2/15 & 2/22/10 – “Foster“, by Claire Keegan. (Side note: I was all ready to rant about the Chicago postal system and re-read Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Lost in the Mail” when my New Yorker didn’t show up last week. And then I realized it was a double issue. And it arrived on time, today. Fail.) Anyways. When I thought the issue was late in coming, I printed this story and read it that way. And it’s stuck with me ever since…I still find myself thinking about the narrator and her voice and the story’s conclusion, caring for and about her and her future…which is a sign of a strong story, in my mind; to walk away affected and curious and changed.
“Foster” is narrated by a young girl, whose parents send her to stay with another couple who (we eventually learn) has just lost their only child in an accident. The narrative is steady and tense throughout, and I’d venture to guess at least 50% of it is made up of dialogue (which is where much of the tension lies; the conversations are compared at one point to “little balls of speech they seem to kick uneasily back and forth“). The girl is incredibly introspective for her age, intuitive and self-aware. After her father lies to the foster parents about his recent crop, she wonders “why my father lies about the hay. He is given to lying about things that would be nice, if they were true.” Seconds later, before her father leaves, she realizes that “part of me wants my father to leave me here while another wants him to take me back, to what I know. I am in a spot where I can neither be what I always am nor turn into what I could be.” A sense of bitterness lingers, here…she speaks in an indifferent tone, which remains consistent throughout. Even the most dramatic and emotional moments are related in a numb and passive voice.
The girl stays with the new couple, and (after getting adjusted (“this is a new place, and new words are needed“) and in spite of/because of some difficult moments (“I realize that she is just like everyone else, and I wish I was back at home so that the things I do not understand could be the same as they always are“) eventually, tender, intimate moments are shared with both the man and the woman, who clearly long for and are haunted by their lost child. They dress her in their son’s old clothes at first, have her sleep in his old room, do his chores, etc. And while this sounds a bit off, the girl (who is unaware of their deceased child for the first portion of the story) seems to enjoy a new-found sense of purpose and attention that was apparently absent from her real parents. We never learn quite how or why the arrangement was made, but are led to believe it is a temporary one; a temporary relief for the girl’s parents, who are pregnant and overrun by their other children and their work, and a relief for the foster parents, who seem to float around their lives lugging bundles of unused love and affection. It’s clear that the girl and the foster parents were momentarily filling voids for each other, but the moments of shy joy that hover over all of her interactions with the foster parents, the growth and maturation and confusion she experiences as she feels worth, affection, and warmth for what seems like the first time…all these things led me to question where she belonged. She seems torn as well; when her parents finally send for her, she asks to be taken home a bit early, then catches herself reminiscing about the beautiful days spent with her foster parents as she packs away the things they bought her.
And the ending. Without giving anything away: she runs down a gravel road, lamenting and rejoicing all at once that “my heart feels not so much in my chest as in my hands. I am carrying it along swiftly, as though I have become the messenger for what is going on inside me.” And she jumps into one man’s arms, holding on tight (with her arms and her heart) as the other man walks towards them. “Daddy,” I keep calling him, keep warning him. “Daddy.” We’re left wondering, hoping, suddenly aware we’ve been holding our breath; a pleasant surprise, to such a patient, careful, and wonderfully sad story.