The story of Bucky Barnes of Bond Street, Brooklyn, was very human, very normal. Therefore, for much of his life, very uninteresting.
Dotty Barnes was interesting. She had been born via caesarian section, after a difficult pregnancy, in which the doctors had supposed she was a kind of malignant infectious tumor, but no. No tumor. Just Dotty. Bobby Barnes was also interesting. At age three he’d been locked for two hours in an ice shed on Nevins Street and when he’d come out his skin had held a touch of blue like the metal in an old factory. But no. Not metal. Just Bobby.
Becky Barnes was more interesting even than that. She had been lost in the very dead of winter, when she was five, in Prospect Park. And at around the same time they had found near the center of the park a frozen child corresponding to her height and weight and gender, and the coroners had pronounced the case Murder By Poison instead of Murder By Freezing, causing a great hullabaloo. But then Becky appeared on the stoop of the Barnes home that same day, having calmly walked herself home. No Murder By Poison. Just Becky.
Bucky was older than all of them. But he’d done nothing interesting at birth, being born in the usual way and pronounced very healthy. He’d done nothing interesting at one, though he had been nominated for a Fittest Baby contest and had come close to the crown, only to be disqualified on grounds of being a month too old. The woman handing out the prizes had held him close and sobbed as she passed him to his mother. He was a beautiful child who ought to have won, she said. But he did not win. Then, at four, he was almost run over by a livery cab. This would have been interesting, though tragic, if it had come to pass. But a nearby grocer had rescued him, thus dashing his hopes of being interesting at four.
So by seven or eight the only interesting thing about Bucky was that he was the secret sworn enemy of the dud newsie.
To look at him, no one could have guessed this. Bucky seemed to have no enemies, and had in fact obtained the prized local status of being ‘On the Level.’ This was the greatest achievement any boy of seven or eight could obtain. Whatever or wherever the level was, Bucky was on it. If the Whelans, tow-haired boys who sold newspapers down by Borough Hall and who didn’t tolerate the lesser children in the neighborhood, were asked about Bucky Barnes, they would reply without hesitation that Bucky was on the level, yes, yes he was. And Billy Shanahan, who had the newspaper beat down by Ebbets Field, could confirm this. Bucky Barnes was not balled up, no how; you wouldn’t have a hard time with Barnes. Barnes sold no baloney, and he wasn’t upstage, and if he saw you sneaking into a movie picture without paying? Barnes wouldn’t ever flag down the attendant, Barnes wasn’t the type. Barnes didn’t doublecross; you could count on Barnes to be legitimate.
Bucky was even in the good graces of Frankie Witts, a dapper boy of ten who had the paper beat for Atlantic Avenue and sold to the Barneses. Frankie taken a liking to Bucky right away. Bucky would head out every morning with a penny for the Tribune, and Frankie would say, confidentially, “You I let have it for a penny, but when Myrtle Ravello comes by, she’s gotta show me her gams or her ma’s not getting the news.”
And Bucky would say, “Alright, Frankie, that’s business,” because it was, and furthermore it was no business of his.
And Frankie Witts would laugh and clap him on the shoulder and say, “You’re on the level, Barnes.”
Everybody liked Bucky. Bucky gave no one any trouble. This was why he was permitted to go with his mother to Abraham & Straus, the department store, where she bought necessary household goods on every single Monday, Barnes family shopping day. She would dress Bucky up in a red suit. This was to show the people at Abraham & Straus that however little money they had that week, they were not poor, no no. This was her way of being on the level.
They would enter through the Livingston Street entrance. His mother would have some vague goal in mind – a washboard, maybe; or else a phonograph. Soon Bucky would become bored. He would ask to wait for her on the Fulton Street side of the store. The Fulton Street side of Abraham & Straus was any easygoing boy’s dream. It had a kind of glamorous gloom to it, as the El passed over Fulton Street and plunged the area into a great neon-lit endless night. And the windows of Abraham & Straus contributed to the glamour. They had beautiful metal women in cloche hats and furs, and metal men with gleaming tie pins and arrow collars, and mechanical contraptions like clapping monkeys, beaming babies with swivel heads, small iron ducks with bills that opened and closed. Every piece was lit up and painted brilliant colors. Sometimes the display played music: Has Anybody Seen My Gal? or something similar. It was like seeing a picture in the theater, only better, because the more Bucky looked the easier it was to find the gears where certain parts clicked and whirred into life, to locate the hidden mechanics of the window displays. The entire experience should have been easy, comfortable, perfect.
Only this was where the dud newsie was.
