They say that familiarity breeds contempt. I held no contempt for religious icons or saints, but, having been raised Catholic, I’d had my fill of them. I was too easily annoyed by people and situations to relate to them; we had nothing in common. I did, however, relish fine art. Especially paintings. When I gained weight, I found solace in renderings of lumpy, Rubenesque women who, like I, had been eating too many cheeseburgers and avoiding the gym. In happier times I pored over images of angels with soft, pink lips and gold-tipped wings, or brilliant blue skies bursting with wreath-bearing seraphim.

My appreciation of The Annunciation reached its pinnacle during a span of self-imposed social isolation. Challenges–medical, relationship, dental and parking—leeched me of all desire to mingle. When I wasn’t at work I was home, curled up with a novel or hunched over a jigsaw puzzle.

For someone who abhorred red lights, waiting on lines or being put on hold, I showed tremendous fortitude in assembling 1,500 to 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzles. Hours found me searching for that one elusive piece that would connect a flower to its stem or complete a nymph’s earlobe. My absorption was profound. Sometimes I broke a sweat.

Exciting, it was, then, to find a 1,500 piece puzzle of The Annunciation that would, if I chose to glue and frame it, go so well in my living room. Gabriel’s creamy wings and royal blue robe were the perfect complement to my area rug, and Mary’s dark blond hair contrasted nicely with my curtains. Best, the pillars framing the scene were a dead-on match for the shade of my living room walls. This was impressive, as the color morphed noticeably with the light. It looked sandy when I awoke, developed green tones in the afternoon, and deepened to an earthy taupe as night fell. Benjamin Moore had surpassed himself.

I did have reservations about hanging the Virgin Mary on my wall, though. Under her gaze, I feared I’d hesitate to walk around nude, fantasize about a hot shag on my sofa, or use the word “fuck” every forty-five seconds. Friends would start giving me rosary beads for my birthday and saying grace when we went out to eat. My father would invite me to Sunday mass every week.

I wasn’t sure I could take it.

These qualms failed to ease my disappointment when, after weeks of labor, I discovered piece number 1,500 of my Virgin Mary puzzle to be missing. A cat owner, I’d known the risks. No matter how rigorous and complex my systems, Kylie occasionally relocated a puzzle piece from my kitchen table to behind the refrigerator, or in an old shoe at the back of my closet. There it would remain, undiscovered until there was a change in either the season or in fashion.

This time she’d left me with a 1,499 piece image of The Virgin Mary with an indelicately situated peephole in the bodice of her dress. It was strikingly incompatible with the painting’s overall theme. I had another issue on my hands.

I did some research. Puzzle companies, I discovered, often kept spare puzzle pieces for instances just like this. Buoyed, I called Jigsaw Jungle. A customer service representative broke the news: The Annunciation was manufactured in Italy, and was no longer in print. Outstandingly sympathetic, after contacting the warehouse, the woman hung up with me and placed a direct call to Italy. This was a conversation I’d have liked to hear. “Hello? This is Margie. Yes, from the United States division. We have a situation down here in Montclair . . .”

Alas, the Italy branch could be of no service. My decision about framing the Virgin Mary was made for me. I was spared Mary’s judgments, and she was spared being mounted next to photos of my mother’s two terriers.

A week later, I filled my sister in on my Virgin Mary calamity.

“You should have seen this puzzle,” I lamented. “It was beautiful. I was even thinking of framing it for my living room.”

“That’s a shame,” Brynne said. “After all that work. And your living room is impossible to match.”

“Yes,” I said wistfully. “That it is.”

“Are you sure you looked everywhere?”

“You have no idea.”

Brightening, Brynne said, “Hey, wait. I just thought of something. Let me put Ray on the phone.”

“Okay,” I said, unable to imagine how Ray could help.

A moment later, my brother-in-law came on the line. “Hi,” he said. “I hear you’re having a puzzle problem.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Or at least I was.”

“Bummer,” Ray replied. “Brynne says your walls are impossible to match.”

“They are,” I confirmed with a sigh.

“Well, listen,” Ray said. “I may have a solution for you: Why don’t you contact the puzzle commission?”

“Huh?” I asked.

“The puzzle commission. You mean you never heard of it?”


“That surprises me. They’re kind of like the Food and Drug Administration, but for puzzles.”

“Are you kidding?” I cried. “Why didn’t you tell me during my Van Gogh crisis?”

“I didn’t know about it then. My friend told me just a couple of days ago.”

“Oh,” I said.

“My friend Joe. You know him, right?”


“Well, his father works for the Commission.”


“Yeah. The guy’s a mole. He goes into puzzle companies to investigate . . .”

My bullshit radar gave a sudden shriek. Ray had a wicked sense of humor, and an unflagging commitment to mocking the gullible. And a wife eager to join in his cause. Until he got carried away, I’d believed there was an organization poised to rally for my cause. He knew it, and I knew it.

“Thanks, Ray,” I said. “I’ll be sure to tell him you referred me.” Shaking my head, I hung up the phone.

I padded to my couch to hide under a blanket and sulk. The more I thought about it, the deeper my despair. In time, I knew, Mary’s absent puzzle piece would shift into perspective. But this? This dashing of spirit, crushing of pride?

No prayer in heaven could deliver me from this.