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this american life

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"Aww, I'm touched," Sam says. "You want insulation from the marriage proposals or the casseroles?"

Steve adjusts the phone where it's cradled between his shoulder and his ear. These things are so flimsy. "It's a VFW hall, I don't think they're going to be lining up for—"

"See you Saturday, I love Tuna Helper," Sam says cheerfully and hangs up.

The event is already in the calendar on Steve's phone, which syncs with his tablet and his laptop: Ashby Veterans of Foreign Wars, 10AM-12PM May 23. Tony replaced all the SHIELD-issue tech with the biggest models of his own stuff, "for your man paws." Steve saw a computer during the war once, one of the ones that ran paper tape; the data on the magnetic tape that stored Zola for perpetuity could fit on his phone twice over. Tony gave him a 1TB backup hard drive. The number is so big it seems meaningless.

Steve bought the audio dock in the kitchen himself. He pulls up the podcast of This American Life that downloaded while he was asleep and opens the fridge, rooting around in the back for the vegetables he bought before he got called up to NYC over the weekend. The spinach is on its last legs, but the squash looks fine. Quiche. He'll do quiche.

Before the war, they ate a lot of tinned food, a little meat, lots of bread and dairy. During the war, it was field rations day and night. Steve never liked C-rations or K-rations, but he got used to them, the way you do. Now there are farmers' markets everywhere in New York, organic eggs, local honey, raw milk under the table if you know who to ask. "I guess you had less preservatives back in the day, huh?" Sam said the first time he got a look at Steve's fridge.

Steve said, "Not really."

Growing up, Ma had people over all the time, crammed into their tiny kitchen, always bringing puddings and treats. "You're so kind," Ma would say as she set out plates on the wooden table. It wasn't until Steve was grown that he figured out that Ma's cooking was notoriously terrible. Her coffee was okay, though, and he'd fall asleep listening to Uncle Ross and Aunt Ginny talk about the situation with the banks while Ma poured out another cup hot from the stove.

Steve has a coffeemaker, a stand mixer, and a George Foreman grill in his kitchen, which all seems a little silly. The waffle iron is nice. He watches a lot of cooking videos on YouTube, which is how he learned to stir flour into the batter slowly, alternating with milk, so his waffles are smooth and airy instead of lumpy. They don't do well sitting out, so he only makes them when he has company—Sam or Nat, usually, but sometimes Thor. The dinners he makes on his own are simple and filling. Soup, baked macaroni, stuff you can put in a slow cooker with an automatic timer so you don't burn the place down if you get called up to save the world. Steve's come home to sad, congealed chicken-something more than once.

Quiche is quick work. Steve prepares the butter crust, sticks it in the fridge, then preheats the oven while he chops vegetables, grates cheese, whisks together the eggs and cream. He even caramelizes some onions for the top because he's feeling fancy. When he finishes This American Life, he switches over to this week's Wait Wait… Don't Tell Me! The quiche is in the oven for 25 minutes, cools for 10, and then it's ready to eat. Steve eats a big slice on the couch, closing his eyes. The squash is a little crunchy, the spinach on the limp side, but the onions are perfect.

Steve wraps a second piece up in foil and puts it out on the fire escape. Then he starts on the dishes.

Uncle Ross wasn't Steve's real uncle—his family was just him and Ma if you were going by blood. But Uncle Ross and Uncle Tim and Uncle Chuck were family just the same. They served in the 107th with Steve's father, and they were always telling stories about Good Old Joe, That Idiot Joe, Goddammit Joe. Aunt Ginny came over and knitted with Ma and gossiped on Saturdays, and Aunt Mary and Uncle Chuck sat in the pew with Ma and Steve on Sundays. Their kids went to the school at St. Michael's, but Ma couldn't afford it.

"I wanna be a soldier like my father," Steve told Bucky when they first met, right after Bucky said, "Think I'd like to fix elevators."

Bucky shoved his shoulder against Steve's, but it didn't seem mean, just friendly. "There's no war on."

"We still got an army," Steve said. "Why'd you want to fix elevators?"

"It's good money, and I got three sisters," Bucky said. "How are you gonna fight, anyway? You've got bad lungs."

Steve shrugged. Ma didn't talk about his lungs, much like she didn't talk about money—it was everyone else who talked about it when they thought he couldn't hear. She was always after him to wear an extra scarf and eat liver, and she'd sit up with him when his breathing got bad in the winter, boil water and make him sit under a towel and inhale as deep as he could. "I'll figure it out."

"Maybe they'll come up with new lungs," Bucky said, which was how Steve found out about science fiction mags.

"What do they do with those big-ass scissors afterward?" Sam says as they trundle down the highway toward Maryland in his Volvo with the greatest hits of Destiny's Child on shuffle. "Do you get to keep them?"

Steve says, "Not so far."

