Chapter 13

It was a cloudy an gray day when I got back to Mobile. I gone to Mrs. Curran's house, an she was settin inside in a rockin chair, knittin a doily or somethin. She was glad to finally see me.

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"I don't know how much longer I could of lasted," she said. "Things have been pretty hard around here."

"Yeah," I says, "I can imagine."

"Forrest," she says, "like I told you in my letter, I gotta sell the house so's I can get into the Little Sisters of the Poor old folks home. But once I do, they'll take care of me for good, so I will turn over the money from the house to you to help raise little Forrest."

"Aw, no, Mrs. Curran," I says, "that's your money - I can't accept that."

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"You got to, Forrest. I can't even get into the Little Sisters of the Poor home unless I'm dead broke. And little Forrest is my grandson and the only family I have left. Besides, you gonna need all the money you can get. You ain't even got a job."

"Well, you are right about that, I guess."

About that time the front door opened an a big ole young man come bustin in, says, "Gramma, I'm home."

I didn't recognize him at all at first. Last time I seen him was nearly three years ago. Now he has growed up to be almost a man, fine an straight an tall. Only thing is, he is wearin a earrin in his ear, which leads me to wonder what sort of underwear he has got on.

"So, you're back, huh?" he says.

"Looks that way."

"Yeah, for how long this time?"

"Well," I says, "way I got it figgered, for good."

"What you gonna do?" he ast.

"That one I ain't figgered out yet."

"I wouldn't of thought so," he says, an gone on back to his room.

Ain't nothin like a warm welcome home, is it?

Anyhow, next mornin I begun lookin for work. Unfortunately, it ain't as though I have got a lot of high-end skills, an so my choices are limited. Like becomin a ditchdigger or somethin. But even that was a hard card to play. Seems they weren't no big market for ditchdiggin at the moment, an besides, one of the bosses tole me I was too old for such work.

"We need up-an-comin young fellers who are lookin to make a career of this - not some old fart who is just wantin enough work to buy a quart of jug wine" was the way he put it.

After three or four days I got pretty discouraged, an after three or four weeks it become downright humiliatin.

Finally I took to lyin about it to Mrs. Curran an little Forrest.

I tole em I done found work so's I could support em, but the truth was, I begun usin up my separation pay from the army to pay the bills an spent my days at a soda fountain drinkin CokeCola an eatin Fritos, at least when I wadn't out poundin the pavement for a job.

One day I figgered I'd go on down to Bayou La Batre an see if they was anythin for me there. After all, one time I'd owned the biggest bidness in that town.

What I found in Bayou La Batre was pretty depressin. The ole Gump Srimp Company was in a sorry state - buildins an wharfs all dilapidated an fallin in, winders busted out, an the parkin lot's growed up in weeds. It was clear that part of my life was over.

I gone down to the docks, an they is a few srimp boats tied up, but ain't nobody hirin.

"Srimpin's finished down here, Gump," say one captain. "They done fished out all the srimp years ago. Now you gotta have a boat big enough to go all the way down to Mexico afore you can make a profit."

I was about to catch the bus back up to Mobile when it occurred to me I ought to visit poor ole Bubba's daddy. After all, I ain't seen him in nearly ten years. I gone out to where he lived, an sure enough, the ole house was still there, an Bubba's daddy was settin on the porch, drinkin a glass of iced tea.

"Well, I swear," he said when I come walkin up. "I'd heard you was in jail."

"I might of been," I said. "I guess it depends on when you heard it."

I ast him about the srimpin bidness an his picture was bleak as everbody else's.

"Nobody's catchin em, nobody's raisin em. Too few to catch an too cold to grow. Your operation was the heyday down here, Forrest. Ever since then, we been on hard times."

"Well, I'm sorry to hear that," I says. I set down, an Bubba's daddy fixed me a glass of tea.

"You ever catch up with them fellers that looted your company?" he ast.

"Which fellers?"

"That Lieutenant Dan, an ole Mr. Tribble - an that ape, too - what was its name?"

"Sue," I says.

"Yeah, them was the ones."

"Well, I don't think Dan an Sue was to blame. Besides, I guess it don't matter now, anyhow. They are dead."

