Chapter 1: Houseboat Living

The humidity and Spanish moss hanging from the trees on the Georgia coastline is not unusual, but the fact that the coastline is flooded is unusual. Rooftops and treetops are sticking out of the placid water, which is lapping gently on suburban lawns.

A houseboat is floating nearby, tied to a sturdy treetrunk sticking out of the floodwaters. The houseboat is solidly built, a modified commercial houseboat with metal floatation tubes underneath and a single story home in the center, and with patios all around. But this houseboat is not new, is well weathered with paint worm off and a roof tile here and there missing.

And the houseboat is immensely cluttered.

Bins of vegetables are stacked one on top of the other and side by side. Engine and mechanical parts are heaped in piles on the corners of the houseboat, placed for balance. There are pegs everywhere a peg can be placed, where loops of fishing line, wire, and rope are hung.

Boxes are stacked, smaller boxes on top of larger ones. Some of the wooden boxes have pull-out drawers. Large plastic containers are stacked here and there, but only a few are labeled. Folded tarps are on top of one pile, topped by fishing netting flung there to dry after a night's catch.

Poles have been placed on the four corners of the houseboat and lines are strung from these poles to the single story house in the center. On one, some fresh fish, gutted and headless, are hung by the tail. On another, a confederate flag is hung alongside a US flag. On yet another, some attractive items of clothing, hung out to advertise that they are for sale or barter.

A party of gulls approachs, greeting the dawn with their screams. They fly overhead, swooping down toward the fish hung out to drain and dry on the line. The raucous calls of the gulls have woken Finegan, who comes stumbling out of the house, bleary eyed, shirt half pulled out of his pants, barefoot and annoyed. He is waving his arms at the gulls and walking toward his catch, pulling a wooden box along behind him.

Arrrgh. Go catch your own.

Finegan's dog Barney, a mutt with one rear leg missing, is hobbling out behind him, throwing a bark or two in the direction of the gulls. Gulls are nothing new to Barney, and not a threat.

The fish on the line are hooked by a hangman's noose made of wire with a hook on the other end of the wire. The cleaned fish are hung by their tails to drain and dry. Finegan unhooks the fish quickly, dropping them into the wooden box, which he covers with a wooden cover near at hand.

Finegan grabs a dented bucket and dips it into the water, sloshing the deck of the houseboat, washing off remaining fish guts and blood. He pulls the fishing netting flung on top of the tarp pile and hangs it over an unused corner line.

All is now ready for a trip up one of the new bays that have been formed by the flooding, peddling wares and looking for barter. Finegan pulls on the rope securing the houseboat to a flooded tree, going hand over hand to pull the houseboat close. Noting that the tie point is an inch below water Finegan looks at Barney and mutters,

Still rising.

At the rear of the houseboat is an extension with a water wheel, half in the water, half out. Finegan has rigged the large wooden paddles so they turn when he pedals on some bike pedals - powered by lean muscle and determination.

Sitting on the bike seat, leaning back against a seat backstop he has rigged, Finegan reverse pedals to pull away from the tree. He is steering the houseboat by a rudder attached to a lever. Satisfied that he is clear, Finegan leans back heavily into the chair's backstop, pushing with his lean legs aggressively, and the houseboat moves up a newly flooded ravine along what is now the new coastline.

A country road at one side of the ravine is dipping down and disappearing into the murky floodwaters. Trees and shrubs are clustered on the hillside pasturelands and sink into the floodwaters too, so that only the tips of the trees are visible further out. The flood is recent, but persistent.

Finegan is keeping the houseboat centered in the flooded ravine, being careful to avoid being snagged by flooded trees. Though the houseboat moves slowly, it moves steadily. Finegan strips his shirt off, overheated from the exercise, and tosses it onto a pile of boxes nearby.

The houseboat is approaching a rooftop sticking up above the water.

Over here. Over here!

An elderly woman is sitting on her rooftop, barefoot and clinging to the roof peak with one trembling hand while waving at Finegan with the other. She is wearing a summer dress, lightweight and slightly damp around her thin frame.

Finegan lets the houseboat drift, closing the gap. He strides to the front and grabs a large grappling hook on a rope and throws it onto the rooftop on the extreme left. He jerks on the rope so the hooks catch on the roof, then throws another to the extreme right, doing the same.

