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Mason finished drinking an Alka-Seltzer and dropped the paper cup into the waste basket. He looked at his watch. There were still fifteen minutes before the publications board meeting was scheduled to start. He had been sitting at his office desk for an hour and had not done anything productive, which bothered him in a manageable way. He had trimmed his fingernails, had used a tissue to clean off the earpiece of his telephone, had straightened a picture on his wall and then re-straightened it and had even tried to shine his shoes but had given up after doing only the one on his right foot. He looked forward to the meeting, a chance to sit quietly without self-recrimination, observing the mounting frustrations of the other members of the board.
He was lacking sleep and was slightly hung over. He had awakened with a chill on the roof just as the sky had begun to lighten with the first threats of dawn. George and Janice were asleep in a tangle nearby; and the weight on his own thigh he discovered to be Cindy, using him as a pillow. He had his customary morning erection and, looking toward Cindy, wondered if he should do anything about it. She was sleeping peacefully on her side, legs drawn up a little, one arm folded protectively across her chest.
He moved his leg gently to awaken her. Her eyes opened heavily and closed again, then re-opened with more conviction. The blank expression of sleep slowly faded from her face. She smiled at him and touched his stiff member with her fingertips.
He recognized competing forces in himself, weaker now than before he had slept. He still felt only a slight attraction toward her personally, and now also had regret for that, wondering why he did not feel more and concerned that it may have become impossible for him to feel for any woman what he remembered feeling in the past when he thought he was in love. Still he desired her sexually and concluded that he had an expected role to play. He would not consider it any kind of personal failure or humiliation for him to avoid sex; there had been times when he had done that; but he would consider it unmanly and insulting for him to treat Cindy as though she were not sexually appealing to him. Without speaking, he re-positioned himself between her legs. He thought he owed it to her. And besides, it felt good. If it didn’t signify anything, if nobody gained anything by it, at least nobody lost, he reasoned.
Any reluctance or disengagement he had felt on the roof had largely vanished by the time he took his seat at the publications board meeting. As usual, he was the last to arrive, having deliberately avoided the social amenities that typically preceded the call to order.
He glanced around the table, flashing a quick smile at anyone who made eye contact. It looked as though all seven members were present. Mrs. Maxwell from the English Department met his glance with a supercilious nod. He nodded back. There was something about her – a bitter divorced woman in her fifties with steel gray hair – that presaged violence. He suspected that she would like to see him run over by a bus. He had never had any kind of negative encounter with her, so he assumed her apparent spite was fueled entirely by what she thought she saw when she turned her eyes on him. Maybe he looked like some former lover who had discarded her, although he found it impossible to imagine her romantically involved with anyone.
The board plodded through some routine budget matters, which interested Mason only because he was always amazed and depressed by the way student editors could argue budgets with all the seriousness, skill, and language of Republican businessmen. They spoke of things like deficits and internal transfers of funds and capitalizing production costs, while Mason wondered what had happened to their youth. There was no sign of it. Apparently they didn’t recognize it as an asset.
He noticed a TV camera in a corner of the room. He remembered that there had been discussion at the last meeting about the advisability of permitting live coverage of their meetings on the campus closed circuit TV channel. Mrs. Maxwell was against it. Mason had reminded the group that the State meetings law required them, as a public body, to have all of their meetings open to the public. And since they met in a small room where there were no chairs for anyone except the board members, the majority decided that TV would be a good alternative to having students crowd into the room, although that had never happened. Mrs. Maxwell had voted no. Mason was convinced that she blamed him for her defeat.
The girl running the TV camera looked like someone from one of his classes, but he couldn’t think of a name and couldn’t see her face well enough to be sure. Standing nearby were the former female editor of the student newspaper and a male friend. Mason thought that the editor had been removed for some kind of bad judgment. He wondered why she was at the meeting. The chairman of the board, a student who was also editor of the literary magazine, announced at that moment that the board would hear an appeal on the newspaper editor’s dismissal.
The former editor was a tall, unattractive girl with no makeup and a defiant expression. She approached the end of the table as though she had been waiting in a food line all morning and someone had just told her that there was no more bread.
“I would like this group to know that I think my firing was totally unfair, that it represents the most malicious form of censorship and that it is also an act of discrimination against me as a woman.”
“But you’ve been replaced by another woman,” Mason pointed out. She ignored him. Mrs. Maxwell glared at him.
“I believe that I have a responsibility to see that this board is prohibited from ever again acting like a petty little dictatorship. I don’t want my job back. But I want to clean up the policies of this assembly of self-righteous hypocrites.”