"Yeah? How'd that happen?"

"It is a long story," I said, an Bubba's daddy, he didn't pursue it no further, for which I was grateful.

"So," he asts finally, "what you gonna do now?"

"I dunno," I says, "but I gotta do somethin."

"Well," say Bubba's daddy, "there is always oysters."

"Oysters?"

"Yeah. Ain't as profitable as srimp used to be, but there is some oyster beds still left out there. Problem is, people scared of eatin em raw these days - too much pollution or somethin. They can make you bad sick."

"Can a man make a livin catchin oysters?" I ast.

"Sometimes. Depends on a lot of things. Pollution gets bad, they close down the beds. Then there is storms an hurricanes an, of course, your competition."

"Competition? Who is that?"

"All them other fellers out there tryin to catch oysters," he says. "They don't take kindly to somebody new comin in here. An they is a very rough bunch, which I suppose you know."

"Yeah, I kinda remember em that way," I says. It was too true. Them oystermen was not people to fool around with, at least back in the ole days.

"So how do I get started?" I ast.

"Ain't too hard," say Bubba's daddy. "Just get you a ole skiff an some oyster tongs. Don't even have to buy a outboard motor if you don't want to - you can get some oars an row, like they did when I was young."

"That's all?"

"Pretty much, I reckon. I can show you where most of the oyster beds are. Course, you'll have to get a license from the state. That's probly the most expensive part."

"You know where I can buy me a skiff?"

"Matter of fact," says Bubba's daddy, "I got one mysef you can use. It's tied up behind the house. All you'll have to do is find some oars. Mine done broke ten or fifteen years ago."

So that's what I done.

Well, it seemed to me pretty ironic, me bein in the oyster bidness, after ole Lieutenant Dan was all the time talkin about gettin some good oysters to eat. Man, I wish he could be here today. He'd be in hog's heaven!

I started out bright an early next mornin. The day before, I'd used the last of my army pay to buy the oars an get a oysterin license. I also bought a pair of coveralls an some baskets to put the oysters in. The sun was just comin up over the Mississippi Sound when I begun to row toward where Bubba's daddy tole me some oyster beds was. What he tole me was to row out to where I could see Buoy No. 6, line it up with a water tower on shore an with the tip of Petit Bois Island to the south. When I had done this, I was to work my way toward the Lake Aux Herbes, an that's where the oysters would be.

It took me about a hour to find Buoy No. 6, but it wadn't no time from then that I got on the oyster beds. By lunch I had tonged up four bushel baskets of oysters, which was my limit, an so I rowed back into shore.

They was a oyster processin plant in Bayou La Batre, an I carried my oysters there to be counted an sold. Time they tally everthin up, I done made forty-two dollars an sixteen cents, which struck me as a little low for upwards of four hundrit oysters they would turn around an sell in restaurants for a dollar apiece. Unfortunately, though, I wadn't in no position to argue.

I was walkin down the street to catch the bus back to Mobile, the forty-two dollars an sixteen cents still warm in my pocket, when half-a-dozen fellers come aroun the corner an block my way on the sidewalk.

"Kinda new around here, ain't you?" one big feller ast.

"Sort of," I said. "What's it to you?"

"We hear you out there tongin up our oysters," another guy says.

"Since when is they your oysters? I thought they was everbody's oysters in the water."

"Oh, yeah? Well, they is everybody's oysters - if you happen to be from here. We don't take kindly of people who try to barge in on our bidness."

"Well," I says, "my name is Forrest Gump. Used to own the Gump Srimp Company. So I'm kinda from here mysef."

"Oh, yeah? Well, my name's Miller. Smitty Miller. I remember your bidness. Fished us all out of srimp an put everybody out of work to boot."

"Look, Mister Miller," I says, "I don't want no trouble. I got a family to look after, an I just want to tong up a few oysters an be on my way."

"Issat so? Well, you look here, Gump. We gonna be keepin a eye on you. We hear you was hangin aroun with that ole coon thats son got kilt over in Vietnam."

"His name was Bubba. He was my friend."

"Yeah? Well, we don't mix with them people down here, Gump. You gonna hang aroun in this town, you better learn the rules."

"Who makes the rules?" I says.

