The Trial of Henry F. Potter, Part I

Over the past year, I have enjoyed sharing various sorts of musings, largely of a theological nature on this blog.  As I saw an article today about the classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life is in the process of getting a sequel, I couldn’t help but think back to a little writing project I took on a couple of years ago.  I shared this with a few friends and relatives in much the same spirit as Philip Van Doren Stern did with his original story.

As the holidays of 2013 approach, I offer my own “apocryphal” addition to the “Wonderful Life” canon.  I tried to capture the language of the era, the mannerisms of the characters as presented in the movie, and wonderful sentimentality of the best tradition of what came to be known as “Capra-corn.”  As I re-read the story this afternoon, even I got a little choked up at the end, in much the same way I do at the end of the movie, even after I have seen it dozens of times.

If you choose to read the story, please read it in order, and remember to be kind:  I am not a professional writer.  This was purely a labor of love from a man who wants to see the best in everyone, even the Henry F. Potters of the world.

And now, I present Part I of “The Trial of Henry F. Potter.”

By now, most people know the story of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore, based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s “The Greatest Gift.” But George Bailey’s story was only part of what was happening in Bedford Falls that cold Christmas Eve…. 

             The old man rolled determinedly down the slush covered sidewalk, his servant leaning into the back of the wheelchair as the old man grumbled, “Faster, faster, confound it!”  The tall balding man rolled his eyes slightly as he complied with his master’s commands.  Silent service was difficult.  But the rewards were almost worth it.  Almost.

            “Where is that blasted sheriff?  I paid good money to get him elected.  I want George Bailey arrested.  Now!”  He clenched the cigar so tightly in his teeth that he bit through it, the lit end falling into his blanket covered lap.  He didn’t even realize that the blanket was beginning to smolder, since he was too busy coughing up the rolled tobacco stump that he had inadvertently swallowed.  A few swats with the rolled up paper containing old, addled Billy Bailey’s $8,000.00 and the lap fire was out.

            “Say, you there!  Yes you, you pathetic nincompoop!  Where is Sherriff Warren?  I distinctly sent word to him to serve an arrest warrant for George Bailey.”

            “Haven’t you heard, Mr. Potter?  George was in trouble, see.  He misplaced his deposit today, but folks came out to help him!  He’s got the eight grand covered, and then some!”

            “What?” the old man exclaimed.  “How could Bailey’s riff-raff have that much cash?  I must have underestimated them.”

            “Have you seen the sheriff?” he groused.

            “Sheriff tore up the warrant!”

            “He what?  Humbug!” the old man exclaimed. He wasn’t sure why he said ‘humbug’, but it fit this night like a legal seal on a foreclosure order.

            Turning down the tree lined avenue that led past George and Mary Bailey’s house, Henry Potter called for the chair to stop.  There, before him, was a sight that he did not want to see.  A steady stream of townspeople entering and exiting the front door, every light in the house burning.  Tentative piano music playing, like someone who was just learning music.  Singing.  Auld Lang Syne, it sounded like.  Cheers.

            “Confound it!  How does he always come out smelling like a rose?  Who’s looking out for him?”

 

            A long way away, in what could have been another time, another dimension altogether, an angel trainer called a halt to the action in the small town of Bedford Falls.  The meek, freshly winged former clock maker, Clarence Oddbody, entered the office where the angel known only as Joseph sat staring at the recently moving picture before him.

            “Come in, Clarence.  Congratulations on your promotion.  You deserve it.”

            “Thank you, sir.  George deserves the credit, though.  He really is a good man.  He’ll make a good angel some day.”

            “Maybe someday,” Joseph said, finger scrolling down a ledger, stopping, tapping twice. “But not for a long time.

            “I’ve called you in Clarence, because tonight is crucial for another person in Bedford Falls.  One Henry Potter,” continued Joseph.

            “Oh, my sir.  He’s a bad one.  A bad one, indeed.  I’m pretty sure he’s not even on our side.”

            “Nonsense, Clarence.  Each person’s life is largely the product of his choices.  Potter’s made bad ones in the past, but he has a big decision to make tonight.”

            “Do you mean…”  Clarence’s question was cut short.

            “Yes, I’m afraid so.  On his present course, Potter’s number is going to be up soon.  But we always give cases like this a chance to make amends before they go.”

            “Yes, sir.  Where do I come in?  I’m not his case worker, sir.”

            “Correct, Clarence.  I want you to brief Potter’s guardian angel, like I did for you.”

            “Brief Potter’s guardian, sir?  Whatever will I tell him?”

            “Tell him that he has to review Potter’s case, visit him, present him with his options, and await his decision.  His final disposition will rest on how he makes his choice.”

            “I see.  Sir, if I may be so bold as to ask, what are his chances?”

