The main problem I keep encountering with this blog is deciding which stories to tell. As I mentioned in my recent post about video games, I've turned to my friends and requested their help in selecting the real-life adventures that are most likely to be entertaining. Among the requested topics is the saga of my encounters with a woman I will satirically identify as Belle.
I have to make up a name for this woman not only to avoid possible slander accusations, but also because she never told me who she was. This curious individual is among the many I encountered during a five-year stint as the secretary of a church. For a time I considered compiling these peculiar anecdotes into a book, which I was planning to dub Please Don't Eat the Secretary after a joke I received in my email. I ultimately abandoned the idea -- not out of a shortage of material, but because I was pretty sure it sounded like I was making most of it up. As Jeff Foxworthy once remarked in a stand-up routine, "True stuff's funny stuff," and I have a lot of true stuff to share.
My first interaction with Belle came on a weekday afternoon. The church did not have a bell proper, but rather a carillon system which played a hymn. It went off each day at 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., 6 p.m., and 9 p.m. Shortly after noon, while I was attempting to eat my lunch, the phone rang and I answered it.
"I'd like to know who to speak with about your church bells."
"They're too loud. My infant can't get any sleep because of your bells ringing all the time."
She proceeded to reference the infant three or four more times. I offered to take her contact information and have the pastor or the property director call her back, but she refused to identify herself. Then she hung up on me. I was mystified, as was my boss.
About two weeks later, she called again. I recognized the voice. This time there was no mention of an infant; her complaint was that her husband worked night shift, and could get no sleep during the day because of the bells. I sympathized, having worked night shift for ten years myself, but told her that the police had checked our bells and we were within the town's permitted decibel range. She proceeded to call me a liar and to tell me that "if you can't do your [expletive removed] job, I suggest you find another line of work!" before slamming down the phone.
I began to suspect that we were dealing with someone who -- as my husband so delicately phrased it -- was not entirely in possession of her faculties. The next several phone calls, which were progressively more abusive, persuaded me that this was the case. Her story was always different; first it was the infant, then it was the husband working night shift, then it was that she worked night shift herself, then it was a small child again, then it was that we were discriminating against her because she didn't work and was home all day.
She declared her intention to stand outside the church during service on Sunday and blare the most offensive music she could find. She informed me that she knew at least a dozen other people who objected to the noise level, that she knew she wasn't the only one complaining, and that she had a petition with at least 150 signatures on it that was designed to get our bells permanently shut off. (Considering that there aren't that many adults residing within walking distance of the church, this seemed unlikely.) She also maintained that she was an atheist, that she had been in the neighborhood longer than the church, and that we would not drive her away. When I pointed out that being in the neighborhood longer than the church would mean that she was approximately 160 years old, she screamed obscenities and hung up.
I think my favorite part of her argument was when she first informed me that she didn't believe in God, then -- not two minutes later -- asked me why churches should be allowed to play music at "infuriatingly high volume" when children are not allowed to pray in school. If anyone can explain her logic to me, feel free to leave a comment, because five years later I still don't get it.
It happened, some little while after her fourth or fifth venomous and incongruent diatribe (my, wouldn't my sixth-grade English teacher be proud of that sentence!) that the carillon malfunctioned and could not be used for several months, which meant we didn't hear from our friend. I reveled in the bliss and endeavored to forget her existence. It was a peaceful Christmas.
In the spring, it was fixed. This was good, except for the obvious. She was back on the phone.
"I'm going to call you every day until this gets resolved," she said. "You and I are going to be good friends. I'm calling the police, and the mayor, and everyone I can think of who is going to shut your bells down for good."
"Ma'am, you can do all of those things, but I have more important things to do than listen to you. You have a nice day."
She called me a word I won't print here. I hung up on her, for a change.
To my astonishment, she actually followed through on her threats. Not the one about calling me, but the others. The pastor was in touch with the mayor and the police chief, both of whom reported phone calls on the subject. She wouldn't identify herself to them, either. The chief put me in touch with the phone company, who explained that Belle's number was blocked (so caller ID wouldn't have availed us anything), but if she called again I could hang up and then dial a specific code to have them trace the call. They would then provide her identity to the police.
This was precisely how it went down. But I decided to have fun with her during what turned out to be our last conversation.
"Your church bells are ridiculous. I want to talk to whoever I have to talk to in order to get those bells turned down, and don't tell me there's no one else there!"
"Of course, ma'am. If you'll please hold, I will be glad to transfer you to our Department for Frivolous Concerns About Which Nobody Cares." Before she could object, I hung up the phone and immediately dialed the code I had been taught. She attempted to call me while I was on the phone with the operator, but I ignored the second line.
The police chief later called the pastor. They had contacted Belle to inform her that if she persisted in calling the church, she would be prosecuted for harassment. Apparently her response was to scream that her civil liberties were being violated and that they had no right looking up her phone number when it was unlisted and blocked. However, she never called again, so I can only assume she found a new target.
Meanwhile, on a clear, quiet night, I can still hear the carillon from my house on the other side of town.