Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven


  Next I studied the tire—the wheels were wire, the yellow paint chipped, the hubcaps scuffed and dented. My poor old truck. It looked like I felt—banged up here and there, scraped and scarred, but still running strong.

  The book said something about removable hubcaps. I pulled, gentle as my mama’s touch, at the hubcap, afraid to break it. When it wouldn’t come off, I sat down and yanked at it with all my might. It flew off and sent me backward into the dirt, which was now turning into mud.

  There were five lug nuts underneath where the hubcap had been. I picked up the lug wrench and fit the hole over one of the nuts. I turned it hard as I could until I felt it give a little. Then a little more, a little more, a little more—until I had all five off.

  The old tire practically fell in on itself then. I pulled it off and threw it aside, and then I rolled the new one over and lifted it into place. One by one, I screwed in the lug nuts, and then I popped the hubcap back on and cranked the jack until the truck was all the way on the ground again.

  I sat back—hands and face muddy, hair wild and wet from the breeze and the rain, fingers aching, arms scratched—admiring my new front tire, which was now, thanks to me, attached to the truck. An automobile drove by and honked its horn. I thought, What a sight I must be. I wished Berletta Snow or Oderay Swan—who Harley called “good Christian women, close in touch with the Lord”—could see me right this minute, sitting in the mud like a wild mountain heathen, just like one of the Lowes, who were always filthy and ridden with mites.

  I stood up then, brushing myself off, and picked up the old tire and dropped it into the bed of the truck with a thud. Then I swung back up behind the wheel and looked at myself in the mirror. There was dirt on my cheeks and a leaf in my hair, which dripped water like I’d just gone swimming in Three Gum River. My face and dress were wet. My lips were their own dull pink color again. I threw the leaf out the window and rubbed at the smudges on my face and patted some of the rain off as best I could. Then I opened my hatbox and pulled out a shiny gold tube, shaped just like a bullet. I painted my lips as neat as I would paint a picture. Magnet Red—“very new, it’s very red. A dashing red.”

  In my new life I was going to wear lipstick all the time.

  TWO

  On Saturday, August 23, I drove into Nashville. Right away it was the biggest, noisiest city I’d ever seen. I said out loud, “You done it, Velva Jean. You got yourself all the way here.”

  I stopped at the first filling station I came to and sat there catching my breath. When the serviceman walked up, I rolled down the window and smoothed my hair. I said, “Can you tell me how to get to the Grand Ole Opry?”

  He stared at me like I’d been blown in on a windstorm, which was probably exactly what I looked like. He said, “Where you comin’ from, miss?”

  I said, “North Carolina. I just drove 346 miles.”

  He slapped the side of the truck, not too hard, but like he was clapping. He said, “Congratulations.”

  I said, “Thank you.”

  He said, “Welcome to Nashville.”

  I said, “Thank you. It’s awful good to be here.”

  The Grand Ole Opry broadcast out of the War Memorial Auditorium, just next to the state capitol, downtown. It looked, with its six fat columns, like it should have been someplace far away and exotic, like Greece. It was the dressiest place I’d ever seen—like something on a postcard.

  Nashville itself was fancy. The buildings were tall and grand and joined together side by side, all the way down Church Street, as far as the eye could see. There were red-and-white and green-and-white striped awnings at every storefront and streetlamps that already glowed a little even though the sun hadn’t set. The sidewalks were filled with people. Trolley cars rattled past. There were men preaching outside taverns and music halls, and men and women standing on curbs or up on truck beds, playing the guitar, the banjo, the fiddle. Most everyone was singing. Music was everywhere. All those years of dreaming of Nashville, and I realized I couldn’t have thought up this place if I’d tried.

