I swallowed my spear of asparagus before realizing that the 78-year old Pulitzer prize winning composer was talking to me from across the large wooden table that spanned the mansion's dining room. I'd only heard the word "butch" to describe a tough looking lesbian before and I wondered if that's how I looked to him. His ruddy, sunburned complexion was complimented by a shock of white hair. His neck was surrounded by a thick, silver chain that looked more like a dog collar than a necklace. He wore a red designer shirt that was half-spandex and half-leather with the arms cut off. Something he clearly wore to Studio 54 and Plato's Retreat during his prime in the 1970s. More importantly, he looked like a gay tryst between Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway, where his machismo bull fought his flamboyance, and I immediately found him fascinating.
"What do you need me to do tomorrow morning?"
He winked at me and said "I can't tell you until tomorrow morning. Can you help me?" Something about the way he leered and the way he put things intrigued me. In fact, he wasn't asking me, he was telling me. A minute later he mentioned his recent favorite movie, "The Human Centipede," the title alone of which polarized the dinner guests. Only three people admitted to seeing and liking the film while others protested any further debate. He, a young female writer from Chicago who looked like an Iranian pixie, and I huddled and quietly discussed the merits of the scandalous movie. Between his ominous request and his morbid fascination with horror, I was his. Hook, line and sinker.
The next morning, I saw Norman Hemingway (or was it Ernest Mailer?) at breakfast and he nodded and paused. Gave me a silent out. A look that warned, "If we do this, there's no turning back." I winked in a way that declared "Game on!" and the permanent grin tattooed to his face betrayed a few extra molars of glee. I met him on the mansion porch and we walked to his red rental car. I don't own a car but I could tell it was a recent model. A modern car with electric gadgets that could sense things and whatnot. Space age stuff. I entered the passenger seat and strapped myself in.
On the way to wherever we were going, a female traffic cop held up a Stop sign and we let two horses and a fat man in a golf cart slowly pass in front of us. Ernest Norman (that sounds more like him) said something about his "maid" usually doing what we were about to do, whatever that was, and I called him on it. "You have a maid?" He defiantly categorized, "No. I have a mate. My mate usually does this." I stood corrected and responded, "Oh. What does your mate do for a living?" Hoping to detect a clue for our mission and he said "Accountant. He's an accountant." Math? I wasn't good at math. I prayed he wasn't recruiting me to do something that involved quantum physics. And, then I remembered the thing about being "butch."
As we drove around the park, he admitted he was embarrassed by the task at hand and didn't want to look foolish in front of everyone at the dinner table. He had basically abandoned driving twenty years ago and only needed the rental car so he could freely escape the artists' colony whenever he so desired. He enjoyed going into town daily to pick up The New York Times. I reminded him that the colony provided a free New York Times every morning near the dining room. He shrugged and said, "I like to read my own."
We pulled into a gas station and he asked me what side the gas tank was on. I made a wrong guess but, once we figured it out, he parked and sat there and finally made eye contact with me. "Now, this is what I need you to do. I need you to pump gas for me. I don't know how to do it anymore. I'm afraid."
My heart sank.
He was a tough old guy with a cheeky demeanor that commanded your attention. He was provocative but polite yet time was having its time with him and he had identified and recruited a soldier into his quiet army to stave off the rigors of mortality. He didn't have to say another thing to me. I got out of the car and opened the gas pump door and told him to swipe his credit card, choose the regular gas and pick up the gas pump. Then I told him to insert the gas pump into the gas tank hole and squeeze the handle and let the gas flow into the car. I promised him the gas pump would let him know when the car was full and turn off. He hesitated but did as I instructed. Once we were done and he had bought a fresh new copy of today's New York Times, we drove back to the artists colony and he thanked me. He winked a silent wink acknowledging our little secret. Our bonding moment. I felt good helping him pump his own gas so he wouldn't be afraid to go at it alone.
Maybe he just wanted the company.