Marcus and Maria were always poor, and naïve, but not weak parents. They lived in a hot town where the heat became transcendent and marred as it numbed the mind by long tenure. Father Marcus would save his meagre taxi-driver wages by long hours so that he could take Maria and their son, Ajax, out of the town and into the hills or the beaches, photographs and picnics, this little family meek and shielded by the nation they lived in.
Maria bore another child, 4 years after Ajax, called Leon, and Leon’s father died when a drunken driver collided into his taxi cab, one searing Friday afternoon, marooning the lady with two sons and the task called survival. The drunk driver fled the roadside and none ever discovered who it was. But Maria couldn’t figure there would be compensation for Marcus’ lost, wavering memory, never to be made physical again save under his cheap grave in the local cemetery.
Ajax was 5 years and Leon 1 when their father died. Ajax adopted some desire to try and guide his family as the main man. Yet within his youth, he simply had no ability to do so, and his mother was a frail lady, still very young herself, and didn’t respect her son. Both children were a liability to her, juggling a waitress job with motherhood. So she asked Octavian, her father, to come help raise the children.
Octavian was a retired actor and very old. He’d been a thespian in young manhood, and a lecturer of drama by latter years. From drowsy-smoked backrooms of perfumed actresses and the rainbow-douse of coloured spotlights, he’d become something transcendent as an elder, as if he could never be a real person, forever forming some act. He agreed to help his daughter’s family, financially, socially. The children liked his sparky character and natural ease with them. He would take them erratic trips across the State in his ancient van, always some whimsical plan, his explosive, meandering humour.
Thus, the family was restored, or rather, reshuffled, with a form of happiness for the next 4 years.
Octavian liked Ajax: a loud, tough child with a magnetism which drew the other kids. As Ajax played with his peers, Leon would remain in the periphery. At least, dialogue-wise. Leon rarely spoke, much the source of mockery by Ajax and his friends. But Leon’s remarkable skill for sport earned him alleviation, darting with the football, the baseball on the sunned fields.
The grandfather understood Leon, accepted his quietness, yet knew how to speak with him. The child might have been odd, aloof, perhaps. He would hang out on his own; sneak downstairs during the nights to watch television, defying the rules.
On one of these nights in the house, Octavian had been ill with a headache, flu. Leon had woken him up from stairs hours via midnight; angrily he took down the stairs to scold the boy. When Octavian opened the door, Leon had become somebody else. The child had been watching a documentary about Elvis Presley. Somehow the nuance of magic had endured the boy, withal the essence of music, dancing, performance. Leon had dressed in all the white clothes he could find, tied a black t-shirt round his head, a bunch by his forehead to mimic Elvis’ quiff, using the TV remote as a microphone, singing the words vaguely around the melody. Octavian stood watching him; when Leon finally realised he was there, he showed no fright, instead retaining his act, thrashing his legs and torso with Elvis’ dance. The boy had never expressed anything to his grandfather but now he was.
That was the first time Octavian witnessed Leon acting. He hadn’t known the boy had been watching television so often, and mostly the late-showing films, so many of them; violent films, horror films; films with sex, with the slanderous lust all folks may dabble in, doubtless of the stains within the mind, only a happy appreciation of the screen.
Leon’s impersonation of Elvis made Octavian curious. He wondered whether the child could emulate performance again. So he found an old script of Robin Hood he’d once played in, a script made for schoolchildren his old theatre group had performed, 37 years earlier … He gave the paper for the boy to read and told him,
“Remember when you saw the video of Robin Hood, Leon?”
“I want you to pretend you’re him, and I’ll be the Sherriff of Nottingham – the baddie – okay?”
“So you read out Robin’s lines, and pretend you’re about to fight me with a sword, me against you. And I’ll speak bac to you with Nottingham’s lines, right?”
The grandfather began the script and dealt full vocal volume, easing none of his thespian power, thick passage of Nottingham’s villainy, remembering the circumstance even from so long ago which he’d coined to the crowds.
Leon showed the air no pause, ahead of his cue. And the same air he took with his voice, uplifting his torso, poised for the words. Octavian, curtailing his excitement from the boy’s speed, kept his rhetoric fast, knock knocking the lines. Leon adopted a facial imitation of pride, of heroism, for all the worth of myth and scandal, those old stories of the likeable fiend, Robin Hood. By the prop directions, where Hood was supposed to draw his sword, Leon took up a wooden spoon and pointed it at Octavian, demanding the duel. Octavian, stifling a smile, took up a ladle in return, and the pair laughed, embracing in the sunny kitchen-scene, where the grandfather had now found the prodigy he’d always wanted.
Maria kept her waitress work, and the little money it brought her enabled her to love her children more. She preferred little Leon – the pretty, tame child – as opposed to Ajax, who often arrived home beaten up, or having just beaten up some other kid. Ajax was 10 years now, with bolstered energy, and became interested in baseball, gained some skill at it, channelling his rough temperament into the game. He played in the school team, and by the weekends would play across the city. He asked Maria to come watch him play, but she didn’t baseball, and didn’t attend. Octavian disliked baseball also, but still took Ajax to his games, for the brief tenure the boy still dabbled in a legitimate interest. And when Ajax won games (indeed he was a good player) he roared and clapped in the stands.
The family had to change.
Maria embraced the courtship of a new man. He would come into her Diner in the mornings; handsome; aquiline jaw, bulged-brows, white teeth; said he was visiting their little town on some film-shoot he was part of. Julio, he was called, he seemed genuine. Maria had never met a man who was involved in the movies – a ‘producer’ apparently – she didn’t know what that was but it intrigued her. She began to put make-up on in the mornings, before he’d come in each day.
After weeks of Julio arriving, he didn’t appear one morning, and a chasm of panicky loss enveloped her; drastic notions of future solitude, a withering body threatening her still-youthful body … But Julio did arrive, the same day, in the afternoon instead, her joy doubly powerful when he invited her out on a date that night.