Mrs. Maxwell stirred uncomfortably in her chair, clearly beginning to wonder if she had allied her self with the wrong person.
“I have talked to an attorney and he told me I’ve got a good case. So I’m going to sue the board. There’s nothing personal involved. This is about freedom of the press and discrimination against women. My rights and those of the readers of the student newspaper have been violated. I’ve got a responsibility to see that this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
One of the male student members of the board muttered, “Well spoken.”
The editor stepped back against the wall. Her male friend whispered something into her ear and squeezed her arm reassuringly. Mason wondered if they had ever had sex together. He glanced around the table at the other members of the board, who appeared to have been rendered unresponsive to the presentation. Some of them were staring at papers they had positioned in front of themselves before the meeting began. Mason had actually enjoyed the speech and was pleased to see someone genuinely aroused about something, even if he thought she was a crank. He proclaimed, “Good speech,” which broke the spell of silence and caused everyone in the room to look at him.
The editor’s male companion stepped forward and said that he too would like to say a few words. Like her, he was wearing drab, shapeless clothing. But his hair was dirty and he had the sullen look of someone who worried that he might have tape worms. The chairman asked who he was and he identified himself by name only, no affiliations. He shook a finger at the board, particularly at Mason.
“I hope you don’t think this is some kind of a joke. She’s serious about this and she’s got plenty of supporters. You people are way out of line. You’re just a bunch of goddamned frustrated anti-progressives who can’t stand to have anybody disagree with you. Well, I can tell you, you’re not going to get away with this.”
While the speaker was trying to think of something else to say, Mason pulled himself up out of a slump, leaned forward intently and said, “Excuse me, are you a student here?”
The speaker glared at him. “What the hell does that have to do with anything? We’re talking about constitutional rights and freedoms and….”
The chairman rapped his knuckles on the table for order. “OK, we appreciate your input….”
“If not the language,” Mrs. Maxwell commented.
They took a vote, unanimously reaffirming the dismissal of the editor, and then immediately adjourned. Contrary to the usual practice of lingering around for more socializing, the board members scooped up their books and papers and all immediately swept toward the door. Although Mason was customarily first one out, he was surprised to find several others ahead of him. The editor’s male companion put a hand on Mason’s arm at the doorway and stepped in front of him.
“Your kind don’t have any place on this campus,” the editor’s friend snarled.
Mason looked down at the hand on his forearm and then into the rheumy eyes of the young man. The grip got tighter and the young man stared back. The room seemed to Mason to have gotten quiet except for the voice of the literary magazine editor somewhere in the background urging them to leave.
The grip did not loosen. Mason dropped the folder of corrected tests that he was going to take to class. Before it had hit the floor Mason had broken the grip on his arm, leaned back for balance, cocked his arm and swung at the point of the young man’s chin. Mason was not as quick or as strong as he used to be and he telegraphed the punch. The young man ducked and the blow parted the air where the young man’s head had been a moment before. Mason staggered forward a little with the momentum. There were shouts all around him. He quickly steadied himself and held his fists in front of him like a boxer, expecting that the young man would try to retaliate. But the young man had turned very white and his eyes had gotten quite big. Other persons in the room were holding on to each of them to prevent any further attempts at violence.
The young man started yelling. “You’re crazy! I’m going to have you arrested for assault. Someone call the police!”
Mason looked around at the members of the publications board. No one was racing to get to a phone. In a calm voice he asked, “Did anyone here see me actually make contact with this squirrelly sonuvabitch?”
“No, but it was a damned good try,” Mrs. Maxwell said, which caused everyone to look at her. She responded by patting the back of her hair and standing up very straight. Mason couldn’t tell if she was defending or accusing him.
Mason spoke again to the group. “I’m sure several of you must have seen this thug forcibly holding my arm.” He shifted his focus to the young man. “That’s where the assault occurred. And it was the only physical contact. By the way, I’m an attorney.”
The fired editor soothed her friend and steered him toward the door. From the doorway she yelled back, “Fascist pigs! Sado nation!” Then she flashed them all her middle finger for good measure.
Mason picked up his file.
“Oh, Jesus,” the literary editor said. “Is that thing on?” They all looked at the TV camera in the corner. It was aimed directly at them. There was no response from the operator who was still at the back end of the device watching a monitor.
“I have to go to a class,” Mason said to no one in particular and hurried away.
He went to the first men’s room he could find and shut himself in a stall. The excitement had loosened his bowels, which he considered desirable because he hadn’t enjoyed his daily movement yet anyway. With the tests at his feet, his elbows on his knees, Mason relaxed and felt his pulse return to normal. He enjoyed restrooms for the nearly total privacy they offered in the stalls. He took a deep breath. The pause for him was like a brief vacation.