“Tribune, Times, Eagle, Sun!” over and over again. The words coming out high and reedy and annoying, well into the afternoon, always a little hoarse, with the pronunciation a little softer than Bucky was used to. The Whelans hunted down individual buyers, cornered them right there on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall. Billy Shanahan chatted his up, talking of nothing, reeling them in with aimless gossip and fabricated headlines. And Frankie Witts did not seem to have to do anything at all. Frankie had a perfect American straightforwardness to him, and could simply stand on the corner, smacking a newspaper against his palm, and his customers would come to him.
But the dud newsie had none of this. He resorted to reedy, wavering shouting. He sat on the steps of the El entrance, in a bundled up overcoat, and destroyed the calm, cool gloom of Fulton Street. He was a contaminating element. Abraham & Straus’s great mechanical organ would be merrily tinkling out: Five-foot-two, eyes of blue, and then along would come the wheezing tones of the dud newsie: “Tribune, Times, Eagle, Sun!”
Bucky had, more than once, shouted across at him, “Shut up!”
But the dud newsie always resolutely ignored him, and went on sitting on the steps of the El stairs – what a lazy bum, to sit on the job – calling out his old discordant refrain.
Bucky knew his name. The dud newsie was a year below him at school, in the same class as Bucky’s neighbor, Norma Tarbell, the black-haired Mohawk girl who’d moved in next door, whose pop worked on the skyscrapers. But Bucky did not know him as well as he knew Norma. Their class schedules did not align. And Bucky preferred to call him the dud newsie anyway. Because that was what he was: a dud.
Bucky’s pop worked running repairs down at the Navy Yard. He’d taught Bucky how to spot a dud. They were too small for what they’d been designed for. Check. They wheezed and creaked instead of emitting nice clean whistles. Check. They rusted easily – yes, there were the ears too red with cold, the cheeks too flushed, like he was sick or something. The dud newsie always looked sick. He was not dapper like Frankie Witts. He had a skinny narrow face, white hands with his skin too dry from the cold, a stubborn wide mouth, and a skinny pointed jaw. His form was just a lumpy brown coat. He wore the coat in autumn, winter, and spring; and in the summer he wore a scratchy-looking grey sweater, even on the most humid days, when his hair was a dull and sweaty brown-blond plastered against his elfin face. And for months Bucky had stood across the street from him, once a week or so, and for months Bucky had shouted out, “Shut up!” And for months the dud newsie had ignored him.
Sometimes the dud newsie wasn’t there – for a stretch it had been a slanting eyed Phillipine kind of boy, who sold papers more quietly, and then back to the dud newsie, and then around Christmas it had been a tall sedate boy in a yarmulke, as though to offer a holiday reprieve. But each time the dud newsie resurfaced again. Bucky was never free of him for long. So they had to be enemies, Bucky thought. The dud newsie probably said rude things about him to other people. When people asked, “Is Bucky Barnes on the level?” that sick-looking dud newsie probably spat on the ground to show his contempt for Bucky Barnes, his rival in the red suit.
That dud newsie seemed like the type.
And so the enmity sat there inside Bucky, festering away quietly, hidden. For months.
On one very cold January morning in 1926, Bucky’s mother – a good Episcopalian soul – decided they needed to buy utensils for the poor. Certain persons were so poor they did not just not have food, she explained to Bucky. They also did not have utensils. This was horrible; because of course if they managed to obtain food, how on earth could they eat it? This was a backwards way of thinking, but it made sense to her. In 1926 the really Episcopalian Episcopalians were not very charitable. They had become very concerned over the state of the nation, the abilities accorded to American genetic stock. Many of them frowned on giving people food. It was like the Indians said, said Bucky’s mother: if you gave a man a fish, he might trade it for booze because probably he’d been born a real lowlife, but if you taught him how to eat the fish with a fork, then he might show you he was civilized and deserving of a place in the nation.
So to Abraham & Straus they went. It was later in the week than they usually went; they usually went on Mondays, and this was a Thursday. Bucky’s red suit had to be laundered; he whined about having to wear his old blue suit instead. They passed Frankie Witts on the way. Frankie had sold all his papers early. This made sense; he was a natural businessman.
“I need a new beat, Barnes,” he said. “If I had two corners, imagine how much I could make. Gotta get one of these wimps to give me theirs.”
Bucky shrugged and said, “That’s a plan,” because it was no business of his.
“You’re on the level, Barnes,” Frankie said, as Bucky’s mother led him away.
At Abraham & Straus, his mother ran into her own rival, an old Methodist enemy from a congregation down on Smith Street. This woman was openly pamphleteering, a thing his mother never deigned to do because Episcopalians found it cheap. The Methodist woman offered his mother a pamphlet. It discussed the glory of God in scientific terms: only the strongest and best of America, the paper said, will be selected for the task of propagating the likeness of God and carrying on his work of improving the race.
