Theodore Lewiston served two tours in Afghanistan, where he was awarded a Commendation Medal but more more importantly earned the respect and gratitude of his unit for fearlessly engaging camel spiders.
Returning home, Theodore found work as a security guard that from time to time required him to be big and scary, sometimes towards people who were bigger or scarier than he. Just as with the camel spiders, he showed a cool exterior while adrenaline surged through his veins, his not-insignificant fear hidden behind a cool gaze and steady voice.
Nobody ever asked him but he liked to imagine someone–a grandchild, perhaps–looking at his various citations and asking him about courage. What was the hardest thing you ever did? Or, “What was the most courageous?” Nobody would ever ask it that. “What was the scariest thing you ever did?”
He had a ready answer, one that would seem characteristically calm and cool but would reveal itself in time to be profound true, he thought.
Because it was a matter of proportion. The Taliban were deadly but he was deadlier, and when he charged at them on the hillside near Kandahar he knew that unless a small miracle worked out in their favor, he couldn’t be stopped; and if a small miracle was on their side, it didn’t really matter if he was running at them or away from them.
And the camel spiders, while unmistakably creepy and ugly and just, well, gross, were basically harmless to anything bigger than a mouse. While his buddies joked and struggled to stay near them, Ted could, and did, grab them by their long hind legs and fling them back into the desert. His skin crawled and his heart raced but, again, he was in control, the superior creature.
His most courageous moment, he felt, was one where he did not have the advantage. It was not a deadly situation, and his foe was not a terrifying demon bug, but the proportion mattered, and pound for pound it was most courageous moment of his life.
It began when he was nine years old, in the third grade. It was springtime, and he woke early, before his parents were up. He showered and brushed his teeth and made himself breakfast without disturbing anyone, and then snuck out into the shed.
His father’s garden tools were arranged very carefully, and although there were no explicit rules against him or his brothers getting into them, he father generally disapproved of anyone but himself being in the shed, and had never suggested that anyone besides himself had any business touching his tools. He was a loving man but was very protective of his own things, and Ted and his brothers knew what it meant to be on the receiving end of his wrath. He wouldn’t kill them, of course, but by the time he was done yelling they’d wish he had.
He took a burlap sack and dropped in a handful of tools, careful not to scratch them. Then he took the lawnmower–new, just a few weeks old–and very carefully pushed it out into the yard. It was heavier than he expected, and for a moment he decided that this was a horrible idea and he should put it all back.
But this was his only chance, he knew. His father mowed the lawn every other weekend, and so Ted wouldn’t be able to do this for another two weeks, after which it would be too late. So he closed the she, slung the burlap bag over his shoulder, and pushed the mower quietly through the yard to the gate in the fence that led to the side yard. Now out in the open, he pushed it down the sidewalk, across Delia Street, Hightower Street, and the broad Jefferson Avenue. Normally Jefferson was the boundary that he and his brothers weren’t allowed to cross. It had a median and a stoplight but it attracted a lot of highway-bound traffic and those people were often in a hurry and it was just too dangerous.
But on the other side was a new neighborhood, one where he was a complete unknown. He didn’t know anyone, he didn’t know the street names. The kids there even went to a different school. The only thing he knew was that he and his father had driven through it the previous weekend on their way to a yard sale advertised in the paper, and it was then that a stray comment from his dad–“Lots of big yards here”–got Ted thinking.
Two blocks in, as he remembered, high-tension power lines crossed over the neighborhood. The bases of the towers were lightly beautified with bushes, and here Ted parked the lawnmower, hoping the bushes shielded the shiny new lawnmower and bag full of tools from anybody driving by. Satisfied, he ran back home as fast as he could. He was back inside before anybody woke up. Now he went through his paces again, turning on the TV while he cleaned up his breakfast dishes, making as much as he could without being too obvious about it. Before long his mother was downstairs, brewing a pot of coffee.
“You’re dressed,” she noted.
“I’m going to Stevie’s,” he said. “We’re going to claim the baseball field before anyone else does.”
“Okay,” she said. And as soon as his dishes were puta way he ran–two blocks in the wrong direction towards Stevie’s house, in case she was watching. He looped around the block and headed back towards Jefferson, crossing into the strange neighborhood.
It occurred to him that if the lawnmower had been stolen he would have been in a huge amount of trouble, perhaps more than this adventure was worth. Luckily, the lawnmower was still there. The sun was up now, and he walked along the sleepy neighborhood streets pushing his lawnmower until he found what he wanted: a big house with a giant yard, its grass just a little bit overgrown.
He left the lawnmower on the sidewalk and went up to the door. What time was it? The sun was up but people might still be sleeping. He hesitated on the doorstep for a few minutes before he finally rang the doorbell.
And then waited, his heart racing. What if the person inside was angry at being woken up? What if they asked him where he was from? Threatened to call his parents, or the police, or both?
In the end it was an old woman who opened the door.
“Good morning, ma’am,” he said, tipping his baseball cap like he’d seen people do in movies. “I’m raising money for my after school club, and wanted to know if you’d like for me to mow your lawn.” He gestured back to the shiny new lawnmower. “I can also trim hedges.”
