When people ask me what I do for a living, there’s a test they have to pass, every time.
I say, “Personal assistant,” and they either look disdainful or they don’t. That’s the first hurdle.
They say, “Oh, who for?” and I say that it’s no one they would have heard of, and they either look disappointed or they don’t. Some of them push to find out who it is, if it’s maybe someone famous, and that’s an automatic fail.
Fairly often, I get an “Oh, what, like whats-her-name at Stark Industries? You want to end up CEO one, day, huh?”
And I say “Yes,” absolutely straight-faced, and the ones who don’t laugh are the ones who pass.
I have picked up dry-cleaning for editors-in-chief, and walked the dogs of CEOs. I have called cabs for one-night-stands, and hired masseuses that I’m pretty sure weren’t masseuses, and once, memorably, been asked to serve divorce papers. I have been sexually harassed and treated as one of the family and fired without cause in the midst of an employer’s towering tantrum.
That time, I was offered my job back the next morning with a sheepish apology. I said no thank you.
I am very, very good at my job, is the thing. I am efficient, and cheerful, and organized. I keep a calendar that runs like clockwork, and I never lose my cool. If you need a PA of my caliber, you are probably a Very Important Person. I haven’t needed to submit a resume to HR once since my first job, right out of college; word-of-mouth and recommendations have opened every door I’ve wanted open.
Still, I don’t expect the call that comes, from an unlisted number, while I’m sorting through my newest employer’s densely packed e-mail inbox. “Theresa Templet,” I say absently into my Starkphone-- the latest model, courtesy of the new boss, who seems thus far like an affable if disorganized kind of guy.
“Ms. Templet, I’m with SHIELD,” says the woman on the other end. “One of our high-clearance contractors is in need of a PA, and you come very well-recommended. I’ve been authorized to offer you a chance at the position, if you’re interested.”
“I’ve actually just started a new job,” I tell her apologetically. “Not that I’m not flattered. Who would I be working under, exactly?”
“I’m afraid I couldn’t disclose that unless you were willing to come in for an interview,” the woman says. “I will say that it is, in my estimation, a very rewarding position-- both in terms of compensation and the work that you’ll be doing.”
Okay, fine, I’m intrigued. Who at SHIELD needs a PA? I picture myself trotting after some super-spy in my cardigan and kitten heels, tablet computer at the ready. And besides, this inbox really is a disaster. “I can’t make any promises,” I warn. “But I’ll take the interview. When’s a good time?”
“Are you free tomorrow morning?” she asks.
The next day, at eleven o’ clock in the morning, I hand in my two weeks’ notice.
My first day on the new job, I wake up two hours early. I pin my braids into a neat updo, then worry that it’s too retro-looking, or possibly not retro enough. I pick out and reject three consecutive outfits (too matronly, too youthful, too boring) and a fourth on the grounds that it is red, white, and blue. I dither for the better part of half an hour over lipstick choices, and abandon all but the most rudimentary eye makeup for lack of time. I grab my bag (packed the night before), grab my personal phone from its charger (the shiny Starkphone, alas, is gone with the last job), and am out the door right on time.
I don’t need to change trains for the new commute, which is a godsend, and I arrive ten minutes ahead of schedule. The people in the lobby are mostly be-suited office types, with some alarmingly well-armed security and a scattering of agents in sleek bodysuits. Everyone is walking slightly faster than normal, as if they all have somewhere very important to be. I wonder if there’s an item in the dress code enforcing Beige Tuesdays, because my green dress and mustard-yellow tights, chosen after much agonizing, stand out kind of a lot. I am definitely the only person in this building wearing a statement necklace.
At the desk, I give my name and am issued a badge, a map, and stern instructions about not losing either one. Following the map leads me to a small office, which contains a desk, a bookshelf, a bulletin board, and an entire wall stacked to shoulder height with mail bins, the structural integrity of which gives me some pause. The bulletin board, upon closer examination, is covered in tacked-up children’s drawings of Captain America.
The genuine article is nowhere to be found, though. For the first ten minutes, I amuse myself studying the bookshelf: lots of fat volumes of 20th-century history, which makes sense, and a bunch of biographies of famous modern artists. There’s also a Lord of the Rings box set, and unlike the history books, it looks to have actually been read; the same goes for the rest of the battered fiction collection. To Kill a Mockingbird has its spine cracked nearly in two.
