The Internet was a much simpler place in 1997. For one thing, the Internet was just beginning to emerge into the mainstream and had not yet taken over every aspect of everyone’s lives. Also, most network communication was done through dial-up modems and telephone lines, which did not transfer data fast enough to make videos, high-quality sound, and large numbers of photos feasible for everyday Internet usage.
In the days before profile pictures, people would personalize their Internet experiences with email signatures. People still do this in business today, where they will end every email with their name, job title, phone extension, and website. But back in 1997, some people would add a signature to their personal email, featuring a sentence about themselves or their favorite quotes.
My email signature was usually a Bible verse, and I would change it every few months as I discovered new verses that spoke to me. Last quarter at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, Janet had delivered a talk about being patient in romantic relationships, and seeking God’s will in that. Janet organized her talk around the verse that appears three times in the Song of Solomon: “Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.”
I wanted a girlfriend badly, but I knew that seeking God’s will and not rushing in would be best in the long run. My recent attempts to get to know cute girls better had all ended in failure, so that talk felt like exactly what I needed to hear. I made that verse my email signature, not realizing the unintended consequences that doing so would bring.
I had been volunteering with the junior high school youth group at my church for a couple months. Last week at youth group, I was talking with Danny Foster, one of the boys I knew fairly well, telling him about Dog Crap & Vince, a silly web comic I started drawing last year. I sent him the link to my website in an email, and my email software automatically attached that Bible verse to the end, as it did with all emails.
The following Sunday, Danny sat next to me at church. As I was listening to the announcements at the beginning of the service, Danny nudged me to get my attention. He held an open Bible, and he was pointing at something inside. I read the verse he was pointing to, Song of Solomon 4:5: “Your two breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies.” Danny looked at me and giggled; I smiled and nodded before turning my attention back to the announcements.
“Shh,” I whispered to Danny.
Later, a few minutes into the sermon, Danny nudged me again. He was giggling, just like last time, but now he was pointing to Song of Solomon 7:7: “Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit.” A few minutes later, Danny did the same thing, pointing to Song of Solomon 8:8: “We have a young sister, and her breasts are not yet grown.” Danny did have a sister, Erica, and her breasts were smaller than average, but she was older than him. I tried to suppress laughter as I pictured Erica Foster as the young sister in Song of Solomon 8:8.
The Song of Solomon describes love in a way that includes some very colorfully descriptive language of the bodies of the two lovers and the interactions between them. It is also often said to be a metaphor for God’s love for his people and Jesus Christ’s love for the Church. After the service ended, after Danny had pointed out a few other instances of the word, I asked him if this was the first time he had read Song of Solomon.
“Yeah,” he replied. “I looked up the verse you quoted in your email.”
I was suddenly horrified to realize that I had been the cause of Danny’s distraction at church today. Danny had taken it upon himself to look up a verse in the Bible, to read the Word of God, and to me, as a youth group leader, this should feel like a major victory. But I had inadvertently led Danny directly to the one part of the Bible that would make any boy in his early teens think of things that were anything but Godly. But the Song of Solomon was still part of God’s Word, and hopefully Danny would understand it eventually.
As I left, Noah, one of the other junior high group leaders, pulled me aside. “What are you doing tonight?” he asked quietly.
“Nothing,” I replied.
“It’s Erica Foster’s 18th birthday. We’re gonna prank her room tonight. She’ll be at church for teen choir practice, then high school group. Are you in?”
“Sure,” I said. I always loved a good prank. “Do I need to bring anything?”
“Bring some toilet paper.”
“I will! I’ll see you then!”
I pulled up to the Fosters’ house in west Jeromeville a little after six o’clock. I had been here a couple times before, hanging out with Danny and his friends after church and dropping him off. Erica was the youngest member of the junior high youth staff. She was graduating from Jeromeville High School this year, and she had told me that she was going to stay home and attend the University of Jeromeville next year.
