The surrounding crowd went wild with applause after the juggler's grand finale—juggling four blazing torches while circling and spinning "high in the stratosphere" on his giraffe unicycle.
Everyone on the street had been totally entertained by the half-hour show at the annual fall foliage fair—everyone that is except little John Paul. John Paul was a street performer's worst nightmare, a ten-year-old heckler with a seemingly endless supply of nastiness. The juggler had tried everything in his arsenal of heckler lines to fend off the brat, but to everyone's consternation, John Paul was still there when the last torch went out.
As street shows go, it had been a pretty good one for the itinerate performer; in fact, people were actually being more generous than usual, probably due to the sympathy factor. After all, everyone had survived John Paul, and the expert juggler had been very funny cutting the kid down to size with some clever jokes. The problem was that the kid was incapable of embarrassment. Scores of people shaking their heads and begging him to leave didn't bother him a bit. He reveled in the attention. This was truly a boy in dire need of some parental...guidance.
At the end of the show, people filled the juggler's top hat with beautiful crisp green bills. This was the applause that really mattered; it was gas for his car, food for his stomach, and a roof over his head. As he moved through the surrounding crowd, making friends and answering questions, he'd occasionally glance back at his now bulging hat, which sat on the pavement in front of his bright red box of props. From the corner of his eye he saw John Paul sneaking up on the cash. Suddenly hovering over it, the delinquent pulled a dollar from his pants pocket and began to lower it toward the pile of dough but then quickly pulled it back. Over and over he dunked the bill, as if to say, "Look at me, I'm going to give you some money. Na—ha ha."
Never looking directly at him, the juggler kept track of the brat's continual teasing. He also noticed that no one else seemed to be aware of John Paul's on-going stunt. There was the kid, smug grin and all, desperately trying to get the man's attention, dipping the bill up and down.
In John Paul's mind, this was indeed his victory lap; however, the next trick from the master juggler was timed to perfection. Just as John Paul's hand was descending toward the hat, the juggler pointed and yelled, "Hey you!" Simultaneously, the crowd of people turned to see the scoundrel lifting a dollar from the juggler's hat.
"Why you rotten little brat," someone shouted.
"The kid's a thief too," yelled another.
By now the juggler was holding John Paul by the wrist and plucking the bill from his hand; all the while, red-faced John Paul protested and swore that the money was his. As the boy's denials grew louder, the unsympathetic crowd swelled around him. They had seen enough—guilty as charged. With his fists clenched as if he were ready to fight the air around him, John Paul stormed off crying.
The smile of satisfaction on the juggler's face lasted less than five minutes. A great commotion slowly drifted toward him from the other end of the street. He watched from behind his trunk of props to see John Paul leading this procession. They wound their way through the crowd never taking their eyes off the juggler. There was his mom, his school buddies, the festival director, and the long lanky arm of the law—the fidgety deputy sheriff.
"That's the man who stole my money," John Paul shouted as he again started to well up with tears.
"Calm down honey," said the mother. "We'll get your money back. I promise."
"Hey pal you can't come waltzing into my town and expect to rob us blind—no sir." The deputy clenched his fist on the butt of his holstered pistol.
John Paul's mother worked more from the angle of a plea deal. "Listen, if you give my kid his money back and get out of town, I won't press charges."
“You're fired anyway," said the director. "Do the decent thing; give the kid his money back."
The juggler attempted to present his account of what happened but couldn't get a word in edgewise.
"So I'm guilty? I think you people need to—"
"You listen to me, Mister," shouted the deputy.
"Let me handle this." The mother shoved the lawman to get to the juggler.
"A crime has been committed here. This is a legal matter," the lanky officer shot back.
By now, people who had witnessed "the crime" began to move in closer to hear what was being said. Once they realized what was going on, they flocked to the juggler's defense.
An elderly gentleman stood up from his sidekick scooter pointed his finger at John Paul and proclaimed, "The kid's a thief. Throw him in jail."
The mother shot back, "My son would never steal!"
"Your angel here ripped off the juggler," a lady from the other side of the ever-widening crowd yelled. "Everybody saw it."
Soon, more witnesses stepped up and gave the same account, and every head within hearing range was nodding in agreement.
By now John Paul's face was turning red as he tried to explain himself, but the words were not there. "You do believe me, don't you mom?"
More and more folks were giving glowing testimonials for the wonderful juggler and words of condemnation for the brat. The festival director quickly switched sides and had his arm around the juggler, apologizing. At the same time, the mom's demeanor took a sharp turn from that of a wounded animal protecting its young, to a piranha about to devour its own. Embarrassed to be seen with their now-bawling friend, the kid's buddies slipped away as his mother grabbed him by an ear and lead him down the middle of Main Street. The boy was reduced to a quivering sob story; not a trace was left of the once boorish heckler. As the ten year old was swept away by a force greater than his own, he kept looking back through the crowd toward the juggler, wondering how everything had turned against him so suddenly.
Still holding the dollar bill in his hand, the juggler folded it lengthwise and propped it up on his nose. He balanced it there long enough for the retreating John Paul to get a good last look. Then he took a deep breath and blew straight up. The bill shot into the air like a paper airplane then fluttered to earth like an autumn leaf, finding its way into a little girl's hand.
"Okay," shouted the deputy, his thumbs tucked into his service belt, "show's over."
Mr. Dunning lives in Pelham, NH, with his wife, two children, cat, and dog and is an active member of the Absolute Write online writers community. Recently, his work has been featured in Boston Literary Magazine.