"We do."

Well, that's how it went. Smitty ain't outright tole me to stop oysterin, but I got a feelin that trouble lay ahead. Anyhow, I gone on back home an tole Mrs. Curran an little Forrest that I done got a real job, an they seemed pleased. It might even be I can earn enough to keep Mrs. Curran from sellin her place an goin to the po house. It wadn't much, but it was a start.

Anyhow, the oysterin bidness was, for now, my salvation. Ever mornin I'd ride the bus down to Bayou La Batre an tong up enough oysters to get us by another day, but what happens when the season is over or the beds is closed by pollution, I do not know. It is very worrisome.

Second day I was there, I gone to the dock where my skiff is, an it ain't there. I look down in the water, an it is settin on the bottom. Took me a hour to pull it on shore, an when I did, I find somebody has knocked a hole in the bottom. Took me three hours to fix the hole, an I only got enough oysters to make twenty dollars that day. I am figgerin this is some kind of message from Smitty an his friends, but I got no proof for sure.

Another time, my oars is missin, an I got to buy new ones. Few days later, somebody done smashed up my bushel baskets, but I am tryin to take it in stride.

Meantime, I am havin some problems with little Forrest. Seems he is engagin hissef in some typical teenage activities, such as stayin in trouble all the time. First, he come home drunk one night. I noticed this, since he fell down twice tryin to get up the steps. I didn't say nothin about it next mornin, though - the truth was, I wadn't really sure of what my position with him was sposed to be. When I ast Mrs. Curran, she shakes her head an say she don't know, either. She says he ain't a bad boy, but he is very hard to discipline.

Next, I caught him smokin a cigarette in his bathroom. I set him down an tole him how bad it was. He listened, but was kinda sullen, an when I was finished, he don't promise to stop, he just walked out of the room.

An then there was his gamblin. Account of his brilliance, he could beat just about anybody at cards an stuff, an proceeded to do so. This got him a stern note from the school principal sayin that little Forrest was fleecin all the other kids at school with his gamblin activities.

Finally, he didn't come home one night. Mrs. Curran stayed up till midnight, but finally went to bed. I was up till dawn, when he finally tried to sneak in the bedroom winder. I decided the time had come to set him down an have a serious talk.

"Look," I says, "this shit has got to stop. Now, I know young fellers like you gotta sow some wile oats ever so often, but you is carryin it to the extreme."

"Yeah?" he says. "Like what?"

"Like sneakin in past midnight - an smokin cigarettes in your bathroom."

"Whatsittoyou?" he says. "You been spyin on me, huh?"

"I ain't spyin. I'm noticin."

"Well, it ain't nice to notice. Besides, it's the same as spyin."

"Listen," I says, "that ain't the point. I got some responsibility here. I'm sposed to look after you."

"I can look after myself," he says.

"Yeah, I can see that. Like you lookin after yoursef by hidin a six-pack of beer in your toilet tank, huh?"

"So you have been spyin on me, haven't you?"

"I have not. The toilet started runnin, an when I went to look I saw one of your beer cans have fallen over an plugged up the flusher hole. How could I not notice that?"

"You could of kept it to yourself."

"The hell I will! If you can't behave yoursef, it is my duty to make you - an that's what I'm gonna do."

"You can't even speak English right - or keep a decent job. What gives you the idea you got some authority over me? I mean, who are you to tell me what to do? Is it because you sent me those cheap presents from everyplace? A goddamn fake Alaska totem pole? An that ridiculous ooompa horn that I'd look like a fool playin? Or that great antique knife from Saudi Arabia - when it got here, the little pieces of glass you said were jewels had all fallen out, and besides, the thing's so dull it can't cut butter, let alone paper! I threw em all away! If you've got some authority over me and what I do in life, I'd like to know what it is!"

Well, that did it - an so I showed him. I snatched him up an thowed him across my knees an afore I raised my hand I said the only thing that come to my mind.

"This is gonna hurt me more than it's gonna hurt you."

