For the first time in his life, Sullivan Mintz, standing in his underwear, was doing a half-cascade with four balls. He was trying not to become so excited that he would overthrow a ball, or look down at his hands, or make any of the million tiny moves that would throw him off.
The half-cascade is the classic pattern of juggling, the balls crossing one another as they rise up and fall again into the juggler’s hands before being thrown once more. It is an elegant sight when done well, the juggler appearing to move as effortlessly as if he were raising a glass of water to his lips.
The truth is, just about anyone who works at it can learn to do a half-cascade with three balls. Kids, middle-aged men, grandmothers. But four balls — that’s something else entirely, a whole new level of dif- ficulty. It takes a leap of courage and coordination, not to mention speed. It takes far more practice — weeks, sometimes months. But done well, it looks not only elegant, but wondrous.
Sullivan had started juggling six months ago, but it was only in the last five weeks that he had attempted four balls. And until this moment, Sullivan had messed up every time. Yet he had persisted, obsessively practicing before school, after school, at bedtime, any chance he got. He took his soft juggling balls to school and practiced at lunch, in an empty classroom where nobody would see him. Even when he wasn’t practicing, it felt as if he were, the balls rising and falling in his mind, his fingers opening and closing the way people sometimes moved their lips silently when they read.
Five weeks. Five weeks, every chance he got. And now he had it.
Sullivan, who was eleven years and seven months old, was once called by a teacher “the most average kid I’ve ever known.” And it was true that his grades were average across the board, his height was average, even his hair color was somewhere between blond and brown. The remark had been made to another teacher, but Sullivan and several other students had overheard, including a beefy kid named Samuel Patinsky, who was always on the lookout for somebody to torment. From that day forward, Samuel had started calling Sullivan “Mr. Average.” Sullivan despised the nickname, but he didn’t see what he could do about it. His friend Norval had suggested that he call Samuel Patinsky “Mr. Below Average.” But Sullivan had no desire to get punched in the face.
He had taken up juggling on the advice of Manny Morgenstern, one of the oldest residents of the Stardust Home for Old People. Manny was eighty-one. He had suggested juggling one afternoon when Sullivan was feeling pretty unhappy about just about everything. Like having only one friend at school. And being taunted by Samuel Patinsky. And having the kinds of chores that other kids didn’t have. And having a mother who was known by the embarrassing title of the Bard of Beanfield. And having a little sister who everyone thought was adorable when, in fact, she was the slimiest, most scheming creature alive.
Manny might have suggested all kinds of things, such as learning guitar or taking karate lessons. He was trying to think of something that would improve Sullivan’s coordination and perhaps give him some confidence. And that wouldn’t cost his parents, whose business was having what is politely called a cash flow problem, very much money. But juggling just seemed right.
“Once you start,” Manny had said, “you’ll want to juggle all the time. Your parents are going to have to tell you to stop. You’re going to drive everybody crazy.”
“I really don’t think so,” said Sullivan. Manny, who was very thin and always wore a suit and tie and stood remarkably straight despite his age, had been standing in Sullivan’s doorway. He still had his hair, which was now the color of ivory, and a little goatee — an empire, Manny called it. Sullivan had been sitting on the end of his bed, sulking. Having an eighty-one-year-old man as your friend was kind of neat, but having him as your closest friend wasn’t neat. It was pathetic.
“Juggling would be just about the dorkiest thing I could do,” Sullivan had said. “It would be like wearing a sign that said yes, i really am that big a loser. Besides, I’d be terrible at it. All I’d manage to do is drop things on my head.”
And yet here he was, keeping four balls in the air at once. (Or so it looked. The balls were never actually all in the air at the same moment. There was always one in his hand, just caught or about to be thrown.)
“Sullivan!” came a voice from behind him. “I’ve already called three times. Now, please come for dinner.”
The sound of his dad speaking made Sullivan miss a ball. The others rained down around him. Entering the room, his dad sighed as he helped pick them up. “Juggling again? Having a hobby is one thing, Sullivan. But having a hobby that interferes with your chores is another. You’re keeping forty-eight hungry people waiting.”
“Sorry, Dad. I guess I didn’t hear you.”
“And, Sullivan, put on some pants.”
Sullivan placed the balls in the bottom drawer of his dresser. It used to be his sweater drawer, but he had moved the sweaters up one, cramming them in with his shirts. Now the drawer held all his juggling stuff — larger and smaller balls, clubs, plates, and in- structional books. On his walls he had posters, not of baseball players or bands or movie stars, but of great jugglers of the past. There was Salerno, whose real name was Adolf Behrend and who was known as the “gentleman juggler” for dressing in tails and using hats and canes. There was Enrico rastelli, maybe the great- est juggler of all time, who was known to practice con- stantly for the sheer love of it. There was the American Bobby May, who used comedy and was famous for his returning-bounce ball tricks. Sullivan even had a poster of ancient Egyptians juggling, from a painting inside a tomb. None of them had been easy to find. It wasn’t as if you could walk into a poster shop and ask for the juggling section. He’d saved his small allowance and then ordered them from acrobatic supply companies that he found using the Internet at the public library.
Sullivan pushed the drawer closed and pulled on his cotton pants (his parents didn’t like him to wear jeans at dinner). He was about to leave his room when something caught his eye through the window.
Sullivan moved over to it, put his hands on the sill, and leaned forward. There was something unusual moving down the street. It was dusk and the street- lights hadn’t gone on yet, but in the gloom, moving past the worn-down houses on the other side, he could see a wagon. That would have been strange even if it wasn’t being pulled by a horse. And it wasn’t a wagon exactly, thought Sullivan. It was something else. A cara- van. Yes, that was the word. An old-fashioned wooden caravan, the likes of which he’d never seen before ex- cept maybe in pictures in some book.
The caravan had large wheels that turned slowly as the horse pulled it along. There was a sort of ornate carving around the top and sides. It looked like it be- longed in the time of western cowboy movies or in Vic- torian London. On the side, painted in fancy lettering,. were the words Master Me...