The teen choir and high school youth group both met on Sunday nights, so Erica had been at church since five o’clock and would not be home until close to nine at the earliest. This gave us well over two hours to work safely; we probably would not need that much time. I knocked on the front door with one hand, precariously holding a large case of toilet paper in the other. Mrs. Foster opened the door. “Hi, Greg,” she said. “They’re in Erica’s room. Down that hall, last door on the right.”
“Looks like you’ve got a lot planned.”
“I didn’t make the plans. They just told me to bring toilet paper.”
As I turned toward the hallway, I saw Danny in the living room, playing a Nintendo 64 game I did not recognize. “Greg!” he said. “This is gonna be so cool. My sister doesn’t suspect anything.”
“Good!” I said, continuing down the hall as Danny turned his attention back to his game. Noah Snyder and Martin Rhodes were already in Erica’s room when I got there. “Hey, Greg,” Noah said. “Good, you brought more toilet paper.” Noah motioned for me to put it next to the toilet paper he already brought, about twice as much as what I had. It seemed like an excessive amount of toilet paper to decorate one bedroom, but when performing a prank of this magnitude, you can never have enough toilet paper.
Erica’s room appeared to have been the master bedroom of this house at some point, since it had an attached bathroom. I had been inside this house before, and the house appeared to have been added onto at some point in the past. The addition probably included a larger master bedroom for Mr. and Mrs. Foster, so Erica, as the oldest child, got the next largest bedroom, which also had an attached bathroom.
“So what’s the plan?” I asked.
“We’re gonna wait for Courtney and Brody,” Noah explained. “They’ll be here in a few minutes. But we’re definitely gonna TP this room as much as we can.”
“I also said we should take some piece of furniture and put it in the shower,” Martin suggested. “Like that file cabinet over there.”
“That’s awesome,” I said.
Brody and Courtney walked in just then, both sipping on fruit smoothies in plastic foam cups from a smoothie place downtown called Green Earth, giggling about something. I noted the irony of a place with an environmentally friendly sounding name using plastic foam cups. I also noticed that Courtney and Brody looked very much like a couple. I had been trying to figure out for months if those two were romantically involved, and lately it had seemed very obvious that they were. Courtney was really pretty, with long blonde hair, but I had not attempted to get to know her better as a love interest. In the fall, she and Mike Knepper had been spending a lot of time together, and I did not want to compete. I did not know that Mike was out of the picture, though, until the last couple months when I had seen Courtney and Brody together often.
“Hey, Brody,” Martin said. “Can you help me carry this file cabinet into the shower?”
“Sure,” Brody replied, laughing. “Why?”
“No reason.” Martin and Brody lifted Erica’s file cabinet and began carrying it carefully into the bathroom. Courtney and Noah had opened the toilet paper; I helped them string it through the curtain rod up and down the wall. Since I was tall, they kept handing me rolls of toilet paper to attach to things on high shelves, so that toilet paper ran across the room several feet off the ground, like streamers at a party. I used tape to anchor the toilet paper to high spots on the wall a few times.
I went to look at the file cabinet in the shower. A set of Magnetic Poetry, small magnets with words on them that could be rearranged into abstract poetry, was stuck to the cabinet. I had seen these before on others’ refrigerators. I looked to see if I could spell anything funny. Some magnets only had prefixes and suffixes, like “er,” “s,” and “ing,” intended to be added to existing words. I put the word “I” next to “er,” then found “can,” intending to cover the N in “can” with the next word, so that those three magnets would spell “Erica.” “Smell” was the first funny verb I found. After a couple minutes, I arranged the magnets to spell “er-I-ca-smell-s-like-puppy-tongue.” I was not sure what it meant that Erica smelled like puppy tongue, but I did not have a great selection of words to choose from.
“We should do something with these stuffed animals,” Noah said as I walked back to the bedroom. I was a little surprised to see stuffed animals in Erica’s room; most of my friends did not bring their stuffed animals to college. But Erica was still in high school, for another month or so, and still in her childhood bedroom at her family’s house, so it made sense that she would have stuffed animals.
Brody carefully stepped around the toilet paper, ducking so as not to make it fall to the ground. He picked up a stuffed bear and put a strip of masking tape over its mouth, then bound its wrists behind its back with masking tape. “That’s perfect,” I said as Brody taped the bear’s ankles together. I took an oversized stuffed mouse and taped it to the underside of a shelf that stuck out from the wall several feet from the ground; I had to use a lot of tape to get it to stay.
