At the dinner table, Ben was gearing up to tell his parents about the divorce when the phone rang, and Dad swore when he read the caller ID.
“Your goddamned grandma,” he said. He picked up the phone with a gruff greeting and went into the other room. Ben could hear muffled exasperation, but he couldn’t make out the words. He looked over at his mom, who just shook her head and shrugged.
“She’s so old,” Mom said. “She gets these ideas, and they’re just harder and harder to deal with. We’re thinking we might have to put her in a home.”
“I didn’t know it had gotten that bad,” Ben said. “She seemed sharp as ever last time I saw her.”
Mom’s mouth flattened into a thin little line of disapproval.
“And when was that, Benji?”
Ben sighed and ran a hand over his face. What could he say? Sorry my life fell apart while you didn’t notice? Sorry I had to take care of it the last few months instead of going all the way out to Fishtown every other day to run a few of Grandma’s errands? Sorry I don’t exactly live close enough that it’s no bother? None of it was ever enough, anyway. And Grandma — she didn’t need the help Dad and his pair of asshole brothers thought she did. She was a tough old broad, as she called herself.
“I’ll go tomorrow,” Ben said, and Mom grunted out a hmph before feeding herself another spoonful of grits. Her own mother had been from the deep south, ran a white lady’s kitchen with an iron fist and served the best soul food east of the Mississippi. Mom had learned to cook at her apron strings, and Dad always joked that that was why he’d married her.
Ben sighed and pushed his okra around his plate. Dad came stomping back in and plonked himself heavily into his seat.
“You hear from your sister?” he said, cutting into his chicken cutlet.
“It’s finals, Dad,” Ben said. “You know she’s trapped and dehydrated somewhere under an avalanche of grading.”
“We’ll have to go excavate the body next week, then,” Mom said.
“You can go by yourself,” Dad said. He shook his head and went a dull, angry sort of white boy red. “I gotta take care of finding a place for Ma. This whole thing is just — it’s ridiculous, Alma.”
“What’s she on about?” Ben asked. Dad looked at him and sighed. He seemed to deflate and become a small gray echo of himself. Ben had always thought of his father as a strong, big man — larger than life and untouchable. He’d protested the Vietnam War. He’d been tear gassed. He went to Woodstock, he dodged the draft, he watched DC burn after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. He was the embodiment of all the tumult and progress of the 20th century — and eventually, its greed and decline. Now, in the 21st, he was a relic and a stubborn old mule who couldn’t bear the thought that he didn’t still rule the world. It surprised Ben, sometimes, to find himself the adult and his father increasingly frail. He was sixty-seven years old. He had stents in his heart. He had had a heart attack last year. And, worst of all for the kid Ben suspected he might always be, Dad didn’t know best.
“All this Captain America stuff in the news.” Dad shook his head. “She says she knows him, needs to go talk to him. God, can you imagine? This poor kid they’ve hired to play the part for whatever propaganda machine they’re running now opens his door and finds a lady older than dirt hanging around with a crush on him. The things she says — they become more and more goddamn delusional every day, I swear. I don’t know what to do.”
Ben could feel himself frowning with every muscle in his face.
“That’s really him, though,” he said. “That’s really Steve Rogers.”
Dad rolled his eyes and jabbed his fork at him.
“Don’t tell me you believe all the bullshit the news is trying to sell,” he said. “Come on, Benji. You’re thirty-two years old.”
“There’s an exhibit at the Smithsonian, though.”
“There’s an exhibit at the natural history museum of Neanderthal skeletons, too. That doesn’t mean they’re walking among us.”
“So what, you just decide your mother’s got dementia because you’re too much of a jackass to read the news and get your head out of your ass?”
“Benji!” Mom snapped.
“Oh, what, Mom?” Ben said. “Is there any other evidence of her losing her marbles? Is a harmless little crush on a handsome man from 1945 really grounds for taking her out of the house she’s lived in for fifty years?”
“You haven’t heard her, Ben,” Mom said. “You haven’t been around at all.”
“Right.” Ben stood up and dumped his napkin onto the plate. “I’m out.”
“By the way, I’m getting a divorce. Surprise.”
His mother’s face crumpled, his father’s turned a new shade of red, and Ben walked out the door because he was a grown man, and he could.
“Great Christ, that hair! You gotta do something about that, Benno,” Uncle Joseph said as he scooted into the backseat behind Grandma. Ben sighed.
“Hi, Uncle Joseph,” he said. “My hair is supposed to look like that.” Ben kept it tied back in thin, neat dreads.
