Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven


  I was awful at waiting tables. At least once a day, sometimes twice, I dropped a dish or a cup. Crow said, “At this rate we’re going to have to start using paper plates.” I only ever once dropped something on a customer though. I was proud of that. It was a man with gray hair and a big soft belly. I tripped over my own feet and sent his Coca-Cola flying so it ended up all over his shirt and pants. He stared down at his wet legs and arms, and then he started laughing. Before he left he gave me a two-dollar tip, and Crow said if I had to spill a Coca-Cola, I’d certainly picked the right man to spill it on.

  What I liked was the singing. I lived for the moment when I got to stop waiting tables and sing with the other girls. Every now and then, I’d sing a solo while the girls sang harmony. They were nice girls, a few years older than me: Marvina and Tommie Lou. Marvina was from Kansas City, and Tommie Lou was from Alabama.

  Tommie Lou was six feet tall. She was the biggest girl I’d ever seen, but she talked so low you could barely hear her because, she said, she always worried about overwhelming people. She’d come to Nashville five years ago to be a singer, and every day she said she was going back to Alabama, that she’d had it with Nashville for good.

  Marvina wore her bright blonde hair cut short and styled big. She was trashy, but she loved to read, even though she was all the time asking what this or that word meant. Every morning she came to work with a different book. Her favorites were the ones about prisons and damsels in distress. She said that one day a man was going to save her from everything, just like Tom Buccaneer, her favorite fictional hero, who was always rescuing girls by throwing them onto the back of his horse.

  Besides Tommie Lou and Marvina, there was Stump Mitchell, who was eighteen years old and the skinniest person I ever saw. His real name was Harold Lee, but he’d been called Stump ever since he was a baby because both of his thumbs stopped at the knuckle. It was the way he was born, and Gossie told me everyone said it was because his mama was a loose woman. Even without thumbs, Stump was a good banjo player. He’d come from Louisville, Kentucky, six months ago, with the idea that he was going to be the next Eddie Peabody, who was known as King of the Banjo.

  When Stump talked, his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down so hard you could barely listen to what he was saying. He washed dishes and ran errands and every day he wrote me a poem. Sometimes he handed them to me on napkins and sometimes he told them to me: “Velva Jean, you are a queen, prettiest dern girl that I ever seen. Will you be mine? I’d like it fine. I’d love you for the rest of time.” The only thing that saved Stump’s bad poetry was that he was funny. He would sing those poems to me in his wheezy, off-key voice, his Adam’s apple going like a motor, and make me laugh.

  At the end of each day, my feet hurt like I’d been running barefoot through the woods back home. The café stayed open till eleven o’clock every night, but it closed at five o’clock on Sundays, which was my day off. If I worked late, I’d drag myself upstairs and lie on the settee in our apartment and prop my feet up on the arm. Gossie was a night owl, and she would pour gin for her and ginger ale for me, and we would talk about our days. She would complain about the spoiled women who came into Gorman’s and tried on every scarf and then didn’t buy a one. “The things you see when you don’t have a gun,” she’d say.

  Afterward I would get up and go to my room and practice my typing for an hour, till the clock at the corner of Church and Fifth chimed one. And then I would write a song or maybe even two. I couldn’t write fast enough these days. I thought this was probably because of leaving Harley and being in Nashville where everyone was writing songs and dreaming of singing at the Opry, just like me. I thought there was something in the air here, and also something in me that made the words and music come easy.

  When I couldn’t write anymore or when it was too late to keep going, I would get into my bed and lie there, tired and worn out, and think how nice it was to have a best friend to talk to at the end of the day—like I used to do with Johnny Clay and for a while with Harley—and how good it felt to be earning my own way in this world.

  The first letter from Harley came at the beginning of October. I didn’t know how he got my address. I couldn’t think of anyone in the family who would give it to him except Sweet Fern. I went into my room and closed the door and sat on my bed and looked at Harley’s handwriting on the envelope. I thought his writing looked wild and proper all at once and just the slightest bit accusing. I turned the envelope over in my hand and slid my finger under the edge of the flap on the back. I started to rip it open, but then I stopped myself. I couldn’t think of a single thing I wanted to hear from Harley Bright.

