Age of Bliss
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents
are products of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to people,
alive or dead, are coincidental.
This work contains adult themes and is not intended for children.
Richard greeted Martha warmly as she entered his office. She was surprised that it seemed smaller than hers even though it had windows on two walls. The curtains were tied, but the blinds were partially closed; the windows allowed in little light. The only other light came from a pole lamp beside Richard's desk, bathing him in blue. His desk was against one wall and a leather divan lined the adjoining wall. Just past the entrance, opposite the divan, set a Victorian styled chair. In the corner between the windows were a small shelf of books and a wooden cabinet. The room appeared much more a sitting room than an office.
"Have a seat. Make yourself at home," Richard said, turning slightly toward the sofa. Martha chose the chair. It was less comfortable than it looked but it suited her mood.
"Dr. Minz has the impression that we are working on an article together," he said. "Did you suggest that to her?"
"No. She probably got it from what you said to her after lunch today."
"Possibly, I guess. Anyway, she thinks that our writing together is a splendid idea. It could be an effective way for you to get broken into the publishing business. You know how it is in higher education today: you either publish or perish."
"I plan to write, and I believe that my ideas will find their way into print."
"Good, good. You are a bright girl as well as being attractive; you'll go far. Getting that first publication is the trick. There's where I can be of considerable help with my connections in the field."
"I believe I can manage."
"I know you can, and with my help you'll do it quicker and easier. Have you read any Edna St. Vincent Millay?"
Martha shook her head. She remembered reading some of her poems for an undergraduate class, but at the moment she could not remember any lines. "Not all that much; my specialty is Victorian novels."
"Your dissertation was on Jane Austen, right?"
"Women authors would be a good niche for you, but you don't want to restrict yourself too much. There's been an awful lot written about the Victorian era. We need something fresher, more lively.
"Studying Millay would also be good for you, broadening. Somehow you remind me of her poetry. When I first met you I thought of a line from her 'The Oak-Leaves,' 'but my heart goes out to the oak-leaves that are the last to sigh "Enough," and loose their hold;'. But then when I saw you look at Markus Mathews Wednesday, I thought differently. You may well enjoy this little book by Millay, A Few Figs from Thistles."
He handed her the volume which he had lying on his desk. She took the book, although she was still aghast from his personal reference. She could not refuse the work of a recognized poet. He could well be correct in terms of her needing to diversify. Moreover, she hoped that he would do something definitive for her to know his motives, his character, before she met with Dr. Minz in the morning.
Her hands opened the book to the first poem, "First Fig," and her eyes ran over the lines,
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But oh, my foes, and oh, my friends --
It gives a lovely light.
"Read it over. Think about the ideas. She has contributed some unique metaphors and images with simplicity. We could contrast the impact which the two eras had on the writing of Austen and Millay. It would make a fine article.
"Now back to Mathews: You don't have any -- how do I say it -- romantic interest in him?"
"No! No, I do not."
"I'd say he's interested in you."
"What basis do you have for that?"
"Just from seeing the two of you together on Friday night; and, of course, you're an attractive person and an assistant professor to boot. If he is not romantically interested, he certainly wants to exploit the relationship to make his academic life easier."
"Don't worry. He will be judged by the same standard as all the other students in my classes."
"Well, if that's true, I'll predict that he'll be a disruptive force in your class."
Richard looked at her, but she did not respond.
"When he is disruptive, you need to keep a record. President Mason could use that record as a basis to expel him."
"I don't want him expelled."
"I thought you said that you had no romantic interest in him." He smiled at her in a way that she did not like. It made her feel sick inside. She fought the urge to simply get up and walk away.
"I do have an interest in him as a person. He doesn't deserve to be expelled just because Mason doesn't like his rhetoric!"
"No, no, I didn't mean to say that he did. It's just that if you don't give him special treatment, he'll make your life a living hell. You see, Mason didn't just single Mathews out for no reason. Mathews thinks he's something special, that his ways are superior and people had better accept them. That is why when the time comes, you need to be prepared to act to help us rid Bliss of his presence. And, it won't hurt your career any either to help the president in this matter."
She saw no reason to respond. Markus' "wolves' den" rang truer than Richard's "living hell," but she had no real evidence one way or another.
"In the meantime, remember what I said. Don't go out alone; if you need an escort call me. Now, can I walk you to your car?"
"No thanks, I've got some work to do in my office before I can go home."
