The Sixties Blog
The Ott House Haunting

We became neighbors with Ott when our oldest child began high school. Only years later, when someone addressed his wife Melvina as Mrs. Ott, did I suspect Ott was Ott’s last name not his first. When asked what his first name was, Ott said only, “Ott. Just Ott.” I had to assume this meant he went by his last name given the alternative was double Ott. My kids joked that his first name was Old.

I remember Ott most for his advice that I should never postpone traveling until retirement. There are very good reasons why people retire at retirement age, he said. Even a pub in Edinburgh at happy hour loses its “pizzazz” when you have an overactive bladder, diabetes or gastroparesis. Moreover, retirees combine zero sex appeal with the conversation of someone unemployed. Roam where you may, unless money is involved, no one looks at you and thinks, “Oh goodie, an old fart!”

I was reminded of this when I learned that my 90-year-old neighbor had traveled his last. During a fierce wind- and rainstorm, Ott was driving alone 40 mph+ on Auburn Boulevard when a huge branch separated from a 200-year-old oak and crushed his Kia Forte.

Anyone who knew Ott had to pause and contemplate two timelines—the first of an oak branch that sprouted circa the California Gold Rush on a tree that has survived two centuries of floods and droughts, pests and fires, woodcutters and urbanization; the second of a man born in Illinois during the Hoover Administration, who fought in the Korean War, and who lived in three different states before settling in California to become the top West Coast salesman of linoleum before he retired in 1992. In one split second those timelines converged in a way that has evoked for those who knew Ott the words “fate” and “destiny.”

Still, I had to ask: Why would the supernatural-powers-that-be devote so much time and energy to see a 90-year-old retired linoleum salesman squashed by an oak limb? My answer came from the ancient Greeks: To impact the lives of those who knew Ott. Ott’s demise certainly impacted my life, although in a way more likely to inspire the screenwriter of “Spooks Run Wild” than the playwright Aeschylus.

It was bedtime on a June night when I opened a bedroom window to the Delta breeze and heard Dean Martin crooning, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore . . . “ My wife and I stared at each other trying to guess the source. The answer soon came with a telephone call from Melvina which Jane answered. After urging Melvina to be calm, Jane ended the call with, “I’m coming right over!”

“She’s hysterical,” Jane told me. “All she kept saying is, ‘He’s playing our song!’”

“Who’s he?”

“I’m afraid she means Ott’s ghost. She says she was in bed asleep when the stereo started playing by itself and all her windows opened.”

I would have thought that Ott’s taste ran more to John Philip Souza than Dean Martin, but 70 years ago Melvina probably gushed, “Let’s make ‘Amore’ our song,” and Ott characteristically thought what the hell. They had been an odd couple in ways that oddly complemented one another. Physically they resembled a bat and ball. Ott had been a 6’3” pole of bone, sinew and fatless muscle with colorless skin stretched taut over a bony face with a beak of a nose suited to a Renaissance Italian sarcophagus. Melvina was short and round and peachy with white hair that looked like cotton candy, sad eyes with heavy lids and a large mouth that reminded me of the fish in “Sponge Bob Square Pants.”

The next morning, I arose and found Jane in the kitchen. Melvina was asleep in our guest room, she said. I went to Costco.

When I returned, Melvina had gone. Jane greeted me with:

“Did you know Ott and Melvina had a son?”

“Real or imagined?”

“Real and still kicking! She showed me pictures from cradle through high school. She said the boy and Ott had a falling out when he turned 18 and Ott banned him from the house. As far she’s concerned, he’s still her little boy.”

“Good! Let her little boy come and take care of her. Where’s he live?”

“In town.”

“What’s his name?”

“Elmer Ott . . . ” Jane paused for dramatic effect. “. . . Jr. Elmer Ott Jr.”

I needed a moment to digest this. I said: “I guess that explains why Ott went by his last name. But if he hated the name Elmer so much, why did he give it to his son?” 

