do recall vividly is Mr. G. as Kafkaesque bu- reaucrat, shuffling between our tiny desks on his reconstructed knees, inspecting one boy’s meticulously-labeled coin collection and another girl’s sepia photograph of her great- grandparents in fin-de-siècle Vienna. When he leans down to demand my offering, I gaze intensely into the Formica desktop. I have brought him nothing. I have not even told my parents that he’d asked. “I don’t have any favorite things,” I mutter. “I’m sorry.” “Well, well,” says Mr. G. “Nothing will come of nothing.” How can I know he’s quoting Lear ? I want to sink my teeth into his fleshy hand. “Surely, you must have something worth sacrificing,” says Mr. G, sporting the perpetu- ally bemused smile that defines his benevolent, leonine face. “Maybe you could bring in some- thing for us later this week.” “All of my prized possessions have been tak- en!” I snap. “You’re too late.” This earns me yet another afternoon with the school’s psychologist. T HE PRIZED POSSESSIONS that I no longer possessed were two miniature rubber cats, one fat, one thin, given to me by my grand- mother’s eldest sister. The thin cat appeared hungry and scheming—a synthetic, feline Cassius. The fat cat looked as though he’d just swallowed an obese goldfish. They were not a matching pair, manufactured as companions, but two independent creatures forced into unsought friendship. Neither of them had names. Merely Fat Cat and Thin Cat. Al- though they’d once been the most treasured objects of my brief existence—at the age of six, I had carried them everywhere, even the bathtub—they lacked any other social or economic value. Unfortunately, our school’s psychologist, a tense, hyper-analytic fussbud- get, got hung up on determining whether Aunt Emma was an aunt or a grandaunt. We never came around to discussing Fat and Thin, so my unspoken anxiety continued to slosh around inside me like battery acid. Even now, I shiver when I recall my private apocalypse. It was the final autumn of the Carter Presi- dency. My family was driving through north- ern Florida en route to New York, because, to my mother, every commercial jet was an airborne coffin. She’d been arguing with my father, insisting that a presidential vote for
John Anderson would throw the 1980 Elec- tion to Reagan and usher in nuclear winter. We’d just visited my grandaunt in Miami Beach, the last time we would ever see her. I had my two travel companions, Fat and Thin, securely buckled into the back seat of my mother’s foul-tempered Dodge Dart. I sup- pose my brother was also in the vehicle—he must have been about two years old—but I cannot be certain. I was too busy making sure that Fat and Thin didn’t grow carsick, and later, that they were tucked under the covers in the gloomy motel room outside St. Augustine, where we’d all spend the night. We’d only entered the room long enough to inspect it—we hadn’t even emptied our lug- gage from the trunk—but my cats decided to enjoy a nap, a fleeting, indolent snooze while the rest of the family ducked out for breakfast at the local Waffle House or Den- ny’s. Who was I to insist otherwise? Maybe we also collected seashells and pink coral on the public beach. Or we scaled the ramparts of the historic Spanish fort. I have no reason to remember that breakfast, any more than I recall the events of the day, two months later, on which my father drew me aside, following dinner, to reveal that my grandaunt had suc- cumbed to stomach cancer. It was a morning without omens, all prologue to an unforeseen horror. How could I anticipate that, when we returned, joyful and sun-drunk, to our other- wise undisturbed motel room, both Fat and Thin would be gone? As in any self-respecting whodunit, suspicion immediately fell upon the servants—in this case, any of the depleted, middle-aged African-Amer- ican maids who vacuumed and scrubbed toilets while the Caucasian guests scaled the Spanish bat- tlements and collected pink coral on the beaches. These women had opportunity. They hadmotive. Who else would pilfer a pair of worthless rubber cats except a mother or grandmother too impov- erished to purchase her brood feline companions of their own? That’s how my father explained it to me. I had lots of toys. Most likely, the poor Black child who’d been given Fat and Thin had
none. Nor did my parents believe there was mal- ice involved in the catnapping. Rather, entering an empty motel room that contained only two rubber cats, the well-intentioned maid probably believed the creatures had been abandoned. So my parents would buy me new cats, they pledged. Better cats. But to hope that Fat and Thin might return home was simply unrealistic. If we pursued the matter doggedly, a blameless working mother might lose her job. What good would that accom- plish? Besides, even if it were possible, did I really want to yank these cheap, well-worn toys from the hands of a deprived little boy? So we continued our journey up the sea- board. Past unmarked police cars scanning for Yankee plates, through palmetto thickets blanketed with Spanish moss. We drove by the hospital where, the previous winter, my mother had undergone emergency surgery after dropping a can of tomato soup on her left big toe. Soon the air turned crisp and we crossed the endless brooks and runs of Virginia. Then Delaware, where I was bun- dled into a windbreaker and rewarded with a sour gumball. And New Jersey, an endless colonnade of chemical drums that looked like giant toadstools. Finally, we were back in New York, passing the playing fields where I would soon master the arts of lollygagging and wearing a baseball mitt on my head. We parked opposite the neighbor’s stone wall— the wall that my brother would later reshape with the bumper of his first car. But there were now only four of us in the vehicle, not six. I stared out the windshield at our over-lit house, the carefully timed lamps blazing in the upstairs windows, thinking of that needy boy back in Florida whose toilet-scrubbing mother couldn’t afford to take vacations. Did I really want to yank Fat and Thin from his deprived little hands? Yes, I did. Yes, I did! YES, I DID! T WENTY YEARS AFTER the crime of my centu- ry—for Fat and Thin are my Great Train Rob- bery and Lindbergh baby and Manson family
I AMASHELTEREDTEN-YEAR-OLDBOY INAN UPSCALE BEDROOMSUBURBOFNEWYORK CITY, ACOMMUNITY SOFLUSHTHAT ITS GRADE SCHOOL TEACHERSMUST SIMULATE HARDSHIP FORTHEIR STUDENTS.
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