Thursday, December 22, 2016

Danny

Danny was a great guy, a real peach, and we all hated him.

You might've heard about Danny. He's a Righteous Dude. Looks smart, acts smart, does everything for all the right reasons.  Lives to serve, serves to live - you know the type. Loved by all. Well, mostly all. The boys and I, we had our issues with his lifestyle.

He has a great pad, living in a quiet room at the top of the tallest building in the city, looking out over it like a sentinel, seeing from that dizzy height what no one else can see, or wishes to see. Top of the world. Probably feels like it, too.

Truth is, he's a madman, a lunatic. Some say he's a visionary, but that's stretching a point. He's completely nuts. If it weren't for the fact that the political winds have always blown in his favor, he would have been gone long ago. Yet there he is, still watching over us all like a primordial vulture, living in his archaic dream-world, judging us, condemning us.

He's a god-fanatic.

The boys on the Council have tolerated him because the people love him. People! You know how they can be. Sentimental. Ignorant. Easily roused to anger. And no one wants to rouse the anger of the people. Too many politicians have ignored the sentiment of the people and found themselves swinging from the end of a rope. Or worse. So they tolerate him. And wait. Sooner or later, he's bound to do something completely insane, and then they'll have him!

But god. Religion. Invisible beings who meddle in human affairs, bending the laws of physics into random shapes in order to give precedence of one man over another. It would be laughable if it wasn't so ... dangerous. And the Boss knows this. He knows this.  How could he not know this?

The funny thing is, the Boss likes Daniel. It's like they're old college buddies or something. Daniel likes to come up to the office sometimes and just jabber mindlessly like some braying donkey, not even hearing the inanities that are coming out of his mouth. And the Boss listens.  Sure, sometimes he laughs and jokes around and rolls his eyes, but you can see that gets into it. I mean, he actually listens. It's like there's some magnetic pull that ol' Daniel has him, and even when he's spouting nonsense, the Boss can't turn away from him.

Now I'm not saying that the Boss is going to suddenly drop to his knees and start praying to some Invisible Being. He's not an idiot. But, like I said, he really likes Daniel.

The boys and I, well, we're a little worried that all that crap coming out of Daniel's mouth is going to start to have an effect on things. On the Boss. On us. So we came up with a little plan. We decided to put together a little proposal for the Boss, something that sounded like a great deal, something that would appeal to his vanity - he had quite a bit - and, at the same time, put Danny in his place.

The way things work around here, when the Boss says something, that's the way it is. The Law. And he doesn't back down from anything, because he has that much pride. One of these days, it'll be his downfall; but for now, that's the way it is.

So we came up with the Loyalty Oath. It really wasn't much of anything, just a stiff-arm salute to the Boss whenever he came into the room. Kind of like saying, Hey, we acknowledge that you're the Boss, and we'll die for you. Pretty cool gimmick, actually.

And we knew ol' Danny wouldn't go for it. See, he's got his priorities kind of mixed up. He says that this god of his comes first. But, hey, what are you gonna do when the Boss says one thing and this 'god' says something else? A man's gotta know which way the wind blows so he leans the right way, or else he gets blown over.

And it was time for Danny to get blown.

The boys and I talked it over with the Boss late one night after drinks, making sure he was in a really good mood, relaxed and mellow. He went for it, big-time. Thought it was a fantastic idea. In fact, he kind of went overboard on it, insisting that not just the boys on the Council give over, but everyone in the City. Well, it might take some doing, but we figured we could put the word out. Might have to bang a few heads to make sure there wasn't any problems, but it should work.

We had made sure the Secretary was ready. He wrote it up and got the Boss's signature, and from that point on, it was Law.

And for Danny, it was only a matter of time.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

End of Days

So here it is now, just the two of us, sitting at the door of heaven. We have had a long life, you and I, a very long life. So many memories, so many stories, enough heartbreak and happiness for several lifetimes. And do you know what I think? I think if I had to do it all over again, I would do it exactly the same.

Ha! you laugh. And you are right. What a stupid thing to say. Of course I would do things differently! So many mistakes, so many regrettable things I have done! The nights you cried because of the horrible things I had said, the horrible things I had done. The days you spent hidden behind hurt eyes, avoiding me because of your broken heart. You know I would never want to put you through that pain, not again. The lessons have been learned, my heart has changed. I am not the young man you knew so many years ago, the man who seemed to have the world on a string.

Do you remember those days? Do you remember the hours we spent laughing and singing, blissfully ignorant of the future, thinking that everything ahead was going to be wine and roses, flowers and springtime? How light-hearted, how carefree we were! Every moment was a treasure, every hour a blissful eternity. Every touch of your hand was a precious gift, every glance from your eyes a shower of joy, every kiss of your lips a mountain of pleasure.

And yet here we are at the End of Days, looking back on a life gone by, wondering if it was, indeed, a life worth living, worth celebrating. Will anyone look upon us today and thank God that we were here? Will anyone calculate the sum total of the good we have done and declare it worthwhile? Or will our lives be deemed a complete waste?

