I began smoking when I was little more than a sophomore in high school. Mind you, I never once attempted marijuana because its after-effects, as very acutely spelled out to me by my compatriots, was to make the user sleepy and hungry and apathetic; characteristics I didn't want applied to me for free and certainly not under the cost of allowance and paranoia. Yet I smoked heartily, primarily cigarettes and pipe tobacco, in that order, as I found the former to be much less strong than the latter. I was never opposed to the occasional convenience store cigar (the kinds with azure wrapping whose tips tasted of sugar cane).
They were, next my drinking, the foremost and weakest form of rebellion against my stern loving father and my always smothering slavic mother.
In a way, my sophomore year was my year of many changes; a growing-out year of first dates and first smokes and the perfection of my art of lying, or as I would rather put it; the perfection of my art of storytelling. It began with casual fib-forming with my parents, for no other reason than my own entertainment, and later morphed into completely and ingeniously derived lies; conjured friendships, conjured evenings.
Yet as time crept by I began to see myself as somewhat under challenged. I was achieving success with my first audience and had proven to myself that I was a deviously convincing storyteller, at fault for not transcribing his brilliant lies to paper. Yet I was hampered by doubt and fear of failure (not my own, of course; the world's failure of understanding). This was perhaps inspired by my horrid attempt at a novel earlier in life, but regardless the reason I recognized that I would not be able to grow as an artist lest I convince myself of my own adequacy, and not only adequacy, stark and simple genius.
The most readily available cure for this trepidation was training. Artistic training. Not the mind-numbing repetition of drills and creation of character/plot/language defined texts. I set myself rigorously to a meticulously planned criteria: a criteria designed to merit results especially designed to make the bearer suffer and squirm and eventually express. We were, after all, promised suffering, according to Lewis, and I would be damned if I was to go without.
This criteria was drafted for all inclusiveness; a life-plan of the appropriate amount of suffering mingled with the appropriate amount of social contact mingled with the appropriate amount of sleep, et cetera, that would eventually lead to my future as a successful writer (and at this point in my life; writer with the equally well-paying occupation of concert or pub pianist). Smoking and drinking were on the top of my list of things that successful artists indulge in to unhealthy excess. They were simple vices, easy to replicate yet nevertheless invaluable in my achievement of artistic greatness, and not only that, but readily and relatively simple to attain.
The prospect of serious alcoholism or lung failure never seemed as much of a threat to me. I didn't want to die young but at the same time I had no fear of dying. This is the characteristic of youth; feelings of immortality via the dearth of fear.
If my comrades were compelled to feel similarly, they didn't show it. Indeed, they failed to show much of anything aside from unconcerned agreement and almost total apathy. Since the blooming of our rather nonexistent friendship, they had not developed even slightly should their illegal paraphernalia be discounted: marijuana and pipe tobacco and cigarettes (we were all of us, mind you, fifteen and sixteen years of age) and alcohol. I admit that I should not have expected them to make an exception in their character by suddenly feigning interest in something other than their activities of immediate and superficial enjoyment, notwithstanding, I was displeased and even disconsolate that I possessed no one to whom I might express my feelings of ingeniousness, my criteria of success, or even my feelings of suffering.
At about this time in my life, a very strange feeling overwhelmed me and caused me even more exasperation and confusion than anything prior. My brother's absence, due to his being a junior in the highly regarded Phillips Exeter Academy, boarding school for well-rounded, athletic, purposeful and personable individuals, had begun to inspire a very real and very disturbing sadness within me.
I was missing him, and not him as a mere physical space-filler, not him as a somewhat nasally and high-pitched voice that sent my dear slavic mother into hysterics and my stern father into fits of mocking laughter.
You, dear reader, whom I am sure are wondering what more there was to possibly miss about my estranged brother have clearly never been parted from a blood-sharing family relation with a lacking relationship for a great amount of time. There comes a state of melancholiness whose only source can be defined as a mindset of 'what could have been.' Such a mindset plagued me subconsciously for two years before I finally had the courage to face it; face it and realize that I missed my brother not for anything that we had ever had, but because there was a relationship I felt possible that had up to this point never been acknowledged, much less realized.
Yes, dear reader, I recognize the horrid sentimentality my words bear but it is the truth and a truth it tortures me to admit: I missed my brother and I wanted him back desperately.
Very soon after however this dramatic conclusion and the determination that I must attempt a real relationship with my brother was belied by a very critical event.
