When a police officer knocked on my door at 7:45 on a Saturday night, I figured a surveillance was underway in the neighborhood.
“Does Michael Hewitt live here?” the officer asked.
The question took me by surprise because Hewitt, the previous owner of the house, had passed away over a year before. I figured this had something to do with Michael’s unpaid debts, for which creditors and collection agencies regularly sent letters to my address that got tossed in the recycling bin.
“No, officer, he’s deceased” I replied. “I bought the house from his executor.”
Officer Wilson relayed the information on his radio, then explained that a car had been stopped in Portland and the driver claimed he bought the vehicle from Hewitt a week ago. “Not possible,” I said, “He’s long dead.” The officer thanked me and left. A few minutes later he was back again, apologizing profusely, explaining that the driver of the car insisted that he bought the vehicle the prior week out of Hewitt’s driveway, at my address.
“You know nothing about a car sale or something like that?” he asked.
“No, nothing” I replied.
Back on his radio, Officer Wilson told his colleague the “perp” (my term for him, not the cop’s) was feeding him a line, that I bought the house 10 months ago, and that no car sales had taken place on my property.
“I’m not surprised to hear this” I told Wilson. “All the neighbors have complained that Michael hung out with unsavory types. They did not like his friends at all.”
The officer nodded, apologized again and left for good this time.
I immediately called my real estate agent, Marina, who brokered the house deal and had known Michael personally. Three years prior she had listed the house for him, a buyer made an offer and the house was in contract to be sold, but Michael changed his mind at the last minute and paid the buyers to back out of the deal. He claimed he couldn’t deal with the stress of selling and moving at that point in his life. When I was in the process of buying the house, Michael's ex-partner confided to Marina that Michael had serious mental health and addiction problems. He was a long-term alcoholic and probable schizophrenic, though none of the neighbors were certain which condition came first.
Michael was found dead in a motel room during the spring of 2012. He had been visiting assisted living facilities in Western Oregon to find a place with supportive care. Was he so depressed over the prospect of having to enter one of these institutions that he took his own life, as some suspected? Or was it an accidental overdose, a medical crisis? Whatever the case, it remains a mystery to the people with whom I’ve spoken.
Michael’s ghost haunts me in this house. Not a real haunting but a background feeling like the acute anguish he must have suffered during the latter years of his decline. Michael the artist. Michael the flamboyant gay man. Michael the noisy neighbor. Michael, adorer of roses. Michael the pathetic drunk. Michael the insane.
When I first visited the house, a Cape Cod cottage built in 1952, the furnishings were still in place as Michael had left them. In every room the décor was traditional and ornate, a rose velvet wing chair and frilly antique clock in the living room, all the walls covered with Michael’s paintings. He painted abstract landscapes which, on close inspection, showed tiny dots that reminded me of Australian aboriginal paintings. This excited me because I have long admired that painting style. But when I asked Marina about his use of dots she mentioned something about “painting by numbers.” I looked up “painting with dots” and found two things, “pointillism” and “ben-day dots,” although I am unsure if he used either. Through Marina I conveyed a wish to buy one of the paintings from Michael’s estate, but all were taken away by the family.
“The neighbors” welcomed me profusely – “We are soooo glad to have you here. You know, Michael…..had problems.”
At first the “problems” were described obliquely. He was a boozer, he was mentally ill, he caused disturbances, and he was well-known to the police. Each chat seemed to veer into an expatiation of Michael’s transgressions, like a post-traumatic discharge of emotions. I learned that Michael often wore brightly colored silk kimonos outdoors. At other times it was gold see-thru shirts, a green sombrero, or striped satin shorts. Then there was the time he watered his roses wearing only a blue velvet jacket, leading Carl to angrily shout “I have children, for God’s sake.” He gave an unwanted kiss to one guy who slugged him. He played blaring music at all hours of the night. He walked into people’s back yards without permission (“What are you doing here, Michael?”…“Just taking a shortcut”). He was a belligerent nuisance.