She didn’t tell her family where she was heading to, after hours in the bathroom, plastering herself ready, adopting finally a scanty, unused dress she prayed Julio wouldn’t think cheap.
After their dinner Julio brought Maria back to the hotel his film-crew were staying in. Maria fluctuated by this sense of fame. They made love in Julio’s room and Maria felt nothing at all except the oblivion of sex. She would continue seeing Julio for the next 3 weeks he stayed in the town, and when he left he told Maria she could come visit him in the city whenever she liked.
Octavian thought little of Maria’s new gentleman initially, probably because he supposed Julio a gentleman rather than a man. His interests were still zapped onto his grandchildren. Especially Leon. Almost with a secret possessiveness, nurtured young Leon as a thespian. He took Leon and Ajax to the cinema habitually; an old film-house, red-chaired with the funk of history, the shining blue projector light overhead. Though he enjoyed taking Ajax, his real intention was to educate young Leon, by the simple nurturing of film-watching. How actors toyed with an audience, their sensual lips, their synthetic relay of language, ah, oh, how they could do anything without circumstance.
Octavian continued teaching Leon scripts: old children’s plays from his dusty boxes. Leon enjoyed this, only 6 years in age. It was similar to being read bed-time stories, except Leon partook in each tale. Mimicking gesticulations from a source atavistic and delivered from the stars.
As they years passed, Octavian took the boy to a drama school the city ran so he might join.
Leon showed no nervousness, his first class. Rather, he clutched the spring of the athlete, coupled with that shock, the glued knife-decisiveness of performance … Every class he gave the same giant’s effort. When they would do group dialogue at the end of classes, Leon amazed the other children, his ability far superior to the others. Octavian would speak with the groups’ instructors, all a-brim with excitement for this seeming prodigy. And because Octavian had taught Leon how to read lines, he smouldered with a non-jealous pride.
Julio invited Maria’s family to visit him in the city after their relationship continued to grow. Julio was wealthy, owning two houses in two cities. Maria adored his brisk suaveness, his rapid question-asking; made her feel important and necessary in manners, which Marcus had never quite been able to do, now she could make lover comparisons. Yet these notions were underlying, her mentality turning to regression when dabbling near the memories of her late husband. Nor did she ponder much whether her children would like or dislike the new man …
The child Leon was indifferent towards Julio’s sun-glassed, tailored face. Ajax, by contrast, sensed a great suspicion around the man. Ajax became almost as taciturn around Julio as Leon was, whereas he would retain his volume around everybody else. Now a boy of 12 years, cusped for puberty, was a regular source of trouble for Maria. His schoolteachers couldn’t control his rollicking temperament. Ajax had genuine affection for his peers, but this quality was marred by nasty ambivalence. He had a tendency to deal ugly tricks on other pupils. One time at school Ajax stole the janitor’s keys, and, after collaboration with his friends, delivered the plot to drag a random boy from one of the younger years out from the corridor and locked him in the boiler room. The boy stayed in the locked room for around 6 hours after somebody found him with wet-trousers and a young-boy’s varied experience of trauma … But the boy wasn’t so random. He came from a rough family and was too young to seem like his older brother wasn’t in a rough gang. And thus when he told his elder brother about it, the later took a team of his comrades and they captured Ajax when he walked home alone on his own streets. They took him into the woods, binding him with plastic rope and beating him with willow-rods after taking all his clothes off. Left him there for whoever to find him until he somehow managed to escape with his wrists all bloody and he never spoke about it afterwards because he was too embarrassed but accepted the revenge and knew he shouldn’t have tortured some little boy he didn’t know and the remorse made him different from all his counterparts.
So why would Ajax be so hesitant before Julio? Perhaps he sensed that Maria often confided in Julio for relay over her misbehaving son. Yet Ajax, ignorant and spontaneous in childhood, was not the sole person wary of Julio. Octavian also, had a wavering confidence with the man who had taken romance with his daughter. Initially he’d labelled this as mere suspicion, since he’d been so close with Marcus. But suspicions proliferate via unwanted nuance, and Octavian would wonder, as the years continued, why Julio would only spend such little much time with Maria and her family, disappearing for weeks with no contact. Moreover, when Octavian would show intrigue in Julio’s involvement with films, the latter seemed oddly discrepant, almost disinterest. Julio would fidget nervously, bypassing Octavian’s questions with anecdotes of famed actors he’d met. Octavian would realise that Julio knew nothing of acting, of theatre or films, and he wanted Leon to stay apart from Julio, perhaps more than he wanted Maria to leave him.
Each of these things were interconnected. As all families mix in their hatred.
What Julio didn’t want Octavian to know, was that he had already married another woman several years before. 2 decades, in fact: she lived in the other house, the other city. She didn’t know of his affair with Maria.
Thus when Octavian was diagnosed with cancer of the lungs, with a gabble of months to live, Julio only needed to wait for mort until divorcing his old wife to marry Maria. He would never have to speak to Octavian about joining the family.
But when Maria’s father died, she told Julio that she had always known he was already married.
“You knew about it?” Julio had said to her, ah, the fantastic variables of chance and treachery, “so you don’t want to be with me?”
“I do! But you have to be more honest with me if you want to be my husband.”
They were married within 3 weeks and Octavian was buried in the same graveyard as Marcus. There were fewer than 20 people who came to the wedding and almost none were Julio’s invites. Julio and his lawyer sold Maria’s old house and took the wife’s signature on many pieces of paper she didn’t know what were for, and then her surname changed and God had inducted her unto marriage once again. She and her sons moved into Julio’s house in the city.
Maria and Julio bore a daughter and named her Cleo.