  I parked the truck on Third Street and walked past all the places I’d read about in magazines and heard tales of: Shacklett’s Cafeteria; Candy’s Inc., with its windows full of sweets; the old Princess Theatre, which showed movies and a vaudeville stage show; Harveys department store; the Tulane Hotel. There were jewelry stores—glittering with gems of all shapes and sizes, and not rough uncut gems from the mountains but shiny ones set in rings or necklaces—sandwich shops, bakeries, eye doctors, a hat cleaner. Krystal, where they made cake doughnuts in the front window. La Vogue Beauty Salon, where the women from the Opry got their hair done. I stood at the corner of Fifth and Church—called St. Cloud’s Corner because of St. Cloud House, a hotel that had been there since the Civil War—and breathed it all in.

  Then I walked over to the War Memorial Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry. I pushed through all the people going this way and that and walked right up to the Opry building and pressed my hand against the side of it. The stone was cool and smooth beneath my palm. It had a heartbeat. I could feel the life in it, feel it breathing, or maybe it was my own pulse.

  I’d just driven all those miles in a truck I’d learned to drive without any help from anyone. I’d pumped my own gas and changed my own tire and smiled at the things folks said about me being on my own, without a husband. I thought coming here was either the foolhardiest thing I’d ever done or the best.

  I leaned up against the building and closed my eyes and felt the stone pressing into my skin, holding me up. I was all alone in this world—no mama, no daddy, no husband. I didn’t know where my brother was, and I’d left my family far behind. I didn’t have anything but an old yellow truck, a suitcase, a hatbox, and a mandolin. But here was the Opry, right where I could touch it.

  There was a sign on the door of the War Memorial Auditorium that said: “Tickets now required: twenty-five cents.” This was because the show was so popular that everyone wanted to see it. Even as I stood there, folks were walking up, pushing past each other and me, going inside, dressed in pretty clothes, clean clothes—the men wearing hats and starched shirts, the women wearing hats and dresses, nicely pressed. I noticed a smart-looking girl hurrying through the crowd. She wore red, red lipstick, and she was hatless. Her brown hair was cut in a bob that hugged her chin, and she carried a purse the color of tomatoes. She was a giant girl, fat as Harley’s mama, but pretty. She looked like she must be from Atlanta or New York. She walked by me and dropped a fifty-cent piece in my hand.

  I stared at it and then started laughing. That girl thought I was some sort of less fortunate, a down-and-out in need of help. Granny had told me the cities were full of them. I held that coin tight in my fist and then opened the door and followed everyone inside. I walked up to the box office and bought one ticket. My hair was a mess, my dress was dirty, my shoes were making squish-squish sounds as I walked, like they might come off my feet and stick right to the floor. But my lips were painted bright as rubies.

  I sat straight up during the show, rigid as a post, and listened to every word, every note. Down on the stage, all the musical acts I’d grown up hearing on Saturday nights on the radio—Pee Wee King’s Golden West Cowboys, Bill Monroe, the Possum Hunters, Minnie Pearl, the Missouri Mountaineers—stood around the WSM radio microphone playing their most famous songs.

  The auditorium was beautiful, with a grand, high ceiling that looked like an enormous gold-and-white checkerboard and a chandelier that hung down in the center. I sat up in the left balcony, but what I really wanted to do was to climb down into the audience and jump onto the stage and sing my heart out.

  And the stage—that was something else. It was a ten-foot circle of dark wood that looked like magic to me. Even from the balcony, you could feel the history of it, like everyone who’d stood there had left a piece of themselves behind.

  When Judge George D. Hay, dressed in a black suit and black hat, cigar hanging out of one corner of his mouth, said into the
microphone, “Now put your hands together for Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys,” I felt a thrill going through me from my feet to the top of my head. Judge Hay was the program director of the Opry. On the air he was called the Solemn Old Judge, and he chose everyone who sang on the show.

