Terry Rawlings knew nothing about gymnastics when he bought an abandoned aircraft hangar out by the interstate, and needed something to do with it. He hired his hunting pal, Murph, a foreman for a local construction firm, to gut the place. He replaced the dirt with padded Tight-Lock rubber flooring and lined the walls with polyfoam stunt mats. He bought a pommel horse, a balance beam, a few vault boards, some tension bars, uneven bars, parallel bars, a half-dozen chalk holders, and a set of still rings to hang from the rafters, above a thick landing mat.
Terry hired a team of coaches and assistants, then went to a local engraver and ordered a display case’s worth of trophies with our names and made-up achievements. Nobody ever questioned it—why would they? Rawlings Gymnastics wasn’t a place where champions were made; it was a place where parents could leave their kids for a few hours after school, and buy some much-needed time to themselves. If any students did show promise, Terry passed them along to the many more legitimate gyms in Missoula, or Helena. Talent was an unwanted burden; it distracted and drew attention to the place—something he worked hard to prevent.
The staff, of course, knew all this. A Google search had revealed that he hadn’t come in 2nd Overall in the 1973 Big Sky Gymnastics Competition (it wasn’t founded until 1981). But Terry was nice enough, and he paid us well enough. At sixty-four and retired, he was looking for a source of income to supplement what he had already, and (maybe) a place to hide it.
Terry seemed tough when you’d meet him. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and had these rough, knotty hands. He’d made good money at a power plant in New Jersey, before heading out west on a bow-hunting trip and falling for the place and making a down payment on a twenty-acre piece of land in the Bitterroot Valley, a few miles outside of Florence.
Truth is, we inflated our own knowledge and experience knowing Terry wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Sure, we’d done some high school athletics. I had run track at Hellgate, and gone through basic, but my fitness had dropped off by then. One of us, Claire, had gone to state on floor and still had a tremendous stag leap, but for the rest of us it was a stretch.
Everything would have been fine, if Terry hadn’t attempted to relocate. Murph’s crew came in once again, breaking down the entire gymnastics center with the goal of moving it, piece by piece, up a nearby hill he’d also bought about a half mile away.
Why? It’s hard to say. He’d lost a son later in his life, and most of us figured this project was his way of working through it. They’d found the man’s car in a lake in Canada somewhere. A note had been left in marker on the windshield. He was buckled in his seat inside.
As long as Terry was paying us, we’d hang out around the worksite, watching the backhoes move dirt into piles. He’d arrive each day in a truck that had a severed elk head in the bed of it, blood spread out under in a black-red circle. We could smell it up the road, coming our way, adding new life to the smells of the worksite—the stacks of saw-ripped two-by-fours, the torched steel, the power-shoveled earth—as the sun beamed through the ceiling truss on the hill, throwing shadows across the lawn that at certain parts of the day looked like the skeleton of a whale. Terry would approach us sitting there. He’d say how nice the new center was going to look, and how thankful he was for our patience during this “transition.” Some days, we’d see Terry lying on the crash mat for hours, staring up at the sky, watching the gliding clouds.
We did our best with what we had. We set up the pommel horse and some of the mats and, while the weather was tolerable, we’d instruct the kids right there, under the big open sky. We’d talk them through tumbles, handstand walks, hollow body holds, and the steady rings Murph would sometimes hang from his team’s mobile crane when it wasn’t in use.
By winter, everything stalled. The snow and cold prevented us from continuing our instruction outdoors, and Terry had burned through a considerable amount of money. When our paychecks started coming in more irregularly, most of us went our separate ways.
I stayed on longer than most. Less out of a sense of commitment to Terry—though we got along fine, he and I—and more because I couldn’t find a new job.
I had no real plan back then. I applied all over. From the juice stand at the mall, to a place called The Gun Barn, that always had a man dressed as an Ambush 300 dancing by the road. I applied to teach at an elementary school, but failed my trial when I gave one child in the class permission to use the bathroom; seeing my weakness, more kids asked to use the bathroom and didn’t return. Finally, most of the class was gone and my supervisor, Leah, had to leave in the middle of my lesson and track them all down.
One night, I must have written her an email. Leah wrote back to say she didn’t like my tone and a few months down the line we’d be living together and when things were good some nights we’d sit on our patio, looking at the mountains. She’d tell me wild things like you could put your hand theoretically right through a solid table if its atoms were arranged a little differently. And I’d watch her and fall in and out of love. But that’s a different story.
To help cover the rent on our apartment after Leah left, I asked Terry if he’d be OK with me taking on a few of his students. He allowed me to take whatever equipment I could load into my truck and set up in my living room. The equipment had sat out all winter and was rusted and banged to hell with these coiled metal springs reaching through in places, and I had to be careful. I wrapped the balance beam and pommel horse with duct tape and it worked fine for a while until one day this boy was up on the beam and his foot slipped off the duct tape and he hit his head on the coffee table. I got the boy and all the others in my truck and hustled them over to the hospital where he had stitches put in. Out in the parking lot, the boy’s parents said I was lucky I wasn’t well off enough to sue. I’d never considered myself lucky before.
I brought the equipment back to Terry, who was living in the worksite trailer since he’d had to sell his house to pay off his debts. The hill was more or less blasted away, by then replaced by a deep ugly crater in the earth. I said to Terry he should say it was caused by some kind of alien meteor or something, and have people pay to come look at it, you know, bored families driving cross country, but he didn’t seem charged on the idea. “I’d have to get it verified,” he said. “And I’d have to find a meteor to blame it on.” He said he had something for me. A trophy. He’d had them made for the staff right around the time we’d all started leaving, and now they were sitting in a box in his office. He said I could have it, and told me if I saw any of them around, to give them their trophies. I put the box in my truck and forgot about it.
Then later that week I was pulled over after leaving the bar. I saw this red and blue and white swirling light in my rearview. This was out by the airport, from what I recall.
The officer asked me if I’d been drinking. I told him, yes, I had. He had me get out and kiss the little metal beak of his breathalyzer. Of course, I didn’t pass—there’s that. But I think he thought there was more to the situation than there was. So he asked to search my truck. I said OK, and at the time it felt strategic, like I had a bunch more ideas down the line, and each idea was informing and building on the next, when I don’t think I really did.
He shined a light on the box of trophies in the truck bed. “You must be pretty good.”
“An expert,” I said, and sprinted off into the night.
David Byron Queen grew up in Ohio. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, VICE, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Hobart, McSweeney’s, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. He has an MFA from the University of Montana, where he was a Truman Capote Fellow. Currently he lives in Brooklyn, New York and runs the indie publishing company word west. Find him on Twitter @byron_queen.