Leon could not be certain how he felt when his grandfather died, or whether there was any sense that something like a mentor had been lost. If he did actually ponder this, it was only fragmentary, ephemeral; the essence of theatre was what Octavian had known. Leon was more interested in film; he’d always known he would become a film actor. Besides, his hobby of acting had now become serious and constant.
Julio, recognising the blatant talent in the boy, took him into the film-circles and signed him to an agent; Julio indeed knew many people in the movie industry. By 10 years, after much of Julio’s help, Leon played in a down-town play, the main-role; by 11 he’d already been on television, thrice over. He made money from it.
Leon could be anything; dramatic, could be a villain, a king, could trade his words for gasps in the hall-rooms … The one thing he couldn’t do well, was humour. Leon couldn’t be funny so easily. Not at all. But his face had become so beautiful that, as long as the scriptwriter had crackling lines, the lady audience would laugh, unanimous, cloistered harpies.
When Leon turned 13, a network from the East approached his agent about taking a main role in a new drama production they had aligned. Leon would role the son within a family, his father wrongly convicted of murdering his neighbour. The father then fires a low-payed lawyer who battles his case … Gunshots and faked-blood and it’s all moral by the ending; you can’t defy a blip of righteous entertainment so long as the good chaps have their fireside by the whistle-blow.
Julio would maintain that it was through his own connections that the network from the East contacted Leon. Leon later discovered that Julio had lied to him about this, that there had been no link made by his stepfather, and a certain respect was lost from this stage onward, never to be repaired.
Leon’s appearance in the film was small, but it earned him more money than his family had ever seen. This wealth dealt him further into the caustic loops of how films were made. All those in the family sat askance.
Maria asked Julio one evening whether she could find a job in the city, becoming so bored, residing alone in the house for long periods. He didn’t see why he had to answer so he said yes, sure she could.
She adopted another waitress job in a top foreign restaurant, city-centre, and despite the strain of the task-load she had money in her accounts, regaining a sense of worth for her family. Yet she realised how little she actually saw of her family. Julio would remain away for weeks on film projects. Maria once asked him why he never produced any of Leon’s films, and he exploded at her, venting that she didn’t understand films, and after that row he didn’t come home for one month.
By latter adolescence, Ajax’s behaviour had become less brash and continuous, until his regular tales of trouble dropped away to nothing. His character changed also, from loud, to a heavy cool, and he grew overweight, coupling his bigger frame. He stayed at his friends’ houses, wherever, of nights, and rarely came home when the family were there. His mother didn’t know how he made so much money in cash. But all the other kids in the neighbourhood loved Ajax, he was a grand favourite to all.
Cleo was a brittle, thin girl, who needed much maternal attention and who often suffered chronic illnesses. Julio loved her more than he did Maria. After bearing Cleo, Maria’s body had deflated, her lower body sagging. There enveloped a conflict between the parents over who would do what with Cleo, who could play with her when. Cleo preferred her father more, because she saw him less, and his flashy, bursting style and habits offered her trips, ice cream and toys.
Leon starred in 3 more large-budget films from 13 to 15 years. One of them saw him trade words with a man Leon had seen across history, a pillar of the medium, all the status that Leon had ever wanted. When he met him, Leon felt less important, and he rarely felt this around other people, and he realised that he needed much more experience to surpass the level of the movie-star. And these notions propelled Leon into advertisement, and he began to appear in magazines, professional photographs of his painted face, and he traced up the summit of an arrogance and affluence of persona which could only grow larger, and which his income could support affably.
The big film had a premier and an afterparty, all the big contenders invited. Leon could invite a guest for free entry. He didn’t tell Maria that he could invite someone because he guessed she would want to come, and asked Julio not to tell her that he’d invited him instead.
Leon in a gush of galactic photography. He had made the transition from the hero in tears by the ultramarine sky, a gun and a quote to soothe it, to the glittering array of suits, Brylcreem, the plastic legs of actresses. How could either role be compared? The actor, the transcendent role of the ‘star’? Actors could portray villains, easy in their murder; yet how could they deflect shame via their new persons?
Julio was already drunk by the time he reached the after-party. Leon had been drinking also, but in a foreboding manner, and it’s not prudent to feed a junior adolescent alcohol. Julio embarrassed him. He would clap his stepson’s shoulders and kiss his cheeks before the cameras. When Leon saw their reflection in mirrors, Julio looked incongruent, undeserved of his company.
The after-party involved the garden of a gaudy white hotel, dark-time now and there were young women, miscellaneous men, all drunk, deck-chairs and vice, cocaine and cigarettes. After hours within this scenario, Leon began to feel nauseous, the walls of poison too bold an introduction to a small-town boy nurtured by a VHS collection. Yet he still seemed to enjoy it.
Time swapped about and suddenly he was looking into some giant mirror inside a bathroom. A lady was by him, laughing. The lady wore a green bikini and blue eyeliner lathering the orbs of her eyes. She offered Leon a line of white powder and he said no and left the toilet.
When he got outside he saw his step-father with another lady. Julio looked drugged beyond-dimension and his tongue sprawled across the sub-existing woman. Leon tumbled over to them, the pair smooching below a palm tree. When Julio saw him, it took him several seconds to let go of the woman. He giggled, and grasped Leon’s head in a play-fight gesture. He said to the woman:
“This here! This is my stepson! He’s a genius!”
“Oooh” That’s him – that’s Leon? I see him now – so handsome!”
“Julio …” Leon began … he couldn’t act now, but he had to be angry towards Julio, but couldn’t speak, “how could you … what about Mother?”
Julio’s face contorted in jagged shapes, diverting Leon’s gaze. He sprung out, pointing at something. “Oh Leon – who’s that girl? I saw you going inside the bathroom with her.”
Leon turned – the woman with the blue eyes, green bikini coming out the bathroom.
