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[posted 01.03.2005]


LAST YEAR THEY HAD blueberries the size of apples and… and a squash so big they’d hollowed it out to look like a canoe.”

There was a part of me that wanted to believe my younger brother; wanted to ignore his penchant for exaggeration; wanted to see what could possibly cause such excitement to radiate from his eyes.

But there was another part of me that didn’t really give a shit about the agricultural tent at the county fair; that couldn’t understand his gravitation toward all things nerdy, especially when there were rides to be ridden, girls to gawk at and a cake wheel to… well, girls to gawk at.

“When I have a farm, I gonna mostly grow salt peanuts,” he added with a convinced nod.

Unfortunately, my brother was one of that breed of nerds whose passion lay in the uninteresting and whose intelligence simply wasn’t up to par. That was what worried me most about Tommy. His would be a life filled with all the negative aspects of geekdom (wedgies, social ostracization, the inevitable internet ‘girlfriend’) and none of the positive (good grades, monetary success). It was like being born with hideous gills on the side of your neck but still not being able to breathe underwater. I had tried once to explain this to him, but he remained unfazed. “Fish don’t have gills, ya idiot. Whaddya think the blowhole’s for.”

Still, for a 12-year-old whose social life for the next half decade was pretty much shot, you had to respect his enthusiasm. As a senior who had worked his butt off for years to remain at all times if not cool, then bordering dangerously on it, I understood just how tough it would be for him. That’s why I didn’t mind escorting him to the farmer’s tent. Well, that and my parents had told me I didn’t have a choice.

He looked up at me, making that same goofy face he always did when he was about to say something profoundly uninteresting.

“Do you know what the Klingon’s number one agricultural export is?”

OK, maybe I minded a little.

– - –

Lights, both flood and flashing, illuminated the humid night air and cigarettes assailed my nose. The crowd of schucksters and kids crying on their way to the bathroom merged with the Hank Williams tribute band and the subtle sounds of Whack-a-Mole to create a din so all-encompassing it was as if it didn’t exist at all.

Only the P.A. system broke through, grumbling to life every 15 minutes to announce another in what seemed like an endless stream of truant children found lost, scared and alone at the front gate. I had a feeling that the sheer volume of kids in this predicament implied a certain lack of coincidence or accident. Especially since the P.A. never offered the common courtesy of a followup alerting us everything was OK and the parents of said child had in fact returned for their son or daughter.

I imagined row after row of filing cabinets all packed with children categorized by age, hair color and ethnicity.

I had plenty of time to think about this while my brother gawked at what must have been the thousandth eggplant of the night.

“Did you know that some farmers mix pig guts in with their fertilizer?”

I grunted my indifference, then realized that he had not actually looked at me while speaking and may very well have been talking to the eggplant.

“Some people say stuff like that’s gross, but I say those are the same people who complain when they get a withered salad.”

“Listen—-” I started.

But his attention had already turned to the man with tan weather-beaten skin, a name tag that read ‘Chip’ and a rotund belly that suggested he had just swallowed a basketball.

“Did you grow these eggplants in pig guts?” Tommy asked.

“Excuse me?” Chip was busy lodging his finger into his ear.

“Ya know, pig guts.”

“I’ll meet you outside,” I said, slinking past, not wanting to know where this conversation, or Chip’s finger, was going from here.

– - –

Outside the tent I lit up the illicit cigarette I had stuffed in my pocket (I figured the remnants would be covered by the haze of smoke that seemed to envelop the grounds). I toyed briefly with the idea of bolting — of adding Tommy to the laundry list of children to be recovered by that paterfamilias of a P.A. system.

I took a long drag, coughing mildly.

Maybe we could leave him here. I could tell my parents he had met up with some friends and would get a ride home with them.

High school was no place for a kid like Tommy. With his uninteresting interests, pudgy mid-section and face awaiting the inevitable rain of acne, the kid was a ripe target. I had encountered kids like Tommy throughout my ‘popular’ years and I knew that he would face constant ridicule, either to his face or behind his back. While he had never said as much, I figured he must secretly hate school.

I let the smoke drain from my lips as a balloon artist outside a neighboring tent accidentally popped the giraffe he had been constructing for a little girl. She screamed, shoving her face into her father’s pant leg, and began to cry.

Tommy would be happier here. Happier with people who shared his common interests. People who could take him under their wing and show him how to work the land. Teach him the ropes, or at least which kind of pig guts to use for different kinds of plants.

The smell of popcorn briefly wafted into my nose, overtaking me with hunger, then disappeared just as quickly, leaving no evidence of its source.

