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ghastly secret that separated the adults from the children : Homo sapiens were like rubber cats. You could return to your motel room one night to find them gone forever. M Y AUNT WAS one of six siblings, all deceased, only two of whom produced biological chil- dren. One brother, Harry, eloped with a non- Jewish woman and was banished from the life of the family forever. A second brother, Mor- ris, traveled by train to California at the end of World War II—and his children, in perpetual exile, are prosperous restaurateurs in Los An- geles. While I think of Emma’s sister, Ida, as my grandmother, she is technically my moth- er’s stepmother. (My biological grandmother discovered a lump in her breast in 1953 and was sent home from the hospital to die.) The comedian Jerry Lewis is a distant cousin, as was the stage actor, Bert Lahr, but neither Lewis nor Lahr’s son, John, have answered my multiple letters. I mention all of this to emphasize how few visitors come to Aunt Emma’s gravesite at Mount Ararat, in Queens, where she is buried alongside her parents and thousands of unfor- tunate strangers. When I visit, on a warm au- tumn afternoon nearly twenty-five years after her death, the markers are overrun with desic- cated vines and thorny creepers. It is amazing how little I know of my aunt. She was born in 1898 and worked her entire adult life as an executive secretary at the Al- lied Chemical & Dye Corporation. She never married. As far as my surviving cousins recall, she never dated. Most of her time was spent in the company of another single woman named Alice McCarthy, but whether they were merely friends, or romantically involved, is a mystery lost to the ages. What I do re- member are visits to her single-occupancy apartment in the old Sherry Netherland Ho- tel, and how she showed me a paperweight made from glass-encased butterfly wings, and one time she called me on the telephone and I innocently nodded my head to answer her questions. And I remember vividly the eve- ning she gave me Fat Cat and Thin Cat, after a quiet afternoon in which I downed numer- ous glasses of chocolate milk and she nibbled fruit-flavored baby food, the only meal her esophageal strictures permitted. That is all I remember of my grandmother’s eldest sister. Yet I still love this octogenarian spinster, who is now but a smattering of flashbulb memories in my consciousness, an image of a perpetu- ally impish woman with dimpled cheeks and

appropriated toothbrush. I was thinking of my long lost friends. My plan was to scour the city, making in- quiries of desk clerks. Yet what could I possibly ask? Do you recall if I left a pair of rubber cats here thirty-two years ago? Would you mind if I asked your housekeeping staff if they’d stolen my toys? As I drove past the Pelican Island Wild- life Refuge and the Kennedy Space Center, the absurdity of my scheme grew increasingly clear to me. The woman who had made off with my prized possessions would be long-since re- tired. Or worse. Her son might well have a six- year-old boy of his own. Most likely, the motel itself had been purchased by a national chain and then sold off again in a series of complex transactions that might well have concluded with a wrecking ball. The bottom line was that any sane motel clerk would have laughed me out of his lobby before I made it within shout- ing distance of a housekeeper. I would have had as much luck convincing Dellwood to put the cats’ photographs on its milk cartons. So I turned my car around and drove back—to my bare motel room, to the life I lead without my childhood toys. The irony, I realize, is that if I could find the grown man who’d been that deprived child, I would let him keep the cats. Gladly. I can’t say I would have at the age of fifteen or even at twen- ty-five—but as a thirty-four-year-old university professor, I’ve finally found enough peace in life to forgive the misguided motel maid who did me a small injustice a quarter of a century ago. Honestly, I don’t even want to see the cats again. Fat and Thin are far more vivid in my memory than they could ever be on a stranger’s shelf—or even, for all I know, on his pillow. So what do I want from this man whom I will never meet— this man who probably doesn’t even know that I exist—this man who has never even once asked himself where his mother or grandmother found the toys she brought home from work? All I want is to see who he is—to discover what became of the boy whose mother gave him a pair of rubber cats, one fat, one thin, on a fateful au- tumn night in 1980. That’s what I want to ask him: Did they change his life as much as they changed mine? Jacob M. Appel’s most recent books are a collection of essays, “Phoning Home,” and a short story collection, “Scouting for the Reaper.” He is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at theMount Sinai School of Medicine, where he teaches medical ethics and creative writing. *

a penchant for turquoise hats. I remember loving her and I remember her loving me. I still own the butterfly paperweight, one of the few possessions I carry with me from apart- ment to apartment. Alongside this heirloom, there is always an empty space on the shelf, a final resting place perpetually waiting for Fat or Thin. I am like a war mother, keeping free a chair for her missing son. At some point reason eclipses hope, but the opening must remain as a tribute to the long departed. T WO MONTHS AFTER I visited my aunt’s gravesite, I found myself once again on the east coast of Florida for the wedding of a childhood friend. I made the terrible mistake of staying in the Best Western at 1505 Belve- dere Road in West Palm Beach—an error I wish to encourage all readers of this essay to avoid. The motel appeared a suitable enough lodging at first glance—not too pricey—al- though the soda machines didn’t work and assorted household debris floated atop the pool. Lulled into lowering my guard by the lush, subtropical air and the swaying palms, I took the risk of packing only my computer into my trunk and leaving my other belong- ings inside the motel room while I attended the nuptials wearing a tuxedo. How could I ever have anticipated that the housekeeping staff would confuse the day of my departure? When I returned at two a.m., feeling festive but fatigued to the bone, I discovered that the maid had turned over the room in my ab- sence. She’d taken with her my beach clothes, my toiletries, even the prescription medica- tion that I take before traveling on airborne coffins. To this day, despite my repeated pleas, the motel has proven unable to track down my missing belongings. I will not keep an open space of my shelf for them. Of course, as a result of this screw up, I found myself with a day to kill on the Florida coast, lacking so much as a bathing suit to wear or a paperback novel to read. Seized with an irratio- nal impulse, I immediately phoned my mother in New York and asked her for the name of the motel where the rubber cats had disappeared. Which rubber cats? she asked. When she final- ly understood what I wanted to know, it be- came clear that she possessed only the faintest memory of the entire episode. My father didn’t remember the rubber cats at all. That left me no choice but to drive up the seaboard toward St. Augustine—intend on stopping at each roadside motel. I didn’t care about my recently


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