Christmas in Brooklyn
“I said, get off him!”
Steve felt the weight on top of him suddenly release, as if jerked away by a stronger being. He blinked away the darkness, trying to get his vision back, only seeing moving shadows.
“And stay away from him!” he heard his rescuer yell to the bully’s swiftly retreating figure.
Steve blinked again, feeling a mixture of anger and relief. He knew that voice.
“Again?” Bucky asked, disappointment tinting his voice. Towering above Steve, he held out a hand.
Steve grabbed it, pulling himself off the ground, then dusted off his jacket. He spotted a rip in the right knee of his pants. Another tear to mend.
Steve shrugged, fingering the hole in his slacks.
He let out an exasperated sigh and looked up.
“Steve, you can’t just pick fights like that!” Bucky said, exasperated.
“He was messing around with a girl who wasn’t interested, Buck,” Steve firmly told him. “I had to stop him.”
“I don’t care! Did you even look at him?”
“I did,” Steve shot back, rage filling his voice. “And I saw him pressing up against her like she was-”
“Steve, he was twice as big as you!” Bucky protested, taking another quick step forward, suddenly inches away from Steve’s face.
Steve straightened up, defiantly staring into Bucky’s eyes. “I’m not going to just stand around and watch something like that happen. I thought you would understand that.” He kept hold of Bucky’s gaze, daring Bucky to contradict him.
Bucky’s eyes showed the same defiance for a moment more. Then, they softened and he chuckled, shaking his head and glancing at the ground for a moment. “I get it.” He clasped Steve’s shoulder firmly and offered a wry grin. “Just make sure I’m around to help out next time, okay?”
Steve shook his head, smiling. “Okay.”
“Come on,” Bucky said, laughter in his voice. Draping his arm across Steve’s shoulders, he guided him down the sidewalk. “Your mom left yet?”
In his mind’s eye, Steve saw his mother give him a final hug and kiss on the cheek before boarding the train that would take her to the warfront. He watched her wave as the train pulled away, until his mother’s white nurse cap faded into the fog. He swallowed, pushing the nervous feeling away, and nodded. “Yeah. Early this morning.”
“She’ll be back sooner than you know it.” He pulled his arm away from Steve’s shoulder to tip his newsie cap to a passing girl. Then, he snapped his fingers as if a thought had occurred to him. “And Mother wanted me to tell you that you’re welcome to our house for Christmas dinner.”
Steve allowed himself a slight smile, stopping as soon as he felt a flash of pain in his cheek. He put his fingers to his chin for a split second, seeing blood as he pulled them away. He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and pressed it to his chin. He didn’t feel like even thinking about Christmas yet. What kind of mother leaves her kid all alone in Brooklyn the week before Christmas? All he wanted to do on Christmas Day was sit in his mother’s apartment. Nothing more. “Bucky… I don’t know.”
“Come on,” Bucky said, punching Steve’s shoulder. “It’ll be fun! Besides, what else are you gonna do on Christmas Day? Sit around, watching the snow fall on the factory roof outside your window? Where’s the celebration in that? Besides, she made me swear to make you join us.”
“Yeah, well…” He should’ve known that Mrs. Barnes would insist on him coming. Maybe I should go… It might have a good time. He shrugged. “Okay. I’ll be there.”
“Good. Say, what does your Christmas tree look like?”
Steve looked up at Bucky, his brow furrowed. “Buck, I’m twenty years old. I think I’m a little old for that kind of thing.”
“Nobody’s too old to get a Christmas tree.”
Steve rolled his eyes and shoved his hands in his pockets. “I am.”
“Come on,” Bucky told him, motioning with his head across the street.
“Where’re we going?”
“We’re going to get you a Christmas tree.”
Bucky kicked the door open with his foot, then backed into Steve’s apartment, yanking the tree behind him.
“Buck, let me help!” Steve pleaded for the millionth time.
“No,” Bucky firmly replied, for the millionth time. Bucky rolled his eyes. I doubt he could lift a branch, poor kid. He glanced over at Steve as he pulled the tree to the corner of the living room, watching him shut the door and flick on the light. I’ve gotta come here more. He can’t be alone all the time. I’ve gotta be here for him.
