Daddy’s motorcycle in our driveway on Valentine’s Day could mean only one thing; he was here without his girlfriend, Marnie. I rushed inside and wrapped him in a hug. He handed me a red, heart-shaped box with a picture of a girl whose eyes winked and her mouth kissed when you turned the box this way and that.
We sat around listening to Daddy tell us about the hospital and all of the people who came to see him, including a couple of newspaper reporters. He handed Mama a newspaper clipping with a headline saying, “Neon Tube Snaps inside Sword Swallower and Horrifies Crowd.” Underneath the headline was a photo of Daddy lying in the hospital bed, his index fingers pointing up and spread apart to show the length of tube the surgeons had removed.
“Never mind the crappy headline. You weren’t horrified were you, girls?”
Holly and I took cues from each other and shook our heads. Candy said what I wanted to say and I wished once more that I could get away with her unaffected honesty. “I was so scared for you, Daddy. I thought you were going to die.”
“Thing is, the doctor said there’s going to be some scar tissue in my gut. Could be a problem in the future. I’ve been practicing with knives.”
“Swallowing knives?” I said.
“No, no, no.” Daddy shook his head with each ‘no.’ “Throwing knives. Mario Morelli says I’m a natural.”
Mama brought Daddy a cup of coffee. Daddy blew across the top of the cup and then sipped up the cooled surface. “Perfect. You always knew how much sugar I needed.” He looked up at Mama with his flirting eyes and winked.
“Least I could do your coffee right,” was all Mama said back.
“You did a lot of things right, Edie. Damn, I miss your cooking.”
Mama almost smiled. Everyone said she was a great cook and a fantastic singer, but the only thing I think she believed was the cooking part.
“We’re having meatloaf tonight,” said Candy. “I helped Mama smush it together.” Candy held up her hands and wiggled her fingers. She turned to Daddy and asked what I wanted to ask, but feared the answer. “Can you stay for dinner? It’s Valentine’s Day.”
I glanced at Mama and sure enough, a red flush crept up her neck like it always did when she got flustered.
Daddy glanced at Mama. “Sorry, Candy-kin, can’t do that. But I sure would like to hear your Mama play and sing something.”
“Cum’on, Mama, it’s Valentine’s Day.” Candy jumped off his lap and opened the piano cover. “Play ‘Yellow Bird.’”
Mama dug in the piano bench where she kept her sheet music, and pulled out a folio. Candy sat on the bench next to her; Daddy relaxed on the sofa and lit another cigarette. I snuggled next to him, inhaling the mélange of scents that was Daddy in those days. Old Spice, Camel smoke, and Brylcreem lingered as incense to a god, forever sacred in my memory.
“Yellow bird, up high in banana tree. Yellow bird, you sit all alone like me. Did your ladyfriend leave the nest again...”
Mama sang. Daddy drew in the cigarette and fixed his eyes on Mama with the exhale, the smoke lifting and twisting and reaching toward her like I wanted him to do with his arms. The smoke dissipated before it reached her, as the deepest part of me knew he’d never reach out for her again. Mama’s voice lifted the notes of the song with such sadness, like she was the yellow bird and someone was singing to her. Then I wondered if maybe Daddy had come here on Valentine’s Day because his ladyfriend left him and this was the only nest he’d known. I broke the spell when I asked him.
“So where’s Marnie on Valentine’s Day?”
Daddy looked at his watch. “Waiting for me.”
Mama finished her song, lifted her hands from the piano with the grace of a diva, and turned to him. “Now, don’t keep Marnie waiting.”