Le Beau Soleil
Chicago, late May 1859
PACKING for his trip to New Orleans, Johnny bustled about his bedroom in his papa’s small house in a near south neighborhood in Chicago. He did not hear the knock on the door downstairs and was startled when his papa came to his open bedroom door and called, “Hansi.” Johnny turned to see his papa’s heartbroken, disappointed expression. “Who is this?” he asked, holding up an envelope. Over their address, it read “John C. Stanley.”
Johnny sighed. “You know that’s me, Papa.”
“But your name is Johann. Johann Steinfeld. Not John C. Stanley.”
“Papa, we have talked about this. I need an American name to do business. I can’t be going about with a German name.”
His papa looked as if he would weep. “Hansi, are you ashamed of being German?”
Johnny wouldn’t admit that to his papa. “No, of course not.”
“You are ashamed of me, then, your old German papa?”
Johnny walked over to snatch the envelope out of his papa’s hand. He knew it contained his railroad and riverboat tickets from the office. “I am not going to get into this argument with you, Papa. You just don’t understand how hard it is to make it in this country if everyone thinks you are a foreigner.”
“But you are a foreigner, Herr Besserwisser. I am a foreigner. Your poor dead mama was a foreigner. Your betrothed, Klara, is a foreigner,” his papa lamented.
Being called “Mr. Know-it-all” as much as the mention of Klara’s name tipped Johnny over the edge. He shouted, “You are goddamned right she is. And that is why I will never marry her. Get that straight in your head, old man. I am not going to marry any damned Bauerntrampel.”
His papa’s eyes grew moist as he said, “So you are going to find some cheap American girl and marry, I suppose.”
Johnny sighed. In English he said reassuringly, “No, Papa. I promise I won’t marry a cheap American girl. I’m sorry. I am not ashamed of Klara or you or Mama or the old country.” He put his hand awkwardly on his papa’s shoulder, such physical comfort being so foreign to them both. “I wish you would stop saying that. I wish you could understand….”
“Ich verstehe,” his father said. “Ich verstehe.” Johnny knew from the way he said it, his papa really did understand, all too well.
“I have to go, Papa,” Johnny said in a softer voice. “I have to catch the train.”
While not Johnny’s first journey on behalf of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, where he worked as a clerk, this trip would be the first to someplace as exotic as New Orleans, one of the fastest growing and most prosperous cities in the country. The Treasury oversaw the rapid expansion of the railroads, and many of the most recent lines were private, hastily constructed, and did not meet to create an effective network for transportation. Often someone who needed to travel east or west of the Mississippi River would travel a short distance by rail only to have to disembark and find transportation by horse or cart to another railroad line to continue their journey. Johnny’s assignment to survey these disconnections would provide the Treasury with prospects for making rail travel continuous between the North and the South. Ironically, he would travel most of the way to New Orleans by riverboat, but he knew while the riverboats could transport everything the railroads could, the railroads would be able to accomplish it for a fraction of the cost.
So Johnny, bags in hand, headed on foot to the large central rail station at the heart of Chicago’s main business district.
It took most of the day to travel by rail to Cairo, Illinois, where he would embark downriver on a grand riverboat with the pretentious name of Le Beau Soleil. All that time on the train gave him the chance he most certainly did not want: to think about the constant debate with his papa. Why could he not understand Johnny’s reason for striving so desperately to blend into the world in which he worked—the American world? That world was suspicious of and resentful toward newly arrived immigrants from such places as Holland, Scandinavia, Italy, Poland, Ireland, and, of course, the countries made up of German-speaking people. He heard derogatory statements—dirty, ignorant, and untrustworthy—about micks, Polaks, dagos, and heinies almost daily. Many people from Johnny’s birthplace, Dresden, had fled the suppressed revolutions of the 1840s and brought with them social and political ideas that clashed with supposed American ideals. His papa’s friend, Herr Holtzmann, Klara and Kurt’s father, would spout radical ideas for hours.
Bad enough they held those ideas, Johnny thought, as the Illinois countryside went by outside the sooty window of the passenger car of the Illinois Central train. Even the properly subdued, neat, and quiet immigrants still gathered in their enclaves and lived as if they had never left the old country, never mixing in American circles, never trying to fit in. Herr Holtzmann insisted they had no choice. “As soon as Americans hear your accent, you are ostracized.”