"Well, lunch Wednesday, then."
Martha was relieved to be out of the office; yet, she was disappointed that she had nothing more definitive to report to Dr. Minz. A weird smile and a book of suggestive poems did not constitute a case against Richard. Indeed, he had been much more subdued in his office. It was as if he knew to be careful. He had mentioned Dr. Minz. He obviously had talked with her since 1:00. Dr. Minz, no doubt, told him of their 9:00 appointment. He was willing to bide his time, to draw her in slowly. "Well, I'm not going anywhere I don't want to go," she thought. However, it did not leave her much to discuss with Dr. Minz in the morning.
She went back to her office and prepared a work-sheet on thematic development for tomorrow's classes. Then, for good measure, she reviewed the assigned reading. She was sure Dr. Astor had ample time to clear the area before she locked her office and walked toward her dilapidated old Pinto.
"Made it through another day, did we?" It was Pete Carter who came into stride with her.
"I think so."
"How did your meeting with Astor go?"
She thought, "Does everyone know everything about me?" But, she said, "It went fine, I guess."
"That's good. You'll want to stay on Astor's good side. He's heir apparent to the Ol' Girl."
"What? Dr. Minz? He'll be Department Head? When?"
"Oh, yes. He and Minz are very tight, you know. She doesn't have too many more years 'til retirement. Also, she may step down before she retires. The command is weighing on her, I'm sure."
Pete's words were like lights on her past. As she got into her car she knew why she felt ill at Richard's smile. It was the same smile that her father would have before he made her bare her rectum, before he beat her and forced his penis into her backside. She had buried that smile with the pain for six years.
In confirming the link which she feared between Minz and Astor, Pete had enabled her to see the parallel between them and her mother and father. Tears blinded her as she pulled into her apartment's parking lot. She parked her car and wept.
She had no evidence. Pete Carter could even be mistaken. Still she knew. She did not know what to do, given her certainty. She could no more turn to Dr. Minz for support than she could ever depend on her mother. Yet, she was going to have to interact with Minz even as she had been forced to talk with her mother all those years. However, she did not have to be controlled by Richard Astor. She had to be clear and firm with Minz that she was not nor did she have any plans to be his protege!
After a restless night, Martha went to meet Dr. Minz with this one resolve.
Dr. Minz was on the phone when the secretary let Martha into the inner office. Martha sat in one of the two leather padded chairs in front of Minz's desk.
"So glad you came in," said Minz as she cradled the phone. "I need to talk with you about this Markus Mathews. I understand that you knew him before coming to Bliss."
"We were in grade school together and I had not seen him since until he introduced himself to me after the first class last Wednesday."
"Yes, that's what I understood, but he likes you; you have some influence with the lad."
"I don't know that I do."
"Somehow, I think you do, or you could. As you no doubt know, he's something of an embarrassment to the college and he isn't doing himself any good with all of his dissent. Bliss graduates get good jobs -- the ones who don't continue on to graduate and professional schools -- with good companies, good conservative companies. With the record he's making, he isn't going to get any of those jobs, and he certainly won't receive the recommendations needed to proceed with post-graduate work. You could do him a big favor, as well as helping the college, if you could talk some sense into the poor lad."
"I agree that he's misguided but I really don't think I have any influence with him."
"All I ask is that you make a special effort to reason with him. If you are unsuccessful, so be it; but, it would be a real service if you swayed him. Will you try?"
"Yes, I'll try."
"Good, good! Now, what did you want to talk with me about?"
"I just wanted you to know I'm not working on a research effort with Dr. Astor. He wanted to talk with me about Mr. Mathews; that is why we met yesterday. As with you, he thought I might be of some help to the college in this regard."
"So we're of one accord in regards to Mr. Mathews. That's good. But, where did I get the idea that you two were working together? I'm sure that he would be willing to work with you. A young person like yourself, just starting out in the profession, can use all the help she can get."
"Perhaps, but not from Dr. Astor."
"Don't judge Richard too quickly. He has an excellent mind and is a prolific writer. He has published more than anyone in the department."
"Our interests aren't compatible."
"Richard has an array of interests. Perhaps you just haven't explored the issue with him enough."
"I don't want to work with the man! Isn't that enough?"
