Wednesday, August 30, 2006


OK, I can't resist a cute photo of Frankie B. Now that that's out of the way, here's a story of mine from last year.

"R and R"

They had been biking for hours and were now headed home. His wife, riding several yards behind him, suggested they stop by the old lake on the way. Last week they'd seen a family of swans there, the stately, majestic parents and five little cygnets. She'd talked about them all week, the babies so soft, so sweet and innocent, covered in ash-gray down.

So he turned right onto the lake road instead of left onto the dirt road that led to their home, where the food was, and the liquor cabinet. He was tired and hungry, and he was sore from all the riding. Ever since they'd bought the house—a cottage, really, where they spent the summer weekends—he'd had more than his share of hikes and excursions into the insipidly pretty countryside, with its green hills and fields and old stone houses. Then there were the trips to local wineries and museums, parks and antiques shops, none of which particularly interested him. But he smiled through it all, noting the effect his good behavior had on his wife, and secretly lived for the evenings, when he would pour himself a gin and tonic, turn on the news, and relax.

The old lake abutted the road down at the bottom of the hill so closely that it sometimes overflowed after a hard rain, stopping traffic. It had no name, as far as he knew, just "the old lake," though it was more a pond, just a blue dot on the road maps, overgrown at this time of year with algae, and populated with some geese, a few ducks, and the family of swans.

He braked by the side of the road, set down the bike and stretched his aching back. It's not natural, he thought—all one's weight concentrated on such a narrow, thinly cushioned seat. His wife pulled up next to him and said, "There they are."

The flock of swans floated about fifty feet out, the parents side by side, the cygnets close by. The adults echoed the white of clouds reflected on the lake's surface, their long necks shaped like question marks. The babies were larger than last week, each about the size of a football now, but remained toy-like, their down like the fur of a kitten. They all seemed so content, one big happy family out for a stroll, enjoying the late summer breeze that rolled across the placid water.

"They're so adorable," his wife said, setting her bike down next to his.

Looking at her now, beside this lake, her face still pink from the exertion of riding, her eyes soft with sentimentality, he thought she appeared as healthy and sane as she'd been in a long time. Over the summer she'd put back on some of her old weight, softening the sharp angles that had surfaced on her face. And she seemed to be breathing slower and deeper these days, like a person in repose, not so tense and breathless. She looked up at him now and smiled.

"Aren't they?" she asked.

He smiled back, knowing they'd be home soon. He would sit on the deck, sipping his drink and reading a magazine, while she prepared dinner. What a relief not to spend every waking moment consoling her, watching helplessly as she wept, holding her until she finally fell asleep. Such jags still occurred, of course, but less and less frequently, so that he could now go off on his own, even if just to another room to have a cocktail in peace, without feeling guilty or worried.

"What's happening?" she asked.

One of the adult swans—he couldn't tell if it was the male or female, they were so alike—seemed agitated. It spun in a half-circle, churning up water with its powerful legs.

"Something's underneath it," he said.

"A snapping turtle?"

"I don't know."

The swan, he could see now, was locked in some sort of battle below the surface of the water, and yet remained weirdly serene above, as if it did not want anyone to know what was happening. The other adult was paying close attention, while the babies floated nearby.

"Wait a minute," his wife said.


"There are only four."

"Four cygnets?" He counted them.

"I could swear there were five before," she said.

Just then, from beneath the agitated adult swan, there emerged a dark gray head and thin neck.

"Oh my God," his wife said.

"Is that--?" he started, though by now it was clear.

The struggling cygnet opened its beak and let out a shrill cry before both parents moved in and, using their webbed feet, forced its head back under the surface.

"Oh my God," his wife repeated, covering her mouth. He could sense the tension coiling itself up inside her. "We have to do something," she said, her feet just inches from the scummy edge of the lake. "I'm going out there."

"Wait," he said.

He did not want her to go into the lake. The water was dark and thick with vegetation; she would get bogged down before reaching the swans. Plus these were wild, aggressive animals. He'd heard stories about swans attacking people, hissing and using their vast wings to knock them down. Perhaps they'd try to drown her as well, and he would have to jump into the muck to save her.

Meanwhile, the swans continued to flail away at the cygnet, abandoning now any attempt to appear composed. Despite their efforts, the baby was once again able to raise its head above the surface and screech.

His wife looked at him now with wide, terrified eyes, her mouth poised at the brink of a scream. How quickly, he thought, she can return to this state after so many months of relative calm and serenity. He recalled the doctor's recommendation—"She needs some good old-fashioned R and R," he'd said upon her release, inspiring images of sanitariums nestled in the Alps, "rest cures" for pampered society ladies. They'd laughed about it later on, he and his wife, after she'd recovered enough to make jokes about the whole ordeal.

"What can we do?" she cried out now.

He looked around for a rock, but the ground here by the lake was littered with small, useless pebbles. He ran across the road and picked up a chunk of loose asphalt. Then he returned to the shore and tossed the clumsy missile at the swans, trying not to hit them but to get just close enough to frighten them. The chunk of asphalt landed a few feet shy, barely making a splash. The swans ignored it.

"We have to do something!" she screamed.

He could see she was preparing to dive in, anticipating what it would take to swim out there to the swans.

"Listen," he said, "they must be doing this for a reason."

"What reason?"

"Maybe the baby is sick. That happens sometimes, in nature." Even as he said it, it sounded false, pathetic. "Maybe it has a broken wing or something."

"It seems fine to me," she said. "Look how it's struggling."

As if on cue, the cygnet's head reappeared, slick with lake scum.

His wife began to whimper, burying her face in his chest as the swan parents again went to work, forcing their baby under. Looking out at the lake, he noted how odd it was, all this violence going on beneath such a clear blue sky, the trees rustling gently in the breeze, the other water birds—the geese, the ducks, even the remaining cygnets—serenely floating on the old lake's algae-pocked surface. A jittery Monarch fluttered so close that he had to swat it away.

