A gift I just received this Christmas season has been a 24+ hour internet outage. I almost was unable to give you this gift, but then I went to the local public library to go online and post your gift. I know that you’re thinking, “An even nicer gift would have been no post today.” But it is Day 9 of the 12 Days of Blogging, so if I don’t gift you soon, you’re getting nothing, and plenty of it.
My award-winning book of 16 short stories was originally 18. But there was one story that just didn’t fit well with the rest, so I axed it. That left the story total at 17 … a prime number. My OCD immediately rejected that idea, so I cut another story to get to 16 … a perfect square number. Yes, I am an OCD math geek, a horrible combination if you a planning the guest list for a dinner party. Hey, watch me chew my bite of food the same number of times on each side of my mouth!
Anyway, the following story got cut from the book. Yes, the award-winning, well-reviewed book of short stories I wrote available for under a buck by clicking HERE. I have set-up the story on Amazon for you Kindle and Kindle app users. The price is set at $0.99, the same as my award-winning, well-reviewed, very inexpensive book of short stories. But you don’t have to pay that price for a story with just over 3000 words. Wait until Thursday morning, and the first thing to do when you arise is to click this link to get this short story for FREE. Well, maybe tinkle first and then order. And you should brush your teeth. That morning breath! Ugh!
Click this link to get my short story “Every Time a Bell Rings” for FREE Thursday morning. It is a holiday story, sort of a sequel to It’s a Wonderful Life, following Clarence the angel after the movie ends. Now I know some of you hate Amazon, so if you click to continue reading, the whole story follows, still for FREE. Is it a Christmas classic? More like classic sacrilege and blasphemy for fans of the movie. But hey, a classic something nonetheless. If you enjoy it, make sure to review it on Amazon. Now where the hell’s MY gift?
Every Time a Bell Rings
I woke from a fever dream. You know the type I’m talking about? It wasn’t a nightmare. Nothing scary about it. But I awoke drenched in sweat with vivid visions in my mind of what I saw, or dreamt that I saw.
It was inevitable. I had been eating too much rich food and drinking too many sweet alcoholic beverages around the holidays. Herring in wine sauce on garlic crackers with a chaser of chocolate liqueur is never a good idea. And then, that movie had been playing non-stop on cable television since Thanksgiving. You know the movie — It’s a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.
I don’t want to dogmatically declare it is the best Christmas movie ever. It may not even be my favorite Christmas movie if you classify Die Hard as a holiday film. However, I can’t deny that It’s a Wonderful Life is an iconic Christmas movie that I can’t avoid watching when I stumble on it while channel-surfing. That happens much too frequently from around mid-November to just after New Year’s Day. I sometimes wonder if perhaps I have damaged some brain synapses that are now not firing properly, rendering me incapable of not watching the movie when presented to me. Sort of like a Pavlovian response self-programmed into my psyche over many decades. On top of that, I own the DVD and also know the online streaming services that offer it. That is just not normal. The rest of the year, I’m fine. I can go about my life, business, and television watching as if I am a normal person. But for those forty-five or so days …
And it is not that I just watch the movie. I openly weep in parts as the story unfolds on the screen. “Niagara Falls” as the Ghost of Christmas Past tells Bill Murray in his Christmas movie classic Scrooged. I know all the plot twists; the dialog is virtually memorized. That look of eternal love that Mary Bailey gives her husband, George, is forever etched onto my mind’s eye. I can project it onto the movie screen of my mind anytime I want. It doesn’t affect me now as I document my fever dream. But still, at certain points while watching the movie … Niagara Falls.
So, it should come as no surprise that repeated viewings of the movie topped with ultra-rich food and drink as a holiday protocol would combine in a less than positive fashion and result in a fever dream from which I awoke with bed linens soaked in sweat. As I changed the salt-encrusted linens to appease my wife and cat, I rewound and replayed the fever dream in my head. Maybe so I could share it with you, or simply because I enjoyed it so much — minus the profuse sweating. I’m not exactly certain, but it opened with Clarence Odbody, the angel from the movie, entering an office.
