The Bells

It’s 3 am and I’m huddled in the bushes outside a rest area bathroom somewhere along Hwy 101 in Southern California. I’ll make off with the final bell, once the Highway Patrol car leaves the parking lot here. It’s been a long, glorious journey, and one for which I will always be grateful. And to think I owe it all to a missing paper clip.

It was two years ago, to the day, that I found myself at the end of a horrendous work project, one that culminated in a two-foot thick stack of reports- a type of bureaucratic nightmare more accurately  described in terms of weight than content. Month after month we’d slogged away, my team and I, researching, compiling, writing, printing and collating. And now, to me, was left the job of presenting. But despite my attention to detail- and I am a stickler for detail- I was stopped short of the documentation finish line. By a paper clip.

You see, my presentation audience was upper management. As such it would rely as much on style as on substance. And if the presentation packets were not organized in appearance, the content would not be taken seriously. Hence my consternation at realizing I was one report packet shy of the requisite 30. And with the meeting some ten minutes distant, it was a race between my blood pressure and breakfast to see which one would skyrocket first.

Having conducted a frenzied search above, below and through my desk for the errant fastener, I glanced at a fellow cubicle dweller’s desk- Oswald is his name- then realizing he was momentarily absent for a “nature walk” (code for the partaking of a doobie in his decrepit van). Approaching his work area, I looked both ways, then pulled open one desk drawer after another, discovering in the fourth drawer hundreds of paper clips. Feeling richly blessed, I grabbed one, slid the drawer shut, and turned away, running face-first into Oswald.

“What the hell are you doing?” To say I was surprised at his reaction would be understatement. Usually his return from a nature walk found him in a most subdued mood. But not today. The look in his eyes sent fear coursing through my frame. For though I was taller than he, he had the disposition of a Jack Russel terrier- one who’d been denied his daily dose of cannabis sativa. Size doesn’t matter with someone emboldened by a disadvantage in height.

“So- I come back for my lighter and find you going through my stuff.”

My face flamed on as I tried to speak.

“I- uh- uhm- needed a paper clip. I was-”

“So, you snuck around behind my back for office supplies,” Oswald more on my face than in it, as the spittle flew fast and free. “Asking was too damned hard, huh?”

And on and on he went, me given no chance to respond amidst the f-bombs and less-than complimentary comments he made about the canine nature of my mother’s lineage. Then, as suddenly as the tirade had begun, he stopped talking and returned to his desk, as if nothing had happened. The classic silent treatment. Mortified, I waited a few minutes before responding with a heartfelt apology. His back to me, Oswald slowly raised his right hand over his shoulder, and with the left-hand thumb and index finger, made cranking motions accompanied by squeaking sounds, as the right middle finger was slowly raised to the fully erect position. Apparently he was still peeved.

For the rest of the day I was racked with guilt and anger, the former for having been caught stealing, the latter resulting from not being vigilant with the inventory. Having always kept a running count of every item in my desk- as I am a stickler for detail- I’d somehow lost track of the paper clip count. Now I was in the soup. Further attempts at restitution followed, culminating in my sneaking a jumbo-sized box of premium quality paper clips into Oswald’s desk, replete with sequins and a decorative bow, only to flinch in surprise sometime later, as the discovered peace offering hit the wall a foot above my head, showering me with several thousand fasteners.

As I crawled across the carpet, retrieving the abandoned clips, I pondered the situation. Why was Oswald so angry with me, anyway? Having not called me an actual thief, I had to assume it was the lack of notification that had gotten his ethical goat. Yes, that was it! Believing still that I was an honest and upright fellow, I vowed then and there to give notice every time I wanted to borrow or take something. But though convinced this was the right course, I decided it would be better to prove my point with someone beside the mercurial Oswald, who has since relocated to another part of the office.

Being a bachelor with an aversion to all labor of a culinary nature, I ate out a lot. Several evenings after the kerfuffle at work, I was polishing off a satisfying plate of shrimp Alfredo at the local Olive Garden, when I noticed the diners at the next table. Having finished their repast, they’d paid the bill and exited, leaving behind what looked to be a sizeable tip. Further investigation revealed it to be $85.00. Never one to pass up an opportunity, I grabbed the currency and dashed outside, linen dinner napkin dangling from my collar as I headed to the back parking lot.

“Hello? Hello there!” I shouted to the former diners who were about to climb into their yellow Mercedes convertible.

“Excuse me?” said the fifty-something well-dressed fellow as his wife stepped back, hand to her throat.

“I wanted to ask permission to use your money.”

“What?” he said, glaring at me as he fingered his cell phone. “What money?” Which is when I made my first mistake.

“This money,” I said, waving the bills in his face. The 85-dollar tip you left inside.”

“Bloody hell,” Mrs. Diner said, shoving her oar in. “Are you insane?”

“No, no, no” I laughed. “I’ll put it to good use. Really.”

I was in the process of explaining to what use I could put the money when I heard a shout from the vicinity of the restaurant’s back entrance. It was the manager, and he was running in our direction. Taking advantage of the distraction, my fellow diners dove into their vehicle and were hastily backing up, forcing me to jump clear of the back bumper. Unwilling to explain my investment plans to a fellow whose contorted face resembled Oswald’s three days earlier, I hoofed it across the street and down a few blocks to lose my pursuer, then circled back to my car and headed home.

