A SHORT STORY BY RICK SWEENEY
George sat on the edge of the bed and wondered how things had ever gotten this crazy. He listened to Violet snore softly beside him. He could not help looking back at that Christmas Eve 12 Years ago. He sometimes thought it was all a dream. Guardian angels don’t just show up when you are in trouble.
It had been nine days since Potter had called him and asked him to stop by the bank. He was dubious of Potter’s motives. He had never known a time when they were good. He went out of curiosity as much as anything.
He certainly didn’t need anything from the old penny pinching power grabbing self-centered bastard. But why would he want to talk to George? Potter had lost. The building and loan was more successful than ever. Bailey Park was almost full of new houses that the average person could afford. George was still not rich in spite of what his brother Harry had said that night. But he and Mary got by.
Potter started the conversation without his usual fanfare or even his poor attempt at being nice. He came right to the point.
“George, I am dying. The doctors tell me that I have less than six months to live. A man starts thinking about his life when he knows it is coming to an end. I have spent all of my energy accumulating wealth and power by any means possible. In so doing, I almost ruined your life. I wanted to say I am sorry for what I did. In spite of all my wealth, believe it or not, I admire you. You have a family and many friends. I have neither. But I want to say it in the only language I have ever understood. George, I have had my will drawn up. It leaves all of my money and worldly possessions to you. You are my sole heir.”
George nearly fell out of that same chair that he had sat in years earlier when Potter had offered him that cigar and a job. He had been wise to Potter’s motive then. He just wanted to destroy the Building and Loan. But now, George was mystified.
Potter was telling him that he would be a very rich man soon and he was asking nothing in return. It seemed the only thing Potter’s money could not buy was a clean conscience. He desperately wanted to ask him why he would want to do such a thing, but the words would not come. He half believed that it was another trick. He just couldn’t find the angle this time. There were no conditions.
Only half believing it, George left the musty smelling office and mumbled a thank you on the way out. Time would tell what Potter had up his sleeve.
Well the time came sooner than expected. Just two weeks later, they found Potter’s body in his room, alone. He had been dead two days before someone at the bank checked in on him. He died as he had lived, alone and unattached to anyone.
The preacher from the local Presbyterian Church conducted the funeral in a nearly empty church. George insisted that and Mary attend. It was a few days later when the lawyer called and told him that he was the sole beneficiary of Potter’s will. It was true. The old man had left him a fortune.
At first, not much changed. But then he started to think about expanding his business interests. He took over control of a large investment firm in New York City. The Building and Loan continued to operate. But Uncle Billy was not up to the task. It turned out that Mary’s brother Marty was out of work. He had some business experience so George asked him to take over the Building and Loan and keep Uncle Billy on as his assistant. It was just the sort of kindness that people expected of George.
Uncle Billy died penniless less than a year later. The church was packed with mourners.
With Marty running the Building and Loan effectively, George started spending more time in New York. He bought an apartment in Manhattan. He traveled back and forth to Bedford Falls. But he loved life in the city. He was a shrewd business man. All of those years trying to figure out how to save 3 cents on a length of pipe had prepared him well for deals on a much larger scale.
Mary hadn’t noticed at first, but George was changing. Slowly she came to realize that the sweetness of this kind man was beginning to disappear. He started coming home less and less. He was a big shot now and he was needed more and more in the city. He missed Pete’s big game and Jane’s recital. She confronted him the next time he was at home. She said, “George, you are letting this business take over your life.”
George was angry. “Look, what do you want from me? I am making a lot of money. Don’t you have all the pretty dresses you want? I told you we could afford a maid. And I told you that we could afford a bigger and nicer house.”
Mary cried. “I don’t want a bigger house. I want my George back.”
On the train back to New York, he felt like Mary was ungrateful. He felt like she was not being supportive of his success. Then things took another turn away from the old George. He ran into Violet at a restaurant near his office. She was single and working as a secretary. George invited her to have dinner with him. Then they went to see a show the next time they were together. Then after dinner only a week after having re-connecting with her, he invited her back to his penthouse apartment. She stayed the night.
The sex was as wonderful as he had imagined it when they were both back in Bedford Falls. He started going home less and less as he spent more and more time with Violet.
So now he sat on the edge of the bed wondering how his life had gotten this crazy. He turned to look at Violet, still sound asleep. When he turned back, there was a very familiar face. It was Clarence. He jumped, stunned and at a loss for words.
