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The house was nearly empty now. The rooms looked strange and bare. Patsy picked up a box of dishes and took it out on the porch. She was a pretty girl with soft brown eyes, and blond hair falling loose on her shoulders. She wore a skimpy cotton dress and a red sweater.
"Is Mama coming?" she asked.
Patsy stood at the top of the steps and looked. The house and porch were raised high off the ground on six-foot posts, so she had a good view. Across Front Street and beyond the wide weedy stretch of the river bank, she could see Daddy's new houseboat. It was floating in the water at the river's edge. The river was the Ohio, and across on the other side, she could see the shoreline of Kentucky. It was May and the river was low.
Daddy had started building the houseboat on the bank in April. He bought the hull, a large heavy barge, from a man up river. Then he set the framework on it and closed it in. Me said it was going to be the biggest and best houseboat of all. Just a little shove from Old Garrety's bulldozer had been enough. The houseboat slid down the slick peeled willow poles on which it had been resting, right into the water. Due to the falling river and the slackening current, Daddy was anxious to leave.
The people who drove along Ferry Street or Front Street stopped to look. They were very curious and Patsy got tired of their questions.
"What's it for?" they asked. "Buildin' Noah's Ark?" or "You gonna put it in the river and go somewhere?" When Daddy told them the Foster family was going down river, they thought he was crazy. But Patsy knew he wasn't.
Patsy remembered Daddy's last houseboat. She was all excited over the new one until the boys and girls at school began to tease her. They started calling her shanty girl and river rat. They said, "Don't fall in and drown yourself!" and "Watch out! A garfish will bite you!"
But school was out now and Patsy was glad. Both she and her older sister Milly had passed but Dan was held back. He had to do the second grade over again. Little Bunny was only five, still a baby. She had never been to school at all.
It took a month and one day to build the houseboat. Now it was done and the Fosters were moving in. They were moving all the furniture out of their house on Front Street and putting it in the houseboat. As if a houseboat could ever be a home!
Patsy could see Mama now, coming back up the dirt river road in Uncle Ed's car. Mama was taking all the small stuff herself—the clothing, cooking utensils, curtains, dishes and other things. Daddy had borrowed a truck to haul the stove and beds and heavy furniture. It was surprising how much the houseboat could hold. Milly was down there helping to get everything in order.
Mama came in the kitchen to get the pots and pans. She was a plump woman, with loose dark hair, dark eyes and a pleasant smile. She wore a cotton dress and a flowered apron. Patsy followed at her heels. She heard voices out the window and ran to look. There were the Cramer girls and Ginny Cobb coming over.
Mama climbed on a chair and started taking things out of the cupboard. "Here! Take this," she said, handing one thing down after another. Patsy put the pans and jars and canned goods into boxes and baskets.
"Patsy! Patsy!" called the girls outside.
"You can't go now," said Mama. "You stay here and help me. This is my last load. If I can take everything, we can eat on the houseboat tonight."
Patsy frowned. She felt almost like crying. She did not like this moving business.
"Why do we have to go on the river?" she asked. "Why can't we be like other people and take our summer vacation here?"
"You'll like it on the houseboat once we get settled," said Mama.
"But the Cramers and the Cobbs don't go on the river," said Patsy. "Mrs. Cobb said people don't live in houseboats any more the way they used to."
"Your Daddy likes living on the river," said Mama. "He's not happy anywhere else."
"But I like living in town," said Patsy.
"You'll like the river, too," said Mama with a smile. "How about going swimming every day?"
"I can't swim," said Patsy.
"It's time you learned," said Mama. "Milly will teach you."
"Patsy! Patsy!" called the girls again. She could hear them giggling beneath the kitchen window.
A cat came walking into the kitchen. It sniffed in cracks and corners.
"There's Aggie's cat," said Mama. "Chase it out. Aggie ought to feed it so it would stay home."
"Can't I take it with me on the trip?" asked Patsy. "I'd catch fish every day and feed it."
"Pushcart Aggie wouldn't thank you for stealing her cat," said Mama.
"She's got six parakeets," said Patsy. "She'd not even miss it."
