Julius Maxwell Kempton (formally Kempalos) sat at the back of the room and watched the ongoing initiation ceremony behind his dark sunglasses. He didn’t want to be here but in order to live a large portion of his life the way he wanted, ‘in private’, his grandfather, Don Kempalos, had insisted that Julius maintain a certain level of visibility within the organization. His grandfather controlled a number of shipping ports, families and companies in America and Sicily. He was a ‘man of honor’, a descendant of ‘men of honor’ and he was adamant that his grandson would succeed him, despite his grandson’s objections. From where he sat, Julius could see various family heads seated around his grandfather. These elegantly dressed men seemed to conceal Don Kempalos with their bodies. An outsider looking in would never have guessed that the slight, quietly dressed man was in fact the boss of bosses. Julius knew that these men would give their lives for his grandfather without a second thought. Loyalty and respect were things that kept the organization strong. The secret vow of silence, Omertà, which all the members had to take, kept the organization hidden.
Julius watched as the four new members were questioned one by one. He knew that their commitment to the organization had already been checked and tested out before this ceremony and this questioning, though just a formality, was also an open declaration to all the other men in the room that they would not betray the organization also known as the Mafia or Cosa Nostra. To betray it would mean death.
Salvador ‘bulldog’ Bertolino, a family head from Nevada, stood up and walked to the center of the room. He had an ornamental knife in his right hand, which he held up so that everyone in the room could see. The four men stood up and walked towards him, they stood respectfully in a line in front of him, each with their right hand held up, and their eyes cast on the ground. Salvador studied the men, pride shone in his eyes as he turned to the spectators. “Gentlemen, it is 3 o’clock in the morning and we have forsaken our beds, our wives and our businesses because of the importance of this ceremony. So I call upon everyone in this room to witness this today,” Salvador paused for effect as he looked around the room at the men who sat watching him. Some he eyeballed; others he glanced at. “These men have chosen to become one of us, ‘men of honor’, men who will uphold a custom and a duty as our forefathers upheld. We all know the story of Don Kempalos’ grandfather and his father who returned to Sicily from Spain with much wealth. Don Kempalos’ father was a governor in Sicily, a true ‘man of honor’, who helped the people and protected them from the corruption that surrounded them and polluted their land. Today we are here in America as citizens, offering protection to our people here just like our forefathers offered to their people. Not only do we offer protection, we now control a number of politicians, judges and police officers; we control the drugs and the guns, we give loans to people who the banks ignore; we are the peoples’ people!” A number of men cheered in agreement. “We are strong and we have survived for many years because of our blood borne connections. Today these four men will become a part of us, connected by blood.” He cut a line on the palm of each man’s right hand with the knife and told each man to hold his hand above his head so that the blood would flow freely from the cut. One of Don Kempalos’ men pulled a life-size statue of a saint to the middle of the room. The statue was smeared with the dried blood of hundreds of men. The four men were instructed to place their bleeding hand on the saint and repeat an oath after Salvador. As they repeated the words Julius felt as though he was transported back in time to when he was sixteen and his brother, Johnatus, was only thirteen . . .
Their grandfather was the one who cut the palm of their right hands that night. The ceremony was witnessed by a few trusted men. As he placed his hand on the statue of the saint and repeated the words his grandfather spoke, Julius knew in his heart that he would never be committed to the organization. He only did it to protect his father and mother from his grandfather.
Don Kempalos was a man who got what he wanted and he had told Julius that if he didn’t take part in the initiation ceremony and declare his loyalty to the organization, his parents would pay the price. Julius knew that his grandfather was a ruthless man and would carry out the threat. For years now, he suspected that to his grandfather, love was not a feeling – in fact it was a word devoid of any feeling. He knew that his grandfather loved his son, Julius’ father, Antonio, very much and that was a fact, but he also knew that he would use Antonio to get what he wanted from his grandson and this fact did not interfere with his feelings.
The truth of the matter was that Don Kempalos did not have much use for Antonio, who suffered from several mental ailments after his return from the Second World War. Back then, in Sicily, they didn’t really have a name for what Antonio suffered from and men like him were hidden behind family wealth or a family name. If they didn’t have either of these, they were simply forgotten, rejected and labelled as ‘lunatics’ or ‘mad men’.
When Julius was younger his grandfather would systematically threaten him – he would take him out onto the streets of California and show him men who had fought in the Second World War, like Antonio, and who also had mental problems. He made a great show of telling him how these men who society had forgotten now resided in cardboard boxes with supermarket carts containing their worldly possessions, parked on the curb of their residence. He told Julius that Antonio would join these men if Julius didn’t obey him. Then he would take Julius to Mama Luigi’s for ice cream.