  I wondered if just seeing Roy Acuff, even from way up here in the balcony, would send me into a swoon like some woman from a movie or an old-timey novel like the ones Ruby Poole read when Linc wasn’t around. I leaned forward and rested my arms on the railing. I wondered if Roy Acuff might see me in the audience, seated up here above the stage, just like Harley Bright had noticed me in the congregation of that first revival, the one he preached on the banks of Three Gum River, when I knew that one day I would marry him, when I thought I’d just been saved for the second time. Just in case, I sat up straight and tried my best to look regal in spite of my matted hair and dirty face. I was hoping Roy Acuff would see past the dirt and see the Velva Jean who could be clean and shiny and pretty in spite of freckles and too-wavy hair.

  Roy Acuff was as tall as Harley. He sang “The Wabash Cannonball,” “The Precious Jewel,” and then “The Great Speckled Bird,” which was my favorite. He was skinny and handsome, with thick and wavy black hair and a sweet face that looked like he’d just scrubbed it with soap and water. It was the kind of face that seemed to be smiling even if he wasn’t. I wanted to kiss him, and just the thought of wanting to do such a thing made me clap my hand over my mouth and laugh like someone who had lost all sense.

  This was one of the nicest moments I had ever had. I had done so much to get here, to this seat up in the balcony. I didn’t know where I was going to sleep or how I was going to earn money. I didn’t know the first thing about starting my new life as a singer. I missed my family. I missed Fair Mountain. But at this moment I didn’t miss Harley. Instead I sat there and thought about all the things I had done to get there, to that very seat. It was funny what you could do in twenty-four hours. You could start the day in one place, married to a man you sometimes liked but most of the time didn’t, and you could end the next day in another place, far away, a single woman chasing her dreams. I thought there was some kind of miracle in that.

  After Roy Acuff finished his last song, Judge Hay shuffled back to the microphone. As the Smoky Mountain Boys started playing soft in the background, the judge—around his cigar—said:Nothing to breathe but air,

  Quick as a flash ’tis gone;

  Nothing to fall but off, nowhere to stand but on . . .

  Nothing to sing but songs,

  Ah well, alas! alack!

  Nowhere to go but out, nowhere to come but back.

  I sat there for a long time, until the auditorium cleared out and one of the ushers told me to go. He was an itty-bitty boy with bright red freckles. I said, “I’d like to speak to Judge Hay, please.” I stood up and I was taller than the boy by half a foot.

  He said, “Sister, you and about a thousand other people.”

  I thought, Really? Well that’s fine, but he’ll see me, just you watch. Outside the night was alive and bright, the streetlamps glowing like lightning bugs, the people talking and singing and walking arm in arm, the streetcars jangling up and down. I stepped out into the middle of it.

  I decided to walk around back of the building because maybe Judge Hay wouldn’t want to be in this crowd with so many people wanting to talk to him, and maybe there was a door back there that he could leave from. The building was a long way around but I followed it, over the sidewalk and then, when that ran out, the grass and the dirt. There were men standing out back, smoking cigarettes, and talking in low voices. Every now and then one would laugh, a great booming sound.

  I walked up and said, “I’d like to see Judge Hay, please.” I tried to look like I knew what I was doing. I stuck out my jaw a little, just like Johnny Clay always did when he meant business.

  They stared at me like I was a haint. I could tell they didn’t know whether to be rude or nice. Finally one of them said, “He’s already gone on home, little lady.”

  I said, “Are you sure he ain’t in there?”

  He smiled at this, but only on one side of his mouth. He said, “I’m sure.”

  One of the other men said, “On his mama’s grave.”

  The first man said, “Shut up, Otis.” But he didn’t say it mean.

  I thought their accents were funny—like ours but not as thick. Maybe a little more twangy, like an out-of-tune guitar string. I stared hard at the back door, like I could see through it—like maybe I could see if Judge Hay was really in there or not.

  The first man said to me, “Honest, honey. He’s really gone on home.”

  I said, “Thank you.” As I turned away, they stayed quiet, and I knew they were watching me or watching each other till I went away. Just before I rounded the building, they started talking again.

  Back out front, I lost myself in the crowd. I thought I would walk along for a bit and pretend I was on my way somewhere, to someone, that somebody was waiting for me, that I knew where I was going. The night was clear and warm, and it felt good to be a part of something.

