House of Numbers

At the commencement it was almost a physical shock to confront the swarms of smiling, hugging students, the blaring music, the higher academics in their velvet-trimmed robes laughing and chatting with a fine air of self-regard, the whole jostling, anticipating atmosphere reminding Vance what a real university looked like. Giant video screens on each side of the stage showed dreamy slo-mo flyovers of the Adirondacks at sunset under a shifting roster of slogans:


Proud parents waved down from the gallery; graduates waved back. This was real-life academia: upbeat, can-do, perfumed with money, staff and ambition. A trio of girls in caps, gowns and flip-flops danced a triumphant little jig as they entered, mortarboards plastered with homemade wit:


Stolid-looking, medallioned academic nabobs occupied the dais, wearing their eminence like a second skin. More students crowded in, dressed as milk cartons, popsicles, a giant diploma, a margarita with lime slice, making Vance wonder what could possibly breed such impervious optimism. What was the Hopper Institute in this place? A backwater, a forgotten mistake. Could there be a worse time or place to ask for a favor? Heads in front of Vance parted and he saw Hopper beside the stage, a plush academic tam on his head.

“Professor?” he cried out. “Why are you here today?” Hopper squeezed out a tiny grin, just a brief upward flick of the ends of his mouth before turning away.

“Professor?” he shouted again. “Hey! Somebody? Anybody?” His words echoed scarily as the crowd settled down, the noise level dropped and one of the robed grandees approached the lectern. As Vance stared, a woman who resembled a younger, flightier Jill hustled toward him, all business.

“Sir, would you mind explaining yourself?”

“Who are you?” Vance felt he was going to blow his one chance to change things if he didn’t act now.

“I might ask you the same.”

“Sorry. I’m a student of Professor Hopper. Mark Vance. Do you know what’s happening to our program? And Hopper House?”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Gance. I’m Cary Decker, the Provost’s assistant. We are super, super excited about our plans for the Hopper property.”

Plans meant nothing to Vance; after five years at the Institute, he’d learned to think in centuries. “What plans?” he said. “What’s happening?”

“We’re linking the University’s cutting-edge research with industry to create biotech startups. They’ll do a lot of good and it works to the University’s benefit too.” She nattered on about synergy and growth, hammering Vance with just how little he knew about academic institutions and how desperately he needed to learn.

“What’s happening to my Professor?”

“He’ll be retiring.”

Vance tried to process what this meant, grasping for the only thing that mattered. “So I’m moving to the SUNY campus? Is that it?”

“Not sure about that part.” She tapped her phone and scrolled through something, frowning. “You aren’t Mark Vanderwater, are you?”

“Mark Vance. Hopper Institute of Politics.”

“Ah, that’s why you’re not here. Technically you aren’t enrolled at UAlbany.”

“You’re telling me I’m not a student here?”

“It seems not.” As she put the phone away, Vance sensed her trying to recall what sympathy felt like. “I realize how disappointing that must be.”

Disappointing? Was that it? Vance saw the last five years of his life evaporating like flue gas. He wanted a place to sit but couldn’t find one. “But that is so unfair! I’ve been studying with Hopper five years. Isn’t there something you can do? Just one minute with the Provost?”


“Please, Cary? Pl-e-e-e-e-a-s-e?” he said, hating his desperate whininess. “Where is the Provost right now?”

“That’s not your—” She stopped, shut down by an internal brain hiccup or perhaps the novelty of a grad student with backbone. “Come with me,” she said. Wheeling around, she pointed to an open concrete corridor off the main stage and began to walk.

In the drafty dimness, Vance saw a knot of middle-aged men and one woman talking in low voices, while Hopper stood silent and alone a few steps away. Vance recognized the University President by his obliging smile, reaching over to pat the shoulder of a thatch-haired man who didn’t look like an academic: face too tanned, clothes too impeccable.

“That’s Marcus Edens, the venture capitalist,” Carey said. “He’s leading the new Center For BioFuturistics. To his left is the Chancellor, then the Vice-Chancellor, the Assistant Chancellor and his first and second staff assistant,” making Vance wonder if he’d wandered into the College of Cardinals. “And there’s my boss, the Provost. Professor Elizabeth Gibbons.” She nodded toward a woman with an exceptionally fine complexion and stylishly cut silver hair.