After his class he had the misfortune to encounter Don Denton. Denton was an entirely reasonable man of good judgment who chain smoked, always had a shine of anxiety on his face, and usually was on his way to something more important. He was also the president of the university, someone who occasionally had solicited legal opinions from Mason. They approached each other in a hallway. Mason looked the other way but Don Denton hailed him. Mason wondered if he knew about the incident at the publications board.
He steered Mason to a wall-mounted ash try that was stuffed with candy wrappers. “Christ, Mason,” Don Denton said in a quiet conspiratorial voice as he snuffed out his cigarette. “Have you lost your mind? Taking a swing at a student. Do you know what they could do to you? To us?” He lit another cigarette and fussed with the ash tray. One of the candy wrappers was smoldering.
“I don’t think he was a student,” Mason countered. “Anyway, he committed an assault on me when he forcibly restrained me by holding onto my arm. It’s probably all clear on the TV tape, if we could get hold of that.” Mason would have preferred to have gotten possession of it long enough to destroy it.
“Yeah, I saw it,” Don Denton said. “I was watching the whole adventure live in my office. I couldn’t believe it. A member of the faculty taking a swing at a student – or non-student – whatever he was, it doesn’t make much difference.” Don Denton used a ballpoint pen to jam the smoking candy wrapper down inside the ash tray and then tried to force the lid shut over it. “Goddamn it,” he muttered. “If these fucking students would use the waste baskets for their trash we wouldn’t have this kind of problem.” The lid would not go entirely shut and the smoke that was now spiraling up from the ash tray was foul smelling. Other people passing by in the hallway were starting to look at them.
Don Denton glanced at his watch and dribbled cigarette ashes onto his sleeve, which he ignored. “I’ve got to go to a meeting, Mason. If anything comes of this, let me know immediately. Please. And try to show a little more restraint. I don’t expect you to become the spineless twit that some members of the faculty seem to want to emulate, but at least a little more restraint. OK?”
“Certainly,” Mason said.
Don Denton smiled, not believing Mason but satisfied that he had addressed one problem and could move on to the next. He turned and hurried down the hallway. The ash tray looked as though it were about to burst into flames. Mason felt the side of it. It was hot. He was caught in a dilemma. If he left he would probably be accused of permitting a fire to start, something akin to arson; but staying, he didn’t know what to do about it. While he stared at the hot, smoking ash tray, trying to think what someone else might do in these circumstances, a black male student wearing a floor length African robe poured his Coke on it, an instant solution. He then looked with awe upon the white faculty member’s helplessness.
“I didn’t start it,” Mason said. “I don’t smoke.”
The student nodded as though he understood more than Mason was saying. Mason walked away, feeling an urgent need to get back to his office and lock the door.
The next class was torture. He struggled to inspire some questions or comments by the students, anything that would give him a clue about whether they cared at all about business law and, if so, whether they understood any of what he was saying. But they just continued to stare at him like a bunch of zombies. He kept glancing at the clock on the wall. He had been five minutes late, not unusual, and he thought he might be able to get away with dismissing them five minutes early – which shortened his class time from fifty minutes to forty. He thought the students might be grateful; he knew he certainly would be. Even though the students were paying for fifty minutes of his time – or their parents were – he didn’t think they would mind being shorted ten minutes.
A boy in the front row was taking copious notes at a rate that seemed faster than Mason was talking. Since Mason customarily strolled around the room while he lectured, he only had to vary his course slightly to pass by the note taker and snoop over his shoulder. He couldn’t talk and read at the same time, so when he had positioned himself slightly behind the student he stopped talking briefly to read a little of what the boy was writing. It was a letter to a finance company, something about making an extra payment next month. Aware of Mason’s sudden silence, the boy looked up, making no effort to conceal his letter. Mason stepped away and resumed speaking.
“Does anyone have any questions?” he asked of the stagnant waters surrounding him. There wasn’t a ripple.
“Good. Then we can probably fill up the remaining time with a brief quiz.” Three hands went up immediately. The questions were inane but they helped fill the time. One student only wanted to know if Mason was going to be teaching the next term of this class, which Mason interpreted as a thinly veiled criticism of his teaching style.
At ten minutes before the hour the bell rang and Mason was surprised that he had again managed to fill most of his allotted time. He returned the tests they had taken about a week earlier and left immediately, before anyone could argue about his grading.
