Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  It was August 22, and the air was still heavy with summer. In my rearview mirror, the mountains were full and green. I sang till I almost couldn’t see them anymore, till I was surrounded by new mountains, strange mountains, ones I didn’t recognize. And then, just before the very tip of Fair Mountain disappeared, I pulled that truck over to the side of the road and got out. I left the engine running because I wanted to hear the rumble of it while I stood there with my back to it, looking off toward home.

  I stood with my hands on my hips and stared at Fair Mountain and tried to imagine what everyone was doing at this very minute. It was still morning, but barely. Granny would be out on Mad Maggie, her mule, off to deliver a baby or tend to a new mother. My granddaddy, Daddy Hoyt, would be gathering plants for his healings. Ruby Poole, my sister-in-law, would be fussing over baby Russell and giving him his morning feeding. My oldest brother, Linc, would be rounding up the cattle or working in the barn. Sweet Fern, the oldest of all of us, would be cooking something and shouting at Corrina to stop teasing her brothers. Harley would be at the Little White Church.

  My other brothers, Johnny Clay and Beachard, were off somewhere, just like me. Beachard was working on the Blue Ridge Parkway—we called it the Scenic—the new road that stretched across the mountaintops from Virginia to North Carolina, right up to the border of Tennessee. But Johnny Clay could be anywhere. He might be in California by now. He might even be in Mexico, running far, far away from home and the man he almost killed.

  I stood there and blinked at the mountains. A stranger would have thought they all looked the same, but I could tell them apart from here: Devil’s Courthouse, Witch Mountain, Bone Mountain, Blood Mountain, Fair Mountain. Fair Mountain was mine.

  I stood there a long time, very still. I almost stopped breathing. I felt myself start to fade into the air, into the road. I lost track of my feet and legs and arms and hands.

  Suddenly I could hear that truck. It was saying, “Get back in, Velva Jean. Come on. Let’s keep going.”

  Yellow truck coming,

  bringing me home again.

  Yellow truck going,

  I’m on my way . . .

  I turned around and walked to the truck and climbed back inside. I pulled out into the road, and as I started on toward Nashville, I didn’t look in the rearview mirror again. I just stared straight ahead till I could breathe.

  By the time I crossed the Tennessee state line, I’d stopped singing. I felt like I’d been driving for days, but it had only been hours, and I still had miles to go. I thought I would never get to Nashville, not in five years.

  I pulled into an Esso station in Calderwood. The attendant shuffled when he walked and went slow as could be, as if he had all the time in the world. He looked at me funny and then leaned past me and kind of peered in the cab of the truck like he was looking for something or someone. He said, “Afternoon, ma’am.”

  “Afternoon. Could you fill it up please?” I counted out my money from the coin purse that held every penny I had in the world—$121.11. It suddenly didn’t seem like much.

  “Yes’m. Sure thing.” He frowned, looked past me at the empty seat, and then shuffled over to the gas pump.

  As he filled up the tank and then cleaned the windows, I pulled out the map and looked at the line I’d drawn from Devil’s Kitchen—which wasn’t even a dot on the page—to Nashville. It was a long line. It was miles and miles long. Why hadn’t I noticed how far it was when I was setting out?

  I thought, Velva Jean, maybe you should just turn back, girl. You got no business being on this road by yourself. You’re a married woman. You got a home and family. What are you doing out here in this great big world?

  I sat there for a moment and really thought about this. The attendant said, “Where you headed?”

  I said, “Nashville.”

  “Where you coming from?”

  “Up near Waynesville.” I picked a town he might know. “Over in North Carolina.” I felt a stabbing in my heart as I said it. For the first time in my life, I was in another state. I was in Tennessee. I was getting farther and farther from home and from everyone I knew in this world.

  He narrowed his eyes, and then he nodded. “Well,” he said. “You got a long way to go.”