The swan parents continued to struggle for several more minutes, then, quite suddenly, returned to their previous state of calm.

"It's so cruel," his wife said.

He held her closely. "Let's go." It was unfair, he knew, but he was angry at her now, dreading the inevitable reliving of this trauma later on.

"No," she said. "Not yet." She stared out at the water. He put his arm around her. If someone passed by now, they would see a middle-aged couple taking in a bucolic scene.

"I should have done something," she said.

"It's not our job to intervene," he said, thinking of those gruesome nature shows on television, on which wild animals murder one another as camera crews look on.

"Nonsense," she said. "I should've swum out there and…"

Then, unbelievably, the cygnet appeared again, its tiny bill silently grabbing at the air.

His wife tried to pull away from him, toward the lake, her mind made up now.

"No!" he shouted, barely holding onto her. She leaned away from him, putting all her weight into the effort.

"Let me go," she hissed, but he held tight, pulling her toward him and wrapping his arms around her.

The swans were upon the cygnet again. The baby, by now too weak to fight, gave out one last high-pitched shriek before being pushed under. There was no struggle this time.

His wife collapsed to the ground, her knees on the hard dirt, and sobbed.

"I can't believe I let that happen," she cried into her hands.

He waited a few minutes, allowing her to get it out of her system. On the other side of the lake, about one hundred yards away, a row of simple cottages lined the shore. They could have bought one of these, but it was thousands of dollars more for lakefront property, even if the lake was unswimmable. And they were earning half as much now that she wasn't working. Even with their less expensive home, they had to stretch every dollar. There was the mortgage, the taxes, the gas, on top of all their expenses in the city, from rent and transportation to the inevitable parking tickets. Then there were the extra medical expenses, the ones his insurance would not pay for. Still, it had all been worthwhile, just to see his wife laugh again, to hear her talk about something other than the grief and pain.

When her shoulders finally stopped heaving, he said, "Come on. Let's go home."

"Did you hear it?" she asked, looking up at him, her eyes pink and swollen. "How it cried?"

He could hear it still, echoing around the lake and off the trees. He would hear it in his sleep, if he got any tonight.

He held out his hand, urging his wife to stand. He led her to the bikes, lifting hers up for her. It was understood they would walk the bikes the short distance home. Balance was out of the question. He lifted his own bike onto its wheels and started up the hill, but his wife lingered and gazed out on the water. The adult swans floated blithely away, toward the middle of the lake, followed by the four surviving cygnets. At the spot where the killing took place the water was now as smooth as glass.

He called her name but she did not turn.

From half-way up the hill he watched the sun edge itself below the tree line, plunging the lake into shadow. A chill rolled up his spine, reminding him that summer was nearly over. In a few weeks they would close up the house, not to return until next Spring. Another long, cold winter in the city.

He called her name once more, but again she did not turn.

# # #

visit my website for more info!

Saturday, August 26, 2006


Today Frankie B. was given a clean bill of health & sent home form the hospital. She is now rambunctious & hungry as hell.

These lyrics from a song that'll be on my new CD seem apropos...

Everything You Need

You say you're lonely, there's nobody in your bed

But you're only 22 & you're acting like you're dead

If you can walk & talk, if you can breathe

You've got everything you need.

Now you're married & you say it's all too much

You feel buried underneath this pile of stones that she calls love

She rubs your chest at night until you fall asleep

You've got everything you need.

Now that you have children you are so bewildered

No matter what you do they fall down & they bleed

And as they grow older they stand upon your shoulder

Getting ever bolder until they up & leave

You've got everything you need.

Now you're old & gray, you lie around & wait to die

You feel cold today but all your kids are here to say goodbye

They pick you up each time you fall down & you bleed

You've got everything

You've got everything

You've got everything you need.

Friday, August 25, 2006


Poor little Frankie B. is back in the hospital, due to a high fever she had early Thursday. When newborns get fevers over 100.4 (Frankie's was 101.3!) the doctors go into hyperdrive, doing a battery of tests that include blood, urine & even a spinal tap (to check for meningitis). So far, Frankie has done fine--her fever is gone, as is her jaundice--but we're still waiting for some test results to make sure. Meanwhile, she continues to receive antibiotics, just in case. It's heartbreaking to see her with an IV, lying there in an incubator, but she's tough as nails & will be home soon.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

"In the Womb"

I wrote this prose poem during a writing workshop earlier this summer. It was obviously inspired by Melissa's pregnancy.


When she drinks, there is a waterfall, the Evian or tea or lemonade rushing down a chute somewhere above me & splashing into a pool.
When she eats, rocks grind against each other, acids roil in the small sac next to mine like lava in a volcano's belly.
When she speaks, the words reverborate & send out circles, like pebbles dropped in a still pond.
When she walks, I slip & slide along the smooth walls of my room until I fall asleep.
When she laughs, those walls contract & expand & a loud noise rolls around like a penny going down a drain.
When she sleeps, her heart slows to a steady bass drum, & I lie awake to count the moments.
When she dances, I dance with her, moving left to her right, right to her left.
When she makes love, I swim with the warm tide like a porpoise on a wave.
When she sits in her chair & stares off into space, I try to follow her but see only clouds & water.
When she cries, I place my wet palms against the inside of her & hold her until she stops.

Read about my CD at
Vote for my song at American Idol Underground
For more info about CB, go to www.chrisbelden.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


Baby Doe is now officially...

Francesca Catherine Belden (aka Frankie B.)

Monday, August 21, 2006


Mother & Child (top) "Baby Doe" at 5 minutes (middle)
Father & Child (bottom)

Saturday, 9 am.
Melissa wakes up & her mucus plug has come loose. (For the uninitiated, the mucus plug is a piece of mucus that "plugs" the uterus). We've been told this does not indicate that labor will start soon. In fact, it can be a couple weeks, which makes sense, since the baby is not due for 15 days.

