(This story has a traditional short story length.)
My mama was a whimsical southern lady who liked to wear gauzy cotton tops with faded blue jeans. Nothin’ fancy about her, but always liked blue skies and breezy afternoons especially when summer poppies began to open up laying out their orange and red petals with those yellow centers throughout the front garden made into a circular mound filled with wild flowers of different colors and heights. They rose up like delicate doll-like umbrellas inviting hummingbirds to stand and dip their beaks into the spots where they found their sweet drinks easy to get to. She liked to tell me that I was born on February 14th. And I will add the year was 1956. Livin’ in the South Carolina town of Kilborn was a fine place with a good hospital, but I was born at home. In the livin’ room with all my family standin’ around hootin’ and a hollerin’ once that little head of mine, all coated in those silky strands of brown thread-like hair, began to show itself to them all.
My mama bought everyone party hats and streamer whistles, which were the same ones that I had at my first birthday party. That was the one where playing in the cake seemed to be as much fun as getting to eat it in those subsequent years where friends would come over and help to celebrate the addition of another year bringing me closer to enjoyin’ opening all those presents that excited me so much. Oh, how you would remind everyone you knew that a birthday was coming and that it wouldn’t be polite to forget it!
My mama liked to tell everyone that she did not know what my name was gonna be until I popped my head out. Daddy didn’t have much say in the name callin, which was OK with him. He’d sooner leave it up to mama. So when the moment came, the crowd yelled out in unison, “So, Jenny Sue, what’s your baby girl’s name gonna be?”
Aunt Lena tells it that Jenny Sue propped her arms up on that aluminum chaise lounge chair with those plastic straps woven through it makin’ it easy to lay on and not sweat in the heat of the sun while stretched out there with a hat over your face. Daddy brought it into the house for her to birth me on, and said, “Gosh, thinkin that today is Valentine’s Day, I’ll name her Valerie Ann.” That name was shortened to Val Ann. And since my last name is Tyne, when you’all put that together it says, Val Ann Tyne—Valentine. From then on, I was mama’s valentine. Daddy thought that was sweet, and Aunt Lena said he grinned so far up his face that his eyes were shut closed from the bottom up and the tears came streaming out like a heavy rain pouring off the roof and down the wall of a gutterless barn shed. They poured out in sheets. Daddy was so happy to see me for the first time, he brought everyone to cryin’ those joyful tears, too..
Having the name Val Ann was just fine, since most people didn’t notice except for my friends and family. But once kids and adults caught on, many called me Val Ann Tyne as like my whole first name. Sorta like if a boy had the first name of Billy and the last name of Bob, he would likely be called Billy Bob all the time. It just all fits, as does Val Ann Tyne. I liked it. Most of the time, it sounded nice and friendly. Like when you went over to the Cozy Inn Dinner and Georgia Mae would call you Honey. I know this lady whose parents named her Honey for real!! Everyone called her Honey, even strangers. I bet that felt weird to call a lady stranger Honey. If I were a man, I would be real shy about sayin’ that name out loud. But I guess, you’d get used to it.
It was always fun to sign my name on Valentine’s Day cards “Valanntyne” as one word. I thought that was special. Growin’ up and once in Center Valley High School, population 500, the boys liked to call me Valanntyne. It made me feel cute and sweet. I was not in the crowd with all the popular kids but stood aside in a shy, but dignified way. I was friendly, and kind with my school peers, but mostly stuck to a more quiet group of girls.
I liked to read stories about girls growing up and becoming either famous or independent. I wanted to keep going to school after high school graduation and study writing. At home, I would create stories about girls that grew up country, but went off to the big city, such as Savannah, or Charleston, and went off to a job in a woman’s gray summer flannel suit with black high heels, and sat in a nice fancy office making decisions for other people to follow. Brainy girls was what I liked to make stories about. I wanted to be a brainy lady.
