There’s a code you see? I’m sure you can understand that,” The Clown said before taking a bite of his beignet. He let out a cough, from eating it too quickly, and blew powdered sugar into the night air. I watched it dissipate like cigarette smoke. He regained his composure then lit the end of a Swisher Sweet.
Two ’30s era Strongmen, each with shaved heads and handlebar mustaches, stood behind him flexing their pectoral muscles, letting me know at the first sign of trouble they’d have no problems covering the distance between us. The Clown ashed his cigar and blinked his eyes a few times.
“You got that look—what were you anyway, Marine?” He rested his thumb knuckle against his temple, the cigar extended from the side of his head like a horn.
“Professional sparring partner.”
“See, then you know what I’m talking about.”
The smell of stale beer and sweat permeated the interior of the cafe. At four in the morning, the only people in the place, besides us, were drunks looking for a quick reprieve in the form of strong coffee and beignets. New Orleans seemed to fit me like my old pair of mitts.
I took another bite of the fried dough savoring the taste of the powdered sugar then chased it down with coffee. It was my third, but the jitters hadn’t hit me yet.
“Why not take care of him yourself?” I said, my mouth full of sweetness.
“It’s not that simple,” The Clown said, “he’s one of us.”
“What can you tell me about him?”
The Clown tapped his cigar. His mouth had been painted on in a crooked grimace making him the stuff of nightmares burned into the minds of children. The whites of his eyes popped out of his skull, and he sucked at his front teeth. Taking another inhalation, he began talking.
“Not much; one day he just showed up. Took a prime spot in front of St. Louis Cathedral. Usually, we rotate into that spot throughout the day. It’s an agreed upon neutral zone, us and the ACTors.” He spat on the ground.
I glanced over at the Cathedral; a pillar of purity in an otherwise forsaken landscape.
“Anyways, he stayed there for hours, then days, been there ever since; that was over four months ago.”
“He never leaves,” one of the Strongmen said, his voice a Barry White sort of bass, almost caused the plates to vibrate.
“What’s his name?” I said and killed my beignet.
“No one knows. He doesn’t put out a sign or have business cards. Shit, he doesn’t even take tips. He just stands there in that ridiculous pose.”
“I overheard a kid walk by saying Yo man, that guy’s mad still, so that’s what people been calling him,” the other Strongman said, a voice more befitting a literature professor.
“What’s in it for me?”
“One large to make him go away,” The Clown said. He reached into his pocket and took out a knot.
“Five hundred up front?” He peeled off five hundred dollar bills and slid them forward. We didn’t have to be discreet. This was New Orleans; as long as no one was urinating in public, we could go unmolested.
“However, you want to make it happen,” The Clown offered then stood up and ground out his cigar on the metal table. Sparks emerged from his hand as if he were doing a magic trick. I bid farewell to the circus troupe and watched them fade into the early morning. They’d run the street performing circuit for so long, and they probably had everyone on a leash; then some new guy not with the program shows up and starts making waves ruining everyone’s good time.
I could see Mad Still from where I was sitting. He stood on top of a metal bucket, feet together, arms raised toward the heavens as if he were calling down for thunder. His face was painted purple, and he wore a yellow suit made of what appeared to be velour. Over the past few months, he hadn’t moved. Well, that was all about to change.
The following morning, as the sun was rising, I took a seat on a green wooden bench directly across from Mad Still. Whether he noticed me, he didn’t show it. I let both of my arms rest on top of the wooden planks and draped my left leg over my right. I looked like a garden-variety drifter taking a breather for a few minutes, maybe coming down from something, maybe getting ready for round two.