  I passed the hitchhiker east of Loudon. He was young and dusty with a crew cut and a bag over one shoulder. He held his thumb out like he expected everyone in the world to stop, like that was all it took. He waved at me as I drove on past, turning to stare at him. I wondered if he was a murderer or a thief or a person in search of his destiny, like me. I tried to picture myself hitchhiking, thumb out, suitcase and hatbox at my feet, waving to everyone going past.

  There wasn’t another soul on the road for a mile or two, but I rolled up my window just the same. I wondered if there were thieves who hid in the bushes, waiting to jump out at single lady travelers. I hoped I didn’t see another person till Nashville.

  I drove till just after seven o’clock, and then I pulled into a town called Sparta and found a motel. In an hour the sun would set and the sky would turn black, and I wanted to be off the road before then. The motel parking lot was empty except for my truck, which made me feel like the only person in the world, next to the manager, who asked me to fill out a card and pay cash up front before he handed me the key.

  I went into the room and turned on all the lights, every single one, because it made me feel less alone. I carried in my suitcase and my hatbox, and then I stretched myself out on the bed and opened the Esso map and figured out how much farther I had left to go.

  Afterward I got out the little card Darlon C. Reynolds had given me—the one with his address and telephone number—back when I recorded my songs for him in Waynesville the time Johnny Clay and me went to audition. By now I knew those numbers by heart. Then I unpacked my framed picture of the Opry.

  There was a telephone in the lobby of the motel. The man at the desk said I could use it as long as I paid him for the call. I stared at it for the longest time, and then I picked up the phone and asked for a long-distance operator. When she came on the line she said, “Where are you calling to?” Her accent was thicker than mine.

  I said, “Deal’s General Store in Alluvial, North Carolina.”

  She said, “Asheville?”

  I said, “Alluvial.”

  She said, “What’s your name, please?”

  “Velva Jean Hart.” I left off the Bright without thinking.

  She was quiet for a minute, though I could hear a shuffling of papers. And then she said, “Hold, please, dear.”

  The word “dear” was enough to do me in right then and there. I couldn’t even think about Nashville and all that lay ahead to do—finding a job, a place to live. What if Darlon C. Reynolds didn’t remember me? What if the Opry didn’t want girl singers who also played mandolin and had run away from their husbands without a word of good-bye? I blinked the tears back in.

  In a moment there was a flat, loud ringing on the line. It rang five times, and then a voice, thin and crackly, on the other end said, “Deal’s.”

  The tears sprang back. The operator said, “Velva Jean Hart calling from Sparta, Tennessee.”

  “Velva Jean!” It was Coyle, the oldest Deal boy. He said to someone, “It’s Velva Jean!”

  I started crying then and couldn’t stop. I said, “Coyle?”

  He said, “Velva Jean, is it really you? Where you at, girl?”

  I said, “Tennessee! I’m in Tennessee.”

  Coyle whistled. Suddenly the phone crackled and I heard a woman’s voice. “Velva Jean?”

  “Sweet Fern?”

  Sweet Fern was my sister, ten years older, who’d been left to raise me and my brothers after Mama died and Daddy went away.

  “Where are you?”

  Even though Sweet Fern and I never did get on well, the homesick feeling I’d been swallowing ever since I left rose up again and made my throat freeze so that I could barely say “Sparta, Tennessee.”

bsp; She said, “Why didn’t you say good-bye?”

  I said, “Because I never would have left.”

  Sweet Fern got quiet at this, and then she said, “You be safe, Velva Jean.” And I could hear the tug in her voice. Then Mr. Deal was on the line, and then Jessup Deal—the youngest of the Deal boys—and then Hink Lowe’s daddy, and finally Ruby Poole, who’d just walked in with baby Russell. She said, “Velva Jean, are you wearing your lipstick?”

  I said, “Every day.”

  She said, “Listen, you be careful and just know that all of us up here are rooting for you. We can’t wait to see what you’re going to do.”

  I said good-bye then and hung up the telephone and paid for the call and went on back to my room. I lay down on the bed and looked at my Opry picture. I imagined all the songs I’d sing, and then I started in on them, one by one, until I sang myself to sleep.

