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.
"Dr. Knight! It sounds good," she thought, studying her reflection in the mirror. It was the morning of her first day of teaching as a Ph.D.
Ostensibly, Martha was considering what to wear; it was no small problem since her wardrobe was meager. She longed to shop. Looking attractive, neat and presentable had been a major tenet of her upbringing. Without reflecting as to why or for whom, she wanted to look sharp and had entered the closet to select something suitable for her first day at Bliss College. Yet, as she stood there watching the nude reflection, the image seemed unconcerned with dress for the day.
Thoughts flooded her mind as if she were a telepath listening to the image before her. The ideas were coming faster than she could respond to them. Much of the bombardment dealt with what she was going to say to her students throughout the day. These thoughts reinforced those of her accomplishment in having finished the doctorate at the age of 24. She was proud of her knowledge and looked forward to imparting that knowledge to students. She thought about various ways of presenting ideas and alternative ways to respond to questions.
She touched her hair as she pondered the appropriate response to a potential student question. The multiple tones of her blond hair were obviously natural. It was combed neatly past her shoulders, but lacked any benefit from professional care. Her hand moved from her hair across her front. Her skin was pale with freckles only on her face, neck and arms. Her hand stopped momentarily at her nipple, which was taut. She quickly dropped the hand to her side.
"You are carnal, just like your father said," she heard the voice inside her head.
Indeed, laced among the many thoughts coming from the image were frequent considerations, in a different voice, of the body itself. It was a slender body, supple and soft, the result of years of scholarship-supported poverty. Had she been six inches taller, it could have been the body of a model. Nevertheless, even in this different voice, the messages did not tell her that she was attractive, but they did evoke less shame than they had when she first left home. Now the voice spoke of needs, of longings, of desires for human contact, legitimate intimate contact.
The romance in her life had been restricted to that found in the novels which she had studied. Her father had ensured that while she was in high school. Since then, her quest for scholarly success had provided the vehicle of avoidance. She had told herself that she would be ready for a relationship, a healthy relationship, once the degrees were finished. The different voice was reminding her of that agreement.
She arrived at her classroom exactly on time. The students became quiet as she walked to the board and wrote, as her mind's eye had seen herself do hundreds of times, "Martha Knight, Ph.D." As she looked at the faces in this composition class, she felt confident. She observed that most seemed less interested in what she was saying than in other things. Yet, for many of the students, the other thing was she. She was an unknown on the campus and she was young, their age. Their interest in her was flattering; it added to her sense of accomplishment. She knew that she could direct their interest progressively to the subject.
She found, though, that her interest in the individuals before her extended beyond academics. She was aware that several were older than she. She also noticed that they were distinctive in terms of their attractiveness and their gender. Directly in front of her lectern sat a most attentive coed who was perhaps 22 years old, and behind her was a broad-shouldered male who was probably older than either she or Martha. The man had definitely sat up when Martha entered and seemed most intent on observing her every movement. She found her attention continually returning to that center aisle. Both students were interested, but Martha recognized that the man's focus was personal.
After class the young man waited for the other students to leave before approaching her. "You don't remember me, do you? My name's Markus Mathews. Well, you knew me as Marky Mathews. We went to grade school together."
She shook her head. This was not a scene which she had envisioned, nor was it one which she desired. She wanted to be the teacher, not someone's childhood friend. "I went to school in Oklahoma," she said in her most authoritative teacher's voice.
"Yes, yes, so did I. Southwest Elementary. We left when I was in the eighth grade. You must have been in the sixth. You remember. I went to your church. You always had to be so good in Sunday school and church."
She did remember, as little as she wanted to. Her father had made her, her sisters, and mother sit on the front row during his sermons. She remembered Marky also. As she looked at the student in front of her, she saw the essence of little Marky in his face. The deep, dark brown eyes were the same; the sharp chisel of his face was simply broader. His hair was longer, almost as long as hers. She felt a strange sensation in this fusion of time and features. All the girls in her group had thought him a fox.
"You were human, though; I especially remember the good time we all had at one church picnic."
She recalled their playing tag in the stand of pine which surrounded the old city park, while their parents relaxed and talked after the meal. She also remembered the beating which her father had administered to her bottom for dirtying her clothes and "setting a bad example."
As she stood looking at the superimposed face of little Marky, she felt again her regret that day of having had so much fun. It was not the feeling which she had anticipated for this day. Was she not supposed to enjoy her first lecture as a full-time faculty?
"Well, I just thought it a real coincidence after all these years and all."
