Sometime around 3:17 on Saturday morning, Michael Pontes hit "send."
It was an angry email, intended to hurt. It was a 1,000-plus-word grievance, full of the stress and heartbreak and bile that divorce brings.
And it told the 100 or so people copied that he was going to end his life.
He drove his truck down to Burger Up, the 12South restaurant he built with his business partner and estranged wife Miranda Whitcomb Pontes. He pulled out a can of pink spray paint, the kind you can see from blocks away, and scrawled an insult across the windows.
It would serve as his very public last word. By the time the police arrived a little before 4 a.m. — alerted by his attorney, who had been awake and gotten the email — Michael Pontes had entered Burger Up with a handgun and killed himself.
News of Pontes' suicide, driven home by the vandalized exterior, jarred a neighborhood that rarely sees any major disturbance. That wasn't always the case. In the old days, Sevier Park was an open-air drug market, not the family-friendly place it is now. Nor was 12South always the prime destination it has become. Businesses along this stretch of 12th Avenue were more ragtag than trendy. But the neighborhood's fortunes rose dramatically over the past 20 years, turned around by some planning muscle and an ounce or two of foresight. It has evolved into one of the hottest communities in the city.
The cherry on top was the arrival of 12th & Paris, a mixed-use development of retail and residences with a modern design by Nick Dryden. It made the area an attraction. And there on the corner, as its anchor, was Burger Up — hip, comfortable and inviting, an upscale burger place that sounded all the right notes about sustainability and locavore dining.
The simple menu won a cult following from diners and reviewers alike after it opened in late spring of 2010. Hourlong waits became common, and patrons could be seen waiting their turn outside in any kind of weather. And even though Burger Up has drawn raves in the national press, it is by and large a neighborhood joint — the kind of comfortable place that develops regulars but welcomes anyone.
Credit goes to Michael, Miranda and the entire team, but some of the contributions were uniquely Michael's. He built the communal tables that give the room its boarding-house coziness. He built the benches and the stools at the bar, making Burger Up a place to linger as well as to savor. He served as its general manager and helped assemble its close-knit staff.
The second Burger Up in Williamson County is in many ways an even bigger testament to Pontes, who supervised its construction and opening. Behind the scenes, the owners' marriage was crumbling, but customers never saw that out front. They saw an outpost of 12South warmth in a Cool Springs strip mall. Michael and Miranda might have argued through attorneys about the end of their relationship, but the product of that union was a success.
In the days after Michael's death, friends and neighbors say they searched for clues that he planned to kill himself. They may never find any. Experts say suicide is almost always the result of mental illness, but the signs are not always visible.
John McDougal certainly didn't see any. The owner of McDougal's Chicken a couple of doors down in Cool Springs, he's known Pontes since he began work on the second location. Last Thursday, he sat down at the bar for lunch and talked shop with Michael.
"There was nothing to me that stuck out," McDougal says. "I've replayed that 45-minute conversation that I had with him Thursday a thousand times in my head since then just to see if there was something there that didn't make sense at all. He was just Mike. He seemed normal to me."
McDougal had actually made plans for Saturday with Pontes to check out the farmers' market at The Factory in Franklin. But he didn't see him on Friday, which he says was unusual. "They said he called in sick," McDougal says. What happened next is as incomprehensible to him now as it was when he got the call Saturday morning that Pontes was gone.
The Cool Springs location reopened on Sunday, and 12South was scheduled to open on Wednesday. The brown paper that has covered the windows since last Saturday came down, the flowers that well-wishers have left will be gathered up, and some sense of normalcy will resume. Neighbors talked about making a show of support and packing the 75-seat place.
Meanwhile, friends and loved ones gathered Wednesday at Cal Turner's farm in Brentwood to celebrate Michael Pontes and the community he helped to build. They want him remembered for his 43 years of life, not his last, violent hours.
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