The parking lot is nothing more than a grassy space, sectioned off from the gates by only a few feet for a walkway. This time of day, there's no one else parked in straight lines, and Phil pulls his modest car to the side where there isn't a collection of hastily parked pickups and cargo vans. He's never liked the flashy cars of his colleagues in the area, men and women who think that the way to retain and attract their customers is by splashing their faces over new cars. Getting people in the door and handing them off to his staff just isn't the way Phil likes to work, would rather get his hands dirty into the files and forms.
Small town Iowa insurance is just as seemingly cutthroat as the regional territory he used to oversee for the corporate office, just with a smaller customer base. But when his uncle passed and Phil’s name finally came up for an agency of his own at the same time, he willingly moved into town and into the business. It’s never a given that family member would inherit the shop, but it worked that way when it could.
But Uncle Wyatt hadn't been quite right when he died, and the agency was kept going by the grace of his staff, a small army of women armed with software and impeccable typing speeds. No matter how good they are, there was no doubt that Wyatt hadn't even updated his files in the past year as he hid his illness from the world. Phil's entire transition had been spent working just to get them digitized and in line with the corporate standards. He's worked the girls in overtime, getting each of their personal lines clients updated in the system, making appointments to meet everyone when they could, or at least make sure that phone numbers and addresses are accurate.
He's taken on the business accounts himself to sort through and finally made his way to Carson's Circus of Traveling Wonders. Phil's long past the C's, of course, but when Carson's says traveling wonders, they actually mean it, and they've just returned to their home base.
The grass lot turns into compacted dirt as he reaches the gates. There’s enough of the workers moving through them that they are wide open despite opening day being a little more than a week away. He asks one of the workers near the gate to the main office, and when they respond he's as close to surprised as he gets when the slim figure with the buzz cut and flower and ivy tattoos on their forehead is distinctly female. Her eyes roll after looking him up and down at his expensive suit and shoes. She wipes her brow before answering, a hammer still in her fist, "Down the path and towards the back. Trailer's marked Office."
It's been a dry spring, worrisome for the threatening drought conditions that have been plaguing the Midwest, and every conversation that Phil has had in the past few months has included some variation of we could use some rain, and too dry for corn and last year was barely salvaged. Farmers are land-rich and cash-poor and a bad season will carry over to the next. The dust kicks up as Phil walks, following a path to a section marked “Employee's Only” in thick black Sharpie. His shoes will need to be shined when he gets home, already caked with dirt and dust.
He passes RV's and semi-permanent mobile homes with rope lights wrapped around awnings, marking tie-downs and other tripping hazards. The office is another trailer, better kept and designed for business use. He suspects though, seeing the private sign on the second small set of steps, that it’s also a residence. When he knocks, there’s a quick, “Let yourself in!”
Wyatt’s records of the circus are full of colorful characters, costumes, and an aging ringmaster, and the man in the office is clearly not Carson. He’s considerably younger, at least mid-thirties with the type of face that would be boyish if not for the look of having to grow up fast. The sleeves on his threadbare button down are rolled up past his elbows, revealing strong arms, just enough that if Phil wasn’t known for being unflappable, he’d be flapping right now.
Instead he swallows, “I take it you aren’t Mr Carson?”
“No,” the man responds, “Clint Barton. Carson decided that Florida was warmer all times of the year and took off. I’m running the business end this season. You the insurance guy?” He looks up with a confused look, “Cause Carson said that his agent was an old windbag that probably has never left his office unless it was to play golf.”
“I’d say ouch, but that’s a fair assessment. He died last year, I took over his book of business, Phil Coulson.” He puts out his hand to shake, but Clint looks at his own, and they are dirt covered.
“Yeah sorry, give me a sec,” he rubs some of the dirt off of on his jeans, “Caught me between items on the to-do list.” Barton walks to a small restroom and turns on the sink. When he returns, he takes Phil’s hand. “What can I do you for? We’ve got pretty much the same operation as always.”
“Unfortunately, your assessment of my uncle is pretty accurate. I’m pretty sure he and Carson haven’t talked since at least ‘06, and I’m sure things have changed since then.”
