Second Chance Drifter

Written by Richard Drebert

©Good Catch Publishing

The crystal meth clawed at my nerves like starving stray cats in a cage. My guitar soaked up my tremors as I choked the neck, strumming a throbbing, euphoric rhythm. I perched on an oak stool, flanked by a jerry-rigged amplifier, crooning my signature song, “Barstool Country,” watching the performer aping in the dirty mirror across the bar. The man still enchanted me, his cadaverous face a contorted, animated blur. The man in the mirror was me.

Barstool country, it ain’t never gonna die. Barstool country will always be alive. ‘Cause I play it every night, and you know I play it right.

My scuffed cowboy boots clomped to the wood floor as I slid from my perch, and like a priest blessing the dead, I waved a backhanded acknowledgment to tattered applause. I flipped shut my guitar case and grabbed up the handle, ignoring shadows crawling the room. My groupies lolled in vacant chairs and roosted on the bar, screaming with wild acclaim — not for my voice or skill — my groupies exulted in my moral weakness.

I walked past a memory of myself taking shape in the mirror. A year ago, I dressed sharp, in tight Levis and leather boots. A Marlborough adorned my face with arrogance. Biceps stretched against a bright blue western-cut shirt, my muscles hard from swinging a hammer and hefting house beams. It was just a matter of time before the Fates tossed a record label or a Grand Ole Opry gig into handsome Kevin Singer’s clever hands.

Then the jaunty image dissolved like steam, and an apparition issued from the streaky, beer-spattered glass. The western shirt hung on my shoulders like a faded blue tarp flung over a half-framed wall. A Marlborough butt drooped from my sallow, meth-sunken face, and vacant eyes — pupils wide with paranoia — gaped back at me warily. My prospects for fame had long ago deserted me, leaving me a depressed slave to the hard drugs that I peddled to other addicts to finance my own habit. And like my meth and ecstasy clients, drug lust had worn me thin, too. Down from 180, my brittle scarecrow chassis carried 145 pounds these days.

But meth was my second place addiction. Almost a decade ago, I had chained myself to a burning lust for celebrity after losing faith in my mother’s religion. Fame tantalized me like the taste of honey — I yearned to gorge on it. Like many blossoming artists, I emulated my country hall of fame mentors, indulging in booze, sexual gratification and drugs. My addictions branded me as a willing host for demons to cache guilt and fear inside my head, and I had no strength to close the honky-tonk portal I had opened to the spirit world.

Tonight, a bottomless despair yawed black at the edge of my boot steps as I headed home from the bar. I couldn’t even run toward hell anymore — I stumbled — and inside my tiny apartment, I flopped onto the unmade bed, striking up a flame to light a joint, assuring my “soft landing” after weeks of meth parties. In the thick darkness, I fingered a small bag of crystalline rocks in my pocket and sucked in calming marijuana fumes, fully aware that my unholy groupies kept vigil with me. They might carry me to hell in my sleep, I worried, my soul grappling for any lifeline to save me.

A Sunday school memory, as intense as an ice water plunge, suddenly scrubbed away a noxious score of “cheatin’ hearts” songs tattooed to my brain: Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. I remembered a smiling Sunday school teacher patting a colorful cardboard figure of Jesus onto a felt board, and the rightness in this childhood memory delivered a dash of forgotten peace.

Little Sounds of Light

 

“Larry, toss up that two-by-four!” Mr. Johnson balanced like a circus clown, his big hammer dangling from a yellow leather apron. My stepdad flung the stick of wood — and Mr. Johnson dodged in the nick of time.

“God bless you, man, you missed me again!” My stepdad looked mortified, and on the next toss, Mr. Johnson snatched the two-by-four in midair.

“Tell Kay we’ll have the shingles on before the next hurricane,” he laughed, pointing toward the Florida ocean beach where major storms brewed two or three times a year.

Cinderblocks, like rows of gray-colored Lego bricks, held up the bare bones of a church roof, and Mama sat with the door to our old Ford opened, waving at the burly, tanned carpenters mincing atop the framed walls. To everyone outside our family, Mama was “Pastor Kay,” lauded for her gifted preaching. Soon, her small congregation would fill our neighborhood with Pentecostal fervor and song, especially my sister, brother and me: The Sounds of Light Trio.

My siblings and I sat in the backseat of our Ford, frying like sardines in a can, impatiently waiting for my stepdad. Axes and picks for chopping up kudzu and scrub brush stuck out of the car trunk. Mama had promised us a bonfire tonight at the property where we would soon install our mobile home. She frowned at the hot dog buns in a grocery bag, squished between my brother and me, and smiled at my sister, Cassie, poring over a Dr. Seuss book.

