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not to tinker with the rules of social organiza- tion. What about the boy whose toys were sto- len? she wanted to know. What if those were his most beloved possessions? What if they’d been given to him by his grandparents on their deathbeds? I admired her eloquence, but I also sensed her passion was not personal—that she had never actually lost anything of value. Think about what being victimized like that could do to somebody, particularly a small child, she urged her skeptical classmates. For all you know, that kid will never get over his missing cats. For all you know, taking those cats away ruined his entire life. I WON ’ T CLAIM that the loss of Fat and Thin ruined my life, but their disappearance cer- tainly changed it. Even today, I am a far more cautious—even suspicious—person than I might have been if not for that episode. I am

particularly careful not to leave shopping bags in my car while I run a few additional errands or an attaché case at a restaurant table when I visit the rest room. I never loan out my door keys, not even to a close friend or relative for a matter of seconds. When I travel, I phone my home answering machine at least once a day—not principally to check my messages, but to assure myself that my apartment build- ing hasn’t burned down. And every morning, if I’m staying at a hotel, I pack up all of my belongings and stash them inside the trunk of my car. So while I give generously to charity and even to panhandlers, no slippery-fingered room cleaner’s toddler will ever acquire a stray sock or a ballpoint pen at my expense. Of course, even without the St. Augustine mas- sacre, I might have grown into a thoroughly maladjusted adult. Hitler and Stalin could still have proven butchers, notwithstanding

loving childhoods. What I can say with con- fidence is that not a day passes during which I don’t actively fear being robbed of what I care about most deeply: not tangible objects, but friendships and loved ones. I imagine psychiatry has a label for this walking dread. That is why I don’t see a psychiatrist. Another consequence of this traumatic incident has been my longstanding discom- fort with the housekeeping staff at hotels and motor lodges. The winter after Fat and Thin disappeared, I slammed the door in the face of another African-American mo- tel maid—this time on the resort island of Sanibel—and nearly shattered her nose. The woman, a plump battleaxe with a soli- tary gold tooth, accused me of racism. My prejudice, of course, was of a different sort. Alas, my parents, who had long since moved beyond the previous autumn’s horrors, forced me to apologize. Later that week, my father drove our rental car through the shanty towns where the cleaning staff lived, so that I might witness the corrugated zinc roofs and the un- dergarments drying in the open air. Yet what most interested me were the dozens of young children, scampering among the chickens and guinea fowl. I scrutinized them care- fully, wondering if one of these boys might somehow have acquired Fat or Thin from a cousin who lived further upstate. I had long ago given up hope of recovering both of my cats. My deal with the cosmos was that if one of them returned home, I would behave irre- proachably forever. Many nights, I lay awake in bed, trying to determine whether I would prefer the jovial, fun-loving Fat or the wise, worldly Thin. I was trapped forever in my own micro-version of Sophie’s Choice . What- ever the outcome of my fantasies, I ended up sobbing myself to sleep. I am self-aware enough to recognize that while stealing may be stealing, the loss of the rubber cats was far more than merely the loss of the rubber cats. My aunt had died, after all—or my grandaunt, to please the sticklers. Even at the age of six, I understood that this was the ultimate of all calamities, a disaster so unspeakably horrific that we pretend the suffering is bearable and struggle on with our lives. Many people close to me have died since that evening when my father explained that we wouldn’t be visiting Miami Beach anymore, but I’ll never shake the genuine terror I felt when he revealed the true course of human events. I’d been introduced to the


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