Johnny didn’t believe that. He smiled to himself when he thought about how hard he had worked to look like an American, to dress like an American, and to speak like an American. To make it into those circles reserved for native-born Americans, he had to change his name. John Stanley had replaced Johann Steinfeld.
“WAKE up, Mr. Thompson. We’re coming in to Branch Junction. Mr. Thompson?”
Startled out of his reverie by the conductor’s voice, Johnny pulled into himself as the man leaned across him to touch the shoulder of the occupant of the window seat.
Passengers packed the railway car when it departed from Chicago, which forced Johnny to share the hard wooden seat. When his neighbor, some sort of salesman in a cheap coat and shiny trousers, fell asleep and started to snore, relief flooded Johnny, as he was uninterested in conversation with the talkative man. When the fellow’s head tilted over to rest on Johnny’s shoulder, he let it stay there rather than risk waking him. Johnny became aware of just how pleasant the feeling was, how comfortable, and finally how it made his mind run to thoughts of such intimacy with a man—he shrugged to dislodge the man’s head. After a couple of snorts, the man started snoring again.
Johnny had worked hard to lose his accent and fit in at his job, but he continued to struggle to overcome his unnatural attraction to men. He had to believe he could get past this compulsion, to find an American wife, have American children, and go on as just another American man. He wouldn’t marry Klara, though; she had not tried to fit in, had never bothered to learn much English even though she was born in Chicago. If he married at all, it would be to an American girl, but not someone cheap like his papa feared. She would be a proper American girl. The only stipulation with which he agreed was she should be Catholic, like the Steinfelds and the Holtzmanns. But definitely not Klara, who his father was pressuring him to marry. He struggled with the fact, and he certainly did not tell his papa, but he did not want a woman.
German youths traditionally attended a sort of boys’ gymnasium where they played sports as the Athenian youths had, quite naked. At the age of twelve, his young prick first began to react when he looked at the other boys. He tried to ignore it, hoping the feelings would go away. They did not abate. In fact, his thoughts took on more specific form. He started to imagine touching the other boys. This made his prick stand up more. It must be a mistake, he thought. He tried to stir some interest in the girls he knew, but they did nothing whatever for him. He had no choice but to quit the gymnasium or be found out.
In those days, most immigrant families made use of community groups and facilities like the gymnasium to pool resources rather than either provide them individually or do without. In a city like Chicago, there were public steam rooms, but immigrant populations did not much like sharing them with “Americans.” Leaving the gymnasium meant Johnny lost access to the communal steam room. His papa, puzzled at his decision to quit, mostly complained about Johnny’s attempts to keep clean with a bucket and a rag. Johnny could not explain to his father that he had made the choice in order to avoid having his secret found out.
He managed a compromise by convincing the priest who ran the gymnasium to let him work there as a menial worker, mopping the steam room and doing odd jobs. He did his best to keep his eyes on the floor and not look at all the wet, slippery bodies. Hardest of all was not looking when the older boys—young men really—bathed. They were so beautiful, so virile, so… attractive. At least when left alone in the evening, he could disrobe and take the steam with no one being the wiser.
He finally left that job because of the daily reminder of his perversion and to avoid the attentions of Father Martin, the priest who ran the gymnasium. At first, Johnny blamed himself for somehow luring the older man. He must know about me, somehow, he fretted to himself. One night after hours, when Johnny scrubbed himself in the empty steam room, he happened to look over and saw the man watching him. He tried to laugh it off, but the priest’s actions escalated until another night he cornered Johnny in the steam room, put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and squeezed it, and promised him sweets if he would just touch him… down there.
Johnny told his papa he had found a job as a paperboy, which paid better.
As he reached adulthood, Johnny had thought about marrying Klara in hopes that having her, timid and dependent, would help him get beyond whatever this thing was. His confessor had told him to pray, do penance, then find a woman. “Better to marry than burn,” the old man had said. Better still to sin with a woman than do the abominable thing with a man.
He took up boxing when he was eighteen, though it meant naked showers again. He found his desires useful in perfecting the manly pursuit of pugilism. If a man attracted him, he hit the man harder. No one had tried to lure him since Father Martin. No one wanted to get close because of the dour, touchy demeanor he’d perfected.