Barton eyes Phil, and for once, he’s feeling overdressed. Barton exudes a wary casualness, and his professionalism can be both a help and a hindrance. For every insured that wants to see their agent as calm and collected, there’s another that just wants to see a person.
Clint tilts his head towards the door, “We’re just getting in from our winter space, so we’re setting up still, you want a tour?”
Phil smiles and steps aside so that the younger man can get ahead of him. It has absolutely nothing to do with wanting to see him walk ahead of him as he goes down the steps.
“So you own this lot?” he asks as they walk a worn path along the inside perimeter of the grounds, Phil is quickly seeing that his uncles notes are complete trash. For one thing, Wyatt doesn’t mention animals, and he can hear a lion clearly.
“Yeah, consider it home base. We set up shop here in the spring and most of summer, we tour through a couple of other sites during fair season and rent this space out to the county and a couple of other fairs. We take our indoor acts on stage during the winter.” Mr Barton stuffs his hands in his pockets, Phil’s not sure if he is uncomfortable with the job or with talking to someone about it.
Phil takes notes on a legal pad, keeping a tally of employees he’s seen, structures, exposures and liabilities. Most everything isn’t permanent, which presents an interesting coverage challenge.
“Does all this,” he spreads his hands out to where an honest to goodness three ring big top is being assembled. It’s a rich red and gold, strong and sturdy, but well used and loved, and he can see places where the fabric has been patched. He’s not surprised; most of the circuses these days do stadiums and auditoriums.
He hasn’t asked to check the books yet, is hoping he doesn’t see the need to exercise that particular clause until a premium audit. He really hopes that Barton’s more traditional set-up does well, “Does it all go with you when you travel, Mr Barton?”
“Go ahead and call me Clint. And sure, ever since I was a kid. I turned the support beams into my own personal balancing act every time. Gave Carson and Trick a lot of ideas for my act.” Clint grins big and broad before pulling himself back.
Phil scribbles down non-perm structure marine policy v scheduled? On his pad, with Clint taking a peek, “It’s just notes.” He holds up the notepad, “I feel like we have to start from scratch. Let’s keep going, and we’ll get specifics later.”
He’s getting the impression that Clint isn’t usually a talker, and he’s also going back and forth from Wyatt’s last notes, which were disorganized on most everything but don’t mention a Barton anywhere, and every act was detailed; Act, real name, liability. One of the very few things that were done in a way that Phil could appreciate. But obviously, Clint’s been with Carson’s a long time if he’s talking about his childhood.
Phil walks a half step or so behind him, takes in the sight of scuffed up, frayed jeans, just tight enough in the right places, and Phil can work two angles at once. Maybe he’ll handle this policy personally every time, “Grew up here then? Kid of one of the acts?”
“No,” Clint stops abruptly, looks Phil over with narrowed eyes. Phil keeps his face even, just a picture of decency in the world, not a person that was checking out his clients ass a few seconds earlier, “We’ve got carnival games up that way that are going up.”
“Then let’s go see them.” Phil says, wondering if Clint is trying to protect himself or Carson by changing the subject.
Phil gives in to a burning question, a desire he’s had since he was a kid, “Does anyone ever actually win at these games?”
“What? Yeah, of course they do.” Clint balks with a grin, “Just — look, most of the guys you see here, they just travel with me, us. Carson’s. We’re still a pretty popular and consistent show. So we’ve attracted a few independent contractors. I try to vet them, of course, and I keep an eye and an ear out for anyone really getting screwed over. I wouldn’t go near the ring toss, but most of the games run honest.”
Phil scoffs and shakes his head in disbelief.
“You don’t believe me? Point at one, and I’ll win it.” Clint’s mouth is wide and broad and his face is instantly transformed from too rough hewn to almost too young. The juxtaposition is lovely and mind-boggling, the way he peels back and relaxes, all of the tense lines leaving his body.
“You’ve had years of practice.” Phil feels obligated to point out, but stops in front of the Shoot Out the Star booth.
“Araceli,” Clint raises his voice and a thick, pretty Hispanic woman turns, her arm set on her hip and the other holding a stuffed bear by the leg, “This fine man would like me to prove that your game isn’t a scam. Set me up.” Araceli eyes him and pulls her mouth to the side before agreeing and busies herself with lighting up the booth, “You are a peach, Celi!”
