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.
Against the backdrop of a lonely and depressing weekend, Martha bolstered her spirits while donning new clothes that Monday by recalling the fun she had shopping for them. She was also assisted by reflections on her lecture for the day; she had interesting and relevant illustrations. If Markus cared to come, he would be impressed. If he didn't attend, it was his loss. He couldn't stay mad for long; after all, she was the teacher. Perhaps Russ Foster could correct the record in her behalf.
Markus was not in class and Martha's feeling of isolation returned. The feeling persisted across the morning. As her 11:00 class ended, she had an impulse to go to lunch with her male colleagues just to be with someone. If she did, it might give her an opportunity to talk with Russ. She knew the possibility was too small to justify yielding to the impulse.
She shook herself. She had never needed others before. Of course, she had never been close to anyone either. Within the last month, she had felt the friendship of two individuals. Now, one was afar and the other mad. She was alone. It would be temporary, she knew; still the feeling was powerful. She just had to remember she was strong.
She steeled herself for the walk from her classroom to her office to get her overcoat. She anticipated walking past Richard. To her chagrin, he was by himself and barely past her office. Most of the hallway stretched between them. She felt his eye on her as the distance slowly closed between them. He intended to talk to her and she saw no subtle way to avoid the interaction.
"Going off for lunch with your student?" His voice was soft as if he were protecting her little indiscretion. Had he been correct, she would have been offended by the innuendo. As it was, she repressed a smile. His ignorance cast in arrogance amused her. She gladly wished to follow Russ Foster's request to continue the charade.
"And, what if I am?"
Now he smiled. "That's fine," he whispered, leaning closer to her, "as long as he takes that internship with The Beacon! What's the delay anyway? Ed Miller's wined him and dined him. He's over at the PR office daily. He should've been able to decide by now. See if you can't hurry him up a little. The sooner we can get him settled down, the sooner the two of us can get on with more important matters." He winked at her and walked on down the hall.
She allowed her smile to emerge as she walked on to her office. If Markus would only be at the diner, she could iron out their little dispute.
The fine, cold drops blowing in from the north failed to dampen her optimism as she walked to the Wagon Wheel.
She recognized none of the students among the crowded tables. She placed her order and waited for a vacant space. All the students seemed to know each other and were obliging in making room for their friends.
Martha's number was called, but still she had no seat. There were no tables for one, no one eating alone. There were a few empty chairs. Finally she selected one of them and asked if the others minded if she ate there. They acquiesced and seemed to monitor their discussion more closely.
Martha ate slowly. The sense of loneliness seized her even as she felt engulfed in the sea of the students' conversations. She was a blockaded island.
Eventually, her table emptied and soon thereafter, the cafe itself. Then, it began to refill. Still, Markus did not come. Martha cleared her space and secured her overcoat. She had work to do. Midterm grades were due Wednesday morning. She would have to wait for Markus at another time.
The cold front moved in with more force on Tuesday corresponding to Martha's mood. She knew that the front would soon pass, but she longed for more warmth than her farsightedness provided.
She did not have a stimulating lecture planned for Wednesday. The topic was the proper use of footnotes. Its interest value was nil. Student participation was not anticipated. She could use Markus' help but knew to plan on his absence.
Attendance was down in both classes that next morning, with Markus among the missing. She ended both lectures five minutes early. The students did not seem to mind. The extra time permitted her to avoid Astor completely and arrive at the cafe before the rush. She did not anticipate seeing Markus there, but still found herself looking for him. He never showed.
Back in her office, she attempted to focus on work. With absenteeism up, a handout to supplement the text's discussion of footnotes was needed. As she debated about how much detail to include in the handout, she heard a knock at her door.
"Your prodigal student has returned to ask your forgiveness."
"Come in, Markus! The last I saw you, you seemed to think I was the one who needed forgiveness...."
"What can I say? I had too much to drink. I hope I wasn't disrespectful." He looked at her. She smiled slightly and shook her head.
He eased into the chair in front of her desk. "You know, I was really sucked in by that 'responsibility' line. I bought it hook, line and sinker. Thought I could make a difference within the system. Thought that I could be worthy of a fine woman like you ...."
