For the first time in two and a half years, Meg cancels our brunch the next morning.
“I’m sorry, Nezzie,” she starts, using my nickname from when we were kids. Hardly anyone calls me that anymore--which is fine, because I never liked the name much anyway. Meg only uses it when wants to butter me up. “I’ve been at the office literally all night, and I have to go back this afternoon. I really shouldn’t be showing up mimosa tipsy.”
“Ugh,” I groan. “Damn you for making partner. It’s really screwing up our social life.”
Meg chuckles on the other end of the phone. “I’ll see you next Sunday.”
And just like that my Sunday is wide open. It’s been awhile since this has happened, and I’m not really sure what to do with myself. It’s still early enough that I could catch a service at St. John’s, which would make my mother ecstatic. But I don’t want to face the priest and have to concoct a list of excuses (read: lies) as to why I haven’t been to church since Easter. Actually, thinking about it, I don’t really want to face my mother on a Sunday morning for the same reasons either.
A loud snore emanates from the foot of the bed where Rook is still snoozing. For a moment I consider rolling over and going back to bed, after all, it’s an overcast day and I’m still in my pajamas, but then I decide against it. Instead I just sit there, making plans and then talking myself out of them.
And then I get an idea that I can’t ignore. I grab the phone and dial it quickly, before I lose my nerve.
Max picks up the phone on the first ring. “Well this is a good morning surprise.”
The way he says it gives me tummy squishy feelings. I can hear a genuine smile in his rich voice and I relish it. It’s been a long time since anyone other than my dog has seemed so happy to talk to me first thing in the morning.
“Good morning to you too,” I say, feeling a smile of my own starting to spread across my face. “What’re you up to?”
“Oh, a little this, a little that,” he responds cryptically, and my mind briefly flashes back to his strange behavior the night before. But before I can focus on it, he continues. “Actually, I was just getting ready for work.”
“Work? On a Sunday?”
He chuckles at the horrified note in my voice. “The porpoises don’t really understand the concept of a weekend.”
“Too bad,” I sigh. I have a feeling I know how this conversation is going to end, and I’m surprisingly disappointed. “So I guess you aren’t free today then?”
“Not really,” he admits.
“Unless...can you be down at Skidaway in forty-five minutes? I’ve got to be on Ossabaw at 11:50, but I don’t see any reason I can’t show the porpoises and the lady a good time today.”
I laugh. “Who are you dating? Me or the porpoises?”
“I think you know the answer to that one,” Max replies with a laugh of his own that I can only assume was accompanied by a wink as well. “Wear comfy clothes and I’ll see you in forty-five.”
He hangs up the phone and suddenly, just like that, my Sunday is filled up once again.
It’s a quick thirty minute drive along the interstate to Skidaway Island. For being on the interstate, it’s a surprisingly scenic route and almost completely devoid of traffic too. By the time I pull onto the grounds of Greymound Plantation, where all of the Greymound Fellows receive complimentary housing, the skies have cleared up and the sun is shining, and tourist season is in full-swing.
Along with being a private residence, a working farm, and the homebase for the Greymound Fellowship program, Greymound Plantation is also an important historic site. It was one of the first sites of settlement in Georgia and archaeological remains of the settlement are still studied by historians and scientists today. The land where the historic remains are was long ago given to the state, who is in charge of managing it today. They’ve preserved the ruins and turned the area into a small state-park that--to my amazement--attracts droves of visitors during season. Truthfully, I think the ruins are a little underwhelming.
Greymound Plantation comes alive in the summer. The sprawling fields are dotted with little pink flowers that are blooming. That’s the famous Sea Island cotton that’s grown on the still active, family run section of the farm. In front of me, a minivan drives excruciatingly slow along the oak tree lined driveway. Every few feet they stop and stick a digital camera out of the window. I’m tempted to honk the horn--I mean seriously, one picture of the driveway is going to be the same as any other picture--because I’ve only got five minutes to spare, but then they pull off onto the side of the road. No doubt to take a million more pictures of the oak trees.
Anyone who grew up in the Savannah area is probably familiar with the Greymound site. It seemed like growing up we took a field trip here every year, which might be why I find the site so droll these days. Or, it could be that I know beyond the stuccoed visitor center and tabby ruins lie a whole other wonderful world--one that I’m intimately familiar with. Driving down the long allee of oak trees floods me with memories from my childhood and teenage years.
