House of Numbers

The books to which Vance returned and returned gave up nothing without struggle. It was early May of another year, the trees green with tender young leaves that had been swelling buds a couple of weeks before. In the months after Trump was elected, his supporters repeatedly clashed with the Black Lives Matter movement while Vance soldiered on in the old library with its crooked plaster walls. Maybe next year he’d publish something that might wind up pushing political thought 28 microns one way or another. He missed the sweaty hustle of the campaign trail. Vance’s brother, whose genius in financial arbitrage was exceeded only by his taste for pranks, sent a copy of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision To Go To Grad School with a hundred dollar bill between the pages. He heard footsteps in the hall, wondered if the Professor had arrived to enforce more orthodoxy, then the door opened and Jill breezed in.

“You might have warned me before you decided to abandon our walks along Route 23,” she said.

“I’ve been preoccupied.”

“I don’t mind walking alone. Except when I pass that abandoned house—”

“The one with the pile of old shoes and boots out front—”

“The charred pile somebody set fire to?” she said. “I look away when I pass that.”

Vance understood. The house radiated something brooding and obscure, one of those places you spot through the trees as you whiz past it at fifty miles an hour.

“The reason I came,” she said, “is because I think I’m the closest I’ve ever been to figuring out the Brooklyn voter. Of course I almost had to go to court to get the data. But now I’ve got 30 years of figures right down to the precinct level. Think what I can do with that.”

“I dreamed about Martin Van Buren last night,” Vance said. “He talked and talked and I can’t remember a bloody thing he said.”

“Don’t change the subject. I have enough data to create a single statistical model that tests the effect of every election outcome on every policy. Did a bill pass the City Council? Become a law? If so, code it ‘yes.’ If not, code ‘no.’ Use those outcomes as dependent variables in a hierarchical logistic regression with voting totals as inputs.”

“Van Buren was such a cagey piece of work.” Vance returned to the dream as if she hadn’t spoken. “To this day, nobody knows what he really thought of slavery or how he balanced different factions by making everyone think he was on their side. We spent all night at his father’s inn. Pop kept refilling our glasses with steaming hot punch. I drank too much. The Red Fox sat by the fire and talked, hour after hour, in that Kinderhook Dutch accent. I saw that all my political life I’d only been operating the machinery his generation invented. When I woke, it’s like I finally realized something big but I can’t remember it.”

Jill stared glassily while Vance contemplated certain political realities. He knew Jill’s data covered the years when boss McLaughlin in Brooklyn and boss Croker in New York made things happen, or not, with one cold stare, while they bought votes with Christmas turkeys. Run a logistic regression on that, Jill.

“I’ve been reading old newspapers,” Vance said. “That house you mentioned? Dr. Miles Stevenson lived there about 1800 along with his wife and two freed slaves, Zephyr and Charity.”

“You’ve mentioned this slavery data before. I have the feeling you’re using it as avoidance. You’re really feeling sorry for yourself.”

“You don’t know how sorry,” he said. “I can’t work with Hopper’s dishonest, evasive—”

“Or are you really complaining because research is tough? Your so-called history is white guilt, not research. Big liberal! Big abolitionist!” Before Vance could stop her she snatched his book off the table. He grabbed her arm and twisted, hard, till she dropped it with a little yelp.

Vance groped to comprehend the tangled web of competing connections and motives he’d fallen into. After some time he decided they’d both run out of arguments.

“Zephyr and Charity what?” Jill said finally.

“Wait— You just said it didn’t matter.”

“You’re right. I don’t see what difference it makes,” she said.

“It doesn’t.”

“You said they were all living under the same roof?”

“Who’s being historical now, Jill?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” she said. “What did they talk about?”


“The Stevensons. Zephyr and Charity.”

“I thought you wanted to brag about your voting data from Brooklyn.”

“But I can’t help wondering what happens between a married couple who were always free, in the same household with two freed slaves. Something like what to have for dinner.”

“You just said it’s irrelevant.”

“I guess I just want to know. Did Dr. Stevenson have a secret yen for Charity? Were they—you know—doing it?”

“It’s irrelev—”

“But hard not to think about.”

“I guess.” Feeling provocative, Vance said, “If you really want a counterfactual, try to guess what passed between Zephyr and Charity and the three slaves who worked the farm.”

She sat down at the big table, looking worn and diminished. Four o’clock sun was starting to steal through the windows, basting the ancient woodwork in warm light. At a certain point, Vance thought, you can torture the data all you want to; your insights will still wind up a reflection of yourself.

“I was thinking about my crazy grandfather again,” she said. “The one who thought he was descended from plantation owners in the Delta?”

“I have to get back to work,” Vance said.

“Don’t. Talk to me a while. I mean, it was so weird.”

“What was?”

“That my granddaddy could be so self-deluded. After a while he got to thinking he was the plantation owner, describing how he fought with Jeb Stuart at Chancellorsville. ‘I was called on to go forth and defend the southern way of life,’ he told me. In the twilight, sitting on the porch, with the whole neighborhood smelling of rotting fruit. Even as a kid, I could see he was

cracked as an out-of-tune piano.”

“What brought on this stream-of-consciousness?” Vance said.

“I’m tired of the past. I should go back into politics, shouldn’t I?”

“Did anybody ever talk to your grandfather about his delusions?”

“Never. It was just there, like the summer heat. And the thing is, Mark, if history had happened a little differently, we might have ended up with that plantation.”

“Do you really believe that?” Vance said.


“Well then—”

“What I do know is it’s never a good idea for white southerners to question their past very closely. Too many secrets. Ghosts.”

Startled at the sudden self-revelation, Vance wondered if it signified some deeper change in their relationship to Hopper or to each other. Not for the first time, he contemplated how their intellectual sparring partnership might have played out in bed, an idea he’d always managed to keep below consciousness. Now, suppressing the thought actually took effort.

“Commencement’s next week, isn’t it?” Vance said after a period.

“Why do you ask?”

“I’ve been thinking about your musings on the Institute’s future. Maybe I could visit UAlbany, do some reconnoitering. See what I can learn. Everyone will be there, right?”

“Get out! Who’s going to spill anything to a graduate student?”

“You forget I managed big-time campaigns,” Vance said. “I can be as sneaky as anyone.”

“What will you do with what you discover?”

“That’s part of the sneakiness,” Vance said.




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