The boys glanced furtively around as they gathered their supplies: corn silk, a wild muscadine leaf, and a match. With this they were set. Buck pocketed his portion of supplies and turned towards the old smokehouse.
“We can’t go in there.” Cooter said reprovingly. “Uncle Clyde might need somthin’ outta there and catch us.”
“What about the outhouse then?”
Cooter nodded. “Let’s go.”
The boys sat side by side on the one-seater board as they rolled the corn silk into the muscadine leaf.
“You bring the match?” Cooter looked over to Buck.
“Yep.” He fished the match from his front pocket and struck it against the bottom of his shoe. It took a couple of tries, but the Sulphur sparked, and a flame danced from the tip as he brought it to the hand rolled cigarette Buck held between his teeth. He shook the match and blew on it, making every effort not to lose the cigarette in the process; then, satisfied that the match was out, tossed it onto the dirt floor of the outhouse and ground it into the soil with the ball of his foot before taking a drag of the makeshift cigg and passing it to Cooter Bill.
This was not Cooter’s first rodeo. Mr. Mac had been leaving cigars in the mailbox for him for years. He hadn’t got caught yet. “How is it?” he asked.
“Not bad.” Buck coughed a little.
Cooter took a drag.
The boys took turns passing the cigarette between them, sitting in silence on the sides of the bench, making efforts to stay as far from the cutout hole as possible, until they heard footsteps coming. One of them said something their Mama would have washed their mouth out with soap for had she’d heard, and the other dropped the cigarette. They would not remember later who said the cuss word and who dropped the cigarette. If they did remember they never told.
They stood up quickly, reaching for the door just as they realized that the cigarette had landed in the newspaper and Sears’ catalogue pages scattered on the ground. It was dry-too dry. A fire was blazing and was already catching the wood afire before they could get the door open. Cooter pushed Buck out the door practically climbing over him. “Dear Lord Jesus, we’re gonna git killed!”
Buck stared back wide-eyed. “We ain’t gonna be able to sit down for a month.”
“Sittin’ down ain’t gonna be a problem if we’re dead! Uncle Clyde’s gonna kill us good and dead. Then my daddy’s gonna kill us!”
“You don’t say?” Uncle Clyde said calmly, arms folded as he watched the boys escape the burning outhouse. His eyes drifted slightly over to the boys but then went right back to the outhouse.
The fire caught quickly. There was no saving it. Any attempts to do so would have been futile and just wasted precious water. The boys knew it, so took their cue from Uncle Clyde, turned, crossed their arms and watched the outhouse burn to the ground. None said a word, and none looked at the other.
The fire burned hot and fast, so in no time they were watching smoke rise from hot coals and ashes. It was then that Uncle Clyde turned toward the boys. He stared had at them, eying them one at a time.
“Well, boys, first thing: You’re gonna build me a new outhouse. When you mess up, you own up to it. A man takes responsibility for that he’s done and does what he needs to fix it. You got me?”
“Yes, Sir.” The boys chimed in unity, nodding their heads.
“We’ll talk details later. I’ve got the tools and some wood stacked up over yonder in the barn. And I think your Aunt Money might be wantin’ a fancy outhouse. More than what this one here was. You know women folk.” He hesitated. “Or maybe you don’t yet, but it seems to me that they want to decorate even the places that no amount of prettifyin’s gonna make smell better. And no matter how pretty it is, an outhouse is still an outhouse.”
“Yes, Sir!” the boys chimed again.
No strap yet. Things were lookin’ good.
“Second, if you do yer best on that outhouse I ain’t gonna tell your daddies.”
The boys’ mouths dropped open.
Uncle Clyde ignored the gaped mouths, smiled slightly at the corner of one side of his mouth, and continued. “Third, and finally, I wanna know which one of ya ate the hot peppers?”
With that, the old man snickered and walked away, the snicker growing into a full-fledged belly laugh the farther he got from the boys and the pile of ashes behind them.
Cooter and Buck stared at one another silently, eyes wide in disbelief, as they gathered their wits. When they had recovered a bit, Cooter spoke. “Well, I reckon there’s a lesson to be learned from all this.”
“What’s that? You talkin’ ‘bout all that stuff Uncle Clyde said about being a man and takin’ responsibility and all that?”
“’Bout women folk bein’ fancy?”
“That you can laugh even when your outhouse burns down?”
“Next time we’re gonna smoke in the smokehouse!”