Bethlehem, Pennsylvania


Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

His seventeen-year-old fiancé sleeps,
he drives south. Exhaust seeps through
holes in the floor of their Chevy pick-up,
a rusted deathtrap that he curses.
She wakes, she vomits twice, she needs
to pee every thirty minutes. He feeds more
oil into the engine like a scared dog
that shudders above fifty. He watches
her watch the black river of asphalt flow.
Folks back home would be buzzing with gossip
by now. He glances at her
swollen belly, nine months large. Not his.
“There’s only one way a girl gets knocked up,”
his best friend’s words pop like distant rifles.

Her water breaks as they pull into town,
a one-stoplight speck, Bethlehem,
Pennsylvania, with no proper hotel
or hospital. Joe ducks inside a bar
to ask about a doctor. Darkness seethes
with folks like them, out-of-towners
needing beds. No vacancies anywhere,
no clean sheets at a bed and breakfast.
Emergency room? Epidural? Nope.
They hold hands, he prays, “Don’t let Maria
or the baby die. We’ve tried so hard
to do what’s right. People calling her
a slut and me a fool. You are
our only refuge, our only hope.”

A tap on the window. The bartender
in flannel and jeans says, “I think I can
help.” They follow him out to pastureland.
He’s called ahead. His wife’s father was
an ob/gyn, and his wife has cleared off the tool bench
in the garage and spread a faded quilt.
“We’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way,”
she smiles. She has hot water, dish towels,
rubbing alcohol. Joe follows orders.
Maria’s lost more blood than he’s ever
seen, even butchering a deer. He cuts
the cord with a carpet knife. “Tearing
could have been much worse,” the woman says.
He’ll believe anything right now.

A crowd has heard somehow and gathers
outside. They sing carols, laughing, those happy hymns,
Glory Hallelujahs, Holy Holys.
He kneels, Maria kisses his fingers
one by one. He wants most to be slow, gray,
kissing her cheek, recalling this night,
terrible, brimming over, okay now,
after he’s known for years that she was
telling the truth, that this really happened,
that he was the one who wiped blood off
the face of God with his busted up hands
and heard in the baby’s first cry
laughter of the Most High, Creator,
Doer of impossible joys.

Austin Church



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