Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  I said, “How long are you staying here?”

  “A couple weeks. Maybe more. Depends on how long you’ll have me.”

  I was suddenly so happy and so sad and so angry and so relieved, all at once. When I could talk again, I said, “Johnny Clay Hart, you’re going to get yourself killed.” By this time we were almost in front of the War Memorial Auditorium, in front of the Opry. I said, “What about me? What about Daddy Hoyt and Granny and the rest of us?”

  He said, “Maybe I’ll get myself killed. Maybe I won’t.” I’d never heard his voice so serious. It hit me then that he was a man, not a boy. I thought about me being nineteen years old. That would make Johnny Clay twenty-one. “But at least I’ll know I was doing something good, Velva Jean, something better than sitting around and waiting. Waiting for what? I’m going to die one way or the other one day, and I figure I might as well do some good before I do.” We stopped in front of the Opry, and my brother looked down at me and grinned that wicked grin that hadn’t changed a bit since he was twelve, except that it was maybe a little sad now around the edges. “Better late than never, right?”

  Then he turned around and took in the Grand Ole Opry. He placed his hand against the side of it just like I had that very first time. He breathed it in. Then he said, “Tell me straight. What’s going on with your singing?”

  “Nothing,” I said. “I can’t get an audition to save my life. The only one I got I messed up. Remember Darlon C. Reynolds? The man we met in Waynesville? He told me I needed to learn more about music, different kinds. He told me to go to a juke joint and a honky-tonk. He said I have to go and do that before I come back to see him. I’m thinking I might just join the army myself.”

  He had his listening face on, which meant he was staring hard at me and then staring hard at the sky. He still had his hand against the Opry. “You’ll show ’em, Velva Jean,” he said. Then he closed his eyes and I knew he was soaking it up, making a memory. I wanted to cry right then and there because he was so young and beautiful and good, when it came down to it, in spite of it all, and so much like me and so much like himself, and he was the most important person in the world to me and I didn’t want him to ever die.


  Johnny Clay slept in the empty room across the hall, and during the day he helped out in the café, clearing tables, lifting boxes, organizing the storeroom for Crow. When he wasn’t working, he sat at the counter, picking his guitar, or he went off on his own to explore the city, or he just stood outside in the daylight, staring up at the sun like you weren’t supposed to, like he’d never seen anything like it.

  Gossie and Johnny Clay got on like a house afire. They stayed up late at night and talked about their adventures, while I sat there thinking that I’d only really had one adventure in my life, not counting the panther attacking me, and that was driving to Nashville. It didn’t seem like much when I listened to the two of them talk about shooting lions in Africa or hitching rides across country and almost becoming movie stars or getting a Mexican divorce or jumping out of airplanes to fight the enemy. When Gossie asked Johnny Clay why he’d left home, he told her he almost killed a man, but he didn’t say why. He hadn’t said one word about Lucinda Sink since he’d come to Nashville.

  Later Gossie asked me, “It was over a girl, wasn’t it?”

  I said, “Yes, but don’t you say anything to him about it. We don’t mention her.”

  She said, “I knew it,” and then she had a million questions: Who was the girl? Did he love her? Did she love him back? Was she worthy of him? But Gossie never brought it up to Johnny Clay. She was always good as her word. She said, “Honestly. The way girls lose their heads over your brother. I’ve never seen anything like it. What he needs is a friend in this world. Thank God he has you, Mary Lou. Now he has me too.”

  On the morning of May 29, Johnny Clay walked back into the café from outside and said, “Velva Jean, if you’re really serious about this singing business, we got to teach you something other than hillbilly tunes. You want to be the best singer you can be, right? Then you’re going to have to do what Darlon C. Reynolds said and learn about all kinds of music.”

  I said, “I went to an opera and a bluegrass show and a colored church where they sang gospel.”

  He waved his hand at this and looked like he wanted to spit. He said, “That’s not the kind of music I’m talking about.”

  I said okay because I knew he was right and because, when it came down to it, I didn’t want to be Crow or Marvina or Tommie Lou or Stump, working for years at the Lovelorn Café while my dreams dried up like leaves.