Back in the apartment I mixed a soothing drink and reflected on the evening’s activities. Despite the troubling turn the evening’s events took, my conscience was clear. I’d explained my good intentions to the donors, avoided a nasty conversation with the manager, and to top it off, was ahead $85.00, not to mention bagging a free meal- though to be honest, the meal wasn’t exactly a boon to be celebrated, judging by the violent nature of the four-hour diarrhea session I endured later that night. Must have been the shrimp…

# # #

Time passed and with it came more wisdom. I tried appropriating items- for investment purposes, of course- from department stores, nearly getting arrested twice by security guards who just couldn’t envision my master plan. (Thank the stars that I’m a fast runner, or it’d be the Greybar Motel for yours truly.) This was followed by a few dips into donation jars and late-night acquisitions from yard sale merchandise left out in the open. You know, if you don’t want items to disappear, you shouldn’t complain when they are left out in the driveway all night.

But through it all, I kept my eye on the prize- the reason I embarked on this hazardous quest in the first place: to give back to society. To make this world a better place. To bring an added touch of beauty to an otherwise drab existence.

You’re probably wondering what this “investment” is that I keep referring to. Well, on one of my jaunts across the United States, back in the day, I drove across the entire state of California, from the Oregon border to Mexico. It was a long haul, especially since I chose to go the long way, eschewing the boring vistas of Interstate 5 for the more scenic views afforded by Highway 101. And along the way I started to notice the bells. Apparently, the State of California decided many years ago to place bells along the Camino Real, a 700-mile route stretching from the northern to southern borders, to commemorate the scores of Catholic missions that used to dot the California landscape.

Now, being in a mercenary frame of mind- due to the fact that I know better than others how to utilize funds- I recently thought back to the trip and the bells. I remembered seeing them all along the highway, scores and scores of them. Since the bells had to be made of some sort of metal, I started doing some calculations. If there were 50 bells total, and each weighed, say, 30 pounds, that would work out to 1500 pounds. Now, if I sold them for scrap, I would get a certain amount. But what if I sold them at auction? Historical objects are always in demand, I reasoned. As such, I stood to make a tidy fortune. Then I could realize even bigger dreams for the betterment of society. After doing exhaustive research- as I am a stickler for detail- I discovered that there were more, many more, than 50 bells. Try 380. That’s one bell for every two miles, stretching from the top of the state to the bottom. If I could sell each one for say 1000 dollars, I’d be in clover. The next question was how to procure them.

Traveling to California, I purchased a battery-powered saw that uses metal cutting blades. Loading the car with sleeping bag, food, a short ladder and dark clothing, I began my hunt for the first bell. I waited until early morning, then snuck out next to the highway, clambered my way to the top of the pole, and started cutting. Within a few minutes the metal pipe snapped off and the bell tumbled to the ground. From there it was a matter of getting the prize to the vehicle. Imagine my surprise when I lifted the bell and discovered it weighed closer to 50 pounds. This was going to be more lucrative than I ever imagined. On the proverbial Cloud Nine, I loaded my catch in the car and moved off to the next bell.

And so began my quest. Once I figured out how long each bell would take to remove, I found I could remove ten of them each night. It was hard work and not without its dangers. But any worthwhile endeavor is fraught with risk. One thing I didn’t count on was the weight. With ten bells gathered, my mid-60s Country Squire station wagon was now hauling around an extra 500 pounds. As such, I’d have to knock off after Number Ten and go to a motel for the evening. Then  there was the matter of storage. Where to keep my treasures until I could sell them? San Francisco, that’s where. Close to the mid-point of the state. And renting a storage unit big enough for 380 bells was no problem, as long as the proprietor never discovered what I was doing.

According to my calculations, it would take 38 nights to collect all the bells, and many more days to transport them to the central storage point. Weeks passed. I drove untold numbers of miles, had more close calls with police than I care to mention, and ate more loathsome meals than any one person should safely partake of. Months came and went. Motels and hotels and sickness came and went as well, draining my precious funds to the point where I had to resort to dishwashing and bussing tables. But those tips, and the free food. So what if I was finishing someone else’s half-eaten burger. It was all for a good cause- the betterment of society. Once I have the money from those sales in my hands, look out World!

# # #

CNN reports today that the mystery of California’s missing mission bells is finally at an end. According to the California Highway Patrol, an unidentified man in his late 40s was arrested Sunday afternoon in the city San Francisco and booked on charges of grand theft, in connection with the theft of all 380 bells along the route known as El Camino Real.

Sources close to the case state that the suspect was reported to authorities following an attempt to sell the stolen bells to potential customers who had gathered at a U-Haul self-storage unit near the freeway. A police spokesman states that the sale was halted once police arrived. Upon close examination of the stolen objects, officers report that the suspect suffered some sort of nervous collapse upon being informed that none of the bells contained any type of metal. Due to risk of theft and vandalism, the State had replaced all of the metal bells with ones made of concrete. As he was cuffed and led away to a patrol car, the suspect was heard to say “But I’m a stickler for detail. I could have sworn those bells were made of metal…”

 

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