From the author: Didn't you ever wonder what happened to George Bailey after the night Clarence got his wings?
AFTER IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
by Vincent L. Scarsella
On Christmas Eve, 1945, George Bailey’s wife, Mary Bailey, his four children and his many friends in Bedford Falls, prayed very hard for him. He’d come home from the office that evening angry and disheveled, and went off on a tirade before stalking out of the house after Mary had asked him why he was torturing the children.
After learning from George’s partner, Uncle Billy Bailey, what the problem was - an $8,000 deficit in the accounts of their business, the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan - Mary had no trouble raising cash from her neighbors and friends to make up for the shortage. The local rumors that George had squandered the money on the stock market, or had given it to the local flirt, Violet Biggs, were discounted as vicious lies spread by Henry Potter, the richest and meanest man in town.
But the generosity of George's family and friends could not save his job with the Building and Loan. At the next board of directors meeting in January 1946, Potter insisted that George be fired for misapplication of funds and, at very least, malfeasance. Potter argued that restitution paid by the riffraff who supported Bailey, though fortunate, did not excuse the crime. Over the objection of two board members, and Uncle Billy's tearful plea that he was responsible, that he had somehow lost the money, Potter's motion carried, and George Bailey was dismissed. Over Potter's objection, another motion granting George severance pay of $500 was approved.
“That,” George Bailey said, “was a long time ago.”
I was sitting across from him on an old chair in the parlor of the sprawling, drafty old Victorian house at 320 Sycamore Street in what used to be Bedford Falls. It had been George Bailey's home the past sixty years. His wife of that many years, Mary, had died the previous winter. Long before that, his four children had grown and left town. Even his last, and arguably favorite, “Zuzu,” had left years ago when her husband took a job in Seattle.
For ninety-five, Bailey seemed in reasonably good health. His hair had gone white and his long, spindly legs stretched out from the sofa as he faced me with a distracted scowl. A gentle flame crackled in a fireplace before us. His stout, over-protective day-nurse had brought the blaze to life shortly after my arrival.
“I’ve really had a wonderful life,” Bailey said, though he seemed little convinced of that.
As for Potter, Bailey told me that he had died years ago, in 1957, without heirs. His will had left his estate to nearby Hawthorne College, his alma mater. He’d also bequeathed $5 million to Bedford Falls provided it changed its name to Pottersville.
“Who are you again?” Bailey asked, squinting.
“I'm from the magazine,” I reminded him.
The “magazine” was actually the tabloid, All Weird News.
That morning, its publisher, Caroline Fielding, known to her staff as, “Bitch” Fielding, had called me into her office, yelled for me actually.
I ran in. Scowling, she asked me if I had finished my Christmas article and I told her it should be in her in-basket ready for edit.
“It’s the one about aliens who abduct Santa Claus,” I told her.
“I thought we did that one last year,” she said. I shrugged, thinking that yes, maybe we had. But aliens abducting Santa Claus was always a good sell.
“Well, never mind,” she said, “I want you to do this story instead.”
She handed me a tattered clipping one of the college interns had found in the filing cabinet stuffed with old, yellowed newspaper articles we sometimes used to develop stories for the tabloid, an old industry trick. This one was from The Bedford Falls Chronicle, Christmas Day edition, Nineteen forty-five, reporting that some clodhopper named George Bailey claimed that his guardian angel had saved him from ending his life by showing him what life would have been like if he'd never been born.
I looked down at the yellowed The Bedford Falls Chronicle clipping. The article was titled, “Was George Bailey Really Saved By Angel?”
“What I want you to do, Costello,” Fielding said, “is drive up to Bedford Falls and dig a story out of his. Make it into a two pager. If you're lucky, maybe George Bailey is still alive.”
“Now you want me to go?” I asked. “It’s December twenty-third.”
“Yeah, so?” Fielding said. “You want me to send someone else? Ted Merrick for instance? Or maybe you want to get yourself a new job. Writing blogs for nothing.”
As I hurriedly packed for the trip, I complained to my wife, Linda, that this was the last
straw. If this didn't push me over the edge and out the door to become a real journalist, or to finally start my Great American novel, nothing would.