“What a beautiful son you have,” said the Methodist. “Have you considered entering one of our Fitter Family contests?”
“No thank you,” his mother snapped. “We already know how that goes.”
Feeling cheated over the existence of Methodists and also that crown that ought to have been rightfully Bucky’s all those years ago, Bucky’s mother sent Bucky out to look at the window display and settled in to spend, spend, spend. Not the fittest, no, but not poor either. On the level.
That day’s display had a glorious red painted backdrop. A plaster woman wearing furs and pearls bobbed her metal head up and down, and Bucky could see the strings, and the way a pulley system extended behind her. A little boy and girl in matching red coats ice skated; they were maneuvered by a system of levers. A merry song played. Bucky began to hum along. Tried to determine how it all worked.
“Tribune, Times, Eagle, Sun!”
Bucky rolled his eyes. Horrible. The dud newsie. Did he ever go home? Bucky ignored him and moved down to look at a men’s display, all red hunting caps and dapper suits and green silk shirts with white collars. He tried to focus on that, to examine keenly the puppet mechanisms that made men move so powerfully and imposingly.
The wheezing, high voice again. “Tribune, Times, Eagle, Sun!”
Bucky found a flashing light sign, with large red bulbs outlining sales and the like. Decided to concentrate on where the invisible wires were, the things kept secret that made it all light up.
“Tribune, Times, Eagle, S—mmmpgh!”
It took Bucky a moment to process this. The familiar, annoying, hoarse sound had changed. Bucky turned. There was the dud, on the steps of the El. And there was Frankie Witts. Frankie was holding the dud by the neck. The dud’s papers were scattered in the gutter nearby. Frankie was a big boy. Athletic. Strong. He was three times the dud’s size.
Bucky did not want to intervene. Frankie commanded a certain customer loyalty. And Bucky figured (a little queasily now that he was seeing Frankie’s business methods in action) that if Frankie wanted to take over this corner, that was just the dog eat dog world of the newsboy for you. Natural business sense. Probably fair, since Frankie was an able paper seller. Definitely more able than the dud was. And wasn’t the dud newsie an old enemy?
Frankie shoved the dud down with some force. It looked like it hurt. Bucky figured he was finished. But then up popped the dud again. Frankie punched him. He went down. And again Bucky figured he was finished. But up he came, and tried to get Frankie in the jaw.
Frankie twisted his arm around, said something menacing to him, and again shoved him down.
Alright, Bucky thought. Now he’s finished.
But he struggled back up again, his eye swelling, his lip busted. And in fact Frankie leveled him six or seven times after that, and every time the dud came up again, still fighting, and every time he did that Bucky felt a little more queasy. Should he go help? By all rights, he should go help Frankie; Frankie was not his secret enemy. But he did not want to help Frankie. It occurred to him, now, that Frankie was perhaps not on the level. Bucky had seen worse violence – he lived minutes away from where the gangs of Carroll Street fought the gangs of Wyckoff, and he’d been down to the Navy Yard with his pop and seen the soldiers bare-knuckle boxing. But something about this treatment seemed excessive. Bucky was easygoing, he was genial, he sold no baloney. He would never tell on a boy if the boy wanted to sneak into a theater to see a picture. He would never harangue a boy if that boy tried to corner people to sell them papers.
And now it occurred to him that, being so on the level, he couldn’t let the dud newsie suffer in this way. It wouldn’t have been right.
“I said give me your spot or your money, Rogers,” Frankie was saying. “C’mon, everybody knows you’re a wimp, letting the Whelans chase you down here. You shouldn’t even be selling papers.”
Bucky pulled Frankie’s shoulder back and shoved him down.
“Leave him alone,” he said.
Frankie squinted at him.
“Get lost, Barnes,” Frankie said dismissively.
“No,” Bucky said, surprised he was even saying it. And then, because it was the only thing that occurred to him, “We’re not buying papers from you anymore.”
Frankie took a swing at him. But Bucky had seen stronger hits blocked at the Navy Yard, and so he brought up his forearms, then kicked at Frankie’s side and left him reeling, unbalanced. Then he let Frankie have it. And he was been surprised to find dapper Frankie, ‘til then the king of the neighborhood boys, staggering back. Bucky’s own hand was suddenly coated in blood.
“We’re not buying papers from you anymore,” he blurted out again. “Get lost.”
