This short story comes to us from Bridge Eight, a literary publisher from Jacksonville, as part of our Florida Lit Mag Series. Issue 5, “Out of Orbit,” explores worlds thrown from their natural course by a stronger force. The issue is guest edited by friends of Burrow, Jeff Parker and Erica Dawson, as well as features work from even more Burrow friends, Shane Hinton and Jared Silvia. Despite all those lovely connections, we’re excerpting “Portulaca Drive,” from issue 5, which Rachel Hinkel’s first published story. Enjoy the excerpt and pick up a copy of Bridge Eight.

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Passing a cemetery, Paula holds her breath, wonders if she really believes in what would happen if she didn’t, wonders if she’s too old for such superstitions. She crosses herself while stopped at stop signs, stop lights. She once heard of a woman who was hit from behind while idling at a light and the collision was of such force that the woman’s vehicle was decimated to ash and nothing was left of her corpse but bones. Paula is alone, but doesn’t feel it. She crosses herself when a big rig passes her. She crosses herself when her car is a mess, which is always. She prays to God for the strength to clean it.

Paula has a daughter, or did once – she’s not sure how to categorize, whether to say she has or has not. Which pleases God more? Which clenches her gut like truth does? – has a husband still, spineless as a worm and about as useful. But the Lord forgives.

Grace used to be something one could talk about. Grace used to be a thing faithful people used to explain. Grace was her daughter’s name.

Grace like lace, like ice and cake, Can you see the brooding bats that flap the four corners of the moon? Look harder. Squint.

Paula broods, misses her little one. Her little one she could squeeze and sniff, bite and kiss. Her little one with a little mind that learned. Paula could teach her little things, trying to answer what, how, why.

“What is that?” Grace’s voice, pinched and high, her pink finger pointing to a white sliver moving across the sky. It was the trail left by an airplane, but that response would have been too final, so Paula said instead, “It’s an astronaut’s tear.” They were driving north, home from tap class.

“Astronauts cry?”

“Of course, everyone cries.”

“You do?”

“Sometimes.”

“Why does the astronaut cry?”

“Because he’s homesick.”

“Where does the tear go?”

“Nowhere. It’s stuck in orbit.”

“What’s orbit?”

“When something goes around and around and around something else without stopping. Earth and the other planets orbit the sun.”

“Like Pluto and Mars?”

“And Jupiter and Saturn and Neptune.”

“Mercury! Venus!”

“Did you know that we’re moving fast around the sun, but the Earth is so big we can’t feel it? And gravity –”

“So the astronaut’s tear is orbiting Earth?”

“Exactly.”

“I can’t see it anymore so it must be on the other side, over China.”

“Probably.” Paula smiled at Grace in the rear-view, but Grace was busy looking out the window.

Grace would be how old now? And Paula, outside crumbling, inside a cold and crusted womb. Fifteen years feels like more. She has aged a lifetime.

Her thoughts like to orbit around certain facts:

  1. God is mysterious and possibly he has a plan and possibly it is cruel.
  2. She should’ve come when Grace called.
  3. Grace could still come home.

The orbiting is involuntary, habitual. The liking of it is a choice. It feels good, doesn’t it? Like getting what’s deserved. Doesn’t she, after all, deserve to feel something?

If she could talk to the boy, she’d teach him this:

Father – fingertips against the forehead

Son – fingertips against the chest

Holy – fingertips against the left shoulder

Spirit – fingertips against the right

And when he asked, what for, Paula would say, Grace.

And when he asked, what’s grace, Paula would trust the Lord to give her the words to explain.

