Valley Muses: Summer 2017

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.

Her fall class, “Creating a Writing Life,” starts Sept. 14 at ArtReach St. Croix in Stillwater. For more information see

If you’d like your work to be considered for publication in the fall edition of Valley Muses, submit up to two pages of memoir, poetry or fiction by Oct. 16 to [email protected] Include a sentence listing your city or town of residence and your occupation and/or interests. Also include your phone number, which will not be published.

Dianne, with two n’s


This morning you asked me:

Where did you learn to make love (like that)?

I said:

Through a correspondence course I found

in the back of “Popular Mechanics.”

You said:

I don’t believe it.

That I took a correspondence course?

That you read “Popular Mechanics.”

The sun catches your face

and the breeze coming through the bedroom window

turns back time like the pages of an open book

lying on a windy beach.

You sit by the water.

Blue white light of midday warms

into the sienna of late afternoon.

Ginger hair reflects the light,

captured too in the sun tinge on your face. Blue-green eyes smile at their edges.

In black & white I convince you:

Let me take images of our daughter

before her arrival.

The camera catches the rise and fall

of the pale drifts of baby and breasts.

• • •

You lie between the children,

blankies and passies, “Goodnight Moon”

and Joe Scruggs.

The cadence of your voice invites the arrival

of the end of day.

• • •

You watch both children leave

behind their training wheels.

I run alongside their bikes,

my hand on the seat

until physics grants independence,

and they are on their way.

• • •

In the kitchen young prep cooks wash and peel,

fulfilling the food pyramid taught in school.

Aprons all, patience and a foot stool, you teach meal preparation like a demolition engineer.

Ingredients explode across the kitchen and a meal lands on the dining table.

The Irish Setter circumambulates the kitchen floor

helping me with cleanup.

• • •

Girl turns to woman, boy to man,

and you offer them the universe.

Soon enough they take you up on it

and now live halfway around the world

that you created for them.

When I used to read “Popular Mechanics”

I saw ads for minibikes and ham radio kits.

X-ray glasses, invisible ink and onion gum.

Sea monkeys and giant frogs you could sell for five dollars a dozen.

There were no correspondence courses on love making.

(Although Charles Atlas could help you get the girl.)

But this morning I don’t need one;

loving you is easy.

Nov. 22, 1963


Right after school we ride down to Beck’s news stand to pick up the afternoon papers for our routes. In the back room we practice newsprint origami, folding the afternoon edition into eight-inch squares that we sidearm from fat-tired Schwinns onto lawns and porches throughout town.

Some days we walk downtown and go for a hot dog and a vanilla coke at Hunter’s Fountain, where underneath the countertop you can find artifacts from the History of Chewing Gum. I buy Spiderman #1 at Hunter’s and later foolishly discard it.

Down the block is Dolly’s, where we sometimes go for lunch. And where the tough kids smoke while we eat fries, only fries, with our Pepsi-Colas.

When they build the first open-air plaza, it’s close enough to still ride our bikes and park them on their kickstands, unlocked, in front of Grant’s department store. But what we don’t realize is that this is the beginning of the end.

Today Hunter’s, Grant’s, Beck’s and Dolly’s are all gone, replaced by a new mall on the strip outside of town. It can’t be reached on foot, with its multiplexed movies and indoor fountains, video arcades where the kids hang out, and a restaurant called Uncle Charley’s, where families go for Thanksgiving dinner.

• • •

I’m in the sixth grade in a two-room schoolhouse on Webster Street, about eight miles outside my hometown in upstate New York. Our school has two teachers, Mr. Randazzo and Mrs. Englert. I’m in Mr. Randazzo’s class. He’s a very gentle man and not very strict with us. When our class is being really disruptive, Mr. Randazzo just puts his head on his desk, hoping we sense his disgust with our behavior and settle ourselves down. (The following year, when we have to read “Lord of the Flies” in seventh-grade English, I realize this strategy is doomed to failure.)

Mrs. Englert is just the opposite of Mr. Randazzo. She’s a strict, no-nonsense kind of teacher who uses a loud voice and her physical presence to sort of scare kids into behaving. Although Mrs. Englert isn’t real tall, she’s pretty heavy with very large breasts — but not in the good way that a sixth-grade boy thinks about, anyway.

My friend Janie Schuster does a really funny impression of Mrs. Englert. She squats down, pulls her shirt over her knees, and then waddles around making her knees look like Mrs. Englert’ s breasts bobbing up and down under her shirt.

