Chapter 17: Eating Rats

The houseboat is peddling down what would have been main street of a small town. Two-story brick buildings line both sides of the main street, flooded to the floor of the second story. Much of the brick is broken off, some buildings no more than a single wall with some boards sticking out of it.

The place appears deserted until the mayor appears in a broken second story window. The window has been knocked out to form a doorway, and a rowboat is tied by a rope that disappears into the doorway. The mayor is shirtless, has folds of skin hanging over the waist of his baggy, dirty pants, as though he has lost a lot of weight. He has a scraggly beard and hair on the long side too. He leans in the doorway, yelling at Finegan.

You got any food?

Finegan replies,

Depends. You got anything to trade? I'm a trader.

The mayor flaps his hand toward Finegan in disgust, as though to say "go away", and turns his back, walking back into the room. The entire length of main street, several blocks, is flooded, with a hillside at the end rising up out of the water. At the end of main street is a hill topped with a nursing home complex. There are several buildings, all of similar shape and size, and a parking lot. Finegan heads for that hillside.

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Finegan and Joey are walking through the entry of the nursing home complex. The buildings show the effects of quakes and high winds, some thrown sideways, some collapsed in place, others standing but with windows broken and roof partly blown off. A sign laying along the walkway says, in fading paint, "Coolridge Retirement Home". Finegan is looking around as he walks, sometimes walking backwards, looking for life. He hears a screen door creaking open. The woman manager says,

Can I help you?

A woman in her 30's, her long brown hair held back by a bandana, is standing in the doorway, holding the crooked screen door open. She is wearing a man's shirt that is too large for her, bound at the waist by a tie, the sleeves rolled up to her elbows. She has a long colorful skirt beneath, and is barefoot. Several cats run in and out of the room as she opens the door. Finegan jerks his head to the side at the sound of her voice.

Finegan Fine here, mam, trader. Perhaps I have something you've been looking for, something you need.

The manager says,

Oh, I don't know. Unless you're a floating pharmacy. You that houseboat down there? The one piled with, ah . . boy, you do come loaded. What'all you got?

Finegan smiles and says,

Don't rightly know, mam, until I do inventory. As I said, I'm a trader, and I find I can rise to any occasion.

Finegan stops short at this point, all but putting his hand to his mouth, realizing they are flirting with each other and dropping innuendoes. The manager catches this too, and tries to put the conversation back on a safe footing.

Well, ah, we've got a retirement home here, old folks. Mostly what they're missing is medication, but those that suffered from that passed early. Now I'm here as head nurse with a hardy lot. Old, but hardy.

The manager steps through the doorway into the driveway circling the complex and motions to Finegan and Joey to follow her.

Come on back, I'll show you.

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The nursing home vegetable garden is at the back of the complex. Most of the gardens are raised beds, long rectangular beds formed by a heavy lumber posts laid horizontally on top of one another, held firm by stakes along the outside driven into the ground. The wall is two feet tall with soil in the interior of the bed. There is a pipe running down the center of each bed for watering with a spigot at one end. The pipes have holes punched into them so water sprays out down the length of the pipe. In between the beds is what was intended to be lawn, but it has not been mowed in ages. Instead, there are wheelchair tracks and a path between the beds, from use.

Several oldsters are tending the garden. Half are in wheelchairs, which pull alongside the beds so the oldsters can simple reach over and pull weeds or collect produce or whatever. Some oldsters are using walkers and sit on the edges of the beds. The beds were intended to be accessible and to not require bending down, designed for the handicapped or aged. Finegan and the manager are followed by a curious Joey who is trying to get the many cats to come up to him. He bends over and calls to them, but they are illusive though interested and keep circling him. The manager is pointing while talking.

We were fortunate, having these put in ahead of time. And we saved the seed, year to year. All those things were therapy, physical therapy. We'd make a big deal out of it, sorting seeds into plastic zip bags and labeling them, sharing them with family. Now it's proved to be a Godsend.

Some of the oldsters turn their heads at their approach and smile and wave. Finegan asks,

What do you do for meat?

The manager puts her finger to her mouth, a shush motion, and in a low voice replies.

I'll tell you later.

Finegan and the manager have been walking along the path, which circles around and returns to the complex buildings. They are approaching some benches along the path. The manager sits down, patting the seat next to her for Finegan to do likewise. She looks down the path to be sure no one is close enough to hear.

