Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven


  “Did you find Darlon C. Reynolds?”

  “He’s in New York City right now.”

  “I see.” She took a dainty bite of chicken and then dabbed her mouth with a napkin. I waited for her to say something more but she didn’t.

  That night, after Gossie went into her bedroom and shut the door, I picked the newspaper out of the trash bin, and then I searched around until I found the telephone directory at the bottom of a stack of books lying underneath the coffee table. I went into my room and sat at my little desk and spread open the newspaper. I searched through it until I found the names and addresses of every record company in town. And then I searched the telephone directory, doing the same. I pulled out a piece of paper from the little pile I kept for writing my songs and I made a list.

  The next morning I put on my dress with the bolero jacket and took that list and went to each studio, one by one. This time I took my record with me, the one I’d made for Darlon C. Reynolds. I figured I could play it for the record producers, so they could hear how I sounded on a recording and so that they could see what I’d already done.

  At every place, I waited in a long line of people wanting someone to hear their songs. These were people of all ages—young and old and in between. There were men and women and boys and girls and even some children. They carried banjos and guitars and fiddles and dulcimers—anything you could play a tune on. They were handsome and pretty and plain and short and fat and skinny and weathered.

  It was the same everywhere—the receptionist would write down our names and tell us someone would be in touch, which I was starting not to believe for a minute. I never once got to sing for anyone or play them my record.

  I thought about Waynesville, back when I first went to see Darlon C. Reynolds, who was looking to record hillbillies down from the mountains, and how all those people stood in line for hours, burning up in the hot sun, just waiting to be heard. And then Johnny Clay made me go around back and sneak up the stairs and go through the balcony, and that was how Darlon C. Reynolds heard me sing. I’d made two records for him that day, and I knew I was going to have to do something like that again—go around back and sneak up the stairs—if I ever wanted a chance.

  At the very last place, I thanked the receptionist and turned to leave, and the person behind me stepped up to give her his name. I thought, There’s got to be a better way than this. As I walked out onto the street, I wished for Johnny Clay because he was brave and always knew exactly how to get the things he wanted and what the right way was for going about something, even if it was an up-the-back-stairsand-through-the-balcony kind of way.

  Outside on the street was a girl I recognized from waiting in line. She was standing on the corner, guitar case open, playing and singing for passersby. Every now and then someone would throw a quarter or a fifty-cent piece into the case and keep on walking. She nodded at them when they did, and kept on singing her heart out.

  The song was a good one—pretty words, catchy tune. It made me want to hum along. She was young and fresh looking, and her voice was clear and bright and strong. I thought she sounded as good as I did, maybe even better, and here she stood on a Nashville street, singing for strangers just like she was a down-and-out.

  That night, before bed, I shut the door to my room and dug in my hatbox for my Nashville money: $101.65. It was all the money I had in the world. Out of it I had to pay for food and gas and my room here at the Lovelorn Café and anything else I might need. I tried to figure how long it would last me.

  If I didn’t make a record by the end of three weeks, I decided, I’d be in a pickle. I wondered how quick they would pay you at these recording studios. I should have asked them when I was there. I thought I’d go back the next day, and if they didn’t want to make a record with me, maybe they would buy my songs. I would take all the ones I had with me and see if anyone was interested. If that didn’t work, I would tell them I’d be willing to sing backup on a record or two and maybe play mandolin or guitar just till they wanted to record me on my own.

  It was good to have a plan. I would get a contract and then that would show Gossie. She would say, “I’m sorry for ever thinking you couldn’t do it, Mary Lou.” If there was one thing I hated in this world, it was folks who told you that you couldn’t do something. That was worse than being told you shouldn’t do it. I knew she meant well, but a person had to believe in herself even when no one else did.

  FOUR

  The woman looked down her nose at me, blinked three times, and then leaned forward. The sign over her desk read: “Insurance Company of North America: Your fire-insurance policy is a price tag on your house!”