Martha started to interrupt and Markus paused momentarily, but Martha could not find the appropriate reassurances before he continued.
"You can understand, when Dr. Foster told me of their scheme, I just lost it. Somehow I felt like I was back in Nam. I became suspicious of you all."
"They were using me. Not an unusual position for me, I'm afraid. But, I was honest with you and only wanted the best for you!"
"I know. I know. I just lost my head for awhile. I only wanted to hurt someone and you were the easiest target. I'm really sorry. I think I know you weren't involved. I'm sure I should of. I know you that well. Then I talked with Foster again on Monday. He told me you two were just playing along 'till I was free of their trap."
"Yes, that's true. And, you still haven't turned down the position?"
"No, Foster got me thinking. Ed Miller had been real nice to me. He's a talker, you know. He told me much about how this place operates, some of which he mightn't have meant to. Thought I might just take a leaf out of your and Foster's book and string them out a little more and see what I could uncover. Glad I did."
"What did you find?"
"Nothing that would hold up in a court of law, perhaps, but enough to let me ask lots more questions. There exists some evidence that Mason has misreported spending to the board of trustees and perhaps has pocketed the difference. Also, he didn't accept the lowest bid on at least one of the new dorms. At this point, one can only wonder why."
Martha nodded her head. "Sounds like they've given you some good leads!"
"Yeah, but, you know, the financial corruption isn't the worst of it. He's really done lots of faculty wrong. The tendency is to hire for four or five years and dismissing before tenure. That's especially true for women."
Martha thought about her department. Minz was the only woman with tenure in a roomful of people, mostly female instructors.
"Mason isn't a popular president," Markus continued. "He rules by fear and domination of the board of trustees, who seem to be fairly much in the dark. I think that's why Mason fears The Fact Finder so much; it has the potential to make the trustees become more involved. I'm going to have to target them more."
"It sounds like you made the most of the situation. They got you into their trap but they couldn't spring it and you're walking out with some information which you may be able to use against them."
"Yes, I'm gonna use it. It might not bring the mighty down, but it might make them think twice next time."
"So, my mistake may turn out for the good after all."
"Yeah, it seems that way. I wish people were nobler, even reasonable like you thought Mason would be. You just can't plan your life on it no matter how ideal those plans might be."
"I'm glad it worked out. ... You know I was misled. ... You're not mad at me ... and you gained useful information."
"Yes, that's true," Markus said and looked down. "There's just this feeling."
"A feeling I'd been misled, hurt. I should of known better and might of except for this other information which Minz seemed to delight in sharing last week." Markus paused and looked at her questioningly as if he had just offered her a riddle to solve.
"And what information was that?"
"You know, I didn't just take her word for it, but Foster confirmed it even while laying out the plagiarism plot." He continued to look at Martha as if for answers; however, now Martha detected something of an accusation in his gaze.
"She told me about Jordan!"
Now Martha felt the gaze as if it were a finger of blame.
"What about Jordan?" She made no attempt to filter the irritation from her voice. His behavior in the bar, she could understand. Perhaps she deserved it. However, Jordan had supported his position throughout.
"That she's a lesbian!"
"What if she is? What's that got to do with anything?"
Martha's question took some of the accusation from Markus' face, but the inquisitiveness remained.
"The way Minz presented it, that fact explained why I needed to direct my romantic interests elsewhere."
"And so you turned to Mary Cage? Would you have me believe Friday night was the first sparks between you and the engaging Miss Cage?"
The expression on Markus' face softened and he looked away before looking back. "That's all it was. Sure, I've known Mary since last year and, yes, I knew she wanted it to be more, just like I did for us. As I told you before, she's been a big help in getting out the paper. What'd you expect? We're close. Last week when I thought you were all the enemy, she was there."
"And you felt justified in it because I'm friends with a lesbian. Doesn't sound to me like you needed much of an excuse."
"Then, you and Jordan aren't romantic? Why would Minz make up such a thing?"