I possessed the friendship of one Jeremy Amsel, violinist with a sprouting upper lip that enabled the mouth to never close properly and thus the teeth to remain omnipresent. What details of Jeremy Amsel's life are critical? Aside from a gradually burdening alcoholism that showed an affinity for rum and a very expressive passion for Bernstein and the musical Les Miserables, there are few others. Yet through Jeremy's tertiary involvement, I became introduced to pipe smoke and the works of Hugo and Mathers and Eamon Duffy. Jeremy was no exception to my code of non-involvement, yet one could nevertheless very well make the claim that I was endowed for my religious fascination by what involvement I had with Jeremy.
When Jeremy Amsel died, many were surprised because they were unaware such a person had existed in their vicinity and had gone unnoticed for so long. There was an announcement via the school intercoms that informed the student body that one of their own had ended his life tragically, and yet the publication of his death by a faculty who simply regarded him was borne by us, his compatriots, with a mild hatred. I suppose we thought that since these people had not taken the time nor exasperated the effort to find out who Jeremy was, they (by no means) had a right to his legacy, even if such a 'right' was a knowledge of aforesaid 'legacy.' We knew that Jeremy would not want his death publicized, and never in such a gaudy manner.
"...beloved friend and fellow student..." the intercoms rang elegiacally after initial details had been given. Then a sickening squeal of pitch-shatter and the memoriam became memory. I was thankful that nothing more had been mentioned of the death although I do not think that Jeremy would have cared if the details had gone unspared and for such a reason I say them now for his preservation and for the preservation of this literature.
Self-murder by asphyxiation. There was a coil of thin white rope he had smuggled from a toiletries closet and the knot was surprisingly well forged. In our neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods trees were no commodity, yet Jeremy must have thought this too public because he chose the metal pole of his closet after meticulously binding his legs to his upper thigh in order to insure he had room enough for proper strangulation. Jeremy was found after two days by a father who had sobered up long enough to notice Bernstein's unceasing Adagio for Strings looping on his son's iPod stereo and his son fixed by a taut line in surreal immobility.
We, as a group of seldom-speaking violinists, were surprised, but not for any of the right reasons. These "right reasons" were numerous and occupied the minds of the rest of the school: Jeremy was unstable, depressed, silent, melancholy, long-brooding, friendless, alcoholic, and after having found all the enjoyment seeped from his life, had simply grown bored and ended himself. This was what became the professional diagnosis.
However we who knew Jeremy knew that he was a person of unspeakable stability and consistency and capability; of achieving higher levels of enjoyment that most would never think to aspire to. There was nothing wrong with Jeremy and we knew it. Why had he done it then? the answer was present and elusive at the same time.
He had martyred himself in a closet; the Buddhist in Le Van Duyet street. Of this much we were sure. But for what purpose, none of us could divine.
As a result of our fruitless questions, we grew even more distanced and even a bit desperate for answers. Jeremy had never seemed such an important contribution to our lives when he had been living, but as a martyr undiscovered by all save this group of dipsomaniac musicians, he became the single thought in our heads, stuck in self-perpetuating pendulum.
But Jeremy, or rather the memory of Jeremy, carried a peculiar trait, a trait shared by the living specimen with reserve when he walked among us. He had an uncanny ability of transmigration, rather, a solicitation of idiosyncratic traits in which none of us would have ever indulged: the smoking of cigarettes, the listening of Bernstein, Gershwin, and Fitzgerald, the respect and reading of religiously defined texts, the emphasis on personal grooming and dress. Suffice to say that with Jeremy dead, the seepage of his character into our own, once taken for granted and almost entirely unnoticed, bred the disconcerting truth that he was now more alive than ever.
I will not stress the precise reasoning as to why I began smoking cigarettes (twenty or thirty or forty a day) beyond what I now describe. Kind reader, do not mistake me for a jester when I say that Jeremy's influence was a powerful force and one that brought me insomnia, sickness, sudden and horrible pains and even a tendency towards narcolepsy when I need most to concentrate, until that is, I submitted myself to its preternatural governing.
And as if by some miracle act of God, my acquisition of cigarettes brought inexplicable reason: I was being haunted and tortured by Jeremy's departed soul for my ignorance of his character during life and I was being punished by having all things that made life enjoyable, from sleep to good health to the pleasure of work and comfort, slowly stripped away from me. I had at first allowed myself the pleasures of spiritual and religious texts because I thought they could provide an answer as how to rid myself of this 'demon.' From these texts I was led to Bernstein's Adagio for Strings, desperate and so far wonting in answer to my pains to the point that I was searching Jeremy's death-call for what my imagination had divined: a secret message. Each of these paths led me to a road and those roads to further roads and eventually I arrived at cigarettes when the pains left and I realized that I had absorbed Jeremy and thereby assuaged his angry spirit.
