Flash Fiction

Blaze Johnny Two-Elk

By Larry O'Neal

“Blaze Johnny Two-Elk” originally appeared in Book of Matches. 

I know it don’t pay none to rejoice at another man’s mortal downfall, but when that man is the man responsible for poisoning the water supply a fourteen-hundred head a cattle cross a dozen Oklahoma counties atwixt Kiowa and Choctaw and killing hisself three innocent Sauk tribe sisters out back the Ninnekah Dollar General, then my figuring is the Good Lord looking over us gone turn the other way for a spell when I pull out my rusty mouth harp and play some good goddamn little tune everyone in these parts can kick up their boots and dance to in a celebration not to honor a man’s life but to celebrate his death at the hands of Blaze Johnny Two-Elk who tracked that worthless son of a bitch and stuck him in the ribs with an Arkansas toothpick and peeled off the top a his crusty dome when old Sheriff Tom Noblett and his do-nothing deputies was beating the devil round the stump with their fingers in their beltloops while we’re swinging what’s left of this murderer’s sorry-ass carcass from a pry-bar cross Caldor Creek and painting our tonsils with moonshine and singing like the good goddamn Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

      Way I look at it, Blaze Johnny Two-Elk come down from White Eagle still holding on to his Ponca Tribe heritage, not liking the way negotiations is going with Department of Interior’s Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations and cellphone towers going up on sacred reservation lands and Mr. Cowboy Driggs—honest to God this man’s Christian name is Cowboy—from the governor’s office coming down to Chickasaw Nation in Garvin County putting the fear of 5G in these humble folks whose ancestors hunted with rocks and sharpened sticks when Johnny gets a earful of this issue with a cattle poisoner murderer, and people already on edge cause the video stores is shutting down and ain’t yet embraced the concept a streaming services and video clerks losing their jobs and maybe that’s all just a bridge too far for Blaze Johnny Two-Elk, cause he’s got on his tribal deerskin breechcloths and moccasins and shaved head except for that long dark ceremonial whip of scalp lock when we meet him for brunch at the Whippoorwill Cafeteria in Ardmore and feed him the details, and Blaze Johnny goes into pure, hot Ponca tracker mode, all channeling the indigenous rage of his people.

      Time Sheriff Tom Noblett and his dumb-as-dogshit deputies get to Caldor Creek, festivities and our murderer is in full swing and he hushes up the music and merry-making by firing off his shotgun skyward all dramatic-like and says, “Who’s the man hanging from the pry-bar up off’n the bridge, Carruthers?” and I say, “Ain’t no man no more, Sheriff,” cause way I see it, once a Ponca tribesman separates the north forty of a person’s thinkbox from the rest of his body, the soul flies out his skull in humiliation and no one without a soul can be a complete man, and no one who poisons cattle and kills three innocent Sauk sisters behind no goddamn Dollar General deserves to live or be called a man, so call it a debt paid or frontier justice or biblical retribution but don’t call that cursed, lidless thing swinging over Caldor Creek a man, and Sheriff Tom Noblett spits on the ground and squints into the sun going down behind the dangling corpse and fans hisself with his sweaty Stetson no doubt like he seen the Old West sheriffs do on the Cowboy Channel on basic cable and asks, “Who done this, Carruthers?”

      Might as well ask who put the crude oil fifteen-thousand feet under the earth in Comanche County or whose dustbowl drove the Okies westward or why the Sooners beat Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl or who made the goddamn wind that comes sweepin’ down the goddamn plain, cause fate is fate and what is is and the Great Standing Bear in his sacred burial blanket will judge every tribesman when he crabwalks into the next life, but Sheriff Tom Noblett says, “That man weren’t no cattle poisoner-murderer and you know it cause he was the missing government agent sent from Washington D.C. to explain and enforce the new environmental regulations y’all have been squawking about like a bunch a lunatics gacked on meth and you convinced some poor fool to do your dirty work and ain’t no poisoned cattle and ain’t no murdered sisters in Ninnekah,” and I look at this sorry corpse swinging like a plumb bob and I think about Blaze Johnny Two-Elk and his tribal ancestry and his inevitable judgment by the Great Standing Bear and I spit in the dust and look Sheriff Tom Noblett square in his bloodshot eyes and say, “Well, good goddamn.”



