…Upon these boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where once the sweet birds sang.
from Sonnet 73, William Shakespeare
Defrocked preacher Franklin Wales has a serious beef with God over the death of his 17 year old daughter. Five years ago he walked away from his wife and Megachurch, and disappeared among the homeless. He has constructed a suicide device that forces God to pull the trigger, and today he plans to use it. But against all odds, his hiding place has been discovered, and nothing will go as planned. Based on a true story.
Work in Progress
Ruined Choirs is a work in progress. I have written a significant portion of it and will make installments available free to those who care to look into the creative process. This group will be allowed to comment and even participate as I write the end of this novel. Use the form below to submit your request to become a “Story Traveller”.
What follows is a FREE SAMPLE of chapters 1 and 2. This represents a new step in my art form. I have become an actor, living inside the skin of my main character. Ruined Choirs is the first time I have written fiction in first person. Contact me using the form below if you like it … or not.
I never had a taste for hard liquor until I became Dooley Stamper, manager of Dooley’s Wreck and Salvage east of Kingman. Back in ’81, Dooley died of self inflicted lead poisoning, which is to say he put a pistol to his head and made a lot of people happy who owed him money. I inherited his name in 2010, and used it for three good years before anyone took issue with me.
Old timers and desert rats knew Dooley as a card carrying atheist, and for that I’m afraid I soiled his reputation. His ghost might haunt me if he had believed in an afterlife. Ironically, it was through the generosity of the entire family of American God-haters that I came to run Dooley’s Yard in the first place, and the explanation on that can wait for another day.
My name is Franklin Wales, and for those who used to see me on television, yes, Reverend Franklin Wales. And now that I’m myself again I don’t drink the hard stuff. But I want to make a point here. During the worst of it – the years I wore Dooley’s name – I could down a flask of Elijah Craig bourbon and wake up like one of the fox kits that lived under the orphaned ’58 Rambler in the middle of Dooley’s junkyard.
Each sunup those frisky little critters would crawl from a burrow under the engine block, yawn a big one, stretch the legs and be at full throttle in about three seconds flat – chasing lizards, eating scorpions, and making trouble faster than a greyhound in a rabbit run. What I mean to say is I woke up like them with no hangover.
Liquor did me good for a time. During my former life as a mega-church pastor in Springdale, South Carolina I would have damned the very idea, religious tee-totaler that I was. Today, I take a more moderate view, as well as enjoy the occasional Cabernet with a good steak burned on a charcoal grill. Being homeless for two years before becoming overlord of a junkyard tends to soften the edges of a religious world view.
Through events related here I guess you could say I developed a theory. I offer it now realizing that it may well be rejected and I wouldn’t blame anyone for that. My theory is simple, and maybe simple-minded – that real pain responds to a real pain killer. Taken to another level – I believe God gave us the grace to develop pain killers for real pain.
By reflex I seek a proof text. Back in the day, quoting a proper scripture insured against a career-ending broadside; a survival instinct no longer required. Nevertheless, in the words of Solomon; “Give strong drink to him who is perishing, And wine to those who are bitter of heart.” There you have my theory endorsed by the Great Book of Wisdom.
I knew a God fearing woman who tried to tough out cancer without pain meds. It got so bad she lost all self control and screamed curses at her loved ones. They feared she was losing her faith and put her on morphine strong enough to render an NFL lineman comatose. Her body had atrophied to just 103 pounds but her pain was such that the morphine didn’t put her out. It allowed her to remain lucid and say a proper goodbye to her family before cancer took her down. Strong drink for the perishing.
Like all theories this one has a flipside. Pain killers can be addicting to people with low pain tolerance. Or perhaps, no pain tolerance. Some people reach for pain killers after a traffic violation. All pain is not equal, nor equally valid. Parking lot rash is not a head-on collision.
I started drinking when I really needed it and stopped when the pain became manageable. It was a blessing with no hangover for a while. Then it was no longer part of my life. I guess my pain was equal to the pain killer and that’s the last excuse I’m going to make for it.
The planet began to shift beneath my feet one August morn. Of course, I can only know this looking back. At the time I might have been surfing the continental drift, as self aware as a fossil.
I got up as usual with no hangover. An empty bottle of Elijah Craig on the formica tabletop across the room from the sofa where I sleep in Dooley’s Airstream. It reminded me that I had suffered through the dream again last night. The dream that delivers the pain.
For some reason I had gone to sleep without drinking which in retrospect was a bad idea. I do a lot of things to avoid having that dream. Pre-emptive drinking is one. Reading Roman history at midnight is another. I like my Tacitus straight up, Seutonius without commentary, Eusebius on the rocks. Anything to put my thoughts in the ancient world, as far from July 21, 2008 at 3:46 pm as I can get.
I employ another dream-killing technique. I use the TV for a night light. I keep it tuned to the weather channel, unmuted, so I can stay on top of Arizona’s annual monsoon season 24/7. Each of the weather anchors are like family to me. I miss them if they get sick, take vacations, or go on maternity leave. They tell me everything I want to know about the world, and I talk back to them like a housewife watching a soap opera.