The sun has already set by the time Paula pulls onto her street and streetlights scatter yellow islands across the blacktop and the islands set into glow the shape of the boy and his bike. Pedaling, the boy falls into darkness and then glows, darkness then glow, all the way to the corner where Paula knows he will make a U-turn without braking and then speed through darkness and glow back toward his house where he will pedal hard up the house’s driveway, coast back down and hustle through darkness and glow to the street corner again. Again. These nightly rounds consist of more than passing of time, of waiting. Portulaca is a quiet street, but still it’s not safe and it’s past dark and no one has called the boy in. He rides likes a saint, even on nights when Paula’s headlights catch him between silver ribbons of rain. His riding is meditative, the closest thing she’s seen to real prayer, to true devotion. Is he not pious in his suffering? Paula knows. Paula knows, because everyone on the street knows, that the boy’s dad has become a drunk since his wife’s heart stopped while she molded ground meat into a loaf.  She was twenty-eight. The dad used to be a man who arrived at work five minutes early, never a victim of impulse. He used to be a man who would walk into your house and tell you to the dollar how much it would cost to renovate your kitchen.

Chocolate chip cookies, Paula fed the boy, of all things when the ambulance rushed the mom and dad off. By the time the ambulance arrived the wife had been dead eight or more minutes, but the dad hurried the medics and Paula had hurried over and offered to take the boy for the evening. Over the following week and a half she delivered three casseroles. It’s been more than two years and her dishes still haven’t been returned. It didn’t seem appropriate to go ask for them. It still doesn’t.

Paula can tell he hasn’t eaten supper yet. The boy doesn’t seem to take in weather or fatigue or the other homes with windows lit. He passes, without looking, Paula’s house, where her slug of a husband squirms and digests, but the boy doesn’t think of this. He doesn’t take in a car like Paula’s which is not the one he waits for. Still, Paula slows, rolls her window down, and musters a gentle voice. Hi Alec, she says, raises a hand to wave.

Hi, he almost says; it’s more of an exhale.

He is not impolite, just busy, she knows. She tells herself, Don’t take it personal, but there is that ache and she wishes it would thunderstorm. When the rain comes down in sheets and thunder and lightning shatter the sky, she asks the boy to join her on her porch. Only two or three times it’s happened and he seems to consider it, pauses for a second and looks at her, but he gets antsy. Ants in the pants is a phrase that makes sense. His riding is more sacrament than superstition, she knows. She knows, that he knows, that if he keeps riding, his dad will come home. A vigilance to balance the world’s negligence. Chasing grace. Not too different from Paula’s habit of crossing herself, she would consent to agree, if asked to. Father Son Holy Spirit. He gets antsy and shakes his head, shakes his head no. If the boy did come sit on the porch, Paula would offer him food, not cookies this time, more like a sandwich to be exact. But his dad is going to make dinner, the boy would say, he should wait. She would call to Dan to nuke some popcorn and he would and he would bring it out and he would do something stupid like ask the boy, Where’s your father? To the tune of driving Paula crazy. But the boy, he would be calm, he would say, My dad is working late.

But tonight doesn’t look like rain. She can see the moon, and Jupiter, which she always wishes was more red than white. But she likes that she knows that this bright star is not a star; she likes that she knows Jupiter when she sees it. If she could, she would point it out to the boy and watch him fumble with the concept, or maybe he would get it right off the bat. He is a sharp one.

Paula’s house holds Grace’s room still set up as it was that day in 1974. Wallpaper: ponies and pale blue. Pink carpet. Grace was a baby when Paula and her husband bought the house from a couple who talked about x-rays that had shown holes in their son’s heart. The doctor had said Florida would be good for his health. So it was while lazing beneath a palm tree, instead of an oak or maple or birch, that the boy died at seventeen. He still comes to Paula’s mind when she imagines dying. She sleeps in Grace’s room.

Grace’s hair was fine as cornsilk.

