Monday, April 15, 2019

On A Dark Lonely Highway

Unless you lived in the coast areas of South Carolina from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s you can not understand the magnitude of the growth that occurred in that region. The best example is of course Charleston which went from a sleepy little Southern town, pretty much disconnected from the rest of the country, to a multicultural, sprawling city that also happens to be one of the favorite vacation destinations in the United States. The astronomical increase of real estate values in Charleston alone during that period signifies how the coast of South Carolina went from a rural backwater to a place where rich elites want to be seen living.

Other areas of the South Carolina coast had significant growth but couldn't match Charleston's cultural sophistication. The area called the “Grand Strand” – typically centered around Myrtle Beach – had a similar growth in population, attractions, and businesses but desperately held on to its backwater weirdness for much longer. This is where I enter the picture after having served four years in the United States Army.

I was driving home to Georgetown from a date around two o'clock in the morning back in September of 1990. Back then U.S. Highway 501 was still a badly maintained, four-lane road with the property on either side still mostly undeveloped. Sure, one of the places on that highway was the community college I had just started attending, a few gas stations, a couple of fast food places and a seedy country club/golf course that had been superseded by other ritzier places. Even with those establishments, the property on either side of Highway 501 was overwhelmingly a swampy forest filled with snakes, alligators, rabbits, and even a bear or two.

Curiously enough I find the situation on 501 even worse now, the highway has long since been widen to six lanes with the land now overrun with businesses ranging from overpriced suburbs, mega-churches, to outlet malls. The worst being outlet malls since they are created to draw in the traveling but generally mindless sheep, better known as spoiled tourists. Personally, in most cases I would prefer the company of an eight-foot hungry alligator than such humans.

Back in September of 1990 there was one business on Highway 501 that surpassed weird and bordered on the surreal. For reasons I could never figure out someone had opened a fireworks store that ran twenty-four hours a day.

Understand, this was not some trailer on wheels nor a minor building stuck on a small plot of land. This was a large steel building painted a glaring white with huge plate glass windows. The building itself and the parking lot in front of it were brightly illuminated with numerous light poles of the type used at Walmart or any other massive businesses. This fireworks store was not something new, it had existed for several years going back to the time my lackluster mother made trips running from Conway, South Carolina to Myrtle Beach to see her drunk and worthless boyfriend.

The fireworks shop had caught my attention back then but every time I mentioned something about stopping there to look around, my mother, who naturally had her own grownup agenda, adamantly refused. So this twenty-four hour fireworks shop faded into the background as my younger siblings and I were forced to endure our mother's pursuits.

By that God-awful early morning in September of 1990, my curiosity of the fireworks shop had long since died. I was in my twenties and pursuing my own amorous pursuits, the difference from my mother's being that I was single and that I wasn't dragging any tired and hungry kids on these jaunts.

The girl I saw the night before was one that I had met working as a lifeguard at the Myrtle Waves Water Park. An attraction that has long since been closed, bulldozed, and paved over with a NASCAR-themed restaurant being built on the property. What's funny is that I recently learned that the NASCAR restaurant was closed years ago. Given the nature of property values in Myrtle Beach, it was probably quickly bulldozed, paved over, with something equally obnoxious built in its place.

My date's name was Emma and we met in the water park's lazy river. I was walking through the waist deep water playing lifeguard and she and her girl friend/roommate were laying on a double inner tube. We started talking and about an hour later I asked her out to the usual dinner and a movie. Both of us were in our twenties, which meant raging hormones, and as far as I knew neither of us had a significant other. What that all means was that things were moving quite fast.

From the movie we went walking on Ocean Boulevard, which involved a little old fashioned necking on the beach. Eventually I drove us both back to her apartment all the way over in Conway where things were supposed to get even more physical. Unfortunately, when Emma and I arrived at the apartment her roommate had left a note on the kitchen counter saying, “Bob called from the Gulf.” Those five words sent all my quickly developing plans and fantasies totally sideways.

I didn't learn right away but it turned out Emma did have a boyfriend, a guy who was normally stationed at Fort Bragg up in North Carolina. But who at that moment in time was over in Saudi Arabia guarding a fast growing supply point out in the desert. Emma's initial reaction after reading the note was a thin nonchalance with her wanting us to play tonsil hockey on the couch before going into her bedroom. Never the sharpest knife in any drawer, I had enough smarts to sniff out the change in Emma's attitude. And as long as Emma still wanted to play doctor, I wasn't about to ask any awkward questions.

Things proceeded between us as I had hoped up until Emma's phone began ringing. She answered and from the look on her face a few moments later, I immediately knew everything was over. It was Bob and he had called to beg some sort of forgiveness and of course, Emma started crying saying she had never stopped loving him. Just hearing Emma's side of the conversation I was able to piece together all the important elements of their relationship.

Barely five minutes later, I'm leaving Emma's apartment with her still on the phone now making plans to move up to the Fort Bragg area when Bob got back from Saudi. Feeling extremely bummed out, I began my long drive back to Georgetown and my own bed.

