by C.B. Johnson
Dr. Rudy Fleck, a scavenger in the academic job market, had spent the last several years in dire need of a holiday, so much so that he had begun on a daily basis to black out, but only for a few seconds each time, not enough to call an emergency or warrant any assistance from anybody.
The pressure placed upon him by the forces of administration were such that when offered work he was ever likely to say yes, no matter how much it struck him as absurd. His doctorate in Film, although real, was used for unreal purposes. He had taught everything from Anthropology (a stretch) to Veterinary Specialities (insane); the various departments and institutes across which he spread himself at the university rarely checked his qualifications. His campus was a satellite of a famous European university that reaped revenue from having franchised its name. The more checks they collected, the less the home campus checked up on their courses. He had even once taught Business, where he had spent all semester describing in lectures a practice he only much later discovered already had a name—Ponzi scheme.
So it was that bizarre flexibility and preposterous resourcefulness had long since been stamped into the shape of his being. Once, because of an overlarge teaching load, he had had to be in two places at the same appointed hour. Short of unlocking his second self he had achieved the required dual appearance by using a simple trick. Before lectures, he visited his rooms. In one he put the wall clock forward by half an hour and in the other he put it back by half an hour. He then ruthlessly adhered to wall clock authority in front of the students, the first group of whom were accused of being half an hour late, the second of whom were praised for punctuality, although in fact they had been waiting half an hour and were exhausted and getting ready to leave. And so, a version of a prank he had seen used way back in high school against his teachers, by students he assumed to be far worse and more desperate than himself, he had used against his own students.
On the day that this story begins his hands were heavy like bricks. He replied by email to the Institute of Dramatic Arts agreeing to deliver a course they had just now offered him, on the eve of the first week of semester. He had just forty-eight hours to prepare to teach a course on a subject about which he knew practically nothing. The commitment to teach in forty-eight hours meant cramming in a new field of specialisation and included sneaking materials developed in earlier semesters and a bit of poaching from other courses; he did this without regret. His attitude was that lacklustre administration or not, he had a responsibility to his students, so he endeavoured to give them their money’s worth.
By dinnertime, although Dr. Fleck had no dinner plans, he had spent hours reading up on Stanislavsky. He had learnt a bit on the actor’s biography, historical contextualisation, outlines of basic problems and theories. But it all left him in a state of confusion and panic. Success had struck, at long last, after his fifth or sixth snack. In fact, he had dug up gold. He was so pleased with his prospecting that he tossed the primer aside, put his feet up on the desk, and spent the next few minutes celebrating with a sixth or seventh snack. There would be no need to design PowerPoint slides, prescribe readings, mark papers, or commit acts of temporality fraud this semester. He had figured out how to give himself the holiday that the administration had never condescended to give him.
On the first day of semester he looked out at the room of students. They were an earnest-looking bunch, and none too stylish, which was a good thing, as the stylish tended to be less impressionable. Impressionability, and a bit of intimidation, was required for the successful delivery of his golden idea. Having finished his survey of their collective appearance, he launched into the only lecture he would give all semester, which also had the distinction of being extremely short.
He said, “Students of DRAM302: Method Acting. What do you expect from a metaphysical teaching studio? You have one assignment for this course: render yourselves unrecognisable. Right now you look like an obvious bunch of students. Go away and don’t come back until week thirteen. If you are the same person you are now when you come back, that’s an unacceptable performance, you fail. If you are a qualitatively different person, properly and completely reconfigured from inside out, you get an A for outstanding, exceptional performance.”
The students blinked and looked at each other. Eventually, one by one, like an infection going around the room, they got the message.
“Now, scoot,” he said at last, and surprised himself.
They put away their notebooks and texts and pencils, picked up their bags and phones and left Dr. Rudy Fleck alone in the teaching studio. He checked his watch and clicked his tongue approvingly; it had taken five minutes, and it was the first time in a long while he had enjoyed doing his job. He would have to live with the risk of being reported for radically unconventional, and potentially harmful, teaching practices. There was no way out of that. But the wheels of the Institute’s administration were grindingly slow, therefore even if he was reported, he doubted if it would amount to an investigation until the course was over.
And so, like that, he had the rest of semester off; he would catch up on movies.
Outside the building he walked past one of the students, who had no plans in life, who was sitting on the steps. He watched his instructor, Dr. Rudy Fleck, enter the street and then disappear into the train station. This student, who was Smith Ward, one of the Institute’s newest recruits, grabbed his things and tailed the instructor. Underground in the station, his instructor was easy to find. He was conspicuously snacking on a cookie from a vending machine. Smith Ward waited in the crowd, studying his instructor’s movements. The two males were about the same height, of similar build, a bit relaxed around the waist, and they kind of had the same hair, despite the twenty-year age gap.
