Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Wonderful Dream

George woke up from the nightmare breathing heavily, unsure if he had yelled out loud or not. His wife continued sleeping beside him, her ears stuffed with cotton to avoid waking. George sometimes snored, and sometimes the coffee she'd had while listening to the news at night made her more sensitive to noise. He often yelled in his dreams, but so far the yell had not carried over into his waking life and alarmed his wife.

He rolled out of bed and sat on its edge, rubbing a hand against his forehead. This was the third time he'd had the same nightmare; it must mean something. He didn't know what, though.

He could still see, in his mind's eye, the smug look on the face of the old man. It was the same face he'd seen years ago when he lived in that one-horse little town, before he'd finally gotten the nerve to shake the dust off his boots and move on. He'd often wanted to punch that face, but compassion for the sake of an old man had stayed his hand. That old man had once been somebody important, and now that he was middle-aged himself, he could understand how fear and anxiety could drive a man to be mean and selfish when he saw the years slipping past.

He wished he could see his father again. That was the one nice thing about the dream, getting to see his father again, the way he had looked the day before he died. Eating dinner together, sharing a laugh together, telling his father how much he really loved him. That was something he treasured, knowing that he had told his father how he felt before he died.

The rest of the dream was strange, with people and faces and events scattered all over the place, everything so mixed up that it didn't make any sense. Imagine! Being married to Marty's sister, having all those kids, working for his father's company through all those years, struggling to make ends meet, dealing with old man Potter.

He looked around his bedroom as if to reassure himself that it was just a dream, that he wasn't living back in Bedford Falls in some ramshackle old house, full of noisy children and rotten staircases. No, he was safe and sound here in Glen Cove, Long Island, living in a house he'd designed himself, with a beautiful but childless wife who filled her maternal emptiness with a full-time job as a fashion designer and marketing consultant. They had a Puerto Rican cook, a Honduran gardener, and a paper boy who was trying to pay his way through college. It was a wonderful life.

In an hour or so, after breakfast, he would drive to the train station and catch the Long Island Rail Road direct into downtown Manhatten, then catch the subway to 44th Street, where he would walk two blocks to the Henderson building, take the elevator to the 26th floor, and enter the offices of Anderson & Bailey, Architects, where he, as a principal partner of the firm, would direct the activities of the eleven junior architects assigned to the various contracts.

After a long day's work, he would return to Grand Central to catch the train back to Glen Cove, after which he would stop by Lewinski's Bar for a quick highball, then arrive back at his house by seven-thirty, where his wife would be waiting to join him for Consuela's excellent dinner. After dinner, they would retire to the den to listen to an hour or so of late-evening radio programming while perusing the newspaper or a magazine or a book, and then it would be time for bed.

The contrast between his real life and that of the nightmare was startling. He should just forget about it and let it go, but for some reason – perhaps because the dream kept repeating itself – he could not. The images, sounds and feelings remained like the aftertaste of a badly-spiced dinner.

He hadn't thought of Violet Bick for years. She had been quite a beauty in high school, but never particularly friendly to him. She preferred the athletic type of man, the captain of the football team, the pitcher on the baseball team. She had no use for brainy engineering types like George. Now he wondered what had ever happened to her. She was probably living in New York City. She wasn't the type to come back home to roost in Bedford Falls, not if her life depended on it.

And Mary Hatch. She hadn't known George Bailey from a hole in the ground. She certainly knew Harry; they were in the same class in school. But George had gone off to college before Mary was old enough to start paying serious attention to boys.

It had been frightening to see Harry again, the Harry who had been so young when he fell into the water and nearly drowned. The Harry in the dream had been strong and capable and whole; the real Harry had never been the same after the accident, always a bit slow, a bit dull. The real Harry Bailey had never gone to war, had never flown airplanes, had never saved a ship full of soldiers. The real Harry Bailey had been stuck under the ice for several minutes before they'd been able to get to him. His brain had been without oxygen for just enough time that it never worked quite right again. Oh, he did fine in school and got good grades, though he had to work awfully hard for it; but the other kids had noticed he was a little different, a little 'off'. They liked him, they hung out with him, but no one ever made any long-term plans with him. No one expected much out of him.

Now Harry lived with their mother in neat little house in Bedford Falls, doing odd jobs around town to make ends meet. Sometimes he wrote letters to George, using the same childish scrawl he'd used so many years ago, as if the mind controlling the pencil was still eight years old and not quite used to cursive. His mother always added her own little note as she folded up his letters and mailed them off to George. They had a nice, quiet, steady life.