Cassie had barely clung to life when she was born with spina bifida. Shiny steel braces with hinges and rivets chaffed Cassie’s little bare legs. Gripping her heels, the contraptions ran up past her knees to strengthen sinews and muscles weakened after operations. Watching her miracle baby struggle hit Mama hard.

I was Cassie’s champion, too, and often jumped to her defense when thoughtless kids teased her, but I learned to educate rather than swing fists at their ignorance. “You know what spina bifida is?” The question usually silenced the taunts for a few seconds. “My sister has a disease in the spinal cord that controls her muscles, and that’s why she wears braces.” When it dawned upon Cassie’s persecutors that she was human after all, they usually shrank to a manageable size, and the satisfaction in playing the heartstrings of a “crowd” made a permanent home in my young heart.

“Thank you, Sounds of Light Trio! These wonderful children belong to our Pastor Kay.” The applause in our new church fed me, enchanting my spirit and bolstering my self-worth. My siblings and I stood like smiling prodigies in the beautiful new sanctuary that my family helped build, in the church where Mama preached three times a week. The deacons had evaporated with the red-velvet offering pouches, and Mama rose from her seat slowly, like a woman holding in an electrical charge.

I never thought much about it then, but few kids have ever seen their own mothers on the business side of a pulpit. At 5’4” and 170 pounds, with wavy brown hair parted dead center, Mama’s brown eyes searched the faces in the assembly, then like a dove’s wings, her Bible lilted open in her hands. She stood in bare feet, like an Old Testament prophetess lately back from a tryst with the Almighty, and the small congregation fell silent as she bowed for a moment. Then with fervor, Mama plowed up the hardpan so God’s word could take seed. On the stage, Mama reached deep within herself to a place where God answered her own needs, and she preached with all her heart.

Some folks may have felt that we kids hindered God’s “move of the Spirit” with our giggling and wiggling, but our new fellowship had no children’s church in those days. It seemed that our spiritual hunger was ignored, so I slept or drew pictures while Mama’s sermons went on and on. The gospel seeds fell all around me but never really took root in my heart. I got “saved” every so often, goaded by some visiting evangelist, but afterward, I tamped the soil of my heart hard again to keep out feelings of guilt.

***

 

Little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong.

            Being a boy again in my fitful dreams left a bittersweet taste, and I shook myself awake, glancing at my wristwatch. Two days and nights had passed. I despised waking up after partying with “crystal” — it was always a hellish experience. My tongue rasped like sandpaper against my cracked lips, and I searched my pockets for a smoke, then yawned wide like a bony hound and nearly passed out.

            The corners of my mouth ripped back like the unhinged jaws of a snake. Blood streamed down my chin, and I overturned a chair as I stumbled to a mirror to assess the damage to my second greatest asset as a country singer — my “good looks.” Crystal meth was sucking the very life from my skin, drop by drop. Shakily, I lit up a cigarette and then crushed out the ember in favor of a joint. The meth rocks in my pocket seemed a better choice, but my belly clamored for food, too. I had to eat something, if I could keep it down. Dabbing at the corners of my mouth with a dish towel, I opened the fridge a crack and then slammed it shut as sour smells (mingled with profound guilt) overpowered me.

This twisted notion to sacrifice my soul for country stardom had fastened on my heart when? I was nearing a sad end, and every fiber of my being cried out for help, but hadn’t I squandered my last chance for God’s mercy when I broke trust with Jesus months ago? Guilt smothered me as I sat down to collect my thoughts and memories.

Shooting Star

As a child, I never understood the reasons why Mama quit preaching, but my family’s exodus from our little church bruised something deep in her soul. I blamed the church “Christians” for our family’s pain, and a barb festered deep in my heart — bitterness. My outrage led me to believe that I was just as righteous as any hypocrite I had sung for as a little “sound of light,” and when we moved to a new neighborhood, I explored all things off limits to a former preacher’s kid. Verse by verse, I rewrote the soul-saving music my mama had tried to instill in my heart, and I deliberately found relationships far from the safety of my family’s faith.

New appetites invaded my mind when I met Dennis, an outsider like me who lived nearby, and he too seemed fascinated by anything forbidden. At Dennis’ house, MTV sweet-talked me late into the night, and pornography set its hook firmly in my brain as we pored over magazines hidden in the woods. I still attended a church with my family regularly, but by 15, I discovered that my heart had plenty of room for as much sin as I could stuff inside. When I turned 16, my battered little family suffered a divorce, and Mama, my brother, my sister and I moved again.

