Along the Way: Castles Made of Sand

… and the secrets our homes can hold
Michael Graff

WHEN I WAS 15, my parents sold our very-country home down a gravel road and bought a slightly-less-country piece of property at the end of a paved street, then put a long modular home behind the tree line. This was the first time we’d owned a home in what you might call a “development,” and our fat black lab, Chessy, named after the Chesapeake Bay, barked whenever a car came near the driveway.

About a half-mile down from us was a home all the kids in the neighborhood called “The Castle.”

Maybe you have a similar home from your childhood—some mysterious building left abandoned, possibly dangerous, and certainly haunted. The Castle was an enormous, two-story, nearly complete home that someone just … gave up on. The front was all windows, bookended on either side by concrete columns painted tan. It was an unfinished dream, and we kids didn’t dare go near it.

Rumor had it that a man stopped building it after his wife suddenly died. I saw a man checking the mail there once. He was short and plump-cheeked, with a head of wild, white hair. He smiled and waved, but I was too scared to wave back. To this day, I wonder if he was real or a ghost.

I went to college, started working, and never moved back home. But whenever I visited my parents, I saw The Castle, unchanged except for a broken window or two. It was still there this spring, when Laura and I went back to Maryland for my father’s memorial and I drove her to all the old places from my childhood. “What a weird-looking house,” she said.

In 2014, I signed a lease on a bottom-floor apartment in a fourplex in one of Charlotte’s more charming corners, the little patch of oaks and bungalows near the original Central Coffee in Elizabeth. The neighborhood, a mile or so from uptown, offered more within a 20-minute walk than I had within a 20-mile drive as a kid.

One home on the street stood out. It was just across from my building, almost invisible from the sidewalk in the summer because of the tree growth in the front yard. Some nights when I got home late from work, I’d see the owner, an elderly woman who also had a head of wild, white hair, and she’d be sitting in her little truck. She treated me like she treated all the other folks on our street: When I’d wave, she didn’t wave back.

Several children came in and out of the home on a given day; I assumed they were grandkids. Occasionally, a man about my age would work on her truck; I figured he was a son. I never asked.

We moved out of that apartment and into a new neighborhood in 2017, but on July 4 this year, I rode my bike back down the old street, and the woman’s truck was gone. I ran into one of my old neighbors, and he said the home had been sold. Turns out, he said, the old woman who wouldn’t wave back had dementia. She and her family decided to cash in on the booming neighborhood and move away.

Then I did what any ordinary person would: I walked over and pressed my face against the dusty window. As I approached the mystery home, I felt like a teenager filled with questions about The Castle: What happened here? Who were these people?

They’d left some belongings, stacks of papers and books and such. On the fireplace mantel was the most jarring item: an old family portrait, probably from the ’70s or ’80s, with a husband and wife and a handful of kids, framed and in color.

I haven’t been able to shake the idea that someone would leave a memory like that behind.

A few days later, I clicked online through Mecklenburg County’s property records and found that the woman and her husband bought the home in 1974. Then I searched their names in the Observer archives and found a news clip that gave me chills.

They’d apparently divorced after they bought the home. He moved to the mountains, and she kept the house in Charlotte. On a spring day in 1983, he picked up the kids to take them to his place and stopped at a gas station on the way out of town. He handed the store owner a $20 bill to pay for a $19 fill-up. The owner then noticed that the kids had picked up three sodas, which cost $1.09 in total. The owner asked the man for the remaining nine cents. They got into an argument. Both men had guns. The store owner shot the man in the jaw, mortally wounding him in front of his children, all over less than a dime.

That’s a lot for a home to live with all this time. That’s a lot for an ex-wife to consider all those years sitting in a truck alone.

I wonder how that changed the course of the lives here. I wonder what’ll happen, in this city so bent toward tearing down instead of restoring, when somebody new owns it. It also made me wonder again about the old Castle, and all the homes like it, sitting there with half-finished memories on the mantel. 

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