We did what we could, you and I. We toiled under the sun, we ate our crusts of bread, we were good to our neighbors, we raised our children as best we knew how. We took care of our parents, we taught our children, we watched them pass on to other realms, other worlds, and then we turned around and faced ourselves, alone, back at the place we'd started, so much the same and yet so different. We had given up our youth, our vitality, our golden years for the sake of others, and now we had all the rest of our lives to spend together, at last, the happy couple at the end of their wedding day, driving off into the sunset with the future before them like a marvelously unwritten script.

But the script was written long before we came together. The play is done, the curtain has closed, the audience is long gone, the lights are slowly going out and there is nothing to anticipate but the final reviews. Will our little play be acceptable? Will there be a return engagement? It is hard to judge from the stage. We think we did our best, although each and every mistake is like a dagger in our heart. Oh, that this could merely be a rehearsal! And several more before Opening Night! To have the chance to practice, to get it right, to be so perfect in our delivery that even the harshest of critics might rise to his feet in glorious ovation!

Yet this is not to be. We have strutted and fretted our hour upon the stage, and all is done. Now there is only the removal of greasepaint, the discarding of costumes, the revelation of our true selves.

You think that you know me, you who have lived with me all these many years. You think you know me because we have shared the same bed, the same house, the same air -- but there are so many hidden layers to my mind which not even I can fathom, so many levels to my self which I have kept hidden from you. Not out of fear, but out of certainty, certainty that you would turn away in horror from the true person who lies at the core of my being. A multitude of masks covers me from view, and though you may have peeled some from my visage, you have never found the one true face which lies behind all those other faces. How can I be so certain? Because you are still here, you have not left me behind, racing for the sunlight from my dungeon of misery. If only you knew -

But you say that you have hidden layers as well. I laugh! For you are as likely to have unknown secrets as I to have wings. Why else would I have picked you? Your open, honest nature decries any evil complicity. Your faith and earnestness sits on your sleeve like a badge. You are above reproach. Yes, you have done things of which you are not proud; yes, you have ingrained habits that lead you down darker paths; yes, you have hurt others with unkind words and thoughts and deeds. But what of it? It is all you, all out in the open, all revealed for the world to see. There is no guile in you. You are who you are; I am who I am not.

You do not know me as I know myself. If you did, you would not -- could not love me. No one could. My mind has known the foulest sewage that ever coursed through the pipes of Bedlam. My thoughts have dredged through the putrescent swamps and clouded my vision with unmerited hatreds and murderous intents. My hands have clenched to perform unspeakable acts, held back only by the fear of discovery and retribution. I am a coward, a thief, a liar and an adulterer. My hands are not worthy to touch a blade of grass; my feet are not worthy to walk upon the earth.

So here I am at the End of Days, confessing to you my worth, admitting to you my self-hatred, my loathing, my desire to face the Judgement and be done with it. Not to curse God and die, but to simply say that I'm sorry I was not the man He needed me to be, not the man you needed me to be. If only there were a way to go back and do it all differently, do it rightly, to run the race well along the whole course instead of trying to make it all good in the end.

You smile -- oh, what a smile! Your face was ever your most appealing feature. With that smile, you slew me through the heart; with that smile, you entered my dreams; with that smile, you convinced me that I could share in the happiness that seemed to be yours. Oh, I would have died for that smile.

And, in a way, I did.

For when I promised to love you and cherish you to the End of Days, that part of me which was reprehensible was buried behind endless layers of falsehood, endless disguises of purity, so that you might never suspect the truth which lay like a corpse beneath a tomb of pearly white. You always saw the good in me, though there was very little to see; you always encouraged the better of me, though it was little better than the worst man had ever been. You smiled like the Daughter of Heaven, shining light into my life which took away all the darkness.

Now you lie in my arms and your brief candle goes out, flickering here and there in the wind of your final breath, still smiling, still shining, still trying to redeem the one whose corruptness you will never suspect. Your rhythmic heartbeat ceases; your skin grows ever colder as the moments pass; the stillness of your once-vibrant body becomes like marble. Tenderly, I reach up and close your eyes with my worshipful fingers, then kiss you on the forehead.

I have loved you to the End of Days, and now you are gone while I remain this little while longer. And the shadows long hidden within my soul come forward to make claim upon me, demanding recompense for the years wasted in the darkness. The light which once enveloped me is dimmed forever; your body lies still upon the bed, your spell of protection no longer in force. The layers of purity fall from my shoulders like rotting capes, revealing the true nature of the man I always was, the man I will always be from this day forward.

Until the next End of Days.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The First Day of the Rest of Your Life

The bed was soft like feathers against her skin; the pillow was a cushion of air, like floating on a cloud. It was warm and comfortable with the edge of the covers against her face and the scent of freshly-laundered sheets wafting up into her nose; she could stay here all day, ignoring the world and all its troubles. But there was school and chores and homework to do, and time was moving on, as her father used to say, and -

She opened her eyes. Her father was gone. He had been gone a long time. And there was no warm, comfortable bed and no freshly-laundered sheets. No school. No homework. Only a dirty old mattress on the floor of this dirty little room that was barely large enough for it. A tattered old blanket that was barely enough to cover her legs. A pair of red shorts, short enough to expose every curve of her body. A ratty yellow tube top, held together with safety pins. High-heeled shoes which made her feet ache after hours of walking the streets.