“Knock-knock. You wanted to see me?” asked Clarence, poking his head into the office.
“Sit down, sit down, Clarence. Thanks for coming in,” the angel behind a desk cheerily replied. I remember wondering at that point in the dream if cheerfulness is a prerequisite for being angelic.
“How’s Joseph?” Clarence inquired. In the movie, Joseph is clearly Clarence’s direct superior, but we never discover much more about him. We’re not sure if he’s the Joseph of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fame, or just some other angelic being named Joseph. In the movie, Joseph also has his own superior, so my guess is that he is a random Joseph and not the Joseph from the J, M, & J supergroup.
“Nice of you to ask, Clarence. Joseph is doing great since getting bumped upstairs.”
“Could you please give him my warmest regards when you see him, Mac?” I found it odd that an angel was named Mac, but then I decided it was not necessarily a stranger angelic name than Clarence Odbody or Joseph. Maybe it was short for Macarthur. We’ll never know. It makes me wonder if Michael the Archangel from both the Quran and Bible has ever been called Mike or Micky.
“I definitely will,” assured Mac. “Please sit down. We have some things to discuss.” Mac’s demeanor changed from cheerful to serious. There went my theory about angels always being cheerful.
Mac continued, “Look, you’re over 350 years old and haven’t progressed past Angel First Class since getting your wings thanks to George Bailey and Joseph’s lenient interpretation of the rules. We need to have a chat about your future.”
“What do you mean by Joseph’s lenient interpretation of the rules?” asked a confused Clarence. “I did my job. I earned my wings. I saved George Bailey.”
“Sure, sure, sure you did, Clarence. That was the goal and we reached that goal through a team effort.”
Clarence persisted with his line of questioning as if Mac’s statements impugned Clarence’s ownership of his wings and standing as Angel First Class. “What do you mean that we reached the goal though a team effort? I did it.”
“Clarence, you have to admit that you had an awful lot of help with the George Bailey case.”
There was a sign of strain on Clarence’s face as he racked his brain for memories of where his effort may have been augmented with assistance from others. “No, sorry, Mac. I think I did a great job with George.”
“I didn’t want to get into the weeds with you on this one, but if I must, I must,” Mac replied with a sigh. “Do you recall that time you had law enforcement sitting on you? The policeman, what was his name? Ah, yes, Bert. Bert had you pinned to the ground and was ready to slap the handcuffs on you, and what did you do? Cried like a baby for Joseph’s help, which came just in the nick of time. Poof! Joseph made you vanish, or else you would have ended up in the drunk tank while George would have been running around by himself in an alternate reality with no angelic supervision.”
“Oh, yeah,” recalled Clarence. “But I was ready to sacrifice myself for George’s sake. It was all for the best.”
“My point, Clarence, is that you didn’t earn your wings on your own. You had help from Joseph. And then there were all the angel references while on Earth. ‘I’m an angel. I’m 293 years old next May. Don’t you believe in angels?’ Remember flapping your gums now? You may as well have given George a tee shirt to wear printed with a finger pointing and the saying ‘I’m with the angel’ on it. You could have gotten George in a lot of trouble when you were at Nick’s bar with all your angel-talk and requests for a flaming rum punch and mulled cider. That was a tough joint. Can’t you keep your mouth shut and use a little discretion?”
“I’ve learned my lesson over the years,” pleaded Clarence.
“Probably your worst transgression is leaving a copy of Tom Sawyer with each of your clients. You haven’t learned that lesson as you still do that today. Sure, the personal inscriptions started out as a nice touch. I mean, George and his family were genuinely moved at the ‘No man is a failure who has friends’ message. That’s a top-notch quote, but we in the afterlife are not supposed to be leaving gifts with the living.”
Clarence did his best to succinctly explain his intentions and actions. “It’s kind of become my calling card. My thing.”
“But Clarence, you can’t have a thing that betrays your angelic origins. If you leave enough of those signed books with the living, eventually two people who have received your help and a copy of Tom Sawyer will get together and share their experiences. Before you know it, there will be a Clarence subreddit page, and #AngelsOnEarth will be trending on Twitter. We’re trying to fly under the radar here as we help the human race to help themselves and each other.”
