In Theory

The river was wide and moving at a brisk clip. Its dark, choppy surface ran past desolate sandy banks suggesting some barren shore. Sad trees with anemic branches could be seen reaching out desperately in all directions. In the distance low rolling hills seemed to wait listlessly for a defiant sprout of green to break through their hard, stubborn soil.

Drawn along by the current, it slowly came into view. A log. A piece of driftwood. Maybe some portion of discarded plastic shelving. It appeared to be a small buoy or marker of some kind. Then, just as it was beginning to recede and lose itself in the rushing tide, the water’s motion nudged it about a quarter turn to the right. It was a man. Or, to be more accurate, the decaying remains of a recently deceased individual. He had been badly beaten and looked unconscious or – more likely – dead. Stuffed inside an old car tire, he bobbed along with only the arc-like upper portion of the discarded scrap, his supine head and distended arms visible. The word partisano had been hastily scrawled on a beat-up piece of dingy beige cardboard and shoved down between his back and the tire. From the shore, he looked like something broken being carried along by the implacable forces of nature.

Suddenly everything – the distant hills, the river, the bobbing partisano – froze and melded into a flickering, synthetic light.

I hate it when he does that, Margo thought.

The cavernous lecture hall was a relic from another era. Much like the professor striding in contemplation before the tiny wooden lectern, it had been an incubator of knowledge and ideas. It had seen thousands of eager minds come to sit and bask in the fountain of education. To learn. To expand the boundaries of what human beings can know and produce. To create and cure. To solve the secrets of the universe and harness the energy of the cosmos. To advance and adapt. To extend the imaginable lackadaisical possibilities for life forms everywhere. And now, for reasons known only to the keepers of the keys and the tenured saints of clairvoyance, the whole joy ride felt as though it were grinding down to a creaky and immobilizing halt.

None of this seemed to faze Alberto Camminetti. With eyes fixed firmly on the water-stained ceiling, the good professor strode purposefully back and forth across the warped linoleum that functioned as something of a floor covering. The design was of a quaint antebellum variety; terse chocolate brown squares comingling with a milky grid of crème or ivory that seemed to recall a time of innocence and expansion. To some this pilgrimesque pattern suggested a simpler, more agrarian heritage. The edges of each tile, once factory formed as perfectly straight, meeting at perpendicular angles, rose irregularly from years – decades even – of wear, repeated use and neglect. It was almost as if the board of regents had never stopped to consider that something as fundamental as the ground upon which we walk could in fact crumble, decay and erode.

A long-forgotten fan mounted in the overhead bowels of the lecture hall whizzed and whirred with a sickly staccato cadence as the professor spoke. It was a September afternoon. The temperature outside could easily find itself measured in odd numbers divisible by three. Inside, those earnest students still awake and not yet rendered into a musky clump of sweat and questions leaned first this way, then that, in an attempt to intercept some or any – of the tepid conditioned air slithering from the vents and ducts throughout the hall. Even the rotating blades of the overhead fan felt the weight of the humid, jungle-like afternoon. You could almost hear them sigh from fatigue or ping from distress as a bent blade tried to complete one more round without incident.

Doctor Alberto Camminetti turned from the now disengaged DVD player to face his class. He was a tall man, free of girth, with black, shoulder-length hair that made him look younger than his forty-three years. The freeze-frame image on the screen cast a faint glow behind him, its cone-shaped rays of light rotating left and then right around Camminetti’s silhouette as he made his way to the lectern. His high cheek bones chiseled jaw and aggressively receding hairline gave him a wide, sweeping forehead and what one quirky uncle once described as, “that unmistakable emblem of wisdom.” There were those who had said that Camminetti was, like his sleeveless sweaters and wide-wale corduroy trousers, too old to be trendy and too young to be endearing. Despite the meaningless chatter and innuendo, Camminetti cultivated his patrician presence with a proud and almost defiant manner. How could he expect his students to approach film criticism with passion and intensity if they thought their instructor was somehow flippant and detached? Camminetti ran a thoughtful hand through his unruly, shoulder-length mane.