Three days later—at 2 a.m.—Melvina telephoned again. This time I accompanied Jane to the Ott house, where Melvina stood shivering outside an open front door. “TV,” she cheeped. “TV.”

I entered the house alone and walked through the living room to a family room where I heard voices from a television. I stood watching a funny scene with John Wayne, Red Buttons and Hardy Kruger in the movie “Hatari.”

“I don’t think Melvina was inviting you to watch T.V.,” Jane said behind me. “Did you check the rest of the house?”

“Oh . . . right. Not yet. I’ll do that now.”

“Thanks, but no need. Melvina checked the bedrooms and I’ve gone through the dining room, kitchen and laundry room. Maybe you could check the garage and backyard.”

I did what I was told and discovered nothing. When I returned, Jane said she would spend the night in the family room sleeping on a recliner next to Melvina on a couch. If the T.V. turned on again, they would know whether the remote was in the hands of a ghost. I almost suggested to Melvina that she should seek aid from her son tomorrow morning, but then decided that after a night on a recliner, Jane was bound to do that. So I hurried home and set my DVR to record the next showing of “Hatari.”

Two days later I was up early to attend a planning committee meeting for my Rotary club’s 62nd Annual Bowlorama fundraiser. The bowling tournament was a big moneymaker for the club, second only to its annual Gary Crosby Memorial Golf Tournament. I was the committee’s chair.

As I backed my Camry out onto the street, I noticed my neighbor Roger standing in his yard looking across the street at the Ott house. Seeing me, Roger pointed at what looked like a scarecrow in Melvina’s front yard. I parked and Roger and I joined each other on Melvina’s sidewalk.
“What is it—a geisha girl?” Roger said of the figure dressed in a kimono with a head made of a stuffed plastic bag and crowned with a wig of black hair.  “Who would do such a thing?”

“And why?” I said.

At that moment the living room drapes parted and we saw Melvina look at us, then at the scarecrow, then at us, then at the scarecrow. She turned bug-eyed and wide-open fish-mouthed, screamed and disappeared.  

“Well that’s not good,” Roger said.

“No. Probably Jane should handle this,” I said.

I went to my house and summoned Jane before leaving for my meeting. When I returned, a gold Fortwo was parked in front of my house. As I entered my kitchen from the garage, I heard voices and in the living room found Jane with Melvina and a man Jane introduced as Elmer Ott, Jr.

“Call me Junior,” the man said. “Just Junior.”

He was short with Melvina’s peachy complexion and distinctive mouth. Unlike Melvina, he was thin, wiry and long-armed like a tree-dweller. A mixture of gray and red strands rendered his curly hair pale orange.

Jane said: “The Japanese scarecrow remains a mystery. However, Junior here believes we might get all the answers we need if we bring in a psychic medium.”

“Oh, you mean like Amy who talks to dead people on the Travel Channel?” I said. “Sure, I wouldn’t mind being on reality T.V.”

“I don’t think your being on T.V. is the objective here,” Jane said.

“Yes, well, I was just thinking we’d want Amy because we know she’s not a quack. Finding a legit medium, Jane, might be tough sledding.”

“Do you think?” Jane said straight-faced.

“I already know of a medium who people tell me is amazing,” Junior said. “Her name is Sarah Spoon. She goes to my church.”

The words “my church” are a red flag for me to change the subject. I said: “Sounds good, Junior. So tell me, do you bowl?”

The four of us would meet with Sarah Spoon at Melvina’s house after dark on a Saturday night. Why spooks work the night shift is beyond me unless, like so many successful 9-to-5 burglars, they realize that people are least likely to be home during the daytime. As she briefed me on what I should not say or do, Jane made one interesting observation. Melvina’s anxiety, she said, was not over whether she was haunted by a ghost, but whether the ghost existed in her imagination. Aside from Jane’s briefing, I prepared for the evening by eating a light dinner with a bottle of Pinot and taking another bottle to the Ott house.