“I don’t know how you manage,” Uncle Joseph said. “You look like a—”
“Leave Benji alone, Joe,” Aunt Lizzie said. “He’s a good boy, not like your good for nothing grandson, what’s his name, Beck? The one with three different mamas for his three different babies.”
“Kyle,” Grandma said like a chirping bird.
“Kyle,” Aunt Lizzie said severely. “Didn’t he go to prison for a while?”
“Minimum security!” Uncle Joseph said. “And at least Kyle has normal hair! Don’t get me started on the pack of wild wolves you raised, Lizzie.”
“You’re an old horse’s ass,” Grandma said. “Lizzie, you better gag him.”
Uncle Joseph was the youngest of them at eighty-nine. Grandma was the eldest, ninety-five, and Aunt Lizzie was the middle child, ninety-two. They acted like little kids when they were around each other. Ben thought it was hilarious and kinda cute. Siblings, he thought, were the only things you really had in life. Friends, spouses, even other family — it was all temporary. But not your brothers and sisters. God help you if they were assholes, like Dad’s. Ben’s sister Emily was brilliant and scatterbrained and they often went long stretches without talking because of it, but Ben knew she’d always be in his corner. And he’d be in hers. That was the way of things. He couldn’t wait to be old and poke Emily in the ribs just for the shit of it. As he looked in the rearview mirror and saw Joseph and Lizzie sniping at each other with smiles on their faces, as he caught Grandma nodding along with one that looked just the same as theirs, Ben thought, yeah, could do worse.
He pulled out from Grandma’s street and pointed the car toward DC.
“So…” he said, loud so Aunt Lizzie could hear. “Grandma?”
“Hmm?” Grandma was staring out her window, and she turned a little toward him. She had blue eyes that had gone cloudy with cataracts a long time ago, but Ben remembered being young and in awe of their beauty. He remembered being jealous, because he had eyes the color of dirt, eyes the color no one ever said nice things about.
“How do you know Captain America again?” he asked.
She’d never told him, when he came to her house and they’d made these plans. She’d gotten caught up calling her brother and sister and then having Ben book their flights. She’d just been so happy someone was listening to her, and Ben had been too angry at his dad to press for details. But now, they had a long drive and nothing to do but talk. But she sighed and turned back to the window.
“We always known Steve,” Lizzie answered. “He was — he was always around. And our brother was always around his place, making a nuisance of himself. But Mrs. Rogers was real nice and let him.”
Ben flicked his eyes up to look at Joseph in the rearview. He was scowling out the window and didn’t seem inclined to offer any addenda to the conversation.
“Uncle Joseph? I thought Captain America was older than him.” At least, that’s what the news sites said. Steve Rogers was born in 1918, which would make him ninety-seven come July. If he didn’t look about seventy years younger.
Beside Ben in the passenger’s seat, Grandma sighed, and in the mirror, he caught Lizzie sending Joseph a glance.
“Not me,” Uncle Joseph said, voice gravelly. “We had another brother, died in the war.”
Ben’s heart did something squeezy and floppy and he had to grip the steering wheel tighter.
“Oh,” he said. “Jesus Christ. I’m sorry.”
“He was older’n me,” Grandma said. “You’re the oldest, so you don’t know what being the littler ones is like. You don’t know how it feels like everything your big brother does is amazing, and how it seems like the sun shines out of his ass. But — that was Bucky. Steve thought so too.”
Ben could see Uncle Joseph’s jaws work, grinding his teeth.
“We was robbed,” he said.
“What?” Lizzie said.
“I said, we was robbed!” Uncle Joseph shouted. Aunt Lizzie nodded, and Grandma too.
“What do you mean?” Ben said.
“Our pop,” Uncle Joseph snarled. “He was a grade A asshole. You kids these days are so lucky. All your fathers take bum-wiping classes and give you hugs and tell you what special little shits you take. Everyone gets a trophy.”
“Joey,” Grandma said sternly.
“Our pop, Benji,” Joseph said with exaggerated gentility, “kicked Bucky out of the house when he was nineteen and told the rest of us we weren’t allowed to see him or talk to him or nothin’, on account of him being a pervert. And Buck took Steve and moved plenty far away anyway, and that was the last we saw him until the Captain America film reels came to town.”
“Jesus Christ, you’re talking about Bucky Barnes,” Ben said. “You’re talking about Captain America’s right hand man, and he was your brother? How did I not know this?” Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes from all the comics and all the cheesy action flicks was his great-uncle and no one had ever told him? Barnes was such a common name, he’d never thought to investigate the connection.
