Valley Muses for spring 2017: Poetry, fiction and memoir from the St. Croix Region

Lost and found at the VA

MEMOIR BY KATE CARLSEN

Lunchtime. I have just 30 minutes and I’m so looking forward to sitting down and relaxing.

The Minneapolis VA hospital is a busy city. Veterans from all walks and wheelchairs come here. Vans and buses pick up and drop off veterans all day. Families are ever present visiting their loved ones.

In the spacious main entrance, called the Flag Atrium, the American flag hangs proud, 50 feet long and 30 feet wide. Sun shines through the high glass ceiling. The four floors above ground are built with wall-size windows facing the mall. Comfortable chairs and small tables are arranged for private conversations. Volunteers, wearing a red vest and a smile, greet people at several help desks. But this hospital is vast and complicated. It’s easy to lose your way around here.

Leaving my department, which is in charge of surgical equipment, I quickly take the stairs from the lower level up to the first floor. Passing through halls, I’m pleased to discover another great room near the back of the building with a beautiful glass ceiling of its own. It’s peaceful. Plants and trees grow along the brick path that leads to benches.

I find a secluded bench and pull out my lunch — peanut butter and jelly sandwich, granola bar and bottle of milk. Sometimes I pack a few crackers or chips, or even splurge with chocolate milk instead of white. I take a bite of said reliable sandwich. Mouth full, I turn to notice a doughnut sitting quietly on the bench near me. I look around to see if the owner is on his or her way back for it. Then I take a good look at this round nut of indulgence, wondering who left it. It’s plain, deep-fried. No sprinkles or frosting. No creamy filling revealed from the single bite taken out of it. No coffee, no plate, no napkin.

This doughnut is a loner, left in haste. Was someone coming back for it? Did this person buy it, then leave to find a cup of coffee to wash it down? But who would leave a doughnut with a bite out of it? Maybe someone who’s not supposed to have greasy food. This hospital prides itself on wellness of mind and body.

I shrug and go back to my wholesome lunch. Shortly, a respectable young woman comes along, casually dressed, longish brown hair, about 5-foot-2, wearing her VA employee security badge around her neck. She sits down on my bench. Moving down to make room for her, she looks at me, then the doughnut, then back at me.

“Is that yours?” she asks. No, I tell her, nonchalant. She looks around wondering if someone will be coming back for the doughnut, perhaps thinking she should not sit too close to it.

A few minutes later she is joined by a friend. A short young man with dark hair, wearing scrubs, carrying a professional-looking lunch container with a zipper and handles. He looks at his friend, then at me, then at our sugary acquaintance. He asks which of us left it on the bench. We duly report it does not belong to either of us and we don’t know who left it there.

He then takes charge, declaring it has been left too long for anyone to come back and claim it. With decorum, napkin in hand, he picks it up and relocates it on top of a small decorative brick wall, just behind our bench. He sits down next to his friend to share his respectable lunch with her.

Finishing lunch, the three of us exchange final pleasantries, and one last time we wonder aloud about the status of the bitten bakery good. We agree to meet again tomorrow to see if anyone has returned for the seductive doughnut. If not, we promise to split it up evenly amongst ourselves.

Kate Carlsen of Stillwater works at the VA Medical Center keeping track of and sterilizing surgical instruments. Besides writing, she is an avid Alpine skier, with her husband, and races on the adult league at Afton Alps. Contact her at [email protected]

Bag lady

MEMOIR BY LAURA GREENE

She sat in McDonald’s all alone. I was 8 years old, in New York City with my dad, and noticed her at the table next to ours. My parents had let me skip school that day so I could go with Dad to his job at the Brooklyn Board of Education building. My dad usually took the train to work, but he would drive on these special days, happy to be bringing one of us kids along. I struggled through childhood, but always loved to go on these field trips with my father.

My mother would scold him like he was a child. Her voice rang in my head that day. “You don’t leave your 8-year-old seated in a crowd while you go order the hamburgers and drinks!” New York was a dangerous place in the 1970s. It wasn’t even safe in Central Park. I remember hearing about the man who killed someone with a butcher knife. I was afraid he would come to our house in New Jersey.

I couldn’t understand why people sang beautiful songs about the city. All I saw were people who seemed poor and lonely, wearing mismatched clothing.

This was how the bag lady was dressed. Bag ladies looked more devastated than the usual homeless person or bum. They all had the same pale, round faces. Their heads were covered with scarves tied under their chins. New York winters blew arctic winds. These gnome-like creatures wore layers of clothing, making them seem more plump than they actually were. Often they pushed a shopping cart to carry their only belongings. They floated down the street like ghosts.

Sometimes I imagined I felt like a bag lady would, crawling through the day. School was a place I endured eight hours a day. With no one to play with, I had to figure out how to appear busy. I had to face other kids who annoyed or terrified me. Though I was shy, my teachers put me in advanced math and reading. I often had little self-worth and felt a lot of pressure to succeed.

My parents were much older than other parents. Our house had bare, cold, hardwood floors. Other kids had wall-to-wall shag carpeting. I bet their parents didn’t fight as loudly as my parents did. I bet they didn’t have to drag themselves, miserable, to face daylight. How would I ever make it as a grown up in this world? It took everything out of me just to be a third-grader.

It broke my young heart to watch this bag lady in McDonald’s. Maybe she didn’t have much longer on Earth. She sat beside her cart, looking at the money in her hand, weeping. I thought she did not have enough to buy a hamburger. I wanted to give her something. In my pocket, I had a tiny ceramic dog. His name was Cinnamon. I carried him with me for comfort. Sometimes I had a yellow duck or a gray mouse with me, all of the same shiny ceramic. I had bought them at a Hallmark store in my neighborhood, peering over the counter. Kids at school knew I had them at my desk, but no one tattled.