“Nothing,” Leon managed, but his stomach began to overload, bile ejaculating. He ran off and vomited and he might have lain on the floor for an hour: he wouldn’t have known.
Leon awoke to a sharp pain on his hand … He was in a deck-chair. A lit cigarette had fallen from his fingers, burning him … Head was thudding the right temple. Sitting up slowly, he noticed the lady in the green bikini: she was in the swimming pool. He couldn’t see Julio. He heard his name being called.
Within the pool were 3 men Leon didn’t recognise. One of them was completely naked. Another was pawing the green bikini lady. She was pretending to laugh. When she called out ‘Leon’ there was a wince of apprehension in it. Leon stood up, aiming to return to his hotel room. Again the lady called to him, louder this time. He turned. The 6 eyes of the men with lowered faces, their bodies elongated in the synthetic light and medium of the pool.
“What is it!” Leon blared irritably.
He looked into the lady’s face, now remembering how she had picked him up off the floor earlier when he’d been ill and sat him in the deckchair. Then these 3 men had come over to her when she went in the pool.
“I think I’ll go with Leon now,” she said, her eyes less flirtatious now, like they were decorated for Halloween.
“No, stay,” said the man, smiling, by her, tugging her back down into the pool.
“Wait for me, Leon,” she attempting to leave the pool, the man pulling her back down.
Leon saw something in her expression which stilled him. It proposed a 2-part decision. By one side, he saw need: the lady needed him to wait. By the other, he viewed a pitiful, drab thing, a little girl who had learned so little of the world. And she must be 10 years older than me he thought and she expects me to help her? All she wanted was to be near me because I’m famous. He couldn’t dispel a sense of disgust. He made the decision.
“I gotta go to bed …2 and he left the scene.
Waking the next time was by the sound of Julio singing to himself in the bathroom. His body crushed by alcohol, his memory began to reload itself, and images returned from belief to imagination. When Julio came out the toilet, there was no eye contact as he said, “morning … great party last night.”
Despite witnessing Julio’s betrayal the previous night, Leon only wanted to be taken home, where he could destroy the hangover, hangout with friends.
Julio repeatedly attempted conversation on the drive back home. Leon remained silent.
Cleo adopted a beautiful physique by a young age; huge eyes, jump-in pupils, slender/long limbs: it was clear she would blossom to a full beauty by the future. She had a plain sensibility and a humble ability to coin friends. Her pet cat and little dog, however, were her best friends. She would make toys for them, dress them up in clothes and hats. One time she entered her cat in the ‘cutest pet’ award for an event at her school, and when Tiddles didn’t win it Cleo cried all night and she preferred her dog after that because the cat didn’t seem as beautiful anymore. Cleo didn’t like insects. When she saw bugs on the sidewalk she crushed them with her shoes actively, unless she was wearing sandals because she didn’t want to muck them. Yet she had an acute phobia of spiders. One time there appeared a huge spider on her bed and she shrieked out for someone to come rescue her. Ajax, surprisingly, was the only one at home. He rushed into the room from hearing her dismay. Then when she pointed at the spider he relaxed and laughed.
He lifted her out of her bed from the top-bunk.
“It won’t hurt you, sis,” he said.
“Could you kill it?” she said.
“Why kill it when you could just put it outside?” he said, and he took the spider in a closed palm and dropped it out her bedroom window.
Ajax said goodnight and left, leaving his smell of smoke and presence in the room. She wanted him to stay and speak with her. He was like a treat she rarely received. Sometimes Cleo would take the long route home from school so she might see him with his friends, who would hang out at the basketball courts in the sun. When he saw her he would give her coins to buy an ice cream and let her watch the games. But often he would be busy and when one of his male friends needed to speak with him he would say bye to Cleo and leave.
Leon confused Cleo. He represented many things to her, both subconsciously and consciously. He offered the typical sibling form of bullying, which might not be typical exactly but abstract in its own type, wherein the sibling may execute his lawless sadism, heighted in pleasure by the target of a loved one. Ajax had bullied Leon in a direct fashion, physical beatings, his opposite character. Leon’s methods were more intricate. Ajax stopped his bullying around 13, after he changed. Leon never stopped.
Cleo was 9 in age then. After Leon’s big film, he was prospected with several months of staying home in the summer, little to do. Cleo, he’d noticed, often played with a gabble of friends she had in the garden. Leon would watch them from his window or lounging in his garden deck hair. A new boy joined the group, with dark eyes and lashes. He noticed how the boy became around his sister, coy and blushing, but persistent and smiley also.
One afternoon Leon heard the doorbell, and upon answering it, found the new boy there, him alone. The boy flinched from Leon’s frame: he knew his famous persona – it intimidated him. Waited for the child to speak.
“Is Cleo in?”
“Yeah, she’s upstairs.”
“Ok if I come say hello?”
Leon observed him; using his acting now, for sure.
“What’s that you have there?” he said. The boy held something behind his back: he slowly took it from its hiding … It was a sunflower. Leon laughed, and nonchalantly snatched it from the child. The boy didn’t dare to snatch it back.
“This is Cleo?” Leon said, enjoying the boy’s heavy blush, forehead-downed, “steal her heart with a sunflower? Ha … Okay, though, son. I’ll give it to her. Hang on a few minutes, I’ll get Cleo.”
He closed the door. By the staircase landing he paused, pondering to call for Cleo, holding the flower. Then he diverted into the kitchen and cut the flower into several pieces with a pair of scissors, put them into a bag and into the bin. He then called for Cleo,
“There’s a boy at the door for you Cleo,” and hurried back to the front door, startling the guest when he opened it. He bent to the boy, and he could feel the invisibility of the cameras now, adoring his vehemence, “now now,” he said, “So you’re Cleo’s new friend?”
“Cleo is a nice girl; are you a nice boy?”
“Uh hu …”
“If you’re not a nice boy to her, then I’ll have to tell Ajax on you. Do you know who Ajax is?”
