fiction issue 32

The Very Absence of Connection

by Shya Scanlon

Limited art prints, mainly pink, with green vegetation and some red lipsticks. The blue abstract water dot in the center shows that the brown bomb perfume is about to explode.
War by Wowser Ng

The Very Absence of Connection

Glen couldn’t help thinking that if their roles were reversed, he’d be kicking Bob’s teeth in. Or at least failing at it. Bob wasn’t a big man but he looked strong, and besides he’d seen action in Vietnam. Not much you could do to a man who’d been in country. Add to that he was a carpenter, a guitar player, and was good looking in a way other men would admit, with sharp features and a full head of dark, wavy hair. Frankly, Glen didn’t see why any woman married to Bob would want to step out on him, but then, Kay wasn’t just any woman. Kay was something special. Nuts, maybe, but special. Who knew the heart of a woman like that? Maybe not even herself.

Glen looked over at his taciturn passenger, who sat with one foot on the dash watching a grey dawn creep over the Olympics like smoke. Bob’s kids were asleep in back—had been since Glen picked them all up at 4am. Glen thought he should be saying something, but what? “I enjoy sleeping with your wife?” He should stick to driving. There’d be things to talk about when they got to the river. He accelerated into a turn.

Glen had met Kay six months ago, early spring, on one of the late nights she was notorious for working. Other guys on the 2nd shift had spoken of her, citing her legs as one of the few reasons to show up for work, but he’d been working 3rd shift since his divorce, avoiding nightmares, so he hadn’t caught a glimpse of her until covering for Willy one day, pushing the mop cart past her office well after 9PM. She looked up and smiled at the clatter of its awkward, wobbly wheel. What a smile. Like turning a hand dryer up toward your face. He’d been unable to get it out of his head, that warm blast staying with him, and after a week he put in for a transfer to the evening shift.

Kay was a real electric eel, passionate and quick-witted; she’d found her calling, and this excited Glen nearly as much as their love-making. As an employee of the city, he’d always understood that most of the offices he cleaned at night were filled with true believers by day, people who were there because they wanted to change the world, and though his role was a small one, almost invisible, he’d taken a measure of pride in it. Nights after she’d “worked late” they’d lay in bed, enjoying the few, too-small minutes before she had to wrap herself back up in office wear, and he’d make her tell him about the good fight, about getting progressive policies past stodgy politicians, about trying to change the way they define “sex education.” He didn’t always understand it, but just to hear someone, to hear Kay, speak about it all was invigorating. He’d glow with it long after she’d gone back home to her family.

The sun was now up over the horizon, though it remained hidden behind the high, impenetrable October clouds, and the kids were beginning to stir. Glen looked forward to their sleepy mumblings. He expected their complaints would break up the dense silence that had packed the car for over an hour. Bob swung his arm behind the seat and twisted back to check on them.

Kay spoke to Glen of her husband in mostly loving terms, described his fierce independence, his rigorous, skeptical mind, and his deep, committed love for his children. It was a commitment that sometimes was too much for him, sometimes hurt him in ways he could only express through force. She swore he’d never hit her, but it was clear that her respect for him verged on fear. And when one day after making love she’d told Glen, quite frankly, that she’d decided to tell Bob about their affair, his own sudden fear made him realize how much he believed his own insight about her marriage. Surely, he thought, this man would come gunning for him. He tried to argue with her, but it hadn’t done much good. He was simply no match for her principles.

A week later she called him up and said, before hello, “Bob wants to meet you.”

“Great,” he’d said. “I’m dead.”

“Glen, come on, you’re selling him short. He actually wants to meet you. He wants to normalize this thing.”

“Huh. Well, how about you bring over a dictionary so I can look that up while I’m putting my bulletproof vest on.”

“It means to make—”

“Kay, I’m kidding. Who’s selling who short?”

