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.
Martha cast off one outfit after another in dressing for school that Monday morning. She had worn all of her fall ensemble once and no combination from those pleased her.
"A week from Friday," she spoke aloud and it seemed an eternity until her first pay check.
She took a yellow cardigan from a padded hanger. The knitting was thick; Martha had considered it part of her winter wardrobe while in graduate school at North Texas State. Yet the forecast was for cooler weather; perhaps the sweater provided a beginning to the look she wanted.
She buttoned the garment and turned profile to the mirror. She was pleased with what she saw. She slipped into a tan skirt and smiled at the combination. The skirt fit loosely at the waist but the sweater covered the belt line. The hem broke just above the knees.
The students were waiting when she strolled into the classroom. She glanced quickly to Markus' desk as she entered the door. He was there. She smiled, took a deep breath and slowed her pace as she walked to the room's front.
She stopped short of the podium and interacted with the class from there. When she looked again at Markus, he smiled. He does have a variety of smiles, she thought somewhere among the considerations of content and presentation which were required to manage the instruction. She recognized an excitement in this particular smile.
She walked to the board and illustrated a point. She had everyone's attention, although for many the focus was not on what she was saying. She looked at Markus and he winked at her. It was a definite wink. She smiled and walked across the front of the room and asked for a paraphrase of what she had said. The question served to refocus concentration on the lesson.
At the end of class while the other students left, Markus lingered and walked across the room with Martha. "Did you enjoy yourself Friday night?" he asked.
"Yes. Did you?"
"I would have enjoyed it more if you had danced with me."
"You seemed to enjoy dancing with Dr. West quite enough."
"Still, I would have enjoyed it more had you had one with me."
Martha smiled but responded, "I can't dance with my students."
"Can't or won't? ... I've got to run. Later."
When Martha came out of her eleven o'clock class, she saw Jordan standing to her right. She moved quickly in that direction because Astor and Carter were approaching from the left. "What a pickle I'm in," she thought as she hurried from an obvious problem to a potential problem. She was glad to have Jordan there although she had little confidence in the permanence of this escape.
They ate at the Wagon Wheel, a small restaurant next to the campus. They ordered at the counter and scanned the room for a place to sit. The place was filled with students, most of whom spoke to Dr. West. Finally one of the students called out, "Hey, Dr. West, we're leaving. You can have this table."
Over lunch, Martha reflected on how different it was eating here than in the union cafeteria. She enjoyed the difference but was not sure that she preferred the bustle of the diner to the calmness of the cafeteria. She was immersed too much with the students for her liking, but she accepted willingly their nearness in order to be far removed from Richard Astor.
The students rushing off to class told her that the time was probably a quarter until the hour. Lunch was taking longer than usual, but Martha felt no need to rush.
"Looky here! My two favorite teachers!" Martha looked up to see Markus smiling down at her. "My favorite previous teacher and my favorite present teacher; my dance partner present and my dance partner future."
"Markus Mathews," said Jordan. "You're like a bad penny. You show up everywhere."
"If I didn't know better, I'd think that you weren't happy to see me."
"How can you say that? Sit down! We're just about to leave anyway."
"Now, Dr. West, what type invitation is that? Now, if one of you would stay...." He looked at Martha.
She smiled. "As the woman said, we were just leaving."
"Alright, if'n that's how y'all want to be about it. Believe me, I can always find lots of interesting people to eat with." He laughed and they laughed.
"Sure, like you weren't with others already," said Jordan, continuing to laugh as he departed.
It was not much of an interaction, but it served to boost Martha's spirits. The merriment of Markus' departure transferred to subsequent events for her until she saw him in class again on Wednesday. Similarly, Markus contributed to class discussion with creative comments which suggested he had been enjoying living since last seeing her.
After class, several students stayed to ask questions and continue the discussion. Martha savored the moment knowing that paragraph development was not nearly as glamorous as the students' interest suggested. They wished to share in the excitement and enjoyment which they perceived while she and Markus had played with various ways of supporting ideas. She hoped that she could remember some of his examples for her other classes. He, of course, had long left for his next class.
