The competing sounds of brass bands, jazz ensembles, and
zydeco musicians gave Newpointe, Louisiana, an irresistibly
festive atmosphere, but Mark Branning tried not to feel
festive. It was a struggle, since he stood in a clown suit with an
orange wig on his head, preparing to make the long walk down
the Mardi Gras parade route. Already, Jacquard Street was
packed with tourists and townspeople here to chase beads and
candy being thrown by drunken heroes. In moments, he and
his fellow firefighters, also dressed as clowns, would fall into
their sloppy formation on the town's main drag, followed by
the fire truck that carried even more painted firemen.
It was what promoters advertised as a "family friendly"
parade-unlike the decadent bacchanalian celebrations in New
Orleans, only forty minutes away. But Fat Tuesday was still Fat
Tuesday, no matter where it was celebrated, and it always got out
of hand. It was the time of year when the protective services in
Newpointe had to be on the alert. Last year, during the same
"family friendly" parade, a man had been stabbed, two women
had been raped, and they'd been called to the scene of four
drunk-driving accidents. It seemed to get worse every year.
Just days ago, Jim Shoemaker, police chief of the small
town, and Craig Barnes, fire chief, had appealed to the mayor
that the town was better served if their forces remained on duty
on Fat Tuesday. Mayor Patricia Castor insisted that the community
needed to see their emergency personnel having fun
with everyone else. It fostered trust, she said, and made the
men and women who protected the town look more human. At
her insistence, and to Shoemaker's and Barnes's dismay, only
skeleton crews were to remain on duty, while the rest of the
firemen, police officers, and paramedics were to dress like
clowns and act like idiots. "It's a religious holiday," she
drawled, as if that sealed her decision.
Mark slung the shoulder strap of his bag of beads and candies
over his head, and snickered at the idea that they would
call Fat Tuesday a religious anything. The fact that it preceded
Lent-a time for fasting and reflection as Easter approached-seemed
to him a lame excuse for drunken revelry.
A police squad car pulled up beside the group of wayward
firefighters, and Stan Shepherd, the town's only detective-still
unadorned and unpainted-grinned out at him. "Lookin'
good, Mark," he said with a chuckle.
"So how'd you get out of this?" Mark asked him, ambling
toward the car. "I thought Newpointe's finest were supposed to
dress like demonic bikers."
"Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?" Stan asked with a grin.
"Pat Castor wants us to show the town how human and accessible
we are, so she makes us wear makeup that could give
nightmares to a Marine."
"Hey, what can you say? It's Mardi Gras. You still haven't
told me why you're not made up."
"Because I refused," Stan stated flatly. "How's that for a
Mark leaned on the car door and stared down at his friend.
"You mean that's all it took?"
"That's all. Plus I read some statute to her about how it was
illegal for someone out of uniform to drive a squad car."
"You're not in uniform, Stan."
"Yes, I am. I'm a plainclothes cop. This is my uniform."
Stan looked past Mark to the others milling around, waiting
impatiently for their chance to ruin their reputations. "Speaking
of nightmares, check out George's costume."
"You talkin' 'bout me?" George Broussard asked, coming
toward the car. Mark grinned at the Cajun's gaudy three-colored
foil wig and the yellow and purple-polka dot shirt he
wore. It was too little for him, and the buttons strained over his
protruding gut. His hairy belly peeked out from under the bottom
hem of the ill-chosen blouse, and someone had drawn a
smiling pair of lips under his navel and crossed eyes above it.
"Yep. The stuff that bad dreams are made of," Mark agreed.
"Yeah, and you got lotsa room to talk," George returned.
"Just 'cause you don't got the canvas I got to work with ." He
patted his bare belly again, and Mark turned away in mock
Mark was glad he had lost weight since he and Allie had split
up. The wives gleefully wielding the face and body paint were
particularly cruel to those midlife paunches. His costume did, at
least, cover all of his torso without accenting any glaring flaws,
though he could have done without the flapper fringe that some
sadistic seamstress had applied in rows to the polyester shirt.
"Is Allie gonna be here today?" Stan asked Mark.
Mark glanced at George, wishing Stan hadn't asked that in
front of him. He hadn't broadcast the news of his separation
from his wife and figured there were still some in town who
didn't know about it. That suited him just fine. George, who
had only been in Newpointe for the past year, wasn't a close
enough friend for Mark to air his dirty laundry with.
As if he sensed Mark's discomfort, George wandered off
and blended back into the cluster of clowns.
"How would I know what Allie's gonna do?" Mark asked.
"Don't give me that garbage," Stan said. "You keep closer
tabs on your wife now than you did before."
"Estranged wife. I don't know if she'll be here. I doubt it.
It's not her thing." He straightened, unwrapped a Jolly Rancher,
and popped it into his mouth. "Then again, I did kind of think
she might swallow some of her self-righteousness today to
come help the wives paint us up. It's a power thing, you know.
They love to make us look ridiculous. Allie's devoted her life
"At least you're not bitter."
