When Danny Sylvester lay bleeding out in the rust-red dust of that Miccosukee trailer park, we have no way of knowing whether or not he was aware of the twenty-seven million dollars Uncle Walter had in mind to leave him in his will. None of the rest of us had any inkling that Uncle Walter had that kind of money, but he had taken the boy, the foreman's son, under his dubious wing years earlier, so maybe Danny knew. Nor can we imagine what Mr Sylvester thought about handing his son over to an eccentric old bachelor farmer who'd had no experience raising anything but eyebrows until he started growing watermelons on the Florida Panhandle in the late Fifties. Walter sent Danny to school, took him along on annual voyages to Europe and the world beyond aboard the Cunard line, showered him with expensive gifts and generally treated him as the son he'd never had; or so we'd like to think. What darker impulses and stifled yearnings may have motivated this lonely soul I can't say, but he had a dozen nieces and nephews whom he hardly knew.
Danny was about my brother's age and we'd see him and some of the kids from the other farm families when we took the Silver Meteor down to Thomasville to spend Christmas at our Grandmother's place nearby. There were often presents under the tree for these kids, too, and one year – I might have been eight years old – I grabbed at a pair of shiny, chrome six-shooters with pearly, plastic handles, holstered on a Naugahyde cartridge belt and hanging like an ornament from a low bough of the massive tree. I was sure they were for me and I'd been craving them ever since I peeked in through the living-room doors well before dawn. Uncle Walter quickly intervened; setting down a tumbler of breakfast bourbon, he handed the cap-guns off to Danny and a box-set of The Jungle Books to me. And that might have been the last time I saw or gave much thought to Danny Sylvester until the night I heard he'd been killed.
Whatever effect Walter's attentions and influence may have had on Danny over the years, they didn't prevent him from marrying, and it was for the purpose of collecting his wife from the arms of another man that he set out for the trailer park that fateful night. I picture him in his kitchen, drinking, enraged, stumbling about in search of his pistol, about to go off half-cocked. Was Uncle Walter there with him, trying to talk Danny down? Did he reach for the car keys or the gun in a futile attempt to stop this madness before things went too far? In the event, they arrived together and I imagine poor Uncle Walter grasping at Danny's arm or shirttails, beseeching him to stop as he broke free and ran up the cinder-block stoop to hammer sobs and threats out into the sticky night upon the rusty, metal door. We've all seen the movie; this can't end well. A man came to the door, I've heard; there was a fight down in the scabrous yard and Danny was shot to death in the desiccated dirt beneath the Spanish moss. I'd like to think he died in Walter's arms, the same embrace my uncle might have spent so many years yearning to enfold his Danny in.
The last time I saw Uncle Walter – indeed, one of the few times I'd ever seen him - was at my wedding. Why he decided to come all the way to Maine for this event, to celebrate the marriage of a nephew he'd never known, might have had more to do with saying goodbye to my mother and aunt, his two half sisters, at what he knew to be the last leg of his life than any fondness for me. He gave us a curious little enameled wire candle holder as a wedding present, a sort of crown of thorns; he gave me a Norelco shaver as a groom's gift. We knew nothing of his fortune on that day. Some years later, a few weeks after Mom had said he'd died, someone dressed in Jackass pants, clutching a cocktail, approached me at some event and shrieked, “ Was that your Grandfather who just left all that money to that school?”
“My uncle,” I muttered, brushing flecks of crabmeat spittle and endive from my shirtfront. “ What money? What school?” And that's the first I'd heard of it. In fact, the patrons and alumni of Westminster School knew all about Uncle Walter's generous endowment before anyone in the family even knew he'd died. He might have left us each a million dollars and still been able to leave the single greatest gift in history to a private, secondary school. A school, it turned out, he'd spent only one year at, a post-graduate year, no less, in 1935. Bereft of Danny Sylvester and not wanting to corrupt his extended family with an embarrassment of riches, some have speculated that Walter left his fortune to this place with the understanding that buildings and arenas might be built to bear his name, a legacy he craved but could not achieve in the shadow of his powerful father, a politician and statesman, a man of consequence. Many months later, my brother, who was Uncle Walter's godson, received a check from the estate for the improbable sum of two hundred and fifty dollars; his assessment may be closer to the mark. It is my brother's contention that it was during that glorious Spring of 1935 that our Uncle Walter, however fleetingly, discovered and acted upon his stifled sexuality.
Whatever the case, he must have been unrivaled in the world of watermelons.