Her 11:00 class was not as lively, but she did use a couple of Markus' examples and the essence of much of their discussion. Her anticipation of lunch with Jordan and him provided something of the energy of the previous class.
Again, Jordan was waiting for her and they were able to avoid her three colleagues. The warm September day gave just a touch of fall in a soft cool breeze. It was such a beautiful day that Martha actually skipped as they left the building. Jordan giggled, "Hey, there is a young person in there still. I haven't skipped in ages!" With that Jordan skipped along with her until they both began laughing so hard they could not continue.
Martha did not begin looking for Markus until after the students left for their next class. Jordan said, "Don't think he'll be here today."
"He's scheduled to present a petition to student government this afternoon. As I understand it, he has signatures from about half of the student body."
"Co-ed dorms. ... If you had asked me a year ago if Bliss would ever allow co-ed dorms, I'd said, 'no way.' But, that was before Markus introduced Mason to the outside world. Student government has never had any voice on this campus; so, I doubt that he'll get any satisfaction through them, but you never know."
"Why does he have to keep stirring things up?"
"He's a leader, My Dear. Life with him would always be interesting." Jordan looked questioningly at Martha. "If that is what you want. ... You shouldn't try to tame him."
"I don't want to tame anybody."
West reached over and touched Martha's hand, "That's good. Between men and women the issue always boils down to one of domination. That's not the way it should be with love; that's not how we want it."
"But you're such a dominant individual."
Jordan removed her hand and nodded.
Jordan was correct, Martha knew: Markus was not going to stop, no matter how distressing it was to her. He would not simply apply himself as a student. He could use his intellectual skills and his leadership skills to be the top student at Bliss. He could be the class president every year and the class valedictorian if he only would. He could write his own ticket; if only he wasn't such a rebel.
To add to the dark clouds on Martha's sky of happiness, the next afternoon, Minz had scheduled the first meeting of the faculty of the Department of English. Martha had been successful all week in avoiding her English colleagues and she dreaded this forced interaction.
She went to that meeting uncertain as to any repercussion from either her new association with Dr. West or from Mr. Mathews' petition. Not knowing what to anticipate, she was incapable of planning any response. She attempted to assure herself that she was capable of meeting any challenge, spontaneously.
She was surprised by the number of people at the meeting. Minz had invited the graduate assistants, who sat together on one side of the room. They outnumbered the faculty. Martha observed that there were more women among them than men, while the reverse was true among the faculty. Among the faculty were a dozen individuals whom Martha had never seen before. She was soon to learn that all but two of these were Instructors, members with master's degrees, who, for sundry reasons were willing to teach for nominal salaries on a temporary basis. That left six faculty, five men and Martha, with Ph.D.'s in the total group, which sat in something of a semi-circle facing Dr. Minz.
Minz introduced Dr. Knight, asking her to stand. "Dr. Knight is someone that many of you graduate students will want to get to know, I'm sure. She can be a most valuable resource person. She has expertise in the novel and the Victorian period. But, her research interests are by no means restricted; so, keep her in mind as you develop your thesis ideas and form committees."
Turning from Dr. Knight, the Chair congratulated Drs. Astor and Carter on an article on pedagogy which had been accepted by a leading journal. Then, turning back in Knight's direction she continued, "We are seeing an increasing number of collaborative works in English. Such is good because it brings collective wisdom to focus on major problems. Also, two scholars get credit for a publication. The demands to publish become greater each year."
Next Minz discussed some particular problems which the department had experienced in room assignments, supplies and equipment. Then, she dismissed the graduate assistants.
"I saw no need to involve the GA's in this little problem which we, as a department, have. We do need to focus our collective wisdom to see whether there's anything we can do."
Martha tensed in anticipation.
"Of course, I'm referencing the Markus Mathews issue. The lad continues to be a serious embarrassment to the college. The dean has asked for input from the departments, our department in particular, since he is one of our majors, although he is only now taking his first writing course. Dr. Knight teaches that section and she has suggested to him, in a one-on-one conference, of course, that it would be in his best interest to transfer. That's where we are at present. What is your thinking?"
