Most Important Room
Not in the House
By Terril L. Shorb
Poor as church mice. That’s how my mother described our life far south of the poverty line those years in rural northwest Wyoming. Any shelter we could afford on my stepdad’s very occasional and modest income was barely a notch above a cattle shed or a prime candidate for a county building inspector’s designation as unsuitable for human habitation.
We’d move in regardless and apply hammer and nails, plywood, and rolls of black plastic to repel wind and snow from the gaps in siding or roof. We’d scrounge copper pipe from the county dump to graft into kitchen and bathroom lines. The truck-jack got used to pry up a foundation with many missing sections, causing floors to sag. We would slide in sections of sawed logs. This process also accommodated comings and goings of skunks, rats, ground squirrels and coyotes who called such spaces home.
Years of making marginal rental shacks livable ended when a farmer my stepdad, Bill, knew, said our family could buy a long-abandoned house on a rise above his tillable acres. Whatever we could manage to pay each month. The place was a hulk. Like so many dilapidated rentals before it, the House on the Hill was missing all the windows and much of the roof. What it had, though, was a solid cement foundation and walls faced by fake stone. It was summer so we could camp in our blue Ford station wagon while we sweated through the transformation as done many times before with rentals. My younger brother, Jim, described the result this way: “It’s pretty neat: when we shut the door, the outside is outside!”
Among other tasks of making the house a home was to dig a pit for the biffy. That was our name for the outhouse. The attic had served pigeons well as a toilet but the ‘throne room’ as we referred to it was equipped only with a clawfoot tub. What remained of a toilet bowl was broken and resembled a giant ice-cream scoop. The clawfoot tub was in reasonably good shape and it quickly became a ritual on Saturday nights to heat water on the cookstove and carry and pour it into the tub and mix in cold water until the temperature was Goldilocks just right. Mom got the first soak, then Ellen. I was the oldest so I got the honor of bathing in slightly used water and then my younger brothers plunked in. By Jim’s turn the water was tea colored and when Bret and Bart bathed the water appeared more like mud.
The plumbing in the rest of the bathroom was bad, too, and we carried water to the chipped sink to wash up and for Bill to shave. I was the family chopper of wood which fed the fire that heated the water. Continuous labor made me too weary to crawl into the tub. I’d do a spit-bath in the sink with icy cold water.
Bill staked out a spot for the biffy northeast of the house where prevailing breezes would carry the aromatic signature of the outhouse away from us. While he began work at that spot, Mom, Jim, and I made the rounds of county dumps to see if we could pick up bathroom fixtures. A last resort would be one of the second hand stores in Cody where our ten-dollar bathroom budget was unlikely to stretch to fit our needs. Our dump run was successful and we brought back a vanity with the mirror cracked in only one place and a porcelain wash basin someone had carefully set out on the ground so it was not damaged. Another load of trash yielded a tangle of copper water tubing with enough salvageable lengths for our purposes.
Jim and I joined Bill in the excavation when we got home with our prizes. He congratulated us on our scavenging prowess and showed us the soil profile of the pit he’d dug down about two feet. The sub-soil was mostly sand and stones smoothed long ago by the ancestor of the Shoshone River. We tried to dig straight down but the perimeter kept caving off so the deeper we dug, the wider the hole grew.
“If we keep going like this we’ll have a hole big enough for a barn,” Bill laughed. He helped us fetch old railroad ties from our great scrap pile on the north end of the hill and these were installed in the deepening pit as corner posts and cross beams in the fashion of a mine shaft.
“Anybody finding this millions of years from now might think they’ve uncovered an old gold mine but all they’re gonna find is a bunch of fossil turds,” I noted.
“You think they’ll be worth something?” Jim mused.
“Well you guys think it’s pretty neat when we find them fossil crapulites out in the badlands,” Bill snorted.
“They’re called coprolites,” I corrected.
“Call ’em what you want, they’re still shit stones.” We guffawed all around and attacked the deepening hole with a tamping bar and shovels and gradually got down about five feet which Bill said should hold all our butt treasures until we got the indoor biffy done.
