Conway Rides

Ian Breen

Best of all, if his mother says no to something, his father is almost guaranteed to say yes. He gave Conway the BB gun he wanted for his birthday and showed him a place to hide it behind the woodpile. He also let him join Peewee football after his mother said it was too rough. You have to be bold, his father always says, because you only live once, and taking chances lets you know you’re alive.

On the last day he saw his father, Conway took the bus home from school and found him lying on his back on the orange shag rug in their living room. He was listening to music in his underwear, the white t-shirt tucked neatly into the waistband of his boxer shorts. His mother worked late at the dentist’s office on Thursdays, so it was just the two of them. After a snack, Conway settled down in the corner next to the bookshelves and flipped through his baseball card collection.

When the eight-track started playing “Disco Inferno,” his father reached up over his head and cranked the volume. It was one of his favorite songs, with a driving beat and slippery horns; he often played it over and over. “Saaaatisfaction,” the singer screamed, “came in a chain reaction. I couldn’t get enough, so I had to self-destruct.” The second time through, Conway slid over on his knees and asked, “Dad, what’s a chain reaction?”

His father sat up and turned the music down. He looked at Conway as if surprised to see him. After a moment, he said, “It’s when things have gone too far to be stopped.” Conway was about to ask how you knew things had gone too far when his father laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Listen to me, buddy. I want to tell you something.” He drew in a deep breath and let it out in a beery sigh. “Never let other people’s failures keep you from trying, okay?”

Conway nodded.

“Just because someone doesn’t succeed at something—like me, maybe—doesn’t mean you can’t. Do you understand?”

Conway scrunched up his lips and shrugged.

His father swallowed, his Adam’s apple going up and down like a light switch beneath his stubble. “And don’t let your mother turn you into a scaredy-cat. You have to take chances and do what you think you need to do.” He smiled and jabbed playfully at Conway’s stomach. “And why’s that?”

“Because you only live once,” Conway said. The next day his father was gone.

In the candy aisle, beckoned by the blaze of colors, Conway asks if he can have some Twizzlers. They don’t have the money for treats, his mother says, and besides, he doesn’t want to rot his teeth, does he? She’ll get him some sugar-free gum at the checkout.

Next comes the clothing section, which Conway likes because the haphazard arrangement of gleaming chrome racks resembles a maze. He wanders in and out among them, letting the hanging clothes rub against his face and arms. Sometimes with his father he would wade through a curtain of fabric and hide inside one of the racks. But when he tried it on the last trip here with his mother, instead of searching for him she started yelling his name in a quavering voice. She smacked him when he came out and told him never to do anything like that again.

As they pass a display of NFL team jerseys, they meet Mr. Nelson and his daughter Kayla, who is two grades older and a head taller than Conway. Father and daughter are dressed almost identically: sneakers, dark blue jeans, and ski jackets with dangling lift-tickets. A scarlet headband holds back Kayla’s beautiful shoulder-length curls.

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