  I dropped the letter into the trash basket and left the room. I washed the dishes Gossie had stacked in the sink, and then I straightened the living room, emptying ashtrays and collecting glasses and stacking up newspapers. Then I sat on the settee and flipped through a movie magazine, and all the while I thought of the time it must have taken Harley to write that letter. What if he decided to come find me now that he knew where I was? What if he came all the way to Nashville and tried to make me go home with him?

  I went back into my room and pulled the envelope out of the trash. I thought that even if I wasn’t going to read it, I shouldn’t just throw it away. So I stuffed it into my old suitcase and went to bed.

  One week later, I got another letter. I put it away in my suitcase with the first one, and every time I got another letter I stacked it, unopened, with the others and slid the suitcase under the bed, pushing it all the way back against the wall, as far as it would go.

  November 5, 1941

  Dear Velva Jean,

  I’m writing on behalf of all of us here to wish you a happy birthday, because it’s not every day a girl turns nineteen. I hope this new year of yours brings you everything you ever want. Everyone up here is listening to the radio and asking Mr. Deal to order your records from the city. I don’t think even Roy Acuff has so many fans. I’ve been trying to explain that it don’t just happen like that, that you only been in Nashville for a couple of months and that sometimes it takes years to get your big break, but they’re all too excited. You got us all stirred up here, honeybee.

  And you are going to make it, sure as I’m writing this. But just know you’re going to have some rough days and that this is okay. Everyone who ever had a dream and chased it has had to go through it. I just hope you’ll read the story about Myrna Loy in the Picturegoer I sent. You can read it for yourself, but her daddy died when she was young, and she had to leave school to help with the family, and she worked for years as a dancer and playing orientals in tiny roles in bad movies before anyone ever discovered she was so funny and put her in The Thin Man. The rest, as they say, is history.

  The biggest news from here is that Sweet Fern and Coyle Deal were married Sunday in the living room of Daddy Hoyt’s house. Dan Presley was best man and Corrina was the flower girl. Reverend Broomfield did the ceremony, and afterward we sat outside and ate fried pies and drank cider.

  I can’t wait to read an article about you someday. Before we know it.

  Love,

  Ruby Poole

  SIX

  For my birthday, Gossie and I walked over to the War Memorial Auditorium, where Carole Lombard and some other Hollywood stars were holding a rally, right there on the front steps, to sell war bonds. There were over a thousand people standing on the sidewalks and on the grass, and Carole Lombard told us that if we wanted to win this war, each and every one of us needed to do our part. She said, “The war is costing over two hundred fifty million dollars a day. We may not be in this war officially, but we are in it just the same, so it’s up to us to sacrifice, save, and serve!”

  The spotlight caught the blonde of Carole Lombard’s hair and turned it into white gold. I am nineteen years old in Nashville, Tennessee, I told myself. I couldn’t believe I was so old already, nearly the same age as Sweet Fern when our mama died.

  In bed that night, I lay there thinking about
how I wasn’t getting any younger. I got up early the next day and on my lunch break—and every lunch break that week—I went back to each recording studio on my list and waited in line again and gave my name to the receptionists.

  On Friday, November 21, I stopped in at Cyclone Records, and this time there was a different woman behind the desk. She was blonde and wore glasses and a green suit, and I remembered that I had seen her before in Waynesville, back when I made the record for Darlon C. Reynolds.

  She smiled and said, “May I help you?”

  I said, “My name is Velva Jean Hart. You probably don’t remember me, but I met you last June when my brother and me recorded two songs for Darlon C. Reynolds in Waynesville, North Carolina, back when he was auditioning hillbilly acts.” I hated the word “hillbilly,” but it was the word Darlon C. Reynolds himself had used.

