Tournament night in a sweltering Las Vegas stadium, and the girl with the gap-toothed smile stood bleeding in her ballet slippers. The sodium lights of the arena lay upcast on the low-hanging sky above. There was an electrical charge in the air: a crackling undercurrent that came neither from the lights nor from the distant heat lightning, but from the galvanized excitement of the crowd.
Before her, some twenty feet away and elevated four feet off the ground, there stretched a long green balance beam, atop which, at the southernmost end, stood ten empty whiskey bottles. The bottles were perfectly upright and in single file. A small springboard crouched in front.
She closed her eyes and inhaled. The air was dry. She stood alone upon the stage. She held her breath a moment and then she released it.
When she opened her eyes, her gaze settled on the objects before her: the springboard, the balance beam, the whiskey bottles. The heat hung heavy. A rill of sweat slid between her breasts. She didn’t see the tiny camera-flash explosions igniting everywhere around her from within the darkness of the stadium. She forgot that there were thousands of eyes fixed upon her. She forgot also the pain in her toe and was unaware of blood leaking like ink across the entire top part of her slipper.
Offstage in the shadows, a lanky youth in a baseball cap gave a thumbs-up, but it wasn’t directed toward her.
A man with a microphone emerged on stage. He was thin and well-dressed and darkly complexioned.
A hush came over the crowd. The man held the microphone to his mouth. His voice came booming through the speakers with great clarity.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “ladies and gentleman. May I have your attention, please. Thank you. We are finally at the end of the night, and — my Lord — what a night it’s been. What a competition.”
The crowd erupted.
“We have seen — excuse me, please — we have seen tonight some of the very best dancers in the world, and I’m sure you know this is not an exaggeration at all. We have only one more to go. Did we save the best for last? Need I remind you that there’s fifty thousand dollars at stake here?”
“Now,” he said, “now then. Do you see this young woman up on the stage with me? I’m told she’s about to do something that only one other person in human history has done, and that was a German dancer named Bianca Passarge, in 1954 — except Ms. Passarge, I’m told, was not mounting a balance beam when she did her routine. Can this little girl — all 115 pounds of her — I say, can she do it? Can she steal the money from these big city boys and girls, the Bronx break dancers and West Coast B-Boys and all the others who have astounded us here tonight with their strength and agility and grace? Folks, we are about to find out.”
The crowd erupted again. The MC turned and looked at the girl on stage behind him.
He lowered the microphone and said in an unamplified voice that sounded peculiar to her:
“Are you ready?”
He smiled kindly.
He gave her the A-OK sign with his fingers and nodded back. Then her lips broke open in return, disclosing, very slightly, her endearing gap-toothed smile.
He brought the microphone back to his mouth and turned again to the audience.
“Here we go!” he said.
The crowd went dead-silent in anticipation.
“Okay, okay!” she thought. All ten of her fingers wiggled unconsciously and in unison.
Abruptly, then, the lights on the stage brightened behind her and the music began: fast-paced and throbbing and happy.
She bolted forward.
She sprinted toward the balance beam and with astonishing speed executed a back handspring onto the springboard, vaulting into a full fluid backflip on one foot upon the beam — which in the very same motion turned into another back handspring, and then another, all to within inches of the bottles at the far end of the beam. This entire process took no more than four seconds. Here she paused for a fraction and then performed a half turn. From there she leapt lightly onto the first upright whiskey bottle, which wobbled only slightly under her weight. She placed her other toe catlike upon the next whiskey bottle, and then she raised herself en point to great heights….
She was called Dusty May. It was a name she’d given herself. Her biological father, Marcen Tomtas, whom she didn’t know, was a Polish acrobat of uncanny strength and coordination. For a time he was part of a traveling circus, which is when he met Dusty’s mother Shonda — in Wendover, Nevada — while passing through. He had ropy arms and a vespine waist, and Dusty was conceived on a star-blown night in late May, along the outskirts of town, upon the canvas floor of a dusty tent, where the circus was pitched. The next day he was gone.
Shonda, her pretty mother, carried Dusty to term and named her Mary and then, because of her poverty, gave her up for adoption.
This is how Dusty came to be raised in foster care.