She slowly got to her feet, still groggy from the night's work. The room reeked of stale fluids, unmentionable and nauseating. She needed a smoke, but the last of the cigarettes was stubbed out on the floor, a soldier in an infinite army of the dead. She'd have to go out and get more. Did she have any money? Did she get paid last night? She couldn't remember. There was nothing in the pocket of her shorts, nothing in the top, nothing on the mattress. Had Jimmy taken it? She wouldn't put it past him to sneak in while she was sleeping and take it; he could be such a jerk sometimes. That's OK, she thought. He knows I'm good for it. I'll just go down and get it from him. Gotta have a smoke. A drink. Something.

In a minute.

She leaned against the grimy window and looked out into the mid-morning streets. People. Walking. Walking fast, as though they had somewhere to go. Where were they going? So many people, so many people with things to do. Important things? What did everyone else do with themselves? A fleeting wonder danced on the tip of her mind: What would it be like to be one of them? Just an ordinary person, with an ordinary life. Getting up in the morning, having a bowl of cereal and a glass of juice, hurrying off to work, spending the day laughing and talking about stupid things that don't really matter, coming home at the of the day to a clean house and a clean man, a man who tousled the heads of his mop-haired children instead of -

A spasm shook her throat, and she stopped the daydream dead in its tracks. Stop. It. Now. She had seen the flash of that man's face, and it wasn't the face of a man she ever wanted to see again. Never.

Smoke. She needed a smoke. And a drink. Why was there never anything to drink in this lousy room?

She dressed slowly, her head starting to ache. She really needed that drink. Her ankles were bruised and sore from the shoes, the walking. She should find a cheap pair of sneakers to wear. Jimmy wouldn't mind if she wore sneakers for a while, would he? No, he'd probably just beat her senseless. He could hear his voice in her head: "You don't need nuthin I don't give you. I gave you everything you need!" And he had. All she needed was shoes, shorts and a tank, and that was what she got. And she only needed those until some drooling businessman with a frozen wife and a boring life stopped long enough to drop a wad in the backseat of his car on his way home, or one of the locals got lucky and felt like celebrating with a little touch and tickle in the upper loft. It didn't matter, so long as they paid. And they paid. She was good; she was pretty. She brought in the business. Now it was time to get a little return on the investment. She'd ask Jimmy. He might be in a good mood today.

She clomped down the stairs not from anger or boldness, but because her head was still fuzzy and she couldn't really see straight yet. What had she drunk last night? She couldn't remember. One bottle was the same as another to her. At least the guy hadn't stuck around. She hated it when they were still there in the morning, stinking of sweat and beer and whatever else had leaked out of their body orifices. Those were the dregs, the ones who didn't even have the sense to take what they wanted and then get out. The ones whose brains had been burned out by drugs or drink or life. She had long ago learned to not be around when they woke up. They were crazy. And stupid. And sometimes dangerous when they realized she wasn't their little lost princess.

Funny. She wasn't hearing anything. Usually there was noise. Other people, other girls taking care of their morning business. She got down to the bathroom on the main floor and the door was open and there was no one there. Usually she had to wait a while for a turn. She didn't bother shutting the door. No pretense of privacy in a place like this, not after Jimmy had torn the doors off one of the rooms when one of the girls brought in an undercover cop. No secrets here. Just something you get used to.

She washed her hands when she was done, splashed cool water on her face, wiped it off with a paper towel from the roll on the floor. Felt a little better. Hope always felt better with a clean face. She adjusted her clothes. Shook off the fuzz. Tightened her ankles. Walked to the door and stepped out into the morning sunshine and stood on the stoop and felt the cool, clean air of the city swallow her whole. Closed her eyes and waited til the blinding brightness of the mid-morning sun faded to a comforting glow against her eyelids, then opened them. Slowly.

Jimmy lay in a heap at the bottom of the stoop, a neat little hole in the middle of his forehead, framed in a pool of shimmering red.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Letter to My Son

                                                                                                               28 October
                                                                                                               Bedford Falls

