Last Laugh: Build a House Backwards

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Illustration by MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
Normally you don't build a house with the privvy in the living room.

The trouble with experience as a teacher is that the test comes first and the lesson afterward.

Well sir, a friend of mine just finished startin’ to build a house. You know what I mean. All over the place these days, you can see those homes that folks begin constructin’ but can’t afford to complete. So them would-be builders just move on in and work on ’em whilst they lives in ’em. It’s sort of today’s version of the run-down “handyman special” real estate dealers used to pawn of on innocent buyers … only now they’re “owner-builder specials,” and people is pawnin’ ’em off on theyselves!

Now, I don’t mean any harm by sayin’ all this. Why, with interest rates climbin’ higher than even one of them electronic calculators kin byte off, buildin’ bit by bit as money comes along makes a lot of sense. But I would like to point out that the idea weren’t exactly invented by some owner-builder school from out in California, neither. Why, it’s about as old as a jar of Eve’s home-canned applesauce! Fact is, folks in Plumtree Crossin’ have never knowed no other way to build a house. ‘Course, even those individuals don’t generally build their homes as addons to commodes … but that’s jist what August and Olive Carmichael did do!

It all started when that temperamental couple was jist hitched up back in Hoot Owl Holler. In fact, the pair’s first (post-weddin’, that is) fight started the moment August tried to carry his brand-new spouse over the homestead threshold.

“August Phineas Carmichael, put me down this instant! This rathole of yourn is dingier than a Confederate funeral parlor! It’s more wore out’n last year’s bird nest! And it’s smellier than a henhouse floor! No self respectin’ member of the venerable Squabble family would care to be seen alive livin’ in it!”

Well, I must admit that ol’ Olive was partways right. August’s domicile, an abandoned horse hostel what weren’t never meant for human habitation even in its newest days, was a tad unrefined. It had so many holes in the ceilin’ and walls that it looked like a 2 x 4 spiderweb. Heck, not only did the floor kinda give when you walked on it, the walls sagged in at the same time! And the only windows you could see through was the ones that was missin’!

But she was wrong about not movin’ in. After all, August didn’t have no second residence, and Olive couldn’t run back home to Ma Squabble, either. That ol’ lady (whose kettle ran so hot it made her daughter look sweet-tempered) had give Olive so much guff about marryin’ a Carmichael in the first place that Olive jist had to make the marriage work, if only to prove her ma wrong!

So she set about womanifyin’ the place as best she could, hangin’ pink pot holders over the little holes (and throwin’ entire quilts over the larger ones), and such. Naturally, she remarked to her husband on occasion — in those distinctive dew-soft tones which eventually became famed (and heard) throughout the countryside — about one or two structural details he might take care of. And whenever she wrote her ma about what her livin’ conditions were like, she jist discomriggammororacated a bit … well, you know, she lied.

Finally, though, she got the letter she’d most been dreadin’. “August,” she hollered, “We gotta fix the house up right now. Ma’s comin’ for a visit!”

“Olive, my own, you know as well as I do that this place cain’t be fixed up.”

“We got to! We got to! Ma Squabble ain’t going to take to all this relievin’ herself in the woods and such. Why, Mr. Carmichael, the least you can do is build her an outhouse.”

Well, August figgered tackin’ up a little ol’ outhouse wouldn’t be too much to do to preserve the sweet strains of marital harmony. That’s where the trouble started. You see, Olive set her mind that if her house couldn’t be much of a residential showcase, her homestead facility sure would be! She drew up scale drawin’s (callin’ fer a tenfootdeep hole), ordered in tongue-and-groove black walnut paneling, a special handcarved cherry sittin’ throne, a stain-glassed stars-and-moon scene for the brass-knobbed door, and even an antiquey little potbelly stove to warm the place up.

An’ August, argufy as he might, jist didn’t dare to try cuttin’ corners on the project.

So it came to pass that Ma Squabble spent a week at her son-in-law’s ramshackle home, the one with the deluxe country powder room, and Olive was able to save enough face to keep her pride — and her husband’s hide — intact. In point of fact, it turned out, afterward, that both August and Olive grew quite fond of the facility. It really was a soothin’ place for going about one’s business. So it weren’t all that surprisin’ that the next time their ongoin’ connubial feud heated up to the point where she booted him out of the house altogether, he took the notion of movin’ into the outhouse until the storm passed.

‘Course, he hadn’t got long into his first night of tryin’ to sleep sittin’ up afore he realized that the place was stylish but small. So August headed off to town the next day and-jist to spite his mate back in that run-down shack-bought some honest-to-goodness dried lumber, shaggyhair carpeting, and premanufactured shingles and built hisself a bit of an add-on den. August spent about three days workin’ on that outhouse addition, puttin’ as much craftsmanship as he could muster into miterin’ the baseboards and flush-trimmin’ the wall-to-wall carpet. Soon after that job was done, though, his desire for home cookin’ grew as large as hers for visitin’ rights to the throne room … so they patched that partic’lar quarrel up.

But that was jist the start of things. From then on, whenever they had a husband-outin’ argument, August would move on back into the outhouse and, as much to spite Olive as to soothe hisself, work on expandin’ his part-time bachelor’s pad. He added on a shower room (their house didn’t even have runnin’ water) one time, and a kitchen with a tiled floor (theirs was decked with termite-drilled poplar) the next. He built on a bedroom with built-in dresser drawers (they used old cardboard liquor boxes back at the house) and then an entire screened-in porch (I guess you could say their other dwellin’ was kind of all porch!).

This kept on till finally August’d built a home that was a good bit bigger and a whole lot better than the domicile they was both supposed to be livin’ in!

Olive, of course, weren’t blind to such happenin’s. In fact, she’d taken to kickin’ August out of the house more’n usual, all the while being careful to act incensed beyond measure over every improvement he made to the outhouse.

Then, when the place looked completely complete — with a knotty pine rec room, fully furnished kitchen, skylights, and handrailed entrance steps — Olive staged a giant tantrum and tried to kick August in … into the old house, that is, whilst she moved out to the new one! August wouldn’t stand for that, though, so they both packed all their possessions and raced over, a-cursin’ all the way that the other wasn’t going to lay claim to the only good house on the place.

The moment they was all moved over, Olive suddenly snuffed out her fit and, afore August could stop her, gave her husband a quick kiss on the cheek. Then she quietly took a can of gasoline and a match to the old house, and razed it good and proper.

And that’s how the Carmichaels came to have an owner-built bungalow. And while that home don’t look quite as nice today as it did back then (August ain’t had the same motivation to maintain it that he did to build it, and Olive has a small tendency to hurl things against walls and such), I swear I’m tellin’ you the truth about how it got built.

And if you think I’m lyin’, you jist go ahead and visit the Carmichaels someday. You’ll believe me the first time you need to relieve yourself … and find yourself directed to the only outhouse you’ll ever see that’s smack-dab in the middle of a livin’ room!

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