Dr. Foster mumbled, "How did this become our 'problem'?"
"Come on, Russ!" Dr. Astor almost shouted, "Come into the real world for a change. He's a bad reflection on Bliss and everyone here. He's become perceived, by far too many, as representing our students. And, in terms of us as a department, do you want your reputation as a teacher to rest on what this so-called English major writes?"
"Not at present, but perhaps eventually. There has been noticeable improvement in his little paper since he has been in Dr. Knight's class. If the others of us can have nearly as much influence, Mathews could well be a graduate of whom this department could stand justly proud. He's a leader already. That's the difficult part. Most of our students come with the mechanics and we spend our time trying, usually unsuccessfully, to inspire them to take the initiative to at least try to improve the world. Here we have an individual who already has the spark, the courage, to lead and, what do you want to do, run him off?"
"The fact remains," said Minz, "he hasn't permitted us the luxury of waiting until he has completed the program. We are being judged harshly as his mentors already and the question remains: what can we do about it?"
"Sounds like he can be reasoned with," said Dr. Carter. "Is that right, Dr. Knight?"
"Uh, he's bright, quick. He's even adaptable, but I don't know how reasonable he is when it comes to reaching a compromise in his quest to change Bliss. The only time I've tried to reason with him in that regard, I was unsuccessful."
"If he's bright, it wouldn't hurt to try to reach some form of compromise."
"Do you have something specific in mind, Pete," asked Dr. Astor.
"In general terms, perhaps. Why don't a few of us talk with him? He might value the discussion more if it were with something of an official group. Get him to see it's best to work for change within the system. Give him a position with The Beacon."
"You're not going to be able to bribe him," said Dr. Foster.
"No, no, that's not what I'm saying at all. It would be an opportunity for him to work for change from within where he can mature and get guidance."
"It's worth a try," said Dr. Minz. "Who wants to be on this special committee with me? Carter, Astor and, okay, Foster. Let me talk to Ed Miller over in Public Relations to see what type internship opportunities we can work out on The Beacon; then, we can get together early next week and select a time to meet with Mr. Mathews. We are adjourned."
Martha considered rushing over to meet one of the female instructors as a means of avoiding Astor who was definitely looking in her direction, but before she could act, Minz closed the distance between them and asked in a soft tone, "Well, what do you think of our little plan?" Lyla continued toward the door as she spoke providing Martha the escort which she sought.
"I think it'd be wonderful if he'd do it."
"Do you think he will?"
"I don't know."
"It might help if he knew you wanted him to."
Martha looked at Lyla as they walked down the hall.
"You do want him to, don't you?" Lyla smiled.
"Yes, I guess. He's a good student. It'd be a good opportunity for him."
"I see. Well, it might help if you told him just that much."
Martha looked again at Minz and frowned, "Tell him just that much?"
"Yes, give him the reasons you just gave me. He's a deserving student who could benefit from more supervised writing experience. He needs to be looking for opportunities to work more in the system -- to be a part of our college. You could talk to him in these general terms even before our little committee makes the offer; then, afterwards, you could encourage him to accept."
"Why do you think he'll listen to me?"
"You're his teacher. You've already effected marvelous changes in his writing."
By now they had reached the door to Knight's office. Martha stopped, opened her door and then turned back to face Lyla. Minz looked past Martha into her office and stepped past her into the doorway.
"Markus likes you," Minz said backing into Martha's sanctuary. "Students are often attracted to their teachers. I had a crush on a few of mine. You may even have had one or two yourself. Indeed, I was a graduate student and my late husband was my professor when we first met. He encouraged me to go on for my doctorate, which I might not have done if I hadn't been attracted to him -- and thought that he was attracted to me."
Martha was at a loss for what to say or do. Her department chair was now five feet into the office and Martha still stood in the hall. The easiest course was for her to cross the threshold into her office which is what she eventually did.
Minz continued in a softer voice, "I don't think that it's wrong to encourage students to do what's good for them even if they do it to please us, do you?" Lyla looked at Martha, but the issue was too complex for a simple response.