The Tale of Orlande de Lassus

By Larry O'Neal

The Renaissance composer Orlande de Lassus was kidnapped several times as a young boy because of his beautiful singing voice. You will without doubt remember the polyphonic motets the talented Lassus later wrote in the enigmatic musica reservata style, awash in powerfully expressive settings of text and chromaticism. And yet I digress, as I am often wont to do in my advanced years.

         The young Lassus was barely old enough to put on his own doublet and pull up his tights, and yet was resplendent with en gloriosus canticum vocalese, a voice to shame the nightingales of spring! It was said this voice could soothe the savage night terrors of many a magisterial lord and lady. It could charm milk from a maiden’s breast, though she be without suckling. So desired was this youthful serenader that a viscount in service of King William of the House of Orange offered a princely sum to the parents of Lassus that he may be installed as the palace ambassador of song, a chanticleer on-call. When the parents declined, the viscount sent for me. I know that Orlande de Lassus was kidnapped several times as a young boy because I snatched the warbling pricklet thrice my own self.

         The first time I plucked the young stripling, ‘twas from the courtyard of Saint Willibrordus whilst he practiced his solo for “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” for late mass. With the boy in a bag of the coarsest sackcloth slung over my shoulder as I hastened down the back alleys, he sang of such a pitch and volume that it attracted the interest of dogs and townsfolk, causing me to abandon my young abductee, sack and all, and flee.

         When school dismissed one day a week later, I convinced the young Lassus that his mother had petitioned me to accompany him home, as ne’er-do-wells and blackguards meant him undue misfortune. But when the constabulary took notice, they pursued, causing me to duck inside the shelter of an apothecary. There the youngster deduced my odious intentions, whereupon the tyke shrieked in such a loud shrill, it caused the bottles of medicines, the mirrors and the glass windows to shatter as if struck by a catapult. Once more was I forced to run and seek refuge in the shadowed crevices of the city of Delft.

         Much more success did I have later when I secured the young songster in a forged strongbox and transported him under cover of night to King William’s court. There I presented the small but monumentally gifted Orlande de Lassus to his excellency and his royal court. We implored the child to sing for us. “Word of your dulcet vocal skills precedes you, young Lassus. Regale us,” William commanded.

         And young Lassus sang. He sang in such mellifluous tones that queen and courtesans alike swooned. He sang the moon into the sky and caused the stars to glimmer in time. He sang the dew to sparkle on the highlands. He sang of lost love, unrequited and unrealized. He sang of saints and sinners and the restorative power of unyielding prayer. He sang of sultans and sovereign princes, of the tears of hungry babes and the song of the summer tanager, of heartbroken street urchins orphaned by poverty, and of the inevitable twilight of our dwindling lives.

         With the imperial audience reduced to tears and doleful sobbing, William ordered the return of Orlande de Lassus to his family in the village. “So wonderful a voice must not be confined within these castle walls. Share your gift of song with the world!” the king proclaimed.

         So I took the boy home to his mother and father and the little shit bit me on the leg.



Short Stories

The Walk-On

By Larry O’Neal

The walk-on has no lines. He has one purpose: to deliver a message from Southshore Swaggart—a handwritten invitation to brawl etched out in cigar ash on one side of a linen napkin—to Ugly Lou on the twenty-third pier at the Sunscape Fishery Plank. The walk-on character has no name and he's had to supply his own costume. His only motivation is to find Ugly Lou and give him the message. No conversation. He has no lines.

         Ugly Lou is a big man. And he's ugly because of a trawling accident he refuses to discuss. The audience is left to plumb the depths of its own imagination to reconstruct the harrowing details. Was it the wicked North Wind on a ravaging sea? The poison kiss of an island siren? A giant squid? Ugly Lou rakes his big salty hand through a frayed and faded haversack filled with the morning's catch of clams and Pacific scallops. He picks one out and bites it apart like a cracked walnut, slurps out the slimy mollusk and swallows it whole, the way a real son of the sea would. Ugly Lou sings "Cockles and Mussels." When the walk-on doesn't hit his cue, Ugly Lou sings the song again, louder. Then he eats a scallop.

