One of the most common emotions to plague humankind since the beginning of time is this little thing we like to call fear. Fear, whenever it raises its ugly head, can take on a myriad of different forms. There are just about as many different forms of fear as there are different types of people in the world, and we learn about these fears almost from infancy. As children, we had an innumerable list of things and situations of which we were afraid. Some of the most common fears we experienced were fears of the unknown and the unfamiliar. There were a million ways in our childhood this one little emotion could materialize, and in many cases it materialized in the form of the “man in the closet,” or more commonly, the “monster under the bed.” I believe it was Eleanor Roosevelt who said that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” While this may sound enlightened and philosophical, Mrs. Roosevelt never had a conversation with Mavis and Frances. If she did, she would soon learn that in Mavis and Frances’ case, there was one scary little incident which proved that fear itself had good reason to be present at the time, and the “monster under the bed” can be more than simply a child’s imagination.
One mild October weekend found Thomas Flynn and his two sons, TJ and Benny, out on a hunting trip. This left Bessie alone with the girls to catch up on household duties that had been neglected during the week in preparation for seeing the boys off. After a day filled with doing laundry, cleaning house and preparing dinner, everyone was exhausted. All the girls went to bed early to get some rest before getting up the next morning and starting the process again. Bessie, however, stayed up a little longer doing some sewing and mending some of the children’s school clothes. After a while, Bessie decided she had enough for one day, and decided to turn in for the night. Putting away her sewing and getting ready for bed, Bessie checked on the girls to see if they were resting comfortably. Satisfied that all of them were asleep, Bessie then went to her bedroom and crawled under the covers. After a long day like that day was, she was sure to enjoy the sleep that was fast approaching. What she didn’t realize, however, was just as sleep was coming to visit, she had another visitor who was staggering up the front steps of the house.
His name was Ottaway Keaton. In his early-to-mid 60’s, Ottaway was a very polite black man who lived almost one-half mile away from the Flynn’s. Standing at 5’10”, 165 pounds with a stubble-like beard, Ottaway could be seen down at the general store gossiping with the older men who sat around the outside table smoking their pipes or cigars almost every day. One of the favorite pastimes of that era was the sharing of stories of who-said-what, how the crops were doing, what was going on in the community, etc. Along with every other person at these gatherings, Ottaway shared his knowledge of the latest information along with the others. Yes, Ottaway was a regular fixture, and everyone said they thought highly of him, which given the era and culture of the day, was considered a high compliment for a black man.
The one downfall Ottaway had, however, was his weakness for alcohol. You see, Ottaway was an alcoholic and drank like a fish, especially in the evenings. Most people thought it was a good thing he didn’t smoke, because if he did, he would have blown himself up years ago due to the amount of alcohol he consumed. He was married to Evelina, a very headstrong and stern woman who made every attempt to keep him on the straight and narrow. Much to Evelina’s chagrin, however, this job was almost impossible. Some even said they thought he drank so much because that was the only way to be able to live with such a stern woman in the first place.
That night as Bessie quietly drifted off to sleep, she started dreaming of being in church, much like the service that was to be held Sunday. She saw the faces of people in the community, the old pews, the pianist banging out the current hymn, and the minister standing behind the pulpit. After a quick prayer, they started singing an old hymn that wasn’t heard much anymore, titled “O The Blood’s Gonna Sign My Name.” As she listened to the old familiar tune in her dream, the voices of the congregation would rise and fall with each note, almost sounding as if they were united as one voice. Throughout the hymn, however, she kept hearing a thud in her dream which couldn’t be explained as coming from anywhere in the recesses of her dream-like state. All of a sudden, she heard a very loud thud in the middle of the song that sounded as if someone had fallen over one of the pews. This thud was loud enough to snap her out her peaceful sleep only to realize someone had fallen over, only they had obviously not fallen over a pew. There was someone on the front porch, and they had fallen over one of the wooden rocking chairs!
