Last Call Part 2—Daniel Enderly
The gentleman returned and poured them each a generous measure to which he added a splash from a blue bottle of mineral water. “Opens it up just a bit, you know.”
“You’re not a bartender, are you? You’re an American and I’ll wager you’re from First Class as well.”
“Very astute, lad. And I’ll guess from your accent that you’re from the Midlands or there about.”
“Well, close. From the Lake District and from Second Class.”
“Ah, beautiful country.” He held up his glass, paused, and said, “A toast, perhaps. To the continued excellence of the White Star Line?”
They clinked glasses and drank deeply and then stood silently regarding each other for several minutes. The ship groaned. Strange sounds emanated from the bilge.
Reginald said, “I was asleep. I didn’t hear a thing.”
“Well, lad. It didn’t make much noise. I was playing bridge. It was more a shudder. We thought little of it until a man came through the saloon and told us there was ice on the fore deck.”
“Why didn’t you get in one of the lifeboats?”
“Well, I didn’t wish to be parted from my dear wife.”
“Where is she?”
“She is resting comfortably in the hold.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We’ve been abroad for some time. We were to return home for Christmas, but she took ill while we were in Paris. She died in March. I was taking her home.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Reginald eyes welled and he turned away. His shoulders hunched.
The gentleman cocked his head to one side and then reached over and pulled Reginald to his side in a tight one-armed embrace. “There, there, lad. Death comes for us all.”
Reginald opened the hinged silver frames and said, “My own wife died last summer in childbirth.”
The gentleman pulled out his spectacles and put them on just as the lights went out. He struck a match, found a bottle of brandy, filled an ashtray and set it alight. It burned with a blue, uneven ethereal flame. He took the frames and admired the photographs of a young woman and an infant. “A son?”
Reginald nodded as the gentleman poured more Scotch. He held his glass aloft and offered a silent toast. It was no longer possible to stand without support.
The gentleman said, “One hand for your drink and one hand for the boat.”
Reginald said, “This ship is going to sink. Isn’t it?”
“Of course it is.”
“But they said that could never happen.”
“They say many things, don’t they?”
“I’m not ready to die.”
“Few ever are.”
“How can you be so sanguine about the matter?”
“Lad, death took my breath away when I still just a boy. I saw Chickamauga Creek run red. I’ve never been sure I didn’t die right there. I still smell that war every day of my life. Death is the only certain thing in this world.”
“I need another drink.”
“Well said, lad!”
The lights came back. The ship groaned. They held up their newly filled glasses and Reginald said, “To absent friends.”
“To absent friends!”
“I think I’m getting drunk.”
“You’re a fine lad!”
“We should go look at the stars.”
“A sterling proposition. I found Champagne back there.”
They set their glasses down. The gentleman poured the rest of the brandy on the bar, tipped the still flaming ashtray, and set it all on fire. They each took a bottle of Champagne and began picking their way through a kitchen clanging with shifting metal objects. The climb was steep and deck was slick.
They made it through a doorway and several yards into a long corridor which they saw as steep ramp leading uphill. There was a shift and everything tilted as they slid feet first against the bulkhead on either side of the doorway. The gentleman smiled at Reginald and began twisting the wire at the bottleneck. The cork popped and the lights were gone again. There was another pop in the darkness. The gentleman struck another match. They clinked the bottles and drank.
“That is so good.”
They remained like that in the dark for some indeterminate interval. A series of enormous booms crashed through the blackness surrounding them.
Reginald asked, “What could that be?”
“That could have been the boilers breaking free.”
“It sounded like cannon fire.”
“No. No. It really did not.”
The gentleman struck two more matches and let them burn down. Now came a tortuous, wrenching, Judgment Day sort of eruption, which Reginald felt in his chest, as the forward section of the vessel tore away. Then, in the roaring silence that followed, they found they could stand on the bulkhead without leaning against the deck. It felt good to stand upright again. Reginald felt the gentleman’s right hand on his own right shoulder before it slid down his arm and grasped his hand. They shook hands.
“I’m glad I met you, sir.’
“Yes, this has been a happy association.”
Reginald dropped his empty bottle through the now horizontal doorway between them. He heard the splash just before he felt his stomach rise as the bulkhead dropped and he fell screaming into thirty degree saltwater that instantly filled his lungs and the marrow of his bones and his mind and every cell in his body.
He felt all of that. He thought, “So damned cold – Thousands of ice picks – I wonder if