A few people mentioned that Michael tended to stand very close to the person he was talking to, and his aggressive “in your face” manner was unsettling. Another neighbor related the sad story of having been invited to a party at Michael’s house. She and her housemate arrived on time, and the three of them waited, and waited, but no other guests ever showed up. Michael got very drunk. This same neighbor invited to the ill-fated party told me Michael at times threw large trash items out on his lawn. “It’s possible, though, that these were actually intended to be art projects,” she added.
After the officer left, my curiosity led me to Michael’s online blog, something I had avoided out of fear of filling my brain with disturbing images. Little did I know Michael was a rare genius, “a self-taught theoretical nuclear physicist” who beat Einstein himself at least 12 times at his own game. Moreover, Michael was convinced “beyond doubt” that he personified “some unusual, exotic transmitter to the greater universe,” one who had become “a genuine historical person like Socrates, Aristotle, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Galileo, Newton [and] Picasso.”
Lest I latch onto a caricature of a madman, I reminded myself that Michael must have functioned very successfully at one time, having earned two degrees from Reed College, a B.A. in Political Science and a Master’s of Teaching with a specialization in art. Curiously, one of his diplomas from Reed was left on the kitchen counter. According to one neighbor, he was classically trained in art and three of his paintings still hang in the halls of Reed. In his later years, however, he seemed most proud of the fact that he was “completely & absolutely self-taught in theoretical nuclear physics,” from which he derived grand contributions to knowledge. His employment history, however, was unstable, and he worked a variety of jobs over the years I was told.
I am particularly intrigued by the charismatic nature of Michael’s personality and his intense eyes. A journalist passing through town met Michael in a bar and spent several hours in conversation with him. He published an article titled “Michael of the Sparkly Eyes,” which I was told could be ordered through Amazon. It is no longer available. I have met only a few people whose eyes are truly incandescent like sparklers. That is how I imagine Michael’s eyes.
When I read in the blog that Michael had run for mayor of Portland, I thought the claim was bogus. To my surprise, however, not only was he on the ballot, but the guy actually garnered 87 votes! Well, the neighbors did say he had a lot of friends, but these associates did not sound like the type who voted. (Later I learned that this was his third attempt to win the mayoral seat.) A website featuring several “oddballs” running for mayor that year described Michael as “a man who holds proof of God’s existence” and who “beat Einstein” by applying e=mc² to the human body. A radio interview with fringe candidates allowed me to hear Michael’s voice, soft and clear, as he outlined his plans for Portland’s economic development. One of his ideas was to sell roses at Washington Park. But he also talked about the need for better mental health services and training of law enforcement to deal with the mentally ill in Portland. He himself had struggled to stay on his meds because he lacked health insurance, according to one neighbor.
Michael once asked Carl’s mother, who had purchased one of his paintings, “On a scale of one to ten, how crazy do you think I am?” The woman turned the question back on Michael, who said “I’d give myself a 12.”
From the blog I also learned that Michael had self-published a 19-page booklet guaranteed “to change your outlook, your mind and your entire life,” by applying his theories of nuclear physics to tackle issues such as low self-esteem. The booklet, available at a local bookstore specializing in new age philosophies, could also be purchased through the blog using Pay-Pal. In fact, the reader is encouraged throughout the blog to make donations to his cause.
An early blog entry deplored the mistreatment Michael suffered at the hands of a local store manager, who allegedly called him an “old queer” for giving him the “evil eye.” Michael was asked to leave the premises after attempting to buy a hand-wrought tin candle holder. Repeated calls to management led to a home visit by the Portland police to advise Michael that he better stop calling the store.
What a troubled life this poor man led. Since moving into his house, I am burdened by the memory of his suffering. Could it affect my psyche? Will the neighbors see me in a distorted light because of his memory?
The house and yard in time would reveal more clues to the mystery of Michael. Described as a “fixer-upper” property, years of neglect had turned the back yard into a jungle, and the rooms inside the house looked sad and dingy. A few weeks after moving in, I was exploring the storage space in the attic when a small box caught my attention. As I pulled it out to examine the contents, my eyes grew wide as I read the titles of old magazines – Mandate, Inches, Men, Bunkhouse, Honcho, Jock. Oh, my, I said to myself, a nice vintage gay porn collection.