  The office itself was dark like a cave—dark-brown carpet, dark-brown chairs, dark-brown desk. The receptionist had fat orange-red curls all over her head and glasses that sat on the end of her nose. There was a mole beside her left eyebrow and another one on her right cheek. They looked painted on. She wore a navy-blue suit that was so crisp and clean that it must have been brand new. She smiled the kind of smile that didn’t leave her mouth. She said, “Can you type?”

  “No, ma’am.”

  “Have you had any experience working in an office—filing, answering telephones, sorting mail, things like that?”

  I hated to disappoint her again. She looked so worn down, and I wanted more than anything to surprise her by saying “yes, ma’am. I know how to do all those things.”

  I said, “No, ma’am.”

  She shifted a little, refolding her hands. She said, “What kind of experience do you have?”

  I said, “I can sing.” And milk cows and gather eggs and make soup and a few other things, although not very well. I can write songs and play the mandolin and the guitar a little. I can sit still like a statue for hours while people preach and carry on. I can hide my feelings and sometimes be a good wife and sometimes a bad one. I can run fast and spy on murderers and read a map and drive. I can drive and drive.

  The woman sighed so deep and long that I thought all the breath had gone out of her forever. When she was finally done she said, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing for you here.”

  The same thing happened at the Princess Theatre, the Knickerbocker Theatre, and the Paramount Theatre. It happened at the Cain-Sloan Company and the Family Booterie and Castner-Knott Dry Goods. It happened at the Peanut Shop, Cato’s Malt Shop, Woolworth’s, and the B & W Cafeteria. Gossie had told me to lie, to say I’d waited tables before and that I knew how to type, but when they asked me if I had any experience I didn’t know what to say, except “No, ma’am” or “No, sir.”

  I couldn’t believe I wasn’t even able to find a regular job. Two weeks after I’d knocked on the door of every record studio in Nashville—three or four or five times each and in the case of Darlon C. Reynolds’s Cyclone Records six or seven—I was now knocking on the doors of restaurants and dress shops and insurance agencies and doctors’ offices. I spent six dollars on a new dress—navy with a skirt that twirled—so I’d look professional, but no one wanted my singing and no one wanted me to work for them, not even to wash dishes or sell gloves or answer telephones.

  Most of the places were run by men, and not only that but men who didn’t seem to think women should be working. One of them, at the Tulane Hotel, said, “Why you want to work, honey? Wouldn’t you rather find a nice man instead?” The way he said it was like we were best friends and I could tell him anything, even secrets.

  I said, “No, thank you.” What I didn’t say was that I had had it with men, nice or not.

  The Tulane Hotel was a red-brick building that sat on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Church, the front of it actually narrowing into a point at the corner so that it looked like a giant triangle or a wedge of cheese. There were six floors, and the lobby was wide and long, with high ceilings and fireplaces at either end. There were potted palms and large chairs that people were sitting in, reading and drinking cocktails. I was on my way through, trying to look like I belonged there and like I wasn
’t staring at everything and everyone, when I heard a banjo and the sound of someone singing.

  I followed the music and there, off the lobby, was a door with a sign on it that said “Castle Recording Studios.” There was a little window in the door—a narrow square—and I stood looking in, so close that my breath fogged up the glass.

  It was just one room divided by a window the size of a wall. On one side of the window were two men talking to each other, arms crossed, nodding, one of them working a panel of controls. On the other side was Eddy Arnold. The Eddy Arnold. The Tennessee Plowboy. I’d never seen him, only heard him on the radio, and he was the kind of man you might see behind a plow or hoeing a field. He looked so great and big that it was hard to imagine how he fit into that little space, especially with that giant voice of his.

  Chills were starting in my toes, the way they did when I heard something truly wonderful. I pressed my nose against the window and tried to see better. I pressed my cheek against the glass and closed my eyes, listening.

  All of a sudden there was a rap on the window, and I jumped ten feet. One of the men from the other room—the one behind the controls—was standing just inches from me. He said, “Get on now. Go.”