“So,” he asked, “what’s with the tire?”

Oh great, here we go.

Margo glanced over at David, who was ready with a smirk. David was a lean, impish junior, given to long hair and bad teeth. He and Margo had met the previous semester in molecular biology. She had pretty much gone all soft and mushy for him after he had made her a bright yellow and red heart from the little wooden sticks and balls they were supposed to use to diagram the comings and goings of various atomic entities. In fact, it was David who had talked her into taking Dr. Camminetti’s class.

“Did the guy get a little behind on his rent?” the professor queried sardonically as he sauntered confidently across the chipped tiles, suggesting a prosecutor two steps away from a conviction. His eyes roamed the ceiling’s perforated acoustic tiles, conveying what he presumed would be seen as eccentric but passionate intensity. Film & Fascism was his last class of the day, yet the good professor remained fired up and ready for profundity.

Paisan, probably more than any other film he ever made, summed up everything Rossellini had to say about freedom and liberation. It has all the characteristics of classic Greek tragedy wrapped up in what almost feels like an old-fashioned newsreel structure. There’s the young girl’s sacrifice in the opening segment. The American GI’s disillusionment in the Naples ghetto. The war touched and transformed every ordinary life it encountered. And then we have this poor fellow here,” Camminetti observed, gesturing towards the flickering figure frozen on the video monitor. The building’s antiquated air conditioning system could be heard spitter-sputtering above the awkward and growing silence.

Camminetti had lobbied the administration for nearly three years to get the new course approved. At first, the curriculum committee was reluctant to endorse a class with the word Fascism in the course title. When Camminetti reminded them of the green light they had unanimously given the preceding semester to a tenured sociology professor’s proposal for a course called Dark Meat: Black Exploitation Trends in Contemporary Pornography, the committee quickly found a home for Film & Fascism on the university’s spring roster of classes.

“Was he caught with the boss’s wife?” Camminetti asked the air with frosty sarcasm?

“I like to think that he killed a man,” David whispered out of the side of his mouth, leaning to his left so only Margo could hear. “It’s the romantic in me.” He kept his eyes focused on Camminetti’s metronome-like pacing as the contemplative scholar ambled back and forth in front of the class. To dilute the boredom, David synchronized his jaws, which had been chewing gum in a lazy, almost half-hearted manner, to match the deliberate and scraping cadence of the teacher’s loafers. Although he loved movies, David was seriously put off by Camminetti’s regal demeanor. Just run the film… we’ll figure it out.

A computer science major, David sincerely believed, at nineteen, that he had found and figured out how to turn all the curiously meshed gears that made things happen in this world. His father was an attorney who, in the absence of available time, had indulged every whim and passion to which his only son was drawn. During her early years, David’s mother had hoped to become an actress but flamed out early, taking refuge in prodigious quantities of alcohol and lots of Reichian therapy. Her whereabouts were not always known.

“It's probably a product placement slot for Pirelli,” David wisecracked once more. Camminetti was now standing at the far side of the room rocking gently back and forth on his heels and stroking his chin as if it were a newborn kitten.

“Ssshh!” Margo hissed. Her eyes remained locked on the frozen and slightly flickering image on the TV screen. She was staring intently, as if blinking might forever wash away whatever esoteric secrets this eerie and foreboding film clip had to offer.

Although Margo had long since past the age when young ladies can credibly be said to believe in the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy, there was a decidedly idealistic aspect about her. She was raised on a farm in Minnesota. Her parents met while working for the Peace Corps in Nigeria. Margo grew up imbued with the conviction that there was something grand and without form inside each of us… something that connected what was with what is… and what will be. Favoring faded denim and flannel, she hoped to become an architect once she got out of school.