The barb hit home. "Bitter? Why should I be bitter? Actually,
I feel great. I love my new bachelor life. Did I tell you that
I picked up some great furniture at Kay Neubig's garage sale?
Mid-century relics complete with the original stuffing coming
out from the tears in the authentic vinyl. And my apartment
has ambiance. The building's foundation is going, so the whole
place slants. It's hard to keep gravity from pulling the kitchen
cabinets open, and I worry a little when the train that comes by
at two A.M. every night makes the building sway and vibrate-but
like I said, ambiance. You know how I live for ambiance."
"So you're ticked about the apartment. Do you miss your
Mark was glad his face was painted so the heat moving to
his cheeks wasn't apparent. Stan was a good friend, but he was
crossing the line. He decided to change the subject. "Let's just
say I'm aware that she's not here. I'm also aware that your wife
isn't here. Why isn't Celia wielding a paintbrush today with the
other cop wives?"
"Because we're boycotting the whole makeup idea. She's
here. I'll pick her up when the procession gets up to Bonaparte,
and she'll ride the rest of the way with me."
"I thought only uniformed cops could ride in the squad
"She's dressed just like I am-in plainclothes." Stan
grinned and winked, then put the car into drive and skirted the
band and the motorcycles up ahead.
Mark turned back toward the firemen and saw George
dancing to the jazz band. That face painted on his stomach
gave him a comical double-decker look that had the women
among them doubling over in laughter.
"If Martha could see you now!" one of the wives yelled.
"She will, darlin'," George said. "She's bringin' the baby.
They're probably in the crowd as we speak."
"Poor kid," Mark muttered with a grin. "Only six months
old, and he has to see a thing like this."
* * *
The noise of the sirens, revving motorcycles, and brass bands
playing three streets over almost drowned out the screams
of the six-month-old baby in the Broussard house, but Reese
Carter, the old man who lived next door, pulled himself up
from his little rolling stool in his garden and wondered why the
baby's mother hadn't quieted him yet. The parents-George
Broussard, a local fireman, and his pretty wife, Martha-were
attentive, and he rarely heard the baby crying for more than a
few minutes. But this had gone on since the parade had
started-probably more than half an hour now.
Not one to intrude where he wasn't invited, he tried to
mind his own business and concentrate on the weeds he pulled
from his garden. He wished the parade would end, so that he
could have peace again. The conflicting sounds of jazz and
marching bands, drum corps from the high school, tapes playing
on floats, and sirens blaring were making him wish he'd
picked today to visit a relative out of town. But most of his
people lived here in Louisiana, and he doubted there was a
place in the state that was immune to Fat Tuesday.
Despite the parade noise, he could still hear the baby
screaming. He pulled his gloves off with a disgusted sigh, trying
to decide whether to go inside where he couldn't hear the
baby's cries, or check to see if things were all right next door.
His first instinct was to go inside, but then he remembered that
last Christmas, after his wife died, when he'd expected to spend
the day alone mired in self-pity, Martha Broussard had
knocked on his door and invited him over to share Christmas
dinner. He hadn't wanted to go-hadn't been in a festive mood
and didn't want to pretend he was-but she had insisted. So he
had gone, and several hours later he realized that the day was
mostly over and he hadn't had time to feel sorry for himself.
If something was wrong next door now, he owed it to them
to see if there was anything he could do. Maybe the baby was
sick, and he could go to the drugstore for some medicine. Or
maybe Tommy just had colic and couldn't be comforted, in
which case Reese could show Martha some of the tricks that his
wife had used on their children and grandchildren.
He dusted off his hands, then rinsed them under the faucet
on the side of his house and dried them on his pants. He caught
a faint whiff of smoke in the air. Someone must be breaking the
city ordinance about burning limbs in their yard. Fat Tuesday
seemed to give people license to do whatever they wanted, he
thought with disdain as he headed down his driveway, cut
across the Broussard yard, and trudged up the porch steps to
the door. He rang the bell and waited. No answer.
Now that he was closer, he could hear that the baby wasn't
just crying-he was screaming wildly. Reese leaned closer to
the door and called, "Martha? Are you there?"
He knocked hard, hurting his arthritic knuckles, then
raised his voice. "Martha! It's Reese Carter, next door. Martha,
are you there?"
But all he heard in reply was the baby's gasping wails
against the background of jazz music three blocks away.
* * *
The jazz band in front of Mark and the other firemen
changed tunes, and some accordions launched into a zydeco
tune. Trying to keep himself and the rest of the firemen in the
spirit as they waited for their turn to march out onto the parade
route, Mark led some of the others in an absurd chorus-line
kick dance that fit perfectly with their attire. As he clowned, he
scanned the other firemen and wondered how much beer
they-and the rest of the parade participants-had already
guzzled in the spirit of the festivities. It was only ten o'clock in
the morning, yet trays and trays of drafts in plastic cups had
been doled out to those waiting to participate.
