This is the Tenth round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them unfamiliar with the challenge, a quick summary: three writers offer the fruit of their labor and inspiration based on a given title.
The Round 10 Title — Once Upon A Time… — was chosen by me. Gary will choose the title for the next round.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories spans various genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. The same goes if you are not interested in finishing a story. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
Here’s the blurb for this story:
General Harold Dickens Barker spent his life as a music manager. He hitched his wagon to a soulful singer by the name of T. Tyler Griffin. They sold more records than Elvis, until they didn’t. See what happens when you make a deal with the devil.
Once Upon A Time
Copyright 2022 — R. G. Broxson
(3,590 words – approx. reading time: about 14 minutes based on 265 WPM)
“Once Upon a Time. You remember that golden oldy, don’tcha?” A bluesy tune twanged on the tinny radio in room 13. “Old boy by the name of T. Tyler Griffin wrote and performed that classic. You remember T. Tyler, don’t you? He sounded something like this:” The old man cleared his throat and croaked a phlegmy rendition of Once Upon a Time. “Once upon a time, when you were mine, sweet Rosaline… He said it was the untold story of Romeo and his first love, a girl named Rosaline.”
“It hit the charts with a bullet back in 1957. It burned brighter than Jerry Lee Lewis’ Great Balls of Fire, busted out of Elvis’ Jailhouse Rock, and then crushed the Crickets putting an end to Peggy Sue. The old man laughed and coughed up more mucus or lung butter as he called it.
“It was to their credit and fame that Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis all died.” The prying man looked quizzical for a moment, then asked the room; “Wait, is Jerry Lee dead yet?” The catatonic patient in the next bed did not answer. “If he ain’t, he should be. And if he is, he should be roasting in hell, if you ask me, General Harold Dickens Barker.”
General Barker waited for his younger roommate to reply. The rhythmic raspy inhalation and exhalation of the breathing apparatus was an inadequate response. Barker grunted and hefted himself out of bed and wiggled his large ass into a bedside wheelchair. He breathed like a sprinter as he rolled the 12 feet between the beds.
“When you get back online, my friend, you might want to Google Jerry Lee Lewis and the others. I’ll wait… If you Google me too, you’ll find out pretty quick that I’m not really a General, never served, but hey, Colonel Sanders didn’t really serve fried chicken to the Rebs either.” Barker seemed to wait for a laugh or perhaps understanding from his comatose roommate.
“Of those rock-n-roll legends, only my client, T. Tyler Griffin, remains.” General Barker continued. “They say the last man standing is the winner, right?” There was an uneasy silence that even the General refused to fill as he mumbled and fumbled with his cell phone. And then: “I Just Googled Jerry Lee; goodness gracious, he’s dead.” The phony General clucked until he coughed. “They buried that bastard just last week. He’s probably feeling those Great Balls of Fire about now. Serves him right for fucking around with his teenage cousin. Am I right, or am I right?” Barker nudged his roommate but got no response.
“Don’t judge me.” Barker glared at the sleeping man. “This business is cutthroat, and I was only looking after my client. One day you’re King Shit of Turd Mountain, the next day you’ve traded in your microphone for a shit shovel. Did you know that T. Tyler sold more records than Elvis?” He gave his roommate a respectable amount of time to reply. “That was our tag line. And it worked.” General Barker smiled at his own audacity. His blunted yellowed teeth looked like old corn left on an old cob.
“The trick to this type of hype, I explained to T. Tyler, was to mix in just enough truth, like seasoning into the stew of lies. The truth is, T. Tyler got his number one on the charts just two weeks before Elvis scored with his mother-lovin’ That’s all Right. So, technically, for a fortnight as the Brits say, T. Tyler had sold more records than Elvis. I like to call it the freeze-frame effect. Back then, you couldn’t just GTS.”
As he spoke, Barker nonchalantly fiddled with his roommate’s IV. He plucked the needle out of his arm and allowed a few drops of fluid to drip onto his outstretched tongue. He made a face. “Chemo! You must be bad off partner.” He laughed at this observation and then re-inserted the needle into the man’s arm. The man winced, but did not awaken.
“Don’t get me wrong.” Barker returned to business mode. “T. Tyler was no slouch. He was a pedigreed songster. Some say, truth be told, ‘some’ was just me, that T. Tyler is the bastard son of The Singing Cowboy himself, Gene Autry. I didn’t have much in the way of proof; we didn’t swab sheets or cheeks for DNA samples back then. But I do know personally and for a fuckin’ fact that T. Tyler’s mother was a honky-tonk hussy. She tried to break into the country music biz herself back in the heyday and ended up just rollin’ in the hay with every Tom, Dick, and Harry agent and record producer. T. Tyler’s dear mother would throw blows for juke box nickels, but she never got a contract.”