Nothing like the life that George led.

George turned and looked down at Betty in their bed, still alseep. She was a pretty girl, tall and trim but curved in all the right places, with auburn hair that sparkled in the sunlight, a girl with style and grace. They had met in college and married right afterward, him with his dreams of architecture and her with dreams of … something. He couldn't remember if she wanted children or not. Was she really disappointed when they found out it was impossible? Or relieved? He knew she loved her job. She always said she loved her job. Should he doubt her? Would life have been different if they'd been able to have kids?

He had thought about adopting, but didn't press the issue because it never came up; she never mentioned the possibility. When they got the word from the doctor about her “condition”, she simply never brought it up again. And poured herself into her work. She was very good at her work.

Now as he sat on the edge of the bed looking down at her and remembering scraps of the awful nightmare, he wondered why she had not appeared in it at all, not even as a minor character. What did that mean? Did he really love her? Was this some kind of subconscious message that their life was meaningless, that he really wanted a simple life, a boring life, all those small-town virtues and lifestyles?

He couldn't live in Bedford Falls again, not after going out into the world and seeing everything else that was out there. He had been to London, to Paris, to Rome; he had walked on ancient streets and seen the works of the greatest architects of all time. He had dined with powerful, important men. He had designed their buildings. How could he ever be happy with a provincial life in a tiny town like Bedford Falls?

He didn't think he could. Yet there was a dull kind of ache inside him that yearned to see the old town again, an unexplainable longing.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Pottery

George Bailey stood on the bridge looking down at the turbulent, white-capped water and thought dangerous thoughts.

He was in trouble, there was no other way to look at it. Uncle Billy had lost eight thousand dollars which belonged to the shareholders of the Bailey Brothers' Building and Loan Company, but Uncle Billy was only a partner, a lesser partner at that, and it wouldn't be Uncle Billy that would end up in jail when the news came out. It would be George Bailey. Everyone knew that George Bailey hated the Savings and Loan. Everybody knew that George had been putting his dreams on hold for the last fifteen years and would jump at the chance to get rid of the Savings and Loan to fulfill his dreams.

He anxiously fingered the papers in his coat pocket, the folded papers which contained the terms of his Life Insurance policy. He thought about Mary and the children, the shame and embarrassment they would endure when the news hit, when the company folded; people would pass them on the street and spit on them because it wasn't only the company that was ruined, it was the people who had put their faith in the Baileys. And those people would go hungry now; those people would have their water and power shut off; those people would probably end up homeless, wandering the streets, begging.

The scenario played out in his mind like a newsreel. BUILDING & LOAN BANKRUPT. BAILEY INDICTED. Photos of himself in handcuffs, being led away by Sheriff Wilkins through an angry mob throwing rocks, their hands clenched around worthless paper shares. Standing in court before Judge Parsons, the gavel pounding on the desk as sentence is pronounced - “Twenty years hard labor!” Mary crying. The children hiding their faces. His mother sobbing hysterically. Uncle Billy walking down a dark and lonely street, drunk and staggering, narrowly avoiding a speeding car.

Uncle Billy.

It suddenly dawned on him that Uncle Billy wasn't going to handle this very well. He liked Uncle Billy, he had always liked Uncle Billy because Uncle Billy was a child at heart, a sweet and simple child who made people laugh; but Uncle Billy wasn't the brightest bulb in the bunch, and he wasn't known for handling stressful situations well. He was going to blame himself for this whole thing, and it was very likely that he was going to do something very stupid, something very fatal. Especially after that brow-beating he had just received from his nephew, George.

George Bailey forgot all about his troubles in an instant. Suddenly the most important thing in the world was to find Uncle Billy.

He spun on his heels, which wasn't difficult given the amount of snow and ice on the bridge, and rushed back into town. He dashed down Main Street thinking furiously where he had last seen Uncle Billy. Was it at the Savings and Loan? Was it at the house? He couldn't remember. Where would Uncle Billy go? Where did Uncle Billy go when things got bad?

His office. He always hid out in his office when things went sour. He and that odd little blackbird, Jimmy. He would shut the door and pout for hours, listening to his records and crying until he was all cried out. That was it! His office.