Vance caught just enough of Edens and the President’s words to grasp their ease and comfort with each other. “You are seeing the future of this University being made right here,” Carey said in a confidential tone. “Do you know how lucky you are?”

A future without me, Vance thought, as onstage, another gros fromage rallied the students to new heights of upbeatitude. “I believe we all need to help others achieve their full potential.” Applause. “It is my passion to help underserved minority youth.” More applause.

“That is why I built a community center to help kids with academic skills after school.” The kids were loving it, almost levitating out of their seats with their cheers as Vance contemplated the difference between their enthusiasm and his theological dedication.

“Professor Gibbons, this is Mr. Vance,” Carey said.

She eyed Vance like an ant on her sleeve, something to be flicked away before returning to business. “I don’t think—”

“He’s with Hopper House.”

“Oh! I am so sorry we’re pressed for time,” the Provost said. “Otherwise I’d love to learn about the work you biologists are doing with gene editing. The CRISPR thing. It’s truly the future of this University.”

“I’m not a biologist,” Vance pleaded as the Provost’s eyes seemed to lose focus. “I’m a grad student in political science.”

“Professor Gibbons,” Carey said. “They’re ready for you on stage.”

“Excuse me,” the Provost said helpfully. Carey made a little wobbling movement with her shoulders that suggested a shrug as Vance watched his hopes walk away in the drift of bodies toward the bright daylight at the end of the corridor and the stage beyond.

“Actually—” The Provost stopped at the edge of the stage and turned back to Vance. “—since we’re all here, perhaps you could help with something. We want to build a 62 thousand square foot building. However we’re not sure whether we can fit anything that big on the property. No one has the original deed.” She glanced at Hopper who emitted an adenoidal chuckle. “Might you know something about that?” she said.

“What do you mean, ‘that big?’” Vance said.

“I mean the building we’re going to put up.”

“What about the House?” Vance almost shrieked.

“We’ll demolish it.”

“Demolish—” Vance shot a desperate glance at Hopper. “Professor, is this true?”

“Mr. Vance,” Hopper said in his most scalding voice. “May I suggest there are a great many things you have yet to learn about running an academic institution. In the meantime—”

“Destroying the House to save the University?” Vance said to the Provost.

“Elizabeth,” the President said. “We’re due onstage.”

“I can’t talk now,” the Provost said.

“When, then?”

“Elizabeth?” the President said.

“Carey,” the Provost said as the band played and the students gave a deep, throaty cheer. “Will you escort this man off the property?”

“Do you know what you’ll find if you disturb the ground for some biomedical lab?” Vance said, thinking too fast to calculate his odds. “Graves. Of slaves held by the Hopper family.”

“What are you talking about?” the President said.

“There were no slaveholders in my family,” Hopper said.

“Your student says there were.”

“There is no public evidence of that.” Hopper said, his carefully hedged words teaching Vance more than his tutelage ever had.

“Who needs evidence? There are bones.” Vance couldn’t believe how easily he’d gone low, like the last days of a bitter campaign. It felt as good as the time he leaked a political opponent’s sealed divorce record to reporters.

“Hold on,” Marcus said. “If there are any slaves buried on that property, the deal’s off.”

“Marcus,” the President said as a drizzle began falling. “This is neither the time nor the—"

“Mr. Vance.” The Provost leaned so close Vance could smell her face powder. “How would you like to precept with the faculty at UAlbany?”

“I’m not a student.”

Her pearly smile. “I can fix that.”

“What else?” Vance said on pure intuition.

“We’ll guarantee your funding. We’ll transfer your dissertation credits from the Hopper Institute.”

“Will you admit my colleague Jill as well?” Vance said.


“What happens to Hopper House?”

“We’re not building there, that’s for sure,” Marcus said.

“Promise you’ll leave the House alone,” Vance said.

“On one condition: no more talk about graves.”

“I really do have to go,” the President said. The drizzle was thickening, the musicians starting to cover their instruments.

Too dazed to face the swirling clamor, Vance stumbled from the amphitheater past students in wet gowns hugging parents, girlfriends, boyfriends, dogs, cats, a hamster. Amid the squeals and shouts, the camera flashes exploding against his pupils, he grasped something no data could teach about academic leaders who know how to benefit from every crisis. For the first time since he’d run a campaign, he wanted to get stupidly, self-pityingly drunk.




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