"Now, dear, there's no reason to get upset about it. Of course, if you don't want to work with him you don't have to. It just seems like such a good idea, a real opportunity for you. Perhaps, as you get to know Richard better, you will change your mind. He is really a fine Christian man, a pillar of the community. So, just don't close your mind to the possibilities so soon. Once you've tried your hand at publishing, you might welcome the opportunity."
"As long as you know that we are not presently nor do we have any plans of working together," Martha said as she rose to leave.
Dr. Minz rose and walked out with Martha. As she walked away, Dr. Minz said, "Keep me posted on what you decide."
Martha was still trembling as she entered her office. On her desk was a small box of samplers with a card on top. She opened the card and read, "I'm sorry that I gave you a hard time in class yesterday. I was completely out of line. Please accept this candy as a token of my apology. 'Your student, 'Markus'."
She opened the box and placed a caramel into her mouth.
When Martha walked into her 9:00 class on Wednesday morning, all the students were in their seats. She smiled at the class from behind the lectern. "Our first order of business is the answer to Mr. Mathews question from Monday. I'm sure you all remember Mr. Mathews asked how I could grade content without introducing my bias. If I were grading content on the basis of truth, then, obviously, my bias would be a factor because I'm not God. My truth is flavored by my perceptions, my limited experience and, yes, my personal preferences. However, when I evaluate content, my criteria do not include truth." She walked to the board with her legal pad and wrote the keys words as she continued. My criteria are first, clarity -- to what extent are the ideas presented so that an intelligent person, me, can understand them easily; second, organization -- to what extent are the ideas presented in some logical arrangement; third, support -- how much evidence is provided; and fourth, consistency -- how logical are the ideas."
When she finished with the list, she returned to the lectern. The class seemed satisfied. Markus smiled and she thought that she saw a look of admiration.
At the end of class, Markus was the only student to approach her. "Did you have the opportunity to critique The Fact Finder?"
"Yes, I did it over the weekend. After Monday, I wasn't sure you wanted it."
"But I do! Could I pick it up at 1:00 today?"
"Yes, that'll be fine."
Martha took the thin volume of Millay's poems with her when she went to her 11:00 class so as to have no need to return to her office before going to lunch. On leaving her class, she walked quickly toward Russell Foster's office. In so doing, she was able to walk with him, preceding Richard and Peter to the cafeteria. She led the foursome through the line. She selected a soup and salad combination and ignored the server who again called her "hon". She selected a square table with a chair on each side and permitted herself a smile of satisfaction for how well she was managing the day, thus far.
"I see you have A Few Figs with you," said Richard soon after taking his place at the table.
"Yes, I want to return it to you. I can't see myself doing any analysis of this work or this writer."
"Well, we'll have to find another topic then."
"What's your area again?" asked Russ.
"I guess you could say it's Victorian novelists. My dissertation was on Jane Austen."
"You might be interested in one of my current projects, then," said Russ. "I'm writing an analysis of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. I'm comparing the hypocrisy of her 19th century New York with that found in our little world of higher education today."
"You see similarities, do you Russ?" Richard's voice belittled the question. "Do you think you'll finish the analysis or will it end up on that dust pile with your other brilliant insights?"
"I've finished my share and have the publications to prove it."
"When was the last one? Are we talking in this child's life time?" With the reference, Richard pointed to Martha and then turning to her, he said, "You see, my dear, Russ's failures over the last ten -- twelve -- years show how difficult it is to get published. You need more that just a good idea."
Martha managed to walk beside Russ on the way back from lunch. She asked about his Wharton paper, but he said little and changed the subject. When Russ departed for class, Richard hurried beside her and said, "So you are going to talk to Mr. Mathews."
"Yes, we have a 1:00 appointment."
"Good, good. I'm glad that you reconsidered in this regard. I wish you success. Then, I hope you'll reconsider this Millay project. She's a very interesting personality. Read some more about her before you decide. I'll put a book by Elizabeth Atkins in your mail box. She says that Millay is the most representative poet of our times. You see that will help us set up the rationale for our contrast between Austen and her time and Millay and hers. We can talk some more once you've looked over the book. There's Mr. Mathews now. Talk with you later."
When Martha looked toward Markus he was frowning, looking at Richard, but when Markus looked at Martha his face lit into a complete smile. Martha's smile in return was closed-mouth. "Come on in and have a seat while I get your paper," she said.