"Yes, yes indeed. You moved soon after that picnic, it seems."
"Yeah, my parents split. My sisters and I went with Mom to live with Grandma in the city. That's what brought me to school here."
"It brought you here, did it?" She smiled. The face of young Marky had dissolved and so had her feelings of remorse. "It must have been a slow trip."
"Huh? Oh, yeah. You have your Ph.D. and I'm still an undergrad. I had a small detour. As they say, I spent my time in hell."
"You were in Vietnam?"
"Two tours. You know, the first was fun. Geez, I was just a kid; it was just a big game. I was gonna make the military my career. Six years's a long time. I viewed the war differently the second time over. Hey, I've got to run to my next class. See you on Friday, ... Dr. Knight." He smiled and she smiled in turn.
It was Wednesday, September 5, 1973. Marshall McLuhan had already related the change in occurrences to the frames in a film: social realities were changing so rapidly that one could anticipate the future in the progression. The future was coming so quickly that it seemed to be the present. Alvin Toffler's Future Shock had alerted the world to the effects of rapid change. However, change was less obvious in America's heartland. The chair of Martha's department was a woman, Dr. Minz. Lyla Minz had been hired by the department as a temporary replacement when her husband died at the age of 45. Lyla, who was also in her forties, was working as a secretary in a law office. She already had her Ph.D. but the university would not consider her for the many openings in the English Department as long as her husband was alive. His death during the Fall Quarter left the college with no viable alternative but to hire the widowed Dr. Minz to complete the year for her husband.
Dr. Minz proved to be a most competent teacher and a proficient enough scholar to meet the demands of the position, but her real strength was political. From the beginning, she knew the capabilities and the shortcomings, the needs and desires of individuals in and out of the department. At the end of that first partial year, no one raised the question of her not continuing; at the beginning of her fourth year, when her immediate superviser, the Head of the Department of English, was promoted to dean, she was appointed to the department-head position.
In the twenty years since that appointment, she had earned the reputation of an effective administrator, although, it was usually expressed as, "she isn't bad for a woman." In those twenty years, she was passed over on each of the four occasions when the dean's position became open. By 1973, she had been joined by only two other women administrators, the Head of Nursing and the Head of Home Economics.
Dr. Minz had recruited Martha, and Martha had taken the job at Bliss College over other offers in part because she liked the idea of working for -- and potentially with -- the older woman. Although the term "affirmative action" was not in common use, Martha sensed that administrators for other schools wanted to hire her primarily to fulfill some unstated "quota" for females. She found these administrators patronizing. Dr. Minz made her feel wanted for what she knew and what she could teach to the students.
As Martha arranged her books on her newly acquired bookshelves in her own private office, she loved the feeling of it. While a teaching assistant working on the Ph.D., she had shared an office with three others and had virtually no shelf space. Here she had an eight foot wall covered with shelves, more than enough to arrange all her books and journals neatly by category. She had two large filing cabinets which she could eventually fill with all her class notes and the papers which she would write.
To her, the office was the place to which she had aspired since first learning of the world of higher education. The world of ideas had seemed like heaven to her when she was in high school. The idealized world of academia provided conceptual refuge from the hypocrisy of her world. She had sheltered herself in the institutions of ideas since leaving the perversity of home. Now the four walls of her office provided the feeling of an insulated cocoon.
Yet, images of her reunion with Markus penetrated the peace and satisfaction of her sanctuary. She recognized that the images disquieted her more than they should. She thought herself capable to deal with Mr. Mathews as a student. He might think that he had some advantage from their previous association, but such would not be the case. He might even think his good looks and charm might increase his grade. If so, he could just think again.
As she began her last shelf of books, another sensation entered her consciousness. That rumbling was from her stomach. She had had nothing to eat all morning. She had become accustomed to eating little, but the morning regimen had drained her of energy. She had another beginning writing class at 11:00 and then she could go to lunch. She remembered that there was a cafeteria in the basement of one of the buildings and wondered where it was.
At this point, she wished that she had someone with whom to eat, a friend with whom to talk. It was an unusual feeling for her; she had generally preferred books to people.
Now that Martha thought about it, Dr. Minz was the only woman whom she knew here. She wondered what Dr. Minz's first name was. Surely, she had heard it, but she could not recall.
After her 11:00 class, Martha's need for fellowship seemed to be answered. As she returned to her office, she was met by a trio of colleagues who invited her to join them for lunch.
The trio was all men, all in their forties. Martha wondered if she were the only female, besides Dr. Minz, in the department. She could not remember meeting another woman when she was interviewing.
