Chapter Four - Noel

One warm evening in August, I was on the back porch, drawing in the twilight, when the phone rang inside. A few moments later, George poked out his head. "Phone for you, Malcolm. Says his name is Davenport." Despite my resolutions, my heart leapt and I got to my feet -- the phone cord didn't reach further than the kitchen -- to take the call. Mary Kate was washing up from supper, and gave me a worried look as I picked up the receiver.

"Malcolm Carmichael," I said.

"Malcolm, it's Oliver. I'm in Chicago for a few days and I'd love to see you."

"I don't think that would be a good idea," I began.

"Just for lunch," Oliver said. "I'm going back to Louisville tomorrow afternoon. I'm not even alone -- there's someone I want you to meet."

"Who?"

"A potential employer." I sighed heavily and he said, "I know you said you don't want my help, but at least meet the man, Malcolm. Hear him out. I think this position would suit you perfectly."

"All right," I said. "Thank you, Oliver."

"Though I still wish you'd let me take care of you."

I removed the phone from my ear a moment, and when I put it back I said, "How's Elizabeth?"

There was a pause. "Pregnant."

"Congratulations," I said sincerely. There was no stab of jealousy like there might have been four months ago. They had found their own way to make their marriage work, and it was no longer any of my concern. "Where do you want to meet?"

"My hotel is downtown -- Palmer House. You'll love it, it's like a work of art."

We agreed to meet in the lobby at noon, and to eat in the Empire Room, the hotel's main restaurant, and we hung up. Mary Kate was still washing the dishes, so I went to the sink to dry them and stack them in the drying rack. "What did Oliver want?"

"He asked me to lunch. He thinks he's found a job for me."

"You already have a job."

"Just summer school," I said. "It'll be over in a few weeks, and I haven't found what I want to do next yet."

She handed me a wet plate and I swiped the towel over it. She was frowning, and I said, "Out with it."

"You haven't found what you want to do next because you're looking for something perfect, which doesn't exist. No job is perfect." She paused, washing a glass. "No lover is perfect, either."

I dried another plate. "I'm not looking for perfection."

"Really? You're not holding everyone to an impossible standard?"

"That's not fair," I said.

She leaned her head on my arm. "Sorry. Sorry, love. Whenever you go out you look so hopeful and then you come back so depressed. I have no idea what goes on between men --"

"Basically the same things that happen between men and women." "-- but whatever it is, it's not making you happy."

I wiped a glass with the dishtowel. It wasn't hard to find places where men like me gathered, and I'd met a few that I liked, but none of them were special enough to keep.

She said softly, "Nothing's quite so hard to replace as a dead lover. They'll always be perfect in your memory."

"You don't know anything about it," I snapped -- and then winced, because she knew better than anyone.

She put down the dish she was washing and stalked out of the kitchen. I started to follow and she whirled to me and spat, "Don't you dare, Malcolm Carmichael."

So I didn't follow. I finished the dishes, dried them and put them away, and went out to the porch again to contemplate my shortcomings in the dark.

***

It was raining that Saturday, so I took a taxi to the Palmer House hotel. I was early -- no sign of Oliver in the lobby -- though I did discover that the restaurant was up a sweeping staircase, a sight that made me sigh.

I chose one of the leather armchairs near the staircase and took out my sketchbook to pass the time. I drew a few quick studies of the more interesting faces of the people who passed through the lobby with their umbrellas and raincoats, but none of them really caught my attention until a man entered the lobby through the Monroe Street doors -- a man so lovely that my pencil paused and my breath caught.

He was tall and broad-shouldered, with wide-set eyes that swept over the lounge in a cool, measured way, and a stern set to his features, like someone accustomed to being in command. His dark hair was pushed back from his face, thick, wavy, and longer than was currently fashionable. His clothes fit his body perfectly, from the cuffs of his raincoat to the toes of his Oxfords, and all looked expensive and custom-made. His bearing was military-straight, not an unusual sight in those post-war days, his shoulders a perfect square and his feet planted solidly on the marble floor.

He was the most beautiful man I'd ever seen. Just one look and I wanted him, fervently and fully and without hope of possession.

I drew a quick sketch of him as he stood there, just a few spare lines to capture the width of his shoulders and the shape of his face, until Oliver Davenport came down the stairs and joined him. They exchanged a few words in a familiar way that told me this was the colleague Oliver wanted me to meet. It took a moment of searching for Oliver to find me, and then he smiled and gestured for the man to follow him as he crossed the lobby.

I put my pencil and sketchbook away in my own raincoat and got to my feet so we could greet each other and exchange pleasantries. "Malcolm Carmichael, this is Noel Thibodeaux," Oliver said to introduce us, "my colleague from New Orleans," and we shook hands. Noel's skin was cool from being out in the rain, and his hand lingered in mine a moment longer than a usual handshake did.

"A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Carmichael," he said in a voice that spoke to me of jazz music and air fragrant with spices. His eyes were the color of the ocean, blue and green and grey at once, and it seemed to me that they held the same hunger as mine as we gazed at each other.

