Five year old Tanner Evans, Jr. looked up from the dreadful spinach that occupied his supper plate and asked, “Do you know what a hero is, dad? That’s what we’re studying in school.”
Tanner Evans smiled at his son and said, “Sure, Tanner. A hero is someone you look up to and admire because of the kind of person they are and the things they do.”
“Miss Austin says you don’t have to be famous or even grown-up to be a hero,” young Tanner said.
“She’s right,” Erin Evans replied. “You don’t have to be an adult or famous to have character and perform good deeds.”
Tanner was silent as he finished his supper, ignoring the spinach with some difficulty.
“May I be excused, mom?” he asked.
“Yes, if you’re finished,” Erin Evans answered, eying the abandoned vegetable on her son’s plate.
“I wonder if I’ll ever be a hero, “Tanner said, rising from the table.
“You’ll be my hero if you sit back down and eat that spinach,” his father replied.
Young Tanner looked at his father and then down at his plate as he considered the awful task before him. At last he sat down, picked up his fork, drew a deep breath, and gulped down the foul dish that his mother had prepared.
“That’s my boy,” Tanner Evans said.
The late afternoon sun burnished the Blue Ridge Mountains in flaming indigo as Tanner Evans closed the barn door and walked up the hill to his car. He had been working at Wild Pony Ranch for almost a year and he loved it. Having grown up on a small farm, Tanner knew his way around a horse barn. He was thankful beyond words that John “Cowboy” Howard had offered him a job after the paper mill shut down.
Tanner had worked at the mill for twelve years when it closed. He had hated the work but the money was good. Tanner’s unemployment benefits had run out and they were behind on the mortgage when John Howard threw him a lifeline. The pay was less than what he had earned at the paper mill but Tanner knew he would never consider going back in the unlikely event that the mill reopened.
As he did every afternoon Tanner took a moment to watch the sun bathe the mountains in a final luminous glow before sliding out of sight. Tanner Evans had never visited Florida but he knew that he would take a Blue Ridge Mountain sunset over the more famous Key West version any day.
“Dad!” Tanner Evans, Jr. hollered as his father walked in the front door, “Guess what?”
“Calm down, Tanner,” Erin Evans called from the kitchen.
Tanner looked from his mother to his father, unsure what to do next.
“Come sit down and tell your mom and me what’s got you so excited,” Tanner’s father said.
“Remember, I told you we were learning about heroes in school?” Tanner asked his father.
Tanner Evans smiled at his son and nodded.
“Miss Austin said our class is going to have a dinner at school for our heroes. Here’s the note I brought home.”
Tanner and his wife studied the note. The Shenandoah County Elementary School kindergarten class was hosting a “hero’s banquet” next month in the school cafeteria. Each child was permitted to invite their hero and one guest. Formal invitations would be mailed out by the school. This was clearly a big deal.
“Wow, Tanner!” Erin enthused, “this is really exciting.”
Tanner nodded and then looked shyly up at his father.
“Dad, can I ask you something?”
“Yes,” his father softly replied.
“Will you be my guest at the dinner?”
Erin Evans watched the light in her husband’s eyes die and the deep hurt flash across his face. She stared at her son, unable to comprehend what she had just heard.
Tanner Evans smiled painfully and said, “That sounds great, Tanner; thanks for asking me.”
When his son made no reply Tanner asked, “So, who is your hero?” The question sounded loud and forced to Tanner, the words pounding in his head as if they had been screamed into a deep canyon and were echoing off the walls.
Erin watched helplessly, unable to think of a thing to say or do.
“I want to invite Travis Cooper, dad,” young Tanner replied, “but I don’t know how. Can you help me?”
Tanner Evans felt like an inflatable doll that had lost all its air. He was suddenly weary beyond description. “I’ll see what I can do,” he heard himself say.
Tanner continued to sit motionless on the sofa, staring intently at nothing. He was dimly aware that his son had returned to his room and his wife was in the kitchen preparing supper. The blood roared in his ears. He felt sluggish and stupid, unable to think.
Congratulations, Tanner. Your son is five years old and the male figure that he most admires is someone he’s never met. Well, what did you expect? You’ve never rescued a child from a burning building or hit a home run in the World Series. You clean horse stalls for a living. He’s probably ashamed of you. Travis Cooper – Jesus, how am I going to contact him? I’m sure he doesn’t live around here anymore. It must be four years now since he got drafted by the Braves and now he’s their starting left fielder. It’s the off season; maybe he’ll be in town for a visit. Yeah, right.
