TAMPA — At the edge of the midway, where the air tastes like turkey legs, the young couple keeps kissing behind their booth: Fool the Guesser.
They drove here in a diesel truck, through six states, and five other carnivals. Last week, they landed at the Florida State Fair in Tampa where they erected the green-and-blue tarp and set up their giant silver scale rimmed with white bulbs. They hung shiny vampires and stuffed monkeys and the most coveted prize of all: big blow-up bananas.
When a teenage boy stops to check out one, the guessers put on their headsets and stroll back on stage.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this young man wants me to guess his weight," the female guesser calls into her microphone. On the sidewalk, a crowd gathers. The boy shrugs. "Step right over here to my office," she says. "Let's have a look at you."
The kid is wearing a gray ski cap and purple sweater, two barriers to good guesses. The hat hides his hair; the sweater his physique. He peels off $3 and opens his arms, posing in the afternoon sunshine.
If the guesser can't tell his age within two years, his birth month within two months, or his weight within three pounds, he wins. "Okay," she says. "About 180 pounds." The boy smiles. He weighs 166. He chooses a stuffed Kenny from South Park.
"Dude," she says. "You better go eat a funnel cake."
Her boyfriend laughs. He trained her for this job, taught her all his tricks. How a customer's kids help clue their age; how to pick March or August, so you're almost always within two months of someone's birth month.
But after their first night together this couple should have known: Neither of them is very good at guessing.
• • •
They met six months ago, at the corn dog stand at the Delta Fair in Memphis.
Kiersten Copon was selling "Pronto Pups." Josh Bennett and his friend ran the guessing booth.
That night, his friend went to get a corn dog and never came back. So Josh went looking for him, and saw why. "Sorry, man," he told his friend. "I'm stealing her."
The girl who was spearing hot dogs onto sticks had long, raven hair, high cheekbones and a heart-shaped face. She looked older than him, maybe 23? Still, he had to try. Shoving aside his friend, Josh told her, "You have the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen."
No one had ever complimented Kiersten like that. She caught her breath, couldn't think of an answer. She stared at this guy in the navy polo, at his broad shoulders, black hair and the beginning of a beard. He looked older than her, maybe 24? They hung out after the fair.
Kiersten was living with her mom. She had graduated high school in Memphis and was just staffing the food stand while the fair was in town. She loved watching all the people pass by.
Josh had grown up in Tampa, mowed yards and done landscaping. When his friend's dad asked if he wanted to work the carnival circuit, Josh left high school and hit the road. Guessing people's age and weight, he said, was easier than running games, less stressful than operating rides, not nearly as stinky as slinging fries.
He had lived in motels for seven months when he met Kiersten.
They talked all night, that first night, about their homes and families, music and movies, scenes and stories from the midway. Near daybreak, he told her: In four days, the carnival would caravan to Virginia. "I've never met a girl like you," he said. "And I know I never will. I don't want to lose you. Come with me." So she did.
She told him she was 22. He said he was 25.
• • •
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the guessing game!" Kiersten calls, stepping into the stream of visitors at the Florida State Fair. "Fool the guesser, come get a prize!"
Middle schoolers trip past, locked in each other's arms. Families flock by, pushing babies and grandparents. When a dad in a striped sweatshirt stops and says, "Bet you can't guess my son's age!" Josh grins and circles them both.
Kiersten is, by far, the better pitchman, working the crowd and bringing people to their booth. But she's too nice to say what she really thinks, often purposefully erring to spare people's feelings. If she is over by more than 10 years, or 20 pounds, she won't even reveal her guess. Josh is blunt. And gives away far fewer prizes.
They both wonder why people do this: Pay strangers to size them up. The string bean boy who hopes he looks more muscular; the dieting divorcee who wants to believe men see her as thin. The old yearn to appear young. The young long to look more mature.
Or maybe it's just an easy way to win a plush prize.
"Okay, write down your age," Josh says, handing sweatshirt man's son a small sticky note. The guy writes 22. Josh guessed 20 — "Same age as me."
He and Kiersten both had lied. Thinking the other was older, they had each upped their ages.
On their second day together, when Kiersten had admitted how young she really was, Josh had said, "Me, too!" If they had been playing their own game, they both would have gone home with big blow-up bananas.
Instead, they plan to marry in June. Then join the Air Force.
And fly far from the midway.
Contact Lane DeGregory at [email protected] or call her at (727) 893‑8825. Follow @lanedegregory on Twitter.