"Does it matter? You have your Miss Cage and information against Mason. What more do you want?" She turned her attention back to her typing.
"As if you didn't know!" He stood and looked down at her. "As if I hadn't told you often enough!" he snapped and walked away.
Martha finished the handout quickly, more quickly than she would have predicted. She did not stop to consider her skirmish with Markus. It had not transpired the way she had envisioned, but she did not pause to ask why it had not. Perhaps she focused on her work because, in it, she had answers.
When she finished the handout, she was calm and reflective. However, she still did not know whether her response to Markus was due more to her loyalty to Jordan or to her jealousy toward Mary.
She did resent Mary's competition. In that resentment, Martha had to recognize that her feeling of proprietorship extended beyond Markus' writing. How far it extended, she was uncertain. Perhaps she coveted Mary's place working beside him, being with him in public as they had been Friday night, and -- no doubt -- in private.
That place could have been hers, she thought. It might still be if indeed she wanted it, but, now it appeared she would have to challenge Mary for it.
She rued the complication. Without it, they might have had time for their affections to evolve naturally. With it, she foresaw no opportunity to develop a romance. She could not accept the advances of a student. She certainly could not compete with one of her students for his affections.
It appeared that Mary had won the contest before Martha had an opportunity to decide to enter. Martha's sense of loneliness returned as rapidly as it had left on Markus' entering her office. This time it had more a feeling of permanence. At least Jordan would return on Sunday.
Markus attended class on Friday. His participation helped. The handout prompted questions from everyone, even students who were in class on Wednesday. Markus explained how to calculate footnote length to determine when to stop typing to fit them on the page. His explanation seemed to clarify the procedures for several students.
Mary Cage also contributed to the discussion. In particular, she used their text to show examples of footnotes types which were not included in the specific chapter.
At the end of class, Mary and Markus walked together as they left. Martha acknowledged to herself that they made an attractive couple. They also had much in common, she thought. They both seemed to know what they wanted and knew no inhibitions in seeking it.
When Martha checked her mail at 10:30, she found the weekly issue of The Fact Finder. Written in ink just above the headlines was, "The die is cast?" The headlines read, "SHOULD MASON RESIGN?"
Martha hurried back to her office, reading as she went. The main article was explicitly addressed to the board of trustees. As its head suggested, it asked simply if the board thought Bliss would be better served by a new president. In separate articles, the paper asked about faculty support for Mason, his misreporting of expenditure, possible kickbacks from construction companies and his abuse of student rights. The paper made no accusations but still, in its raising of questions, made the point that Bliss would be better served without Mason. It was the boldest of Markus' offerings this year.
Martha smiled. The paper was also well written. She found no grammatical problems; the style was active, compelling at times. She wondered how much Mary had contributed.
Martha also wondered about the note at the top. If applied to the stance of the edition, the question would have to be rhetorical. Given this intention, an explanation point would have been more appropriate. Markus had launched a frontal attack. No, as an interrogative, the sentence had to be interpreted as personal. He had walked out of her classroom clearly attached to Mary and here he asks if that decision should be final as if it were her decision to revoke.
Martha thought about Markus and Mary throughout her 11:00 class. It was inevitable since their suggestions and explanations returned in her voice. However, she had no time to consider even the personal implications of this week's Finder, much less its broader impacts on the campus. Thus, she was surprised when she found Minz waiting outside the classroom.
"Ready for our weekly luncheon? Do you want to go to the Wagon Wheel this time?" Lyla's voice and smile radiated a warmth that defused Martha's potential hostility. Martha had significant reasons to berate Minz immediately, but she had caught Martha unprepared, and now she had no desire to do so.
Martha recognized Minz's charm without understanding its effect on her. It had brought her to Bliss. Now she felt it somewhat reassuring. "The cafeteria will be fine. The Wagon Wheel would probably be too crowded."
It would not be politic to vilify the department head, she thought on their way to the dining hall. Still, beneath the calm which Minz had generated lay a solid layer of resentment. Again Martha noted the parallel to the way she felt toward her mother. However, this time the thought did not make her cry. She was not in Astor's power and she had a clearer understanding of Lyla's nature.
