Conway RidesIan Breen
The mechanical horse stands outside the entrance to K-Mart, a stallion on a stalk. It is coated with bright, greasy-looking paint that has chipped off in spots to reveal gray metal underneath. One hoof reaches forward in a frozen gallop, and a black electrical cord runs out the rump like a second tail. Conway places his palm on the molded saddle and waits while his mother rummages through her purse for a tissue. He sat on the horse once, years ago, while his father watched with hands in pockets and cigarette pinched between grinning lips. Although he has recently turned nine, the desire to ride it lingers like his father’s smell on the shirts in his closet at home. He is swinging his leg over the horse’s back when his mother glances up and sees him.
“Conway Martin, get down off there right now.”
“Why? It’s just a toy." His breath drifts toward the parking lot in a thin cloud.
“It could be dangerous. Now get down.”
Conway frowns; his mother thinks everything is dangerous. “Dad would let me ride it.”
Her mouth tightens. She turns and walks toward the automatic doors. Conway presses the coin-return button on the money box as he always does with pay phones and vending machines, but no change comes out. He pats the horse’s flank one more time and follows his mother inside. She has pulled a shopping cart from its corral and stands perusing a list taken from the pad stuck to their refrigerator. Although it is only K-Mart, she is wearing a lot of makeup and one of her nicest outfits.
They start down an aisle, Conway trailing slightly behind. His mother takes items from the shelves seemingly at random, examines the prices, and then puts them back. As they reach the end of the aisle, she stops. Without looking up from the box of Brillo pads in her hands, she says, “I know this is hard for you to hear, Connie, but your father is good-for-nothing. He only cares about himself, not about—” she swallows and tilts her face toward the overhead fluorescents.
He has heard her say things like this many times, long before his father went to jail three months ago. Sometimes, lying in bed at night, he used to hear them arguing in the kitchen. His mother’s shrill voice would rise higher and higher, drowning out his father’s bass rumble and even penetrating the pillow pulled tight around his ears. She seems about to say something more but instead drops the Brillo box into the cart and continues walking.
Conway’s father is good for lots of things. He can throw a baseball like a rocket. He can sing, which he likes to do with the lights off and the stereo turned all the way up. He can tell great bedtime stories—scary, but not too scary. He can burp louder than anybody at school. He knows the best places to go fishing and how to cook what they catch on the grill.
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