  She said, “Velva Jean Hart. Of course I remember. You sang that wonderful song about the yellow truck.”

  I stood up straighter. My heart started thumping fast in my chest. I said, “Yes, ma’am.”

  She said, “Honey, he’s not in today, but can you come in tomorrow afternoon at three?”

  I was so surprised I couldn’t speak for fifteen seconds. Finally I said, “Of course.”

  “Good,” she said. “I know he’ll be glad to see you again.”

  I floated back to the café, through the kitchen, and up the stairs to the apartment. When Gossie got home, I told her, “I’m singing tomorrow for Darlon C. Reynolds at Cyclone Records.”

  She said, “The same man you made the records for back in North Carolina?”

  “Yes.” I was fidgeting like Hink Lowe at Sunday meeting. I wanted to dance all over the living room.

  “Look at you, Mary Lou.” I could tell she was impressed. “You don’t mess around, do you?”

  “Of course not,” I said. “This is why I came here.”

  That night I hung out the window and practiced my songs because I didn’t want to wake up Gossie by singing in the living room or inside my bedroom. I just leaned right out into the cold, dark air. I was going to sing a brand-new song, one I wrote about coming to Nashville. I called it “On My Way to Now.” If Darlon C. Reynolds wanted to hear another song after that, I could sing him the one I’d written about a girl with no parents, who went to live on the moon.

  Darlon C. Reynolds looked just like I remembered him—he was short and round, with glasses and thin brown hair that barely covered a head so shiny it could have been rubbed with a cloth. He shook my hand and said, “Velva Jean Hart. I wasn’t sure I’d ever see you again.”

  I said, “I wasn’t sure I’d ever see you again either.”

  He laughed, and then he led me back into the studio itself, into a room with a microphone on one side of a glass wall and controls on the other. There was a stool in front of the microphone, and he said, “Why don’t you take a seat, and I’ll see you on the other side.”

  I wasn’t sure what he meant by this, but I sat down on the stool and watched as he walked into the glass booth and shut the door. He sat down behind all those controls, and while he got himself settled I looked around at the walls of the studio. There were pictures of some people I recognized and some I didn’t.

  His voice came into the room, over the speaker, and he said, “Anytime you’re ready.”

  I wished I had a Hawaiian steel guitar instead of my daddy’s old mandolin. I decided right then and there that as soon as I made money from a record I was going to buy myself one.

  “Miss Hart?”

  I thought, Boy wouldn’t Harley die if he could see this! Then I wondered what Harley Bright was doing right then. He was probably writing a sermon or yelling at some sinner or trying to save someone’s soul. I wondered if he’d forgiven me, if he ever would, or if he would hate me forever. I thanked Jesus, for about the thousandth time since I’d left home, that I was here and not there, trapped in Li’l Dean’s house up in Devil’s Kitchen.

  “Miss Hart? Any time you’re ready.”

  I looked at the other side of the glass, and there was Darlon C. Reynolds, sitting there staring at me. I thought: How long have I been sitting here thinking things to myself?

  I started to play “On My Way to Now,” strumming my mandolin. I was so grateful and relieved it was in tune that I forgot to sing, and then I forgot the melody—it just walked right out of my head. I pretended the intro was longer and started playing “Yellow Truck Coming, Yellow Truck Going” because it was the song I knew the best, even though Darlon C. Reynolds had already heard it before.

  Only, I couldn’t remember how the song started, so I jumped right in to the second verse.

  Over in Asheville

  there lived a man

  struck down by the Mean Devil Blues . . .

  Oh damn. The Mean Devil Blues. That’s what I forgot. The first verse was all about the Mean Devil Blues being the worst kind of blues, the kind that won’t leave you alone.

  There was nothing to do at this point but keep going.

  He drove a dark truck

  and dressed all in black

  from his hat down to his shoes.

  What came next? Something about the Mean Devil Blues again. Where had I even got that phrase to begin with? Daddy Hoyt, I guessed. He had names for all sorts of blues. The Gentle and Wholesome Blues. The Sacrifice Blues. The Peculiar Blues.

