Helium Missionaries: A short story

I was staring out the window in the office I shared with Nate. He had covered the window on his side with cardboard. He said it was too distracting, but I had pushed my desk towards the window on my side. I liked the distraction. He wasn’t in that morning, so I closed the door and sat by myself and stared outside. This was back before they asked me to stop working there, back when I still wanted to. Somewhere down below a funeral had just finished. There was a church crammed into the office complex, unable to build the building they really wanted off by the interstate. As I watched the mourners wandering the parking lot, attempting to grieve among the squat buildings and corporate logos, I wondered how I would feel about having my funeral in an office park. I hoped I’d get something grander, but dead beggars can’t be choosers.

I couldn’t see the people very well, but I saw their balloons. They rose past my window, red and yellow and blue and green, set against the grey sky. I yelled down my hallway and Andy answered back: A man had died and as a final request asked each person to set a balloon loose to the wind, small envelopes attached to the ribbon, helium missionaries spreading their gospel. I was listening to a particular soundtrack which had the power of making any moment meaningful, but combined with the colors rising in front of me and the sudden thoughts of life and death, it made this moment especially wondrous.

I watched as they rose above the straight row of pine trees that lined the street. They passed over the leasing agency and the plumbing warehouse. Past the apartment complexes and over the hill I used to climb. They soared above the prison, then the Army Reserve base, bits of color hovering between the clouds and the dead grass. I stared, rapt and still, till they disappeared. The soundtrack ended and I walked down the hall to pee. The spell was broken. You can only think about eternity for so long, especially when it’s lunchtime.

That evening I walked to my car, and glanced at the pine trees. I stopped, keys in my hand. The trees had caught some of the balloons in their branches. Dozens. I crossed the street.

The pines were maybe fifty feet high, and now with the mourner’s balloons they seemed like enormous Christmas trees. Though most were out of reach, one of the balloons had popped and hung down from a bough. I reached up for it, stopping to look around. Was this wrong? After all, this was the property of a dead man. Was this like kicking over a headstone? I resolved that this was okay. Someone sent these to the winds to find whom they may, and this failure of a balloon had found me. But I made sure no one was looking, just to be safe.

I opened the envelope. Inside was a five dollar bill and a folded card. It read,

Hi. My name’s Mike. Have a beer on me. In memory of Michael Grayson. July 9, 1978 – Sept. 20, 2006

Several thoughts ran through my head. Most were variations on That’s a stupid last wish and That’s a great last wish. Then I paused, looking up again. I saw all the balloons, swaying in the breeze, hoping for release but captured by the cruel pines. There must be hundreds of dollars here. And I’m the only one who knows about it.

“Dude. There must be hundreds of dollars here.” It was Nate, standing behind me. This was before he moved to Texas, where he stood out with his tattoos and punk attitude, before he bought a bike and escaped to the highways and rolling hills, spending his hours cycling away from the loneliness and isolation that place made him feel. He stared up, jingling the keys in his hand. “We should get a ladder.” I shoved Mike’s note and the five bucks in my pocket.

We walked back inside and grabbed a ladder from the janitor’s closet. We raced back and leaned it onto one of the trunks, humming the theme song from Mission Impossible. The balloons were higher than we had figured, so we settled with the four envelopes we could grab. I didn’t drink at the time, so Mike bought me a burger combo on the way home.

The next day we tried again. Andy had joined us, along with a couple of interns. We had problems to overcome. The balloons were very high and the tree did not lend itself to climbing. Andy suggested we could rent a hydraulic lift, but some quick math showed that would cost every single balloon we might collect. We plotted and schemed out on the street, explaining complicated engineering feats to each other, each a variant of Let’s put one ladder on top of the other. Nate volunteered to do just that.

Two ladders, a sturdy broom and some duct tape later, Nate was climbing towards the goal. A man in a tie ran out of the Heating Duct place. “Hey, you know this is private property, right?” We looked at each other. He was right. It hadn’t dawned on us before. When you work somewhere for a couple years, it begins to feel like home. But this wasn’t home; it wasn’t a neighborhood. It was zoned commercial/industrial, and we were just visitors. I helped Nate break down the ladders and we went back to our offices.

This was, of course, before Andy’s father sat me down and explained that I was obviously fired. And that was before Andy finally married that girl we had all told him to marry. He was too worried about fate and God’s Will and lost in his own insecurities to see that this amazing woman loved him, and that he should take advantage of her temporary insanity in the matter. And that was before they joyfully told all their friends about the child they were adopting, which was before the mother gave birth and decided to keep it. And that was before they sent a second message to their friends and family, less joyous. And that was some time after Nate finally realized some things about himself on some Texas two lane highway, sometime after I realized blessings could be curses and the opposites vice versa.

Mike knew he was dying in his thirties. It must not have been a car wreck or a sudden stroke. I assume he was taken by cancer or a bum kidney or something. If I had that kind of insight, if I was afforded one great last gesture, I’m not sure what I would do. Maybe I would take my couple hundred bucks and try to assemble a parade. Maybe I would try to finance a major motion picture biopic about myself. You know, for future generations. At the very least I could commission some Ensenda artisan to craft a nice black velvet oil painting of me that would hang nicely in the hallway of the widow I do not yet have.

But Mike must have sat there in his hospice and decided to give his small fortune to the winds. He took whatever his legacy might be and spent it on strangers, which, judging on the flight path that day, were very few. With the wind headed northeast, the path lead over farmland and barren fields for hundreds of miles. This dead man managed to call out to the living, but his words fell in the brambles and the mud and the cattle. And the greedy inhabitants of the office park.

This was all before I decided to move south and start over, yet again. Before I ripped the nameplate off the office door, before I set it on my shelf as a reminder of failure and vestigial hopes. Before I started drinking, before I purposefully lost track of old friends. Before I found new life, new loves, new purposes.

At the end of my story, I’d like to go quickly, thoughtlessly. And if that is denied, I’d like to have a moment to photocopy a brief message and budget in ribbon and helium to spread the word of Barak. I’m not sure what exactly I’d write, but I think the message is somewhere in everything I try to make, in what we all try to do. It’s in our writings and our drawings and our emails and the way we write our signature and the clothes we pick out each morning and the color of our car and our status updates and the way we do or do not glance at the homeless man asking us for change and the way we cry and the way we scream in traffic and the way we curse the ones who have hurt us and the ones we have hurt.

So I belatedly drink to Mike. I never grew to like beer, but I hope this whiskey will do. And I join the chorus of what I think you meant to really write on your cards. The same thing I think we’re all trying to sing, even if it’s to those we will never meet. Please, oh god, remember me.

Now please take your ladders and get out of here. This is private property.