Chapter Twenty-Two - A Little Night Music
I'd never really been courted before. When I was a boy, sometimes a girl would invite me to dinner with her family in the hope I'd ask her to a social or the pictures, but I've never had a boy or man show his interest by baking me cookies or writing me poetry or sitting in my parlor to drink a cup of tea with my parents. Of course, courtship is about marriage, and marriage was never my priority; after Daniel, even living with someone felt like more than I could hope for.
It was different with Noel. Of course it was; everything about Noel was different than the men who had come before -- this includes Oliver, the closest I had come to loving someone in over a decade.
One might think it was easier to be together when we already lived in the same house; but there was Emmanuel and his suspicions, there was Noel's work that took him away for three or four days every week through November as his clients scrambled to prepare projects before year's end; and there was looking after Caleb, which took up most of my time and energy daily.
Noel and I took our moments when we found them. We worked together in the library on the nights Noel was home, or Noel read out out to me, his accent and rich voice making every word sound like a song. We played with Caleb and took him with us into the city to see a picture or eat at a cafe. Sometimes we even risked stealing kisses in the garden or in the passages after dark. When our eyes met across the dinner table or over Caleb's head, it was like saying, I'm with you. I'm here, too.
At the end of the month, Noel was due home after five days in the midwest. He wouldn't be traveling any more for the rest of the year, much to Caleb's delight as well as mine, and it was with great ceremony that I had written ZERO under "Days Until Uncle Noel Is Home" on our countdown chalkboard that morning. His train wasn't due until well after midnight, so we put Caleb to bed and told him Noel would be there when he woke up in the morning.
I had the duty of meeting Noel's train. I usually did now, as it freed up Willie to look after Emmanuel and I could bring Caleb with me, if it was early enough in the day, and we would eat or shop in the city before taking Noel home.
But since this train would be so late I went by myself, and I was grateful for the increasingly rare chance to be alone with Noel. It was strange to want and be wanted, and yet do so little about it; and Noel was right, it wasn't easy.
To my surprise, and it would probably surprise many of the men who'd known me in the past, I didn't mind waiting. For the first time in my life, I could be patient.
Still, if the opportunity to touch a little presented itself, I wanted to take it. I hoped Noel wasn't so tired from traveling that he would agree.
It wasn't a long wait for his train to arrive, and as usual there was a small trickle of travelers along with the people who had come to meet them up and down the platform. Noel was easy to see -- the eye is drawn to the familiar, to the treasured. He smiled faintly at the sight of me, and I came to him with a soft, "Hi. Welcome back."
"Hi," he replied, just as soft. "It's good to be back." I took his elbow -- normally I hated to lean on anyone, but with Noel I would take any excuse I could find to touch him -- and we left the station.
"Do you want to go straight home or could we stop a little?" I said as we drove out of the city.
"We could stop a little," Noel said and give me a look from the corner of his eye that made me smile in anticipation.
I waited until we were out in the bayou, and pulled over to a little glade where the only light came from fireflies dancing in the thick branches overhead. I turned off the engine and faced Noel, my back to the door, and began, "Noel--"
He launched himself across the seat and kissed me fiercely, his hands in my hair and his knees on either side of my hips. I put my arms around his waist and pulled him tight against me, overcome with need for his skin, his mouth, his body. From the way his hands raked through my hair and the way his mouth devoured mine, he was just as overcome.
"I missed you," he muttered and gave a sucking kiss to my jaw. "There was this man in Columbus -- he threw himself at me -- I didn't want him at all, I just wanted you --"
"Are you telling me that to make me jealous?" I was pulling at his shirt, tugging down his trousers, too hungry for Noel's body to think about this mysterious man in Ohio.
"No. Just--" He stopped kissing me and held my face in both hands. His gaze bored into mine. "I knew I'd be coming home to you."