I’ve just gotten through Bilbo’s birthday party when the door opens, startling me. “Oh!” says the man who’s opened it. “Sorry. Didn’t know anyone was in here.” He’s tall and blond and well-built, wearing a plaid shirt and khakis.
He comes in, shuts the door, and steps to one side of the doorway, so that if anyone else opened the door he’d be hidden from view by it. “Could you do me a favor?”
“...Yes?” I say, not really sure where he’s going with this.
“If anyone asks, tell them you haven’t seen me.” Just as he says this, the door swings open again.
I’ve seen Director Fury on TV, at Congressional hearings and the very occasional press conference, and he’s much, much scarier in person. “Has Captain Rogers been in here?” he asks, glaring at me. I’m pretty sure ‘glare’ is actually his default setting.
Behind the door, Captain Rogers, and therefore Captain America, shakes his head at me and mouths an exaggerated ‘no.’
“I don’t think so?” I say. The glare intensifies. “Sorry,” I offer.
Director Fury gives the room one last sweeping scowl, and leaves, shutting the door behind him. Captain Rogers sags with relief.
“Thanks,” he says. “I know that looks a little silly, but I really didn’t want to have to deal with Fury today. SHIELD’s been on me for weeks to get a personal assistant, and apparently they went and hired someone without even a how-do-you-do to me. Now I’ve got to figure out a polite way to say ‘thanks, but I can answer my own fanmail.’”
“Um,” I say.
Captain Rogers (“Please, call me Steve,”) is all apologies, to his credit.
“I mean, you seem like a perfectly nice dame-- lady-- person! But I don’t want an assistant,” Steve says.
“Oh, I get that,” I say. “The question is, do you need one? Because at the interview, they made it sound like you did.”
“Well, I don’t know why they did that,” Steve said. “Honestly, I don’t mind spending an hour a week or so signing autographs, and they’ve even got the interns stuffing the envelopes for me now. And I like the fanmail. Most of it, anyway. Some of it’s a little weird.”
“Who’s keeping track of your calendar, then?” I ask. “And scheduling your public appearances? And managing your media strategy?”
“SHIELD generally lets me know when I have to do a meet-and-greet, and I’ve got them down to a reasonable number lately,” he says. “And there’s a calendar on the desk blotter. And I don’t have a media strategy.”
“Yes, you do,” I said. “I mean, right now your media strategy consists of ‘ignore them and maybe they’ll go away,’ but I guess that is technically still a strategy.”
“You think it’s working?” Steve asks, smiling crookedly.
“I really don’t,” I say. “Look, if I were your PA-- which I suppose I’m not-- I’d schedule two or three interviews with very sober, reputable journalists, and maybe one with the Daily Show. You’d establish a media persona, get yourself in the public eye as someone to be taken seriously but who still has a sense of humor, and give all the bottom-feeders enough to pick over that they might stop ambushing you in line at the deli with questions you’ve already answered fifty times. You’d put a lid on some of the wild speculation that’s been flying around since the invasion, and you’d get a little more peace and quiet.” I pause for breath. Steve looks a little stunned. What, does he think I didn’t do my homework? “But I’m not your personal assistant, so I guess the point is moot.”
“Can we... start over?” Steve says. “I think we’ve maybe gotten off on the wrong foot.”
“Sure,” I say. “I’ve got some ideas about the public appearances, too-- I think you could be sending a much stronger message with where you choose to direct your time.”
“I can still answer my own fanmail, though,” Steve says. “Right?”
“That’s entirely your call,” I say. “I’ve gotten pretty good at forging signatures, though. Uh, don’t tell SHIELD I said that.”
My first week on the job, I schedule three interviews and four public appearances. I am issued a Starkphone and Starkpad so sleek and shiny I’m pretty sure they’ve time-traveled back from the future, until Steve tells me that “Tony keeps giving me prototypes. He says if I can use them then he doesn’t have to worry about people’s grandmothers bugging their teenagers for tech support.”
“That seems a little harsh,” I say.
Steve shrugs expansively. “It was fair enough, the first few times anyone let me near a computer. But I catch up pretty quick. Now the main problem is that my hands are a little too big for the touchscreen.”
“That, I can help with,” I say, and we fiddle with the settings until the touchscreen sensitivity works better for someone with super soldier strength.
When we’re done with that, I say, “And of course, now there’s nothing stopping you from using your Twitter,” because I am not above making Captain America blanch when handed a golden opportunity to do so.
“Do you have a Twitter?” he asks me. I recognize the attempt to redirect the conversation for what it is, and decide to be gracious.