The disappointment was still strong but as I turned onto Highway 501, I slipped a Buffett CD into the player and began singing along. As my mood lighted, I came up on the bizarre fireworks store on my left. My long dormant curiosity flared when I spotted the flashing “Open” sign in one of the large windows and saw a single store clerk calmly sitting at the counter reading what looked to be a magazine.

I initially passed the strange building but turned around and drove into the parking lot. Except for a single car in the parking lot, which was most likely the clerk's, the place was deserted. In fact as I drove up to the front entrance the clerk didn't even look up from his post. As I stepped out of my car, little voices in my head started buzzing around like gnats reminding me of several Twilight Zone episodes along with a multitude of science fiction stories all centered around people who enter strange places.

I entered the fireworks store half expecting it to be some elaborate facade like something from a movie set. It wasn't, just as I had seen after numerous trips between Conway and Myrtle Beach over the years it was a huge store with long clean aisles of nothing but various types of fireworks. What still bothers me even now was the near surgical-level of cleanliness, to the point I would have felt comfortable eating off the floor.

The clerk, a clean-shaven guy who looked to be in his thirties dressed in what I would call business casual attire look up from his magazine long enough to say hello and that most items were buy one get another at half price. He made no attempt at small talk nor asked just what in the hell would I be needing fireworks a little after two o'clock in the freaking morning.

Yes, I should have immediately asked the clerk why has this store been open twenty-four hours a day for years but honestly, I was getting really spooked. Something wasn't right about the place with the Twilight Zone quality growing exponentially. As I browsed the aisles it wouldn't have surprised to see hideous monsters dressed as stockmen emerge from the store room pushing loaded carts of colorful explosives.

As far as firework stores were concerned, it was the Sam's Club and Costco of such items. Every conceivable type of fireworks were on display going from simple firecrackers and bottle rockets to larger items that probably needed professionals to safely set off. Naturally, the air temperature inside the store was quite cold and as the minutes ticked by with me strolling the aisles, I felt close to shivering. At some point I knew my curiosity was more than satisfied and that I needed to buy something and get the hell out of the place.

I grabbed a packet of bottle rockets and walked up to the counter. The clerk, who had stayed silent during my browsing, simply asked how I was doing as he rang up my item on the cash register. It was then that I saw what magazine he was reading, a copy of the Economist, which surprised me in a way. I somehow imagined it would have been a copy of Playboy or even Hustler. It was a possibly cruel but definitely unjustified assumption, I just couldn't see an intellectual type working at an all-night fireworks store in the middle of nowhere South Carolina.

Yeah, I have to mention again how surreal the fireworks store seemed. But my curiosity was definitely quenched and I knew as certain that bears take poops in the swampy woods on either side of Highway 501 back then that I would never reenter the place. Just to throw a little extra weird icing on the unearthly cake, as I was pulling out of the parking lot I spotted the clerk talking on the telephone looking intently in my direction.

For the next two years I passed that fireworks store going to my community college and then back home again. Yes, there were several times I saw the parking lot with numerous cars, almost always near a holiday like Christmas, New Years, or the Fourth of July. Occasionally, as I pursued my single guy life back then, I would pass the place at night and see someone sitting at the counter but no customers. Eventually the fireworks store again faded into the background as it had when my mother was doing her stuff.

After moving up to Columbia in 1993, I didn't get anywhere near Highway 501 for several years. By the time I did travel that road again the entire nature of it and the area in general had changed. The fireworks store was long gone, a victim of the highway being expanded to six lanes. Whatever purpose of having an all-night fireworks store was, I have this nagging feeling it wasn't to sell drunk locals and tourists sparklers and roman candles. While I may had struck out with Emma, this cat did survive a close encounter with his over active curiosity.


W. Hackwhacker said...

Very nicely done. I got the creeps a little at the point where you mentioned the temperature of the fireworks store -- made me think about a morgue (don't know if that's what you were going for, but...). Visually, I'm getting a little Wes Anderson, maybe? Anyway, thanks for the little peek into your past life.

sage said...

Any story about South Carolina needs a firework store... that and the way the roads change for the worst when I leave Georgia and enter SC and remain so till I’m in NC... And the state has certainly grown.

The Bug said...

I feel like this could definitely be the beginning of a sci-fi tale - definitely gave me shivers!

After my freshman year at college I took a spring break trip to Myrtle with my cousin & some friends. I hooked up with a guy from the miniature golf place, but he didn't get lucky either - ha! This would have been 1983, so a little earlier than your story.

Pixel Peeper said...

I got the creeps just reading about the fireworks store - well told!

Sorry about striking out with Emma, though. Hahaha.

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Marja said...

You painted a nice picture of life in your area and the encounter of a past "girl friend"
Most unreal a firework shop open 24 hours. How could it survive? In the countries I lived there are very few times that you are allowed to use fireworks. Cool creepy story

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