Linda, as usual, was non-committal. We needed the money, slight as it was, that All Weird News paid me. She patted her pregnant belly, reminding me that there was more to this than me. So, for now at least, I would kowtow to the demands of Bitch Fielding.
“Was there really a guardian angel?” I asked Bailey. “Like you claimed in the article.”
“Oh, yeah, good ole Clarence Oddbody,” he said and smiled to himself.
“So it’s true?” I asked, trying to read him. “There was a wingless angel?”
Bailey squinted at me, suddenly unsure of my motives. He sat up and after a long, cold stare, told me this much to start: Just like the article stated, having reached the depths of despair and discouragement in his life, he had come to about an instant from jumping into the murky, icy depths of the Genesee River from Scudder’s old draw bridge that cold, snowy Christmas Eve night, 1945, driven by a drunken, depressed rage because of the missing eight thousand dollars and a whole host of other regrets. But Clarence had popped out of nowhere and beat him to the punch by jumping into the frigid dark waters. The next thing George knew, he was jumping in to save him.
“While we were drying off in the bridge shanty, Clarence came up with the idea of showing me what life would have been like if I'd never been born.” Bailey chuckled to himself. “Now, that was one convincing show. Turned me around that night. Made me believe that I was truly needed.” He looked up at me. “That I had a wonderful life.”
Right then I saw the potential for another angle to the story that Bitch Fielding, even at her most ruthless, hadn't thought about: the aftermath.
“So that's what you came here for?” Bailey asked. “To write about that night, my guardian angel?”
“Not entirely,” I replied, and plunged in. “I'm also interested in what happened after that night.”
“You mean, did I live happily ever after? Did I have a wonderful life?”
“Something like that.”
“Well, let me put it to you this way,” Bailey began, “if Clarence came back today, he wouldn't have much to show me after December 24, 1945. Well, maybe that’s stating it a bit too harshly. Anyway, the kids grew up and moved out of town and Mary and I got older, set in our ways. I got a job selling insurance, and eventually opened my own agency. People trusted me, so they flocked through the doors.” He laughed. “They even bought all the useless whole life insurance that I thought they could afford.”
Now Bailey stared off for a time. After a sigh, he looked back at me and continued, “The times changed rapidly after Clarence got his wings. One day it was just different around here. As different as black-and-white and color TV. Jet planes. Kennedy. The Beatles, Vietnam, Nixon, Moon walks, Watergate, Star Wars, space shuttles, computers, the internet. You name it. Those things were science fiction in 1945. My point is, the world is a very different place now, in 2002. I don't think even old Clarence Oddbody would recognize it.”
I sighed, unable to disagree with that assessment. And then, on a whim, I asked him, “What ever happened to that girl, that sexy one, Violet Biggs?”
Bailey looked up at me, eyes ablaze. I had hit a chord.
“Violet?” Bailey said. “Why do you want to know about her?”
“I was just curious what ever happened to her,” I said. “There were, you know, according to the article, the rumors…”
“Ah, yes, the rumors,” Bailey said. He sighed, then looked away. After a time, he looked back at me. “Look, there was this one evening,” he began, “at my old insurance office on Main Street, not too far down from the Building and Loan. Mary was visiting her brother, Marty, up in Buffalo. It had been a rough week and I had blown my stack again in front of the kids, and she thought it’d be a good idea for them to leave me alone for a few days, give me some space. Mary and I were in a kind of rut, anyway, like most married couples. You know, struggling to make ends meet, dealing with the kids and all that. And like always, I was feeling trapped, stuck here in Bedford Falls.
“Anyway, Vi came by to the office one evening the week Mary was gone. She was wearing one of her pretty dresses, looking good, if you know what I mean. I remember it was a hot day. Mid-July, humid, sultry. The old fan buzzing in the background of the office was the only way to keep cool.” Bailey thought a moment. “Nineteen fifty-one was the year.”
He looked off, remembering that evening.
Finally, he turned to me.
“Let’s just say, young man, that things between Vi and me, well, they just got out of hand that evening. Naturally, it got all over town,” he went on glumly, “confirming all the old rumors.”