“But her whorin’ around wouldn’t have sold records like those sex tapes do these days. So I made it known to the grapevine that there was a remote possible possibility that Ms. Griffin and Mr. Autry had conjugated in carnal copulation back in 1938 to create the baritone bastard, T. Tyler Griffin. On stage, I had T. Tyler wear a white 10-gallon cowboy hat and a stiff matching scarf, just like his dear old daddy, Gene. These revelations never hit the brand-name newspapers, but the buzz boys ate it up in the trash-talk tabloids.” The man in the bed half-moaned and tried to roll away from the unwanted storyteller.
“T. Tyler never even knew about that scandal. He was a naive boy, never asked questions, just wrote and sang his songs. And he could write some songs.” Barker hummed into the old man’s hairy ear then belted out: “Our love was like a fairy tale, once, upon a tiiiiiime…” he dragged out the last word like it was his last word. But it wasn’t. He had more to say. The bedridden man moaned and rolled again.
General Barker pushed back, pivoted his wheel-chair, and rolled around to the opposite side of his neighbor’s bed. He continued, “That reminds me of the first time I laid eyes on that boy. Promise not to repeat this part:” General Barker looked around the room like it might be bugged. “Back in the 50’s I was a pimp.” The old man stirred. “Shhhhh, it’s true. I was one pimpin’ son of a bitch.” Barker wheezed through thin pipes until he hacked up something brown to spit into his roommate’s Styrofoam cup.
Barker’s eyes glazed over. “I was sitting in my old ’57 Chevy, candy-apple red, with those fins, you know the ones. This was the intersection of Sulphur Dell and Centennial Boulevard, right smack in the middle of Nashville. That’s where the Greyhound stopped and where Lilith started. She was my money-maker; a drop-dead, raven-haired harlot with a body that could actually stop a bus.
She was good; she noticed the rube fixing his cowboy hat and fumbling with a guitar case as he stepped off the bus. Easy pickings. Lilith turned it on and T. Tyler turned her down. He just smiled, tipped his white hat, ma’amed her, and kept walking straight to the nearest honky-tonk. That was the old Blue Bird Café.
Amazed, I got out of my car and followed him in. He went right up to the barkeep, asked for the manager and waited at a corner table where he straw-sipped a glass of water with lemon. As he waited, he uncoffined that 5-string guitar and started playing.
T. Tyler Griffin sang like an angel in that corner booth. I could feel his baritone bass down deep in my bones like tremors. That’s when I knew he could shake the world and that we shared a destiny. In a fortunate, yet unfortunate series of events, my dear Lilith OD’ed the next night; probably figured she had lost her fading sex appeal. Later, they called them Marylyn Monroe Martinis. The upside, I was out of the pimp business, and I was now a music manager.” Barker nudged the barely-breathing man and laughed again. “I know right; not much difference.”
“It was then and there I made T. Tyler an offer he couldn’t refuse. Fifty-fifty.” Barker backed away from the dying man. “What, you don’t think that’s fair? You are right, my friend, it’s not fair. I should have taken him for 70%.” Barker’s rattling laughter filled the room like a chorus of chaos.
“Why me? You ask. I’ll tell you why. I’ll tell you the same bullshit I told T. Tyler Griffin when he asked me why he should hire me on as manager. I simply told him the tale of Robert Johnson, a Cajun guitar man, a blues boy, with a lot of heart and soul. How Robert had journeyed out to that lonesome crossroads in the desert and had met up with O’l Slewfoot himself. Satan had arrived in the form of a dust devil, had snatched the boy’s guitar, tuned it, strummed it right nice, and then asked Robert what he really, really wanted. On that Godforsaken desert crossroads, Robert sold his soul to become the best blues player ever.
I had known the infamous Robert Johnson; had heard about his deal, had listened to his blues. But…and I paused here to emphasize a point when I spoke to T. Tyler. I told him that Robert Johnson’s blues were the best, technically perfect. He hit all the right notes, plucked all the right chords; never missed a beat. But…again I paused. I told him the God’s honest truth; Robert Johnson had no soul. And that his music, though technically perfect, had no fucking soul. Most listeners, sitting around the big radio each night, didn’t discern the subtle difference, but the record-buying rubes got it and spent their scant depression dollars on Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey.”
“T. Tyler was a bit slow on the uptake. I went one step further and explained that he had just traversed a similar crossroad, a pivotal nexus, and he had successfully avoided the temptations of Darkness incarnate—the lady Lilith. I told T. Tyler that he was in the good company of an old Jew named Jesus who had also admonished Satan to ‘Get thee behind me.’ Tyler got it then. He laughed a little, and then glanced away like he couldn’t look me in my eyes.
