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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

Signs of the Cross

It was the Thursday after the blizzard. There was still some snow around, but it was disappearing fast. I'd left the office a little later than usual that day. The sun was out and it was warmer than it should've been, so as a result  the sidewalks were more crowded than I preferred. At least the packed ice wasn't much of an issue anymore.

I was making my way toward the 23rd St. subway station when I noticed a fat man walking toward me. Well, not "toward me" so much as just "in the opposite direction." He had dark hair and was wearing dark clothes.

As I watched, he removed his hand from his pocket and made the sign of the cross. A quick but deliberate four-move gesture. Then he put his hand back in his pocket. It seemed to be a reflexive gesture on his part.

I can't say as I'd ever seen anyone just do that while walking down the street in New York before—but who knows? There are a lot of things I don't see.

I thought little more of it than to note that I found it mildly strange.

Then a few yards later, I passed an older woman. She was happily munching on handfuls of Froot Loops, which she was digging out of the open cereal box she carried with her while walking down the street.

I shrugged, then entered the subway station.

Talking to Morgan later that afternoon, I mentioned the guy who made the sign of the cross.

"Do you think he was crossing himself at you specifically?" she asked.

"Oh, no, no no," I said. "Not at all. I just thought it was weird, is all."

"Well," she said, "was he passing in front of a church? Some people can get that way."

I thought about it for a moment. It was entirely possible. There is a church along that block, so that probably answered that. Maybe hundreds of people every day cross themselves while passing that church, and I just never noticed before.

It was no big deal. Besides, we both agreed that the woman with the Froot Loops was much more interesting.

The next day, once again, I got out of the office a little later than usual (things were a bit discombobulated over there). Once again the sun was out and it was warmer than usual for this time of year. And once again, I was on 23rd St. on my way to the subway. I'd just emerged from beneath the scaffolding there when I looked up just in time to see a middle-aged woman cross herself as she approached me. She had a little smile on her face.

Now, I wasn't looking for it. I hadn't even thought of the other guy since Morgan and I talked about him the day before. But here it was again. This time it not only struck me as odd, but a little creepy. What the hell was going on?

Thing is, this time I checked, and the woman who crossed herself was a full half-block past the church, so that couldn't explain it.

Maybe it is me, I thought. What were the chances that two people on two consecutive days would cross themselves just before passing me on the same block?

When I got home, I called Morgan and told her about it.

"Are you sure she wasn't just pulling her hair out of her face or something?" she asked.

"No," I said, "it was definitely the sign of the cross. No question."

"Well then, maybe you have the Mark," she said. "Let me ask you this—when you pass a window, can you see your reflection?"

It wasn't something I could honestly say, as I'd never really stopped to notice. But I'll tell you one thing—if I were carrying the Mark of the Beast, I'd probably be doing a hell of a lot better for myself than I am right now.

I began to consider the possibility that the sign of the cross these people were making in my general direction wasn't a religious gesture at all, but rather some sort of code, some sort of sign. They might have been in cahoots, these two, members of some secret underground movement, and the gesture was an attempt to communicate something to me. But damned if I know what it might mean until someone comes out and tells me. Until that happens, it isn't something I'm going to worry myself over.

I didn't think so, anyway—but get this.

The very next morning—this was Saturday now—I was on my way to the bank. It was about 8 in the morning, and the air was chilly.

As I approached the corner of Carroll Street, a thin and ragged old man in a denim jacket passed me. As he did so, he shouted to another guy across the street. The guy across the street was wearing a heavy parka.

"Hey man!" the guy in the denim jacket yelled. "It ain't that cold out that you needa be bundled up in all that boooo-shit!"

The man across the street shouted back to him, "Hey man—I ain't got that leathery skin like you do, all sealed an' treated an' shit!"

Then they both continued on their separate ways. Neither one of them, so far as I'm aware, ever made the sign of the cross.

(That didn't really have anything to do with anything. I just thought it was funny, is all.)