By October, flows are low in the Methow River, and a man can spend more time fighting the rocks and low water than he’ll spend with a steelhead. But this fall as in last, the state had declared an early emergency opening after draw-downs in the spring to flush the smolt, and the river was practically more fish than drink. Glen had pulled some spare waders out of storage, along with a couple retired rods, but none of the gear was in very good shape, and Bob’s younger son wouldn’t have anything to wear at all. As a rule, Glen didn’t like to fish with inexperienced anglers, let alone complete novices. He wasn’t a natural teacher—lacked the patience for it, the etiquette—and found peoples’ questions and awkward handling of the pole, the unsmooth motion of their bodies, somehow vulgar. Glen thought of his father, how he’d stood by him, day after day, as still and unflinching as the surface of the water on a windless day. If they were still talking, Glen thought, he might be able to get some of that out of him.

Of course, there’d be no explaining the present circumstances to the old man. He pictured what his father’s expression might be if told the news that he was taking his lover’s husband and two sons out to snag steelhead.

“You’re what?” his father would say, at first pretending not to have understood. This would give him time to let the life drain entirely from his eyes, time to block out all the light and sparkle from inside, to look at his only son with dumb pity and disgust, the same expression he’d summoned when Glen had told him of his divorce.

Things would deteriorate from there.

The next bend they rounded revealed their first view of the mighty Methow, and Glen spontaneously reached a finger out toward it, as though Bob wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. The river was quick and looked a little higher than normal. White water coursed down the center, eddying visibly along the conversion edge and drawing the slower water toward it like a swift tide.

“We close?” Bob said.

“Half hour, hour,” said Glen. “Depends where they’re biting. We’re coming in a little late, so we’ll just look for folks already in the water.”

Glen had stayed up late the night before, tying leaders and stringing flies. He’d wanted everything to be ready so they could begin right away, his feeling being that the longer it took them to get started, the more opportunity there’d be to get distracted by the meaning of their trip. Glen’s feeling was that only by focusing elsewhere, focusing beyond the apparent meaning, did they stand a chance of “normalizing” anything. This would, of course, be a challenge. Truly, the very act of so focusing would itself be the accomplishment, a kind of mental trick of self-deception, so that the step required of them to reach their goal would double exactly as that goal. At least, this is how it had occurred to Glen at 2am as he lay sleepless and a little drunk in bed, watching the clock slowly spin toward morning.

They began to pass cars and trucks parked by the side of the road. There were a few official parking areas, but during these emergency openings everything was fair game, and it was well known that the local enforcement, many of whom were anglers themselves, would overlook the trespass in a kind of sporting camaraderie rarely, Glen felt, if ever demonstrated in the absence of the slow, sensual winding of a river, stream or brook. It was a kind of enchantment, fishing was—a leveler of imposed hierarchies of access and attribution. Glen saw a grouping of vehicles and pulled over. Alone, he’d surely drive by, head up river to somewhere unpeopled, risk going home empty handed just to be alone. But this trip wasn’t about him.

 Bob pulled the kids out of the van, and for the first time Glen got a good look at them. Connor, eleven years old, had a face still round with boyhood. His large, hazel eyes took in the world around him without obvious judgment, but he demurred to his older brother, Shya, with a sort of wounded indifference.

“We’re here,” Shya said, punching Connor lightly on the arm, “to give you back to nature, Con-man. Now go, go be free!”

Shya grinned, waiting for a reaction. His eyes were set farther back in his head, and his expression was the guarded, ironic mask of adolescence. Connor looked up at his father, and Bob grunted in acknowledgment while helping Glen pull the poles out of the back. What were these kids told, Glen wondered, about him, about his relationship with their mother? He found it difficult to believe they’d been told the truth. That would be cruel. He locked the van and gave Shya the net and a box of lures. Bob carried an armful of equipment toward the river, leaving the three of them there alone. Likely, Glen thought, they were simply told he was a family friend. “Uncle Glen,” or something like that. Connor stood beside the van, holding folded waders, and squinted up at Glen.

“Dad says you have sexual intercourse with our mom,” he said.

