The House I Never Grew Up In

The House I Never Grew Up In

By Chris Dickens

Abandone house
SourceJonathan Barkat/Gallery Stock


Because for this writer, home should have been where the hearth was.

By Chris Dickens

The author writes about Kentucky history, rock ’n’ roll and horse racing, among other things.

After I lost my teaching job in the spring of 2011, I sold most of my belongings and moved into my 20-year-old truck, then went looking for the house I had often wished I’d grown up in. 

In mid-August 1975, the week I was expected, my parents, as well as my two older brothers, were living in a cheap motel at the edge of Norfolk, Virginia, hiding out from a motorcycle gang who called themselves the Pagan’s and waiting for my birth so they could get out of town ahead of the trouble.

The trouble was that my father had slept with the girlfriend of a prominent member of the Pagan’s. For this infraction they had already busted his cousin Eddie’s left eye and driven Eddie out of town so he wouldn’t talk to the cops. When you ask Eddie about this now he just laughs and says, “The Pagan’s were not to be trifled with, man.” He was right. They were known for disappearing people, and the FBI had a long file on them. But for Eddie, losing an eye was just part of dealing with people in bars, part of the crazy life he lived with my father when they were younger. He eventually lost his other eye to a horse jockey with a pool cue. If he’d had more eyes to lose, I imagine he would have.

“There’s no one out there, Rod,” she’d tell him. “There’s no one after you.” She didn’t know about the woman or the bikers.

Before my parents abandoned the house that should have been my first address, there were a lot of late nights when my mother woke to find my father staring out the bedroom window, his face striped with streetlamp light broken by the blinds. “There’s no one out there, Rod,” she’d tell him. “There’s no one after you.” She didn’t know about the woman or the bikers. For the next 15 years we moved from one rental to the next, crossing state lines as if they weren’t there. We once lived in cars on a used-auto lot in Tampa, Florida. We squatted on an abandoned dairy farm in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When I was 7, we were in a homeless shelter for a while. I remember a whole pile of cheap Christmas gifts from the shelter, and waking one night to the tickling sensation of a rat sniffing my foot.

My birth story, and the story of exile that came with it, stuck with me from an early age. I couldn’t help equate it with stories I’d heard in Sunday school. There was the pregnant Mary and her husband, Joseph, running from the evil King Herod, and the banishment from Eden in Genesis. Virginia, and the house I was almost born into, was my paradise lost. Even as a grown man, when I was accepted into an MFA writing program in North Carolina, I couldn’t help but note the proximity. I kept thinking, as I went through the program, graduated and accepted a full-time lectureship, that one day I’d find time to get over there and find that house.

I don’t know when the North Carolina budget cuts for universities came down, but when that sword of Damocles (they’d been telling us about it in “brown bag” meetings for months) fell, I was at the bad end of it. The semester ended, and I said goodbye to my students and colleagues and the little town I’d called home for the past four years.  With no other plan for my immediate future, I loaded up my ’91 Chevy S-10 and drove back to the Chesapeake Bay to track down what should have been my first address: 2801 Southport Ave., Chesapeake, Virginia.

Does anything say “We’re staying here” better than a hearth built with your own hands?

It was empty when I found it. The grass overgrown, the windows curtainless and dark. It seemed as if it had sat that way for all of those 36 years, stunned into vacancy by our sudden departure. I peered in and saw that there was no furniture, only a cleaning bucket and a mop in the kitchen. The screen door in the back was cracked open, and the knob on the wooden door was unlocked and turned easily. I let myself into a dark mudroom, which smelled of lemon and bleach, and stepped through the silence of the empty house, the light growing faint in late afternoon. I saw the wood floors and eggshell walls of the bedrooms, peeked into the one small bathroom. I touched the bricks of the fireplace I would later learn my father had built in their first year there.  Does anything say “We’re staying here” better than a hearth built with your own hands?

I went out to my truck to grab my phone to take a few pictures, but the street was so quiet, no one in sight, that it seemed unlikely anyone would notice me or my truck there. It would be dark soon. I brought in a book and a flashlight and the cooler, packed with beer and sandwiches, and slept that night in my old sleeping bag, on my living room floor.

In the morning, I watched the light stream through the windows — just as it would have almost 40 years ago, as my mother sat waiting for the birth of her third son, still imagining no life other than the one they’d been building together on Southport Avenue. But the one we’d actually lived was elsewhere, scattered all over the South. I packed up my truck.