House of Numbers

Vance couldn’t understand why Jill was the only other student at the Institute. After working for three Congressional committees in Washington, she radiated the aura of someone who once bristled with squirrelly energy, then gradually stabilized. Vance had never worked the Hill; Jill, with her geometric features a shade too severe for prettiness, had never worked a campaign.

“The thing about Capitol Hill,” she said one afternoon. “What I never got over—is how generous Congress is with itself. The public has no idea; neither party talks about it. So it rolls on year after year: the expense accounts, the big offices, the paneling. The marble. Congress is very marmoreal.”

“Yes?” Vance said.

“So given that—”

“Go on.”

“Given that, I’ve been thinking—”

“Who said you could think? We can only think when Hopper says we can. Meanwhile, just master the numbers.”

Encounters like these made for interesting if slightly exasperating conversation on the mile-and-a-quarter walk along Route 23 from Hopper House to Sophronia where they both rented rooms. The only conversation really, in the absence of other students. Hopper never explained this oddity; they lacked the nerve to ask. From scraps Jill scattered about, Vance inferred a biography: world-changing ideals in youth, annealed by years of political knife fights on Capitol Hill. Once she referred to her multigenerational lineage in the Garden District, leaving him wondering how she ever lost her New Orleans accent. Perhaps that had been a way to escape everything her magnolia-scented heritage implied. She mentioned a crazy grandfather with delusions of being the scion of a distinguished cotton grower two hundred miles north in the Delta: “Something right out of a romance novel, Mark. To hear him tell about it. But he was making it up. We never owned a plantation. We were doctors and lawyers since before the Civil War.”

Sophronia had once been a center for foundries that made farm implements from the iron mined around Lake Champlain. A steam driven sawmill cut Adirondack logs into finished pine and maple boards. Intricately tooled brownstones lined the main street, most of them long ago broken up into cheap apartments. Walking along Thessaly Street toward City Hall seemed to call up jostling crowds of long ago in the finery of 1875. A jewelry store, a haberdasher, restaurants that served lobster and squab.

“Have you explored Hopper House in your spare time?” Vance said as they passed the bottle-strewn lot where Sophronia’s Opera House had once stood.

“Did he say we could?”

“Check the old closet in the front hall. I found Monopoly. Chinese Checkers. Parcheesi, Chutes and Ladders. An Osterizer. And something called Tammany Hall which you play by choosing to be a famous pol from the gaslight era and moving across the board toward City Hall.”

“I thought you said we should concentrate on the numbers. I merely wanted to explain how you could write kind of a— Subterranean history about policymakers who fight each other by day and drink together nights.”

“Hopper won’t discuss these things,” Vance said. “Why is that?”




Tony Van Witsen

Tony Van Witsen is a seven-year resident of Michigan and has been writing fiction for approximately fifteen years, specializing in short stories.  In the summer of 2001 he enrolled in the MFA program in fiction at Vermont College and received his degree in January 2004.  His published stories and essays have appeared in a range of journals including Spellbinder, Ray’s Road Review, Crosstimbers, Identity Theory and Valparaiso Fiction Review. Tony recommends Becky Tuch's Substack.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Sunday, June 5, 2022 - 09:20