A strong wind pushed the Gulf waves onto the shore at Pass Christian, doing nothing to alleviate the sticky Mississippi heat. Albert took a walk to clear his mind and to find a bit of solitude, something had been doing with increasing frequency since Dan’s death. He spent the last week researching will writing and estate planning. It was complicated, but he didn’t wish to consult an attorney—rather, he couldn’t afford one. When Marjorie asked where he kept disappearing to at all hours of the day, he told her he was seeking work, when in reality he had given up on that, along with everything else. The thought had first crossed his mind some years ago, that his family would be better off if he were to go. He had ignored the voice back then, crowding it out as always with the sounds of a workday and a house full of children. Now it was back, though, and it demanded to be heard, to be obeyed. Since the bank closed, resulting in the loss of his position as bookkeeper and collaterally leading to the suicide of his fellow bookkeeper and dear young friend, Dan, Albert was out of sorts. Unmoored, out at sea with no oar, no boat, and no life vest.
Twenty years since that night, Albert thought, looking out over the black, moody Gulf of Mexico. Twenty years. He had grown old, tired, and useless in that time, while his dear, darling Edwin was lost, somewhere out there, gone with that grandest of ships. With it died the Edwardian age. With it—with Edwin—died a part of Albert that he had never managed to recover, caught down there among the wreckage, with his suitcase full of stiff collars and dated suits, photographs and love-letters from Edwin, carefully concealed in a blue and white striped pajama shirt. Albert had tried to meet his fate, having no friends or family left in America, nor any real desire to return, but against his efforts he became one of the few men to survive that night.
Albert walked along the water’s edge, a lonely figure against the quiet night. It was past ten o’clock in the evening, and no other people were about. He stood beneath the pier for a moment, ensuring his canoe was still where he had tied it the previous night, when his plan first unfolded in his mind. The canoe bobbed gently with the tide, scraping against the sand with the ebbing of the waves. He would wait until the early hours of the morning to row out. Propped up against the pier in the sand beside the canoe, Albert left two cinder blocks that he intended to tie to his ankles. An unnecessary precaution, really, given the fact that he couldn’t swim and that he intended to row far enough out that the shore would no longer be visible. Still, Albert Beaumont was nothing if not overly prepared for any situation. Satisfied with his plan, he turned his back against the Gulf and walked the home.
He took stock of his worldly possessions, calm and collected as though keeping a record of bank sales. Most everything would, naturally, pass on to Marjorie. Insurance money following his death should further provide for her and their six children. There was still the debt that remained to be paid to Director Cox. Hush money. Albert had allowed that man to make an utter fool of him. In a desperate attempt to satisfy the man’s greed, Albert sold his beloved violin, but even that hadn’t been enough to cover the costs owed to keep the old director from wagging his tongue. Any decent person would let it go once Albert died, but Director Cox wasn’t a decent person. In fact, Albert was fairly certain he would only sink his claws in further to Marjorie and their children when they were most vulnerable. The greedy bastard would take too much pleasure from telling Albert’s bereaved family that he was not the man they thought he was. No, he would need some form of compensation, preferably enough so that he would be satisfied, and leave the Beaumonts alone. Thus, he jotted down one of two strange clauses that would adorn his holographic will, one of the two that would certainly cause consternation among his family. It’s all for the best, he told himself as he wrote: To Mr. James Cox, Film Director with MGM Studios, I leave a blank check. He may do what he wishes with it, but he may not have access to my money until after my family have received what is rightfully theirs.
The clause would no doubt mystify Marjorie, but Albert trusted that she would follow his wishes, no matter how strange. The second clause, and the only one to mention any specific item, involved a box that Albert built it in December 1912, while living at the inn in Manhattan. It was full of mementos of a world gone by, which he locked away and intended to leave for one hundred years, so that he would be long gone by the time anyone laid eyes on the contents. Now that he made up his mind to leave, though, he allowed himself one last look. He brought the box down from the attic and sat at the desk in his office. Upon opening the box, he awaited the familiar flood of emotion to wash over him, but nothing came. He was utterly numb as he regarded the photograph of his long-lost love, Edwin Fitzpatrick, young and handsome in his White Star Line steward’s uniform aboard the Olympic. Only twenty-eight when he died, he never knew of a world war, a free Ireland, an economic collapse. Radios, jazz music, and telephones had replaced gramophones, orchestras, and letters. The past was a foreign land.