He sighed, looked away, then back at me. “I didn't care about that,” he went on. “What mattered was that I had hurt Mary. After she found out, things were never quite the same between us.”
“And Violet Biggs? Whatever happened to her?”
He gave a brief, sad shrug.
“Shortly after the scandal broke, she left town for good and never came back. In fact, I never heard from her again. A nasty rumor spread sometime after Vi left town, that she had a baby. My baby. A girl.” George Bailey sighed. “But that is a whole ‘nother story. Maybe not quite what you’re looking for.”
Actually, it fit quite nicely into what I was looking for. So far, it seemed like the rest of George Bailey’s life hadn’t turned out so wonderful.
“Have you been into town, young fella?” Bailey suddenly asked. “Into Bedford Falls. I mean, Pottersville?”
“No, sir,” I said. “Got off the thruway, pretty much came straight here.”
“Well, let’s go then,” Bailey said. “Let me show you around.”
His nurse was against it. Too late in the morning to go out gallivanting, she insisted. And it was much too cold outside. The weatherman was calling for snow that afternoon. But Bailey prevailed upon her, saying that he was going whether she liked it or not.
“You're my nurse,” he growled. “Not my jailer.”
Grumbling, she helped him off the sofa and took him to the bedroom on the first floor which
he had shared with Mary Bailey for over sixty years. While waiting for him, I paced the dark, musty old living room. It had become a kind of a museum of George Bailey's life. I had, of course, no idea of the significance of the mementos, souvenirs, photographs, and bric-a-brac gathering dust on tables throughout the room. On an easel in a particularly dark corner, there was a most peculiar item, a sketch of a young, gangly George Bailey in a silly pose holding the end of a lasso while the other end tightened around a bright round moon. I stared at the thing until I heard George Bailey's voice behind me ask, “Ready?”
The nurse and I helped Bailey into my car and she gruffly reminded me to get him back by three so that he could take his afternoon pills.
“I'll have him take me to one of Potter’s strip joints downtown if you don't hush up,” Bailey chortled.
As we started off, Bailey shook his head and grumbled, “This neighborhood's going to seed.”
“Why did you stay?” I asked him
“Mary wouldn't hear of moving. Even after I retired and begged that we move to Florida, she refused to leave. There had always been something about this old house for her, a kinship or something I never quite felt.”
As we drove on, he told me about his unrequited lifelong dream of forsaking Bedford Falls, to “shake the dust off this measly old town.” Sadly, and bitterly, he had never succeeded.
“It was always the Building and Loan, or this excuse or that. So here I've lived here my entire life, and here I'll die.” He looked up skyward for a moment. “Clarence didn’t showed me that.”
We came to a stop sign at a busy road. The green street sign blared, “Henry Potter Memorial Boulevard.” It was a four-lane arterial jammed with strip malls, fast food chain and self-service gas marts, stretching several miles out from downtown Pottersville.
“Ironic, isn't it,” Bailey said. “The town named a road after him so near to where I lived. Maybe they thought it was my penance for the missing eight grand.”
“Which way?” I asked.
“Right,” he told me. “To Bailey Park.”
Bailey Park was a sprawling subdivision which had been around for sixty years. Bailey told me to make a left turn onto “Bailey Lane” which wound past cookie-cutter, modest brick ranch-style houses with cramped fenced-in yards, above-ground pools, wooden decks, and barbecues. The place was mostly deserted this time of day. The dads were at work, as were most of the moms these days.
“Over here,” Bailey pointed suddenly to a brick ranch and I slowed and pulled along the curb in front of it. “This used to be Martini's place,” he said. “He owned a bar at the edge of town.” Bailey gazed at the house for a time. “Poor guy died of a heart attack the summer after Clarence saved my life. I helped his widow out best I could make ends meet. But with seven kids, that was impossible. She eventually had to sell the tavern to Martini’s bartender, Nick. Not long after that, she packed up the kids and moved back to Sicily, goats and all.”
Bailey stared for a time at what used to be Martini's house.
“Where to now, Mr. Bailey?” I finally asked.