  That night we got all dressed up and drove way out into the country in my yellow truck. It was me and Johnny Clay and Gossie, and I was driving. I said, “Where are we going?” I thought all the music you could ever want was right there in downtown Nashville.

  Johnny Clay said, “You’ll see.” He was telling me to turn here and turn there. He had the window down and his arm was hanging out of it, cigarette glowing in the dark. He was suntanned and happy, the freckles on his nose fading away into gold. Every now and then he ran his cigarette hand over his short hair, back and forth like he was trying to get used to it. His profile was straight and strong, high Cherokee cheekbones, full mouth. He was always laughing.

  He said, “Turn here, Velva Jean.”

  I turned onto a narrow dirt road that was just a thin slice out of the night. It was so dark—sky, trees, land—that I couldn’t see more than three feet in front of me.

  He said, “Pull over.” He leaned forward and pointed with his cigarette. “Right over there.”

  I stopped the truck, but there was nothing but trees and dirt and a little house, actually a shack—metal roof, boards pieced together to make walls, raised up off the ground on stacks of bricks, rickety wood stairs climbing up to the front door. The shack looked like it was crumbling down into the earth, like it might fall down at any time. There was a sign over the door that said: “Ice-Cold Jax—Ale, Beer, Stout: The Drinks of Friendship.”

  The door swung open then, and out came the music—like nothing I’d ever heard before. Colored people spilled outside. Men in suits and ties and hats, and women in dresses as bright as bird feathers.

  Johnny Clay was already out of the truck. He threw his cigarette onto the ground and stamped it out. He said, “Come on.”

  Gossie and I climbed down from the truck and started walking after him. I felt just like I was in the fog or the smoke that would roll in over the mountains where I used to live, hiding every house and tree.

  The music was beating, beating. I felt it in my pulse, in my hands and arms and veins and chest, and mostly way deep down in my heart. It was wild and free and loud. It was all the colors of the women’s dresses, only even brighter, even more. I walked like a dazed person, like someone out of her mind, up the steps and into the juke joint where there was only smoke and dancing and twirling, swirling energy. Laughing. Talking. Shouting. Just like they’d never heard of Pearl Harbor. Just like we weren’t at war. Feet stamping. Hands clapping. Music beating, beating until I thought I would faint right there.

  Johnny Clay took my hand and dragged me forward into the middle of it. The place was dusty and cramped, no bigger than a shoebox. Couples were dancing together, and men and women were dancing by themselves. Up on stage there was a band—drums, guitar, piano, stand-up bass. The men were beautiful, young and old. Written on the wall behind them was: “Blues for the body, food for the soul.”

  Johnny Clay found a spot by the bar, and we stood with our backs against it and watched.

  Gossie said, “I want to marry a colored man. Look how gorgeous they are, Mary Lou.”

  I didn’t say anything, but I was thinking: When I die, I want to come back as a colored person. Granny, who was half-Cherokee, believed that your spirit sometimes came back to earth after you were dead and gone. She thought you could become part of the sea or sky or dirt or tree roots, but I thought I would rather be one of these women
in a scarlet dress, dancing like I couldn’t help myself, like it was all I could do on this earth.

  Just then a man walked over. He was black as could be, and I thought he looked like some exotic prince or king and not someone who should be in a juke joint. He shouted over the music, “Either of you ladies care to dance?” He was looking at me.

  Gossie took his hand and said, “Try to keep up.”

  He laughed, and they started to dance, Gossie shaking all over, up and down. I laughed at the sight of her. Gossie had rhythm, but she took up a good part of the dance floor.

  I felt a tap on my shoulder, and there stood a boy, probably no more than sixteen or seventeen. He didn’t say a word, just held out his hand. I thought that I had never held a colored boy’s hand before. The only colored person I knew was Elderly Jones, who lived in Alluvial, just across from Deal’s General Store, and was at least one hundred, and who usually stayed on his porch, watching people go by. The boy’s hand was warm and strong, and he pulled me close and then spun me out and then pulled me back in again. I could see Johnny Clay watching us, keeping his eyes on that boy.