I thought this little dog would comfort the bag lady, too. I wanted to give it to her, but I sat frozen. I was afraid. It would be an enormous sacrifice, but the agony wouldn’t be about losing my treasure. What if she rejected it? What if she got angry? What if she accepted the gift but then spilled out more sadness than I could handle? It was like standing atop the 10-foot diving tower, willing myself jump. So close. Wanting to. Maybe next time.

My father returned with our hamburgers. We ate and talked. I never looked over to the bag lady again, but over time I’ve looked back at her often. As a little girl, I cried wishing I had given her my small gift. As a woman, I wished I could go back and do something for her.

I’m a long way now from New York City, maybe at the age she was. It could have been me. I pray she knew someone cared.

Laura Greene is a mother, homemaker and writer who lives in Shafer, Minn. Contact her at [email protected]

Clips in time by high school sophomores

By Nate Thompson

One day my parents, sister, brother and I were a happy family visiting the zoo. The bears were my favorite. Then, I saw them — the muskrats! Those little guys were eating leaves. I picked some off a tree and stuck my hand in. I was happy they were enjoying my offering, until one snapped his mouth on my finger! It didn’t break the skin. But it scared my young self so badly, I have not been back to the zoo since.

By Joshua Affolter

My sister and I had befriended Taylor, the new girl whose family had moved in up the road. After we got off the bus from school one day, I told my sister to tell my mom that Taylor and I were going to hang out at her house. When we got there, she told me to wait outside until she could ask her parents if I could come in. I waited in the woods by her house. After some time, I heard a car pull in their driveway. I hid behind a tree, but as the car was leaving I saw it was my mom. I yelled and stopped her. She had been searching for me. I felt so badly for scaring her; it was a moment I will never forget.

By Nathan Breisler

One Friday in math, I mentioned that I wrote poetry, and this girl behind me with blue hair and glasses said it sounded cool, and asked to read some. I told her all my poetry was depressing and dark, but she wanted to read it anyways. After reading my poems she agreed it was all sad, but said they were really good for the most part, and that made me feel pretty good.

By Jack Harrington

When I was 4 or 5, I would sit on the arm of the couch next to our grand piano. One day my sister came by and pushed me. I hit my head on the corner of the piano bench. I felt something warm streaming down my face and my sister was screaming. My dad ran in and grabbed me. He held a towel to my head, gave me a Popsicle, and took me to the hospital. By the time they put my head back into place I was still working on the Popsicle, not even fazed.

By Nathan Anderson

One beautiful, hot sunny day I was at the Twins’ training game in Tampa, Fla. We were in our cheap seats far away from third base, until I noticed the grass in the outfield where people could sit. “Let’s go,” I told my dad. When we got there we had to wait for anyone who would have first rights with their outfield tickets. Ten minutes later the guard let us in, and we sat in the grass watching the game.

By Maya Knowlan

The beginning of the school year was rough. My best friend of three years blew me off. It hurt to see her walk by in the hallway without acknowledging me. Letting go was hard. But later, in Arizona with my dad, I began feeling worthy again and was forgetting about the friendship drama. I climbed a small cliff in the backyard and was all alone witnessing a great sunset. It was so pretty and I thought, “In this moment no one can hurt me because I’m finally happy.” That moment meant so much because I could focus on what matters and not a friend problem I won’t remember in 20 years.

By Charlie Dostal

I used to get into trouble for being mean. Once I slammed a door and made a mirror inside fall off the wall. It made a shattering, piercing noise, making my parents think I was a dead man. For the rest of the day I was sick to my stomach. I felt so badly I ended up buying a new mirror, and my parents rejoiced.

By Britney Stanger

I was crying in the empty hallway one day because some girls had been picking on me. A girl I’d never met before saw me and ran over to make sure I was okay. It didn’t matter that I was a grade above her, or that we had never spoken to each other. She knew I was in pain and needed someone. It made my whole day better, and I have never seen her again to thank her.

By DJ Andrews

On an overcast day in sixth grade, a friend and I were on the playground when this kid started making fun of my friend. I told him to stop. Rather than find a teacher, I decided to punch the lad. He was a foot taller and weighed about 100 pounds more than me. After I socked him he threw me to the ground. At this point, we all got the signal to go inside, and we broke it up. Luckily we had a nice principal. Our only consequence was that I and the kid I punched had to eat lunch with the principal for two days.

By Brian Kaiser

I remember when I was about 6, playing in the rusty fall leaves with my dad. We would make piles of leaves, jump in them, and watch the leaves shoot up into the air. Afterward we would lay in a pile looking up at the sky, calm and at peace.

These students’ writings were submitted by Kim Thompson, an English teacher at Stillwater Area High School.

About Valley Muses

The quarterly Valley Muses literary page is curated by Elissa Cottle of Stillwater, master of fine arts in writing, professional writer and editor, and published poet. She teaches “Creating a Writing Life,” a class for adults, on Thursday evenings at ArtReach St. Croix in Stillwater. Her students will share their work during a literary reading June 4 at Tin Bins in Stillwater. For details visit www.ArtfulBusinessWriting.com.

Send submissions for the summer 2017 Valley Muses page by 11:59 p.m. Monday, July 17, to [email protected]

Email one or two pages, single spaced, of poetry, fiction, essay or memoir. Include your first and last name, your city or town of residence, and one sentence describing your occupation or interests. Also include your phone number, which will not be published. The spring literary page will be published July 28.