“Listen to me.  A monkey could do this job.  That’s what I am.  I am a fucking monkey.”

I stared at the man standing behind the counter, next to an enormous helium tank.  He was in his fifties, with wiry gray hair that stood straight up and straight out, and an equally wiry body.  He was inflating balloons.  Frantically.  Every few seconds, one of them popped.

“FUCK!” he screamed, and flung the remains of the popped balloon across the room.  “But really?  Not everyone can handle it.  Some people feel like real assholes out there.  But you know what?  They’re the assholes.  So fuck ’em.”

I nodded.  A mom-looking woman had walked into the balloon store and stood timidly next to me at the counter.  “Could I ask you about your prices?” she said quietly.

“I’m a little busy right now, lady,” the man screamed at her, another balloon popping.  “FUCKING SHIT.”  He turned back to me. “So, the Cinco de Mayo parade is tomorrow morning.   Come to West Saint Paul around nine.  You know West Saint Paul?  Where all the fucking Mexicans live.”

As I was walking out, Gary, my new boss, yelled after me, “Hey, do you have friends?”

“Yeah, I have friends.”

“Bring them.”

The lady began again: “Could I–”

“I SAID I’M BUSY, you stupid bitch!” Gary repeated.  Another pop.  “FUCK!”

 

It was the summer after my sophomore year of college, and the blackouts were starting earlier and earlier.  Every night, I would meet my friend Guy, start drinking gin and tonics, get sad, and teleport into the next morning.  I went to the balloon shop because I didn’t want to be sad anymore, and I figured it’d be impossible to be sad if you were a balloon salesman on rollerblades.

The ad in the school paper read, “FUN SUMMER JOB SELLING BALLOONS ON ROLLERBLADES.”

I like a job description that is straightforward and restrained in its enthusiasm.

After leaving the shop, I met up with Guy and another friend, David, to start drinking and convince them to come with me to the parade.  I don’t remember anything after they said yes, but the next morning, the three of us showed up to West Saint Paul, hungover and wearing matching dingy Hanes undershirts.

We found Gary’s van parked in a lot off of Cesar Chavez Boulevard.  To be clear, Gary’s business “van” was a rusted out, powder blue, unlabeled VW bus.  It would have seemed molesty if it didn’t already seem so jam-bandy.  But parked next to him was another, very different van.  It was pristine white with beautiful red letters: “Balloon Time, Minneapolis Minnesota.”

Next to the new van stood a new man with a white beard, dark sunglasses, and big potbelly.  He looked a little older than Gary, and much more normal.  He was slowly and calmly inflating mylar balloons and handing them to Gary.  When he saw us, he eyed us skeptically.  “Who the fuck are these guys?” he asked.

“These are my employees, you asshole.  Why don’t you mind your own fucking business.”  Gary turned to us.  “This is Tom.  Don’t mind him.  He’s been stoned since he got back from Vietnam.  He’s Minneapolis and this is Saint Paul, so don’t listen to a fucking word he tells you.”

The Twin Cities, we realized then, had twin balloon men.  Tom and Gary.  They worked all the big Cities events together, but this is how they talked to each other:

Gary: Fill the fucking balloons faster, you fucking pothead fuck!

Tom: Settle down, you maniac.

Gary: I’m a maniac?  At least my wife’s not a whore.

Tom: Shh.

We observed all this in the first five minutes, while Gary tied money belts around our waists and hundreds of ribbons around our wrists.  My friend David leaned over to me and whispered, “Tom and Gary.  America’s other cat and mouse.”

Armed with an extraordinary amount of mylar Elmos and Dora the Explorers and Mexican flags floating above our heads, rollerblades under my feet, Gary shoved us out into the parade with these parting words: “Push Dora.  Last year, we sold so many goddamn Doras.  We were like, what’s with all these fucking Mexicans who love Dora so much?  Turns out?  Dora’s fucking MEXICAN!”

As I coasted into the street, a gust of wind sent me flying down Cesar Chavez, the mass of balloons acting as a sail and the rollerblades now completely beyond my control.

