LOVE smacked Torsten Pilkvist in the face like a sack of flour. He knew the moment Joseph van Werckhoven stepped off the hansom cab. Normally, Torsten paid scarce attention to the boarders his parents took in for ten dollars a week at their six-bedroom row house in the North Side of Chicago. But this time, Tory, watching from one of the guest room windows upstairs, could barely peel his eyes off the stranger from New York City.
Mr. van Werckhoven had traveled to Chicago to oversee the opening of his family’s downtown drugstore. According to the telegram from Tory’s second cousin in Brooklyn, a long-time housekeeper for the van Werckhovens, the store would be the family’s first outside of New York. The Pilkvists had prepared for the gentleman with far more effort than for any other guest that Tory could remember. Fortunately for Tory, Chicago had grown so rapidly the past few years that local inns, already bulging with lodgers, could hold few newcomers. The well-to-do Mr. van Werckhoven had limited options of places to stay.
Fifteen years after the Great Fire of ’71, Chicago had mushroomed to more than one million residents, surpassing Philadelphia and Brooklyn to become the nation’s second-largest city. Buildings rivaling cathedrals were being constructed downtown. Some people were calling them “skyscrapers.” Only five years old when the fire had spread across the city, Tory remembered little of the calamity. But he would never forget the anguished faces of the adults. Even in his neighborhood of River North, which the flames had spared, residents, including his parents, wore their somber expressions as tangibly as their derbies and bonnets. Perhaps that was why Tory had developed a profound fear of fire.
Yet the enthusiasm to rebuild soon eclipsed the city’s despair. Survivors had said the fervor for renewal overtook the city almost as quickly as the fire had. Resurrected into action, residents and ambitious newcomers alike lifted the city from the smoldering ashes. The building frenzy continued unabated and seemed to grow with intensity each passing year. Joseph van Werckhoven, like hundreds of thousands like him, had ventured to Chicago to capitalize on that unstoppable growth. Peering at him while he paid the coachman, Tory was delighted he had.
The New Yorker nodded to the coachman and, with a crocodile valise clasped in each hand, ascended the marble steps. Tory dashed to the upstairs landing to gaze through the balusters while his mother greeted the debonair stranger at the door. The setting sun hadn’t played tricks on Tory’s eyes while he’d gazed from the window. The newcomer radiated masculine good looks. Taller than average, he stood above Tory’s five-foot-one mother by at least eight inches.
“Good afternoon. I’m Joseph van Werckhoven.” He slipped off his gloves and top hat and bowed his head.
“Ja, of course, we expect you. Please come in. I am Anna Pilkvist.” She opened the heavy oak door wider and gestured for him to enter fully.
A typical flush heated Tory’s cheeks when his mother greeted their new boarder. Her thick Swedish accent, sticking to her lips like molasses, was not always easy for outsiders to understand. Mr. van Werckhoven, obviously a gentleman, seemed unfazed. He nodded in acknowledgment of her kind words and mentioned how fortuitous that Heloise had recommended their home to his family.
“It will be so much nicer staying in a pleasant home than a stuffy hotel,” he said.
“So glad Heloise write us about you,” Mrs. Pilkvist said, looking up at the guest through batting eyelashes. “Heloise say only wonderful things about your family.”
Mr. van Werckhoven set his luggage on the mahogany floor and gazed about the narrow entrance foyer, his expression cheerful and earnest. “I must say, Heloise failed to do your home justice in her descriptions. It’s quite lovely.”
From Tory’s crouched position, he detected a pink hue germinating over his mother’s pale cheeks. He wondered if she might not be playing coy. She smoothed the front of her bustled skirt and blushed some more. Laying the gentleman’s frock and hat on the sideboard, she called for Tory using what he surreptitiously referred to as her “party” voice.
Tory jumped to his feet, checked his reflection in the hallway mirror, and patted his hair to make sure the pomade still kept the unruly waves in check. His heart pounding, he descended the stairs, careful not to appear overzealous.
“We run bakery next to house,” Mrs. Pilkvist was telling the new boarder as Tory made his way downstairs, his sweaty hand dragging along the wooden handrail. “My husband there now working.”
“Heloise mentioned your bakery.” Mr. van Werckhoven raised his nose elegantly and inhaled. “I think I can smell it now.”
