Ajax wasn’t afraid of his own death; it was the heat death of the universe. “I’ll be fine if I know the universe will go on. But if it ends...” He didn’t tell us what would happen if it ended. He just slurped his fruity Crayola-red smoothie through a straw.
This was before he knew he was allergic to gluten. And milk.
This was before the heat death.
His parents named him after the Shakespearean Ajax, but he liked the Iliad ones better. The one he liked best of all was “Ajax the Lesser”, the son of King Oileus of Locris and a nymph named Rhene. They called him lesser because he wasn’t Ajax the Great, the heroic Ajax.
He was the swiftest of the Greeks, other than Achilles, of course, and he was great with a spear. The goddess Athena tried to kill him in a shipwreck, but he managed to survive by holding onto a rock. Then he got cocky and said even the gods couldn’t kill him. That pissed off Poseidon, who split the rock in half with his trident. Ajax the Lesser drowned. This was after he led forty Locrian ships against the Trojans in the war.
It was all foolishness, but it made us laugh for some reason. Ajax the Lesser was a dick. He was accused of raping the priestess Cassandra (which is why Athena was mad at him), but he took an oath of innocence and hid in a temple, so they let him live because they didn’t want to destroy the temple and have two immortal beings mad at them, instead of just the one.
They said after he died, his spirit hung out in the island of Leuce and he was worshiped as a hero. They even put him on some coins. Not too bad for a pompous ass.
“Of course, it’s not supposed to happen for a few billion years.” He adjusted his sunglasses. He always wore them inside, even in the mall.
“You’ll be dead before then,” I said. He nodded and swiveled his stool. We were sitting at the ‘bar’, where you can overlook the generic Chinese food take-out, right next to the generic greasy, diner-style hole in the wall. Generic, but they were ours.
We were still teenagers. We thought sunglasses indoors made you cool, especially when coupled with long rock star hair and a stonewashed leather jacket. Ajax was all that. He was Ajax the Lesser incarnate: a badass, god-dissing local hero.
“So what is heat death?” Only Max would ask. Me and Corey, well, we just liked to be with Ajax; we didn’t care what he was talking about, as long as he was talking to us. Sometimes it was hard to tell whether he was or not.
Those midnight sunglasses hid his eyes, adding mystery to the cool factor. He’d been places, man, seen things. Or so we imagined. We had no idea where he came from, just that he appeared in our class one day. He was in and out of detention, left a trail of girls in his wake, and showed up at school when he felt like it. The epitome of cool.
He also smoked, and I don’t mean cigarettes. He never charged us for it; he wasn’t a dealer. He threw house parties that his mom came to, which was fine with us because she had him when she was sixteen and she was hilarious when she got high (“I didn't really name him after Shakespeare, you know. I named him after the cleaning stuff.”). She was hilarious when she was sober too, but more in an Ajax-get-yer-arse-outta-bed-and-help-me-find-my-pantyhose kind of way.
“Heat death is what’ll happen when the universe reaches entropy.” No one knew what the hell he was talking about, but we listened eagerly. He laughed at our blank faces and leaned in, as if we were ten years old and he was telling a ghost story at a sleepover, all of us under a blanket with a flashlight shining up past his chin to distort his features. I imagined him with sunglasses even in that situation.
“Eventually, it’ll reach a point where all the reactions that can happen will have happened, and all that'll be left is the heat from the reactions. What’ll kill everything off will be that nothing’s happening. Literally.” He clasped his hands behind his head. “All the energy will have spread itself out equally. It’ll be a perfect balance. So perfect that the universe stops. The end.”
“That doesn’t make sense.” Max was a chubby little kid, but we let him hang out with us. He wasn’t really a kid any more than the rest of us, but we always called him that. He was the youngest in our grade, which seemed like a big deal at the time.
Ajax shrugged. “Let’s go check out the X-Store.”
This we understood. We slumped off our stools and sauntered over. Of course, what we were really interested in was the corner of the store that sold sex stuff. Not porn, nothing like that. You had to go downtown for that. But lots of stupid toys and games and explicit mugs with dicks and boobs on them. Candy panties and all that.
Eventually, we graduated – or, well, some of us did. Ajax decided at some point that school was a waste of time, and then he did become a dealer, but still not to us. We were his friends; our highs were free. So were his mom's, I guess, since she let him grow it in the basement and never said a word as long as she could have a taste every now and then.
I went to university. I was the only one who did out of the four of us. I got into Dal and my parents helped me get a student loan, so I moved to Nova Scotia. I didn’t have a clue what I was studying or what I wanted to be, but it seemed like the thing to do. My sister was going to MUN to learn business, and now it was my turn to make something of myself.
I came home at Christmas, and the morning after I arrived, my feet hit the frozen dew in the schoolyard beside my house. I flipped open my cellphone and called Ajax. I wanted to get together with the gang.
“Come over to my place tomorrow afternoon,” Ajax said. “I’ve got a homecoming present for you.”
Dinner with my folks was as you’d expect: good food, lots of questions about school, lots of gossip about my mom and dad’s friends, people I hardly knew but sort of remembered. We laughed and talked, and it was a good time all around. My sister broke out the wine to celebrate, and it was good to be home, but I really wanted to see Ajax and Max. Corey had sort of drifted off to Alberta by now.
I picked up Max in my parents’ silver Subaru Legacy. He’d thinned out, but still had that pasty blond look. His hair stuck to his hood. I cranked up the radio, even though we were listening to the two o'clock weather report.
Ajax still lived with his mom in their cranky pink jellybean house just up the hill from the harbour. We drove around for twenty minutes looking for a place to park.
“Just park here,” Max kept saying, pointing out every illegal parking spot downtown.
Ajax's mom was passed out on the couch, wrapped in her tattered blue housecoat. We let ourselves in, since the door was open, but our boy was nowhere to be found. We sat at the table, passing a joint back and forth, but when he hadn’t shown up for two hours, I got bored and woke up his mother.
“Hey, Mom.” We all called her Mom. “Where's Ajax to?”
Her blurry eyes settled on me and she sat up, coughed once, and spread her arms. “Give me a hug. How's our college boy doing?” I obliged and sat on the couch beside her.
Ajax never came home. We waited all evening, but his mom wasn't worried. “He'll be around, you'll see.” But he wasn't.
The cops came by around eight o'clock. They found Ajax at one of the big houses up along Rennie's River. He broke in and took a dip in the hot tub. They said he was on some drug, so he never noticed a thing. He fell asleep but he never drowned. It was hyperthermia, they said.
“What's that?” Max asked.
“His body overheated,” they said.
Ajax’s mom cried. Who am I kidding; we all did. His funeral was a mess. Only a few of us showed up but the ones who did loved him like crazy. We cried during the ceremony and then at the grave-site, and then again on the sofa at his house.
Another version of Ajax the Lesser’s death said he was killed by Athena with a flash of fire to the chest. It was still during a shipwreck, but in this story, the Greek hero was raised up on a whirlwind, blasted with fire, and then slammed into some sharp rocks. The Locrians, who lived on the island of Leuce where his spirit was worshiped after he died, always left a place open in their military ranks because they believed that Ajax the Lesser was fighting with them, even though they couldn’t see him.
“He wasn't scared of dying,” Max said. “At least the universe goes on, right?”
I stared at him. It took me a long time to figure out what the hell he was talking about, but when I did, I started to laugh. I laughed and cried and laughed and choked. He pounded me on the back, which only made it worse, and then I lay down on the couch and sobbed for Ajax, but really for us, the ones left behind.