A small crowd has gathered at the new VFW hall, a few dozen vets and assorted spouses, the mayor, a local TV crew with a van. The mayor gets big-eyed when he sees them and makes a beeline to Sam, sleek in his Service Dress. "My daughter loves you. Oh, you, too, Captain, but—"

"No, you go right ahead," Steve says, pushing Sam toward the mayor. "I'll be over here."

He kills the fifteen minutes until the ribbon-cutting talking to Lt. Sandra Guthrie, who was on the Anzio beachfront with the 56th Evacuation Hospital for the better part of four months. "Can't believe we actually got Captain America," she says, peering up at him from her wheelchair. "Did Kenny here bribe you?"

"I'm sure Captain America is above bribes," says HELLO MY NAME IS: LT. KENNETH ROBINSON.

Steve says, "I like tuna casserole."

Lt. Guthrie nods. "My wife makes a mean one. Hey, Flossie, come meet Captain America."

The scissors are gold with blades two feet long. Steve cuts the ceremonial red ribbon, bulbs flash, and Sam does a little Queen Elizabeth wave for the camera guys. The mayor takes the scissors back and puts them in a zippered sleeve. "Where do you get those?" Sam says, rapt. "I've always wondered."

The mayor laughs. "ribboncuttingscissors.com, can you believe it?"

"Damn," Sam says. "I'd frame 'em. Hang 'em in my office."

Steve has a couple of photos on his desk. Peggy, when she was young, and both of them together last year. The Howling Commandos. One of Ma from her nursing school yearbook that Steve hunted up a while back. Flossie Guthrie emails him a good shot of him and Sam in front of the VFW hall, and Steve prints it out on his shiny new printer. If he were at Avengers Tower, Tony would probably insist on 3D-printing a frame for it, which is why Steve doesn't live in Avengers Tower.

The way Steve put himself through art school and after was working at Stein Framing on the Lower East Side. He'd take the train in from Brooklyn every morning and work the noon-to-eight shift, picking up the after-work traffic. There was a lot of sawdust in back, but Steve was mostly up front with customers. He was pretty good at sales, and it helped that he liked the product. They did family photos, art, anything you might want, 10 kinds of wood and 18 finishes, frames built and mats cut to order.

Steve goes to Target and picks out a 8"x10" frame with a pre-cut mat that'll take it down to 5"x7". If he wanted to find a frame shop, he has the Yelp app on his phone, but this isn't a painting or a diploma. He picks up some laundry detergent and a power strip, too.

"Are you putting out food for the fairies?" Nat said the first time she saw Steve do it. "Or Elijah?"

Steve said, "I'm touched that you thought of fairies first." He put the soup in a leftover sour cream container and taped a plastic spoon to the top of it. The soup was split pea with smoked ham. It had turned out okay.

"The neighborhood tom, more like," said Sam, who was loading the dishwasher.

Nat smiled. "Ah." She crossed over to the window and raised the sash, pulling herself out onto the landing of the fire escape, corrugated metal with a recent coat of black paint already flaking over old rust. Steve handed her the container of soup and she set it on the step beside her. "Here, kitty, kitty."

"Very funny," said Steve.

When he gets back from Target, the quiche is gone, the crumpled ball of foil folded down into a neat square and jammed into the crack of the sash so it doesn't blow away. Usually the food he leaves out disappears overnight if it goes at all; there are long weeks where Steve's offerings remain undisturbed, and weeks when he's away himself. When he's been living off takeout and avoiding Close Encounters With Convection Ovens in Avengers tower for too long, Steve starts dreaming about food—creamy mashed potatoes, carrots with sea salt and honey, brined turkey cooked for 12 hours in the smoker in Sam's backyard.

Ma used to feed strays with her salty meatloaf and watery stews. There were Mr. Murphy's kids from the fourth floor—he was a widower, and he wasn't kind—and Uncle Tim and Brady O'Shea the barber, plus a rotating cast of girls from the parish, some who disappeared for a while afterward and came back sad-eyed. "Are they sick?" Steve asked once, which was as close as he was getting to like me?

"No, dear." Ma frowned and gave Steve a searching look. He was fifteen then and nearly her height, so she could look him in the eye easy. "They're in trouble."

Steve knew what that meant, but it took him a moment anyway. "Even Tammy?" Tammy Porter was in his class at school. Her brother had punched Steve in the eye once, but not before Steve got him good in the jaw.

Ma said, "Plenty of good girls get in trouble. I've got a good boy right here who does all the time."

"Not the same," Steve said sullenly, because he was fifteen.

After that, he paid a little more attention to the people who came by their apartment. He carried Penny Andrews's groceries and Betty Shannon's books. "I thought you were sleeping during the sermon about the Good Samaritan last week," Bucky said when he caught Steve struggling under the weight of the Murphys' milk delivery as he climbed the snowy front steps. "Gimme some of those, you're gonna kill yourself."

"I was asleep," Steve said. "Isn't the Good Samaritan in August?"

