|Success, in a Nutshell
by Phil Geusz
© Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
For my good friend Qualin, who gave me the idea
The music was playing at low volume, but my lapine ears ensured that every flawless note came through as I looked over the gray, rainy city.
If it's getting harder to face everyday
The Allen Parsons Project came and went long before the advent of SCABs, but my friend Bud had been right when he introduced me to this song. It resonated within.
Even though you know it's the wrong thing to say
The beat and melody often calmed me at moments like this, when I felt like an abject failure. My last appointment had been an unmitigated disaster, and the next held no more promise.
It had all begin first thing in the morning, when I woke up with a throbbing, annoying headache. Dr. Derksen had warned me to expect this, since General Patton had been ill with some sort of minor lapine bug. And quite naturally I am subject to just about all of those. But knowing that the illness was minor and non-life threatening did not do anything to compensate for the increased shortness of my temper.
Especially when breakfast also proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Mrs. Swindell, whose SCABS subsidy I had cut some months back, had figured out that she was still eligible for free Shelter meals. Three times a day, she came to eat and complain, complain, complain endlessly to everyone around her about the shortcomings of the welfare system, her horrible part-time job, and my personal responsibility for all of her troubles. In recent weeks I had taken to eating in the kitchen, but this morning the crowd had been heavy and the cooks' workload enormous. It would have been too much for me to ask for special treatment. So instead I sat as far as possible from my personal albatross and tried not to listen.
Not that I had much choice, of course, with my ears. She rounded up every new face in sight and harangued them endlessly about my lack of feeling and sympathy for brother SCABs. "He's got a pension!" she would exclaim. "So why should he care about anyone else? Look at him over there nibbling lettuce and trying to pretend to be cute. But that ungenerous bastard is cold, cold, cold at heart! He's the one that cut off my subsidy just because he thought I didn't really need it. Who gave him the right to play God?"
I absolutely refused to even attempt to have her barred from the shelter, though her poisonous tongue was beginning to wear deeply into my soul. My caseload was down, and I suspected that this was a direct result of these continual verbal assaults on my character three times a day. But even a Mrs. Swindell needed to be welcome at the West Street Shelter. As long as she didn't physically attack me again, therefore, I would do my best to ignore her.
And, all the while, hope that maybe someday she would simply go away.
This thought depressed me further still. Beck when I'd been a human being, I would have simply awaited an opening, even if it took days, and then delivered a verbal riposte so devastating that my antagonist would have never dared show her face again. But nowadays, I could not even imagine provoking such a confrontation. So instead of walking tall, I simply had to wait quietly and hope that my enemy would go away.
What a spineless creature I had turned into!
It was never a good to thing to open a new case when depressed and feeling ill, and this was doubly true when the case had a poor prognosis to begin with. Ken Bronski had referred a packrat morph named Tim to me, a juvenile delinquent who'd contracted SCABs and was now using his disease to justify his continued life of crime. "It's my nature!" he whined to me over and over again. "I must take pretty, shining things home to my nest." I tried to explain that I understood instinctive pressure well enough from personal experience, but that for society to function there had to be limits. The kid replied with a senseless barrage of blather blaming his criminality on everything from his parents to his social status. Bronski claimed that he held out hope for this one, which would induce me to try all the harder. But after the initial consultation, I was most pessimistic. Four-fifths of all criminals never successfully rehabilitate themselves no matter what means are employed- they simply got caught over and over until they began to grasp that their whole lives will be spent behind bars if they do not change their behavior. Sadly, however, the epiphany didn't usually happen until age fifty or so, when it was almost too late anyway. My packrat looked to me to be an even slower learner than average. But if my friend wanted me to give this case a shot, I would. Even if the whole thing looked like a sure loser from day one...
Idly, waiting for my next client, I sat and wondered to myself what kind of future young Timothy realistically faced. There were only two likely outcomes that I could see, so long as the thefts persisted.. Either he would eventually be institutionalized as a feral SCAB, commited to a Colony due to irrepressibale instinctive drives, or elese he would be ruled human enough to spend his youthful life in jail. I shook my head sadly; it was the ultimate ose-lose scenario. If Tim were institutionalized, his petty thievery would make life very hard indeed for his brother SCABs. If he were jailed, however, the other prisoners would most certainly eat him alive.
I sighed. Both those scenarios were so terribly gloomy! But also quite likely to come about, I had to admit to myself. So I resolved to double and treble my efforts on behalf of poor Timmy. He might not seem to be worth it, on the surface at least. But he was still human down under all that fur.