The four of them stood along the riverbank, spread ten feet apart. Glen, Bob, and Shya were in waders, knee-deep. Connor was on the shore. Glen knew what this was about. This was ingenious, really. How better to kill an affair than normalize it? Look into my children’s eyes, Bob was saying, and deal with their knowledge. The full, fleshy knowledge of children. The whole package. Bob didn’t want to get to know him at all; he wanted Glen to share his baggage. As long as you’re here, Bob was saying, you might as well help out around the house. But Glen had one up on Bob. He hadn’t been drawn to Kay because of her lack of attachments. He hadn’t been running away to begin with, so he wouldn’t need to run away now. Glen saw this for exactly what it was, and it wasn’t going to work.

            “We’re going to focus on the two basic casting techniques,” Glen said. “The roll cast and the back cast.”

            The particular stretch of river they stood before was wide and slow moving. It wasn’t the best place to fish, but it would be easier to use for instruction. Glen looked downstream to where a few men were casting into a brief patch of medium churn.

            “Why aren’t we using lures?” asked Shya.

            Glen looked at the thin young man, his face studded by ruby-like zits. “Because until you get used to the cast, a fly will only tangle your line.”

            After a quick lesson on grip, he explained the three time positions of the cast—9, noon, and 1 o’clock—then demonstrated with his own pole. The thick yellow line unfurled into the dark water, and Glen noted with satisfaction how thoughtlessly his body produced this gentle movement. It was intimately known, a part of him. Bob stood watch, nodded, then raised his own pole high into the air and behind him, too far back, and brought it forward too quickly; the line arced spastically and fell short.

“Close,” Glen said.

He walked over and stood behind the man, then reached around him and put his right hand over Bob’s. Together they pulled the rod up and back to its 1 o’clock position, then forward down to 9. It was a stiff movement, but better, and he did this again. Slow, fast, slow, fast. This time Bob’s arm eased a bit, let Glen take over, and the men stood together beneath the long, waving pole until Bob shrugged him off.

“Okay,” he said, “let me try.”

Glen stood back and watched Bob’s cast. He was still stiff. Glen wondered how much of that was due to the circumstances, and how much to some temperamental inflexibility. He reminded Glen of his own father, a bit. There was of course the discrepancy of skill, but there was something about their less-is-more ethos, the way a lack of comment could itself insist on a variety of meanings. Glen imagined that his children were by now quite familiar, as Glen had been growing up, with the process of processing silence, unpacking its miracles into a type of private sense that existed without acknowledgment or doubt. Bob frowned at his line scrawled across the surface of the slow-moving water like an indecipherable signature.

Shya, by contrast, caught on rather quickly. Bob was still shooting for an acceptable roll when Shya was ready for the back cast. Glen showed him how to hold the loose line with his left hand, how to keep tension against the first ring, and then began to explain the importance of the power stroke. Everything, Glen reasoned, depended on the power stroke. It’s what connected the back cast with the forward cast, preparation with execution. Shya looked on with a kind of amused expression, which Glen tried to ignore, but he seemed interested enough, or perhaps it was just easy for him.

“When you have a loop form in your fly line,” Glen said, “you have a lot of energy to turn over that fly.”

“Sounds exciting,” Shya said.

Glen watched him create two or three perfect loops.

“Are you sure you haven’t done this before?” asked Glen. “Hey, Bob, I think you’ve got a natural angler on your hands with this one.”

“I’ve got a natural pain in the ass with that one, is what I’ve got.”

He watched Shya cast a few more times. It wasn’t a perfect cast, of course, but it was good. It was better than he’d been when first learning, and he thought about telling Shya this, but it seemed strange to compare them openly. Anyway, he’d had a difficult time with his cast, perhaps more difficult than most. He thought of the days he’d spent in his back yard, no water in sight, casting into the nearly shaven lawn. His father would look up from the paper occasionally and shake his head, tell him his line was still too lazy, and take a long pull from his Long Island Iced Tea.

“Look back,” he’d always say. “Look back, Glen, or your forward cast will be and forever remain shit.”