Saturday, Noon.
As Melissa's parents are pulling into the driveway of our weekend cottage in Connecticut, her water breaks. It is not a gush, like in the movies, but a nonetheless noticable spurt of liquid. We call our midwife practice, & the on-call midwife, Amanda, suggests we head back to the city. Melissa's parents turn around & head back to Rhode Island.

Saturday, 10 pm (more or less)
Are these contractions? They sometimes last a few seconds, sometimes half a minute or so. Amanda has said to ignore the "4-1-1 Rule" (wait until contractions are 4 minutes apart, lasting a full minute each, and have been happening an hour). There is a chance we might not get a room at the Birthing Center at the hospital unless we jump at it, so we are told to call when the contractions are regular.

Sunday, 1 am.
The contractuions become a little more regular. I am asleep, but Melissa is up. I wake up around 3:30 to the sound of her groaning. The contractions are still somewhat irregular--from 30 seconds to a minute--but they are fierce & regular enough. We call Amanda. She says to head to the hospital. We've parked across the street from the apartment, so we head right off, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. At 4 in the morning, there is not much traffic. but in the West Village there are lots of people headed home from the recently closed clubs. Melissa, in the midst of contractions, is grunting & groaning in the passenger seat. Because it's warm out, her window is down. At a traffic light, she gets a particularly nasty contraction & starts writhing & moaning. I notice that a guy in a pickup truck 2 lanes away is staring. When the light turns green, he changes lanes to drive next to us.

Sunday, 4:40 am
We check into the Birthing Center. Amanda, who has driven in from Brooklyn herself, feels Melissa's cervix. It is dilated only 2 centimeters. Because her water broke about 17 hours ago, we're on a deadline to get to active labor. We try all the old tricks. The nurse gives Melissa an enema (at this point, I find an excuse to step out into the hall). Melissa walks up & down the stairs. Then there's my favorite: nipple stimulation (or "nip stim").

Sunday, 8 am
Amanda is replaced by Melanie, also from our midwife practice. Eventually, we will grow to love Melanie. However, she tells us around noon that Melissa's cervix remains at 2 measly centimeters. That means we head up to the regular labor ward, where Melissa will be given Pitosin (a drug that stimulates contractions) & an epidural (so she doesn't feel it). Melissa considers this a failure, & is bummed. But the anaesthesiologist, an absurdly young woman named Dr. Russell, is a genius, & the epidural works magnificently. By midafternoon, we both get some much needed shuteye, while Melissa's utuerus continues contracting.

Saturday, 10 pm
Melissa's cervix is now at 8 centimeters! Much rejoicing.

Monday, 12:30 am
Time to push. The epidural drugs are turned down so that Melissa can better feel the pressure that stimulates pushing. She pushes, and pushes, & pushes. After a couple hours, we catch sight of the baby's head, but she has not passed under the pelvic bone. More pushing. We see more head--dark hair included--but the baby seems to be stuck.

Monday, 4 am
Melanie, who has been working with us for 20 hours now, calls in an obstetrician, who is just as insanely young as the anaesthesiologist. She is also a gruff one, but helps Melissa push to the point where the baby seems ready to emerge. Still, the little rascal refuses to take the last big step. Melissa is exhausted. Each push is torture. The doctor decides to try one more thing: the "vacuum" option. It's not exactly what it sounds like. Basically, a mini plunger is attached to the the baby's head, & as the mom pushes like hell, the doctor pulls. If it doesn't work, we're told, there is only one option left: the dreaded C section. Forms are signed. We have been warned. Melissa is terrified. At the next contraction she pushes like a maniac. The doctor pulls on the head. Almost.One more try. Melissa pushes. Her face turns crimson. I can hardly watch. The room is now full of interns & nurses. There's blood.

Monday, 4:50 am
Miraculously, the baby's head emerges. The doctor turns her sideways & yanks the rest of her out. She wails. The nurses take her across the room for cleaning. After about 20 seconds, she is clean & pink & perfect.

Saturday, August 19, 2006


This is a photo of Melissa at 37 weeks of pregnancy. Today, one week later, her water broke. It happened as her parents were pulling into the driveway.

So far, there have been no serious, regular contractions. We are hoping for a drug-free labor, but even midwives get nervous when there are no contractions after the water breaking. Holistic methods for inducing labor include drinking castor oil & manipulating the nipples. Hmmm, wonder which we'll try first.

Anyway, wish us luck.

In the meantime, read this story. It seems oddly appropriate.


Walt was trying to tell his wife, Clare, that it was over, but he couldn't get himself to say it. It was late at night, a sliver of a moon hanging in the trees. They were taking a walk around the lake.

"I've been thinking about counseling," Clare announced after a long silence. "Bob and Debra Ann went to see someone and it really helped them."

Clare had decided lately that she and Walt were "in a rut," nothing that a little professional help couldn't cure. There wasn't enough "communication," Walt was "distant," there were "intimacy issues."

"What do you think?"

"Maybe," Walt said, scratching his chin.

Bob had told him all about it, about how Debra Ann and the counselor had ganged up on him, and how they'd scolded him for not crying. He agreed with Bob that counseling was for those who need to tell themselves they've tried everything.

They'd left the house without a flashlight, which Walt now regretted. He could barely see the road, paved but narrow, with the occasional driveway branching off into darkness toward a lakeside home. The lake itself, silver in the night, lay to their left. They always walked this way, counter-clockwise around the lake, one of the many habits he was bored with.

"We need to get everything off our chests," Clare went on. "But in a safe environment, with a neutral observer, so we don't get hostile."

Walt hated this kind of talk. Ever since Clare had started individual therapy, her conversations were peppered with terms like "supervising ego" and "unconscious anger." All of a sudden she knew everything about him, why he said or did certain things, why he couldn't sleep at night. She knew that his "emotional unavailability" was due to his alcoholic father and cold, distant mother. She knew everything, it seemed, except that he'd been having an affair.

"They went to this amazing woman, Debra Ann told me. She really got Bob to open up and be honest about his fear of commitment."

But Walt didn't have a fear of commitment. It's just that, recently, he'd been more committed to somebody else.