“Actually, no,” I say. “I can never seem to get anything worth saying under the character limit. I’ve ghost-Tweeted for a few former employers, though.”
“Ghost-- okay, I can parse that, but why would anyone want you to do it in the first place?” Steve asked. “That makes no sense.”
“Being-- or at least appearing-- accessible to your fans is a major part of a lot of public figures’ personae these days,” I say. “Which reminds me. Let’s talk about blogging.”
We don’t, in the end, talk about blogging. Which is fine, really; I’m busy enough, now that SHIELD has made me the point person for all of Steve’s media and appearance requests. That alone is a job’s worth of work, but fortunately Steve doesn’t ask me to do much of the stuff I’ve done for other employers. The only clothing he gets dry-cleaned is his dress uniform, he doesn’t have a dog, and when I ask him for his Starbucks order he gives me a blank look and says “Coffee.” The only errand I end up running regularly is returning his library books.
He’s more standoffish than I’m used to, less willing to offload the management of his life’s minutiae than most people who need personal assistants. He’s perfectly polite, of course, but private, guarded, protective of himself. I don’t mind it-- a cordial working relationship is all I ask for-- but I catch myself wondering when he lets his guard down. If he ever does.
So I settle into the job over the next few weeks, get used to having a boss who looks twenty-seven but remembers meeting a young Gene Kelly (he was ‘swell,’ apparently) and start trying to get a sense of the guy. With past employers, it hasn’t taken me long to figure out which emails to flag and pass up the chain, which ones to handle myself, which events are likely to be of interest and which ones to discard. But Steve’s a little harder to predict.
We kill a day sequestered in his office, tackling the Wall of Fanmail, and as we work, I read off the list of public appearance requests. I can’t figure out a pattern to what he agrees to do, at first. Mall re-opening, no. Sports complex, no. Community center, yes. Police union benefit, yes. University commencement, no. University speaking engagement, no, until he finds out it’s Howard and they want him to talk about one of his World War Two squadmates. Then it’s a yes.
Politician’s fundraisers are all nos-- fair enough, he’s a serving officer, technically-- but the cancer research benefit is a yes. “You’re going to need a tux for that one, it’s at the Four Seasons,” I tell him, and then he frowns and says, actually, he’d rather not do that one after all.
“I can schedule a tux fitting, if you don’t have one yet,” I say, but he shakes his head.
“I was reading about that hotel, in the paper. The maids are striking, right?”
“Yeah, I think so,” I say. “Why?”
“Can’t cross a picket line,” he says, like it’s obvious. “What’s next on the list?” He has a point, I realize, as we go on. That wouldn’t be great optics.
He does the first couple of interviews, and they go fine. He’s a good interview-- personable, friendly, genuine-seeming; he must have sold a hell of a lot of war bonds. He answers questions about his WWII service and about the invasion, tells the non-classified parts of how he was found in the Arctic, nods along with interviewers when they marvel at how well he’s coping with the seventy years he missed.
Only Colbert gets close to getting at the real guy, or closer than anyone else, at least. He’s dug up a bunch of PSA posters Steve appeared on during the war, warning against the dangers of VD. That gets a huff of honest-sounding laughter out of Steve. “I’d forgotten all about those,” he says, covering his face. “The guys gave me no end of-- uh, of crap about them.”
“But you wouldn’t do an ad campaign like that today, would you?” Colbert asks.
“Sure, why not? I guess there isn’t as much of a need-- it was a real problem during the war, we didn’t have the medicines and the vaccines you’ve got now. I mean, I don’t think people understand what that stuff means, to a guy like me.”
Colbert tries to make a joke about the anti-vaccine movement, but Steve frowns and shakes his head. “I don’t think it’s all that funny. Mumps nearly killed me, when I was a kid, and I had scarlet fever real bad too. Ma was a TB nurse, you know? Once she got sick, she didn’t have a chance, with no money for a doctor. And I knew enough kids who got polio, who died or just never walked again-- I could have been one of them, easy. People have forgotten that, I think.”
The rest of the interview’s a little strained-- Colbert feeds Steve an easy line about health care reform, and instead of taking it, he says he wishes we’d done like Britain, after the war, and set up an NHS of our own. Watching from the green room, I wince, and pull out my phone to check Twitter.