“Bedford Falls,” he said.
It took twenty aggravating minutes to lurch from light to light in heavy traffic down Henry Potter Memorial Boulevard toward the business district of Bedford Falls that had years ago been renamed Pottersville. We finally turned left onto Main Street, a two-lane road separated by a wide grassy median.
“Here,” he told me. “Slow down.”
We were driving past a dark, empty store. The faded sign above the front door read:
“Gower Drugs and Confectionery.”
“I used to work here as a boy,” Bailey told me, “And if not for me…”
He trailed off and thought for a time. Finally, I asked him, “What happened to the place?”
“Old Mr. Gower ran it until he was about eighty-five. He didn't have a son to leave it to. And one of those chain drug stores opened up along Potter Memorial that really hurt business. So, he up and closed it one day. That was thirty years ago.” Bailey looked at me with a wan smile. “That's what happened to a lot of places downtown.”
He signaled with his chin toward the squat granite building at a corner two blocks ahead.
“There it is,” he said, “the old Building and Loan.”
I parked in a space along the curb almost directly in front of it.
“Wanna see it?” he asked. “I still have the keys.”
Bailey unlocked an old rusty gate and opened the front door. Inside, the musty, stale smell of disuse greeted us. Cobwebs had formed on the tellers' windows.
“When did it close?” I asked him.
“About a year after they fired me. Nineteen forty-seven.”
“It’s been vacant all that time? Fifty-five years?”
“Yes. It’s become a tomb of sorts. A monument for everything we stood for back then, our innocence; and everything Potter didn't. No one had the nerve to buy the building and make it into something else. Not even Potter.”
Bailey walked around the edge of a dusty counter toward the back. I followed him into what used to be his office, where he had spent many long hours. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling
and clung to a window brown with age and dirt.
“Let's go,” he said. “Even the memories are stale here.”
Bailey hobbled toward me and drifted sideways. I reached out and grabbed him.
“You alright?” I asked.
“Standing here,” he told me, “I feel like a ghost.” He took a deep breath. “Let's go.”
He had me make a U-turn through a break in the center median and head the other way down Main. It was only two o’clock, but seemed already late that winter afternoon only two days before Christmas. Pottersville was mostly deserted with little traffic downtown. Most of the stores and restaurants had closed years ago, put out of business by the Wal-Mart we had passed on Henry Potter Memorial Boulevard.
As I drove down Main Street, Bailey pointed out another small, vacant building.
“That used to be Ernie Bishop's cab stand,” he told me. “Ernie's son, Ernie junior, was a
gambler and bankrupted it years ago. As for Ernie, he got Alzheimer’s and died in a nursing home in Geneva about five years back. Last time I saw him, he didn’t even know my name.”
We drove on until we reached a narrow alley separating two worn red-brick buildings. One was an old, boarded up movie house. The other had a wide sign still hanging out front indicating
that, in its day, it had been something called “The Emporium.” He raised a hand signaling me to stop, and pointed with his long arm toward the alley.
“That's where Bert the cop got killed,” he said with a sigh. “In 1972. Chased a shop-lifter
back here. When he turned the corner, an eighteen-year-old kid, high on heroin, shot him in the face. Bert only had a couple months left on the force until retirement.”
Bailey stared into that alley for a time. Finally, he shook it off and looked over at me.
“Time to visit the Bedford Falls cemetery.”
A mass of low, threatening heavy gray clouds had gathered at the horizon as we approached the entrance. I turned onto a narrow access road and waited for Bailey to tell me which way.
“This way,” he pointed. “There, to that clump of trees. To the Bailey family stone.”
The low sun had been completely engulfed by steel gray clouds by that time. I pulled the car up onto the shoulder of the road and helped Bailey out. The wind was whipping around us with the first snowflakes falling and I feared that this tour would have to be cut short. But Bailey didn't seem to care. He had me stop in front of a huge granite tomb. The name, “Bailey,” chiseled out years earlier, had endured with only slight erosion along its sharp edges. Below it were the names of Bailey's mother and father, and another, Harry Bailey.
Bailey was lost to me as he stared down at the stone.