He'd gone into the little bookstore on Main Street looking for a copy of Light Years and ended up getting into a discussion of James Salter with the owner. He had been in the store a few times but had never bought anything, had barely noticed the tall, slender woman behind the counter, but, as she talked with him about Salter's work, he could see how pretty she was. There was something captivating about the way her green eyes contrasted with her long, dark hair. They were like lamps in a far-off house in the middle of the night. She had no copies of Light Years in stock, she told him finally, but she would order it for him. He spent the rest of the week debating with himself about what to say to her when he went to pick up the book. In the end, he decided it couldn't hurt to have a friend in town, or at least that's what he told himself, and so he asked her to lunch. That was three months ago.

"Haven't you noticed how different they are?" Clare asked. "Bob used to be so mean to Debra Ann. All those cutting remarks."

"I haven't really noticed," Walt said. He didn't tell her the reason that Bob was so mellow these days, that he had also been seeing someone else, a nurse at Mercy Hospital.

"The ten-year mark is a milestone," Clare told him. "That's when it really sinks in that this is forever. It can be hard, especially for men."

Ten years. It seemed so much longer. Back then they were living in the city, in a small one bedroom in the Village, the center of the world. They stayed out late on weeknights, spent all day Sunday in bed, went through money as if hellbent on dying broke. Then came 9/11 and Clare all of a sudden developed a desire to live in the country. "Time to grow up," she'd said, though for Walt it meant, Time to run away from the place where everything is happening.

But, sufficiently swayed by Clare's post-attack anxiety, he gave in. They let go of their rent-stabilized apartment and bought their little house on the lake, he quit his full-time job to freelance and Clare found work at the local weekly newspaper, where she covered town meetings and the latest collision between deer and SUVs.

Leah could relate to his frustration. She'd moved out here with her ex several years back and started the bookstore just to maintain her sanity. When they divorced she thought she'd move back to the city, but she had grown fond of the store and decided to stay on instead.

She told him this over lunch. She'd dressed up for the occasion in a tight skirt that didn't quite reach her knees and a sleeveless blouse. Walt had surprised himself by also dressing up, putting on his expensive Italian suit coat for the first time since quitting his full-time job. He was up front about being married, bringing up Clare several times, though he couldn't seem to mention her by name, and found his tone veering toward a sort of embarrassed exasperation whenever he referred to her. "My wife doesn't read much," he said, rolling his eyes, and "My wife doesn't go in for spicy food." Leah seemed unfazed, even curious, about Clare. She asked what she was like, what she did for work, what she looked like. To Walt these questions felt intimate; she may as well have been stroking his cheek. At first he'd thought they could perhaps all become friends, the three of them going out for dinner or drinks every now and then, but then he decided he didn't want that. He wanted Leah all to himself. After lunch they shook hands and she encouraged him to let her know what he thought of the book, which he did a few days later.

"This is all very natural, sweetie," Clare told him. "There's no harder work than marriage."

They neared the Turner house, where a party was in progress. The Turner boys were a wild bunch, driving their souped-up cars too fast around the lake road's tight corners, smashing mailboxes with baseball bats, and, when their parents were out, throwing these notorious parties. One of the boys, it was rumored, had been sent away for a year or so for dealing drugs at school. As they passed the house, the usually placid night air was thumping with hip hop bass notes and peels of teenage laughter.

"Poor Mark and Carol," Clare said of the Turners. "Those kids are a real burden to them. If they can stick together through this, we should be able to."

"I suppose you think everything would be okay if we had kids," he said.

"Oh, Walt, that's not what I meant."

Walt couldn't help but take any reference to parenthood, no matter how oblique, as some kind of jab. Last year, after trying for months to conceive, Clare had talked him into having his semen analyzed. The whole experience had been humiliating, with the smirking receptionist handing him that plastic cup and escorting him to a small back room with a flimsy door. He could still picture it: the tiled walls, the chair covered with examination table paper, the cheap shelving unit stacked with pornographic magazines, the television with a built-in VCR. As he leafed through the old magazines, he could hear the people next door in the laboratory chuckling amongst themselves. Not since he was fifteen years old in his parents' house had Walt masturbated within earshot of so many people going about their business. Anxious to get it over with, he switched on the VCR and ejaculated into the cup while watching a black man with a huge phallus have anal sex with a young blonde. Then, on his way out, he had to endure the receptionist's insipid grin as he wrote out a check for the test. The results arrived three days later. His sperm, apparently, were not up to par—something about low motility. Now, every time Clare spoke about couples who had children, even the Turners with their delinquent teenagers, Walt experienced it as a thinly veiled personal insult.

Clare took his hand, the way she always did when she detected his frustration on this topic. But it only made him angrier.

One of the reasons Leah had split with her ex was that she didn't want to have children with him. "The world is so crowded already," she'd told Walt that first time, as she ran her long fingers lightly over his chest. A week had passed since their lunch. He'd stopped by the book store twice already, first to chat about Light Years, then just to say hello. During visit number three, she asked him if he'd like to step out for lunch. She told her assistant she'd be back in a couple of hours, then led him down the street and up a flight of external stairs to her large, one room apartment above Bissell's Pharmacy. She pulled leftover chicken from her fridge, which they ate cold with wine at her kitchen table. After lunch and a full bottle of Chardonnay she took his hand and escorted him to the bed at the back of the room. When she kissed him, parting her soft, wet lips, the hairs on his arms crackled. It had been forever since he'd felt that electric jolt that comes with the touch of a woman. Afterwards, with one long leg draped over his belly, she expressed her disdain for her ex and his need for a biological heir, and for self-absorbed suburban ladies like Clare, with their ticking wombs and SUVs. She was actually relieved, she said, that Walt was sterile. "That means no contraception," she'd told him with a mischievous grin.

"But I do think the adoption process could bring us closer together," Clare said as she squeezed his hand.

"I told you," Walt said, tearing his hand away, "I think we should hold off on that."

"Why? It takes so long, Walt—it wouldn't hurt to start on the paperwork."

