by Joel Allegretti
Phantom? Bugaboo? Hallucination? For little Alex Rossi, it was the Obb: tall, eyeless, draped in black from crown to foot, unable or unwilling to speak, unspeakable.
The Obb made its first appearance on a frosty night in mid–March, that time when folks are waiting for spring to rouse itself from a long sleep. Alex was curled up in his bed like Cocoa, the toy poodle. Something nudged the kindergartner awake. With its arms outstretched, it resembled funereal curtains in an amusement-park haunted house.
It flapped its arms like a crow’s wings. Alex screamed, and it was gone. He heard footsteps pounding through the hall. His mother flipped the wall switch. The sudden light shocked his eyes.
“What’s the matter?” she asked. Dad stood behind her, his hands resting on her shoulders.
Alex started to cry. Mom approached the bed and felt her son’s forehead. “He doesn’t have a fever.”
“Were you having a nightmare, Alex?” Dad asked.
“It (sob) was (sob) in (sob) my (sob) room.”
“What was in your room?” Mom asked.
“It was in my room.” Alex beat his fists on the bed. “It was in my room.”
“Alex, honey, please calm down,” Mom said, running her fingers through her son’s chocolate-pudding hair. “Tell Daddy and me, what was in your room?”
“What was it?” Dad asked.
Mom looked at Dad and then back at her son. “What’s an Obb, Alex? What did it look like?”
“The Obb was in my room! The Obb was in my room!” He hit the back of his head against the pillow.
“He had a nightmare,” Dad said. “That’s all.”
“Go back to bed. I’ll sit with him until he falls asleep.”
Dad glanced at the cowboy clock atop the dresser. Three a.m. He was still awake when his wife climbed into their bed fifteen minutes later. “Well?” he asked.
Dad began to sing softly. “But if the first two letters are ever the same / I drop them both then say the name / Like Bob, Bob, drop the Bs, Bo-ob.”
“You’re not funny, and you still can’t sing.” Mom released a frustrated sigh.
As an infant, Alex was unpleasant. He squalled at night from end to end. Mom walked the floor too many times with her baby boy in her arms.
He transitioned from unpleasant to ornery. Toddler Alex screamed and shrieked and caterwauled in his highchair, which sent Cocoa barking in reply. He knocked his blue plastic cup of orange juice to the floor and followed it with the plastic cereal bowl full of corn flakes. He wouldn’t open his mouth for anything but cheese ravioli with butter, and this is what Mom fed him for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. One morning, with her son’s nasty shrieks drilling into her temples, Mom suffered severe cuts when a drinking glass broke after she gripped it too hard. “You needed thirteen stitches,” the doctor in the emergency room told her. Thirteen? Mom thought. How come I’m not surprised?
He transitioned from ornery to antisocial. On the first day of kindergarten, Alex threw a crayon at Margie Benedetto and hit her in the eye. Mrs. Flaherty, the teacher, twenty-seven and knowledgeable about children’s contradictory motivations, took Alex aside and asked him in her solicitous, school-board-sanctioned tone why he would do such a thing, especially to a girl. Was it because he secretly liked Margie and wanted her to notice him? No, Alex said. He didn’t like the way she looked at him. “But she wasn’t looking at you,” Mrs. Flaherty said. “I was watching Margie the whole time.” “Yes, she was!” Alex yelled and kicked the wastepaper basket.
When Dad got home from work, Mom told him about Mrs. Flaherty’s phone call. “I tried to talk to Alex. He threw himself on the living-room floor and screamed that I hated him and wanted him dead. Did you hear me? Our five–year–old son, soon to be six years old, said his mother wanted him dead.”
“Where’s Alex now?”
“He’s napping. I picked him up and laid him on his bed. He bit me after I smacked his rear end.”
“What do you mean he bit you?”
“I mean he bit me. Look.” She showed Dad her thumb. There were visible teeth marks. “I never thought I’d hear the words come out of my mouth. I don’t like our son.”
Dad nodded without comment. He went to the refrigerator for a beer. “Use a glass,” Mom said. Dad held up a Budweiser can. “Want one?”
Mom shook her head. “Right now, with the way I feel, it would be like drinking ginger ale.”
At nine p.m. Dad sat at the kitchen table, drinking a glass of Scotch and reviewing a brief he had drafted that day. He read the words typed on onionskin paper with the punctiliousness of the mathematician he thought he was destined to be until he switched his major to political science in his junior year at Villanova University. He read and reread his sentences, crossed out words, and scribbled their replacements in the margins in red pencil. Though with Wilhelm, Claxon & Shoemaker for only three years, Dad was envisioning a partnership by the time he turned thirty. Neil Armstrong had set foot on the moon last year. What was there to stop Neil Rossi from achieving one giant leap for his legal career?
Dad pulled the chair back and was about to get up, but when he heard his wife’s footsteps, he continued editing his brief.
Mom and Dad predicted a dire report when Miss Hortz, Alex’s first-grade teacher, asked them to stop by her classroom on the fourth day of the school year. Dad left the office at four, drove the fifteen miles home to pick up Mom, and then drove the half mile from their house to John Adams Elementary School. Miss Hortz was sitting at her desk when they walked into the room like two students about to be reprimanded.
“Mr. and Mrs. Rossi? I’m Miss Hortz, Alex’s teacher. Thank you for taking the time to come in. Please have a seat.” She extended her hand toward the rows of desks.
