Photo copyright Manuel Chavarria, 2016.
I took a train up to North Hollywood today to visit my barber, who cuts hair out of her house, because the sheer force of her personality cannot be contained by any mere salon or barber shop. In addition to working as a freelance barber, she works on movie sets, and is very much into horror. The walls of her apartment are covered in horror art and special effects masks, and so when I sit in her barber’s chair, I have trouble keeping my head straight, because what I really want to do is gawk at the weird faces and look at her book shelf. Even the bathroom features a plaque with a prosthetic mouth that has been sewn shut on it.
I’m used to that being my world when I’m in Kelly’s barber chair, but what I’m not used to is that world bleeding out into the area outside of her building, which is primarily quiet and residential and not at all tinged with Kelly’s predilections. Today, however, before I made the turn onto her street, I saw a giant skull lying in a small, fenced-off area.
The area bound by the fence could not have been more than 8ft x 8ft. My questions weren’t limited to the origins of the skull; what purpose could this tiny, fenced-off parcel of land serve? Is it specifically a strange altar for this smiling, jowly pink skull? Or was it to be a small park before it was usurped by the forces of darkness?
I didn’t have much time before my appointment, but I had to know, so I hopped the fence and looked down into the deep purple eyes of the skull. It was probably a leftover from Day of the Dead, but why was it still there?
“Why are you still here?” I asked the skull. A curious dog had wandered to the fence, a schnauzer, and it let out a small bark as I moved closer to the death’s head. Dogs, we’ve all been told, react adversely to the presence of the supernatural, but besides the bark, the schnauzer barely moved, simply tilting its head and watching me as I crouched, and my hand moved across the surprisingly smooth and warm forehead of the skull, and the eyes of the thing held mine, and its jaw seemed to loosen and I knew it was about to reveal its secrets to me. I leaned in, my ear close to the blood-red teeth. A fetid odor rose around me, and the schnauzer was on its hind legs, forelegs up on the fence, black eyes sparkling.
My phone rang. Kelly wanted to know if I’d gotten lost.
“No.” I cleared my throat. “I just stopped to pet a dog.”
I stood up and hopped back over the fence. I scratched the schnauzer behind the ears, and it licked my hand. It barked a cheerful bark, looked at the skull once more, then trotted away.
When Kelly opened her door, she looked paler than usual, and her eyes were sunken and red.
“I didn’t get much sleep,” she said. “It’s been real hot in here some nights. And smelly, sometimes. And one of my masks is missing. But it doesn’t look like anyone broke in.”
An empty plaque stood out on the wall.
“What’s with that skull out there?” I asked. “The one that’s fenced off. I don’t remember seeing that before.”
“It’s new. I just noticed it the other day. City’s been talking about putting one of those ‘take a book, leave a book’ libraries in that space, but it never happens. I have some books I want to get rid of.” She handed me a copy of J.-K. Huysmans’s Là-bas. “Want one?”
I stuck the book in my jacket pocket. “Sure.” Then I took my jacket off and sat down. Kelly coughed, and opened her blinds. Sunlight poured into the room and glinted pink along the edge of her barber’s shears. I could not see her eyes.