Standing with my brother Arnie on the edge of town has become a yearly ritual.
My brother Arnie is so excited because in minutes or hours or sometime today trucks upon trailers upon campers are going to drive into our home town of Endora, Iowa. One truck will carry the Octopus, another will carry the Tilt-A-Whirl with its blue and red cars, two trucks will bring the Ferris wheel, the games will be towed, and most important, the horses from the merry-go-round will arrive.
For Arnie, this is better than Christmas. This beats the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny: all those stupid figures that only kids and retarded adults seem to stomach. Arnie is a retard. He's about to turn eighteen and my family is planning an enormous party. Doctors said we'd be lucky if he lived to be ten. Ten came and went and now the doctors are saying, "Any time now, Arnie could go at any time." So every night my sisters and me, and my mom too, go to bed wondering if he will wake up in the morning. Some days you want him to live, some days you don't. At this particular moment, I've a good mind to push him in front of the oncoming traffic.
My oldest sister, Amy, has fixed us a picnic feast. In a thermos was a quart of black cherry Kool-Aid, all of which Arnie drank in such a hurry that above his top lip is a purplish mustache. One of the first things you should know about Arnie is that he always has traces of some food on his face -- Kool-Aid or ketchup or toast crumbs. His face is a kind of bulletin board for the four major food groups.
Arnie is the gentlest guy, but he can surprise this brother. In the summertime, he catches grasshoppers and sticks them in this metal tab on the mailbox, holding them there, and then he brings down the metal flag, chopping off the grasshopper heads. He always giggles hysterically when he does this, having the time of his life. But last night, when we were sitting on the porch eating ice cream, a countless sea of grasshopper bodies from summers past must have appeared to him, because he started weeping and sobbing like the world had ended. He kept saying, "I killed 'em, I killed 'em." And me and Amy, we held him close, patted his back and told him it was okay.
Arnie cried for hours, cried himself to sleep. Makes this brother wonder what kind of a world it would be if all the surviving Nazis had such remorse. I wonder if it ever occurs to them what they did, and if it ever sinks in to a point that their bodies ache from the horrible mess they made. Or are they so smart that they can lie to us and to themselves? The beautiful thing about Arnie is that he's too stupid to lie. Or too smart.
I'm standing with binoculars, looking down Highway 13; there is no sign of our annual carnival. The kid is on his knees, his hands rummaging around in the picnic basket. Having already eaten both bags of potato chips, both peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and both chocolate donuts, he locates a green apple and bites into it.
By trying to ignore Arnie's lip-smacking noises, I am attempting the impossible. You see, he chews as if he's just found his mouth and the sounds are that of good, sloppy sex. My brother's slurps and gulps make me want to procreate with an assortment of Endora's finest women.
It's the twenty-first of June, the first day of summer, the longest day of the year. It isn't even 7:00 a.m. yet and here I stand, little brother in tow. Somewhere some smart person still sleeps.
Bread crust and peanut-butter chunks fall off Arnie's T-shirt as he stretches it down past his knees. "Gilbert?"
"What is it?"
"How many more miles?"
"I don't know."
"How many, how many more till the horses and stuff?"
Arnie blows out his lips with a sound like a motorboat and he circles the picnic basket, drool flying everywhere. Finally, he sits down Indian style and starts quietly to count the miles.
I busy myself throwing gravel rocks at the Endora, Iowa, town sign. The sign is green with white printing and, except for a divot that I left last year at this time with my rock throwing, it is in excellent condition. It lists Endora's population at 1,091, which I know can't be right, because yesterday my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Brainer, choked on a chicken bone while sitting on her porch swing. A great loss is felt by no one.
Mrs. Brainer retired years ago. She lived half a block from the town square, so I'd see her pretty much every day, always smiling at me as if she expected me to forget all the pain she'd inflicted. I swear this woman smiled all the time. Once, as she was leaving the store, her sack of groceries ripped. Cans of peaches and fruit cocktail dropped out onto the floor, cutting open her toes. My boss and I saw this happen. She pushed up a real big grin as the tears fell off her cheeks. I resacked her cans, but she couldn't stop smiling and crying, and her toes couldn't stop bleeding.
I'm told that when they found her on the porch, her hands were up around her throat, and there were red scratch marks on her neck, in her mouth, and pieces of flesh under her fingernails. I wonder if she was smiling then.
Anyway, they took her body to McBurney's Funeral Home in Motley. They'll be planting her tomorrow.
"Uhm. The horses, the rides, the horses are coming, right? Right?"
Endora is where we are, and you need to know that describing this place is like dancing to no music. It's a town. Farmers. Town square. Old movie theater closed down so we have to drive sixteen miles to Motley to see movies. Probably half the town is over sixty-five, so you can imagine the raring place Endora is on weekend nights. There were twenty-three in my graduating class, and only four are left in town. Most went to Ames or Des Moines and the really ambitious made it over to Omaha. One of those left from my class is my buddy, Tucker. The other two are the Byers brothers, Tim and Tommy. They stayed in town because of a near fatal, crippling car accident, and they just kind of ride around the square racing in their electric wheelchairs. They are like the town mascots, and the best part is they are identical twins. Before the accident no one could tell them apart. But Tim's face was burned, and he's been given this piglike skin. They both were paralyzed but only Tommy lost his feet.
