August was spent wrapping up my affairs in Chicago — I said goodbye to the friends I’d made, gave notice at the summer school, visited the Art Institute one more time — and preparing to move to my new home. Noel’s secretary sent me a train ticket to New Orleans; in return, I sent a list of materials for the school room so that we would be prepared for every circumstance. As I planned out our lessons, though I hoped I could make use of the grounds rather than keep Caleb indoors, unless he was a sickly child and needed to be out of the sun.
I knew a little about my new city, as one of the men in my unit, Rene Gaspard, had been from New Orleans and spoke of it often. As soon as I could locate his address, I wrote to Rene to let him know I would be coming to the city and would like to see him if he had the time. His return letter arrived so quickly he must have written it the day mine arrived; he said that he would always have time for his old Sarge — that I should come to dinner the first Sunday I was in Louisiana, in fact, so he could give me a proper welcome.
I had told Rene the name of the plantation where I would be, and asked if he knew anything about it, hoping for news about its distance from the city and if it was kept up for tourists or was a working farm. In his return letter, Rene said, Fidele belongs to one of the oldest families in the parish — in the state, even, I think. I know that for as long as there’s been a Louisiana there have also been the Thibodeauxes. Their family has had a lot of tragedy. The death of young Caleb’s parents is just another chapter. I’ll tell you the whole story when you’re here.
Some families, I reflected when I had read this, have histories full of humor and misadventure — like my own family, to the point that holiday suppers were often two or three hours long because we spent so much time laughing over old stories — but some families’ histories were full of death and sorrow. The Thibodeauxes, it seemed, were the latter, and I felt for Caleb and Noel even more.
Another letter I wrote was to my father, to tell him of my new position. His reply was reticent: he wished me well, advised me to follow the teaching practices he and my mother had instilled in me, and hoped he would see me at Christmas.
The night before I was to leave, Mary Kate helped me pack. She still looked worried, but she only said, “I hope you find everything you’re looking for, Mal.”
“I’m just looking for a change of scenery,” I replied. At the time, I thought it was true.
Before dawn the next morning, I boarded the train bound for New Orleans. It was a long journey, and a fascinating one given the changes of the landscape from Illinois to Louisiana. I drew, I read, I walked the aisle to ease the stiffness in my hip and knee, I talked to my fellow passengers, and I watched the country change from rolling green farmland to swamps and bayous as we plunged deeper and deeper into the south.
It was after ten o’clock when the train pulled into the station in New Orleans and we could disembark. The moment I stepped off the train I had to stop and inhale the scents of my new city. San Francisco smells like the sea and Chicago smells like burnt sugar, but New Orleans smells of reefer smoke, barbecue on the grill, freshly mown grass, jasmine.
I collected my trunk. Up and down the platform, other travelers were met by their families or by men in chauffeurs’ uniforms. Noel had written he would meet me at the station, and so I looked for a familiar face or even a driver bearing a sign with my name on it. Seeing neither, I dragged my trunk to waiting room and used the pay phone to call the number for Fidele, to let them know I’d arrived.
Rather than ringing through, the line beeped twice and went silent.
I put in another nickel and dialed the number again, with the same result. This didn’t bode well — if the phone was disconnected, what sort of condition could the rest of the farm be in? And it meant I had no way to reach Noel, as I hadn’t thought to ask for his work number, and there was nothing to do but sit myself down to wait.
Despite having my sketchbook out to pass the time, eventually I started to feel forlorn and forgotten. The platform had emptied quickly and this late, no trains were pulling in or out. All the other travelers had moved on to their final destinations, while I resigned myself to the notion to spending the night in the waiting room along with the drowsy ticket agent, or finding a hotel until I could get through to my new employers.
Before I had to enact this plan, however, to my relief the waiting room door opened to reveal Noel Thibodeaux. He was dressed less formally than he had been in Chicago — jeans and work boots with a white dress shirt, its sleeves rolled up — and looked disheveled and handsome, making my heart do a little jump of happiness at the sight of him.
“Malcolm,” he said, as he approached my bench. “Welcome to New Orleans.”
“Noel,” I said, unable to keep how glad I was to see him out of my voice, and got to my feet. “Hello.”
“This is Willie,” he said, gesturing to the older Black fellow at his elbow, and I offered my hand.
“Nice to meet you, Willie.”
“Nice to meet you, too, Mr. Malcolm,” the man replied. He gave me a quick handshake and hefted my trunk. I then had only my cane and knapsack to deal with, and before I could awkwardly swing the knapsack back on my shoulders Noel took it and carried it with the straps over his arm.
“This way.” He kept his pace slow to match with mine, and we left the waiting room to go to a solid, pre-war, black Packard sedan in the station’s parking lot. Noel opened the rear door for me and I got in, and he got into the other side of the seat while Willie loaded my trunk.
Noel said, almost shy, “It’s good to see you again.”
“It’s good to see you again too,” I said, and then we fell silent as Willie got into the driver’s seat.
“Slow route home, Mr. Noel?” he asked once he had started the engine.
“Yes, please, Willie,” Noel said. He said to me, “I thought you might like to see some of the sights before we leave the city.”