So I’m just walking out of the grocery store when I spot him. He looks the same way he always does: he’s wearing jeans, a new red windbreaker jacket with the price-tag sticking out of the collar, wire-rimmed glasses, and his gray hair is scraggly. He is small and slight, his features almost doll-like. A large gust of wind or possibly a sneeze could knock him over.
I wave. “Hi Foster!” I walk closer.
He seems surprised to see me, as if I am out of context (which I am). Foster is a regular customer at the high-end kitchen store where I work. For the three years I have worked there, he's come in almost every week-end, seeking out the same thing: one jar of our Private Label Ice-Cream Topping. I typically am the one assigned to the register, so I dutifully make small talk with him. Heaven forbid if we run out of his beloved topping. Once that happened and I thought he would cry; he seemed so shocked, as if I had intentionally let him down (now The Boss has taken to hiding a pristine jar in her office, just in case—no one wants to see a grown man cry like his mother just died).
“Well, well, well. Do you work here at the grocery store too, Molly?” he shakes his head, proud that he has finally placed where he knows me from, even if he got my name wrong.
“Foster, you are so funny. One job is more than enough. And it’s ‘MOV’ remember, not ‘Molly’?” I instinctively start to point to my name tag on my lapel, when I realize that of course I’m not currently wearing a name tag.
“MOV. Okay, got it. That’s right. Kind of an unusual name, maybe Korean?” he squints at me. I am blonde and tall, and the last thing I would be described as is Korean.
“We’ve had this conversation before, Foster,” I say, smiling, “MOV is a French name. ‘Maaahvv’. Like the color? Mauve?”
“I’ll be there this week-end, you know,” he says, abruptly changing the subject.
“Good. I look forward to seeing you then.” I start to pick up my two grocery bags that I had set by my feet while we chatted, when I blurt out, “Foster? Are you waiting for someone?”
He seems offended. “No! Why would I be waiting for someone? Why would someone be waiting for me? That’s an odd thing to say!” Now he’s looking at the ground, embarrassed.
“Oh, wait, I’m sorry. I just thought…. well…… it’s cold, do you need a ride somewhere?” I offer clumsily.
He looks up, bemused. “So you work at the kitchen place and the grocery store and now you’re a taxi driver too? I guess they don’t pay you enough.” He guffaws.
I laugh awkwardly. “Oh, okay, then. I was just, uh, worried about you.” I start to leave.
“Molly! I do need a ride!” There is a desperation is his voice: he sounds like a teenager without a license, please-dad-drive-me-to-the-movies!
“Sure, Foster, let me pull the car around.”
As I walk to my car, I instantly regret my offer. What if he wants me to drive him to Vermont?
I pull up and he opens the passenger side of the Highlander. I notice for the first time that he has a large beat-up tote bag with him, it looks like a retro airline duffel bag. Possibly it's full of jars and jars of Private Label Ice-Cream Topping? Before he gets in, I decide to clarify our destination. “Where you headed, Foster?”
“Just to the corner of The Boulevard and Peyton.”
Internally, I sigh a sigh of relief—that is only five minutes from here. “You got it. Hop in.”
“This is a terrible car,” he says plainly as he buckles his seat belt. I’m not sure if he’s joking, or if that’s just his way of showing gratitude.
“Well, that’s too bad Foster, because I almost drove the Ferrari, but I was afraid the groceries might not fit.” I giggle at my own joke.
“Ferrari. Huh. If you drive a Ferrari, I guess you must just be working at the kitchen place for fun?” he says too-seriously.
“Foster. It’s a joke. I don’t really have a Ferrari.”
We drive along in silence. I try to think of something to say. “How’s your sister? Didn’t you bring her in with you a few months ago?”
“My sister? Ha! The thing about her is, she’s always trying to control me. I wish she didn’t visit at all. I was born in Indiana. Did I tell you that? And I was in the army right before I got married. Have you ever been to Canada? I’ll bet they film all those movies there because it’s so cheap.” He nods, going to secret spots in his brain that no one else can access.
He continues. “I drive. I have a car, a lot nicer than this, that’s for sure! Wow, I love vanilla milk-shakes. Ever thought of selling those at the kitchen place? That would be the paradigm of good salesmanship. I hate lawyers. When we sold our last house, the main lawyer said our driveway would have to be repaired.” He sniffles.
I am realizing that talking with Foster is like reading a book with pages torn out. Nothing makes sense and every thing is out of order.
“Can you turn on some tunes, Molly?” he says, reaching for the radio dials, which he then turns on himself. And then, “I’m bipolar.” He looks sad, as if he just gave me the news that it will rain every day forever, no more sun.
I look over at him, and then back to the road. “I know, Foster. It’s okay. That happens.”
“That happens,” he parrots. He nods solemnly, then whispers to himself, “that happens.”
The Boss and I have talked at length about Foster, as have most of the other employees at the high-end kitchen store. We are all well-aware that he is bipolar. He is the person you feel sorry for, the person you want to help, the person you want to save the last jar of ice-cream topping for.
I pull up to the corner of The Boulevard and Peyton. We are a block from the hospital.
“Holly? Do you mind driving one more block?” he says sweetly.
“Ur, where?” I ease my car back into traffic.
“Turn right at this next signal, follow that ambulance, well I don’t mean follow, you know what I mean. There’s another ambulance, I guess someone’s sick, that’s too bad.” He sighs, like a small child being exposed to the concept of compassion for others, I-guess-someone’s-sick-I-hope-they’ll-get-helped.
“Foster? Should I pull over here, then?” I stop the car right next to three large trees.
“Yes, please, here.” He reaches out to touch my shoulder. What is he going to do? Is he going to hug me? Is he going to punch me? He takes a tiny piece of lint off my jacket. “Can’t have that! that looks messy, Polly!” he says petulantly.
He gets out and takes his duffel bag. The strap is starting to fray.
“You take care now, Foster. The Boss and I will be looking for you next week.”
He salutes me. “You saved me, today, Polly. More than you know.” He turns and walks in the building.
Once I pull the car around, the trees are no longer blocking the sign in front: “Crazy Town Mental Health Facility”.
(“Misplaced Or Vanquished?”)