Just around the corner by the alley stood an old bus used as a house trailer. It had dishpans and pots of blooming flowers on its hood, a moon vine growing up over the door and two tanks of bottled gas on the left side. This was the home of old Aggie Stiles and her son. She was called Pushcart Aggie because she pushed a cart and picked up junk to sell. All the river children knew her well. She kept her birds in a cage indoors. She loved her cat and scolded the children if they threw stones at it or pulled its tail.
"Patsy! Patsy!" called Ginny Cobb.
The girls were waiting on the front steps when Patsy went out.
"Are you really goin' down river and never comin' back?" they asked.
"Of course we're comin' back," said Patsy.
"Then why don't you leave your furniture here?" asked Alice Cramer. "Why you movin' everything out?"
"We need furniture on the houseboat," said Patsy. "We'll cook and eat and sleep there. How can we do it without furniture?"
But Alice's question disturbed her. In her own short life of nine years, Patsy had already lived on four houseboats. This was the fifteenth houseboat her father had built. They had all gone down river and stayed there. Not one of them had come up river again.
"When you comin' back to River City?" asked Ginny.
Patsy hung her head. "I don't know," she said in a low voice.
The girls could not guess how sad she felt inside. They kept on talking excitedly.
"Boy, it must be nice to go sailing in a houseboat," said Alice. "You goin' all the way to New Orleans?"
"I wish my daddy would build a houseboat," said Faye.
"We helped your daddy build it, didn't we?" said Ginny.
"Remember when the storm came and blew it over?" said Alice.
"Yes," said Patsy. "My daddy got his leg hurt when the boards came down on top of him. He got a man to help him put the frame back up. That time he made it so strong he says the wind can never blow it down again."
"We carried boards and put them where he told us to," said Faye.
"We swept it from one end to the other, me and Patsy," said Ginny.
Patsy put her arms around her, friends, happy in the warmth of their love. They walked around to the back yard.
Mrs. Foster loaded the car and drove to the houseboat. Soon the girls came too, carrying a chicken coop. Several of Patsy's chickens were poking their heads out between the slats.
"What are you bringing the chickens for?" asked Mrs. Foster. "I told Uncle Ed he could have them."
"Oh no, he can't," said Patsy. "Daddy told me to take them along. They're my pets and I've named them all. There's Old Red, Fluffy Tail, Mrs. Fuzzy, Shoo-Fly, Mrs. Cackle, Jenny Brown, Stiff Legs and Fuss-Box."
Daddy came up in the johnboat—a rowboat with square ends. He was a tall, wiry man with a thin, weathered face. He wore overalls and a blue shirt and cap. He looked so much like young Abraham Lincoln, he went by the nickname of Big Abe. Patsy's brother Dan was often called Little Abe.
Daddy turned to Mama.
"Can't turn a girl loose from everything," he said. "Let her keep her pets. There's room for the coop on the cabin boat."
"Well, I hope the stupid hens won't fall in the river and get drowned," said Mama. "When they start laying, we'll have fresh eggs to eat. And a roast chicken will make a nice change from fish."
"You can have the eggs," said Patsy, "but you can't eat my hens, and they're not stupid. I'm going to train them to go up and down the stage plank."
"That girl's strictly a tamer," said Daddy. "She'll train those hens and teach 'em tricks. She can tame a jaybird up on a limb by just lookin' at it! I never knew anyone like her."
On the afternoon before departure, the neighbor women came to see Mama. "See our outfit?" Mama pointed.
The houseboat was tied to an overhanging willow. On the other side of the tree, Daddy's cabin boat and fish barge were also tied up, ready for the voyage tomorrow. The cabin boat, sometimes called the "push boat," was not a boat that could be lived on. It was a heavy barge with a crude cabin over the engine, and it had square ends. It was to be used at the stern of the houseboat for pushing. It could also pull the houseboat by a towline. There were also two johnboats, one to use as a rowboat and one with an outboard motor, and a smaller motorboat.
"Can't see why you're leavin'," said Mrs. Miller. "Mussel shellin's good here in the spring."
"It's too hard on a man's back," said Mrs. Foster.