Disappearing into the house, Finegan comes out with a battered stepladder. He steps up, grabs the knob at the end of the roof peak, and heaves himself onto the rooftop.

Trust me now. I won't drop you into the water.

In a tremulous voice, May relays her plight.

My son-in-law took the family to shore yesterday. He was supposed to come back for me.

Finegan takes her free hand, holding it high so she can cling to his hand instead of the roof peak.

Ease yourself over to the boat now. I'm going to help you down. You can't stay here.

May scuffs along the roof, clinging to the roof peak with one hand while gripping Finegan's hand with the other. When they get to the edge of the rooftop, she freezes. After a slight pause, Finegan suddenly grabs both her hands and swings her out over the boat, so she is hanging over the stepladder.

Get your footing now.

Seeing that she has her footing, Finegan releases first one hand and then the other. Finegan steps over to the grappling hooks and frees them, first on one side and then the other, and swings down onto the stepladder just as the houseboat is starting to drift away.

Just to ask, you didn't happen to have any booze in that house, did you?

May has a look on her face like he had invited the Devil himself into their midst.

Alcohol? Oh lord no!

______________________________

Further up the ravine the terrain is relatively free of trees and shrubs, though is still plunging into the water. A farmhouse is beyond the pasture, at the high crest of a hill. The farmhouse is leaning at a tilt, with part of the roof torn off and thrown into the yard.

There are tents in the yard, mostly made from tarps and blankets. About a dozen people - men, women and children - are emerging from the tents and rising from where they have been seated at a picnic table, pointing toward the approaching houseboat.

Finegan moors the houseboat with his pair of grapping hooks and pulls a plank from between some boxes, shoving it out onto the shoreline. He strids over to greet those who are running down from the farmhouse.

Finegan Fine here, trader. I've got stuff you're no doubt looking for. And what useless things have you got that you'd like to get rid of?

A friend of May's toward the back of the crowd recognizes her.

We were so worried about you.

Looking past May to the houseboat and not seeing any others, she looks puzzled.

Where's the family?

May is walking cautiously along the plank, stepping gingerly onto shore and up to greet her friend.

They left in a boat yesterday. Something must have happened because they were supposed to come back for me.

May is looking a little consternated, but her friend has hardened her face. They both turn to go up the hill, the friend's arm around May's frail frame. May's friend says grimly

I never did like that man.

Finegan is bargaining with the farm matron. She complains that the group staying with her

Ate everything.

Ready to barter, Finegan says

I've got some fine fish here, fresh from last night, and if you let me stay for dinner I'd be obliged.

Finegan reaches behind him to pull a rusty child's wagon out and heaves the wooden box of fish into it. They set out up the hill, side by side, chatting.

How'd you catch all that? We don't get but an occasional with the line.

The sky is beginning to turn orange, signaling eventide.

______________________________

Fish are sizzling in a pan placed over a campfire. Finegan is milling around in the background, talking to several people over a pile of junk that has been assembled. There are children in the group, curious as always.

A man jogs up holding what looks like a radio setup, including a long stiff wire that has been used as an antenna. Finegan takes this in his hands and looks it over, talking to the man at the same time, and glancing up at the rooftop.

Can't get anything from there?

The man shakes his head.

Not lately. I think the base tower went down.

The group is drifting away, moving toward the picnic table in anticipation of supper. The farm matron comes up from behind Finegan and begins talking behind him, so the group won't be alerted to their conversation. She has a bag of onions hanging from one hand, her barter for the fish, to explain why she is approaching him. Finegan looks up, but does not yet turn around to face her, sensing the agenda.

The farm matron speaks quietly.

I have a favor to ask. We've got little Joey here, was trapped here with his grandad when the waters started to rise. Grandpa died yesterday, and the boy wants to go home. Take the boy up aways and give his folks the body. I'm afraid if you don't do this, someone here will eat him.

Finegan nods, then turns for their official conversation about the onions.

Fine mess you have there! Keep well too. You grow these here?

As the farm matron backs away, Finegan moves to the side to address an old timer at the fringe.

Finegan is desperate for a drink, the burning issue on his alcohol sopped mind. Of all the casualties in the flood, the disappearance of readily available booze has been the worst, to his way of thinking.

Where you folks keep the still?

The old timer laughs and points.

Out yonder in the flood.