Her foster father was a man named Kenneth Dvorak, a mighty Christian who, at six-foot-seven, two hundred and seventy pounds, bald as a stone but handsome, commanded the attention of anyone whom he came in contact with. He was a pastor, and a very wealthy one at that. He had a large home in Templeton, Nevada, which home housed seven foster children and four of his own. He was a man of distinction. He spoke well. People argued about his modesty. His voice was rich and round and sonorously soothing. He had a special spot in his heart for Dusty, who was the youngest of all his children, both biological and foster. He admired her silent determination, the unbreakable glint he saw in her eyes. Shortly after Dusty turned thirteen, he began systematically abusing and raping her, though from the time she was a very young child, she’d been periodically molested by any number of her foster siblings.
Still, she remained a spirited girl who kindled and cultivated the glowing force at the core of her being, which she felt no one and no thing could ever damage or touch, because it lay buried so deeply inside her, and because it was all hers, because she had created it.
On a warm autumn day when Dusty was eight-years-old, looking out the window with a pair of binoculars her foster father had given her, she descried a young man walking tightrope-style around the thin cylindrical railing that circumscribed a nearby gymnasium. It was a large building and a long rail. He was walking the entire perimeter of the thing. He was stripped to the waist. He wore faded blue jeans. She’d never seen him before, and she stood at the window, the binoculars glued to her eyes, transfixed. He wasn’t muscular but thin and graceful, not tall, black-haired, swarthy, beautiful. She couldn’t take her eyes off him. He didn’t seem to be having any difficulty, yet it was such a long way around and such a thin rail that she expected at any moment he’d lose his balance and fall. But he never did. Banana-colored leaves see-sawed around him. She watched until he was finished.
When, at last, he came to the end, he did something that amazed her even more:
He leapt from the rail to a chainlink fence, some four feet to his right, and for a moment clung spider-like to the fence. Then he glided up to the top and from here, in one motion, vaulted over the fence, a full eight feet onto what she thought was the grassy ground.
Immediately, however, he came bouncing back up, high into the air, and then did a slow and effortless backflip, and kept bouncing. And bouncing. Dusty realized immediately what was happening:
A deep pit had been dug into the earth, a trampoline mat installed over the top of the pit.
Later that day, she asked her foster father if she might be allowed to play on the trampoline, and he said yes.
So it began.
It began the morning after the evening Dusty asked her foster father for permission to play. He had always allowed her to roam, this mountainous man, though unknown to her, she was always watched, by him or by one of his many men, among whom was a fellow named Wes Weekly, a devoted member of Kenneth Dvorak’s congregation and also his friend. In fact, this very man owned the state-of-the-art gymnastics facility that comprised the trampolines, and he himself, no longer young, was in extraordinary physical condition, and he personally coached the children.
Thus, this bright autumn morning, she made her way alone down the leafy lanes that led to his property — so excited that she several times broke into a run.
There were three trampolines behind the fence, and she chose the one farthest away. A large white sign with red stenciled letters said:
PLEASE REMOVE YOUR SHOES
Dusty slipped out of her sneakers and hopped sock-footed onto the trampoline mat. The daytime moon hung half-crumbled in the sky above, and the sky was burnished blue.
She began to jump. Soon she got her feet underneath her and grew more confident. She bounced higher and higher until, before long, she felt as though she were flying. After a while she half came to believe that the only thing preventing her from making it all the way up to the moon was her will and her will exclusively.
She was at it for some time before she realized she wasn’t alone.
Observing her from grass, some twenty feet away, was the young man she’d watched spellbound through binoculars.
He appeared suddenly, a friendly presence with a crooked smile and large brown eyes that were like blots of melting chocolate. He approached.
She stopped jumping.
He was at least nine years older than her. Immediately her eyes went to the long and wormy scar that ran the entire left side of his face clear down his neck, and he noticed her eyeing the scar.
“Admiring my seam?” he said. He cocked his head so that she might better see the length of it.
“It’s a vacation souvenir I got four years ago, when I dove into a lake that I didn’t know had rebar in it. I almost bled to death.”
He leapt lightly onto the trampoline mat, and she stepped back. “But I’m still standing!” he said.
He bounced once and landed on his knees and then bounced back up onto his feet. He did it again. So relaxed, so natural-looking.
“Now you try it,” he said.
She did it.
He smiled wider. He was one of the snaggle-toothed, the serene.
He told her his name was David. He said that he was the son of Wes Weekly, who owned the trampolines. He told her that he lived in Las Vegas with his mother and stepfather, and that he was here only for a few days, as a visitor. She could feel his kindness: it radiated from him like heat. Indeed, it was largely this that gave her the courage to tell him she wanted to learn backflips and front flips, as she had seen him do the day before.
