The Trouble Between Olive and Henry
by Gwen Tuinman
Olive and Henry Jenkin’s marriage suffered a perplexing tribulation following the spring thaw of fifty-two. Their trouble began on a Wednesday morning in early March, when a string of cars splashed along the country road leading to their farm and turned into the laneway. After the procession rolled to a stop, car doors swung open and members of the Brownsville League of Christian Women emerged. With their plumed hats askew, they tiptoed through the muck. Olive greeted them at the kitchen door, then they trouped into the parlour for the monthly meeting.
After several cups of tea had been drunk, the ladies grew fidgety and their knees pinched together.
“Well, goodbye,” one parishioner said.
“But you haven’t finished your cake,” said Olive.
“We all need to go,” said Ruby Martin, the self-appointed league president. The women paced at the door like a herd of cats. Olive’s indignation hid behind a frozen smile and guided them to their cars. After the last set of taillights turned onto the dirt road, Olive scowled at the cause of their hasty departure. The outhouse.
It stood, or rather tilted, in the centre of a spreading pond of winter run off. So the women could walk to the outhouse, Henry had laid planks end-to-end over the muddy bog that stretched across the barnyard. The prospect of losing their balance and wallowing in the mud mortified them as it did Olive. She’d never admit it to Henry, but walking those slippery planks aggravated the pain in her hip.
Olive tottered off to the barn where she found Henry sitting on a hay bale, whittling a stick. His border collie, Mutt, lay at his feet.
“Henry,” she said, “that outhouse is an embarrassment.”
“Why?” he asked.
“It’s dilapidated. You can see daylight between the boards.”
“Good ventilation.” Henry looked up at her in earnest. “Those board were milled from maples grown on this farm.”
“It’s too far from the house.”
“Hmm.” Henry dragged the blade of his pocketknife along the stick and a curl of wood dropped to the floor.
“One of the church women has a tricky hip. She can’t walk those planks, ” Olive’s lips drew tight.
Henry plucked a piece of straw from the bale and slid it between his teeth. “Seems like the outhouse just needs a little reparation and relocation,” he said
“Where will you move it to?”
“Across the road next to the mailbox,” Henry answered.
Olive’s jaw dropped.
“It will be a shorter walk for your friend with the bad hip,” Henry said with a wink. Olive’s face reddened. “The town council is putting a blade on the front of Ted Grimley’s truck so he can plow snow from our road next year. If he does the laneway too, it’ll be clear sailing to that outhouse.”
“People will know every time I have to go,” Olive said.
“We all got to go sometime,” Henry replied.
“Ahhh!” Olive turned on her heel and steamed back to the house.
Henry grinned and patted Mutt. Shortening Olive’s walk to the outhouse would surely earn forgiveness for his gaff the previous evening.
He’d been minding his own business after dinner, waiting for the picture tube to warm up on the television. Olive had looked up from her knitting and posed the dreaded question.
“If I died, would you remarry?”
“I’d have to. Gotta eat.” The dog whined and looked nervously at Olive.
“Who would you ask?”
“Ruby Martin,” he answered. When Olive’s eyes flashed, he wanted to take it back.
“The same Ruby Martin who, at the strawberry social, said that my jam tasted burned and my shortcake needed more vanilla?”
“Yes, but only if her husband is dead.” Henry hesitated then added, “Otherwise it’d be in bad taste.”
“Ohhh,” Olive wailed.
Little wonder she was upset, he thought later, with Ruby being five years younger and twenty-five pounds lighter. If the question came up again, he’d pick Margaret Swanson. She was closer to Olive’s age plus she made a mean pecan pie.
For days after learning Henry’s plan, the horror of a roadside outhouse consumed Olive. She pictured Henry scrimmaging through his coffee tin of rusty bent nails, and prayed for divine inspiration.
One afternoon, she tugged a roll of butcher paper from the space behind the icebox and laid it open on the kitchen table. Across the bottom edge, she printed the words, ‘Olive’s Privy Plan’. She pursed her lips and tapped the pencil stub against the table, then she began to draw. Olive needed a builder. Franklin Monroe, a young farmer from up the road, came to mind. A girlish flush warmed her cheeks and for the first time in recent memory, she giggled out loud.
How could she pay for a new privy? Henry owned Mutt and one old cow. Olive’s beloved chickens were the only productive creatures left on the farm. She sold the eggs and tithed ten percent of her earnings. The remainder she hid in a sock at the bottom of her knitting bag but that money was earmarked for a higher purpose.
