The first time a man ever pointed a gun at me and asked me to love him was at Granny's Kitchen in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The waitress, a soft spoken white woman with her hair pulled back in a bun, had just dropped off my plates --- a simple mix of scrambled eggs, two pieces of greasy bacon, and a short stack of pancakes. Now, no matter how cheap, I always feel like I'm cutting loose at breakfast places for the sheer abundance of plates. While I'm sure the eggs and bacon could have shared real estate, each component had its own china.
The waitress lingered at my table, her fingers fidgeting with straws in her apron. I made eye contact. Well, my eyes contacted hers; she was staring at my lips.
Sure I can't get you something to drink? she asked.
This was approximately the tenth time she'd made sure. She was uncomfortable that I had supplied my own beverage -- a Big Gulp. But even more than that, she was uncomfortable by the deep red stain taking over my lips. Contents of the Big Gulp: merlot, boxed.
(That is an unnecessary detail. I've only written it so I never do it again.)
Before Greg hopped up on a table and announced to the restaurant, If I could have your attention, my name is Greg and this will only take a second, blah, blah blah, I poured a copious amount of syrup on my pancakes. Then I moved the bacon to my pancake plate. In my experience, very little in this life is better than syrup on bacon.
I shut my eyes for that first bite, just like the commercials. The syrup dribbled a bit onto my beard, and when I opened my eyes, I discovered it had also landed on my shirt. I grabbed a napkin. Heard a chair slide backwards. I started with my beard, peering around the diner, making sure no one saw. I think I heard someone gasp. But I was busy, working that napkin then against my shirt. Jesus, I thought. My grandma, who's got a splash of the Parkinson's, could eat with more grace.
If I could have your attention, my name is Greg and this will only take a second, a very official voice boomed behind me.
I turned around to see if I recognized him as one of those cuffed jean-sporting, wild plaid-loving NPR hosts. He wasn't one of those. He was a sunburn with mop hair in a black tank top and hemmed jean shorts. He did, however, have a cleft chin. That's actually worth noting. Don't see a lot of them these days.
I know you guys are busy, he said. I know that like me, you guys are probably broke as hell. I mean no offense Granny's, I love this place, but it ain't exactly four stars. Or three. Anyway, all I want from each of you is five dollars. If you ain't got five, give me four. Ain't got four, three. And so on.
He started with the stringy Japanese couple on the west side of the restaurant. Nobody really seemed scared, not the freckled brat in canvas sneakers, not the liver-spotted gentleman with a copy of that day's paper.
My old friend Jerome used to say that white folks are the only romantic criminals. He tacked it up to that whole Bonnie and Clyde crap. Greg, it seemed, was privy to that information, too. He smiled and thanked each person as he robbed them of a few presidents. The victims, smiling back, seemed to be thinking of their names tagged at the end of some newspaper dialogue. A few even gave more than he asked.
Here, take fifteen. Times will get better.
Aren't you just a charmer.
It was all very moving.
So he gets to me, and of course, I don't have any cash. I carry a debit and an arsenal of credit cards like a normal American. I don't know how he made it to me before running into this particular problem.
No, I don't have one of those iPhone card swipers, he said. Well, you gotta give me something.
I offered a gift card to Harold's Clothes for Men, it had like two bucks on it, but he wasn't interested.
What's your name?
How much do you weigh?
Enough to keep me prohibited from most amusement park rides.
I like you, Henry. Well, let me ask you something. Have you ever loved a man? he asked, pointing his smudgy revolver just past my ear.
I shook my head no.
Me neither. I've always been curious, though. You been curious?
There was a time when I was thirteen -- Blake Hinton was changing after basketball practice -- and I remember thinking, that is an incredible chest. These lines just sprawled from his sternum, lines leading to these almond *******, and I specifically remember wanting to eat them like, well, almonds. But that hardly counts as curious. So, I said, No.
To which Greg responded: Get curious, boy. You're coming with me.
In the spirit of honesty, I was in a bit of a haze before Greg made me climb into his beat up Cavalier. Not just from the Big Gulp brimmed with merlot, no, I hadn't slept in two days prior to the whole gun-in-face incident. Reason being, I was, as Greg would say, broke as hell, and the rent was due. I stayed up both nights conspiring (and drinking). So, really I was pretty thrilled to be kidnapped away from the whole situation.
I had visions. I guess from the lack of sleep. Maybe they weren't visions, maybe just dreams, or fever dreams, I don't know. All I know is I blinked, and we were in the Appalachians. And there was a grey longbeard in the backseat rattling on and on about how change is easy, movement is easy; it's that whole nesting thing that takes courage and strength, blah, blah, blah. I told him to be quiet. Greg told me to get some sleep. I blinked.
We were in a karaoke bar in Madison, Tennessee. There was a gin and tonic in front of me. I took a drink. There was a water with lime in front of me.
Greg asked, Where did you go?
I told him, your dreams, trying to be cute. He turned and asked the bartender for a Yeager bomb. Reaching for the server in -- granted -- an overly dramatic gesture, I said, Make it two. We made it three. We made it four. Seven. Then some vague, but perfect number, because my head rang right. The words came right. And I was a journalist, asking Greg all the right questions.
I'm not a criminal, he said.
I was just bored, man, he said.