         Carlton St. Turge plays the part of Ugly Lou. He's a veteran of the Tacoma Community Theater and just returned from back surgery. Two slipped discs, severe rug burn. Doesn't want to discuss it. He won a local Tony for his portrayal of Gregor Mendel's father in TCT's production of Getting into Your Genes, a musical-comedy about the history of genetics. Backstage, Will Killoch, the nervous stage manager, plays a ten-minute recording of plovers cawing and cooing in the background over a wash of salt-sea surf lapping up to the amber beach. He borrowed the disc from the Swasey Branch of the Tacoma Public Library. It's due back on Monday. It's actually a self-hypnosis recording designed to relax you and help you quit smoking subliminally. When the disc ends, Will has to restart it. No one can remember the walk-on's name. Tina Culbert (Saucy Ramona the Bareback Bar Back, the female lead) thinks it might be Jimmy. Or John. She met him once at a cast party. Well, saw him there eating olives straight from the jar. With his fingers. Gawd. Jerry? It wasn't an unusual name. Pretty sure it started with a J.

         It's imperative for the walk-on to deliver the message. Without it, Ugly Lou can't accept the gauntlet from Southshore Swaggart and rally his ragtag faction of North End mollusk fishermen to rumble with and defeat the Southshore Gang. Ugly Lou can't discover the long-lost treasure of Saucy Ramona's late father, later revealed to be the whaling legend Keelboat Kendall, and finally express his true feelings for the lonely barmaid, thus freeing her from the oppression of the saloon and its demanding patrons, learning that true beauty is on the inside, and freeing himself from the haunting sea-demons of his past. It's an allegory. A parable. The playwright said so.

         The TCT Players are all onstage. They've already doubled up on parts. Charlie Gant's playing Salmon-Eye Sweeney, Double-Knuckle the Drunken Barber, and a Port Authority ombudsman who whistles a lot and breaks up the brawl in act three. Will Killoch can't go on in the walk-on's place. He has stage fright and has to man the CD player. They need the walk-on.

         The walk-on is at the multiplex cinema. He's watching a new sci-fi thriller about a secret platoon of cyber soldiers who can transcend virtual reality and cause nightmares to come true. It stars a guy from Star Trek: Enterprise. The walk-on sips from a large cup of Pepsi though he's not really thirsty. He squeezes two fingers into a long box of Dots, trying to reach the last three stuck at the far end of the container, though he's not really hungry. He doesn't think about the girlfriend he doesn't have. He doesn't think about the napkin in his jacket pocket, the one with the cigar ash message from Southshore Swaggart. He doesn't think about Ugly Lou. He doesn't think about the allegory. He thinks there are wormholes in the space-time continuum and that he will one day be able to transcend both space and time and walk invisible through girls' locker rooms.

         Everyone has a line except the walk-on. Even Shelly O'Day, the young daughter of the play's director, says, "The Sea giveth and the Sea taketh away, sir." And Ugly Lou answers, "Aye, youngun. A right harlot she be."

         Ugly Lou paces the stage apron and pretends to shoo the sandpipers from the shore. He ad-libs. "'Spectin' that messenger boy'll be 'round directly." He peers into the wings stage left like he's surveying the key for the Flying Dutchman. He's good. He's won a local Tony. The audience members suspect something is amiss. They begin to imagine what may have happened to the messenger boy: Murdered by a miscreant father? Drowned in the unforgiving sea? Kidnapped by ne'er-do-wells?

         At great personal risk, the sci-fi movie's virile hero telepathically transcends into the antagonist's nightmare and plants a virtual reality chip that impels the villain to destroy the VR databank controlled by the evil corporation and free the brainwave-enslaved minions. The databank explodes. There's fire and debris and lightning and the latest CGI special effects. The walk-on thinks it's way cool. It could happen this way. The movie ends. He doesn't stay for the credits. He doesn't care about the grips and gaffers and caterers and score composers and the fact that no animals were harmed in the making of this movie. He's a computer-generated image, a pliant tube of water that can seep around the exiting crowd and penetrate the crevices of a foreign embassy. He's the ultra-sleek bullet spinning out of the barrel of a pistol in super slow motion, two hundred frames per second. He's a fiber-optic nerve mass of intrigue and fearlessness. There's nothing he can't do. His fingers are sticky and smell like Dots.