“There’s a bunch of empty plastic water bottles over here,” Martin observed from across the room. “Like thirty of them. Is she saving them or keeping them to throw away, for recycling?”
“I don’t care,” Brody replied. “But you should totally fill them up.”
“Great! I’m on it.” Martin carried the entire pile of water bottles into the bathroom; it took him three trips. I repeatedly heard water turn on and off for the next several minutes.
“Hey, Greg?” Courtney said. “Can you tape this toilet paper to the ceiling? You’re tall.”
“Sure,” I said. After doing that, I handed the toilet paper back to Courtney, who weaved it between other elevated strands of toilet paper. It was becoming very difficult to walk in here as we covered everything in toilet paper.
I heard a noise, a clear note, as if someone was blowing into a musical instrument. I looked up to see Brody playing a round pitch pipe, the harmonica-like device used by vocalists to determine what note to begin singing. He blew into the holes for several different notes, then stuck the entire pitch pipe in his mouth. I took a picture of Brody with the pitch pipe completely in his mouth. “Someone should show that picture to Erica in a few months, after she’s used the pitch pipe many more times,” I said.
“Eww!” Courtney replied as everyone laughed.
I continued using masking tape and duct tape to bind and gag some of the stuffed animals and tape others to the wall and to furniture. Martin finished filling the water bottles, reentering the bedroom just as Noah, Courtney, and Brody finished stringing the last of the toilet paper across Erica’s furniture.
“Dude,” Brody said, pointing at a telephone and answering machine. “We should leave a greeting on here.”
“Yeah!” Courtney said. “And then call her from a different phone and leave a message with all of us wishing her happy birthday!”
“Yes!” Noah replied. Apparently Erica had her own phone in her room, separate from the phone line for the rest of the house. Lucky. I wanted that so badly when I was that age. I wanted to talk to friends from school, particularly girls, without worrying about my parents eavesdropping or wondering who was calling me and making a big deal of it. Mom always said no, that I rarely talked on the phone anyway, so it was pointless to spend money on a second phone line. I made the counterargument that I would use the phone more if I had that kind of privacy, but this did not win over my parents.
“We should record ourselves singing something weird, and use that as the greeting that people hear when they call Erica,” Martin suggested.
“What song?” Noah asked.
I tried to think of a song, but nothing came to mind. After a few seconds, Brody said, “I don’t know why, but I keep thinking ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.’”
“Let’s do it,” Martin said, laughing.
Brody walked over to the answering machine and looked at it, trying to figure out how to record a new greeting. “I think this is it,” he said, pressing a button. After the machine beeped and clicked, he announced, in a deadpan tone more exaggerated than his usual voice, “Hi. You’ve reached Erica’s phone. Leave a message.” Brody then motioned for us to start singing. Everyone looked around, not sure what to do; Courtney started laughing after a few seconds.
“You’re supposed to start singing!” Brody said. He recorded his announcement again, and when it was time to sing, everyone paused again. “You never close your eyes anymore,” Brody began singing.
“When I kiss your lips,” Martin joined in. The rest of us all looked at each other, and Courtney started giggling again. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” was an old song, originally released in 1964 by the Righteous Brothers. Daryl Hall and John Oates famously covered the song in 1980, early in my childhood. I had heard the song before, but I only knew the chorus; apparently there was a verse before that, which Brody and Martin were singing now. Brody sighed, stopped the recording, and reminded us all of the lyrics. I did not know the tune of the verse, but I had a feeling that singing the wrong tune would be just fine for our current purposes.
I suddenly had an idea. “Before we all start singing, you should play a note on the pitch pipe,” I told Brody. “Like we’re a real choir or something.”
“Yes! I like it!” Brody pressed Record one more time, then announced, “You’ve reached Erica’s phone. Leave a message.” Brody then played a note on the pitch pipe, nowhere close to the actual note we started singing. The five of us began singing the verse to You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’; I sang quietly, since I did not know it well. But by the chorus, I belted it out along with everyone else. “You’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’, whoa that lovin’ feelin’, you’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’, now it’s gone, gone, gone, whoa-oh…” we sang.