And all humans were worth making an effort to save. Even Mrs. Swindell.
The view from my office window overlooked the approach to the front door of the Shelter, so I saw my next client pulling up to the curb. He was a referral from a SCAB specialist in town who had found out about me through Dr. Derksen. I looked down at his folder to refresh my memory one last time. Anton Struthers, it said, a skunk-morph with a special problem. His taxi stood out in bright yellow against the gray gloom, and I watched as the beautiful and luxuriantly-furred being struggled to pay the impatient driver.
The skunk-morph had been a world-class chef while still fully human, my folder explained. But the new version had no hands.
I sighed and looked down at my own clumsy forepaws. They were the precise reason that I had been asked to take Anton's case on . My own clumsy appendages bore more than a passing resemblance to Anton's, and we faced many of the same problems in day-to-day living. But while I had adapted fairly well, launching myself into a new profession that I frankly found far more rewarding than the old one, Anton was experiencing the opposite. He had climbed to the peak of a very elite group, and now faced the eclipse of a career that bordered on the legendary
The folder noted dryly that the third suicide attempt had very nearly succeeded.
I sighed quietly, massaged y aching temples for a moment, and steeled myself for the upcoming struggle. The honest truth was, this case didn't look too promising either. Would I never be able to actually help anyone ever again?
After a time Anton scratched at my door-like all fully-pawed scabs, he was physically unable to knock-- and I called him in. He scanned tiny office in puzzlement for a moment, as all my clients do on their first visit, then openly stared at me for an unguarded second before politeness took over and forced his eyes down. This didn't offended me; white-rabbit morphs are not common sights, doubly so with such a high percentage of lapines in the Colonies, and I didn't blame anyone for taking a moment to look me over the first time we met.
Not that Anton was any less of an eye-draw, of course. Like me, he was physically nearly a a perfect blend of human and animal. My new client's tail was absolutely magnificent, and while there was a slight odor, it was very tolerable and far easier on my nose than the musk of, say, a dog-morph. Skunks do not eat lapines, and my genes were well aware of this. Therefore, I was not predisposed to fear them.
We made small talk for a time before getting down to business. Anton had a most engaging Canadian accent, and I found him to be very pleasant to talk with despite the pain that clearly was laying just below the surface. Fortunately, he and I shared a few interests, and we spent twenty minutes or so just getting to know each other. It is not required that a counselor actually like his clients, nor do the clients have to hold any personal esteem for the counselor. But it certainly is a lot more pleasant for everyone involved when things did work out that way!
Gradually I turned the subject towards the business at hand, and Anton, picking up on my nudging, came right to the point. "Phil, you know why I am here."
"It's these damned forepaws!" He held them up for me to see; a human would have waggled his fingers expressively, but of course Anton could not. "I can handle the stares on the street and the bad jokes-like a lot of chefs, I used to be very fat. So things are not all that much worse now, so far as being made fun of goes. But..."
"But?" I encouraged, tilting my head slightly to the left in an inquisitive manner. My face didn't do expressions anymore, and I'd had to learn to mime in order to communicate properly with others.
Anton looked down at my desktop, his golden eyes suddenly flat and dead. "I've lost my profession! And cooking was my entire life!"
I tilted my head the other way. "Cooking was your entire life? All of it?"
"Oh, ja!" he replied eagerly, missing my point entirely. "I've been to the finest academies in Europe, you know! And until this happened to me I was widely considered to be the leading chef in Montreal. Only Paris and maybe New Orleans have more prestige, and I've had my offers in both places." For the first time, I saw real animation in Anton's manner as he warmed to his subject. "There's more to cooking than most people know. You have to get up before dawn every single day to make a kitchen run right, you have to be able to supervise a large staff, and despite all of this always be first in line at the Farmer's Market to obtain the very best of ingredients. It's not an easy career, not at all. But it's me. Or was me, rather. My lifestyle. And my life."
I thought about my own enforced dietary changes for a moment, then asked a very basic question.
"I got lucky!" Anton replied. "My nose is more sensitive than ever, but otherwise my senses and tastes are still the same." He held up his forelimbs again and regarded the quadrupedal feet located at the end of them with ill-concaled disgust. " It's just these damned forepaws!"
"It seems to me", I replied slowly, "that you could still do the bulk of your Master Chef's work. You mostly run the kitchen rather than do the cooking personally, right?"
