It was New Year’s Eve, the last day of the ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll’ decade. I barely noticed, being preoccupied as I wandered through the mall.
The daily toll of too many beers and too much weed interfered with my ability to think. I needed a place to stay. Nothing came to mind. At least the mall was warmer than the frigid winter outside.
A six-foot hippie in his twenties approached, my age, maybe a bit older. He pointed at me and smiled. We could have been twins in our dress, with faded denim bell bottoms, black peacoats, and boots with buckles. Love beads and a tie-dyed tee shirt showed under his open coat. An Apache-style headband kept the hair out of my eyes. We were long-haired and unkempt and carefree. At least that was the idea.
We instantly recognized each other as members of the counterculture, sticking it to The Man with our non-conforming appearance, which itself became its own convention.
The stranger broke into a toothy grin and nodded. “Dude! What’s happening?” He squinted at me. “John, right? Didn’t we meet at a party a few weeks ago? Gimme some skin!” We skidded our hands across one another’s in what passed for a handshake.
“Actually, it’s Jack,” I said. “Close enough.”
A few weeks covered a lot of territory for me. The time span included several parties, lots of dope, and only hazy recollections of names and faces. His bushy beard made my new acquaintance’s face look like every other guy I knew with a facial hair.
“Sure, yeah, I remember,” I said, every word a lie. “R…Rob…?”
“Close enough,” he laughed. “What’s going on? You look like you lost a puppy.” He reversed direction and strolled alongside me. It was a slick move, and we sauntered along like old friends.
“My old lady kicked me out,” I said. “I’ll never understand chicks.”
“That’s heavy, man. Was she the foxy one I saw you with, the one with long hair and granny glasses?”
“That’s her,” I said. “That’s Janet.” It didn’t register his description covered half the young women on the planet.
My new-found friend slapped me on the back. “Don’t let it bum you out. Just think how great making up will be.” His smile morphed into an undisguised leer.
“That’s not going to happen. Janet means it this time. She tossed my shit out a window and changed the locks on her pad. Plus, she kept all my albums.” That last blow depressed me more than anything else.
“So, what are you going to do, man?”
“I don’t know. I’m freakin’ out. I’ve got no job, no bread. I’m sleeping in my car…”
Rob and I ambled along in companionable silence. He limped slightly, but we didn’t speak of it, and he kept on trucking without complaint. We passed a head shop and inhaled the incense. We stopped in the atrium and stared at the fifty-foot Christmas tree, mesmerized by its myriad of multi-colored blinking lights.
“Psychedelic, man,” I said.
“Far out,” he said.
We were on our second circuit when he spoke again.
“Dude, I may be able to help you out.”
“Thanks, Rob, but I’m not into charity.”
“Not charity, man. A job. I can use a guy like you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I run a side business. Transportation, delivery, that sort of thing. I’ve got a man out sick, and one more delivery today. My leg’s bothering, and I could use another set of hands. Can you dig it?”
“I don’t know, man. I’m kind of spaced out.”
“I could really use your help.”
“I don’t know. How’d you hurt your leg, anyway?”
Rob looked away. “Souvenir from ‘Nam.”
I didn’t know what to say. The news was full of stories. Civilian casualties. Atrocities. Baby killers. I didn’t know what to believe. Yet here stood Rob.
“C’mon, man. Help a vet. A hundred bucks for an hours’ work.”
I was desperate. “Okay. I’m hip. I need the scratch.”
Rob checked his Timex. “We gotta split, man, if I’m going to make that last delivery.”
I followed Rob to the parking lot. When we arrived at his vehicle I had to stare.
“Boss wheels,” was all I could say.
“Outta sight. But—you make deliveries in this?”
Rob’s van had purple Astro turf on the roof, and brightly colored gargoyles painted on the side panels. Blood dripped from the monster’s mouths as they stood over half-eaten carcasses of unrecognizable animals. Words flanked by peace symbols spelled out ‘The Love Wagon’ in fluorescent pink curlicue script.
“My work van’s in the shop. I only use this in emergencies. Climb in.”
Once inside, he lit up a joint.
“I just scored a nickel bag of this Columbian Red.” He passed the joint to me. “Makes the work go faster.”
After a few tokes I could feel my spine melting into the van’s seat.
Rob cranked up his 8-track player and we grooved to “Two Thousand Light Years from Home.”
“This is some good shit,” I said, “but it’s giving me the munchies.”
Rob rooted around in the back and came up with a beat-up bag of chips. The crumbly mix was enough to satisfy my cravings for salt, grease, and oil.
“How’re you doing, Jack?” he said.
“I’m in the zone. Pretty fucked up. You?”
“Pretty wasted myself. Time to work, though.”
We drove to the mall’s inner lot where the stores hid the drab reality of their loading docks. Rob cruised along, peering out his cracked windshield as he muttered to himself. I was groggy from the dope and payed no attention.
Finally, he grunted and backed up to a platform piled high with boxes labeled with names like Marantz, KLH, and Pioneer.
Rob checked his watch for the umpteenth time.
“Perfect. The minions are at lunch. They just get in the way. Time to work, Dude.”
We loaded the Love Wagon. Rob worked like a maniac, throwing the heavy cartons at me as I stacked them in the van. We both worked up a sweat.
When we finished, Rob dropped me off at the mall entrance.
“Thanks, Dude,” he said. “That was a big help.”
“Manual labor’s not my bag,” I said.
He shrugged. “Someone’s got to do it. Here’s what I owe you.” He handed me a wad of bills. “And here’s a bonus.” He reached in the back and manhandled a box onto my lap. It said, ‘Harmon-Kardon’ on the side.
“A stereo receiver. That’s for helping me out on short notice. Couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Wow, Rob. That’s real groovy. Thanks a lot.” We said our good-byes and told each other it had been real.
Rob drove off. I cut through the mall as the warmest route to my car, awkwardly carrying the bulky box.
A uniformed rent-a-pig gave me the hairy eyeball from his post in a small kiosk. He spoke into a walkie talkie and headed in my direction.
“Good afternoon, sir. May I ask what you’ve got there?” He rested his thumbs on the front of his utility belt. The black leather creaked with the movement. His Barney Fife hat covered a chrome dome that made his ears look like satellite dishes.
“What’s it look like, man? It’s a stereo.”
“Have you got a receipt for that?”
“What? No, I don’t have a receipt.” I was still stoned and not thinking clearly. “It was a gift. From a friend.”
“Does this friend have a name?”
“Yeah. Rob. His name is Rob.”
“Does Rob have a last name?”
“Yeah, sure, it’s…” I stopped and realized I didn’t know Rob’s last name.
Barney Fife frowned. “Just what exactly do you know about your friend Rob?”
The mall cop was a downer. “I don’t know. He runs a delivery service. He drives a van he calls The Love Wagon. It has a purple roof. He limps from an injury he got in ‘Nam.” The more I talked the less I liked it.
Officer Fife liked it even less.
“So where is this Rob fellow now?”
“I don’t know! Stop bugging me, man!”
Barney Fife’s walkie talkie alerted him to a theft from the Allied Electronics loading dock. Someone had seen a suspicious van with a purple roof there less than an hour ago.
Officer Fife called the real cops and they arrested me for grand theft. They tacked on possession of an illegal substance when they found the remains of the Columbian Red in my pocket. Just another bonus from Rob.
They found Rob, which wasn’t his name, but not the stolen goods. His leg was fine, and he was never in Viet Nam. They had little on him except my testimony, which was less than believable. He got off with probation.
The judge sneered at my hippie haircut and sentenced me to three years.
At least the jail was warmer than the frigid winter outside.
Writers’ workshop and writing group