He sighed. Paperwork meant lawyers, and lawyers meant money. If he was going to climb into that mud pit he may as well get what he really wanted out of it: a divorce.

They were on an especially dark stretch of road now, flanked by clusters of huge old maple trees, their full branches hanging overhead like a canopy. From somewhere around the next bend came the rumble of a souped-up engine.

"I've been doing some research," Clare said. "We could fly to China in about twelve or fifteen months if we start the ball rolling now. Sheena at work did it with her husband. They came back with an adorable little girl. They couldn't be happier."

Leah had also been talking about adoption lately. While she felt no need to give birth, she had decided that caring for an unwanted child would be a service to humanity. But instead of the predictable China--it seemed like every other couple in town had an adorable little Chinese girl in a state-of-the-art stroller--she was interested in Africa. "Have you ever met an Ethiopian?" she'd asked. She said they were absolutely gorgeous, with their smoky brown skin and neon smiles. For weeks now Walt had fantasized about raising such a child with Leah.

As they neared the turn in the road--a sharp left through the woods--Walt could hear the rapid approach of the speeding vehicle, its stereo turned up all the way. Headlights pierced through the trees. It looked like a pick-up, moving very fast.

"I just think we should figure out our problems," he explained, "before we add such a huge complication to the mix."

"A 'huge complication'? Is that what a child means to you?"

They had just reached the turn when the pick-up roared around the bend, nearly running them over. In the split second during which the vehicle passed by, a mere foot or two away, Walt saw into the cab where two boys flanked a pretty girl with blonde hair. There was something especially infuriating about the trio, above and beyond their rudeness and lousy driving, and before he could think about what he was doing, he lifted his middle finger. Even within that crowded fraction of a second, he detected that his gesture had registered. Then the truck was past them.

"Jesus!" Clare cried, nearly stumbling on the uneven shoulder of the road.

"Are you all right?" Walt grabbed her arm and helped her straighten.

"They could've killed us!" Clare said. After she'd dusted herself off, they continued along the road toward the sharp left turn. Walt glanced back to see the truck slow to a crawl, then stop. It was about fifty yards behind them. The brake lights glowed bright red in the darkness.

"Anyway," Clare said, fully recovered now, "I was going to say, it might do you some good to have a 'complication' in your life."

It was just like her to continue with her previous train of thought despite nearly getting run over. She hadn't even noticed that the truck had stopped. Walt looked back again. What if the driver started to back up, or turn around? Those kids were probably drunk and looking for a fight. They might even have a gun in that ridiculous truck.

Clare added, "I think we've both gotten so comfortable with our lives that we could use a little shaking up, you know?"

Yeah, Walt thought. How about a little shake-up tonight? They were around the bend now, but he could still make out the fiery brake lights through the trees.

"Are you listening to me?" Clare asked.

"Uh-huh," he said, his ears tuned to the truck's low rumble. He considered telling Clare that they may be in some danger, but he would then have to tell her about his obscene gesture, and she would berate him for being so adolescent. Still, if the truck returned he would have to do something. The options included dashing into the woods and hiding, or running to the next house and asking for help, or standing his ground and confronting the hoodlums. If only it were Leah here with him instead of Clare. Leah inspired him to be stronger, if mostly in dumb little ways—sending back an undercooked hamburger, or asking for directions from a stranger—but he could feel these small adjustments shifting, ever so slightly, the tectonic plates of his character.

"Every time I bring up the idea of adoption," Clare said, "you shut down. Do you even realize that?"

Leah's right, he thought. Clare is so self-absorbed she can't even see what's going on right in front of her. Could she not hear the growl of the truck less than one hundred yards away? Could she not detect the hyper-alert, anxious way that he was carrying himself? How would she protect her precious little Chinese girl from danger when she can't even tell if she herself is in peril?

"You're shutting down right now, aren't you?" she said.

He listened for the truck. He and Clare had continued along the road far enough that he could not see the tail lights through the trees anymore.

"What is it?" she asked.


The engine still rumbled, but it seemed quieter, either because the truck had moved on, or perhaps just because the distance was greater between them. He could not relax until he knew the truck had gone.

"What is your problem?" Clare asked.

"Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?"

"I thought I heard a fox," he said.

"Where?" she whispered.

"In the woods."

Sometimes on these nighttime walks they heard the plaintive, ghostly wail of a fox. At first they'd thought the high-pitched cries were those of an owl, but then a neighbor told them that foxes sometimes roamed the area. Clare was fascinated, but had never sighted one. She stood with her head cocked a little, not making a sound.

"I don't hear it," she finally said.

Walt heard it, now that Clare had quieted down: the truck engine. It had not moved. He wondered what they could be doing there in the road. Were they debating their course of action, one boy wanting to go back and kick some ass, the other anxious to get to the party, with the blonde girl torn between the two?

"I hear a car or something," Clare said.

The truck engine grew louder. It was moving.

"Must be those Turner kids," she added.

"Will you shut up?" Walt hissed, holding up the palm of his hand for emphasis. Even in the dark he could make out the look of shock on her face.

The truck, still around the bend, was coming closer.

"Walt?" Clare moaned.

"Okay," he said as the truck's headlights shone through the trees, "I need you to run into the woods there."


"Just do as I say."

The truck was nearing the bend in the road. In a second or two, the headlights would be in their eyes.

"Please," he said, "go into the woods and wait for me."


"Trust me, Clare."

Even in the dark he could make out the confusion and fear on her face..

"Do it."

He pushed Clare toward the trees, but it was mostly the force of his voice that propelled her off the road and into the woods.

"Go on," he called out to her as the truck rounded the bend. "Keep going till you can't see me."

She had disappeared into the darkness but he could hear the crack of twigs as she ran. The truck was now on the straightaway, its bright beams shining in his eyes. He considered following Clare, but for some reason he was not afraid anymore.

