Seroje sat at a borrowed easel on a borrowed stool. She had a canvas in front of her and was painting using oils and only four colors. The view she was painting was actually behind her, since she didn’t need to see what she was painting in order to reproduce it on canvas. She’d already seen the view and had the picture in her head. In front of her was the mobile café with chairs and tables, and the couple she was watching. They were being kissy-kissy despite the fact that they were married to other people.
Seroje raised her phone as if using her camera to view the scene behind her, but in fact, she was taking pictures of the couple.
Seroje was dressed in heels and a sassy sundress, which appealed to the man whose easel she’d borrowed. He had long brown hair braided down his back, paint-strained fingers and dirty finger nails. His jeans and t-shirt were paint-spattered with a few burn holes. He sat smoking among the paintings he had for sale. He was watching her. She didn’t know his name, and he didn’t know hers because that wasn’t important. She’d throw him a dazzling smile once in a while, and he’d smile back, licking his lips.
Her assignment for the day was easy if it weren’t for the fact her senses also picked up the guy walking his dog, passing through every ten minutes, the dude trying to sell weed, the vendor who was craftily short-changing his customers, and the undercover policeman who was watching the vendor and should have been watching the guy selling the weed.
Seroje was glad her subject, a couple known to come here just about every day, today being no exception, didn’t move around. She already had her easel borrowed and her painting started by the time they came and found their table. They drank iced coffee and shared a dessert as well as each others lips. They were oblivious of the people around them. Seroje figured the woman was also unaware that her husband wanted to know what his wife did every afternoon.
The couple stayed their usual hour and a half before rising, kissing their goodbyes, and going their separate ways. Seroje snapped one more picture, using the time stamp to record when the couple left, and sent the pictures to her boss.
Craig strolled into her view and sat on a nearby bench. He was dressed in his black dress pants and white shirt without his suit coat or tie. She gave no indication that she saw him while she completed a few more strokes before deciding the painting was finished. However, she was pleased he showed patience by waiting since he was early. She rose, taking the painting and doing her best sashay over to the painter.
“How’s this?” she said to the painter, keeping her gaze over his shoulder.
“Nice colors, babe, nice colors,” he said, being vague as his eyes were on her and not the painting.
“You can keep it,” she said, feeling her picture was much better than the ones he had. “I can’t carry it with me, but thanks for indulging me.”
He smiled a crooked smile.
She slipped a fifty onto the back of the canvas as she handed him the painting. Her company allowed her to submit expenses for such things.
“Any time, babe,” he said. “Any time.”
He set the painting aside and pocketed the fifty without taking his eyes off her.
Seroje turned and sashayed over to Craig.
“You’re early,” she said, putting a hand on her hip.
He swallowed and his eyes swept up and down her body just like the painter had.
“So, watching the couple? Married, but not to each other?” he said.
“Where you taking me today, sweetheart?” she said, not answering his questions, giving him a quick little smile as she stared at the bench.
“If you’re in character, you can stay that way for a while,” he said, standing. “This way, my dear.”
He led her to his car, the same BMW, and drove to a small airport. Again, he did not engage her in conversation. Seroje enjoyed the quiet. He parked in a spot reserved with his company name, then he used a card key to access the building, but they walked through it and back out onto a tarmac toward a jet.
The white jet with black sweeping swirls coming from the belly looked huge to Seroje. There were two jet engines emblazoned with the words “Citation Hemisphere” in silver letters. There was one door and ten windows on the side she could see. There was no company name splashed on the jet. Seroje didn’t know airplanes, but she knew this was more than a seven-digit price tag mode of transportation.
The door was open with steps leading inside. Seroje felt as if she’d stepped into someone’s lavish home, a living room with comfortable lounge chairs and sofas. There were tables, a credenza and a TV built into a wall.
The colors were tans and browns, easy on her eyes. She sat, following Craig’s lead and fastening her seat belt.
The door of the jet closed, and she glimpsed the pilot as he went up front.
“Prepare for departure. Please fasten seat belts,” a voice announced overhead.
Seroje expected a stewardess, but there was no one else. The jet took off and as soon as the jet leveled off, Craig rose and served her an iced tea.
“Thank you,” she said, making a point of not asking where they were going, finding herself at ease considering.
“It will take a few hours,” he said.
She sipped her tea, looking at the wall a few seats in front of her. Craig stepped up to talk to the pilot for a few moments, then returned to sit and sip his own iced tea.
The wall had an easy pattern, helping to keep her mind at ease and keeping her from feeling the need to calculate the direction and the speed they went. The windows showed very little to calculate that information anyway. She breathed easy and enjoyed the tea, a delightful brew similar to what she drank the night before.
An hour into the flight, Craig brought out finger food: stuffed mushrooms, crackers with spreads, vegetables with a dip, peeled shrimp, and scallops wrapped in bacon.
