Chapter 21: Rust Belt

A factory is on the horizon, partially flooded. Metal cranes and storage silos are among the metal-framed factory buildings. The windows are smashed and some buildings tilted sideways, but most of the structures are intact. The parking lots are underwater, only some gateposts and the rooftop of a guard hut visible sticking up above the water. Joey is on the roof of the houseboat, taking measure of the clearance over the parking lot fence. He says,

A good 4 feet I think.

The main factory building has a slightly sloping flat metal roof, with the walls coming up over the roof edge for a couple feet as a guardrail around the edge of the rooftop. The rooftop is covered with greenery, some kind of rooftop garden, with wines hanging down over the edges of the roof. There is the sound of a metal door opening on the roof, the access door to the rooftop from a stairwell.

A bent little man emerges from the stairwell door, letting the creaking door close slowly by itself. He heads over to a row of what looks like cabbage, bending over it to weed the row, not noticing the approaching houseboat. The gardener is bent, a back curved from years of working in this position and from malnutrition, though he is not that old. He has black hair and pale skin, a gaunt look, and appears to be small boned. All is still except for the sound of water splashing against the side of the houseboat.

Finegan hops up to the houseboat rooftop, standing next to Joey, for a better look. Finegan calls out a greeting.

Yo, the gardens! Good day to you. Finegan Fine here, trader. . . How you manage that, on the rooftop?

The gardener freezes at the sound of a voice so close, and so unexpected. He straightens up, as much as his bent back will allow, and looks in Finegan's direction. Then he puts his handful of weeds plucked from the row down, and shuffles over to the rooftop edge. The gardener puts a hand up to shield his eyes against the morning sun, taking a moment before he responds in a high nasal voice.

What kind'a contraption is that?

Finegan replies,

It's a houseboat. Floats. I got a water wheel in the back to push it along. Slow, but steady.

The gardener says,

A trader you say?

To which Finegan pitches his line.

What might you need?

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The houseboat is tied to a post at the corner of the factory rooftop. A knotted rope ladder is hanging down onto the deck of the houseboat. Finegan and Joey are being given a tour of the rooftop gardens by the gardener.

. . We seen the water's a'rising and dug some good soil before it was covered. Those of us ain't never had no land in our name. Cain't run off with the house, but them landlords not gonna miss some soil from a flooded yard. . . We use rainwater here.

The gardener is motioning along the rows as they walk.

Tomatoes do well . . greens of many kinds . . Potatoes if you keep 'em wet . . can't get those carrots to grow unless they's the stubby kind . .

They come to the watering system where there are hoses with holes running down the length of the soil troughs, in the center of each trough. There is a water tank on the roof which had been used by the factory, raised above the roof so there is water pressure.

This here's how we water. Wears me out hauling the rainwater up there every time, though. Collects in the drains over there, which'n we blocked.

The rooftop door opens again and the gardeners's wife and 10 year old daughter emerge. The wife has more meat on her bones than her husband, though it is clear she has lost most of her fat in recent months. Her long skirt is held up by cloth strips up over her shoulders like suspenders, sewn onto the waist front and back. The daughter is scrawny and wears a combination of her parent's clothing, one of her father's shirts and a pair of her mother's pantaloons, also held up by suspenders. Her pantaloons are tied at the ankle, they are so voluminous. They have dressed for company, and have brushed their hair for the occasion too. The gardener turns toward them and to introduce them to Finegan.

My wife and darlin daughter.

Finegan has been looking around, appraising the setup.

We might ought fix a pumping system to lift that rainwater. Can you give me a tour to look for parts?

The gardener says,

They took 'bout everything. Common.

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The gardener is walking Finegan through their living quarters on the floor below the gardens. He is walking just ahead of Finegan, gesturing to the right and left, turning to walk backwards at times, pointing at this and that.

We brung just the personals. Dragged a couple mattress. Plain livin but we're making do.

They return to the stairwell, as the gardener wants to show Finegan that the lower floors are inaccessible. Finegan follows the gardener down to the next landing where the water level is visible.

. . risen to this level, and lately slowed . .

Finegan points to the rust just under the water level.

Salt water . . salt water is corrosive. This plant was never built for salt water. . .

Finegan turns to face the gardener. He barely gets his words out before the building starts to collapse.

You had any settling problems?

There is a sound of metal screeching onmetal. The stairwell shutters and both men lose their footing.

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A frantic scene ensues, as the gardener and his family are evacuating. The wife and daughter are tossing bundles of personal items out the window of their living quarters down to Joey, who is on the roof of the houseboat. Finegan is on the roof of the factory with the gardener, trying to harvest his crop. Finegan drops a rope with hook down to Joey.