The elder woman continued, "If he would just conform a little, he'd be respectable ... even as a student. Well, anyway ... your interest in Markus is purely academic."
There was something of a question in Minz voice in this statement and she looked at Martha with an inquisitive look, but she did not pause long enough for Martha even to consider an answer.
"In any case, you'll really help your student by getting him to continue to moderate his behavior. The administration is not totally unreasonable. He can possibly get everything he wants." Lyla nodded at Martha who remained silent.
"Well, it is getting late. I'd better get going." The senior woman moved passed the junior and asked, "Are you and Jordan coming to the seminar tomorrow?"
"I don't know. We haven't discussed it. We're having lunch together tomorrow. We'll probably decide then."
"I didn't know if you wanted to walk over together. It'd give us another chance to discuss Mathews if you have opportunity to meet with him tomorrow. Well, let me know if you want to walk over with me."
Markus was not in class the next morning and Martha was disappointed. Wednesday had been such an excellent class, and she had not seen him since then. Still, it allowed her to avoid the issue of whether to pressure him to reform until at least she could talk with Jordan.
She found a note attached to a copy of The Fact Finder in her mail box during the 10:00 hour. In the note, Markus apologized for missing her class again and expressed the hope that she continue to see improvement in the paper. It was addressed to "My favorite teacher" and signed with only "your student."
The paper contained a full accounting of the student government's dismissal of the co-ed dorm petition written in fairly neutral, descriptive terms. In a commentary, he expressed frustration with the lack of action and suggested the need for election of students who would be more supportive of student input in the governance process. In toto, it was a good example of responsible journalism, Martha thought. Perhaps he would compromise after all.
At lunch, Jordan was excited because she had received a humanities grant to perform a series of concerts across the state in October. They had finished eating before Martha could tell about Dr. Minz's request that she talk with Markus.
"Speaking of Markus," Jordan said, "I'm surprised that he's not here by now."
"What do I do if he comes?"
"Well, Martha, we've agreed to disagree about campus politics. I certainly don't want you all to reform him. As men go, he's perfect. If you want him, you shouldn't let his student status, or his politics, for that matter, stand in your way. Have fun with him now. Date him openly when he's out of your class. If Minz, or Mason for that matter, doesn't like it, to hell with them. Given Astor, you're not happy here anyway. If you don't want Mathews, don't play a game on him -- especially not Minz's game."
"Yes. You know. Don't lead him on just so he won't be a thorn in Mason's flesh."
Martha sat quietly. Markus still was not there. Somehow, she felt an overwhelming desire just to see him; somehow, his presence would crystallize her thinking.
When she spoke, she said, "Are we going to the Nation seminar this afternoon?"
"You mean like a date? You want us to go together?" Mostly, the questions sounded like challenges, but perhaps Jordan's voice showed something of a hopeful expression in the second question.
"I can just meet you there. Minz wants to walk me over so she can learn how I fared with Markus; but, since I haven't seen him, there's no reason to avoid her."
"Yeah, I thought he'd be here. Okay, I'll meet you at the seminar and we can go from there."
En route to the seminar, Minz announced that she had been successful in securing for Markus a position with The Beacon. He would cover campus news and have a regular commentary, both under the editorship of Ed Miller, of course. Martha was not to breath a word of these details until the committee could meet with Mathews, but Lyla was anxious for Martha to encourage him to be cooperative in general.
The women were already discussing the petition for cohabitation when the English contingency arrived. "Can you believe?" The gray-haired biologist turned her gaze to the new arrivals, "What do they want to make of Bliss, a brothel? We all know that anyone who wants to have sex will find a way, but do we have to encourage it?"
"It has to be disruptive to any and all serious students," said another.
"Did some of our girls actually sign the petition? Did they have no concern for their reputation?"
"Yes, exactly, it was like they were saying they're easy."
The one-sided conversation first made Martha wish that Jordan would arrive and then prompted her to consider arguments for co-educational living. She repressed a couple of impulses to respond. She felt her heart quicken for the third time in anticipation of playing the devil's advocate when she saw Jordan walking toward the group. Martha stopped her breath in mid-inhalation; there would be no need now for her to begin the confrontation.