“Anything here you don’t like?” he said.
Seroje had a taste of each one before she answered.
Then she had one of each again.
Craig smiled and seemed to enjoy watching her eat.
They ate most of the food between them, then Craig cleaned up.
Seroje allowed herself to phase out since she was comfortable with a full belly. She didn’t even track the time.
“Prepare for arrival. Please fasten seat belts,” a quiet voice announced overhead.
Seroje hadn’t undone hers. Craig, who’d been reading a baseball magazine, fastened his.
The plane dipped as it descended, soon landing.
There were no large buildings visible out the windows. No control tower. A small building appeared at the end of the runway with an orange wind sock. There was a small airplane with a propeller parked off to one side.
The jet taxied over toward the building, then stopped and the engines cut.
“We have arrived,” the voice announced overhead, indicating the jet was stopped.
Craig led the way to the front. He pulled a lever. The door opened and the airstairs built into the jet descended.
“We’ll be a few hours, Pete,” Craig said as the pilot stepped out.
“Yes, sir,” Pete said. He was an older gentleman with a full head of gray hair and clear blue eyes. He was the same height as Seroje.
Warm air met them, carrying the scents of grass. The small airfield was surrounded by a high fence and cornfields. There was no name or sign to indicate their location.
Craig led her toward an old black four-door sedan parked by the building. He opened the door for her. Heat and stale air greeted her as she got in. He got in on the driver’s side, finding the keys tucked in under the visor.
“Where are we?” she said, wondering what she’d gotten herself in to, now feeling a little apprehensive.
“Somewhere in Iowa,” he said as he started the car and rolled down windows. He drove up to a gate where he had to stop and enter a code to get the gate to open. The gate rattled as it moved sideways out of their path, allowing Craig to drive through.
She noted another keypad on the other side and while she watched through the side view mirror, she saw the gate close after a few minutes on its own.
Seroje tracked the time as Craig drove thirty minutes down country roads lined with cornfields, before he pulled onto a grassy field with what looked like hundreds of other cars. People directed him to a parking spot. Seroje felt overwhelmed as she got out of the car, looking at the rows and rows of cars and the steady stream of those still coming. Cars meant people. Way too many people.
“I don’t do well with crowds,” she said as he came over by her since she’d not moved after getting out of the car.
He took her hand.
“We’re the only two people here,” he said in a soft voice. “Just hold my hand.”
He closed the car door for her since she’d left it open.
His voice was comforting, but she knew they weren’t the only two people. She was already watching dozens of people get out of cars, heading in the same direction. Most were carrying folding chairs, blankets, or both.
He gave her hand a gentle tug and led her in the same direction as everyone else, passing between the cars until they reached the stamped down path that channeled everyone together toward a couple of gates. People with tickets went through one gate. Craig stopped at another.
“Manor,” he said. “Tickets are being held.”
“Let me check, hon,” the woman said. She was an older woman with long and straight gray hair, wearing jeans, a western shirt, and cowboy boots. Seroje could smell hamburgers and pickles on her breath. “Here ya go. You’re over on the right side, about the middle. You’ll see the numbers once you get over there.”
“Thank you,” he said, leading Seroje through the gate and over toward an area that was less crowded.
There was a stage at the far end of the area with musicians tuning up their instruments. The musical sounds seeped in through the people noises. The grass in front of the stage was filling with people who were setting up chairs or laying down blankets to sit. Awning type tents with only a back panel lined each side, created a defined space for the people in the middle. The tents appeared to be special seating areas. There were tables of food lining the backs of some tents for the people sitting there. Another was full of people in wheel chairs. And yet another was filled with military personnel.
Seroje found she had to count chairs to distract herself from the people until Craig stopped by a tent. There were a dozen chairs in the tent, but no one else was sitting there.
Craig positioned two chairs, making sure hers was an inner one away from the crowd.
“Where are we again?” she said, staring at the tent wall.
“Bluegrass band,” he said, still holding her hand. He gave her hand a little squeeze. “Music. We are the only ones here.”
She tried to phase out but the hundreds of conversations converged on her ears. Her eyes jittered as she watched the tent, counting the threads woven in the fabric.
Banjo music, fast and furious, swept over the crowd like a wave, causing all conversations to stop. There was a rush as the last few people hurried to find their seats. A fiddle joined the banjo as if trying to beat it down, only to spur the banjo on.
The music stopped abruptly. It was so silent, the sound of corn leaves waving in the breeze reached Seroje’s ears.
“Welcome out there,” a voice boomed from the stage, sending vibrations through Seroje. She had to take a deep breath as if the vibrations had pounded the air out of her lungs.