  I knew without seeing my face that it turned ten shades of pink. Eddy Arnold was kind of craning his neck around to see who it was that was interrupting him. I waved and smiled like “I’m so sorry. Don’t mind me,” and then I turned around and ran.

  I ran all the way back to the Lovelorn Café, just like they were chasing me—which they weren’t. My feet were sore and pinched in my shoes with the bow on top, heels going clatter-clatter on the sidewalk. I pushed my way through the crowds, past the street preachers and street musicians, past the trolley car creaking up and down Church Street. The city was so loud it hurt my ears. It was like a wild party that made me want to dance and sing and shout because it stirred me up way deep down. Even without a job or a record contract and with all my money running out, I loved the loudness. I wanted to sleep right there on the sidewalk, right in the middle of it. I wanted to bottle it up like an orange Nehi and drink it fast until it made my head spin from the bubbles and the cold.

  The sky started to cloud over, and somewhere in the distance was the sound of thunder. One fat raindrop landed on my head, then one on my arm, my cheek, my shoe. I ran faster and faster down the street and up another street and turned a corner and stood waiting for the trolley to pass, and as I waited I looked in the shop window behind me. It was filled with books and a chalkboard and there, at the very front, was an old typewriter. The trolley car creaked past, but instead of crossing the street I walked into the shop.

  When I walked out again, I was carrying the typewriter, all packed away in a beat-up black case. I bought it for three dollars, and when I told the man who sold it to me why I wanted it—to teach myself to type so that I could get my very first job—he gave me a book called How to Type and also a Gregg shorthand book so I could teach myself shorthand. I walked down that Nashville street, swinging the little black case back and forth. I thought of all the things I was going to type on this typewriter. I thought I might even use it to write down my songs.

  The Lovelorn Café was as noisy as the street outside. The booths were filled with families having supper, drinking milk shakes, eating country ham and biscuits or chocolate pie with whipped cream on top, or the fried chicken that made the Lovelorn famous. Sometimes folks waited in line for an hour or two just to get a taste of the fried chicken and biscuits. Couples and teenagers and single men and women sat at the counter, leaning over their meals, spinning on the stools, tapping their fingers to the jukebox.

  Nori Lovelorn was behind the counter. When she saw me come in, she pointed to an empty seat. I sank down onto the stool and caught my breath. I kicked my shoes off, and they fell with a smack onto the floor, and I set the typewriter and books on the seat next to me. I said, “Could I get a chocolate milk shake please?”

  Nori said, “Hold one minute, darlin’.” She touched my hand and looked toward the kitchen like she was waiting for something.

  The jukebox stopped, and suddenly Crow came out from the kitchen, strumming his guitar, and two of the waitresses wove their way through the restaurant, plates in hand, singing a song. I sat back, forgetting all about my feet and the fact that I didn’t have a job and the fact that the money it took me years and years to save was flying out the window faster than kudzu growing up the trees. I just sat there letting that music cover me like a big, cozy blanket.

  They sang “Pocketful of Dreams,” and if ever I needed to hear a song like that, this was the time. I thought about how sometimes God sent you reminders and signs of things that you needed to think about. These were like the messages my brother Beachard carved into trees and chiseled into rocks. Sometimes it was hard to remember yourself until you got reminded.

  After the song stopped, Nori patted my hand and said, “Now what was it you wanted?”

  I said, “Why were they singing?”

  “Crow’s idea. When we opened this diner, he said, ‘We got to give folks a break. So many talented musicians come to Nashville all the time and can’t get heard.’ He said we should do our part.”

  I said, “I can sing.”

  “I’m sorry?”

  “I can sing. Better than those girls, even though they sing pretty and I don’t mean anything against them. But I’ve got just about the best voice I ever heard.” I didn’t know where this was coming from. I sat there bragging like Harley or Johnny Clay when he got full of himself. I sounded just like someone I usually couldn’t stand, only it was me saying these things about my own self.

  Nori squinted up her eyes like she was taking me in, and then she folded her arms, her mouth crooked up, and hollered, “Crow!”