I had done everything right the night before except drinking. I had read Seutonius, had the weather channel on, fell asleep, and wham! – the dream hit me.
Some would call it a nightmare. But I think of nightmares as a having no link to reality. Something like – horrid critters want my blood and I’m fleeing naked through a shopping mall. Images easily shrugged off – well, unless you’ve seen me fleeing naked through a shopping mall. My recurring dream is no nightmare.
A clinical psychologist might say it is a frustration dream, but in my opinion, that trivializes it. When I think of frustration dreams I think of an elder in my Carolina congregation who came to my office on the verge of tears. He said he kept dreaming over and over that he lost the company truck. Across a career spanning forty-five years he had served as foreman for a Duke Power field crew and had never failed to take responsibility for that truck. Now a frustration dream was accusing him of negligence, plaguing his retirement, spoiling his golf game. I saw a lot of retired guys without a life cry when I was a preacher. Mine is no frustration dream.
Let me say that it always involves a sixty meter Edelrid Canyon Climbing Rope in a double braided sheath of Citron-yellow with crimson crosshatches. A beautiful thing in itself to behold. In this dream I’m holding onto one end of it and the other part is coming down in slow motion out of a deep blue Colorado sky folding into “S” curves as it falls, and it’s going to hit me in the face. And while this is happening my ex-wife Helen is racing up and down the sheer face of a cliff in her wheelchair – as only happens in dreams – yowling like a demon cat – a common feature of real life with her. I’m trying desperately to ignore her and stay focused on the rope.
In dreams I normally have the ability to wake myself at strategic moments. In this case, I flinch to avoid letting the rope hit me in the face and in that instant I want to be wide awake because I know what comes next. But I have yet to achieve that split-second timing. So I hear Stephie’s voice again, and it cuts straight through my chest again like a band saw laying open a side of beef.
She’s not exactly screaming. She’s not in terror. She’s not out of control even though her safety has broken loose. She was never rattled by things like that and I never want to forget exactly how cool she was.
It’s something else in her voice I can’t quite put my finger on. Her voice went up slightly in that question way young girls have these days; “And I went to see like Lisa’s sister? And she’s like this really rad model? And she showed me how to cover zits and stuff?” Everything is a question.
Unlike Stephie, my ex-wife Helen had no questions. She had accusations. Often wrong but never in doubt. And she delivered her stuff with the force of a martial arts scream. Someone within the sound of her voice deserved hell and was going to get it.
I never developed an adequate defense against the samurai edge in that voice because, like all who sin, I do deserve hell. Unlike all who sin, however, there is something in me that really believes it. Small wonder, then, she rolls through my bad dream elevating it to the level of a waterboarding session.
Time after time, she races her black wheelchair out of God’s fine infinity up where only saints are allowed to go, and suddenly she’s in my face like—whuuump! – seething through a Clint Eastwood clench, “You’re going to live with this, Punk!” OK, she doesn’t say “Punk.” But she says my name like she’s saying “Punk.” Like it’s a dirty word or something. “Franklin!” And then she repeats everything, separating each word to make sure I miss nothing – “You—are—going—to—live—with—this!” Meaning it’s my fault what happened to Stephie. Something I vigorously deny but my heart never quite follows.
And then I hear the second safety break loose and the sky slams into me like a body dropped from a great height and most of the time I wake up emptying the contents of my stomach on the floor. That’s a fair description of the dream I try to avoid with Elijah Craig bourbon and readings of ancient history.
IN THIS INSTANCE, I woke up differently. Maybe because I’d successfully avoided the dream for several months. What happened seemed physically impossible but I observe that semi-consciousness is possessed of extraordinary powers. I more or less ejected from the sofa where I prefer to repose with my head on the overstuffed arm, feeling the glow of the dream-killing Weather Channel against my closed eyelids. Anyway, I flew up into the reading lamp mounted on the wall above the sofa and broke the 40 watt bulb against my forehead.
As I became conscious I vaguely remember the screaming of sirens and the pulsing of red blue and white flashers coming through the windows and reflecting across the far wall. At first I thought Sonny and Stella had found me bleeding and had called an ambulance but then the sirens and lights faded in the direction of Kingman and I realized it all had happened in a moment of coincidence: I had awakened from my dream as an emergency vehicle was speeding past the yard in the night. Nice touch, God of small detail.
A goodly amount of blood spilled on the sofa as I managed some kind of coherent motion and lurched across the room dropping a crimson trail on the linoleum and the formica tabletop in the kitchenette where the fifth of Elijah Craig was sitting that I had forgotten to drink. I did some serious catching up in the next few minutes and poured some amber fire into the cut above my eye for antiseptic purposes. After that it took a complete description of the battle of Actium to put me back to sleep.
As nights go, I give it a solid eight for misery. I’ve had better. I’ve had worse.
END OF SAMPLES. Do you want more of this story? Or not? Interested in becoming a “Story Traveller”? Let me hear from you via the form below. SB