David began drawing crude figures in the margins of his spiral-bound notebook. One looked like Barney Rubble’s high school graduation photo, except that in the place where the head was supposed to be there was a block of wood with the initials “A.C.” carved out of one side. Marveling at his own cleverness, he turned to show Margo his masterpiece.

“Mr. Keller,” Camminetti queried from the front of the room. “Perhaps you can tell us why Rossellini gave this man a vulcanized cummerbund and dropped him into the river.”

The entire class turned to face David. Why does he have to use my last name? It makes it sound like I owe him money or something. David felt as if he were a butterfly pinned and struggling to free himself from some cork specimen board and Cammenitti was a deranged entomologist secretly plotting to use insects to take over the world. He bit the inside of his cheek tentatively, hoping for insight. What I wouldn’t give for a nice, thick encyclopedia right about now…. David figured the Germans were desperate and wouldn’t be above messing with a few heads. The guy in the tire was probably a warning to would-be freedom fighters who might still be sitting on the fence. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to articulate such a logical response. Instead, what fell out of his impetuous mouth was, “Maybe he was fixing a flat upstream, got himself a little liquored up and fell into the drink.”

Outside, the cool crisp breezes of March littered themselves over the sprawling campus. The university was perched on a high bluff overlooking the ocean. There was a thin strip of sandy beach a hundred feet below dotted by giant rocks that reminded many of the locals of a flock of vacationing walruses soaking up the sun. The air was always fresh, moving and tinted with possibility. Margo sat cross-legged under one of the many eucalyptus trees that had been imported from up north years ago to help give the school a sense of tradition and permanence. She loved the feel of the freshly mowed grass. It always reminded her of a scratchy, warm blanket reaching up from the earth – always ready to embrace and comfort her, no matter what. She watched as students scurried back and forth across the giant lawn separating the school of fine arts from the school of liberal arts. Between classes and toting their Sherpa-like burden of books, bags and briefcases, each seemed to represent one tiny, though clearly defined slice of a large, multi-flavored pie.

“I don’t know what you’re all down in the mouth about,” David said. “I was just putting that guy in his place. He’s so full of himself, I can’t handle it.”

“Maybe,” Margo replied tentatively. “But you don’t have to make a joke out of everything. Camminetti may be a clown, but I thought Paisan was a pretty powerful film.”

“Ahhh… I can’t relate. It was all black and white, Edward R. Murrow stuff from a million years ago… and not one decent tune,” David remarked.

“I seem to remember at least one black-and-white movie that you thought was pretty special,” Margo observed. That would have been their first date, about a week after David made her the molecular valentine. They had gone out for Thai food and afterwards David had lured her back to his place to watch the closing scene from Casablanca – a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

“Hey,” David quipped, pointing to someone walking away from where they were sitting. “Look at that guy. What a dork!”

The dork in question was a smallish student, maybe five foot one or two, with his arms wrapped around a twenty-pound ballast of books. Someone had taped a letter-size piece of paper to the back of his jacket with the words Kick me! scrawled across the page in a quick, demented hand.

“Someone did that to me once… in fifth grade,” Margo murmured with what might pass for compassion. She felt herself being pulled back into a long-ago afternoon. Mr. Barber had just dismissed the class for lunch. She was walking towards the door when Lucy Peltman, hands down the most obnoxious girl in the whole school, slapped her on the back and told her what a great job she did with her report on the Incas. Margo wasn’t persuaded. She knew Lucy hated her. She knew Lucy hated everyone. Still, she unwittingly did the Esther Pyrne thing through the entire lunch hour, oblivious to the snickers and smiles exploding all around her. Once the bell rang, it was Mr. Barber who gently removed the sign, turned her crimson and unwittingly released a torrent of intense, unmarked emotions that haunted her for many months before settling quietly in the background of her consciousness.

