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By AJ Gentile

The place smelled of disinfectant.

Holy Grace Gifts, a religious goods store, was a small windowed shop John had spotted by accident a few days ago on his way back to the studio from lunch at the Society of Illustrators with Ruth Potter, his agent. Just this afternoon he had remembered it and decided to go in. He didn’t know exactly what he had in mind, but he wanted to get something for Anne.

Inside, the thickly gathered drapes on the window painted everything in a warm rose light. The floors were bare, heavily stained oak.

The owner, an old, big-hipped woman, sidled over to John between the narrow aisles behind the counters. Keys dangled from a rubber band on her wrist. She smiled vividly.

“Yes, sir—can I help you?”

“Hi, yes. I’m looking for something for my wife.”

“Did you have a particular gift in mind?”

“No, nothing definite.”

“Can I ask what the occasion is?”

"It's a Christmas present for her."

"Let's see, now," the woman scanned the store, trying to waken a notion. "You think she'd like some jewelry? A necklace? A bracelet, perhaps?"

She showed him a selection of silver and goldplated Francis, Joseph and St. Christopher medals.

"I thought the Vatican blacklisted Christopher. He's no longer considered a saint, is he?"

"Not everyone goes along with that decision. Personally, I thought the Church was wrong. I still keep a small magnetized seal of him attached to the glove compartment in my car. Where I go, he goes."

The woman hadn't made it any easier. John didn't care for anything she had showed him.

"Well, does she have any favorites?" she asked.

The way she said it made John laugh. "Any favorite what?"

"Saints," the woman said flatly, clearly annoyed at his laughter. She looked at him strangely a moment before suggesting a line of modern sculpted infant Jesus statuettes. "They bring luck and happiness," she told him.

"Maybe I could put it on a key chain like a rabbit's foot," he joked.

The woman frowned. She saw no humor in his comment.

"I really don't know what she would like," he told the woman, sounding a little desperate.

"What if you were to just casually stroll in later on with your wife and let her browse? If she were to pick out something, I'd hold it and you could come by later and purchase it. We're open until six on Saturday."

John knew it would never work with Anne, that it was a stupid idea, but all he told the woman, not to offend her, was, “I don’t think so. My wife’s expecting and––”

“I know!” the woman cried out with a handclap. She shuffled over to a wall display counter, unlocked it with one of the keys on her wrist, and then walked back over to where John was. Triumphantly she set the tray of medals in front of him.

“Just the thing,” she said, lifting one of the medals. “St. Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary, the mother of God, the mother of St. John the Baptist. She’s the patron saint of expectant mothers.”

“Is this sterling?” John asked her.

“Yes. We also have it in white gold.”

“How much would that be?”

“This one’s a hundred and twenty-five dollars.”

John shook his head. “I really didn’t want to spend that much.” He pointed to some others laid out on the velvet.

“What about this brushed gold one?”

“That’s a Florentine finish, sir. It also comes with a polished finish. Those go for about fifty dollars each.”

He tapped the medal with the Florentine finish. “I think she’ll like this one. Yeah, I’ll take this one.”

“What about a chain to go with it? We have some beautiful ones.”

She showed him some chains. He picked an eighteen-inch one that was thin, fine, and feminine.

“Surely. Our engraver isn’t in today, but if you leave it here tonight you can pick it up tomorrow. What would you like written on it?”

He tossed a few things back and forth in his head, finally just deciding on “Merry Christmas, love, John,” and the date.

“I’ll have to abbreviate Christmas to fit it.”

And then John knew that perfect inscription. “Better yet. But when you abbreviate it can you do it with three X's instead of the one? My wife will know what it means."

"If that's what you'd like."

"That's what I'd like."

The woman wrote on the sales slip: "Merry XXXmas, love, John–12/25/80."

"Will that be cash or charge?"

"Charge. You take American Express?"

While the woman was writing up the bill, John browsed idly. Rows of religious candles were lined up along the counter. Crucifixes, in all shapes and sizes, hung on the walls along with religious calendars, chalices, rosaries, Torah scrolls, gowns and shads, and crèches.

By chance, he looked up, caught his reflection in the shop's window.

Someone else was in the reflection, staring back at him.

John wanted to turn but didn't let himself. He played as if he hadn't seen the legless man, studying him in the glass that was angled his way. The cripple was outside, directly opposite the store, half hidden behind a wire trash basket, staring at him. Every time a car went by John would lose sight of him but when it passed he'd see the man again, still staring at him from his skatewheeled dolly, a glancing madness in his eyes.

