Matthew Licht

A Pipe Dream

The sound of waves and roller coaster screams came in through the bathroom window in Niv’s motel room: my favorite place in the world. I’d hose down my wetsuit and shake the Pacific chill in the shower, hang out in the steam to watch the sun go down and the fog roll in.

Niv lived at the Tramonto Motel with his Iranian girlfriend. Her family ran a Persian restaurant up in San Francisco. They disapproved of their daughter’s lifestyle choices, but they sent money. Her brother rolled back and forth between the States and Tehran. He always had opium. The restaurant connection was a perfect cover. He shipped the dope in bottles of pomegranate syrup. He came down to Santa Cruz often, to visit his sister and get stoned with her and her friends.

His name rhymed with Ay-rab, so that’s what I called him. He’d get hot, and sputter that Iranians weren’t arabs, like anyone cared. I can’t remember his sister’s name, or if it rhymed with anything.

Ay-rab was nice to look at. He and his sister worked on their tans in minimal Euro-style beachwear while Niv and I caught waves. Back at the motel, she’d cook Iranian dinners and we’d blow opium. The motel was built to look like an ocean liner, with portholes for windows and fake smokestacks on the roof. The room smelled of poppy resin, and pomegranate syrup cooking down.

Big Dan dropped by with his sister Kath. She was new in town, fresh from a divorce or a less formal break-up with some black guy over in Stockton.

Kath was wearing one of her brother’s sweatshirts, about four sizes too big. Her shorts made her thighs bulge when they didn’t have to. Flowery flipflops showed off her blackened soles and toenails. When she pulled down the hood it looked like someone had gone over her hair with bacon rinds. Smelled that way, too.

Motel room rhymes with womb and tomb. Kath squatted down to hit the pipe, and didn’t even ask what was in it. An intimate whiff of herself blended in with opium smoke and Iran grub. I stared, and got lost in a stoned dream of her soaping up in the shower not far away.

Big Dan shot an ugly look. He was close to seven feet tall, weighed over two hundred pounds. He was the human hydraulic lift at a garage on the outskirts of town. He reamed out corroded pistons with his bare hands, or his hard cock. Lay off my sister, the look said. She’s in a bad place right now. 

Opium bugs crawled around like a family of cockroaches under my skin, which felt like a wetsuit. Dreams rolled in like waves and mist from the ocean.

Niv changed records. His olive-skinned lady brought in dinner and we ate it on the floor.

Ay-rab seemed really interested in what Big Dan had to say about slant-six engine blocks. He opened his caramel-colored eyes wide, and wagged his head slightly off the beat from the speakers.

Kath rose shakily to go to the bathroom. She came back with a flush fanfare and dropped down again, slightly closer than she’d been before. I handed her the pipe. She showed a chipped front tooth when she smiled.

Niv’s woman took her shirt off. Those two were real make-out artists.

Big Dan was explaining what ring job meant. Ay-rab scratched, nodded, blinked and mouthed oh wow. He packed more opium into the pipe with a little knife.

“You’ve got good hair,” I told Kath. “But you don’t treat it right. Look at you: no body, bounce or sheen.”

She shrugged, scratched her crotch. She had sorrows to forget, pain to medicate. She put Zippo to pipe-hole and sucked in deep.

Looked like a movie flickering on a distant screen when I reached out to flick a limp strand.  Kath said quit it, like we were back in fourth grade. So I flicked her again.

Then I must’ve nodded out. I was in a sideshow: The Man in the Chicken-Wire Cage Full of Snakes. My job was to sit there barely even breathing while cottonmouths, copperheads, fat rattlers and cobras crept and crawled. Suckers in Sunday clothes paid a quarter for a look and a shiver. A Gaboon viper flicked his forked tongue, sensed a carotid artery neaby and lunged. But if I panicked, all the other snakes would sink their fangs in.

Kath’s breath pulled me out of the snake-pit. “What is this stuff, anyway? Got me all sleepy.”

The only light was a beam from under the utility kitchen door and the stereo’s green glow. Niv and his motel wife humped away to the drone music under a mound of sleeping bags, blankets and clothes on the motel bed. The heap rose and fell in the gloom. The springs creaked in tune with their breaths and moans.