Frankie opened his mouth to argue. Bucky hit him again. He felt the momentary stinging hardness of Frankie’s cheekbone, followed through anyway, and had him lying there on the pavement in half a second. Frankie stood up, and Bucky made to hit him again, just a jerking motion, a little fascinated by the power of it, and in response Frankie swore at him and got lost. Behind Bucky, the dud newsie began to cough. A woman trying to reach the El station eyed them both with distaste, then stepped on the newsie’s cap on her way up. Bucky leaned down, picked it up, dusted it off, and offered it to its owner.
This was, he figured, one surefire way to get the dud newsie – Steve Rogers, because that was his name – to stop spitting at the name of Bucky Barnes.
Up close, Steve was a mess. He was even smaller. This was not supposed to happen according to the laws of perspective, Bucky knew. Bucky had learned at school that far-away things were supposed to look smaller. But from far away Steve had always seemed like a very large annoyance, and now that Bucky was standing in front of him he could see that he was just a little boy. And he was all busted up. His nose was bleeding, and so was his mouth. He lifted a skinny hand up to the back of his head and was feeling along there. Whatever he touched made him wince.
“You alright?” Bucky said. “You hurt?”
“Sure,” Steve said, shrugging. And then he did something very unusual. He began to unbutton his large brown overcoat. Underneath he was in his scratchy summer sweater. He unbuttoned that, too. Under that he had a bunch of papers strapped too him – it looked downright peculiar, the oddest sight Bucky ever saw: a red-cheeked, shivering paperboy, too small for his own coat, with his papers a kind of insulation.
“Tried to sell down by Borough Hall,” he confided in Bucky. “Until these boys came around and wanted my spot. They used to take my papers, throw ‘em in the mud, so I couldn’t make a profit for the day. Figured I’d tie ‘em to myself, save a few, in case it happened again. Good idea, right?”
Steve patted himself down. He said, squinting up at Bucky even though one of his eyes was black and blue: “You hear about Dazzy Vance?”
“Yes,” Bucky said automatically. Dazzy Vance was the star pitcher for the Robins, the Brooklyn team known disparagingly as the ‘Dodgers’ in all the papers. Vance was shaping up to be the greatest pitcher in the world. To not hear about Dazzy Vance – that was humiliating. Downright shameful. Bucky made sure to hear approximately eleven new things about Dazzy Vance every day, and it was entirely possible that he had heard about Dazzy Vance now, too. And anyway he would never have been able to admit it if he hadn’t heard about Dazzy Vance.
Steve found the Sun. He held it out to Bucky. There was a picture of Dazzy Vance on it. Bucky had not, in fact, heard what the Sun had to say about Vance, so he took the paper, and while Steve unwound some new papers and struggled back into his sweater, coat, and hat, Bucky dug around in his pockets for a penny. But when he held the penny out Steve waved it away. Then Steve looked somewhat dejectedly at the papers in the gutter, sat back down on the step, and spread the new stack of papers on his bony knees.
He seemed to be thinking very hard about something.
“You don’t want me to pay you?” Bucky hazarded.
“No,” said Steve. He continued to stare at his knees. Thinking. Evidently he and Bucky were not square, not even after Bucky had saved his life.
“Well, you’re welcome,” Bucky muttered, after a minute.
“I gave you a paper,” Steve clarified.
“You can’t give somebody a paper instead of thanking them!” Bucky said.
“Sure I can,” said Steve. “Just did. Can take care of my own problems anyway. But thanks, if it means that much to you.”
Bucky stared at him. Steve said nothing else. He seemed unforgivably rude. Like the bent types and bootleggers and Catholics his mother always complained about. What if he was one of those? Or all three? What if Bucky had established a long-time enmity with a true sinner? Bucky sat down next to him on the stair.
“Well. I guess you know me by now. Year above you. Miss Dunlop’s class. James Buchanan Barnes,” he said. But then no answer was forthcoming, and that was alright, his name was very long and nobody called him that anyway. Steve almost certainly knew his old enemy by his nickname; everybody else did. So he amended it to, “It’s me. Bucky. Bucky Barnes. From school. And from—“ He raised an arm to point across the street. To remind Steve of their old enmity. But Steve cut him off.
“I’m Steve,” he said absentmindedly. Then nothing else. Not even his old refrain: Tribune, Times, Eagle, Sun. He just sat there staring hard at the papers on his knees, thinking.
“You gonna sell these?” Bucky said, after a minute.
“Thinkin’ about what Witts said. ‘Cause I had the Borough Hall spot. But then I let them chase me away.”
Steve scrunched up his face, as though annoyed with himself. There was a lot of personality in that comical, narrow little face – the bushy brows, the full lips, the wide pale eyes. Steve the newsie looked like something out the funnies himself.