I saw how stayin’ in Kilborn was not always the best thing for people because they never got away from one another. The girls and guys that never went away and worked on their daddy’s farm, or over at the sawmill or at the cloth factory got stuck doin’ the same things for way too long.
Havin’ babies after high school and then, takin’ care of a boy-husband scared me too much. I did not think I would be good at it. Boy-husbands sometimes had too many beers at night, and palled around with their buddies for way too many hours for my taste. Little kids need both parents tendin’ to them and teachin’ ‘em without having to yell a lot.
I thought getting away and getting schooled for a job that was yours to be proud of sounded real good to me. And that is what led me to Norfolk, Virginia and study writing. Mama always felt it would be good for her Val Ann Tyne to do just what was felt to be right. She had a breezy way of thinking.
My daddy worked over at Miller’s Chrysler fixing cars, and ran the parts department for a long time. He was good with his hands, as was mama. They liked doing those things together.
In the back of our house was a barn shed, and the two of them would make cane and twig chairs to sell at the summer fairs or to dealers from the big cities. The two of them would go out in the woods together and gather up pieces of maple and poplar and even oak to make all kinds of chairs mostly for the outdoors, but even for the what folks would call a Farm table, which was a long wooden planked table with a foot trestle bar along the bottom.
Mama would also make twig baskets and bird houses. They had busy hands, and they always told me that hands were made to be that way. They would say that writing stories made busy hands, too. It was just us three, and when I left for university, it was just them alone. They seemed to like it, but I surely missed them and came home whenever I could.
It was 1974 when I went off to Old Dominion University and studied writing. I graduated and went off to New York University to get a masters degree in film and script writing, where I was writing plays, short stories, and film scripts.
Having the name Val Ann Tyne brought me a lot of attention from people who were always asking how I got my name and what a nice name it was. My school peers would tell me that it was a real hippie name and I was lucky to have it. Jimmy Lee felt that way, too. There was a name that struck me as a name like mine. The whole name became like a single first name. Everyone called him Jimmylee.
Living in New York City was a lot different than South Carolina. The buildings , the streets, the people , the noise, and traffic all were so busy. In Kilborn, you could go out on a clear night and gaze into the galaxy following the star paths outlining the constellations. The sky is so big with nothing in its way. But here in New York City, you feel like you are inside a laboratory made to look like a big city. You don’t feel like there is an outside; a place beyond the enclosed boundaries. For many that does not matter. They go about their business, going here and there, gathering and hunting, then heading back to their small hutches, knowing that the world beyond the covered window never stops hustling.
In my rental room, inside a women’s rooming house, blocks from the university, I have a bed, a desk and two folding chairs. One being a chaise lounge with vinyl webbing and a cushion. It keeps me connected to mama and Kilborn. My desk is nestled under the window facing Sullivan street. I often watch the kids hanging out playing their music on transistor radios tuned into R and B stations. I feel like I am in a long needle pine tree, in my nest, hearing the chirping of the young birds flitting around the ground as they peck for insects or seeds. The desk was made by my dad, which had boards that all fitted together like the leaves of a fancy dining room table. The legs were crates he made from pine boards that, too, fastened together one on top of the other. My room was portable and easy to pack up whenever that day would come. My writing included the past and the present, and the not yet here. I often wrote alone, but JimmyLee would ask me to write with him.
He was from Long Island, way out on the tip. His parents were career people. Traveling by train into the city walking daily to their own ad agency and production company. They lived in what they called a village. It was easy to walk to it from their home. The house was decorated with antiques, Persian rugs, and European impressionistic paintings. A mixture of soft and bold filled the house. Jimmylee would sometimes write copy for them and direct photo shoots. I would join him, at times, and would get a chance to participate and test my skills.