  I wasn’t far past Watertown, where Highway 26 got ready to merge with Highway 70, when the truck started wobbling. I drove on, hanging tight to the wheel, and suddenly the truck veered off toward the roadside, and I had no choice but to bring it to a stop under some trees. I was shaking as I sat there, checking all my windows and the rearview mirror for hitchhikers.

  I took a breath and got out of the cab. The truck was leaning over to the right, looking as worn out as Elderly Jones—the old Negro who lived in Alluvial—without his cane. That front tire was flat as a quarter. I stood there in my bare feet and said all the bad words Johnny Clay had taught me. Then I sat down on the side of the road and said, “Well, Jesus, I hope you’re happy.”

  Jesus and me hadn’t been on good terms for years, ever since he took my mama away, made my daddy leave, and got me tangled up with Harley Bright, my husband—moonshiner’s son, tent preacher, and the most unspeakable man I ever did meet.

  I sat there, dust in my hair, gravel poking me about the legs and bottom like mean little pinches, and told Jesus exactly what I thought of him for letting this happen. I said, “Lord, all I asked from you when I started on this trip was that I make it to Nashville safe. I didn’t ask for a recording contract once I get there. I didn’t ask for a job or money past what I got saved up. I didn’t even ask you to help me find a decent place to sleep. All I asked—the only thing, after all we been through, and good gracious knows that’s a lot—is that you let me get there without anything happening to this truck.”

  The more I talked, the madder I got. I felt a slow burning under the collar of my dress that was growing right up the sides of my face. I felt mad at everyone who was driving a car that wasn’t giving them trouble.

  From nearby a voice said, “Are you all right there, honey?”

  A car had pulled off to the side. A man was behind the wheel, and a woman—I guessed it must be his wife—leaned out the window. They were my daddy’s age. The man wore a hat, and the woman wore glasses and white gloves.

  I said, “No, ma’am, I’m not.”

  The woman said, “Are you out here by yourself?”


  She said something to her husband, and then he leaned around her and stared at me. The woman smiled a smile so kind it nearly started me to crying again. She got out of the car, unfolding herself as stiff and careful as a paper fan. I heard a door slam, and her husband walked around the car to stand beside her. He said, “Let’s take a look at that tire.”

  We watched as he kneeled down beside it, shaking his head. The woman said, “I’m Myrna Dover, and that’s my husband, Franklin.”

  “I’m Velva Jean.”

  “That’s an unusual name, but pretty.”

  “Thank you.”

  She said, “Do you have a husband, Velva Jean?”

  I was surprised at the question but tried not to show it. I wiped my nose and smiled my most polite smile. “Not with me.”

  Her face clouded up, and I could tell she thought he had died. She took my hand and looked up toward heaven and said, “You poor dear.”

  I said, “Oh he’s not dead. He’s in North Carolina.”

  Her mouth popped open. She looked like she was deciding how she felt about this. “What are you doing out here by yourself?” Her voice took on a hard tone. I thought she sounded just like Sweet Fern.

  I said, “I’m going to Nashville to be a singer.”

  She glanced behind me, to the truck, her eyes going from my suitcase to my hatbox to the map, which was still unfolded and lying across the seat. She said, “How wonderful.” But her mouth pursed up a little, like she had just sucked a lemon, and she looked at her husband as if by looking at him she could hurry him along.

  He sat back then, resting his wrists on his knees, and said, “You got a spare?”

  I shook my head. Johnny Clay or Danny Deal must have used it long ago and never replaced it, if the truck had even come with one in the first place. Why hadn’t I thought to get a spare? In all my planning and checking of oil and lights and brakes, I never once considered it.

  He said, “I don’t think ours would last you very long.” We all looked at the car and the tires, which were smaller than the tires on the truck.

  We drove for a mile before we saw a service station. It rose up along the side of the road, the only building except for a couple of tiny houses set off nearby. I had put my shoes back on, and now I wiggled my toes, which felt boxed up and hot.

  Franklin Dover got out and talked to the station attendant, gesturing with his hands so that I knew he was describing my truck and what was needed. Mrs. Dover and I sat in silence. At some point she said, “You need to be careful out there.” She was looking straight ahead, through the window, out at the trees and the road.