I finally reach the parking lot of the visitor center, which is packed, a few minutes later. Max is waiting for me, sitting on a bench and focusing on his phone in front of him. He seems totally absorbed in whatever he’s looking at and it reminds me of my first impression: that he was a stuffy, serious academic. I think stuffy has been disproven, but his work ethic so far seems to imply that the later part of my initial impression was not wrong.
I quickly park and grab my water bottle and head his way.
“There she is--and with one minute to spare ladies and gents,” he announces with a grin as I approach.
“Just keeping you on your toes,” I joke. “Hi.”
Max laughs as he takes his crutches in his hands, stands, and shuffles over closer to me. He gives me a quick peck on the cheek.
I want so much more than that quick peck.
But that isn’t going to happen right now. Not in this parking lot full of families. And not when Max is on a time crunch. I can’t be sure yet, but I get the idea that he’s a man who sticks to a strict schedule.
“Shall we?” He nods towards a beat-up old Subaru that is parked in a disabled spot in front of us.
I grin and nod in response as I walk around to get in the passenger seat. As I sit down it occurs to me that I might in the way of Max putting his crutches through the front. I turn to ask if I should move, but before I can ask, I realize the back of the hatchback is open. The car sinks slightly as Max sits down on the back of the car. I twist around in my seat to look at him. “What’re you doing?”
“Putting my crutches back here so I don’t take off your head trying to finagle them in up front.” He answers matter-of-factly as he slides the crutches in. His tone seems to leave an unspoken duh hanging in the air.
Before I can ask anything else, Max pushes up from the tailgate, stands without his crutches, and shuffles jerkingly forward. I blatantly stare as he moves slowly around to the driver's side of the car, holding onto the roof of the Subaru for support and slowly moving one foot in front of the other. Once he reaches his side of the car he flicks his hips backwards and little and then lowers himself slowly onto the driver’s seat, pulling his legs in using his hands.
After he’s situated, he looks at me and grins crookedly. “I’m a man of many talents, eh?”
“Clearly.” I’m intrigued and impressed at the same time. Also I’m working hard to keep my mind from thinking too much about the other hidden talents he alludes to. “Full of surprises, you are.”
That makes him chuckle. As Max maneuvers out of Greymound and onto the interstate, I look around his car. I feel like you can tell a lot about someone from the state of their car. Max’s is cluttered with papers and books. In the backseat I see a pair of rubber boots and a baseball cap. Up front there is an empty coffee mug in the drink holder. I pick it up and look at it. It has a quote scrawled across it in font that I recognize as being from the T.V. show Game of Thrones.
“Favorite character Tyrion?”
“He drinks and he knows things,” he paraphrases the quote on the coffee cup. He shrugs. “It was a gift from one of my sisters. I think Bran is actually my favorite.”
“Somehow, that’s fitting.” I say without thinking. But as soon as I see the incredulous look on Max’s face I know that he’s taken it a different way. “I mean...because he’s smart.”
Max’s only response is a wry grin.
“I liked Ygritte,” I continue as we cross over the bridge that leads to Ossabaw Island. “I was pissed when she died. And Hodor. I liked Hodor too.”
Max side-eyes me. “Hodor?”
“He just seems like a nice guy.”
Max snorts. “Because he isn’t all there.”
“I still like him,” I retort with a shrug. “One could say the same about Bran.”
Max remains silent, but his eyebrows are raised and there’s a smik playing on his lips. This entire conversation is making me want to crawl into a hole.
Why don’t you ever think before you speak, Inez? I mentally slap myself. WHY?
A few minutes later Max pulls off the interstate and turns down a gravel road. After we’ve driven about a mile down the road he pulls over and puts the car in park.
“Is this it?” I ask.
He chuckles. “Where’d you think we were going?”
“Well, truthfully, not the middle of the woods,” I tell him as we get out of the car. There’s a nice breeze outside and the temperature is mild. What a relief. In the distance I can hear the water, and I realize we’re actually only a short walk from the shore. I walk around to his side of the car. “I more imagined you working in a lab or something.”
The rueful expression on his face says it all. Strike two. Or is it three? My foot’s been in my mouth so much today that I’m losing track.