 

Every time I saw my friend Guy, he looked miserable.  David and I are short and weak, so the combined strength of all the helium basically held our arms up for us.  But Guy looked like a giant, walking forward slash, hunched beneath the balloons and trying to keep the ribbons from tangling in the wind.

Every time I saw David, he was on his way back to smoke cigarettes with Tom, who hadn’t moved from his post at the vans.

Seven or eight hours and thousands of balloons later, the sun started to go down and the parade was clearing out.  It’s illegal for vendors to sell their stuff after the parade is over, but as the cops rolled around shutting everyone down, Gary skated past them, pushing his remaining product on families trying to walk to their cars.  My friends had long given up their money belts for more cigarettes with Tom, leaning against his van with him like they were all old war buddies.

When I skated by them, David ran up to me.  “Molly!  Tom’s rolling a doobie and we’re gonna smoke it in the balloon van!”

Later, Guy explained to me how the whole thing had come about:

Tom, to Guy and David: So, you guys like to drink beer?

G and D: Yeah.

Tom: You guys like to smoke weed?

G and D: Yeah.

Tom: You wanna smoke some right now?

G and D: Yeah.

So while the Saint Paul police chased Gary around, Keystone Cops style, my friends and I got into a van filled with shiny, floating cartoon characters to smoke a joint of homegrown rolled by the Minneapolis balloon man.  It was us and the reject balloons of the day– Cookie Monsters, blue dolphins, silver stars, glittering in the light of the setting sun.

After a few Vietnam stories, we asked Tom how he and Gary knew each other.

“Oh, we’re business partners, and we’re friends,” Tom said.  “We’ve been through a lot together.  We smoked a joint with this guy in Mexico once?  Turned out to be a wanted serial killer.”

What?

“It’s good that you guys are friends, that you have each other,” he continued.  “You need people to be there with you for experiences like that.”

A wanted serial killer?

Tom looked up at the sky.  “Uh oh.”

Some kid had let go of one of our balloons.  When we looked up, we saw a pink and purple unicorn soaring through the pink and purple sky.  “It’s beautiful,” I said.

“It’s going to burn up in the atmosphere,” Tom said as he inhaled smoke.  “It’s really, really bad for the environment.”

 

Finally, Gary came back, defeated by the cops.  As he and Tom packed up their vans, they started planning for the May Day parade the next day.

“Is your bitch wife going to come?” Gary asked.  “God, I hate her.”

“Shh,” Tom said calmly.

“Hey Gary,” I said.  “You shouldn’t talk to Tom that way.  He’s your business partner, and he’s your friend.”

Gary stopped dead in his tracks and said loudly, “First of all, we’re not business partners.  And we’re NOT friends.”

“Shh,” said Tom.

 

We said goodbye to Tom and got into Gary’s tour bus– which, luckily, was also filled with balloons– for him to take us home.  We had the feeling that we shouldn’t tell Gary about Tom getting us high, and we were doing a pretty good job of playing it straight until Gary got out a bag full of all the other crap he sold– light-up Hawaiian leis, light-up headbands and rings, light-up sunglasses.

“Look at this shit!” Gary screamed, putting a pair of enormous blinking glasses on his face.  “You’ll never believe what some assholes will pay for this garbage!  This is my life!”

We were the audience Gary must have always dreamed of.  We just couldn’t stop laughing.  And as Gary performed for his devoted crowd, reveling in his utter disdain for his job, he finally started smiling.

Seeing him smile made me brave enough to ask him something that had been on my mind all day.  “Gary…” I began.  “Do balloons make you happy?”

Silence.

“You know… have they lost their novelty?  Are they still… fun?”

Gary took a slow, deep breath.  And another one.

“Of COURSE balloons have lost their novelty!” he screamed.  “You think this shit is fun?  You think I get off on PLASTIC?!”

I’m not sure what I was expecting him to say.

“But,” he continued.  “Every once in a while, there’s that one little girl who gets to you.  She comes up to you with her older brother, crying, asking for another balloon because she let go of hers.  So… you sell her another one.  At a slightly discounted price.”

My friends and I, holding our breath.

“Then you lean down… you wrap the ribbon around her little hand, and look at her in her beautiful eyes.  And you say to her: ‘Don’t let go of it this time, you fucking moron.’”