George reached the office and peered in through the windows, through the blinds, trying to see if there was a light on in the back office. There was. It must be Uncle Billy! He pulled the keys out of his pocket and jammed them in the front door, nearly breaking the key as he twisted it.

“Uncle Billy!” he called out as he came in. “Uncle Billy! Are you there?”

Squaawk! He heard Jimmy cry out. A chair shuffled. A sniffle. He rushed over to Uncle Billy's office and threw open the door. Uncle Billy was sitting at his desk, his eyes streaming with tears, a pen in his hand, a piece of paper before him. The paper had writing on it. Some of the writing was splotched with tears. The bird looked at George from his perch on the filing cabinet.

“What are you doing, Uncle Billy?” George asked quietly, though he suspected he knew.

Uncle Billy put his arm down across the paper. “N-N-Nothing, George. Nothing. Just ... just writing some things down. Trying to remember. Things.”

George could see the shame in Uncle Billy's eyes. “You're writing a suicide note, aren't you, Uncle Billy?”

The look on Uncle Billy's face confirmed his suspicions. Uncle Billy flushed pink, looking down at the paper as through trying to find some other reason for its existence. “No, no, George, it's just ... it's just some things I need to put down. Before I forget.”

George walked up to the desk and grabbed the paper out from under Uncle Billy's arm. Uncle Billy made a weak attempt to hold onto it, but failed. George read the paper quickly, then looked back down at his Savings and Loan partner.

“You can't do this, Uncle Billy. You know you can't.”

Uncle Billy dissolved in tears. “I – I – I don't know what to do, George! It's all so mixed up in my head, I can't think straight, I just want it to stop!”

George crumpled the paper in his fist and came around to the backside of the desk, putting his arm around Uncle Billy.

“We'll be all right, Uncle Billy. Please forgive me, I just lost my head there for a minute. But it's going to be all right. You'll see!”

“How, George? How is it going to be all right? Those people – our friends! They gave me eight thousand dollars of their own money, and I lost it! We're ruined! No one will ever trust us in this town again!”

“I don't know yet, I don't know. But I'll think of something.”

Uncle Billy put his head down on his desk, still sobbing. “We're ruined! Ruined! And it's all my fault!”

George wanted to think of something to say against that, but the only thing that came to mind was his hatred for Potter. It had always been about Potter. Keeping the town from Potter's clutches, keeping the Building and Loan afloat while Potter seemed to be grabbing up everything else, keeping Potter at bay during all those interminable Board meetings. He had been fighting Potter his enire life, fighting to keep Potter from winning.

He was tired of fighting.

He wanted it to stop. For his own sanity, and his uncle's, it had to stop.

And an idea was starting to form in his mind.

“Don't worry, Uncle Billy,” he said. “We'll get through this just like we got through everything else.”

* *

George was an intelligent man. Even Potter had admitted that to him, long ago when he had brought George into his office in an attempt to bribe him out of the Building and Loan. George was intelligent, yes, but not conniving, at least, not normally. But now he had to be intelligent and conniving. There was a warrant out for his arrest. The Sheriff was going to be out there looking for him. He was probably already on his way over to George's house.

He had to get the money back. If he could get the money, the company could remain solvent, and Uncle Billy, with Mary's help, could keep the company going. But the company was going to sink like a stone in a pond if he couldn't come up with eight thousand dollars. Tonight.

There was no doubt in his mind that Uncle Billy had lost the money somewhere on the way to the bank, and someone had found it within moments of his dropping it. But it had to have been someone not connected to the Building and Loan, perhaps one of Potter's cronies – or one of Potter's suckers – who would've seen no reason to bring the money back. He could think of several who might fit that bill. There was no point in looking for the money, obviously. If someone had it, someone was going to keep it.

No, the thing to do, was to borrow the money from someone who had more than enough. None of George's friends were rich – but most of Potter's were, and he knew someone who just might be able to get him in touch with someone with enough capital to tide him over.

Violet.

* *

“George Bailey, what are you doing here?” Violet asked in astonishment when he appeared at her door. She lived in one of the nicer apartments close to the downtown shopping area, a fashionable area for singles who were still living the high life. Luckily for George, the entrance to her apartment was shaded from the street.

“Can I come in a moment, Vi?” he asked, trying not to let the nervousness into his voice. He considered himself a fugitive from justice and didn't want to be outside if he could help it.

“Sure, come on in!” she said. “I'm just packing up my things. I'll be heading down to the bus station in a little while. Would you like a drink?” She started for the sideboard.

