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Stick Built


Mike Medberry

This song is a a soulful riff on saxophone with a piano interlude, a tragic samba oiled by wealth and aspiration, a song about dying and attempts to live well. There is beauty in the music and when I hear this song my hands flow at my waist in a sort of hula, moving with the sadness and joy of a crumbling economy.

This is the story of a house but it starts with the more fragile structure of a human body. I had a stroke at 43, more than 20 years ago,. In the beginning I couldn’t walk, talk, think, write, or remember my mother’s name. Over a few years of hard work I recovered roughly 95 percent of what I’d lost; physical and mentally, that is. Financially, I was a wreck.

After my mother died, I inherited enough for a down payment on a house. This was after the 2008 housing meltdown and banks had tightened lending requirements. Like a lot of folks with spotty credit and patched together employment, I couldn’t get a mortgage. So I bought a piece of land with cash and acted as the general contractor to build the goddamned house, which may or may not have been cheaper than hiring someone else to build it. I had to beg and plead and hustle but now I have lived in my little stick-built house here in Boise for five years and I have few complaints.

I thought life had reached a kind of benign stasis. But in those five years the whole world, and my world, changed. We’ve had a pandemic, the prices of homes in Boise have risen more than 70 percent, the climate has taken a turn for the worse, my girlfriend left me, the U.S. bailed out of Afghanistan, my friends fight over masks and vaccines, and I’ve gotten just a little bit older.

And again, I was feeling quite broke. Some things never change, it seems. I'd spent most of my career as an environmentalist working for statewide groups and feisty locals, not the big national organizations, so there was no talk of matching retirement savings as if I'd worked for, say, Walmart. Or, hey, a union.

I'd left that vocation to get an MFA in creative writing - yeah, I know: great financial move. I'm a late-stage Boomer and when "follow your bliss" changed to "cover your ass" I missed the memo. After the stroke, I’ve been a carpenter, a solar installer, and now I work at a winery. But, yeah: a writer. Broke.

So when my friend’s son and his wife needed a cheap place to stay while they looked for a more permanent place to settle, I decided to rent them my house. I could move into the garage. After all, I'd spent a big portion of my life camping. The garage was more or less finished, with real walls and a roof. Their parents and I had been friends for years; I'd been drinking buddies with Lee's dad and I had worked with Lee's mom Helen, whose quirkiness and passion I admired. Like many of us, they'd been solidly middle class, but fallen on hard times. They couldn't give Lee and his wife Cindy the cash they'd need for a down payment in Boise's insanely skyrocketing housing market.

Lee and Cindy were still in their twenties but they already had two boys, 4 and 1. As I got to know them, I could see that Cindy was the most creative, in control, and attractive character in the room—or perhaps in the whole damned city. Blond, attractive, she was the energetic one.

Lee worked hard but he didn't have what you'd call a career. He was a house cleaner, working in expensive homes in the upscale parts of Boise. But he didn't earn enough to make the rent on a regular basis. He was handsome, dark to Cindy's blonde, and he spoke with the exaggerated certainty of a man who knows, deep down, that he is undecided.

I knew they were struggling, so I had set the rent for about half of market rate, $750 a month, with the caveat that I would be using the kitchen, bathroom, and shower when I needed to. I'd given them a one-year lease, so they got a cheap place to live, for a while.

Mostly, it worked. Cindy and Lee were very kind to me and I attempted to be a decent landlord. However, there were tensions--things like late rent and police cars following Lee home and ticketing him for reckless driving—but they were easily forgivable. Cindy had become a dog trainer. She gave me cookies and helped me with my unruly dog. But the place really wasn’t set up for two separate living spaces, and definitely not for five people.

I probably was around the house too much, but at their age, they were mellow about people coming and going. The wood stove stopped working, the garage got frigid, and the water that had once flowed from the outside faucet became solid ice. Until the wood stove was repaired, I was in the main house regularly, more like a roommate than a landlord. I banged around in the kitchen making coffee. I wanted to sleep on the sofa but I found their friends or Lee sleeping there, or I’d find a weeks worth of dirty dishes to clean before I could make breakfast.

Let’s face it, I was growing old. When I noticed marijuana smoke billowing out one window of my living room, I kept peeking out toward the city police office which was and is across the street because Idaho still has repressive laws against smoking pot.

Toward the end of the year’s rental contract, I decided that Lee and Cindy and the kids would have to find a new place to live—I was exhausted. It was the house that I built and I couldn’t live in it. Around this time, Lee’s dad told me that Cindy was pregnant again. I gave them three months to find a new place.

During the year they had lived in my little green house, the rental market had grown more forbidding.

Boise, once a backwater, was making national news. Tech had come to town a few years before, and the pandemic ramped prices up from there. Real estate articles made me reach back to high school math classes to remember the precise definition of exponential. In a state where the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, the rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,400 to $2,100. Rent at the lower end adds up to $16,800 a year. A minimum wage employee earns $15,000 a year. Even a writer can do that math.

To put it another way, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study calculated the living wage for two adults with two children in the county at $32.03 per hour. I knew enough about their jobs to realize that Lee and Cindy didn’t come close. So they moved into Lee's parents' house. They had no choice.

Thankfully there were no hard feelings about my asking them to move out. I still saw Lee's parents, and occasionally I'd see Lee and Cindy and the kids. Still, I could tell that they were all under stress.

After Lee and Cindy left, my modest 1,100 square-foot house felt palatial. But I was broke again. Here’s the thing: being broke isn’t a big thing for a single guy who owns his house. For a young man with two kids and a pregnant wife, an uncertain wage, and no good place to live, it was quite another.