I don’t think I’d ever been happier in my entire life.

I loved my high school youth group. Every Wednesday night, no matter how much homework I had, Mom or Dad drove the 30 minutes across town to our church, where my younger sister and I were deposited, no questions asked. Two hours later, we would emerge rosy-faced, talking too loudly, and in need of another layer of deodorant.

For the average Evangelical, this is really where it all starts. Sure, there is Sunday School and no end to Vacation Bible School, Awanas, etc. for the younger ages, but everybody knows that it is the teenage years that are crucial. The stated purpose of this Youth Group, of course, was to turn us into thoughtful and godly young men and women, although as an adult, I suspect ulterior motives. Sure, we would play our silly games like wall ball and how-much-baby-food-can-you-eat-before-you-puke before gathering together in a splatter-painted room called “The Lion’s Den” to talk about God and the pressures of being a teenager in today’s world. But regardless of what we actually did, I am pretty sure that the main reason for the existence of the Youth Group is to take the place of sex.

There’s the foreplay. We would meet in the gym for games. Boys on one side, girls on the other. At first, it was all about the heart rate. We’d run races. We’d see who could skip the fastest, wrap ourselves in toilet paper the quickest, spin in circles for the longest. Slowly, things would progress. The boys would hoist the girls on their shoulders, the girls bearing handfuls of whipped cream. The girls giggling, with only flimsy material separating their important places from the backs of necks, only a matter of rotation, really. So close. No, but there is the matter at hand. Must pummel other girl, also deliriously straddled atop other boy and bearing whipped cream. Must beat her to the smear. If it lands in my face first, then it is all over. No more pressing. Must not be the smearee. Must prolong.

The games move on from there. Wink ‘Em. A Shot in the Dark. And my favorite: Caveman. The boys lock arms altogether in a mosh pit of maleness, while the girls rush in, pulling tickling tugging. If the girls team up together against one guy, the better the chance for release. The already-ejected males, sit defeated and panting by the wall. At the perimeter. And then, just then, at the apex, when there are only two more guys to conquer, the girls do something extraordinary. Focused on one goal, and one goal alone, they cooperate. There is no cattiness; no competition. With half on one side, and half on the other, the tug of war commences. It doesn’t last long, the resistance. It is over before it begins, really. A triumph. A disappointment. It is here that the Youth Group Leader gathers us together.

Our favorite Youth Leader – I’ll call him James – was a tall man, blond, handsome. He has just graduated from college, so he knows what we’re going through. He relates. For him, the struggle is over, having recently married his college sweetheart. And believe me, he tells us, the wait is worth it. We giggle in spite of ourselves. Some of us, jealous as hell, can’t help but perspire a little at the thought. A few of us girls glance over at his wife, Donna, feigning embarrassment at the back of the room.

We are impressed by their candor. We cannot help but be blown away by their realness. They are cool in spite of their years and if they were still in high school, we would totally be friends.

My father one time made the mistake of criticizing the car they drove in front of me as we pulled into the parking lot behind them. “What are they doing in that clunker?” He rhetorically had asked. “It makes them look like smokers.” For my father, “smoker” was about as close to a swear word as he ever came and the effect was staggering. James was our leader and king, and he had just received my father’s lowest blow. From that point on, my younger sister – cute, smart, and a far better person than I – and I were 100% devoted to King James with the fervor of groupies. What a visionary! What a radical! He didn’t care about status or approval – only that we knew The Truth.

James stands at the front of us sweat-drenched and panting teenagers and tells us about a better way. The right way. Together, we have embarked on a journey. It has its ups and its downs. Jesus wants to love us fully. Completely. If only we would let Him! It doesn’t matter what we’ve done in the past. There are tears. We hug. We cuddle. We are invited to take it a step further and pray the prayer of repentance. Many of us do. If any of us want to go for ice cream down the street, we are invited along – a post-youth group activity fittingly called an Afterglow.