In a new part of Santa Rosa County, Florida, I carried books in the halls of an old country high school nestled between a peanut field and a cotton field, where people wore coveralls to basketball games and church. I was a prime candidate for an Afterschool Special. I had a mangled family, no friends, and I was searching for a way to be cool. So what does a teenager do in the Afterschool Special to win respect and date a cheerleader? He risks it all and fights a school bully who’s older and bigger.

In my junior year, I punched out a bully (who himself had just fought the toughest guy in school), and somehow I pulled off a triumph. The cool clique in our tiny school opened wide, and by the time I was 17, I was going steady with a girl, setting records in pole vaulting and dreaming of a hoops scholarship.

Yet even after achieving my goals, I still couldn’t shake off a haunting discontent. After graduation, I shuffled through memories of Mama kicking off her shoes and flaying the devil with her sermons, while the high heavenly voices of her children resonated in God’s sanctuary. I had been truly happy when I sang as one of the little “sounds of light,” and performing for a crowd still scratched the itch for approval that I craved. During the next few years, I worked to perfect my guitar playing, hoping to regain the harmony that I remembered as a child — nothing else seemed to fill my cavernous need.

By 20 years old, my mind soaked up country music like saddle soap in leather, and I seldom needed the words on a karaoke screen at local bars — I had memorized hundreds of western hits. Often talent scouts watched me discreetly from side tables, measuring crowd reaction, my voice quality and, of course, sex appeal. By day, I swung a hammer and ran a construction crew; by night, I rode the karaoke circuit, singing, smoking dope and hanging out with friends, waiting to be discovered.

My Skoal, George Strait persona never roused the crowd like a Garth Brooks trapeze act, but most people agreed that I was destined for a stage somewhere. And I knew I had found my stride when people cried when I sang. Playing the heartstrings of my audiences happened more and more often — even grown men sniffled in their ashtrays — and suddenly, my music was in demand.

I was 21 when I left karaoke to recast myself as country star Kevin Singer. I joined a band called Crossover, and we played at a small club where massive pine trees stood sentry in the parking lot. With total seating for 70 or 80 patrons, The Pines became the perfect testing ground for Crossover — a place to “get tight” (practice) so we wouldn’t get slaughtered at a larger club. My singing as a child, watching Mama on stage, and caring for my sister had prepared me; I instinctively knew how to plug into the mood of a crowd.

Our band had our sights set on Shooters, with a 400-plus seating capacity, and the place where talent hunters found new blood for their labels. I began to write my own songs, getting ready for a leap to fame. The Pines crowds grew to capacity, but Crossover turned out to be a transition, and I turned to singing solo. In those heady days, I teetered on the edge of a record signing. I was a “not-quite-famous” country artist who framed houses till Friday afternoon, then showered, shaved and stuffed holey socks into cowboy boots and rode out to a club. Somewhere during a break from singing, I’d toke a marijuana joint and end up falling into bed by dawn.

Like my country idols, I was a workin’ man, staying true to my dream and singing because I loved it, whether I got paid or not. My heart was broken after my longtime love left me all alone, and I needed dope just to keep my hands from shaking. I was shackled inside a sad country song, and I believed that I was living free.

An ex-girlfriend helped me write the next verse to my sad song. “Kev, you gotta’ try ecstasy. I tell you, it’s the most fun you’ll ever have.”

I had been with Cherry long enough to trust her grasp of what fun was, so before shooting pool with some friends, I popped a pill. While six of us passed a joint around a circle, I suddenly “blew up” as the ecstasy hit my system.

“Where’d you get this stuff? This is the best weed I ever smoked! I tell you, this is heaven.” And I was hooked.

Ecstasy made Budweiser taste like dew from the gods. While on ecstasy, my voice stole resonance from country icons like George Jones, and I played guitar with a matchless finesse. I was invincible. Hard-drug junkies shouldered out my docile pothead friends, and I flavored the new music I composed with a fresh vulgarity — more insinuating and base. My gift of connecting with people flourished, and I sang what my “friends” wanted to hear.

My new poison enhanced the timbre of my voice to flow rich and deep, like currents running beneath ocean waves, and this drifter could do anything. I believed that I owned more than my audience — I owned a piece of truth. I was right when the whole world was wrong, living and loving with passion that crowned my future like a Florida sunset, brilliant, immense and endless. The crowd’s applause reached inside me. I dipped my guitar — a measured oblation — and their appreciation touched my heart, stroking, soothing.