  Even if I hadn’t got to talk to Judge Hay, I was in such a good mood from the Opry that I felt bad over scolding Jesus about the flat tire. As I walked down Church Street, I thought: Dear Lord, I’m sorry for getting so mad. It’s just that things are hard and I’m out here alone in this world, and it was tough enough leaving home for here without something happening to my truck. I wished for maybe the ten thousandth time that I had the patience of my mama or Daddy Hoyt.

  I told myself I’d walk the length of Church Street—down one whole side and then back the other—looking for a rooming house or hotel, somewhere I could sleep just for that night. Folks were walking in and out of soda shops, five-and-ten-cent stores, and movie theaters. They all looked fine and handsome, the men wearing hats, the women wearing hats. At the corner of Church and College Street, I saw the smart-looking girl from the Opry—the girl that had given me the fifty-cent piece—hurrying through the crowd.

  I followed her, thinking I would give her money back. She was probably my age, maybe a few years older, and she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. Other than me, she was the only girl walking by herself, and there was something about her that seemed brave and free. She was exactly who I wanted to be in my new life.

  I lost sight of her now and then, only to find her again seconds later. Two old men stood on the sidewalk playing the banjo and the guitar. Just past them a short lady in overalls was singing her heart out, a hat at her feet. Every now and then someone would throw money into it as they walked by. I tried to stay closer to the girl with the purse. Two blocks later she turned down Fifth Avenue.

  She walked faster than me, and I knew how to walk fast because Johnny Clay had the longest legs and practically ran when he walked, and I always tried to keep up with him or even beat him. This girl was taller than I was, but my legs were almost as long.

  Fifth Avenue was just as busy as Church Street. People talked and laughed and ate popcorn and peanuts out of bags. I thought that it seemed almost like a carnival. I passed a hat shop, a dress shop, a shoe store. I expected the girl with the purse to stop at one of them. We passed a tobacco shop, the Orange Bar, Rex Theatre, the Fifth Avenue Theatre, and the Arcade, which was majestic and beautiful and full of shops and restaurants. I almost forgot about the girl and turned in, but I kept going.

  Suddenly the girl stopped. She pulled a cigarette from her purse and lit it with a lighter that gleamed silver in the dark. She stood there, the cigarette to her lips, inhaling and blowing out delicate rings of smoke. I pulled up short in front of her, and before I could say a word, she said, “Why are you following me?” She sounded like Katharine Hepburn.

  I took fifty cents out of my change purse. “I wanted to pay you back.”

  “No offense, honey, but you look like you could use it more than me.”

  I stared down at my clothes. I looked just like one of Hink L
owe’s sisters, the ones Sweet Fern called mountain trash. I said, “It’s money I earned myself. I’ve got more. Please take it.”

  She threw the cigarette on the ground and crushed it with her heel. She took the fifty cents from me, dropped it into her purse, and then pulled out a stick of gum and tore the wrapper off. She stuck it in her mouth, and then she offered me one. I took it from her without opening it.

  She said, “Where’re you from?”

  “North Carolina. I just got here. I left home yesterday.”

  “What are you doing here?”

  “I’m a singer.”

  “Where are you staying?”

  “I don’t know yet.”

  She blew a bubble and then sucked it right back in. She said, “Come on, then.” She marched off through the crowd, and I followed her until we stopped suddenly outside a place called the Lovelorn Café. The downstairs windows were bright and warm—inside, customers sat in booths or at the counter. Upstairs there were four or five more levels and the windows were smaller, more narrow. It was a great big house, right there in the middle of the city. She marched on in through the front door.

  I stood there on the street, studying the house—there was music coming from inside. I walked up to the window and looked in. Suddenly I felt all alone again. I thought, if someone saw me standing here, staring in this window, they might think I was a beggar needing some food. I thought “lovelorn” was the perfect word for how I was feeling.

 
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