You see, I was in a rut, he said. Last month I put up a personal on Craigslist. I know, it's pretty ******* desperate. I've read the kind **** people put on there. But mine was different. I just wanted some time with my ex-wife. Some couch ***, you know? We hadn't done it on a couch since I dropped out of college, and I hadn't even really thought about it until a couple weeks after the divorce. Then it was all I could think about.
A black woman, whose teeth glowed under the black light, began singing "Wild Horses." Then he read my mind, I think.
Yeah, she answered it. Did our thing on her sofa. It was nice and all, and like all nice things, you just want more, but she said I couldn't have no more, this was a fluke, a one-time, or no, a one-off thing, she said. Had to relocate, so that's why I did that whole thing at Granny's.
You ever get it on a couch? he asked.
No, I said. I've see a bra though --- two actually.
He took that as a joke, which was good.
Though wild horses couldn't drag me away, a gasoline horse could.
He handed me a courtesy breath mint after I finished throwing up. The Nashville skyline looks perfect, he said. Especially at night.
My stomach was gravel in a washing machine. Masculine love. At gunpoint, I had agreed to indulge it. I was going to make love to a man -- not just a man -- a criminal. Not something to write about on a postcard.
Mr. Winters, my esteemed landlord,
Apologies about the rent. Got kidnapped by a *******, and I'm presently banging and being banged by him in Music City, USA.
We laid on opposite ends of the queen-sized mattress.
I always liked Super 8s, Greg said. I don't see the point in spending so much on a hotel. A bed is a bed.
And I tried to be funny with something about the confidentiality of dark bedsheets, but it fell flat.
Greg cried. I love my ex-wife, he said.
Can I help?
Will you hold me? he asked.
The air conditioner kicked on in the already freezing room.
I'm sorry. You don't have to, he said.
I scooted against him. He smelled pleasant in a family-vacation-kind-of-way, like a fresh pretzel covered in salt. I put my arm under his neck. He buried his face into my shoulder. I blinked.
The front end of his Cavalier was held together with copper wire and coat hangers. It was a two-door. Both doors dented from, according to Greg, hit-and-runs. It had a Vermont plate on the back. It was red. I mention all of this to say: if we kept moving, we were bound to get pulled over.
In the parking lot of 3B's Breakfast, Burgers And Beer, Greg asked me to retrieve his revolver from the glove compartment. You kinda have to uppercut it, he said. And I did.
I don't want to do it again, but we have to. I'm not staying put, not until I hit the ocean. But don't worry, I'm not going to hurt anyone.
He showed me the revolver. No bullets. I nodded, in approval, I guess.
The second time a man ever pointed a gun at me and asked me to love him was at 3B's Breakfast, Burgers And Beer in Bellevue, Tennessee. Of course, it was the same man, Greg, but the circumstances were a little different.
I went with two orders of biscuits and gravy --- or B & G as my dear friend Chance affectionately calls it. Four bites in and I'd yet to hit biscuit. For a moment, I wanted to tell Greg, C'mon man, ***** the ocean. Tennessee does gravy the way God intended. Nobody would find us in this suburb. We could be sharecroppers. Do they still have sharecroppers?
Do you like fresh corn? I asked. It was the first crop that came to mind.
Greg didn't answer. I noticed his plate of hash browns and eggs -- sunny-side up -- were untouched. You okay?
He was, he said, trying to get in the zone, that's all.
Our waitress looked like a poster child for ******'s Youth. She couldn't have been much more than sixteen. She had blonde -- almost white -- hair. Her eyes changed color with the intensity and direction of light, a gradient between seaweed and dark ocean blue. She appeared to be an amish girl gone defective, and I was about to inquire into that very supposition when Greg stood on the table, and said, If I could have your attention, my name is Greg and this will only take a second.
Tennessee is not North Carolina. In North Carolina, they got a healthy aversion to firearms. In Tennessee, however, once a babe can walk, the *******'s got a BB gun and an endless supply of empty soda cans for target practice. I say that, to say this: when Greg stood on the table, so did three other men. Their three guns pointed right at him.
Lower that gun, brother. You ain't gettin' any money out of us.
Hate to shoot you in front of your boyfriend.
Coffee spilled and ran off the tray our waitress held. She shook so hard, it wasn't clear how many women she was.
Greg's cleft chin centered on one gunman, than the other, than the other.
Just drop the gun, *******.
We don't want to ruin no one's breakfast.
Fellas, I said, he doesn't have any bullets in his gun. We need a little money that's all.
That ****** is just trying to protect him.
I'm calling the cops, a purple-haired old woman yelped from under her table. Silverware clanged against the floor. Then the buzz of a fly. Then the pop of fries drowning in grease. Then the bell chimed as some idiot walked inside.
Greg's arm was shaky as he pointed the gun at me. Do you love me? he asked.
And I was at 3B's in Bellevue, Tennessee.
And I was at 3B's in Bellevue, Tennessee.
And I was at 3B's in Bellevue, Tennessee.
I put my arms up. Slid my chair back a ways. Stepped on the chair, then unto the table.
Do you love me? Greg asked.
His breath smelled like last night's alcohol and that morning's coffee. He was a child, a sunburnt child with a cap gun. He wasn't going to hurt anyone.
I put my hand on top of the revolver and lowered it. He crumpled, as if I were scolding him. They still pointed their guns at us. But for the first time in my life, I felt secured, tethered to a space.
I lifted Greg's chin up with my index finger. Covered his eyes with the palm of my hand. And I kissed him. I kissed him, keeping my eyes closed tight.