               My dearest son,

               Your compliments to me at the dinner table tonight were greatly appreciated. We have had our issues over the years, you and I, and neither of us is exceptional at communicating; but I believe we both know how much we love and care for one another whether it is spoke aloud or hidden in the heart. I want you to know that I treasure you not only as my loyal companion and fellow worker these past four years, but also because you are my son, my joy, the hope of my years and the comfort of my soul. You have given me such great pleasure over the years as you have grown into manhood, into a life of service, into a life that puts others' interests ahead of his own. You make me proud to be your father.
                Ah! My son, if I could impart the wisdom of the Ages to you, it would be a mere reiteration of the Scriptures you know so well. Love others as I have loved you. Keep my commandments. Show your faith by doing good works. All these things you know, and you do, and may I be forgiven for expressing some small hope that you might have learned some of that by my own example?
                I have tried to live a good life, tried to watch out for my fellow man, tried to give back from the bounty I have been given, tried to ease others' burdens, tried to make my fellow traveler's lives just a little bit easier. It has not been easy, and there were times when discouragement and pessimism nearly destroyed me; but through the strength God gave me, and the love and encouragement of your mother, I have persevered.
                Now we face yet another storm on the horizon, and something in me tells me that I may not be around to help you through it. My body is weak and tired, the headaches have been getting worse, and it feels as though I could lay down and sleep for a thousand years. I am afraid; not for myself, because I know where I am going when this body's time is done. But I fear for you, because you are young and ambitious and impatient and you have your whole life ahead of you, and with all that on your mind, with the endless mystery and enchantment of the world before you, what chance do the pitiful dreams of a few worthless souls have of being heard by your heart? They are not your blood, not your kin; and their dreams of a roof over their head and some bread on the table are nothing in comparison to yours. Yes, I have seen your dreams: in the way your eyes light up when you read those magazines of yours, when you look out across the valley and think of the challenges in the big cities so far away, when you hear the train whistle and that wistful look comes over you. You long to leave, to do things I cannot even imagine, and if it were in my power to grant you the wealth and opportunity necessary to see those dreams come true, you know that I would do it. You are my son, and my love for you is boundless. Yet -
                I would have you consider the worth of a man, the worth of every man, in comparison to the dreams of your accomplishments. The world is filled with people's dreams, people's aspirations; and while some are grand and amazing to our eyes, others are judged to be ridiculous simply because they are short-sighted, barely beyond the next day's dawning. This is more a fault of circumstance than the quality of their dreams. A hungry man can think of nothing else but his next meal; a sick man cannot plan his life more than a few moments in advance. You live in relative comfort, and that comfort grants you the ability to expand your dreams far beyond the immediate. As others live from hand to mouth, may they be forgiven for having pedestrian dreams?
                So when they come to you with their hands outstretched and their eyes pleading, do not dismiss them as incumbrences and burdens, but accept that your lot in life is to share what you have, to lift up those who cannot lift themselves, and consider all things to be gifts given of God, not for any one man in particular but for all Mankind in the collective. And if you do these things, no matter how high a goal you attain or how low a situation you find yourself, you will always be blessed by those whom you help, for they will call you a true friend.
                My time is short. I can feel things falling apart inside. Do not blame God for it; we are tasked to do with what we have, and I have had a good run here in this place. My wife is the glory of my days, and my children are the beacon of my hope. In you I place all my own dreams, not so that you can abandon your own to see my own fulfilled, but so that you may be their caretaker, their talespinner; in the years to come, you may speak of me to your own children and grandchildren, telling them who I was, how I was, what I was. And I would have you speak to them not of my glories or my failings, but of my dreams, the thoughts that captured my heart and drove me onward through this life disregarding the obstacles in my path.
                Do that for me, my son. Don't let the things for which I have stood be dismantled by those who would dismiss them as useless fantasies. Stand up for what is right and good, be strong when all around you are weak, help those who are in trouble, and be a blessing to the world no matter what you do.
                I love you, son.

                Peter Bailey

p.s. Please don't think too harshly of Potter; he's

Editor's note: 
This is the unfinished letter found beside Peter Bailey the night of his stroke; he died two days later without regaining consciousness

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Old Man's Valentine



The old man in the tattered driving cap opened the door to his warm, comfortable little house and walked inside, placing his briefcase beside the door for the very last time and pulling the scarf from around his neck.   The radio was playing a lively waltz. The wonderful smell of fresh-baked cookies filled the air and he smiled, picturing his wifeby the oven, wearing an apron sprinkled with flour, her half-moon spectacles balanced firmly on her nose, her bright cheeks flushed with accomplishment, a smile spread across her face as wide and warm and inviting as the summer sun.  He paused, listening for the sound of her muffled footsteps.  There.  She was in the kitchen, of course.  By the oven.  He could see in his mind's eye the metal sheet filled with cookies as she laid it carefully on the cooling trays, her hands encased in green oven mitts, her nostrils flaring as she bent down and tested the quality of her work with a practiced sniff.

"Welcome home!" she called out.

"It's good to be home," he answered.  And it was.  He pulled off his coat as he walked to the closet and opened the door.  There were very few coats left in the closet, not nearly as many as there once had been.  Plenty of hangers from which to choose.  He picked one randomly and placed it inside his coat, then hung it back up near the center, slightly to the right.  Next to hers.  They looked so small in that huge empty space.  Lots of room.

He closed the closet door and walked into the kitchen.  She met him there and they wrapped their arms around each other, kissing one another affectionately - twice - and then stood still for a moment, feeling the warmth passing between them.

She giggled.  "You must really like that hat," she said mischievously.  "What?" He reached up and touched his head.  Yes, his hat was still on his head.  He grinned and pulled it off, tossing it carelessly onto the kitchen table.  "I do," he said.  "But I suppose I won't need it for a while."

"No," she said, released him from her arms and stepping back to look at him.  "But you will need to wash that sweater now.  It's got flour all over it."

He looked down.  His blue sweater was lightly dusted with with snowy whiteness.  "Oh, well," he said.  "Not the first time."

She turned around so that her back was to him, and he untied the apron strings, leaning forward so that his nose was just above her hair.  He breathed deeply.  "Thanks."  "My pleasure," he said, and meant it.  She slipped the apron over her head and draped it across the back of a kitchen chair, then walked over to the couch and sat down with a sigh.  "Busy day?"

"Quite," he said, remembering it.  He walked over to the counter and looked down at the red-and-white cookies on the trays.  "Lots of paperwork to do.  Forms to fill out.  Final instructions for the team.  That sort of thing."  He touched one of the cookies, felt its softness, its warmth.  Ten more minutes, he thought.  And a glass of ice-cold milk to go with it.

