Chucktown

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.

22 comments

  1. Tammy S. - July 30, 2020 10:40 am

    I love Charleston!!! And I loved your ending on this piece. You are an old soul, Sean. An old, romantic soul. And that’s what makes your writings so special. Hope you all had so much fun in Charleston. And hope you have a bowl of she-crab soup.

    Reply
  2. Leah - July 30, 2020 11:01 am

    Love it. Did you visit Blue Bicycle Books on King Street by chance?

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  3. Stacy Powers - July 30, 2020 11:20 am

    Every morning…you make my day! Thank you!

    Reply
  4. Sue Rhodus - July 30, 2020 11:33 am

    Charleston is a favorite of many..me too ! Yankee Candles not so much !

    Reply
  5. KAT - July 30, 2020 11:51 am

    🥰 Sean, you paint a nostalgic picture of a slower time in Charleston. Now I want to visit !
    Can I ask when would the temps be coolest down there ?🥰

    Reply
  6. Dee Thompson - July 30, 2020 12:09 pm

    I love Charleston! I have cousins [on Dad’s side] who live there. Every time I’ve ever been there my mom has said “Your aunt and uncle honeymooned here.” Good for them. Thanks for that visual, Mom.
    I am working on my third novel and part of it is set in Charleston. You inspire me to keep trying to get published, Sean. [I have two self-published books on Amazon but maybe one day I can get a real literary agent.]

    Reply
  7. Curtis Lee Zeitelhack - July 30, 2020 12:31 pm

    Those candle shops have always given me a headache. Sometimes other types of stores have those candles too. I just have to leave and wait for my wife outside. As for “nobody buys books anymore, dude” – That’s just not true. I have purchased several books over the last four months, though I admit that all have been online purchases because of COVID 19. I will return to book stores when I finally get vaccinated and will look for your books then.

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  8. Jan Fincher - July 30, 2020 12:34 pm

    Awwww…thank you for your (mostly) glowing words of Charleston. I love living here. I worked as a tour guide for awhile and there is a lot of rich history here. Personally, I like the pirate stories. Let us know when you’re coming next and we’ll upgrade your hotel. Come back soon!

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  9. Jan Fincher - July 30, 2020 12:38 pm

    Try October! Written by one who lives there! August and September is hurricane season and still hot as blue blazes!

    Reply
  10. Penn Wells - July 30, 2020 12:48 pm

    You should look up Mayor Joe Riley the next time you go. He’s been retired a while now, but when he was in office he was known as “America’s Most Beloved Mayor.” It wasn’t because he didn’t make waves… or tough decisions. That’s what mayors do, isn’t it? And then they get to live amongst their decisions. I think you and Joe would understand each other. Just a thought.

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  11. Jan - July 30, 2020 1:04 pm

    Great story about a great town! I love history and beauty and Charleston is filled with both. Thanks for the brief visit to one of my favorite places.

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  12. LBJ - July 30, 2020 1:26 pm

    I’ve never been to Charleston, but hopefully will get there someday.
    My husband is into model railroading. In January he goes to a massive train exposition in Springfield, MA. I leave him there and go to Deerfield, MA, the home of Yankee Candle. The place is massive. There’s a map on the wall near one of the restrooms where people stick a pushpin in it to show where they’re from. The entire map is covered in colorful pins. You can make your own candle. You can grab a bite to eat. You can see Santa (year round) and give him your list. You can fill a shopping cart with scents of flowers, food, grass, campfires, rain or the ocean. You can clear your head sniffing coffee beans and maybe, buy a candle that smells like coffee!

    Reply
  13. Carla Dillenburg - July 30, 2020 2:15 pm

    I always enjoy your columns. I want to say, your honeymoon wasn’t the cheapest possible; my parents’ may have been. They camped out and provided their own simple meals. Their kind of camping at that time was not the upscale, well-equipped, REI type, more the don’t drive too far so we don’t need much gas, we don’t have sleeping bags but we have blankets and each other, type of of camping.
    And if you want bookstores — please, visit Portland, Oregon. Whether you head to Powell’s — a family-owned bookstore that takes up a city block and is a few stories tall, where you can go in and never want to come out, or wander the streets and find lovely little bookish nooks, you won’t be disappointed, and you will find a welcome.

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  14. Linda Moon - July 30, 2020 4:32 pm

    Tell your wife I’m buying some Yankee Candles today. I hope you two are happily reliving a honeymoon there in Charleston. But when did you settle down? I hope it’s not too much settling. Two of your books are on my shelf, and when you write another one, I’ll go to a bookstore and buy it. Now, go indulge yourself with your wife some more in Charleston! And have a safe Road Trip back home!

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  15. Bill Strawn - July 30, 2020 5:17 pm

    I hope she said yes, as you seem to be a nice man. Or at least an interesting one.

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  16. Christina - July 30, 2020 5:41 pm

    How come I feel like you have taken us to Chucktown with you, where we can smell the mildew and see the fogged up words, bask in Jamie’s delight of the candles and the joy of you wandering in the bookstore? A toast to you both for your sweet, enduring love!

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  17. MAM - July 30, 2020 6:20 pm

    That one left me with a big smile on my face. Thanks!

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  18. Teresa S - July 30, 2020 6:29 pm

    You make me so homesick! Yes, Charleston is an incredible city and a wonderful place in which to grow up! Growing up in such an historic city means its history is almost like osmosis into your skin and brain and there was always something being commemorated and celebrated in a huge way.

    Sadly, with my Mom’s passing, we no longer have a Charleston home to return to since my siblings and I are spread throughout the southeast.

    The couple you described could be our daughter and new husband who spent their honeymoon in Charleston in June and they would have definitely been in a bookstore since both have been classically educated, even through college, and need beautiful books like most need food.

    Those cobblestone streets have so many memories for me that I look back upon with such love. It truly was an idyllic life there. Thanks for the memories!

    Reply
  19. Dawn Bratcher - July 31, 2020 1:19 am

    ❤️❤️❤️

    Reply
  20. Sandi. - July 31, 2020 2:08 pm

    Hi Sean, I just want to thank you for all of your positive, uplifting posts, including this delightful one about Charleston!
    Have a blessed day!

    Reply
  21. Toots - July 31, 2020 4:29 pm

    Honeymooned in Charleston and Kiawah Island back in 1979. 🙂

    Reply
  22. Mary - July 31, 2020 5:02 pm

    I love the “Holy City” and am so disappointed at this visit. Yes, it has changed.my grandparents and parents were born and raised there and am sorry to see so much has changed. I love book stores also and yes, I do read hard backs I like the feel of them in my hand and besides you don’t have to worry about always have to recharge the battery. Sorry about the motel. It should have been reported, especially with this COVID. Thank you for wearing your mask.

    Reply

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