I’m going to warn you up front. This isn’t art. It’s a love story. I don’t have anything profound to say and you probably won’t leave with any new insights on the world or human condition. If this novel were a food, it would be candy. However, what fun would life be without candy? I usually write not-so-fun things, such as stories about miserable people doing miserable things to other miserable people – awful, ugly stories that give us all a reason to perpetuate that cherished human tradition of book burning.
Not this time.
I’m calling it Happiness: How to Find it which is also the title of another book published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York in 1980. I’m told that you can’t copyright a title. If I’m wrong I’m sure I’ll be hearing from the Watchtower lawyers.
One second while I answer that phone.
Where was I?
Ah yes, Happiness.
I’m going to try really hard this time to write about sunshine and rainbows and roses. Speaking of which, this novel is about a country girl from rural Missouri named Rose Gluck. I want you to picture her now. Look at Rose in the driver seat of a 1983 Pontiac Safari station wagon, one of those big brutes that you don’t see anymore – the car, not the girl. I could tell you that her hair is brown and her eyes are blue, but what would that really tell you? Would it make a difference if her eyes were brown? However, here is something that does matter; she is a mousy little thing in a floral print dress. Just look at her: so innocent, so clueless. She is that girl. I’m sure you’ve run across her before, the girl that makes no lasting impression on you. Someone mentions her name and you say, “Oh, she’s sweet.”
She is the brown haired, blue-eyed, mousy blank slate sweet thing in a floral print dress that no one really knows or cares that much about. I mean if right now she were to drive that station wagon right off the road and crash into a tree, her funeral would be packed with hundreds of people shaking their hundreds of heads, saying, “What a tragedy; such a sweet girl.” Then they would look for the finger sandwiches and talk more passionately about the weather.
Speaking of which, it’s a glorious early summer day when the sun is shining so brightly that you are happy to be alive. It’s the kind of day that made pagans worship the sun and the rest of us want to join in. Rose loves it too. She is driving that beast of a vehicle, sun shining on her face, and smiling sweetly like that girl always does.
Why should we even pay attention to her? Maybe for the same reason we watch the chimpanzees at the zoo. Year after year, they do the same thing and we smile the same smile. Everyone needs to smile, nothing wrong with that. Or maybe it is for the same reason that we watch the train wrecks on reality television: so we can encourage ourselves with smug superiority; my life may be rubbish, but at least I’m not that girl. However, maybe she’ll surprise us; maybe we’ll find something in her. Just maybe we’ll find that under that sweet, Christian, country girl exterior that she is a homicidal killing machine. Not likely, but you never know with that girl.
I can say this; Rose has secrets. That girl always did whether you knew it or not. Secrets that she would be mortified if others knew about. Secrets that I will be exposing later, not just because I’m a writer and writers are jerks, but because I want you to know that that girl is not who you think she is. She is a quirky, interesting, beautiful person and if she drives her car off the road and crashes it into a tree, goddammit I want you to care. (I allowed myself one swear word for this novel and it pains me that I used it so early.)
The year is 1991. Rose is nineteen years old and is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The nineties were not a terrible time to be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I should know; I was one back then. I had great Jehovah’s Witness friends and went to great Jehovah’s Witness parties. Poor Rose has neither. Rose has no friends with the exception of the two elderly women in that station wagon with her – one of which is her grandmother so it barely counts. The other is Viola Whitecell, her grandmother’s lifelong pioneer partner. As for parties, Rose did go to a Pampered Chef party once, but couldn’t buy anything because she is poor. She did win an egg separator and that was a high point in her life so far. Trust me, by the time we are done that egg separator is going to be a distant memory.
Now we are going to jump across the country to the East Coast where a twenty-five year old man is saying goodbye to his parents. This is Wyatt True and he is everything that Rose is not with the singular exception that he is also one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Otherwise he is suave and dashing and debonair and everything you want a leading man to be. Hey, he’s everything I’d want to be if I could rewrite myself.
I’m telling you about Wyatt now because I don’t want you thinking that every guy that Rose comes across over the next few pages is the guy she’ll spend the rest of the novel pining after. Wyatt is that guy. He’s the guy that Rose will want. He is the guy that every girl wants. What this means is that if Rose is going to get a guy like Wyatt True she is going to have to try extra hard or pray for a Deus Ex Machina to make it happen. As for that, I’m not going to give her one so she is going to have to man up and find out what guys like Wyatt like.
She doesn’t know it yet, but Wyatt likes pretty girls. Rose’s grandmother, the pudgy, dowdy woman next to her always tells Rose that she is pretty, but I’m telling you the woman is not to be trusted. One she’s a grandmother and two she is a liar. For example she calls her Rose and that isn’t even the girl’s real name. “Rose” doesn’t know it yet, but she’ll find out later. You’ll want to stick around for that.
This novel is about two Jehovah’s Witnesses falling in love. If you are not familiar with Jehovah’s Witness relationships there are some ground rules. The editor is screaming, “show, don’t tell”, but if I showed, this novel would be way too long and you wouldn’t read it. Trust me. I already wrote that book. These are the rules:
1.) Jehovah’s Witness relationships develop slowly. How slow? Slower then Rose is driving down that Missouri gravel road right now looking for the house of a young man she hopes to convert. The car is crawling and despite the fact that a box turtle outside is keeping pace, her grandmother is still yelling. “Slow down!”
Rose only recently learned how to drive. It was only after her grandmother’s eye sight really started to go and she ran over someone’s dog out in field service, that she decided she would allow Rose to learn. Now Rose does the driving. This is done under the ever vigilant watch of the nearly blind grandmother who backseat drives all aspects of Rose’s life, especially when it comes to guys.