"Lunch was good, though," he said, turning back to her.  "Nearly everyone was there.  Some folks I hadn't seen for a long time.  From over at the old office.  Nice to see them again.  Hard to believe it's been so many years now.  So many gray hairs now.  Some all white.  Quite a few coming up for retirement soon."

He walked over to his comfy chair which faced the couch and sat down, then sighed, an echo of hers.  "Strange.  To be done with all that."

"Now you'll finally have time for all those things you've been wanting to do for so long."  She looked at him with that smile, that wonderful smile.  So many possibilities, so many good times ahead.  He had dreamed of this moment for so many years, this moment when all those possibilities lay ahead of them, with all the time in the world to take advantage of them.  He hoped there was time.

"Yes," he said, "and we'll be able to do some traveling now, like our parents did.  Go see the kids.  Spend time with the grandkids.  See a bit of the world."

"Yes," she agreed.  "But not just yet."

"No," he said.  "Not just yet."

They sat for a moment in silence, looking at each other.  He let his mind drift aimlessly, feeling in his mind the curve of her face, the tilt of her smile, the depth of her deep brown eyes.  He could lose himself in that face.  He could still remember her face from long ago, the young girl who had captured his heart with her smile, the playful brilliance of her eyes, her humorous wit, her raw energy for living.  That face was still there, changed somewhat by time, improved by a dignity and grace of a life well lived, of many hard lessons learned, but with an energy undimmed by the years.

She laughed suddenly.  "What are you grinning about?" she asked with a flush in her cheek.

"You're beautiful," he said in a reverent tone.

"That's why you married me," she said, teasing.

"Among other reasons."

"Such as?"

"Your amazing ability to turn ordinary food into gourmet dishes.  Your financial wizardry.  Your knowledge of Classic Literature.  Your grasp of world politics. Your amazing skills with needle and thread.  Your appreciation for good music.  The way your fingers dance over a piano keyboard.  Your infatuation with Jane Austen novels.  Your devotion to Biblical studies.  There are oh, so many reasons.  How could I possibly name them all?"

She laughed again.  "Well, you've certainly given it a good start.  How can I possibly thank you enough for those kind words?"

"Oh!" He sat up straight and patted his pockets as if looking for something.  "I know just the thing."

Her brow furrowed.  "What now?"

He patted his chest.  "I know they were here somewhere..."

"What are you talking about?"

He reached inside his sweater to his shirt pocket.  "Oh, here they are!"  He pulled out a small envelope and held it up.  Her eyes widened ever so slightly.

"Symphony tickets," he said.  "Tonight.  Eight o'clock.  Would you care to accompany me, my dear?  They're playing out song."  He stood up and handed her the envelope.  She took it and pulled the flap open and looked at the contents.  Two symphony tickets.  She read the name of the selections.  Then looked up at him, her eyes twinkling.

"I would be most pleased to accompany you," she said in her best Jane Austen voice.  "And what will we be celebrating this fine evening?  Your retirement?"

He shook his head.  "The beginning of the rest of our lives," he said, taking her by the hand and pulling her close once more.  "May it be long and glorious."

"Silly old man," she whispered in his ear as they began to dance to the elegant music which filled the room.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Violet Dreams


                George is going to jail, and there's nothing I can do about it.  I know he doesn't deserve it; he never did anything to hurt anyone, so far as I know.  And if there's anyone in the world who would know about George, it's me.  I'd have given the world for him.

                They say he's a thief and an embezzler, but I don't believe it.  He couldn't steal a rattle from a baby, not even if the kid was fast asleep .  It's just not his way.  He's a decent kind of guy, the kind of guy any girl would give anything to be with.  Well, any girl that's grown up enough to understand that the good guys aren't the ones with the fancy cars and the diamond watches and wallets stuffed with cash.  The good guys are the ones who come home every night and talk to their wives like they're real people, and kiss their children good-night as they tuck them in, and ask if there's anything at all they can do to make life easier for their family.  The good guys are the ones who'd rather spend an evening playing cards with their wives than being out in the bars with their friends.

                There aren't many good guys left.  I know.  I've looked.  Oh, there are plenty of guys out there, hanging out in gin joints and billiard parlors, drinking too much and talking too much and fighting too much; and if he happens to be married, he'll lie to your face and tell you he isn't, or he doesn't want to be any more.  Because he's gotten sick of seeing her cold, shrew-like little face with its thin white lips screeching at him every night like a banshee about how miserable her life is, how much money he doesn't make, how she should've listened to her mother and married somebody else.   It's no wonder he shrinks away from her touch like she's got the plague.  You'd think he'd be happy to leave her.

                But he's not.  None of 'em are.  They're cowards, all of 'em.  Too scared to stand up to it at home, and too scared to tell the truth in public.  They're just looking for a good time, something to soothe the pain for a while so they can make it through another day. Taking the easy way out.