You can see we've got cats. We've got a population explosion.

The manager glances at Finegan's face, prepared to drop the bomb and wanting to see if he's ready for it.

I've got several female cats that bring me their catch. It's the females that hunt. . . Must be a rat population explosion somewhere, as they rarely fail to deliver. Every morning, there they are, dead rats, fresh meat, on my doorstep.

She glances at Finegan's face again.

Well, it's protein! I cook it to death, meat falls off the bone, mix it into the soup that's supper every night. . . No one's died yet.

Finegan leans back against the bench back, putting one foot up on the other knee, relaxed. He says,

I'm sure you're not the only one. . . Don't you fish?

The manager says,

We don't have a pier. Don't have a boat. And except for myself, who could manage it? They'd drown trying. . . We do have a pole and line. Some relative would come for a visit and haul a resident off to some riverbank for a picnic. So we had a pole and line on hand. . . But I can't leave. I'm the only one here. . . Plus my day is long enough as is.

Just then one of the female cats saunters up with a dead rat in its mouth and drops it at the manager's feet. The manager leans forward to praise and pet the cat.

Why thank you Mitzy! That's a beautiful gift!

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The peace on the main street has been shattered by the sound of lumber being pulled apart, nails loosened but still holding and complaining as boards are pulled apart. The mayor comes to his window to see what's going on.

Hey! You can't take that! That belongs to someone.

Finegan appears in a window near where his canoe has been tied. The window has been pushed out for easy access. He sticks his head out the window to yell back.

So sue me. . . How come you're not helping that woman up there tending the old folks?

The mayor gets a disgusted look on his face and flaps his hand again in the direction of Finegan, as though dismissing him, and turns to shuffle back into his apartment. Lumber pieces start flying out of the window - studs and railings and numerous floorboards, splashing as it hits the water. In the background there is more hammering as Finegan is retrieving nails as he dismantles the building. The oldsters in the garden are all shock still, their jaws a bit agape, heads turned in the direction of the noise, listening to the sound of construction.

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That evening the manager, Finegan and Joey, and several of the oldsters in wheelchairs or clinging to walkers are looking out over the water in a beautiful sunset. A floating pier can be seen, with a long ramp down to the pier accessible by wheelchairs. Former 6" wide hardwood floor boards from one of the old flooded town buildings, torn from the floor of the second floor, are used as the pier bed and lengthwise as a ramp to the floating pier. As the water raises, the pier will too.

Posts from an interior railing are placed along the side of the ramp and pier, with rope strung between the posts as guardrails. The whole lot is irregular, the posts painted white, the floor boards a scuffed brown, and the rope of varying thickness. Finegan did not have a saw so the ends of boards stick out at the end of the pier. Studs have been hammered along the top of the pier bed, along the edges, as wheelchair guards. Some chairs from the raided second story apartment are placed here and there for those coming to fish on walkers. The manager looks sideways at Finegan, who is standing beside her. She says,

You must stay for supper. And I think the residents have some seed they want to share with you. They don't see much family these days. In fact, not in over a year.

Then realizing what he must be expecting for supper, she whispers.

Tonight, it'll just be vegetable soup!

Finegan whispers back.

No, no, have your usual! I'm fine with that!

Then, turning to the residents grouped around her, the manager says,

We may not have TV any longer, but now, during these beautiful sunsets, we can do some fishing! Does anyone remember what we used for bait? John, do you remember? Worms. Yes, it was worms from the garden!

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Finegan and Joey are coming through the fog, approaching the houseboat where it is moored below the nursing home complex. Finegan has a clear plastic bag filled with little zip lock bags of various seeds, hand labeled and dated. All is taped watertight. Barney is barking in greeting, his tail wagging. Finegan says,

Better tuck this high and dry.

Joey reaches down to pet Barney, appreciating the fact that he is not evasive as the cats were. Joey tells Barney,

You wouldn't have wanted any of that soup anyway, buddy. Just yucky vegetables. . .

Joey stands up and looks around for some leftovers from breakfast to give Barney, taking them from a covered frying pan atop a box. Barney snatches the fried potatoes from his hand and gobbles them down. Joey says,

Just old people food. They didn't have much. Just dead rats.

Finegan smiles as he puts away the package of seeds, and says,

Yeah, who'd eat a rat!