"Well, how is your first day?" Richard Astor, the tallest and perhaps oldest, asked as the other two men preceded them down the winding sidewalk.
"Very good! It is everything I thought it would be. A dream come true!"
Suddenly, the two men in front of them stopped. They were looking at something to their right.
"I thought the protest movements were behind us," said Astor.
"You know Bliss, Richard, we're always behind the times," said Peter Carter. He was a shorter, stockier man, probably the youngest of the three.
"Is it that Mathews again? What's he campaigning for this time? I'm surprised that the President hasn't yet succeeded in having him expelled."
Martha strained to see across the hundred yards or so of lawn which formed a quadrangle between them and the Administration Building. Even at that distance, she recognized Markus speaking from the top step. The foursome continued towards the cafeteria.
"Markus Mathews," said Richard looking at her. "Do you know him?"
"Yes," she said. "He's a student in my class."
"Really?" Richard continued to look at her.
"Yes. But, I ... we ... he went to the same grade school as I did. I haven't seen him since I was in the seventh grade."
Richard smiled. "Well, isn't that interesting! Now he's your student. He could be a handful. Let me know if I can be of any help."
"Why should I need help?"
"He is something of a disruptive spirit on campus. Last year he challenged President Mason. President Mason intimidates full professors and Mathews was just a freshman. Obviously he was no ordinary freshman. The man has no respect for authority whatsoever and little sense of social responsibility. An ordinary man might attempt to exploit your previous relationship. You had better expect Mathews to be more than you can manage alone."
Martha remained silent as they entered the cafeteria and selected their food. She had lost her appetite. Often, while getting her food, she overheard Markus' name in snatches of conversations around her. It sounded as if he was campaigning for allowing men and women to reside in the same dormitory. She forced herself to eat. She did not want the impact of Richard's warning to be too obvious.
The warning had taken her by surprise. The severity of its tone was totally unexpected. She had perceived a potential problem with Markus, but certainly nothing more than she could handle herself. Now, she wondered if she could be wrong in that perception. What had Markus done last year which prompted such appraisals from Richard? What was he doing now to cause such an uproar on Bliss campus? Martha did not endorse the practice of open housing which had become common at too many major universities, but she did not see how speaking for it made Markus a subversive.
The others talked some of baseball, and the Watergate break-in, but the spill over from conversations around them soon brought theirs back to Mathews. "Mathews has really stirred up the natives," said Richard.
"It doesn't take much," said Russell Foster, the most unimpressive looking of her three colleagues, "and, say what you will about ole Markus, he's an orator. Just look at what he accomplished last year."
Martha recognized that her colleague's statement provided an opportunity to ask about Markus' past behavior which had prompted Astor's harsh warning. But, as she was positioning herself to speak, Richard said, "Oh, did you know that Martha here is a childhood friend of Markus Mathews?"
"Well, was ... was a childhood friend. We were in grade school together. Really I didn't know him that well."
"Was he always a trouble maker?" Peter asked.
"No. No, I wouldn't say that. What trouble has he caused here? What did he do last year to earn him such an evil reputation?"
"How long do you have?" asked Peter. "If it wasn't one thing it was another."
"Now, Pete, you know it boiled down to the underground newspaper. You see, Martha, our school paper, The Beacon, is published by our public-relations office, directly answerable to President Mason. It is not a newspaper but a house organ functioning to make the old prez look good."
"Be careful, Russ, these walls have ears," Pete said with a laugh, but his face was serious.
"Yes, I know. Faculty members have been released for speaking against Mason." Russ also laughed as if it were all a joke. "Anyway, back to last year: Mathews argued publicly that The Beacon should be a student-run newspaper. I think he even wrote letters to its editor. Of course, the letters were never published. So, he started his own student newspaper. Mason called him on the carpet. The rumor is that they had quite a shouting match. Anyway, Mason ordered him off campus, expelled him on the spot as it were."
"What? How is it that Markus is in school now? Doesn't the president have the power to expel a student?"
"That's exactly it! Mathews was back on campus the next day with a lawyer and some type of restraining order. Mason had to let him back in school until the issue could be settled in court. The judge ruled that Mason had acted to deny Mathews his freedom of speech. The judge gave Mason a stern lecture on civil liberties and the abuse of power. Mathews published the judge's reprimand in the next issue of his paper."
"Well, if you ask me," said Pete, "Mathews won the battle, but Mason will win the war. Mathews' days at Bliss are numbered. The next time his expulsion will in no way be connected to the Bill of Rights."