“No, thank you, Vi,” he said. “I'm sorry to barge in on you like this, but I need a favor.”

She turned around quickly. “You – you need a favor, from me?” Her eyes lit up like Christmas. She had a lovely smile on her face. “I'd do anything for you, George, you know that.”

George had a bit of trouble focusing. Her dress fit her lithe body extremely well. He swallowed.

“I gotta be straight with you, Vi. I'm in a bit of trouble, and I need access to a bit of cash, a lot more cash than I have on hand.”

She stared at him, her smile fading. “Cash? You need cash?”

“To be more precise, I need to get in touch with someone who has cash. I don't know anyone other than old man Potter with that kind of dough, but you travel in a lot of different circles than I do – you know a lot more people in this town than I do – and I was hoping that maybe you could put me in touch with someone.”

She looked a little deflated, a bit more business-like. A professional. “Oh. How much cash are you talking, George?”

“Eight thousand dollars.”

She whistled. “That's quite a bit. Is there something going on at work?”

“The less said, the better.”

“Got it.” She thought for a minute. “Lenny Phillips. He's got a big stash. Afraid to put it in the bank because it came from New York, some backroom deal to finance the casino that Potter's been trying to push through the City Council.”

“Where is he? What's he look like?”

“I can take you to him. He's staying down at Murphy's Inn, over by Martini's.”

“Just give me his room number. I don't want you involved too much, you've already done enough. Besides, you've got a bus to catch.”

“I've got plenty of time. The bus doesn't leave for another couple hours.”

George thought about it. Just showing up at the door unnanounced, a stranger to Phillips, would practically guarantee failure. Having Violet along, seeing as she knew the guy, was obviously a better plan.

“You sure about this, Vi? It might not go over too well, him being a friend of Potter.”

She smiled. “What's life without a little adventure?”

* *

George had been to Murphy's Inn several times. It was one of the oldest buildings in Bedford Falls, having once been an old farmhouse, converted several years ago to a tiny inn with five or six little rooms, perfect for people who wanted to get away from it all, away from the public eye, yet still convenient to one of the better drinking establishments. No one ever stayed there for very long, but it had many repeat customers.

Violet took George around to the back entrance which provided access to three of the ground floor rooms. The entire back side of the inn was surrounded by a high hedge, leading into a rose garden yard. “Lenny likes to have a back door,” she explained. “Sometimes he needs to leave in a hurry if something comes up.” George nodded. He could imagine some scenarios where a big-time gambler might want to do that.

The back entrance had been a screened-in porch at one time, but was now closed in with siding. There were three buttons next to the door, marked with numbers, not names. Violet pressed the third one three times in a peculiar sequence, then waited. Evidently, Lenny had a specific code for his friends to use.

After a moment, they heard a door open inside and footsteps coming near, then the turn of a deadbolt. The door inched open and part of a face appeared through the crack. The eye scanned Violet and George, then a rough voice came out.

“What's up, Vi? Thought you were ditching town. This guy looks familiar. Do I know him?”

“Sorry to disturb you, Lenny. This is my friend, George. He's in a bit of a bind and needs some help. Do you have a minute?”

The eye scanned George again, then Vi. “Sure, I got some time. Was just getting ready to go out. Hold on, I'll be right out.” The door closed, the deadbolt turned.

Violet turned to George. “Lenny's an OK guy,” she whispered. “He's just a bit shy of strangers.”

George nodded. “I can see that.”

A few minutes later, Lenny came out, shutting the door behind him and locking it with a key which he quickly deposited in his pants pocket. “I don't wanna talk about it here. McGuffy's in his room with his ears on.”

“McGuffy?” George echoed, looking quizzically at Vi.

“Stoolie,” she said. “Ex-con. Keeps his ears to the walls to gather dirt so he can hold it over your head. Did twenty years for safecracking.”

“Oh. It's awfully cold out here. Is there someplace else we can talk, then?” asked George.

“Martini's,” said Lenny. “He's got special back room we can use.”

This was news to George, who had known Martini for years and spent many a happy hour in his bar. He had never heard of a 'back room'. Apparently there were depths to Martini that he had not plumbed.

They walked down the road to Martini's in silence, the wind whipping their coats around. When they arrived, Lenny took them through the fence to the back yard where there was a set of steps leading down to a basement entrance. There was a red light glowing next to the door.

