CLASH presents “Bad Dreams on the Far Ledge”

For a little while now, CLASH has been one of my daily internet haunts, ridden as it is with interesting and talented writers — and now I am among them, lucky enough to have had a piece of flash fiction I wrote chosen for inclusion on the site during the run-up to Halloween. Thanks to Leza Cantoral and the CLASH team. Go check out the site. Right now, for serious.

Her smile was sharp and immediate; her eyes were twin voids.

via Bad Dreams on the Far Ledge by Manuel Chavarria — CLASH

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Darling

darling_photo_05

That Friday in July was just one of those nights. I was antsy, and I wanted to go out, but I delayed and delayed until chasing the night was pointless. At about midnight, I decided to watch a movie.

Netflix recommended something called Darling to me; Darling was one of the most well-received horror films of the year. “The Best Horror Film of 2016!!!” screamed multiple outlets.

It started off pretty well, with really stark black and white photography and the presence of Lauren Ashley Carter, a talented and striking actress who’s built a career out of being the horror film analog of, say, NBA player DeMarcus Cousins, a talented big man who puts up great stats on bad teams. Speaking as someone who’s sat through Jug Face and The Woman a couple times apiece, I can attest to her strength and grace as a performer. And like Cousins, who so readily elicits takes predicated on the notion that he’d be better served as the second option on a better team—because despite his immense talent, he’s never proven himself capable of dragging one of his sad collections of basketball misfits to the playoffs the way, say, a LeBron James has—, Carter fails to bring Darling off; she is committed and game, but it doesn’t matter, as the movie surrounding her is content to parrot Repulsion, but with Roman Polanski’s supreme control of atmosphere and tension and his sense of humor replaced by baffling and uncomfortable long takes and a self-seriousness determined to belie Carter’s miraculously effective, wide-eyed performance. I could imagine her in consultation with the director:

“Now, in this scene, you roll around on this small bed, screaming and crying, until I say cut.”

“…why?”

“Because it’s CREEPY.”

<Carter’s return smile is half-wince. She throws herself onto the bed, and begins yelling and weeping, grasping desperately at any small motivation she can, channeling the spirit of Margery Kempe, taking solace in the idea that there is some religious fervor in her pantomime madness. After five minutes of this, without hearing “cut,” she catches a glimpse of the director from the corner of her eye. He has contorted his body remarkably. His face is buried firmly in his crotch, and he is inhaling deeply.>

Midway through the film, I paused it, and I called my friend Lila, a talented writer whose sardonic wit and ability to appreciate my rants as they flit between apoplectic rage at the most minor deficiencies of the world and self-indulgent moaning about the most minor physical ailments has helped carry me through more than one depressing evening at home.

Lila listened—bemused, I’m sure—as I interrupted her assuredly more interesting evening to rattle off an increasingly unhinged list of grievances, ostensibly directed at the movie, but driven perhaps in part by a skin condition I’d developed over the waning summer months, something that seemed like prickly heat, the kind of thing that you scratch, and then don’t scratch, and then someone suggests that you soak your arms in cold water with powdered oatmeal and you listen because Gold Bond and Hydrocortisone haven’t worked, and it’s Friday at midnight, and the irritation is immense. My arms air-dried as I paced to and fro; the oatmeal clung to my skin in off-white streaks.

“Just turn the movie off, Manny. You don’t need to do this to yourself. You can go to bed. You can read. Darling isn’t worth it.”

“No, Lila. I can’t. It makes me too angry. If I stop now, I can’t effectively complain about it. I have to let it run its course. The movie is only 70 minutes long as it is, and I’m more than halfway through. I won’t let it beat me.”

“Boiling this down to some sort of nihilistic competition is insanity. There are no natural laws at work here. There is no course. It is all man’s creation. Just stop.”

“Enough! The rally is downtown, sister, not in this house. Take your bleating elsewhere!”

“The rally is within us all. And it is quieter than you realize.”

After we hung up, I listened carefully to the beating of my heart. It fluttered. Was my inability to shut off this thoroughly mediocre and over-hyped film school experiment a symptom of a larger problem? I sat, and I pressed play. I began to scratch one of the scaly lesions on my right arm. The oatmeal flaked away, and the flesh beneath was red and raw.

 

 

Skulls in the Strangest Places

giantsugarskull

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.