He hadn’t thought about. He did quick math, estimating how long it might take him to mow the lawn, how much money he needed, how much time he had before his parents assumed he would be back, and how many yards he could see that needed mowing. “Five dollars?” he said.
She thought about it for a moment. Ted could tell what she was thinking. She did not want her lawn mowed. She probably had a service, they were probably coming later today. But at the same time she did want to help this kid’s vaguely-defined after school activity. In the end she relented. Five dollars was an easy expense to stomach.
It took him a lot longer than he expected. Edging the walk, too, was tedious, his dad’s heavy lawn shears much less cooperative than he’d expected. But in the end she came out and gave him five dollars and a glass of lemonade, and he thanked her and continued down the street to the next yard.
This one told him no, and at the next one nobody answered, but the next house let him mow. It was a much smaller yard but the guy paid the same anyway, and Ted collected his five dollars and went on his way.
His goal was thirty-five dollars, which at this pace would take him all day. For the next yard he gambled on asking for ten dollars, and the young man who answered the door agreed. His pretty wife also gave Ted some cookies. It was near lunch time and Ted hadn’t thought to bring food. The sun was getting hot and he was exhausted from just these three lawns.
The next four yards told him no, and he could see that he wouldn’t be able to do two more yards before he had to turn him. Besides, he had taken so many turns in this neighborhood that he wasn’t entirely sure how far in he had gone. What if he was lost, and needed to get somebody to call him parents to pick him up? Besides that he was starving and sweaty and tired. What if he was farther from home than he expected?
At the next door it was a middle-aged man. Ted asked for twenty dollars, and the man agreed. Unlike the others, though, the man came out, sat on the porch, and watched as Ted mowed. As Ted was finishing up the man started pointing out spots that he had missed. He was remarkably specific and a little petty. Ted figured he had asked for too much money. Still, with this last yard he had enough.
“Are you thirsty?” the man asked when he finally couldn’t think of anything else for Ted to do.
“Yes, sir,” Ted answered, remembering the fantastic lemonade he’d gotten earlier.
“Come on inside,” the man said. And Ted’s mental alarms went off. But he hadn’t been paid yet, and he was nearly dizzy with hunger and thirst.
Clearly, he made a mistake. The house was dark, he curtains were drawn, and he closed the door once Ted was in. The behavior was odd and nerve-racking. He offered Ted water and then poured himself a glass of wine. He asked Ted questions about his age and his school. He asked Ted if he liked video games and told him he had a game room upstairs. Ted still needed to get paid, needed to eat something, and–most of all–needed to get out of there.
But he figured that if it came down to it he could just run. There must be some other way out of here. Finally he noticed a clock on the wall. “Gosh, mister, I better get going. My parents are expecting me home in twenty minutes.”
The man seemed to snap out of something, and said, “Of course.” And then he said it again. “Of course, of course. Here, let me get your money.”
He gave Ted a twenty dollar bill, and seemed to go out of his way to make sure that he could touch Ted’s hand at least a little. Ted took the money, pocketed it, and then left as quickly but as calmly as he could.
He had all the money that he needed, plus five dollars. Not bad. He pushed the lawnmower back, trusting his sense of direction to get him back to Jefferson Avenue. He was one block north of his street, but that actually worked out better. He pushed the lawnmower to Stevie’s house and stashed it in his driveway. “I’ll get it tonight,” he said, and then went home.
At night he went back out and retrieved the lawnmower, replacing it in his father’s shed without anybody knowing. The easy part was now over. From here things would get trickier.
The next day was his mother’s shopping day. While everyone else was at church she was at the mall. “It’s the only time I’ll go there,” she would say to anyone who cared to ask. It was rare but not unheard of for Ted to go with her. What was unusual was for any of his brothers to go, too, but today Mike needed new sneakers and Adam didn’t want to be left alone. So off they went, little human obstacles in the back of the station wagon.
Mom took Mike to the shoe store and left Adam with Ted. Ted took his little brother to a toy store and tried to improvise. The idea had been that his mother would go to a clothing store and Ted would break off and do what he needed to do without her ever knowing. How could he get rid of his brothers now?
Eventually his mother found them and left Mike with Ted and Adam, then went off to look at clothes for herself. That’s when inspiration hit. Mike wanted to look at the toy store, but Ted led both boys away to the electronics store. If they had any sort of luck, the video game displays would be available.
And because it was early and because almost everybody else was in church, the display PlayStation was open, and Ted set his brothers up on it. Then, once they were thoroughly immersed in their game, he discreetly snuck away.
The jewelry store was nearby, and he knew what he wanted. Unfortunately, there was only one salesperson, and she was tending to a customer who most definitely did not know what he wanted. There was a long list of questions and answers, much debating about size and color and cut. The jeweler tried to make the sale but he was hesitating. Finally he asked for a moment to think, and the jeweler caught Ted’s eye.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, I want this one.”
“Oh, that’s lovely.”