I smiled and whispered, "I'm glad you came home to me," as I arched up to kiss him. It didn't hit me until a moment later, what he was saying -- and the realization just made me kiss him harder, pull him to me tighter. My kisses were greedy and possessive, like a miser running his fingers through his treasure -- and Noel returned each one freely, generously, his body mine to touch and appreciate and cherish.
When he took me in his mouth I grasped the top of the open window. My head tipped back. I was so addled with lust that as he sucked me off I thought the stars were swaying in the sky; I came, laughing, when I realized it was just the fireflies.
Noel knelt up, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "What is it?"
"Fireflies," I said and pulled him to me by the hips. "I saw fireflies."
"Oh, is that all," Noel answered, and then pushed his hands into my hair and didn't say anything beyond my name for a while.
We sprawled on the long front seat after, the windows open to let in the scents and sounds of the night around us. His shirt was open and I ran my fingers absently over his chest as I leaned against his side. I wrote our names with my fingertips and drew hearts around them, rubbed them away and replaced them with stars and circles.
Noel murmured, "During the war, I was one of the few men in my unit without a wife or a sweetheart. I used to wonder what it would be like, having someone to come home to. It's ... It's nice."
I turned back my head and softly kissed his neck. He sighed and held my cheek.
I said, "We should go out Saturday night."
He regarded me, his gaze fond. "And do what?"
"Listen to some music, drink some good beer. I'd love to see one or two of the places you and Simon used to sneak off to when you were boys." I put on my best imitation of Rene's accent, "It's N'awlins, cher. Let's listen to some jazz."
Noel sighed and gave my shoulder a push, so I sat back so he could straighten up and rebutton his shirt. "Simon used to play in clubs all over town. Everybody knew him. I haven't been to any clubs since the fire. The funeral was bad enough."
I'd been privileged to see a jazz funeral or two in the time I'd been here. "Was it a big funeral? Was there singing?"
"There must have been two hundred people at the wake." He smiled to himself, and I supposed the memory was not as terrible as it had been when the grief was still raw. "There was singing. Dancing, too. It's N'awlins, cher." Of course, when he said it, it sounded natural and sweet instead of like a vaudeville parody. Then he said, his voice soft, "I can't bear it when people tell me how much they miss him."
"Of course they miss him," I said. "They loved him, too." He turned unhappy eyes to me, and I put my hand on the back of his neck and leaned our foreheads together. "I think you need to get back to doing things you enjoy instead of avoiding them out of grief."
"Does it help?" he said in a challenging sort of tone.
"It helps it stop hurting."
He huffed again, but didn't move away from my hand. "You just want to listen to some music."
"Also true," I said. "I want to listen to some music with you."
Noel exhaled slowly. "All right, let's listen to some music."
I kissed him in thanks, and then in appreciation, and then in a few other things, before finally pulling away and driving us back to Fidele.
Saturday, Samuel Christie came to Fidele for the day to play with Caleb. Alex brought Samuel in his truck soon after breakfast, as it was too wet to walk, and since Noel was home he said he'd watch the boys while they played.
Left to my own devices, I drew for a while, and then put my pencils and sketchbook away to stretch my legs. The boys' game had spread out from the nursery and the schoolroom, as it often did when they were forced to play inside, and Noel was sprawled on one of the sofas in the vestibule in front of a roaring fireplace, his own notebook open on his knee.
I paused and put my hand on his shoulder, and he looked up at me with a brief smile. No need to speak, so I moved on, this time to the kitchen to talk to Mrs. Bell.
I had a plan, you see. During the war we'd been fed Thanksgiving dinner every November, and at Goodwin School we observed it as a long weekend and fed it to the boys who lived too far away to go home for just four days. I hadn't grown up with Thanksgiving but I liked it, and as the day approached I wanted to bring it to Fidele.
Mrs. Bell was dropping batter into a pot of hot oil when I came to the kitchen. "Mrs. Bell," I said, "would you like to help me with a nefarious plot?"
"You know I don't go in for nefarious, Mr. Malcolm."
