Tuesday, February 5, 2013

City on a Hill (Steven to the Institute)

   He had brought a book but found it impossible to read with the stream of green and flashing gold that ran past. Reflecting back he unequivocally decided that there wasn't summer like this in Delaware.
A shame Steven thought that the train windows closed him off from the air rushing by without compromise. So many miles of open farmland and the sun flashing behind the trees, abandoned farm equipment and gravel pits and silos, the towns which passed by in two glances, views of their backyards filled with gutted cars and piles of wood and blue tarps. Such an intimate view of their lives the inhabitants had never expected. These people he would never, he could never know. So many lives lived out in towns that weren't even suburban, couldn't even spare the uneasy luxury of strip malls. Just gas stations and corner stores and outside of that just cow pastures. The scene came a point where even the towns ran out for a while and the endless, rushing country became a flickering stream of grassland and high marsh and rolling hills and as the train crossed the Columbia the thousands-color-burning-sun set twice over, multiplied in the wide water. The train also slowing on the bridge thus drawing out the experience and imparting in it a quality which to Steven is as close to religious as he has ever had.
   The train enters into Portland after a few minutes, this placement of state boundaries along a river has always come off to Steven as painfully feudal, antiquated yet entirely logical. He finds a curious satisfaction in it. He pulls a small notebook from his hiking pack in which he has written a few pages of addresses, directions, phone numbers and names. His handwriting is irregular and uneven, o's that are wide and thin, v's that change height with the words. At points the script approaches incomprehensibility though Steven has no trouble reading it. He had never been to the Pacific Northwest before coming to Westham, though he had imagined it when reading about the early settlers. The area had panned out much as he had thought: the vast spaces, the islands and mountains, the claustrophobic winters which drive one inside to intellectual pursuits and the summers which similarly dive one out into the seas and forests.
   His first year at Westham had gone well enough. He had found it easier not to branch out, not so seek friendship too avidly outside of the Mathematics program, his courses occupying so much of his time anyways he would not be able to devote himself to others. Here now, in the summer after teaching a condensed pre-calculus class he had 3 free weeks on his hands. Most of the other math students having returned to their parent's homes (the idea of doing this himself reliably produces an excruciating and physical reaction) he found vacant Westham pleasant but increasingly boring so, in the combined name of research and escape, he has planned a trip down to Oregon in order to visit a small independent research center.
  This small group had been the only center where full time research into basic analysis had occurred to any great degree. He found its name pressed into the jacket of the few books he could find on the subject though there was little information about the place aside from an address. A search for so much as a phone number turned out to be a complete waste of time. Now, advancing steadily closer-and with nothing but a rural address in hand-he began to feel a hesitant excitement, a sort of terrifying joy at what he may find there.
  He found Portland pleasant: the winding, braiding bridges there tastefully organic, efficient, geologic in their spanning lengths. The day having ended he decided to stay in a cheap hotel for the nights, to rent a car in the morning then set out east along the Columbia to find the institute. He had always found hotels, especially of the cheaper sort, to be strange spaces. The unusual fact that for a time, this room, inhabited before by so many; without a consistent spiritual identity (for people are the soul of a room), would become all his, would feel his heat and separate him from the rest of the universe, become his small world and house his ranging, humming mind, and yet, after this one night, would never see him again. That before and after he used it the room would be attended to, cleaned and prepared just for him but had no connection to him. Each rooms layout identical, two dozen other throbbing bodies in rooms which varied only in the identities of the atoms which comprised the single bed in the middle of the room, the faux-wood door which kept the bathroom out, the television on the west wall (bolted to the cabinet (itself bolted to the wall)), but were in all other ways the exact same room. He always slept easy in these rooms, these whores of space, having learned as a child how to do this. Hearing now about other's hotel induced insomnia led him to a great sympathy. Then in the morning, waking in one of these strange places always unsettling, the reptile mind always for a brief moment registering the unfamiliar walls and carpet with a confused fear which flushes out as the greater mind takes hold and rationalizes the unfamiliarity. The free coffee, the perky clerks. The smell of worn and moving bodies and the attempt to cover this with factory scents.
   Waking early, though not as early as he had hoped, Steven rents a car next door and gets general directions from the girl, only a few years older than him, who is working the counter. When he mentions it is his first time in Oregon she becomes visibly excited.
  "Where are you from!?"
  "Well I go to school in Washington now but I grew up on the east coast."
  "Oh! Well then you should definitely go along route 30, which is right here, you'll see all sorts of signs for it and it is absolutely stunning! And on a day like this...You have to do it. Looks like it will take you right where you want to go."  
