There was a time when my hometown of Quincy, South Carolina had a real identity. Situated thirty miles to the south of the state capital of Columbia, it was close enough to allow residents access to the advantages of a much bigger city but far enough away to keep its own businesses and personality. That was before suburban sprawl reached Quincy and it turned it into a colorless copy of every other residential community across the country. Truthfully, things have progressed to the point that Quincy is now just a rather distant section of Columbia since strip malls, national restaurant and store chains, along with mass produced subdivisions have physically connected the two.
The forced corporate amalgamation of the town has long since swept away locally owned hamburger joints, mom and pop restaurants, along with the independent department and grocery stores. The saddest loss for me was the old Mark Twain Book Store that was located on Front Street. It was a place I spent a large part of my Saturday mornings before the grumpy old bastard that owned it just gave a me a book so I would leave him alone.
From there I would make my way back to the legal office my mom worked doing boring research for upcoming court cases. Being the weekend, the bigwig lawyers were no where to be found so I would find a comfortable seat someplace and read my new book until she was ready to go home. My father worked at the long defunct steel mill and his hours back then were about as crazy and cumbersome as mine. But he was usually home by the early evening of those long ago Saturdays where we would sit together and just talk and enjoy each other company.
The exception to the mass destruction or assimilation of Quincy's local businesses was Peter's Pancake Palace. Established way back in the ancient 1960's as a diner close to my long extinct book store, the founder and chief cook for years, Peter Wilson, outlasted three of the national chains that usually run such local establishments out of business. So it was with a certain sense of pride that Peter's daughter moved her father's creation into one of those vacated buildings back in the late 1980's.
Despite the corruption of Quincy, the Pancake Palace remained one of the few locations that the two differing but equally obnoxious groups that made up the population of the town enjoyed. It was sophisticated enough for the upper middle class suburbanites, but yet offered a down home charm that allowed them to brag to the others of their subspecies that they mingled with the lesser common folk. For the long time residents, who for various reasons made up the working poor and less educated, the Pancake Palace could be thought of as an ancient temple that allowed the downtrodden natives to feel superior to the invading foreigners who now dominated their ancestral lands. It didn't take me long to start seeing both groups as not really human but more akin to two different species of insects who could not see the world beyond their own narrow perceptions.
That pretty much summed up my feelings about how I became alienated in my own hometown. When I left Quincy to join the army after high school there was only the slightest hints of the coming suburban sprawl. Hell, back then the only thing that could be said to connect Quincy to Columbia, besides the highways, was the weirdly fast growing kudzu vine. When I returned home in 1996 Quincy had all but changed into its current form.
That being said, my first destination the morning after my brush with the Twilight Zone was the Pancake Palace. I arrived a little before six o'clock and took a seat at the counter still figuring out how I was going to square away all the details of me leaving town. Quitting my job would be easy, I did want to make a bit of a memorable splash walking out along with helping one of my few friends. Then there were the arrangements to be made with my lawyer. We weren't friends by any means, but given the retainer I was about to lay on him to keep my affairs in order the man should be more than willing to kiss my pale, hairy ass. Then there was the situation with my two sons, my failures and circumstances had pulled apart our relationships but I was determined to say goodbye properly.
Since my night shift work schedule was ass backwards to all the good folks who lived their lives during daylight hours, the Palace seemed strangely crowded. On the days and times I usually dropped in the only chatter I heard was that of the wait staff talking with each other. That morning a cacophony voices made recognizing any individual person impossible. Which was just as well, it allowed me to concentrate on my own thoughts while I savored my breakfast. That is until I heard the voice of my ex-wife.
“Jason Lance,” Emily Langley called out like an angry elementary school teacher did to a student she thought mentally deficient and destined for a life of crime. “What are you doing here this time of the morning? Shouldn't you be at work?”
“Hello Emily,” I responded without turning around and after taking several deep, calming breaths. I desperately wanted to shoot back with a snarky response but I had long learned such behaviors were ultimately self defeating. Although, given my opinion of Emily and why she divorced me seven years ago, I figure forty-two million in lottery winnings now sitting in my bank account could buy a lot of peace of mind if I decided to tell her off. But there wasn't need to sink to her usual level of loathing.
“No,” I said taking the high ground, “I was going to give you a call later and ask if I could come over and see the boys before I leave town.”
“Leave town,” she almost screeched, “just where do you think you're going, especially the way you look, is it a Jimmy Buffett concert?” She asked with a detectable degree of ridicule in her voice.