  And then I didn’t think about anything except the music. There was music you thought about and music you felt, and this was music you felt. It was like something Butch Dawkins would have played on his steel guitar—burning and churning and searing like a hot poker. You felt it down in your feet and up to the hair on your head. It wasn’t at all polite or sweet or something you might sing in a little white church on top of a mountainside.

  Hours later the three of us sat outside, looking up at the moon. It was full and round and orange and hung low in the sky. A witch’s moon, Granny called it. The music was still humming and beating. I was tired and my feet hurt from dancing. I’d never danced so much in my life. I tried to think of the war that was coming, that was already here, but it felt too far away to keep in my mind for long.

  I said, “I think I’ll write a juke-joint tune. Something loud and fast and bluesy.” One was already spinning through my head, something about a beautiful boy who never said a word, but who danced everything he had to say. I closed my eyes and tried to hear the melody.

  Johnny Clay yawned and lit a cigarette. He crooked his mouth to the side to blow out the smoke. He said, “Just you wait, Velva Jean. You ain’t seen nothing.”

  The next night I went to my first honky-tonk, a place called Bootsy’s Striped Dog, which was squeezed into Printer’s Alley, between Third and Fourth Avenues, narrow and dark with a crowd of tables and a tiny stage set up at the end of the room by the bar. The place was thick with smoke and mostly men, tattooed and blue jeaned, staring into their whiskey glasses. The air was electric, like the way it felt just before a tornado. There was the feeling of something coming, something building, of something exciting just around the corner getting ready to hit hard and knock down some trees.

  The windows of Bootsy’s were covered with posters of the famous people who’d sung there, most of them Grand Ole Opry stars. All Nashville seemed to be packed inside, dancing on the uneven wood-plank floor. A sign hung over the tiny stage: “Talent Night! Every Thursday!” In a shop just next door there was a photo booth where you could take a picture of yourself and wait five minutes, and it would develop right there in the machine, and then you could walk away with it. Every inch of Bootsy’s, floor to ceiling, was covered with pictures. Everyone from Roy Acuff to Eddy Arnold to Maybelle Carter was up there. This was what they called the Wall of Fame, even though the photos were everywhere.

  Bootsy herself was greeting folks as they came in. She was a short woman, round as a summer hen, wearing glasses and a housecoat. She looked like she’d just wandered in from the market, and not like a woman who ran one of the most famous honky-tonks in Nashville. Her hair was teased into curls that were gathered up high on her head, and she sat on a stool, holding the door open, greeting each of us like we were long-lost family. As Johnny Clay and me walked by, she reached up and squeezed his cheek. She said, “Mercy, look at you.”

  Up on the stage there was a band playing the rowdiest country music I ever heard. The singer and guitar player was a man named Travelin’ Jones, who was lean and lanky, with hair the color of a dusty road and a face stubbly from not shaving. He had tattoos up and down his arms and creeping out from the collar of his shirt. He looked like he had seen a lot and lived a lot, but he couldn’t have been more than thirty. He wore a cowboy hat pulled low and his hair tied back in a ponytail, with blond pieces wisping out here and there. Every now and then he tucked one behind his ear. He played the guitar like no one I’d ever heard, except for Butch Dawkins. He kind of talk-sang, but sometimes he just sang, and his voice was as clear and pure as water.

  The other men played fiddle, stand-up bass, and drums. In between songs, Travelin’ Jones told stories about the places he’d been and seen. He said he’d set foot in every one of the forty-eight states and had been to twelve foreign countries. This made Johnny Clay bristle. I knew he didn’t like the idea of anyone traveling more than him, especially now that he’d seen some places other than home.

  I couldn’t even think of twelve countries, but listening to Travelin’ Jones I was filled with a green envy that made it almost impossible to listen to him and even more impossible not to. He sang a song that had to do with each place he’d traveled. My favorite was called “Dead Woman’s Crossing,” about a bridge in Oklahoma that was haunted by a woman and her daughter, killed by a whore-lady.