Why is he looking at me like that?

"Here we go, sir," he heard the woman say.

John turned away to sign the charge slip.

"When's the baby due?" she asked.


"When's the baby due?" she repeated.

"Oh, not until March. My wife's only into her sixth month."

"Winter babies are the smartest." The woman tore off John's receipt, handing it to him as she spoke. "Come by sometime tomorrow afternoon. After three. It should be ready by them."

"Thank you," he said and turned to leave, catching his reflection as he went by. Like a shadow that was there and gone, the cripple had disappeared. He was nowhere to be seen on the street.

Strange. So what else was new in this city, John told himself. He got a cab on Madison back to the studio.

The red messagelight was lit on the teleminder when John got back to the studio. There was a message from Ruth. Good news, too.

"Thought I wouldn't catch you playing hookey?

Talked with Alan Abrams and you have an extension on the piece. December fifth the finish has to be on his desk. Don't say I never did anything for you. Speak with you later, love. Bye."

There was a second message on the machine for Anne. Since John was in the studio the better part of a working day Anne used the number as her service number. It was more advantageous to her than having a separate message service because he could relay the message to her right away instead of her constantly phoning the service to see if anyone had called.

The call was from her agent, Sam Loeble. John dialed home to give Anne the message, but no one picked up.

It was a quarter past three. Even with the deadline on the piece postponed there was a lot to do. The illustration had been commissioned by a topselling woman's magazine to accompany an article entitled "The Anatomy of Intimacy." Phil Abrams, the art director, had told him specifically what he had in mind for the piece. A discreetly nude couple embracing, the various emotions emphasized in insets around them, all very schematiclooking to approximate an anatomy text. Inspired, no, John thought, but think of the really awful shit you used to do. The hard and software spots for trade magazines, the thousands of motor parts for that automechanics catalogue: That was a few years ago, granted, John reminded himself, but it was still something that made him want to bury his head in the sand.

When he decided to make the break and become a freelance illustrator, taking on only assignments that interested him, the work was slim, the money even slimmer. He had had no representation and was limited in the number of people he actually knew. He and Anne had been married less than two years when Jenny was born. John was working out of their apartment then, his drafting table set up in the corner of their already crowded living room. He'd babysit Jenny while Anne went off in pursuit of her acting career, going to open calls, submitting her head shot and résumé for showcase productions. Anne's income amounted to nothing more than performance pay and the money from an odd modeling job every now and then. At best, theirs was a modest existence. Jenny was getting older, the bills growing faster than she.

Then Ruth came into John's life. Their lives, really. She was a fiftyish, widowed woman who had taken over her husband's business as an artist's representative when he had passed away. She had a small but respected stable of eleven or so commercially successful illustrators. John had called for an interview to present his portfolio and that same afternoon had signed with her. At first John thought Ruth had designs on him. The weeks went by with no work, dotted with business lunches with Ruth at which she praised his work, telling him to be patient and relax, because when the work did come in, it was going to pour.

And she was right. For the first year John didn't know what a weekend was. He would finish one assignment and pick up another, often working through the night to meet a 'deadline. During that period, he never knew what day it was. He lost track of time totally. Forgot birthdays, even his anniversary.

That was almost six years ago. Since then, it had been a sure and steady climb uphill, financially as, well as creatively. He was ashamed of himself for having thought Ruth was after something sexual from him. She had genuine enthusiasm for his work and was constantly encouraging him to continue with his paintings because she believed he had the true talent to become something more than a commercial illustrator, that he had the makings of a fine artist. It was a false faith on her part, though. John knew his limitations. Maybe there was some ambitious plan to his life he had yet to explore. If there was, though, it was still a mystery to him.

He tacked up a gessoed board and under, the opaque projector set up the photograph Allan D'Andrea had taken of two embracing models he had hired. He shut off the overhead fluorescents and turned the projector on. With a hard lead pencil he began delicatedly tracing the figures onto the board.

As the projector began to heat up it started its resonating hum. That always got to him. It gave a throbbing, pulsing sound to the silence that made it come alive, making him horribly aware of the fact that he was alone.

