It was Sarah Rogers’ mama who first told her about Lucy Stone, about No Irish Need Apply and the radical notion that a man could drink at whatever water fountain he damn well pleased. It was Sarah Rogers’ mama who first tucked fingers, dry from industrial kitchen soap, under Sarah’s chin and held it high, then taught her to keep it there. Who taught her to say ma’am and choose good Scotch and love God and speak loudly. To walk straight-backed through crowds of men in silk suits whose accents spoke of Princeton, not Wexford’s Irish Sea and a long boat ride next to vomiting children. To grow into an adult with the strength to plant her heels in the earth and make it move around her.
Sarah Rogers was three months pregnant when she donned trousers and stood on a cold Manhattan sidewalk with a sign that read Mr. President, Give Women the Vote! while street urchins threw pebbles to the encouragement of the police. She didn’t stop rattling the cage that minimum wage had built, not when they threw her in jail, not when Mr. Cunningham threatened to fire her from the hospital, not when she miscarried the son she’d named Junior the same month her husband went off to war.
Joseph Rogers got dead of mustard gas in the trenches with the 107th the same year the war ended, the same year he came home on leave and got Sarah pregnant with Steve. And so it was she who worked the long shift, who moved them from the lower east side to Brooklyn after giving birth in a sweltering hospital room to a child with weak lungs and thin limbs.
It was Sarah who put her hand in that of her six-year-old son’s and marched down to the landlord, standing all of five foot two inches and informing him that he if he got handsy again, she would meet him at the door with a pistol. Who told Steve that if the Brewster woman sneered at him to keep his chin up, if her son hit him to keep his nose clean, and if the father came within five feet of him to run. She taught him how to form his little hand into a fist, taught him her stubbornness but not her cynicism. Taught him to believe in his country. To pray and to steer clear of the men who claimed they could see God. To say No, sir to liquor because his ma could make better in her own damn bathtub if she chose.
Steve’s ma took him to the talkies when he was nine, but it wasn’t near the fun they had their first time at Ebbets Field. The Dodgers would make history in 1947, but neither of them knew it then, and spent the noon chowing down on hotdogs and jeering at the Yankees.
“We’ll win next time,” ma promised him.
She was loud and lovely and spirited until times got rough and her face grew thin, hair graying while Steve took himself to school, pulled a blanket over her when she collapsed exhausted on her bed, and fed her when her wrists got too thin.
Steve was fourteen and Sarah Rogers was standing on streets again, face lined and lungs weak but grip just as sure on her thin signboard, this time chanting No Evictions! as the rent war spilled from the Bronx into Borough Park. Steve came home from school each day to hear people like his mother called radical, along with the thousands of others threatening to go on strike.
But she didn’t strike, because TB wouldn’t have gone on strike along with her.
Then one day she came home with a cough, and she was gone.
Steve was almost fifteen when he stood up to Moe Jenkins in the orphanage, and befriended the army brat with the lazy smile who had pulled Moe off of Steve and socked him one.
It was Bucky who first lied their way onto the Cyclone, Coney Island packed to the gills as he lied about their ages and their parents and their height and He’s as tall as me sir, honest, he’s just got this awful hunch. It was Bucky who hauled Steve upright when he staggered off to throw up, pocket 50 cents lighter and grin unrepentant.
Steve was sixteen when they got stinking drunk off bathtub gin, clambering passed the Do Not Enter sign on the rooftop to sit with legs dangling toward the bright city below. Bucky talked about leaving, maybe spending a quarter to hop on a train headed west and find their fortune, maybe Steve could join the Federal Art Project, maybe someone would let him paint buildings or draw posters and maybe they would have heat this winter.
Then they came down at dawn to help Mr. O’Byrne carry his milk up the stairs again.
Sarah Rogers was five years in the ground when they let Steve into City College. They told him he had soared past the grade requirements and wouldn’t have to pay a single cent, not like the working class that spent their nights in class and their days digging ditches for the WPA. So Steve signed up for night classes and spent the days copying comic books for 50 cents per hour to afford the texts and pencils and meals and subway fare he could barely pay for anyway.
It was Steve who knelt in church each week, mother’s Bible in his hand and prayers on his lips. Who sat in class each day and drew posters for the peace protests that would get his classmates expelled, and illustrations for the discontented voices that burst from their quarterlies. He debated anti-militaristic policy with the Jewish Socialists and ate lunch with the American Communists as the student body’s far-left radicalism spread to newspaper infamy.
You can love your country all you want, pal, one kid told him around a cigar. In his arms were stacks of pamphlets emblazoned with hammer and sickle. You just trust in it a little too goddamn much.
But they were all idealists at heart, Steve knew.
It was sweltering the day Steve turned twenty, too hot for sandlot baseball, too hot to move. He sat with Bucky in the theater, watching a Garbo movie three times in a row just to bask in the precious air conditioning. Steve talked about the trade union and how an alumnus had given Steve his old pin. It read I am a Guttersnipe! I fight fascism! and had been banned from campus for four years.
Bucky told him just not to get himself killed.
In May 1941, late on rent and having begged off of work, they snuck over the back fence to sit on the bleachers at Flatbush in patched trousers, to watch a Dodgers game they hadn’t paid for, and used the last of their change to buy overpriced hotdogs from a grouchy man with an apron and a paunch.
“Next year for sure,” said Bucky, spitting spectacularly in the direction of a few riotous Phillies fans.
That December there was an announcement on the five and dime tabletop radio, and everything changed.
By the time Steve was ready to turn twenty-five, he had committed five counts of fraud punishable by as many years in prison, because he had no right to sit at home while a giant loomed in the East, no right at all.
By the time he had become Private Rogers, he had disobeyed the direct order of his drill sergeant to capture a flag and win a free ride. He was insubordinate to a Colonel in a time of war, for no more than a hope of a prayer that his best friend was still alive.
Then there was a plane, and nothing.
Bucky Barnes was sixty-eight years in the ground when Steve Rogers lead a ragtag team of misfits into a vigilante fight, seventy when he sat with hands neatly folded in front of him and said With respect, sir, to the men in suits and their sureness that he had too much of a stick up his ass to do anything but walk the damn line.