Oliver glanced from Noel to me and back, and then he slapped us both on our backs in his most jovial manner. "Come, gentlemen, the roast beef here is said to be excellent," he said and herded us to the staircase.

I was about to grasp the banister and begin the task of hauling myself up when Noel said, "Oliver, there's a pub on this floor, isn't there? We ought to eat there instead."

I looked at him, surprised enough not to cut in that I didn't need to be coddled, and Oliver said, "Oh! Oh, of course. Let's go to the pub instead."

"Thanks," I murmured to Noel as we crossed the lobby to the pub, and he shrugged a shoulder.

"Don't mention it," he said easily.

The food and atmosphere in the pub was not as upscale as it must have been in the main restaurant, but that suited me just fine -- I was so taken with Noel Thibodeaux that I hardly noticed the surroundings aside from dark woods and the murmur of male voices.

We took off our raincoats, settled into a booth, and perused the menu. Oliver was a hale and hearty man, but Noel's cool beauty made him seem coarse by comparison. Noel's voice was a low drawl; it made Oliver's Kentucky accent, which I had previously found charming, seem rushed and grating. Everything about Noel made me compare him to Oliver and find Oliver lacking.

"Noel is one of our engineers," Oliver informed me. "He designs the water systems for our high-rises."

"Or I tell you if a location doesn't have enough water," Noel said.

Oliver waved a hand. "You've found ways to make it work."

"True. What's a few thousand gallons less for farmland, here and there," Noel remarked. I drank my coffee, smiling behind my cup, and our eyes met and lingered before parting again. We were enjoying the pub's roast beef sandwiches when Oliver said, "Noel, I lured Malcolm out today with the prospect of employment. Would you like to tell Malcolm your situation or shall I?"

"I will." Noel wiped his mouth with a paper napkin and said, "My brother and his wife died in a fire last March. They left their son in my care. He was so traumatized by the fire that he hasn't spoken a word since, and while I know nothing about raising a child I do know that putting him in a school won't help his situation. He sees a child psychologist twice a week, but she isn't in a position to help him with his schooling. I'm looking for someone to tutor him until he's ready to be among other children."

"When he told me this, I immediately thought of you," Oliver said to me, and I managed to look merely grateful instead of blatantly ecstatic.

"What's your nephew's name?" I asked Noel.

The stern lines of his face softened. "Caleb. Caleb Thibodeaux. He's just turned five."

"That's right in my age group," I said. "I've been teaching first and second-graders since 1947."

"Did you teach before the war?"

"I did -- I taught high school French in San Francisco, where I grew up."

"Why didn't you go back? I've always thought it's a lovely city, when I've visited."

No matter how attracted I was to him, I was not about to tell a complete stranger about the ghosts that kept me away from home. I merely said, "I needed a change of scenery."

"God," Noel murmured, "I understand that," and our gazes held each other's again. Oliver drank his martini, looking away.

"Where did you serve, Mr. Thibodeaux?"

"Pacific theater," he said.

"Malcolm was in Europe," Oliver put in. "He was in one of the units that invaded on D-Day."

"Was that where you were wounded?" Noel asked me.

"That didn't happen until later," I said. "In Hurtgen Forest, after the battle of Paris."

"Noel's service is still classified," Oliver said.

"Oh?" I said to Noel.

Noel smiled, tight-lipped, and sipped his water. "It's nothing that dramatic. I was in the Pioneer Troops."

The Pioneer Troops were legendary, even among those of us who had served in Europe -- a volunteer unit of army engineers trained in jungle warfare, who prepared the way for the infantry to follow. It took a special kind of bravery to serve in a unit like that, and my admiration for Noel Thibodeaux only grew.

Oliver, I should add, did not enlist and got a deferment for the draft due to having four dependent children. His children with his first wife were in their teens at the time, and his and Elizabeth's two oldest boys were just toddlers when the war began.

I said to Noel, "I believe it -- you move like someone accustomed to not making a sound."

"And we've only known each other half an hour," he remarked. "Astounding."

"Malcolm is a keen observer," said Oliver. "It's the artist in him."

Noel looked at me, his head tipped to the side just enough to show his curiosity, and I said, "Artist is a bit grand for what I do. I draw cartoons." "He's just being modest," Oliver said. "Show him a picture, Malcolm."

Feeling like a show pony, I took out my pocket sketchbook and flipped it open to my latest subject -- the quick sketch of Noel in the lobby, regal and cool as a young king. Noel looked at it and then looked at me, a corner of his mouth tugging up as if against his will.

"Very fine work," he said, and then hesitated a moment before taking out a slim leather-bound photo wallet from his own suit jacket. On one side, it contained a family portrait: a man who looked almost exactly like Noel, except he didn't have Noel's military-straight bearing and did have a broad and ready smile; a young woman with a sweet, pretty face and dark hair in a braid that fell over her shoulder; and a little boy, three or four the time, with the same dark wavy hair, wide-set eyes, and broad cheekbones his father and uncle possessed. They posed in a comfortable family group: the father standing behind mother and child with a hand on her shoulder, the mother seated, the child leaning against her knee.