“You’re just not a very good newspaperboy,” Bucky told him. “Your voice is horrible. And you sit on this stoop here like a lazy bum.”
Steve the dud newsie lifted his feet up In front of him, made little jerky rotations in the air.
“Flat feet,” he confided in Bucky. “Hurts to stand for too long. And there’s other stuff I have, where it helps to sit.” But then he sighed and added, “Yeah. You’re right.”
He did not elaborate, so Bucky told him that he knew he was right. Steve was a pollution on Fulton Street, and he couldn’t sell papers right, and in fact Bucky had longed to tell him how horrible he was for some time.
Steve nodded, said nothing, continued thinking at his knees. He was evidently not a big talker.
“Well?” Bucky said.
Steve just nodded again. So Bucky continued prodding at him, because some prodding was long overdue for all the grief Steve had given him, and in fits and starts he learned all about his old rival.
Every good day – Bucky did not know what Steve meant by this yet – twice a day, Steve the dud newsie would head to the offices near the bridge to buy his morning or afternoon editions, bundled up, lagging behind the other boys, his knees hurting with the strain of it. He was always tired. But tired or no, before and after school he was engaged in the business of selling papers. Steve agreed with Bucky that he wasn’t very good at selling papers. He couldn’t heft up many papers at a time; he just wasn’t strong enough. So his little trick of tying them to himself, and only holding a few; that came in handy. But it slowed things down considerably.
He also agreed that his voice was horrible. Higher than people usually liked to hear because of course sometimes he couldn’t gauge it (Bucky couldn’t understand this either), and he was without a doubt pushy, but since he’d been thrown off his original Borough Hall beat by the Whelans, he’d had come here by the El, and here the people were often in such a hurry that they bowled him over. But then some apologized and bought papers out of pity, so that was alright. Both Mr. MacGuire from the Tribune and Mr. Jergens from the Eagle said that Steve had the pity market cornered, and Steve felt that was probably true.
The El was not the safest spot in Brooklyn. Prowlers came by. Steve couldn’t run very fast; in fact, some days his chest burned so much and his breathing was so irregular that he had to sit there on the steps. At least until one of the station attendants shooed him away. So more than once he’d been cornered by a boy from the school on DeKalb, or a gang winding its way over from Carroll, and had his earnings taken by force. Steve wasn’t good at selling, and he wasn’t good at keeping what he made. This made paper-selling difficult work for him.
Not to mention the boy who came Mondays, he told Bucky. A boy in a brown suit, who came by expressly to heckle him. But that was alright; that wasn’t as bad as having his money taken.
“In a brown suit?” Bucky said.
“Sure,” said Steve, and he gestured at the red backdrop in the window of Abraham & Straus. “Like that.”
Steve the dud newsie was colorblind.
Bucky tested him with the other things in the window. He learned that Steve was not just colorblind, he was also a little regular blind. Bucky had been heckling a beat-up little blind kid. Bucky felt a pinprick of shame.
“Uh,” Bucky said. “The brown suit kid. You know his name? You ever complain about him around town?”
“Nah,” said Steve. “I tried asking around for a boy in brown, see if I could settle it with him. But nobody knew who I was talking about.”
He exhaled hard, the sound very worrisome, rattling out of his skinny little chest. At Bucky’s urging, he seemed to have poured out all his troubles and ended up empty inside because of it: his funny little face looked blank, his wide eyes stared at something far in the distance. He had revealed himself so easily to Bucky, been honest and on the level about it. And all the while without knowing that he was spilling his secrets to an old, old enemy. So the pinprick of shame became a poison needle. And after a second Bucky said, a little lamely, “Well, I guess you’re not so bad at selling papers.”
Steve shook his head. He looked miserable, the poor kid. He said, “I’m a wimp. I let them chase me down here, now it’s caused me more problems. I should’ve known and just taken my beating; maybe eventually I could’ve worn ‘em down, kept Borough Hall.”
“Nah,” Bucky said, trying to be reassuring. “Nah. What could you do? Those Whelans give everybody trouble, not just you. It’s got nothing to do with you.”
“Really?” Steve said, looking up at him. Bucky wondered how old he was. He couldn’t be more than two years younger than Bucky, if he was in Miss Thurgood’s class. But he was so little. But he seemed smart enough to be older than he looked. Was he six? Seven? Bucky’s sister Becky was a smart six, and about the same size as Steve, but Steve seemed older. Or maybe just poorer. It was hard to tell.
“Sure,” Bucky told him. “The Whelans give me trouble all the time. Real troublemakers. They, uh, made fun of my suit once.”
Steve stared, shocked, at Bucky’s ugly old blue suit. “But you look real nice!”