Nodding his head, Clarence acknowledged, “Maybe I overdid it with the Tom Sawyers, and I certainly don’t like the sound of a Clarence sub-rabbit.”
“And that one inscription for Betty Jo Hawkins you did … it was just awful. Sure, you talked her off the bridge and into rehab. That was a job well done. But leaving her with a Tom Sawyer and a message that ‘Methadone addiction is better than heroin addiction’ is not exactly inspirational.”
“I can drop the Tom Sawyer souvenirs and the quotes if that’ll help,” agreed Clarence. “You’re not going to take my wings, are you?”
“Before we get to that, we need to go over your sins of omission, Clarence.”
“Sins of omission?” Clarence was genuinely baffled.
“Yes, Clarence. You certainly didn’t lie to George Bailey, but sometimes omitting key facts are as bad as lying. For example, you showed George Bailey that without him Bedford Falls had become Pottersville. You showed him that as being a bad thing. But without George Bailey, Pottersville had grown to become a town with the fourth highest GDP in the state.”
“GDP?” asked Clarence.
“Gross Domestic Product. That’s important for towns to grow and residents to be prosperous. Sure, some of George’s friends didn’t do so well in Pottersville, but many residents did very well, improved their standards of living, and some made fortunes.”
“I had limited time,” explained Clarence. “I couldn’t show George everyone in town. I just showed him some of the people he knew.”
“Exactly, but the problem is how you showed them. You showed Violet Bick being hauled away from a dance hall by the police. What you didn’t show George was that Violet was one of the most famous burlesque dancers in the country. She commanded top dollar to perform. George saw her being arrested after she was protesting the violation of her First Amendment rights of free speech through her dance. Sure, she was arrested while protesting topless, but she was one of the most vocal proponents of First Amendment free speech rights in the country. Violet Bick would have helped erase many obscenity laws in the country much earlier if not for George’s existence.”
“Is that really a good thing, Mac?”
“That’s not for us to decide. My point is that you influenced George’s decision. You slanted the playing field by only showing one side of Violet and of his beloved Mary had they not married. You called Mary an old maid, so when George saw her, his perspective of her was as a spinster librarian living a lonely existence. What George didn’t know was that at that moment he saw Mary in a world without George, Mary was the head of the state library board, lived a comfortable life, was quite happy, and traveled the world as a respected library science lecturer and advocate for bringing the Dewey Decimal System to emerging nations.”
“I tried to tell George he would not like what he would see with Mary. She was a pretty successful librarian without George in her life,” admitted Clarence.
“Your sins of omission cut both ways, Clarence. The world without George in it had his Uncle Billy winding up in an insane asylum. Well, it turns out that Uncle Billy ended up there anyway even with George around. George’s existence just delayed Uncle Billy’s commitment for a handful of years that were hell for Uncle Billy’s relatives. And it didn’t really work out very well with Violet Bick giving George back the travel money he gave her and staying in Bedford Falls, did it?”
Clarence shook his head from side-to-side. “No, it would have been better had she moved.”
Mac continued, “That incident later on between Violet and George was pretty nasty stuff. Mary was never the same after she found out. She could never find it in her heart to trust anyone again. I think the topper on the cake was when George and Mary’s son Peter took up with Violet in a tawdry May–December relationship once Peter reached adulthood. I’m not saying that we didn’t want to save George. However, only showing George what he perceived as bad had he not existed was not the right way to save him. Not showing him all that was ahead was not fair to George and his decision-making process.”
Clarence looked crestfallen, but was not ready for the bombshell that Mac was about to lay on him.
“I’m going to level with you, Clarence. The only reason you got your wings was that you were holding Joseph back. He wanted to get bumped upstairs, but there was an Angel Second Class on his staff that was running in quicksand. Joseph had to give you your wings and move you up to Angel First Class in order to get the promotion he coveted.”
Clarence dejectedly faced the ground as he asked, ”You mean, I was just a pawn in a corporate ladder-climbing scheme?”