Martha selected soup and salad and led the way to their table. Still there had been no mention of Markus or his paper. Martha anticipated that she would not have much longer to wait. She had no idea of the tack which Lyla would take, but given the reflection in route, Martha felt prepared. She would not overreact. She would be as subtle as Minz and as evasive as necessary.
"So, are you ready for Carrie Nation?" Minz opened.
Martha had not thought about the seminar all week. Now she remembered the argument and the proposal for a cooling off period. The whole thing seemed irrelevant given the events of this week, in particular today's Finder.
"People have surely forgotten about that by now."
"I would think not -- especially with today's issue of your student's paper. They're going to be more interested than ever in what you have to say. If he can't back up the accusations which he made, it could make him look like he just wants to smear the school's good name."
"I don't think he made any accusations."
"Whatever. Either he has proof or he doesn't. That's what people are going to be interested in. If he does, then I'd think you'd have an easy job establishing who the despot is."
"I don't know whether he has any proof at all."
"Well, we need to find out. You won't see Mr. Mathews this afternoon, obviously. Who else might know?"
"I'm sure I don't know. You're the one with all the connections here. Are the things which Markus suggested, true? Could he have proof?"
"Certainly! He has the court ruling and even the student petition which was dismissed without consideration. Less clear is documentation on the misuse of faculty. What he suggests is unquestionably true, especially when it comes to the mistreatment of women. It wouldn't be hard to document. He may have something; it's not the type thing he'd know about unless he saw something at the PR office." Minz paused and looked questioningly at Martha, who simply shrugged.
"Of course, none of that matters much. The board hasn't been concerned for faculty any more than it has students. The financial issues: that's what matters. There have been rumors over the years. Not enough to give it credence, but enough to make one wonder. Mason always controlled the finances. But again, it's something Mathews wouldn't just have fabricated. He must have seen something, gotten his hands on some documents." Again Minz looked at Martha as if for verification.
"It sounds reasonable. Whatever bad one might say about the Finder, fabrication of facts isn't among them."
"We need to know about Markus' sources. If he has more than just rumors."
"Given there's truth behind his questions -- and we know there is in terms of Mason's treatment of faculty -- why is it Markus' place to find the evidence? That shouldn't be a student's job in the first place."
"Yes, yes, that's true. He's gotten the ball rolling. The faculty should take it from here, but it would help to know if he has any evidence."
"Whether he has it or not, we know it exists. The faculty needs to show some strength."
"Yes we do. That's why the women are going to be interested in what you have to say this afternoon. Everyone's looking for a leader among the faculty to continue where Markus left off. You could very well be that leader. You're the right person at the right time. That's why it would be good to know how firm the ground is on which you stand."
"I have no way of finding out this afternoon. As I said, you can get that information better than I can. ... I don't think it's relevant. If the majority of the faculty is unhappy with Mason ...."
"Perhaps not a majority now, but given documentation for his malfeasance, he would lose their support."
"If he misuses faculty the way Markus -- the way you -- suggest, why do they support him anyway?"
"That would be a good question to ask this afternoon."
Sure, Martha thought, as if that bunch of "ladies" would ever stop to recognize that they have been victims, much less consider the fate of the women who had been dismissed. Why, oh why, did Jordan have to be gone this week? She was the spokesperson needed at the moment. Martha concluded that she would have to substitute for Jordan today; Jordan would return Sunday.
Being cast in a leadership role for the afternoon notwithstanding, Martha felt satisfied as they walked back from lunch. She had not supplied Lyla with any information about how much Markus knew, where he might have learned it, or who else might supply these answers.
However, Minz's insistence that Martha should be the leader confounded her as she reflected on it before her 2:00 class. She obviously was not the best person to lead a faculty revolt, or even a protest from the women faculty. Minz had been a loyal Mason ally, Martha thought, even to the point of attempting to frame Markus, even to the extent of suggesting a liaison between Jordan and her when it appeared she did not have sufficient influence with him. She should have learned by now that Lyla's motivation always differed from the reason she gave.