"I hated to see this houseboat go in the river," said Mrs. Cobb.
"As long as it was on the bank, I knew you. folks were still here," said Mrs. Cramer. "Now it's in the water, you'll soon be gone."
"Abe can stand a house just so long," said Mrs. Foster. "Then that old river starts callin' and gives him no peace."
"Won't your kids fall in and get drownded?" asked Mrs. Cobb.
"Abe says they're as safe on water as on land," said Mrs. Foster, "and as safe in deep water as in shallow. He says more people drown in their own bathtubs than in the river!"
The women talked a while, then one by one went back up the river bank to their homes. Uncle Ed came, to take his car, but had to wait until Mama made one last trip to the house.
"I like to forgot my wire clothesline and props," said Mama. "Don't know how I could do the family wash without them." When she returned, she brought her curtain stretchers, too.
Patsy couldn't bear to let the girls go. "Milly's goin' to teach me to swim this summer," she told them.
"In the river?" cried Faye Cramer. "I'd be afraid of the garfish. They'll bite your legs off!"
"Once when I went out fishin' with my daddy," said Ginny Cobb, "the garfish came right up by our boat. They were as long as the boat was. They bit the end of our oars."
"Old Garrety and his wife they like 'em," said Lora Bragg. "She fries 'em and they eat 'em."
"Ugh!" said Janey Miller. "I bet they taste terrible."
"I'll tell you why Faye hates 'em so," said Alice. "A garfish bit her once. She put her finger in the water and a mean old garfish bit it."
"I'm not afraid of a garfish," said Patsy. "I had one in a tub for a pet once. Don't you remember?"
"Oh, you! You'd keep anything for a pet!" Lora laughed.
Patsy asked the girls to come and see the houseboat. They came and she showed them around.
"Gee! Now that it's all furnished, it's just like a house," said Ginny Cobb.
"Sure! Why not?" asked Patsy.
It was like a house, an oblong box set on the hull in the middle, leaving open porches at each end. Inside there were three rooms. The first was the living room, with a cot in the corner for Dan. The next was the bedroom, with a double bed for Mama and Daddy, and a bunk bed for the girls. Milly slept on top, and Patsy below, and Bunny on a little cot. The third room was the kitchen, with Mama's bottled-gas stove for cooking, a cast-iron wood stove for heating and the large dining table. There were cupboards on the wall with rims on the shelves to keep the dishes from falling off.
Mama came back and started hanging flowered curtains on the little windows over the sink. Patsy pulled a chain from a light bulb in the ceiling, but the light did not flash on.
"You even got electric lights?" asked Alice.
"Sure," said Patsy, "only it's not connected now, because we're leavin' tomorrow."
"And a gas stove?" asked Faye.
"Sure," said Patsy. "We got two bottles of gas." She pointed out on the back porch.
"And running water?" asked Ginny, looking at the sink.
"No," said Mrs. Foster, "only from the river. We'll have to carry our drinking water."
"Well, I think it's just as good as a house," said Ginny.
The girls went out on the tiny back porch.
"Why, look!" cried Faye. "That's Paducah right over there. Look how close we are."
"Paducah! That's nothin'," said Patsy. "Soon I'll be seein' Cairo and Memphis and Vicksburg and New Orleans. Remember all those cities we studied about in geography?"
A wide stretch of placid water, the great Ohio River, reached across to the other bank. In the channel over on the Kentucky side, a towboat with a long string of barges was passing, headed down river.
"Look!" said Alice. "I bet this houseboat will go faster than that towboat and get to New Orleans quicker."
"Yes," said Patsy. "We'll go fast all right. We'll just float along on the current. We won't need any pushin'."
A long freight train came across the river from Kentucky on the railroad bridge high overhead. It made a deafening noise and threw a cloud of black smoke down into the river valley. The girls could not talk until it had passed.
"Come on!" cried Patsy. "Let's play tag. Try and catch me!"
Narrow walks called guards on the two sides of the houseboat connected front and back porches. Patsy ran round to the front porch, the girls at her heels. Round and round they ran, but Patsy was too fast to be caught.
