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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer

Preferring Oranges

           The fellowship hall in the basement of the Lutheran church wasn’t the ideal location for the weekly singles group meeting, but the ideal location, assuming such a place existed, would almost definitely cost a lot more money to rent. Only half of the fluorescent lights on the ceiling had been turned on in an attempt to make the atmosphere a bit less harsh. The folding tables had been covered with cheap tablecloths and decorated with unlit candles. A dozen men and almost twice as many women mingled like the experts the singles group had trained them to become.

Jason had always been disdainful of the idea of singles groups while he was actually single, but now that he was engaged, his wedding day racing toward him out of a pale and hazy distance, he was curious. This was his third week and he drifted from conversation to conversation with a mild drink in his hand and a series of mildly personal questions on his lips.

Through the natural flow of the mingling, Jason eventually found himself left alone near the doorway to the kitchen with a slim, perpetually smiling man of about 35. In the kitchen, Jason could hear a few of the women going through the recently arrived pizza boxes one by one to make sure that they all, in fact, contained pizza and that those pizzas were correctly topped as ordered. Jason shook the smiling man’s hand and said, “I’m Jason, welcome to the group.”

“Thanks,” said the man. “Thanks a lot. I’m Devan. I’m just trying this out. Seeing how it all works, I guess.”

“Ahh,” said Jason, nodding. “I know what you mean.”

“I’m gay,” offered Devan. Jason couldn’t tell if Devan was joking or not as he continued. “Or rather, I was gay. I’d like to not be. So here I am. Meeting women. You excluded, of course.” He chuckled and pointed at a dumpy woman with a pretty face chatting with a gray-haired man nearby. “There,” said Devan. “There’s a woman.” The woman noticed Devan pointing and saved her dirtiest look for Jason, for some reason.

“Oh boy,” said Jason.

Devan nodded at this as if Jason had just given him a wise word of advice. “So why are you here?” asked Devan. “Loneliness? It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Well, hey, who am I to talk about what you should and shouldn’t be ashamed of? Be ashamed of whatever you want, Jason.”

“I’m not lonely,” said Jason. Devan’s reckless way of talking made Jason feel dizzy and he found himself wanting to put the accepted singles group level of interaction aside for a moment while he set the record straight. He lowered his voice so that Devan had to lean closer and said, “I’m engaged, actually. I’m getting married in six months. No, five months, wow…”

Devan furrowed his brow while somehow maintaining his grin. “You brought your fiancée to a singles group? What, to rub our noses in it?”

“No, no,” said Jason. “She’s not here. She’s at home.”

Devan turned his head and looked at Jason sideways, his smile waning. “So where does your fiancee think you are?”

Jason couldn’t tell if Devan approved or disapproved. “She knows I’m at church,” said Jason. “But she thinks it’s for Bible study.”

“Incredible,” said Devan in a flat voice, but his smile was beginning to return.

“I’m not actually looking, per se,” said Jason. “But once I’m married, a singles group will never be an option again, so…

“You scare me,” said Devan.

You scare me,” said Jason.

            A woman with fake red hair and close-set eyes came out of the kitchen and the two men watched as she counted the people in the room, silently mouthing each number. Devan and Jason were the last two she counted, and when she finished, she said, “Oh no, we’re a table short.” She gave them a worried smile that seemed like it was supposed to communicate something more specific than mere worry, but neither man could interpret what that might be. Finally, she said, “Could you guys maybe run upstairs to the supply closet and bring down another folding table?”

            “Sure thing,” said Jason.

            “Please,” said the woman.

            “I said ‘sure,’” said Jason, and he handed the woman his empty glass.

She accepted it and then knelt and set it on the floor right next to her feet. “It’s up the stairs and all the way down the main hall on the left. There’s a sign on the door that says ‘supplies.’ Thank you so much!” She turned and left Jason’s glass sitting on the floor.

Upstairs, the main hallway was dark. The two men found plenty of light switches, but when they flipped them on, nothing seemed to happen. They were forced to make their way down the hall by the dim, red light of the exit sign at the far end. Halfway to the closet, Devan found a button that lit up a map of the world with pins stuck into every country where a missionary supported by the church was stationed. “Ooh, Bangladesh ,” said Devan. “Is there a specific season for monsoons? Or do they just happen all the time?”

Jason didn’t know anything about Bangladesh . “Let’s just get the table,” he said.

The supply closet was in a state of total disarray. Jason and Devan stood in the doorway with their hands on their hips, surveying the mess, the buzzing fluorescent light overhead casting their shadows out into the dark hallway and onto a bulletin board on the opposite wall which featured blurry photographs from a church picnic held months prior.

“I think I see the table there in the back,” said Jason. “Of course.” Wreaths of dull floral arrangements for every season were stuffed onto the crooked shelves affixed to the walls. There were at least four vacuum cleaners in the closet, one from every one of the last four decades. A free-standing gold cross a little over a foot high sat on top of a yellow filing cabinet near the door. On the base of the cross, the words, “In Memory of Francis Sutton” were inscribed.