“But T. Tyler swallowed it: hook, line and sinker. He even wrote a song about it. That son-of-a gun could write a song about taking a dump and make it smell rosy. But it was Once Upon a Time that had sent T. Tyler packin’ to Nashville all the way from Oklahoma. His drunk uncles and slutty sisters all told him that ‘Once’ was a hit and he believed it, and so did I.
As usual, the rubes were right; they are the deciders, you know.” Barker poked the inert man in the ribs as if making a point. “I quickly figured out the music business, called in a few favors, and wala. We laid vinyl the next day and in six months I had T. Tyler Griffin at number one on the Billboard Charts; even had’em booked for the Grand Old Opry alongside Porter Wagoner. Not bad for a pretend General and former pimp. Huh?” Barker seemed to need some sort of approval from his recumbent audience. He turned some knobs on the old man’s monitors, squeezed his I.V. bag, and began to speak louder.
“Is that better?” he asked the comatose man. Undeterred, the General continued. “And was he grateful? Was he? Were you?” Barker slapped the man in the hospital bed. His head lolled and he moaned. “Were you grateful? No. Not for one guitar pluckin’, mother fuckin’ minute. I spent the best years of my life representing you, trying to get one more chart-topper out of you. But, no, you were just a one-off, a footnote, a trivia question, a one-hit-blunder on my part.”
The General stood up from the wheelchair and wriggled out of his hospital gown like an ancient Houdini. In his skivvies, he loomed half-naked over the vapid patient. “They say the sense of smell for comies like you can be real eye-openers.” Barker raised his right arm and inhaled deeply from his own right armpit like a sommelier snifting a divine wine. Satisfied, he dropped his bushy gray arm-crotch across the patient’s face.
The man moaned beneath the odiferous onslaught. He began to twist and writhe. His heart monitor picked up a moderate five-string rhythm and then raced like the bass of a rock-star solo. General Barker clamped down tightly over the man’s mouth and nose. “I should have ended our contract a long time ago T. Tyler. You haven’t had a hit in 60 years now. Maybe your life insurance will be worth something.”
The body bucked, it clawed; it convulsed; it lurched to life in the paradoxical paroxysms of living and dying. And just as suddenly, the heart monitor gave up and decried the dull monotone of death—flat line. And then the nurse walked in, a raven-haired beauty in crisp blue scrubs.
“He’s mine, Barker!” she shrieked. The virago closed the distance like a lioness and whacked the old General hard across his face with a metal clipboard. The General pin-wheeled backward, relinquishing his unholy hold on the man. He pushed his wheelchair away and admired the intruder.
“Lilith, my dear, is that you?” He smiled with forgotten teeth. “I thought you…”
“You thought what I wanted you to think; that I had OD’ed on some of your hillbilly heroin. Not me, Barker. Not me. You were good, General, real good. You had a unique talent and I let you use it.” Lilith reached out and caressed General Barker’s bruised cheek. “But play time is over. I’m here to settle up on my contract.” Her pleasing smile turned to contempt.
“Your contract? What the hell. Literally, what the Hell are you talking about?” the General growled through broken teeth.
“I thought you would have figured it out by now. T. Tyler Griffin and I are partners, of a sort.” Lilith batted her long-lashed eyelids. “It’s true that T. Tyler stepped off that Greyhound bus and breezed on by me his first day in Nashville. I knew then that his only love and passion was his mama and his music. But that’s where you, General Barker, crossed the line. You were working for me—you were my Pimp only because that’s how it worked back in those days. You stole my client in the backroom of a dive bar.”
“What you don’t know, General, is what happened the next night,” Lilith covered her mouth with blood-red fingernails holding back a snicker. “After the bar banter and the recording of Once Upon a Time, I caught T. Tyler coming out of the Blue Bird after sipping more than lemon water. He was no match for these.” Lilith shoved her bosom into Barker’s face. His muffled wheeze sounded almost orgasmic. “He sold his singular, sensational, splendiferous soul for a couple of stupid wishes.”
The General, wedged snuggly between Lilith’s exquisite breasts, almost succumbed to their sensuality, but then he rallied. He was, after all, The General. Lilith screamed and tried to break away, but the General’s jaws clamped down on her like a bear trap.
“My tit,” she wailed, “my beautiful, perfect, perky tit.” She beat against the side of the General’s head; he just growled and tugged harder at her teat like a 90 year-old suckling. Lilith turned and writhed, but the General held on like a pit bull.
A visitor to that hospital room might have thought the two unlikely partners were swinging and swaying in a disjointed dance. The tango ended when Lilith reached blindly behind the General and grasped T. Tyler’s bed pan. She seized and swung it in one violent motion, connecting squarely with the General’s temple. He jerked back and Lilith screamed again, louder. The dazed General spat a blue swatch of scrubs and a pink blob of flesh.