Last Christmas, Ruby Martin had written, “God bless the needy” on a thick envelope and dropped it on the collection plate. “Ruby was showing off, that’s all, and with her husband’s money,” Olive told Henry. Vern and Ruby Martin delivered mail to rural folks. Vern bore the biggest risk driving them around. So in Olive’s opinion, it was his money really.
The best way to teach Ruby that pride goeth before the fall, was to out-donate her. That’s what the money in the sock was for. Olive pondered a different means of financing the new privy.
“What‘s going on here?” Henry asked. Olive jumped and hugged the paper to her bosom.
“When you see Franklin, tell him I need a word,” she said.
“Just one?” Henry hooked his thumbs behind the straps of his overalls and rocked back on his heels.
Olive rolled her eyes. “Go back to your cow.”
Henry chuckled all the way back to the barn.
A week later, Olive and Franklin met to discuss the new privy. Franklin leaned over her drawing and asked “Would you like a lid — to cover the seat?”
“Is it in the drawing?” She used same tone when she scolded Henry’s dog.
“No, Miss Olive.” Franklin settled back into his chair.
“You’ll be paying for the lumber and nails,” Olive said in a flat tone.
“Now, Miss Olive” Franklin’s head swung side to side like a porch swing, “that’s asking too much.”
“I’m prepared to give you a dozen eggs a week for one year,” she said. When Franklin shrugged, she added a roasting hen at Easter.
“That’s a lot of upfront money.” He whistled through his front teeth. “There’ll be a lot of digging. Then, of course, I’ll be lugging around all that wood and using my own tools.”
“What do you want, Franklin?”
“Henry goes on about how you make the best socks, Miss Olive.”
“One pair. Don’t push your luck.”
Franklin grinned and extended his hand. “Deal!”
“That won’t be necessary,” Olive said, looking at his calloused palm. “I know your mother.”
One April morning, the low rumble of a truck engine passed by the kitchen window. “Franklin is here,” Olive announced with glee. “We have business to discuss.” She smoothed her apron and tucked an errant hairpin into place before heading outside.
Henry ambled to the screen door with Mutt, and watched Olive trundle down the laneway to meet Franklin. “That’s interesting.” Henry rubbed his grizzled chin and turned away from the door.
Franklin returned the following Tuesday and unloaded a shovel, a toolbox, a stack of lumber, and a box of nails from the back of his truck. Henry watched quietly from the barn. After four days of digging, sawing, hammering and painting, a finished privy stood fifty feet behind the house.
“It’s wonderful,” Olive proclaimed over lunch. Her chin dropped and her brow raised. “No gaps between the boards.”
Henry shrugged and patted Mutt’s head.
“Put that dog outside while we eat.” Olive grimaced and straightened her apron.
As Henry ushered Mutt past Olive’s left side, he whispered, “Ted Grimly is helping me move the outhouse tomorrow.”
Olive blinked. A childhood illness had deafened her left ear when she was four years old. Her father once told Henry, that had she demonstrated stronger faith, her prayers for healing might’ve been answered.
After lunch, Henry carried a mallet and four wooden stakes across the road to mark new location of the outhouse. He’d just sunk the last stake, when he noticed Olive standing across the road.
“What on earth are you doing, Henry?”
“I’m preparing to relocate the outhouse”
“But I’ve built a new one!” Olive cried.
Henry swung his arm in a wide arc. “You’ll enjoy a beautiful view of the farm every time you –”
“Stop right there.” Olive’s chest heaved inside the bib of her apron. “Old farmers use outhouses. Ladies visit a privy.” She thrust her chin out and hobbled toward the house.
Henry called after her, “Olive, you look as fine walking away from me, as you did walking toward me.”
She threatened to burn his dinner.
Two hours had passed when Olive saw children digging Henry’s outhouse pit. Her eyes widened as one small boy from a neighbouring farm clumsily lifted a shovel full of dirt. Thirty minutes later, Franklin pulled his truck over and offered Henry a soda. Olive clenched her fists. A second truck stopped and Ted Grimley got out. He pushed his hat away from his face and studied the pit. Smoke from his cigar drifted through the window screen and assaulted Olive’s olfactory. Some discussion followed, then Ted shook Henry’s hand and drove off.
Olive understood. Soon, that despicable falling apart object of disdain would be perched directly across the road for the entire world to see.