  He came out from the kitchen, still holding his guitar. “What’s that?”

  Nori said to me, “Sing, then.”

  I opened my mouth, right there at the counter, and started singing in front of everybody, not just the Lovelorns. I sang “Yellow Truck Coming, Yellow Truck Going.” I sang the whole song, and when I was finished everyone in the café started clapping. Crow slapped me so hard across the back that I nearly fell off my stool.

  Nori said, “We can show you how to wait tables, but no one can teach anyone to sing like that. We can pay you fourteen dollars a week. You’re hired.”

  In my room that night, I sat down with How to Type and read it cover to cover. Now that I had a job at the café, I thought maybe I should take the typewriter back. But I liked the idea of having a stack of songs all typed up, just like I was a professional. I thought maybe I could type up the words to all my songs and then give copies to Darlon C. Reynolds and Judge Hay at the Opry and those men who recorded Eddy Arnold.

  I took the typewriter out of its case and set it on my desk, and I ran my fingers over the keys, over and over, until I got the feel of them. I liked the feel of the keys on my fingertips—cool and smooth—and I pretended to type something, just like I was in an office and had two moles on my face that looked painted on.

  Afterward I sat on my bed, balancing a book against my knees, and wrote a letter to my family, using the book like a desk. One day, I thought, I’ll be able to write a letter on the typewriter. One day I’ll be able to type my songs up and not just scratch them down on paper like a chicken.

  Now I wrote: “Dear Daddy Hoyt, Granny, Linc, Ruby Poole, Sweet Fern, Aunt Zona, Celia Faye, and Clover.” In the end I added Beachard’s name too because he might be home and he might still be gone, but just in case he had drifted home I didn’t want him to feel left out. It seemed strange not adding Johnny Clay, but I knew he was long gone, maybe somewhere in California or Texas.

  I wrote all about my trip, even the flat tire, and then I told them about Nashville and the Lovelorn Café and my new job as a singing waitress and my typewriter and Roy Acuff and Eddy Arnold and the Opry. Then I told them all about Gossie—how she came from Boston and was the only daughter
of one of the biggest real estate tycoons on the East Coast. How she eloped with the gardener just to make her daddy angry, and then divorced him when he left her for another girl. And how she sometimes traveled the world, bringing back souvenirs like a buffalo head from South Dakota and a lion’s head from the Serengeti, sometimes sending them to museums and sometimes keeping them for herself.

  I gave them my address at the Lovelorn and the telephone number of the café, just in case they needed me. At the end I wrote: “I am happy in my new life, but I miss you all. I wish you were here, but I don’t wish I was there anymore. I hope you understand that. I love you more than words,” which was something Daddy Hoyt always said. “Always, your Velva Jean.”

  I sat there a minute, reading it over. I didn’t want the letter to end, because while I was writing it I was with my family in my mind. It was almost like they were sitting on my bed with me, in this tiny room that was all my own, all around me. But there was only so much room on the paper, and I’d filled up all the space. I folded the letter and slid it into the envelope, a long, smooth white rectangle.

  Then I pulled the letter back out and unfolded it. “P.S.,” I wrote up the side. “I haven’t made a record yet, but I’m working on it.”

  FIVE

  Nori was Japanese, born in Nashville. She had five older brothers who also lived in Nashville and drove trucks. None of them had ever been to Japan. Only her parents, who were supposed to be very, very old, had been there and left long before Nori was born. At sixteen she met Crow, when she was working as a hand model at one of the local department stores—modeling gloves and jewelry and hand lotion for customers—and Crow had walked past her and then turned right around and come back. He bought five pairs of ladies’ gloves from her, even though he didn’t have a mother or sisters or a wife. He later gave them to strangers he saw walking down the street, folks who needed something to keep them warm because they didn’t have a house or winter clothing. He was twenty-two years old then and from Oklahoma. He’d come to Nashville to be a guitar player before he and Nori decided to open the Lovelorn Café.

 
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