            “Not good, I’m afraid.  He’s been heavily recruited by other powers, powers that promise more than they can deliver.  They’ve given him all the wealth and power he could ever want on Earth in exchange for his service.  But through it all, he never really experienced the one thing that makes life worth living.”

            “A really good meal, sir?”

            “No, Clarence.  Love.”

            “Oh, my, that is sad,” Clarence replied, his voice trailing.  It was something he couldn’t quite understand.  In his life and after-life, he had known nothing but love.  It was, as they say, a way to live and die.  The warmth of family, the romance of a true love, the good will of good friends, the joy and mirth of grandchildren:  all of these give zest and spice and greater meaning to life.  While Clarence had never been rich in material goods, he never cared, because he was filled with greater riches. 

He reflected on the night’s events (so long ago or just moment?  It was hard to say in Heaven).  George Bailey had never been a rich man, but his life had been spent making deposits of good deeds that had matured and paid off when they were needed.  No business hours or bank holidays that restricted access to your funds.  There was ‘round the clock access.

Clocks.  They had been such a part of Clarence’s life, but now they had little place or meaning outside a fond memory.  Had it not been for Joseph calling him in on the Bailey case, he may have spent eternity not worrying about them ever again.  But he pulled the fob on the watch he wore in his robe pocket, and checked Earth time.

“Oh dear, I forgot how quickly time passes.  Where is my next assignment?”

“Woodrow, would you step in please?” Joseph’s voice carried through the door into the outer office.  A dark-skinned, wingless angel with peaceful eyes and graying temples rose and moved his lanky frame into the inner office.

“Yes, sir.  AS2 Woodrow Jefferson, reporting for duty.”

“Be seated, Woodrow.  This is Clarence Oddbody, your control officer.  He will fill you in on what you need to know.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Jefferson.  Have you had a pleasant stay?” Clarence asked politely.

“Clarence, we can only hold time on Earth for an hour.  I suggest you get on with it,” Joseph directed.

“Yes, sir.  Woodrow, –may I call you Woodrow?—you have a very difficult assignment, a real hard case.  Henry F. Potter has to decide tonight whether he will change his ways and be a friend to mankind or be forever lost.”

Woodrow straightened a bit, looking at the faded patrician Potter, comparing him to his own appearance.   Woodrow had been a field servant on Earth during the days of human slavery.  He had been mistreated by masters in his youth, but before his last master died– a kindly old planter who did not believe in whips and beating, but paradoxically considered slavery an acceptable institution– he had been given his freedom.  Old Master Jefferson talked of liberty for all men, but it had taken a long time for it to sink in.  He looked at the stooped old cripple in the caned, high back wheelchair.  Something akin to pity but curiously mixed with loathing rushed into his mind.  He shook his head.  Better not to judge before he knew the facts.

“Let’s get to it, then,” said Woodrow.

“Let me see if I can show you the Potter file.  Since you haven’t any wings, yet,” Clarence held out his hand, “I’ll have to help you.”  The mist in the picture frame on the wall swirled and disappeared, and a shop in downtown Bedford Falls came into sharp focus.  The street was laid out almost like Clarence remembered from his recent visit, but the buildings were smaller, less permanent looking.  Above the dry goods store was a cozy little apartment, where John and Emma Potter lived with their newborn son, Henry.  Henry looked like a fine boy, plump and happy.  His parents were hard working people.  They loved their little family, they loved their town.  They were not rich, but what they had, they shared with others.

As a young boy, Henry played like any other child.  He fought great battles in open fields, he swam in ponds in the summer, he skated on the same ponds when winter came.  One summer day, as he was swimming with friends his own age, a group of boys a few years older came by.  They taunted the little boys, they threw rocks at them.  When they finally let them out of the water, let them dry and dress, they laughed at Henry’s clothes.  Although his family owned a store, Henry wore old clothes with patches for everyday play.  Why hasten the ruin of new clothes, his mother asked.  The older boys grabbed him, began tearing the patches from the worn knickers, leaving him in tatters.  He was left alone, sobbing.    

As young Henry grew, he took an interest in the store.  He liked the clink of money in the till, and he watched to be sure no one cheated or stole.  Money was money, after all.  If some neighborhood hoodlum pilfered an apple, that was a penny that wouldn’t be counted in the bank.  Honesty had a price, and Henry Potter was there to exact it.

“No real warning signs yet,” commented Woodrow.  “When does he start to go bad?”

Let’s see….right about here,” Clarence noted as he flashed forward in the story of Henry Potter.

Potter looked to be about 15 years old.  He was of medium build, peach fuzz on his cheeks.  Late one night, as his parents were sleeping, he decided to go downstairs and look over the books.  He always liked to study the accounts.  He was frequently annoyed that his father let so many people have credit.  He never hounded them to pay.  He had enough paying business to carry a few of the needy in the neighborhood.  But every cent that became a defaulted account was cash that wouldn’t be there for him.  Didn’t these people know that he was going without some of the things that he wanted in life, all because they were too indigent to pay?  If only they had paid their bills when he was younger, he would not have been humiliated by his poor appearance, by insults hurled at his parents for their bad business ability.  He started to believe the insults.  If they were a little harder, tougher, sharper, then they would have more business, bigger business, more money, more power.