“He walked clear across the quad with that thing on!” David crowed, as if doing a play-by-play. Almost on cue, the two of them turned to watch the Kick me! kid grow smaller and disappear into the student union. David put his hands behind his head and leaned back against an ancient eucalyptus tree. Staring up into the canopy, he watched the cascading strands of pungent new growth flutter and jump in response to the wind’s insistent conversation. More green than gold this time of year, these crescent-shaped leaves presented themselves as imprisoned soldiers feverishly begging their powerful and treacherous captors for freedom, or at least mercy.

Though carpetbaggers in a way, the carefully planned grove of eucalyptus trees was actually one of the first things that caught Camminetti’s eye when he first visited the university nearly fifteen years earlier. You don’t see those along the Charles River, he remembered telling himself. A primeval frontier ethos still clung to the tar-sealed highways. They probably could have offered him a job as a janitor and Camminetti would have taken it. He was ready to shake things up, and this place looked like it could use a spin in the blender.

Alberto Camminetti thrived on the attention and notoriety he received at the university. The oldest of four children, he was doted on and looked up to as something of a prince. He was young and as good looking as a college professor can be without seeming to have escaped from a network television newscast. He grew up in a family of performers and came to regard teaching as an extreme form of theater. His mother was a dancer and his father played bassoon for Arthur Fiedler in the Boston Pops orchestra back in the fifties. After the elder Camminetti’s salad days had wilted, he supported his brood by attempting to teach the saxophone to an endless string of tone-deaf kids from the neighborhood. There was always something dramatic going on in the Camminetti home. Whether it was retrieving the morning paper or preparing an elaborate bouillabaisse, things always happened with flair and ceremony.

Having seen his father’s legacy of musical brilliance tarnish under the weight of so many saxophones, Camminetti decided early on to hitch his star to the academic life. He felt magnetically drawn to this heady mixture of the learned and the learning locked in deep study of the critical issues. Here he would find truth. Here he would bend the iron of man’s understanding and forge a place for himself in the world. Here he would be called Doctor.

Where Camminetti came from a distant world of ideas and small rooms filled with lots of people, David Keller grew up around freeways and shopping malls. Instead of being inoculated by the bonds of a close and often obnoxious family, he had a mother who sort of spun out into her own version of Lost In Space and a father whose idea of a normal work week had no beginning and no end. The most dependable part of David’s day was when the mail arrived. Invariably he would be sitting at the dining room table doing his homework or prowling about the house looking for trouble. He always felt as if he were in an airport in his father’s house. Everything was just too neat and squared away. The Scandinavian furniture mocked him: You’re just here for a while. We’ll be around forever.

He would never hear the approaching footsteps. The slot in the door would just open suddenly, followed by what seemed to be a small tussle as the postman squeezed the day’s missives through the tiny slot, where they would then drop down like rain to the hardwood floor below. David would generally then flip through the envelopes without opening them, studying the logos and typefaces. Once he had convinced himself that there was nothing suggesting his mother’s hand, everything would be tossed onto the kitchen counter for the real world to deal with at a later point in time.

There was a curious, almost primeval side to David that showed itself in strange and often hilarious ways. Once in high school after a football game across town, he and some friends stopped for a bite to eat in an all-night coffee shop. When they hit a lull in their conversation, David picked up a tureen of Thousand Island salad dressing from the table and drank it down in one dramatic gulp just to give them all something to talk about.

The humanities office building was a sleek, nine-story structure rising in front of a startled piece of abstract sculpture that appeared to have been fashioned from odd lengths of crushed aluminum tubing. It was situated on the west side of the campus, giving Camminetti’s sixth floor office a bird’s-eye view of the faculty parking lot and the endless blue belt of ocean beyond.

David sat down on one of the oversize concrete benches just outside the entrance and fished inside his shirt pocket for the self-adhesive mailing label he had taken from his father’s desk when he had gone home for lunch earlier that day. He had cut off the return address for his father’s law firm. All that remained was a bright white field about the size of an index card. He set the label on a book in his lap and pulled a pudgy red marker from his backpack. The marker hovered in his hand over the label before slowly descending to the surface. The words POMPUS TURD revealed themselves as David smiled with sinister delight before capping his marker as he rose to enter the humanities office building.