Thirty-four ninety-nine. Plus tax. He’d forgotten the tax! Thirty-seven and seventy-nine cents. Luckily he had forty. She was quick, and dropped the pretty necklace into a box and handed it to him before the other customer could make up his mind.
The box fit perfectly into his pocket, and moments later he was back with his brothers. Only his mother had beaten him to them!
“Where were you?”
“I had to pee.”
“And you just left them here?”
“I told them where I was!”
Adam barely turned around from the game. “No you didn’t.”
“I did, doofus. You just didn’t listen.”
Mom had a few more things to do, so after insisting that Ted promise to stay with his brother, she left again. By now he really did need to pee, but it was best to hold it until later. The important part of the mission, after all, had been accomplished.
Now came the hard part, the part that was harder than an alien space spider, desperate religious fanatic, or drunk and angry jilted lover.
The last week of school, and the last three days to see Mae Turner before August.
She sat beside him in class all quarter, and he spent more time looking into her bright eyes than paying attention to the class. He was nine years old and madly in love, a brand new and bewildering and exhilarating emotion that both filled and crushed his days, every day.
At recess they often played together but on these last days of school, when the teacher let recess run long because the kids weren’t going to sit still anyway, there was too much pressure to squeeze out every last drop of fun and friendship from everyone, which meant that Mae was not going to stop running and jumping and skipping and sliding for long enough to listen to Ted. And besides, if they did stop to talk, inevitably someone would notice, and want to know what they were talking about. And once they found out, it was only a matter of time–seconds, perhaps–before the entire school knew what they were talking about. And no matter what happened, that would be disaster.
So he kept the box in his pocket all day, and recess, lunch, the walk to the music room, the walk back from the music room, and afternoon recess–all the best times to talk to her for at least a little bit–passed by.
Finally the end of the day. She packed her bag and walked out with the rest of the kids. Ted took a deep breath and trotted up alongside her. He had hoped that once he reached her he would think of a way to start a conversation and that conversation would naturally lead to–well, he didn’t know exactly what he wanted, but somehow it would all work out.
But he had nothing to say, and she seemed a little surprised to see him. His options were clear: slip away awkwardly, in effect revealing himself without any possibility of reward; strike up a ridiculous and unnecessary conversation that would be both boring and potentially obnoxious, and undo a solid year’s worth of goodwill; or come clean.
Even as it was happening he could only catch snippets of what he was saying. The phrases were simple and inelegant but honest. He kept his voice calm and his gaze steady. Once it was over all of the phrases completely disappeared from his memory.
But this is what stayed with him: he told her that he loved her, and he told her why. Not just her pretty eyes and sweet voice, but her self, her thoughts and her way of expressing them, her confidence and kindness and generosity and even her self-respect. And this also stuck with him: as they neared her house, she turned to him and told him that he was very brave for saying those things.
He had been very brave, indeed. She didn’t know the half of it. He had shown remarkable courage, because in the grand scheme of things the stakes are play for a child are low but for a child there is very little sense of perspective, and the mocking and shame and humiliation that he risked from strangers, friends, and family alike, were–or least seemed–higher and worse than any bodily risk. There are things worse than dying. For a young boy, this was it. Who knows how many of his peers were in love, too, or would soon be in love, and how few of them took the risk to express it, harboring regret for years or decades that followed.
Now it was Mae’s turn to be brave. Theodore–she always called him that because his teachers did–was handsome and kind and smart and popular. And what he had said was unquestionably beautiful. At nine years old Mar had never heard such a confession, and although she had by that age had crushes on boys–mostly movie stars or pop singers, to be sure–she had never felt up close the dazzle and wonder of actual love. It was surprising that she should feel it directed at herself instead of emanating from herself in secret.
She was at a loss for how to respond. What he had done deserved something, and perhaps the right thing to do was the say she loved him in kind. It was part of her nature and also a part of her upbringing to please others, to give them what they wanted from her. Up to now she had never been asked to give anything of herself, but this was different.
And so without the benefit of many days’ of planning, Mae made a quick decision that was no less courageous. She was handling a hot object, in a way, the mishandling of which could have long-term and unforeseeable consequences.
So thanked him for being brave, and then asserted herself and confessed that she did not feel the same way about him.
She thought about giving him a hug but that wasn’t right. Maybe she could shake his hand. That felt worse. So she thanked him again, smiled, and went home.
The moment to give her the necklace had never come, and so she went away without it. He walked home, and was surprised that of all the emotions that he had expected, the ones he had most feared–humiliation and heartbreak–didn’t come. He was happy. He had failed, but in a way he hadn’t.
The next day at school he sat beside her again, and she smiled at him, and at recess they played as they always had, and though he never stopped loving her and she never stopped knowing it, they remained friends. When he returned from Afghanistan he brought her some pretty trinkets that he bought at the market, and she listened with horror as he described the camel spiders. When Ted married a few years later Mae sat with his family on his side of the aisle, and when Mae and had her son she named him Teddy after her oldest friend.
And in a box in his garage, for reasons he never told to anyone, he kept a small cheap necklace in a box that had never been opened, and both he and she were content to keep it that way. It was enough to know that it was there.