The Polycarpists and their mouths
Was down on old highway 395, they said, a car aflame and just driving along. As much fire as there was Chevrolet. This was after the thing with Claudia Trach, Lisa Trach’s oldest—such a tragedy, there where the white cross still in the dirt and always the bouquet flowers dying, blowing, and becoming part of the brush. So because of that and now this, people think like one-thing-after-another. The word about. Jawing away. But what Mr. Avery reminded them was: no collision. From his place up Via Cantamar, Mr. Avery said he had watched the car wind up 395 blazingly bright, pretty much—on that dark night—the only source of light this side of the freeway. Be hard to say what was wrong besides the car being on fire. Consistent across all accounts was something to the effect of, Engulfed in flame. Not smoking and a little glow, not hot tongues licking from under the hood, no: entire. Wild. A fireball.
A couple boys parked for some midnight chow who saw it roll past the Nessy Burger said the car stopped at a stoplight and then went at the green accelerating slowly the flames large enough to obscure even a glimpse of the driver. If there was a driver, repeated Margaret Godert who had not herself seen the car. I felt it in my teeth, knew it was a fire and thank the lord it was only the car dry as the canyon is this year, there’s nerves you know run from the lungs to the teeth, haven’t you ever heard that? It’s a famous feeling.
The oldest Brae-Landry sister awake with her chronic pins-and-needles witnessed it, she said: as close as you and I are standing, and she was certain there was no driver. Up the hill away, almost to Gopher Canyon, she saw it. And she was just as certain it was teenage Epicureans—as she said: behind it all. Can’t you see—there’s always been talk, small town west. Lips moved by corruption, the things which move in the brush. Things from before.
Naturally, the giggling that followed didn’t slow her down, in fact, naturally, she went on something of a tear positing and spitting and connecting dots as far flung as the collapse of the community center’s roof, the gastrointestinal troubles epicentered at the Greek Chicken, the freeze which uselessly dropped so many avocados from their branches, all those cracked concrete chimneys folks had to have removed at such expense, burst pipes, strange men door-to-door offering to repave your driveway, dead birds floating in bird baths, the coyotes those coyotes, the gas prices, and thirty plus students at Mae Ellis who were pathologically unable to stop crying.
Hearers snickered. Audient to such things as these and saying, how peculiar, without ever setting their minds to wander the paths—the obvious paths!—from one to the next.
Christians! Contagious crying and you laugh, she said, call yourselves Christians and contagious crying makes you laugh. Are you an Epicurean, Hugo? They knew where she went to church and they knew where she went to church before that and why she left that church and vowed never to and so on. Those that knew her, really knew her, laughed along only nervously.
Ivan heard it from Alex Lee about Mrs. Brae-Landry being on the news and thought it would be good for a laugh, but they really let her talk longer than he could recall any one head on the morning or evening local. No footage of the car—just the old bat flapping her kisser, wasn’t it in someone’s power to cut her off anyways, so he changed the channel. Comes the thought he didn’t watch the news much anymore or TV at all. An odd occurrence not to have been texted a link. Did Alex watch the news? Or had she simply passed on a tip that someone had given her? What were these channels—anyways—these channels, what were these movies and commercials, what were these products being hawked, where were the handsome hairdos, and what were these channels on which: for example, a woman who threw oranges at two men on an escalator, an ad for a burger with animated livestock, a student who pulled a knife in shop class on other students grabbing at each other’s testicles and such things, people stretching their mouths behind the reporter for the camera opened wide for the camera.
Johnny’s older brother told them and told it a little witchy so Gilbert, Johnny’s best friend ignoring Johnny’s texts pleading to come with, he drove alone to where some said the car had later rolled to a stop and burned up. Shaking nerves himself, Gil set his buzzing phone to silent and slowly with reverence walked the boundary lines of a blackly burned rectangle. After mending fences with a gift of dino chicken nuggets, hot plate, he repeated to Johnny that he had not disturbed the square. Johnny tried to fit as many dino chicken nuggets in his mouth as possible, a feat that returned the meal to mush. Gil laughed. They kissed each other’s dino chicken nugget slick lips so quietly in the basement even though things weren’t so secret anymore.
By now, the idea of the burned square held as much intrigue as the inflamed stories of the night of. Kids went out there. Weird part of town, nowhere safe to park. No sidewalks. Bit by a dog while kicking the dirt near the small burned square where some said it, the car, had settled and completed its immolation, Randall Krieger the little shit deserved to be bit by a dog some said. Nobody not even a mother can talk sense into that kid so everybody who had ever tried took pleasure in the nonsense he cried at the dog’s behest. Mutt held on too. Locked on till Clark showed up, but Clark more or less let him split, made a racket and didn’t fire his gun. Drove the bastard Krieger to the hospital, but wasn’t about to wing a local hero, man or beast. When the nurse asked about the look of the animal, Clark hemmed and hawed a little . . . foamy, he said. Rich dark fur but mangy, yeah, mangy. Wild bloodshot eyes and what’s the word: rabid. Earned that Krieger extra time with their instruments.
Thing is, Norma Dover told a friend, I’ve seen that dog again and again there, where the brush is burned to the car’s cold rectangle, and it’s clean and it’s smart and it knows something about it all. I’m thinking I’d want to be dosed up with something somehow spiritual just as much as medical.