Thinking one of the girls had gotten up during the night and hurt themselves, she jumped out of bed and rushed toward the front door, only to hear the familiar verses of the hymn she had just been dreaming about. She then realized she wasn’t dreaming, but was hearing Ottaway Keaton on her front porch singing that old hymn all the while being so drunk he could hardly stand. When she opened the door, she looked and saw Ottaway trying to get back onto his feet after falling. She looked at him and said, “Ottaway, what in tarnation are you doin’ on my porch this time o’ night? Are you drunk? Don’t you know Evelina’s probably worried sick about you and wonderin’ where you are?” All Otttaway could do was look at Bessie and say, “Mrs. Bessie, I’m so sorry to be a-botherin’ you, but I was lookin’ for Benny. Is he home?” Bessie breathed a deep breath, noting the smell of alcohol from that distance and said, “No, Ottaway, he’s not home. He’s gone huntin’ with his daddy. Now you need to get on back home and get to sleep!” “Yes ma’am, I will,” said Ottaway, “but do you by chance have a match I could borrow?” Bessie hastily replied, “Absolutely not! You don’t need a match in your condition right now, you might catch yourself on fire or something. What do you need a match for anyway? Now get going before Evelina starts looking for you!”
With that, Ottaway decided it would be best to at least get off the porch. “Yes, Mrs. Bessie, I’ll be leavin’ now. You take care, y’hear?” “Goodnight, Ottaway,” Bessie said as she closed the door behind her, wondering if Ottaway would really make it home before running into some fallen tree, or falling into a ditch and hurting himself. She was crawling back into bed when she heard Frances and Mavis frantically call for her. Bessie jumped out of bed and walked to their room. As she opened the door, she saw both children sitting up in bed with a worried look on their face. “Girls, what’s the matter?” she asked, noticing how scared they both looked. “There’s something bumping under the floor, mama!” Bessie raised an eyebrow and wondered if they both weren’t having a bad dream. “Now girls, you know there ain’t nothing’ bumpin’ under the floor. You both were havin’ a bad dream. Now go back to sleep.” If she thought this would ease their minds, Bessie was wrong. “No, mama, we heard it clear as a bell,” Mavis said. “There’s somethin’ under there.” Just as Bessie was about to tell them nothing was there again and put them back to sleep, she heard it too. The was a small thud sound coming from under the floor as if an animal had gotten caught in something and was trying to get free. She looked at Mavis and Frances and said, “You girls stay here, and I’ll see what it is. It’s probably nothing but a stray dog or somethin’.” Bessie went outside to check to see what was making such a noise late at night, and as she looked under the house by the bedroom the sound was coming from, all she could do was roll her eyes and shake her head. All of a sudden she screamed, “Ottaway, get the heck out from under that house! You’ve done woke the girls up and scared ‘em!”
Ottaway crawled from underneath the house like a scolded child. Once he had emerged, he looked at Bessie with a long face and said, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Bessie. I don’t right recollect how I got under there, all I was doin’ was lookin’ for a match.” By this point, Bessie had heard enough out of this drunk man for one night. “Look here, Ottaway, I’m gonna say this only one more time. You get your hind-parts back home to Evelina and don’t let me catch you coming around here in the dead o’ night no more! You’re drunk as a skunk. Now get!”
“Yes ma’am, I’m a goin’. I’m so sorry to had woke you up, Mrs. Bessie,” Ottaway said. By this time Bessie was ready to carry Ottaway home herself and tell Evelina exactly what he had done. Not being able to leave the children, however, she said to Ottaway, “Look, you’ve already woke Frances and Mavis, it’s a wonder the rest of the girls are still asleep. You get down that road right now and don’t come back ‘till you’ve sobered up!” Realizing he needed to go, Ottaway looked at Bessie and said, “Yes ma’am, I’m a goin’. I’m so sorry.” He started walking toward the road, and Bessie went inside to calm Mavis and Frances. When she reached the children’s bedroom, she told them Ottaway was drunk under the house, but he was gone now. The bumping they heard was Ottaway bumping his head when he was trying to stand up. Having settled them down again to get them to sleep, Bessie went back to her bedroom and crawled back under her covers.
No one is really sure what happened after Ottaway left, but after about thirty minutes, Mavis and Frances awoke to the sound of something scraping around in the old cast iron wash-pot by the house. This wash-pot resembled more of a witch’s cauldron you would see in children’s storybooks than anything else. Bessie used it for canning vegetables, and other things one typically did in those days. Frances got up and looked out the window in the direction of the wash-pot to see what was making such a noise. There in the moonlight, she saw that Ottaway had returned, and this time he was standing there trying to figure out why he couldn’t get the water to boil. The fact that there was no water in the pot and no fire underneath to begin with would make sense to most sober people, but to someone as inebriated as Ottaway, it just didn’t make sense why it wouldn’t work for him. Frances leaned back and said to Mavis, “Ottaway’s back, and this time he thinks he’s cookin’ somethin’ in the wash-pot. We’d better go tell mama he’s back.” Mavis replied, “No, I think we’d better let mama sleep. She’s done told Ottaway to go on home, if we wake her up now, she’s sure to be mad. Just let her sleep, and he’ll go away on his own.” “No, I think we ought to tell mama,” Frances said. Mavis replied, “No, if we go wake mama up, she’ll be mad at us for still bein’ awake. You know he’s harmless, he’ll go home in a minute.” Seeing some truth in Mavis’ argument, Frances went back to her bed, but neither of them slept until they knew for sure Ottaway was headed home for the night.