The next morning, Henry watched Olive tossing grain to the chickens while he waited for Ted Grimley. When Ted finally arrived, Olive pretended not to notice. As he drove behind her, Ted honked the horn. Olive shrieked; her face turned tomato red. She glared at Henry then threw down the bag of feed and limped to the house. Ted roared and slapped the steering wheel.
The men cinched a heavy chain around the middle of the outhouse and hooked the free end to the truck bumper. Ted sat behind the steering wheel, watching the rear view mirror. At Henry’s signal, he stepped on the gas pedal and the truck lurched forward. After a few attempts, the outhouse eased from its foundation, and tipped forward so the front wall rested against the tailgate. Together, they wedged the outhouse into the bed of the truck.
Henry knew that Olive would watch the goings on from the kitchen window. She’d be waiting for proof that his outhouse move was a bad idea. But he’d surprise her. Everything was going to go just right, and in the end, he will have done her a great service.
Henry’s outhouse relocation proved to be a vexing success. Olive’s mouth twitched each time Henry sauntered across the road, with Mutt at his heels. Henry would retrieve his newspaper from the mailbox then sit in the outhouse, reading it from front to back. Mutt frolicked like a puppy while she waited.
Olive worried that she’d been bested until a sprawling piece of farm equipment passed by and ripped the door from the outhouse just as Henry was emerging. A day later, Henry replaced the door and hung a sign above it that read ‘OCCUPIED’. A car slowed as it passed by and honked. Olive gasped when Henry bounded from the outhouse, waving with one hand and holding up his pants with the other.
When torrential rains fell in August, the ground softened and the outhouse tilted perilously away from the mailbox. Olive could barely suppress her delight. But then Henry propped the outhouse back to its vertical position with two by fours and a length of rope. The effects proved ghastly.
In October, the unthinkable happened. Olive watched Vern and Ruby Martin’s car stop at the mailbox. As Ruby lifted the flag, a gust of wind flung the outhouse door wide open. Vern’s shoulders shook with laughter as he drove off. There sat Henry with overalls pooling around his ankles. He looked up at the house, doffed his cap at Olive, and raised the newspaper over his face. Olive dropped her knitting.
Minutes later, Henry appeared at the side door, wringing his hat. “You’ll thank me come winter,” he said. Olive doubted it.
Henry’s wisdom was tested on a January morning nearly a year after the Jenkin’s first outhouse debate. “Big snowfall today,” he said. He looked at Olive stirring porridge at the stove. “Wear something red just in case you get lost walking to the privy.” Olive’s eyes narrowed. “You’re welcome to visit mine,” he said, putting on his coat. His shoulders dropped when Olive snorted. Mutt wagged her tail, but Henry shook his head. “Not this time girl. Stay.”
Henry plodded to the other side of the road, then he kicked a snow drift away from the outhouse door and stepped inside. He’d just situated himself when a tremendous clamour arose outside. Through a gap in the wall, he glimpsed Ted Grimley’s plow blade pushing a wall of snow toward him. He leapt from the seat and pushed against the door as the truck barreled past but it was too late. He was snowed in.
Olive danced a jig around the kitchen table. She’d witnessed everything. “Now we’ll be rid of that cursed outhouse once and for all,” she said to Mutt. Olive untied her apron and laid it on the counter, then she put on her coat. She walked outside and crossed the road to Henry’s outhouse.
“Stuck?” she asked.
“I’m not one to say I told you so, but …”
“It’s close to the house,” Henry said.
“What?” Olive craned her left ear toward the door.
“How’s your hip?” he yelled.
“It’s been worse.”
“Admit it,” he said, “This is a fine location.”
“That’s a bold request coming from a grown man stuck in a toilet,” she replied.
“Henry, I knew this was a bad idea.”
“Olive, look —”
“No, you look. That outhouse –”
“Snow plow!” Henry shouted.
“What? I don’t hear –”
Honk! Honk! Honk! Olive yowled and whirled around just in time to recognize Ted Grimley’s toothy grin. His truck whooshed past with sufficient speed to lift her skirt and plaster her coat with snow. Olive stood in the road, slack mouthed, until the taillights faded from view. The plow had deposited a second impassible bank of snow across the mouth of the laneway. She wasn’t going anywhere.
“It’s cold in here,” Henry said from inside the outhouse.
“It’s cold out here too.”