The City and the Stars

Hello, Mr. Miller.

And you are…?

Your new neighbor, from down the street.
Actually, I suppose, not so new now. Forgive
me for not introducing myself sooner.

Ah, yes, Jennifer’s been talking
about you.
We look each other over.
He’s more formal than the last time
I saw him; it must be the white shirt.
I could probably make out my face
in his loafers.

Are you sweating?

Oh… yes, sir.
I… I just returned from basketball
practice. If you’ll pardon
my appearance, I’m very excited
to meet your family.

Jenna’s mom moved into the dining room.
Her father, brother and I sit in the living room,
opposite the fireplace.

How did you meet Jennifer,
he asks, after Jenna delivers
a tray of waters. A gin for him.

In the park, I say.
Turns out we both love
the swings.

And HORSE, she adds.

Horse?

Basketball.

Basketball? I didn’t know
you had any interest in sports.

Just kidding, Pop. She winks at me
from behind the men. He reads
science fiction novels.

I fight the urge to wince.

Ah. Short of the words
of Christ, but Jennifer
does love them.

I can almost hear her winking.

He grills me
while 12-year-old Abe watches.
I really hate trying to impress men
who aren’t impressed
with a good vocabulary.
Abe appears to love it.

I end up explaining my Dad’s Lutheran
values making a good mess
of Mom’s Episcopalian childhood,
and that finally,
they just gave up.

What a tragedy. He glances at Abe.
Surely you haven’t given up
your faith, however.

Not at all. I think I surprise everyone
with my conviction. But I haven’t yet found
a congregation here.

Why, my boy, right
at the the end of the street!

No… what are the odds?

Please, join us. Jennifer
won’t be there, but we would be happy
to introduce you to the rest
of the community.

Then, like a blast of cool air,
Mrs. Miller appears, and behind her,
Pat, smiling politely, like her mind
is somewhere else.

This is a delicious roast, Mrs. Miller,
I offer, careful to clean
my teeth before speaking.

What a polite young man, she raises her eyebrows
to her husband, seated across from her.
It’s my signature dish.
Does your mother make one, as well?

Oh, my mother doesn’t cook
much. The College keeps her very busy.

She attends the College? At her age?
Jenna’s father asks.

No, sir. Pardon.
She teaches there.

Mr. and Mrs. Miller exchange a look
I can’t read.

And what of your father?
Mrs. Miller asks.

He’s…

He’s a novelist, Jenna jumps in
excitedly. I wish I could kick her shin.
I think she’d like it.

How rare, Mrs. Miller says.

What does he write about?
Any titles we’d recognize?

It’s… he’s kind of avant garde.

Well, her father continues.
He must be successful, supporting his family.

Actually… he’s… my mother supports
us, mostly.

How rare, indeed, Mr. Miller says.

With all respect, Mr. Miller,
is that a problem?

Well, it’s certainly not normal, son.

I think you’ll find my family falls well
short of normal, Mr. Miller.

There’s a quick, sudden pain
in my right shin. For the first time
since we met, Jenna looks genuinely
concerned. But now Pat’s returning
from wherever she was.

What does that mean? Abe’s first words
make me wish he’d stay quiet.

It means his family
isn’t your family
, Pat says.
They’re from Cleveland.

Cincinnati, Jenna says.

Certainly, Mr. Miller says.
But where are your parents from?

My father’s from Chicago,
my mother is from Madison.

Well, there you have it.
He dusts his hands.

Abe tries again. What is it, Pop?

His parents are from different places,
Jenna says, sighing, and begins
to inspect the ceiling.

Her father nods. June and I,
our families have been in Norwood
for 300 years. June’s great-great-great-
great-great-great grandmother proudly
sailed here from the British Isles.

We know what it is to be from a place.
Gives you character. Gives you certainty
that you’ll find someone who shares
your beliefs. His parents lack
that stability, and so does he.

Abe finds this a very satisfying answer
and digs into his roast again.

Please pardon me for asking, Mr. Miller,
but if your family’s so practiced at staying,
through thick and thin, why did they leave
England, or Norw—

Ahem—I’ve met his mother,
and she’s delightful.

Jenna’s father and I stare at her.

Me, too.

I alone turn to stare at Pat.

At Roche Brothers, she adds.
I didn’t realize who she was
at the time, but we had a great conversation
about women in higher education.
She has her Masters in Journalism, you know.

Terrific. Jenna’s father throws
his hands in the air and looks across
the table to Mrs. Miller, who’s already rising
toward the kitchen.
Just what this world needs: more confused women
trying to find themselves in men’s work.

I just can’t let it go.
At this moment the phone starts to ring.

Mr. Miller, I say over the bell. Work is changing.
And just because you don’t like it
doesn’t mean my mother can’t support
my brother and sister and me.

I don’t see how she can possibly do that
and see to your needs as her children. It seems
your mother has made her choice.

No one says anything.

Mr. Miller, sir, your world
doesn’t work. You can’t pray
it to working any more
than you’d want to keep Civil Rights
from all the black people of the South.

He cuts me off. I want no such thing.
I believe in God’s immaculate creation
and equality for all his children.

Then pardon me, sir, but—

June, would you please answer
that damn-ded telephone?

Pardon me—again—sir,
but I have to tell you
your daughter…

Mrs. Miller is palming the phone
and looking at me.

…one of God’s own
children, intends to study travel
between the stars? And that then,
whether you approve or not, she’s going
to write novels about women
like my mother, hero-moms,
imperfect and doing it all,
because they can,
and they have to.

As the words hang
in front of us, I’m on the edge
of tears. And then I realize exactly
what Jenna’s done.

Abe is confused. Pat is holding herself
in her seat. Mrs. Miller has a sudden pain
in her arm, and Jenna… is glowing.

Mr. Miller looks at me
a long time,
and then at her.

For a moment,
I’m really proud of her
before I realize
that’s not it.

I’m in love with her.

And her father is beside me,
one sharply-tailored masculine
hand on the shoulder
of my dad’s old plaid
button-up, showing me
so Christianly
to the door.

Added: April 3, 2013 | Last changed: June 7, 2014