* * *
Detective Carmichael stands with his back to me, staring out of the window.
“And you say that’s where he jumped? Right there?”
The detective points towards the bridge, and the churning black river below. For a second, I’m standing behind the rail again, a stiff breeze driving icy spray into my face. The water smells of winter and regret.
“Yep. Right over that rail. Tried to talk him outta it, but he just wouldn’t listen.”
“Yeah right. You’re hardly the charitable type, are you?”
Detective Carmichael leans against the wall beside the small stove. He flicks a wooden toothpick between his lips. It clicks against his yellow teeth. Of all the people who could have fished me out of the river, why did it have to be him?
“Believe it or not, I’m a nice guy!” I spread my hands wide and try a sheepish smile. Usually works on most people, but not him. His flinty eyes glitter in the shadows. I shiver under my blanket, only this time it’s not because I just took a midnight swim in the river.
“Clarence, I know they call you the Angel, but I think we both know that you’re no nice guy. Now George Bailey? He was a nice guy. My mother wouldn’t have her house if it weren't for him.” He pauses to lift the whistling kettle from the stove. “Now why don’t you make this easier on yourself and just tell me why you pushed him?”
“I didn’t, I’m tellin’ ya! I was going home and I saw him climb over the railing. Ain’t no way I’m gonna let some guy kill himself at Christmas. That just ain’t right. I tried to talk him down but he wouldn’t listen. Then he jumped.”
I sneeze. Detective Carmichael pours hot water into a waiting mug, and offers it to me. I wrap my hands around it, glad of the warmth. The detective puts the kettle down and fishes his leather-bound notebook out of his top pocket. He licks the tip of a stubby yellow pencil and scribbles down what I just said.
“Did he say why he was doing it? I mean, you’re saying that you tried to talk him down. He must have had some kind of reason. A guy doesn’t just throw himself into the river for nothing.”
“He kept sayin’ somethin’ about money. He’d lost it, and couldn’t find it nowhere, and he was in a lotta trouble. He said somethin’ about not wantin’ the business in the first damn place, he wanted to get out, get away from here. Kept sayin’ ol’ man Potter finally had his way.”
I shivered as I remembered the look on the poor guy’s face. Total despair mixed with innocence, like an angel who has a job to do but can’t fight human nature.
“I see. What did you actually say to him?”
“Just tried to get him to feel better, y’know? He said he wished he hadn’t been born. Now I know the guy, I know all the good stuff he’s done for this town. I tried remindin’ him of that. Told him about his brother, and how he wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for him. Harry couldn’t have shot down all those Germans if George hadn’t been born.” I pause to think. Talking down a suicidal man is a stressful business. “I tried to get him to think of his wife ‘n kids. He was one lucky guy, havin’ a nice family like that. Mary woulda done anythin’ for him and those kids.”
“OK, Clarence, you got a point. So maybe you didn’t push him,” says Detective Carmichael. He puts the notebook back in his pocket. We’ve gone ‘off the record’. “But I’m still surprised that you tried to help. There’s something you’re not telling me.”
“Well, the Man Upstairs wanted me to do somethin’ about it. He heard rumours things weren't good, and he asked me to check on him. The minute he told me it was George in trouble, I decided to help. Couldn’t let a nice guy like that throw himself in the river.”
“What has the Man Upstairs got to do with this? Why would a hood care about George Bailey?”
“He heard Potter might be involved, and you know the history between those two. But I just really, genuinely wanted to help.”
“Promise you won’t tell anyone else?”
Detective Carmichael moves his head. The light falls on his face. I try to ignore his twisted, shiny scars as he looks me up and down. Man, if those scars could talk, they’d have some hellish stories to tell. But, anyway. He nods.
“I was trying to earn my wings,” I mumble.
“Your what?” One eyebrow creeps halfway up his forehead. A puckered white line cuts through the hair.
“My wings. Look, way I see it, I’ve done some pretty bad shit in my time, and it’s obvious where I’ll be goin’ come Judgment Day. Never used to bother me, but now I got a wife and kid, I want a better life. I thought tryin’ to help might go some way to balancin’ stuff out.” I wriggle deeper into the blanket and look away. Doesn’t seem right telling someone like him something like that.
Detective Carmichael says nothing. He looks me up and down again, his face unreadable. That look in his eyes could just as easily be disgust as it could pity. Pulling up the collar of his coat, he walks over to the door.
“You know, Clarence, there’s a chance we can fish him out downstream. Maybe he’ll still be alive,” he says.
He opens the door and walks out into the damp night. The door swings closed behind him, and I watch him through the window until he disappears into the mist. I look back to the river. When I was up there, talking him down, I felt the same pull George Bailey must have felt. It’d be so easy. Just throw yourself in; the water will hold you, embrace you, make it all okay. It’s always cold all the year round, you won’t even feel anything. I’d be beyond the Man Upstairs, and all the associates. My wife might even get some insurance money, and my daughter could grow up without scum like me holding her back.
The wind throws a wave right up the bank. The water crashes into the window, breaking my train of thought. The cold water runs down the window in drops, like the world is crying. I think of Marsha and Stephanie, and how they’d cry without me. I break free of the river’s hold. I can’t do it. I’ve got other poor suckers to help. I might earn my wings yet.
* * *
The original image was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by user Heidas, but has been edited slightly by me.