“If you won’t let me help, I’m going to make some coffee. Want some?” Steve asked.
“Sugar?” Bucky grunted, pushing the tree into a bucket.
“No thanks, then.” He held the tree steady, then slowly let go. He grinned, thinking of how freaked out Steve would be if it suddenly fell over in the middle of the night.
Steve sat down on the corner of the coffee table, one of the few pieces of furniture in the sparse room. “It looks so empty without anything on it…”
Bucky took a few steps back, surveying. “Got any newspapers? We could make some paper chains.” He fell backwards on the couch, sighing with fatigue. “It’d look nice.”
“I’ll do it tonight.”
Bucky stared at the tree in silence. He didn’t want to tell Steve that he’d spent most of his weekly pay on the tree – the money he was going to spend on his own Christmas tree.
“Dad, can’t we get one?” he had asked his father only two days before.
“Absolutely not. It’s a frivolous waste of money. The nation’s at war and you want to buy a tree and put it in our house? Insane.”
“But Dad; the kids-”
“No, James. Spend your own money on it, if you really want it. Not a penny of my hard-earned pay will go to something that’ll be dead in a month.”
Bucky glanced at Steve, smiling a little as he saw Steve taking in the tree, his eyes brighter than they’d been all day. He averted his gaze back to the tree. It’s worth it. Dad’s right; we don’t need a Christmas tree. Steve does.
“Well, I’d better get going,” Steve said, standing. “Baker said he’d fire me if I’m late one more time.”
Bucky clasped his hands behind his head as he kicked off his shoes. “Mind if I stay for a while? I need to get some rest before heading to the museum tonight.”
“You’re still at the art museum?” Steve asked, eyeing himself in a cracked mirror as he straightened his jacket.
“Yep.” Bucky closed his eyes. “All-night shifts take quite a toll.”
“Well, with the way Baker’s treating me, I might have to join you.”
The corner of Bucky’s mouth pulled up. “Don’t. You’d hate it. Stick with writing movie reviews.”
“I don’t think that’s a good fit for me, either. Everybody’s this close to getting Baker to fire me. Leslie critiques my grammar nonstop, and Paul gives me the classified section every Tuesday.”
Bucky chuckled and opened his eyes. “Stick with it. Who knows? You may be the next Pulitzer.”
“Or not.” Steve stared at himself in the mirror, his eyes saying what his mouth didn’t. Bucky could clearly see that he wasn’t happy. Steve huffed a little, then turned. “Well, I’m leaving. Stay as long as you want, just lock up afterwards. Two thugs tried to shove the door down the other day, but I had the chain on, so that kept ’em away.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t your commanding voice that did it?”
Steve smiled a little. “Yeah. I was hiding in that corner-” he pointed to the corner that now housed the tree- “with a baseball bat in my hands, scared to death.”
Bucky laughed and pulled his cap over his eyes. “Have fun.”
“Something like that.”
Bucky listened as the door shut and locked from the outside. Steve’s footsteps faded away, one slightly heavier than the other. Must have gotten kicked in the leg during that fight. He sighed. Steve, when will you stop picking fights with guys who are three times your size?
He dozed for an hour or two, grateful for the quiet. Heaven only knew how loud it was at his house, what with all the fighting his parents did and the little kids wreaking havoc…
Before he left for the museum, he found a pile of newspapers in the corner, picked out a few that were all at least a few days old, and set them on the table beside a pair of scissors.
A few people around Steve were talking – mostly teenagers and younger kids. Steve, however, wasn’t paying attention to anything else except the screen in front of him. The newsreel kept his gaze riveted to the screen.
Images flashed. War… destruction… chaos. He couldn’t believe it was actually happening. Hadn’t the world just been through this? Why did it have to happen all over again?
A year ago, he had thought that the war should stay in the other countries and didn’t want America to get involved. Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor – a day that shook the nation. His father was drafted and died soon after. Now the war had taken his mother, too – forever or for a few months, he didn’t know.