The band was introduced, and people in the audience cheered, then the instruments started again, soft then loud, slow then fast, playing out a rhythmic beat, but each one distinct. Then a man, with a husky voice, sang, sometimes in monotone, sometimes singsongy, telling a story as the instruments played.
Seroje felt herself carried away about the tales of a rocky mountain, lost loves, good hunting dogs, and a girl named Meg.
Craig was right. She felt as if they were the only ones there as she stared at the tent and he stared at her, all the time holding her hand.
The crowd was there to listen to the music. They were quiet while the musicians performed, only clapping their appreciation and sometimes yelling after each song, becoming part of the performance. The instruments picked one last catchy tune to a song that told a funny story, and the concert ended with cheers, foot stomping, and wild applause.
Portable lights around the area brightened because it was now dark. The band put away their instruments, and people filed out of the area. Neither she nor Craig moved for fifteen minutes.
“Did you like that?” he said in a soft voice.
“Intense,” Seroje said, still thinking about whether she did or not. She thought of another word. “Exhilarating.”
He nodded, showing he accepted that as his answer while they continued to sit.
“Craig, ole buddy. Good to see you,” the singer from the band said, coming over and pulling up a chair. His short blond hair was covered by a black cowboy hat. He was dressed in western wear: denim shirt, jeans, cowboys boots and bolo tie.
Craig released her hand in order to shake hands with the singer.
“So glad you could make it. I know it was short notice.”
“Chuck, this is Seroje. This is probably her first exposure to Bluegrass. You wowed her,” Craig said.
Chuck reached up a hand and tipped his hat. “My pleasure, my dear.”
“You had a good crowd. New material?” Craig said.
“You noticed. Yeah, good crowd. Good reception to the music. We recorded last week and have more to record. Sales are good,” Chuck said.
His voice was raspy from too much smoking but sounded banjo-like and thus fit in well with his music.
“You here for the night?”
“No, I have to fly back,” Craig said.
“That’s a shame. Oh, shoot, gotta go,” Chuck said as he glanced back toward the stage. “So glad you could come. Will let you knew when we’re closer.”
“You do that,” Craig said. “G’nite.
“Night,” Chuck said, trotting back toward the stage where people were gathered. There were two camera guys and people with microphones.
Seroje had the impression that the gathering was a press conference with the local TV stations.
“You ready to go?” Craig said.
“Yes,” she said.
The parking area was almost deserted when they reached the car. The only sounds on the drive back were the rustling of corn leaves.
Craig pulled up to the keypad to key in a code and the gate rattled open. He parked the car next to the building. The door to the jet opened and light spilled out as Pete stepped out. Craig left the keys up on the visor.
“Back home, Pete,” Craig said as they boarded.
“Yes, sir,” Pete said, closing the door behind them.
“Prepare for departure,” Pete’s voice announced overhead as they sat in their seats. “Please fasten seat belts.”
Seroje waited until they were in the air.
“I need a restroom,” she said.
“This way,” Craig said, leading her to what appeared to be a full bathroom with a shower.
She used the toilet and washed her hands, then returned to her seat. Craig had poured her more iced tea.
“Did I impress you this evening?” he said.
She kept her gaze toward the floor as she thought. Banjo music still played through her head, controlling the beating of her heart.
“No,” she said. “Chuck did.”
Craig smiled and laughed.
Seroje smiled, liking her comment, as she glanced at him.
Craig’s eyes were on her, and he smiled again, taking her hand and giving it a light kiss. He stared at her most of the way back. Seroje stared at the wall with occasional glances at Craig.
“Prepare for arrival. Please fasten seat belts,” Pete announced overhead.
Craig leaned in. She felt the heat of his body as he kissed her, a slow lingering kiss, then the jet bumped as it touched down, separating them. The jet taxied for five minutes before it stopped and the engines cut.
“We have arrived,” Pete announced overhead.
“Do I need to take you back to the park for your car?” Craig said.
“Yes,” Seroje said as she unfastened her seat belt.
He followed suit, taking her hand to lead her out of the jet. Pete had already opened the door.
“I’ll be back, Pete,” Craig said as they went down the stairs. “Just taking Seroje back to her car.”
There was no conversation as Craig drove her to the park, but the drive wasn’t quiet for Seroje. She still felt like banjo music was strumming inside her.
“Can I call you tomorrow?” Craig said, pulling alongside her car, which was the only one in the parking lot.
“No,” Seroje said. “When I work, I can not have a cell phone on. And I can’t call.”
“Can we have dinner tomorrow? Where can I meet you?”
“Here. Four pm,” she said, and she got out of the car and into hers, feeling a little panic. She needed some time to recover from the intensity of the evening and this man.
She drove out of the lot. For the first few blocks, he was behind her, but only because that was the only way out of the area. Then he turned back toward the airport, and she headed home, taking a few unnecessary turns just to make sure no one was following.