George Bailey

by Emily Rose Cole

When Maura saw the half-dead dog wrapped in my old coat she said, "Hell no, Stanley. That pile of fleas ain't coming in this house."

So I took him into the woods. I pitched my little one-man tent and filled it with blankets, brought a chipped bowl of water and a plate of table scraps, leftover bacon grease. He licked my hands and looked up at me, bleary-eyed and grateful.

It was four months from Christmas, but I named him George Bailey, because I'd found him on the Black Rock Bridge, walking like a three-legged stool and looking damn near desperate enough to jump off until I rescued him. He was a scraggly mutt, black and sliver with some lab in him and who knew what else. He had a bad gash under his right eye. He growled and snapped when I swabbed it with hydrogen peroxide, but he was quiet after that.

That was around the time I lost my job at the brewery. I didn't want to hear Maura sharpening the knives in her mouth, so I kept getting up for work, parking at the 7-11 down the street and heading to the tent where George Bailey waited for me in his nest of blankets. All day I'd throw back cheap beer and eat half-spoiled egg salad sandwiches and tell him things. Little stuff at first, not even stories, just things I knew how to do. How to operate an industrial-sized mixer. How to change a guitar string. How to throw the kind of fastball that sings past the plate, so fast that the batter might as well be swinging a handful of steam.

But there was something about George Bailey, something unfailingly trustworthy in the way he raised his ears and laid his head in my lap, eating sandwich crusts from my hand. I'd never met a better listener, and as the days passed, my instructions began to change. I told him stories I never told anyone, not even God.

I told him about how my Pop lost his foot in one of those manpowered lawnmowers—his shoelace caught in the rotary blade, blood speckling Mama's gardenias. I told him about the time Granddad took me to a Phillies playoff game and held me on his shoulders so I could catch one of Randy Lerch's home run balls. I told him about the time Mama pressed the flat of her steam iron to my bare shoulder blade because I didn't clean the gutters good enough that summer and the basement flooded and the whole house stank of mildew. I showed him the scar.

I told him about Maura. How the dimples on her lower back reminded me of buttons. How she could out-sing the prettiest bluebird. How a drunken night in the back of my Ford turned into a marriage. How our son's name would've been Jackson. How he was no bigger than a thumbtack when we buried him beneath a cluster of ferns. How Maura never sang anymore.

Three days after I brought him home, I took the Randy Lerch ball from the mantle to see if he'd play fetch. I didn't mind if he got teeth marks on it. Mostly I just wanted to show him I wasn't a liar. But when I saw him, his eyes were glassy, and his nose was warm. Pus dribbled from the wound below his eye.

Maura's eyes were sharp as bottle caps when I showed up at the house fifteen minutes after I was supposed to have left for work, but she got in the car with me anyway. I told her everything as we drove. My Pop's foot. My Mama's steam iron. My job. She dragged her thumb over the seam of my baseball as she listened.

I heard her breath hitch when we got into the tent. She took one look at George Bailey and shook her head. "He's got maggots in him, see? It's a miracle he lasted this long."

I rubbed his ears and watched him try to wag his tail. "But he can't die," I said, as if saying it would make it true. As if I had any power at all. "I rescued him."

"Some things can't be rescued, Stan." Maura hasn't called me Stan in years. "Some things you gotta let go."

She put her hand over mine, and we watched the slow close of his eyes. Then, Maura sang "Amazing Grace" in a voice like a bell.

BIO: Emily Rose Cole is a writer and lyricist from Pennsylvania. Her debut folk album, I Wanna Know was released in May of 2012 and is available on iTunes and Amazon. She is an MFA candidate in poetry at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and has received awards from Jabberwock Review, Ruminate Magazine, and the Academy of American Poets. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review and Passages North, among others.