“You don’t want Ajax mad, son.”
The child remained, hands in pockets. Leon brought his fist out and knocked the boy between his legs. It was sudden; it wasn’t even a punch, wasn’t even that hard, but Leon knew it would hurt. The boy crumpled, holding his crotch with a seized expression.
“Bring more than one flower for Cleo next time,” Leon said, hearing his sister come down the stairs. She smiled when she saw the boy. “Have fun, kids,” Leon said, returning into the house.
“What’s wrong?” Cleo said to her friend, behind him.
The boy didn’t come back to the house to play after that day.
Cleo’s confusion for Leon came through ambivalence; his toying attitude toward her frightened her, but she admired being connected with her brother’s status. Ajax’s notoriety and fearsome respect was lauded; Leon’s reverence came from that abstract celluloid recreation.
Cleo once went to see an R-Rated film at the cinema with her friend’s mother; Maria hadn’t allowed her to see it. There were scenes of murder which didn’t make her nauseous; when Leon’s face appeared she smiled uncontrollably. By the film screen he represented love. When Leon came home that same night. He was eating cheese and drinking beer in the kitchen when she told him she thought he was real cool in the film and he grinned and said thanks. This was a unique form of praise for Leon. But he accepted it, and when she sat with him he told her anecdotes of his film-making experiences, the 9 year old sister by full wonder.
Maria could not find any method to communicate with Leon. She would invent what to say to him after he’d return from a long absence. And often Leon wouldn’t realise how much she’d prepared, and his vague answer would sour weeks of her preparation. It reminded her of her relationship with Julio. Except Leon embodied something she envied but knew she couldn’t retain. Maria felt deserved of gratitude for creating Leon. But more so she wished simply that her son would love her.
She would make laborious meals, and invite all 4 family members to attend. But it was only Cleo who came, and she already had to. There were times, though, when Leon came a few times, and though he said very little still, she enjoyed the smug satisfaction in his fed-face.
Her woozy amazement of Leon’s reputation made Julio furiously jealous. Julio actually continued to grow rich from his own film-projects; soap dramas, commercials, chatroom shows … Julio dabbled in an affair with another woman in another city he worked in, fairly identical to how he’d done so with Maria, except this woman was a lot younger, an actress. Maria didn’t guess this. And her relationship with Julio continued to deplete. They would rarely sleep together and he got drunk a lot and one time Julio even struck her in the face when she told him she wanted him to see her and Cleo more often.
But one exterior incident appeared to interrupt all 5 lives and none quite expected it. It involved the after-party for the big film Leon and Julio had been to.
A woman who had been to the party filed a police complaint that she had been raped in a swimming pool by one man she didn’t know, and that two other men had been in the pool watching it. The police, taking her case seriously, considering how much media notice it had received, were asking any people to provide words, were they brave enough.
Julio saw it first in the news. It made him tingle with adrenaline, fancying his own redemption, yet, not knowing whether he should be more furtive.
He approached his step-son about it, his idealism of goodness reverted perhaps from how they hadn’t before bonded. Yet of course he was only attempting to cleanse Leon’s brain from having seen his infidelity that night.
“Did you see the news, Leon, about the after-party?”
“Ah yes, we didn’t really speak about that night yet, did we?”
“But, didn’t you hear what it said? In the news report?”
“That the cops want people to come tell them what might help the woman out! Don’t you want to help?”
“How could I? I was too drunk. Can’t remember anything.”
“But you were left with that same woman weren’t you? I saw you with her, and I read the description … green bikini one – I remember you telling me her name …”
“I’m sure they’ll catch whoever it was.”
“Sure they could! But you could help identify them.”
“I didn’t see shit.”
“I’ll tell them then.”
“No, Julio, you won’t. Tell them then. Tell them what exactly? That your stepson was seen with the woman who … go hurt or whatever? What do you think the media would do to me after that, Julio? – Jesus, you have to think about these things.”
Leon began to walk away from Julio, but then stopped and turned.
“I saw you with a woman who wasn’t my mother. You have secrets of your own; but I know that one. Who would my mother sooner believe, Julio? Me or you? Won’t think you can threaten me.”
He left the room.
There was only one occasion when Maria successfully collected her family together for dinner. She been excited for days beforehand, practising recipes from her Mother’s old cookbook. She found her favourite one and made it with love, with skill, and when her two sons, her daughter and her man sat by the table to witness this, she felt the racy temperament called pride in her chest. The siblings sat as globular, writhing things as she spooned their plates.
Ajax would deal loud, bantering questions around the room, and they laughed at the stories he told about his friends, his bounding-ball of a voice … Julio only smiled: he couldn’t laugh, hushed by nervous over Ajax, the big man across from him. He thought it rude of Ajax to wear a red basketball top, his huge arms bare and decorating his narrative, whilst Julio has worn his light-blue shirt which Maria had bought for him, knowing she would want him to wear it. But he was even more afraid of Leon. The rich young actor, so much more powerful now, with his blackmail, his pretty face.
“Cheers!” Maria said spontaneously, and when they all called cheers back she reached some pinnacle in her life, with shiny eyes, and they all downed their wine glasses except little Cleo who only had coke, and when she spluttered a little and coughed on her drink they all laughed at her jovial embarrassment.
“Well this is the first time we’ve been together for about 3 years,” Ajax said to them, “this is real tasty pasta, maw – great job!”
“Thank you, honey,” Maria beaming.
“And Leon: my lil’ brother! He’s only 16 and look how well he’s doing! Handsome, talent-in-his-blood: no wonder the movie business loves him! You never really thanked me, Leon, for letting you watch all my tapes … You remember, Leon, how I didn’t let you watch all my films – I kept them in my room and you weren’t allowed to touch them, else I’d beat you up. But then when I saw you had some promise as an actor, I said you could watch them all you liked, because they’d be good lessons, but not to tell maw because of all the naughty shit in them she didn’t want you to see.”