After lunch we have three choices: (1) start a kickball game on the gravel field behind the school; (2) play on the playground which has only swings and two teeter-totters; or (3) dance to music on the school record player in Mr. Randazzo’s room. There might be another choice in Mrs. Englert’s room, but I’m a little scared of Mrs. Englert’s room. What I like to do most often is dance, because what I like to do the most is dance with Janie Schuster.

• • •

Today, Nov. 22, 1963, I’m dancing with Janie Schuster during lunch. It’s too cold to go outside. There aren’t a lot of kids dancing. Most people are just hanging out in Mr. Randazzo’s room; the rest of the others are doing whatever they do in the mystery room of Mrs. Englert.

The records are 45s with big holes in the middle. We dance to songs that last for three minutes, and then, like a boxing match, we go back to our corners while someone changes the record. We dance to fast songs like “She Loves You” by the Beatles. But mostly I like dancing slow with Janie to a song called “Blue Velvet” by Bobby Vinton:

She wore blue velvet
Bluer than velvet was the night
Softer than satin was the light
from the stars

Now this is going to seem strange, considering how big a day Nov. 22 turns out to be, but the thing I will remember most about this day is how Janie Schuster’s hair smells when we are dancing. She smells really good. She smells like Prell shampoo.

Now, I think anybody around at that time probably knows what I’m talking about. Prell is a very popular shampoo. It’s green, like an emerald.

It’s a little hard to tell what Prell smells like. My mother buys it because she says it smells clean and fresh. But the smell of Prell goes beyond that.

• • •

Just before it’s time to get on the bus to go home, President Kennedy is shot at 1:30 p.m. (12:30 p.m. in Dallas). Mr. Randazzo and Mrs. Englert make an announcement to their classes, but I have no memory of what they actually said — only that the president has died. Everybody is pretty quiet; some of the girls are crying.

I stand in line waiting to get on the bus not knowing what to think. After a while, I realize that Janie has come up to me. She’s been crying. We look at each other but don’t say anything. Then I have a thought that helps me through, even on a day like this: Janie Schuster smells like Prell.

Wes Sly of Lake Elmo is a retired business manager who in his new-found spare time enjoys playing the piano, bicycling, skiing, kayaking, camping and, of course, writing. Wes and his wife Dianne have two adult children, daughter Katy and son Taylor. Contact him at
[email protected]

The eternal city sings


Rome was a poem pressed into service as a city.
– Anotole Broyard

A man and his cello play the Pantheon

She is at once alone, yet a symphony all in herself. An endearing thing, she gives us a woeful song, not unbroken in spirit. The music capers about the square like children intoxicated by their youth, reverberating off the weather-bitten walls and cockeyed cobblestones kept for hundreds of years. In this square, the man bows her lacquered body, stirring sorrowful somethings from within her bosom. Their love is a bond I could never fully describe: she keeps him alive, I can tell. In turn, he takes more care of her than of himself, playing her as if each stroke could be their last. In the end, both their faces shine into the crowd.

A boy, a baguette and the hoi polloi

I could be with companions, but I’m sitting beneath a famous fountain all alone in a crowd, smiling. I am a figure being captured in the photographs of onlookers. Will I be a memento they might print, fan about, perhaps paste to a fridge, or maybe even frame? Will I really be noticed, a boy under the scrupulously carved, alabaster heads of lions and lionesses?

How an infant earns a euro

He’s a lumpish thing, slung with long slack across his mother at the subway entrance. The father stands two bootless paces away, an accordion across his drooping shoulders. The man’s long locks part whichever way the wind sweeps them. His music sounds fond of neglect, full of yawning melodies. The parents have just surpassed their teenage years, but they could be reincarnations of many-aged lives. Their baby sleeps through high noon indifferent to the ruckus; ruckus is home. The mother wears the babe as an ephemeral adornment as if not really attached. How easily they suck euro from passers by, filling an old Styrofoam cup.

Friday night on the Lian Club

I happen upon a Sicilian school teacher in a swishing skirt the color a shade or two before early-morning sun. I’m a curious moth and she’s the light source I follow as if my every move is predestined by her existence. We dance to the tempo of an electro-swing group that plays aboard a floating barge-turned-bar. I never catch her subject.

Cooper Hanson lives in Stillwater and is earning his bachelor’s degree in English at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. When he’s not nose deep in a good book, you can find him cycling Minnesota’s rolling hills. Contact him at [email protected]