Gold strands spun through a sheet of wrapping paper remind Paula of Grace’s hair. Paula has a thing for wrapping paper and she searches craft store, art store, thrift store shelves for rolls with soothing one-of-a-kind prints. She prefers prints on thick paper, paper blended with velvet and gold and silver threads and foils. Most fruitful have been the ads she posts in the paper: Cash for your unused wrapping ppr, interested in all types. Call Paula. She crosses herself in store aisles and before entering a stranger’s house and again when she exits, after she puts the key in the ignition and locks the doors, before she starts her car. The wrapping paper will outlive her; she stores it under Grace’s bed. She never feels alone.

Paula never drank to forget the day Grace pressed her face to the neighbor’s screen door and said, “Mom, Can you come help me?” But she would like to die in the shade of a tree soon.

Grace’s hands were always cool, her eyes the brown of leaves sapped of color. Pale gold dust. The creaking in the corner, you hear it? That voice belongs to the house.

The boy burns rubber in the night. It’s past dusk, which depending on the time of year could be early or late. It’s mid-spring and the sun’s light hovers on the horizon until seven-thirty or eight o’clock. Paula is in her socks. She futzes around the house. Her husband futzes around the shed or reads in the recliner. Everything about him is bothersome and even grotesque, such as his way of slicing callouses off his heel with a pocket knife inlaid with dog bone and the raw flesh beneath the hardened skin filling the room with the scent of grape jelly. She could vomit. How can he sit for so long beside those dusty books and polished war medals and dog bone knife, beneath images of the swastika and the iron cross? Beneath rare and antique weapons, Civil War era knives, Revolutionary War muskets, Japanese swords. He was born between the two world wars, when war was still an admirable thing, when soldiers were still heroes. All of Dan’s heroes are soldiers. She is thinking of her wretched husband as she cuts into an apple, removes the core. She crosses herself, then thinks of the boy, checks the window and waits to see him go back up his house’s driveway and turn. She crosses herself again and prays only with her lips. May His name be blessed. Back in the kitchen she finds her husband pouring himself a glass of milk. He gulps.

“That kid still going?” he says, setting his glass down on the counter.

“Riding his bike,” Paula nods.

“He’s got a lot of patience.”

“Don’t joke, Dan.”

“I’m not.”

“–“

“Should we invite him in?”

“He won’t.”

“You’ve asked him?”

Paula hands him a paper towel and motions for him to wipe the froth of milk from his upper lip.

“Yes.” She hadn’t. “I mean, I tried, but he won’t stop, just looks at me and keeps riding.”

“Me too. Breaks my heart.”

“Well, what can we do?” Paula throws her hands up toward the ceiling. “Have him picked up? I’ve got my eye on him. And the dad comes home, he always comes. It’s never been a whole night, not even past ten o’clock.”

“Not yet.”

“No. Not yet.”

“Makes sense though if you consider the history of this place.”

“What do you mean?” Paula thinks for a second he’s going to mention Grace.

“This street was built after the war. The same year the Führer, you know –” He mimes consuming poison and choking to death. Paula rolls her eyes.

“So what? A lot of things were built in 1945.” She catches him smirk at her recall of the date.

“But this is of greater consequence. With Hitler dead the war would soon be over and twelve million military personnel would be demobilized throughout Europe and the Pacific and at home we prepared for their return by building houses. I was just reading in the paper that the houses on Portulaca, Aster, and Eucharis were almost entirely bought by returning soldiers with GI loans.”

“Your point, Dan?”

“I mean I’m not really making a point, I’m just talking.”

“You said, ‘Makes sense if you think of the history.’” Paula mocks his speech.

“Hmmm. I can’t recall.”

“The boy! We were talking about the boy.”

“Oh, yeah, I don’t know what I meant to say. Sorry.”

“You’re a real treat. Excuse me.” Paula goes to the door and squints through the screen looking for the flash of the boy’s reflectors. For a second, she sees him fully lit by a street lamp, then he fades into darkness, then light again. He looks so real, and then unreal, like a cartoon the way his hair shines and his motion never stops. She wants to call out to him, but doesn’t want to disturb his meditation. He could fall. He could get mad. She doesn’t want to upset him. It’s enough that she can keep watch and she does for a while, watches him pass through the yellow islands of light. He looks bigger at times, almost more than a boy, and other times he appears so small, less than a child. Sometimes his strength seems superhuman, other times he seems like he could break. His fragility in these moments gives her a pang and something in her stings although she can’t name where, somewhere between her elbows and her hips. Two cars pass, but neither is the one the boy waits for.