By the next morning, #captainsocialist is trending and Fox News has worked itself into a froth. They’ve pulled together footage from Steve’s last few appearances-- the union benefit, the community center opening, Steve walking in the May Day parade a few weeks before I started working for him. “Oh, he marched with a bunch of garment workers holding I AM NOT ILLEGAL signs, beautiful,” I mutter to myself. In full uniform, no less, shield and all.
There’s also a heavily-edited clip from Steve speaking at Howard. “Gabe Jones spoke three languages and was the best natural tactician I ever met,” he tells the audience. “It's shameful that the Army didn't recognize his worth, that I had to put him on my squad before he got a job that used his talents.” And that’s going to get spun into Steve being ashamed of the Army in about a hot second. Fantastic.
By the time I get to SHIELD, I’ve got a strategy worked out. “Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do,” I tell Steve. “I think a press conference is going to fan the flames too much, but we can maybe release a statement, at least call them out on taking your Howard clips out of context. There’s an animal shelter that’s been asking you to make an appearance, so if you do that to generate some goodwill, it’ll die down over the weekend. I hope.”
Steve looks up from the notebook he’d been hunched over when I walked in. “What do you mean?” he asks. Oh, lord, he hasn’t seen the news yet. I start explaining, but he cuts me off.
“No, I watched the news this morning,” he says. “It’s fine. They’re blowing things out of proportion, sure, but I’m not all that sore about it. I said everything they’re quoting, and I meant what I said.”
“They’re calling you a communist,” I say, not sure he’s getting it. “And it’s my job to make sure the media doesn’t make you look bad.”
“No, it’s your job to make sure the media doesn’t make my life miserable,” he says. “And this doesn’t even come close.”
“It could really damage your public image, though,” I say. “And Fox News is like a dog with a bone when it comes to stuff like this. They’ll never let you live it down.”
“I don’t get why it’s such a big deal in the first place,” he says. “Nothing I said would be all that controversial even back then. How is it a shock now?”
I shrug. “It’s a Cold War thing, partly,” I say. “Socialism’s gotten to be kind of a dirty word.”
“See, that I really don’t get,” he says. “Ma campaigned for Debs, you know. She used to tell me about it. That was how she met my father-- he was a union organizer when he was young, and they were at the same IWW rally.”
I blink. It occurs to me that on a list of Things I Wasn’t Expecting Captain America to Say, ‘my mother was a socialist’ would be pretty near the top. “Can you do me a favor?” I ask.
“Sure,” he says.
“Just... don’t mention that to any reporters any time in the next few weeks. Or ever, if you can manage it.”
He laughs at that. “Deal. But only if you promise to actually take the weekend off and not worry about the news.”
“I can do that, I guess,” I say.
Keeping the TV off and avoiding Twitter is a challenge, but I do my best. I’ve always had a bad habit of taking my work home with me, and I’m pretty sure if I let that happen with this job I’ll never take off my work persona at all. Which is no good, so I call up some friends and arrange to meet them for drinks in the Village on Saturday night.
I leave the Starkphone at home, wear my hair down, put on the high heels I save for when I know I won’t be doing much walking. When I arrive at the bar, my friends wave to me from a booth at the back.
“You look like you’re about to pop a gear, hon,” Kelly says as soon as I sit down. “What’s wrong?”
“Just work stuff,” I say. “Nothing I can talk about.” I hadn’t realized I looked so tightly wound. Well, once I get a couple of drinks in me I’ll probably feel better.
And I do, at least a little. It helps to be around people who make me feel comfortable enough to loosen up. Kelly and I were roommates in college, and about half the group became friends through our NYU extracurriculars. They know me, the real me, not Personal Assistant Me.
We chat about things that aren’t work-- Luis’ webcomic is taking off, Angie and her girlfriend are planning their wedding. Nina announces that she’s signed up with a foster agency and is due for a home evaluation on Monday, and we all buy her congratulatory drinks. “I guess I won’t be doing this much, once I have a kid to look after,” she says.
“We’ll all help babysit,” I promise her.
“You have to get a background check for that,” she warns me. “Not that you can’t pass one, it’s just a hassle.”
“Eh, it’s not that big a deal,” I say. “They background-checked me for the new job so thoroughly, I think they called my dentist. Pretty sure every stone has officially been turned.”
“I’m gonna go nuts wondering who it is you’re working for, seriously,” Luis says. “I can’t wait ‘til your next job, so you can tell us the dirt about this one.”
“Sorry,” I say. “I signed an NDA, I’m probably barred from naming names until the heat death of the universe. Anyway,” I add, “we’re not talking about work, right?”