  She said, “You probably got folks worrying about you.” It was a question.


  There was a fat little smack against the windshield. And another. Rain.

  She said, “Well, make them worry as little as you can. There are hitchhikers and strangers and all sorts of hooligans who might not be so kind. You let your folks know you’re safe by staying safe.”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  It started raining harder—an end-of-summer storm, the kind that came in fast and left fast, washing everything clean.

  We sat, not talking, the rest of the time we waited. Mr. Dover came over to the car and tapped on the window. Mrs. Dover leaned over me to roll it down. He said, “It’ll be seven dollars for the tire.”

  I opened my coin purse and counted the money. He turned around and handed it to the attendant, and then I watched the attendant count my money that I’d worked so hard for. I thought, I should buy a spare tire while I’m at it. What if another tire goes flat? What if I’m out there on the road, all by myself, far away from a service station or anyone that can help me, and something goes wrong? Seven dollars was a lot of money. If I handed over seven more dollars for another tire, I might as well just hand over my entire life savings.

  Then I thought, Dammit! I can take care of this myself. And as I thought it, I suddenly believed it. I could take care of it myself. Hadn’t I been doing everything myself for the past few months? Not just the cooking and the cleaning and the looking after my husband’s daddy and my own husband, but teaching myself how to drive and how to learn an engine, and writing songs and even recording two of them. When Harley nearly died in the Terrible Creek train wreck and then stopped his preaching, it was me that kept us fed, with help from his daddy, and it was me that had to get Harley up off the settee and make him start working again.

  I thought: I need to get out of this car. I need to get back to my truck. I am going to change that tire.

  I looked in the side mirror and back down the road we’d just driven. You couldn’t see the truck anymore but it was back there, and suddenly I was desperate to get to it. In my head I heard a voice—faraway but firm: “I need to do this on my own.” And when I heard it, I felt the truth of it down in my bones. I didn’t need Harley or anyone else to help me change a tire. I c
ould do it myself.

  I opened the car door. Mrs. Dover turned to look at me. I got out and shut the door and leaned in the open window. I said, “Thank you, ma’am. Y’all have been awful kind.”

  Then I turned to Mr. Dover and said, “If it’s all the same, I’ll be taking my tire. I’ve troubled you enough, and I can take care of this from here on out.”

  The attendant said, “Looky here, you need a jack and a lug wrench?”

  I wasn’t about to tell him that I didn’t know what either of those things was. “No, sir,” I said. “I do not.”

  And that was how I found myself walking in the late-summer rain, down a gravel road, just a few miles east of Nashville, somewhere near a place called Watertown, chin up, mountains fading in the distance, wheeling a tire I’d bought with some of the money I’d earned and saved myself so that I could keep on going.

  The truck manual didn’t say anything about where the jack and the lug wrench were kept. I went over every inch of that truck until I pushed the seat forward and found them behind it, slid underneath. The jack looked like an enormous black bird. It was heavy and shaped like a strange, flattened S. The lug wrench was a steel lever bent at each end—one going up, the other going down. There was a funny-shaped, six-sided hole the size of a quarter at one of the ends.

  It’s like a puzzle, I told myself. I was good at puzzles. Didn’t I almost beat Johnny Clay at putting together a puzzle once, back when I was eight and he was ten and Mama was still alive? I came so close to beating him that afterward he didn’t speak to me for a week.

  I lay the jack and the lug wrench down on the ground by the tire, and then I dug through my hatbox until I found How to Drive and Man and the Motor Car, the books I learned to drive by. I read through, page after page, until I figured out that the jack needed to be placed under the front axle. I put it just where I thought that was, and just where it needed to be, but it didn’t look right compared to the picture in How to Drive. I got down on my knees and moved it forward an inch and then back an inch and then right back to where I’d had it in the first place. Then I stuck the jack handle into the “rotary mechanism” at the bottom of the jack. All that time the rain came down, down, down.

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