The instructor got on the next train and Smith Ward followed, and got on the same carriage. He stayed on the train, one eye on his instructor at all times, as it went to the outskirts of town. Then on foot he followed his instructor all the way to the large multi-dwelling brick estate in which he lived. He watched his instructor from the street and observed him entering his terrace from the back of the estate. Smith Ward waited a moment and then pursued the same trajectory, except when he got to the rear gate, which was on elevated ground behind the terrace, he jumped a nearby fence. From this vantage he had a direct view into almost the entire length of the flat. Dr. Rudy Fleck left the rear sliding glass doors open, for airiness presumably, which generalised and purified Smith Ward’s vision into his instructor’s domestic landscape.
The flat was not large and everywhere it was piled with junk; as expected, his instructor was personally disorganised. Smith Ward knelt on the grass and watched his instructor through the timber slats in the fence. He saw subject and environment. His instructor in his private home doing private things. On this first day it mostly involved organising old DVDs. He lost sight of him when he went behind a funky pillar of waste, or upstairs, and then had to rely on a window, at which his subject simply became a shadow. He disappeared from view when he got into bed. It was when Dr. Rudy Fleck retired for the night, after dark, that Smith Ward also went home, to where he lived across town in the privileged habitat of his parents, his trouser knee damp from kneeling on the grass.
Smith Ward assigned himself to observe Dr. Rudy Fleck in his home over the next several weeks. Rain or shine, he would adjust to the conditions. He knew this wasn’t entirely the way to go about his research but it satisfied him deeply, and he got to think about what it is that makes a life a life. There was a bit of planning involved, but not much, depending on the weather; on the whole, he found a comfort in watching he had never really experienced before. He brought in a deck chair and little foot stool, and an umbrella for inclement days. He often packed a thermos and cup. He didn’t take notes, he watched.
Dr. Rudy Fleck’s life was measured out in movies, in the flickering light of the large screen’s electrically charged ionized gases. Over the weeks his hair grew long and he became bearded. He was a serialised man. He got up between eight and nine every day, showered for five minutes, dressed for work, but then simply went to the couch, shoes on. He rarely left the flat. He watched movies—subtitled, mostly—through the day, and drank cups of tea. Between screenings he stood up and stretched like an idiot, to keep the blood circulating, twisting his body all the way around on the floor, and then standing up and trying to touch the ceiling with his fingertips. In the afternoon he usually abandoned his shoes, and watched more movies, and slumped further into the couch. He rarely used his phone, which was an old model, practically ancient. He occasionally met someone later in the day, always an academic-looking type, not unlike Dr. Rudy Fleck himself, with whom he swapped discs. Or he picked up items at the shops, in which case he would put his shoes back on if he had taken them off. But he never strolled very far from where he lived to do these things, and never for more than an hour or so.
The thing that got to Smith Ward the most was that Dr. Rudy Fleck ate snacks rather than meals. On one occasion he had tailed Dr. Rudy Fleck on foot for several blocks, until he had arrived at a supermarket. Inside, Dr. Rudy Fleck had gone up and down the aisles reading everything on the shelves seemingly at a loss for what to put in his plastic basket. He had eventually authored an apparently random assemblage of pre-packaged snack foods, simple foods that required no preparation or knowledge of even the most minor of kitchen skills.
Then one day Dr. Rudy Fleck was absorbed into the screen watching a black and white, subtitled movie. His tea steeped on a nearby table. He suddenly looked up. His gaze soared through the flat, through the slats in the fence towards Smith Ward. A fixed, animal meeting of the eyes. I see you. Smith Ward, torn from his comfort, shook involuntarily and spilt his own warm milky tea all over his legs. The returned gaze had an enormous physicality to it. Chilled to the core, Smith Ward broke it off and pretended to go about his business— which was what, exactly?
In a short while, Smith Ward got up and jumped the fence and left. He did not pick up his things, which could remain on the patch of grass till kingdom come, as far as he was concerned. He went home and went online and unenrolled himself from DRAM302, just like that.
Smith Ward was not the first of the students, of those who had actually commenced, to abandon his self-transfiguration project. In week thirteen, Dr. Rudy Fleck cut his hair and shaved. Then showed up to evaluate the student performances. But he found a dreary studio of empty chairs. The chairs were haphazardly organised into what looked like small formations, as if invisible students were workshopping in groups. He went home, hoping against hope, that the student fees had already been deposited into the university’s account. That alone would determine the administration’s decision to fire Dr. Rudy Fleck, or hire him for one more semester.