I first became aware of the Murder House in 2006. While walking down Fremont Street I noticed a large sign made from a 4-by-8-foot piece of plywood. It was just up from the curb on the lawn of a deteriorating house that was mostly hidden behind a thick wall of various shrubs and bushes.
The sign was filled with writing, neatly hand-printed by way of thick black-and-blue markers. At the top in black were definitions of the words “paranoia,” “conspiracy,” “extortion” and “coerce.” The bottom half used the color blue, with black returning occasionally to emphasize words and phrases like “fraud” and “Duluth Police Department.” It was clearly the rantings of someone whose mind was slipping.
“I have been coerced and abused still wearing a mark on myself 1 year and six months later plus,” the sign read. “My neighbor spies on me, I have been threatened with death to give up information on perpetual motion or be jailed for a most indefinite time. Code breaking 9-11-2001 I was told to shut up! What a free country.”
Another sign next to it complained about the “Sump Pump Issue.” A third sign, on the roof, featured a series of triangles, circles and numbers. I stood there and read it all, shook my head and went back about my business.
A few years later I decided to walk down the dead end on the avenue in front of the house. From the other side I could see painted in white on the rooftop shingles a series of solid circles and rectangles, the word “murder” and the dates “3-23-97” and “7-12-2008.”
That’s when it became the “Murder House” to me. When I brought it up to neighbors, I heard all sorts of stories about the paranoid schizophrenic who lived there. A literal murder never took place, but one theory was that the guy felt his rights had been murdered. Someone else told me the schizo’s mother and dog died on those dates, and the paranoid delusion was that they were poisoned.
Eventually, I heard the house had been condemned, and soon after I noticed it had been demolished.
It was only after the house came down that I got to see the man I was already referring to as “Murder House Guy.” I didn’t know if he was homeless or living with a cousin in the neighborhood or what, but I began seeing this scraggly looking character riding his bicycle around with bags full of stuff strapped behind the seat and on the handlebars. I don’t remember who first informed me that Scraggly Bike Guy and Murder House Guy were one of the same.
I began to notice Murder House Guy having long conversations with different people, and as time went on I started spotting him two or three times a week. I made a point to avoid him, not because I thought he was particularly dangerous, but because I knew how often we crossed paths and I didn’t want to have to engage in long conversations with him on a regular basis.
Finally, last month I was walking to the waterfront trail, turned a corner by some bushes, and there he was about 10 feet away from me. I thought it would be rude to not acknowledge him, so I nodded a hello in his direction. Murder House Guy immediately scowled and responded by saying, “Fuck you.” I took it in stride, chuckled, and kept walking. He mocked my chuckle and repeated his warm greeting, “Fuck you.”
Well, that’s it, I thought. I’m on his radar now. He knows who I am and he clearly doesn’t like me. Or maybe that’s just how he says howdy. Either way, I’m not inconspicuous anymore. He probably thinks I’m a government agent conducting close surveillance of him.
That night I set up a trap in my front yard in order to catch a skunk that had set up camp under my front porch. The next morning I had my target securely confined in the makeshift plastic tube I had borrowed from my neighbor, which allowed me to safely blockade my porch with the knowledge that I wasn’t trapping the skunk inside. Of course, I then had the chore of relocating the little critter.
I opened the trap about a mile from my home near a creek at a local park, but the skunk just sat inside and wouldn’t come out. I waited and waited, sitting about 40 feet away inside my conversion van. Eventually, as fait would have it, Murder House Guy came riding his bike up the street.
There he was, the guy whose first words to me just one day prior were a disdainful “fuck you,” slowly and curiously approaching a strange plastic cylinder that contained a no-doubt upset skunk. And there I was, unobserved in my vehicle, watching the scene unfold.
To summarize the situation: If I tried to warn Murder House Guy about the skunk I’d be reintroducing myself into his life and welcoming more verbal abuse. If I let him get sprayed, he’d be sure to notice me and perceive that I set him up, justifying a vendetta. It seemed lose-lose.
I made a snap decision to step out of my van and let him know what was happening. He didn’t seem to recognize me from the day before and responded inquisitively about the situation. I told him all about trapping the skunk and my lack of success so far in releasing it.
“You’re doing it wrong,” he said with a smile. “You’re supposed to dump the skunk out of the trap over the crick so it drowns.”
Paul Lundgren is a newspaper columnist and a very nice man. His book “The Spowl Ribbon” is available on paullundgren.com.