The Innkeeper: A Christmas Story

My name is Pradeep Patel. I operate a small motel off of Interstate 55 about an hour southwest of Chicago. And I need to tell you a story.

As night began to fall, I lit the “No Vacancy” sign for the first time in months. All twelve rooms in our inn were full for the holiday travel season. I had retired to my small apartment next to the motel office with great satisfaction. I brewed a pot of chai to warm my shivering bones. The icy prairie winds whistled outside my window.

Then the bell rang. I got up slowly, assuming it was one of my patrons needing an extra bar of soap or having trouble with their television set. Instead, it was a new face, a young man with a desperate look in his eyes. I told him bluntly that we were full for the night. His shoulders slumped, and he sighed. He apologized for troubling me and walked out the door into the bitter night. I returned to my chai.

An hour later, as I was drifting to sleep in my chair, another ringing of the bell. Such is my life, and such is my lot. I rose from my slumber and passed through the narrow door to the office. I was startled to see the same familiar young face, this time more grim and pale. I tried my best to remain polite and calm, but when I am awakened, I am sometimes curt and unsympathetic. In my business, I meet people with secrets, and I have learned to keep my distance and to refrain from asking questions. I have also learned to be firm. I told the young man, with a scowl on my face, that I meant what I had said earlier: no vacancy means no rooms. Period. He did not speak right away. He just stood there, looking numb and frostbitten and pathetic. But he did not turn to leave. After a few awkward moments, he finally spoke. He was soft-spoken and polite, with a thick Spanish accent. His girlfriend, he told me, was waiting in the car. She was nine months pregnant, he went on, and they had traveled up and down the highway for hours trying to find a room where she could be warm for the night. They were far from home, he said. Headed to Chicago for an important official appointment at the consulate about visas or something, they had been driving for two days. He pleaded my mercy and said they were willing to sleep on a cot in the laundry room. They would pay full price, he said, for somewhere, anywhere, warm to lay their heads.

I looked out the window and saw a rusty old Honda Accord billowing exhaust in the frozen air. I saw two huge dark eyes staring back at me through the windshield from the passenger seat. That was the young woman. I don’t know what came over me, but when I looked in those eyes, I felt great pity for the young travelers.

It wasn’t a perfect idea, but what idea is? I told him that I did have one place where they could stay for half the price of a regular room. I have a small, corrugated aluminum pole barn behind the motel. We’ll take it, he interrupted, darting out the door to the car. I followed him outside, wearing only my trousers and a thin white t-shirt. The air hit me like an ice bath.

The young man had already opened the passenger door of the car. It was a low, small car, and the young woman struggled to her feet. Her hair was plain, her skin was dark, and she had earnest eyes. I shall never forget her eyes. She looked at me and said thank you, thank you, thank you. The barn: it’s where I keep my tools, an old tractor, and feed for my chickens. I keep a few hens in a small pen behind the motel, because I love fresh eggs in the morning.

We walked around back to the barn. The crisp air was clear and black. No clouds, just bright, bright stars. The young man carried a few bags, and the woman trundled along behind, holding her belly like a great round stone. I raised the door to the barn and apologized for the mess. I had let the chickens inside the barn earlier that night to shield them from the freeze. They clucked softly and roosted on wire shelves against a wall behind the tractor.

I walked to the corner and turned up the electric space heater I keep in the barn for the chickens on nights like this. I lit a small kerosene lantern. I had brought a couple of blankets and pillows with me, and I set them on the cold concrete floor. I apologized that I had no restroom available to them. The young man handed me a small wad of cash and thanked me for my kindness. What kindness? This was decency, not kindness.

I glanced at my watch. It was now about midnight. As I started to shut the door, the young woman gasped. She looked at the boy, I mean, the young man, and said, in a mix of Spanish and English, something that made me want to run: her water had broken.

I confess: I panicked. I was tired. I was cold. I was now afraid.

I reached in my pocket to grab my cell phone. I would call 911. We live far out in the county, but the ambulance would come in time. Surely it would come in time. But my pockets were empty. I must have left my cell phone in my apartment, I stammered, and told the couple that I would race to get my phone. But the woman—was she a woman, or just a girl? I couldn’t tell—looked at me with those full piercing eyes, those arresting, searching eyes, and told me to wait. Be still, she said. This is how it is supposed to happen. Right here. Right now. Do not be afraid, for God is with us.