Tanner Evans looked up and found his wife watching him with a worried look on her face.
Tanner rose clumsily to his feet and said, “Y’all go ahead. I’ll heat something up later.”
“Are you okay?” Erin asked.
“Fine,” Tanner replied with a weak smile. “I’m going on the Internet to see if I can find a phone number or e-mail address for Mr. Cooper.”
Several hours later Tanner logged off the computer and walked down the hall to his bedroom.
Erin looked up from the book she was reading when her husband entered the room. “Any luck?” she asked.
Tanner shook his head.
“Did you eat?” she asked.
Her husband shook his head again. Erin knew better than to ask Tanner if he wanted to talk about it. She knew that most men hated talking about sensitive and emotional subjects. When it was forced on them it rarely resolved anything and usually made them feel worse. At least that’s the way it was with Tanner.
Erin leaned over and kissed her husband goodnight before turning out the light.
Tanner Evans lay motionless on his back, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the pain to go away.
“Hi, Mr. Evans,” a voice called out.
Tanner Evans stood and stretched his back. He had just finished grooming Little Powell and was busy cleaning out the stallion’s stall.
“Hey, Emma,” Tanner replied. “How was school today?”
“Okay,” Emma said. “Did Tanner tell you about the hero’s dinner?”
Tanner looked up as John Howard entered the barn.
“Hey, Tanner,” John said, “I’m going to take Jubal out for a workout.”
“Daddy, I was telling Mr. Evans about the hero’s dinner,” Emma said.
“Isn’t that something?” John said to Tanner.
“Daddy’s my hero and mama’s my guest,” Emma excitedly explained.
Tanner offered a weak smile but could think of nothing to say.
“Did Tanner tell you about it?” John asked.
Tanner Evans nodded. “Yes, he did. I’ll be there. He invited me as a guest. I guess I’m not hero material,” he said, trying for a light-hearted chuckle that stuck in his throat.
Tanner winced at the look of surprise and concern that appeared on his employer’s face.
John turned to his daughter and said, “Why don’t you run up to the house, sweetie. I think your mama picked up some oatmeal cookies at the store today.”
“Who’s the hero?” John asked quietly as soon as his daughter had gone.
Before he knew it Tanner had poured out the whole story.
“He’s only five years old, Tanner. It’ll take time but he’ll figure out that it’s who a person is, not what he does for a living that matters.”
“It looks like Emma has already figured that
out,” Tanner observed.
“I’m not so sure about that,” John replied. “Her whole world is horses. She knows that I run this ranch and she’s seen the trophies I’ve won on the rodeo circuit. It won’t be long before she discovers I’m not nearly as famous as she thinks I am.”
Tanner remained quiet.
“I can help you get in touch with Travis Cooper, Tanner,” John continued. “I know a couple of rodeo promoters who know people who know people.”
Tanner swallowed hard and said, “Thanks, Cowboy.”
John caught up with Tanner just as he was leaving for the day.
“Here you go,” he said, handing Tanner a slip of paper. “That’s the name and direct number of Cooper’s agent. Everything goes through him.”
Before Tanner could reply, John put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Hang in there, Tanner. Things will work out.”
Tanner’s son was waiting for him when he got home.
“Did you talk to Travis Cooper, dad?” young Tanner asked anxiously.
Tanner Evans produced a sad smile for his son. “I’ve got a number to call right here,” he said, producing the note that John had given him.
Young Tanner continued to watch his father.
Tanner Evans sighed and said, “I’ll go make the call.”
An hour later Tanner entered the kitchen. Erin had cleared the table and was loading the dishwasher.
“You missed supper,” she said. “I fixed a plate for you; it’s in the microwave.”
Erin sat with her husband while he ate. “So, what did he say?” she asked.
“He’ll do it,” Tanner mumbled between bites.
“Well, that’s good, I guess,” Erin replied.
“You haven’t heard the rest,” Tanner said. The agent had happily confirmed that Travis was available to attend the hero’s dinner. He would be in town visiting his parents that week so the timing was perfect. Tanner and the agent worked out the details over the phone.
Erin waited expectantly.
“It’s a thousand dollars,” her husband said.
Erin looked at Tanner in disbelief. “He’s charging you money to be your son’s hero?”
Tanner said nothing.
“What about a home town discount?” she asked.
“That is the home town discount,” Tanner replied.
“Well then, the answer is no. We don’t have an extra thousand dollars to rent a hero for the evening. We might as well tell Tanner,” Erin said.