Noel said softly, "My twin, Simon; his wife, Grace, and Caleb."

The other side of the wallet held a picture of Noel and Simon in Army and Navy dress uniforms respectively. Simon had achieved the rank of petty officer, and wore the medals we all had been given for service and for victory. Noel, in addition to those medals, had a Bronze Star, a medal given for heroic action.

They were both laughing joyfully when the picture had been snapped, clearly happy to be together now that the war was over. From the ring on Simon's finger, I thought the picture must have been taken when he married Grace -- quite probably the first and only time both men had gotten out their dress uniforms once they came home. My own dress uniform was in a garment storage box at my father's house, along with my Purple Heart and other medals in a velvet bag meant for transporting jewelry.

I gave the wallet back. "I'm interested in the position, Mr. Thibodeaux."

"I'm interested in offering it to you, Mr. Carmichael," Noel said, and Oliver looked less than pleased, and unsettled by it. But I supposed he hadn't thought Noel and I would generate such electricity between us, either.

We ended our meal with light small talk, and as we were having coffee, Noel said, "Where is a good place to catch a cab, Oliver?"

"Don't want to walk in the rain, Noel?" Oliver said, his tone still jovial.

Noel smiled thinly again, his cool gaze fixed on Oliver, and Oliver cleared his throat uncomfortably and finished his coffee in a single gulp. Noel may have been Oliver's employee -- or a consultant for his firm, I wasn't clear on how the construction business worked -- but it seemed to me that Oliver wanted to stay in his good graces. Noel was such a young man, a year or two older than me at most, but he commanded the room like those born into power. I wanted to know how he had achieved this cool, regal grace. I wanted to hear his stories, from the front and from home. Everything I knew about him fascinated me already, and I longed to know more.

Noel said, calm, "I mean for Mr. Carmichael."

"Oh," Oliver said as if the notion hadn't occurred to him. "There's a cab stall in front of the hotel. I'll have the doorman hail a cab for him."

"It's not necessary," I said. "I can hail my own cab."

Noel met my eyes. "Rain makes your leg ache."

"That's true," I admitted.

"There's no need for you to wait in the wet as cabs pass you by." He looked at Oliver expectantly, and Oliver nodded like he'd just been put in his place and rose from the table.

"I'll be right back." He left the pub.

As soon as he was out of earshot, Noel said to me in a low voice, "I want to see you again."

"Name the time," I answered. "Are you staying here?"

"No, I don't like this place. I find it too full of self-satisfied businessmen."

I laughed and he smiled, faintly, more with his eyes than his mouth. "I'll come to your hotel, then," I said.

"No, not there, either. I'll come to you."

"I live with my sister and her family," I said. "It's no place for -- for an assignation."

"I just want to talk," Noel said and I must have shown my dismay because he put his hand on mine before hastily taking it away. "Don't look so disappointed." "No, you're right. We should talk alone." I tore out a page from my sketchbook and wrote Mary Kate's address on it, and handed it to him as Oliver returned.

"What's this?" he said, his eyes darting from the folded page to my face. "Passing notes?"

"It's Mr. Carmichael's address, so that I can discuss the position with him further once our other business is finished." Noel put the paper away in his coat pocket and held out his hand to me. "Such a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Carmichael. We'll talk again soon."

"We will," I said, shaking his hand, and I watched him leave the lobby with longing.

As we waited in the lobby for my cab, Oliver said, "You like him."

"I do."

"He likes you, too."

"It would appear so," I said.

Oliver started to speak, stopped, and then said, "Don't let the Creole charm fool you, Malcolm. Noel Thibodeaux is a cold one, even before the war. He was completely devoted to his work until this matter with his nephew came along. I didn't even think he liked children until he asked if I knew how to find a tutor."

"Do you know anything about his brother? The twin?"

Oliver shrugged. "Very little. I know they were close -- Noel took almost a month of bereavement leave when he and his wife died. I'm sure part of that was trying to get Caleb settled." He glanced at me. "I think you'll be good for him."

"Thank you."

He was quiet a moment, then said, "I come down to New Orleans three or four times a year. I could--"

"No, Oliver," I said. "You've got other responsibilities. Don't even think about me."

Before he could answer, one of the bellhops came to tell us my cab had arrived, so Oliver walked with me through the lobby to the main entrance to the hotel. The doorman held an umbrella over our heads and opened the cab door for me, and I got in and arranged my cane beside me.

Before the cab could pull away, Oliver bent down and said, "One more thing, Malcolm. Noel asked me a strange question when we were talking about you. He wanted to know if you believe in ghosts."

I forced myself to laugh. Now was not the time to go into all of the grey faces I saw. "You can tell him I don't," I said.

Oliver nodded with a faint smile, closed the door, and patted the top of the cab to tell it to go.

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