She loads the gun, places a target up, highlighting in a tight, disparaging voice to Phil all the ways that she maintains the machinery, keeps things up to a standard procedure for each customer. Clint however, jumps in place on the balls of his feet, stretches his arms and neck before taking up the BB gun in his hands. It’s hard to keep himself reigned in with that sort of show.
It’s quickly obvious that Clint holds back. The BB gun isn’t powerful, but Clint holds it like he’s expecting a higher-powered rifle, with reverence and strength. He fires in short bursts, barely moving the gun, and when he’s finished and the operator brings back the target. The red star is completely gone, a neat circle shot out.
“So yeah, I’ve had years of practice.” Clint damn near blushes, “But it is a game of skill after all.”
“Barton,” Phil asks slowly, “What exactly is your act?”
His smile is infectious between all three of them and he can’t keep a straight face as he says, “Impalement Arts. Knife throwing, Archery, Sharp shooting, that sort of thing.” He dusts off his hands on his jeans before holding the gun out, “Would you like to try?”
Phil tries, and that’s generous. He hasn’t shot too many guns before. He’s been working in the Midwest for a while, and there’s always been a boss or a coworker that likes to conduct unofficial business at a range on the weekend. He’s not a bad shot for someone that can count the times he’s actually fired on his fingers, but he’s not a savant. So after Araceli lines up the target again, Phil picks up the gun, copying Clint’s stance from before. It’s not what he’s used to, not by a long shot and he aims for the star and the center. He shoots longer bursts of fire than Barton.
The target has far too much of the red star showing for his liking.
“Oh man, oh man. It’s a game of skill, Coulson,” Clint straight up giggles now, “One more, Celi, one more.”
“This costs money.” Araceli holds out her hand, “One freebie each.” The two of them engage in the world’s best staring contest. She has a hard stare but Clint, Clint he waggles his eyebrows, pleads, cajoles and puts on a show before handing over a few bills. “Come here,” he says to Phil, “Oh come on, you can’t say it’s rigged if you know how it works.”
“If it’s not straightforward, then it’s rigged.” But he takes the step forward anyways.
“First things first, Mr Coulson,” the younger man says, resettling the gun in his hands, changing his grip, and kicks at Phil’s feet to change his stance, “Don’t try to aim for the center of the star. Most of the games are really about guessing what the player wants to do and making it so they can’t do that. Don’t aim for the center, shoot a circle around the star instead.” He moves to stand behind Phil, and one hand tentatively lands at his mid-back, straightening him up. “Shoot slow and as smooth as you can. Bursts of three or four, not that half-cocked spurting you did there before.”
Clint’s hand is warm on his back, even through the layers of his suit, and if it weren’t such a steady weight it would be the worst distraction. But as he fires this time, the weight reminds him of the advice and when he’s done firing and the target is brought to him, the star is cut off part way.
“Well, that’s a metaphor for something,” He says, looking at the sheet of paper, and Clint’s hand slips a little further down his back and settles. He thanks Araceli and pushes Phil forward, saying something about the animals, and his fingers linger just a beat longer than, than well something.
“We had a trick rider about three years ago, she left a little after Carson asked me back,” Clint pats one of the two horses, both sorrel chestnut Quarter Horses, “I say left, but she got into a car accident, legs ain’t right anymore and she left her horses with us.”
Clint has shown him the small menagerie that Carson’s has collected in the past few years, a lion rescued from another circus that was going under, and a truly impressive drove of goats that balance better than any gymnast. There’s no big animals, no elephants, no other big cats. Nothing that Phil remembers from the circuses he went to as a kid, but the goats are sweet and curious and Clint handles them and the horses with pride and affection.
“Won’t have them. Old animal master had the big cats and an elephant when I was a kid, treated them horrible. We kept the horses on, since the old rider couldn’t afford to care for them and we’re auditioning for a new trick rider, and keep good tabs on the rest.” Clint looks over the animals with a fond expression. “The other circus would have sold Sandy up the river to try to get a return on their investment.” He spits out the last words, “I’m telling you this so that this doesn’t sound like I’m being mercenary about them.”