Paula returns to the kitchen. Her husband has moved from his easy stance at the counter to a chair at the kitchen table. He’s bowed over the day’s newspaper, but his attention is on a sliver beneath his thumb nail. Paula looks in the fridge and pulls out a peach, discovering quickly that it’s moldy. The sour sweet stench pricks her nostrils and makes her gut wrench.

“Disgusting.”

“What? Something bad?”

“Worse than bad. I might as well clean it all out.” She sets to opening jars and sniffing the contents. She tosses a container of yogurt, a jar of roasted red peppers, a jar of pickles which surprises her; doesn’t pickled mean it lasts forever? The olives smell ripe in their brine. A jar of capers is on the fence and she sniffs it repeatedly as she hears a car outside. She brings the jar to the door and the car has already passed and the boy makes his way back to the corner. She watches his rotation a few times, looking for a change in him: none. On her way back to the kitchen she fishes out a caper with her fingers and decides they’ve got a little more life still. She makes a commitment to find a recipe that uses them. A few more jars make the cut and she’s moved on to the crisper when her husband clears his throat. She knows he’s preparing to speak and having been appreciating the quiet, she turns to him and with her scorn suggests whatever the matter is can wait. But he doesn’t read her.

“Did I ever tell you Hitler was a Christian?” he says. She bends and lifts a bag of celery from the drawer. When she comes back up she feels her face burn, different from a head rush.

“Dan, I’m not in the mood –”

“He claimed to be fighting on the side of the Lord.” Paula tenses at the sound of her husband saying ‘the Lord’ as if God is one of his historical facts to be memorized and regurgitated. How dare he suggest that Hitler was some kind of officer in God’s army. Looking at him all jolly with his glass of milk half full, she tosses the celery on the counter, no longer concerned with its freshness.

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I was just reading Mein Kampf earlier and – “

“I don’t give a scoot what you were reading. You really have no mercy.” Her socked feet stomp down the hall.

“Come on, Paula,” his voice calls after her; she closes the door to Grace’s room. Inside, with the door closed, she can’t hear him at all. Inside, with the door closed, she can peer out the blinds and watch the boy ride. Her husband won’t dare come in.

If Paula drove the boy around after school, she would keep her car clean. She would keep a plastic bag where she would put her take-out cups, then throw the bag away when it was full. She would make this a rule and she wouldn’t break it because cleanliness is a thing an adult can give a child. She would take him to little league and sit on the bleachers and cheer when his team scored. Go Roadside! Or go Bozzo’s! All the teams now are named after local businesses. She sees the photos in the stores, all the kids smiling in their T-shirts. She’d take the boy for ice cream after, even if his team lost. Especially if they lost and she’d teach him that losing doesn’t mean you are a loser, that losing is a good way to learn. She would eat ice cream, too.

Now, on Grace’s bed she thinks of Hitler, how on April 30, 1945, he poisoned himself with cyanide. She thinks of Hitler’s wife, Eva, who with burning tongue followed into the acrid swells of death. Hitler’s soul must have descended to hell. God would not have saved such a soul, would he? Could Hitler be in heaven, cloaked in white and eating cherries?

This isn’t the first time she’s had this thought. She often wonders about the fate of souls. She wonders recently about Donna Reed and L. Ron Hubbard, Desi Arnaz and James Cagney. Are they up there? Did they make it? What about the cannibal who, before being murdered by the state of Texas, cried out: The Lord is my savior. I shall not fear. Was that enough for the angels to drop down and claim him? If the last breaths are utterances for God’s salvation, can the soul still ascend? Paula can’t puzzle this out with reason and with her faith she puts no act of mercy or malevolence past God. If a little girl can be taken from her home in broad daylight with not a single pair of eyes to witness, then sure, why not believe in anything?

