By John Thomas Tuft

I pushed the tape of Lead Belly, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane into the deck in the dashboard of the old truck. Long trips through the darkness require certain kinds of music. Their music influenced that of artist Janis Joplin, among others, on the road to the creation of what came to be known as “rock and roll.” Actually, more of an evolution than a creation, as music tends to be, my mind considers this as it takes to its usual meandering and wondering as the miles are eaten by the tires. The dogs don’t seem to mind what music I play unless it is “I’m a Happy Dog” by DJ Moody. If I push that button, all three of them consider it to be an invitation to try and occupy the same space next to me in the front seat. Three dogs all trying to occupy the same space at the same time is not the usual definition of Three Dog Night, however. They get three repeats of the song, then everyone must go back to their corners. Happy dogs, all.

I am out here looking for ghosts. Ghosts of first love. Ghosts of once more. Ghosts of never again. Ghosts of one more chance. Ghosts of what almost came to be. Ghosts of sweet days yet to come. They dodge and weave, not always eager to be found in the mists and pale light of the hollow moon of the Blue Ridge. When we allow our wants and desires to become noisy children clamoring loudly and tugging at our sleeves, we run the risk of forgetting how to dream. Our ghosts can remind us how to dream. I turn up a dirt lane as the dogs nod off. Under the old oaks and maple trees, I see her. From afar at first, a diaphanous swirl of mist and fog, glowing from the energy of a thousand thousand days of waiting. Her form becomes clearer the closer I approach, her intoxicating scent of jasmine and lilies of the valley rousing the dogs from their slumbers, eager to greet their old friend.

“Those damn Civil War ghosts are at it again!” she exclaims as I climb out of the truck. She’s pointing into the Shenandoah Valley far below. “I’ve been expecting you, Preacher Boy. You show up about this time every year.” I shrug. “Am I that predictable?” I offer her one of my McGriddle sandwiches. She takes one and promptly divides it up among three very happy dogs. As she steps closer I can see that she is wearing a Confederate battle flag shirt over pants depicting the Stars and Stripes. She notices my look. “Hey, it’s in my name. What Might Have Been,” she says with an easy laugh. She goes on, “And you show up about this time every year to review all the what might have beens in your own life, seeing if you’ve made your peace. Am I right?” I swear I heard the rumble of cannon fire in the distance at that moment.

We settle onto the lookout rock. “Are they really fighting?” I ask. She gives me a look. “You tell me. You’re the one up here looking for ghosts.” Down below I see what might be lightning, or it might be powder flashes. “What might have been, Preacher Boy?” She grabs my arm. “And don’t tell me about Patty in high school who you were too chicken to ask out because she wasn’t the right type. Or making the sixth-grade basketball team but chickening out when high school football coaches wanted you to play for the team. Get over yourself!” WMHB ghosts do not suffer fools gladly. “What hurt you? What did you hang onto as something you really wanted? What. Might. Have. Been?”

An uncomfortable silence follows. “Don’t laugh,” I implore, “but I wanted to be a singer/songwriter. I wanted to make music.” She has the grace to simply listen without comment, something not every ghost has mastered. “I became a storyteller but, yeah, sometimes I think about what might have been.” The night breeze carries the song of a nightingale to us as we both wait for some revelation. Below in the valley, the sounds of shouts and boots marching rise with the moon. She looks at me with eyebrows raised.  “What might have been is a wonder, not a war.” And that’s all she says. I take a deep breath. “I had the chance to become Doctor Tuft instead of Reverend Tuft. I don’t like being Rev. Tuft.” She smiles. “You don’t have to worry there, Preacher Boy. Nobody is out there missing or waiting for either one.” WMHB ghosts are completely honest.

Finally, I whisper, “There are friendships I wish could still be. Some have died. Some simply moved on with no forwarding information. As I get older, those are the hardest to make my peace with.” She begins to softly sing a song. It sounds vaguely familiar. She keeps going until at last I recognize it. It is “My Mother’s Piano,” a song I wrote while I was recovering from the drugs and depression. I finally turned it into a story so that I could share it with you. The ghost of What Might Have Been finishes. The valley below is quiet now. She gives me a wink. I gather up the dogs and return to the truck. To begin the trip home…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.