Now, with the spirit assuaged, I was careful not to invoke him once more, so I began to smoke rigorously. My succession of one cancer stick to another was remarkable. I could devour two in a minute and store enough smoke to exhale miniature stratocumuli. After a week of this perverse indulgence I no longer felt light headed at the end of the day and determined that I must increase my intake to thirty, or a package and a half every twenty four hours. I worked yards during weekends and some weekdays, mowing and edging, weed-eating and blowing, so my pay was adequate enough to maintain these drastic expenditures, yet the main problem of this newfound addiction was my mother's perceptiveness.
Of course, having hands stained black with nicotine and smelling like a rock concert after a day at school would imbibe a certain level of questioning from any parental figure no matter how lackluster in their duties they were. My mother was a figure of intelligent governing whose trust I had kept, and when she'd call to me: "Preevyt, my little Nikolai. You smell of lawnmower and cancer-stick," I could respond with adeptness that my violinists had recently begun the unhealthy inhalation, of which I took no intentional part in and avoided all successive smoking malaises by avoiding secondary respiration to the best of my abilities.
And here at last, reader, we come to the long-awaited answer why: why this problematic violinist Jeremy was important; why the figurative conglomeration of our persons is necessary; why my sudden and habitual smoking carries pertinence to this story of fraternal and germanic vengeance.
The day was Tuesday, and I had driven myself forty five minutes to Dallas because I was intent on Dunhill cigarettes which had been a treat shared by Jeremy and thus, by me. Dunhill were imported from British American Tobacco and thereby not available in the neighborhood 7-11 but only in smoke shops like The Saracen and the Sultan which also provided my tobacco. The interior of this gaudy abode shown like an Islamic palace mosaically patterned with a sitar sitting in one corner and the floor showing a repletion of faux Persian rugs. (The Saracen and the Sultan was owned by a black man from a Dallas suburb christianized Denzel, muslimized Mohammad, if this can be believed.)
"Dunhill," I said.
"Any tobacco? Oxford Court? Briar Stir?"
Mohammad shrugged and left to retrieve my order.
"Omnia in numero et mensura."
These were the first words that Otto said to me. All things in number and measure. He had said it again before I turned to acknowledge his presence. "All things in number" I said, retrieving suddenly from an expanse of classic knowledge and high school Latin."Und züsatzlich," he completed and produced a solid line of smoke. When I remember what Otto first looked like my memory never fails to strike me as odd. Here, in this gaudy testament of Islam, surrounded by flashing colors, bathed in the redolence of overpriced smoke with the twang of sitars humming over the speakers, was a man of nobility.
Broad, outstandingly mighty and tall with a positively black mustache just barely fraying the corners of his thin lips, under which grew a tuff of black hair with no sideburns. A firm jaw with no particular definition and a horizontal gash on his chin, mirrored and twisted to resemble the gashes he bore on both cheeks. His hair was black and parted and greased and, like his facial hair, wild yet restrained. I could not fathom the size of his shoulders. They were wrapped in a suit tailed for tremendous arm strength and an only slightly slimmer waist. His skin bore a similar pigmentation to a grecian urn, and his nose was huge and dignified yet in such a way that it only increased the solemnity and colossal, hyperborean aspects of his figure. Oh, but what a testament of sheer power Otto was in that first meeting!
"Und züsatzlich," I heard him say. So startled was I upon his second interjection and upon his physical specimen that I could not comprehend even enough willpower to summon a question. "Measure," he said in flawless English and with a grin. Although I was not comforted by his continued speech, I regained enough sense to notice that he was wearing peculiar, very dark sunglasses.
"All things in number and measure, you meant to say." He blew out smoke and focused his amused attention on the petrified young man who was me. "Do you know why Allah created all things in number and in measure?"
I was able to shake my head in the negative. "Vice," Otto said. "To keep you. Keep your head. The niggers would understand better than anyone and you could ask them. They know what giving them their lives under measure and number feels like. White man Allah who grants measures of work, numbers of hours. And that Allah's the same little breath you take when you're holding yourself knowing that you're going then and that you can't control a goddamned thing. There, there is numero et mensura."