She clenched her jaw and closed her eyes as a contraction passed. The young man held her hand and touched her cheek. When she relaxed, he relaxed. He asked if I would bring them a bucket of hot water and some towels. I dashed off to get the supplies from the laundry room. I grabbed a mop bucket and filled it with scalding water. With my free hand, I carried as many clean rags and towels as I could manage. As I hurried back to the barn, the hot water sloshed out of the bucket onto my cold hands.

I rounded the corner and heard the woman groan in pain. I left the water and towels with them and went back for more pillows and blankets. I kept bringing them supplies to busy myself, to calm my nerves. I thought of what my insurance agent would say about this. I thought about what my grandmother would recommend that I do. The groans became screams. The screams became shrieks.

I see the crown, said the man. Push again! He’s almost here!

With a bellowing, haunting, guttural heave, she pushed one last time.

Then silence.

For one moment, the world froze. The leaves did not rustle, the chickens did not cluck, the interstate highway was empty.

And then a deep, gasping breath and a tiny, croaking cry.

The unwashed baby was placed upon the mother, and the young father—I assumed he was the father!—went about dressing the umbilical cord, delivering the placenta, and toweling up the blood and fluids that had turned the white towels scarlet. If not for the cooing and cries of joy, it might have been mistaken for a murder scene! I had never before witnessed the birth of a child, and I must say it was terrifying. But through the pain and the travails of labor, it was clear that this young mother was never afraid.

She nursed the child for a long while till the baby was satisfied. As both mother and child slept, the young man asked me for more clean blankets, and he made a makeshift crib in, of all places, the bucket of my old tractor!

The family seemed to be settled, so I returned to my quarters to rest. I walked around the building with my head cocked up toward the stars. What a night! I have never before or since seen stars pulsing and twinkling and dancing and shooting like that, better than a fireworks display over Navy Pier! As I fell onto my bed that night, for the first time in a long time—maybe ever—I was at peace in my heart.

I was awakened around dawn by the ringing bell at the front desk. I stumbled through the doorway and was startled by what I saw. Several big dirty men stared at me across the counter. We’re here to meet him, they said.

Who? What are you talking about?

We got a message last night. We were working third shift down at the pork processing plant, and we’re all outside on our smoke break, and—you’re not going to believe this, but I’ll just say it—there was this light that I can’t describe, and we all hit the deck. Like something from E.T. or something. Crazy. We freaked out. And then this voice tells us to stop being cowards and start believing. And then the voice said to follow the signs to meet the one who would make everything right. And then a hundred other voices starting singing with that voice, and it was huge light and huge sound and, then, nothing. Silence. And we looked up in the sky, and there was this weird, giant star half the size of the moon. Some of us thought it was a plane or a satellite, but whatever it is, it’s straight over your motel. So we’re here to meet him.

I told them to wait one minute, and I crept out the back door of my apartment and ran barefoot to the barn. The couple was awake with their baby. I told them about the strange visitors at the front desk. They didn’t seem bothered at all by the odd circumstances. In fact, they seemed to be expecting visitors. With the couple’s permission, I escorted this band of swine-smelling factory workers to the barn. They told the couple their story, and the couple shared similar encounters of angelic announcements. I first heard their names then: José Nazario and Maria Encarnación. I learned they were to be married soon. I heard the stories of heavenly messengers and lights and kicking and muting and fear. I heard that all things were being made new, and that this child, this little Jesus Nazario, would be more than a framing carpenter like his young father. He would be the very presence of God in the muck of humanity. He would wade into our filth and stench like those farm workers did, and he would deliver us from our retching sin at whatever the cost.

I am not sure who this baby boy will become. But I was there when it started. His little eyes were like flints waiting to spark.

And so ends my tale of that singular night and the following curious dawn. The young family drove on later in the morning, and I never saw them again. But that night they could have stopped anywhere, and they stopped here. Down an access road, miles from anything important. I remain a humble innkeeper, but maybe now I am something more.

About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.