“He was so handsome in his uniform, do you remember?” Aunt Lizzie said. Grandma kept staring out the window. Aunt Lizzie leaned in between the two front seats and whispered at Ben the kind of whisper where everyone can hear damn well. “Don’t mind her. She was… Bucky’s special favorite. They was two peas in a pod, once upon a time. She doesn’t like to talk about it.”
“So you never talked to him again? After he was nineteen?” He must have been barely twenty-seven when he died. Ben couldn’t imagine eight years without talking to Emily. They texted at least every couple weeks.
Aunt Lizzie sat back in her seat. “Missing in action, 1945,” she said. “We got a letter, and Daddy burned it.”
“The man was a fucking disgrace,” Joseph said. “His own son. Jesus. His own goddamned son.” Joseph’s voice went humid, and he sniffed loudly. Ben remembered abruptly that two of Joseph’s sons went down in Vietnam. His stomach clenched.
“Why did he hate Bucky so much?” Ben asked. “You said he was — what did he do?”
“He loved Steve,” Grandma said suddenly. “Steve’s ma died when he was barely an adult, and Steve came to stay with us. Him and Bucky, they were, you know.”
“A pair of homos,” Uncle Joseph said. “But we ain’t never had nothin’ against ’em, right girls?”
“They never hurt nobody,” Aunt Lizzie said. “Bucky wasn’t a pervert like Daddy said, and there wasn’t nothin’ wrong with him or Steve. They only had eyes for each other, anyway.”
“Bucky was always takin’ out girls, keepin’ up appearances,” Grandma said. “But it was a different time. It’s — it’s nice you probably can’t understand it, Benji. How sick people thought it was. How vile.”
“They used to try to cure people,” Aunt Lizzie said. “Electroshock and chemical castration.” She shook herself and made a sound of disgust.
“I can’t even imagine,” Ben said.
“I said, I can’t even imagine!”
“You shouldn’t have to,” Joseph said. “You a homo, son?”
“Um, Uncle Joseph, I think they just say gay these days, but no, I’m not.”
“If you’re a homo, I don’t care,” Joseph said.
“Thanks, Uncle Joseph.”
“I voted for the gay marriage.”
“He married that nice Asian girl a few years ago, don’t you remember?” Aunt Lizzie said. “What’s her name, Benji?
“Olivia,” Ben said. He breathed out slowly and forced himself not to tighten his grip on the steering wheel. He could feel Grandma’s eyes on him, like she saw right through him.
“Doesn’t mean he’s not a homo,” Joseph said.
Ben sighed and raised his voice. “So your dad kicked Bucky out for being with Steve? And you never saw him again?”
“I saw him once,” Grandma said.
“What?” Uncle Joseph said. He pressed his face into the space between the front seats, and his hand dug heavily into Ben’s shoulder and yanked his hair. Ben just gritted his teeth.
“It was by accident,” Grandma said. “Maybe 1940. He was dancing with some girl, laughing. Steve was there, being a wallflower, watching like he could eat Buck with his eyes. I couldn’t — I couldn’t bear to say hello. Him and Steve, they made their own family, better than ours. They had more love to give each other than Ma and Pop could muster, and I’d lost my right to step in on that.”
“Grandma,” Ben said. “I’m sure he would have liked to talk to you again. I’m sure he would have.”
Grandma turned to him, her eyes bright, a smile brilliant and tremulous transforming her face.
“Yes,” she said. “I think he would have. I think about it every day, Benji. Every day.”
Ben’s eyes stung.
“So do you see?” Grandma said. “Why we have to go see Steve now that he’s here? We’re not gonna be around much longer. We have to make it right.”
“What your dad did wasn’t your fault, Grandma.”
“We could have tried harder,” Uncle Joseph said gruffly. “We could have found him and told him we thought Pop was a fool and a prick. We could have done better. He died thinking we all hated him.”
“You was just a kid, Joey,” Aunt Lizzie said.
“Didn’t mean I didn’t know what was right.”
“Well, we’re gonna go make it right, Uncle Joseph.”
Uncle Joseph sat back in his seat and let Ben’s shoulder go.
“You’re a good boy, Benji,” he said, and Ben pressed on the accelerator.
“Come on, you guys,” he said. “We’ve come this far.” We’ve stopped 800 times to pee, he restrained himself from pointing out. “We can do this.”
“I’m doing it,” Aunt Lizzie said. “I’m gonna do it.”