"It's not terribly nefarious. I would like to give the Thibodeauxes Thanksgiving dinner, if you would be willing to help with the cooking."
"Thanksgiving dinner," she said, and gave me one of those semi-pitying looks she employed when I displayed my ignorance of the household’s ways. "Mr. Emmanuel doesn't observe holidays."
"Only the ones that involve commemorating the dead, it seems to me."
She shrugged at that. "Help me with these fritters, would you?" I came to the stove, and she showed me how to drop spoonfuls of the cornbread batter into the oil. They sizzled and popped as they began to fry.
I said as we worked, "I'll buy the food. I could even make the pumpkin pie. I just don't know how to cook a turkey. Though," I added as it occurred to me, "it's probably a lot like baking a chicken, don't you think?"
She shook her head again. "Mr. Emmanuel would never allow it."
"Is it the expense? Or the meaning? Would he rather forget he’s got a family?"
Mrs. Bell frowned as she turned the fritters. I could hear Delia, Willie's daughter who helped with the housekeeping, singing to herself as she set the table in the dining room. Mrs. Bell said, "Mr. Emmanuel has a lot to remember."
"A lot to regret, too, I'd say." She didn't respond, and I said, "Has he ever told you why he never married again?"
"No, but I know. He loved Miss Fabienne to distraction. Would have walked the world over for her if she asked." I huffed, and she said, "I know it's hard to believe now, but Mr. Emmanuel wasn't always a hard man. He was in France when the twins were born -- he didn't know she had died until a month later, it took that long for the letter to find him. The Army couldn't even get him home until the next summer."
I poked the fritters as they sizzled in the pot of hot oil. "I'd be more sympathetic if I also didn't know how he took out his grief on Noel."
"Well," Mrs. Bell said, but didn't finish the thought. "Those are the right color now, Mr. Malcolm." She handed me a kitchen spider and I carefully dipped out the fritters to place on a cooling rack. The excess oil would drip onto a baking pan, leaving the fritters crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.
"What do you eat these with?"
"Jam or honey," she said. "Though Mr. Noel likes them with just a dash of salt." She had slices of ham frying in another pan and fresh peaches sliced for the lot of us.
"That sounds delicious." I added as I continued dipping out the fritters, "I'll take responsibility for the dinner. I'm sure I can find a way to assure Emmanuel it's not going to ruin his reputation as a curmudgeon."
She smiled at me and said, "I think it's best we don't make a fuss over it. Will you tell Mr. Noel and the boys that lunch is ready?"
"Will do." I left the kitchen to get Noel and the boys.
Noel was in the vestibule, reading, his notebook put aside. His choice of literature was one of the adventure novels I had brought, I was pleased to see. "Where are Lancelot and Galahad?" I asked him as I joined him on the sofa, and he moved his feet to make room.
Noel pointed up as I heard the tell-tale sound of galloping overheard. "Still upstairs, defending Camelot from the Questing Beast."
"I'm surprised they never get tired of playing knights."
"I'm sure they will once they discover a new interest. Spacemen and astronauts, maybe." He leaned back his head against the sofa arm, his finger holding his place in the book. He wore his reading glasses, which I always enjoyed -- they made him look like a young professor about to lecture on poetry. "Neither of them have much interest in rescuing princesses."
"They're only five," I said. "Girls have cooties, even princesses."
"Still," Noel said, "I wish they would. Emmanuel would be happy to point out the lack of princesses is due to my corrupting influence."
"If Caleb still isn't interested in girls in ten years, Emmanuel might have a point. Meantime, let them play. There's plenty of time for heartbreak later."
"Heartbreak?" Noel said, looking at me through his long, thick lashes, and I had to swallow hard. "That's where your mind goes when you think about love?"
"A hard lesson taught by experience," I answered, and then slapped his foot. "I was set to fetch you to lunch. Come, eat." I got to my feet and shouted upstairs, "Caleb! Samuel! Lunch is ready!"
