A Man and the Safety Net: The Road to Solsbury Hill

I only had two first cousins, and now I have one. Mike died at 54, young these days. The road to his early death was not dramatic. Rather, it was a slow, steady decline punctuated by a few slips in the mud. I tell his story because it shows something of what America expects of men, what men expect of themselves, and how we treat men who fall short.

When Mike was sixteen, my uncle Vladimir, an engineer who worked on the Apollo space program, divorced my passive, clinically depressed aunt and married an assertive go-getter named Jean who had five energetic children. Vlad and Jean made it clear to Mike that they thought Vlad’s money would be better spent educating Jean’s kids. Still, I suppose to his credit, Vlad honored his divorce agreement and helped pay for Mike to attend Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

Mike took a degree in audio engineering, but after a lifetime of his father telling him he was worthless and his mother too lost in dreams, drink, and nicotine-stained paperback bodice-rippers to notice him much, he lacked the gumption to try his luck in a big entertainment market. Local music production work was scarce before grunge put Olympia and other small Washington State towns on the rock and roll map, so he tended bar at the 4th Avenue Tavern. He loved serving his regulars. Olympia affectionately called him Gimli, after the dwarf in The Lord of the Rings, whom he did indeed resemble, near bigger around than tall with long hair and an even longer beard. He even had a girlfriend for a time. But Margaret was young, and didn’t stay long. His tender-hearted devotion couldn’t overcome her boredom with his rut of tavern, supermarket, liquor store and home.

Mike took after his mother, who also died at 54. He had her intelligence, twinkly blue eyes, wry sense of humor, and a soul so sensitive and a disposition so shy that the world scared him. Also like my aunt, he smoked and drank heavily, gobbled sugary junk food, and expanded from stout to obese. After years living the life of the tavern, Mike landed in the hospital for several weeks with diabetes symptoms and heart trouble. By the time he got out, he’d lost his job and accumulated tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills. He sold the family antiques he still had and borrowed some money from my mother, but it wasn’t enough.

Vlad and Jean brought Mike, homeless, buried in debt and still far from well, up to stay in the guest cottage on their acreage in Fall City, the bucolic town east of Seattle that gained fame for cherry pie on the television series “Twin Peaks.” There they had built their dream home, a stunning structure of exposed beams, cathedral ceilings and picture windows that looked out on the goats, horses and llamas that grazed their daisy-sprangled fields. They grumbled all the while that Mike did not deserve their help as much as Jean’s kids, who had found success in law, medicine and business.

When he got better, Mike found decent work at a warehouse under contract to Microsoft. He made friends among the habitués of Fall City’s taverns and joined a pool league. Then Microsoft canceled its contract with the warehouse and Mike ended up on the graveyard shift at Target stacking merchandise on shelves. It wasn’t much of a job, but at least he could still pay rent for the guest cottage and take care of himself. Target provided insurance to full-time employees, so Mike could get the insulin and blood pressure medication he needed.

Jean and Vlad aged and their health and mental acuity diminished. Jean’s kids convinced them to sell the Fall City property and move to the Olympic Peninsula where it would be easier and cheaper to obtain elder care. Mike had to vacate the guest cottage. He put his things in storage and slept on friends’ couches for a while, but his pride would not let him mooch forever. He moved into a dilapidated trailer.

Then Target, its sales hurt by the economic collapse, cut Mike’s hours early in 2009. He no longer qualified for Target’s medical plan, but the human resources manager helpfully advised him to start a Health Savings Account. Alas, the manager could not tell Mike where, with reduced hours at a job that barely paid more than minimum wage, he was supposed to find money to fund a Health Savings Account. He sold most of his furniture. When that money ran out a few weeks later, no longer able to afford his medicine, Mike died of heart failure. Co-workers checked his place when he didn’t show up for a shift and found the body. He’d been dead several days.

I went up to Washington to help clean Mike’s trailer and resolve his affairs. His sister, stepsister and I had been warned that we’d find pizza boxes and porn. We found porn in the drafty, leaky metal box he’d last called home, but instead of pizza boxes, dozens of empty Chips Ahoy cookie packages. We found heavy crusts of mold and rat droppings. We found a narrow bed, a small TV and one recliner. We found the Chapter 7 bankruptcy papers he’d filed a year before, releasing him from all the medical bills he could never, ever earn enough money to pay. The monthly budget he’d submitted to the bankruptcy court included almost $600 in rent for that wretched trailer, $150 to feed the cigarette addiction he could not break, plus money for groceries, prescriptions, laundry, utilities, gas and insurance for the rattletrap truck he needed to get to work, a basic cell phone, rent on his storage unit, and a little bit of the tavern social life that warmed his introverted soul.

The following weekend, family and friends gathered at the graveside in the Fall City cemetery to share memories, then proceeded to the Riverside Tavern for drinks, food and music. Far more people came than we expected for a man whose corpse had lain undiscovered for several days. Not one among those gathered had known how desperate he had become. His sister told my mother that Mike felt so bad about being unable to repay her previous loan that he was ashamed to even contact her to wish her a merry Christmas, much less ask for more help. My mother recalled asking Mike years back, “Why don’t you get married?” and his reply: “I have nothing to offer a wife.” Mike’s closest friend in Fall City and the captain of his pool team told us that Mike never let anyone come to his trailer and nobody local knew his situation. His sister, a single mother with no money to spare, had refused his last request for a loan. Mike’s manager at Target said, “Mike showed up on time for every shift. If you wanted a job done right, you asked Mike to do it.” Everyone said, “If we had known, we would have helped. Why didn’t he tell us?”

Mike died for a lot of reasons: the economy, the holes in the social safety net that single men drop through, bottom-line oriented employers that avoid providing health insurance if they can, and his unfortunate choice of self-medications. But I think he mostly died of being an American male. An American male succeeds on his merits and fails by his shortcomings. Mike wasn’t a leader, or an entrepreneur, or an innovator, or even someone who felt comfortable standing up for himself. He just wanted to get by. But he was too proud, too ashamed, too American male, to reach out to the people who cared about him and tell us that he needed help, that he couldn’t make it on his own. And we treated him like we treat American men. We didn’t inquire. We just assumed he was okay because American men are supposed to know how to take care of their business.

The Riverside Tavern has a good jukebox. We played “Solsbury Hill,” the song his sister said was his favorite, several times as we sipped our beers and walked over to look at the little shrine assembled to the man his Fall City friends called Russian Mike: a photo of him in a tux for a friend’s wedding, his pool cue, a bottle of Glenlivet, cascades of flowers from his sister’s garden. With its odd time signature and hard-to-hum melody, “Solsbury Hill” had never been a car radio favorite of mine. Now I realize it’s about a man leaving his old life behind to pursue new dreams. Mike, the romantic too insecure to ask a woman to love him, the trained sound engineer too lacking in confidence to pursue the career he wanted, the gentle soul too beaten down by the waves to go on, has left his old life behind now. I imagine us taking a bottle of Glenlivet up to the Fall City cemetery. We sprinkle a few drops on his grave and put the rest to a use we know he’d approve: drinking to his memory. I don’t know if anyone goes to a better place on the other side of death, but I’m sorry we failed to make it a better place for Mike on this side.

(c) 2015 Susie Allison Litton. All rights reserved.

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