Mason went directly to his office and shut the door. He sat in his swivel chair and stared at the message light blinking on his answering machine. He had to decide whether to play back the messages, draft an answer to a civil complaint that one of his clients had received, or lock the door and take a nap on the floor. He felt excessively drowsy and decided that he would not accomplish anything productive until he had granted himself a nap. He got up from his chair and was about to turn the lock on the door when there was a faint knock. He knew he’d have to answer it because whoever was there must heard him moving around. He opened the door only far enough to suggest that he already had someone else in his office.
“Could I talk to you about my paper?”
It was Elaine Bettendorff. She was wearing an embroidered blouse and tight blue jeans with sandals. She had taken her hair out of the usual bun and had done it in tight corn rows.
“I’m afraid I haven’t read it yet, but you can come in if you like.”
He shut the door behind her and sat down at his desk again. He felt slightly threatened by her and could not figure out why. He always was uncomfortable sitting formally in the pose of a doctor with a patient who expected to be cured.
“It must have taken you a while to do that,” he said.
“Your hair. The corn rows.”
She touched it uncertainly and shrugged. “I get tired of having it the same way all the time.”
“I really like it.” He really didn’t. It looked bizarre. A white person with corn rows suggested that she was trying to look black. Still, his compliment seemed to have been in order.
“Anyway, you got my paper?” she asked.
He fumbled around on his desk and finally laid his hands on it under one of his legal files. He held it up for her to see.
“I know it’s late. I just wanted to make sure that me being late wouldn’t affect my grade any. I mean, if that’s a problem I can explain to you why it’s late.”
Mason recognized the approach as pragmatic; she was one of those students who lobbied for grades. They usually succeeded because most professors were either easily intimidated or liked the attention. Mason had always admired these students. They had figured out the system, which Mason believed was one of the most important lessons that the majority of them could hope to learn from college.
“No problem,” Mason said. “I’ll consider it on its merits.”
That was not exactly what she wanted to hear but she didn’t press it. “You probably get a lot of excuses from students.”
“Not too many actually. I try to discourage excuses. They don’t really accomplish much.”
“You’re kind of hard to get to see. I’ve been by here several times but you’re never in.” She stated it as a fact without being coy.
“That’s right. I have a lot of meetings I have to attend.”
“I saw you at one this morning.”
“Oh? Where?” He had only been to one, the one he wished he had missed. Still, there was always a slim possibility that she had him confused with someone else.
“The pub board. I was running the TV camera.”
“Ohhh. Right. I thought there was something familiar about the person at the camera, but I couldn’t see enough of you to figure out who it was. How’d you like the meeting?”
“I got some good shots of you swinging at that guy.” She laughed.
“Yeah? That was really unfortunate. We shouldn’t have violence either on TV or on campus anywhere. We should all get along with each other. I believe in love. Now I’m starting to sound like a Beatles song, but I’m against hostility.”
She smiled faintly. “Could’ve fooled me.”
He leaned forward and addressed her as an equal. “There was extreme provocation, don’t you think. That fellow tried to attack me. I think I might still have some bruises here on my arm where he grabbed me.” He pushed up the sleeve of his sport coat to reveal an unblemished arm.
She realized he was not serious, and she was bold enough to respond in the same vein. “Maybe you ought to try the other arm.”
He did, and sat there with both sleeves pushed up. “I don’t know. Maybe you could hit me on one of these arms with something and make just a little bruise. Do you think that would help any?”
She shook her head and sighed. “I’d better be going.” She gathered up the loose heap of crocheted shoulder bag that lay on the floor near her feet. They stood up together and she adjusted the strap of the bag on her shoulder. He walked around the desk to escort her to the door, but since she did not move from where she had been they ended up facing each other. She seemed to be waiting for something, but he was not certain what it was, and the break in the flow of her departure left him standing there awkwardly.
“I liked talking to you,” she said, looking steadily into his eyes. “Can I come back?”
“Of course. Or maybe we could meet sometime for coffee or dinner. My evenings are less busy than the time I spend in this squirrel cage of an office. Something away from here would be a lot more conducive to talk. Do you have a phone, or would you prefer to call me?”
“I think I’d better give you my phone number. I’ve already left some phone messages, but nobody ever called me back.”
“Right,” he said. “I don’t keep up with my phone messages very well.”
She picked up one of his business cards from the holder on the desk and wrote her number on the back of it along with her name, apparently not possessing unqualified faith in his memory. While she was bent over writing he could not avoid the view down her blouse. Classic, he thought.
She handed him the card and he glanced down at the writing and started to say something, but she pressed up against him, slipped one hand behind his head and the other on his testicles while she kissed him deeply. Then she backed off, adjusted her shoulder bag again, grinned at him, and slipped out the door. He stood dazed in the center of his cramped office, holding one of his business cards with her name and phone number written neatly on the back.
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