The other day in our weekly paper, the Endora Express, pigskin Tim pointed out the bright side in all of this. Now it is easy to tell which is which. After many years Tim and Tommy have finally found their own identities. That's a big thing in Endora these days. Identities. And the bright side. We got people here who've lost their farms to the bank, kids to wars, relatives to disease, and they will look you square in the eye and, with a half grin, they'll tell you the bright side.
The bright side for me is difficult on mornings like these. There's no escaping that I'm twenty-four years old, that I've been out of Iowa a whopping one whole time, that you could say about all I've done in my life to this point is baby-sit my retard brother, buy cigarettes for my mother, and sack groceries for the esteemed citizens of Endora.
"Gilbert?" says Arnie. He has frosting all around his mouth and a glob of jelly above his good eye.
"You sure they're coming? We've been standing such a long time."
"They'll be along any second." I take a napkin from the basket and spit in it.
"Come here, Arnie."
"Everybody's always wiping me!"
"Why do you think that is?"
For Arnie, that is an answer.
I give up on spring cleaning his face and look down the road. The highway is empty.
Last year the big rides came pretty early. The trailers and the campers came later. Arnie is really only interested in the horses from the merry-go-round.
I say, "Hey, Arnie, there's still sleep in my eyes," but he isn't interested. He nibbles on his bottom lip; he's working on a thought.
My little brother is a somewhat round-looking kid with hair that old ladies always want to comb. He is a head shorter than me, with teeth that look confused. There's no hiding that he's retarded. You meet him and you figure it out right away.
"Gilbert! They're not coming!"
I tell him to stop shouting.
"They're not coming at all, Gilbert. The rides got in a big crash and all the workers hung themselves...."
"They will be here," I say.
"They hung themselves!"
"No, they didn't."
"You don't know! You don't know!"
"Not everybody hangs himself, Arnie."
He doesn't hear this because he reaches into the basket, stuffs the other green apple inside his shirt, and starts running back to town. I shout for him to stop. He doesn't, so I chase after him and grab his waist. I lift him in the air and the apple drops out onto the brown grass.
"Let me go. Let me go."
I carry him back to the picnic basket. He clings to me, his legs squeeze around my stomach, his fingers dig into my neck. "You're getting bigger. Did you know that?" He shakes his head, convinced I'm wrong. He's not any taller than last year, but he's rounder, puffier. If this keeps up, he'll soon be too big for me to pick up. "You're still growing. You're getting harder and harder for me to carry. And you're getting so strong, too."
"Nope. It's you, Gilbert."
"It's not me. Believe me, Arnie Grape is getting bigger and stronger. I'm sure of it."
I set him down when I get to the picnic basket. I'm out of breath; beads of sweat have formed on my face.
Arnie says, "You're just getting little."
"I know. You're getting littler and littler. You're shrinking."
Stupid people often say the smartest things. Even Arnie knows that I'm in a rut.
Since I don't believe in wearing a watch, I can't tell the exact time -- but this moment, the one when my goofy brother rips the bandage off my heart, is followed by a yelp. Arnie's yelp. He points east, and with the binoculars I locate a tiny dot moving our way. Several dots follow.
"Is it them? Is it them?"
"Yes," I say.
Arnie's jaw drops; he starts dancing.
"Here come the horsies. Here come the horsies!"
He begins howling and jumping up and down in circles; slobber sprays from his mouth. Arnie is entering heaven now. I stand there watching him watch as the rides grow. I just stand there hoping he won't sprout wings and fly away.
Copyright © 1991 by Peter Hedges
What's Eating Gilbert Grape
With this wry portrait of small-town Iowa -- and a young man's life at the crossroads -- Peter Hedges created a classic American novel "charged with sardonic intelligence" (Washington Post Book World).
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Reading Group Guide
The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion for Peter Hedges's What's Eating Gilbert Grape?. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
- In the first chapter, Arnie Grape tells Gilbert, "You're getting littler and littler. You're shrinking." "Stupid people sometimes say the smartest things," Gilbert reflects. With this exchange, what themes does Peter Hedges begin to develop in his novel? How is Gilbert shrinking?
- Consider the nature of Gilbert's relationship with Becky alongside his relationship with Mrs. Carver. What do these characters mean to Gilbert? Do they present him with the same possibilities for escape, love, and healing? Explain.
- Remembered chiefly for his relentless "optimism," Albert Grape nevertheless hung himself in his basement. How might this irony persist in Gilbert's own life, particularly in his relationship with his boss, Mr. Lamson? Throughout the novel, what does Gilbert reveal to us about his father? What sort of legacy has Albert left his son?
- Unlike Amy and Gilbert, who have stayed behind to take care of Momma and Arnie, Larry and Janice have managed to escape, at least physically and geographically. What significance lies in Hedges' decision to make Janice an airline stewardess, a job that requires perpetu