It’s a fun night: we reminisce about college, about protests and parties and street fairs, and Luis tells the story of the time a dozen of us at a candlelight vigil scared the shit out of some skinheads who were trying to start trouble. “And they started walking faster, so we started walking faster,” he says, “and I’m thinking, shit, every other time this has happened to me I was the one getting chased! But then I felt bad about being an asshole, so we let them run off with a warning."
“I still say kicking their asses would have been instructive,” Kelly points out.
“Sure, if you didn’t mind spending the weekend in jail,” I say. “Which I, for one, did not want to do.”
We’ve had that argument before, but we don’t retread it this time. Instead Luis points out a woman at the bar. “She’s been checking you out,” he says. “I’m positive.”
I glance her way. She’s pretty, but kind of boring-- not my type, really. “Eh,” I say. “I’d rather just hang out with you guys tonight, honestly.”
“Okay, but I’m definitely abandoning you for the guy at the pool table in the red t-shirt if I get a chance,” he says.
“Not if I get to him first,” says Kelly, laughing.
Sunday is for running errands, and I'm pretty good about leaving Twitter alone. At least, once I see that goddamn hashtag has stopped trending. When I get to Steve's office, he's not there, so I busy myself with sorting through the weekend's accumulation of fanmail, e-mail and voicemail. I'm nearly done when the door opens.
"Theresa? Oh, good, you're here," Steve says. I glance up, and my jaw drops a little.
Steve almost never wears his uniform for public appearances, is the thing. I think the May Day parade was the only time he's done it. So I actually haven't seen him suited up, before now.
It's weird, how different he looks. I hadn't thought it was possible to stand up straighter than Steve normally stands, but he seems taller, more imposing. He moves a little differently, too: more purposeful, I think, or maybe it’s the weight of the shield on his back. "Theresa?" he says again.
"Oh! Sorry. What's going on?"
"Got a mission. SHIELD's sending me and Nat and Clint to São Paulo; there's a situation. Just wanted to give you a heads-up to clear my calendar for the next few days."
"Sure, I'll make your excuses. Not a problem." But Steve's attention isn't on me any more.
"Cap, we're gone in five. You pack your ass-kicking boots?" The Black Widow is wearing shoulder and thigh holsters over her sleek black jumpsuit. Her red hair looks perfect, and she is unfairly gorgeous even without makeup. She nods absently at me. I realize that I'm staring, and don't really care.
"Don't own any other kind," Steve says with a grin. "Hey, have you met Theresa?"
She glances my way. "Hi," I say weakly.
"Mm-hm," she says. "I'm gonna go check in with Clint."
And she's gone, just like that. Steve glances at me. "Uh, Theresa? You okay?"
"Huh? Oh! Yes. Fine, totally, I'll reschedule everything for next week. Don't worry about a thing," I say.
"Thanks," Steve says. "Well, gotta go give the bad guys what for. You know how it is." He closes the door behind him, and is gone.
"I think I'm in love," I say to the empty office.
I’m mostly over it by the time Steve gets back, thank goodness, and I don’t see the Black Widow again for a while. There’s nothing like beating up terrorists for good PR, so Steve’s a media darling again, and I can relax a little bit.
Over the next few weeks, Steve makes a handful of public appearances, has to change gyms because the paparazzi found out about the one he was going to, asks me if I know where he can sign up for life drawing classes and picks one from the list I prepare for him apparently at random, and apprehends a Ten Rings cell in Iowa City. He also maintains a full schedule of SHIELD briefings, qualifies on the range with three new kinds of gun, and has me set up a series of two-hour interview sessions with a historian who’s writing a book about Depression-era New York.
I, meanwhile, manage to attend no less than four yoga classes (a personal best!), get my hair done, and poach a SHIELD intern to handle the bulk of Steve’s fanmail. He still gets all the cute and/or heartwarming letters, but the weird and/or crazy ones get weeded out.
Then the next Avengers-related media firestorm hits, but this time it’s not Steve in the middle. A Stark Industries subcontractor gets caught using sweatshop labor in Malaysia to build electronics components, and when the workers stage a strike and protest, they handle it about as badly as they possibly can. The phonecam footage shows strike-breakers hired by the subcontractor beating the workers, half of whom are teenaged girls, and half of those are wearing Iron Man t-shirts or carrying signs asking Tony Stark to stand up for them.
Stark Industries does a much better job of damage control, of course, because they are not amateurs. By the end of the day they’ve got a process in place to vet their subcontractors for adherence to SI’s labor standards, plus a scholarship fund to send the underaged workers back to school.