2.) Jehovah’s Witnesses are only allowed to date other Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Rose has now found the house and she is at the door of a young man she previously left a Watchtower magazine with. He secretly likes her, which is the only reason why he took her magazine last Saturday. Seriously, do you think that this shaved head teen with a Metallica t-shirt and a tattoo of a naked Valkyrie riding on a dragon has any interest in a cover article asking Which Is The Right Religion? (Spoiler: According to the magazine, it’s Jehovah’s Witnesses.) Anyway since he is not in her religion, Rose can forget about him and we can as well.
There is this guy in Rose’s congregation named Clinton Green – we’ll meet him soon. He’s the son of the Presiding Overseer, which is like the head honcho of a congregation. Because neither can date outside of the religion and their country congregation is tiny their selection is limited to each other. Truthfully, sideshow Siamese twins have better options. Now that Rose is out of high school, everyone assumes that she and Clinton will marry. It’s tragic. It’s destiny. It’s an important plot point.
3.) Jehovah’s Witnesses are not allowed to date “recreationally”.
The only kind of dating that is allowed is in order to find a marriage mate. Rose has never dated, recreational or otherwise. Despite being nearly married to each other, Rose and Clinton have never officially dated – they aren’t officially anything other than two people of opposite sexes in the same congregation of approximately the same age. Since the purpose of dating is to find out about the other person and Rose has known Clinton all of her life, they can skip this step and get right to the holy matrimony.
4.) Jehovah’s Witnesses can never be alone with the opposite sex.
The thing about Jehovah’s Witnesses is that they can’t be trusted. Put two of them in an enclosed room and they won’t be able to keep their hands off each other. They’ll tear into each other quicker than a couple of Siamese fighting fish in a bowl. So, it’s best to keep them apart unless they are blood relatives and even then it still may not be safe. At least that is the religion’s working theory.
Rose has never been alone with Clinton. Sometimes she will go over to the Greens’ house and sit idly by watching Clinton play video games and lick Cheetos dust off of his sausage-sized fingers. They have to keep the living room door open because, well, you can’t trust the power of hormones and the allure of cheese encrusted fingers. Which brings us to the next rule:
5.) Physical intimacy is strictly prohibited for unwed Jehovah’s Witnesses.
To put it bluntly, this means, no sex. Depending on how strict a congregation is, hugs, hand holding, or even sitting next to someone of the opposite sex may be strictly prohibited. Rose attends the Kent Springs congregation where you are barely allowed to look at a guy you aren’t married to. If you were hoping for lots of steamy bodice ripping bedroom liaisons, you probably should look elsewhere. I can promise you gratuitous hand holding, maybe more, we’ll see.
There has never been any physical contact between Rose and Clinton except that he had once asked her to dance at a wedding. This dance mainly consisted of them teetering awkwardly back and forth and avoiding eye contact. They made sure to keep each other at arms length with a minimum eight inch gap between them so as not to bring down the wrath of Clinton’s dad Jasper, who was entrusted to oversee Christian conduct at that particular wedding reception. He need not worry because Rose has never been tempted to engage in physical activity with Clinton, she can barely stand to look at him. However, he’ll want to keep a sharp eye when irresistible Wyatt enters the picture.
6.) Finally, the most important thing, the one thing you must never forget: never, never feed a Jehovah’s Witness after midnight.
There are even more rules than this covering all aspects of JW life, but these are basic ground rules when it comes to love and relationships in this high control group. However, rules are made to be broken and you never know what will happen especially with that girl and that guy.
Rose and her grandmother have now left the tattooed metal head and are driving to their next destination. Rose has been down every street, rural route, and county road in Kent Springs and the unincorporated outlying area except for County Road 9074. That is the one road her grandmother avoids as if Satan himself lives down it. Rose is unsure why, but assumes that it has something to do with her mother. Rose never knew her mother and her grandmother tries to keep it that way. She is afraid it would cause trouble.
The grandmother believes she messed up raising Rose’s mother and is grateful for the do-over. It’s going well for her. Being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses is like having your entire life mapped out from infancy. When Rose was old enough to talk her grandmother helped the toddler to raise her hand and offer a comment at their meeting. Her comment was “Jehovah” but it came out as “Heboba”. That was a proud moment followed by several others. For example, when Rose could read she was enrolled in the Theocratic Ministry School, a weekly congregational training seminar for learning how to preach the good news. Sisters in the congregation would role-play sketches with other sisters posing as worldly women they contacted in the ministry. The theme of Rose’s first talk was “Flee from Fornication”. She was seven-years old and did a commendable job describing all of the variations of pornea to her straight-faced fifty-five year old assistant. Her grandmother in the audience applauded enthusiastically. Rose is now nineteen and is as perfect a Jehovah’s Witness as they come. Rose graduated from High School and immediately signed on to be a pioneer minister. All Jehovah’s Witnesses are required to go door-to-door looking for sheep-like-ones, but zealous ones among them pledge ninety-hours a month to the activity. This scores them big points with God and most importantly the respect of those in their congregation. It makes her grandmother happy. But is Rose happy? No one bothers to ask her. They just assume because she is smiling sweetly that she is content. As long as Rose continues to drive down that straight and narrow road no one will pay her a bit of attention. However, Rose is bored and sometimes when she is chauffeuring her grandmother she secretly considers turning sharply down that road that she is never allowed to travel down. She wonders if somewhere down that unknown path that she can find Happiness.