My big “break” came when one of the most exciting country groups in Florida, Yellow River Band, asked me to sing solos between their sets. Months later, at a crowded country fair after a roar of applause, their lead singer held up his hands, and the 2,000-plus audience fell silent. “Now meet the country boy who helped write this rodeo love song, ‘Cowboy Up.’ Kevin Singer!”

The country fans went berserk as I walked upon the glittering stage, and suddenly, the surreal moment seemed worth any cost: swinging a cold hammer to keep the bills paid; singing in smoky bars to keep my dream alive; even losing the woman I always thought I would marry.

I was 24 years old and fired up for a career as a songwriter and singer, but fate remained stingy, and fame danced just out of my reach. I played my heart out at most every club in the Bible belt, my ego swelling on the hopes of a record signing, but depression dogged me in my sober moments between synthetic highs. I worked, and I despaired as my old ambitions consumed me. “Barstool Country” still played in my mind and needed to die, so that God could write a new song in my heart.

One day, Mama called to ask, “Do you want me to find a dentist for you?” I could barely think straight as doped up as I was. One of my wisdom teeth had abscessed, swelled and throbbed like a sledgehammer on sheet iron.

“Yeah, I guess you better,” I said. I hated drills and tiny, sharp probes.

“Fine, I’ll get you an appointment on Wednesday.”

“Thanks, Mama.”

“And you can go to church with me Wednesday night.”

The hammer came down again, and I grudgingly gave in. “Okay. Make the appointment.” Mama had me in the crosshairs, and I hadn’t realized it. In fact, there was much about Mama that had escaped my notice while I had been pursuing my country star ambitions. She had changed.

After leaving our family’s church in Milton, Florida, Pastor Kay had struggled with her faith in God, too, until she finally struck bottom, hard. With her support network shredded, she had turned to the only one who could heal her despair: Jesus.

There were about 30 people in the Assemblies of God fellowship that Wednesday night, and as I sat with Mama, I recalled my childhood days holding Cassie’s hand, slowly making our way to the podium, our innocent voices filling that sanctuary.

Innocence — that was a lifetime ago, I remembered thinking. Sorrow over my lifestyle had percolated throughout the pastor’s sermon. I wrestled with immorality, addictions and pride, and I broke down when the preacher spoke about the prodigal son and how his loving father welcomed him home. I walked to the front of the church and asked Jesus to heal my train-wreck-of-a-life.

“Jesus, I asked you to save me when I was a kid, and I don’t know how it all happens, but I need you now. I don’t want these tore-up emotions anymore.” It was like a gentle, cleansing wind cleared my drug-clouded mind. Mama was crying with me, and in the next few weeks, I seized the relationship with God that I had yearned for my whole life. I devoured the Bible like a starving man, and it wasn’t enough to speak my prayers. I wrote them down on paper, thankful, and sometimes filled with regret.

“Lord, I am so sorry for the time I have wasted.”

A gentle, powerful voice overpowered every thought in my mind. “I have made time for you.”

My Creator was giving me a second chance! I rolled out the old futon in Mama’s living room, and new purpose electrified me. In the dark, I worshiped God as my soul rang with songs of deliverance from an empty life of futile dreams.

But what about my ambition to see my name on a marquee in Nashville, or on a record label? Faintly, in the depths of my being, a vile jukebox still scratched out the song that played over and over: Barstool Country, it ain’t never gonna die.

***

I slouched at the kitchen table, still bleeding from my mouth, head in my hands. “God save me. Please, God.”

I had gambled my eternity to chase celebrity, and now all that remained in my future was sad lyrics of regret: meth, then sorrow, meth, then sorrow. Who was I kidding? I had stretched God’s patience to the limit.

The ringing phone barely pierced my daydreams, and when I answered, I hardly believed what I was hearing. “We’re moving to Washington State, Kevin, and you’re welcome to join us.” Mama’s voice was hopeful.

How many chances did God give a traitor like me, anyway?

Mama and her Godly new husband accepted my offer to drive a moving truck on the 3,000-mile trip west, and at times, it seemed that I breathed pure oxygen while I pondered how God might be orchestrating my rescue. Still, I hid away a baggie of marijuana to help me survive if I couldn’t find dope in “Hicksville.”

I had little to fear. Even in the little town of Chehalis, Washington, dope dealers pandered to junkies. In the months ahead, I found work while my family established a Christian home church, and I often stole away to smoke pot when despair overwhelmed me. It seemed a pipe dream that my new surroundings alone would halt my slide toward hell. I was clawing up a rock face, seeing the handholds but lacking the will to climb.

Two Kevins had moved west: Kevin Emerson, beaten and repentant, pleading with God to save him, and Kevin Singer, the proud artist, the junkie. Both had to die so that Jesus could create a completely new man.