An I give him a big ole spankin. I ain't sure if what I just said was true, but ever time I swatted him, it was like I was swattin mysef. But I didn't know what else to do. He was so smart I couldn't reason with him, cause that ain't my specialty. But somebody gotta exercise some control around here, an see if we can get back on track. Whole time, little Forrest ain't sayin nothin, ain't hollerin or cryin or anythin, an when I am through, he got up, face beet red, an gone to his room. He didn't come out the whole day, an when he come to the supper table that night, he ain't sayin much, cept things like "Pass the gravy, please."

But also, over the next days an weeks, I noticed a marked improvement in his behavior. An I hope he noticed that I noticed that.

A lot of days when I am out oysterin or doin my other stuff, I am thinkin about Gretchen. But what I'm gonna do about it, anyway? I mean, after all, here I am livin barely hand to mouth, while she is gonna be a college graduate one day. A lot of times I thought about writin her, but can't figger out what to say. It would probly just make it worse, is what I am thinkin. So's I just kept the memories an went on about my bidness.

One time after he got home from school, little Forrest come into the kitchen, where I am tryin to clean up an wash my hands after a long day on the oyster beds. I have cut my finger on a oyster shell, an though it don't hurt much, it bled pretty good, an that is the first thing he noticed.

"What happened?" he ast.

I tole him, an he says, "Want me to get you a Band-Aid?"

He gone in an got the Band-Aid, but before he put it on my finger he washed out the cut with some peroxide or somethin that stang like hell.

"You gotta be careful with oyster-shell cuts," he say. "They can give you a pretty serious infection, ya know?"

"Yeah, how come?"

"Cause the best kind of place for oysters to grow is where there is the dirtiest nastiest kind of pollution there is. Din't you know that?"

"Nope. How'd you find out?"

"Cause I studied up on it. If you could ask a oyster where it wanted to live, it'd probly say, in a cesspool."

"How come you studin up on oysters?"

"Cause I'm figgerin I need to start pullin my weight around here," he says. "I mean, you goin out there every day an tongin up oysters, an all I'm doin is goin to school."

"Well, that's what you sposed to do. You gotta learn somethin so's you don't wind up like me."

"Yeah, well, I already learned enough. I mean, to tell you the truth, I don't do nothin in school. I'm so far ahead of everybody in the class that the teachers just let me go sit in the library an read whatever books I want."

"That so?"

"Yeah, that's so. And I am figgerin that maybe I could just not go to school every day anymore, but maybe come down to Bayou La Batre sometimes an help you out with the oyster-tongin bidness."

"Uh, well, I appreciate that, but uh..."

"That is, if you want me to. Maybe you don't want me around."

"No, no, it ain't that. It just that about the school. I mean, your mama would of wanted..."

"Well, she ain't here to have a say-so. And I think you might could use some help. I mean, tongin oysters is hard work, and maybe I could be of some use."

"Well, yeah, sure you could. But..."

"Okay then, that's it," he says. "How about I start tomorrow mornin?"

An so, right or wrong, that's what we done.

Next mornin before dawn I got up an fixed us some breakfast an then I peeked in little Forrest's room to see if he's awake. He ain't, so's I tippy-toed in an stood there lookin at him, sound asleep in Jenny's bed. In a way, he looks so much like her I kinda got choked up for a moment, but I caught mysef, account of no matter what, we got work to do. I leaned over to shake him awake, when my foot touched somethin under the bed. I looked down, an damn if it ain't the head of the big ole totem pole from Alaska I had sent him. I bent over an peered under the bed, an sure enough, there is the other stuff, too, the ooompa horn an the knife, still in its case. He ain't thowed them away after all, but is keepin em right there. Maybe he don't play with em much, but at least he has em close, an all of a sudden I am beginnin to understand somethin about children. For just a second I felt like reachin over an kissin him on the cheek, but I didn't. But I sure felt like it.

Anyhow, after breakfast me an little Forrest set out for Bayou La Batre. I have been able finally to make a down payment on a ole truck so's I don't have to ride the bus no more, but it is a real question ever day whether or not the truck will make it there an back. I have named the truck Wanda, in honor of, well, all the Wandas I have known.

"What you spose happened to her?" little Forrest ast.

"Who?" I said. We was drivin on a ole two-lane road in the dark, past broke-down houses an farm fields, toward the water. The lights on the dashboard of the ole truck, a 1954 Chevy, was glowin green an I could see little Forrest's face in the reflection.