Living in a big, fast paced city caused me to inch away from the very folksy way of speaking that I felt so comfortable with back home. It was what described me. I wore it like a swirl of wind that would blow your hair when standing on a high peak as you looked across the meadows in spring with the pines standing watch from behind. The accent was what made all of us strong in Kilborn. No one challenged it. Here in a city that often has foreign born, accents and dialects it is an everyday part of life. Yet, the New York accent is strong and embedding even if one comes from an exotic location. I never adopted what comes natural for a native New Yorker, but did lose a portion of my Southern-speak. JimmyLee had his accent so thick you could spread one sentence over an entire paragraph like one big fat smear of peanut butter covers over a entire cracker.
In the city, JimmyLee and I would walk down to Bleecher Street and find a café spot to sit, talk and write together. Even though it was over 10 years past the time when Bob Dylan, Alan Ginsberg, and Joan Biaz roamed the same streets and cafés, I felt an extension of it. I felt I was continuing some of the work that was nurtured here. People carried their guitars, wore Indian print clothing, and jeans. The store smells of incense drifted out into the streets, as young lovers walked arm-in-arm passing joints.
JimmyLee asked me to help him work on some projects that his parents needed done. These were big contracts for major accounts. He confided that I was more talented than he, and it was unlikely he could accomplish these writing and production jobs without my help. One project was to be a film for a New York City folk singer songwriter who spent his youth hanging out in the Village doing gigs and gaining worldwide fame. He wanted a short documentary of his old haunts and walk-ups. He gave us a list of old friends and other musicians, as well as including some of his past lovers into the piece. JimmyLee and I were hoping to use this documentary for our graduation film project.
Roaming the Village and arranging rendezvous’ with these people was like entering a world most often closed off to many, especially southern country girl-hicks like me. JimmyLee seemed to feel more comfortable and not intimated by them.
Mama would get so excited when telling her who I was meeting and what we were told about our client. She said, “My valentine, it is like listen’ to a gossip magazine article. All those special secrets you are capturing on film seems so excitin’. Who would have thought my girl would find herself rubbin’ her elbows with such people.” I felt the same way.
Actually, our subjects were thrilled, too. They were just as excited to spill their secrets to us while we ran the camera. The former lovers were interested in tellin’ us about the kinky sex they engaged in. For me, hearing how they would go down on each other in cabs, back of theaters, and have sex in train station bathroom stalls. I guess I was inexperienced in that kind of work. JimmyLee wouldn’t flinch an eye, but I had to hold back my eyebrows from brushin’ up against my hairline.
Our client, now 45 years old, who wrote bluesy folk songs and catchy beat pop rhythms, played masterfully and with artful beauty his acoustic and electric guitars. He often played with a small band throughout Europe and the lower 48. He lived in the “City” and had a farm in upstate New York. He rode a motorcycle in the City, but had a vintage BMC Sun-Tor Caravanette motorhome that he took up to his farm. We rode up to his farm in this dark green Morris Oxford wagon with a pop-up top and tight but cozy sleeping-camping quarters behind the front seats. He said he brought it back from London, where he lived for a year hanging with George Harrison writing songs and playing together and with his friends.
He dressed in very faded and worn-hard blue jeans, with snap buttoned shirts behind an old but cared for woolen baggy sweaters that his grandfather might have owned in his youth. He covered himself with a heavy dark brown canvas barn coat topped with a light brown collar. A big, thick multi-colored striped scarf encased his neck and hung down to the bottom of his coat in the front and back when the wind blew cold around the back streets of quiet brownstones. He stood 6 foot, with long legs attached to feet that fit comfortably inside older, but cared for, tan suede Beatle boots. His dark black hair was covered in ringlets in a bushy random and loose array. He wasn’t one to wear dark glasses as many who roamed the cafés and streets throughout the city often did. His eyes were light grey like a wolf. His face, on one day, had several days of beard growth, while on another he wore it smooth. He smiled often and had a gentle voice and soft touch. He was kind and generous to all who spoke to him. When he spoke, his words drifted out of his mouth like a cottonwood seed floating through the air on upward and downward currents, yet allowing one’s eye to stay with the travel easily. When he sang, he had furry with one song, yet tenderness with another.