Sarah Spoon fit her name. She had bodyless long dark hair that framed a face of alabaster skin, doe eyes and a cherub mouth. Her body was less than twice as wide as her long neck and draped in a one-piece seaweed-colored dress with buttons that ran from top to bottom. When she was introduced by Junior, Spoon mutely looked up and around the living room batting her eyes with each change of direction.

“Do you sense a presence?” Melvina whimpered above clasped hands.

Sarah closed her eyes and raised a finger to her lips. Junior made eye contact with each of us with a finger to his lips. I put a glass of Pinot to my lips.

Sarah opened her eyes and said to Melvina, “Are you Bubbles?”

“Forever more!” Melvina gasped. “Oh yes!”

Sarah stood with her head tilted back, eyes closed, arms extended outward and palms up.  She said: “You know who never got a dinner, Bubbles?”

Melvina’s eyes bulged. “No, who?” 

“Ben Hur, who said to his sister Ben Him, ‘We'd better swap names before they start calling me Ben Gay!’ Never got a dinner!”

“Oh yes . . . yes . . . It is you!” Melvina cried as she rose from her chair.

“Joseph Cotten, who said, ‘You know how I got my name? Sammy Davis picked it for me.’ Never got a dinner!”

“I always loved you!” Melvina cried. “I always will!”

“Sophia Loren, whose new baby asked her, ‘Is all that for me?’ Never got a dinner!”

“Take me, honeybunny! Take me!” Melvina pleaded.

“Sweet Jesus!” Jane blurted.

Junior was on his knees praying.

I drained my glass.

Sarah convulsed, then steadied and opened her eyes. Her eyes narrowed. Her nose wrinkled. “No, this isn’t right!” she cried.

“What dear?” Melvina gasped.

“This isn’t who you think,” Sarah said. She pressed the tips of her index fingers to her temples. “This spirit is an imposter . . . A deceiver . . . This spirit is a demon! God save your soul, Melvina!  Your home is haunted by a demon from hell!”

Melvina was a screaming siren as she waddled out the front door, crossed her lawn, went into the street and followed Mariposa Way northward.  

“Randy!” Jane said.

“What?”

“Go after her!”

I noted Melvina’s progress in the street and then went to the opposite sidewalk to track her at a pace measured only to keep up. I reasoned my running down a hysterical old woman in the street at night might be misconstrued by witnesses. And thanks to Melvina’s wailing, residents were looking out windows and two had ventured outdoors. The first outdoors was Roger, who caught up with me.

“What’s going on?” Roger asked.

“A medium just told Melvina Ott that her home is haunted by a demon from hell.”

“Well that’s not good.”

“Melvina thinks so.”

Melvina traveled almost a block and a half before she collapsed and then writhed, squealed and whimpered on one of Mariposa Way’s manicured lawns. When Roger and I caught up to her, the lawn’s unfortunate owner was stepping outside.

Roger now asked the million-dollar question: “What do we do now?”

The three of us exchanged blank looks. Finally I knelt beside Melvina and said: “Melvina, calm down and focus. It’s me, Randy. Focus, Melvina. Focus.”

“Maybe that’s her problem,” Roger said. “She is focused.”

“Focused on what?” asked the homeowner.

“A demon from hell,” Roger said.

Melvina screamed so loud that dogs throughout the neighborhood began barking.

“Sorry,” Roger said.

Mercifully a sheriff’s patrol car announced its approach with a flash of its lights and a burst from its siren. Automatically the homeowner, Roger and I took two steps backward. Two officers emerged from the car. The younger of the two knelt beside Melvina and tried to talk to her while the older one observed briefly over his partner’s shoulder before he shook his head and went to the patrol car to radio in.

“Anyone know who this is?” the older officer asked when he returned.

Roger looked at his feet. The homeowner shrugged. The officer’s eyes fastened on me.

“Her name is Melvina Ott,” I said. “She lives down the street at 2311 Mariposa.”

