I don't know if I've ever really SEEN the McDonald's at Walbrook Junction before. I've walked past it all the time, and it's always been the same place since I was a kid. The outside is the same fake stucco that covers the entire crumbling strip mall, and the inside is this big, open space that is way cleaner than it should be for the neighborhood but still choked with the smell of a generation's worth of fryer grease and industrial cleaners. The tile is old, the walls are peeling but scrubbed clean, and the chairs are so worn you wouldn't know foam was in the seat. I had always thought it was a dump, like everything there, even if the owner gave a shit about it being clean.
That was until I went in there with Mr. Foster. When he picked me up at my house, it was in a car that was twice the size I had remembered it being. The dashboard was covered with weird knobs and words in another language, but he drove it just fine. We cruised through my neighborhood, and it was like I was seeing everything for the first time. The trees were bigger and greener. The abandoned house looked like it was alive, sitting back from the street with its mouth wide open like it wanted to eat you. There were rats and cockroaches playing double-dutch on the sidewalk.
Walbrook Junction looked mostly normal, except for that McDonald's. It was a castle with -- I shit you not -- an actual moat around it and banners flying and everything. When Mr. Foster walked up to it, a drawbridge just appeared. When he opened the door, one of the old mascots -- the bird with the yarn hair -- curtseyed and greeted him like he was a visiting noble. "Good afternoon, Sir Baobab," is what I think she said.
Everybody seemed to know him. He walked up to the counter and the worker there stared up at him. Mr. Foster is a tall dude, but...he was really tall here. His Afro scrunched against the ceiling, and you could hear the horns coming out of his forehead scraping against it. His skin was unnaturally black but kinda brown, like molasses. And his hair was white with little flecks of black in it. That's not how Mr. Foster looked before. And I had known him for like, five years now.
He ordered two quarter pounders with cheese, two Big Macs, a 20 piece Chicken McNuggets, and the biggest Coke they had. I got a double cheeseburger and a McChicken, then some fries and a milkshake. I don't know why, but it felt like I had to keep up with him. The way everybody was acting around him, it made me want to live up to something.
We got our food, and he wasn't charged for it. He told the cashier where we were going to sit (at a table in the corner) and he said "I'll make sure you aren't disturbed." Before we sat down, he took a lima bean out of his pocket and put it on the chair. It sprouted immediately, and a new chair made of vines formed over it, sized up for him. He caught me staring, but he just pointed at me to sit down.
Mr. Foster tore up his food immediately. I couldn't stop looking around. There was a five-foot squirrel dude mopping the floor and wiping down tables. Every once in a while, a rat walking on its hind legs would walk up to him and he would chitter at it or something, and then it would go off and pick up trash or put balls back in the ball pit.
I've been seeing shit like this ever since I got mugged. It's still straight-up crazy to me, but with Mr. Foster it was the first time it felt like it was a kind of crazy I could live with.
"What do you want to do with your life?" When he spoke, he demanded you listen. He had that kind of voice.
"Uhm, what?" I was distracted by the squirrel-dude, and caught off guard by the question. What did that have to do with anything?
Mr. Foster leaned in and rounded his shoulders. There was a table between us, but I still felt trapped. "I said, what do you want to do with your life?"
I stared at him for a long minute. My mind went blank. Was I supposed to know what I wanted to do with my life when I was just in high school? Wasn't that what college was for? I reached for anything I could think of, the first thing that came to mind.
"I want to cut hair." I felt so stupid right after I said it. Mr. Foster lifted his eyebrows, but otherwise he didn't react.
I shrugged. "It's cool to just be able to talk to people all day while doing something nice for them."
Mr. Foster nodded. "You know how to cut hair?"
Oh shit, I didn't even think of that! I shook my head quickly. "Naw, but I can learn. It looks like something I can get pretty good at."
"Yeah, you think so, huh?" Now he seemed amused. But not in a way that made me feel bad. "You just need some clippers and a YouTube video, right?"
"Maybe a head to practice on or something, I don't know." I returned his smile without knowing why. None of this made sense. Weren't we supposed to be talking about the fact that all kinds of impossible shit was happening all around us right now? That we were in a McDonald's that suddenly looked like a castle? That he was some giant unnaturally-colored dude that seemed to pull a lot of respect here? Why were we talking about hair all of a sudden?
"Listen, I got a few friends who could use a haircut." He shifted in his seat, and the whole thing groaned, vines and all. "I'm going to bring a clipper set over to school tomorrow. It's yours. And in two weeks' time, you're going to come to my house and cut hair. That's how you're gonna pay me back. Deal?"
"Uhm. Deal." I glanced at a small group of rats that seemed to be arguing about a mess on the floor. They were squeaking at each other in these high voices that made it hard to make out what they were saying. "But shouldn't we be---?"
Mr. Foster put up a big hand to stop me from talking. "You'll get to talk all you want in a couple of weeks. But if you have questions, you write them down one at a time on this."
He made a motion like he was sliding something to me across the table. It didn't look like anything at first, but when I looked down there was a piece of paper there. It was thick, like a page out of an expensive journal or something, colored yellow-brown with all kinds of spots in it. It looked awesome. Too good to write on, even. I gathered it up and slipped it in my backpack, not really sure what to say. "Thanks."
"You're welcome. You write the question, and I'll see it. I'll write a response, and you'll see it on that slip of paper."
"Magic, that's how." The look on his face let me know he was giving me a big secret. "It's like untraceable email, right?"
"Yeah, I guess." I still felt weird about all of this, but kind of comfortable. "But what if my parents find it or my sister starts snooping in my room?"
Mr. Foster shook his head. "They won't see it. Only folks like you and me can. If you want to know what I mean by that, that's your first question."
He got up all of a sudden, and it looked like he was going to smash right through the ceiling. But he didn't. "I've got to go, but I want you to know two things. First, you're not crazy. You're special. Second, if you ever feel like you're in danger or this is too much to handle, you come here and ask a cashier to get me. I'll come as soon as I can, OK?"
I nodded. I didn't really like it, but I nodded.
"Good." Mr. Foster grabbed my shoulder when I stood up and squeezed it. "You're a good kid, Marvin. It's going to be OK." He stared at me with those weird blue eyes of his until I believed it.
And then he drove me home.