It’s late in the afternoon by the time we get back to Greymound. The sky is slowly beginning to darken and the allee is finally clear from the incessant tourists that bog it down during the day. The visitor center parking lot is empty, save for my lone Fiat.
“There isn’t much around here,” Max begins as he drives towards my car. “But I could try to whip us something up.”
There is a not so guarded hopeful note in his voice, and it makes me realize that he genuinely wants me to stick around for a while longer. I guess I haven’t screwed up too much today.
I turn to him and smile. Jokingly, I ask, “I thought you didn’t cook?”
“I wouldn’t call a heating up a pack of hot dogs on a hot plate cooking.”
His admission makes me laugh out loud. I reckon that Max takes that as a yes, because with small smirk he turns the car around and starts heading towards the private part of the farm. We drive just a few yards beyond the visitor center and then hang a left down a gravel driveway that is marked private.
As we bump along the gravel driveway, we pass a number of familiar sights. On the left is the main house--originally constructed in the early nineteenth century and then later modified to resemble the Tara mansion in the 1930s after John DeVinn’s mother saw Gone With The Wind for the first time. The house backs up to the marsh, and even though we zoom past it I still manage to catch a glimpse of a blue herring. It soars over the marsh and into the sky.
“There’s a neat path that leads down to a gazebo on the marsh back there behind the house,” Max tells me. He’s playing tour guide as we drive through Greymound Plantation. That’s because he would never guess so many of my major life moments have happened somewhere on this farm.
“Yeah,” I softly as we turn down another gravel road. Before I can stop the words they slip out, and a rueful smile spreads across my face. “I had my first kiss in that gazebo.”
Max throws a curious look my way and waits for me to continue.
“My high school boyfriend’s family owns this farm. John and Cathy--the owners--they’re his great aunt and great uncle.” I leave out the part about how that high school boyfriend eventually became my ex-fiance. Instead I give him a harmless factoid. “My granddad and John are law partners too.”
“How has this never come up?” he shakes his head. “I should be letting you give the tour!”
I try to laugh but it comes out strained.
Before we can dive any deeper into that sticky subject, Max pulls up to a cluster of small cabins and puts the car in park.
“Home sweet home,” he announces. He winks conspiratorially at me. “But you probably already knew that.”
I roll my eyes and smile. It’s genuine this time.
As I’m waiting for Max to get out of the car, I survey the cabins for the upteenth time in my life. They’re small, with only room for a bed, a desk, and a kitchenette. While being a Greymound Fellow may be prestigious, no one ever claimed it was glamourous.
I hear the gravel crunching as Max slowly makes his way towards me, and for the first time a certain feature of the cabins sticks out to me. There is a single step leading up to the screen door--the only door that leads inside.
I cluck my tongue disparagingly.
Even though I haven’t said a word, Max seems to understand what I’m getting at. He actually chuckles. “A single step is pretty easy,” he tells me.
And he does make it look easy as he plants the crutches and then heaves and lifts his legs one at a time up and onto the first step. I’m blatantly staring and he turns back to me with a flippant grin, as if to say “See? Easy peasy.”
I make myself at home, per Max’s instructions, while he excuses himself to the restroom. Sipping the beer he offered me, I glance around the cabin that has been his home for the summer. Much like his car, there are papers everywhere. It's exactly what I imagine the abode of an academic being like. His empty wheelchair sits conspicuously beside the small twin bed. In the corner of the room there’s a small potted plant sitting on the desk along with a laptop and a picture of Max surrounded by four women. I get up to inspect it closer.
“My mom and my sisters.”
I turn around. Max is standing in the doorway of the bathroom, leaning heavily on his crutches. He must have removed his braces while in the bathroom; his socked feet drag even more than usual across the floor as he reaches one crutch forward, then the other. He heads for the wheelchair that sits beside the bed. Once he’s in front of it he drops heavily into it. He unhooks the cuffs from his forearms and sets the crutches to the side before arranging his legs and feet on the footplate of the wheelchair. One of his legs bounces up and down for a couple of seconds; I marvel at how and why. Then he wheels over to me, crossing the small room with three quick pumps of his arms.
“My mom and my sisters,” he repeats softly, picking up the picture and staring at it. There is a tender expression on his face, and he looks a million miles away. Then he shakes his head and gives a half-hearted laugh. “I really need to call her.”
I’m not sure which her he is referring to, but I’m pretty sure it’s not his mother. I know I probably shouldn’t, but dammit if he isn’t just dangling temptations in front of me. I can’t help but pry. “Are you guys close?”
“Kate and I are.” As if I have a clue which one Kate is. The only thing I know about her is that Katelyn might be her full name and they might own an antique shop together. “But with the others it’s complicated.”
I nod. “It usually is with siblings.”
He puts the photograph down, then wheels back to the kitchenette area. “You got any?”
“Just a little brother.” I take a swig of my beer. “Younger, rather.”
“Not so little?” Max asks with a grin as he starts heating up the hotdogs. He braces himself on one wheel and pushes up, straining to see on top of the counters that seem to be just a little too high for him.
“More like a freaking giant. The entire SEC wanted him for football, but he broke their hearts and decided to play tennis instead. He doesn’t play well with others.”
Max laughs. “And are you guys close?”
I pause before answering that because it’s a question I actually do have to think about. “He’s my brother,” I finally offer up. “We agree on a few things and we fight bitterly about the rest. Half the time I can’t stand him.”
“But the other half you can’t imagine what you’d do without him?”
“Exactly.” I sigh. “Siblings.”
“I hear that,” Max laughs. He takes a towel from one of the kitchen drawers and places it in his lap. Then he sets the pan with the hot dogs on his lap along with a couple of plates. He lets go slowly, testing the balance of the stacked items. “Grab the buns and a couple more beers?”
I grab the items and slide into a seat next to him at the table. Max, of course, already has one. He prepares a couple of hot dogs and then hands one to me. I bite into it, and I’m surprised that a hot dog cooked on a hot plate that looks like a relic from the 1970s could taste so good.
Outside the sun has finally set, and in a way it feels weirdly symbolic to me. A lifetime of memories--some good, some bad, and all kinds in between--wash over me as I glance out the window of Max’s little cabin. And for the first time in a long time, the familiar sights of Greymound don’t make me ache inside; instead, as I look at Max, juxtaposed within a setting in which I’ve already experienced so much of my life, I feel a sense of excitement. I hope that from now he is the one I’ll think about whenever I’m here. The thought is both exhilarating and, in a way, freeing.
The weird emotional high I’m riding is probably why, just a split-second later, I hear myself breaking the serene silence.
“You know, my not so little brother is getting married Saturday, and I'll be wearing a hideous bridesmaids dress, but I promised his fiancée I would have a date, so if you aren't too busy with the porpoises on Saturday and you're up for it, would you be my date?”
It comes out in a single breath. One long, single, breath of embarrassed desperation.
Max looks at me with an amused expression. A half-smirk plays on his lips. It feels like an eternity before he answers, but when he does it’s worth it.
He leans over and bridges the small gap between us. The moment that our lips touch my breathing hitches, and I feel certain that I’ll never grow weary of the way Max makes me feel inside.
And although I don’t get a verbal answer, I don’t ask the question again.
After all, actions speak louder than words.