward, trying to see what kind of plane it was—was it the Japanese? The Germans?

  President Roosevelt and the government had started sending out warnings about spies. They said that spies might be among us—German spies, Italian spies, Japanese spies—and to keep our eyes open for suspicious behavior. Johnny Clay and I had always loved playing spies and so we’d been practicing all the things we needed to know if we were going to spy on the enemy. Spies were never supposed to write anything down, so we memorized people on sight. Johnny Clay said we had to learn to think like con men because that was the only way to catch them.

  “It’s one of ours,” Johnny Clay said now. He said it again, louder, so that the people around us could hear. After a moment everybody nodded and breathed and started talking and walking just like they’d been doing before.

  The two of us stood there, side by side, staring up at the airplane. Johnny Clay had an admiring look on his face like he was proud and awed at the same time, like he had something to do with that plane. I knew he was thinking about how he was going to fly one for the war and also jump out of them. For me, I was picturing myself up there, just like Flyin’ Jenny, hair blowing out the window, singing loud and free, something like “Silver Plane Coming, Silver Plane Going.”

  Carole Lombard was killed in a plane. She was flying in one just like that, sitting in her seat, talking to her mama. She was going home to Clark Gable. She didn’t have any idea she was going to die. She was only thirty-three years old. Look away, Velva Jean, I told myself. Look away.

  Johnny Clay said, “We’re going to be late.” But he was still watching.

  I said, “Imagine being up there, high above the earth, flying like a bird, the whole world stretching away from you.”

  I heard a voice in my head: “Women pilots are a weapon waiting to be used.”

  Johnny Clay said, “I can’t wait to jump out of one.”

  We watched the plane till it disappeared behind a cloud, into the dark. I said, “I think the thought of it is the most terrifying thought in the world. I hope I never set foot in a plane as long as I live.” I didn’t want to crash into a mountain like Carole Lombard. But at the same time, I couldn’t help it—I wondered what it would be like to be a part of the sky.

  Johnny Clay didn’t say a word during the Opry show. He sat with his chin in his hands and his face blank and serious, and I knew he was taking everything in. The only time he was ever this still was when he was gold panning.

  Afterward he stayed in his seat while everyone else stood up and walked out, buzzing, humming, chattering, singing. He stared at the stage and looked like he was in a fog, like maybe he was somewhere far away.

  I stood up and touched his sleeve. I said, “Cat got your tongue?”

  He said, “That’s where you’ll be one day, Velva Jean. Don’t you forget it. Just like that framed picture I gave you. You’re going to be right up there with the rest of them. It may not be now and it may not be soon and you may have to wait for a while, at least till this war’s over. Maybe longer.” He paused. “But you’ll be there, Velva Jean.”

  I looked down at the chill bumps on my arms. There was a touch of the sixth sense about all of Mama’s children.

  I said, “Really?” It came out a whisper. I sat back down. I’d been writing Judge Hay every week since January and so far I hadn’t heard a word from him or anyone at the Opry.

  Johnny Clay said, “Sure as I’m sitting here.”

  We looked at the stage, both of us picturing me up there in my satin and rhinestones. I could almost feel the wood of the stage below my feet. I could almost hear the first song I would sing . . . something about a little girl from a little place who taught herself to drive a yellow truck so that she could go to the Opry.

  TWELVE

  On Sunday, July 26, Johnny Clay knocked on the door to my room and said, “Velva Jean, get up.”

  I was lying in bed with my eyes closed, trying to stay asleep. I said, “Go away.”

  He said, “Get up now. We got somewhere to be.”

  I said, “It’s Sunday, Johnny Clay. I don’t have to work today. It’s my one day to sleep. Go away.”

  Johnny Clay threw the door open and the light poured in behind him. I could see Gossie just past him on the settee, drinking her coffee. She waved
her little finger at me. Johnny Clay said, “Time’s a wastin’, girl. Come on.”

  I looked at him and thought how sad I’d be when he was gone to Georgia for training, even if he was getting on my last nerve right now. I couldn’t think about what came after that—Europe, the Pacific, the war. I sat up and rubbed my eyes and said, “Where are we going?”

  Johnny Clay said, “You’ll see. Bring your keys because we’re taking the truck.”

  Johnny Clay wanted to drive, but I said, “No, it’s my truck and I’m going to drive it.” He sat beside me, feet propped against the dashboard, staring out the window at the trees and whistling. We’d left downtown and were headed out into the country, past little houses and farms and every now and then a filling station. But mostly there were just trees and trees and more trees.

  I said, “Where are we going?”

  He said, “You’ll see when we get there.” He was giving me directions. I turned onto a flat country road, and he said, “Now stay on this for a while.” Then he started singing—it was a song we used to sing when we were little. It was called “Old Maid’s Last Hope” and it was what we sang when we wanted to drive Sweet Fern crazy. It was about a burglar man that went to rob a house, and when he heard the woman who lived there come in the door he hid himself under the bed.

  Johnny Clay sang: “She took out her teeth and her big glass eye, and the hair right off of her head. That burglar man had nineteen fits, and he rolled out from under her bed.”

  When he sang the part about the old maid taking out a revolver and pointing it at the burglar man and telling him he had to marry her or she’d blow off his head, I couldn’t help it—I started laughing. And then I joined him for the last verse: “He looked at the teeth and the big glass eye, and he had no place to scoot. He looked back at the baldheaded miss and said, ‘Woman, for Lord’s sake, shoot.’”

 
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