It's (Still) a Wonderful Life
It had been difficult times for Jerry O’Halloran of late. Friends knew him as Down on his luck Jerry. It hadn’t always been this way. Jerry’s mother had died when he was still in kindergarten; cancer had taken her. He never really understood what was going on at the time other than his mom had gone away and wasn’t coming back. Jerry’s father Dan – a policeman in the NYPD – had brought him up as a lone parent. A couple of months after the passing of the late Mrs O’Halloran, Jerry had gone to live with his Aunt Maud, in a town 30 miles away from the Big Apple. Dan took every chance he could to be with his son.
Jerry had found things difficult in high school. Aged 14, he had said something out loud that the Olsen twins had taken exception too. They had beaten him black and blue before a janitor had intervened. Dan had been summoned to school to hear how his son was constantly in trouble. The hard working, New York cop had put the principal straight. Clearly a case of two against one, the gruff Irishman had suggested that the school should spend its time tracking down guilty miscreants rather than vilifying victims.
A year later, at a ball game, the opposition pitcher had let a curve ball rip, ploughing straight into Jerry’s chest, felling him in the batter’s box. It was his consoling father, trailing after Jerry as he was carried from the field who, arms around his shoulders as his son sobbed in anguish, whispered into his ear “You’re my champion of the world, son. They’ll see, one day.”
It was a cold, November day when playing catch that Dan had taken his only offspring to one side. Reaching for Jerry’s now gloveless, open hand, he had squeezed it shut again, wrapped around his police badge. “This will be your shield one day; like father like son.” Jerry had opened his palm to see the markings “NYPD 1330”. It never quite worked out that way – Jerry became an English teacher.
It was two years to the day that Jerry’s world fell apart. On Christmas Eve, with the air full of seasonal excitement and anticipation, the phone had rang. The monotone voice on the other end had said there had been an incident – a patrol car would pick him to take to him to the Angel of Mercy Hospital in Brooklyn. Jerry’s father had been called to a robbery in progress. He had taken a bullet in the leg that had clipped an artery; Dan never made it to Christmas Day. When the dead cop’s belongings had eventually been handed over to his next of kin - his sister Maud - his police badge was missing. Everyone assumed that it had been kept by the police department.
Jerry’s drinking had started in earnest a year later. His performance at school had become increasingly erratic. Martha, his wife, thought that starting a family might finally settle her husband down. She was due to give birth in January. They had bought their property, a two storey town house using the proceeds from a life policy that Dan had taken out many years earlier. This had prompted Jerry to take out a plan of his own with Martha as beneficiary. The latest disciplinary hearings at school had culminated in his recent suspension; he had dealt with the latest blow by hooking up with a local drug dealer.
Snow fell steadily on another Christmas Eve in Bedford Falls. With its Second Empire Victorian homes, the arterial main street was renowned for its picture postcard stores on either side, dissected by a scenic, grassy median. A busy railway station connected the population with New York and beyond; picket fence America with an underbelly of suburban dystopia.
Martha had gone to bed. It was 10pm and she was tired, heavily pregnant and given to annoyance easier than she could remember. Jerry skulked in the kitchen. Finding Martha’s handbag, he unzipped and reached inside knowing he would find her purse. He furtively took out what cash there was – fifty dollars. Quietly shutting the front door, he shuffled along for a couple of blocks, sidling down one of the alleyways. A thin, scrawny figure with head cowled in a hoodie, was leaning back against one of the walls. He reeked of skank. They exchanged cash for a small, cellophane packet containing white pills. The dealer sloped off into more shadows. Jerry had never felt grubbier.
Slipping the stash into the pocket of his fleece lined parka, he found himself walking aimlessly, rational thinking now notably absent. He passed the town library, he passed the Trust and Savings Bank, he absently looked across at the majestic oak trees that ran along the grassy centre of Genevesse Street. Turning into Bridge Street, he was heading out of town. A beat cop wearing a big blue overcoat buttoned up against the elements and a police cap to avoid any doubt as to him being on duty put his arm out, blocking Jerry’s path.