When we met with him in his favorite coffee house, he would have an old guitar stored there. There were days he would sit and play it as we talked, and filmed, while on other days, he actually performed doing his own, as well as other artist’s songs.
His friends, family and former lovers were all fond of him, as they spoke of his childhood and adult days. It seemed no one harbored any anger, resentment, or jealousy toward him. He was who he was. If there was a way for someone to be a drifter, and a boxcar jumper but never leaving home, then that was him.
His songs were about heading out, working hard, loneliness, missing a one time lost love, mountains, hiking, thinking, growing up, and getting old. His band mates spoke about his songs, how they all worked together, and the other bands they hung with around the world.
Our film was forming into a full-length documentary and more than just some footage to be shown on a screen behind him while doing some shows. JimmyLee and I were excited about what we had captured and spent all of time talking about it and planning our moves to complete it. He was so pleased that I took hold of the directing of the shots, the dialogue exchanges, and lighting. He, more or less, was there as my brain’s other half helping solve and analyze our hurdles and roadblocks.
Back on campus, we spent hours and hours spooling film, cutting and splicing. Editing was so hard. JimmyLee had a good sense with how to organize the story. We also had around a hundred still photos loaned to us by many to incorporate into the film.
Summer had come and gone. The trip up to His farm in his Sun-Tor carvanette was long gone, and winter had settled in. It was a sunny Saturday in New York City, and I had taken the subway into Manhattan to walk around for a while thinking about what I will do after graduation. Where will I go? What about JimmyLee? Our relationship has been close but only as friends and project partners. It was good. I was not wantin’ anything more. We both felt our work came first, right now. His parents wanted him to work with them. They had plans for him. Big plans with big money to tempt him.
At times, I thought about movin’ closer to home. I did miss being south and near the nice beaches and forests. JimmyLee was used to somethin’ else. The big city life was carved into his soul. He liked the pace of life he grew to know. Walking up the old heavy black sculpted banister leading from the street down to the underground subway platform, I saw Him, my client, Nick. I stopped and watched him come closer in a heavy Navy Peacoat with his scarf wrapped around his neck and hands in his pockets. His face smiling gently and eyes hooked to mine. I saw him come near me, as I stood still waiting for his body to become larger as the perspective closed in tighter.
He said my name, Val, to me. He greeted me with Val, and not Val Ann as most do. I was Val to him. He reached out and hugged me, and I him. Lightly, softly, with an embrace saying, “sweet friend- dear friend-close friend-hey-friend, you know me better than most.” He asked me to go hear his friend play at a club on the Upper West Side and join him for a Chinese dinner. I told him yes. He smiled and touched the back of my neck, stroking my straight brown hair as his hand moved down my back.
Under a twilit sky or dark orange, red and yellow bands, wide and sweeping the horizon, with a black shaded evening canopy pulling the colors down, closing in the night, we walked to this small, family-owned storefront restaurant straight and narrow lined with 6 tables along the wall and 6 running parallel. Metal diner chairs from the 1950s with vinyl seats and backs held together with pitted chrome frames sat before handmade plywood and 4 by 4 legged tables covered in brightly colored plastic table clothes. The place was nearly full of young hippie types, along with Chinese people. We found a table and sat down in the back corner by the kitchen and across from the employee’s table that was spewn with Chinese newspapers and partially eaten food bowls with chopsticks resting across the top.
We quickly ordered, since we both appeared to have favorites. Water filled in clear plastic tumblers were placed before us. “How is the film piece coming,” he asked? “Is the editing getting somewhere?” “JimmyLee and I have most of it done. It has taken hours to go through all the footage and photos putting it all together. Then, of course, synching it with your music. If it is alright with you, we want to submit it to the New York Film Festival.” “Sure! That would be very cool. You and JimmyLee working well together?” “Ya, sure, we get along well. He often yields to my recommendations and decision choices. He says I have a knack for film production.” “It all sounds really great, Val!”
As we talked, he drew in a small spiral pocket tablet he pulled from his coat pocket. He writes a note and passes it to me.