I heard them running down the gallery on the second floor -- and then instead of coming down the stairs, Caleb slipped between the spindles of the banister and waved to us.
"Jesus Christ!" Noel shouted and was on his feet at once. "Caleb Thibodeaux, get out of there!"
Caleb's happy smile disappeared and he looked frightened as he tried to push himself back through the spindles. Samuel called out from behind him, "It's the portcullis, Mr. Noel! Every castle has one!"
"It's twenty goddamn feet in the air, is what it is," Noel said as he bounded up the stairs, two at a time. "Caleb! Stay where you are. I'll get you."
I positioned myself under where Caleb would likely land if he lost his grip, but before he could even try to push himself through the spindles again, Noel yanked Caleb onto the safety of the landing by the back of his shirt.
"What's with you and terrifying me, huh?" Noel said, hanging onto Caleb tight. Caleb clung to him around his neck and kissed his cheeks, and Noel sighed. "Yes, I love you too," he said quietly. "Just don't take chances like that, peanut, okay? Come on." He put Caleb down and held out his other hand to Samuel. "Lunch is ready."
"There's ham and cornbread fritters," I said, and the boys pelted toward the kitchen.
Noel followed more slowly, and when he reached me he took hold of my elbow and leaned against me for a moment. I patted his hair. "Don't worry so much," I said, hoping to reassure him. "Small boys are made of India rubber."
"I live in dread of the day we discover that isn't true." He sighed and straightened up. "I'm better now. Let's eat."
We headed toward the kitchen ourselves, and Noel said, "Where in the world did they learn the word 'portcullis'?"
That night, with Samuel home again and Caleb in bed, Noel and I drove into the city. We planned to stay out until the last club closed on Bourbon Street, though I suspected that might prove too much for Noel. As much as I hoped that running into Simon's old friends would be comforting, I was worried it would turn out to be painful instead. If there were places he wanted to avoid, I wouldn't press it -- I would just hope Noel would want to try another time.
Noel parked the Jaguar in a public lot in the French Quarter. We sat for a few minutes as we watched the Saturday-night crowd go by -- or rather, Noel watched the crowd and I watched Noel.
I said, "We can do this another time."
Noel gave a slight start, as if he'd forgotten I was there, then said, "No ... No. It's fine. I want to. You wanted to hear some music. So do I. Come on." He got out of the car.
We walked slowly through the crowd, my hand in the crook of Noel's elbow. Perfectly acceptable, of course, the able-bodied man supporting the crippled one, but I liked it much more than I normally did when someone tried to help. With Noel, it was never condescending.
We passed a club or two, where we could hear blues pouring out from one and more up-tempo jazz from the other. The buildings were what a newcomer might picture when they think of New Orleans -- Creole-style brick with tall doors and windows, little bistros on the balconies overhead, the air perfumed with flowers that hung from the wrought iron railings.
"When you and Simon were boys, how would you get into the city?" I said as we walked.
"We'd hitchhike until we learned to drive," Noel said. "Then we'd just take one of Fidele's cars." He smiled a little. "Wille would leave the keys to the truck in the kitchen."
"So he knew."
"Of course. We couldn't hide anything from Willie." He paused and looked up at a sign that hung over the sidewalk that read "Club 4/4" in blue neon light. "This is a good place to start."
We went inside. Like most bars and clubs I'd seen in the city so far, there was a bar at one end and a stage at the other, with booths and tables along the walls and plenty of room for dancing. Business appeared to be brisk, though it wasn't as crowded as the more well-known places like Preservation Hall or the Famous Door; but most of the tables and every booth was occupied, and the trio on the stage played confidently behind a girl singer with a strong, rich voice.
We ordered a pitcher of beer and took it to one of the empty tables, near the stage. The sax player missed a note in his trill, making the singer look at him sternly, but they all picked up and kept going.
The music was good enough to make me smile and tap my foot. Noel sipped his beer, listening with a serious expression.