He turned. There were tears in his eyes.
“Harry Bailey,” I said. “That your brother?”
Bailey nodded glumly. He’d been second team All-American in football, he told me, then a Navy pilot in World War II, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner. He’d flown up all the way from Washington in a blizzard just to help his older brother on Christmas Eve, 1945.
“Yes, big time war hero,” Bailey went on. “But couldn’t get enough of it, I guess. War. The thrill of it. Went back to it in Korea, flying for the Navy again, to get away from his father-in-law’s glass factory up in Buffalo. That’s where he got killed.”
That was all Bailey seemed willing to say. I didn't press it. I could sense that it simply hurt too much.
After a time, Bailey pointed to a second granite stone with “BAILEY” cut into it. I
looked down and saw the names, George Bailey and Mary Hatch Bailey, side-by-side. The dates under Mary's name were complete. She had been born in 1911 and died in 2001. Only George's date of birth had been chiseled into the stone: 1907.
Bailey stood at the stone with his head down. After a moment, I realized that he was sniffling. I asked how Mary Bailey had died and Bailey said, “Pancreatic cancer. Within a month after the diagnoses, she was gone. Clarence didn’t show me that either.”
We stood at that stone for a time until both of us were shivering. Finally, we turned away from it. Hunched against the wind already blowing wisps of dusty snow up and around, we trudged across the same cemetery section to the graves of Uncle Billy Bailey and his long dead wife, Laura,
to the stones of the druggist, Gower, Bert the cop, and then his longtime employees at the Building and Loan, Eustace and Tilly. By then, Bailey seemed out of breath, ready to collapse. I feared a certain tongue-lashing from his nurse when I brought him home.
As we drove back home, he turned to me and said, “So, Mr. Costello. What do you think? Did I have a wonderful life?”
I looked at him and shrugged.
“Well, let me tell you this, like most people,” he said, “I had my ups and downs, good times and bad. I never did get out of Bedford Falls. But I wouldn’t change much about my life. Certainly not my sixty years with Mary. Certainly not our happy family and the beautiful kids we had. Certainly not my mother and father and brother, or Uncle Billy. And certainly not my wonderful friends.”
He looked at me, looking old and frail with the wind jostling the compact rental and flurries of snow blowing around.
“Yes, Mister Bailey,” I finally said to him. “You had a wonderful life.”
“It’s crap,” Bitch Fielding said.
She tossed the manuscript among the messy pile on her desk.
Crap? I thought it was damned good. Poignant and sad and funny in spots.
“It’s supposed to be a Christmas story,” Bitch Fielding complained. “Not a maudlin piece fit for The New Yorker or Paris Review.”
I pursed my lips. I should be so lucky to be published there.
“Our customers don’t want to read that George Bailey ended up having a rotten life like their own rotten lives.”
She glared at me then picked up my manuscript and ripped it in two.
“Rewrite the damned thing,” she spat. “And have one we can use on my desk by noon.”
I looked up and gave her a bad ass grin. “Go to hell,” I said. “And this mindless tabloid can go to hell, too.”
She fired me on the spot. A couple security guards were called to watch me pack my few things into a cardboard box, then escort me from my cubicle down the elevator to the lobby of the building and out the front glass door.
Linda was beside herself when I showed up at our cramped one-bedroom apartment and
told her what had happened.
“I have my dignity,” I told her. “I’m a writer, goddamn-it.”
With her legs sprawled out from the couch, she rubbed her bulging belly.
“Your baby’s due next month, Ronny,” she said. “What about his dignity?”
I sat in the rocking chair across from her and tried to think of something to say. But all I could do was open my mouth and look at her like a sad little boy. I was in love with the woman, even though sometimes I felt suffocated.
“You don’t have a clue, do you?” she went on. “It’s gonna be the rest of our lives like this. The hopeless dreamer, forever writing his novel.” She sighed. “Sam told me it would turn out this way.”
“Yeah, Sam,” she said, and stood. “Your best friend, Sam.”
Sam wasn’t really my best friend. We had been close in college, sort of, but afterwards he returned to his father’s brokerage firm and we had drifted apart.