“Good. Nobody there,” said Lenny. He gestured for them to follow him and descended the stairs, pulling yet another key out of his pocket. He opened the door and went inside, with George and Violet on his heels. George closed the door behind him, and slide the bolt.

It was a cozy little room, complete with a space heater against the wall, a table and chairs in the center, and an overstuffed couch against the far wall next to another door. Lamps stood in each corner. A small cabinet was set against the wall to their left, with several assorted bottles on it. The air was warm and dry.

George looked around. “Would you look at this!” he said. “Ol' Martini certainly likes to keep his secrets!”

Lenny glared at him. “Martini likes to make sure his friends have a private place to talk business. Speaking of which, what's yours?”

Violet jumped in. “He's short on cash, Lenny. He needs some dough to tide him over til he can smooth things out.”

“How much we talking?”

“Eight grand,” she said.

George started to say something, but Violet shushed him with a shake of her head. Let me do the talking, she was saying. George closed his mouth.

Lenny calculated for a moment. “Eight g's. I think I can handle that. I don't have the dough on me, but I can get hold of it quick enough. If you can get me a ride downtown.”

George paled. The thought of running around downtown with the Sheriff looking for him wasn't very appealing. But Violet nodded. “We'll take care of that, Lenny.” Then she turned to George. “We'll have to ditch your car, though, George. Too noticeable.” George winced. It was, indeed, one of a kind. “Can you swing cab fare?” George nodded. He had enough cash in his pocket for that.

Lenny looked at him closely. “Is your mug on the wall?” he asked. George blinked. What did that mean?

Violet noticed his confusion. “He's asking if the cops are looking for you,” she said. “If they have your picture up on their wall.”

George nodded. “I believe they have a warrant out on me,” he said quietly.

“That complicates things,” said Lenny. “How're you going pay off if every two-bit cop is looking for your face?”

“I just need to get the money to the Building and Loan and put it in the safe,” George said. “So long as it's there by Thursday morning. I can have Mary drop it off at the bank, first thing.”

Lenny's eyes widened. “Are you George Bailey?” he asked. “Of the Bailey Brothers' Building and Loan?”

Surprised, George nodded. “Well, yes, if you put it that way, I suppose I am.”

A big smile broke out on Lenny's face. “In that case, Mr. Bailey, this one's on the house.”

“Eh? What's that?” George thought he'd misheard the statement.

“Anybody with enough gumption to stand up to Potter the way you have, you're all right in my book. I usually charge a little fee for my services, but in your case, it's on the house!”

“But I thought -”

Violet nudged George sharply in the ribs. “It seems your reputation proceeds you,” she said, cutting short his statement. He had been going to ask why Lenny would think well of standing up to Potter when Potter was supposed to be his friend, but then it occurred to him that there were probably many 'friends' of Potter who would love to stand up to him themselves.

George nodded at Lenny. “Thank you, Mr. Phillips. I appreciate your generosity. How ... how exactly are we going to do this, then?”

“The less you know, the better off you'll be,” said Lenny. “Just get me downtown near the bank, and I'll take care of the rest.”

“And you get me the money, and I can get it into the Building and Loan.”

“Right.”

“And after all this is taken care of, what arrangements can we make to pay back this 'loan'?”

Lenny smiled big again. “Don't worry about that, Mr. Bailey. We'll figure something out.”

* *

Lenny called the cab from Martini's, and it was there in ten minutes. They all piled in, with George folding his collar up and pulling his hat down to hide his face, and sped downtown. No one talked during the short ride. Once downtown, the cabbie pulled over a block past the bank, near a dark alleyway between the buildings, according to Lenny's directions.

“Wait here, I'll be right back,” he said as he got out. The door shut, and Lenny disappeared into the alleyway.

“Are you sure about this guy?” George whispered to Violet. She was just a shadow in the dark of the cab.

“He's not exactly on the straight and narrow, but he's loyal,” she whispered back. “He doesn't cheat his friends.”

“Are you his friend?”

Violet hesitated. “Does it really make a difference to you if he is?” she asked.

“No, I suppose not,” he said. “It's just that – Well, Vi, you've always been a good friend of mine, and sometimes ... sometimes I feel bad when I see some of the people you associate with.”

“Some of 'em are a bit rough, I know. They're not the settling-down type.”

“No, they're more the burn-the-candle-at-both-ends type, and that's what worries me. About you, I mean. I don't want to see your candle all burned up.”

