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Excerpt from “The Learning Room”

May 28, 2015

Excerpt from The Learning Room, an upcoming novel by John Callahan, Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis & Clark.

Printed with permission. Copyright John Callahan.

Unlike the state of the art equipment used to film DVDs in the learning room, the camera at the old Ward place was stationary, its pigment black and white, its range limited.While my clunky VCR warmed up, I remembered how proud Timmy was of the morning he’d spent alone with Fergus in the old Ward house at the end of August. He laughed telling me how Fergus ran up the creaky steps and pressed his face against the big window, then snarled, barked, and yipped, imitating the feral creatures he’d heard and seen on the estate: raccoons, squirrels, a wild cat or two, even a fox …

 

August 30, 2004

Fergus scampers the length of the ballroom. He stops, scoots back, and drops his little piano on a dusty table under one of the dirty windows. He spots a line of droppings on the floor and hunches over to follow the trail.

“Poop,” he grins, pointing from the droppings to Timothy. “Yooo,” he shakes his finger and pats his bottom, “Yooo: Poop!” Timothy’s fingers circle his eyes and he lets out a mock growl, “Frrrg: Raa-cooon.”

Fergus spins, and bangs the shutters so hard they bounce back into his hands. He rubs the grimy windows. His mouth ripples into laughter at the sunbeams dancing on his hand. He unlatches the handle, and a French door swings open. Two squirrels sit up in the open doorway and hold out their paws. Fergus dashes forward; startled by the large shape barreling toward them, the squirrels run inside and climb the wall until their claws grip the windowsill. Laughing, Fergus runs after them. They jump down and scamper out of sight. Timothy waits until Fergus turns the wrong way, then he drives the rodents out, and fastens the latch.

Fergus tries to push Timothy away. Timothy stiffens. Fergus looks down at the floor, walks over to the droppings, and smears some on one of his sandals. He runs at Timothy and kicks his leg. Timothy grabs Fergus’s shin with one hand, and puts the other on his shoulder, spinning him around on the warped floor.

“Not with me you don’t.”

Fergus’s mouth moves. He doesn’t speak. He whirls, grabs his toy piano, and throws it at Timothy. Timothy pats the piano, carries it to the table, and tinkles out a scale.

Fergus flops on the floor and curls into a ball.

“You okay?”

Fergus stays motionless.

Timothy resumes tinkling the piano.

Fergus jumps up.

“Frrrg paay pos’sum,” he roars, grinning.

“You fooled me,” Timothy says, playing “Three Blind Mice.”

Humming the tune, Fergus hustles to the staircase. “Frrrg,” he shouts and runs upstairs out of camera range and comes down on the other side of the ballroom. He climbs again, chanting. “One-two-three-four-five-six” … He’s no longer visible on the video. I hear his voice. “Seven-eight,” there’s a pause … (I imagine him on the landing) … “Nine-ten-eleven-twelve-thirteen-fourteen.” His voice grows louder … he comes into view and runs from the foot of the stairs to a cracked full-length mirror tilted against the wall. He runs around the room. He spins in a narrow circle around Timothy who sits cross-legged in front of a lopsided hassock, playing runs on the toy piano.

Timothy seems to ignore Fergus as Fergus ignores him.

After two more circles, Fergus comes back to the stairs.

“One-two-three-four-five-six.”

His little behind disappears as he speeds up the stairs. His voice and footfalls grow faint. Soon he appears at the bottom of the back stairs running in stride past mirror and windows. He jogs to the far door, turns around, runs past the mirror up and down the stairs, chanting a number for each stair. He does this twice more. The third time he breaks stride in front of the mirror. He sees a sliver of reflection from the chandelier. He does another turn and stops at the mirror. He speaks to the boy in the glass.

“Herr-ggus,”

Fergus taps the mirror and slaps his chest.

“Herrgus,” he shouts. He runs to the French doors and back to the mirror …

 

In the loft a shaft of sunlight blotted out the image on my wall screen. I paused the video, closed the blinds, and also refilled my coffee mug. After I rewound briefly and hit play, the images were sharper.

 

Fergus tears up and down the stairs. On his way back he sees the boy in the mirror and stops in his tracks.

“Hergus.”

He turns around.

Timothy sits on the floor in front of the toy piano playing “Sing a song of sixpence, a pocketful of rye.”

“Hergus,” Fergus says, pointing to the boy in the mirror.

Timothy takes his hands off the keys.

Fergus grabs the piano, and carries it to the mirror.

“Herrgus!”

Timothy looks at Fergus a long time. He stands up and goes over to the stairs. “One-two-three-four-five-six,” he chants as he runs up the stairs … “Eleven-twelve-thirteen-fourteen” his voice calls as he tramps down the rear staircase, invisible. Like Fergus, he comes back into sight. On the way back he stops at the mirror behind Fergus.

“Herrgus,” Fergus points to his image in the mirror.

He tugs Timothy forward with one hand, holds the piano with the other. He hands it to Timothy, looks at the mirror and points at a man’s grinning face.

“Tee,” Fergus says looking back at Timothy, “Yooo Tee.”

“Fergus,” Timothy answers looking forward.

“Hergus,” Fergus claps his hands.

Timothy touches Fergus’s cheek.

“Hergus is Fergus.”

Fergus looks in the mirror at Timothy’s image.

“Tee bee Tee.”

He touches Timothy’s face running his fingers down and around his nose.

A shape appears at the bottom of the screen.

 

I can’t tell if it’s a shadow or another person. I hit pause then press play.

 

At the rear of the ballroom Aranza stands unnoticed.

In front of the mirror Fergus lifts the piano higher in Timothy’s hands.

“Sooong,” he says. “Tee ‘n Frrgg singgg.”

Timothy takes Fergus’s free hand in one of his and plays the first notes of “Sing a song of sixpence.”

“This time Fergus and Tee play,” Timothy says, and Fergus lets him move his fingers along the keyboard.

Aranza crosses into sunlight, her face radiant.

“I didn’t want to disturb you two,” she says softly.

Fergus touches her then slowly turns around to her image in the mirror. As his hand reaches the glass she moves away.

“Arrrz,” he goes to her and points at the mirror, “Arrz coom bak.”

“You called Timothy Tee,” she says, not understanding his invitation.

She leans over to hug him; after a moment he puts his arms around her neck.

“Tee,” Fergus says. He steps between them, looks back at the blank mirror.

“Time to go,” Aranza tells him. “Your mama’s in the learning room.”

“Eating bread and honey,” Timothy says.

“What?” Aranza looks at him.

“Never mind,” he says.

“Don’t do that,” she says, backing up as if stung. “Tell me.”

“Some other time,” he replies quietly, pointing at Fergus.

He holds out one hand to Aranza, the other to Fergus. Without looking, Fergus and Aranza take a hand, and the three of them walk out of range …

 

I hit the off button. An instant blizzard of gray and white snow covers the screen before blankness takes over … Fergus … how was he? How could he be without Aranza, and with Timothy hiding somewhere? Even with Hergus as an alter ego how long could Fergus hold out alone? An urge to be in motion, to do something (anything but think about the little guy) swept over me.

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