If there was a drawback to the job, that was it. The quiet, the unmitigated silence, the loneliness. Sure, the money was terrific, the recognition even better, but the interminable hours spent so utterly alone in the confines of the studio outweighed all that. It became maddening at times. He would be sitting at the board and with frightful suddenness be seized by such a powerful sense of his confinement, of being marooned from all humanity, that he would break out in a sweat. There were time-terrified moments he though the feeling would never end, that it would go on forever.

People couldn’t understand. There was a mystique about the profession, a glamour that dazzled people. You make your own hours, his friends would say. You don’t have an overseer, a boss to work under. But that wasn’t true. There were impossible deadlines that made punching a clock seem inviting, and though he didn’t work directly under an authoritative head, he still got backlash from some higher-ups. The incredible egos of some of the art directors he had to deal with and the asinine revisions that he had to carry through, however foolish they might be, were grievous nuisances. The bunch of them were frustrated artists, incompetents commanding huge salaries, who, if they were lucky, could name the three primary colors without making a mistake. Jesus, what one had to put up with just to get through it.

John took the board off the wall and laid it on the drafting table, lining it flush to the edge. With a T-square he began penciling into the background a series of bold X shapes. If he had a marked style, that was it. As early as he could remember pricking up a crayon the X shapes had repeated themselves in one form or another in all his work. Through high school and into art college they had persisted. It was as if he’d had no choice in the matter. When he would try to make a conscious effort to avoid them, the best he could do was to camouflage them. They were still there. He'd seen them. Invisible shapes in the flesh of the drawing, maybe as subtle as a whisper, but there nonetheless, formed between the blocking of the elements.

So instead of avoiding the technique, he went with it, developing it. After a while it became his trademark, more so even than his own signature. When Print magazine did an interview with him in seventy-six after he had received the Hamilton King award for his outstanding contributions to American illustration, they had tagged the interview "X Marks the Spot—The Works of John Paige."

It was almost six when Allan D'Andrea stopped by with the model composites. Allan was a welcome interruption. He and John were friends out of art school, John majoring in illustration, Allan in photography. Being black, Allan thought it would be tough finding any job in the photo business other than lab work and sweeping out darkrooms. But there was pressure on Madison Avenue back then to hire blacks because embarrassingly few of them were in the industry. Allan had lucked out early. Advertisers were just becoming aware that the black population had its own distinct tastes and thinking and that therefore a marketing strategy had to be tailored toward them.

Allan had landed a job with Esquire as a staff photographer and later, like John, had become a freelancer. He worked with all the top models. When John needed a reference shot for a piece, Allan always found the time to help him out. There was a book John had committed himself to, a new thriller by the topselling writer of the supernatural, this one about a girl with a deadly power, and he needed a shot of an ingenue type. He went through the composites Allan had brought with him and settled on a pretty blonde who seemed to fit the bill.

"That's one fine lady you picked there," Allan commented and grinned. He was always bragging how he made it with every model he photographed. Promised them free sessions, and they'd put out for him. John never took him too seriously, and he liked him a good deal even so.

"Let me tell you, that is one fine lady. I could marry a lady like that and live happily ever after, let me tell you."

John kidded him. "She's white, Al. Think of the children. They'll come out spotted."

"Al don't mind." He always did that, called himself by his name. "Spotted, zebrastriped, plaid . . . I'm not prejudiced. I'm no bigot. So long as the little bastards ain't white."

Inside of twenty minutes Allan was gone. It was late, but John resumed his work. He scraped clean the glass palette with a razor blade and set out new colors. He began to wash in the background, but his concentration kept faltering. He saw the palette with its rainbow of acrylics and tried to move his mind to it but couldn't. He kept coming out of the illustration. He kept seeing the cripple in the store's reflection, staring.

John knew it couldn't be—they were strangers, it was impossible—but he was unable to shake the feeling that he knew the man. That they shared some kind of mutual understanding.

He gazed out the window, down at the street, at the people passing below. He knew he was one of them, going through the motions of life, but there were times after all those isolated hours in the studio when he felt apart from them. Of them, but not one of them. Even alone in the studio, in a silent voice he would say to himself, "I am different."

Maybe that was the understanding he shared with the cripple. The aloneness they shared. Hell, think of the isolation that poor man has to endure. A man whose legs are the wheels of a skate was a different species of man in most people's eyes. That's where you and I are the same, John thought. That was what we felt there in the glass.

The aloneness.

The terrible despair of each other's aloneness.

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