If Paula were to die and meet Hitler in heaven, what would she say? Would she give him a cold shoulder, find a curse word that didn’t feel clumsy on her lips? She thinks of a group of kids she watched outside the mall the other day. Teenagers who sat around awkwardly glum until one boy tripped another with a simple extension of his leg. The victim fell face forward and all the others laughed like holy rollers filled with the spirit. She was amazed at the effortlessness of the act. I could do that, she thought and imagined sticking a leg in front of her husband as he walked into the kitchen to get his glass of milk. He was always so dazed and she could do it from the chair, she wouldn’t even have to get up. “Oops,” she’d say. Then later, in Grace’s room she’d have a good laugh. But now she imagines Hitler. Imagines his mustached-face constrained in the pursuit of avoiding swallowing the pit of a cherry while thoroughly enjoying its flesh. Distracted, he wouldn’t see her leg extend from a gilded chair and then bump! With eyebrows raised and mouth forming an ‘oh’ like oh no! (except it would be whatever oh no is in German, or maybe in heaven everyone speaks one language like English, or not English, but a new, universal language that is only spoken in heaven and you don’t have to learn it because you somehow know it upon arriving). Imagine his shock in having been tripped by a middle-aged woman. Ha! He would be so embarrassed. A small atonement: If Hitler is in heaven, let him be the butt of all jokes, daily find himself tumbling face first into a cloud. Let heaven be hell for him. But she gets carried away.

She stares at the ceiling and as if written there she sees the words: The Lord is my savior. I shall not want. May the name of the Lord be blessed. May He be blessed, be blessed, be blessed. Her thoughts turn prayer and with eyes closed she drifts.

“Mom, can you come help me?”

“OK, I’m coming.” Just let me finish, she thought, smiling at Nancy, who had just poured her a glass of iced tea. She took her time with the iced tea and at home Grace’s math book was open on the kitchen room table, in its crevice, a sharpened pencil. On the pencil, the words Miami Dolphins and a few tiny bite marks. On the page Grace’s printed numbers formed neatly on lines and a word problem at the bottom left unanswered. These are in a drawer still. She handles them with care. The word problem she has memorized: Crayons are packed 10 in a box. A carton has 10 boxes. Bruce has 2 cartons and 1 box. How many crayons does Bruce have? How many crayons, Grace? How many? Mom is here now.

Paula’s socks are too loose and slouch around her ankles. She lays on Grace’s bed with her legs up over her head, looking at her too-loose socks, feeling old. She is slender the way a stick is slender, crooked and knobby. Rolling onto her side she hiccups, then holds her breath. In lieu of sucking her thumb, she bites gently on its tip, a small but necessary comfort. Outside the window, the sound of a car engine and she pops up and peers between the blinds as the car passes, only a Buick wagon belonging to the Curtises whose little girl is never without her hair done up in pigtails, pulling her eyes wide apart.

How old is the boy? Nine or ten? Older than Grace was. She wonders as his front tire comes into view and he goes up the driveway, turns and goes back out. Through the bay window of his house she sees the yellow of a light, dining room or kitchen. She keeps vigil.

She drops to the floor and tries a push-up, fails. Instead she does sit-ups until her stomach muscles feel injured. Feel the burn, No pain, no gain. Jane Fonda’s voice in her head, Give it to me, stay strong. Fuck you, Jane: another voice, her own. Her cheeks burn a full blush. But what power in that word, she feels strong and wants another taste. Fuck you, her head fills. Fuck you, her head floats. Fuck you, she is a body bereft, but here she could be hung on a word so pointed, so sharp. A nail buried into wood by a hammer, the word is hammer and nail; it does not lack force and out it all comes. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, the word fills her head and then a rush. She is exhaustion and tears and she hadn’t even said the word aloud. She can’t, not here, not in Grace’s room. Her throat is a shield. She crosses herself, and again.