Of course, at age 14, I was impressively ignorant of the real purpose of the Youth Group – to keep us from breeding like rabbits. And yet, I knew there was something tugging at my hormones. Inertia existed before Newton gave it a name, if you know what I mean. But the reason my good friend, Gina, would often disappear during Youth Group with her boyfriend, only to reemerge half an hour later with a fresh layer of make-up, truly eluded me. Blond, beautiful, funny and charismatic – just about anyone who ever meets Gina likes her immediately. She has a dry wit about her that sends me rolling to the floor time after time. She’s a hard act to follow – especially when she’s on a roll. But even more impressive than her sense of humor is the fact that she doesn’t seem to care what anybody else thinks about her. Anyway, she told me that they had been praying together – and I believed her. I even remember feeling a twinge of jealousy. How come none of the boys wanted to go pray with me?

I suspected I knew the answer. Clearly, I wasn’t spiritual enough. I wasn’t living up to the potential that God had given me. I knew then in my heart that I would have to try harder. Clearly, there was a higher plane of spirituality out there – just waiting for me. I began to pray fervently to this end.

So when King James announced one night at Youth Group that we would be sponsoring a city-wide roller night, I could hardly contain my excitement.

James had apparently made friends with the manager of a failing roller rink while doing some unexplained fieldwork, and had immediately seen the possibilities. He not only had a heart for the community, but he also just so happened to have roller-skating in his soul. Who knew?

It was given a mission and a name: Rollin’ with Jesus. The idea was to let anybody in from the community who wanted to skate for free, as long as they stayed to listen to a talk about Jesus sometime during the night. It was Evangelism at its coolest.

Now, it is important to understand before I proceed that our church was vehemently opposed to dancing. Later, in my college years, we would actually be fined in the amount of $50 if some killjoy named Martha from the fourth floor of the dorm ratted us out for shaking our booty on a dance floor on the opposite end of town at a club called Thumper’s. (Oh yes, I knew it was you, Martha.) And if anyone cared to object, all he or she needed to do was to look it up in the church Handbook and see for themselves how it was a sin and all that.

And not only dancing. The Handbook was very clear on a variety of issues including, but not limited to, movies, alcohol, smoking, premarital and extramarital relations, and swearing. Certainly, not all Evangelical churches have such documents. Under the umbrella of “Evangelicals,” there are many flavors and varieties. At my Christian high school alone, we represented more than 60 denominations, but there are literally thousands of denominations and sub-denominations under the heading of “Evangelical.” But in our church, the Handbook ruled the day, coming in just below the Bible in authority. If the Handbook said that attending movies was ungodly behavior, then that was that.

Not that there weren’t loopholes. We may not have been allowed to dance at our church, but there was nothing in the Handbook against roller-skating. There is music; there is movement; there is no mandate. Consequently, there were simply no grounds on which the church board could object – although it did put forth its best effort with a stalemate lasting over 18 hours on the subject of sweaty knees.

The objection was put on the boardroom table by one of our church’s oldest, most stalwart members. Beatrice Belch may have been pushing 80, but you couldn’t put anything past her. Already famous within the church for saving its youth from the clutches of evil in the late 70s by putting a ban on all articles of clothing that bore the color red, she demanded the board’s respectful attention. As the only woman on the board, she was forced to remind them that she, too, had been young once and had been confronted with the issue of sweaty knees in her own life. No, she conceded, there was no sin in having glistening joints. But when two young people of the opposite sex allow slick body parts to come together, it can only lead elsewhere. It is a pathway. A gateway drug, if you will.

The young people will only be roller-skating, argued the proponents of Rollin’ with Jesus. The chances of full-body perspiration were slim to nil. Not good enough, said Beatrice. Although a widow, she still remembered the predisposition of her own husband, Donald – God rest his soul – to perspiration. All he had to do was think about yard work, and his underarms would be wetter than a dishtowel after Thanksgiving Dinner cleanup. Do we want to enable our young people to fall into the Devil’s Plan? Or do we want to stop sin before it happens. Be a kind of spiritual antiperspirant, as it were.

OK, said the Rollin’ side. Worst-case scenario. A guy and a girl sit next to each other during the sermon and accidentally touch sweaty knees together. Then what? They are just going to run toward the backseat of the nearest car and get it on? Hasn’t it occurred to anyone that sweaty knees are considered gross by teenagers? (Read: Has it been that long, Beatrice?) The likelier scenario is that the 15-year-old girl who has just unwittingly exchanged fetid body fluids with her male counterpart is going to feign a gag reflex and spend the next week telling all of her friends about how she totally almost vomited all over her new, white Keds.