“Folks come from as far away as Hyde Park and Douglas for our tasty lussebulle and tartas.” She giggled. “You come at good time. Supper will be ready in about an hour, and afterward you can try some of our treats. We like to have cakes with tea and coffee for our guests in the parlor.” She turned to Tory, standing on the bottom step. “Torsten, come meet our new boarder, Mr. Joseph van Werckhoven. This is man Heloise write us about. Mr. van Werckhoven, this is my Torsten.”
It was as if the soles of Tory’s gaiters were nailed to the wooden step. He could barely compel himself to move forward and accept Mr. van Werckhoven’s outstretched hand. The guest stepped closer. Tory, trying his best not to ogle the man’s shimmering cocoa-colored eyes, finally shook his hand. He hoped that the stranger would not notice his sweaty grip.
The man’s touch sent a tremor along Tory’s arm. Alarmed by the sensation, he let his hand drop by his side like a dead weight.
“It’s a pleasure meeting you.” Joseph’s smile revealed a large set of even white teeth.
“Heloise tell me all about how nice your home is in New York City,” Mrs. Pilkvist said. “She say it’s like a palace. I hope that you will find ours to your liking.”
“Heloise flatters us,” Joseph said. “But there’s nothing more splendid than a well-suited home for one’s family, regardless of size.”
“Ours suits us good,” Mrs. Pilkvist said. “We bought it five years ago. We used to stay in small flat above bakery. We rent it to young couple now. Then we see the new row houses be built, so we buy one from bank. At first we think it too big for our family, especially since Tory’s two sisters each had one foot down the aisle, but Mr. Pilkvist come up with idea to take in boarders. Chicago growing so fast, we think to make money off it.”
Joseph chuckled. “It does seem the entire world is moving to Chicago. The train here was packed full, and with the most interesting types of people. My father and I hope to achieve as much success here in Chicago as your family has.”
“Ja, your store will do good.” Mrs. Pilkvist giggled and blushed. “I have no doubt.”
“I’ll make sure to toast all of our prosperous futures at supper,” Joseph said. “You still live here with your parents, Torsten?”
For a moment, Tory had no idea the stranger had addressed him. So mesmerized he was by the man’s dignified manner and looks that every sound seemed absorbed by the papered walls. His chestnut pompadour flipped stylishly over the top of his head, and the thick, curly mustache, precisely waxed, accentuated his soft lips. His shoulders, broad and sturdy, held aloft his lean body like a statue. And the lavender cologne rose from under the banded collar of his Coulter shirt as if he’d stepped from a garden. When Joseph repeated himself, Tory shook to attention. “Yes, I do still live here.”
“Then you’ll be taking supper with us?”
“We all usually eat with the boarders,” Tory said. “Except Pappa. He’s often busy in the bakery.”
“Good, then you can tell me about your wonderful city. I’m eager to learn more.”
“We have three other boarders who come from elsewhere too,” Mrs. Pilkvist said. “They maybe tell you what they discovered about Chicago.”
Joseph eyed Torsten. “I’d much rather learn from a native.”
Tory’s mother lifted her eyes to the high ceiling. “I never quite think of it that way. Tory is only one among us who is born here. Even his sisters all born in Sweden, although just babies when we come to America.” She looked back to the guest. “In the meantime, Mr. van Werckhoven, we show you upstairs where you stay. Torsten, follow me with Mr. van Werckhoven’s things.”
“Yes, Mamma.” Tory reached for Joseph’s valises, but Joseph kept him from lifting the larger one by laying his hand on top of his. Another tremor traipsed along Tory’s arm.
“Please, let me get that,” Joseph said. Their faces were close enough Tory could smell the mint on his breath.
Tory slid his hand from under Joseph’s. With the smaller valise clasped in his shaky hand, he followed his mother and the newcomer upstairs.
THE supper table vibrated with chatter. After three days without a fourth boarder, everyone appreciated the fresh energy. The usual boarders (Miss Clair Schuster, a young woman about Tory’s age from Wisconsin; Mr. Anthony Dunlop, a standoffish and painfully bashful thirty-five-year-old engineer from Scotland; and Mr. Abner T. Raincliff, a middle-aged banker from Indiana) sat in their proper seats around the table, riveted on the newcomer. His wealth and standing had not eluded them. Mr. Dunlop seemed even shyer in his presence, and Mr. Raincliff harbored a cutting envy in his blue eyes.