Earlier today, he had parked in the lot behind Leah's apartment and waited in his car until he saw her climb the stairway. By the time he got out of his car, traversed the parking lot, and climbed the stairs, she had taken off all her clothes and lay in bed. This was their usual routine, two or three times a week. He thought now of her pale, smooth skin, her long legs wrapped around him, ankles locked and pushing him deeper inside her. Before she came she would go completely still, like a cat in a freefall, just waiting, breathlessly, for the impact. Then, when it arrived, she let everything go, including all decorum. It was like nothing he'd ever seen or heard before, the way she writhed, the filth that poured from her mouth, as if each word, each gyration, could prolong the sensation. It had horrified him at first, then he had to laugh, and now it turned him on like nothing else ever had.

He stood by the side of the road, blinded by the truck's headlights. The truck slowed, then braked to a stop ten yards away. The radio was turned up full blast, and Walt could feel the thump of the bass in the soles of his feet. Then the driver turned off the engine, leaving only the lights on. The night silence fell into place as if into a perfectly carved slot: crickets, leaves rustling in the breeze, the far-off barking of a dog.

Walt raised his hand to shade his eyes but could not see inside the truck. The occupants remained where they were, perfectly quiet.

This afternoon, when he'd announced that he was planning to leave Clare, Leah had not been as enthusiastic as he'd hoped. Not that she was displeased, exactly. Reserved was perhaps the best way to describe her reaction. There were no hugs and kisses, no tears of joy, but neither did she turn away. She continued to drape her long leg over him, but spoke in an unusually serious tone. She asked what he would do, where he would live. She wondered how Clare would react—would she be so angry that she'd make the divorce ugly? These were all good questions that he had not seriously considered. He had thought only of Leah and his life with her, the days and nights together, the trips to be taken, the sex. Even as she posed her thoughtful questions he glossed over them, declaring that he didn't care, that he cared only about her, about them.


There was a crackle of twigs in the woods.

"Stay there," he told Clare.

Then, when he left Leah's today, there had been something changed between them. Normally they would kiss, hold one another, sometimes even return to bed for a while. She would laugh, they would make plans to meet in a couple of days, both of them wishing out loud that they could get together sooner. This afternoon, there was a kiss, but it was without heat, and there was no laughter. And while they said they would meet up in two days, they both knew that if Walt went ahead with his plans--if he broke up with Clare--the meeting in two days would be consumed with a discussion of what had happened, and what it meant for their future. Everything would be different. No, he thought now as he stood here in the road with the truck's headlights burning his eyes—everything was already different.

There was some giggling in the cab, then a male voice: "I'm bored. Let's go."

The engine started with a bellow, followed by the roar of the radio. The truck rolled backwards. Still blind from the glare, Walt could barely make out the three occupants. A beer bottle shattered at his feet. The girl laughed and the truck tore off, smoke clouding the view of its taillights.

Clare emerged from the trees.

"Are you all right?" she asked, wrapping her sweaty arms around him.

He watched the truck's lights turn and fade into the trees, the rattling engine now a dull, far-off purr.

"What were they doing?" she asked. "Why did they come back like that?"

"I don't know," he lied. Suddenly he felt his head go heavy and his eyes fill with water.

"What's the matter?" Clare asked, touching the tears that rolled down his cheeks.

But still he could not tell her.

"Let's go home," Clare said, taking his hand. "You'll feel better then."

And, knowing she was probably right, he went with her.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Welcome to BELDENBLOG!

Greetings, lovers of fine fiction & music. I will be regularly posting samples of my work here at BELDENBLOG. If I'm able to, I will also have links to music that I'm working on right now--rough mixes of brand new tunes that will be updated as they approach completion.

Let's start off with something typically cheerful. It's called THE OVERLOOK. The seed of this story was an exercise written on the spot in a writing workshop during my training for the NY Writers Coalition. The assignment was to write about "a secret." At first the story was going to be about the daughter's secret from her father, but as I continued to write (days after the workshop ended) it became much darker, & I realized the secret belonged to the father.

Hope you like it...


Tony was hiking through the woods when he saw them. They were up ahead on the trail, no more than fifty feet away. It was not an overly dramatic sight. It only lasted a moment. If he had come along a minute or two later he might have missed it entirely, and they could have explained things easily enough: a friendly walk, say, or a chance meeting. But at that moment there was no mistaking what was going on.

She was leaning back against a tree, and he was kissing her, his hands holding her face as if he were sipping from a large bowl. Sunlight filtered through the leaves overhead, creating a quilt of light and shadow on their clothing. She wore jeans cut very short, just at the curve of her rump, her legs long and smooth. He was tall in a striped dress shirt, untucked, and khakis.

Tony watched all this from behind a tree, wondering who these young lovers could be. Someone had told him that the Hamilton girl was dating Tad Lennox from across the road, but Tad was a short, stocky boy, nothing like this tall young man leaning down to kiss the girl, pressing his long body against hers. Then, as the girl shifted away from the tree, Tony recognized the distinctive reddish-brown hair that hung down to the small of his daughter's back. At first, he almost laughed, so startled was he to come upon Stacey like this. Then he felt hurt, not so much because she was in the woods kissing a boy, but because she had kept a secret from him. Just an hour ago he had knocked on her bedroom door to ask if she wanted to accompany him on a hike. She'd said no thanks, she had a school report to finish. He'd thought it odd that she preferred to do her homework on such a lovely Spring afternoon, but then his daughter had been acting strangely of late.

He was about to proceed along the trail, curious to see which of her classmates Stacey had fallen for, and to make sure this did not go beyond a gentle kiss in the woods, when the young man drew back his face. It was Mr. Peterson, his daughter's English teacher. He was a youthful fellow—Tony guessed in his late 20s—tall, good looking. At the most recent parent-teacher conference he'd impressed Tony with his intelligence and obvious affection for his students. Tony remembered how relieved he'd felt after the meeting. It was hard to find a teacher so committed these days, even at an expensive private school like the Academy. Most of them, even the younger ones, came off as shell-shocked and bitter at not opting for a cozy office job that paid decently and didn't require endless patience with privileged children. Now, as the two of them walked on, the dedicated Mr. Peterson reached down and squeezed Stacey's rear end.

