Early Friday afternoon, Daddy left mad.
He carried his guitar. The weather had turned so hot, the sweaty circles on his T-shirt looked like the wings of an insect against his back.
I followed him, dragging his duffel and panting. "Daddy, this thing is too heavy. What all are you carrying in here?"
What, besides his blue suede shoes and tight white jeans, did he need?
"Stuff," he said, and kept on going.
Okay, he needed a round brush and his diffuser and this tube of hair gunk he called "the genuine article." He'd dyed his honey-colored hair so black it made me think of fur, only I couldn't name an animal that would gleam navy blue in the sunlight, coated in Brylcreem.
Daddy always walked with a swagger as soon as he combed his hair in this rolled-over way. But this time it was a fast ticked-off swagger; I had to move it to make the driveway with any time to spare for questions.
I only had one: You're coming back, aren't you? Only I couldn't get up the nerve to ask.
I let the duffel drop next to his feet. He'd hung his white Elvis jacket from a curtain rod installed in the cab of his pickup truck. I saw a yellow butterfly had been trapped inside, drawn to the little rainbows bouncing off the shiny sequins.
That butterfly clamped itself to the back of Daddy's shoulder as he set his guitar case into the leg space of the passenger seat. He took no notice, saying, "I'm relying on you, Elvira."
"Me?" I lost my breath a little bit.
He threw the duffel into the back of the truck. He said, "Don't let things fall apart once I'm gone."
Daddy looked like he shouldn't have to tell me. He went around and got into the truck. That yellow butterfly was blown off a ways as the truck started up, then came back to flutter around like it was lost. I watched Daddy till he turned the corner, taking the back road out to the airport.
Now my breath came too fast. What did he expect me to do?
I went back into the house.
The minute Daddy started packing, Mel, my mother, took to the recliner like soap to a sponge. She hadn't moved. I said to her, "He would have taken you along if he could."
"He could have taken me if he wanted me along," she said. Her straight dark hair had been twisted up off her neck while I was out there with Daddy, and the ends stuck up at the back of her head like the bristles of a broom.
"Okay, but then we'd've of all had to go. By car. Lots more luggage, and about a million bathroom stops." She shot me a dirty look. "For Kerrie, of course," I added, but I'd been thinking about this. If this was Daddy's logic, it was, well, logical.
"I took care of my little sister when I was thirteen," Mel said.
"That was in the Dark Ages," I said. "There are laws against abandoning your children now."
"My folks went out of state to a funeral," she said, her eyes on the TV screen. "They left me in charge."
"That was more in the nature of an emergency, I guess."
"Miss Nelda would look in on you."
My eyes went wide. "She uses a walker. You can't expect her to jog over here every couple of hours."
"Okay, then. You could report to her."
"You don't mean that," I said, wondering how else to reply to a woman who had recently turned into a walking time bomb. "If you did, you'd have said it before Daddy left."
There were gunshots on TV.
Mel settled more deeply into the recliner. She's a movie junkie--that's what Daddy calls her, anyway, when she shells out for extra movie channels. Personally, I never thought this was a bad trait in a mother, just I had never seen the junkie part take such hold of her.
"I hope I don't have to tell you not to mention this idea to Kerrie," I said. "She'll have to be peeled off you like a Band-Aid for days. Weeks, even."
My sister, Kerrie, had recently turned eight, but she'd started behaving like she was three again. She wasn't the only one. "I hate it when you stop talking to me in the middle of a conversation," I said.
"I know." She flipped the channel.
Mel was not herself, I could see that. But she was not herself in the worst possible way. If she got tired in the middle of the railroad tracks and lay down to take a nap, wouldn't she get up if she heard the train whistle?
"You're really annoying me," I said.
"I know," we both said at the same time, and I left the room. I didn't know who to be mad at first: Daddy, who'd chugged off without so much as a wave good-bye, or Mel, who'd sent him away mad.
Daddy had entered a competition--he didn't like for us to call it a contest. He explained how the words make people feel. The person in a contest is a contestant, one of many trying to win, and the whole feel of the word is weak. But competitions are all about competency, and competence is strength.
The Elvis Bake-Off, that's what Mel called it, and anyone with half a brain would pack up and go after she ridiculed their competition that way. Daddy went out the door, singing, "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog, a-cryin' all the time."
We all knew the next line: Well, you ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine. The song echoed through my mind, over and over. I looked in on Kerrie, who was sitting in the middle of Mel and Daddy's bed.
There was stuff tossed all over the room, partly the usual mess of closets too small to hold everything, partly Daddy's packing mess. Kerrie added to it with a lot of cut-up newspaper.
She'd been trying for days to master the art of folding paper and cutting it to get connected paper dolls. She was sometimes successful enough to try it on white paper, but then she'd mess up again.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Love Me Tender by Audrey Couloumbis. Copyright © 2008 by Audrey Couloumbis. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.