"And Michelangelo could have run a sculpting school and never chipped a single stone himself!" countered the skunk-man bitterly. "Phil, what you say is technically true. I could get a job tomorrow overseeing almost any kitchen in the world. My name is good enough that even as a SCAB I can make money. But my art, my own personal cooking, everything that I loved and lived for, is dead! So why should I bother with a mere career? How can I even continue to live?"
I pondered on this a minute. Opening a soup can had always seemed like cooking to me. "You mean, it is that important to you that you cook yourself?"
"Oh, ja! How do you think I managed to rise so far? In any kind of artistic endeavor, a high level of success can be based only upon true love of the art itself. And Phil, do not doubt that I loved actually cooking, preparing food with my own two hands! Experimenting with new ideas and creating the finest dishes in the world is my personal idea of heaven. This is what brought joy into my world, meaning into my life. Why do you think they call them the culinary arts? Expressing one's self through cooking is no less legitimate a legitimate format than through literature, say, or painting. The names of great chefs live as long as those of the masters of any other media."
Warming to his subject, my client became more emotional, gesticulating with his stubby forelimbs. "Cam you imagine what it is like, Phil, to be able to see and taste and imagine the fiery spices, but no longer to be able to master them? To smell fine food more perfectly than ever, but at the same time be forever barred from working around hot pans? To contemplate a career of telling others what to do, of watching them stir and slice and sauté while you watch helplessly, knowing that once upon a time you could do the job so much better? And also to know beyond doubt that you will never, do what you born to do again?" A little scent leaked into the room, not enough to be noticed by a human nose but sufficient to demonstrate the sincerity of my client's angst.
I like to think that I am reasonably open-minded and accommodating in regard to the manifold physical and emotional problems of a whole multitude of species. Still, I most certainly did not want my client to have a horrible accident in my office. It was time to cool Anton down a bit, before certain reflexes became irresistible. "I see your problem, Anton. And I understand."
The skunk sank back into his chair, and the scent faded some. His eyebrows narrowed; clearly, his face was far more expressive than my own. "Really? How could you?"
I lowered my ears in what I hoped would be taken as a gesture of intimacy; it worked for fellow rabbits, at least. "I once counseled an actor who became a Dalmatian. A serious, sensitive artist much like yourself."
Anton looked genuinely interested. "Really? What other job did you find him, eh? What other career could satisfy him, if he was a true artist?"
"Actually," I replied a bit shyly, "I got him back into acting."
There were a few moments of stunned disbelief, then I spoke again. "And I can't swear to it, but I honestly believe in my heart that you can cook again, too."
"With these?" Anton demanded, waving his forelimbs about again. "Don't be ridiculous!"
"Don't be closed-minded!" I countered with equal intensity. "Have you ever really ever given your forepaws a chance?"
"All kinds of physical therapists have worked with me!" he raged. "Dozens, even! All of them talk about my limits. But none of them can tell me how to handle a hot pan safely. Not one! How can you? And that's just one single physical task among the thousands demanded in fine cooking."
Deliberately, I put my own forepaws on the desktop where he could see them clearly for the first time. From the back, at least, except for coloration and fur-length they were very much like his own. "This is part of the answer," I replied, "Though only part. The rest lies in your mind and soul."
The skunk sighed, and looked away. "Phil, I apologize. I'm sorry I railed at you so. And now I understand why I was sent here. You have your own problems, and I sympathize with them as few others can. But clearly you know nothing of fine cooking or else you would not make such extravagant claims."
I shook my head violently enough to make my ears flop. "No Anton, I am quite certain that I have not made a single extravagant claim, even though I admit that I know little of cooking." I crossed my forelimbs on my chest and leaned back in my tiny chair. "If you want to be a Master Chef again, I say to you that you will become one. If you have the guts, that is."
The skunk simply sat and stared at me, a baffled expression resting on his features.
"Let me tell you a little story," I began, pulling a bag of salted-in-shell peanuts out of a drawer. I'd stashed them there this morning, just for Anton. "When I was just starting out making a living, long before the world had ever dreamed of SCABs, I took a job as a painter. My boss had a black Labrador retriever that loved peanuts." Carefully I set the cellophane bag down on my desk where I could get at it easily. Then I took the twist-tie in my teeth and with a series of head-twists, opened bag as neatly as could be.
"The dog was named Sparky, and he was very old when I got to know him," I continued, meeting Anton's eyes for a moment. He was fascinated, despite himself. "All that dog did from dawn till dusk sometimes was just sit and eat peanuts, one after another." Having removed the tie, I placed the bag between my oversized thighs and then untwisted the cellophane with my mouth in much the same laborious way that I had handled the paper-wrapped wire. Anton watched, fascinated.