“George I feel very sad. I have my wings now and I could see for myself these terrible decisions you have made. You were given a gift once that showed you what a wonderful life you had. Now look at you. I hardly recognize the George Baily I knew. Don’t you see, George, Potter got his revenge by leaving you all that money. He tried once before to ruin you. This time he has succeeded. You have a lot of money and no soul. That is exactly the way you once described Potter. I can’t interfere this time. It is you who will have to do the hard work of getting your life back.”
George was weeping softly. “What can I do, Clarence?”
Clarence put his hand on George’s shoulder. “I can’t tell you want to do George. You have to figure it out yourself.” But I believe that you could still have a wonderful life if you are willing to make some big changes.”
“Who are you talking to George?” Violet said in a raspy sleepy voice. George turned toward this woman that he knew he didn’t love. “I’m talking to Clarence. Can’t you see?”
“See who? Violet said sitting up and looking around the room. When George turned back to his side, Clarence was not there anymore.
Violet laughed. “You must have been dreaming baby. Come here and I will make your dreams come true again.”
George stood up. He was not interested in sex with Violet. Just like that he knew that this relationship was over. “Get dressed Violet. I have to go home.”
“O, Georgie Porgey, come back to bed.”
“No Violet. I am not coming back to bed; not now and not ever. I am going home see. This is where this whole affair ends, right now.”
Violet’s anger kicked in. “You can’t treat me like that. I’m not just some whore you can use to have your fun and then go back to dear old Mary. I will tell Mary what has been going on here if you try to kick me to the curb.”
Violet began to dress. She was furious. George could fee his own anger kicking in. It wasn’t so much anger at Violet as it was at himself. “That is not going to work to get me to stay, Violet. I am going home and tell Mary everything. She may not forgive me and I wouldn’t blame her if she threw me out on my ear. But I am going to try to make it up to her. I want my wife back. I want my family back. I want my soul back.”
Violet did not cry as she slammed the door on her way out. He realized that she was angry that her good thing was coming to an end. Love had never been a part of this for either of them.
On the train ride home to Bedford Falls, George thought about how he would tell Mary. He realized that Mary had been right when she said he had turned into a different person. Clarence confirmed it. He had turned into Potter. The old man had gotten his revenge by ruining George and leaving him a life that was as empty and lonely as the one that Potter lived.
The talk with Mary went on for hours. He left nothing out. He said he was sorry and that he would not blame her if she wanted to divorce him. He would always see that she and the kids had what they needed. But he hoped that she would give him a chance to show her that he had changed. He had realized what was really important in his life. He knew now that being rich in things was not fulfilling. He didn’t care if he lost every cent. He just could not bear losing his family.
Mary cried and George cried. Then she came to him and held him. She said it would take a while, but she wanted him to work his way back into her trust. “You still are as you have always been my one true love. I want us to find a way to make things work out.”
They just held onto one another as if letting go would be the end of them. George asked if he should tell the children. Mary said, “I think you have to. We all have to know where we have been so we can work together as a family to figure out where we are going.”
Tommy, Zuzu and Janie all cried. But they were happy that he was back and they wanted things to be like they were before they were rich. George said that being rich had very little to do with being happy. Pete was away at college and would return home in a week. George hoped that things would go as well with him as they had with Mary and the other children.
When he got home, George took him for a ride and told him the whole story and how he wanted to put things back the way they were before.
Pete replied, “Things can never be the way they were. You hurt mom so bad. I don’t think I can ever forgive you. Is this the kind of example you wanted to set for us? I hate you.”
But George was patient. He thought that Pete might come around with time. In the meantime he sold the investment business. He used the money to open a plant just outside of Bedford Falls. It would employ some 500 workers. It was not nearly as profitable as the business in New York. But now he had seen that success was about something other than money. He gave a good deal of money away to the churches in town and to other charities. He still had the funds to pay for college for the kids and take care of all of the families’ needs.
There were a string of funerals. Mr. Gower died. Then George’s mother passed away. She was never told about George’s fall in New York. Burt the cop was shot dead by a drunk husband on a domestic disturbance call. George made sure that his widow and children had all they needed.
Some months late the family, even Pete was back in tact. George visited the grave of Henry F. Potter. The grave was overgrown with weeds. There were no signs that anyone else had visited. “Mr. Potter, you lost again, I still have a wonderful life. Thanks again Clarence.”