"Wanda," he says.

"Your pig? Well, I reckon she's still up at the zoo."

"You really think so?"

"I guess. I mean, why wouldn't she be?"

"I dunno. It's been a long time. Maybe she died. Or they sold her."

"You want me to find out?"

"Maybe both of us should," he says.

"Yeah. Maybe so."

"Hey," he says, "I wanted to tell you I was sorry about what happened to Sue an Lieutenant Dan, ya know?"

"Well, I appreciate that."

"They was real good friends, huh?"

"Yup, they was."

"So what'd they die for?"

"Oh, I dunno. Cause they was doin what they was tole to, I guess. Ole Bubba's daddy ast me the same question a long time ago. They was just in the wrong place in the wrong time, maybe."

"Yeah, I know that, but what was the war about?"

"Well, they tole us it was account of Saddamn Hussein done attacked the people in Kuwait."

"That so?"

"It's what they said."

"So what do you really think?"

"A lot of people said it was about awl."

"Oil - yeah, I read that, too."

"I reckon they died for awl" was what I had to say about that.

Well, we got on down to Bayou La Batre an put the baskets in the boat, an I rowed us out to the oyster beds. The sun was comin up off the Gulf of Mexico an they was pink fluffy clouds in the mornin sky. The water was clear an flat as a tabletop, an the oars was the only sounds. We got out to the beds, an I showed little Forrest how to stick one oar in the mud to hold the boat still while I raked over the beds an then used the tongs to pull up big globs of oysters. It was a pretty good mornin, an after a while little Forrest said he wanted to do some tongin, too. He seemed happy as he could be, almost like he was tongin pearls instead of oysters, which in fact there were some - but they wadn't worth nothin, at least not for money to amount to anythin. Wadn't them kind of oysters.

Anyhow, after we had got all our limit, I begun to row us back to the oyster processin plant, but I ain't got halfway there before little Forrest ast if he can try his hand at rowin the boat. I moved over an he begun to pull on the oars, an after about half a hour of weavin us this way an that, he got the hang of it.

"How come you don't get a motor for the boat?" he ast.

"I dunno," I says. "Sometimes I kinda like rowin. It's pretty quiet an peaceful. An it gives me time to think."

"Yeah, about what?"

"I dunno," I says. "Nothin much. After all, thinkin ain't my specialty."

"A motor would save time," he says, "and efficiency."

"Yeah, I spose."

Well, we got on into the dock where the oyster packin plant was an unloaded our bushels of oysters. Price was a little higher today, account of, the man says, they has closed a bunch of oyster beds because of pollution, an so our oysters were rarer than yesterday, which was arright by me. I tole little Forrest to go on over to the truck an get us our lunch buckets so's we could have our sambwiches down here on the dock, kinda like a waterfront picnic.

I had just settled up with the paymaster when little Forrest come up, lookin unhappy.

"You know a guy called Smitty?" he ast.

"Yup, I know him. Why?"

"Well, somebody's punched a hole in both our front tires on Wanda. An this guy was standin across the street laughin, an when I asked if he knew who did it, he just said, 'Nope, but tell your friend that Smitty says hello.' "

"Umph" was all I could manage.

"So who is this guy?"

"Just a feller," I says.

"But he looked like he was enjoyin it."

"Probly. He an his friends don't like me oysterin down here."

"He had a oyster knife in his hand. You spose he was the one who did it?"

"Maybe. Problem is, I got no proof."

"So why don't you go find out? Ask him?"

"I think it's best to let them people alone," I says. 'It ain't nothin but trouble to fool with them."

"You ain't scared, are you?"

"Not exactly. I mean, they all live here. They're mad cause I'm tongin their oysters."

"Their oysters! Oysters in the water are anybody's oysters."

"Yeah, I know that, but they don't see it that way."

"So you gonna let them push us around?"

"I'm gonna go on about my bidness an let them be," I says.

Little Forrest, he turn around an went on back to the truck an begun fixin the flat tire. I could see him from down the street, talkin an cussin to hissef. I knowed how he felt, but I just can't afford no screw-ups now. I have got a family to look after.

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