The Trial of Henry F. Potter, Part IV

            “Oh, no.  You said yourself that doesn’t work.”

            “I said we can’t know with certainty.  But we can look at the possibilities.”

            “Nothing doing.”

            “Clarence!  I could use a little help.”

            Immediately, Clarence materialized, wearing his wool overcoat and fedora.   He wore a pin that was shaped like a pair of golden wings on his left lapel.  The pin sparkled, new and shiny, like the smile that seemed to perpetually grace his friendly, round, caring face.

            “Clarence, I want to show Henry here how the future could be depending on what he does with the $8000 he snatched –“

            “I did no such thing!”

            “You are in possession of money that you did not earn and received under questionable circumstances.  You know it’s wrong, Henry.  You planned to keep the money to force George Bailey out of business.  You should be ashamed,” Woodrow scolded sternly.

            “That sounds like a reasonable request.  Joseph, what do you think?” Clarence asked, looking upward.

            “I’ll tell him.”  Clarence turned to Woodrow.  “This is twice in one night that we have requested unusual support.  Joseph gave us the go ahead, but we must be careful in what we reveal.”

            “All right.  Let’s take a look then.”  Woodrow nodded at Clarence, then looked from Henry to Kobold.  Luther was not happy.

            “Henry, let’s say you keep the $8000 dollars.  Let’s say you keep on with your sorry way of dealing with your fellow man.  Here’s how things might look in one year.  Look carefully.  It’s Christmas Eve, 1946.”

            Henry Potter reluctantly looked into one possible future and saw Main Street, Bedford Falls.  There was snow on the ground, and a light snow was falling.  People were wrapped up in their winter coats, carrying packages down the sidewalks, hurrying home to be with family for this warmest of holidays.  Music was playing on street corners.  Radios played carols in shops and restaurants.  Green boughs were hung merrily from every post and red bows graced the boughs.  People were smiling, filled with cheer.  The world was returning to some semblance of normalcy after the recent war, the horror abroad, the pain of worry at home. 

            The Bailey Brothers Building and Loan office.

            “I knew it!  I knew that they would be out of business!” Potter crowed.  “George Bailey was too soft to be a financial giant.”

            “Look at the sign, Henry,” Woodrow directed.  The sign said in large red letters, “Bailey Brothers Building and Loan has moved to our new location in the Peter Bailey Building.  Please visit soon.  We appreciate your business!”

            Potter was stunned.

            The odd quartet moved quickly to another location.  The Bailey House at 320 Sycamore.  The piano music was better than he heard earlier in the evening.  The crowd was smaller, but no less noisy.  George and Mary were entertaining the whole Bailey clan, Mom, Harry and his wife, Ruth, and their new twins, and of course Peter, Janie, Tommy and Zuzu.  Even Annie was there, with her latest prospective husband.  Uncle Billy was dressed in his summer seersucker suit.  A little cool for Christmas Eve, but Billy was still Billy.  He petted the squirrel that sat contentedly on his shoulder awaiting the nut that inevitably would come.

            “Last year’s fiasco brought the people of Bedford Falls together as a community.  They aren’t just customers and clients.  They’re family, friends, working together to make their lives better, their town better,” Woodrow observed.

            “A strong savings ethic and the willingness to forego a few luxuries will get them farther,” Potter protested.

            “Life is more than saving a penny, Henry,” Woodrow reminded him.  “George believes in hard work, too.  But he also trusts his borrowers.  A man given the opportunity to provide for his family will have more dignity and take more care of his property.  He takes pride, and he takes care.”

            “All right, Mr. Jefferson, I’ve heard it all before,” Potter said, frustrated.   Woodrow shook his head.  Maybe this was a losing battle.  Maybe he wasn’t ready to earn his wings.

            “Where am I in this big picture?”

            “You aren’t.”

            “What?” Potter was startled.  He was an old man.  He felt the years every morning.  But no one is really fond of being bluntly reminded of his mortality.