"Girls!" called Mrs. Foster out the window, "do be careful. Don't be runnin' around on the guards all the time. If you fall in, the river won't stop for you, it'll carry you on where it's goin'. Not one of you knows how to swim and I don't either, so I can't pull you out."
She spoke too late. Suddenly there was a great splash. Mrs. Foster looked out. There was Ginny Cobb in the river, splashing wildly and screaming at the top of her voice.
"Hush up, Ginny!" called Mrs. Foster. "You're not drowned. The water's only up to your knees."
"I'll save you, Ginny," called Patsy.
Patsy found an oar and held it out to Ginny. The other girls took hold and they all pulled. Soon they brought the dripping Ginny up on the porch.
"My mother will have a fit," said Ginny. She and the other girls ran up the river bank, and Patsy went with them, even though she heard her mother say, "Supper's ready." The rest of the family sat down to eat without her. It began to grow dark.
"Where's that girl gone?" asked Mama. "Abe, you'll have to go look for her."
"No need," said Daddy. "Here she comes now."
With hair flying, Patsy came running down the hill and over the stage plank. She carried something in her arms, but she did not come into the kitchen. She stopped in the bedroom.
"What's that you've got?" asked Milly. "Mama, she's hiding something under the bed covers." The children came in to look. "It's moving," said Dan.
Meow! Meow! a faint cry could be heard.
"Patsy, where have you been?" asked Mama sternly.
"I ... I went ..." the girl was still out of breath. "I wanted to say good-bye to the girls ..."
"Where have you been?" asked Mama again.
"I wanted ... to say good-bye to Aggie ..." Patsy began.
"Is that her cat?" asked Mama. "Did you steal it?"
Milly threw the bedcover back and a small cat appeared. It was black with a white throat. It had three black feet and one white one. It meowed again. Patsy picked it up and hugged it.
"No, Mama, honest," said Patsy. "Aggie gave it to me ... for a going-away present."
"Patsy!" cried Mama. "Is that Aggie's cat?"
Daddy spoke up. "Let her keep it. She's got to have her pets."
"But if it's Aggie's cat?"
Little Abe settled the matter. "It's not that old cat of Aggie's. It's one of the kittens. Aggie was trying to give them away."
"All right then," said Mama.
Patsy looked up with her most bewitching smile. "She really did give it to me ... to keep."
"Four kids on a boat is enough without a cat," said Mama.
"Let her keep it," said Daddy.
Patsy smiled and hugged the kitten close.CHAPTER 2
Down the River
Patsy woke up early the next morning and wondered where she was. Then she remembered. They had slept on the houseboat. The motor in Daddy's cabin boat was roaring loudly. The cabin boat was pushing the stern of the houseboat. Daddy was getting ready to go.
Patsy jumped out of her bunk. She ran to the porch in her pajamas. Bunny and Dan Were still in Bed, fast asleep. The roar of the motor stopped. It was still dark.
The river was as quiet and peaceful as a lake. Nothing was stirring, not a single bird, not a leaf on a tree: A dawn hush was over everything. Only a glow of pink showed in the east. Again the loud roar of the cabin boat motor broke the stillness.
"Come, Patsy," called Mama. "Come and eat breakfast."
Patsy smelled bacon and went to the kitchen. Mama and Daddy and Milly had eaten. Milly liked to think she was grown up. She was out in the cabin boat with Daddy, helping. She always said she had to work like a boy.
It seemed strange to be eating down below the river bank. Above the slope of weeds and grass, Patsy could just barely see the tops of her house and of the others on Front Street. Were the Cramers and the Cobbs getting up now, too? Was Pushcart Aggie eating breakfast or feeding her birds? Would Ginny and Faye soon come flying down the hill to say good-bye? Mama brought bacon and egg and set it down before her. But Patsy could not eat. She tried a biscuit and it nearly choked her. She pushed back her chair and went in the bedroom to dress. When Mama called her, she said, "I'm not hungry."
Excerpted from Houseboat Girl by Lois Lenski. Copyright © 1957 Lois Lenski. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted February 25, 2006
Posted December 18, 2012
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