It was no use. Neither side would budge. For Beatrice and her posse, it was a battle of the encroaching culture versus morality, plain and simple. For the Rollers for Jesus, it was a bunch of out-dated ideology standing in the way of progressive Evangelism. Elders from the church were called in. The prayer chain lit up faster than PTL on pledge night. The wives of some of the board members brought in casseroles. But no matter how logical the arguments, the church was pretty much split right down the middle. It wasn’t until Donna, wife of James, opened her mouth that a compromise was reached.

“Why don’t we just require everyone to wear pants?” she asked. The board leaned in; considered. It was pushing it, said the Rollers, but it was a way. It could work. Beatrice’s side shifted, cleared their throats. Nodded with approval. The matter was settled. Rollin’ with Jesus was a go.

A Special Witness Team was rapidly formed for the purpose of getting the word out. Due to my leadership skills, or perhaps simply to my unparalleled enthusiasm, I was unanimously voted in as the team leader. What better way to jumpstart my spiritual life than to throw myself into mission work? I knew there was a lot riding on the success of Rollin’ with Jesus, and, consequently, I took my job very seriously. If we were going to make this event a go, we were going to need the help of a professional. We were going to need Travis.

Travis was one of the kids from the Junior High division of the Youth Group and was well-known for his artistic talents. He was short, scrawny, and had a shock of red hair on the top of his head that had the strange property of always looking as if it had recently been towel dried. He looked to be about 9 instead of 13. But there was no denying his gift. There was nary a soul in the church who had not seen his amazing portfolio of pencil drawings depicting the Apocalypse and all of its horrors. He was the Hieronymous Bosch of Holiness. He was gruesome in his imaginativeness. Brilliant in his scope. He may have dealt with some difficult and, well, graphic subjects – but it was from the Bible, after all. If God didn’t want us thinking about such horrific things, then He shouldn’t have written them into His book! And anyway, it was all in black and white, so it wasn’t as if there was red blood spurting everywhere. It was black.

He took a little convincing at first…something about artistic license and a brochure for roller-skating not exactly being his genre and all. After numerous phone calls and a promise to buy him a box of Hot Tamales and a Coke on the big night, though, I had him. I agreed to let him come up with the design completely on his own. Granted, I did make the suggestion that it should have something to do with roller-skating. He did not let me down. The very next day, he was at my doorstep with the finished product.

“Can I look at it now?” I asked stupidly, as if he had just passed me a personal note that would be awkward to read in front of him. We were still standing on my front doorstep. I hadn’t exactly been expecting him and was wearing one of the more embarrassing pairs of sweat pants from my immense collection of loser lounging attire. He shrugged.

“Whatever,” he said. I pulled my over-sized T-shirt down in the back to cover the giant hole in the seam of the butt and invited him inside for orange juice. As we did not drink soda in my house, I could not offer him anything more sophisticated. I could, however, at least offer my guest orange juice at full strength as my mother had not yet diluted the latest can from the freezer, as was her habit, leaving me to at least a shred of dignity. I mentally prepared myself for the task at hand and tried to remember where the pitcher was kept.

“No, thanks.” I followed his glance out to the street where there was a Mazda with the motor still running. Somehow, I had managed to overlook this when I opened the door. His father nodded at me when we made eye contact through the windshield.

“Oh. OK.” I looked down at the picture in my hands. It took a moment to understand what I was seeing – evidence of his genius, I believe – and then it all became clear. I blinked hard to hold back the tears. It was an emotional moment. Travis had not only come through for me, but he had so far surpassed expectations that I could barely speak. In the background, true to his theme – his heart’s passion – were the four horsemen from the book of Revelation. They were running hard. Striving. You could see that they were in pursuit, but you could also see by the strain in their eyes that they were losing. For there in the lead, blazing on ahead of them, was the object of their chase. I recognized him immediately. It was Jesus. On roller skates.