When the song ended, the singer said, "We're going to take five," and all four of them got down from the stage. Noel smiled and stood as the girl ran into his arms and kissed both his cheeks.
"Noel Thibodeaux," she said and slapped his arm. "We thought you'd been swallowed by the swamp."
"I've been a little busy," Noel said, and shook hands with the musicians. "This is Malcolm Carmichael. He's Caleb's tutor." I got to my feet too and shook their hands, and the singer kissed my cheek, too. "Cozy Romero," Noel said, indicating the saxophone player, "Fess Johnson," the bass player, "Remy Leblanc," the pianist, "and Eula Charles," the singer. They were all about our age, Negro, well-dressed. Fess had lost a leg below the knee, and Remy had burn scars on his face. We nodded to each other in recognition, fellow veterans one to another.
They pulled over chairs and another table, and one of the waitresses brought more glasses and another pitcher of beer.
"I thought I was seeing a ghost when y'all came in," said Cozy as he poured. "Threw me off my rhythmn."
"Sorry," Noel said.
"Hey, it was a dumb mistake." The glasses full, they all picked up theirs. Noel and I did as well, and Cozy said, "To Grace and Simon." They repeated it softly, and drank. So did I; Noel's mouth twisted, and he drank.
Fess said, as he wiped foam off his lips, "The only sign we've had that you're still alive is that we still get paid. You need to show up sometimes, Noel. Let us know you're still breathing."
"I'll try to come around more often," Noel said.
I looked at Noel, eyebrows raised. "You neglected to mention you own a blues club."
He shrugged. "This was Simon's place," he said. "It'll be Caleb's when he's old enough, if he wants it. For now all of my involvement is I've hired a manager and sign the checks."
"The new manager is working out well," Eula said, patting Cozy's shoulder, and he nodded in thanks.
"Simon used to play with my pops, back in the day," said Cozy to me. "When the old owner wanted to sell this place, Simon bought it and told Pops he'd always have a place to play, as long as he wanted. Pops played here until the day he passed in '49."
That sounded like the Simon I was coming to know. "What happened to the old manager?"
"The old manager was Gracie," Cozy said softly, and all four of them drank again. I drank too, feeling chastised. Of course it was Grace. Their marriage fascinated me -- Simon was the dreamer, it seemed to me, while Grace kept his feet on the ground.
"How is Caleb?" Eula asked Noel. "I miss his sweet face."
"He's doing better."
"Is he speaking again?"
"Not yet," Noel said. "But he's reading and writing, and drawing a lot, and he's made a friend of the farm manager's son. Malcolm's doing a good job with him."
"Thanks," I murmured, as Eula beamed at me.
"I'm glad to hear it. I've been so worried -- the two of you in that big old house with your daddy."
"Emmanuel mostly keeps to himself, really," Noel said. "I only see him at suppertime or when he deigns to make an appearance. It could be worse."
"Mm-hm," Eula said, in a way that said she knew exactly how worse it could be. She asked me, "And what's your story, handsome?"
"French and art teacher from California," I said. "I play a little guitar, but I'm more of a fan than a player."
"Tell Noel he needs to come play more often," Eula said. "We've missed him."
"Noel," I said, and he smiled as he sipped his beer. "You need to play more often. Your friends have missed you."
"I've missed them too," Noel said quietly, "and I'll come play sometime. A Tuesday afternoon."
They all laughed, and spent a few minutes catching up on other friends and fellow musicians before they went back onto the stage. This time, Eula picked up a set of small bongo drums and sat in a chair by the piano. Cozy said into the microphone, "This is for Simon."
All conversation stopped. The trio and Eula went into a piece that featured the piano, backed by the other instruments. It was soft and lovely, in a minor key, but didn't have the melancholy feeling that many minor-key songs can have.
It wasn't a piece I recognized, but in a moment I knew Noel did. His gaze fixed on the table as if he couldn't bear to watch the musicians play, and his hands gripped each other under the table.