There were issues from the 1970s to the 2000s, and the hairstyles followed the decades. One magazine, Hombres Latinos, was in Spanish, and I noticed a page marker. Flipping to the place noted, I was startled to see the name MICHAEL HEWITT in large capital letters jump off the title page with photo. Oh my God, I thought, it’s him! And I slammed the rag shut. The last thing I wanted in my head was intrusive erotic images of Michael naked. Instead, I wanted to humanize him, to feel compassion, so that I would feel at peace in the space he occupied for seven years.
What to do with the cache? Offer it to a gay friend? That might be offensive. I wondered if this was something in which a collector might be interested. Maybe there are websites to sell this stuff. Or perhaps I should just throw it out. Undecided, I returned the box to its hiding place.
As I tried to forget about Michael, my neighbors continued to bring up his atrocious behavior and how happy they were to have me living there instead. I felt a certain pressure to provide a benevolent antidote to my predecessor’s distasteful legacy. I could only hope that in time, I would prove myself trustworthy and upstanding in my neighbors’ eyes, and they could relax. To this end I was very conscious of any external impression made by my actions. Would they peek into my recycling bin and think I put out too many wine bottles? Was I maintaining my front yard to acceptable standards? Did it look like I was too much of a homebody?
When the next venting session occurred, I seized the occasion to ask whether Michael identified as Hispanic. Not to our knowledge, the neighbors said. That led me to look again at the photo stamped Michael Hewitt to see if the man looked Latino. It was hard to tell. Then I realized that the credit said photographed by Michael Hewitt, so maybe he wasn’t the guy posing with an erection after all? But the model was also identified as “Michael,” so maybe he photographed himself in the mirror? It wasn’t until months later, writing this story that I checked the index of the magazine and found that the model was a different Michael, not the same as the photographer. Phew! I have not seen Hewitt’s genitals.
Meanwhile, the “taming of the jungle” is an ongoing project. The back hedge was so overgrown that branches covered a quarter of the yard. After the landscaper cut everything back, large patches of bare earth were exposed. One section was particularly unsightly because Michael had dumped a large number of tiny paint vials in the dirt. Curiously, there also were dozens of house-type keys mixed in the soil with the vials. What doors did they open, I wondered? Tired of looking at the mess, one day I began collecting the paints and keys to put in the trash. I noticed a piece of black plastic sticking out of the ground behind the garage. When I tugged on it, it wouldn’t budge, so I dug around it with a shovel. Something wrapped in a small garbage bag had been buried about a foot underground.
I took the bag onto the back deck to look inside. “Wow,” I exclaimed softly. There were stacks of photographic slides, only slightly damaged in their plastic sleeves. Michael, it seems, was quite the porn photographer. Buried in the dirt was a collection of about 100 slides depicting the male anatomy from different angles and in varying states of erection. I took the bag into the house to go through the contents slowly. It was then I found the consent forms that models had signed to pose for the photos. Oh, damn, I have the names of these people. Then I gasped slightly; there was a place on the consent form for guardians to sign for minors. This sucks, I thought. But as I looked over the forms, only one was signed on the guardian’s line, and that could have been a mistake. Most likely they were just generic forms used for all types of photography.
Again I asked myself, what do I do with this stuff? Put it in the trash? Michael apparently did not feel comfortable doing that. Again I simply put it away, undecided.
My curiosity is patient, for now, but I feel sure there is yet more to discover about the enigma of Michael Hewitt. Perhaps those house keys hold a clue. It occurred to me that if Michael held keys to other people’s houses, could others also be in possession of keys to his own house? I had noticed recently the disappearance of several items from my home. A portable phone, a book, my reading glasses. Could someone have snuck in and taken them as a prank? It certainly would fit with the stories I’d been told…… Time to change the locks.
Note: This story is based on true events but all names have been changed.