Johnny knew he had to get over this strange aberration. He fought it, he agonized, he did everything he could to hide it from himself, but he had to come to grips with the fact that men—not women—aroused him. He finally pushed it to the back of his mind and chose not so much to deny it as simply to ignore its significance. Perhaps it would pass.
“MR. THOMPSON, you got to wake up.” The conductor gave Johnny an apologetic look.
Johnny had given Thompson the window seat so he would not have to climb over the man to get up and stretch his legs. It wasn’t like there was anything to see. Through the layer of coal soot from the engine, Johnny could see only trees, trees, and more trees, with an occasional cluster of shacks near a whistle stop or a tiny one-room house and a barn where some fool was trying to farm, just now breaking up the sod in preparation for planting.
“What? What? Branch Junction? I’m not going to Branch Junction, man!” Thompson woke spluttering. He had drool on his chin and on his tie. He dragged a crumpled handkerchief from his coat pocket and mopped at it.
“Yeah, but your ticket says Patoka. You got to change trains here. ’Less you want to go to Cairo.”
“Oh. All right. Thanks. How long?”
“Five minutes,” the conductor called over his shoulder as he went down the aisle.
Thompson looked at Johnny. “You going all the way to Cairo, Mr. Stanley?”
“Yes, then by riverboat to New Orleans,” Johnny reminded him.
“Oh yes, of course, I remember you said that. Some sort of government worker, aren’t you?” Thompson dusted himself down in preparation for getting up to retrieve his valise from the net above the seats.
Johnny nodded. “The Treasury. Collecting information on transportation routes.”
“Well, that sure is a long trip. But I’ve heard New Orleans is a beautiful city.” He nodded for Johnny to stand so he could move into the aisle. Thompson got up and groaned when he tried to wrest his bag from the sling.
“Can I help you with that?” asked Johnny, since he was taller.
“Oh, yes, if you please. Most kind.”
Johnny stood and snagged the bag. As he did, the train swayed abruptly, throwing the two men against each other. Johnny colored deeply, remembering his thoughts about the warm body leaning against him, but Thompson was looking away for a grip to keep upright, so he did not see the blush.
The train whistle blew, signaling to the Branch Junction station.
“Hope I don’t got to wait here for my connection too long. I haven’t seen my wife in a couple of weeks. She’s expecting our first. You married?” After letting Johnny back in to take the window seat, Thompson set his bag on the aisle seat. He stood, looking down on Johnny as he held onto the back of their bench for balance.
“No, but I am engaged.” Johnny cringed inwardly at the lie. He’d developed the habit to obscure the truth about himself.
“Oh yeah? She pretty?”
Johnny wished the man would go wait on the platform between the cars. “Klara? Yes, pretty enough.”
“You lucky dog. My Muriel ain’t real pretty, but she’s a damn good cook. You wouldn’t know it to look at me.” He let go of the seat back to pat his belly, chuckling. The train put on the brakes, and Thompson almost lost his balance. “Well, nice to meet you, Mr. Stanley. You look out for those pretty ladies down South, if you get my drift.”
Johnny winced when the man winked, actually winked at him. He smiled and nodded.
FINALLY in Cairo, Johnny stood on the levee, admiring the stately riverboat moored there. It had steamed into the port just as Johnny walked downhill from the train. He felt relieved, since delays at the junction had made him afraid he would miss his connection. As the riverboat came into the mooring, its great side-wheels slowing, Johnny saw its magnificence. Le Beau Soleil was one of the “best boats,” with four decks and a pilothouse. It could not be called sparkling white, since, like everything else near the levee, soot coated its paint, but the astounding gold-colored sunburst mounted on the grillwork between the smokestacks with its own coating of soot let him see through it to what must have been the real colors. Le Beau Soleil, Johnny thought. He had to concede the boat impressed him.
“Steinfeld!” called a familiar fellow just coming down the gangway.
“Lehrer! What are you doing here?” Johnny said, reluctantly greeting his old schoolmate.
Lehrer looked about for a porter. In German he said, “Wait a minute while I get a boy to fetch my bags and take them to the train station.”
“Boy!” he called in English to a colored man of at least forty. The man dashed over to them and bowed. Lehrer pointed toward the main deck of the boat where his bags sat and told him to “look sharp” and get them on the Chicago-bound train. He dug in his trouser pocket for change and dropped it in the porter’s palm. The man bowed over and over with exaggerated obsequiousness before turning to go up the gangway for Lehrer’s things.