                That's me.  I'm easy.  Easy on the eyes, easy on the ears, easy on the - well, maybe not so easy on the pocketbook.  After all, a woman's got to make a living somehow, doesn't she?  And they don't seem to mind.  After all, we're all friends.  Or so they tell me.  Yeah, we're all great friends; and we smile and dance and laugh and have a wonderful time together, because they are strong, handsome, virile men and I'm a beautiful young girl in a pretty dress; and they're spending time with me, not with that little woman back at home, the one who cooks their meals and cleans their clothes and irons their shirts and wiipes their little kids' noses; I'm not the one who wears the frumpy clothes around the house and doesn't have time for makeup and complains that he doesn't make enough money or doesn't spend enough time with me and the kids; I'm not the one who's too tired at the end of the day when he wants a little action.

                But sometimes I wish I was.  Especially if it was George who was doing the asking.

                That's how I keep from going crazy these days, just imagining what it would've been like.  What it should've been like.  Me and George, I mean.  Together.  Everything would've been different then. Because I could've convinced him to move out of this little death-trap of a town, to turn his back on all the dead weight that was dragging him down and get over to the big city where he could've done great things, really become somebody, shown the world what he was made of.  And he would've been somebody, too.  I know, because I know all the things he did when he was young, before all the gray deadness of this town dropped over him like a shroud and killed whatever spirit there was that lived inside him.  He was a real adventurer in those days.  He was going to conquer the world.  And I was going to follow him to the ends of the earth.  It was going to be fantastic.

                Of course, being the kind of guy he is, he didn't have a clue how much I loved him.  Even though I was dropping hints since I was ten years old.

                That's the thing about guys.  Sometimes you just have to wait til they grow up before they figure it out.  I don't mean "old". They say George was "born old", but that wasn't the same thing.  Being the one in the family who takes responsibility seriously isn't the same as knowing when a girl has a crush on you.   That takes a different kind of smart, and a little bit of egotism.  George didn't have any of that.   He has always been the humblest guy I'd ever known.  Which meant that he never wanted to talk about himself; he always wanted to talk about you.

                Maybe that's what attracted me to him.  He actually listened to me.  Not like the others, who only pretended.  He actually listened, actually cared.

                With the kind of grades he was getting, we all thought he would go to college right out of high school, but he decided he'd rather stay home and work in the family business instead, get some valuable experience - and some serious dough - before heading off to the ivory tower.  They weren't offering a lot of scholarships for guys that didn't play sports, anyway.  Mostly, he didn't want to leave his daddy in a lurch.  Lord knows that Building and Loan was always one step ahead of bankruptcy; they needed all the hands they could get to keep it afloat.

                So George was still around when I was finishing up High School, and I saw him quite a bit, since his brother, Harry, was in my class.  But he never paid me any special attention.  After all, I was just one of the kids in his brother's class.

                Until the night of the graduation dance.

                I don't know what prompted him to come to the graduation party.  I certainly wasn't expecting him.  But there he was, standing by the food tables with his brother, chatting with some of the teachers he hadn't seen in a while, laughing and carrying on like it was his own graduation.

                Naturally, I walked right up to him the moment I saw him, swinging my dance card jauntily with my hand.  "What am I bid for the first dance?" I teased.  The look on his face told me that I'd picked the right dress.

                "Well, hey, Violet!" he said.

                "Well, hey, Georgie!" I responded, holding out my card.  "How'd you like to be the first one on my dance card?"

                His smile got very big.  "That sounds very tempting, very tempting indeed," he said.  And he grabbed me by the hand and we went out onto the dance floor and started spinning around to the music of Hoagy Carmichael and Louis Armstrong and whatever else the boys in the band could come up with.  He was a great dancer, George was.  And he didn't even bother looking around for another partner in-between dances.  We were like paper and glue that night, cheek to cheek and ear to ear.

                And when Ralphie Edwards pushed the switch in the middle of the Charleston contest and the dance floor split open right underneath us to reveal the pool beneath, he and I were one of the first ones to dive in.  Naturally, my dress was ruined, but he gallantly offered to pay for it.

                Or he would have, if that's what had really happened.  What actually happened was that, just before he was about to say, "Well, hey, Violet!", Marty Hatch, one of his old school chums, busted in and ruined the whole evening.

                "George!"

                "Marty!"

                "Hey, George, you remember my little sister, Mary," he said.  "Dance with her, will ya?  It'll give her the biggest thrill of her life."

                I hadn't even noticed that Mary was there.  But we all looked over at her when Marty pointed her out, and there she was in a cute little blue dress, all prim and proper.  She was definitely going for the "girl-next-door" look.  Suddenly my own outfit seemed like too much.  Too much for George Bailey, anyway.  From the look that came over his face, it was obvious that the rest of the world had all but disappeared.

                Fine.  I could deal with that.  I could find someone else to dance with.   And I did, too.  Out of spite, I grabbed Marty.  He wasn't the best dancer, and his trousers were a little too short for his gangly legs, but we were doing fine, right up til the moment that idiot Ralphie pushed the button that opened up the floor, revealing the pool underneath.  And then someone pushed me in.

                And my dress was ruined.

                I was furious.  It had cost me practically all the money I had in the world to get that dress.  I didn't know how I was going to explain that to my mother.  She was going to kill me!

                But it could've been worse, I suppose.  At least my mother didn't die of a stroke that night, like George's father. 

