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Excerpt

Excerpt

Velva Jean Learns to Fly

Ever since I was a little girl, I knew that singing at the Grand Ole Opry was my life’s dream. Now I was driving myself from Allu­vial, North Carolina, to Nashville, Tennessee, in my old yellow truck and I was planning to sing the whole way. I began with “The Un­clouded Day” and from there ran through my favorite hymns before I started in on the mountain folk songs I was raised on and, finally, songs I’d written myself.

Yellow truck coming,
bringing me home again.
Yellow truck going,
I’m on my way . . .

I’d decided that when I got to Nashville I was going to drive straight to the Opry before I went anywhere else, before I even found a room to rent or a place to work. I wanted to touch the building where Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys had been discovered, and where I knew I would sing someday. I might even kiss the building, depending on how dirty it was.

On my way to tomorrow
and dreams come true,
leaving my yesterday . . .

The day was bright and blue, and the sun beamed down on the old yellow truck and on my arm hanging out the window. I’d kicked my shoes off long ago. I wanted to feel the pedals under my feet.

I’m driving this truck to Nashville,
home of dreams come true . . .

I was writing a new song as I drove with one eye on the road, the other on the rearview mirror. The mountains --- my mountains, the ones where I was born, where I was raised, the one named for my ma­ma’s people, the one where I’d lived with Harley Bright after we got married, the ones I’d just up and left hours before --- were slipping away.

where I’ll wear a suit of rhinestones
and play a guitar made of jewels . . .

Just east of Sylva, I turned off the Scenic and onto Route 23, and I saw the first sign for the Balsam Mountain Springs Hotel a mile or so later. I tried not to remember my honeymoon, back when I was sixteen and had never been anywhere and had to rely on Harley Bright to take me places. I tried not to think about an orchestra under the moonlight, about the night Harley made me a woman, and the morning after when I looked at myself in the mirror and decided I really didn’t look any different after all.

I tried not to think about Harley coming home tonight from the Little White Church, expecting his supper, expecting me. I tried not to picture him walking in the door and not finding me --- that first mo­ment when he realized I was gone really and truly, and not just to my sister’s or to Granny’s. I tried not to think about what might happen if he found out where I was and decided to come looking for me.

It was August 22, and the air was still heavy with summer. In my rearview mirror, the mountains were full and green. I sang till I al­most couldn’t see them anymore, till I was surrounded by new moun­tains, strange mountains, ones I didn’t recognize. And then, just before the very tip of Fair Mountain disappeared, I pulled that truck over to the side of the road and got out. I left the engine running because I wanted to hear the rumble of it while I stood there with my back to it, looking off toward home.

I stood with my hands on my hips and stared at Fair Mountain and tried to imagine what everyone was doing at this very minute. It was still morning, but barely. Granny would be out on Mad Maggie, her mule, off to deliver a baby or tend to a new mother. My grand­daddy, Daddy Hoyt, would be gathering plants for his healings. Ruby Poole, my sister-in-law, would be fussing over baby Russell and giving him his morning feeding. My oldest brother, Linc, would be rounding up the cattle or working in the barn. Sweet Fern, the oldest of all of us, would be cooking something and shouting at Corrina to stop teasing her brothers. Harley would be at the Little White Church.

My other brothers, Johnny Clay and Beachard, were off some­where, just like me. Beachard was working on the Blue Ridge Parkway --- we called it the Scenic --- the new road that stretched across the mountaintops from Virginia to North Carolina, right up to the border of Tennessee. But Johnny Clay could be anywhere. He might be in California by now. He might even be in Mexico, running far, far away from home and the man he almost killed.

I stood there and blinked at the mountains. A stranger would have thought they all looked the same, but I could tell them apart from here: Devil’s Courthouse, Witch Mountain, Bone Mountain, Blood Mountain, Fair Mountain. Fair Mountain was mine.

I stood there a long time, very still. I almost stopped breathing. I felt myself start to fade into the air, into the road. I lost track of my feet and legs and arms and hands.

Suddenly I could hear that truck. It was saying, “Get back in, Velva Jean. Come on. Let’s keep going.”

Yellow truck coming,
bringing me home again.
Yellow truck going,
I’m on my way . . .

I turned around and walked to the truck and climbed back inside. I pulled out into the road, and as I started on toward Nashville, I didn’t look in the rearview mirror again. I just stared straight ahead till I could breathe.

Velva Jean Learns to Fly
by by Jennifer Niven

  • paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Plume
  • ISBN-10: 0452297400
  • ISBN-13: 9780452297401