What Might Have Been
by Jason T. MartenTaur
Vincent stared at his hands quietly. He reached into a shopping bag, pulled out a loaf of bread and removed a slice. "Donnie, can I have a plate?"
The mute bartender nodded and set a white ceramic saucer in front of the mink. It clattered loudly, or perhaps it was not loud at all, but the Blind Pig was just unusually quiet tonight. Vincent put the slice of bread on the saucer and poured his shot of whiskey into the bread, holding the small glass with stubby fingers. He set the glass back on the bar and picked up the whiskey-soaked bread in white claws and ate it in about four bites. He liked it that way. Never used to before, but now ... it was strange the way people changed.
Maybe I'll get really plastered tonight, he thought to himself. He picked up another slice of bread and dipped it in the whiskey that had run into the saucer. That would be fun.
He sighed and stared at his hands again. They were nearly paws—the fingers stubby and short, tipped with sharp little blades that grew way too fast for him to keep up with.
"Hey, Vincent, what's eatin' ya?" said a voice right by his ear. Vincent turned and saw Wanderer looming over him, a rather shocking sight when one wasn't used to it.
"What?" Vincent asked blearily, twitching rounded ears.
"I said, what's eatin' ya'?" Wanderer repeated, picking a flea out of the fur on Vincent's arm. "Besides that, I mean."
"Oh, not too much," Vincent sighed.
Wanderer nodded slowly. "Gotcha. But let's pretend we've already cut through all my saying, 'Oh, come on, you can tell me,' and your being reluctant and what not, and now you're about to really tell me why you look glummer than a centipede with corns."
Vincent smiled faintly and toyed with his shot glass. "Well, it's just ... you know ... might'ves."
The mink scratched idly at his chest and stared up at the TV set which was blabbing on with some ball game no one cared about. "I went to the concert hall tonight. Mikhail Muskheleshvili on the grand piano."
Wanderer whistled. "I heard that guy is really something."
"One of the greatest. I think it was the most beautiful thing I've ever heard."
"So... you're just kind of still taking it in."
"I guess you could say that," Vincent mumbled. "But mostly I'm just remembering." He stared at the wall.
Wanderer waited patiently.
The mink turned back to the wolf, his eyes glossy. "I used to be really good at playing the piano." He set the shot glass down on the bar and Donnie refilled it with being asked. "I mean, I was REALLY good. I couldn't do anything else well. I was no athlete, I couldn't sing or dance or entertain, I was useless with numbers and machinery ... hell, I didn't even LOOK nice. But when I played the piano, people listened."
The wolf sighed. He'd heard this kind of story before. "I'm sorry."
"It was all I knew how to do. I practiced day and night, sometimes twelve, sometimes fourteen hours a day. I lost my job, I got out of touch with my family for a while. I was happy playing my music." Vincent poured the whiskey over another slice of bread. "And then, I started getting offers. You know, to play at weddings, banquets, parties, that sort of thing. It was great. Music shared is better, you know. When you're playing, it just kind of lifts you up and grabs you and takes you away; you feel like you ARE the music. You can feel it moving inside you. There's nothing like it."
"Yeah, I know," the wolf nodded, looking down.
"Then I was playing with the state orchestra, and then solos, in concert halls. I was going places. I was making money again, I had friends and family again. Then one morning I wake up and my hands are like this."
Vincent spread his blunt fingers. "All of a sudden, I can't even play 'Chopsticks'. Little kids run up to pianos to show off how well they can play 'Heart and Souls,' and I end up in some bar eating whiskey-bread."
"You don't have to eat the whiskey-bread, you know," Wanderer pointed out helpfully.
The mink almost seemed to pout. "I like it, though."
A gravelly voice came from Vincent's left. "I know what you're talking about, friend." The other two looked over and saw a turtle sipping some mineral water from a metallic mug.
"Hello," Vincent ventured to the morphic turtle.
"Call me Ishmael," the turtle said slowly.
"Okaaay," Wanderer said. "Ishmael it is."
"My name's really Ishmael," the turtle explained, "but I like to introduce myself that way. My own private little joke." He laughed wheezingly.
"So, Ishmael," the wolf began, "you have similar, comparable woes that you'd like to throw out on the bar?"
"I used to be a runner," explained the shelled reptile sadly.
"'Nuff said," Wanderer sympathized.
"Running, it felt like flying to me. Like I was leaving everything about life that bothered me behind. I felt free. I felt like I had been born to run, and to not run was like death. They told me I was headed for the Olympics." Ishmael laughed his wheezing laugh again. "I couldn't qualify for the Special Olympics, now."
"Ain't life a bitch?" Vincent agreed, his mouth full of bread.
"I wish," Wanderer said, with a wistful look. He grinned widely.
"Every day, every hour," the mink said, pushing away his saucer, "I just keep thinking about the way things might have been."
Wanderer stared at him quietly for a moment. Suddenly, he stood up. "Then I propose a toast," the wolf said, turning around and tapping a spoon on the bar for attention. "A toast! To the piano players, to the runners, to the singers and dancers and ball players and everyone else that lost their dreams! To what might have been!"
The patrons of the bar chorused, "To what might have been," raising their glasses. They downed their drinks in observation of pasts that never occurred, and futures that never would.
Wanderer sat back down and looked back at Vincent and Ishmael. "I wonder how many might've beens there are out there."
Vincent shrugged. "I bet there's a lot. A lot of people staring at others who made it, who really made it, and they're saying, 'That could've been me.'" He put his loaf of bread back into his shopping bag. "Well, I'm gonna head for home, if I can find it. Good night, all."
"Good night," the other two said, waving.
Vincent hopped off the barstool and headed for the door, but the television caught his attention. "We interrupt our program to bring you an important news break," said the tinny voice of the TV.
A serious-looking woman stared out at the screen, her eyes filled with false concern. "A terrible tragedy has just occurred in Boston, Massachusetts this evening. The Jordan Concert Hall partially collapsed tonight at 9:02 P.M. after being hit by a descending funnel cloud. The funnel cloud did retract into the clouds, but not before damaging the building beyond repair. So far, over 35 people have been reported dead, including the well-known concert pianist, Annette Bankford, and more are turning up every minute. And now we'll go live to Anchorman Rod Jerling, who is at the scene. Rod?"
Vincent stared at the screen, shaking silently. He dropped his bag and walked back to the bar. "I propose a new toast, Wanderer," he said weakly. "Donnie, can I have one more for the road, please?"
The obliging bartender poured another shot glass of whiskey for the mink.
Vincent turned around. "A toast!" he shouted loudly. "A toast to everything that's finer than all the pasts and people we might have been. A toast to what is."
"To what is," the reply came.
Vincent smiled, turned, and headed out the door. And as he walked home, through the dark, skipping from streetlight to streetlight, he stood in each pool of light for a second and let the cold wind whip through his warm, white fur. It felt great. He thought for a moment of the life he might have had, and all of a sudden, the lyrics to some old song were running through his head:
"Try not to think about what might
'Cause that was then, and we have taken different roads,
We can't go back again,
There's no use giving in,
And there's no way to know what might have been."
Copyright 1998: J.T. MartenTaur. If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask for permission first. Thank you.
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