Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  The door to the café swung open, and the girl stood there chomping her gum. She said, “Well, come on. You don’t want to sleep out there, do you?”

  Inside there was an oriental woman, soft as a dumpling, clearing tables, and a man with a trim black beard tipping back on a chair, writing things on a pad of paper.

  The girl said, “Look what I found.” She turned to me. “Meet Nori and Crow Lovelorn.” She turned back to the Lovelorns. “Mind if she stays with me?”

  The man set his chair legs back on the floor. He had a wide, beaming smile. He said, “As long as she can stand you.”

  The woman kept on stacking plates. Her hair was shiny black in the light. She said, “You look like you could use a bath. Gossie will show you where it is.”

  Back through the kitchen of the Lovelorn Café there was a staircase leading up and then up again and up, up, up. The girl was already huffing her way up them, two at a time.

  I climbed up the first flight of stairs and passed a parlor with a piano and a sitting room right across from it. The second flight of stairs took us to a small landing, the size of a closet. There were two doors on either side, right across from each other. A light shone out from underneath one of the doors, and this was the one the girl pushed open.

  The apartment was tiny but warm. The girl went on in and sat down on the settee, which was worn and old but comfortable. She took up a cigarette and lit it and stuck her chewing gum in an ashtray. There were movie magazines spread over the coffee table, a rifle propped against one wall, and the head of a buffalo hanging between the two narrow windows that looked down on the street.

  When she saw me in the light, the girl said, “Jesus H. Christ. You look like you’ve been run over and back again. You shouldn’t be walking around Nashville at night.”

  I said, “My truck is parked up there on Church Street.”

  She said, “It’ll be all right till morning. What’s your name?”

  “Velva Jean Hart.”

  She nodded like she thought this was fine. “I’m Beryl Goss. But please don’t you dare call me Beryl. My mother played a cruel joke naming me after her father. Can you imagine? At least I wasn’t named after my father’s father, or I would be Virgil Bartholomew. Call me Gossie.”

  For a big girl, she moved fast and talked fast. She got up and poured herself a drink from a bottle of gin. She poured me one too and handed it to me before I could say no. “It’ll warm you up.” I stared at the glass and she laughed. “Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you’ve never taken a drink.”

  I remembered the time Johnny Clay and me stole the moonshine from Harley’s own daddy—the moonshiner—back when we were little, after Mama died and Daddy left us with Sweet Fern, and we were running wild and doing every bad thing we could think of. I could still feel the burn of the liquor on my throat.

  I said, “Once.”

  She laughed at this and said, “Well sit down and tell me everything. You can drink it or not, it’s up to you.”

  I sat on a rickety antique chair with a round red cushion and balanced the glass on my knee. I said, “What do you want to know?”

  She said, “Start with why you look like this and what you’re doing here.”

  So I did. I told her the whole story, trying to shorten it up so she wouldn’t have to sit there for hours. I told her about Mama dying and Daddy leaving and the Scenic being built right through our mountains, and Harley the delinquent and Harley the preacher and Harley the husband, and how he turned on me and so many others, and Johnny Clay running away and my dreams of Nashville and the Opry, and Danny Deal and the train wreck that killed him and the yellow truck he left behind and how I taught myself to drive it, and how one morning I just got in that truck and drove away.

  Afterward I took a drink, a small one at first and then a bigger one. The gin burned going down but not as much as the moonshine. I sat there blinking the tears—tears from the sting of the alcohol and the sting of my story—out of my eyes.

  Gossie let out a long, low whistle and lit another cigarette, her fifth since I’d been talking. She said, “Sweet Mother of Jesus, girl. You’ve been through it.”

  I said, “Yes.” The tears were gone. I took another drink.

  “Your freedom’s hard won.”

  I liked the way that sounded. I thought it sounded just right.

  She said, “Mine is too.”

  I waited for her to tell me her story, but when she didn’t I looked around the room. I said, “This is a nice apartment.”