“Should you be out in this, son? Don’t you have a home to go to?” The cop sounded concerned as freezing mist swirled around them.
“Yeah. I am meeting someone but I won’t be out long.”
The officer looked at him doubtfully but there was no law against being out in a snow storm on Christmas Eve.
“Well make sure you do. I’ll be checking.” With that he doffed his peaked cap and strode off.
As Jerry approached the end of the road leading out of town, a steel bridge came into view. Below it thronged the busy canal than skirted Bedford Falls, serving the steel mill to the south. Rumour had it that a desperate man had once tried to commit suicide here. The story went that he was saved by an angel that night.
Snow continued to fall, covering footsteps left in his wake. Jerry struggled on manfully, head down as the wind howled, making his way along the viaduct to the centre using the pedestrian walkway that ran alongside the usually busy road. He looked over the side; the canal rushed noisily in the inky blackness that permeated snow laden banks on either side. Jerry thought about his life, pondered how it had come to this and lamented the depths he had plumbed. He stared down at the choppy water below; considered the finality of jumping, falling, being met by icy arms, dragging him under, ushering him into a place without pain. To exchange the banality of life for the warm embrace of nothingness; no more struggle, no more torment; an invitation he was about to accept.
Jerry leaned forward over the icicle laden, waist high handrail. It would be easy to just topple headlong into the depths below. He looked out into the dark vista ahead. He closed his eyes, breathed in forcefully and….
“Surely things can’t be that bad?”
Jerry opened his eyes and cocked his head to one side checking that the voice from behind wasn’t just his imagination.
“There must be better things to be doing on Christmas Eve.”
It clearly wasn’t a trick of the mind. He imagined the beat cop had followed him.
“Sometimes things get so bad it’s better just not to go on.” Jerry’s tone was desperate and sad.
“You must have people that care about you. What would they think about all of this?”
Jerry wondered whether maybe it was his angel rather than the beat cop. Perhaps this was his Clarence Odbody, sent from the stars above, out to earn his wings. Any second now the water would splash with the entry of the middle-aged saviour; he would dive in afterwards and would be shown an alternative life where Jerry O’Halloran had never been born. No man is a failure who has friends. His mind drifted as he saw Martha sleeping, his child inside her waiting for its chance to be born. Through all the bitterness and heartache, he felt her love for him. Despite everything.
“What would you know? You don’t know anything about me or my life”. Jerry sounded even more downbeat.
“I might know more than you think. I’ve watched you grow up from a little boy.”
At this, Jerry thought the voice sounded familiar. The sound of the rushing water masked the conversation somewhat, making it a strain to hear. But something sounded…
“You’re my champion of the world, son. They’ll see, one day.”
For a moment, the sound of the torrents below faded. Time seemed to stand still. Jerry processed those last words, resisting the urge to spin around. Instead, he gently dropped to the floor on the safe side of the barrier. He turned to look where the voice had been coming from. There was nobody there, just snow being whipped into flurries by the wind. He walked along the bridge to the toll side that took the road away from town. He fought his way back against the biting wind to inspect the town side. There were no foot marks in the fresh snow, no prankster kids hiding in the bushes.
As he got closer to the end that became the road into town, Jerry’s eye caught a glint from something buried in the snow. Crouching, he reached down. Pulling the newly found item close to his face, he brushed the surface clean. He squinted as the figure 1330 emerged on an NYPD police badge – his dad’s number. Rising now, he looked around once more, checking again for tricksters. Nothing. Jerry considered this: no beat cop, no angel, no interlopers. Instead, possibly his father’s words, definitely his dad’s service badge. He pictured Dan’s twinkling smile, his tough exterior, his air of authority. He remembered the respect that came with performing the duties of a law man, the honourable way his dad had led his life despite the challenges and tragedies that had come his way.
Jerry walked to the middle of the bridge once more, looking out at the busy currents below. He reached into his pocket and took out the packet of drugs. He tossed them over the side, turned and walked back. As he got nearer to the town’s main Street, he broke into a jog and then a run.
He felt the urge to hold his arm aloft and shout “Merry Christmas!” Maybe life could be wonderful. One day.