When I was a young lawyer, I regularly used office equipment to talk to God.
Which isn’t as weird as it sounds. I was a starting associate at a San Francisco firm full of super-smart lawyers, Farella, Braun & Martel. In those days—decades ago—the only people who had email were in academia or the military. So the business lawyers used, instead, an array of “current network” machines to send each other in-house messages through variations in the building’s electrical system—the alternating current in the walls. (This is, actually, true.) Each of us had a three-initial name—DMG for Dean M Gloster, DEC for Daniel E Cohn, MJL for Matt J Lewis, etc. To send a message, you’d type the three-letter address and then your message, and through the magic of electrons and those obsolete appliances, it would dot-matrix print out on a ticker tape, in all caps, from a little terminal on the recipient’s desk ten floors above. If you typed the three-letters wrong and there was no matching user—say, to XYZ—then instead your own terminal would spit out a curt ticker-tape error message “XYZ DOES NOT EXIST.”
So I periodically messaged GOD.
Things like “why is there human suffering?” or “why do bad things happen to good people?” or even “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” But instead of getting some kind of comforting answer, I just got the same machine-barked Nietzschean pronouncement: “GOD DOES NOT EXIST.”
I kept expecting that to change, because if I’d set up the network, I damn-well would have created an administrative account, and what better set of initials for an omnipresent administrator than G-O-D? Besides, it was some thoroughly weird communication technology for reaching those with three-letter names, so why not periodically use it to reach God?
That was perhaps one of several places where the world of commercial law firms did not entirely match my sensibilities.
But one of the things the current network enabled was spoofing, because every message also included the three-letter initials of whose terminal it came from. So if you wanted to prank someone, you could wander into someone else’s empty office and type them a message from the terminal there, and the recipient would think the message came from that person.
Mild hilarity ensued. Four of us relatively-new associates started at about the same time, and they put us in a row of small offices on the 19th floor. Like me, Matt Lewis was not a morning person, but along with coffee, when he stumbled in, he always brought some monstrous pastry. As soon as he left his office for any reason, one of us three remaining associates—Tiela, Dan or I—would steal that pastry and hide it somewhere, usually in someone else’s office. So if Matt and I had early meetings elsewhere, for example, Tiela would steal Matt’s pastry, then put it in a cabinet in my office, then type a message to Matt from Dan’s office: “MJL—I saw Dean take your pastry and put it in his office cabinet on the right.”
Later that morning, when I was on a conference call and Matt had returned from his meeting to find a missing morning bun and that message, Matt would quietly barge into my office, give me an accusing glare, and then take his pastry out of my cabinet, where it was hiding, while I tried to pantomime “I-didn’t-take-it-I-had-no-idea-it-was-there.”
One morning, when Matt came to my office searching for the missing pastry, I said I didn’t know where it was, but I could send a message to someone who surely did. “Where is Matt’s pastry?” I typed—to GOD.
Matt was remarkably good natured about all of this, but he not amused by the DOES NOT EXIST reply.
I still remember those first couple of years at the firm as some of the most fun I had as a lawyer, which probably explains why I now write novels instead.
But today’s post is supposed to be about hiding things in novels.
In my debut novel, Dessert First, I hid a bunch of things: The real number of the U.S. suicide prevention hotline—three times. (Which is, 800-273-8255, or 800-273-TALK) A bunch of short poetry. (“If you distilled human despair and drank it in the dark while emo bands played funeral music, the result would be more cheerful than Drowningirl’s poetry… If her high school has a literary magazine, the editors are probably organizing an intervention.”—Kat Monroe, on p. 110.) Also practical advice for teens on a bunch of things: How to communicate scary information in the specialized language of Mom Calmese. (p. 33) How to pretend to be asleep in the back of your parents’ car so you can overhear their private conversations. (The secret is dead-goldfishing: “Flop over, relax your face, and open your mouth into a big vacant O, like a dead goldfish. The dead goldfish face was key. It made me look like a kid, instead of a teenager who cared how she looked. It triggered parent suspicion-reducing aww-memories of when I was too little to back talk, and mouth-open drooling was normal.”—Kat Monroe, on p. 262.) Even how to deal with adults who are blaming you for something, through the technique of Ultimate Frisbee Blame-Toss. (p. 250.)
But the most interesting thing I hid in the novel was the actual email address of my first-person protagonist, snarky, funny, hurting 16-year-old Kat Monroe. She had an online identity, Ciphergirl, and sent and received email from her gmail address listed at the top of p. 205.
I figured that someone who read the book would—like me, checking the GOD address on the current network—send Kat an email at the address just to see what would happen. And then I could respond in the persona of Kat. (I had a lot of fun writing in her voice.)
It never happened.
Not in the first two years after the novel came out, even though I regularly checked.
Then, a few months ago, my laptop that automatically knew the password to Kat’s email address died an inconvenient and disruptive death. Last night, preparing to write this post, I tried to get into the account with a dozen attempts at the half-remembered password. And failed.
So I guess that ship has sailed, and no one will be communicating with my novel’s protagonist by email. It leaves me a little sad, because one of the reasons I write stories is that I like living in a world that has a little unexpected magic and weirdness in it.
But, in a way, it’s fitting: Dessert First was about a lot of things, and some of those things were forgiveness, saying good-bye, and the tenuous connection between people and how to carry on and deal with the pain of the loss of connection.
Kat will be fine. As she says, near the end of the novel, “I get a strange feeling I haven’t had for about three years. It’s weird, but nice. I think it’s happiness.”
Good luck, all, with your laptop computers and connections. Be well.
Dean Gloster has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out now from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His current novel is about two funny brothers who have to team up with their friend Claire to save the world. It has all the usual Dean Gloster novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and a slightly off-kilter sensibility. Also a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 74 percent of his soul.
When he’s not busy hiding things in novels, Dean is on Twitter: @deangloster