  She said, “It’s pretty ugly actually. But it’s home.” Then she stood up and stretched her back and said, “There’s a second bedroom, but it’s no bigger than a drunkard’s wallet. I’ve got a bunch of stuff stored in there but we can move it.”

  I said, “I can just sleep here on the settee.”

  “For tonight maybe, but you’re going to need a room.”

  Then she was already in that second bedroom, talking to herself and moving things around. She started singing “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” at the top of her lungs. She couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, as Granny would say, but it didn’t seem to matter. She came out of the room, her arms filled with books, clothes, a large pair of rain boots, a helmet, a fishing rod, and said, “Well, come on in here, Mary Lou, and grab an armful.”

  I said, “My name’s Velva Jean.”

  She said, “I know that. But everyone needs a nickname,” and then she went back in and kept singing.

  August 24, 1941

  Dear family,

  This is just a note to let you know that I made it to Nashville safe and sound. I’ll write more soon, to tell you about how I went to the Grand Ole Opry already to hear Roy Acuff sing and how I made a friend. Her name is Beryl Goss, but she goes by Gossie, and she’s twenty-six years old. I’m going to be her roommate in an apartment above the Lovelorn Café. This morning I parked my truck right outside the front door, where I can keep an eye on it, but Gossie says as far as big cities go Nashville isn’t dangerous—not like Boston, where she comes from.

  I miss you all like crazy. I’m happy to be here, but you’re too far away.

  I love you,

  Velva Jean


  Gossie worked as a salesgirl selling women’s scarves and handbags at Gorman and Rattlebaum, a department store on the corner of Fifth and Union. She said, “Everyone calls it Gorman’s. The pay’s not bad, but it could be better.”

  Gossie was from a rich Boston family. She’d moved to Nashville eight months ago, after her daddy turned her out for not only refusing to marry a boy named Bertram R. Shelby, the heir to an oil fortune, but for eloping with the gardener. Her daddy cut her off without a penny, she and the gardener came to Nashville so that he could play guitar, and then he ran off with a girl who played banjo. After all that, the last place Gossie wanted to be was home, so she stayed in Nashville. She said the only people that were nice to her back then were Nori and Crow Lovelorn. She said that in this city full of strangers and folks coming to chase their dreams, the Lovelorns believed in helping people, in taking them in. This was something they lived by, and one of the rules of living under their roof was “do unto others.” It was one reason Gossie was nice to me—because she knew what it felt like to come to a strange city and be completely alone.

  She said now, “But the men you meet . . .” She whistled. “Coming in to buy scarves for their sisters, mothers, wives.”

  I said, “You wouldn’t date a married man?”

  She said, “Only if he was happy. The ones you don’t want are the ones that hang around all the time, wanting to marry you.”

  I thought this was one of the most shocking things I’d ever heard, but I pretended it didn’t shock me, because this was my new life, in my new city, where people probably dated married people all the time. I was already trying not to be shocked by the way Gossie swore almost as much as Johnny Clay and the way she drank a lot of gin. She said on a good day she and God were barely on speak
ing terms, but on a bad day she wasn’t sure she believed in him at all. Every night she washed her hose and underthings in the sink and hung them out the window to dry because she liked the way they smelled of fresh air afterward. Her brassieres and girdles were big as circus tents, and they just hung out there, blowing in the breeze, for all the world to see.

  Gossie said, “I’m saving up for my next adventure. I’m going to China to capture a snow leopard, one of the most exotic animals in the world.”

  “You’re not going to kill it?”

  She waved her hand just like she was shooing a fly. “The National Zoo will pay me a hooker’s ransom to bring them one.” Then she said, “We need to find you a job. What can you do?”