Small leaf lies on snow,
Fresh white powder blows over it,
What was is hidden.
I read the haiku poem and stared at it for what seemed a long time before looking up. When my head lifted from the paper, his eyes met mine and he smiled. “Just something to think about. What IS may not really be what you think it IS. Believe in what comes clear to you.”
Mama used to say, you can’t always trust what you see. A frozen pond might break under ya. Be careful where ya walk, your shoes might get muddy.
“Thanks for this. It’s sweet of you to write me somethin’ special and personal.” Nick responded, “I like you. We are friends. Friends share with one another and always exchange gifts of various sorts. Small as they may be.”
The waiter came back with our food, and we divided our individual portions and shared. He toasted to the film project with our water glasses, and said, “Threads of two lives have been wound around the spool. On to the New York Film Festival.”
Once finished, we walked amongst the bustle of a city that never sleeps to a small club, beneath a street level boutique where the walls were lined with old heavy red brick, lit softly, with round cast iron pedestal tables attached to circular plywood tops covered in small colored tiles laid out randomly. We moved up close and sat with his friend’s wife who had brought her own friend. They were Nick’s age or older. His friend wore shoulder length wavy black hair, brushed behind his ears, and had a clean-shaven face that extenuated his long straight nose with slightly flaring nostrils. His body thin, wearing black jeans and a cable knit grey heavy style rolled turtleneck sweater as he sat on a barstool electric guitar in hand with a drummer and bass player behind. He played southern blues songs, which reminded me of South Carolina and the Bayou. Nick told me that his wife grew up in Woodstock, New York, but had friends in Queens that put them up every time they pass through town. They lived in Nashville, where Nick’s friend does studio work much of the time, but does have this trio that plays gigs from there to here and back around again.
We sat and hung out, listening to couples and others clang glasses, and talk about their lives and the swirls of moments that stick together to make time worth living. How each and everyone of us in this place has so many swirls of moments that move in parallel rarely bumping into one another except for tonight. Then maybe one day walking down a street in the city or nearby, or standing in line somewhere, or next to one another on a subway car or platform, when we glance at each other and for a moment, a distant memory is jostled and we think we know each other from somewhere else. And then, our minds say how that could be but cannot remember exact that place in time when we each, or separately noticed one another making that split second impression stick among all the impressions that vanish and disappear into some memory waste basket all crumbled up so that nothing familiar can ever be retrieved.
“Hi, I’m Linda,” the musician’s wife leaned over and quietly said to me. “Hi. I’m Val Ann. Nice to meet you.” Nick stretched over to us both and said to Linda, “Her last name in Tyne. Which makes her full name Val Ann Tyne. Valanntyne.” Linda looked over, cocking her torso in a C-shaped kinda way from me, and said, “Wow. What a great name. What a great name.” Her friend’s name was Judith, and the three of us had a pleasant time laughing and sharing stories.
After the night was over, we headed back to Washington Square, which was just a few blocks from my room. Nick and I hugged close and said good night. I walked up to my room, went to the window and peered out from around the curtain and could see him walk down the street and into the lamppost lit night.
Winter moved closer to spring and graduation. The film was finished and in the hands of our film committee, which would judge it as part of the graduation process. We both loved it. The work put into it was enormous. We broke the footage into a 30-minute version, and the 90-minute full-length piece that would be entered into the film festival.
JimmyLee and I talked about what we were going to do after it was all over. Once school was behind us. His parents offered him a position as the business’s film production director. He asked me to come on with him. I wasn’t sure how we would be as paid employees working for his parents, buty I said I’d think about it. He told me that it could work and maybe to give it a try. He wanted me with him there.
Mama and daddy were coming to New York for graduation and our film opening at the club where Nick most often played. He had not seen it, and wanted to wait until the opening evening. He wanted to be surprised. He invited his mother and sister, and all his friends.
The committee in the film department was extremely impressed with our work, and said they would do whatever it took to make sure it was part of the New York City Film Festival. JimmyLee and I were so happy. It drew us together in a deep way. As partners would be in business, but maybe more, too.