Glen’s father was a military man, an officer, and they’d moved around a lot. They’d lived in Virginia. They’d lived in Hamburg. Glen’s mother had left them in Hawaii for a fat local man who sold scuba equipment, a man who wasn’t going anywhere. After that, they’d come to Washington and the lessons had begun. He’d spent the better part of his sixteenth June dry casting, and his father hadn’t brought him to water until he was sure not to “make a fool of the both of them.”

The old man smoked, and the first time he brought Glen to a river he’d stubbed his cigarette out before they opened the car doors, saying, “Smoke when you’re fishing, and you halve your chances of catching something. They can smell it miles away.”

Glen watched the smoke hover above the car’s ashtray filled with butts. “Fish have noses?”

This did not merit a response.

When they got to the edge of the Nisqually, his father handed Glen his pole, told him where to stand, then unfolded his lawn chair and unscrewed the cap of his thermos. For the first time, Glen realized that his father hadn’t planned on fishing himself, and he was struck by an overpowering yet unaccountable embarrassment. He turned around slowly and faced the river. He had two months more of summer before entering a new school as a Junior, and he couldn’t wait. He’d walked around the base, Fort Lewis, spent some time in the Youth Center, but there weren’t many kids around, and those he’d found were stiff—reticent, like they had some secret they’d been told to keep.

The river yawned widely where they were, and Glen figured it was at least seventy-five feet to the far side. Also, there were no other people in sight. So much, Glen thought, for making a fool of himself. Were there even fish here? He suspected his father hadn’t really investigated the spot, had just driven, followed signs to the river.

Glen heard a car pass back on the road, heard it slow down and then speed back up, recede into the distance. He wondered what his mother was doing right then. The man she’d left with he’d seen only twice: once when his father had rented some snorkeling equipment from him, and then again when he’d helped his mother move her clothes and two plants off the base. His heavy round face had glistened with sweat, and he’d said nothing until leaving with the last armload, at which point he’d looked at Glen and choked out two words: good luck. Glen knew he should be mad at someone, at something, but he wasn’t. The truth was, he didn’t feel much of anything about it. His mother wrote him letters from Hawaii, and he read them indifferently, then threw them away. He never wrote back.

His father refilled his drink—Glen could hear the ice clink dully against the plastic mug—and he cast his fly out into the glittering river.

An hour had passed by the time Glen turned around and saw that his father had fallen asleep. His thermos lay on its side beneath the chair, which was itself leaning, perilously close, thought Glen, to spilling his father to the ground. He drew in his line and put the rod down. Nothing was biting, and anyway, he wasn’t particularly interested in catching a fish with his father asleep, unable to witness it, unable to help. He sat on the bank, took his shoes and socks off, and put his feet in the water. It was cold, but not too cold. The day was at its hottest, the sun making his fine, straight hair hot to the touch, and before too long he’d decided to go farther in. He took everything out of his pockets but kept his pants on, not knowing who might come by. He took his shirt off and folded it, then placed the folded shirt on his shoes.

            The water was clear, and he could see where to step, where to avoid the sharper rocks. When he was up to his knees he looked back at his father, still slumped over in the chair, and thought about calling to him, asking him to come swimming. It seemed impossible, an impossible thing to ask, to disturb him with. Another car drove by, it slowing down too, and Glen briefly considered getting back out, in case it was illegal to swim there—what if it was private property?—but the car sped away, and he was again alone. He stepped farther down into the river, gasping as the water poured into his pants and assaulted his privates. He wouldn’t, he knew, have the fortune of Hawaii’s seventy-degree water for some time, but that didn’t bother him so much. What Glen missed most about his last home were the caves. He was the youngest charter member of the Hawaii Speleological Society—a membership which he’d just the week before renewed, lying about his new address to continue to qualify. Hawaii’s unique volcanic geology made it an Eden of caves, lava tubes that snaked underneath the surface and could be accessed by ponds on land and openings along the coast. Millennia of erosion had expanded and elaborated the coastal openings into a labyrinthine network of waterlogged tunnels, only a tiny fraction of which had been properly explored.