"Sparky ate his first peanut, I was told, when he was just a pup. Someone dropped a peanut while still in its shell by accident, and as dogs are prone to do Sparky galloped over and wolfed it down before it could be taken away, shell and all." Anton smiled, and I rocked my ears a little in agreement. "Everyone there got a rather sadistic laugh out of that, and they especially thought that the way he rubbed his face across the carpet to dislodge the bits of shell caught in his teeth was funny too. So they gave him another peanut, hoping to watch the show all over again." Carefully I shook the bag on the desk until a single peanut emerged.
"Sparky ate this one whole, too, but a little more slowly. He had realized that he was being made fun of, and didn't like it at all. Still, he was given a third peanut by the hopeful audience. After all, peanuts were cheap, and such good entertainment was hard to come by." I met Anton's eyes again. "And a miracle happened."
"A miracle?" Anton asked.
"Yes!" I answered, leaning forward eagerly. "The damned dog, tired of being laughed at, shelled the thing and ate the meat just like a human being!"
Across my desk, Anton looked at me dubiously.
"It's true!" I insisted. "I met this dog myself, and watched him with my own eyes still doing it years later. By then, he had it down to an art. He would take the peanut, so...." With the greatest of care, I demonstrated the process. First I lodged the little peanut firmly between my forepaws and hard up against the desktop. Then, carefully, I shifted it with fussy little motions until the seam between the two shell halves was facing upwards. When it was in proper position, I very gently drew my incisors down along the natural joint, splitting the nut as perfectly as could be. With that done, I used my clawtips to separated the two little meats from the waste, and then with more fussy paw movements worked the red "paper" off of each nut. Lastly, I ate the meats, and then brushed the debris into the trash can I kept sitting alongside my desk. "See?" I declared. "Simple as can be!"
"You are making this up!" Anton declared after a moment's stunned silence. "No dog, not even a Labrador-"
"I swear!" I interrupted him. "I saw it myself! The dog is long since dead, but people used to come from blocks around to watch the show. Sparky used an upper canine tooth where I use my incisors, but otherwise it was exactly the same process. My boss used to have to buy peanuts in bulk."
Anton shook his head. "I simply do not believe it. No dog could possibly..."
"How about a rabbit?" I interrupted. "Would you have believed that I could have eaten a peanut without help, until you saw it?" Then I shook my head in frustration; Anton simply wasn't getting the message, not at all. So, I resealed the bag, replaced the twist-tie, and slid it across the desk to him. -tie, to Anton's amazement. When I was done I shoved the bag over to him. "Want a peanut?" I asked, letting just the tiniest bit of condescension sneak into my voice.
"I... I..." the skunk-man stuttered.
"Don't even try to claim to me that you can't do it!" I declared, lowering my ears again but in a different way, one that indicated I was preparing for battle. "A Labrador retriever figured this out all on his own, fer chrissakes! And you must be one heck of a lot smarter than a Labrador retreiver, to have graduated from all of those fancy cooking schools." I shrugged. "Or else the classes are a lot easier than I would have imagined. Whichever."
The skunk simply sat with his mouth hanging open, not moving a muscle. "Go on!" I demanded. "Eat a peanut!"
A little scent leaked into the room again, then angrily the skunk-morph extended a forepaw and swiped the bag over to himself. It took Anton quite a long time, but eventually he ate his peanut and then resealed the bag, just as I had done. "So what!" he declared as he batted the bag back to my side of the desk, hitting it just a little harder than was really necessary. "So what if I can shell a peanut and eat it! I still can't cook!"
I shook my head again. "You're not getting my point," I countered, not getting it at all."
"No," he replied, a tear forming in the corner of his right eye. "I'm not. And I'm about to walk right out of here, too! You're crazy! Shelling peanuts is nothing like gourmet cooking!"
"Not on the face of it," I acknowledged, leaning back in my chair and relaxing. Anton wasn't going anywhere, and we both knew it. "But, if a Labrador retriever can figure out how to shell and eat eat a peanut with his paws, and you're so very much smarter than a Labrador, don't you think that just maybe, if you tried hard enough, you just might figure out how to cook with what dexterity you have left?"
