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Art in the Park

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“I bet if you said something, they would have bought it,” the Cute Guy with the Goatee observed. He was hovering just outside Steve’s booth, coffee in hand, phone in the other. Steve had just assumed that the guy was waiting for a friend or something like that.

“Um,” Steve intelligently replied. The two women spent a long time debating over a small framed print but ultimately walked away.

“It was an easy sell -- they were looking for something for their living room, and that print they liked fit the bill. All you needed to do was say that print looks great with greens and blues,” the guy continued.

“Well, you know, people need to make up their own mind about what they want to buy,” Steve stammered out in response. “If they don’t like it enough to buy, then that’s on them.”

The guy shrugged. “It’s your business. It’s pretty inoffensive art so it should sell well.”

Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. It wasn’t even a half-hour into the sidewalk art show and it was not going well. He’d lost a sale and then there was this guy.

The would-be art critic stood in front of the booth and pointed at the large framed original watercolor in the back. “Now that’s nice.” The piece was one of Steve’s favorite -- the Maine coastline he saw on a kayak trip around Bar Harbor a year ago. The Goatee Guy peered closely at the watercolor. “How much?”

“1,500.”

“Underpriced,” the man declared.

“Really?” Steve asked. He had been concerned about charging too much.

The guy nodded. “In fact, you could probably charge a bit more and still sell a decent amount.” He stepped back out of the booth. “New to this?”

“Second show.”

“In that case, you should -- hey, Pepper!” The guy waved down a tall redhead in a linen sundress. “Got to go. Wish you luck, buddy.” The guy patted Steve on the shoulder and went over to the woman, who looked like she was his girlfriend. They examined a map and set off to another part of the show.

Steve sat down in his folding chair a short distance from his booth, far enough away not to be intrusive but close enough to hear what people said about his art and close sales. He wondered again why he let Natasha and Sharon talk him into doing this show. He picked up his book, trying to manage the trick of acting disinterested but yet being approachable and available at the same time while people stopped at his booth.

Sharon showed up as promised with coffee and donuts. Taking up her station in the other chair, she asked, “So how is it going?”

“Not bad. No sales and I have a critic already.”

“It’s very early still,” Sharon said encouragingly. “The show only started at 9.”

The Cute but Obnoxious Guy showed up later, with coffee but without his girlfriend. He planted himself in front of the Maine watercolor again. He listened in as Steve sold two prints to an older couple. “Doing well?” he asked when Steve was free.

“Okay,” Steve said. “I’ve sold some prints.”

“I see you brought a few originals. Maybe if you put them in front of the booth …”

“I work in watercolors -- light can damage them. So that’s why I’ve hung the pieces in the darker areas of the booth.”

“It’s that sunny?” Obnoxious asked. He took off his red-rimmed sunglasses. And Steve was suddenly struck by how beautifully deep brown his eyes were. Obnoxious flashed him a bright smile. “I still think you could reorganize your pieces to show them off better.” He moved a couple of pieces, then a couple more. He stepped back to review his work. “See?” he said, tugging at Steve’s t-shirt sleeve.

Steve could concede two pieces looked better hung together. But not all of the moved pieces. On the other hand, the guy had put all the Brooklyn streetscapes in the front. Steve really didn’t want to admit to the would-be art critic that he actually had a point or two to make about displaying Steve’s art to promote sales.

The guy’s phone rang. “Hmmm, my friends are trying to find me.” He winked at Steve this time as he left.

Steve dropped down in his chair next to Sharon, who was doing some paperwork. She pushed her hair behind her ear. “What was that about?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Steve admitted.

“Do you think he’s one of the judges?” she speculated hopefully.

He considered for a few seconds. “No, the judges have been by already.” And they don’t give advice quite like that, Steve thought. He might be cute with nice shoulders and thick brown hair but ….

“Oh, right, that makes sense.” She sounded disappointed. “Your work really is wonderful, Steve, and I guess I was hoping that someone else would notice it, like award-notice it.”