I reached over and put my hand on top of his, and after a moment or two he exhaled slowly and loosened his enough for me to weave our fingers together. I whispered, "Do you need to go?"
"No," he said and lifted up his head, resolute. "I should stay."
"Okay," I said, and went on holding his hand.
We ended up not visiting any other clubs that night, which I'm sure comes to no surprise, nor did we stay long past midnight. A few other patrons came to Noel during the night to say how glad they were to see him and how sorry they were about Simon, and Noel handled it gracefully. Still, I could see it was a relief to say good night to musicians and patrons alike, and walk back to the Jag.
To distract him as we walked, I said, "Thanksgiving is this week."
"Is it?" Noel said. My hand was once again wrapped around his elbow. A good thing, I thought, since his attention was utterly not on our surroundings.
I decided to be blunt. "Do you want to observe it?"
Noel inhaled, and then shrugged. "I never have, outside of the army, which served us dry turkey, lumpy mashed potatoes, and salty stuffing. No, thank you."
"I'll learn how to cook a turkey, if Mrs. Bell doesn't want to do it."
He glanced at me. "You're angling for something."
"Just Thanksgiving dinner. I like it. I think you all would like it, too."
Noel sighed. "Malcolm, we're not a happy family. Stop pretending you can make us into one."
"I don't believe it's too late for you," I said. "Caleb loves you, you love Caleb, Emmanuel loves Caleb--" Noel huffed at that, and I said, "He doesn't know how to show it, but he does. And Caleb wants to love Emmanuel. He's his grandfather, after all. Simon wanted them to have a relationship."
"You can't make everything better by serving us dinner," Noel said.
I was about to retort I knew that when a man stepped out of the alley and pointed an Army-issue revolver at us. "Give me your wallet!s"
His hand was shaking. He was white, skinny, with dilated pupils and clothes that had seen better days. His dogtags hung around his neck. His story was plain to see. Some vets made the best lives they could after the war -- some lost their way even after they came home.
I dropped Noel's arm. "Stay calm," I said to the man. "Nobody wants to get hurt."
"Shut up and give me your wallet!"
"I'm reaching for it now," I said, moving my hand to my back pocket. Beside me, I felt Noel tense.
Like quicksilver, Noel grabbed the man by the wrist and twisted the man's arm around his own neck. He wound a leg between both the man's and yanked, and they both fell to the pavement. The gun skittered away and I scrambled after it, and took out the bullets as Noel held the man down with a knee between his shoulder blades. He ordered, "At ease, soldier!" The man struggled, and Noel pressed harder. "I said at fucking ease."
The man finally went limp, and Noel released his arms. The man rolled out from under him and stumbled to his feet, and ran away as fast as he could manage.
"Hey!" Noel shouted after him, and then sighed and shoved a hand through his hair. "I was going to tell him where he could get some help. Dammit."
"Maybe he'll ask for it someday," I said. "What should we do with this?" I held up the gun by the trigger guard.
"Take it to the police, probably." He sighed again. "I'll do it on Monday."
I stuck the pistol in my waistband, and came to Noel. He was trembling -- adrenaline, I suspected, and memories. I took my face in his hands and kissed him.
"You're magnificent, you know," I said. He leaned his head against mine and sighed. "Want me to drive?"
"Please," Noel said, and I kept my arm around him as we walked the rest of the way to the parking lot.
Noel kept his thoughts to himself on the drive home, though he smiled at me briefly whenever I touched his arm or shoulder. I didn't blame him for keeping quiet. It had been one hell of a night.
Parked in the carriage house, I turned off the engine and said, "That song the trio played, with the bongos. Simon wrote that, didn't he?"
"He did," Noel said.
"It's beautiful. Did he write a lot of music?"
"Not a lot. He wasn't a natural songwriter. But some of them are really good."
"I bet Grace loved it," I said, and Noel looked at me with a faint frown. "That song was written for her, wasn't it?"
Noel got out of the car. "It written was for me." He left the carriage house.
>> Chapter Twenty-Three