He gets the cheapest option: a compact blue vehicle, unsettling long curves all over it. In leaving the city Steven is amazed at how quickly he returns to sparse population, mud flats and dense forest. Past waterfalls and lookout points Steven feels more disappointed than anything, his desire to get to the institute greatly overtakes any urge to look out over the gorge and the glimpses he gets feel more like wasted opportunity than anything else. He goes east for almost an hour then turns south just after the Mosier creek bridge into an exceptionally small town, the nearest to the institute. He finds the post office, a minuscule building on the towns one main road. The glass front door opens and an overweight woman behind the counter gazes up at him blankly from behind bifocals.
  "Hello, may I help you" the drawl in her voice, the first he has heard this far north, seems impossible.
  "I'm trying to get to the Sterzinky institute. Would you be able to help me with some directions?"
  "The what now?" and the look she gives him is as if he had asked her to burn her first born child to death, her intense scrutiny and disbelief entirely out of place for such a simple request. Steven begins to explain as the door opens, jangling the bell rope. The woman ignores Steven and looks past him,
  "Dale you know where an institute is around here? This man wants to find an institute." She looks down at her papers apparently totally exasperated "I don't know of any institute around here." Steven turns to find an incredibly small, withered stalk of a man ambling up behind him, sun baked face scanning up and down, a straw hat pressed so far down on his head it covers his eyebrows.
  "Mmmm. Mmmmhhhmm yeah I know it. Dwan up in the ravines 'long Huskey road, though the road ain't marked." After giving Steven a long glance he places a small package down on the desk in front of the woman.
  "This going out to Paul?"
  "Mmmm, got him some DVDs ah that teevee show he likes, think he'll enjoy 'em"
  "I'm sure he will" She says looking up, pulling the package off the desk and placing it in a bin behind her. The man walks out past Steven and the woman does not look up again. Steven's presence apparently firmly forgotten he mumbles a thanks and returns to the car.
   He finds Huskey road on the other side of the town. While most of the roads out of the town run east-west along the gorge this one runs south directly into the range of mountains and hills that effectively cut the town off from the rest of the state. The road ascends steeply then winds along the edge of a ravine, the stream of mountain runoff which has carved it out apparent some 60 feet below. There is little up here, unmarked turn-offs perhaps every mile blocked by heavy steel gates, perhaps logging roads or service entries. He has to pull off twice (not that a single car has passed him while this road) to check his map before finally locating the entrance to the institute.
    A small wooden sign, beaten down by many years hangs at the entrance to a steep downhill road made of coarse gravel. This leads to an almost empty parking lot, a single Jaguar from the 80's is parked off in the corner. The parking lot is totally quiet and he can see the institute back in the trees. From here it appears to be a squat, spanning building covered in pebble dashing. There are a few dark windows (are they tinted or is the place empty?), a small trail leads to the front door. Steven approaches with a nervous trepidation, showing up like this with no warning, just a few books and his knowledge in hand seems, at this late point, incredibly foolish. He knocks on the door, heavy oak, a physical manifestation of the gap he feels at this point.
    Steven now notices that the building is perched at the edge of a shallow ravine, perhaps 40 feet deep and just as long across, the building at most points is held up on stilts. The ravine is lush, maiden ferns and sword ferns cover the ground below the ragged spiring trunks of pine and cedar (apparently a very old second growth) which reach to the sky and blot it out. The building is totally post-war, every material obsolete, surely stuffed with asbestos. What isn't covered in pebbles is stained wood and sheet metal and concrete. A small intercom finally crackles and a woman's voice comes on,
  "Yes? Hello, how may I help you?"
  Steven leans in, presses a small black button (it must be the talk button, though the small label below is long worn past the point of legibility)
  "Hello, my name is Steven, I'm a graduate student from Washington, I am doing some research on basic analysis and was hoping to talk to anyone here. I tried to get a hold of you before hand but..."
  "Yes, you need to really press down on the button there while you talk."embarrassed Steven presses down harder and the button clicks
  "How about...how about now?" he asks
  "There we go, hello."
  "Hi my name is Steven. I'm a graduate student from Washington and I am doing some research into basic analysis, I tried to get a hold of your institute before I came down but wan't able to. Is there any way I could come in and talk with someone."
  "Certainly! One moment please." Steven straightens up, the level of the intercom is uncomfortably low. He steps away from the door and it clicks open. A very small woman in her late 60's or 70's stands there peering out suspiciously. "Hello, I'm Ann. I'm the caretaker and secretary here, please come in."
  "Steven. Hello." He steps into a small foyer, places his bag on the ground and she opens a closet where he hangs up his jacket. The interior of the building resembles the intersection of an accountant's office and a grandmother's home. Faux wood panels cover every inch, the carpeting is dull and repetitive. There is a low, ornate table on which fake plants and a potpourri bowl sits.