“You are?”

“Her next-door neighbor.”

“Name?”

“Jane and Randy Bechtel,” Jane said behind me. She was alone. No Junior.

“Any idea how and why Ms. Ott got here?” the officer asked.

“Her husband passed away tragically a few weeks ago,” Jane said. “She hasn’t been herself since.”

“She has a son,” I volunteered.

“Oh. Any idea how to contact him?” the officer asked.

I looked at Jane. She shook her head no. In the distance I could hear the siren of what I knew would be an ambulance.

I also knew how I would spend the remainder of the evening. To wit: After the ambulance collected Melvina, we returned to her house, which Jane had locked and now unlocked with a key hidden under a flowerpot. We then delivered Melvina’s purse to the emergency room admissions. For almost two hours we sat in the waiting room until an ER intern appeared to tell us Melvina would be kept 24 to 48 hours for observation. Incoherent as she may have been, Melvina managed to provide a list of items she wanted brought to her the next morning. Not on the list was Junior, but I pledged to send him to the hospital if I saw him again.  Maybe not this hospital, but some hospital.

The next morning, I hadn’t yet had my coffee when Jane said, “Let’s go.”

“Where?”

“To get Melvina’s things. I’m not going into that house alone.”

On the way I said, “I’m not going into their bedroom. You can do that.”

“There is no such thing as ‘their’ bedroom,” Jane said. “Don’t you know that Melvina and Ott slept in separate bedrooms for about three years?”

“Jesus, is there anything women won’t tell each other?”

There was as I was about to find out.

I stood in the hallway as Jane entered one of two corner bedrooms. She appeared a few seconds later and informed me that the bedroom’s distinctive feature was a couple dozen plaques and trophies celebrating Ott’s linoleum sales. She entered the second bedroom and almost immediately gasped, “Oh . . .my . . . God!”

I stayed put.

“Oh . . .my . . . God!”

I stayed put.

“Oh . . .my . . . God!”

“Oh hell! What is it?”

I went in. Everywhere on every wall I saw his face. The walls were collages of head shots, film stills, publicity stills, movie magazine shots, tabloid shots and photos printed from the Internet. It was so overpowering that I needed to seek refuge by looking at Jane even though her face wore the expression of someone who smells gas.

“Red Buttons?” she said.

“Red Buttons. I knew those tasteless never-got-a-dinner jokes sounded familiar. Vintage Red Buttons. The movie ‘Hatari’—he was in it. ‘Sayonara’—he was in it.”

“Look at this,” she said, pointing to a cocktail napkin framed under glass and hung on the wall. On it was written:

Bubbles,
Catch you on the flip side!
Red The Honeybunny

I said: “Chances are Red already caught Bubbles on side one.”

“Which produced Junior!” Jane shot back. “That’s what I think. Red flitted off and knowing she was pregnant, Melvina latched on to Ott.”

“The needy needing the needy. The same old story.”

“I tell you what else. I think Junior is behind all this ghost business. He probably knew Melvina kept a key under the flowerpot. And who else could have fed Sarah Spoon her information?”

“Oh, no doubt Junior was Spoon’s source,” I said. “And it’s possible, I guess, that he was the ghost.”  I looked about at the collaged room. “Of course, another possibility will be confirmed or eliminated by Melvina’s diagnosis.”

The diagnosis proved decisive. In laymen’s terms, the doctors found that Melvina Ott had gone nuts.

Returning to the Greeks, I would like to think that this account is a tribute to Ott in the sense that it will impact the life of one or more readers who will then impact history. Still, I cannot for the life of me find any moral to this story save possibly one: A married man should not postpone travel with his wife until retirement. It is during the years when couples are young that they share the experiences that bond them throughout old age. Without that bonding a retired man may discover that his wife is carrying a torch for Red Buttons.

 

Copyright © 2019 by Randy Bechtel

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Email Randy Bechtel at rb@thebabyboomerstory.com