            Glen was now in the middle of the river, which at its deepest wasn’t quite up to his armpits. The cold water made breathing a little more difficult, and he tried to concentrate on relaxing. He turned his face up toward the sun and closed his eyes. A gust of wind blew his bangs across his forehead, where they stuck against the sweat there, and instead of wiping them aside with his hand he brought his face forward and into the water. On his face, the water that felt cold everywhere else felt less so, felt almost warm. It filled into his ears, and his head filled with the sound of his heart, and of the rush of water over river rocks. Could he hear fish? He imagined that he could. He heard fish swimming around him, conspiring to suck him under the surface, or to nibble his skin. One of the fish, a big one on the shore, called his name.

            “Glen!” it said. “Glen, what the hell are you doing! Get out of the river this instant! Son?”

            He lifted his feet and lay as still as possible.

Two weeks before they’d come to the mainland, just after his mother had left, Glen had gone spelunking alone. This had been strictly against the rules for obvious reasons. It’s never a good idea to spelunk without a partner, and if possible, another person to keep watch over the entrance. But his father was drunk and Glen was feeling reckless. He’d taken off on his bike to a spot he knew, a place rich with uncharted lava tubes.

            It was early evening and the surf was relatively high, though the sun gave everything an almost lazy affect, the sea seeming to roll in gently, massaging the shore, the porous volcanic rocks absorbing it like a sponge. Glen had been coming here for over a month, partially to explore but also to take notes and photographs, having first been excited by the tubiferous pahoehoe, surface pahoehoe and diamict layers dating, he calculated, from the Last Glacial. He dropped his bike by the shore and, not having brought any equipment with him this time, simply slipped off his clothing and crawled down into the tide pool. His sandals kept his feet safe, but he took pains to avoid touching the pool’s rough walls. He enjoyed this careful play of distances, pressing against the liquid to maintain a buffer from rock. Strangely, the very absence of connection made him feel more connected. Though the surface was isolated from the sea, this particular pool was connected to the ocean by an underwater tunnel, and he took a deep breath and dove beneath the surface, frogging toward the opening, outward. As he moved slowly beneath the lava ceiling, a wall of cooler water washed past him, changed direction, then brought him forward, sucking him through so that he had to fight against it to avoid contact with the rock. When he reached the next opening he came to the surface a little shaken, and gasped, looking around him for an easy place to climb out should a quick escape be necessary. There was no one else out here, he knew. Whatever happened, he was on his own. No sooner had he caught his breath, however, than another swell of cool water came over him. It pushed him back partway into the tube he’d just emerged from, and then sucked him forward, fast. Seeing he was about to collide with the rough, ancient lava, he dove downward and entered another tube, this one extending farther than the last. Through the bubbling, disturbed surf, he could make out an opening large enough, it seemed, to fit through. But as he got closer, swimming with the tide, he realized that the hole was too small for him, and he began to panic. He had two options: swim on and risk getting stuck and running out of air, or swim backwards, against the pull of the sea. Either way was bound to result in some rough treatment by the tunnel walls. Glen felt as though he’d been suspended in time. His arms and legs swayed gently in the water like anemones, feeding. He felt intensely, unimpeachably alive. He eyed the too-small opening. His elbow touched something sharp. The tide pulled back.

On the way home, Bob’s kids sleepily occupied the back seat, alternately dozing and taking turns with a Walkman playing something Glen couldn’t recognize from what snatches of song they abruptly belted out, their warbled, underdeveloped voices attempting to carry adult themes. The world was making them grow up too fast, he thought. Already he was rehearsing the story he’d tell Kay about their trip. He knew it needed to include a measure of praise for her sons, and even for her husband, who in truth had displayed a patience he wasn’t sure he could have mustered had the tables been turned. They hadn’t caught anything, and of this Glen was glad. He hadn’t looked forward to the gutting, to the handling of blades. But he could tell Kay how game her younger had been, what a quick study her elder. Would he mention putting his arms around her husband to shape his cast? Bob was impenetrable, and he had trouble imagining the conversations they had together, Kay’s easy laughter, her banter, up against a distant man’s ponderous sulk. But maybe he had it all wrong. Maybe Bob was a totally different man outside such abnormal circumstances. Maybe he was a laugh riot.