“I’ll help you out, Grandma. Hold my arm.”
Grandma took his arm and they walked slowly up the path to the stoop, where Aunt Lizzie was poised to knock, but appeared to be psyching herself up for it. Ben looked behind him and found Uncle Joseph out of the car but muttering and shaking his head, having a fight with himself.
“Come on, Uncle Joseph!” Ben called. “You’ve got a mission to complete!”
Uncle Joseph looked up, the determined line of his jaw suddenly strong through his wrinkled jowls. He squared himself up and joined them. Aunt Lizzie knocked, but she stood aside immediately and pushed Grandma up to the front.
“Lizzie,” Grandma hissed. “Stop this. I can’t — Look at me.”
“You’re beautiful, Beck.”
The door swung open to reveal a guy with a goatee peering at them with a look on his face, the kind that said he was going to be real polite when he said no to whatever they were asking for. He raised his eyebrows.
“Can I help you folks?” he said. His eyes roved over Ben’s family to land decidedly on Ben, and he raised his brows like why did you bring me this many old white folks?
“I’m sorry, does Steve Rogers live here?” Grandma said. The guy grew wary and shifted his weight, arms coming up to cross over his chest.
“I’m Rebecca Flaherty,” Grandma said. “Used to be Rebecca Barnes. This is my sister Elizabeth Barnes Erwin, and my brother Joseph Barnes, and my grandson Benji Flaherty. Benjamin. We used to know Steve, and we’d like to see him again, if… if we’ve got the right house. Please.”
“Rebecca Barnes,” the guy said, voice flat. Grandma nodded.
“Look here, son—” Joseph began, but Ben’s hand shot out and he gripped him a shade too hard on the arm before he could say anything awful to this guy whose hospitality they were obviously trampling.
“It would mean a lot to my grandma, sir,” Ben said to cover Joseph’s yelp. But the guy’s face was suddenly open, colored with surprise.
“Y’all are Barneses?”
“Yeah,” Ben said. The guy searched Grandma’s face, but he let the door swing wide and he stepped aside.
“Come in and make yourselves at home,” he said. “I’ll get him.”
“Thank you,” Grandma whispered, and the guy paused. He took Grandma’s hand and shook it.
“My name’s Sam Wilson,” he said. “It’s so nice to meet you. Do you want water, or I’ve got some lemonade…”
“Just Steve, I think,” Aunt Lizzie said with a wink. Sam Wilson laughed, waggled his eyebrows at her, and said, “Coming right up, ma’am.” He bounded up some stairs, and Grandma freed herself from Ben’s arm to take a seat on the couch. Lizzie sat next to her, and Joseph next to Lizzie, so Ben took one of the recliners.
“I’m nervous,” Grandma said. “My heart’s beating so fast.”
“Are you okay, Grandma?” Ben asked. She smiled at him.
“Sure am, Benji,” she said.
“Do you think he’ll remember me?” Uncle Joseph said suddenly.
“How could he forget you, you little bonehead?” Aunt Lizzie said. “You stole his marbles one by one ’til he finally gave you the rest of his collection for your 10th birthday.”
“Oh, Lord.” Uncle Joseph groaned, slapping a hand over his face. A laugh bubbled from Ben as he tried to picture it. Uncle Joseph, a little kid in the 30s, stealing toys from the man who would become Captain America.
And then they all three looked up at once, and Steve Rogers was there, big as a barge, filling up the space of the room and looking at them with wonder on his face.
Grandma stood up and reached her hands out, and Steve Rogers rushed forward to take them in his.
“Becca,” he said, breathless. “My God. Oh my God.”
It was really happening. Ben was watching Captain America fold his tiny grandma into his arms. She and her siblings weren’t delusional, they weren’t lying — they knew Steve Rogers, had always known him, had grown up with him as a part of their family. Until it fell apart. Ben blinked and suddenly Joseph and Lizzie had joined in, and Steve’s big arms were around all three of them. Ben blinked and blinked to stop his eyes from heating. He thought he saw something move in his peripheral vision, but when he blinked again it was gone.
Eventually they disentangled themselves and Steve had turned toward Ben with his hand outstretched. Ben took it and shook in a daze, Steve’s Captain America blue eyes boring into his.
“It’s so good to meet you, Benji,” Steve said. “I am so glad. So glad.”
“It’s an honor,” Ben blurted. “I — it’s — hi.”
Steve smiled at him and pulled him into the circle he had made with the rest of Ben’s family.