“Oh, sure,” Bucky said. “But they’re just bullies. And one time they pulled my sister’s braids.”
Steve looked appropriately horrified.
“And one time,” Bucky said, warming up, “They kicked me, and took my baseball cards, even my Dazzy Vance card, and they beat me up really bad – I was gonna win this Fittest Boy contest, and then I couldn’t, because of the Whelans – so see it’s not just you. It could happen to anybody. You’re not a wimp. You should’ve seen the way they beat me up. My ma cried for six weeks.”
This was a complete fabrication. Bucky had never been hit a day in his life, and it was a little humiliating to say he had been. But he felt he owed it to Steve. Here he’d been all these months secretly hating Steve, heckling him. And Steve was just some sick little boy who couldn’t see right and had even tried to track Bucky down to settle the matter, like a real man. Sick-looking, flat-footed little Steve the dud. It couldn’t hurt to let him pretend there was another kid just as sorry as he was.
But Steve reacted oddly to hearing this. He bit his swollen lip. He lifted up the papers on his knees and dumped them on Bucky’s. Then he said, very seriously, “Wait here,” and stood up, and darted off, disappearing into the afternoon crowd.
Bucky stared at him. What had just happened? The El passed overhead a few minutes later. Steve was still gone. Women in large coats bustled up the stairs. No Steve. Bucky took to selling papers, after about ten minutes. He discovered that he was good at it. People told him he was handsome. A Methodist handed him a pamphlet and an extra two cents. The El passed overhead again. Still no Steve.
After about twenty minutes his mother came out. She was surprised to find Bucky sitting on the steps of the El entrance, thirty-five cents richer. She said it was time to go. Bucky had no idea if this was alright, but then he figured he would save the money up and give it to Steve the next day, at school, or when he bought the afternoon edition for his parents. He would no longer be buying from Frankie Witts, after all. So the very next day he looked for Steve at school. But Norma Tarbell caught him lingering outside the classroom door and gave him the stink eye, so that was no good. He resolved to meet Steve later, and that afternoon he put on his old blue suit and passed Frankie by, looking coolly at Frankie’s bruised face and daring him to say anything, and then he ran the five or six blocks to Fulton Street where Steve was.
Steve was there. He now had two black eyes. And a bruise on his cheekbone that hadn’t been there before. And his hand was all bandaged up – when Bucky asked about it, Steve said to keep the money, because he’d earned it, and also not to worry about his hand, because his Ma was a nurse and she’d handled it. And also:
“You won’t have to worry about the Whelans any more.”
“What?” Bucky said blankly.
“The Whelans,” Steve said, very serious. “I couldn’t believe it! You’d come and helped me, and the whole time you’d been bullied by the Whelans on account of me—“
“What?” Bucky said, still very blankly.
“I let them chase me away,” Steve explained. “When they first showed up around here. But a fella can’t run away from stuff like this. He’s gotta fight, like my ma always says. Or else the bullies just keep coming, and they’re gonna get worse, thinking they can pick on other people, and she was right, because they picked on you—”
“What,” Bucky said.
“I’m real sorry,” Steve said. “Knew I had to make it up to you and your sister and your ma, soon as you told me.”
Bucky stared at him. Steve stared hopefully back. Bucky said, “You fought the Whelans.”
“You couldn’t have fought the Whelans,” Bucky said.
“Had to,” Steve said, puffing out his chest like he was proud. All three foot five or so of him was proud. His swollen eyes, his busted lip, his skinny little rattling chest, his bandaged wrist, his flat feet. Proud.
“You could’ve died,” Bucky said.
“Nearly died lots of times,” Steve said, a little carelessly. “Got fluid in my lungs on Christmas. Made Bill Shanahan real mad before that. Before that it was my heart – not pumping right, might be some problem with a valve we can’t fix, the doctors said.”
Bucky did not know what to say to this. He paid for his paper. Then, feeling horribly guilty, he paid for three more papers, so that he walked home with a Tribune, a Times, an Eagle, and a Sun. He gave the Tribune to his parents. He pawned off a paper to each of his three younger siblings, with strict instructions to get rid of it before anyone could see he’d wasted three cents. Then he sat, a little dazed, on the stoop, and tried to collect his thoughts.
Frankie Witts passed by six or seven times and made vague noises about how he was willing to forgive if he got an apology.
“Oh, go boil your head,” Bucky said carelessly.
Myrtle Ravello passed by after about an hour and told Bucky that everyone at school had heard about that poor little boy and now everybody knew Bucky was the bravest, handsomest, most interesting person in all of Brooklyn, probably.
“Great. Scram, will you?” Bucky said.