            “You’re dead, Henry.  Dead as a post, dead as a doornail, dead as four o’clock.”

            “There must be some mistake.”

            Woodrow pulled out a paper, dated August 12, 1946.  He turned to the obituaries.  A small notice was posted there, bearing Henry’s name.  Date of birth, date of decease.  Parents’ names.  No wife, no children, no relatives, no friends.  He left nothing to no one.  The courts would take his money and all his possessions.  There would be nothing more for him, or of him beyond the ornate and dignified casket.  No one would attend his funeral on that late summer day.  A minister would pray for his soul.  A grave digger would toss dirt over his remains.  His valet would pay the minister and the undertaker, collect more of Henry’s amassed funds than he was entitled to, shrug as he closed the door, and leave Bedford Falls a comfortable, if not rich man. 

            “There will be no one there, Henry, in your final hour.  As the Bailey’s prosper, you become more and more reclusive, vengeful, spiteful, angry.  All of that hate is bad for a body.  Your old heart won’t be able to take it.  It will stop.  Your life will be over, and there will be nothing to show for it. 

“People will care that you’re gone, but they will only feel relief to be out from under your control.  Your house will become a home for homeless children.  Your money will build a wing onto the hospital and help injured war veterans recover.   Ironic, isn’t it?  That you would have to die to help someone?”

            “I helped people!  They just didn’t appreciate it!”

            “You helped yourself, Henry.  Take a look. Without you, life will go on.  And for most of the people your life has touched, it will even be better.”

            “Look, we could keep this up, or we could just cut to the chase,” interrupted Luther, taking Potter’s elbow.  “Henry, why wait for August?  Come with me now, and we’ll make you feel right at home.”  Henry squirmed in his chair.

            “Clarence, show us another possibility.”

            Clarence pointed the way, and the foursome found themselves outside the Bank.

            “My office.  Good, let’s go in,” said Potter.

             “Look at the name on the door, Mr. Potter,” Woodrow directed, dropping his view to the floor.

            “GEORGE BAILEY!?” spat Potter, beginning to push himself out of the chair.

            “Easy, Henry,” Woodrow soothed.  “After you give back the $8000 you stole—“

            “I never stole that money!”

            “—you actually sit down with George and make peace.  He takes the money and covers the deposit.  He takes the funds that the townspeople raise and buys a couple of old houses to fix up for an orphan’s home.   With the people’s consent, of course.  You bring him in to the bank, turn over day to day operations to him so that you can enjoy life a little.  It’s allowed.”

            “Why do I want to make peace with Bailey?  What can he do for me?”

            “Amazingly, he can be your friend.  Even after all you’ve tried to do to him and his family, he’s that kind of man.”

            “Hmmph.”

 

            “Let’s take a look at one more Christmas, Clarence.”  Clarence nodded.  They moved through time like dandelion down in a hurricane. 

            Downtown Bedford Falls.  Christmas Eve.  The street was alive with holiday bustle, like in the previous version of the future.  It was all very similar, yet somehow more vibrant, more grandly, joyously, chaotically merry.  People were laughing, carolers were caroling. Music poured from every door.  There was warmth and genuine good will.  The world was regaining its hard fought peace, and prosperity was returning, even to a small town like Bedford Falls.

            “It looks pretty much the same.  Why show me, Woodrow?  I presume I’ll still be dead.”

            “Nothing is certain about the future, Henry.  Remember this one is a possibility, too.  Every decision we make shapes our futures.  We choose from day to day, from moment to moment what we will be, how we will act, what we will serve.   Choose selfishly, and that is all there ever will be.  Satisfaction for a moment, an instant of gratified greed. 

“Choose unselfishly, and the world opens to you.  All your friends will share your joys, and your truest friends will even share your sorrows.  John Donne was right.  ‘No man is an island,’ Henry.”