                Everything changed for him after that. For one thing, he didn't go to college like he'd planned.   After all, someone had to run the Building and Loan.  Someone other than Uncle Billy.  And that meant George.   So George gave all his college money to his brother, Harry.

                For another, he all but disappeared from society.  I'm not sure if it was out of embarrassment, shame, or that the business took up all his free time.  But I didn't get another chance to see George Bailey for about a year or so.   By then, I was back from college and working like a dog.

                It turned out that college just wasn't in the cards for me.  I just didn't have the patience for it.  The lectures were boring, the coursework was way over my head, and the only time it was ever any fun, was during the weekend parties.  Because there were boys and booze and dancing and laughing.  How could all those boring books compete with that?

                For my mother's sake, though, I kept at it for a year, but that was enough.  I'd spent enough of her money and it wasn't doing either of us any good, so it was back home for me, back with my mother, the both of us trying to keep our heads above water with whatever employment we could find.  She was taking in laundry and ironing, and I was serving tables over at one of the restaurants downtown.

                George came in one day at lunchtime with his uncle, both of 'em looking browbeat and tired.   Another typical day at the office.  And the day was only half over.

                "Hey," he said when I came up to his table, "I didn't know you worked here!"

                I smiled real big and acted happy to see him - which I was.  "Hey, yourself, George.  I've been here a couple weeks now."

                "Oh, is college out already?"

                "I - I had to quit college."

                "I'm sorry to hear that, Violet. What happened?"

                Trying not to sound embarrassed - which I was - I said, "Well, you know how it is.  Money's pretty tight at home, and Mom was needing help with bills and things."  He would certainly understand that point of view.  "So I'll work for awhile, then maybe go back."

                He looked up at me, kind of dreamy-like and kind of curious, all at the same time.  "But you were there, weren't you?  What was it like?"

                It wasn't something I really wanted to talk about, but, at that moment, I'd recite the Declaration of Independence to keep talking with George.

                "It was loads of fun, George.  Staying up late, hanging out with friends, talking til the cows come home.  It was ... exciting."

                "I wish I could've gone with you."

                "I know, George.  You would've really enjoyed it."

                "Say," he said, his face turning with that sly kind of look, the kind of look I hadn't seen for a long time, the look that said he'd gotten a fantastic idea but didn't want to blurt it out all at once for fear of scaring people away. "I've got an idea.  Are you interested in a little adventure?"

                Now he was talking my language!  "Sure, George.  What do you have in mind?"

                "Well, you and I haven't had a chance to talk much lately, and I'm feeling kind of talkative today, and - say, what time do you get off work, anyway?"

                "About seven, right after the dinner rush."

                "Would you perhaps be interested in going out for a little coffee and dessert after work tonight?  I could pick you up about eight o'clock, if that wouldn't be too late."

                I swear, my heart almost stopped beating.

                "On, no, that wouldn't be too late!  That would be wonderful, George!"

                He smiled that crooked smile of his, the one that always made me feel light-headed.   "OK, it's a date, then."

                And then he and his uncle finished up their lunch and walked back to the office, and I spent the rest of the day in a haze, wondering what to wear and what to say and where we'd go.  And then I got off work and went home and put on my prettiest dress, and did my hair up just right; and he picked me up in that old rattle-trap car of his at eight o'clock on the dot, and we went to Spinoza's for coffee and pastries, and then we took a long drive out to Lookout Point near the Falls, and as we sat there in the moonlight, he told me all his hopes and dreams.  And I leaned over on his shoulder, and he put his arms around me, and sometime just before midnight, he kissed me, and it was like fireworks going off inside.

                Well, that's the way it should've gone, anyway.

                In actual truth, it was bit different.

                "Hey, Violet," he said when I came up to the table.  "I didn't know you worked here!"

                I smiled real big and acted happy to see him - but meanwhile I was thinking that neither one of them was going to leave much of a tip because they were both notorious penny-pinchers.   "Hey, yourself, George.  I've been here a couple weeks now."

                "Oh, is college out already?"

                "I - I had to quit college."

                "I'm sorry to hear that, Violet. What happened?"

                Trying not to sound embarrassed - which I was - I said, "Well, you know how it is.  Money's pretty tight at home, and Mom was needing help with bills and things."  He would certainly understand that point of view.  "So I'll work for awhile, then maybe go back."

                "That sounds sensible, Violet.  Good luck with that.  I think I'll have the grilled cheese sandwhich with the tomato soup.   What about you, Uncle Billy?"

                And that was it.  The end of our happy little reunion conversation.  Oh, he wished me luck again after they were done eating and they'd paid the bill - leaving me a bigger tip than I had expected.  But that was about it for a very long time.

                In fact, I didn't see him again for another three years.

                My life changed substantially over the course of that three years.  Mother died and left me with nothing but debts, and the only way I could pay them off was to get a better job.  And the only job I could get that paid any better than the waitressing job was working escort for Don Caruthers, a local lowlife.  Not a bad job for someone who had given up on all hope of a decent life.  Especially when virtue had come to mean next to nothing.  But I didn't care anymore.  I knew where this life was leading me.  And there were benefits.  The road to hell was paved, not with good intentions, like they  said, but with money and jewelry and fancy dresses and fur coats and all kinds of nice things.  You just had to understand that none of it would ever really belong to you.  And if you didn't keep up your end of the bargain, it was all going to disappear, along with your life.