“Have time for a drink?” Lehrer asked, turning back to Johnny.
“I don’t think the riverboat leaves for another couple of hours. So yes, I think so. In fact, let’s get some supper.” Johnny looked about for a saloon.
“I couldn’t eat. They feed you to busting on that boat. But I do want a whiskey. I’ve been here before. I know just the place.” Lehrer led him off the dock and three doors down the riverfront street to a saloon.
Inside, the dim, noisy saloon smelled of river fish cooking, alcohol, tobacco smoke, and unwashed men. Lehrer found a table and signaled to the barkeep. “I’ll have a whiskey. My friend wants something to eat.”
“Yeah, well, all we got is fried fish and turnips.”
“That’ll do,” Johnny said with resignation. “And a beer.”
Lehrer took a sip of his whiskey when the barkeep set it in front of him. Like Johnny, he was clean-shaven except for a modest mustache, his a dark brown while Johnny’s was slightly darker than his blond hair. They were dressed much alike, the new short coat and colorful waistcoat, Johnny’s green and Lehrer’s violet, each topped with a cravat at the throat. Both wore striped trousers and leather boots. They had hung their narrow-brimmed hats on the hat tree inside the door.
“Taking Le Beau Soleil downriver?” He pronounced the boat’s name “Lee Boo Soley.” However, to Johnny’s relief, he spoke English.
“Down to New Orleans for the Department,” Johnny supplied. “Pretty swank boat, eh? I’m surprised they booked me on it. It has to cost a pretty penny.”
“You are not kidding. You’d think you were in some kind of palace. Wait until you see the grand cabin. Like Versay or something.”
Johnny’s fried fish and boiled turnips came, and he hesitated only a moment before he tucked in. “Versay?” he asked.
“You know. That great big palace in France. Where the king who got his head chopped off lived.”
“Oh, Versailles,” Johnny corrected.
“Yah, that one. Anyway, it’s all rich woods and gilding and paintings on the walls. You are traveling second class, aren’t you?” Lehrer signaled for a refill of his whiskey.
“Yes, even more surprising. I bet even the poor folks can’t be too poor to travel on that thing.” Johnny found he enjoyed his supper more than he had expected.
“No doubt. No nigger slaves or Indians being shipped West. That’s probably why. But you got to see this statue in a fountain in the dining cabin. Greek or Roman or something and hardly a stitch on. Too bad it’s a man.”
Oh hell, Johnny thought but said aloud, “Not very decent.”
Lehrer chuckled. “No, it ain’t. The fellow who owns the boat is some bigwig gambler. A frog and a real fairy, if you ask me. Probably gets his jollies looking at that statue. It has some cloth around its balls. He is probably the only one who gets to take a peek under it.” He stopped talking abruptly, then went on in a more serious voice. “Not that I’d want to, you understand.” He shrugged, then winked at Johnny. “If I want to see a prick, a bigger one than that statue’s got, I just look down when I take a piss, right?”
Johnny cleared his throat. “So what are the staterooms like? And you said they really feed you?”
“Comfortable. Like a whore’s bedroom, really. I felt like the Prince of Wales, with all that velvet and carpets and paintings on the wall. That is, if the Prince of Wales had to share his stateroom with some other fellow. And yeah, they feed you four times a day, breakfast, supper, dinner, and if you want it, food with your drinks in the saloon. I never want to eat again.”
Johnny picked up the last piece of fish, popped it in his mouth, then took out his pristine handkerchief to wipe his greasy fingers.
“They had a singer and this colored piano player too. And of course, there’s the star attraction….”
Johnny showed interest. “Oh yeah? What was that?”
“Why, the Nancy!” Lehrer said as though it was common knowledge, which Johnny supposed it could be. “He’s a famous poker player. They say he is honest as old Honest Abe, that Springfield politician. Never cheats. I don’t believe it, of course.”
Johnny snorted derisively. “As though there was such a thing as an honest gambler. He owns the boat? That just confirms it. You don’t get that rich by playing straight.”
“You said it, Steinfeld.” He finished his glass of whiskey and went on. “Hey, we had some excitement on the way north. Somewhere shy of Baton Rouge, we stopped where there was a wreck.”
