Shadows and Smoke

by Kelly Fine

I’ve finished my shopping at the farmers’ market. My bags are filled with carrots and cucumbers, eggs and tortillas. At my last stop, the boy handed me my change for the olives and hummus, then presented me with a gift, a napkin heavy with baklava. “A sweet for the sweet,” he said, assuming his uncle’s broad stance. The baklava was my excuse to find a bench, but I’ve already eaten the whole piece and scraped its syrup from my napkin. I’m still here, sitting and savoring the market. It’s Friday evening, and this is the most beautiful spot in Los Angeles.

It’s past eight o’clock but the market is still busy, especially here on the block reserved for vendors of prepared food and hot meals. Parents are still shepherding their kids from stand to stand. At this hour, I would expect to see more flushed cheeks, but maybe even the toddlers are accustomed to May nights; in the crowd’s murmur I hear the workweek’s end. A mother waits, rolling her buggy forward and back, forward and back, lulling the baby inside. Her friend returns and hands her a plastic bag weighted by fruit. Damp plums swell against the bag, licking the white plastic to translucence. The woman lifts the bag to her face and breathes in.

It’s been half an hour since the vendors pointed their lights at seething woks and bright salsas. Above the stand lights and the fire of a grill, the closest streetlight is a blur. More remote is the twilit sky, fading now. A passing balloon salesman stops to toss a crayon-shaped balloon up above the crowd. Evening has sapped the color from its twirling stripes, but a column of light gleams from the spinning mylar. He catches the balloon and punches it once more into the darkening air.

A father loosens a strand of cotton candy, suspends it above a child’s mouth, and walks. The girl toddles after, mouth thrown open, head thrown back, hamming for the grown-ups. Here comes a man in his seventies, his glasses falling down his forehead. He ambles on, holding his roasted corn vertically, eating it like an ice cream cone. Two teenage girls stroll by arm in arm. A boy jogs up behind them, raises his hands for a showy dive, and, with a whoop, he slices the girls apart. The girls yell and punch him, and soon all three of them are hugging their way down the street, bellowing a song I’ve never heard.

The lights of the kettlecorn stand are glowing warmly. The neighboring stands cast their own lights over the street, and three or four pale shadows splay forth from every pair of feet standing in the kettlecorn line. A scooter snakes around the line, bearing a shaggy-haired boy. As he passes, his fan of shadows glides in and out of the shadows cast by the idling crowd. Four middle-schoolers walk away from the stand, sharing a bag of popcorn. They pass behind the last man in line, an elderly Jehovah’s Witness on break from handing out magazines. One by one, the shadows of their legs darken his divided shadow, then slip out and slide on.

What a cold night! Those who remembered their jackets are raising their hoods. At the tri-tip sandwich stand, steaks are grilling over a wood fire. Smoke is fleeing the muscle and wood, its particles coursing toward that distant layer of sky where they might roam for miles without meeting. Just above the fire, the smoke is massed dense and hot. It looks like the ghost of flesh, kin to both substance and space. Scents of oak and cayenne drift this way. People gather in front of the stand. The sky is dark, the meat smells good; they’re not ready to burst their bonds, not ready to give their smoky ghosts to the air. Without taking the steak from the grill, a cook slices its tender meat. His customer, a pregnant woman, holds her hands up to the fire, and the fire’s reflection glows from her strained white t-shirt. She must be joking with him—he’s grinning as he piles the meat on her roll. She takes her plate but lingers, talking.

There goes the eight-year-old daughter of my favorite citrus vendor. I watch her remarkable hair swing past, hair so long that she has to gather it every time she sits, and so straight and thick that it ends in a ruler-edged chop. She and her friend are walking a small dog, maybe a Chihuahua mix. The dog catches scent of a garbage can too late and scrambles back, tangling both girls in its leash. Their heads jerk up, their eyes lock, and after a pause they burst out shrieking. They draw the seeming chaos out for twenty seconds, then untie themselves easily and take off running toward the citrus stand, the dog galloping behind.

For the past five minutes, a woman and a little boy have been sharing my bench. The woman seems to be the boy’s nanny.

“Lupe, I love you too much!” says the boy.

The woman laughs. “I love you too.”

“How old are you?” he asks. “How old are you? Twenty-three?” The answer matters to him.

“I told you already. Very old. Very old.”

“How old are you?” He waits.

“Forty.” She sighs. She counts the boy’s ten fingers and tries to show him that her age is four sets of those.

“Why are you ten?” he replies.

Here comes another young child, a pigtailed girl dangling a balloon twisted into the shape of a monkey. Her businessman father is pulling her down the street by her other hand. “I don’t care what the other kids say. We’re not gonna play that game,” says Dad, and he yanks the girl on, leaning away from her as if to deliberately strain her short arm. She looks too young to measure herself against other kids. She’s not arguing or crying, just hurrying along, her mouth hanging open. The man deposits her in the crowd waiting around the pupusa stand, with another adult, I suppose. Here he comes again, plowing back up the street, straining the arm of a second child, a boy who appears to be the little girl’s twin. Scowling, he pushes past the boy on my bench, past the clot of smoke, past shadows where his kids might have played.

Across the street, a tiny woman lifts the lid from a huge pot. Steam gushes skyward. The pot is stuffed with tamales and all the world’s warm comforts. There it sits in the open night, its river of steam vanishing into the black sky. With a pair of tongs, the woman extracts two tamales from the pot and lays them in a styrofoam clamshell. She claps the container shut and hands it to a customer. I imagine the steam condensing in fat drops inside. The customer packs her dinner carefully into one of the saddlebags flanking her bike rack. She raises her kickstand and coasts away, the long shadows of her bicycle wheels flickering across the crowd.

KELLY FINE is seeking a publisher for Stepping Out, a book about her days and nights in the borderland between Los Angeles and the Angeles National Forest. She misses southern California’s wild mountains, ethnic diversity, and evening farmers’ markets, but she is now trying to put down roots in what soil scientists call “Seattle muck.” Find her at Cracked Offering.