He hadn’t told anybody – not even Bucky – but ever since his mother had left, he’d been thinking about enlisting. Every time he sat in the movie theater and the newsreel started, he thought about it again. Sometimes, the thought of joining the army distracted him while the film was playing and he couldn’t write a good review afterward. He still wasn’t sure about it, though. He tried to push it out of his mind, but couldn’t help thinking about it every time he thought of his mother, of his father, or of the war. Maybe it could happen…
The film started, and he forced his mind to focus on the screen and not on the war. He couldn’t afford to lose this job. Not with his mother gone, too.
After the movie, he walked home – the long way. He was usually able to think better that way. He outlined the review in his head as he walked down Brooklyn streets. The movie was called Holiday Inn, and he had enjoyed it more than he thought he would – especially Fred Astaire’s patriotic Fourth of July number, complete with firecrackers and footage from the war. He didn’t care for Bing Crosby’s voice, but he didn’t mind it, either.
As he played with the opening sentence of the review – something about a song in the movie called ‘White Christmas’ that was sure to be a hit – he walked past a shop window, then did a double-take and stopped. Inside the window he saw a small paper advertisement for a traveling circus. Steve rubbed his hands together and blew on them, leaning forward to see the ad better. Bucky has always wanted to go to the circus… I wonder how much the tickets are. He blew on his hands again before entered the store.
Eight minutes later, he left the store, two dollars gone from his wallet, replaced by two tickets to the circus. Bucky can find someone to take with him, Steve thought as he listened to the snow crunch under his feet as he made his way home. It’ll be a nice date. He chuckled, thinking of all the times Bucky had tried to drag him along on a double-date. It never worked. At least he always has a good time by himself – or so he always tells me, Steve thought, hoping Bucky would like his gift. He didn’t have much money to spare, but he knew his best friend was worth it.
Two days before Christmas, Bucky left the museum as soon as the curator came to open up. He waved goodbye to the man, wishing him a merry Christmas, and dashed home. He tried to get a few minutes of shut-eye, but the kids kept him awake with their happy giggles about Christmas being so soon. He gave up after an hour or so and started wrapping his Christmas gift to Steve. He smiled as he tied the string, more than a little pleased with himself and his choice. I just hope he likes it…
“James!” his mother yelled at him from downstairs.
“Yes?” he replied.
“Get these children out of here – they’re driving me crazy!”
Bucky straightened the bow, hid the present under his pillow, and grabbed his jacket as he ran out of his room. “Come on, kids,” he called, thumping down the stairs. “Anybody wanna go see a movie?”
Within seconds, all six of his younger siblings had swarmed around him, like flies to honey. His mother handed him few quarters and shooed them away, a little harsh in her eagerness to have the house to herself. Bucky didn’t like the fact that she seemed so stressed, but dismissed the unsettling feeling as he stepped out into the cold. He inhaled deeply, hoping that the harsh winds would wake him up enough to watch his siblings carefully.
“Come on, guys. Ready to go?”
His siblings all cheered, jumped up and down, and giggled as they started on their outing. Bucky walked behind the group, keeping one eye on the kids and the other on two ladies walking the same way on the sidewalk across the street. After a few minutes, he noticed them glancing at him, then whispering to each other and giggling. He smiled and winked at them, then ran with his siblings for the final block to the theater.
As the newsreel played, he thought about the American men overseas. Part of him wanted to join them, but the part that wanted to stay in America kept overpowering his desire to serve his country. Most of all, he didn’t want to die. And there was no guarantee that he could go to war and come back alive.
But isn’t that the point? he asked himself as he watched footage of a young man getting carried off the battlefield, his face contorted in pain. To be willing to give your life for your country, not knowing if you’ll get it back?
He glanced at his siblings sitting in the seats beside him, then stretched his arms and dropped them on the backs of his siblings’ chairs. Peter stuck his tongue out at Bucky before leaning over to whisper to Timmy about something, and Maggie cuddled into Bucky’s side, wrapping her arms around his waist. He stared at the screen in front of him, but couldn’t focus.
How can I leave this? Is my country really worth leaving all of this? He mussed Peter’s hair and kissed Maggie’s head, then settled back in his seat.
Unless I get drafted, I’m not going.