 "I'm amazed you made the trek out here, we're certainly in the sticks." She walks out of the foyer and Steven follows her into a small dining room. She gestures to a table and he sits down. "So please tell me again why you've come out here to us?" There are floor to ceiling windows on the ravineward wall which provide an unbroken view of the forest. The view is such that the bottom of the ravine is not in view, which causes the forest to appear to drop into nothingness. Steven is stunned by the growth outside, in such contrast to the linoleum and wallpaper within meant to imitate it, and it takes a moment for him to respond.
  "Yeah, I've been looking into basic analysis for the past year but it's been hard to find resources. I saw your institute mentioned in the few books I could find but that's about it. I'm honestly not sure what I was expecting but I'll take anything you can provide me." She smiles at this.
  "Well we don't do all that much here anymore, sorry to say. But I can show you around and tell you about our history and perhaps you can look through our library and see if you can find anything.
  "Great." She gets up and leads Steven up a stairway to a long hallway. It must run the length of the structure. Like an office building there are rows of doors on each side, most of them closed. There is a cork bulletin board with faded announcements, some ripped, others with their thumbtacks long fallen out, the paper held on by the memory of the metal.
 "Our institute was created in 1973 by the mathematician Pierce Todd and the philosopher Ellen Greigarty after the left their positions at Steer. The institute is named it after the founder of the Pointist school of philosophy Gerhard Sterzinsky who was a major influence on their work. The institute was created and sustained by a series of grants from the department of defense as well as private donors. We began with 15 researchers who would stay here on one or two year fellowships and graduate students from all over the world who would come here on summer programs. We grew to 25 researchers working here full time in the mid-80's. Unfortunately our dee-oh-dee funding was cut shortly after that so we had to down size significantly. We are sustained now primarily by three donations in perpetuity but we have been forced to cease issuing new fellowships."
  "How many researchers are here now?" Steven asks, a pit growing in his stomach.
  "There are four of us...including myself." She smiles painfully.
  "The majority of our research now revolves around Kawasi's series of bounded tunnel problems...what area was it you said you worked on again?" she asks wrinkling her nose.
  "Well I wouldn't say I work on it per se but I've been exploring basic analysis. I have to admit I've never heard of any of the area's you work on: Pointism or Kawasi..."
  "Yes...they are fairly underresearched areas unfortunately." Down the hall a door opens inward and a lanky man steps out an enormous mug in hand. He approaches Steven and Ann, squinting in confusion. He says,
  "Hello" very loudly, antagonistically. "Who are you? Ann who is this?" He points his mug at Steven, standing unusually close to the two he keeps his eyes on Ann.
  "This is Steven, he came here in the hopes of doing some research. He is a graduate student." The man looks Steven up and down, takes a long drink from his mug.
  "Hello. Doctor Eric Dore. What area do you work in?"
  "Um...well I'm working on a project on boundary functions right now but I'm very interested in basic analysis. I saw that there was some significant work done here so I wanted to come down and learn more."
  "Hmmm, that was..." he looks at Ann "Ted I think. That was a while ago, I helped a little with that but don't remember much honestly. I think Blake may be able to help you out, he and Ted were close, I'm fairly sure they worked on a few of those papers together."
  "Yes, Blake should know. Do you know where Blake is now?" Ann asks
  "Eh, he left early this morning, went out into the forest to do whatever it is he does." He glances over at Steven "He goes on these walks, no idea in hell what he's doing. Well..." he begins to push past them "Good luck. I'll be busy for the rest of the day I think but...you will be staying with us?"
Steven is taken aback,
  "Well you came out all the way here for us. You should stay for a few days. You have a return ticket?" Ann asks
  "No, I don't. I mean if it's alright I wouldn't mind..."
  "We almost never get visitors here so it will be very nice. We'll fix up a room for you and everything. There's just one more person I'd like you to meet" They walk a little down the hall, each door they pass has a small holder for a name placard beside it, empty but for one at which they stop. Ann knocks on the door and it opens slowly. A very grey very round man opens the door and gives Steven a look which is very similar to the one he had received from Eric. Steven can see the office is spartan: totally dark aside except from a lamp on a desk which is covered in papers.
  "Carl this is Steven, he'll be staying with us for a few days. He's been studying basic analysis and would like to study here. Are you familiar with that area at all?" The man shakes his head.
  "I'm busy right now" and closes the door.
  "Well let me show you to the library, you can look around there while I get your room set up and for Blake to return. He's very nice you'll like him a lot." Ann leads Steven to a room identical to the offices though the room is filled with treatises and pamphlets. There is a small section which contains texts which Steven has read or is at least familiar with but the majority of the room is filled with books on topics he has never heard of before: 'Nondefinite Particulate Algebra', 'Topics in Hypertoroidal Transformations', 'Kungian Logic and the Omicron-state'.