Some of the wives still milled among the firemen, finishing
up the outlandish makeup jobs. Jamie Larkins, with a cup of
beer in one hand and an eyeliner pencil in the other, was swaying
to the beat as she painted Marty Bledsoe's face. Susan Ford,
a pretty black woman who wouldn't touch alcohol even if she
were dying of thirst, finished Slater Finch's bare back-on
which she'd drawn Betty Boop eyes and lips and applied a fake
nose. She saw Mark horsing around and said, "You better stop
that sweating, Mark Branning, you hear me?" The sweet
demand cut through the laughing voices as Susan approached
him with her makeup tray. "Look at you. Your smile is dripping.
Our king of choreography is losing his looks."
"Me? Never," Mark deadpanned. "You may note that I have
the least amount of face paint on. They knew not to mess with
a good thing."
"Either that, or you already fit the bill without it."
Mark looked wounded. "Susan, you slay me. I believed you
when you said I looked like George Clooney."
"Loony, Mark, not Clooney. And I never mentioned a
He grinned as she reached up with a tissue and wiped the
smear from his mouth. "You're a mean woman, Susan Ford."
"You bet I am. And don't you forget it." Her smile faded as
she touched up his face. "By the way, I saw Allie yesterday."
"Speaking of mean women?" he asked.
She wasn't amused. "She looked awful lonesome, Mark."
Again, he was glad that his face paint hid the heat rushing
to his cheeks. He didn't know why every conversation these
days seemed to lead directly to Allie. If Allie looked "lonesome,"
it was because she'd chosen to be alone. They'd been
separated for over two months now, and although neither of
them had made a move to file for divorce, there was no movement
being made toward a reconciliation, either.
Susan seemed to realize she'd hit a nerve. Reaching up to
press a kiss on his painted cheek, she whispered, "Sorry, honey.
Didn't mean to bring you down."
"It's okay. No problem." A bone-thin majorette passed with
a tray of beer, and he eyed it this time, wondering if he should
drink just one to keep his mood from deflating completely. But
Susan was there, as well as others from his church who would
pass immediate judgment. He let the tray pass and wished the
parade would hurry up and move so he could get the morning
* * *
At Midtown Fire Station on Purchase Street, where all of
Newpointe's protective services were located side by side,
right across from city hall and the courthouse, Nick Foster
paced the bunkroom and rehearsed his sermon for his little
church's midweek service. It was tough being a bivocational pastor,
juggling practical and spiritual duties. Sometimes it was
impossible to separate his ministry from his profession. Today
was one of those times. Whenever he dared to buck the mayor's
authority and refuse to participate in something he believed to
be immoral-as he had today-he risked losing his job as a fireman.
Without it, he wouldn't make enough to pay his rent.
Though Calvary Bible Church had its share of supporters, there
weren't many families in the body who had much to give. Newpointe,
as a whole, was not a wealthy town. Most of the tithes
and offerings went to pay for the building they'd built two years
ago, plus the missions projects he'd started. There wasn't much
left over for him, which was fine as long as he had firefighting to
keep his refrigerator stocked. He lived in a trailer across the
street from the church. "The parsonage," his church called it,
even though neither he nor the church owned it.
He got stuck on one of the points in his sermon, went back
to his notes, made a quick change, then began pacing again.
What did you tell a town whose residents had been brought up
on voodoo and Mardi Gras? Even though he'd made it a point
to preach a series of sermons on idolatry in the weeks preceding
Mardi Gras, he was still astounded at the number of his
church members who made themselves part of the infrastructure
that upheld the holiday. Half of his congregation was in
the parade, and the other half was watching.
He stumbled on the words again and sank onto a bunk,
feeling more frustrated than usual. Did it really matter if he got
the words right, if no one really listened?
Taking off his wire-rimmed glasses, he dropped his head
and stared down between his feet for a moment, feeling the
burden of all those souls weighing on his heart. Finally, he
closed his eyes and began to pray that God would make him
more effective, that he'd open their hearts and ears, that they
would see things clearly .
He heard the door slam shut and looked up to see Dan
Nichols, one of the other firefighters holding down the skeleton
The tall blonde man was drenched in sweat and breathing
hard, but to Nick's amusement, he went straight to the mirror
and checked the receding hairline that seemed such a source of
preoccupation to him.
"Has it moved any?" Nick teased.
Dan shot him an annoyed look. He slid the towel off of his
neck and began wiping his face. "I wasn't looking at my hair."
Nick forced back his grin. Though he knew that he and
Dan were considered two of the most eligible bachelors in
town, Dan was by far the first choice of most of the single
ladies. He was athletic and physically fit, something no one
could say about Nick. And Dan had something else Nick didn't
have. Money. Lots of it. He was one of the rare breed of firefighters
who didn't have to work a second job to make ends
meet. Dan had come from a wealthy family, had a geology
degree, and could have been anything he wanted. But all he'd
wanted was to be a fireman.