                I was hanging out with Butch and Jim, two of Don's boys, killing time before we were supposed to head over to the new gin joint in town to check it out for Don, when I spotted George walking down the street.  He looked kind of sad, and I was suddenly in a mood to try and cheer him up.

                "Hang on, boys," I told them.  "I think I got a date!"

                I should've known better, but, as they say, "Hope springs eternal", and I had been hoping for a chance like this for a long time.  I came bouncing up to George, all sunshine and happiness, with a smile that would've lit a cave, and was rewarded by a look of absolute desire that broke over his face like a wave.  He's ready, I said to myself.  He's finally ready.  If I play my cards right, it's just possible that I might realize that long-ago dream tonight.

                "Hey, Georgie!" I said, putting my arm in his.  "Where're you going?"

                "Nowhere, Violet," he said.

                "Seems a shame to waste such a beautiful night, doesn't it?"

                "Yes, yes it does," he said, and I could tell by the look in his eyes that he was thinking hard, and calculating, and trying to decide if this was the night for him, too.

                "Well, what're you going to do about it, then?" I asked, kind of impertinent but playful.  I was really good at that.

                "Are you game, Vi?  You want to make a night of it?"

                "Well, sure, Georgie!  What do you want to do?"

                "Let's - " he paused for a long moment, like he was still trying to decide which direction to go. "Let's go crazy!" he said.  "We'll take a long drive up to Mount Bedford, and sit and watch the moon rise, then take our shoes and socks off and - and run through the meadow!"

                That wasn't exactly what I was hoping to hear, but maybe it'd get better.  "And then?"

                "And then - and then we'll go for a swim in the lake!  And people will talk, and there'll be scandal, and it'll be in the newspapers, and you and I will be so famous that we'll have to move away to New York City!"

                "Oh, yes, let's!" I said.  "That would be so much fun!  There's nothing more I'd rather do in the whole world than to go up into the mountains all alone with you, and dance in the meadow, and go skinny-dipping in the lake, and then spend the rest of our lives together as far away from Bedford Falls as we can!"

                And so we drove up to the mountain meadow and danced til our feet were sore, then went skinny-dipping in the lake, and slept out under the stars all night long; and because he was a gentleman, he married me the very next day in Judge Harleson's chambers, and we drove to New York and had such a wonderful honeymoon that we decided to stay there the rest of our lives.  And he became a famous architect, and I had my picture taken several times on the cover of Good Housekeeping.

                In my dreams.

                It actually went a bit differently.

                "Hey, Georgie!" I said, putting my arm in his.  "Where're you going?"

                "Nowhere, Violet," he said.

                "Seems a shame to waste such a beautiful night, doesn't it?"

                "Yes, yes it does," he said, and I could tell by the look in his eyes that he was thinking hard, and calculating, and trying to decide if this was the night for him, too.

                "Well, what're you going to do about it, then?" I asked, kind of impertinent but playful.  I was really good at that.

                "Are you game, Vi?  You really want to make a night of it?"

                "Well, sure, Georgie!  What do you want to do?"

                "Let's - " he paused for a long moment, like he was still trying to decide which direction to go. "Let's go crazy!" he said.  "We'll take a long drive up to Mount Bedford, and then take our shoes and socks off and - and run through the meadow!"

                That wasn't at all what I was hoping to hear, and I thought maybe I'd heard wrong. "Huh?"

                "And then - and then we'll go for a swim in the lake!  And people will talk, and there'll be scandal, and it'll be in the newspapers, and you and I will be so famous that we'll have to move away to New York City!"

                Now he was really going off the deep end.  "What are you talking about, George?  I can't go running around Mount Bedford, not in this dress!  I'd catch my death!  And swimming?  At this time of night?  Are you crazy?"

                "Oh, all right, forget it, just forget it!"  And then he ran off.

                And the next thing I knew, he was married.  To the prissiest, most simple-minded girl I'd ever known - Mary Hatch.  Whose only dream, so far as anyone ever knew, was to settle down in Bedford Falls with George Bailey and live out the rest of her days in simple-minded domesticity like her mother.

                Not that she ever got that chance.  Everything went to hell in a hand-basket in short order.  I heard that George's business almost went bust on the very day of their wedding, when all the banks closed up.  Somehow they managed to keep things going, though.  And George and Mary worked their tailfeathers off doing just that for the next thirteen years.

                Until tonight.

                Because tonight, George is going to jail.  And I'm not sure how I feel about that.  Because he never did anything in his life to hurt anyone, and he never did anything in his life out of selfishness or greed, and those kind of people just don't make it in this world.  It's not right, and it's not fair, but that's the way the world is.  And I'd like to take that George Bailey and grab him by the throat and shake him til he understands how much I have always loved him, and how I wish things had turned out all different, and then I want to cry because I know that he wouldn't be the man he is today if they had.

                And maybe the reason things didn't work out for me is because of who I am.  And if I ever want to be the kind of woman who is right for that kind of man, maybe I'm going to need to start making some changes.

                Starting with this money I borrowed from him, to go away and start a new life.  I don't really want a new life.  I want a different life.  And I can start that right here, right now.

                And I want George Bailey to know about it.