Of course the plan would never work.

My parents would never buy that he had gone home with his friends. That would imply that he had some.

The balloon artist was trying to coax the crying girl out from behind her father’s legs with a high-pitched voice and not one, but two giraffes that he made dance through the air. The father looked on with a face that, at that moment, I could never understand.

Plus, having your name announced over the county fair P.A. system would be the kiss of death, especially for a kid as vulnerable as Tommy. Ridicule would be unwavering.

Maybe it was not too late for him.

I took another quick drag on my cigarette. I had to hurry. If my parents were to meander over, my smoking would merit an as yet unknown level of punishment.

Besides, I was Tommy’s older brother and it was sort of my responsibility to teach him about the important stuff in life. Parents only know so much, after all, and leaving Tommy to their tutelage had yielded nothing but a farmer by day and Trekkie by night. It was up to me. I would be the one to take my brother under my wing.

The little girl was now perched atop her father’s shoulders eating cotton candy. I saw no evidence of the balloon man.

I polished off my cigarette and reentered the tent to retrieve my new protege. Pig guts and Babylon Five would be replaced by cool music and a clean pair of jeans.

But as I scanned the landscape of oversized fruits and vegetables, I saw no evidence of my brother. I wandered down the row of zucchini and eggplant with no luck. I shot by the impeccably round pumpkins and into an area featuring something that very well may have been a rutabaga. Still no sign. My brow began to sweat.

I hustled back over to the eggplants and spotted Chip — but then again, how could I not? If anything, he had grown larger in my absence.

“Umm…have you seen my brother?” I asked. “He was the one talking about pig guts?”

“Excuse me?” I was worried that this was all Chip could say. His finger slowly rose back to his ear, and I knew I had to work quickly before he became otherwise engaged.

“My brother,” I repeated. “Pig guts.”

Chip’s finger froze mid-thrust.

“Oh, that little fella wandered off a lil’ while ago.”

“Which way did he go?”

Chip shrugged.

“Couldn’t say. You check over by the pomegranate?”

“I don’t know. What do they look like?”

Chip shifted in his seat, but his protruding belly remained still as if an entity unto itself.

“Well, normally they’s about yeah big.” He was cupping his hands to approximately the size of a softball when I realized this was not the information that I needed.

“Thanks anyway.” I headed back outside to see if we had missed each other.

But still no Tommy.

I could not believe I’d lost my brother, or worse. One of the damn farmers probably stole him — 118 pounds of cheap labor. Hell, for all I knew, Chip had swallowed him whole while my back was turned. That pugnacious bastard.

I thought of all the ways I had failed Tommy. First as an older sibling, for 12 years ignoring his nerdy cries for help. And now I had failed in the most basic sense, as a caretaker.

“What the fuck?” I wondered aloud. I had no idea what to do.

It was at about this point that I heard the grumble. With the mechanical equivalent of a hack and a cough, the P.A. system burst to life.

“Attention. Please. Attention please. Justin Cioppa, please report to the front gate. Justin Cioppa, your family is looking for you.”

My shoulders dropped as I foresaw the ridicule I would be receiving from my friends who had heard the announcement, and I made a face, I imagine, not unlike that father looking at the man with his dancing giraffes.

– - –

As I approached the front gate I spied my family right away. My parents stared me down with looks of consternation; my brother was at their side, distracted by something in the distance, making that same goofy face he always did. For the first time I recognized the correlating emotion that went with that face. My brother was happy.

“Tommy says you just disappeared? How could you do that to your brother? Where were you?” My mom was fired up.

Tommy turned his head to me at the sound of my name. He was oblivious to the proceedings.

“You missed the pomegranate; they were like basketballs. Normally they’re like—-”

“Yeah big,” I said to him, cupping my hands to about the size of a softball. “I know; they were pretty cool.”

Seeing me taking an interest in something my brother said was enough to allow the family to let me off the hook.

I, too, was ready to move on. Maybe Tommy and I weren’t that different after all. I looked down at my smiling little brother; he hadn’t the slightest concern about what the world thought of him. I couldn’t help but think that maybe it was me who needed to be taught.

It was a nice moment, albeit a short-lived one.

My mom’s hand shot up out of nowhere, latching onto my ear and pulling me in close to her nose.

“Have you been smoking?”

And with that, we headed back to the car.

- - - - -


justin cioppa has most recently been published in citizen culture magazine and is a frequent contributor to he is currently at work on an autobiography, drowning puppies and eight other things i did to end up here.