Brody stopped the recording at that point. “I think that’s good,” he said. “Besides, we need to finish up soon, so we can get out of here in plenty of time before Erica gets home. Let’s go call her from the house phone.”
The five of us stepped carefully through the intricate web of toilet paper and walked down the hallway to the living room, where Mrs. Foster was loading the dishwasher. Brody picked up the telephone in the refrigerator and called Erica’s number; we could hear Erica’s phone ringing down the hall. After four rings, we heard ourselves singing, all five of us snickered quietly. After the beep, we all shouted into the phone, “Happy birthday, Erica!” Brody hung up.
“I heard you guys singing in there,” Mrs. Foster said. “She’ll love that.”
“Don’t tell her we changed the greeting,” I said. “She can discover that for herself.”
“Okay.” Mrs. Foster chuckled.
“Thanks for letting us do this,” Noah said.
“No problem. You guys have a good week. Drive safely.”
“We will,” I replied.
My first class the next morning, Mathematics 197, was not a class at all; I was assisting in a precalculus class at Jeromeville High School, in order to get a feel for whether or not teaching high school was a viable career option for me. After this class, I walked past Erica’s locker on the way to where my bike was parked, and Erica was usually there. Today, when she saw me, I waved, and she started laughing.
“I can’t believe what you guys did to my room last night,” she said. “That was hilarious!”
“Thanks,” I replied, chuckling. “Happy birthday.”
“What happened?” asked one of Erica’s friends standing next to her.”
“My friends from church decorated my room for my birthday,” Erica explained. “They filled up all my water bottles!”
“All those water bottles?” the other girl asked. “That must have taken forever!”
“Someone else did that while I was working on the toilet paper,” I said.
“And those poor stuffed animals!” Erica exclaimed. “I’m just going to leave them like that for a while. How did you get the file cabinet in the shower? That thing is heavy!”
“It took two people.”
“And I guess someone called me right after you left, before I got home. She left a message, laughing, and she said, who was that singing? I didn’t know what she was talking about until I called her back, and then I played your greeting. That was great! I’m gonna leave it like that for a while.”
“Perfect,” I said, laughing.
“I need to get to class. But thanks again for all the laughs.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. “I hope you had a great birthday! I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yes! Have a good one!”
Being a youth group leader had the obvious benefit of getting to be part of the lives of the children in the group. But, at least in the case of our group at Jeromeville Covenant Church specifically, the youth leaders all seemed to be close friends with each other. I had only been part of this group for a few months, but so far they had all welcomed me with metaphorical open arms.
I arrived on the UJ campus a few minutes after I left the high school, still thinking about my different overlapping circles of friends. On the periphery, I had my friends from the freshman dorm and people I knew from classes. My friends from church and Jeromeville Christian Fellowship formed a closer circle, with a few people in closer circles. I felt like the other youth leaders from church were now becoming one of those closer circles. Erica would be graduating from Jeromeville High this year, but staying in Jeromeville and attending UJ next year. I was glad she was in my circle, and I was glad I had finally found a specific ministry to be involved with.
Readers: Tell me about a prank you’ve been part of, either as the one pulling the prank or as the victim.
If you’re curious about how all these people are connected, or if you just like following every little detail of the story, I updated the Dramatis Personae. I’ve been way behind on that; there have been a lot of new characters, or characters taking on bigger roles, since the last update. I added entries for Ajeet, Autumn, Brody, Cambria, Courtney, Erica, Evan, James, Lars, and Dr. Samuels, and removed some from characters who are not important parts of the story anymore.
Also remember to check out my other projects:
Greg Out Of Character – a personal blog where I post every once in a while
Song of the Day by DJ GJ-64 – music every day, from many different genres and eras
Cow Chip & Lance – a project by some friends of mine that was the inspiration for “Dog Crap & Vince,” mentioned in this episode. There hasn’t been much new content in a while.