“You still care about me, Georgie? Do you still like me?”

“Of course, I do! You know that!”

Violet turned her head away toward the window. “You know, I really was happy for you, when you picked Mary. She's the right type for you, Georgie. A good, motherly type that'll keep house and change diapers and bake pies and ... and all those things I could never be.”

She turned back to him. “But I always wondered what would've happened if you'd managed to escape this town. If maybe we could've gone to New York and found another kind of life for ourselves. I would've liked being married to a guy who builds bridges, and lives in a penthouse apartment in Manhatten, going to the fancy nightclubs, dancing til the cows come home.”

“Well, Vi, you know, I never was much of a dancer.”

“But you had dreams, didn't you? Dreams of getting out of this place?”

“Yeah, I had dreams. Big dreams. Then life came along and gave me a new set of dreams.”

“But are you happy now? Are all those new dreams worth giving up the old ones?”

Now it was George's turn to hesitate. “I really don't know, Vi. There's days when the answer is yes, and there's days when the answer is no. I can't go backwards and change all the stuff that happened before. I've got to live each day as it comes, take it one step at a time. Right now, I'm trying to deal with things as best I can, and keep the damage to a minimum. I may be signing myself up for a lot of pain in the long run, but I can't see that far in the future. Right here and right now, I know what I need to do. I've got to put all those dreams on the back-burner til this blows over, and then see what I have left.”

She sighed. “George Bailey, this town doesn't deserve you.”

The cab door opened and Lenny climbed in. He was breathing hard.

“Did it go OK?” asked Violet.

“There's something funny going on here,” said Lenny. He looked at George. “We gotta talk.”

“OK,” said George. “What about?”

“Not here. Let's go to the Building and Loan.” Lenny turned to the cabbie. “Drop us off in the alleyway behind the Building and Loan.” Then he sat back in the seat and stared out the window.

* *

After the cabbie had dropped them off behind the Building and Loan – and Lenny told him he wouldn't be needed for the return trip – they walked to the back door fire escape.

“Why don't we just go in the front door?” asked Violet.

“If the cops are out looking for Mr. Bailey, it's likely they've got the place being watched,” said Lenny. “I didn't see any when I was over at the bank, but that don't mean nothing. This backside isn't well lit, so we aren't as noticeable. You gotta key, Mr. Bailey?”

“Yes, I think so,” said George. “We don't ever use this door except for putting out the trash, and that's usually from the inside. But I'll see if this one works.” He pulled a key ring out of his pocket and tried one on the door. It worked.

They slipped inside, finding themselves in a dark hallway leading toward the front of the building. The glass from the front door let in just enough light that they could see a number of doors on either side of the hall.

“Which one is yours?” asked Lenny.

“Last one on the right,” said George. They walked quietly down the hallway. No one tried to turn on the hall light. George found the key for the side door and inserted it into the lock, turning it noiselessly. He carefully eased the door open.

“This leads to our back hallway, by the washroom” he said. They filed into the tiny hallway and shut the door behind them, waiting momentarily to hear if anyone else was inside.

“I don't hear anyone,” whispered Violet.

“Everyone is supposed to be gone,” said George.

“Good,” said Lenny. “Maybe now you can explain this to me.” He pulled a fat envelope out of his coat pocket and opened it. In the muffled light, they could just make out the thick stack of bills inside. “It's exactly eight thousand dollars.”

“I don't understand,” said George.

“Lemme explain,” said Lenny. “We got this 'arrangement', Mr. Potter and me. Every so often, he puts a package out in the alleyway behind the bank, then he calls me to come over and take this package to some friends of mine who take the package and convert it to something a bit more negotiable, if you know what I mean.”

“Money laundering, you mean,” stated George.

“Something like that. Normally, he calls me up to tell me there's a package, I pick up the package. Normally don't include Christmas Eve. So tonight, he calls me up and says there's a package, so I'm figuring something strange is going on, 'cause my friends don't work Christmas, and I'm not cozy with hanging on to the package while I'm waiting for my friends to open up. Makes me nervous. Anyway, you come along, I figure maybe there's enough dough in here, I can let you have some for a couple days til my friends are open, nobody's the wiser. You say eight thousand, I'm thinking the usual drops are easy ten times that much, so no problem. But then this envelope has exactly eight thousand. In all kinds of bills.”

“So what?”

“Usual drops are all one kinda bill, new ones, generally sequential. Know what I mean?”