The news shows are pretty gleeful about catching Stark’s company in a slip-up, though, and one of them even makes a crack about Steve being buddies with a guy who makes his money exploiting workers, when Steve’s been so publically pro-union. I kind of hope Steve doesn’t see it, but that hope is sadly dashed when, going down the list of media requests, I read off an invitation to that particular show. As soon as he hears the name, Steve’s eyes narrow, his jaw clenches, and after a pause in which I fervently hope to hear otherwise, Steve says “You know, I think I’ll take that one.”
It's a disaster. It's such a disaster. It starts out okay, with Steve pointing out that our government could be putting more pressure on our trading partners to clean up their labor practices, raise their minimum wages, enforce their child labor laws. The other panelists are a little too in awe to talk over him, at first, so he actually manages to steer the conversation towards sanity for a while. That doesn’t last long.
"Or we could just stop shipping our manufacturing jobs overseas," one of the other panelists says, and Steve starts nodding. But then she keeps talking, and says that we shouldn't trust a country like Malaysia with our electronics manufacturing anyway, that it's a national security issue.
"Hold on--" Steve says, but another panelist is already cutting in to complain about American workers, that they're too entitled and overeducated for factory jobs, and they wouldn't be willing to do the dirty work that keeps America running.
"We'll, maybe if they were paid a fair wage--" Steve starts, before he gets cut off again, this time by an argument about the state of the public schools.
After the panelist who's there to shill for charter schools is done, Steve manages to get a word in edgewise.
"All I'm saying is, if we find out a company's exploiting their labor like this, they shouldn't be welcome to do business in this country," he says, and promptly gets shouted down as anti-business. They’re officially not scared to yell at Captain America anymore, apparently.
Then the host gets into it. He calls Steve a hypocrite, and Steve goes steely-eyed and starts in on the host, pointing out that his show was never too sympathetic to striking workers when he couldn't make Tony Stark look bad over it. In fact, he seems to recall watching a whole episode devoted to lambasting teacher's unions in the Midwest.
Steve gets accused of oversimplifying, "and anyway, I don't need a guy who slept through the Cold War to lecture me about geopolitics."
Things don't improve from there. In fact, they get much, much worse, and the segment ends with Steve calling the panel "a bunch of high-handed sons of--" before his mic gets cut and he storms off the set.
"Okay,” he says, later, lying on the couch I requisitioned to replace the Wall of Fanmail, "that could have gone better."
"You think?" I snap.
"Well," he points out, "at least I didn't start a fistfight."
"Wow, I feel so much better now," I say.
“You know, you’re usually not this sarcastic,” he says. “I kind of like it.”
I sigh, and dial it back a little. “I’m sorry, that was unprofessional of me,” I say. “The important thing is damage control, right now.”
“Is that all you ever worry about?” Steve asks, sitting up. “I thought I told you already, I don’t give a good goddamn what people like that-- or the people who listen to them-- think of me.”
“Well, you should,” I say. “You’ve got an image to uphold, one that shouldn’t include cussing out half the news media.”
“It’s my image, isn’t it?” he asks. “Don’t I get a say in what it looks like?”
I pinch the bridge of my nose. “But it’s not just your image,” I tell him. “That’s what I think you’re not getting. It’s the seventy years of mythologizing, too. Captain America means things that he-- that you-- maybe didn’t intend back then, but you can’t ignore them.”
“I guess I really don’t get it, then,” he says. “I missed all that. I didn’t have any say in it. And it’s hard to imagine that I had that much of an impact, when I wasn’t even around.”
“Well, you did,” I say. “Believe me. I majored in American Studies; you were a graduation requirement. Did anyone ever tell you that Senator Brandt nearly got the Democratic presidential nomination in ‘52? He ran pretty much entirely on the ‘I was Captain America’s close personal friend’ platform. Some people think he’d have made it to the White House, if they’d picked him over Stevenson for the nomination.”
Steve grimaces. “No, I never knew that,” he said. “And I sort of wish I still didn’t. He was the kind of guy who made you want to wash your hands, after shaking his.”
“Well, he got all kinds of legislation passed over the years, and he wasn’t afraid to wave your name around like a flag. Plenty of people did that. They probably still would, if you weren’t here to tell them to quit it.”
Steve scrubs a hand over his face. He looks tired, which is weird; he never looks tired. “I never wanted anyone to do that.”