You see Don Kempalos needed a strong-minded person to succeed him and the only person in his sights was loyal, strong-willed Julius. From an early age, Don Kempalos had discovered just how loyal and quick minded his grandson was. When Julius was very young and they all still lived in Sicily, one of Antonio’s ailments was chronic mental fatigue, which exhibited itself in forgetfulness, fear of loud noises and the sudden onset of severe panic attacks. At one point, Antonio didn’t remember what year it was and often thought that he was still fighting on the battlefield. During his many ‘flashbacks’ he was often prone to violence and the only thing that would calm him down was a window. For some strange reason, no matter how violent he got, once he was placed next to a window he would calm down. He especially loved the large bay windows on the first floor of their Sicilian home that afforded a view of the succulent Sicilian valley, spread below it like a carpet, and would sit by them for hours on end just staring out, as if caught up in a trance. Don Kempalos could not tolerate this from his only child and commissioned a doctor to treat him. As part of Antonio’s treatment by this somewhat questionable psychiatrist he was put on a ‘new’ mind-regression therapy. This meant that he had to mentally go back in time and face his demons on and off the battlefield. This also meant that outside of his sessions with the psychiatrist he had to believe that he was still living in the 1940s.
Young, loyal, strong-willed Julius, took it upon himself to read articles from old newspapers to maintain the charade although he could barely read. Julius persuaded his mother, Maria, to help and managed to convince her that it would make Antonio better faster. What he didn’t tell his mother was that his grandfather had told him that, if he didn’t lie to his father, he would put his father in a room with no windows and his father would have an episode of violent madness and die in this room. After his father had died, his grandfather had said he would throw his widowed mother out onto the streets, somewhere where her own family would never find her and she would die. So from a very young age, Julius had lived a lie to keep his father alive and his mother safe – a thing that over twenty years later, he was still doing.
. . . Men cheered and clapped as they welcomed the newest members into their fold. Their voices brought Julius back to the present. The ceremony was over and the four men were now ‘made men’. They were now officially members of the organization. Two large doors were opened into the adjourning room, revealing tables laden with food and drinks. All the men moved towards the adjoining room. Julius greeted a number of men as he walked past them. He felt someone grab his arm and turned.
“Julius, you look good, son,” Salvador Bertolino said as he embraced Julius.
“Thank you, you look good too. Have you lost some weight? You look like you have.”
“You noticed, huh? You’re the only one who noticed. I started going to this new place that opened in Nevada, ‘Gym-Fit’ they call it. I call it ‘hell in a hole’. I even got myself someone to show me how to use the fancy equipment and work out with me. Can you believe that the dumb schmuck wanted me to pay him for his services each time? He looked at me like I was some dinosaur and said that this was the 1980s and people were paying personal fitness trainers all over the country. Well you know me, I couldn’t resist, I showed him my Smith & Wesson and said to him, ‘how’s about I pay you by letting you keep your life, schmuck’.”
“I bet he’s paying you now, Uncle Sal,” Julius laughed.
“With the money those people make per session! You bet he is, Julius, you bet he is,” Salvador roared and laughed with Julius as they walked into the room.
“Salute! Salute!” Men said all around the room as they raised their glasses.
After about thirty minutes of talking and being visible, Julius walked over to his grandfather and told him privately that he was going to leave.
“I need a word with you before you go,” Don Kempalos told him and walked to a quiet corner of the room. Julius followed him. “What is this I hear about you having a pregnant girlfriend who will soon give birth? Why have I not been informed about this before now and by you?”
Julius froze, his heart pounded, “I, umm . . . I-”
“You are going to have a child and you didn’t tell me?”
“Who told you?”
“Does it matter who told me?”
“Yes, it matters.”
“Your brother told me. He thinks that he can score points with me by telling me other people’s secrets. Usually I patronize him: I listen, I comment then forget Johnatus and his stories. But this one, this one, Julius, is one that I needed to find out the truth about for myself. I told him to send some guys to the hospital to see if it’s true. He said he didn’t know which hospital it was.”
“This child will be my great grandchild, my future and your heir. So tell me, is it true?”
“My private life is off limits, remember. I have done everything you have asked me to do over the years because of my parents. If and when I have children I will not let you have any contact with them, Don Kempalos.”
“Why do you insist on calling me ‘Don Kempalos’ or refer to me as ‘The Old Man’? Why do you never call me grandfather like your brother? What’s the matter with you, Julius?” He reached out and touched his grandson’s arm then quickly withdrew his hand when he felt the familiar flinch and saw his grandson take a step back from him.
“What’s the matter with me? You’re asking me, what’s the matter with me?”
“It’s a simple question, what’s the matter with you? I have given you everything, Julius-”
“No, you have taken everything! You want to know why I don’t call you grandfather to your face? You stopped being my grandfather when you threatened the life of my father, when you told me that you would harm my mother. If and when I have children, they will not be a part of your life, Don Kempalos, because they were never a part of the deal,” Julius told him then turned and walked away.
One of Don Kempalos’ bodyguards sensed something was wrong and walked towards Julius as if to stop him, but Don Kempalos quickly raised a hand and his bodyguard hung back. As Don Kempalos watched Julius leave the room, he hated the stab of pain he felt at his grandson’s rejection. Love was a word to him that was devoid of any feelings, except for the feelings he had for Julius.