  There were two girls next to us who were leaning forward so far in Travelin’ Jones’s direction that I thought they were going to fall off their chairs.

  I said, “God, he’s good.”

  Johnny Clay was staring at Travelin’ Jones like he wasn’t sure about him. He said, “He’s okay.”

  After the song was over, Travelin’ Jones said, “I’m looking for a singer to join my band on this Fourth of July. As some of you know, I got an orchestra on the side, and we’re playing at the Tulane Hotel. Anyone wanting to audition better get up here right now.”

  I sat up straight. I looked at Johnny Clay. I said, “I’m a member of the musicians’ union—maybe I should go up there.” I tried to think what on earth I could sing. Travelin’ Jones would want me to sing something he already knew, something he and his band could play along with, which was just as well because I hadn’t written anything new since Pearl Harbor. Sometimes I could hear music in my head, but the words fought each other, or else they wouldn’t come at all and I just sat there thinking in blank lines. Every now and then I got out the words to “Yellow Truck Coming, Yellow Truck Going” and marveled at them just like they were written by someone else. The song felt outside me and far away, like something that came from off somewhere. I wondered if Travelin’ Jones ever had this problem or if maybe there were too many words in his head for him to ever write them down.

  Johnny Clay said, “Maybe.”

  I said, “What do you mean, ‘maybe’?”

  He said, “I don’t like the looks of him.”

  I rolled my eyes. Johnny Clay couldn’t stand any man that took the spotlight away from him, especially if he could sing and play good.

  One by one people went up on stage and sang a song with the band. Travelin’ Jones stood off to the side, playing guitar, watching them.

  My hands were growing hot because I was going up on that stage too. I thought of every song I knew the words to, but they seemed silly here—too country, too hillbilly. I looked around at the men and their tattoos, drinking their whiskey, smoking their cigarettes. I wanted to sing something dangerous.

  Travelin’ Jones said, “Anyone else? Best get on up here before Bootsy chases us out.”

  Before I could think too much about it, I stood. Men looked up from their whiskey glasses and Travelin’ Jones looked at me from the stage. Johnny Clay tugged at the back of my dress, just like when I was ten and he was twelve and he was trying to keep me from answering the altar call at camp meeting, back when I wanted to get myself s
aved. I kicked him, just like I’d done then, and I brushed my hair back over my shoulders and walked up to the stage and said, “Do you know ‘Pretty Polly’?” This was a song I’d learned from my mama years ago. It was about as dangerous a song as I’d ever heard, about a girl who got murdered by the man she loved, and then he buried her.

  Travelin’ Jones said, “I think we can figure it out.” He counted off the band, and they started playing and then I stepped up to the microphone and sang. Travelin’ Jones watched me for the whole last verse of the song, and I tried not to look at him because I knew it would only make me forget the words, and after I’d forgot the words to my very own song in front of Darlon C. Reynolds this was the last thing I wanted to do.

  After I finished the song, I sat down beside Johnny Clay, my face hot as a poker, my legs wobbly. He said, “You did good, Velva Jean,” but I could tell it killed him to say it.

  Travelin’ Jones said, “Listen here, thank y’all for coming. We’ll be posting our choice tomorrow, right here at Bootsy’s.”

  Then he and the boys played a song. It sounded like “John Hardy,” only wilder and louder and wide open. Travelin’ Jones scooted around the stage, doing some rough but fancy dance steps, and that’s when it happened—he looked up from under his hat, just for a second, just a flash, and he was smiling. It was like quicksilver. One minute it was there, the next it was gone, but it was too late—I felt myself falling from some great height like Old Widow’s Peak up on Fair Mountain or the courthouse itself on Devil’s Courthouse. I thought: Uh-oh. I hadn’t felt my stomach drop like that since Harley came preaching in Alluvial, all those years ago.

  On the way home, Johnny Clay said, “I didn’t like the way he was looking at you.”

  I said, “How was he looking at me?” I wanted to hear it from my brother, just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. Johnny Clay didn’t answer. I said, “How was he looking at me?”

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