The story I’m going to tell you requires that you have a working knowledge of the characters of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. I can’t assume, though, that you have trouble sleeping and that this is one of the seven movies you rotate out to soothe you until the Ambien kicks in…that’s part of my story. Rounding up, I think I’ve watched this movie about 250 hundred times, so when I talk about Uncle Billy it’s like making the list of who’s coming to dinner. It’s like how I know where to reach for the coffee filters.
Anyway, I’ll gently remind you of them, the characters, as you get to know me, Denise. In addition to George there are his parents, Ma and Pa Bailey…Ma who knows best and Pa who dies unexpectedly exactly 30 minutes into the movie; Harry Bailey, his younger brother; Uncle Billy, who works at the bank; there’s Mary Hatch, who marries George, and then there are their children, Zu Zu and her petals being the one everyone remembers and wants to name their flower or stationary or sex shop after.
Other characters you need to know are Bert and Ernie, the cab drivers, Mr. Gower, the pharmacist, Mr. Potter, the asshole, Violet Bick, the tarnished blonde, Sam Wainwright, who talks too much, and of course, Clarence Odbody, the angel.
It’s a Wonderful Life covers a day in the life of a man and the life of a town because of the birth of one man and death and wealth and the way of the world and big brothers and small tragedies and life-mapping and dreaming and love and disappointment and regret and glory and pain, and in this story, so will I.
Whether or not I had been born I believe that my hometown, Mooresville, NC, which used to have about 10,000 people and was nicknamed “Port City” would still become the Mooresville of today with Starbucks and a Big Daddy’s, and a huge-ass party supply store, and cars that thump when they pass. The population is more like 25,000 now, and there is a new nickname… “Race City, USA”. There is a newly-elected mayor of Mooresville. I know him. When we were growing up he was obsessed with Andy Griffith and Mayberry RFD. Yes, all of this would’ve happened whether I had lived or died.
I almost did die. My mother was actually very much the opposite of Ma Bailey and back in ’72 and she was ready to abort. The doctor talked her into having me. Who knows EXACTLY what he said, but it was enough. I should thank God everyday for Guilt and know-it-all-opinionated-pro-lifin’ doctors since their interfering ways got me through the gates. I don’t think they could bully me, but I’m glad they could bully her. I’d like to sing him an Elton John song at his funeral.
At 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday, December 2, 2009 I am not grateful to be alive. I am drinking coffee. Checking my email I see a notice for an audition for a short film in Richmond --it’s tonight -- I go through a little drill in my head of what would need to be done and click, click, click…I am suddenly Zu Zu with her petals, holding closely the story that when bells ring angels get their wings and when I want something, I get it, too. The audition quickly becomes the only thing that matters in my life and missing it will be missing the ONLY SHOT I’LL EVER HAVE and to say no now is just closed-minded, negative bullshit and that I HAVE TO rearrange my day or EVERYONE in my family WILL PAY for holding me back professionally and emotionally. When my husband comes back from his smoke and I explain it to him just this carefully, he quietly agrees I should go.
By 9:15 a.m. I am late and I should tie strings around my fingers. Yes, there are bank auditors waiting for Uncle Billy in his office and there is a screenwriting group waiting for me, and so I rush and eat and curl and brush, but once there, I’ve forgotten my power cord for my laptop…Scrolling through my affirming powerful messages sounds like this: “Shit fuck piss damn.”
During the writing group I flashback to the gym the night before when everyone had taken my treadmills and my elliptical machines and left me the only option of the cross country thing that kills my knees. “Who the hell are all these people and why don’t they burn their calories working on their little homes that they’re trying so damn hard to pay for in this economy”, and now I am just like Mr. Potter -- pissy, ungrateful, greedy, suspicious of the rabble. People--get over it--you will never be enough. Get off my treadmill.” I run into a photographer who is also miffed but sweeter than me, and he says “I think your headshots should feature props, like falcons,” and this is JUST the sort of compliment I need and now I am Violet Bick and my CVS Loreal 3X highlights are perfect! Smile, go lay on a dirty mat...do your abs...flip through your ipod like you've got nothing but time. I've got nothing but time. The flashback ends with some explosion of laughter from my friends and I tune back in -- they didn’t miss me for a second.
At noon I am sitting at TipTop Café with my friend. We are eating French fries. She’s one of my Clarence Odbodies, one of my angels who is always trying to show me to myself. She says things like “you’re overthinking this” “forget about it” or “I miss you”. Then she pays for lunch and gives me a card that is orange and has swirls and it says I’ve touched people AND it has a Whole Foods gift card and now I know…I am Mr. Gower --the list is so long of those who have saved me, picked me up from a heap of grief, put me to bed and given me stuff, stuff like money, groceries and bicycles they weren’t using anyway. People who’ve kept me from poisoning innocent customers even when I didn’t care if they died because I was worried about me, me, me! I should be taking that list and getting suitcases embossed with their initials, I’m not. Instead, there’s still the kernel of me that wants to be the Mr. Gower that didn’t get saved, who’s balled up in the corner of Martini’s fresh out of doing some time. I’m not constructing altars for my great friends because I am more like Harry Bailey than any character in that movie; Harry Bailey who hogs up glory and gets featured in the newspaper. Harry Bailey, who wants to take his mother’s gin AND good china to the dance.
What I really think: I am not even good enough to be Harry Bailey because back when Mooresville was still the Port City and my older brother ran for mayor because he had his own ideas of Bedford Falls or Mayberry or Mooresville or Pottersville, I ran away. I thought he was stupid, it was all embarrassing and that people who run for office should AT LEAST have a car and a checking account. Even when he won the primary, I said it didn’t count because those people weren’t voting FOR him, they were just voting AGAINST the black man. I so opposed his bid for mayor that I registered in another county so that I COULDN’T vote for him.
What I think when I REALLY go to the dark place: maybe I’m not even a sniff like Harry Bailey because in the end of It’s a Wonderful Lif,e Harry organizes George’s rescue from financial crisis, but you see, when I was off to a bigger city collecting degrees and marrying well and getting in the newspaper and my brother was brought to his knees and overdrawn in his account and wanted to take his life, he did, and the angels didn’t stop him or trick him or dry him out and fix his hearing and take him on a little tour so that they could bully him into considering the pro-life choice. In the movie, the angels chat and coordinate with God and pick out Clarence and make a plan to help George because of the prayers that got sent up. I ask God or Frank Capra: would this all have happened anyway whether I had lived or died or…simply…prayed?
The rest of my Tuesday, December 2 looked like this – I got a headshot printed at CVS, I drove to Richmond with a friend. I shook hands. I auditioned. They said I nailed it. They didn’t cast me. We ate at Chipolte. We laughed all the way home.
It is midnight and coming in the door of my house it’s as if Bert and Ernie have been there trying to make it look nice with curtains and pictures, despite its draftiness and the way I have to really bump the front door with my hip to get it to close. I climb the stairs and I am Sam Wainwright, boastful and lusty and ready for the big time. My George Bailey is in the bed with his book and he’s frustrated: I didn’t answer his texts, there is no food in the house and maybe, for a second, he worried that I was drunk or hurt and not coming home.
It’s 12:30 a.m. and I am Mary Bailey and I’m making him peanut butter toast. I like thinking I’m like Mary Bailey, so sure of what home should look and feel like, unafraid to whisper declarations of love into deaf ears, so sure of the power of love. Settling in with my tea and my Ambien, I put in a different movie from the collection. I sit, waiting for sleep and dreams to come. I write, drawing pictures in my journal of Buffalo Gals who like to dance by the light of the moon.