“People have bought a few pieces. I sell a few more and I can consider it a very successful day.” Steve replied cheerfully. “Can’t really ask for more.”

After eleven, the crowd noticeably picked up, roaming the sunny streets of late summer Brooklyn. The Maria Stark Foundation always held its charity art show and festival at the end of August, the last weekend before Labor Day, in a local park. Steve had often come before when he was a college student. It still felt a little surreal to have his own booth here.

Steve was kept busy talking about his work, selling a few of his unframed prints, two framed prints and one original. Sharon helped out with processing the credit card payments on Steve’s phone and wrapping up purchases. She tapped his shoulder. “Hey, got to go to my work thing now. Natasha should be here soon.”

“Thanks for helping out, Sharon,” Steve replied.

“Wish I could stay longer.”

Steve noticed over her shoulder the guy from earlier frowning at him. While bending down to pick up her purse, she said, “I swear that guy is staring at you.”

“He’s been coming around all morning.”

“Hmm. That’s interesting.” Sharon smiled.

He groaned. “He’s strange, but it’s nothing like that at all. He even met up with his girlfriend outside this booth.”

“Right. Anyway, give me a call and let me know how it went.”

Once Sharon left, Steve’s art critic stepped up to the booth. “Still haven’t sold that watercolor yet,” he said.

“No. Some interest though,” Steve answered. “By the way, I’m Steve.”

“Tony.” He checked the watercolor again. “I see you sold that Cadillac Mountain landscape.”

“About a half-hour ago.”

“Must have been your friend who did the sale,” Tony stated.

Steve nodded reluctantly. Sharon had in fact talked the man into buying the Cadillac Mountain watercolor, though she pooh-poohed her efforts, saying that the customer was inclined to buy it, he only needed a little encouragement. “You would have approved. She really talked it up.”

“She’s good. I’ve been watching.” He inspected Steve. “You might do better if you looked more like an actual artist, in flannel or black, a little starving, and blue hair, than male model. You know, look like the stereotypical artist.”

“The consumptive look went out of fashion years ago even for artists,” Steve replied.

Tony waved a hand. “The point is that you don’t look like the guy who painted these. People expect to see a person who looks the part.”

“I’ll keep that in mind for my next show. I’ll stop eating for a week in your honor.”

“You don’t have to go that far. But what would you look like with blue hair?” Tony asked.

Steve shook his head. Despite the unwanted advice, Tony was rather likeable with his smiles and curiosity. And regrettably, he looked rather amazing in his tight, dark-wash jeans. Tight enough to convince Steve that he should really appreciate a nice ass more often.

“I mean, if I met you anywhere else I wouldn’t think you were an artist.” Tony looked Steve over carefully while Steve blushed under the heated glance.

“Um, after college I went into the Army. I’m out now and back at school getting my MFA at Empire,” he said.

“I do some occasional work for the military, mostly support, logistics and computer systems,” Tony explained. “My dad was the weapons guy, not me. I’m into green energy, medical technology and consumer electronics. And I’m good at selling stuff.”

“Even art?”

“You have promise, but anyone can see that you aren’t used to promoting your own art. I’m glad to offer my meager advice.”

“Is that so?”

Tony’s phone buzzed. “I have to meet Pepper for lunch. I’ll stop by later to see how you are doing. If you have more of those Brooklyn pieces, I’d suggest putting those out.”

Arriving from dance class to replace Sharon, Natasha was putting her tote bag on a chair. She looked at Steve quizzically as Tony swanned past her. “What’s that about? Is that the Cute Guy with the Goatee?”

Steve ran a hand over his face. “How do you know about Tony?”

“Sharon texted me to keep an eye out for him,” Natasha replied.