“Yeah …” Leon said quietly, “I remember.”
“And you remember your Grandpa? Octavian.”
Leon watched Ajax. Is he drunk? Why is he talking like this? Ajax had exact command of his oratory.
“You remember when he used to teach you scripts in the kitchen back home? Because he did teach you, more than anyone. There’s a difference between the stage and the screen … Do you ever think of Octavian, Leon? A sad old man, his wife leaving him for some chump years before either of us were born. You were what he was most proud of before he died, because he made you. He probably acted more roles than you ever will. And who will remember him?”
“Why are you saying all this, Ajax?” Leon, his voice still quiet.
“Yes, Ajax, we should talk about other things …”
Julio laughed falsely. Cleo watched everyone.
“Octavian came to me, I remember,” Ajax continued, coining no sense of confrontation or diminuendo, looking directly at Leon, “that time he wanted to take you to that acting school. He had to pay for it – the audition – but he didn’t have enough money for it. I was still so young myself, but Grandpa knew then I was already stealing then, and I was good at it. He asked me if I had some money for him: I didn’t have that much, but told him I could get it. So I went to the gas station and robbed the cashier with a kitchen knife and a mask I made with a t-shift and two eye-holes cut out with scissors. Grandpa didn’t ask how I got it. But that’s how you got the audition, Leon, because I stole that money.
“Then Octavian dies and we all move out here … With Julio … And really the city offered so much more; I could steal, there were other kids as good as me. It just took a little while to stop being a wise-ass at school and realise if you’re cool and quiet nobody can see you rise up, and that’s what I did: I rose up and nobody saw it.”
Ajax chomped more of his pasta. He always ate noisily. They all just waited for him to speak. He suddenly turned to his little sister, who sat by her dad.
“I’m sorry I tell you that you can’t be around the basketball courts, sometimes, Cleo. It’s just I don’t want you to be near us, what we do.”
“Do we have to speak about this at the table, Ajax?” Julio interjected, “especially not in front of Cleo – she’s only 9.”
“I love stealing!” pounced Ajax, “I love this neighbourhood, and despite everything about this family I still love each of you, especially Cleo. You, even, Julio – I even forgave you, after your attempt to replace our father. I used to be so scared of you when I was little, then realised how much of a pussy you are.”
“Ajax!” Maria was blushing, eyeliner clad and sticky, “don’t cuss at the table!”
“Why? Why though? That’s what he is: we all know he left his old wife for you, Ma. Who was she, even: do you even speak to her anymore, Julio. I really didn’t mind you though, when I was younger, since you got us this house, supported Maria and the others. Until I realised you’re doing the same thing to our mother as you did to that ex-piece-of-tail … Was she as pretty as Maria used to be?”
“Now-now, Ajax,” Julio laughing nervously, “Maria’s made this great food for us all. We’re all happy. I don’t know why you’re being so aggressive.”
“We’re not all happy; my mother is? Look at her face now, her body. She’s made herself a piece of plastic just because she feels you would like it. When Marcus was here she never dressed like that!”
“Would you stop calling him Marcus,” Maria snapped at Ajax, “he was your father.”
“You haven’t been happy with Julio for years, Ma,” Ajax said.
“What do you care, Ajax,” she said, purple-faced now, “you never lived with us, always out with your friends. What is it actually you do with them? A criminal? Why you attack Julio if you’re worse than anybody?”
“He’s cheating on you, Ma.”
Julio stood up. Leon and Cleo appeared so alike, still and transfixed by this scene.
“Explain yourself, Ajax,” Julio demanded.
“I will,” from Ajax, instantly, “Last week I was driving with my friend at night: we saw you, Julio. You were in a phone-booth and I got us to stop and watch you … Why were you out that late, calling from a phone-booth and not from home. But I could see you smile, using your charm as you spoke, so it got me thinking.
“So maybe I was only paranoid but I thought I should check if I could. So I got one of my boys to follow you. I found out where your latest film project was, down-state. My boy trailed your car for 60 miles, and he spied on you, movie-style. He saw you with that actress. She’s like 20 years younger than you, Julio – Jesus Christ.”
“Arghhh!” Maria cried, and it made everyone flinch, “Ajax – why you cause me all this pain? Why now? You know how much I looked forward to this day.”
“I’m just trying to help you, Ma,” Ajax said, though his voice was quietened, retracted.
“How? How would this help me?”
Julio stood there, simply; how weak he looked. Ajax stood, now, facing him, the pair metres apart.
“Why don’t you speak, Julio? You’ve barely ever said anything to me since I left home. You married my mother and now you have to say something! Speak!”
“Yes, Julio,” said Leon, and he applied a stopper to the crackling, splintering air, and then joined it, as everyone watched him now, “why don’t you explain our secret: what happened at that after-party two weeks ago?”
Leon felt he was aligning himself by Ajax’s furore, and it made him a giant; such a connection he felt with his elder brother now. He was no thespian here at the table, his words real and he doubled his brother’s violence.
“Smooching with some piece-of-shit under a palm tree. With your embarrassing jokes all night, pretending you’re some relation of mine. The step-father of Leon? What does stepfather mean?”
“I’ve done so much for you, Leon,” Julio said.
“Like introducing me to your mickey-mouse agents and low-budget has-beens, ex-porno stars? You helped me out when I was 12 years old, Julio, and then I overtook you. Who even was that girl at the party? And now I find you’ve got some other woman: 3 altogether and one is my own mother!”
Cleo started crying. Maria rushed to her. As the mother moved she dragged the tablecloth with her, knocking the glasses of wine, the food over, there enveloping a bulge of red dye spreading across the table. Maria repressed her own tears by the noise of Cleo’s; she quoted something from the Bible in her old language as she left the room holding the child’s hand.