After a while, things quieted down outside, and neither Mavis nor Frances saw any sign of Ottaway. It seemed reasonable that the coast was clear to let their guard down and go back to sleep. With Mavis in her bed and Frances in hers, both girls pulled the covers up to their chins and started to peacefully fall into a restful sleep.
All of sudden they were startled awake by the loud banging at their window. Both of them jumped simultaneously out of their beds screaming, thinking something was after them. As they were cowering towards the door, they looked at the window to see the silhouette of a man trying to get in their room through the window. They both let out a blood-curdling scream, awaking everyone in the house. Bessie burst through the door to ask what in the world was going on, when she looked and saw the man in the window.
Bessie Flynn flew into a rage.
She stomped to the window and yelled, “Ottaway Keaton! Turn your tail this minute and get it back home! You’ve done woke up the whole house!” She stormed out of the bedroom into the kitchen, grabbed the broom by the door, and went outside. The next thing that Frances and Mavis saw was their mother beating Ottaway over the head with her broom, running him toward the road and toward home. When Bessie came back inside, she made sure the children were okay, put them all back to bed, and told them Ottaway wouldn’t bother them like that anymore. Everyone eventually went back to sleep, except for Mavis and Frances. After what had happened, they were too frightened to go to sleep and ended up staying awake until dawn.
The next day, Bessie was sitting on the front porch relaxing when she saw the figures of two people walking up the road. She watched as they got closer, and knew as soon as they passed the old magnolia tree in the curve that it was Ottaway, this time obviously sober, and Evelina, his wife. She stayed in her chair and kept watching. Ottaway and Evelina approached the porch, Ottaway with his hat in his hand as Bessie was looking at him with a cold glare in her eyes. She spoke first as she nodded and said, “G’ afternoon Ottaway, Mrs. Evelina, what can I do for you?” Ottaway was staring at the ground the entire time. Evelina spoke up and said, “Mrs. Bessie, I brought Ottaway up here this afternoon ‘cause he’s got a lot of apologizin’ to do. And I want to tell you how sorry I am he acted like such a fool last night.” Bessie let a small smile cross her face. “I wouldn’t give it a second thought, Mrs. Evelina. I know he was drunk and wasn’t in his right mind. But I do have to say it’s a good thing Thomas wasn’t here, or he’d probably have shot Ottaway before he realized who he was.”
“I would’a deserved it, too, Mrs. Bessie,” Ottaway said. “I don’t know why I acted like I did last night. Please forgive me. Bessie looked at Ottaway and said, “I hope you learned your lesson, Ottaway. You really need to quit all that drinking, it can’t do anything but bring you trouble. Poor Mrs. Evelina here probably worried herself half to death last night about you.” Ottaway looked at Evelina, who was giving him a look only a disapproving wife could give a husband who had infuriated her. “Yes, ma’am, she gave me a stern talkin’ to when I got home last night. I can assure you it won’t be happenin’ again.” Bessie and Evelina glanced knowingly at each other, then Bessie said, “I’m sure it won’t Ottaway. Let’s just forget about it. Anyhow, sometime last night you dropped this.” She pulled out a gold pocket watch she had found by the old wash-pot earlier that morning and deduced it was Ottaways. Ottaway saw it and a bright smile came over his face. “Why thank you ma’am,” he said. “That watch belonged to my granddaddy before he passed on. I don’t know what I’d do without it.” Bessie walked over to Ottaway and placed it in his hand. “Don’t worry, it’s safe and sound,” she said. With that, Bessie embraced both Evelina and Ottaway. She invited them in for coffee, and the rest of the visit that evening was enjoyable for everyone involved. Mavis and Frances were apprehensive at first, but once they discovered Ottaway was his usual self, they warmed up to him and soon forgot all about how, at least for one night, he made those scary things that go bump in the night all too real.