Yet Clair Schuster’s ogling upset Tory the most. She had begun flirting with him the moment they’d met in the parlor. He’d been embarrassed for Clair when she’d asked about Joseph’s marital status. With a slight flush, Joseph had replied to her naïve question that, even at twenty-six, he was still searching for “the right person.”
Joseph seemed to take little notice of Clair Schuster’s coquettish head-tilting and impish giggles. Tory wanted to fling a spoonful of his mashed potatoes at her. She had lodged with them for five weeks, waiting for a vacancy at one of the women’s hotels. She worked as an assembler at an agricultural implements factory downtown. Tory wanted her gone once and for all.
“I’ve never been to New York City,” she said in her infuriating crooning manner. “Is it as big as they say? Bigger than Chicago?”
“Yes, it is a bit bigger,” Joseph said with a paternal air. “But the buildings seem taller here. I have a feeling once this new steel frame construction takes off back east, New York, perhaps even Boston, will catch up in no time.”
“The building where I work on Polk Street is eleven stories,” Mr. Raincliff said boastfully. “If you go to the top floor you can almost see clear down to the stockyards.”
“Nothing that big in Sweden,” Tory’s father said from the head of the table, where he was already working on his second helping of roast beef. His duties in the bakery were yet unfinished, but he had told Tory and his mother he wanted to dine with their latest guest. Joseph van Werckhoven was the most distinguished boarder to stay under their roof, and he refused to forego a meal with him his first night.
He appeared as charmed by Mr. van Werckhoven’s presence as everyone else, which meant a lot to Tory. His father, often unfairly judgmental, could cause Tory embarrassment with his abrupt manner. “Of course,” he went on, “Mrs. Pilkvist and me haven’t returned to Sweden since we left over twenty years ago. But the Swedes swarming into Chicago today say little has changed there.”
“I read in the papers about the famine a few years ago,” Joseph said, his mouth downturned with genuine empathy. “Hit Finland too, I believe.”
“Ja,” Mrs. Pilkvist said, shaking her head. “That’s why so many come here. From Finland, Norway… all over Scandinavia.”
“It’s good they have a place like America to come to,” Mr. Raincliff said in his gruff yet jovial voice.
“We are fortunate,” Mr. Pilkvist said.
“That reminds me.” Joseph raised his glass of merlot. The crystal glinted in the candlelit chandelier above the table. “I vowed earlier to toast all of our prosperities.” He raised his glass higher. “To Chicago and the United States.” He peered at Tory. “And to new friends.”
“Hear, hear,” the diners said in unison and clinked their glasses.
Only the Scottish man, Mr. Dunlop, remained quiet. He had barely raised his wine glass. He rarely partook in the conversations at the supper table unless directly addressed, and even then he responded with one or two words. As an engineer working for one of the larger architectural firms in town, Tory thought he should have much to share about the new construction projects taking place, a frequent subject at the supper table. But he almost never communicated his thoughts.
In the company of a man like Joseph van Werckhoven, broad-shouldered and confident, Tory understood why the man from Scotland might find his words all the more restricted. Even his father seemed smitten by the New Yorker’s charm.
“Maybe Miss Schuster show you the city,” Mr. Pilkvist said, biting into a biscuit. “She’s here in Chicago long enough to know her way about. Ja, Miss Schuster?”
“I would love to show Mr. van Werckhoven around.” Clair’s gray eyes shone as brightly as the new electrical streetlights downtown.
“A nice young lady for an escort would be first-rate,” Mr. Pilkvist highlighted.
Torsten’s face burned. He resented his parents forcing Clair onto the newcomer. She acted as simpleminded as a small-town girl could get. About the most intelligent sentence he’d ever heard the girl from Kenosha utter was speculation about how long it would be before every house in the United States got a telephone. A gentleman with the breeding of Joseph required a proper guide, one who knew the city as well as only a local could. Besides, Joseph himself had mentioned he wanted a native’s view.
“You can go tomorrow,” Tory’s father said. “It would be good to go Saturday, before you have to focus so much on your work. Ja, Mr. van Werckhoven?”
“That would be fine,” Joseph said, nodding toward Clair politely. But the tightness around Joseph’s curly mustache betrayed his true thoughts, Tory believed. Or was Tory staking too much on implausible dreams? He was certain Joseph’s expression lacked sincerity.
Clair’s gray eyes fell to her roast beef and potatoes. “Tomorrow? But I have to work tomorrow,” she mumbled toward her plate. “Mr. Deering makes us work Saturdays, sometimes even for a full day.” Subsequently she brightened and flashed Joseph a smile. “I can show you around Sunday. Not even Mr. Deering expects anyone to work Sundays.”