            The night was wearing on.  Henry Potter was bone weary.  The stress and disappointment of the day, the strange visitation by agents of powers he had until now refused to acknowledge, the dread of facing another day of lonely existence with only cold, impersonal money and wealth to keep him warm, the horrible emptiness of knowing that he may soon die, alone, unmourned, unloved.

            Unloved. 

            He had indeed been loved, hadn’t he?  His parents loved him more than anything.  Certainly more than possessions.  Where had he gone wrong?  Why had he turned his attentions away from the values his parents had tried to teach him?  When had money become too important?  When had wealth become too seductive?   

            He thought he could have loved Madeline, all those years ago.  She left him alone.  Then she grew up, she changed, so thoroughly that she gave up her chance at rescue from a doomed, sinking ship.  How?  Could he ever do such a thing?

            He thought about his old enemy, Peter Bailey.  For all his hard headed, poor business sense, he always seemed to be calm, peaceful.  He had little money.  But he had a wife, and sons, and friends who would stand by him. 

            He thought about his new enemy, George Bailey.  George always did what was right in the end.  Life just seemed to work out for him.

            What was this hole in his — what was it, his soul? — that ached like a bad tooth or maybe a phantom limb?  Was it that all these years he had missed the rich deep comfort of love?  Money bought things, wealth bought influence.  Love doesn’t buy anything.  It brings, attracts, gives more love, freely, openly.

            In the midst of his confusion, a fresh scene faded into view.  Bedford Falls, Christmas Day.  Henry saw his horse drawn carriage rolling down Main Street.  There was laughter on the sidewalks, people were pointing.  More were lined up to take a carriage ride through the gaily decorated Potter Park.  He looked closer.  Two little girls, Bailey’s Janie and Zuzu, were sitting beside….Henry F. Potter!  Zuzu pulled herself up by Henry’s lapels and gave him a big kiss on his right cheek.  Janie hugged him from the other side. 

He was…laughing. 

He was…happy. 

He was…loved.

            “When is that, angel?” Potter asked, tired, unsure of the angel’s last stop.

            “Doesn’t matter, Henry,” Woodrow replied. “It’s another possibility for some time in the future.”

            “So I don’t die next August.”

            “That depends on a lot of things.  Not the least of which is you.”

            Luther Kobold was angry.  He started this mission with his usual cool aplomb.  But this rookie angel was good.  The best he had ever been up against.  He had forgone the lust of the flesh and lust of the eye and had gone straight to the pride of life, but Potter was more complex than most.  He would have to study this case over, try to do better next time out.  If there was a next time.  He wondered if the Boss would demote him to furnace stoker.  Or worse.   Without so much as a curse, he disappeared, with only a faint hint of brimstone.

            “Woodrow, I think we should go now.  Henry has some thinking to do,” Clarence urged.

            “I’m right behind you, Clarence.”  He turned to Potter. “Think it over, Henry.  I know there’s still some good in that heart of yours.  You just have to find it.”

            Henry Potter awoke the next morning, the ashes in the fireplace almost cold.  He had sat upright in his wheelchair all night, it appeared, head tilted to the right.  His neck was stiff and sore from being stuck in such an awkward position.  He started to rub it, then he felt… something.

 Faintly, lightly on his cheek, like the whisper of a silent breeze.  He knew he felt it.  From out of what could only have been a dream, he felt the memory– or was it a precognition?– of Zuzu’s kiss. 

And then he realized:  it was real!  The dream of a back and forth conversation with a first-time angel and a sardonic demon had been real after all!  He patted his chest.  Billy’s newspaper…was still there!  He opened it, peeked one eye downward.  The money…was still there!  He released the breath he had collected like the last one he would ever take.   What if it were his last?  He gasped again.  Still breathing.  There was still time!  Time to change, time to make a difference!