As they drew closer to the city, the sun had crested and was starting to slide down before them, punishing them with heat and a glare the visors were nearly helpless against. Maybe this thing could be normalized, Glen thought. Picnics. A holiday or two. Every other weekend. Maybe he’d get to know these kids, come to love them. They’d call him Uncle Glen. They had little time left before he’d drop them off at Kay’s house, and it was dawning on him that something was needed to punctuate the day, some way for him and Bob to acknowledge what had been achieved. They were building this thing together, after all, not just inheriting it from Kay like some kind of unhappy bequest.

Connor stirred in the backseat and said he had to pee.

“Pull over up here,” said Bob, pointing to a spot up ahead with a wide, grassy shoulder.

After they stopped Bob told both kids to pee, and when Shya protested, one look back from the man settled it. Both boys got out and stood with their backs to oncoming traffic. Glen took a deep breath. This was his chance. He heard a rushing in his ears, his heartbeat lurching. His hands tingled.

“So,” he said. “I think that went okay. What’s next?”

Bob turned to meet his eyes.

“Well that’s up to you, but I’ll tell you what I hope comes next. I hope you’re going to tell Kay that it’s over. I hope you’re going to change your shift back or find another job. I hope you’re going to go back to your life, and I hope that life will not include my family. Because this is tearing us apart. You’re doing damage, Glen. Please.”

Over Bob’s shoulder, Glen could see his sons zipping up their flies. He had a moment to speak but no words came. Where was the violent Vietnam vet? Where were the fireworks? Was he putting on some kind of show?

As the kids wandered back Bob added one more thing.

“You’re a good guy,” he said. “I can see what my wife liked about you.”

His wife. Liked. The door opened and the boys piled back into the car, arguing about who’d peed farthest. Bob told them to buckle up, and Glen pulled back onto the road. For the remainder of the drive, Bob joked around with his sons, proudly giving Shya shit for being a “natural angler,” exaggerating the silly phrase. Soon Connor had picked it up, stretching out the joke, overdoing it, and finally his older brother told him to shut up.

“You don’t even know what that means, shit for brains.”

Their father raised his hand in warning; a line had been crossed. They drove in silence, both boys pouting, until a small voice, almost a whisper, could be heard above the highway.

“Whatever, natural angler,” said Connor.

Bob turned back but couldn’t keep a straight face, and Connor, clearly relieved, giggled wildly. In the end even Shya couldn’t stay mad, and for a brief, bewildering moment Glen’s car filled with the family’s laughter.

By the time he pulled up to Kay’s house it was getting dark, and Bob made each son thank Glen before they disappeared up the front steps and inside. Glen had spent the rest of the drive trying to figure out what to do with Bob’s… what had it been? A plea? A prediction? He wanted to believe Kay was unaware of Bob’s plans, if he’d even had any, but who knew? Maybe she’d told her husband not in order to normalize it but to bring it to a natural conclusion, in order to give her husband the option to end it, or to suggest that ending. Maybe she’d wanted Glen to see what she stood to lose. Bob was doing one last sweep of the backseat, and there was an inertia to the night he could not deny. With each passing second the idea of changing course seemed increasingly remote. He had to resist right then, chart out another path for them all with whatever pain that might entail, or be swept along in the direction he’d been pointed. Either way, he thought, it was his choice. It was his choice alone. And it was easier than he expected.

Shya Scanlon is the author of the novel The Guild of Saint Cooper (Dzanc Books) and the poetry collection In This Alone Impulse (Noemi Press). He received his MFA from Brown University. His essays and short fiction have appeared in Lit Hub, Guernica, The Literary Review, The Mississippi Review, The Believer, The Rupture, Hobart, and elsewhere.

Chinese artist Wowser Ng is based in London where he graduated with an MA from University of the Arts London. Brightly-colored digital paintings provide new possibilities for Asia queer depiction in abstract and figurative works. Ng challenges pop culture by appropriating fashion products to form visual narratives and uses stylized abstract images in his research.