5
min

The Outhouse

Image of Alisha Davis

Alisha Davis

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It’s a common myth that Thomas Crapper designed the first flush toilet, but that’s not the real story. A gentleman named Sir John Harrington actually designed one all the way back in the late 1500s. The idea didn’t catch until nearly 200 years later though, when Alexander Cummings came up with the S-bend below the toilet as a solution to the smell. In 1848 the British government required all new houses to be built with a water closet, but outhouses were still in use in the US, especially in rural areas, well into the middle of the last century.

May, 1962
May mornings can still be very cool in the Midwest, so Marguerite took her morning coffee inside, sitting in her rocking chair. She was mid-rock and mid-sip when a knock at her door surprised her. She stood up slowly and shuffled to the door, her hips creaking along with the floorboards.

“Hello, can I help you?” Marguerite asked the young gentleman in a cheap suit she found at her door.

“Hello. Are you Mrs. Silders?”

“Yes, I am.”

“I’m Paul Kohler, I’m with the city.” He lifted his briefcase as if it was identification.

“Oh. Well, please come in; it’s chilly out there.”

The man stepped through the door and she closed it behind him. After the formalities of offering him coffee or tea and Paul politely refusing, Marguerite invited him to sit in the chair opposite her rocker.

“Mrs. Silders, I’m here to talk about your outhouse.”

“Oh?” Marguerite was not completely surprised. As little as she got out anymore, she still heard rumblings at the corner store and the post office.

“There was a city ordinance passed six months ago disallowing the use of outhouses in the city limits. Letters were sent out. Did you get a letter?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Well, then you know that the ordinance allowed a year for residents to comply. We’re...I’m here today because to check in with the households that have not started the process of installing an indoor toilet yet.”

“I see.”

“The city will start the process of removing all outhouses once the year grace period has ended. That will be December 1st.”

“I do recall the letter saying something like that.”

“It isn’t anything personal; it’s just a matter of public health. I’m sure you will find it much more convenient too.”

“Yes, I understand the sanitation part, and I think I would prefer an indoor toilet as well,” said Marguerite, but her statement held no enthusiasm. She was accepting a sad truth.

“Yes, well...” This was not going at all as Paul would have liked. At least the angry ones kicked him out quickly and he was able to meet his quota for the day. He looked around. “You have water to the kitchen, correct?”

Marguerite nodded.

“Well, you can just have them run the water right up to this closet then; that would be a perfect place.”

“But then where will I put my coats?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“My coats, young man. That is a coat closet.”

“Oh...well...perhaps a coat rack...um...over here.” Paul pointed to a wall with a picture of a happy young couple. He was preparing for the question of where to move the picture when he noticed Marguerite let one of the corners of her mouth rise, a sly little smile. “If you have any questions, here is my card, and here is a list of local plumbers,” he said, taking a few documents from his briefcase.

“You know, my husband and I bought this house in 1917. This was the edge of town at that time,” Marguerite started, and Paul tried to cover a cringe. He figured this was going to be another one of those how is it any of your business where I do my business speeches. “When he passed, he didn’t leave me much, but he took some peace in knowing this place was paid for.”

Paul opened his mouth, but then shut it again. He placed the papers on the coffee table and let himself out.

June, 1962
“Thanks, Mrs. Silders,” Jacob said, accepting a glass of lemonade from her.

“You did a real nice job on the yard.” That was not quite right though; he had left a swath untamed around her outhouse. Marguerite took out two dollars to hand to Jacob. He usually charged $5, but his mom had scolded him for taking anything from poor Mrs. Silders, and Mrs. Silders insisted she paid something. It seemed a good compromise to him.

“So, any exciting news going around town this week?” Marguerite asked.

“Not really,” Jacob shrugged. “The old Killum place finally sold.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, to Mr. Renault. He’s going to turn it into another rental.”

“Another one? He must be up to five rental houses by now!”

“Probably,” Jacob responded, shifting in his seat, “Says it’ll pay for his retirement. Well, anyway, thanks for the lemonade, Mrs. Silders. I have to get going.” Jacob fetched his lawnmower and headed home. Five blocks is a long walk on a full bladder, but there was no way he was using that nasty outhouse.

August, 1962
“Really!?” Mr. Renault could hardly believe the number Marguerite had offered him. “Well, that is one impressive deal, Mrs. Silders, and your house is probably worth twice that, but I have two problems. You don’t have an indoor bathroom, and even as low as this price is, I don’t have enough assets right now to purchase it and put in the plumbing. And then I’d have to find a renter, and I still haven’t got anyone for the Killum house yet.”

“Well, I already have a solution for both of those issues.”
“How’s that?”

“Well, I intend to be your renter.”

“I...I’m not following...why would you sell me your house to just turn around and...”

“They are going to start tearing down outhouses in December I’m told. I can’t stay in my house with no facilities, but I don’t have enough money to put them in either. The only thing I have of worth is this old house. I figure, if you’ll buy it, I can use some of that money to put the plumbing in, and the rest to pay the rent.”

“People will think I’m taking advantage of a...” Mr. Renault swallowed the word elderly just in time, “lady.”

“I’ll need the rent to be low, $100 a month,” Mr. Renault choked at this tiny figure, “but I can’t have that many more years in me anyway, and when I’m done, you’ll have a house that is worth twice what you put into it and be able to rent it for much more.”

Mr. Renault sat quietly and watched Marguerite. She sat, no signs of desperation or fear, just calm and collected. Finally he sighed and said, “I’ll put together the paperwork.”

May, 1965
“I’m Paul Kohler; I’m with the city.”

“I remember you. Come in, it’s chilly out there.” Paul hesitated. So many of the old ladies had melted together in Paul’s memory, and he was concerned that she remembered him. Was this the one that had chased him out, throwing muffins at him? He was thinking about how hard it had been to get the blueberry stains out of his suit jacket and nearly tripped over a box that was just inside the door. He then realized there were boxes all over the living room and lining the hallway. He politely refused some coffee and had a seat.

“I wanted to let you know that the city will be down in this area next month, removing the outhouses.”

“Better late than never,” Marguerite replied.

“If you have any belongings out there,” he paused in his rehearsed speech, noticing the inverted-shadows of where pictures used to hang, protecting the wallpaper, “you will want to remove them. The city will not be held responsible for any damaged belongings.”
“Certainly,” Marguerite said.

“You’ll be glad to know that the city is doing this at no cost to the homeowner.”

“I’m sure they’ll be glad to know.”

“They?”

“I used to rent from Mr. Renault, but he was able to retire early and moved away somewhere warm, so he sold all of his rentals to some group. They’ll be glad to hear the city is covering the cost; they definitely like their money.”

“Oh, I see.”

“While you’re here, would you have a moment to help me with this last picture? I think the wire is twisted around the nail and it’s just too high for me to properly reach.” Marguerite indicated an old photo of a happy young couple somewhat high up on the wall.

“I can try.”

Her tired eyes on the photo, Marguerite replied, “That’s all we can ever do.”

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