“Uh, no, I'm afraid I don't.”

“This money don't need cleaning. He coulda just stuck this money in his pocket, nobody'd be the wiser. But he wants to get rid of this money. He don't want this money around. Like he's afraid of being found with this money. Exactly eight gees.”

“Which is exactly the amount you seem to have 'lost',” Violet said.

“That's too much coincidence, in my book,” said Lenny. “So, you wanna tell me what's really going on here?”

“I ... I don't know,” said George. “It does seem awfully coincidental.”

“How exactly did you 'lose' this money, Mr. Bailey?” asked Lenny.

In the dark, it was like a confession. “My uncle, Uncle Billy, he went over to the bank to make the daily deposit. Normally we take the largest amount rounded to a thousand to put in the bank, and keep the rest for business around the office. We had eight thousand today. Uncle Billy took the eight thousand over to the bank, but somewhere along the line, he lost it. He may have dropped it someplace.”

“Or someone at the bank found it, gave it to Potter,” suggested Violet.

“Nope,” said Lenny. “If someone had handed it to Potter, he'd have to account for it. Too many witnesses. They might ask about it later.”

“So maybe Potter found it.”

“Well, that just wouldn't make any sense,” said George. “Why, I was over at his office today, asking him for a loan -”

“You told Potter about the money?” Violet interrupted.

“Well, not everything. I didn't tell him what happened, I just told him I'd misplaced it.”

“And then he called the cops on you.”

“Yes, he did.”

Lenny chuckled. “If that don't beat all. The guy found your money, and instead of giving it back to you when you come to him for help, he sics the cops on you.”

“I don't know that. I don't know for sure that it's my money.”

“I'm sure,” said Lenny. “This sounds just like something ol' Potter would do.”

“So now what?”

“Now we turn the tables on old man Potter.”

Thursday, December 10, 2009

In the Beginning

The angel, Clarence, sat on the front steps of the house tapping his shoes disconsolately against the sidewalk and sighing as George paced up and down, shaking his head angrily. Every so often, he stopped and glared at Clarence.

“Let me get this straight,” he said. “You and those 'friends' of yours, those 'angels' – you went back in time and made it so that I never existed, is that right?”

“Well, technically, I -”

“So in this particular universe, my parents never had a child named 'George', is that right?”

“Yes, George, but -”

“But they did have one named 'Harry' who just happened to be born on the same day as my brother, Harry.”

“Actually, -”

“And in the oddest coincidence, this other Harry, the one who never had a big brother George, on the very date that his non-existent big brother George saved his life in the alternate timeline, this particular Harry ended up sledding down this snowy hill and falling into the water and drowning.”

“He -”

“Because his big brother George was the only kid resourceful enough and intelligent enough to know how to form a simple chain-gang across the ice and rescue him, even though practically everyone in upstate New York is taught this kind of thing from the time they get out of diapers.”

Clarence was looking more confused. His mouth was open but no sound was coming out.

“Furthermore, you're telling me that Mr. Gower, who was smart enough to hire a responsible, intelligent young delivery boy by the name of George Bailey, was unable to find any other young man smart enough to detect the fact that he was drunk out of his mind, or to notice that he had put the wrong ingredients in the medicine.”

“Well, he -”

“And since I wasn't around to take over the Savings and Loan after my father died, it just went belly-up, and my uncle went insane and had to be committed.”

“That was -”

“And when the banks collapsed, old Mr. Potter took over the whole town because nobody else had the guts to stand up to him.”

“See, what happened was -”

“And they renamed the town to 'Pottersville', and everyone lived in slums, and the downtown turned into a Red Light district, and Violet became a prostitute, and my mother had to rent out rooms to survive.”

“She's very resourceful, George.”

George stopped pacing and walked right up to Clarence, looking him straight in the eye. His face was a mask of controlled fury. “And Mary – Mary Hatch, mind you! The smartest, strongest girl in the whole school! - ended up as a weak, frightened, lonely librarian because she couldn't find anyone else in the whole world to marry, even though there are millions of guys just like me – decent, hard-working guys who know how to treat a lady - all over the place!”

“Yes, but -”

“But what, Clarence? That's the biggest load of horseapples I've ever heard in my whole life! It's so full of holes, it's like Swiss cheese! It just doesn't make sense, don't you see? Look, if I hadn't been born, it's not likely Harry would've been born, either! At least, not on the same day. And besides, it was always Mom and Dad's plan to name their oldest son after Great-Grandpa George! So if I wasn't born, whomever was born would've been named 'George'. Either way, there would've been a George Bailey!”