The week of graduation arrived. The day in May was warm, sunny with billowy clouds gently bumping into one another to keep the parade of white moving below the bright blue canopy. JimmyLee’s parents were there, and I introduced them to my parents. The men shook hands warmly with smiles and shoulder pats, while the mothers hugged and kissed each other’s cheeks. Mama and daddy came a few days early, and my landlady was kind enough to set them up in an empty sleeping room so they would not need to find a hotel. She even took my mama to a small lady’s clothing shop in the village where she thought a nice dress for the ceremony could be found there being that my mama was a flower child at heart.
I made sure that Nick was invited to the graduation, and he was there greeting everyone, too. He was dressed so handsomely with a black and blue/silver threaded sharkskin type sports jacket, he told me he bought it while in London, and under it he wore a medium blue snap style shirt with a thin black tie. His pants were black jeans. He was happy for both JimmyLee and me for finally being done.
That night, we all went to the club for the film opening. JimmyLee and the rest of our crew got there early to make sure all was set up and ready. The place filled. There was not even standing room in the back, it was so packed.
The film went on, and the crowd roared, clapped and whistled. All went silent and it began. Once the credits rolled at the end, the crowd clapped so loudly that the drinking glasses began to clink together. Nick came over and hugged JimmyLee and I both together, and kissed us both, too. He said that was great. Beautiful. Touching but honest. The music performances were incredible. Nick’s mother was crying with joy, and his sister, Rita, came over and hugged me, too. “You are a talented woman. You made this film so it would touch the hearts of all who will see it. Thank you dear woman.”
That night, the club owner prepared a fantastic feast for all of us. Toasts were made and speeches were spoken. I was mostly quiet and JimmyLee toasted me and my talents, and how the film could not be done without my abilities. He thanked me for being part of it. I then, toasted him for all his help and how I could not have done it without him. But, then, I toasted Nick. I thanked him dearly for his friendship, his kindness, and his support. And that this film was about him and nothing more. It was a dedication to his lifelong career and talent.
He came over as the party was breaking up and gave me a gentle kiss on the lips and hoped our friendship would continue no matter where life took me. I embraced him and assured him so.
JimmyLee started working downtown at his parent’s agency working as film director. I did some work part-time for him, too. We prepared the film for the fall New York Film Festival, filling out all the paperwork and designing the poster and press release information. It was now July’s end, and I got a call from daddy that mama had taken ill and would I come home. I, of course, told him right away. JimmyLee told me not to worry and that he would wrap up all our loose ends while I was gone.
I told Nick that I had to go back to Kilborn to visit my mother who had taken seriously ill. He said he would drive me there that evening after I packed up my things for the stay. I told that I might be staying a while. He told me that was fine. He could take care of himself.
We jumped into the carvanette, and drove the 11 hours back to Kilborn. Daddy was so glad to see the both of us and once settled in, he took us to the hospital. Mama was all hooked up to tubes and monitors. She had an aneurism in her brain and the doctors said that a specialist surgeon was coming over from Columbia to do the operation. She was going under the knife in two days and would be drugged until the operation was over.
The room was a stark white but had two twig rocking chairs for us to sit on, which daddy brought over. Nick was so kind and had his guitar while the two of us hung around the room. He played mama’s requests, if he knew them. Some lullabies, too. Daddy could come and go from work, but he did go in everyday, otherwise, he would he couldn’t manage his mind and body together. The two would jump apart like little magnet toys repelling each other not being able to stick to one another.
Mama’s lady friends would come and visit, as well as Aunt Lena, her younger sister. There were bud vases around with stem flowers adding color and the feeling of garden to the room.
Surgery morning came, and mama was deeply sedated. I stood over her holding her hand with my lips touching the back of her palm and began to think how she was this whimsical lady who loved gauzy cotton shirts and faded blue jeans. She taught me so much and gave me a beautiful name.