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.