She held his gaze with some effort as she spoke.
He told her to watch closely, then. He said for her to pay attention to exactly what he was doing.
She stood off to the side, on the grass. He jumped. He spoke as he jumped, explaining everything while he did flips, both front and back.
He told her that backflips are easier than front flips. He said that front flips are more dangerous. “Contrary to popular belief,” he said.
He said that the most important thing to remember about any acrobatic maneuver is, first, you must fully decide and, second, you must fully follow through with that decision.
He said you must not overthink it, and you must not let your nerves get in the way.
He said that anything less than a total commitment to the move can cause injuries.
She listened to his every word, and she watched him with lidless fixity. She thought that he was the most beautiful person she’d ever seen.
He said that, like most things, the first one you do is the most difficult. He said that after the first one, they all get easier.
He did backflip after backflip, slowly, effortlessly, describing to her precisely what he was doing and explaining to her the whole time precisely how he was doing it.
He told her once again that the most important thing for her to remember is to not hesitate after she decided to act. He said you decide and you act.
“And that,” he said, ceasing, “is the whole secret of life.”
“Ready to try?”
“Would you like me to spot you?”
She shook her head.
He stepped off to one side, onto the grass, and with an open palm gestured for her to get on the trampoline.
He told her to do what she’d just watched him do.
She bounced several times, getting her feet back under her. He observed her. He did not say another word. He could see her thinking. He could feel her deciding. In an instant, then, as sudden as a bone-snap, she somersaulted backward and landed, a little overcorrected but safely, upon her feet. It took her two seconds before she realized that she had done it. It surprised her how easy it was.
She stood for a long moment, motionless and winded not so much from exertion as from the pure surge of adrenaline which came sloshing through her veins like nitroglycerin: the sense of limitless potential contained within her body and brain, the sudden knowledge of that, combined with the realization that she and she alone had done this thing, the touch of fear mixed with courage — it all converged in this moment and satisfied a secret hunger deep within her, something profound and poignant which she didn’t know existed until right now, something, in short, unspeakably private. She felt as though she’d been blasted out of rocket-launcher.
“I think you’ve got the stuff,” he said.
The town of Templeton lay in a river valley along the east-central edge of Nevada, about fifty miles west of the Utah border, a lorn but lovely sector of the state that even most Nevadans knew nothing of. The landscape itself, with its cirque-like bluffs and rarified air, exuded a pristine sparseness and sense of isolation, which Dusty May, in her child’s mind, always likened to Andean crags and strange Patagonian lands she’d read stories about.
The Crystal River coursed down from the flinty hills ten miles to the east and flowed sinuously through the center of the village. The whole area was a hotbed of geothermal activity, webbed with a network of subsurface springs which bubbled up here and there all throughout the region. Long ago these springs had been harnessed and cultivated in many places around Templeton — which is why Wes Weekly’s gymnasium contained eight circular tubs of graded temperature and an eye-popping olympic-sized pool that was kept hyper-clean and cool for lap swimming.
Alone now and buoyant in the hottest of the hot tubs, Dusty May couldn’t stop thinking about the trampoline, the backflips, the black-haired boy. Undreamed of vistas suddenly yawned open before her. She felt now that anything was possible, and this feeling gave her a euphoric rush the likes of which she’d never experienced. She could not repress her smile, her gap-tooth grin. Her thin brown legs undulated below her in the shimmering water. She stared at her legs and thought of the bones and blood and muscles they contained. The water was so hot that she felt as though she were being boiled alive slowly. She stood it for as long as she could and then emerged steaming and dove headlong into the icy swimming pool, her heart hammering.
The next four years, every day virtually without exception, she practiced the slippery art of gymnastic balance: she burned through boxes of athletic tape, tube after tube of gooey salve, conical blocks of hand-chalk.
In the early morning, she swam laps in Wes Weekly’s olympic-sized pool.
In the evening, she tumbled and swung and negotiated the balance beam.
(The swimming was her idea.)
She practiced indefatigably. She practiced and she learned. Among other things, she learned greater discipline and discovered, in a manner that struck her rather like the dawning of a revelation, that the better she got, the greater her desire grew: her desire for skill. In this way, her passion for the thing was incremental and willed — and, the moment she explicitly grasped this, her entire view of human existence was recast and restructured.
Thus, over the course of six years, she grew increasingly certain that in every significant area her destiny was under her own control.
This knowledge armed her in a subtle but insurmountable way.