Lee and Cindy had left a few of their possessions in the house: food they’d gotten from a food bank, the metal fire pit, a dresser, and some painted rocks left by the older boy. Right before Cindy delivered her third child, I drove over to their parents’ place, thinking they might need some of the things that they had left and to deliver the mail that hadn't managed to follow them. I knocked at the door. No response. I knocked again.

Cindy’s car was parked in front of the house, so I figured they were there. I opened the front door and heard her shushing the children. I didn’t want to intrude so I left the mail on a side table, saying softly: “Mail’s inside.”

I did some errands and headed to a wine bar to taste their wares. As I sat drinking a glass of Tempranillo, I listened to my voicemail. Lee’s mother had left a message. In a wavering voice, she said, “Mike, I’ve got to tell you that our son is no longer alive. I’m sorry.”

Here's the odd part. She added, in a strangely formal, almost stately locution: “I can receive your condolences and sorrows.”

When I learned that Lee had killed himself, I realized that Helen hadn't been able to say it. The death of a child is impossible under any circumstances. But suicide leaves behind an abyssal guilt, a sense of helplessness, and sometimes a parent is drawn to suicide themselves in the aftermath. The stilted, awkwardly juxtaposed words shielded her, in her shock, from a grief that was ungovernable.

Without Lee, his sons and wife could be living in his parents’ small house for months, maybe years. What had Lee been thinking? Did he fail to see any hope? Maybe not right away, but a few years down the road? He loved his kids. He loved Cindy. He might have been adrift in certain ways, but he was a good man, a good father. The third child would be named after his own father.

I’ve read that there are 8 million people in the United States who are behind on their rent. As I sorted through the complicated feelings after Lee’s death, I understood that, despite my own difficulties, an accident of birth lands me on the lucky side of a very stark equation.

I'm only there, still, because I'm disciplined, and determined not to let the bastards beat me. I took out a reverse mortgage and I’m using the cash to finish the house. I have to be careful, because the reverse mortgage debt doesn’t just evaporate. I’m not required to make payments, but if I don’t, in 20 years I will have to relinquish my home.

My house recently appraised for $370,000, which gives me room to maneuver, and as I said, I’ve been the beneficiary of the last dregs of mid-century affluence, including a decent education that equips me to think my way out of desperation - for now. Nothing more. But what will the many trailer home residents in the Garden City section of Boise do when their rents increase and landowners choose to build more profitable condominiums or apartment complexes on their land?

Did I do enough for Lee and Cindy? I assuage my guilt by thinking that the forces that crushed Lee, and hurt three generations of his family, are beyond any individual’s influence.

The pain is global: London, Paris, Berlin. In Seoul, South Korea the average price of an apartment has gone up 90 percent since 2017. Studies show that the lack of affordable housing is determining the outcome of elections, and some believe it influenced Britain’s wrongheaded decision to leave the European Union.

What I remember is the day when Cindy had their older boy, Chad, do an art project. That was when he painted those rocks they had left behind. The paint was blue and white, the colors of clouds and sky. She set the stones around the front yard and they circled the green like a small landscape, contained within the bounds of home.

“Build a bonfire!” she told Lee. He laughed but he dragged the metal firepit out to the front yard and built a fire, right there on the sidewalk. It was almost certainly illegal, but clean enough and contained. The air had a chill and the fire was bright and warming. We told stories and ate marshmallows.

What I remember most clearly is how Cindy and Lee loved each other and how tied they were to the kids. The younger boy Donny, kept toddling toward the flames. Lee pulled him back, each time, long before Donny got too near the fire. Lee was close to his own father, and they had been planning to climb Mount Lassen together, something they'd done when Lee was a boy.

It’s been four months since Lee committed suicide. I think about Cindy and her young sons’ future. Shelter is one of the fundamental needs of a human being, second only to food and water. Are we already in a society where we are jettisoning the weak to save ourselves?

The house is quieter now, and I can't say I don't luxuriate in the peace. The Boise River is a block away. I walk there almost every day. It's beautiful with its channels, clear pools, and riffles; wildlife is abundant: osprey, mink, beavers. Cottonwood trees shade the banks and it's not unusual to see someone fishing. But it’s an urban river. Homeless people have tree forts and camps. Like me, they have chosen to live by the river. It’s beautiful there under the cottonwoods but in the winter, it is unendurably cold.

Mike Medberry has served as a senior environmentalist for several local and national conservation organizations and has an MFA from the University of Washington. Over the past years he has written fiction and nonfiction for Blue Review, High Country News, Wilderness Magazine, Black Canyon Quarterly, Hooked on the Outdoors, Stroke Connection, Idaho Magazine, Boise Weekly, Sun Valley Magazine, Northern Lights, and the e-magazine Writer’s Workshop. His book, On the Dark Side of the Moon, was published by Caxton Press in 2013 and he was an Artist in Residence for the City of Boise in 2011-12

Working On A Building ::: John Fogerty & The Blue Ridge Rangers

Fixing A Hole ::: The Beatles

My Lord Is Writing All The Time ::: The Heavenly Gospel Singers

Dear Landlord ::: Bob Dylan

House ::: Loudon Wainwright III & Suzanne Vega

You Should Have Wrote A Book ::: Dan Reeder

The House Song ::: Peter Paul & Mary

A House Is Not A Motel ::: Love

Crushed ::: Peter Himmelman

Sweet Old World ::: Emmylou Harris & Neil Young

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