Snag me that bundle of plastic bags . . thanks.

The gardener is harvesting potatoes, shaking the soil off when he wrenches a plant up out of the trough, and plucking potatoes off the roots. He tosses the filled plastic bag onto a pile to be lowered to Joey. Finegan is doing the same to carrots, starting to tear the greens off them. The gardener cries out,

No, no, leave some! I'll replant 'em for the seed. . . Gotta have the seed.

Finegan is hooking potatoe bags on the hook used to lower produce from the rooftop to Joey. He swings the bag of potatoes out over the houseboat rooftop and holds the rope while Joey catches the swinging mess. Joey says,

Got it.

The wife and daughter are now climbing out the window of their living quarters below the factory roof, the daughter dropping down and then reaching up to help her more portly mother, standing beneath her to soften her fall. Her mother says,

Child! Out'en the way! I'll squash you flat.

The wife falls on her butt, but rolls to stand up and brush herself off. Finegan and the gardener are now harvesting green cabbage, cutting this off at the root and discarding the brown and tattered outer leaves. The gardener cries out again,

Leave that'en. I'll replant for seed. . . Just those half dozen will do.

They have a pile of bagged vegetables at the side of the factory roof, ready to be lowered down. Just then the sound of metal screeching again cuts through the air, as the factory visibly shutters and lowers again by a few feet. Only inches remain until the flood waters will pour over the rooftop guard walls. Finegan rushes over to the pile of plastic bags packed and tied and ready to be lowered. He hooks and swings this to Joey as though they only have seconds to spare. Joey signals Finegan as soon as the hook is clear.

Got it.

The daughter is now helping Joey, moving the bags to the edge of the roof and out of his way, and lowering the bags into her mother's eager hands during the off moments. The water starts lapping over one edge of the rooftop guard. The gardener rushes over to the far side of the factory rooftop, tearing off his shirt. He picks seed shoots from carrot and cabbage plants being used to grow seed and ties them into his shirt, tying the sleeves together so it is a bundle. He staggers and sloshes back to the houseboat side through the rising water and tosses this into his daughter's hands. Finegan is hooking the harvested and bagged tomatoes, lowering them carefully rather than swinging them out.

These'll smash. Tomatoes.

The wife comes over to the side of the houseboat deck to catch them. Finegan turns to the gardener.

That it?

Just then, the factory settles yet again, accompanied by the sound of screeching metal and splashing water, putting both Finegan and the gardener in the water. Finegan and the gardener climb onto the houseboat and stand, dripping web, looking over the flooded roof. Along the sides of the factory roof the vines holding summer squash can be seen bobbing up. The squash on the surface is bloated and yellow, oversized and almost rotting in appearance. The gardener cries out,

The squash!

He dives into the water and swims along the bobbing vines, plucking the overripe summer squash and tossing them to Finegan. Several of them shatter when caught.

Arrrrrr! These are rotten!

The gardener's wife rushes up to collect the mess in a basin. She says,

This is seed! You gotta rippen it full.

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The gardener and his family are standing at the end of the gangplank. Finegan has donated his rusty wagon to the family, and it is piled high with bags of vegetables and their personal possessions. Other bags and bundles are piled around their feet. Finegan strides across the gangplank with the packet of seeds the woman at the old folks home had given him. He hands this to the gardener. Joey is right behind him on the gangplank, one of the remaining pumpkins in his hands. He hands this to the gardener's daughter. Finegan says,

I gather pumpkin wants a lot of room, but now you'll have the room.

The gardener is thanking Finegan.

Don't know what I'd a done without y'all stopping by.

But Finegan says he was part of the problem.

It was no lucky coincidence. Twas my weight that tripped the balance. But it was gonna go anyhow. . . Appreciate the potatoes and cabbage and all.

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Finegan has the portable camping grill fired up with a small wood fire, a deep pot on the grill filled with burbling hot water. The lid is off the pot and he is brushing some chopped vegies off a cutting board into the pot - carrots, an onion, several potatoes, and some cabbage. The houseboat is drifing offshore from where the gardener's family had been dropped ashore. Finegan glances in that direction as he settles back onto a box, munching on a raw carrot, contemplative and exhausted. The vegetable bins behind him are stuffed with the new produce. Barney comes up to sit nearby, his nose in the air, sniffing the boiling vegie stew. Finegan hands a raw carrot down to Barney, who lays down to chew on it contentedly.