“Something tells me the family of Francis Sutton didn’t actually request that this be placed in the closet,” said Devan.

“We’re gonna have to move a lot of this junk to get at that table,” said Jason. The closet smelled strange, like mice and crayons and the hairs he had burned on a hotplate in his eighth grade science lab. He couldn’t decide if he liked it or not.

After the men had spent a few minutes shifting and rearranging the contents of the closet, clearing a winding path toward the back wall, Jason came across a blue flannel board mounted on a rickety wooden easel. “Look at this,” said Jason. Devan, a stack of dry, crumpled sheet music in his hands, turned and contemplated the scene on the flannel board with Jason. A stern, fabric Jesus, his hair a bit wilder than usual, stood next to a distraught young man in rich, colorful clothes. The man was turning away from Jesus, his head down, his shoulders slumped. The twelve disciples stood around in the background, depicted all together on one piece of fabric, looking on impassively.

            “I don’t know this story,” said Jason.

            “Oh, I do,” said Devan. “I was in Sunday School every week until I was thirteen.”

            “What is it?” asked Jason. “What’s going on here?” He rubbed his thumb along the edge of the fabric young man’s bright, shining robes.

            Devan tapped his finger on the young man and said, “This is a cripple who Jesus healed in the marketplace. He was sitting near a fruit-seller’s stall begging for money when Jesus and his disciples came across him. Jesus told the man that if he bought a single fig from the fruit seller and ate it, then he would be able to walk. But the cripple didn’t want to spend the few coins in his cup on a fig. He didn’t like figs. So instead, he bought an orange, peeled it with his filthy fingers, and took a big, sloppy bite. As soon as he did, he was healed, even though he hadn’t followed Jesus’ instructions, and he skipped away into the crowd, waving the dripping orange over his head. Well, the next day, the former cripple found Jesus and his disciples as they were leaving town. He had already parlayed his fame for being healed by Jesus into a little money and had immediately blown it on these fancy clothes he’s wearing here. When he saw Jesus, he ran over and said, ‘Master, I have a poor friend with swollen hands! What fruit should he buy and eat to be healed?’ ‘A fig,’ said Jesus. And the former cripple said, ‘What about an orange? That seemed to work pretty well.’ And Jesus said, ‘Wrong. Have you looked at your legs recently?’ The former cripple lifted up his robes and looked down at his bare legs and saw that they were covered with caterpillars licking up the sweet, citrus juice seeping from his pores. Then the apostle Mark spoke up and pointed out that caterpillars actually have an irrational fear of figs, for some reason, and the former cripple walked away in shame.”

            It took Jason a moment to realize that the story was over. He stood and pondered the surprising amount of raw emotion on the foolish, former cripple’s illustrated face. “I don’t get it,” said Jason.

            Devan shrugged. “Don’t make up your own rules? I don’t know. Maybe I forgot something important.”

            After lugging the table downstairs, Jason and Devan found that it was no longer needed. “Sorry!” said the red-haired woman who’d assigned them the errand. “Right after you left, we found a bunch of tables in here.” She gestured for the two men to follow her into the kitchen and pointed at a door with a sign on it that said “Tables and Chairs.”

            “Why didn’t you send someone to tell us?” asked Jason.

            “I didn’t think to,” snapped the woman, suddenly furious.

            Devan clapped his hand on Jason’s shoulder and said, “It’s very difficult to force the attraction. You know?”

            When Jason got home, his fiancée, Brandy, was on the computer watching video clips of wedding disasters. Flower girls tripping and cracking their heads on pews, unity candles toppling and setting pastors ablaze, selfish groomsmen laughing quietly at private jokes during the vows. She gave Jason a hunted smile and said, “Hi, Jason. How was Bible study?”

            “Good,” said Jason. “It was a good one.”

            “What was it about?”

            Jason cleared his throat. “It was about Jesus and the cripple who ate the orange instead of the figs.”

            “That doesn’t sound familiar,” said Brandy, frowning and biting a fingernail.

            “And he buys the fancy clothes?” said Jason. “And then the caterpillars come?”

            Brandy swiveled in her chair to face Jason directly, confused and hurt. “Jason,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady. “Where were you?” Behind her on the computer monitor, a wedding cake collapsed into a fountain and disgusting red fish began to gorge themselves on it. Jason’s legs started to itch like crazy.

Discussion Questions

  • Can groomsmen do anything right?

  • Does the mere presence of a character who identifies himself as “gay” make this story More Important and/or More Hilarious?

  • Does Jason’s answer to Question 2 influence what he believes about Question 3?

  • Does your answer to Question 2 influence what you believe about Question 3?

  • Is there a lesson to be learned in the “““Bible story””” Devan tells?

  • On a scale of 1 to 2, how reliable is Devan?

  • Why do you think Jason is at the singles group meeting?