Norma Tarbell came by on her rollerskates. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t like Bucky as much as everybody else did. Bucky figured she was jealous; Norma Tarbell was never on the level and she would never be a fittest anything.
“Hey,” Bucky called out to her. “Ain’t there an Indian saying? You save a man’s life, you’re responsible for him forever?”
“Is this about how Steve Rogers got beat up over you?” Norma said.
“…No,” Bucky said.
“There’s an old Indian saying,” Norma said. “Stupid boys who don’t know what their conscience sounds like will usually decide it must be an old Indian saying.”
Norma Tarbell rollerskated away.
But she was right. It was his conscience. Bucky felt horribly responsible. He could no longer be easy, he could no longer claim to be on the level. He had spent months making Steve’s already sorry life even sorrier, and then, in trying to set it right, he’d lied and sent Steve right to the Whelans, and maybe Steve was a dud, but that still wasn’t fair.
From then on his life changed.
He refused to wear his red suits. He lingered by the door of Miss Thurgood’s class, made sure everybody could see he was easy with Steve now, talked to him. Asked about his health, like Ma did with fellow Episcopalians. He went to Fulton Street for his newspapers, and sat with Steve, and belted out the old refrain for him sometimes and whenever Steve found some reason to fight people, which Steve was always doing, being that Steve was rough and excitable and seemed to know a lot of hard luck types who were always being pushed around and needed redress for their sad hard luck problems, Bucky would say something like, “You hear about Burleigh Grimes?”
Steve would squint at Bucky. He would say, with confidence, “Nothing to hear about Burleigh Grimes.”
“Sure is,” Bucky would say, making it up as he went along. “He’s gonna give up throwing spitballs.”
“He’d never,” Steve would say, scoffing.
“And he had a fight with Dazzy Vance; you wouldn’t’ve heard about it, it was in the Daily News, you don’t carry that one. So now he’s asking to be traded to the Giants,” Bucky would say.
A high accusation. Steve would put aside whatever new bully he felt he had to take down that week. He’d ask Bucky to repeat himself, and Bucky would, asking if he was hard of hearing or something, and Steve would say yes, in this ear, and then demand to know what Bucky’s sources were. Steve would very shrilly outline the sheer impossibility of Burleigh Grimes abandoning the Robins for the Giants. Bucky would counter with as much gusto and argumentation as possible; the longer he kept this small madman occupied, the likelier it was that Billy Shanahan or Frankie or whoever it was today would go home, so Steve couldn’t fight them that day.
Bucky began to enjoy himself so much that he figured he could make a thing of this, being the new Scheherazade of Fulton Street, arguing batting averages and dugout fights and waving Steve’s papers at the passerby so they’d buy them, because, having forced Steve to talk baseball, he always completely derailed him from his work. Bucky figured he owed him for that.
Bucky was no longer interesting. He no longer hated Steve, so he had nothing to make him interesting anymore. He'd lost that secret childish enmity, the one remarkable footnote in his otherwise normal life. But he had to wonder if he'd gained something, too, something better than what he'd had before. He just didn't know what it was. It couldn't be Steve. Steve was about good and bad in equal measure.
Steve – he discovered – was commonly believed to be the best artist in Miss Thurgood’s class. Steve brought not toys but bandages to show and tell and explained their uses and allowed kids even younger than him to use them during recess and play at being Florence Nightingale. Steve always shared. And Steve always wanted to pay back his debts; he wouldn’t ever let Bucky give him money he hadn’t earned. Even though Bucky said he had just been helping him. But Steve seemed to think helping ran in the opposite direction. He believed in helping everybody; he was a Catholic, he told Bucky proudly – proudly! – and he knew basement missionaries and hymn-singing evangelists and relief types all over Brooklyn who wouldn’t help a soul if that soul didn’t look right to them, but the nuns and the Monsignors, they weren’t like that, and neither was Steve’s ma, and neither was Steve.
And throughout all this Steve remained funny, fantastically interesting. There was a small cool building near the river, and Steve taught Bucky how to sneak in, and once they were there he explained that it was for the lowest workers of the Navy Yard when they died in an accident, the men Bucky’s pop didn’t talk about. This cold man here, Steve said, was from Portugal. He had always been so mean that Steve’s ma had said she didn’t know how anybody could stand him. And this cold man here, he was from Chile, and he’d always walked around so good that Steve’s ma didn’t know how anybody could stand him.