Julio, with surprising, ugly vehemence, confronted Ajax and Leon before him.
“You’re both so selfish! You always were! Where do you think you’d be if it wasn’t for me?”
Ajax prickled. Leon had lifted his glass up as Maria dragged the table – the only glass that didn’t spill – he drank it now and made it nonchalant and gloating.
“You accuse me of being more criminal than me, Ajax – I hear of what you do with your friends! It’s disgusting!”
“You’re a shame to my father,” Ajax said, “my mother? She’s weak and stupid, and always has been. I hate the woman, I admit, but I would never use her for years like you did.”
Julio said something else but it wasn’t as important as how he flung a plate at Ajax. The pasta shards sprayed everything and the plate struck Ajax in the chest. It didn’t even hurt and then Ajax tripped the table over entirely and he lunged across the room, his immense weight sonic speed, 20 years’ worth of hatred.
Something caught Ajax’s feet, and he fell; Julio brought an ample kick up to his jaw, a short stab, a cheat of a kick, although powerful. Leon darted forward with a brief inclination to strike Julio, but Ajax was already standing. He took hold of Julio and catapulted him across the room. Julio whacked into the far wall heavily and then onto the floor; they watched him flutter like some wingless bee trying to suss his proximity … Then they were 3 males standing in the same room only, and the violence died.
Ajax’s anger evaporated. A great shame charged in him: his mother’s meal now a colourful battlefield in aftermath.
Julio, quite ignorant of violence as a concept, only feared Ajax would attack him again.
Leon figured everything as some film he didn’t want to star in.
Ajax’s shoulders relaxed, and he crossed over to Leon and kissed him either cheek.
“Goodbye Leon,” he said, and they both knew that the oldest brother would never return to the house.
He left, and the scene ended.
By one year following the dinner scene, Leon had already moved out from home, to the West, where the filmmakers from all ages contacted his people, sensing a wealth of promise in him. He became a professional, and very rich, and was distanced from tales in newspapers, pampered by the ease of affluence; ill times were rare, and selfishness reigned doubtless.
Julio had remained with Maria after the dinner incident, vowing to cease his affair with the other woman. Which he did do, and for a time there enveloped an abstract change in the household. Gone was its sense of expectancy, though the sense that either older sibling might return at some point, because they weren’t going to. Indeed, Maria missed Ajax and Leon with great grief. She would dream that Ajax would come home, and she would tell him that she didn’t mind about his past, that she just enjoyed hearing his voice again.
But the trio, Julio, Maria, Cleo, developed a miniature family, which the young daughter grew to love.
This period of synthetic cushioning changed when Julio didn’t return home one night, and then remained missing for days. It surprised Maria how much she and Cleo worried considering he had been so unfaithful to her. But her worry turned into a dominant repulsion when the police informed Maria that Julio was not missing: he’d fled the State entirely. Julio was involved in a fraud-scam involving one of his film-projects, whereby he’d stolen a spending account and bled it over 4 months. He discovered he’d been discovered and had tried to flee America, but had been stopped at the border. And Maria never knew how many years he got in prison because she finally relinquished all contact with the man.
The main issue was that Julio owned the city house and much of Maria’s assets. Maria called Leon for guidance. He kindly offered to pay for a house for them to live in back in the old hometown where they’d once all lived. To Maria, Leon was a saviour, a holy son, his intervention representing hope for Maria.
But when they moved back to the home-town, it hadn’t changed. It was only she who had aged, and indeed she felt very old now, as if this place had suffocated any wishes she’d had as a girl. Moreover, she was known here as the mother-of-the-famous-son and whenever anyone spoke to her they never actually asked about anyone else except Leon. But she still lapped these answers readily, pretending that Leon was her achievement.
Cleo hadn’t wanted to leave the city. She’d lost her friends and her pets were given to other people, and when she came to the little town she entered puberty, and a long diminuendo of boredom and disinterest in the other children. She bloomed into a much-coveted girl, due to her unusual looks, and became a much-utilised tool for numerous boys, whom she lifted, dropped and exacted her own desires by apathetically.
Maria, having once been so close to her, eventually became her finest nemesis, and the two would argue often, by fights which became increasingly violent. By adolescence, it was uncertain whether Cleo’s dabbling in alcoholic nights would eventually lead to abrupt, finalistic danger. And perhaps it would only be after Cleo was seriously injured that she would realise how much Maria loved her.
Ajax had no need to see his family again. Although he suffered a guilt over how much he’d strained his mother in youth, he couldn’t deny a repulsion over how Maria had neglected him. Julio he regarded as a leech, a lame man who his mother should have never accepted as a lover. Ajax had always considered himself as tough, admittedly rough and brash, but as long as he completed his job without anyone getting hurt then it didn’t matter. His group were criminals, but good ones, and they never murdered. His men in his group were much closer than his actual siblings. Leon – well, he would continue to act, and would never be scathed. Ajax shrugged him off. But Cleo – she was the exception. She was such a sweet girl, and needed protection. But Ajax couldn’t protect her: his mother, he supposed, would never let him.
In young manhood Ajax adopted the love of a young woman and there ensued a long relationship. Whereas his sensitivity with ladies had always been depressed by his mother, he could tailor it openly with his lady. He adored her, and his life became a serial of polarised moods, sadness to bemused elation: yet his lady helped him either way and she loved him also.
One day Ajax was arrested by the police on an assault charge. They claimed that he’d attacked and robbed two young women. Ajax had had numerous police charges before this but none for several years. He was innocent of the crime, yet his physical description was so alike the actual offender that he was incorrectly identified as the culprit. This charge meant he faced prison, due to his long historical crime record. His friends bailed him from custody and Ajax awaited trial. It caused outrage in Ajax that he was finally facing jail for something he didn’t commit, yet he also knew he’d wronged many people throughout his time, and perhaps this was something like karma.