“Yeah, and when did he tell you that?”
She gave me a sheepish look, as if she had said too much already. That’s when the suspicion started. I remembered the time I had been sent out of town on another silly UFO story in rural Maine nine or so months ago right around the time we supposedly conceived the baby. It drove me crazy because I couldn’t get in get in touch with her all night although I kept calling the apartment until I finally fell asleep in my cheap motel room. In the morning, she told me that she had too much wine with her friend, Charlene, and decided to sleep over. Maybe, now, I knew where she had really slept.
Anyway, one word led to another until I finally hurled the wild accusation that maybe she was carrying Sam’s baby instead of mine. That infuriated her, lit her up like a roman candle. She bolted from the couch and slapped me flush across the face. Then, she retreated to the bedroom with me on her heels, threw a suitcase on our bed and started to toss in some underwear and maternity clothes.
She was going to Charlene’s, she said, to get away from me, and that was that. I quit trying to hug her from behind, kiss her neck, beg her not to leave. Finally, I just sat there on the bedroom floor crying. I knew from the disdain in her eyes that she was going. And that perhaps, I had lost her love for good.
After she left, I slunk around the apartment before finally slumping onto the couch and, with all the lights turned off, started swigging from an old bottle of Jack Daniels. I had sucked most of the Jack out of the bottle when the telephone rang. I stumbled across the room thinking it was maybe Linda calling to forgive me. But it was only Ted Merrick from All Weird News.
“I thought you should know,” he said.
Now that I had been fired, Merrick would be getting my assignments, a promotion of sorts. “Know what?”
“The guy you interviewed, down in Pottersville. George Bailey.”
“Yeah? What about him?”
“He – he’s dead,” Merrick blurted.
I stood there trembling in the darkness only mildly aware of the telephone receiver in my hand.
“Came down with a nasty cold after you left,” Merrick continued. “After Fielding gave me the assignment, I took a drive there. I wanted to get a feel for the guy myself. Anyway, that’s when I found out that he’d died last night. In his sleep.”
The news about Bailey sent me over the edge. After hanging up with Merrick, I took one last swig from the bottle of Jack, threw on a coat, and stumbled out of the apartment. Linda had taken a cab to Charlene’s, leaving me our old beat up Ford Tempo. It made no sense, but in my half-drunken stupor, I was suddenly compelled to drive back to Bedford Falls – or, Pottersville. I wanted to spend Christmas Day there, in some cheap motel, and then attend Bailey’s funeral the day after Christmas. See him put into the hole in the ground in the grave next to his beloved Mary.
I stopped at a 7/11 near our apartment to buy myself a six pack of beer for the ride. By the time I made it to Pottersville, I was quite drunk. It was a miracle that I had not gotten myself killed or stopped for drunk driving.
Where the hell I was going when I got there, I didn’t have a clue. As I pulled off the Thruway, I noticed that most everywhere was closed for Christmas Eve. To make matters worse,
snow was really coming down, dancing like furious insects in my headlights and starting to pile up on the lawns and streets. I was listening to non-stop Christmas music on the radio. As I drove down the narrow two-lane state highway into Pottersville, the song, “Auld Lang Syne,” by Dan Fogelberg came on and I started crying.
Spotting the glowing sign for Nick’s tavern where Martini’s place used to be, I took a wide turn into the small gravel lot next to the bar and parked the Tempo.
The place was slow except for some neighborhood drunks hugging the bar.
“You Nick?” I asked the bartender.
A swarthy fellow with slicked black hair leaned over the bar and scowled disagreeably. “Yeah, Nick, “he said. “What’s it to ya?”
“Your father Nick, too?” I asked, swaying back from him.
“Yeah,” he said and leaned toward me on the bar. “What’s it to ya?”
“Nothing,” I said and frowned. He was one unfriendly guy. “I need a drink. Whiskey and water, okay?”
Frowning, Nick reached back and fixed my drink. A moment later, he brought over a glass filled to the brim, cheap whiskey with splash of water.
“That’s two fifty,” he said.
