CHARLESTON—I’m walking rough cobblestones beneath South Carolina’s blazing afternoon sun and I’m sweating through my shirt.
I woke up at 6:39 a.m. in our cheap hotel. I plugged in the room’s coffeemaker. I said good morning to the cockroaches. I crawled into the mildewed shower while the coffeemaker gurgled.
The shower steamed up the bathroom and I could see traces of greasy fingerprints appearing on the big mirror. Two words were traced upon the fogged-up glass:
“MARRY ME!!!” With three exclamation points.
I was all smiles. Because my wife didn’t write this, and neither did I. Meaning: within this scumsucking hotel room, someone recently popped The Question. And I can only hope the other someone said yes before they contracted tetanus.
As it happens, Charleston is where my wife and I honeymooned nearly twenty years ago. The town has changed since then. Within the last two decades, for instance, America has built tons of outdoor shopping malls.
In my era (Paleolithic era) indoor malls ruled the world. We had low-tech signs, food courts, and pushcarts selling cardboard pretzels with “cheese-like” sauce.
But over the years malls gravitated outdoors and the shops got weirder. Today outdoor malls have bright blinking signs and bizarre shops where you can build your own Teddy bears for three hundred bucks. And worse, Yankee Candle stores.
I have nothing against Yankee Candles, in fact I kind of like them. But whenever my wife passes these storefronts we have to stop and smell approximately 7,102 candles until my lungs burn and I have a pumpkin-pie-scented headache.
But nevermind all that because Charleston is a town that rings my bells. This street’s cobblestones were once used as ballast on ships that arrived here in 1670. The brick house I’m strolling past is a place where George Washington once kicked back a few beers.
This is also the town where my wife and I conducted the cheapest honeymoon ever accomplished by humans. We did cheap activities like walking, window shopping, and getting dressed up to go eat at KFC.
The last time we were here, the town was done up for Christmas. We happened to be passing the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist during a nighttime Christmas-themed mass. We slipped inside.
I made the Sign of the Cross when I entered the sanctuary. I am not Catholic, but my father’s German family was. My father converted to fundamentalism long before I was born and raised me Southern Baptist. And even though he was Protestant, he never passed an altar without kneeling and crossing himself. Old habits.
We sat in the chapel, two Baptist newlyweds, under the influence of romance. That was a lifetime ago.
Today, my wife and I are more settled. For example, we decide to do today’s shopping apart, like experienced married people. That way she can sniff all the candles in South Carolina, and I can find a decent bookstore.
The only problem is, there aren’t many bookstores left in Charleston. And it’s like this all over the world. I don’t know why.
It takes me a few hours of exploring to locate what seems like the only bookstore remaining in town. The woman at the counter tells me to sanitize my hands with complimentary sanitizer. She wears a plastic face shield. I am wearing an N95 mask.
It’s a cute store. Limited selection. Hardly any customers. I see a young couple browsing books, hanging onto each other the way all young lovers do. The girl is petite. He’s about six foot, but with her on his arm he’s at least six-seven. Both wear masks.
And I can’t keep my eyes off them because my wife and I were once in a Charleston bookstore doing the same thing. Minus the surgical masks.
I can tell they’re newlyweds. There are mannerisms all newlyweds have. Newlyweds are oblivious to the blues, and always very kissy.
He stops reading and whispers something to her. She laughs. He lifts his mask and kisses her forehead.
I rest my case.
I pick out a few books and pay for my wares. I ask the clerk how business has been since the coronavirus pandemic.
The young woman shrugs. “Meh, NOBODY buys books anymore, dude.”
It is at exactly this moment when I notice that my own book is on display in the distant corner.
I leave the store and step onto the old serpentine street and meander until I reach more cobblestones. The sun is on my shoulder, American history surrounds me, and I am happy.
How could I not be happy? Sure, there’s a pandemic going on. Yes, the world has been changing so fast that everyone has whiplash. But this is an American town. This is a locale that has endured big changes and had plenty of whiplash.
Someone told me Charleston is the most historic city in the world, second only to Rome. I don’t know if that’s true, but Chucktown has seen 350 turbulent years of hell. There were years filled with revolutions, British sieges, bloody combat, Civil Wars, world wars, Great Depressions, mass shootings, and the sting of a global pandemic.
And yet young lovers still walk these streets. People still honeymoon here. You can’t keep a good town down.
I see my wife walking toward me on the cobblestones. She carries a shopping bag. She removes a scented candle, thrusts it at me, and tells me to smell it. So I take a big whiff.
“Well?” she asks. “What do you think?”
“Marry me,” I say.