This chapter contains brief violence, homophobia, character death.
The day after Daniel died, it had seemed to me that the sun shouldn’t rise and the tides should stop going in and out. I was mourning him, and the rest of the world should be mourning him, too. The days after Mardi Gras felt the same and yet its opposite: shouldn’t the sky be a brighter shade of blue? Shouldn’t the birds sing sweeter songs? Shouldn’t the Mississippi tumble and play like a freshwater creek in spring? I loved and was loved, and the world should reflect my joy.
The world spins on despite joy or sorrow, and so to anyone observing the household of Fidele, the days following Mardi Gras were quite ordinary. I taught Caleb and we played together; Noel joined us when he arrived home from work, and he read Caleb his bedtime story. Emmanuel came and went on his own schedule, always presiding over the supper table, though it seemed to me he glowered less and smiled more, and that gave me hope. Noel and Emmanuel would never be as close and trusting as my father and I, but they might find a way to be friends.
“Spring is coming,” Noel said one night. “I’ll be traveling a lot again soon.”
“We’ll miss you,” I said. “Just come home safe.”
“Always,” he said.
I felt like a poem, in those days. I felt like a song. Happiness was like air, all around to nourish and sustain us. A superstitious part of me said it couldn’t last, we’d be found out, we’d be separated somehow, but I refused to let it overtake my thoughts. Even if we couldn’t share a bed or take each other’s names, every time I looked at Noel I couldn’t stop myself from smiling as I thought, He loves me.
When Noel left for his business trips, I put the “Days Until Uncle Noel Comes Home” countdown back on the blackboard in the school room. Noel sent postcards to Caleb nearly every day, so we pinned them to the cork board and put more pins in the map of the country to trace the cities where Noel had gone. Caleb and I drew pictures of the places Noel mentioned or special things to see in the cities he visited, and pinned those to the map, too. We put pins in Atlanta and Houston, Savannah and Miami, Mobile and Nashville.
When Noel came back, it was hard to say who was happier, Caleb or me. Caleb, of course, could climb on Noel and give him kisses without anyone thinking this was strange. I had to wait until we were alone to say, “Welcome home, Uncle Noel,” and hear his answer, “It’s good to be home,” as we kissed.
But there were more trips for him to take, and nights his chair was empty; and if Caleb only poked listlessly at his supper I hardly blamed him.
The first two times Noel was away, Emmanuel hardly seemed to notice that anything was different, though he frowned sometimes if Caleb was reluctant to eat. On the first night of Noel’s third business trip, I went to Caleb’s room to read him his bedtime story and found that Emmanuel had taken my place in the rocking chair with Caleb on his knee, reading The Water Babies as if he did this all the time. He glanced up at me over his reading glasses and went back to reading with barely a pause. I smiled and left them to it.
Once he was home again, Noel looked skeptical when I told him about this. “It’s good he’s trying, isn’t it?” I said. “He may have realized he doesn’t need to be a figure of terror all the time.”
“It won’t last,” Noel said. “It never did when we were children, not that he’d cuddle and read to us then.”
“I’ll cuddle and read to you,” I said, putting my arms around him, and he chuckled but let me pull him closer.
My birthday was at the end of March. Noel made certain to schedule his trips so that he would be home, and he took Caleb and I into the city that night to have dinner and go to the pictures. When Oliver and I were together, he had once rented an opera box for my birthday and distracted me with champagne and blow-jobs during the entire performance. I preferred Noel’s means of celebrating.
Of course, that meant Noel had to leave again shortly after. Caleb went back to moping and I went back to trying not to, and we wrote “letters” to Noel for him to read once he came home.