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We had decided on Charleston. Getting away, if only for a weekend, would do us both good. She had never been there, and I was not in the mood to be picky, so that was that. A friend had phoned Thursday evening and I nonchalantly mentioned my plans for the weekend. “You do know they’re expecting some weather in the Carolinas, don’t you?” He queried. “No, I wasn’t aware of that” I said. I spoke to her Friday evening and we discussed the matter. We checked the weather reports and decided to postpone our decision until Saturday morning, when we would hopefully know more. She phoned at about eight in the morning, and we decided to give it a go.
The drive over was pleasant, and I remember making some comment about how nice it was that the trip was not all interstate. My back gave me a fit, like it always does on the road, but that was nothing new. We arrived in downtown Charleston at about eleven, and without thinking, I drove straight to the hotel, when she reminded me that check-in was not until three. So, we drove down to the battery and meandered a bit before we decided to look for the visitors’ center. The only things that I knew I wanted to do were to visit the downtown market, and enjoy some excellent seafood.
We made our way to the market and decided to have lunch. Our waitress was friendly, which somewhat made up for the mediocre food. It was some chain restaurant with fake nostalgic decorations on the walls. After lunch we walked the entire length of the market, stopping mostly to look at paintings, photographs, and memorabilia. The rest was mostly nonsense. I found this one vendor who had several things of interest, such as original rock n roll magazines from the seventies and eighties. He had a Star Wars lunchbox for sixty dollars. I’m sure I had that exact lunchbox and if memory serves I had the matching thermos that went with it.
This particular vendor also had a couple of boxes of various black and white, eight by ten photographs. Most of them were of characters from popular tv shows from the sixties and seventies: The Andy Griffith Show, The Little Rascals, The Partridge Family, and things like that. I was hoping to find something from Casablanca or at least a photograph of Bogart, but no such luck. The television show characters just didn’t do anything for me. To me, movies have more character, more style than tv shows ever did. I did find a picture of the Beatles, and one of Robert Redford with Paul Newman. They were worth the eight bucks I paid for them both.
On the way back up the block, we walked the sidewalk outside of the market house. The street was bustling with activity and it was overcast so the temperature was actually quite pleasant for summertime in the South. It hadn’t rained a drop all day so the weather had long been off our minds. I decided that we needed ice cream, and Nikki agreed. We walked into the next air-conditioned shop and ordered two cones. I withdrew a ten dollar bill from my pocket to pay for our guilty pleasures, and almost dropped my cone when the man said “that’ll be ten seventy six.” I looked, but I could not find any golden flakes in the ice cream. I only grumbled about it briefly.
We had just walked past a gift shop with several paintings in the window, when I decided to turn back and browse a bit. I saw several pictures that I liked, but one in particular struck me. I had no intentions of buying anything, but before long I had become convinced that the painting would return with me to Savannah and would have a happy new home in my living room. The painting was of a night scene of the Battery in Charleston. I remember being taken by the dark blue colors and the very warm and halcyon glow that escaped from the windows of each of the ocean front houses in the scene. The moon hung brightly in the sky and the houses were reflected in the water. I simply had to have it; I figured that few brown bag lunches instead of the restaurants that had gotten to be a habit would make up the difference in a couple of weeks or so.
We carried the painting around up the block to the main avenue, and up the flights of stairs to the parking garage. After that, we mostly drove around aimlessly and, purely by chance, we happened upon Magnolia cemetery, which she had mentioned earlier and said that she really wanted to see it. In fact, it was the only request of the entire trip that I recall her having made. The cemetery was quite large and very serene. The oak trees were amazingly large and crooked and covered with moss. It was eerily quiet and there was a breeze and you could see the storm clouds way off in the distance over the Atlantic. I looked at the headstones and the dates and the names and thought of all the people and about their lives.
We made our way back to the hotel, which was the Holiday Inn Charleston Riverview. It was a fourteen story circular hotel on the Ashley River, and our balcony faced the river and downtown Charleston. We were both tired from the drive and from walking around most of the day, so we took a long, much needed nap. We slept hard and long, I think for almost three hours. It was good sleep, too.
When we awoke we discussed where to have dinner. We thought about the restaurant on the top floor of the hotel, which was supposed to have a spectacular view. I was afraid that the view would be breathtaking but the overpriced food would not be. By now the rain had begun, with tropical storm Gaston inching ever closer to the South Carolina coast. Still, umbrellas in hand, we set off for downtown once again.
We decided to have dinner at Bubba Gump’s, I suppose because it sounded alluring. The restaurant was all set up for summer, with outdoor tables and plastic walls that rolled down for nights like this to keep the rain out. The food was very good and I liked the sound that the rain made when it hit the plastic. It was that kind of sound that reminds you of being a kid, and being in a tent or a raincoat and feeling somehow safe from the rain, like it couldn’t get to you.
There was a large group of girls in the corner, obviously out for a bachelorette party. They were very loud the entire time we were there but the food was good, anyway. We watched the people walk up and down the street out in front of the restaurant. We had food left over but we had no place to put it to keep, so we reluctantly left it there on the table.