Tony sat on a fallen tree trunk and tried to think. Only now did the sharp icicle of jealousy stab at him. He thought of he and his daughter as being very close, especially since Evelyn's death. They cooked supper together, went to movies together, conspired together on elaborate practical jokes to play on friends and neighbors. Even more than most fathers and daughters, they shared a private language, certain words and gestures that no one else could understand. When Stacey had questions she would come directly to him and he tried to answer her as honestly as he could, with the right balance of humor and seriousness. It was he who had explained to her the biology of reproduction. At age twelve, she’d woken up to find herself bleeding and without a mother to go to. Of course by then she knew what sex was, but he had felt the need to fill in the blanks.

"But remember," he recalled saying after a brief lecture about the importance of birth control, "It's no good without love."

"You mean the way I love you?" she'd asked.

He pulled her very close then and said, "And the way I love you, too."

She was always an extraordinarily affectionate little girl, even before Evelyn's death, generous with hugs and always reaching out to hold her daddy's hand. That seemed so long ago now. His daughter was another person, a young woman, and he had to admit that she rarely reached out to him anymore.

He stood and headed farther along the trail, deeper into the woods. He walked quickly but was careful not to make too much noise. Fortunately, the path was clear of dry leaves and other debris, and he made good progress. Among the chirping of the birds and rustle of leaves he could hear Mr. Peterson's deep, clear voice up ahead. Had the teacher been involved with Stacey at the time of their school meeting, just a month ago? He tried to recall any clues from the young man's behavior, but remembered only a pleasant, professional conference. Peterson had praised Stacey, yes, but not so much that his enthusiasm was suspicious. He even had a few less than positive comments to share, including the usual complaints that Stacey didn't always live up to her potential and often seemed distracted. He then had asked the inevitable question: was Stacey going through anything especially difficult at home? Tony remembered how Peterson then had leaned forward, as if especially eager for the answer. Tony, as he usually did, made sure to play up Evelyn's passing, and the long, drawn out nature of it, and how this—even after five years--could easily explain his daughter's occasional lapses into melancholy.

This always seemed to satisfy teachers and neighbors. Just last month Mrs. Leek, from next door, had stopped by to tell Tony she’d seen Stacey sitting near the school bus stop, her face in her hands, weeping.

"She looked so upset," Mrs. L. told him. "Is she okay?"

“It’s Evelyn,” he’d explained. “The poor girl still thinks of her now and then. As do I, Mrs. L.”

He’d managed then to spring a tear or two, and the good Mrs. Leek patted his arm and said, “Of course. That must be it. Tell me,” she added, "does she have anyone special to talk to?"

"Of course," he had reassured her. "Only the very best, Mrs.L."

Later, when he asked Stacey about the incident, she had denied crying like that, and said that she'd just been exhausted from staying up so late, for which she blamed him.

At this point the main trail continued on toward the creek, while an unmarked trail branched off to wind up a steep hill with the overly grand name of Piney Mountain. Tony could see the two of them about half way up, leaning into the climb. He and Stacey had hiked this trail dozens, if not hundreds, of times. There was an overlook at the summit that she never tired of, a flat, rocky outcrop that gave a spectacular view of the lake and valley. For hours they would sit and watch the hawks circling overhead, gasping at the predators' occasional plummet toward an unsuspecting squirrel or chipmunk in a clearing far below.

"Come on," he now heard Stacey say, reaching back to help pull Peterson over a fallen tree. The teacher appeared winded, and laughed at himself as the girl yanked him up the hill. They paused, and he pulled her close to him, and again they kissed. This time Tony felt the anger boil up inside him.

On those rare occasions when he'd contemplated it, Tony had assumed his daughter would give herself up to some awkward, gangly boy with a pimply face and unkempt hair. He'd always thought he would have a sort of grace period during which he would remain the primary figure in her life, the mature man to whom she had to listen and obey. Now she was involved—and, by the looks of it, deeply involved—with another older man, another figure of authority. Recent examples of Stacey's unusual behavior came to him, signs that he hadn't recognized for what they truly were. She'd been more shy than usual, for example, especially around bedtime. When he went into her room—a ritual of theirs for several years now—she turned her face away from him and pulled the covers up to her chin. She would then offer up only her cheek for a kiss, and that reluctantly. He'd assumed it was just another of her mood swings, and that things would soon return to normal, but now he wasn't so sure. Other instances of her changed behavior, like the shower incident of the other day, made much more sense in this light, but to contemplate them now, he found, was too painful.

He continued to follow them at a discreet distance. The climb was unusually difficult, perhaps because he was so agitated. His breathing was labored, his legs burning as he neared the summit. There, the terrain leveled off as the trail wound through a thickly wooded area leading toward the overlook. As his breathing slowly returned to normal, Tony fantasized about sneaking up on the two lovers and surprising them. There would be the satisfaction of seeing their startled faces, but what beyond that? If he'd brought his camera he could have taken photos to show to the school's administrators. That would teach Peterson a lesson. He also considered approaching from behind and bringing a rock down on the teacher's head. Everyone would understand. He could see the headlines: OUTRAGED FATHER KILLS PREDATOR TEACHER. No jury of parents would convict him. But he would lose Stacey for sure if he did anything even remotely drastic. Like her mother, she could be vindictive. Not long ago she'd held out her affections for days after he had criticized her clothes in front of a friend. Perhaps the best thing to do was to wait this out.

As he made his way to the overlook, Tony could no longer hear them talking. He worried that they might have gone off-trail, but then he heard the sound of his daughter's laughter up ahead. He couldn't remember the last time he'd heard her laughing like this, the notes rising the way they did when she was particularly pleased. He thought of summer evenings on their deck, devouring ice cream sundaes and telling bad jokes, or watching Marx Brothers movies late into the night with a huge bowl of popcorn balanced on their knees.

