Once a year, I face the task of cleaning out my outhouse. It’s not an old-fashioned privy. It’s a Biolet, designed to let urban people like me make an attempt at living at least a little off the grid. (I also have the conventional kind.)
The little house the Biolet sits in is quite pretty, a rustic cabin, surrounded by pines that have grown large in the decades I have lived here. Inside, the little room is warm from the sun and it does not smell, one of the Biolet’s promises. I’m sure it would be different if the facility was used by a horde of people, but it has always been only mine.
Cleaning it out is quite simple: I unscrew the four screws that hold the drawer in place and slide it out from its compartment under the seat. The contents, reassuringly, are mostly disintegrated toilet paper; the special loam I add from time to time has taken care of everything else.
I carry the drawer to my compost heap and bury the innocuous contents deep in the leaf mold and the dirt from old pots. By spring it will all have become black loam that will be a great benefit to my garden.
I enjoy my outhouse because it is in my view transgressive.
I enjoy transgressions—the name of one of my collection of short stories—and I miss the energy of evil in most of the contemporary fiction I read and even in a lot of the fiction I write.
By evil I don’t mean doing harm to individuals. I mean shaking the roots of our assumptions.
There are exceptions to the pastel that seems our favorite color, as fiction writers. Recently a book of poems from my publisher, Sarabande Books, caught my attention. It’s called Keeper of Limits: The Mrs. Cavendish Poems, and while the poems chronicle an unconventional life-long infatuation, they also embody and express the role of women as keeper of limits—as I have too often observed. Mrs. Cavendish knows that keeping limits is what she is expected to do, not only with her off-stage lover but with her life as a whole; the upper-class connotations of her married name make that clear. She is married to her class, and her role is to preserve its rules and distinctions.
Another new novel may be a candidate for transgression: Girl With Gun by Amy Stewart, built around one hundred year old news stories of an accident and the attempt by three sisters to secure compensation, an attempt that required all three to be armed.
I haven’t read the book, but after hearing the author interviewed by Steve Inskeep on National Public Radio, I wondered if Stewart’s blithe charm means the book will be less transgressive than jaunty.
There’s nothing jaunty about the formal photograph of my aunt, Henrietta Bingham, which I hung in my outhouse.
Henrietta is sheathed in white satin and long white gloves; in profile, she looks as stately as a lily. Probably the photograph was taken while she was living in England, becoming a sort of celebrity—she was said to play spirituals on a mandolin—benefiting from her father’s position as Ambassador to the Court of St. James.
I hung her portrait in my outhouse because I know it would make her laugh, the throaty Bourbon-fueled laugh my father, her younger brother, loved to inspire. Aunt Henrietta’s sense of humor never seemed to fail even when she had become nearly bankrupt, in middle age, dependent on the brother for whom she had once been mentor and muse.
Few men can avoid condescending to a sister once considered a star when she has fallen on hard times. My father certainly enjoyed the power he wielded; I remember how pleased he was with himself for financing very modest vacations for Henrietta and her companion at the sort of shabby South Carolina beaches he himself would never have visited—and she was duly grateful for annual escapes from the gloom of a run-down apartment in New York.
When I knew her, Henrietta was long past wearing white satin gowns. She was corpulent, her full cheeks streaked with the broken veins of a lifelong addiction to alcohol; no one paid her any attention. She did not seem to deserve it now that she wore rayon dresses my father ordered for her from Sears Roebuck or its equivalent, those decent all-service garments that seemed suitable to a discredited old age.
But she was still able to laugh. Perhaps she never surveyed the ruins of her life, her dependency on family money and family endorsement that made her, finally, a poor retainer, not so unlike the ancient house servants African-Americans who were paid every Friday with small envelops of cash.
I know she would laugh now if she saw her portrait from her glamorous days hanging in my outhouse. It might seem as refreshingly transgressive to her as it does to me.
[For more on my outhouse, see “My Privy.”]