He grabbed the candlestick phone on the table and pumped the receiver.  The operator came on, he requested to be connected to his manservant, wherever he may be.  Did he know the number?  How should he know?  He knew so little about the man that cared for him most of the time.  He had given him Christmas off.  Why had he done that?  He needed him right now!  He needed him to get to George Bailey’s house.  Immediately!

The sheriff.  Of course!  He pumped the phone again.  The operator came on.  He requested the sheriff’s office.  She said that it was unlikely he would be available since it was Christmas, after all.  He told her to ring his house, and fast, it was a matter of life and…better life!

Yes, that was it.  A simple act, a letting go, a letting go of the past, of greed and anger and revenge…he could breathe!  His heart pounded, not like it did when he was cursing the luck, the setbacks, the defeats, but in a different way! It was more like he had something to…something to live for.  What was it?  Hope?  He breathed, his heart was pounding!  There was still time!

“Bill, get over here.  I need you to do something!” Potter barked, the hint of smile in his excited voice.

From the other end of the line, Sheriff Bill Warren blearily came alive.  It had been a long night, searching for George Bailey, first to arrest him, then to celebrate.  It had been a Christmas Eve to remember.  “Now see here, Mr. Potter…”

“Bill, I want you over here right away.  I’ve got to get over to George Bailey’s.  You know the place.  I have to do something.”

“I don’t run a taxi service, Henry.  Call Ernie Bishop.”

“No, no, Bill.  This is about that missing $8000.00.  I have it…I found it.  I’ll tell you later.  Just get over here.”  It was all true.  He just didn’t want to go into why he still had it.  Not then.  Not until he had made things right for once in his life.

The sheriff’s car slid to a stop in front of the modest Bailey house.  The Sheriff and a deputy he had picked up on the way to Potter’s carried the old man up the steps, where Bill Warren rang the bell and pounded on the door with a gloved fist.

George Bailey peered through the curtained side light, tying his robe about him, then opened the door, squinting in even the dim light reflecting off the snow from the street light and the gathering blues and purples of the eastern sky.  It was still just before dawn. 

“Sheriff, I don’t understand…” George began.

“There’s nothing to understand,” Potter said.  “Here, George.  Here’s the $8000.00 your Uncle Billy lost yesterday.  I…found it and had to…think about what to do with it.”

“You had to think about it,” George bristled.

“That’s all,” Potter was suddenly at a loss for words.  “Bill, take me back home.”  Something caught in his chest.

“Mr. Potter,” George called as Henry and his carriers turned to leave.  “Thank you.  I don’t know how you came to get this.  I don’t even care at this point.  But thank you.  From the bottom of my heart.”

“George, I…I’m…”  The words stuck in Potter’s throat.  He breathed deeply.  “I’m…sorry.”  Suddenly, a weight was lifted, even as the first tentative ray of glorious sunshine came bursting over the horizon, shooting through the icicles, creating a dazzling kaleidoscope of prismatic colors on the porch.  Henry Potter laughed.  He breathed and laughed some more. 

George stepped onto the frosty porch.  The snow had stopped over night, and the world looked strangely new, fresh, pure.  Potter noticed it, too.  For the first time since he was a little boy, he noticed it.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter,” said a little voice, emanating from a curly-haired little boy, peeking from around his father’s right leg.

“And Happy New Year to you, young man.”  A breath of a cold breeze gusted past them, to the Christmas tree in the parlor. The little silver bell on the tree tinkled like it had only a few hours before. 

            Tommy tugged his father’s pajama leg.  “Zuzu says another angel just got his wings.”

            “Yes, Tommy,” George chuckled. “It’s been a busy night for angels in Bedford Falls.”

            “Angels, you say?” Potter looked quizzical.  How did Bailey know about Woodrow Jefferson?

            “It’s a long story, Mr. Potter.”

            “I’ll say it is,” Potter answered, a smile twinkling in his eyes, playing across the softening lines of his wrinkled face.  “I’ll say it is, indeed.”

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