         Carlton St. Turge's back starts to aggravate him. Was his return to the stage premature? It could be the inflamed vertebra or it could be another kidney stone. God, not another kidney stone. The pain knots up the left side of his lower back like a plum with a flaming arrow through it. He sweats through his pancake makeup. He knows there's a patron goddess of theater but can't remember her name. If he could, he'd pray to her to end this awful suffering and get out of this interminable second act. All he can think of is Terpsichore, but the Muse of Dance can't help him now.

         A voice breaks the tense silence. "Ugly Lou. I just heard word from Southshore Swaggart. Seems they aim to brawl with us.  If'un we ain't cowards. I say we take 'em on!" It's Charlie Gant in the role of Salmon-Eye Sweeney. He's like an angel sent from the corona of St. Elmo's Fire to lift the capsized play back on its tack. The North End mollusk fishermen snarl and say, "Yeah!" Carlton St. Turge says, "Oh Jesus, Charlie. My goddamn back."

         The audience's imagination revs on borrowed cylinders: There’s a hidden gunman just off the pier. It's Southshore Swaggart himself. He'll saunter onto the pier, musket still smoking, and proclaim the wharf his. With Ugly Lou out of the way he'll be free to four-flush the local tradesmen and search for the hidden treasure of Keelboat Kendall. There'll be no inner beauty revealed tonight. Ugly Lou will die beside his beloved and accursed sea. It's theater of the absurd. It's seaside Ionesco. There is no redeeming purpose in the human experience. Man is a victim of his own experiences. The audience wrings its hands and shuffles its collective feet. Ugly Lou collapses on the pier as the unseen plovers squawk all around him.

         The walk-on takes the bus home. He attempts to transform himself into a tiny firing neuron and leap into the mind of the businessman seated in front of him. There is no struggle, no exchange of dialogue. Even in his sci-fi fantasies the walk-on has no lines. He concentrates. He focuses. But the bus stops and the businessman steps off. The walk-on is a burning CGI image with nowhere to go, no nightmare to infiltrate. His heartbeat is a MIDI-arranged rhythm track produced by drum machines and sequencers and groove boxes. No actual musical instruments were harmed in the making of the soundtrack to his life.

         His apartment is decorated with posters of movie stars and one-sheets of his favorite sci-fi flicks. There's a table with no chairs and a scattering of bills and junk mail atop it. But tonight he does not live here. Tonight he is a synthetic neuron, firing on its own for the first time. He's his own secret weapon in the cyber-world war on corporate evil.

         When the walk-on finds the linen napkin in his jacket pocket he forgets about corporate evil. He remembers the play and that it has already started. Without him. He looks at the clock and feels faint. He's nowhere near the Tacoma Community Theater and he knows it. He holds the prop in both hands, a message overripe for delivering.

         Carlton the actor is on the apron, facedown, center-stage, a single fresnel flood framing him and making him appear even paler. He clutches at his back, trying to smother the fire. Tina Culbert rushes to his side, tries to assess the extent of Carlton's malady. The audience waits to hear famous last words, poignant advice from the tragic hero, something from which to draw a conclusion, a dramatic arc to propel the story into the third act. The audience doesn't know whether to applaud or vomit at the distressing and inevitable truth so it does neither. Tina shouts to Will Killoch to call an ambulance. He's got a cell phone with a case that makes it look like the Tardis from Doctor Who.

         The EMT driver runs the red light on South J Street pulling out of St. Joseph's and swerves to miss the bus that the walk-on rides. The ambulance lights throw a brief but unpleasant red glow on the windows of the offices and storefronts it passes. There's the shrieking siren that blares atonally as the ambulance overtakes the bus and the howl becomes incorporated into the soundtrack. The walk-on wishes the bus could run red lights and speed to get to the theater. There's a chance, he thinks, that he can get there just in time to deliver the message.

         Walt Prusk portrays Southshore Swaggart. He's the villain who'll incite the brawl in the third act. But he's out there early, in act two, trying to help lift Carlton off the ground and onto a gymnastic mat used by the Ruff N' Tumblers preschool gymnasts on Saturday mornings. There's also a trampoline leaned up against a wall backstage. Walt knows CPR but it isn't necessary. He also knows the kicker for the Seahawks. Went to high school with his dad, way back when. Carlton St. Turge moans and can't stop grabbing at the small of his back. There's a piranha attached that he can't bat off.