For perhaps a half-second there was silence in my little office, and then Anton was on his feet, shouting objection after objection. I looked away and tried to remain calm until he inhaled. When he did I continued to speak clearly and calmly. "It won't be easy, but no one is going to be able to do this for you any more than anyone could help Sparky. And people will laugh at you too, just like they did him. But if you have the fortitude, you can make this happen. I swear it! It is within your reach, if you'll just believe in yourself. Here's what you will have to do. Take a job as a kitchen manage for the sake of the income, but instead of accepting it as the end of your dreams, see it as just the beginning! Bit by bit, day by day you can work out ways to do things. In fact, I bet that you'll be doing the simpler stuff in no time flat. You;; have to design custom implements, certainly, but with your reputation and connections I don't expect that you'll have any trouble at all getting whatever you'd like made up for you. There may be challenges you can't surmount, no matter how many times you try. But you know what? I bet that once you start really applying yourself to the problem, you'll find that you're coming up with new ideas that even normal handed folks will benefit from." I sighed and leaned forward, placing my own forepaws on the desktop. "It's a hard road, Anton. I know that. It would have been far easier for you had you never caught SCABS, never become a skunk, never lost your hands. But sometimes the hardest things are the most rewarding, or so I've found. And only by traveling new and unexplored roads can we grow in new ways and learn new things about ourselves and the universe around us. Only by trying can you move forward."
`Anton began to cry., but I wasn't about to let up. "Already this morning, Anton, I've encountered two other SCABs who are the most pitiful excuses for human beings in the world They have not only have no guts and no inner strength, they lack even the faintest clue as to where to find these things in themselves. I believe that they will most likely fritter away their entire lives moaning and groaning and blaming their problems on the fates instead of taking responsibility for their own futures. And let me tell you a secret, Anton. I utterly loathe people like that, because you simply cannot help those who will not help themselves. "
Anton's head was lying on my desk now, and his shoulders were shuddering. "Do you want to be like them, Anton? It wouldn't be so terribly hard." I inserted a nasty little self-pity whine into my voice. "Oh Phil! My whole life was cooking! And it would just be too hard for me to figure out another way of doing the same job. I can't even try, I'm so pitiful! Woe is me!"
"Or," I continued, "would you rather be someone like this?" And I forced all of the confidence and power I could into my high bunny-voice. "I am a Man. My life does not control me- I control my life. Sometimes things are hard and difficult. But whatever comes my way I will either overcome it, circumvent it, or die trying. I deserve no less."
Anton was weeping openly by now, and I was pretty sure my point was made. So I quit playing the bad cop and hopped over to lay a soft, reassuring forepaw on the chef's shuddering shoulder. "Anton," I whispered almost into his ear. "I am not trying to be cruel. You know that."
The weeping skunk sort of shrugged a "yes".
"No one, however, can face your troubles except you. You know that as well as I do. And running away from them is merely a coward's way out."
Anton's weeping seemed almost to explode at the veiled reference to his suicide attempts. Our scheduled time together was up, but I let him cry for a bit. He seemed to need it. Eventually, I whispered into his ear a second time. "You've still got the grit in you, don't you? The same grit that took you to the top of your profession in the first place? It is still there, unchanged?"
Anton nodded again. "Yes," he answered, barely loud enough for me to hear. "It's still there. I think I just sort of lost it for a while."
I nodded. "I lost mine too for a while, Anton. There's no shame in that. Just in never finding it again."
"Yes," the shuddering voice agreed. "I see that, now."
I nodded, then patted Anton's shoulder reassuringly. "Good. And you know what?"
"What?" Anton asked. His voice was clearing up, the storm was passing. Good.
"I think that your artistic life has only just begun, and that your future is brighter than ever. Because from now on, you will dare to truly try. Usually, for a man of even just average ability, just the act of sincerely trying is enough to guarantee success at a level far beyond the expected level. However, given your special gifts, I rather suspect that once you begin to rise to this challenge you will succeed beyond your wildest dreams."
I never saw Anton again, at least not in the fur. But he still drops me a card from time to time, and often a gift as well. Not that I have any use for cookware, mind you. No even the world-famous "Chef Anton" line, specifically designed to help scabs like me overcome their handicaps and make their culinary dreams come true. Some things never change, and I still consider cooking to be the act of opening a can and heating whatever is inside. But still, I get my share of satisfaction every time I open up up my cabinets and see the logo on the unopened boxes, especially the genuine and proud smile that adorns Chef Anton's face.
Sometimes I think that I ought to invite him to come by and eat some peanuts with me. Mrs. Swindell would be so jealous to learn that I know someone rich and famous...
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