“The answer is yes, Erin,” Tanner replied calmly. “I have a plan.”
“We’ve got that much in our emergency fund,” Tanner said, holding up his hand when Erin started to protest. “I talked to Jack. One of his workers is going out on maternity leave. He can use me in the evenings for the next couple of months. That will be more than enough to cover Mr. Cooper’s fee.”
Erin’s heart sank. Jack Evans, Tanner’s brother, owned a commercial cleaning company. For the next two months her husband planned to go straight from cleaning horse stalls to cleaning office buildings five nights a week.
“I think our son needs a hard dose of reality,” Erin protested.
“He’s five years old, Erin. Reality will knock him upside the head soon enough. In the meantime I’m going to make this happen for him. And don’t you tell him what I’m doing,” her husband warned.
Tanner explained to his son that he would be working nights for the next couple of months and wouldn’t be around much during the week.
“I’ll have to miss your hero’s dinner, Tanner, but I’m sure your mom would love to go as your guest. And Travis Cooper will be there. I’m sorry I can’t come.”
“That’s okay, dad; we’ll still have fun,” his son replied.
Tanner’s life quickly fell into a routine of eating, sleeping, and working. He stumbled through his days in a haze of exhaustion. Erin packed him a cooler each morning to take to work. Tanner ate his lunch in the barn and then gulped down his supper while he drove from Wild Pony Ranch to the office building he was cleaning. He tried to spend time with his family on the weekends but often found himself falling asleep on the sofa.
Erin was downstairs doing laundry one evening when the phone rang. She called out to her son to answer it.
When she came upstairs Erin found her son waiting for her.
“Who was on the phone, Tanner?” she asked.
“It was a man,” her son answered. “He said to remind dad that he needed to send the check for the hero’s dinner by Friday.”
Erin looked at her son, unsure what to do.
“Mom, I don’t understand,” Tanner said, on the verge of tears. “Is something wrong?”
Erin Evans put down the laundry and took a deep breath. “I hope I’m doing the right thing, Tanner.”She sat down beside her son and told him everything.
“Stop fidgeting,” Erin Evans admonished her husband. “I’m trying to straighten your tie.”
“I’m surprised Jack gave me the night off,” Tanner said. “I didn’t even ask. Erin, are you sure it’s okay for me to come. I mean, the paper Tanner brought home said only one guest could attend, not two.”
“It’s okay,” his wife replied. “I talked to the school. Come on, we don’t want to be late.”
The parking lot was filling up by the time they arrived. Tanner quickly found a spot and escorted his family into the school.
Young Tanner joined his teacher and classmates and proceeded to the cafeteria.
“Any idea what the program is for tonight?” Tanner asked as they found a table and were seated.
“No idea,” his wife replied. “Tanner, why do you keep looking around? Are you expecting someone?”
“Travis Cooper,” her husband replied. “He’ll be sorry if he doesn’t show up for this dinner and ruins my son’s evening.”
Erin wisely remained silent.
The dinner was excellent. The meal was followed by brief remarks from Tanner’s teacher, Miss Austin, about what her class had learned about heroes. The school principal spoke next and continued the theme of the importance of heroes.
After the principal finished speaking Miss Austin returned to the podium and said, “I hope you’ve all enjoyed this evening. The last thing we have planned is a roll call of the heroes that are here tonight. Each child will announce the name of his hero. Please come to the front when your name is called.”
“Where is he?” Tanner Evans hissed.
“He’s not coming, Tanner,” Erin said. “I didn’t send the money.”
Tanner Evans gaped at his wife.
“I’ll explain later,” she whispered.
Tanner watched miserably as each child called out the name of their hero. He felt a stab of envy when John Howard walked to the front of the room. Young Tanner was next. Tanner wondered if his son would ever live down the humiliation of having nobody walk to the front when he called his hero’s name.
Young Tanner stepped forward and said, “My hero is my dad, Tanner Evans.”
Tanner Evans was frozen to his chair. He was certain that he had not heard correctly.
Tanner turned when his wife poked him in the ribs. She seemed to be smiling and crying at the same time. He walked to the front of the room in a daze.
Tanner stood with the rest of the heroes and looked out at the room, at the people who were all standing and applauding, at his son who was wearing a proud smile.
John Howard leaned over and whispered, “How does it feel to be your son’s hero, Tanner?”
“I don’t….” Tanner replied, and could say no more.
“I’m just….” he tried again as the emotion threatened to strangle him.
“Me, too,” John Howard replied. “Me, too.”