Who had told Vincent about the burned square, he couldn’t recall. Car sized; a rectangle burned black on the roadside. He recovered from the scene a hubcap pulled from beneath ashy soil he dusted clean like an archeological find one of those old spokey looking things of a style he’s sure is now considered tacky. It was imperfect. Burned a bit, with spokes fused some at one end or the other of the radius. He told only Joe, oldest pal, and otherwise denied its existence to the folks to whom Joe’s wife had spilled. It leaned for a while against the wall on the mantel, but such a traditional place of pride seemed to diminish the object’s secret powers and after he relocated it to a shelf of no note in a dark closet, he felt a strength in the rundle return.
Jenny Jacobs sorta forgot about the car but the oldest Mrs. Brae-Landry mentioned it in her living room when Jenny Jacobs was visiting. Once they were seated, she set her tea to the side and looked at her notes and stated her premise again: we’re supposed to ask people who’ve lived in the community for a long time, like you, about what you think has changed. In the community.
The woman talked at length. The house was busy, Jenny couldn’t stop seeing while she listened: the wallpaper and its patterned bougainvillea, framed photographs of family members and pet rats as well as postcards with sweet mottos about pet rats, cherubic statues and crystal candy bowls and crystals, stars made of sticks strung together—at one point, a younger Brae-Landry sister, of course also technically elderly, came through dirt-caked mumbling and drooling cursing the critters that consume everything living and green. Might have been the sister that a few years ago got everyone at the First Methodist on Church Row so worked up for prating a whole little cadre of old ladies into utter devotion to that Polycarp who had heard and recorded the accounts of the disciples—a convincing kind of directness maybe, after all: from the mouths of! A saint who, apparently nonflammable, had to be stabbed to death. What a medium, she’d say, what a channel! A little off, if you saw her, the younger, walking to the Ralphs, you might point and say something. Some of Jenny Jacob’s classmates thought this assignment was bottom tier.
But she was inclined to listen to old ladies and was generally inclined toward their accoutrements, their stories, their ceremonial insistence on offering food, inclined to help where she could too. It really wasn’t much—changed a light bulb, removed from the oven cookies of which she was then invited to partake, things such as that. On a visit the following winter, Jenny used a strangely hooked tool to loose the catch on an old fashioned flue in the Brae-Landrys’ chimney. Although the fireplace seemed long out of use, it was a simple turn and a satisfying click. All it took. Unseasonably cold and a bug going around—people were convinced—on the very chill of the wind, or so said the mayor, an unelected volunteer of an unincorporated township. In any case, the oldest Brae-Landry expressed her gratitude again and at length: how nice to sit in that glow again.
As Jenny sat scraping clean a second bowl of homemade ice cream, the oldest Brae-Landry opposite stroked gently a soft brown and white rat that had scuttled up onto her knee. Do you remember, Jenny, the car aflame and driving down old highway 395? She nodded—of course, she was also aware how the story had changed, how the list of witnesses had grown long improbably including so many of her classmates, how the height of the flames had grown as well as, in some cases, the number of fiery drivers and the number and fierceness of their devilish eyes, some indeterminate shifting colors to the glow cast in the canyon, descriptions of a tentacular being with biting, reaching beaks to nip passing pedestrians, and how dull it became to listen so quietly to all these really identical variations. Nodded, a wandering eye, and a muttered word about the habits of liars. This sister Brae-Landry liked Jenny and said so often, and she wanted to help Jenny and said so often, threatened spells, offered the powers of her speech.
The woman lowered the cup from her lips, smacking energetically. Any calumners among your peers, Jenny? Or—slanderers. Do you have bullies, Jenny Jacobs? They’ll prey on your sweetness, I’ve seen it. Heard such things when they can’t recognize what’s powerful.
No. The rat closed his eyes and flexed his claws and wriggled in such a way on the fabric of the woman’s skirts that the sound that replaced the silence seemed like the lapping flames. Just an association maybe. No, Jenny insisted.
Mrs. Brae-Landry set the rat on the floor, and it disappeared beneath the furniture, and the woman writhed over to kneel in front of young Jenny Jacobs and say:
If ever you have such foes, little sister: say to me their names and I’ll see to it they live long and talkative lives in this town.
The TV, a newish flatscreen, which Jenny had helped to wire up played an old game show where contestants had to guess someone’s job. An applause sign that hummed neon, maybe. The host was growing frustrated with the obvious. Before long, the township had no mayor at all.
Up the road, a neighbor who mostly kept to themselves had begun to wave at Jenny Jacobs on her way. This neighbor’s hedgerow, obsessively maintained, afforded such a view of comings and goings. To themselves they had begun to note the time, almost accidentally, the regularity of it. Waved to each sister Brae-Landry when she passed too, always solemnly, discretely, day after day—without record.
Jace Brittain is the author of the novel Sorcererer (Schism 2022). Their writing, poetry, and translations appear in Dream Pop Journal, Apartment Poetry, Snail Trail Press, Deluge, dadakuku, and others. In collaboration with the poet and book artist Rachel Zavecz, they run the small press Carrion Bloom Books. Twitter: @jacebrit, Instagram: @ jace_brittain.