  The Mean Devil Blues

  had him down on his knees

  out of fun, out of luck, out of hope.

  “I’ve gotta change something

  or die,” he said,

  “I’ll just start with this old truck.”

  Well, that wasn’t right. “Hope” didn’t rhyme with “truck,” and then I realized I’d switched them around. It was supposed to be “out of fun, out of hope, out of luck.”

  Dammit. While I was thinking about what I’d got wrong, I forgot to sing the next lines. Oh hell, I thought. And then I just started in on the chorus, even though it wasn’t due for nine more verses.

  Yellow truck coming,

  bringing me home again.

  Yellow truck going,

  I’m on my way—

  on my way to tomorrow

  and dreams come true,

  leaving my yesterday.

  Like hell you are, I told myself. You’re on your way home because you can’t even remember the words to your own song. You should just go back to the Lovelorn and pack up your bag and let that yellow truck take you on your way all the way home to Fair Mountain.

  My one chance, the chance I’d been waiting for ever since Darlon C. Reynolds handed me his card and told me he wanted to make more records with me, and I was acting like someone who’d never sung a note.

  I kind of fizzled to an end then, somehow getting through a few more verses, two in the wrong order, and one more round of the chorus before I stopped.

  Darlon C. Reynolds didn’t ask me for another song. Instead he came out of the glass booth and pulled up a stool so that he was sitting across from me, the microphone in between us.

  “You got one hell of a pretty voice, Velva Jean. Can I call you Velva Jean?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “One hell of a pretty voice. And you know I love that song or I never would have recorded it.”

  I was trying to think of a Cherokee witch spell that I could put on myself so I might disappear. I said, “Sir, I butchered that song like I was working for the grocer down in Hamlet’s Mill. That’s not even the song I meant to sing you.”

  He smiled at this, and then he folded his arms across his chest. “I’m guessing you got more songs just like that one and like the other one we recorded in Waynesville.”

  “Yes, sir. Lots of them.”

  “Good, good. Here’s the thing.” By his tone, I thought, uh-oh. “It’s important to have a style of your own and be really good at it. I mean, with Roy Acuff, Eddy Arnold, Bill Monroe—any of the greats—you know what you’re going to get from them. You know the kind of thing you’
re going to hear. People want that. It’s reliable. It makes them feel good. But before you find that style and settle on it, I always recommend getting as much musical experience as you can get. All different kinds. Try them all or at least hear them all. You ever been to a juke joint?”

  “No, sir.” I didn’t know what a juke joint was, but it sounded like a dark and dangerous sort of place.

  “You should go. Go to a honky-tonk. Go to an opera. Let yourself feel and experience different kinds of music, and then come back to me and sing me that same song. You may not change a note, but I guarantee there’ll be something else about it, something deeper, something in the background that will make you stand out even more. That’s what I’m looking for.”

  I suddenly felt my limbs growing heavy. It was the feeling of being tired and worn out and burdened. I thought, I did my very best. I can’t sing much better than I just did, so what am I supposed to do if that isn’t good enough? Why can’t I just be happy waiting tables at the Lovelorn? Why on earth do I want to do something so hard?

  I said, “Mr. Reynolds, I want to sing more than anything I’ve ever wanted to do in this world. But I’m beginning to see that it’s not as easy as just wanting to sing and being good at it. Is there anything else I can do to be better?” I heard Gossie’s words: “wanting it and getting it are two different things.”

  He cupped his chin, his arms still folded, and then he said, “I’d join the musicians’ union if you can. If you want folks here to take you seriously, that’s the first step.”

  The office of the musicians’ union was on the sixth floor of the Warner Building, near Cyclone Records. Union membership cost twenty-eight dollars, which took almost all the money I’d saved up from working at the Lovelorn. But joining the musicians’ union meant bands could hire me to sing with them and give concerts at the local restaurants or hotels. It also meant that record studios might be more willing to look at me.

 
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