Lilith covered her mauled breast with one hand like she was pledging allegiance to the flag and prepared to brain the General with the stainless-steel bed pan with the other. The General, ever-ready for battle, grabbed a three-prong HurryCane and swung it like Excalibur.
“Wunnns…” a voice rose from the din.
The battle waged.
“Once…” the sound was like a clarion bell in a boxing ring.
The fighting stopped.
T. Tyler Griffin pulled tubes, electrodes, and needles from his mottled flesh. He gasped like a swimmer surfacing from the bottom of a very deep pool. His hands, blotched but powerful, clutched the rails of his hospital bed. He pulled himself upright. His eyes finally settled on the couple frozen in a tableau of violence.
“Once…” he sang again, even more deeply and resonant than before.
General Barker pushed away from Lilith and slapped T. Tyler hard. “Sing it.”
“Once upon a…”
Another hard slap; this time from Lilith.
The General dissolved into the wheelchair. “Why couldn’t you sing like that for me? We could have been the best.”
“Once upon a time, when you were mine, sweet Rosaline…” The stirring words spilled out even before T. Tyler fully opened his eyes.
Monitors sprang to life. Pings and lights and electronic voices joined in the chorus of the soulful, soporific song.
“This is why, General.” Lilith unrolled a curled leaf of parchment. “T. Tyler Griffin signed a contract. Without his soul, he could never sing like that.”
“But he is,” they both looked at T. Tyler as he crooned right into the second verse of his number one song, “singing like that,” the General finished.
“I don’t understand,” Lilith squinted at the contract. “It says right here: I, T. Tyler Griffin, do abide by this pact until such time as I perish.’ He signed it in blood; it’s airtight.” As she held the scroll it began to disintegrate into ash in her hands until only a lingering haze of sulfur and smoke remained in the room. Lilith screamed like a demon and T. Tyler continued to sing like an angel.
“You stupid cow,” the General laughed. “Don’t you get it? I killed him. He flat lined. Maybe just for a second or two, but dead enough to complete his part of your stupid contract. He’s got his soul back because you didn’t fulfill your end of it. He can sing again, just like that day in ’57.”
Lilith rolled her eyes up into her head. She seethed, but controlled her fury. “That’s why I’m here. I prefer to wait until the last minute to satisfy my part of the bargain—it’s the demon in me. But now it’s too late.” She huffed, she puffed, and she began to spin into a dust devil. “I’m outta here.”
“Wait, Lilith, wait,” the General shielded his face from her squall. “What did he ask for in the Deal? For his immortal soul, what was it you owed T. Tyler?”
The scorned tempest spoke. “That rube only wanted two things for his soul. He wanted a life of mediocrity. Didn’t want fame and fortune like you wanted for him. He asked for a modest living, just writing and singing his songs. I gave him that. I gave him milquetoast and plain yogurt for breakfast every morning. But I held back the other.” The gale intensified. “Just a little too late, thanks to you.”
“What, Lilith, what was that second part?”
“The poor bastard just wanted to know who his father is. Ciao, General, I’ll see you soon.” She spun faster and then faded to nothing. Random papers, napkins, and tissues lost their momentum and began to settle where gravity thought best.
T. Tyler was hitting the crescendo. The hospital room acoustics were superb. It was glorious. But the end of the song was only seconds away. The General sidled up to T. Tyler and they finished the last line together: “Once upon a tiiiiiiime!”
The monitors suddenly lost interest in digital peaks and valleys; the alarms were less insistent than before. The end was near and even the machines recognized and received it with cold dignity.
T. Tyler seemed to recognize it as well. He waved his picking hand in a come-here-gesture to the General. T. Tyler’s eyes were glazed and the chemo drip had burned away every desire to hang on. But there was unfinished business. The General leaned in and listened as the younger old man inhaled deeply, exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide one last time. “Dad?” His eyes flickered and fixed on the General’s.
The General teared up. He squeezed the dying man’s hand, and then broke their intense gaze. “No. Your father was Gene Autry,” he smiled with ragged teeth. “The Singing Cowboy.”
T. Tyler smiled, he let out a final breath; his soul followed.
The General felt the spiritual departure and wished he could join the man on his new journey. As he imagined his own upcoming trip, the door swung open. A nurse; a real nurse entered the room. “Sorry, we are way understaffed,” she apologized automatically. “We’ve got a DNR on Mr. Griffin here, so we had to prioritize, you understand. Even still,” she looked sternly at the General, “we’ve got to abide by facility rules; are you, sir, an immediate relative? If not, you’ll have to leave.” The ancient man rose from the bedside. He held tight to his son’s cooling hand. “I’m family,” he tried to chuckle. “I’m his…manager.”
THE END… of Everything
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If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:
E. J. D’Alise submission<<link
Perry Broxson submission<<link
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