Hearing the account of Markus' activities of the previous year reassured Dr. Knight to a large degree. She in no way condoned his impertinence in publishing his own paper to tell the president how to run the college. Mr. Mathews needed to concern himself with his primary purpose for being there and focus on his courses. Still, there was nothing in Russ's story to suggest that Markus disrupted classes.
However, as they were walking back to their offices, Richard took her by her elbow and, leaning close, exhorted her again to seek his help anytime that Mr. Mathews became unruly. Richard's door, he stressed, was always open to her.
Martha's classes went as expected on Thursday and by class time on Friday she had convinced herself that Richard had distorted the situation totally out of proportion. She would simply go in and conduct class as planned and everything would be normal.
Still, she did have the slightest knot in her stomach as she entered the classroom. She discussed the ideas of her lesson fairly much as planned. The young woman in the center row, a Miss Cage, added some excellent comments and asked helpful questions. Nevertheless, Dr. Knight remained ill at ease. Mr. Mathews was not in attendance.
Back in the sanctuary of her office, Martha wondered why Markus' absence had unnerved her so. She would be better served if he never came to class, if he dropped the course even. She shook her head. She realized that what upset her was the knowledge that he would not drop the course; his absence indicated the disrespect for authority and for the educational process of which Dr. Astor had warned her. Markus Mathews was a problem student and now he felt no need to attend her class. What other advantages did he think he could take?
"Martha?" She was so deep in thought that the voice came to her as a Muse in a dream.
"Dr. Knight?" Now she focused on him, the notorious Mr. Mathews. "I don't know what I should call you. I see you as a friend; somehow it don't seem right to call you Doctor."
"I have earned the title. It's only proper that you, as one of my students, use it."
"Yeah, fine, I can see that in the classroom and all. But, when there's just the two of us, you want me to be that formal even then?" He looked at her directly but there was no defiance in his eyes, only a request for her to be reasonable. She held the gaze for a moment before looking away.
"There's really not 'the two of us.' It was a long time ago that we knew each other. There has been much which has happened to each of us since. Now I'm the teacher and you're the student. We are not friends. We really hardly know each other." She did not look back to him for several seconds. She was not sure that she had finished. When she did face him again, he seemed unmoved by her statement.
"I think that we know each other better than you admit. Still, you are the teacher; I'll call you whatever you want me to," he said and then stood silent.
"Good," she finally said. "Why are you here?"
"Well, I came to apologize for missing your class this morning. I wouldn't have come but I thought we were friends. I wanted to explain to you personally 'cause I hated not being there."
He paused and looked down before continuing, "Oh, well, you see, I put out this paper, sort of an alternative view on campus events, I guess you would say. Anyway, I had trouble getting this first issue finished with it being a short week and all, but I felt that it was important to do it so everyone would get in the habit of expecting it right off. Well, I got it out but it meant missing your class. I just wanted you to know that I wasn't just cutting class or anything like that. I think it's a fine class and will really help with my writing and all." Again he stood silent. She expected him to leave, but he seemed to expect a response from her.
She reverted to her professional posture. "Attendance is important, especially during these early classes when we are still getting oriented to the amount and quality of work which is expected. You do need to be in class every day," she said with a note of finality, but still he stood before her.
"I did want to ask you if you'd read my paper and tell me what you think. I wanted to ask you as a friend, but I'd accept your doing it as my teacher if it has to be that way."
"I'll be glad to critique your paper, but I warn you I can be a harsh critic."
"That's fine," he said taking a folded legal-size sheet from his notebook and handing it to her. "I would really appreciate your opinion, whatever it is." Then he did turn and walk toward the door.
As she watched him go, he stopped in the doorway and turned toward her. "Do you know about the Music Department's Recital Series?"
"I know that there is one."
"Well, Bliss does have a very excellent music department. Dr. West is a concert pianist of some note. Of course, she plays all types of music. She's the first of the series and that's tonight in the North Auditorium. It starts at 8:00. You would really enjoy it. There is not much to do in Midtown on a Friday night," he said and was gone.
Dr. Knight congratulated herself on how well she had dealt with Mr. Mathews. Perhaps he would realize their appropriate relationship, their only relationship, was as teacher and student. With that feeling of accomplishment, she put Markus from her mind while she prepared her notes for the next hour. However, on finishing her preparation, with minutes to spare, she found she was reviewing his visit. How dare he, she thought. Did he expect her to go to the recital with him? She shook her head as she went to class.