He scanned the department directory in the lobby, looking for Camminetti’s name. Dr. Cammenetti, David mused. You are a pompous turd now, aren’t you? David walked tentatively down the narrow hallway. Who does this guy think he is?.... Mr. I-Cured-Cancer or something? With each slowly measured step, he knew he still had time to turn around and leave. His heart began to beat faster and the palms of his hands felt moist and itchy. For some reason he thought at that moment of the weekend last summer when a buddy had talked him into driving out to this tiny air strip near Twenty-Nine Palms where they both took a half-day skydiving class that culminated in two jumps that same afternoon. Neither of them really wanted to do it, but by the time they got there, the adrenalin rush seemed too big to offer any wiggle room.

As he approached Camminetti’s door, he found himself wondering why they covered the floor in a cheap, drug store style of linoleum when the outside of the building was obviously meant to look so towering and impressive. Just like the guy…. David thought to himself as he slowly gave his head a shake. Saturday night on the town to the world and Sunday morning hung over once you get inside.

Camminetti was seated at his desk going through some papers when David knocked. Stepping across the threshold, David felt as if he were entering some kind of parallel universe. Not of this world. Foreign. With some unidentifiable odor lingering in the shadows. The faux marble tiles had been covered with a green and orange jute rug festooned with African natives dancing around its perimeter. On the sideboard behind his desk stood a tarnished old espresso machine. A musky aroma of almond and clove drifted faintly through the air. There was a large black-and-white photo shifting to sepia showing Camminetti and Mikhail Gorbachev in this sad rosewood frame. From floor to ceiling, on shaky pine shelves, there were books of every conceivable size and design. Some had been arranged neatly by subject; most found themselves squeezed into the first nook or cranny of available space.

Camminetti eyed David with a weariness that was easy to see but hard to define. “Mr. Keller… I thought you’d still be busy fixing your flat upstream,” he said dryly.

“Uh… yeah,” David replied. “I.. um… want to apologize for making that little crack in class this morning. Sometimes I guess I just get a little carried away.”

“Do you have a dog?” Camminetti asked.

“Uh… no,” David answered, somewhat confused.

“Well,” Camminetti continued, “I have this afghan named Francis. She’s a wonderful animal, but it never ceases to amaze me how when we go for a walk, Francis will hold her bladder for the longest time, until we get to this one particular magnolia tree that we always pass. And that’s where she takes her piss. Every day; without fail. Somehow, I think she even manages to find the same exact spot on the tree. Isn’t that amazing?”

David could feel the silence being counted out in three-quarters time.

“Today, Mr. Keller, you reminded me an awful lot of Francis.”

David felt his body grow warmer and flush. He was sure his cheeks must have been turning red. Although he tried to fight it, he felt himself about to drown in a rolling wave of shame and embarrassment. He nearly forgot why he had come to see Camminetti in the first place. Like a commuter train on the far side of the freeway trying to swerve through six closely packed lanes of traffic to make an exit, David searched inside himself quickly for a way to recover the moment.

“I’ve never been able to make any real friends,” David blurted out, nudging the tears out onto his cheek as he slumped into one of the chairs facing Camminetti’s desk. Just as David had hoped, the professor was caught off guard by this incongruent response. Camminetti sat back and studied David, not sure whether to laugh or throw him out. “I don’t know what it is… my folks are kind of separated… my dad’s never around and I guess I just get real stupid sometimes.” His face was pretty well irrigated by this time.