Despite the shyness he felt in Joseph’s presence, Tory realized he had but one chance to cut Clair off. “I can show you around tomorrow,” he said, his voice high. He cleared his throat and spoke deeper. “That is, if you prefer to see the sights on a Saturday, when most things will be open, rather than Sunday, when everything will be closed.”
“Well?” Joseph flushed. “I suppose… hmm. I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe you’re right. Saturday might be best. I mean, if you think there’ll be more things to do.”
Mrs. Pilkvist dabbed the corners of her mouth with a cloth napkin. “Maybe Saturday better for seeing things,” she said, nodding reflectively. “More places open.”
“Are you sure?” Mr. Pilkvist inserted. “Sunday people aren’t so pushy and you can take time strolling the avenues without getting trampled.”
Mrs. Pilkvist giggled. “Young folks don’t mind a little hustle and bustle, Gustaf.”
“I suppose it might be nicer for you to see the city tomorrow rather than on Sunday,” Clair said into her lap.
Tory smiled. “Then it’s settled?”
Joseph stared directly into Tory’s eyes from across the table. They held each other’s gaze for what seemed an eternity. “It’s settled,” he said with a wide grin. “If you’re sure you don’t mind.”
“Of course I don’t mind.”
“I’ll look forward to it, then,” Joseph said.
Tory barely heard the rest of the suppertime conversation. His mind cleaved to one thought: he and Joseph van Werckhoven, strolling together along the streets of Chicago.
UPSTAIRS lying in his bed after everyone had taken coffee and cake in the parlor, Tory continued to daydream about the newcomer. What would spending Saturday with Joseph be like? What should they do? Where should they go? And what about those stares he had given Tory at the supper table and later in the parlor? What had they meant? Could it be possible that Joseph was like him?
Tory had come across clandestine mentions of same-sex love while studying literature and the ancient Greeks at school. Men like Plato, Herodotus, and Walt Whitman wrote about their attractions to other men. Reading between the lines, he had instinctively known that they were referring to him. Some new type of doctors had even said it was a natural occurrence in nature, including in humans. They’d said that some American Indian tribes practiced it as part of their culture. Was it something Joseph van Werckhoven practiced too?
Tory had had encounters with boarders in the past. His first foray with a man had occurred with a boarder a month after Tory had turned sixteen. A twenty-five-year-old Michigan man settling in Chicago had asked Tory to help run his bath. Eventually he suggested Tory strip and get into the tub with him. Overcome with physical yearning, Tory had obliged him, although nothing had occurred between them afterward. The man had moved on five days later as if nothing had ever happened.
Nearly a year later, Tory had another one-time encounter with a boarder who had played footsy with him under the supper table. That night when Tory had carried tea to his room, as the man had requested, the thirty-year-old businessman from Ohio had commanded him, point blank like a bank robber, to shut the door and lock it.
And there were two times at the cabaret on 35th Street where men like him went searching for affection. Each a one-time affair, amounting to nothing more than two men seeking physical pleasure. Tory had always hungered for more.
Walt Whitman, his favorite poet, best delineated Tory’s romantic notions. He had read the venerable poet’s work so often he could recite many passages word for word. They flowed through his veins as easily as his blood.
When his father had found his edition of Leaves of Grass in his bedroom two springs ago, he had called it “Amerikanskt skräp”—American trash—and confiscated it. Luckily for Tory, his father had wasted no time incinerating it. If he had thumbed through it, he might have noticed the dog-eared pages where Tory had read the more erotic passages over and over.
He recalled one such passage now.
Whose happiest days were far away through fields, in woods, on hills, he and another wandering hand in hand, they twain apart from other men;
Who oft as he sauntered the streets curved with his arm the shoulder of his friend, while the arm of his friend rested upon him also.
Might Saturday be that way with Joseph? Strolling the streets of Chicago, arm in arm?
He’d never had a special friend like the one described by Whitman. Now that he was burgeoning into a full-grown man (nineteen years old as of February), he yearned to stand on his own two feet and search for true love. His two elder sisters had found love. Why couldn’t he?
Rolling to his side, he pictured Joseph in the room down the hall. He wondered what he might be thinking at that moment, what he might be doing. He dozed, giddy with anticipation for tomorrow.