"You're a piece of work, Rogers," said Bucky.

Flossie Guthrie emails Steve a week later and invites him and Sam to the VFW's inaugural bingo night. "HELL YES," says Sam, so down the highway they go again with the new Dolly Parton album blasting at full volume. Steve is iffy on some modern music—Thor always wants to listen to k-pop or One Direction, no exceptions, Tony has this thing about Led Zeppelin, Nat is into Radiohead, Clint loves Coldplay—but Sam's soundtrack works for him. Marvin Gaye, Beyoncé, Tupac, Loretta Lynn: all the classics that Steve's missed.

At the VFW, someone puts on the Andrews Sisters as Sandra's arranging her bingo cards on their table. She elbows Flossie. "Predictable."

"Does Amy think we're going to boogie-woogie?" Flossie says. "Though I suppose you could get up on stage, Captain."

Sam raises his eyebrows. "Oh, I'd like to see that." He's got his bingo cards laid out in a neat row, all four of them. His grandma's been ruling the bingo scene up in Harlem since Sam was in diapers.

"Try the Smithsonian," Steve says dryly. "They've got the newsreels."

"The blonde one was real cute, even with that nose," Sandra says. "Flossie used to do her hair like that when we met."

Flossie smiles. "I was at DuPont over in Seaford during the war, but my brother was overseas with Sandy. He used to send me letters about her, how infuriating she was—"

"You try working an OR when you're getting shelled to hell all the time." Sandra's mouth tightens. "I lost my girl Nan that way."

Usually Steve nods along when people tell him their war stories—his wounds are fresh enough that he still holds the deepest ones tight, even though the harshest truths can come out like a breeze—but there's something about sitting around the bingo table in the slowly-filling hall that reminds him of sitting up late with Ma and her friends. "I lost someone like that, too. A guy in my unit. My—friend."

"Your friend? Your chum?" Sandra says, even as Flossie taps at her elbow. "Your pal?"

Steve says, "The man I loved. Whatever you call that these days."

Sandra's face softens. "I wish I could say I was sorry, dear," she says. "But I'm very old and I have no time for the way we used to talk around these things."

"Times have changed," Steve says as Sam bumps their knees together under the table. "I'm catching up."

Ma got TB when Steve had been working at the framing store for two weeks, and she lingered on a little while at the ward where she'd been working when she got sick. People came by all the time to check up on Steve. Uncle Ross, Aunt Ginny, and Father Quinn came a lot, which Steve expected, but there was a steady stream of people Steve barely remembered or recognized, too. They were struggling as much as Steve and Ma were to make ends meet, but they still brought food: chipped beef, creamed corn, fried liver. Steve had no appetite, but Bucky helped.

After Ma died, Steve saw everyone at Mass on Sunday, but the people who'd come to Ma's kitchen drifted away as Steve turned down dinner invitation after dinner invitation. Brady the barber still cut Steve's hair, though; Steve saw him for a trim every month until he shipped out. The last time he went in, Brady took a long, quiet look at him. "How our little Stevie has grown," he said. "I'll be needing to stand on a box for you now."

"An apple crate, for sure," Steve said soberly.

Brady gave Steve a neat Army cut and a shave on the house. "Bet you're glad to join your boy out there. I was worried sick when Tim went over, back here with my bum leg."

That was how they talked about it, or didn't. "Bet you were," Steve said. "And I am."

"Bring him home safe," Brady said, patting Steve on the shoulder.

Steve goes for a run when he gets back from bingo, takes a shower, ignores Sam's gloating text messages with all the photos of his trophy lawn gnome. He cracks the window to let in the June breeze and lies down on the couch, closing his eyes. The DC city noises aren't so different from the ones he grew up with in Brooklyn—more traffic, a little less yelling and off-key singing. Softly, he recites the words Ma used to say with him every night: "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep—"

Bucky says, "What're you doing, saying your prayers?"

"Something like that," says Steve.

Quietly, Bucky raises the sash; the fire escape creaks as he slides through the window. He pads over to the couch and nudges Steve's feet until Steve folds up his legs to make room. In the absence of sight, Steve's world is narrowed down to these sounds, the warmth of Bucky's side against Steve's bare feet. "Had pizza for dinner tonight," Bucky says. "My personal chef was on French leave."

Steve yawns. "Bingo with Sam."

"I want lasagna tomorrow, old man," Bucky says.

"You know there's a National Reading Day now?" Steve says. "Went to an elementary school in Annapolis, they had me do If You Give a Mouse a Cookie with the first graders. Read that one yet?"

Bucky gives his soft huff of a laugh. "Haven't gotten caught up on kiddie literature." There are some things they still don't talk about, like what exactly Bucky is doing with Nat these days.

Steve pokes Bucky with his toe. "I could make cookies. Ma's recipe."

"Some memories don't fade," Bucky says ominously as he catches Steve's foot.

Steve says, "Just checking."