Other items in the box included the letter he wrote to some imagined reader one hundred years in the future, perhaps a descendant of his own. That idea had sounded ridiculous when he first wrote it down that dark, dreary winter of 1912, mere months after he had known love and contentment with another man, three years before he would commit himself to Marjorie Kelly for the rest of his days. Now, he could legitimately leave the box to his son, with some vague instruction to store it away and give it to his next of kin, and onward until the year 2012 arrived. Atop the letter was the letterhead for the little family-owned inn, bringing to mind the Italian family who ran it, who took Albert in as a sort of refugee after he arrived in New York aboard the Carpathia, lost, penniless, and heartbroken. They kept him on as bookkeeper, letting him work in exchange for a room and hot meals, and quickly they became good friends to him. He kept in touch with both mother and son, sending letters back and forth after he returned to Mississippi in 1913. They continued correspondence until 1917, when both mother and son died in the flu pandemic.
Other items were mere junk that he felt too strange about throwing away: The collar and the tie he wore the night the ship went down; the flat cap that Edwin had adjusted lovingly atop Albert’s head as he relayed the information that the ship had just struck an iceberg. “This is good, Irish wool,” Edwin had said. “It’ll keep you warm, and, if I may, you cut quite a figure in it.”
Edwin’s voice used to come into Albert’s mind all the time, his cheerful Belfast brogue clear as though he were sitting right next to Albert, whispering into his left ear while he massaged Albert’s unhearing right ear as he liked to do. Then the occurrences lessened, and now Albert had to strain to recall that beloved voice. He pressed the hat to his chest and rested his nose against it. Still, nothing happened except his brain telling him that he should feel something, the emotional equivalent, perhaps, of phantom limb syndrome. He picked up the cufflinks and the gold-plated pocket watch, both gifts from Edwin. The pocket watch, inscribed with a message from Edwin, was broken, of course, and spotted with water damage and frozen forever at 2:17, the time it, in Albert’s vest pocket, hit the unforgiving Atlantic water. He ran his thumb over the inscription from Edwin, stared at the face, the hands of the watch pointed eternally at that fatal time, waiting and waiting for the usual constrictions of throat and chest, spinning in his head, tears in his eyes, but nothing came. He may as well have been looking at different paint samplings or pieces of plywood. It was as though his emotions had already left him, and there was now nothing left of him but a beating heart and a brain bent on self-destruction. How much better it would have been for everyone if he had died that night, twenty years ago.
Albert closed the box and locked it, then put it back in the attic. Once back in his office, he wrote in his will: To my son, Edwin Andrew Beaumont, I bequeath my hand-carved wooden box, marked “2012,” to be received upon his eighteenth birthday. My son is not to open the box, but rather to store it safely until it passes to his descendants. If Edwin does not survive to his eighteenth birthday, the box may go to my daughter, Sylvia Marie Beaumont, and so on. If Edwin dies without heirs, the box may go to any of his siblings or any of their descendants then living. The box is to remain unopened until the year 2012, at which point whoever is in possession of it may open it and do what he or she desires with the contents.