Steve stuck around his booth a little bit longer while Natasha told him about her dance class that morning. Natasha and Sharon were good friends, encouraging him to enter the show when he wasn’t sure if he could. But it was past noon time and he was hungry. Setting down his book, he told Nat he needed a lunch break and headed towards the food trucks.

As promised, Sam swung by to help Natasha while Steve was away. They chatted a bit, catching up on the week’s news and then Sam noticed the ever-present Tony skulking around the booth. “What’s up with that guy?” he asked, pointing out Tony.

Natasha looked up from her phone and said in a low voice, “He’s shopping, but not for what’s for sale in the booth.”

“Oh,” Sam replied, cluing in to what was going on. “Steve?”

“Dense as usual. It’d be adorable if we weren’t on Hour 4 of Clueless Steve and Cute Guy with the Goatee Show.”

Tony, better known to Steve’s friends as Cute Guy with the Goatee, saw Natasha and Sam in their chairs. He sidled up. “Um, where’s Steve?”

Natasha smiled. “He’s taking a break, getting lunch somewhere. He’ll be back. Still making up your mind about that painting?”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “Still on the fence. I have a friend stopping by later to give an opinion. Um, I’ll be back.”

“We’re here until four,” she called out. Then she turned to Sam, “He’ll be back.”

“And not for the painting,” Sam added.

“Oh, I want him to buy it or I’ll feel cheated. He owes us that much after putting up with him and Steve all day.”

Steve took his time returning to the booth. He wanted to check out the other booths to see what other artists were doing. After looking around, he could see what Tony was saying about his booth. He had borrowed his booth canopy and stands from a neighbor. If he did this again, he would need to step up his game with his presentation. And he would definitely need to make more attractive signage.

Natasha wasn’t staying past two. She had plans to meet up with some friends for a movie and a bar night. Sam was on afternoon duty with Steve. When Steve returned from lunch, Natasha whispered to Sam to let her know if anything happened.

Tony showed up like clockwork an hour after lunch, this time with a popsicle. Steve wondered what he was going to say this time. He also tried hard to ignore how red Tony’s lips were from sucking on the popsicle. “Hi there, Steve.”

“I thought you’d gone home by now.”

“Nah, I’m sticking around to the end.” He began to flip through the rack of unframed prints.

“I haven’t seen your girlfriend since this morning,” Steve ventured.

Tony asked, “Who? Girlfriend? Oh, Pepper.” He laughed hard, suddenly leaning against Steve. “She’s my friend and assistant and puts up with me.”

Steve ducked his head, vaguely embarrassed. He didn’t see Sam roll his eyes from the safety of his chair. Tony then said, “Hmm. Booth is looking a bit bare.”

“We’ve been doing steady business,” Steve said proudly.

“Do you have other fairs coming up?”

“No, this is it. Then I’ve got classes starting up after Labor Day.”

“I’m glad to see that you haven’t sold that landscape I like.”

“If you like it, why don’t you buy it?”

“Still making up my mind. You haven’t really sold me on it yet.” Tony looked expectantly at Steve. “You should tell me how nice it would look hanging in my living room or over my bed.”

Steve’s mind went blank. Then Tony brushed against him. “I have to check in with Pepper. She has me on a tight schedule today.”

“Schedule?” Steve asked. But Tony was gone.

Sam gave Steve a patented “you are a dumbass” look when Steve sat down. “What was that?”

“Oh, Tony. He’s been coming to the booth all day. Don’t know why. He’s been giving me advice on selling my art.”

“You’re listening to him? You should, because he is very good with advertising.”

“Oh, I didn’t know he worked in advertising. Actually, I don’t know what he does for a job.”

Sam thwacked him with his fingers. “Come on. Ask him out.”

Steve bit his lip and looked at the ground while he thought. “I don’t know, Sam …”

Sam’s phone rang. Steve could tell from the slump in his shoulders that it was a work call. A few “rights” later, Sam shoved the phone back into his pocket. “Got to go. When work calls –“

He fist-bumped Sam. “Call me when you’re free.”

