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129 Religious Experience Minneapolis, January 1999 He could see Mary Jane Draper through the front porch window, ungainly, determined, and dangerously perched on a stepladder. This made Dennis Bacchus wonder who was supporting whom. It made him laugh to think about this new life, in which he spent the better part of his mornings doing just what they’d said he’d be doing: guessing how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Mary Jane wasn’t dancing, nor was she angelic, but what made angels angels? He’d been reading Dante’s Paradiso, the first time ever, that story of storyless perfection . He was near the end, and all the angels were dancing around and around the warm light that was the Face of God. “The light of God illumines all of the angels each in a different way,” he read, “and this is why (because affection follows the act of knowledge) the intensity of love’s sweetness appears unequally.” There were better angels than others, Dennis realized—the closer to God, the brighter they were. And how to get closer to God? Apparently, good deeds. He put the book down, drank skunky black coffee. He was concerned. Mary Jane, even she, was taking down the Draper family Christmas decorations: that’s how long ago the holidays had passed. It would take her all day, and the undertaking coincided with a decision on his part to end his own last little yuletide holdover , to put it away, himself, to do a good deed. He checked her again. There she was on the head of her pin, unstringing her first drape of lights. He made these periodic glances because he had set her day’s task as a measure of his own, a deadline, a race against him she didn’t know she was competing in. Then she caught him glancing, and the world shifted: he felt of himself her boss. So he opened the window and said, “Where did you get those extra wise men?” and he had to be careful not to seem to accuse her of sinning—for she was a member of the altar society and one of her sons was still an altar boy. But they’d had him over for Christmas dinner , so they were familiar with one another. “At the Schmelzer garage sale—an incomplete set,” she said, and pulled up a particle board Rudolph by its pronged stakes. “Two babies, though!” Dennis was learning that here there were hierarchies of nobility, and that true wealth was found in those who had so much stuff that they cycled through possessions, in Goodwill bins, church jumbles, eBay. The Schmelzers 130 131 were royalty. They brought in the most money for the Saint Matthias bazaar back in October, when Dennis had first arrived. The Draper house was also blessed. So many of everything, stuffed in the nooks and crannies of their brick bungalow—jolly snowmen in each window, full sleigh and reindeer on the roof (although Santa reappeared here, in the attic window, an apparent hostage, and here, in jointed cardboard at the door, and here, on the front step as a figurine, a doorstop), and lights, lights everywhere. She had turned it all on so she could make sure not to miss any, and the day was gloomy, and what tired January rays hit this part of the planet couldn’t even attempt to pierce the veil of clouds, so that frantic trills of red and green and white made Mary Jane’s house look like a casino, or bordello: something belonging in Nevada. With a string lassoed from her hand to her elbow, she seemed a power source for the twinkle. If his periodic glances were quick enough, the lively blinking made it easy for him to pretend she was putting them up rather than taking them down— and that bought him time to accomplish his own task. Another sip of the coffee and he said, “You have your work cut out for you.” And she said, “And Les will be so disappointed if I don’t do it now while he’s at work—he never wants me to take them down. He’d just start drinking if I rubbed his nose in it. Besides, it’s supposed to snow today, finally.” Her husband, Les, had been out on this same stepladder the day after Halloween, pulling down cardboard skeletons with eyelets for joints and Frankenstein faces. Yes, faces...


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