Albert read the will to ensure he was satisfied and that it was all, to the best of his knowledge, legal. He wished he could tell his wife why he left an unstipulated amount of money to Director Cox. As far as Marjorie knew, Cox was a ghost from another life, a man they knew when they lived in California, when Albert worked in silent films and had convinced himself that he could be happy. More than once, he had been tempted to tell his wife the truth, that their marriage was based on a lie, that if things had gone his way, he would be with Edwin snug in some cottage in the Irish countryside, him working on engineering designs while Edwin crossed the seas waiting on passengers. He wished he could tell her that the reasons he gave for his sudden departure from acting were only half true. Yes, he came across as wooden and awkward when the talkies came to town. Yes, audiences responded unhappily—petulantly, in his opinion—to his southern accent, given the fact that he was known for playing serious, dignified roles, such as butlers in wealthy families, titled Englishmen, or wealthy Americans from the likes of New York or Massachusetts. They were astonished to find that he had a drawl, and they simply preferred when he was silent—and he did, too, being no great admirer of the talking pictures. Yes, it was also true that he was, simply, getting older. 1930 marked his fiftieth birthday, and there wasn’t much place for men of his age on screen.
They were solid enough reasons, and true. The main reason, though, was that James Cox, the director of the last film Albert worked on, had discovered the secret of Albert’s sexuality, and eagerly set to blackmailing him. If Cox told the newspapers that Albert was homosexual, it would bring embarrassment and shame to Marjorie, and worse to his six darling children. He couldn’t have them question his love for them or his desire to have them in the world. Worse, he couldn’t bear the thought of them hating him, thinking of him as a pervert, a fraud. A criminal.
I’m sorry, my darlings, Albert thought, gazing now at a photograph of the children on his desk. I did try to change.
Cox wouldn’t let it rest, so it had to be done. Albert signed his name at the bottom of the page, and repeated the same will three times, just in case. He read it over and sighed. No, Marjorie wouldn’t like it. Soon, though, once the shock wore off, Albert was sure she would see what was so clear to him: That the will, along with his death, was all for the best. Next, Albert set to writing a letter. It read:
Too long I have taken advantage of your kindness. I have loved you in my own peculiar way these past 18 years. You have been a good wife, mother, and friend. I hope you will not feel anything like regret or guilt upon hearing what I’ve done--it is only the last in a long line of sins in my life, and it reflects poorly only upon me. It hasn’t anything to do with you. I expect you will realize it’s for the best, and you and the children will be better off this way. I cannot bear the thought of your having to care for me like another child as my sight goes.
I know you are a brave, strong woman, and I trust you will get along just fine without me. Still, if you should happen to find yourself in want of a companion, I do sincerely hope you will find a new husband, one who can love you and care for you as you deserve, as I never could. The only request I deign to make in that regard is that you ensure he is kind and generous with the children.
I’ve left my will on my desk in my study. It is all legal and ready to go. I don’t have much, I’m afraid, but I did everything I could to ensure that the majority of what little I have goes to you, absent some outstanding debt to Mr. James Cox, that old director. I regret that things have turned out this way. It’s my sincere belief that I should have died twenty years ago, but despite that I am so grateful to you and the children. You all have brought positivity and joy into my life, which, I must admit, often felt lacking in those two areas.
Try to remember me kindly, though I understand if you cannot. Goodbye, Marjorie.
He checked the time: 2:20 A.M. on April 15. At exactly that time, twenty years prior, the Titanic disappeared beneath the ocean waves and went quietly to its grave, taking Edwin Fitzpatrick and over a thousand other souls with it. Sometimes Albert doubted he had really been there, or that Edwin had ever really existed at all. Working at Harland and Wolff Shipyard, lazy Sunday mornings in bed with Edwin, snacking on soda bread and tea, reading Yeats while the Irish rain drizzled gently against the window…all of it had been too sweet to last, and Albert had been foolish enough, once, to think he and Edwin could live like that forever. Then Edwin got a woman pregnant, married her, and bought Albert a ticket back to America on the newest, biggest, grandest ship in the land, with Edwin serving as his steward, so they could enjoy one last week together. Since then, Albert tried to make something of his life, but was met with dead ends down every road. It was abundantly clear to him that the time had come to bring the curtain down.
Albert took one copy of his letter and slipped it under the bedroom door, where Marjorie would find it in the morning, then he left the house, closing the office door softly behind him.