Miss Hortz took the Rossis by surprise; neither had expected a “Miss” to be a woman of her age. Dad guessed her to be around fifty. He wasn’t far off; Miss Hortz, in fact, was forty-nine.
Miss Hortz watched the Rossis squeeze their adult bodies into desk chairs built for children whose ages were in the single digits. She saw a typical pair of young parents, the kind she had met over and over in her twenty-six years in the East Brunswick, New Jersey, school system, though the details had changed. The mother was still a homemaker, but the father was now a professional of some stripe, a chemical engineer, a pediatrician, a financial analyst.
Miss Hortz adjusted her glasses. “I asked you in today because I wanted to discuss a matter regarding Alex.” Judging by their facial expressions, Miss Hortz suspected she wasn’t about to reveal anything previously unknown to these parents.
“We had show-and-tell today. Yesterday I asked the children to bring in something and talk to the class about it.”
“Oh?” Mom said.
“Alex didn’t tell you?” Miss Hortz asked.
Dad looked at Mom, who shook her head. “No.” Mom turned to her husband. “Alex didn’t tell me either,” he said.
“Well,” Miss Hortz continued, “some of the children showed items they had brought back from summer vacation, like a fancy seashell from Florida or a maple leaf from Maine. One brought in his father’s harmonica. Alex, on the other hand, showed us a picture that he drew.”
Mom’s eyes brightened a bit. “Alex loves drawing pictures,” she said. “We have a few of them taped to the refrigerator, don’t we, dear?” Dad bobbed his head in agreement.
Miss Hortz opened her desk drawer and pulled out an 8 ½” x 11” piece of white construction paper. She placed it flat on her blotter.
“This is the drawing Alex showed the class. He had a very interesting story to go along with it.” She had put an emphasis on “interesting.” She handed the construction paper to the anxious couple. “Can you explain the picture?”
“Children have nightmares,” Grandma Mauro said. “You had a few doozies.”
“Alex told the class this thing is real,” Mom said. She held the receiver to her left ear and wound and unwound the telephone cord around her right forefinger. “He said it wakes him up at night and disappears when he screams. He scared his classmates out of their wits. I’ve been waiting for the calls from furious parents. The teacher thinks we’re all evil.”
“Did she tell you that?”
“She didn’t have to. I could see it in her eyes.”
“Do you let Alex watch those ghastly horror movies on TV? Remember when I let you and your sister stay up late to watch Dracula? You dreamed there were bats in your bedroom.”
“He just turned six. He’s in bed by seven-thirty.”
There was silence on the other end of the line. “Hello?” Mom asked.
“What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking it’s time you took Alex out of public school and enrolled him in a parochial school. He could use a good Catholic education, just like the one you and Gina had. Alex needs spiritual guidance before it’s too late. Going to church once a week isn’t enough.”
“The nearest Catholic school is ten miles from us.”
“So what? He’ll ride a school bus like other kids.”
“Other kids aren’t like Alex,” Mom said.
“You need a break. Why don’t Daddy and I drive down and take Alex for the weekend. He always behaves himself with us.”
Mom inhaled through her nostrils and exhaled into the mouthpiece. “Fine. For two days he’s yours.”
At eleven on Saturday morning, Mom and Dad stood at the bottom of the driveway, Cocoa sitting between them on her hind legs. They watched the green Thunderbird drive up Drake Road, with Alex in the backseat, headed toward the New Jersey Turnpike for the forty-five-minute trip north to Leonia. Grandma had said there was a boy who lived two doors down who was Alex’s age. His mother was very nice, and maybe he and Alex could play together. “We’ll keep an eye on Alex.” Famous last words, Dad thought. “And,” Grandma had added, “I’ll call you if he dreams about this Obb creature or whatever he calls it.”
“This is our first weekend alone since Alex was born,” Dad said. “How about going for a pepperoni pizza at the Green Brier tonight? It’ll be like a date.”
They walked up the driveway. “I’ll finish planting those tulips,” Dad said.
“I have to drop off some things at the cleaners,” Mom said. “Is there anything you want dry-cleaned?”
“My gray pinstripe suit and navy blazer.”
Both felt a sudden sensation of peace, a strange and warm sensation that neither had encountered since Mom’s pregnancy. Dad raised the garage door to get his gardening tools. Cocoa followed him. Mom went into the house and up to their bedroom. From her closet she took out two sweaters and a pair of beige slacks. She tossed them on the bed. From Dad’s closet she pulled out the suit, the blazer, and a black hood and a black sheet. If the drycleaner happened to ask about the hood and the sheet, Mom figured she’d say they were a costume for a neighbor’s Halloween party.
Joel Allegretti is the author of, most recently, Platypus (NYQ Books, 2017), a collection of poems, prose, and performance texts, and Our Dolphin (Thrice Publishing, 2016), a novella. His second book of poems, Father Silicon (The Poet’s Press, 2006), was selected by The Kansas City Star as one of 100 Noteworthy Books of 2006.
He is the editor of Rabbit Ears: TV Poems (NYQ Books, 2015), the first anthology of poetry about the mass medium. The Boston Globe called Rabbit Ears “cleverly edited” and “a smart exploration of the many, many meanings of TV.” Rain Taxi said, “With its diversity of content and poetic form, Rabbit Ears feels more rich and eclectic than any other poetry anthology on the market.”