Johnny picked up his mug of beer. “A wreck? What happened? Is that why the boat was late getting in?”
“I suppose so. It was a smaller boat, just a couple decks and a pilothouse, forget the name. It ran into some debris in the river. It wasn’t really a wreck. Just stuck. This Deramus fellow, Miss Nancy I mean, pulled it off the sandbar or whatever and waited until they made sure there was no damage, then the little boat went on its way south.”
“Well, that’s good, I guess,” Johnny replied.
TWILIGHT descended before Le Beau Soleil left Cairo for points south on the river. Johnny found he shared a stateroom every bit as elegant as Lehrer had described. Johnny relaxed when he met his roommate, a mousy little man with spectacles, a parson or some such.
He made his way to supper in the grand cabin, which he found fitted out like a Paris restaurant. It had a design of fleur-de-lis and sunbursts on the wallpaper, framed paintings of what he assumed to be scenes of New Orleans, and furniture upholstered in the same forest-green velvet as the curtains on the windows. Elaborately carved and gilded doorframes seemed a touch too much even in all this luxury.
Johnny looked up and up at the tall ceiling, at least three decks high, he guessed, and saw the fading light shining through the stained-glass skylight. As a steward led him to his table, he caught sight of the statue in the fountain. The Apollo Belvedere, if he was not mistaken. His cheeks flushed pink at the magnificent physique of the god. The statue’s arm extended gracefully. His genitals were, indeed, masked with a white cloth of some kind. Johnny felt drawn to the solemn face, with its marble lips that seemed somehow soft and warm.
At the sound of a cleared throat, he realized the steward had pulled out a chair for him at a table. He thanked the man and sat.
Johnny sat at a table with well-dressed but obviously second-class passengers, two women, mother and daughter, neither attractive, and three men. Instead of a dinner party seating, which alternated men and women, they sat with people they knew or by themselves. Two of the men were obviously friends or colleagues, judging by their familiarity. The third was a middle-aged man whose bald head reflected the light from the elegant chandeliers.
“So, Mr. Hamilton, you going to get in on a game this evening?” one of the younger men, a pudgy fellow in a too-tight suit, asked.
“I might, Mr. Knowles. At least I will have a look. They say Deramus is a cold-blooded fellow, which I guess you have to be to be a cardplayer.”
Mr. Knowles’s companion, Mr. Casey, who turned out to be a fellow surveyor, joined the conversation. The three talked about what they had heard of Frankie Deramus and how he did not always win, but when he did win—often enough—he always won big.
The older woman pressed her lips tightly together. “Gamblers are the worst sort of people!” she declared. Her daughter, a fork of salad greens on its way to her mouth, stared at her.
“Worse than a murderer, Mrs. Montane?” the bald man said, his lips twisted in a sardonic smile.
“Cheaters, bounders, river slime. Debauchers of innocent women. Catholics,” she concluded, adding emphasis to the last word.
Johnny turned to Mr. Knowles, who sat next to him. “Can you point out this Deramus fellow?”
“Sure thing. He’s over there, the fellow who needs a haircut, the one with the thin mustache and the big gem in his cravat.” He pointed to a table not in front of, but near the scandalous statue. “See him? He’s looking over here right now, in fact.”
Johnny followed the man’s pointing finger straight into coal-black eyes. That must be Deramus. The only one at the table of high-class folks who fit Knowles’s description, he stared straight at Johnny.
“Must have a sixth sense for attention,” Mr. Casey put in. “Knew we were talking about him.”
Mr. Hamilton chuckled. “That type always thinks he’s the center of attention.”
Johnny could not tear his eyes away from that steady gaze. He had no doubt Deramus looked directly at him. Why? Did he have some sort of sign on his forehead? Was the man really what Lehrer had said, a Miss Nancy, and could he see if another man liked other men? Johnny frowned and tried to look away. When he finally started to turn his face, he saw the man smile amusedly and lift his glass of wine in a salute. Johnny felt his face go red.
He wanted to go watch Deramus play cards that night, but he didn’t. Instead, he sat in his stateroom and read a newspaper while his mousy roommate studied a Bible.
That night, he dreamed of marble arms coming around him, turning him, and marble lips that were indeed soft and warm on his own. It felt like the statue had grown a thin mustache.