“They did, though. They made a myth out of you. Captain America, who stands for what’s right. Who you can always trust. That’s what I’m trying to protect.”
“That’s an awfully tall pedestal to put a fellow on,” Steve says. “Betcha it gets pretty windy up there.”
“Maybe,” I say. “But you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.”
We call a temporary truce, and Steve promises not to make any more unwise media decisions for a while. His schedule goes back to alternating innocuous public appearances and heroic missions, and mine goes back to calendar-wrangling and endless fanmail.
One morning, I hand Steve a letter. “I think you might want to read this one,” I tell him.
He unfolds a page of spidery handwriting, and as he reads his eyes go wide. “Oh, jeez,” he breathes. “Wow. Arnie’s still alive? Nobody at SHIELD ever told me.”
“Who is he, anyway? From the letter it sounded like he knew you pretty well.”
Steve sits down on the couch, and smooths the letter flat across his lap. He looks wistful, a little, caught up in memories of a vanished world that’s totally alien to me. “Yeah, we knew each other from when we were kids. Stayed in touch even after I went to the orphanage, and we worked on some of the same WPA projects before the war. He was a pal. Good guy, Arnie. Sounds like he did okay for himself.”
“Are you going to go see him?” I ask.
“Yeah. Think so.” But he looks unsure.
“I could come along, if you need moral support,” I say. “I mean, or maybe one of your teammates--”
“You’d do that?” He smiles at me, and I shush the part of my brain telling me this is unprofessional. “Clint and Nat are on assignment, and Bruce is out of town, and Tony doesn’t really do moral support. So I’d appreciate it, actually.”
I call ahead and make an appointment, and the next day Steve and I take a SHIELD car to a retirement home in Queens. The nurse at the front desk directs us to a room on the third floor, where two impossibly ancient little old men are playing checkers. “You know I’m going to beat you in three moves,” says one of them, and then he notices us standing in the doorway.
“Steve! God, look at you, you haven’t aged a day.”
“That’s what they tell me,” Steve says. “How’ve you been, Arnie?”
“Good, good,” he says. “Michael didn’t believe you’d show up. Didn’t I say he’d show up, Michael?”
“Fine, you win,” Michael says. “But not at checkers. Who’s your friend, Steve?”
“Oh! Sorry,” Steve says. “Theresa, this is Arnie, and...?” He trails off politely.
“My husband, Michael,” Arnie says. “We got married last year, after the legislation went through. Want to see the pictures?”
Steve looks flustered for about three seconds, but then he rallies. “I’d love to. That sounds great,” he says. “And then you’ve got to catch me up on everyone from the neighborhood, okay?”
“That’s a lot of catching up,” Michael says. “Not sure Arnie’s got that much time.”
“Oh, I can come back--” Steve starts, but Arnie cuts him off with a cracked laugh.
“He means I’m ninety-six, Steve,” he says. “Catching you up on all that might take more time than I’ve got left to live.”
Steve’s face falls.
“Hey, it’s all right,” Arnie says. “I had a pretty good run, and I haven’t lost my marbles yet. Got nothing to complain about, except maybe my hip gives me some trouble.”
And that makes Steve smile again. “You really haven’t changed much, huh?” he says. “C’mon, you got those wedding pictures? I bet they’re swell.”
That’s Michael’s cue to lever himself upright, and reach for his walker. It has tennis balls covering the feet. “I’ve seen ‘em,” he announces, “and there’s a game of rummy waiting in the rec room. C’mon, sweetheart, I’m not supposed to walk down there alone, I could break something.” So I follow him out, with one last glance back, to see Steve bending his head over the Starkpad Arnie’s using to show him the pictures.
“Hell of a thing, meeting Captain America,” Michael muses as we walk. Well, I walk, he sort of shuffles. “Always heard Arnie’s stories, but I never thought I’d meet the guy. Arnie never got to see him in person once he enlisted, either. They wrote back and forth a little. Arnie gave the letters to some museum.”
“What do you think of him?” I ask.
“Oh, he seems like a very nice young man. He was a good friend to Arnie when they were kids, I know that.” He pauses to move his walker forward. “Arnie always said he was very principled-- always standing up to bullies, never backing down from a fight. He got his ass kicked plenty, but Arnie admired him, even before he was anyone special.”
That sounds about right, to me. “I’m glad Arnie wrote him,” I say. “I think it helps, for him to have someone to talk to who remembers the old days.” It occurs to me that all of this is totally outside my remit as a personal assistant, but it’s hard to get worked up about it. Just like it’s getting harder to think of Steve as Captain America, national icon, when I’ve got the real guy right in front of me.