         Mrs. Valentine Hupner watches from the front door of the auditorium. She's sold tickets all night and wonders if they have a refund policy. Most of this money was going to fund the next production, Annie Get Your Gun, and she wants desperately to play the role of Annie Oakley and sling those fine guns. She's been learning the songs and practicing sharp shooting tricks at the rifle range for weeks now. Gotten tips from the pros. The audience sighs and feels Ugly Lou's pain. Now that's acting, they think. Even when the house lights come up the audience refuses to pull its attention away from the play. The need for quality drama has not been fulfilled, but strangely enough, no one wants a cigarette.

         Charlie Gant takes the apron and assumes yet another role, that of stage announcer. "A thousand apologies," he says, —he's classically trained—"but due to the unfortunate circumstances we'll have to suspend the remainder of tonight's play. But please return the last weekend of next month for our spirited interpretation of Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun. Thank you all for attending and take care driving home."

         There's a queasy sense of unconsummated drama that abrades the audience as it reluctantly stands and cleaves into lines for the various exits, the restrooms, the drinking fountain, the snack counter. The theater patrons hesitate and bump knees into each other as they turn to the stage to see how the tragedy plays out. When the siren blares from right outside the front doors and the walls go intermittently red and blue, the audience pauses. It feels like the third act has finally arrived. Just in time.

         Enter Rick and Robin, two brave and swarthy EMT workers with stethoscopes around their necks and great hair. They cut through the crowd like surfers shooting the tube. They're tan and swift and serious and may have their own TV series soon, something like Surfs Up! or Beach Rescue Now! They've thought a lot about it and are working on a treatment. They've had headshots printed. They know a guy who knows a guy, an agent. Rick and Robin glide over the proscenium and insert something in Carlton's ear. They roll him on his side and press on different areas of his back and say things like, "Stat!" Carlton moans like the deep dark mystery of the ocean depths. Loud.

         The audience watches the pier, now awash with activity.

Shelly O'Day can't stop crying and reciting, "The Sea giveth and the Sea taketh away, sir. The Sea giveth and the Sea taketh away, sir," despite her mother's comforting. The EMTs shred through the crowd once more and return with a gurney. Face-of-the-Wave. Toes on the nose. Full on. They slam the lip, get a little tailslide action and go vertical onto the stage where they roll the beached actor onto the stretcher and rip through the crowd once more. The other TCT Players follow in the wake of the gurney, cascading through the doorways and into their cars.

         The Sunscape Fishery Plank is nearly deserted. The audience sits down again in the folding metal chairs and thinks, That's more like it. Now we're cookin'. Yeah.

         The last man standing on the pier is Charlie Gant, still dressed as Salmon-Eye Sweeney. He speaks eloquently into a microphone, imploring the audience to leave. "There's nothing more to see here. Please exit to the front of the theater." The audience wants more. It's unsatisfied. It thirsts for dénouement, the falling action of this undulating plot line. "Mrs. Hupner will be happy to refund the cost of admission, given the unfortunate circumstances," Charlie Gant says. But Mrs. Hupner is gone from the ticket table and nothing will stand in the way of her dream of bringing Annie Oakley to life on the TCT stage. Soon even Salmon-Eye flops out of his costume and wriggles out the Actor's Entrance and into his Lincoln Towncar. Crushed velvet interior. New sound system. Check out the bass boost. Serious subwoofer action.

         The walk-on pushes his way to the front of the bus as the ambulance shrieks by in the opposite direction. At the next intersection he steps off the bus without thanking the driver and runs awkwardly across the government center lawn and around the back of the Tacoma Community Theater building and up the Actors Entrance steps. He hopes he's not too late and that he can find his costume quickly. The walk-on doesn't listen for the patter of the actors reciting their lines. He's in the men's dressing room, slipping into his faded dungarees, never releasing the linen napkin with the cigar ash message. Then he's down the hallway and into the backstage area and past the trampoline and in the wings stage left. Then he's on the pier of the Sunscape Fishery Plank with a napkin in his hand and peering past the lone key light, blazing down from the heavens, into an unforgiving sea of audience faces.

