So, why, wondered his nephew Rob in 2011, had Uncle Theo’s last sea journey been in the East River as a corpse? In the midst of the patriarch’s death and his daughter’s hysterical first divorce (Hayleys committed serial marriages rather than murders), when the NYPD labeled Uncle Theo a suicide, no one had cared to investigate. Rob’s two cousins, Thalia and Thorne, Uncle Theo’s only children, had been scattered to backwaters in Bermuda and the Isle of Wight by their own marital escapades and didn’t share Rob’s curiosity, piqued when Thalia self-published a Hayley family history hardly including her father as a footnote. “There’s a reason dogs don’t chase parked cars,” she emailed Rob, recently retired from four decades as a Connecticut College English professor: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth,” came instantly to Rob’s mind along with revived memories of Uncle Theo -- in Manhattan, at The Howdy Doody Show; in Uncle Theo’s Bartleby-like room in the family lumber business building in Brooklyn; sailing on the 34 ft. Kairos in the Sound off the Connecticut coast in the summers; how handsome Uncle Theo was, how heliotropic.
Rob had only seen Uncle Theo drunk once, one Thanksgiving before he married second wife Laura, the black woman he brought to his mother’s house for dinner. Grandmother Hayley and Rob’s mother had each taken an elbow of Laura’s and led her away from Uncle Theo who was left to the men – to do what? Rob remembered only the image of the two white women at the beautiful black woman’s elbows. But he knew that after alcoholism ended his TV career and second marriage, Uncle Theo had gone on the wagon. There had been at least two holiday seasons when Uncle Theo had been the life of the parties solo and sober, sipping limed soda or ginger ale in a champagne flute.
Uncle Theo had gone to work for Rob’s father in the Brooklyn lumber business. “Your Uncle Theo could sell a pile of twisted lumber to a seasoned salesman -- snow to the Eskimos!” The two city blocks on the waterfront in Greenpoint were the last remnant of the Hayley empire begun three centuries before that had consumed Adirondack forests stolen from Mohawks who had ironically named the area Ratirontaks, insulting the also indigenous Algonquins for “eating trees” when food was scarce. The Dutch had transliterated the word Aderondackx. This information was included in Thalia’s history: “The Hayleys developed, defended, and defined 18th and 19th century America and are dedicated to remember it in the 20th and 21st. Northeastern forests cut down in the 18th and 19th centuries regrew when farm fields were abandoned. The region is now one of the most important for carbon storage on the planet.”
Another 1957 memory: Thorne had run away from home in Stonington to Rob’s parents’ house in Mystic. Rob’s mother called him at prep school in Virginia as he packed for Thanksgiving.
“Maybe you can calm her down,” Rob’s mother said. “She listens to you.”
She put Thorne on the phone. Rob could hardly make out what she was saying, about – what? Sputnik?
Rob didn’t remember what he’d told his cousin, but it must’ve been some Southern prep school paternoster about the necessity of forgiving the older generation for the sins they’d inherited and passed down. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. Because Rob knew that’s what he was telling himself at that pivotal time in his adolescence when Uncle Theo had just died.