“Exactly. But what’s done is done, so let’s do our best to sort this mess out. If I strip you of your wings as I have a right to do, it’s not like you’ll do good enough work to get them back. Your track record says otherwise. And while it may make me look like a tough supervisor, I’ll be expected to work with you to get you your wings back, which sounds like a lot of pointless work to me. So, let’s do this. I’ll give you the easiest of the easy cases. You do not take any Tom Sawyer books with you. You do not tell anyone other than your client that you are an angel. You stick to the script and tell the clients that even though life has its ups and downs, they should try and enjoy the ups in life, blah, blah, blah. No fancy stuff. No flashbacks. No altered realities. Use your words. If you encounter a problem, let me know and I’ll help bail you out. No fancy stuff whatsoever, okay? I have the perfect case for you to start with. Get ready to head to Washington, D.C.”
“Washington? That doesn’t sound like an easy assignment. That sounds very high profile,” said Clarence warily.
“Just about the highest profile you can find, Clarence.”
“So, why me?”
“Clarence, let me tell you about your client, and I think you’ll understand better. Your client is a politician. A very prominent politician on the world stage.”
“Mac, would I know this client if I heard their surname?”
“Probably, Clarence, although you really wouldn’t want to know them if you didn’t have to. I guess I could say that about most Washington politicians. You’ll have to get to know this one for your assignment, just like you did George Bailey. But I’ll warn you now, it won’t be pleasant. This person is no George Bailey.”
“Republican or Democrat?” Clarence interrupted.
“Yes, that’s correct, Clarence,” answered Mac, ignoring the specificity of the question. “Even though this client is part of a political party, they are feeling very isolated and alone these days, with thoughts of ending the life they were blessed with.”
“This sounds like it may be kind of a big challenge for me, don’t you think?” questioned Clarence.
“Here’s the beauty of it, Clarence. Polls of afterlife residents show a fifty-fifty split as to what would be considered a successful outcome in your mission with this client. You can’t lose. This is a slam dunk, guaranteed win for you. Half will be happy if you succeed, and half will be thrilled if you fail.”
“How about you, Mac?”
“I don’t want to say either way, Clarence. I just want to get you an easy win with no Tom Sawyer copies left with the living. Let’s get you back on the right track and keep me on my career path to Archangel.”
And with that, I awoke from my fever dream. I guess I’ll never know if Clarence got back on the right track with an easy save, or not, of a Washington politician’s life. Frankly, I’m surprised Clarence made it this long as a guardian angel after saving George Bailey. I always thought that Clarence’s time may have been better spent in exposing Old Man Potter for stealing the $8000 from Uncle Billy. Maybe Clarence could have just jogged Uncle Billy’s memory and saved all the alternate reality theatrics, although that would have made for a seriously truncated film.
I’m not sure why I documented my fever dream. Perhaps I had hopes that it would become a charming, iconic Christmas tale that would be read by generations to come each year around Christmas, just like A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. That is not likely to happen. I think the hint of a tryst between George and Violet stripped the story of any iconic potential. I can sense the vitriol already brewing inside It’s a Wonderful Life fans because of what they will most certainly view as a blasphemous story. It was a bit of undigested beef that Ebenezer Scrooge blamed for the ghostly visions that became his iconic Christmas tale. I fear the rich holiday food and drink that precipitated my fever dream warped my Christmas story beyond iconic dimensions.
I would like to close by reporting that while changing my sweat-soaked bed linens, I came across a copy of Tom Sawyer tucked in the covers with a nice hand-written inspirational message inside. Maybe something encouraging like, “Keep dreaming, kiddo” or clever like “Don’t sleep on your dreams.” But I can’t. There was no book tucked in the covers except for my wife’s Kindle, and I don’t think she has downloaded Tom Sawyer recently. Besides, it would make no sense for Clarence to leave me a Tom Sawyer when he wasn’t assigned to me. But I guess that anything is possible when angels are involved. I still have a bit more to say, but I hear the doorbell ringing, and you know what that means.
Copyright © 2020 by James J. Flanigan