“Paula?” Her husband’s voice at the door.

“Don’t come in,” she says; a warning.

“I won’t.”

“The door’s locked.” The door doesn’t have a lock. He could turn the handle and the door would open, but no he couldn’t. It is locked because she says it is locked. It may as well be lined with deadbolts.

“I know,” he says. Paula’s body which had tensed at the sound of his voice, relaxes as the sound of his footsteps fades.

Grace’s math book, the Miami Dolphins pencil resting in the book’s crevice. How many times has she seen this in her mind? As many as the boy sees his mother’s body on the kitchen floor? Less? More? What is it to compare grief? Oh Grace. And that poor boy. She crosses herself while wishing she could drift to sleep and wake in the knowledge of God’s mystery.

Hitler was a Christian. How dare he, her husband. Fuck him. Fuck Hitler.

She retrieves a roll of wrapping paper from beneath Grace’s bed. A fresh roll still in its plastic sleeve. She pokes her finger down into the hollow end of the tube to tear the plastic and unwraps. She unrolls the long continuous sheet for the length of the room and turns it over so she can see the print: mollusk shells organized into two groups below captions in italicized script:

Bivalvia

Gastropoda

All of this on a pale beige background like a page from an antiquated book. The pictures are of shells, round, scalloped and smooth, two halves making a whole to open and close like a mouth. Long and spiked or horned, twisted and curled, mostly snails from the sea, land and freshwater. Venus clams, scallops, cockles.

Paula lies down, the paper wrinkling under her weight, but the paper is thick and doesn’t tear. She closes her eyes and, gently at her sides, her fingertips move circularly. Each moment she becomes more immersed in this world. Each moment the world becomes more this paper. Lack of sight heightens her sense of touch. The paper at first feels soft and smooth as an unbroken plane, but now she feels where the plane is perforated and she begins to sense each fiber. Her fingers move with curiosity, avidly; they are alert. She is on a bed of seashells by the seashore. She is folded into a book.

Then the rumble and groan of an engine. The engine cuts. Paula jumps to the bed and is at the window peering through two panels of the blinds separated by her eager hands. The boy speeds up the driveway – a speed she can’t believe him capable of – and drops his bike in the grass. His joy is greater than his body can contain. His dad stumbles out of his truck fully pardoned and swoops up his boy in one easy motion, drapes him over a shoulder. There is pure forgiveness in that moment, in that motion, in the pliancy of the boy’s trunk and limbs. Forgiveness so automatic that it isn’t even a thing that happens. There is no process. Even God’s forgiveness involves some work: asking, receiving. The boy makes it look so easy. Yes, he came home, that’s all. Here he is. Here is grace.

The dad carries the boy up three steps and through the side door. Inside, lights come on. Paula watches until they disappear into a room. If their house is the same layout as hers, which it is, they are in the kitchen. Paula closes her eyes. She imagines the boy sucking down Spaghetti O’s then climbing into bed, unwashed, unbrushed. She doesn’t know that the dad serves Spaghetti O’s, but wouldn’t he? Drunk and widowed. Or like all men, sluggish and crude. She imagines the way he opens a can and plops red paste and noodles like skinny donuts into the blur of Teflon sizzle and stares. But what if this dad, desperate, drunk, fakes a French accent and is goaded by a rise from his son? What if while qu’est-ce que c’est-ing around the kitchen he cultivates a mirepoix and in between guffaws instructs le garçon on how to add milk – warmed first – to the roux for the sauce that will drench the filet baking in the oven? Let’s rest that the late-night dinner is somewhere between Campbells and Cod Mornay and that the dad can lift his son to laughter and savor the sound the same as he savors his first sip of liquor.