Ay-rab and Big Dan were off in Dreamland, fascinated by the live love show.

“Kath, let’s face it: your hair’s a mess. You’re a mess. Let’s hit the shower and see what we can do. Come on.”

She tripped over her brother’s legs. We bumped the bed. I locked the bathroom door. The dim bathroom light seemed surgical after the motel room’s gloom. I unscrewed one of the lightbulbs over the mirror at the sink. Kath held her arms up like a kid so I could pull the dirty sweatshirt over her head. Her tits flopped and bounced. Cool air from the open window stiffened her nipples.

A black mamba went for my jugular vein.

Kath’s shorts hit the floor. No panties. Female funk filled the air. I stripped like getting naked was no big deal, turned the knob, checked the temperature, pulled her into the stall.

Niv’s woman had barrels of hair-care products stockpiled in there. I moved Kath around like a doll, kept her nose and mouth out of the spray so she wouldn’t drown. I became the hairdresser who’d make her look like the girl in the shampoo ad of her dreams.

Green gunk oozed from one of the bottles. I massaged it into her scalp. Gray foam formed, like roadside slush-monsters seen from bus windows back East. Rinse and repeat, apply conditioner and let it steam. Steam was fine, but smoke was better. I pulled Kath from the shower, sat her on the sink. “Don’t move,” I said.

A needle skated uselessly on black vinyl. Niv and his woman were still screwing like dogs. Ay-rab was sucking Big Dan’s big dick. He was good at it. I almost stayed to watch, but grabbed the pipe and a lighter instead.

Kath had slumped forward on the sink.

She sucked the smoke hungrily.

“It’s working,” she whispered. “It’s like I can feel my hair coming alive.”

Like snakes. Medusa. Men turn to rock.

There was a chrome blowdryer on the shelf, and a pair of scissors.

A yellow butterfly tattoo on Kath’s left shoulder showed in the clouded mirror. I hit the pipe and began to snip.

Kath took another big hit and pulled me into her face to shotgun the smoke. She had teeth missing. She squirmed, bucked her hips, moaned she needed love, bad.

But I had a haircut to finish. My ears filled with invisible music. My hands flew.

The mirror cleared, and showed the unholy mess I’d made of Kath’s head.

Her cement-boned brother Big Dan was in the next room. Outside, mist rolled in off the Pacific. Waves roared in darkness. Sharks glided just below their surface.

Better re-fog the mirror. Steam billowed from the shower like a dream of incense-breathing dragons.

Kath, limp with romance, glamour and opium, let herself be dragged back into the stall.

“Let’s get the stray hairs off you, or you’ll be itchy all over.”

New boys in the Marine Corps had better haircuts. Nothing left but the Final Solution, which in this case wasn’t placenta-based conditioner.

Niv’s woman kept a quiver of razors in the shower. Shampoo can be used as shave cream. Kath was too stoned to maintain erect posture. She sunk to a showerstall squat and did what came naturally.

A surf bum no longer, I became some kind of monk whose saffron robes flapped in sunlight and a stiff breeze that blew from snow-mountains in the background.

Kath was a monastic novice who still lived in the sensory world that was maya, illusion, vanity. She had to learn, pray, meditate. But first she had to get her monk look down. I shaved Kath’s head to serve God’s will.

Then I shaved my own, and took my left eyebrow off too.

Kath kept on doing what she did best. The drain was clogged with hair. Dirty water and human fluids rose, overflowed. Then the motel’s hot water ran out.

Nude bald stoners shivered in a shower stall in Santa Cruz. We couldn’t stay in there forever. We had to face what passes for reality, in this world.

When I unlocked the door, Niv’s lady rushed in as though she was about to explode. She squealed when she saw the horror.

Niv was sprawled on the bed.  Big Dan was nailing Ay-rab to the floor. He got a load of Kath.

“Whu’d you do to my sister, motherfucker? I’m gonna take you apart.”

“Shut up, you big homo.”

He stared, open-mouthed. He shut up.

Big Dan later beat up Ay-rab for turning him gay.

Kath liked her new hairdo, for a little while. We went to a wig shop just off the boardwalk and got a magenta Louise Brooks model from the bargain bin. She liked the wig.

Niv still lives in the ship-shaped motel, but he never invited us back.

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