He positioned himself behind a large boulder, just this side of the clearing. He peeked around the corner and saw that Stacey was sitting on the lip of the overlook, leaning back against Peterson's chest. The teacher held her close, his arms wrapped around her. Tony's heart beat rapidly. He and Stacey had often sat this very way, when they were reasonably sure that no one would come upon them. He would rest his chin on her head and take in the scent of her freshly shampooed hair. He remembered the day they'd watched a slowly approaching thunderstorm, not caring that they would get caught in a downpour before they could possibly get back home. The clouds had crept in from the northwest like a thick, gray quilt being pulled across the sky, jagged bolts of lightning streaking down to touch the tops of the rolling hills around the valley. She had turned to him then and said that she loved him and would never, ever leave. He could not remember ever being happier. They'd laughed all the way home that day, the rain falling cool and hard, their clothes completely soaked through. At the house they'd tossed them off and, still giggling, wrapped themselves in warm, fluffy towels.

"I've been thinking a lot about it," he heard Peterson say, "and I've decided it's time to do something about…" He sighed, then said, "About the situation."

Even though they were facing the other way, looking out toward the valley, Tony could tell from how his daughter stiffened that her face had gone stony. Sometimes, when she was upset, all expression would drain from her otherwise emotionally transparent face. He'd seen it hundreds of times.

"God, I never should've said anything," Stacey said, her voice nearly trapped in her throat.

"Are you kidding? You were ready to explode. You had to tell someone."

Peterson stroked Stacey's long hair. She hadn't cut it in ages, and spoke of one day shearing it all off to donate to cancer patients. Sometimes, fresh from the shower, she would allow Tony to gently untangle the knots in her hair with his hands as she sat watching TV in her cotton pajamas.

When Stacey didn't say anything more, Peterson said, "You should at least go talk to someone. A professional."

"You mean a shrink? Daddy doesn't believe in them. He says it's a racket."

"He would say that."

"Would I tell this shrink about you? That might not go over too well, either."

Peterson stopped stroking her hair and leaned back on his hands. As if to comfort him, Stacey reached back and touched his cheek.

"I did go once," she said. "After my mom died. I was having nightmares and my doctor insisted."

In that instant, Tony heard again his daughter's shrill cries from her bedroom. The nightmares had been relentless and vivid. Every night, visions of her dying mother, emaciated and hairless, her bloodshot eyes wide as she tried to call to her from an open mouth full of rotting teeth. Barely had Stacey's head hit the pillow before she began shouting in her sleep, until one night he just crawled into bed with her and held her. It was the only thing that helped.

"He wanted me to come every week," Stacey told Peterson, "but daddy wouldn't hear of it."

"It must have been awful," Peterson said, wrapping his arms around her.

She turned to look at him, and Tony had to duck behind the rock to avoid being seen.

"It's all over now," she said. Then there was a long silence during which Tony assumed they were kissing. He sat back against the rock and looked up at the sky. It was a deep blue with wispy, shredded-cotton clouds. Tall pines shuddered in the mild breeze.

He should have seen this coming. Stacey's resistance to him, her distant manner, the tears at the bus stop—it all added up. Then, the other day, when he went into the bathroom to shave while she was showering—something he'd done countless times--she shouted at him to go away, her whole body tensing behind the glass shower door, her voice sharp with outrage. He explained that he'd just come in to shave, that he needed to get to work, but she wouldn't hear of it. "Get out!" she'd cried. "I don't want you in here with me!"

At the time he'd thought, again, that she was simply going through one of her bashful phases. Sometimes, if a pimple flared up on her face, say, she would hold back, cover herself up, worried that he might think her ugly. Now that she was filling out so nicely, with a voluptuous figure much like her mother's, perhaps she was feeling shy and awkward about her body. But now he could see what was really going on.

He leaned back hard against the boulder. He wondered where and how often the two of them would meet. Perhaps Peterson had an apartment near the school, and when Stacey was supposed to be at the library she was actually with him. They probably took long drives together, the way Tony and she used to do, and parked in desolate areas where no one would see them. So many fond memories were being displaced by this new information that Tony found himself pushing the back of his head into the rock until it hurt, the sharp edges digging into his scalp.

Finally, he heard them scrabbling to their feet. He peeked around the boulder to see them holding hands and taking one last look at the valley spread out below. A hawk hung high above the trees, barely moving, like a kite on a string. He remembered the day he and Stacey were hiking through the woods and came upon a small clearing where some trees had burned, their charred, craggy trunks rising like stalagmites from the ground. A squirrel was perched atop one of these trunks, gnawing on a nut. Overhead, a hawk was stealthily watching from the branch of an intact maple tree. "Watch this," he'd whispered, but, seeing what was bound to happen, Stacey had run toward the squirrel shouting, "Shoo! Shoo! Run away!" The startled squirrel high-tailed it into the brush, and the disappointed hawk lifted off and flew away.

"Ready?" Peterson asked, and, still holding hands, they crossed the clearing and headed down the far side of the hill. When they were gone, Tony walked around the boulder and stood at the edge of the overlook. Far off to the west hung a bank of dark clouds, the air beneath it a hazy curtain of rain. He picked up a stone and tossed it over the edge. He heard it clatter through the tree branches, the sound echoing across the valley. He squatted down and placed his palm on the ground where his daughter had just been sitting. Still warm. Below, the lake glittered and, all around it, the roofs of cottages poked up through the trees.

By now Stacey and Mr. Peterson were far down the hill, almost to the lake, but Tony remained where he was. He was surprised to feel a wetness on his face, but he didn't wipe the tears away.

He thought of that day long ago when he and Stacey had sat on this very spot watching the storm approach. He'd known then, of course, that what she'd said wasn't true, but he had always liked pretending.

The wind was picking up now, rustling the carpet of trees in the valley below. From far off came the rumble of thunder. Remembering how he'd held his daughter tight in his arms, he sat and let his feet dangle over the edge of the overlook, and waited for the rain.


For more samples of my work & other info, please visit