I had already taken a sip when I reached back and couldn’t find my wallet. It hit me right then that in my drunken stupor, I have left it back at the 7/11 after paying for gas and six pack. I didn’t have a cent on me. With a sheepish grin, I put down the glass and admitted the problem.
He smirked and removed the glass. With an index finger, he called over a swarthy, pock-faced bouncer who looked like he could have been a former prize fighter who took a lot of dives. The next thing I knew, I was grabbed by the lapel of my jacket, pulled off the bar-stool and launched out the front door into the snow. A couple of the drunks at the bar laughed.
After rolling around on the ground in the snow, I cursed as I stood and dusted myself off. The world was against me, every last goddamn soul.
I was crying as I entered the Tempo. After a sputter, it turned over and I put it in gear and started fishtailing out of the lot and down the empty street. The snow was piling up with only the tire ruts of a long-passed car visible now. After a couple more blocks, I turned wildly onto a side street and crashed the Tempo into a thick oak tree in front of a wide ranch somewhere at the edge of Pottersville. I got out of the car and staggered to the tree. I had left a considerable gash, and noticed that it was near an old, similar wound.
A middle-aged guy stumbled out of the house holding a black umbrella and trudged through the snow toward the tree. After a quick look, he snarled at me. “Look what you done to my tree,” he said. “My great-great-grandfather planted that tree.’
I ignored the guy as he yelled for me to get my car the hell out of there. Instead, I staggered off, hoping to die. After a few minutes, I came to what must have been the same old wooden draw bridge Bailey had come to on Christmas Eve, 1945. The shanty was still there, though dark now since the bridge had been condemned years ago.
I stood at the railing for some time, seriously contemplating jumping off into the frigid waters of the Genesee River, exactly as George Bailey had contemplated over sixty years ago. Just as I lunged forward to actually do it, through the howl of wind, I heard a voice.
“Don’t do it.”
It was George Bailey. But in the shadows and snow, it was not the same George Bailey I had interviewed yesterday. This one was a much younger, smiling version of the old man I had interviewed. In addition to his youthful state, he seemed to be glowing around the edges.
“You have worlds to conquer,” he told me. “Things to do.” He seemed to smile. “Stories to write.” Then, he added, “And a son to raise.”
“Now –” I started to protest.
“It’s yours,” he said, and smiled. “The boy is yours. And if you hurry and finish your story about me,” he went on, “and send it in to a real magazine before that scrub Merrick finishes his version – you’ll be on your way to a decent writing career.”
“Hogwash,” I said. “This ain’t no movie, pal. This is real life.”
“Guess I’ll have to show you some things….”
So George Bailey, Angel Second Class, because he had not yet earned his wings, showed me a glimpse of the life I might lead, the promise before me. And the promise of my children, and grandchildren. Provided, of course, I didn’t kill myself. And I had to admit, it truly looked like a wonderful life.
Needless to say, I didn’t jump off the bridge that night. Standing out there in the cold, I sobered up and headed back to my car. Somehow, I drove all the way back home that night without killing myself or being stopped by a state trooper. I stumbled into our apartment and fell asleep in my bed.
I woke up toward Noon that Christmas Day and wondered if I had gone anywhere at all. Not a minute after waking up, Linda walked into the bedroom.
“It’s your baby, you fool,” she told me.
“I know,” I replied softly. I got out of bed and held her close.
“And we’ll make it somehow,” she said.
“I know,” I said and kissed her, and we giggled in each other’s arms.
As we embraced, I felt a small sheet of paper in my shirt pocket. I reached inside, pulled it out and unfolded it.
“What is it?” she asked.
I read the note and laughed. “It’s a note from an old friend,” I said. “George Bailey.”
“George Bailey? What’s it say?”
“Remember, your life is only as wonderful as you make it.”
Just then the telephone rang, and I smiled.
“Aren’t you gonna answer it?”
“No, let it ring,” I told her, still smiling.
It rang a couple more times, then stopped.
“What’s so funny?” Linda asked, then went on after a moment, “Oh, yea, I know. It’s that old saying we learned in grade school - every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”
“That’s right,” I said, holding Linda in my arms and looking up into Heaven.
“Way to go, George. Way to go”