“But you are running a business and you have to keep that in mind.” Phil finishes for him, “And if you protect them with insurance, you don’t have to sell the horses for glue if they get hurt.” Clint taps his finger on his knows, thankful that he didn’t have to say the words himself, “I’ve got something for that, a specialized term life policy for, well animals like yours.”
Barton’s features work through a range of emotions before he ducks his head, “I’m hoping this new rider works out. It’ll keep me from having to ride them and having to shoot like a Mongol.” He shakes his head, “Horse archery, looks great, feels powerful, but it hurts my ass.” He’s carefully been letting down his guard, and there’s an ease as he speaks now, and Phil wants to know more about this man, and not just watch him out of the corner of his eye as they walk again back to his office, Clint pointing out people and acts.
Phil is willing to place a great deal of money for a bet that Clint can talk business far easier when he’s not in an office. The circus isn’t a pile of documents, and he tells small stories and drops details about every person they come across. They are strays and lingerers, but all seem to like their boss. Clint’s not a ringmaster, he’s one of the players who occasionally have to wear a tie and function in the real world, and talk about income protection and umbrella liability policies with middle aged men with thinning hair.
They reach the office trailer, but they don’t go in. Clint’s got a cooler on the side, and pulls out a couple of water bottles. It hasn’t been a warm day, but it was a lot of walking in dusty soil.
“Can you believe this weather,” Clint drawls out as he sits down on the steps, “Such a dry winter, and this spring hasn’t been any better.”
“I’ve learned to worry about the corn. Can I ask something personal?” Phil leans against the railing and looks down at Clint, at Clint’s worn out, dirty jeans. At the corporate office, everyone wore suits in black and grey, dark wash jeans and the company polo on Fridays. In his agency, he’s the one with the nice suit and the women wear whatever they feel is nice and professional. Phil has spent his life around people with dress codes and meticulous fake manners, who are nothing so genuine as a glorified roustabout and a bottle of water in the springtime sun.
Clint picks at the wrapper of his bottle, “I reserve the right to say no.”
“Reasonable,” Phil says, “You talk about being here as a kid but I don’t see your name on the acts list Carson drew up for Wyatt, and you said that he asked you back.”
“Why did I leave?” Clint offers, and the guard is back up, and Phil knows that’s the wrong question to ask.
“No, no, more, what were you up to?”
“Other circuses, mostly, and got a little education. I wanted to get out of here for a little bit, see something other than Iowa and the occasional sojourn into Missouri. Worked in Coney Island for a little while with my archery act, Tiboldt’s with a knife-throwing one, and my biggest act, an associate’s degree in business. Carson contacted me about four years ago, offering me my job back since Tiboldt’s went down…”
“That’s where Sandy came from.”
Clint’s smile is soft, “You put things together, don’t you?”
“Paying attention is my job.” Phil replies honestly.
“Carson wanted to retire and he wanted someone he could trust, I was that guy, I guess. And I want to do right by him, keep this circus going in his name. He wasn’t always the most responsible though,” Clint sighs and looks back at Phil, pride in his voice, “Come on in, let’s wrap up for today.”
Phil stretches out his hand to help Clint up and doesn’t really want to let go, and now, he lets his hand linger just a few moments too long for professionalism.
“So, I’ll go run a few different packages…you wanted the peak season endorsement, right?” Clint shrugs without commitment, he’s really not married to the idea, “I’ll show you both. We’ve got a bit of time before your coverage term is up. If you’ll email numbers for limits you’d like, we can work within your budget. I’ll be honest, Carson and Wyatt had you seriously underinsured, land value alone, we should work in an inflation guard, land prices around here have been booming.”
“I can swing by the office when you are ready, if you’d like, but hey,” Clint says, still picking away at the remnants of the paper wrapper, ”Um, we’re having a dress rehearsal next week, if you’d like to come watch. Maybe get dinner?”
Small town Iowa is cutthroat and dry, a second season drought settling in for the long haul. There probably won’t be corn knee high by Fourth of July, soybeans will brown too quickly, and Phil has to swallow down the dryness in his throat.
“Yeah, I think I’d like that.” He answers with a smile as genuine as the sunlight.