“Yeah, it’s a bit impractical,” he says by way of explanation as he lifts each leg out of the car and plants them carefully on the ground. Then he pulls his crutches from the back and heaves himself to his feet. He walks carefully around to the back of the car, opens the boot, and pulls two folding chairs from within. He slings the first across his back and hands the other to me. “But I’ll be damned if I give up field work any time soon. That’s why I use these things,” he nods towards his crutches, “instead of the chair most days.”
“Hmn.” I nod. There's one question answered at least.
It takes us about ten minutes to walk to the shoreline, and in that time I get to experience firsthand what Max meant by “impractical.” The path is mostly grassy, save for the occasional root, but it would seem that using crutches on grass isn’t as easy as on asphalt. We made the trek slowly, but even so I couldn’t help but notice Max catching his toes on the odd bump in otherwise flat terrain. When that happened he would only hitch his hips up a little higher and swing precariously forward once again.
When the trees finally thin and the shoreline looms in fully in front of us, Max gets as close to the edge as possible before he stops. We’re on a short, grassy cliff overlooking a bay; I wonder what he would do if his research spot had sand instead of compacted soil and grass. He shifts the crutch in his right hand to his left and braces his weight in that direction. Then in a few swift moves he has the chair out and unfolded.
Meanwhile, I haven’t moved. And for the first time, it isn’t because I’m enthralled by watching Max.
No, what’s captured my attention this time is the group of porpoises, swimming and loudly splashing their way towards us.
There can’t be more than ten of them but they are splashing and squealing so loudly that it’s hard to believe there’s any fewer than fifty. They swim alongside each other, occasionally jumping up and then diving back in, usually in pairs. The porpoise at the front of the group hops out of the water so high and then dives back in so gracefully that I can’t but gasp with awe.
“A pod of porpoises used to be called a turmoil,” Max is watching me with an amused expression. “I guess that’s why.”
I unfold my own chair and settle in it beside him. “So this is what a marine biologist does huh? Sits out here and watches the turmoil unfold?”
Max laughs. “It certainly feels that way sometimes.”
We turn our attention back to the porpoises. They’re still about fifty yards out, which I guess is why Max lowers down into the foldout chair. There’s a nice breeze blowing and because it’s still pretty early in the day, the sun isn’t too sweltering yet. In the distance I can hear a seagull cawing.
“I wish I worked outside more,” I say aloud. “This is nice.”
Max nods. “Yeah, I wish I did too.”
That surprises me. “Earlier you made it sound like you were out here every day.”
“Yeah, I wish,” he tells me, looking out over the water. The porpoises are almost to the shoreline. “I mean, I get out from time to time to observe patterns--like today--but that’s only during the summer. And even then I only come down here to research if I get some sort of funding. Otherwise I’m teaching in a classroom or trying to make sense of my field notes from years ago.” He laughs at himself and then turns to me with a crooked smile. “I’m glad this was a fieldwork funding summer.”
There’s something that’s incredibly intimate about watching someone in their element. That’s the only thing going through my mind as I watch Max.
When the porpoises finally arrive at the shoreline they swim right up to the grassy cliff area where we’ve set up camp. They’re still playful and noisy as Max gets to his feet and begins to make his way towards them. It’s almost as if they recognize him.
I want to move closer and get in on the action, but something tells me to stay back and simply observe. So I watch as Max pulls his iPhone from his pocket and starts to record, verbally making notes as he does. The porpoises seem to be paired up in five groups of two and Max focuses the camera on each group as talks. To my inexperienced eye all of the animals look the same and I wonder how Max tells them apart, how he’s even certain this is the pod he’s been waiting for. I don’t see any visible tags on the porpoises. I make a mental note to ask him later.
He takes notes for what seems like ages. When he’s finished he finally makes his way back to where I’m sitting and sinks down into his own chair with flop. I notice that his hair is damp and there are beads of sweat dotting his forehead. He rolls his shoulders back as if stretching them out, and for the first time I wonder how much effort it must take to haul one's body around like that all day.
And then he turns to me, smiling, eyes glittering with passion, and starts to tell me all about the pod of porpoises we just saw. I don’t understand the majority of it, but it doesn’t matter. Because it’s like I’m seeing a whole new side to the stuffy academic, mysterious antique-store owning, lone researcher that I met in the reading room, and I find myself liking this side of Max Ellis even more than the others.