The performance worked better than he could have possibly hoped. The tenor of their meeting changed almost at once. Camminetti began a vague diatribe about family dynamics, at one point going into gruesome detail about how young men are initiated into manhood in one of the more remote tribes in Papua New Guinea. In short order, he passed through Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence and spent some time reviewing the mythic notion of Zeus calling Athene forth into life from his brain. Hey Doc, class was over a few hours ago…David deadpanned to himself as he bit the inside of his lower lip slightly to keep from laughing.

A bell must have been ringing somewhere. Camminetti looked at his watch, mumbled something about a meeting, about fresh starts and open doors as he got up to collect his things and move towards the door. Now’s the time! David wound himself up and tried to ignore his racing heart. Camminetti turned to retrieve his overcoat from a bent wood stand in the corner. David followed as if the two of them were engaged in a closely choreographed dance movement. He retrieved the label he had prepared from his pocket. Pulling off the protective backing from the adhesive label, David cupped it gently in his left hand with the sticky surface up. He placed this hand lightly but firmly on Camminetti’s back in a pantomime of warmth and intimacy.

“Thanks for talking with me, Dr. Camminetti. I really appreciate it and I’m really sorry about what happened this morning.”

Camminetti offered a slight and distant smile that almost suggested he had been in David’s place before, knew the terrain and would probably pass by this landscape again sometime soon. The two of them took the elevator down together, David barely able to suppress his fox-in-the-henhouse smile. They walked outside the building’s main entrance and paused by the concrete bench where David had prepared the label that Camminetti now wore.

“Time makes cowards of us all,” Camminetti observed. “Perhaps tomorrow we’ll each be a little braver,” he replied enigmatically. David puzzled briefly over this last remark as the professor put on his coat and turned to walk away, long ashen shadows clinging doggedly to the underside of his shoes.

After leaving Camminetti’s office, David stopped by Margo’s place to borrow her car so he could pick up a secondhand TV he had won in a poker game a few weeks back. She had never seen him so animated as he was when he told her about tagging Camminetti. For David, she sensed that this prank had some deeper, darker significance she could not fathom. He promised to bring her car back by seven so they could maybe grab a pizza and a couple brewskis.

Margo decided to take a walk to clear her head. As she strolled along the majestic promontory that separated the west side of the campus from the wide rolling expanse of ocean spilling out from the other side of the world, she remembered something her father had told her about sailors, sunrises and sunsets. She couldn’t recall how it went or what it meant. The sun was beginning to drop behind the gently sloping horizon. Informal flotillas of wispy cumulous clouds blushed deeper shades of pink and crimson as life was being slowly squeezed from the receding day. Margo had often taken this walk between classes – or when something was troubling her. Now that something was David.

Following the winding path past the student union brought the administration offices into view. Facing the sea with a streamline façade of brick and glass that must have appeared very contemporary thirty or forty years earlier, the building looked stately but somehow out of place among the towering eucalyptus trees and dramatic oceanfront setting.

Margo looked up to see her battered old Volvo approaching from the other side of the administration building. She felt an almost instantaneous sense of relief to know that David had not done anything rash or ridiculous. He was nearing one of the frontage road’s many sharp hairpin turns. Although dramatic and inspiring, the finger-like excursions of steep and rocky terrain on this side of the school always required close attention and careful navigation. Just then a jacketless Aldo Camminetti turned a corner and came into view. He was walking towards the administration building’s front entrance and David caught sight of the label still on the professor’s sweater at about the same time he saw Margo watching from the grass about a quarter mile away. He gave a couple toots on the horn to make sure he had her attention. Laughing wildly, he leaned to his left, pointing, as if to say See! See! I told you I’d take care of that guy!

Margo stood petrified, unable to scream. In what seemed a heartbeat, everything had changed. Her Volvo had defied the road to become invisible. All that remained was a rolling inchoate melody of metal on stone. Growing fiercer with every descending note until it stopped as abruptly as it had started, leaving only a whispering wind and the sound of water that would one day fall from the sky.

About the Author

Charles Davis

This is a story about youthful idealism and the notion that we can change the world with images.

Read more work by Charles Davis.