Yet all those things were so long ago, and he’d matured now. Ajax was wealthy, but not enough for a good lawyer to assist him in the trial. And thus he called his little brother Leon, and told him the situation. It felt good to hear Leon at first, but he sounded strangely distant, existential somehow. Despite how Ajax explained his innocence, it didn’t seem to affect Leon … Ajax spoke for minutes, relaying all that had happened, and because Leon said so little – said barely anything – it eventually angered Ajax:
“Are you there, Leon! Speak! Say something!”
“What is it, then?”
“I just told you: I’m in trouble that I don’t deserve!”
“And you need help?”
“Well … Could you help me please?”
“What with though?”
Ajax asked him if he could borrow money for a quality lawyer, so that he might beat the trial, and then, within a year he could pay Leon back … He’d planned everything; it all seemed logical.
He waited for Leon’s answer and he really didn’t expect it … Leon declined. He said no. Leon claimed he had no money for it. This was a lie. And Ajax chose to accept this as truth and deny that his brother had simply rejected him. It would have been too painful not to repress the truth. And Ajax was sentenced to 3 years in the State prison after he lost the trial.
Inside life offered no direct harm. He affiliated with the other inmates and shared a mutual respect or simple notion of avoidance.
What did happen was that his lady stopped visiting him after 6 months, and then he received a letter from her telling him she was going to leave him because she couldn’t wait 3 years for his release.
Ajax asked his friends to seek her out and persuade her to come back to him after many letters sent without reply. His friends did find her, and discovered that she’d in fact left Ajax for another man and had bailed from town. But they didn’t tell Ajax this, because they didn’t want him to madden after two and a half years left imprisoned. But Ajax could never be stupid, and he guessed that his love had lost her love for him, and by his stint he only became harder, wiser, and quiet, almost silent.
His main friend, who’d been like a twin brother by him, still frequented the visiting rooms. He would joke with Ajax, and speak in their jargon about the business that the twin still controlled outside. At least Ajax had his brothers to return to after jail.
Except one day his twin’s mother came to visit him instead and told him that her son had been killed in a knife fight by some other gang in the neighbourhood. That same night Ajax’s anger became maniacal and he switched at 3 other inmates who mocked him for weeping in his cell. Apparently his combat skills weren’t too good anymore because the trio of mockers put him in the prison hospital for a week.
When Ajax left prison he had planned glowering revenge on the gang who’d taken his old friend. But his old gang were nearly extinct. They no longer hung out in the same bars or at the courts, alongside miscellaneous stories of how his friends had left town because they feared the new gang who now held the old territory. Ajax felt as if his old courts were his ownership, that he must regain them, recreating the old mod with himself as boss. But then one night a fat car passed him in the street and opened 2 barrels of a shotgun at him, amazing everyone the complete score of bullets missed Ajax entirely. The car saw him still standing after it drove off, and then circled back to assail him once more, but he dove out through his home-neighbourhood knowledge and escaped them. He would rather live than return to an old gang which was disbanded now.
He left the city and went north with two of his old friends from the area. They took to the northern cities and began to rob, with a vague aim to join the criminal groups there. But this pair of old friends were psychopathic and violent, and Ajax could not be with them morally, even if it were for his own benefit. He robbed and left them one night and too off alone, further North into the nation.
Then his existence became illusory and distorted. He moved through town to city, his ample criminality enabling him money to eat, to keep travelling. The brief passions he gained came through brief nights with women who were hard drinkers, smokers, drug-addicts; they often robbed the money he himself had stolen when they left in the mornings. Or Ajax would find himself amongst barroom fight with hordes of strangers; he would walk into bars just to feel violence again, just to see how many he could knock out before they could him.
He was 25, and took to drinking much more heavily, daily, throughout the days, where sleep and food became de-regulated by whatever volume of alcohol muddied his body. Memories of his old lady who had left him, alongside Marcus his old man, developed into a cyclical, rotting power in his mind. Leon he had long ago released as his brother, after that final betrayal. It seemed his selfish little brother was not worth the thought at all. He would wonder where Cleo and Maria were and it would never have occurred to him that they were in the same town where Marcus and Octavian were buried. He reckoned they wouldn’t even remember him.
Ajax figured if he had no brothers to be in a gang with and had no lady to love then he could be selfish for once in his life. Or maybe he always had been so already and that was the problem with his family.
He entered some little town. Had stolen a car and left it on the main street unlocked. Went into a hard-ware store and bought a 10-yard round of thin nylon rope. Then went and got drunk in the local tavern until it closed.
Throughout the hours he’d sat there, the lady bartender had seemed interested in him, the big man sitting there with a nothing-expression, cuffed under his memories, the shape of his life which was now by some whim only she could distract, though she couldn’t know it. And she wanted to speak to him, she really did, so she would ask him a few questions, and maybe Ajax wanted to chat with her also. But it just seemed like he couldn’t, not now, and that his words belonged elsewhere, beyond what this estranged lady could understand. But it got very late, and Ajax finished his last drink, and put the glass up at the bar. He made to leave, saying thank you, but the bar-lady called him back, saying:
“But are you okay, Mister? You don’t say much: you look like you have more to say than you let on.”
“Aw well,” Ajax said, “we can’t all be movie-stars. Night night lady.”
Ajax walked out of town about a mile and dropped into the woods by the roadside. He climbed a chunky tree with courageous difficulty and found a bough high enough off the ground below. He supposed that there would be little point in waiting before he changed his thinking so he put the rope 2 loops around the bough and dealt a cross-knot in it and then 5 loops around his neck with 2 knots. He leapt off and he’d expected his bulk and boots and leather jacket to be heavy enough to snap his neck instantly. But it took the rope over a minute to kill him. And perhaps Ajax would have thought that a victory.