Upon this spiel Otto gave a laugh and I determined that he was crazy. Would a sane man say things like this to a young stranger? Perhaps in jest, yet aside from Otto's mocking laughs, there was nothing jesting about his countenance. He was diving the masters and discussing theology and I could see the conviction written on his brow. I have often wondered and reflected, as so many do, what my life would have amounted to had I chosen at that moment to collect my cigarettes and leave without saying another word to this strange and certainly insane man. I did not run, as you will see, because I was curious as to what other rubbish this mighty man could possibly spit out at me, and because I was intrigued by his fierce cavalierness, and at his derogation of both race and religion in front of the eyes of the stoical Mohammad.
"Do I know you?" I said. Otto wheezed laughter and cigarette smoke and spittle into my face.
"I could count on my hand the number of times in my life I've been asked that question," he retorted and his brow, visible over the sunglasses, suddenly bent downwards. His face leered over to mine frighteningly close.
"People don't ask me about me is why. And it's that way because I don't like being asked about. You can talk to that nigger Schwanzlutschen over there and the he'll say I've been to this place three times in the last week. You can ask him what for and you can ask him what I said to him and he'd tell you. But he couldn't tell you my name."
"Is your name important?" I said before I could think. What I expected to be a hidden stare capable of flaying alive suddenly loosened into a very wide-lipped grin. "Now didn't I say people don't ask me things." The grin remained, implacable plaster over a voice with the power to flay alive.
He suddenly broke glance and motioned for Mohammad, who had placed the cigarettes in front of me before the conversation had begun yet had purposefully refrained from charging me. "Two more of what he's buying and it'll be my gift." Wordlessly, Mohammad obeyed and instead of charging Otto, flashed him a look of suppressed fear. Otto took the cigarettes and offered them to me.
"I like smart people who don't ask me too much," he said, hands still on the packages. "You seem my type, long as you can wait for the answers to come to you."
Breaking, he took a pull from his cigarette and fixed me with a stare from behind his sunglasses. "I've been out of commission long enough. I'm starting back up. I might use you for a job in the future."
"Job," I said.
"Young man's work," he said. "Good work for a smart boy."
Otto flashed me a card with his name "OTTO" and an address but no phone number. "Just in case you're interested."
"You don't know enough about me to offer me a job," I said. Otto frowned slightly. "I never said you'd be right for the job. I only said I could use you. I know you well enough to use you."
Otto released the cigarettes yet he made it apparent that he was not finished with our discussion yet by placing a very large hand atop of mine. The hand was freezing but I was already petrified by this sudden intimacy he had taken.
"Numero et mensura. That's the law by which you abide and it's the law you'll obey when you work under me. If you can remember this then you will flourish under me." Suddenly, Otto removed his sunglasses and placed them in my hands, and then he was gone. I remained, gawking at nothing, unable to move.
You reader, I am sure would doubt me were I to tell you now that of all the terrifying aspects of Otto's character, none of them bore me as much fear and unease as his eyes. Indeed his very girth was enough to inspire my most immediate terrors but the fears of details such as sheer size and strength can be overlooked by the contents of the bearer's character, as I have found. Jean Valjean was a man of morality. Thor was a figure of jest in the face of Thrym. And even our great and vengeful and powerful god is a god of love.
For these reasons my fears became lessened during my discussion with Otto. They returned when I saw his eyes. An abominable cliche to mention such a feature, perhaps. Few would argue that there was a more horrible aspect of this man aside from his eyes. The eyes bore a very dark brown pigmentation laced with burnt orange however this rare color was hardly noticeable in contrast to the ghastly shape of the irises. They were a supernova of shape. Jagged and tattered was the right iris, twisted into the hideous likeness of a crescent with one elongated side. The shape was reflected over the left iris where the opposite end curved over and connected the loop. Ectropion Uveae (iridectropium). I would learn that Otto's second rare disease was called this much later. Yet for the time being, all I saw was a pair of the most twisted, morbid, bespattered eyes imaginable.
When I was able to muster strength enough to drive away I had time to glance at the sunglasses. Untarnished and silver-wired, bearing the logo "TOM FORD." I laughed silently to myself. The man could certainly make a first impression, from his appearance and this display of wealth, and the uncomfortable intimacy he took when pronouncing that creed "number and measure." Two feelings for the man had already taken form within me and one of them was fear. The other was a very real, very curious feeling of admiration.