         He looks stage right. He looks stage left. He looks upstage and downstage for someone to whom he can deliver his message. He looks into the expectant faces of the theater patrons who ache for some sign of redemption, some word that will allay their fears and anxieties and reinforce the notion that life is good and worth living. There's a hidden treasure out there for each of us, right? We just need to know where to look. See with our hearts, not just our eyes. Right?

         At that point in the plot the walk-on experiences the epiphany. It's a lightbulb moment that slaps him on the forehead and makes him feel seasick. He realizes he's not a fiber optic nerve mass of intrigue or a synthetic neuron or a computer-generated image able to infiltrate government agencies and peoples' nightmares. And he never will be.

         He's filled with blood and guts and Dots, and some of them feel like coming out about now. There are no wormholes in the space-time continuum and he's never wanted to be invisible more than at this very moment. The walk-on is a victim of his own experiences, and right now they don't add up to squat. He unfolds the linen napkin, hoping for some instruction, some guidance, some direction. But the napkin is just a napkin. It's a prop in a play. There's no invitation etched on it with the ashy end of a cigar. It didn't come from Southshore Swaggart. And there's no one to give it to.

         The walk-on feels like his soul is being gnawed on by the widening eyes of the transfixed audience. He feels like a girl in a locker room being leered at by deviants. Then the walk-on breaks the rules. He compromises the author's vision and writes himself a line. He steps to the apron and squints beneath the key light. He says, "Sorry I'm late. Where is everyone?"

         The audience waits and watches, mentally timing the seconds between the contractions of the walk-on’s pregnant soliloquy.

         "Right here, boy!" comes a voice from the wings. "Yee Ha!"

         There's the sound of a gunshot and the walk-on spins to see Mrs. Valentine Hupner striding out to center-stage in complete cowgirl garb. She fires a prop pistol into the rafters again and cocks her western hat down over one eye and twirls the pistol around her finger as the cap smokes.

         Mrs. Hupner says, "Hey, y'all. I'm Annie Oakley, rootinest tootinest sharp shootin’-est cowgirl the Old West has ever knowed! Many a fella has fallen to my charms and I can pick a plug nickel out of a hummingbird's beak at five hundred yards! You betcher britches!"

         Mrs. Hupner prances around the walk-on, waving her pistols in the air and singing that there’s no business like show business, how everything about it is appealing.

         She sings the entire number without accompaniment and wraps it up with a big finish, then fires off another round of blanks at the ceiling and takes an extravagant bow. The audience's eyes widen and alight with glee. They smile, satisfied with the formula. Conflict, crisis, resolution. There is closure. All the world's a stage and all's right with the world. Damn, these folding metal chairs are murder on the backside. Are there any snacks left?

         The walk-on drops the napkin and wipes his sweaty palms on his ragged and faded dungarees. He won't try out for the next production. Those spotlights are really hot.     

         Mrs. Valentine Hupner blows away the imaginary wisps from the barrels of her six-guns and winks coyly at the walk-on. Sure as shootin'. There's no business like show business.



Not Fade Away

By Larry O'Neal

Available at East of the Web: 

Books for Sale


Starview details the absurd trials of Artie Damundssun, a freelance writer commissioned to ghostwrite the autobiography of Sonny ‘C-Note’ Starview, an aging, has-been country music superstar. Artie’s plan to spend a weekend interviewing the singer in his small Tennessee hometown turns troublesome when he determines the gathered information to be ridiculous, apocryphal, and wholly unprintable. Artie becomes less interested in C-Note Starview and ever more entangled in his own search for identity when various clues concerning his long-estranged folk singing Danish mother arise from the strangest and most implausible of sources. Starview is a humorous novel about the uncertainty of history, the American identity, and the pitfalls of the American ego. It is the exploration of a shaky foundation upon which teeters drive-in movie theaters, miniature golf courses, wax museums and fading country music legends.

Various Tentacles: Stories

Various Tentacles comprises an octet of quirky stories centered around the theme of music, each scored with its own rhythms and complement of peculiarities. From a compulsive ukulele player to a solipsistic overnight deejay at an easy listening radio station, these stories resonate with humor and eccentricity.