  I said, “I can sing and play guitar and mandolin. I can write songs.” I remembered writing songs with Johnny Clay’s friend Butch Dawkins, how he helped me find the melody, how he taught me the blues. I felt the pang that I always got when I thought about him—the medicine beads he wore around his neck, the “Bluesman” tattoo, the gap between his front teeth, his crooked smile. I said, “That’s why I came here. I’m going to be a singer.” I remembered something Butch had said: “I figured if my destiny wasn’t coming to me, I would go to it.” I pulled out Darlon C. Reynolds’s little white card from where I carried it in my pocket. I said, “This man wants to make records with me. We already made one, back when he was in Waynesville looking for singers.”

  Gossie took the card and gave it a good, hard look. She said, “Do you have a contract with him?”

  “I have his card.”

  She handed it back to me. “I see that, but did you sign something with him? Something that says he’ll record you again?”

  I said, “He told me to get in touch with him when I got to Nashville.” And then we’ll make another record and he can send it to Judge Hay at the Opry, and Judge Hay will bring me in to sing on stage and try me out, and then I’ll join the Opry cast. This was the way I’d pictured it happening ever since Darlon C. Reynolds handed me his card back in Waynesville.

  Gossie said, “Oh, Mary Lou.” She shook her head. “You can sing. I’m sure. But so can every two-bit hick in this town.”

  I was starting to get mad. I said, “But I’ve wanted this since I was little. This is what I was made to do.”

  She said, “I’m sure, I’m sure. But wanting it and getting it are two different things.” She lit a cigarette. “Look, I’m not trying to rain on your parade, Mary Lou, but I don’t want you to go out there and expect one thing and get another. Maybe all you have to do is go see this man and just like that”—she snapped her fingers—“he’ll make you a deal, but most of the time it doesn’t happen that way.”

  I remembered Sweet Fern, back when I was twelve, telling me, “It’s nice to dream, but you can’t dream too big.” Of course I wasn’t the only one in Nashville with a dream. There were lots of folks who dreamed of this town and the Opry and who might be more talented than me. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t make it anyway.

  I said, “You’ll see.” I would go out right now and show her. I would call up Darlon C. Reynolds himself and ask to meet him. I would take him all the songs I’d been writing since I last saw him.

  Gossie said, “All right. But you know that even after you sell something it’s going to take a while for them to pay you. You might have to do something while you’re waiting.” I couldn’t tell if she was teasing me or not. Her face looked serious, but I didn’t know her well enough to know what her tone meant. She said, “What else can you do?”

  I said, “Well . . . Cook a little. Clean a little. I got real good at serving Harley his meals.” This was meant funny, but she sat up straighter when I said it.

  “You could work in a restaurant maybe. You could try Woolworth’s, Marchetti’s, the T & K Sandwich Shop, Krystal, the Tulane Hotel. Hey, maybe you could work in an office—be a file clerk or secretary. Answer phones. A doctor’s office maybe, or insurance. You know, just until you get your recording money. I’ll draw you a downtown map, or you can just go right out and start looking, but either way I have to get to work.” She reached for her red purse and then handed me a key. “It’s the big city, so we lock our doors. Take mine till we get you one of your own. I get off work at four thirty, so be back by quarter to five to let me in. We’ll do dinner somewhere fun. My treat.”

  I took the key. “Thanks, Gossie.”

  She said, “Don’t mention it.” She winked and walked past me to the door. Then she turned and must have seen how everything was crowding in on me all at once—the newness of her, of the place, having to find myself a job, being so far from home, realizing that I wasn’t the only person in this town with a voice and a dream. She said, “Knock ’em dead, Velva Jean. I think compared to all you’ve gone through, getting a record contract might be the easiest thing you’ve done all year.”

  After she left I sat there for a few minutes, wondering if I had it in me, after such a long trip, after everything, to get up and get myself dressed and go out there on the streets of Nashville and find Darlon C. Reynolds and maybe get myself a job. Just thinking of it all made me tired. I wanted to lie back down and sleep.

  Somewhere, far off, I could hear my mama: “Live out there. That’s where you belong, Velva Jean.” I could see her face fading into the pillow, feel her hand in mine. And then, because I didn’t travel all those miles just to sit inside an apartment and think of all the things I dreamed of doing, I decided to get dressed.