“We wanted to tell you how sorry we were, Steve,” Grandma said, suddenly grave. “We didn’t agree with the old man, and we were sorry every day.”
“It was a goddamn travesty,” Uncle Joseph said.
“We missed you,” Aunt Lizzie said.
“We missed you, too,” Steve said, voice thick. “We should have kept in touch.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Grandma said. “Oh, Steve, look at you.” Then she ran her hands over his shoulders.
“Grandma!” Ben said, but Steve only laughed.
“Yeah, they did a real number on me,” he said. “Can’t complain too much, I guess.”
“It’s a miracle,” Aunt Lizzie said. “I’m looking up at you.
“We’re all so lucky to be here,” Grandma said. “We’re all so lucky we get this chance.”
“I’ve got something to tell you,” Steve said. He took Grandma’s hands again, and Grandma tilted her head up to look into his face, rheumy eyes bright. “A lot happened, and it’s complicated, but… I’ve got Bucky with me. He didn’t die in the war, Beck. He’s alive.”
Ben’s heart rate doubled. Aunt Lizzie sank into the couch. Uncle Joseph stood up straighter, eyes pinned on Steve, whose own eyes never wavered from Grandma’s face. Grandma’s mouth parted and her knees buckled, and Steve helped her back onto the couch. He sat beside her, his big body wedged between hers and the armrest, and he held fast to her hand.
“I don’t — I don’t understand,” she said, her voice shaking.
“The universe is handing out a lot of chances lately, Beck,” Steve said, and he looked over toward the stairs. Grandma, Lizzie, and Joseph followed his gaze, and then, like a cautious animal, another young man descended the stairs. He had no left arm, but his body was lashed with lean muscle and clearly powerful. His dark hair was long, pulled back into a ponytail, but hanks of it had escaped to frame his face. He looked like a starving man presented with a feast, and Ben’s heart stopped. His eyes were blue — sea-blue. Grandma-blue.
Grandma made a terrible broken sound Ben never wanted to hear again, and then she was up and rushing towards her eldest brother as fast as her legs would allow. With a single stride he met her, wrapped his arm around her, lifted her into the air like she was nothing, and spun. Ben glanced at the couch, where Aunt Lizzie was crying, hand pressed over her mouth, Uncle Joseph was blinking suspiciously, and Steve was grinning through the wetness on his lashes.
Bucky had lost himself in Grandma’s mountains of old photo albums. He wanted a story for every picture, and Grandma obliged him, giggling like a girl through most every one. They had seated themselves on the floor, Bucky nestled almost carelessly into Steve’s chest, Steve’s thighs bracketing his. Ben was finding it difficult to believe these two hale, handsome men were older than his grandma. That they had been in love for almost as long as they’d been alive, which was almost three times Ben’s entire lifetime. Once in a while, Steve would look at Bucky fondly as Bucky pored over the photos, a little furrow of concentration between his brows, and Steve would run a hand over Bucky’s hair.
Ben liked that. He liked that love could last forever. He liked that love could be a well that never went dry.
“So when are you gonna make an honest man of my brother, Steve?” Grandma asked. Emily snorted from her place on the far couch, but Steve only smiled. Bucky raised his head and turned it a little to look at Steve, and Steve looked down at him like he won the lottery.
“Oh, any day now,” Steve said. “I’m wearing him down, I can tell.”
“James Buchanan Barnes!” Grandma said. “Are you telling me you refused Steve?”
“Who are you, Beck, Jane Austen?”
“I can’t believe you didn’t run him to the courthouse as soon as you were reunited!”
Bucky settled back into Steve’s chest and leveled a smirk at his sister. Ben felt a moment’s wild vertigo — he’d seen that smirk a thousand times. Patented Barnes.
“He ain’t goin’ nowhere,” he said. “And neither am I. There’s no rush.”
“The rush is I wanna see the two of you get hitched before I croak!”
“I’m not kidding, Buck. I feel a twinge — oh, the light, it’s so bright and beautiful…”
Steve started to cackle.
“All right!” Bucky said, and he flicked Grandma on the knee. “Next month, right here in Dennis’s living room.”
“What?” Dad called from the other room.
“Steve and Bucky are getting married here at Christmas!” Ben yelled back.
“Okay,” Dad said, and suddenly Ben regretted going through thousands of dollars and a year and a half of planning and tears for his own wedding. It could have been as simple as that.
Maybe next time, he’d find someone who looked at him like Bucky looked at Steve. Next time, he’d find someone he’d cross time for, too.