For the entire week leading up to the big night, we posted ourselves all over town. There were only three of us on the Special Witness Team (code name: “SWAT”), requiring us to be extremely strategic if we were going to invite the entire city of Colorado Springs. Since school had recently been let out, we took turns spending our days handing out our smokin’ fliers – at the malls, sticking them under windshield wipers at the grocery stores, taping them to telephone poles, etc. I tried to get more people on the team so that we could cover more ground, but most everyone I called already had plans.

In the end, though, it didn’t matter. Not only did we have Travis, our lead graphic artist extraordinaire, but we also had Tammy, our premier quizzer from the Bible Quiz Team. If anyone on the street tried to stump us on a spiritual point, she was sure to set them straight with God’s Word. By the last count at the time the SWAT team had been dispatched, she could produce on demand no fewer than 320 Bible verses from memory.

For the most part, people were receptive. Several of them actually looked at the flier before tossing it into the nearest receptacle, once they had clearly consumed and memorized the specifics of time and venue. When all was accounted for at the end of the week, we had distributed over 1,000 fliers – all created using the church secretary’s photocopier, which, incidentally, caused a bit of a disruption that week in the creation of the Sunday bulletin. But it didn’t matter. What was a little lost time and toner when we were doing the Lord’s work? Based on our observation of public reaction, we were going to have a full house. By our calculations, we were proud to report to James that no less than 700 people could be counted on to show up from our efforts. Conservatively.

The night of the big event nearly blew my mind. With the help of a branch of the SWAT team, the decrepit rink was changed into something awesome. There were flashing colored lights, a sound system, a disco ball – and even a limbo pole. There were even a few faces that I didn’t recognize that had come in response to the fliers. And while we didn’t have the predicted 700, we did have at least, I don’t know, 23 people who I had never seen before.

We skated round and round the rink to DC Talk, Carmen and Rick Cua. Never had doing the Lord’s work been so fun. The music spoke to something deep within my soul and I even felt my hips begin to loosen a little with the rhythm. In a godly way, of course. Much like David must have felt in his famous Psalms dance – although unlike David, we were required to wear pants.

When James raised the lights halfway through and called us over to a more intimate circle in the snack bar where we could talk about how cool God was, I learned that several of the people I didn’t recognize had come together from one of our sister churches – from all the way across town! There were even two people from the community who said they wanted to accept Christ in their hearts for the first time.

“I want you guys to watch for people who might need a friend,” James had briefed us earlier in the evening. “Pray with them. Show them Christ’s love and acceptance. Be His hands.”

Well, when the people from the community began to pray, we were ready with our hands, piling them onto their shoulders to show them how much Jesus loved them. It was a moving time and there were many tears. I ended up with my hands on a plump young woman with long black hair. She didn’t appear to speak English, but it didn’t matter. I could see that she had been touched by the Spirit.

Because there were so many of Christ’s hands and so few people on which to lay them, we were wedged in quite tightly. We kept our eyes shut for some time as James led us all through a prayer of repentance. And when it was all over, I was stunned at how many people there were in our prayer circle.

“Amen,” said a male voice still in transition from behind me. I turned and looked up, recognizing the speaker immediately. His liquid green eyes were focused on me.

“Praise God,” he expounded.

“Isn’t it amazing?” I smiled at Scott.

“God’s just so…cool,” he shot a look around the roller rink in an attempt to incorporate the breadth of his feelings.

“Yeah.”

In the background, Amy Grant’s “Heart in Motion” began to blare.

“Wanna skate?” he asked me. My stomach dropped through my intestines and my face flushed red. Fortunately, the lights had once again been dimmed at this point. He had stayed late for swim practice, so he had been late. We skated for the next hour round and round the gym, neither of us brave enough to call for a break. Finally, when the lights went up and James told us that we all had to go home to our parents, we skated over to the side and took off our skates.

There was an uncomfortable pause.

“This was really cool,” he said.

I nodded.

And that’s when he said it.

“I don’t know – I just feel so happy right now. I feel like thanking God. Do you want to go somewhere…to pray with me?”

Score.

**********

Erika Rae is a struggling novelist living in the mountains west of Boulder, CO.  The excerpt above is from her book “In a Handbasket: Confessions of a Recovering Evangelical.”