Martha now longed for Jordan's counsel. Certainly the faculty, and particularly the women faculty, needed a leader. Jordan would be ideal, but she wished to avoid public scrutiny, Martha knew. Whoever led the attack on Mason would be in jeopardy, as Markus had demonstrated. Perhaps that explained why Minz wanted Martha to assume the role. Martha decided that she would have to monitor her speech at the seminar so as to encourage action by others without committing herself to act.
To Martha's surprise, two young women waited with Lyla at their arranged meeting place. The two looked familiar; perhaps they had been at the departmental meeting. Martha was thankful, in part, that she would not have to be alone with Minz; although, she wondered if Minz had unearthed any information on Markus' sources or lack thereof.
Dark clouds covered their route as the temperature had dropped since lunch. The women rushed against the wafers of wind to cross the opening between the two buildings. Once inside, Minz said, "It's an ideal day for a hot toddy."
Another surprise awaited Martha as they entered the lounge. It seemed crowded. The group had doubled in size. The composition of the group was considerably younger. Martha sought familiar faces among them; absent from them were a few of the regulars, including Martha's antagonist from the previous week.
Martha watched as Lyla greeted several of those in attendance. They each responded to her with deference. Martha recognized that most of these were instructors and graduate assistants from the English department.
Minz stood before the group, very much as she had at the departmental meeting, and said, "When we left off last week, it seemed reasonable to give Dr. Knight time to prepare for her defense of one of her -- and the English Department's -- students, Mr. Markus Mathews, who, as you all know, publishes a weekly alternative paper. With today's issue of that paper, Mr. Mathews provides a pretty good defense for himself. Still, in fairness to Dr. Knight, she deserves to be able to contribute whatever she wants to this issue. So, without any further ado, I turn the floor over to Dr. Knight -- Martha."
Martha remained seated. "I don't know what else needs to be said. Last week, Mr. Mathews was accused of being a despot. Since his accuser is not here this week, I'd think it would be unfair to argue with her specifically. Instead, let me say that the faculty at Bliss College has an obligation to help the Board of Trustees answer the questions which Mr. Mathews' paper raised in today's issue. Others of you know much better than I the degree of substance which justifies raising these issues. If evidence of wrong doing exists, it is the duty of the faculty to see that the board is made aware of it."
When Martha finished, everyone applauded. What a difference a week makes, Martha thought. She could not understand why, but she knew that Minz was responsible. She did not have any time to consider the reason because someone was asking her how she proposed that they get the evidence.
"As I said, others who have been here longer know the answer to that much better than I do," she responded, looking at Minz. However, the questions continued to be directed at her.
"Do you think that Mr. Mathews made the accusations he did without evidence?"
"I don't think he made any accusations."
"Do you think that the situation for women will actually change?"
"What I think doesn't matter. What matters is what you all think and what you all are willing to do. Isn't this supposed to be a discussion group? Aren't others supposed to express opinions?"
"I'd say you'd better have your ducks in a row before you do anything," offered a woman whom Martha recognized from previous weeks.
"Yes," agreed Minz, "Could we start by your finding out how much documentation your student has?"
"I can see if I can find out; but, he's under no obligation to share any of his sources with me. I'll ask, but only if others of you will agree to see what information you can unearth. Surely, employment records are available to show what percent of both men and women are retained past tenure. Someone must have access to past budgets of this college."
Everyone seemed to agree with Martha, but no one made any commitment. Finally, one of the regular seminar women said, "Whatever we do, we best be quiet, and quick about it."
Silence filled the large room for an extended moment. Finally, Lyla said, "Let's each see what we can learn and report back here next week." Again there was silence. "If there's no objection to that plan, I'd suggest we head on down to the saloon for a little toddy." Then, turning to Martha she asked, "Want to ride down with me?"
"No, thanks. It's been a tiring day. I think I'll go on home."
"Jordan's coming back tomorrow?"
"No, not until Sunday."
"I know you'll be glad to see her. Well, give her my best."
Martha felt good about the meeting, but, yes, she would be glad to see Jordan.