“You okay with this?”

Steve looked around at the thinning crowd. “Yeah, it’ll be fine. The fair will be over in a couple hours.”

“And ask that guy out. He’s been sending out those ‘ask-me-out’ signals that even you should have picked up.”

Steve chatted with customers and nearby artists as the show began to wind down. He began to wonder when he’d see Tony, then if he’d see Tony again. He sold a few more pieces. He helped the artist next to him pack up early. She really liked Steve’s work and they ended up exchanging pieces, he gave a print of a Brooklyn street scene and she a print of a wildflower bouquet. “I’m not likely to sell much more today and my kids want to take me out to dinner,” she explained. “Wish you luck. See you at the next fair.”

Back at his booth, Steve pulled out a moleskine and started sketching. He wanted to capture the lazy, late summer feel in the air around the booths under the late afternoon sun. People passed through, poking around the booths, drinks in hand, with the occasional dog. Steve appreciated the nice comments about his art, but he wasn’t making any sales.

Then Tony showed up. He plopped down in the chair next to Steve, propping his feet up on an upside-down milk crate. Steve had no idea where Tony found the crate. Putting his arms behind his head, stretching out casually like a cat in a sunbeam, he asked “So what happens now?”

“We wait a little longer, then start packing just before the show ends.” Steve blushed when he realized he’d used we. “I mean, if you want to stick around.”

“I’d like to hang around, it’s not like I have something better to do. No more obligations.”

They talked awhile about this and that, discovering a mutual love of action movies and science fiction television. Tony talked about running his business and Steve about how he got interested in art. Tony turned out to be not at all that obnoxious as he came off earlier, but was rather charming and very interesting. Tony watched the booth and jumped in to persuade a hesitant customer to buy something. He patted Steve’s arm. “That’s how you do that,” he crowed after the particularly successful sale.

“It’s not a game, Tony,” Steve said with a laugh.

“Hah. It’s all about business and closing the deal, you know. You’ll come back if you do well and I like to encourage artists. Especially when they’re good.”

“You called my art inoffensive earlier today,” Steve pointed out.

“That’s not what I mean, but, yeah, maybe not the right way to phrase it,” Tony agreed. “You’re very good, and they’re the right sort of pieces for the fair. Not like that guy several booths down with the horror art.”

“Thanks for the help.”

“I was born to be a businessman, so it comes easy. And I enjoy closing deals.”

Steve liked Tony, he liked how he smiled, he liked how he talked, he liked the warm feeling in his stomach when Tony brushed against him. Tony was the first person he had met in a long, dry spell he really hoped to get to know better. But Steve was so rusty with the whole ask-someone-out-thing, he had no idea where to begin to ask Tony about getting a drink afterwards or going out for coffee sometime. And his friends could be seeing something that wasn’t there.

Tony stood up, checked his phone and took out his wallet. “Guess it’s time. Pepper’s been trying to talk me out of this all day, but I really like that Maine watercolor.”

“I’ll wrap it up for you. Uh, sure you didn’t want to negotiate price?” Steve said as he took the watercolor down and rummaged around his supplies for bubble wrap. Tony had talked earlier about the finer points of negotiations.

“Hmm,” Tony mused, with a glint in his eye. “Throw in dinner with me, after we load up your car, and you’ve got a deal.”

Steve’s heart skipped a beat. “Dinner?”

Tony’s face fell a little. “Yeah, you know, dinner, where two people sit down and eat food ….”

“I don’t know, Tony,” Steve teased. “You drive a hard bargain -- the watercolor for 1,500 and dinner.”

“It’s good deal, I promise.” Tony smiled brilliantly. “I’ve texted my driver Happy to come by and pick the piece. Let’s pack up.” He hip-bumped Steve and said suggestively, “I have more negotiation tricks I can share. Maybe we could practice.”

Steve could just imagine what they could negotiate. “Where do we begin?” he asked.