Henry read the ledger book like it was the most fascinating adventure story he had ever encountered.  He wished the money flowing like rivers through the columns were his and his alone.  He would buy what he wanted.  He would hold people accountable for their debts to him.  He would never be disrespected again.  He gripped the pen in his hand tightly, and bore down on the paper so hard that he bent the nib.  As he grasped the tip and pulled hard to remove it, he sliced a finger on its knife sharp edge, gasped, muttered an oath under his breath (forbidden in his mother’s house), and dripped a single drop of blood onto an old piece of dirty, ratty looking paper that happened to be on the counter.  He smeared the blood with his uninjured hand.  It would not be cleaned, so he tossed it toward the wastebasket.  The paper hit the floor, bounced under the cabinet.  No matter, he’d get it later.     

As he continued to read the accounts, he made notes of the ones most delinquent.  He might have to pay a visit to these people, remind them of their responsibilities.  He folded the list and tucked it tightly into his fist and returned to bed.

The next day, he made his first round of collection calls.  A tap on the door, and a polite old lady answered.  “Young Master Potter, do come in.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Nordstrom, but I haven’t time for pleasantries.  I have come to remind you of your obligation to the Potter Mercantile and Dry Goods Store.  Your account is long in arrears.  Do you intend to pay?”

“Why, young man, I’ve never been spoken to in so unkind a manner, especially by a pup, like you.”

“Madam, you have not paid for your recent purchases:  a bolt of cloth, three spools of thread, and a selection of buttons.  I trust you are a seamstress.”  She nodded. “Perhaps you should collect for your work, so that you may meet your debts.”

“Young man, one does not charge one’s daughter for her wedding dress.”

“Maybe one should,” he replied.

“I will not be spoken to in this manner, young man.  I will speak with your father.  Now good day.”  The older lady forcibly turned him by the shoulder and pushed him out the door.  Henry Potter seethed.  How dare she disrespect him in such a way.

 

In the distant room where Clarence and Woodrow had convened, Woodrow clucked his tongue.  “Such arrogance in one so young.  I can see how he ends up bitter as a man.”

“Oh, no, Woodrow.  There’s more and it gets much worse.”

 

A few more visits, and the doors of the mercantile were virtually beaten down by angry customers.

“Potter!  Come out here and take your money!  I hope you choke on it!”

“Potter!  I’m through with you and your whelp of a son!  I’ll never shop here again!”

“Potter!  You better hope God has more mercy!”

John Potter looked out the window of the upstairs apartment.  He was confused.  He had done nothing to these people.  He needed them, he respected them.  How could they turn on him?  Henry ran into the room, pulling on his robe.  “What’s happening?” he hissed.

“The people from the neighborhood seem to be angry with me,” John said, almost in a daze, eyes darting from person to person, customer to customer, friend to friend. 

“Big man to send your boy to do your dirty work, Potter!”

“Henry, what do you know about this?” Emma asked.

“I checked the books.  I made some visits.  I told people to pay up.  Or I would call the law.”

“That wasn’t your place, son.  You should let your father take care of his own business.”

“Take care of business?  By driving us into the poor house?  You call that business?” Henry spat.

“Henry, you will ‘honor thy father and mother,’” his mother said, grabbing him by the shoulder.

“Do something to earn my respect, and I will,” Henry shot back.  Emma let go.

Just then, a window crashed in the storefront below.  Roaring.  Cheering.  More glass breaking.

“Do you see what you’ve done, Henry?” John asked.  “These were good people, living on the edge.  Patience would have been rewarded.  But you pushed them over.  Took their dignity.  Desperate people do desperate things.”

“Thugs and thieves pillage and steal,” Henry yelled.  “Look at your precious neighbors, now!”

A few once law-abiding citizens were carrying items from the store.  One grabbed a wadded up piece of paper, shoved it into his pocket and ran into the storeroom.  Most of the others looked on in horror.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

From the back of the store there came a final crash and a blinding flash as a kerosene lamp tossed onto the floor exploded into flames.

“It is finished,” murmured John Potter, as Emma pulled him toward the stairs.  They fought their way through the smoke.  Henry was nowhere to be found.

With only the nightshirt and robe on his back, Henry left home not even looking back on his parents–stunned, broken, shattered, weeping–in the dying glow of their livelihood, their good names.

 

….Continued in Part II      

 

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One Response to The Trial of Henry F. Potter, Part I

  1. Pingback: Real Christmas | What Should Have Happened to Potter

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