We had wanted to find some live music that night and had seen some signs earlier in the day advertising guitar players and singers, but the rain had cancelled those as they were outdoor venues. The girl at the restaurant told us of a place down the block but it was more like a sports bar than the cozy relaxing kind of thing we had in mind. We ended up walking many blocks through the downtown area, just looking around and watching the people.
I remember seeing many businesses with sandbags laid at the doors in anticipation of the many inches of rain that were sure to come that night from Gaston. It looked like an area that would not handle a lot of rain well. As we walked on we passed restaurant after restaurant with big glass windows and neat white tablecloths topped with flickering candles. I looked at all the people inside all the restaurants and thought of all the conversations that were taking place, and wondered what they were talking about. There were big families and groups of friends and couples seated alone drinking martinis. Some of them were on first dates and some of them had been married for many, many years.
We passed a little coffee shop that looked like a Starbucks, but it was not a Starbucks. In some way I was relieved that it was not a Starbucks, like something would have been lost if it had been. It was probably owned by a mom and pop, so it wasn’t as commercially homogenized as a Starbucks would be. The mom and pop were smart enough, however, to make their sign look just like a Starbucks sign so they could tap into the millions worth of marketing power packed into that green logo. There was a chalkboard sign at the door advertising the ‘dead monks’ or the ‘green monks’ or something like that playing there that night. I remember it had monks in the name.
As we walked on we passed a cigar shop and decided to go inside and browse for a minute. In the window there were stacks of cigar boxes almost to the ceiling and probably more than ten feet wide, and I thought that they looked like they might be empty. I thought of all those cigars and all the people who had bought them, cut them, and smoked them. There were three guys sitting in the easy chairs in the middle of the store smoking cigars, and one of them was bellowing constantly about this and that and I could tell that he was an idiot and that he liked to hear himself talk. He annoyed me severely. The other two guys were nodding with that half interested half bored look on their faces, and I think he annoyed them too. We looked at all of the neat little lighters and cigar cutters and overpriced humidors, and the place smelled really good.
We walked on until the streets were less bustling and there were large brick buildings on both sides, nicely decorated with shrubs and soft glowing lights. The streets were wet and somehow that made everything different. We didn’t talk much, I think mostly because we were both absorbing everything. It was quiet where we were walking now and the breeze was blowing and the city was as charming as it ever was in any story or book. We walked down to the bay where there was a huge fountain with many large jets of water arching over the pool and converging on a marble column in the center. The breeze off the bay was blowing the mist all around and the sound of the water crashing on the pillar was loud and sounded like life flowing.
We looked out over the bay and the lights on the opposite shore were shining through the night and there were boats bobbing in the harbor. There was a lot of trash and paper cups floating in the water, trapped in by the marsh grass under the walk and I remember thinking how rude and thoughtless people were. I didn’t let it ruin the scene, though. As we made our way back we were almost to the parking garage but we decided to walk all the way back, several blocks, to the little coffee shop we had passed earlier. The something monks had started playing and I got an iced something fufu and she had her hot tea. We sat for a while and listened to the music and laughed at the Italian looking guy wearing a black leather jacket in August. He was sitting next to a fat guy reading the paper, and looking around constantly and anxiously.
The something monks sounded pretty good; it was a guy and a girl switching between acoustic guitars and a banjo, and they had a really nice harmony. We sat for an hour or so just listening and watching the people go by on the street outside. There was a bar on the other side of the coffee shop where most of the people were congregated, as most of them sought something stronger than coffee on Saturday night. We were just drunk on the city. Just as we were walking out the two girls walked in that were meeting the Italian guy in the leather jacket and the fat guy reading the paper.
We headed back to the circular hotel and when we got there I stood on the balcony just looking at the city and the river and watching the wind blow. I thought about Gaston out there churning in the Atlantic and all the people that were still downtown and the something monks that were probably still playing at the coffee shop that wasn’t a Starbucks.
We made it to bed around one in the morning, after checking the weather reports and deciding to sleep in and then have breakfast before we left. The storm wasn’t due to hit full on in Charleston until later the next day. At four a.m. we awoke with the wind howling loudly outside the window of our sixth floor room. We opened the curtains to reveal the rain blowing in sideways and the flag barely clutching the flagpole below. The storm had sped up the last few hours and was arriving early.
We quickly gathered our things and headed for the elevator. There was a nice retired couple in the elevator when the doors opened, and I was as cordial as I could be at four a.m. being barely awake. They had come down from North Carolina on vacation and were as chagrined as we were to be cutting the trip short. The lady gave me her cup of coffee, under protest from me, assuring me that she was going immediately back to sleep as soon as she was in the car. The coffee wasn’t very good, but I was very grateful for it.
We loaded our bags in the rain and howling wind and set out for home. It was still very dark when we reached the interstate an hour later, and as we topped a bridge the moon hung low and yellow against the pale sky and looked bigger than I had ever seen it and I thought we would drive right through it.