She sat down behind her desk before taking the paper from that class's folder. Holding the paper in both hands, she said, "I warned you that I'm a harsh critic. Mechanically -- the types of things I put on the board this morning -- your writing is extremely rough. Then there are matters which reflect personal preference, but there are some community standard in these matters. I will tell you that the tone of your writing is much too harsh. Finally, there are issues which reflect our differing views of reality. Except the focus of that reality is higher education. You have been a part of higher education for one year. I only have six years' experience; Mason and other members of the administration whom you so bitterly attack have spent their lives, successfully so, in academia. Overall, when we see from the mechanics of your writing how little you know about being an educated person, and then we see the arrogance with which you attack the educational process, we can only ask, 'who in the world do you think you are?'"
The smile had long since disappeared from Markus' face. Now his chin was on his chest and his shoulder drooped.
Nevertheless, Martha took a deep breath and continued, "Have you considered why you are at Bliss? You are not here to be some kind of social critic. You are not here to reform Bliss. Bliss College has been an institution of higher education for the better part of a century. It has turned out thousands of graduates who have been successful in business and who have made positive contributions to our society. Really, if you don't like Bliss, how it is run and what it stands for, you should transfer to another school where you would be happier and you could focus more on getting an education."
She handed the paper in his direction, but he sat motionless for several minutes. She thought that he might cry. Finally he took the paper from her hand without looking at her. "I do appreciate your considering my effort. Other faculty have indicated as much, but they are all under Mason's thumb. The students are all so positive. They see the situation very much as I do, and they want change. But, I know, they are just students, too. But you, I know I can trust you. You want to help your students. So, I do value your opinion."
He rose slowly and walked to the door. There he stopped and half turned back in her direction. "There still isn't much to do here on the weekend. This Friday, there's gonna be a special band performing at the Remember When lounge downtown. They sing many of the Beatles' hits. Some of your students will be there, and there'll be other faculty, too. It'll be fun; you oughta come."
Martha did not report her meeting with Markus to Dr. Minz. In class on Friday, Markus did not make any comments. He seemed listless and removed. Martha did not call on him and the class had a good discussion without his participation. He hurried out the door when class was dismissed.
At noon she was met outside her classroom door by Dr. Minz. "Mind if I go to lunch with you?"
"Not at all."
"Good. Let's go on ahead of the guys so that we can have some privacy. I'm interested in your meeting with Mr. Mathews."
Martha did not respond as they walked to the cafeteria. There, she wanted Minz to go first through the line. There was nothing in the line that she wanted to eat. The server lost patience and when Martha finally pointed to the minute steak, the server did not see her. When she got to the cashier, she had a tray full of food, none of which she wanted.
Dr. Minz selected a small table for two against a pillar. "This should maintain us some privacy while we eat. Now, tell me about your meeting with Mr. Mathews. Did you urge him to give up his protests?"
"Actually, I advised him to transfer to another school."
"Even better. How did he respond?"
"He seemed genuinely hurt by the advice; I don't think he's going to take it. He invited me to some bar downtown on Friday night almost immediately after I finished."
"Hhuh. I see. Well, perhaps Richard is right. Mr. Mathews may just remain a thorn in our flesh until we can find a reason to expel him."
"I guess I can't see he's that much of a problem."
"I had understood that he had disrupted your class."
"No more than I could handle, and then only one time. He has also made positive contributions to the class."
"Yes, well, I do think that you could handle the situation, but it does give me reason for some concern with him asking you out and all."
"It's not as if he asked me for a date. He just suggested that I might enjoy the music if I wanted to go down there. It wasn't an inappropriate invitation. I mention it just to show how little my suggestion affected him. Of course, his invitation will have as little impact on me."
"Good, good, but Mathews' harm goes beyond you and your classroom. Bliss depends greatly on alumni contributions. The negative publicity that he generated for us last year cost us thousands of dollars. And, this so-called newspaper of his continues to raise eyebrows and needless questions."
"Is it actually that serious?"
"Yes, my dear, I'm afraid that it is. However, if you couldn't prevail on him to leave, we'll just have to find other ways of correcting the situation. In the meantime, you may want to consider Richard's warnings that he doesn't place you in an embarrassing situation.
"And, speaking of Richard, I do hope that you will continue your project on Millay with him. That does sound like a tremendous idea and an interesting as well as highly publishable project."
"No, I am not going...."
"Don't decide now. Just think about it some. Read that book that he's put in your box. You will think about it, won't you? Look, you have hardly touched your food. You had better eat up or you are going to waste away to nothing.