Emily had always taken a dim view to the clothes I wore, but I was kind of insulted with her degrading the Hawaiian shirt, jeans, and beach sandals I was wearing to celebrate what amounted to a lottery winnings inspired independence day for me. Realizing Emily wasn't going away until I dealt with her, I spun my bar stool around to look her in the face. The one thing I had to admit about my ex-wife was that she was still quite beautiful. Dressed in stylish skintight exercise apparel, it was obvious she wanted to show off that fact to as many people as possible.
Having turned forty-five years old a few months back she could have easily passed as someone in her mid-thirties. Which wasn't just because she was now a gym rat, my sons had let it slip that Emily had several secretive sessions with a plastic surgeon down in Charleston. The two differences that were obvious since the divorce though was how she dyed her hair blonde and and her posse of sycophants.Three women who would not have given Emily the time of day until she married the hunky Mark Langley, DDM.
Despite it all, I actually liked Mark, we had known each other since high school and I was one of his first patients when he established his practice. All jokes aside, he was a great step-father to my kids. Since management at my work had long since locked me into being permanent night shift, he had taken up the slack in being there for Wilson and Barry as they grew up. Yeah, I did resent the hell out of him showering the boys with gifts and other expensive junk that I could never afford, but there was worse things a step-parent could do to children. Over the years though, Mark's gifts had taken a toll on the relationship I had with my sons.
The one thing that did piss me off about the man who for years was Quincy's most eligible bachelor and raging Lothario was the suspicious timing between Emily divorcing me and them becoming a couple. I would be lying if I didn't say there was probably a period of time that while Mark was still my dentist, he was playing a different type of doctor with my wife.
Standing in the middle of the path customers used to get to the restroom and wait staff traveled to get to the kitchen, Emily was the picture of everything I felt wrong about Quincy and people in general. Seven years after the divorce Emily had evolved two different personalities when it came to dealing with me. The first was almost human acting and only appeared when no one else was within hearing distance. As far as Emily was concerned, I was the dead bug splattered all over the windshield of her life. But on the good side I was the father of her boys so on rare occasions she sort of acted nice to me. The second personality was the one I was dealing with now, it was the one that appeared in public and treated me as if I was a mushy, wet pile of dog poop she couldn't remove from her expensive shoes.
I hadn't expected to roll out my cover store about leaving this early, but like the younger version of myself that appeared in my bathroom mirror the day before, life likes to throw four dimensional curve balls. “Yeah, this is something that's been in the works for several months. One of my old army buddies and I stumbled across each other on Facebook and he offered me a job after finding out what I do. He runs an engineering business and has several overseas contracts that needs more people. After a leisurely drive across the country spending my hiring bonus, I'll be living out on a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific for at least five years fixing equipment on the military base located there.”
Getting back to my theory on how the current, mutant natives of Quincy just couldn't conceive anything out of their own narrow existence, I could tell from the look on Emily's face her now upper middle class mind was utterly blown. “Your joking,” was her response “surely you would never leave the job you've had since before we got married.”
“No, I'm not joking in the slightest and do not call be Shirley .” I said feeling a small opening for a harmless bit of post-marriage snark. After several seconds though I could tell the information had finally sank into her brain was processed.
“I'm sorry, you can't see the boys, they're with Mark in Chicago at a convention and won't be back until Friday. So you'll have to postpone this joy ride until then.” Emily said regaining a bit of her composure, being stumped by her lackluster ex-husband in front of her coven of suburban witches was simply something that she couldn't allow.
“Well, then I'll send them an email when I stop and rest along the way.” Feeling my blood begin to turn hot. “I'm glad Mark has taken the boys, that way you won't have to worry he's returned to his old ways. I hear the clerks at the Hide Away Motel still whisper his name in admiration. We all know how often he used the place, on an hourly basis.” Just because she had ticked me off, I really emphasized that last part while looking her straight in the eyes and loud enough that the other people at the counter and the the nearby tables all went silent. While Quincy wasn't the town of my youth, the Pancake Palace was still the best location to get the latest gossip.
It was probably good that I was leaving that day because Emily stormed out of the Pancake Palace with her small coven trailing behind. Knowing how things ran among the natives, word of my heavily implied accusation was already burning up the cell towers. Emily would be in damage control mode among her social circle for weeks. I just turned around and enjoyed the rest of my breakfast.