On top of the pit we built a skinny structure to serve as our poop palace, our one-holer, our most important room not in the house. It took on the appearance of a phone booth except for its steeply pitched roof. The door hinged to open to the south so you wouldn’t get trapped inside during our frequent and fierce north winds.
We added cool flourishes like the hole being offset on the bench seat to allow room for a porcelain pitcher and bowl of water. That was mostly for Mom. There would be occasions, though, when somebody had the scoots and could dip a wad of TP in water to make clean-up more thorough.
Bill insisted on installing three roller-holders so there was always another roll of paper hanging around. Someone, and he wasn’t naming names, always managed to use the last of a hanging roll, leaving the next guy in trouble if he didn’t notice before he did his business.
We sawed wedge-shaped mounting brackets for the iron filigreed foot pedal of an old Singer sewing machine we found in the dump. It made a handsome wall-holder for magazines, essential for reading material during over-time sessions when you were constipated and as emergency wipes if all three rolls were used up.
Security was a priority. Bill screwed in a heavy-gauge slide bolt, the kind usually reserved for livestock gates. He painted it bronze. Finally, he executed some keyhole saw magic to incise crescent moon ventilation holes high on opposite flanks of the biffy.
Final adornments included a spot for a salvaged red tin lard bucket filled with lime powder. Inside that we stuck a coffee scoop to toss lime onto the pile to douse stink demons. A receptacle made of horseshoes hung from the wall. During spring, summer and fall months it held a can of 6-12 Brand Insect Repellent Spray for the legions of flies who would come from miles around once we made a few deposits. Cans of insect spray were a common fixture in rural homes where livestock roam. On our big oak dinner table side-by-side with salt and pepper shakers was a can of insect spray. Sometimes in the summer while we ate, Mom would grab it and pass it back and forth over the table like a magic wand, and the insect-killing mist drifted down over our meals like fog over a winter river.
Three days later the biffy was done and one afternoon Jim and I did touch-up work around the outside, planting petunias for color and fragrance. We eagerly waited for Bill to get home from the grain elevator that evening to inaugurate the little house out back. Mom agreed to do the honors and she disappeared inside and we heard the slide-bolt clink into place. We waited in a half-circle around the little structure but were disappointed when we heard no distinctive tinkle. “Hole’s dry,” Bill reminded us.
When Mom emerged we gave her a rousing round of applause. She laughed and hugged each of us and kissed Bill. “Nice job fellers. It’s comfy in there and there’s enough light to read.” I knew it would be one of the few places Mom could find to enjoy the luxury of reading one of her Louis L’Amour novels without interruption from one of us.
“One thing though,” she said, holding up a finger. A second finger popped up. “Two things. First, you boys got to promise to sit even when you pee.”
“Ah Mom, that’s for girls,” Jim complained. She tousled his blonde hair. “No, it’s for boys who don’t always shoot straight.”
We nodded solemnly. “Second thing is if we don’t get our indoor privy done by winter, you got to put in coat hooks.”
We exchanged puzzled glances.
“Be-cause,” she said, strong emphasis on the second syllable, “If you don’t take off your coat before you let loose, the back side might get in the way of your business. We don’t need you bringing a poopy coat back inside.”
Jim and I nodded and Bill promised to install one that very night.
“Besides,” Mom added, “When it gets to be twenty below zero you can drape the coat around the front of you and maybe that’ll keep you from freezing to the seat and turning into a kid-sickle.”
We hooted and hollered and retreated into the house for a big pitcher of lemonade to commemorate the occasion. Within the hour every one of us christened the little house out back.
Terril L. Shorb has been a rancher and journalist and teaches Sustainable Community Development at Prescott College where he founded that program. He and his wife, the poet, Yvette A. Schnoeker-Shorb, co-founded Native West Press. His publications include The MacGuffin, Kudzu House, QU Literary Journal, Cargo Literary Magazine, bioStories, Green Teacher Magazine, and Projected Letters.