"You are planning to go to the Carry Nation Seminar today aren't you?"
"Oh, I had forgotten all about that."
"We can walk over together again. Last week wasn't all that exciting, I know, but this week could be better and it's the only opportunity for us girls to socialize. That's where you learned about the West concert last week also, I do believe."
Martha saw no reason to correct her superior's misperception since it would only reintroduce Markus into the conversation. Moreover, the seminar was where she met Jordan West, who prompted her to go to the concert; so, she agreed to accompany Minz once again to the session. With any luck she would at least get to express her appreciation to Jordan for the wonderful evening.
At the departmental office, she took the Atkins book on Millay from her mail box and found a copy of The Fact Finder there also. Clipped to the paper was a note in Markus' hand, "Sorry for being dead in your class this morning, but I was there and the paper is out. I hope you see some improvement. Mary helped with the grammar and spelling. Hope to see you tonight!"
Back in her office she read the paper. Its tone was softer; his prescriptions more tentative, and she saw no grammatical or spelling errors.
Minz met Knight at three and they walked together toward the Administration Building. The sun warmed the fall afternoon, but they did not reference the beauty of the nature around them. Martha was distracted by thoughts of the week and her companion seemed preoccupied as well. As they entered the building, Minz asked, "Did you read the book that Dr. Astor lent you?"
"I read some of it."
"Well, what do you think?"
"Miss Millay has been a most influential writer. Her play Aria da Capo introduced the poetic form of presenting several time periods at once. She did so the year before T. S. Eliot used the type in The Waste Land."
"So, you think you will work on the project with Richard after all?"
"Oh, no, I have no intention of working with him."
"I can't understand why you're being so dogmatic on this. It seems like a great opportunity to me."
Martha did not respond. They were already in the lounge and a discussion was in progress. She looked for Jordan West while she poured herself some tea. She sat next to Minz and immediately saw Jordan across the circle from her. Jordan smiled a pleasant little smile and Martha gave a wave from beside her tea cup.
The women were talking about the behavior of students. Martha enjoyed listening to the general complaints. It reinforced the feeling that she had arrived; that she was truly on the other side of the desk. It was good to have the reinforcement after the week she had had. She sipped her luke-warm tea and listened. Occasionally, she caught herself thinking about the previous Friday night and Jordan's performance. She was glad that Jordan was at this meeting. She would thank her for the recital even if she had to wait and walk out with her.
At about a quarter until four, one of the women was saying how sometimes she wished that she taught at a women's college.
"Women are just so much easier to control, is that it?" challenged Jordan.
"Well, is that what we want, is that what we should want from our students?" asked Jordan.
"Certainly we have to have a degree of control," Dr. Minz responded.
"Then do we have to grant the students a certain degree of control over us also?" continued Jordan.
"In certain domains. They have the right to expect us to evaluate them fairly, they need a fair share of our attention and for us to be properly prepared to instruct them."
"Sure, sure, but you're talking about their rights -- which we define how those rights are interpreted when we set up the class. You're not talking about control, which I guess in those terms comes down to when, if ever, is it appropriate to allow the students to define those rights?"
"Wow, this discussion got deep in a hurry, which is usually the case when you get involved, Dr. West. Looks like it's oasis time for those few of us who are left."
Martha looked around and was surprised to see most of the women had left. Jordan stood and walked over to her and Minz. "You will go with us, won't you, Martha?"
"Really, I'm not much of a drinker."
"You don't have to drink anything alcoholic if you don't want to. Just come and help me reason with these old battle axes."
"I have no idea where you're going."
"No problem there. I'll drive you and bring you back."
"In that case, how can I refuse? I wanted an opportunity to thank you for that fabulous evening last Friday, anyway."
"Ah, that old thing. Come on, let's go. See the rest of you down there. My car's in the lot just across the street."
"Seriously," Martha said as they strode toward Jordan's car, "I enjoyed your music so much last week that I want to tell you how much I appreciated it and how much I admire your talent."
"Fine, consider me told and get in the car," Jordan said letting herself into the black Austin Healey. "I enjoyed seeing you at the concert. You were a real knockout in that yellow suit. I regretted I couldn't make it over to where you were at intermission.
"Anyway, if you enjoyed last Friday, you should enjoy tonight. There is going to be a band there tonight. They play a lot of mellow rock from the fifties and sixties."
"What is the name of the place where we are going?"
"It is called Remember When. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, no reason, I guess."