Clarence blushed. “Yes, I seem to recall something about that in the files ...”

“If I hadn't been born, Clarence, everything would've been completely different. Everything. Every day of every year, every moment would've been different. My family would be different, my parents would be different, my friends would be different – every person I came in contact with, they'd be different, some of them in small ways, some in bigger ways. But none of the things you mention would have had any effect on anything.”

Clarence sighed and dropped his head. “I know.”

George blinked. “You know?”

Clarence looked up at George. “Yes, George, I know it would've been completely different. But this was the only way to prove to you how important you are, and how awful it would be if you threw away your life!”
“What do you mean?”

Clarence cleared his throat. “You're right about everything being different, George. We ran the scenarios on our simulator, and the probability pattern showed that the next child to be conceived would've been a girl, and, following that, another girl, and then finally a boy. The older girl would've been headstrong; she would end up marrying Potter's nephew, who inherits all his assets business after he dies. The second daughter would go on to become a local theater actress, then marry a critic from New York and settle down in Long Island; and the boy would join the Army and die in Korea.”

“Korea?”

“Sorry. Long story. Anyway, we put together this little 'play' to try and convince you that you really do make a difference in the lives of these people, and it would be disastrous for all of them if you were to take your own life.”

George nodded, victorious. “I thought so. It was all just a made-up story, like a bad dream.”

“But it's still true from the moral standpoint, George. It would be wrong to kill yourself for the sake of eight thousand measley dollars! It's only money!”

“It's eight thousand dollars that says I'll spend the next twenty years in jail!”

“No, no! You're wrong, George. People will come to your aid! They'll help you! They'll raise the money, they'll come up with every penny!”

“In this economy? Are you kidding?” George ran his hands through his hair, thinking again about that incredible sum of money. It was enough to buy a good sized house. “It's impossible!”

“Don't underestimate your friends, George,” Clarence said. “You have done much good in this community, and this community will not forget it.”

“This community can't come up with eight thousand dollars overnight.”

“You'd be surprised at what this community can do. Trust them, George. Go to those friends of yours, those people you've spent the last thirty years living and working and breathing with, and let them show you what they can do.”

George sat down on the steps, weary. “I just – I just can't. I can't go begging door to door. It's – it's humiliating.”

Clarence looked up at the sky, as if listening to someone. “What's that?” he whispered. “No, no, that would be cruel! I can't – Do you really think it would work?” A pause. “Well, all right. If that's what it takes.” Then he turned to George, who hadn't noticed the one-sided conversation. “I'll tell you what, George. Let's look at things from another angle. Forget about never being born. Let's find out what happens if you decide to kill yourself.”

“What?” George said, taken aback. “What do you mean?”

The wind shifted. The air grew indistinct, misty. George looked around and realized he couldn't see anything around him.

“What's happening?” he said. “What's going on?”

“It's now ten years in the future,” said Clarence. You don't exist ... here, at least. You killed yourself ten years ago, this very night.”

George looked at him warily. “Is this another one of your tricks?”

Clarence's expression was blank. “No tricks, just a turn of the dial on the probability wheel. Now we find out what happened to all those people you cared about, two years after you ended it all.” He got up wearily and started walking toward the door of the house. “Come on. Let's go inside and see.”

George, not sure of what was going on, got up and followed him. “Wait a minute! If I'm dead and gone, what are they going to do when they see me?”

“Nothing. They won't see you. You're just a ghost now.”

“A ghost?”

“Yes. They won't see you or hear you. Come on, George! I want you to see this.” Clarence walked right up to the front door of the house – and right through it. George stopped on the porch, mesmerized. Then a spectral hand appeared through the door, beckoning. He followed timidly.

Passing through the door was easy. Just a second of blankness, then he was inside.

And everything was different.

The first thing he noticed was that his drafting table was gone, the one where he had spent many a happy night working on his building designs. It had been replaced with a beautiful little oak hope chest. And the bulletin board over his table, the one with all his pictures, was gone. And there was a bit more space in the room, space to walk around. The clutter – his clutter – was gone. The whole room looked a bit brighter, a bit more welcoming.

And the paint on the walls was different. It had been a pale blue before, now it was an off-white.

It looked neat, orderly.