“What do you think about the things Steve’s been saying in the news?” I ask Michael. I’m curious, and I don’t have the kind of resources I’d need to focus-group it properly. Plus, my friends would think it was weird if I started bugging them for their opinions on superheroes. Michael seems safe to ask, though. He looks thoughtful for a minute, before he answers.
“I think it’s good of him, to do what he’s trying to do,” he says at last. “He’s in a unique position, you know? He can advocate for causes, and look like he’s above the fray.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, though I’ve got an idea of what he’s talking about.
“Me and Arnie, when we want change that benefits us, or people like us, we get accused of self-interest, or lack of objectivity. You know what I mean,” he says, and I do. I really do. “But Steve, he can advocate for whatever he wants. People won’t see him as having skin in the game. They’ll think he’s above it all.”
I nod. “It’s messed up, that that’s how things work,” I say.
“Kiddo, you don’t need to tell me that. But you can use it, nonetheless. Or Steve can.” And with that, he settles into a rec room chair, across from three little old ladies who are shuffling cards with expert, if knobbly, hands.
“Go on,” he says, waving me off. “Arnie’ll be tired by now. You should come back later, though.”
I walk towards the elevator, to Steve, and I am thoughtful the whole way back to Manhattan.
It’s a few days later that Steve comes into the office with a big folder under one arm. “Hey, Theresa?” he says, looking unaccountably nervous. “Could you take a look at something for me?”
“Sure thing,” say, setting my Starkpad aside. “What is it?”
“Uh, it’s something I’ve been working on, when I get the time,” he says. “It’s kind of a comic book. I’d been catching up on Will Eisner, see, and I got this idea...” He trails off, watching my face as I open the folder.
“This looks amazing,” I say, as I flip through the first few pages. On them, a cartoonishly skinny boy is playing stickball, in the midst of an old-fashioned street scene. “I had no idea you were this good.”
“Just-- take a look at it, and tell me what you think when you’re done, okay?” he says. “I’m gonna go get some lunch.”
It really is good. The writing, too, not just the pictures-- it’s about Steve’s childhood, the hardship of it along with the good parts. It doesn’t mythologize the past, doesn’t try to make it look better than it was. It’s just honest, sometimes painfully so, and it’s not something I ever would have expected from him.
Which is silly, I realize once I think about it. If Steve is nothing else, he’s honest.
And it makes something else clear to me, something I’d known intellectually but never understood. Steve’s not above it all; if he’s seen as being above the fray, it’s got nothing to do with who he actually is. He’s got as much skin in the game as anyone else. Growing up the way he did, he’d have to.
He comes back a few minutes after I’m done reading. “What did you think?” he asks.
“I think it’s really good,” I say. “And I hope you’ll think about publishing it.”
“You think I could?” he asks. “I guess if I used a pen name--”
“Don’t use a pen name,” I say. “Publish it publicly-- as publicly as you can. And then do a speaking tour to promote it. Do talk shows, start going to all those college commencements you get invited to-- all of it, the whole media circus.”
“You know I don’t like that stuff,” he says. “Why would I want to do that?”
“Because you want to change the conversation, don’t you?” I ask. “When you get mad about me for worrying about your public image, it’s because you think that stuff gets in the way of making a real difference. Right?”
“Pretty much, yeah,” he says.
“Well, your public image matters. But if you do it right, you could have a platform that lets you push the whole national discourse to the left. I think, maybe, you could change things in a way nobody else could.”
He hunches his shoulders a little at that. “I think that’s giving me too much credit,” he says.
“It’s really not. The stuff you wrote about here? It would resonate with a lot of people. People who grew up poor, or marginalized, people who didn’t get a shot at the American dream. And then, when they’re done reading, they’re gonna turn on their TVs, and you’re gonna be there, talking about how we can work together to make things better for everyone.”
“That sounds like a pretty tall order,” Steve says, but I can tell he’s halfway to sold on what I’m saying.
“Maybe,” I say. “Think you’re up to it?””
“Well, I’ve never been one to back down from a fight,” Steve says, and grins at me.
When we arrive for the first stop on the book tour, Steve hands me a slip of white paper. “What’s this?” I ask him.
“The password for my Twitter account,” he tells me. “Go nuts.”
I shoot him a wry smile, and reach for my phone. “Thanks, boss.”