   Steven notices, near the floor and toward the back of the room a small piece of masking tape, yellowed and peeling which signifies the the 'Basic Analysis' section. This one shelf holds three times as many books on the subject than Steven knew existed. They all have totally plain covers, displaying just the title and the author. Two of the books are authored by Theodor Beebe, one of these is coauthored by Blake Markell, whom Steven assumes are the researchers from the institute mentioned earlier. He opens one and begins to read.

  The building had been built to accommodate up to 40 researchers at a time, the bottom floor composed largely of small single rooms. Ann had opened one up for Steven and he found it very welcoming, the desk and bed close together; the room like a mullosc's shell. Night comes and the building, so under-occupied, is pervaded by an eerie emptiness. Eric has fixed up dinner and Steven, Ann and Carl sit down in the dining room Steven and Ann had spoke in earlier, one of three in the building. The researchers, in close proximity to eachother for so long have sunk into the neutral silence that settles around a long marriage. Their seclusion has caused this to extend to Steven, their few attempts at conversations with him, while not terribly awkward are stilted and forced. As they sit down to eat an earthy buzzing sound resonates in a far away part of the building,
  "Blake's back" Ann says as she rises to press a button on a panel on the wall. Steven hears the front door open, some rustling and a small harried man comes into the room, a frenetic energy washing in with him.
  "You would not believe the size of this ganoderma I found. Good lord! Who is that!?" He points at Steven, points without regard for any sort of social graces, points and stares.
  "That's Steven" Eric says with all the bored frankness as if he were referring to a chair. Blake stares for a moment longer then puts down his hand,
  "Ah I see. A Steven." he marches over and sticks out his hand "Always glad to meet a Steven and what a Steven indeed. Ann dear what shall I do with this?" He pulls a basket of large woody mushrooms from a sack on his side
  "In the kitchen I think"
  "Great!" He marches out of the dining room and a clatter comes from down the hall as he trails away. After Blake returns they begin to eat: Eric has made a sort of casserole filled with broccoli and cheap cheese. They eat quickly, almost grudgingly, even at this early stage few questions are asked of Steven. He is unsure whether they have accepted him or are ignoring him.
  "Tell us about yourself, friend!" Blake says, out of nowhere.
  "Ah, well I was born and raised in Delaware, went to school there. Umm, then after I graduated I was sort of burned out with academia so I took some time off, hitchhiked around Quebec and the Maritimes, worked some odd jobs. I had continued to study math though during this time and in a small hostel library in Halifax I came across 'An Introduction to Basic Analysis'. I don't for the life of me know how it got there but I was fascinated by it. I found a researcher in Westham that worked on the subject, well...worked-at-one-point I suppose, and decided to apply there for my master's degree." Steven had noticed that the other's were absorbed with their meals and if they had been paying attention to Steven they were not showing it. He stopped talking and none of them seemed to notice. Steven went back to eating, a small feeling of terror welling up in him.
   After dinner Ann and Carl begin a game of cribbage while Steven, Carl and Blake look over the mushrooms Blake had collected earlier that day.
  "These are...the mushrooms of immortality" Blake says, peering over his glasses to gauge Steven's reaction "The Chinese make a tea out of this which once was used to live forever. Now...I don't know about living forever-who, anyway would want to live forever? Eternal tedium!-But there has been a certain amount of research which suggests this genus could fight cancerous growths!" Carl is sitting, sipping a very small glass of port,
  "And so will this..." he retorts, holding up his glass, evidently thinking himself incredibly wry. Carl gets up to leave and Blake moves the basket of mushrooms to a sink where he begins to scrub them off with a soft brush.
 "This is a really nice place, you must enjoy living here?" Steven says, attempting to make small talk, and expecting nothing more than small talk in return. There is a weighty silence before Blake responds and Steven gets the feeling he has said something terribly wrong.
  "How could I love this...prison? How could I love being here? This: my exile my...lime tree bower, my imposed sickness..." Steven shuffles uncomfortably in the seat, clears his throat in confusion. "If only we stayed here out of out own will...What was it you said you studied again?"
  "Uh...well I came here hoping to learn more about basic analysis. I guess since you co-authored some of the books you would be willing to teach me what you know." Blake has turned from the sink, now brushing the mushroom's dirt directly onto the floor.
  "You want to learn about the world of fundamentals, eh? A dangerous area you know? A strange area for someone like yourself, wouldn't recommend it, frankly. It's caused the demise of a few of my good friends. A difficult area, very confusing. Drove Harvey Wallstetler mad. Anyways no one studies it anymore, it is a dead field, we reached the end of the field here thirty years ago, there is nowhere further to go. The proofs are exhausted, you could learn what we found but you would be at a loss to move any further so it would be a waste of time for you. We tried to push forward for years after Ted discovered the fourth proof but there's no point in going further. I assure you." Blake stares at him for a moment, smiles though his teeth, turns around and begins to brush again, brushing the same specimen he has been working on for several minutes, entirely unaware of what he is doing.
   "I don't believe you"

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