But occasionally terrible things followed on Steve’s flat-footed heels. A year-long feud with the Whelans, who Steve hadn’t really fought so much as angered. Fantastic arguments with the man at the Ebbets Field fan clubhouse when Burleigh Grimes really did go to the Giants. The sudden and alarming acquaintance of all kinds of rough bent Navy Yard Catholic types who liked Steve and now Bucky by association. And a brand new reputation as the toughest boy on any paper beat, the one who could throw the best punch – even though Bucky did not, in fact, sell any papers. Bucky swore Norma and Myrtle and the local children to secrecy about it. He was living a double life with Steve. His parents still believed he was easygoing and normal. They had no idea he was, thanks to Steve, rapidly becoming the king of the neighborhood children. He found himself saluted by the boy with the yarmulke, who was named Arnie. Helped out of a tough spot with Frankie by the Philippine boy, Eddie, a neighbor of Steve’s. No longer completely derided by Norma. A special pet of Myrtle’s. Mostly because of Steve.
Everybody knew Steve. It stood to reason. Steve tended to draw attention to himself. He was always getting in fights at school. Bucky would be sitting in history class and would hear shouts and shrieks coming from the yard, and, sure as anything, it would be Steve. Steve loved to fight. This was why he’d withstood the blows of Frankie Witts, Bucky figured. Steve might be flat-footed, and sorry, and not very strong. But a good fight just charged him up. It didn’t keep him down.
But then one day Steve wasn’t there. The stairs by the entrance to the El were empty. Nearby, a tall black boy was selling papers. He was doing it wrong. His voice was too steady, too clear. He said the old refrain all out order, too. He said, “Eagle, Sun, Tribune, Times!”
His name was Joe Smith. He was taking over for Steve for a bit. Steve did this all the time, Joe said. When he wasn’t feeling well, he’d find a boy to go in his place, usually a boy who wouldn’t normally be picked to sell papers. Steve had done this with Tommy Espinosa, and Eddie Vedano, and Arnie Roth, and now Joe; that was how all these boys had made inroads into the paper business. MacGuire at the Tribune and Draper down at the Sun and Frawley down at the Times -- they didn’t like any of their kind much. But if one of the normal boys was out of commission, they had to take someone. And so they – Steve, and all these other friends, the boys who hadn’t made the cut – they all liked to play a little joke on those men, to show them up.
“Yeah, that’s real funny,” Bucky said tensely. “But where is he?”
“He’s with his ma,” Joe said, blinking. “He’s under observation again.”
Under Observation. That was a thing that happened to bums that passed out in dockside saloons. Steve had taken him Bucky to one of these places after he’d sold all his papers once, to eat his dinner so his ma wouldn’t think she had to cook, he’d told Bucky. The place had smelled of cheap beer and disinfectant and boiled cabbage. The girl behind the counter had known Steve. She’d given him celery tonic and a watery beef broth for a penny. Steve had discovered that one of the men near the back wasn’t moving. The man was prodded awake and began to rave about the end of days. So the counter girl had called in to the charity hospital, and Steve had said sagely that now the man was Under Observation, which had sounded terrible.
It was. Steve was in a children’s ward. He had a kind nurse in a starched white uniform next to him. She spoke with an accent. Her name was Nurse Lillya. Under the watchful eye of Nurse Lillya, Steve was not the strident, excitable boy Bucky knew. He was a different person entirely. He sat in his metal bed and let the nurse maneuver him as she pleased. When she poked and prodded at the irregular shape of his spine, a row of pale knobs that fascinated Bucky, Steve bore it patiently. He still couldn’t see right – this he acknowledged and without complaint he let Nurse Lillya cart away his books and paints when she decided he was doing damage to his eyes. He couldn’t hear right, so he endured the occasional shout, Nurse Lillya and the doctors speaking to him as though he were stupid. When Nurse Lillya made him drink liver juice for his anemia, he took it all, and thanked her for it; when his chest and his stomach hurt him, he let her take blood and stuff him full of medicines and strap him into metal boxes to see his insides, so that the rest of him started to hurt, too.
Bucky had not been the only one living a double life. Troublesome while on the street with Steve, and good at home. Steve had done much the same. He was a fight-starter in school and on Fulton Street, a shrill, alive little tough. But in the hospital he was droopy and easy and good and quiet. Everything seemed to hurt him. He would see his ma only later, when she got off her shift, he told Bucky. He was tired.
Nurse Lillya soon shooed Bucky away, but told him he could come back tomorrow. Bucky wandered home, feeling as uneasy as he had when Frankie Witts had first targeted Steve, and when he got home he found his parents waiting for him, expecting the paper, which he had completely forgotten to buy, as Steve had not been the one selling it. Bucky didn’t know what to say to them. And he didn’t feel particularly sad. But still, when he touched his face it was wet.
It was like he’d lost something. But he couldn’t figure out what.