Yes, Jesus loves me… the Bible tells me so.

“Kevin, there’s someone here to see you.” We had lived in Chehalis for three months when Mama seated two strangers in her living room, a nervous looking man and his wife. I glanced at my mother, whose questioning shrug made me uneasy.

“I don’t know you, but,” the man leaned forward and his face changed to a firm sincerity, “I saw you in your yard the other day as I drove by, and I thought I recognized you from somewhere. Then last night, I had a dream, and you were in it. I think this dream is from God.” He adjusted his bulk on the couch and smiled at his wife and back at me. “Is this weird to you?”

A sensation like a feather sweeping gently up my bare back made me shiver inside, and I knew that Jesus was visiting my soul. “It makes perfect sense,” I said, hesitant to hear the rest of the story, but I had to know.

“It was the gold rush era, when miners dug in the ground searching for riches. I saw a man panning for nuggets — shaking the pan full of dirt, and sloshing it under the cold creek water over and over again, until only gold remained in his pan.” Our guest’s eyes fixed on mine as he said, “I believe that God is saying to you, ‘The shaking of your life is a good thing.’ When God is done shaking, what is left will be gold.”

I was silent for a few moments while relief flooded my heart. No judgment, no condemnation — I heard pure strains of God’s mercy playing inside me again!

“I think we should pray,” I said quietly.

We all stood up, and the man slowly cupped his hands under my jaw as my body quaked with sobs. I raised my hands in surrender to God, and after several minutes, I came back to my surroundings. I felt like someone had kindled a roaring bonfire in the living room; my clothes were drenched in sweat, and the evil presence that had shadowed me on and off for years had vanished. The toxic, ambitious Kevin Singer was passing away.

After my guests left, I knelt down in my bedroom, exhausted. “God,” I said, “I don’t want to mess this up. You have done so many good things for me. Forgive me.”

I yearned for the former deliverance I owned months ago when I pledged myself to Christ — then my addictions had vanished. Drugs had replaced Jesus as my “comforter” and now, even after my renewed commitment to him, I wrestled daily with my old addiction. But God was equipping me for a clean break. I immediately had the gumption to throw away my Marlboroughs and chewing tobacco, and whenever I lit up a joint in a dark corner, a sense of doom swept through me. A morbid depression weighed upon me, instead of the old dope tranquility I counted on.

I was driving stoned one day when I believe God spoke to me about the weed stuffed in my pocket. “Throw it out the window.”

“Hey, man, is that you talking to me?” In my condition, I worried that I could be hearing from my evil groupies again.

“Kevin, I can talk to you whenever I want — if you are stoned, or high on meth, or asleep, or anytime. And would the devil be telling you to toss your stuff?”

“But I am stoned.”

“You’re intoxicated, but it’ll wear off.”

And this surreal exchange with my Creator somehow helped seal my decision to forsake drugs, once and for all.

“Why don’t you come to church with me, Kevin?” Michael was like me, an idea man, and we hit it off immediately while lifting weights together at Thorbecke’s gym in Chehalis.

I accepted his invitation, and I felt such relief knowing that the “old Kevin” would never show up again to scope out the “church hypocrites.” Destiny Christian Center seemed really peculiar. Young men and women my age dressed casually, and many shared the same struggles with addictions and immorality as I had, and now their hearts were clean. I felt truly comfortable around them and soaked up the word of God like a sponge as Pastor Bill preached. In the coming months, fellowship with these like-minded believers surpassed any social fulfillment that I had ever experienced — I was home. That was nearly five years ago.

I’m still swinging a hammer, but my real job is at Destiny with those who work shoulder to shoulder with me, accepting and loving misfits (like myself) that I bring in for Jesus to salvage. And I still use my gift to connect with an audience — leading worship on Sunday mornings or in youth ministry — but no longer to gin up anguish to feed my ambition. I want people to know the Savior who replaced my ambitions like strings on a derelict guitar and gave me new music, the one who saved me from addictions and despair.

Each week I scan hundreds of faces in our “Clothes and Loaves” ministry, as the Holy Spirit points out those individuals bruised by hard times: a youth whose eyes scream out for healing from addictions; a crying baby who senses emotional wounds in her teenage mother; a homeless man emptied of hope. My team members and I flow among these people with genuine, healing encouragement, without judging or targeting them for “Christianity.” Jesus does that. We just feed em’ and love em’ — and listen to their heartbreaks. And often, I weep inside as I tell them about a guy I know who believed he had fallen past saving — over and over — and how Jesus rescued him, once and for all.

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