Jordan was perhaps more impressive walking toward them than she had been that first entrance two weeks ago, Martha thought. Of course, Martha's was now a deeper appreciation. Still, the conversation ceased and everyone watched as Jordan glided across the floor as if waltzing, yet moving at a Sousa cadence.
Dr. West walked directly to Martha's chair and gently squeezed her back before taking the adjacent seat. "Sorry to be so late. It always amazes me how the most dedicated students are the ones with the least talent ... and they always need the attention when you have something you want to do ....
"Well, everyone stopped talking when I arrived.... What could that mean? Let me see? What could it be? Surely, it ain't the petition asking that Bliss treat its students like the adults they are. Surely, you fine ladies don't oppose that ... to the core?"
"Now, Dr. West, you know that the college has a responsibility to maintain a wholesome atmosphere for our students -- a place for them to live and study," Dr. Minz asserted to a chorus of agreement.
Even before the supportive voices ceased, Jordan sighed, "Sure, and we're their parents! At what age are we going to expect them to be adults? If we treat them like children, how can we expect them to act like adults?"
Again the choir responded except this time their comments varied: "They need time to mature...."
"They need a secured environment...."
"They are young. They need our guidance...."
At one point Jordan was able to say, "Well, I see that I'm outnumbered here," and glanced to Martha who nodded sympathetically.
"I can't believe that so many of our students signed that petition. Our students typically show maturity and discretion in their actions," someone said.
"The real problem is that Mathews kid," interjected the biologist. "Looks like, as poorly as he writes, you people in English could flunk him out so we'd be done with him."
"Our job isn't to flunk him out," Martha asserted herself into the conversation for the first time. "Our job is to educate him."
"Right on!" said Jordan.
"Well said," agreed Lyla, "and on that wise note, I need to call it a day. I have guests coming for dinner."
With Minz's departure came the departure of the chorus. Jordan and Martha found themselves standing alone in the lounge. "Wasn't that a hoot! What now, Martha? What do you want to do this evening?"
What Martha wanted to do was to talk about Markus. The attacks on his ideas and person had upset her and heightened her desire to help him. However, Jordan and she had agreed to avoid the topic of campus politics and Jordan had, that very afternoon, advised her not to attempt to change him. So, Martha did not mention Markus; instead she said, "Perhaps we could go for a walk."
It was a nice evening for a walk. The remaining sun painted the sky in hues of red and purple. The breeze from the west gave only a suggestion of the harsh winter which would cover the midwest that winter. As the two professors strode beneath the pin oaks which lined that edge of the Bliss campus, the wind brought sufficient coolness to keep them refreshed.
Martha learned that Jordan walked daily. She had jogged in her younger years but had switched to walking because she felt the running hurt her knees. She encouraged Martha to join her in her walks, but they were unable to find a mutually convenient time.
Jordan directed their walk, in course, so they could have dinner at a quaint little Mexican restaurant with a native Mexican proprietor who was both cook and waiter. They enjoyed ordering and talking with him in Spanish.
On their way back to campus, Jordan asked if Martha wanted to do anything together the next evening. Martha declined because she had so many papers to grade. They did not discuss Markus or campus politics. Martha knew, in addition to the papers, that she had to decide how to deal with Markus. As with campus politics, she felt the two of them would have to tolerate disagreement on her dealing with Markus. He was her student; it was her job to help structure his growth.
However, in regards to the issues which Markus was raising, Martha had to admit that she disagreed with Jordan now less than two weeks before. Minz and the others judged his stances so harshly that it was difficult for Martha to join their party. Still, in her assessment of her role in regards to Markus, she remained firm. For this semester, at least, she would remain his teacher. In that role, she would exert her influence to direct his maturity as a writer. In those terms, a supervised position on The Beacon seemed ideal.
Martha foresaw a likelihood that their relationship would change should Markus take the internship. She did not find that possibility untenable. Nevertheless, she did not want him to accept the position because of any potential shift in their association. She wanted him to accept it to benefit himself.