  I walked into my room—my own room. I’d never had a room of my own before, not with Harley, not at Mama’s house, not when I was a little bitty girl. I’d always shared with someone—Sweet Fern or Johnny Clay or Sweet Fern’s babies or my husband. I opened my suitcase and pulled out the suit with the bolero jacket—the one Harley had bought me years ago. It was wrinkled from the trip, so I laid it on the bed and smoothed out the skirt, and then I set my brush and comb next to it, and then my Magnet Red lipstick, Mama’s little Bakelite hair combs, and her wedding ring. I slipped the ring on my finger for luck. Then I turned myself around in front of the framed picture of the Opry. The sun was hitting it just so, lighting up the microphone. And then I pulled off Gossie’s nightgown and got myself ready.

  I took out the little white card Darlon C. Reynolds had given me and walked to the Warner Building on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Church Street. I only had to stop twice to ask for directions. According to his card, Darlon C. Reynolds had an office on the sixth floor. I stood in the elevator and went up, the elevator stopping at each floor to let someone off. I’d never been in an elevator before, and I thought it was the most wonderful thing. I stood right in the center of it and felt myself whoosh up, up, up. It was almost like flying.

  On the sixth floor, the elevator man pulled open the door.

  “Thank you, sir,” I said.

  “Happy good day, miss,” he said.

  Happy good day. I liked the sound of that.

  I walked off the elevator and passed one office after another until I came to one that said “Cyclone Records.” I pushed the door and went in.

  There were chairs along two of the walls and photos hung up above of Roy Acuff and the Possum Hunters and some other people I didn’t recognize, but there was also one of Darlon C. Reynolds smoking a cigar and laughing off into the distance.

  At one end of the room was a desk. The girl behind it was on the telephone, and as I walked over she waved at me not to speak. She said into the receiver, “As soon as he’s in the union . . . No . . . No . . . Yes . . . That’s right . . . No.” And then she hung up. She wrote something down on a pad of paper and then looked up at me. She had a sharp, bad-tempered face, like some sort of animal thrown out into the sun too soon after a winter’s sleep. She said, “Yes?”

  I showed her the little white card. I said, “Mr. Darlon C. Reynolds came to North Carolina a year ago to record songs, and he gave me this card. He said to look him up when I came here, so we could record more.”

>   She said, “Mr. Reynolds is in New York City. He spends most of his time at our office there.”

  I said, “I recorded ‘Yellow Truck Coming, Yellow Truck Going’ for him, and the back side was ‘Old Red Ghost.’ My brother Johnny Clay played guitar and sang on ‘Old Red Ghost,’ but he’s not here. It’s just me.”

  She was looking at me like she didn’t have the first idea what I was saying. She said, “Okay.”

  “Mr. Reynolds wanted to record more songs of mine back then, but I had to get on home.”

  “He’s in New York right now.”

  I said, “Do you know when he’ll be in Nashville again?”

  She said, “No.”

  I wasn’t sure what to do, so finally I said, “Please tell him Velva Jean Hart came to see him.”

  She didn’t write it down. She said, “I will.”

  I said, “I’m living in Nashville now.”

  She blinked at me.

  I said, “It sounds like heart but it’s really Hart, without thee. H-a-r-t.”

  She said, “Got it.”

  I stood there wondering if I should tell her to write it down on her pad, for saints’ sake, but then I decided to just leave it alone. I told myself I would come back when someone else was working at the desk. I would come back again and again till Darlon C. Reynolds was in town and could see me himself.

  That night Gossie and I went to supper at Mario’s, which was a little Italian place with plastic tablecloths and big red booths. I ordered spaghetti, and Gossie ordered chicken Parmesan, which was fried chicken with cheese and tomato sauce. I wished I’d ordered it myself, because it looked fancy and like the kind of thing you should order when you lived in a city.

  Gossie said, “How did it go today?” She was drinking red wine.

  I said, “Great.” I was drinking sweet tea.

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