In all the years I've been around Ethan, I've never seen him like this before. Whether pacing back and forth in a restaurant parking lot, yelling indecipherable words into the beam of a cop's flashlight, doing some crazy dance while strolling down a sidewalk, or swatting at the air inside this liquor store, the one constant about him has always been unpredictability. So now that I think about it, I really shouldn't be too surprised that he's acting perfectly normal this morning. After all, he is unpredictable.
When I say "perfectly normal", I mean perfectly compared to, say, the last time I encountered him. It's been several months ago, but impossible to forget. I had stopped to get gas on my way home from work. It was getting dark, and I was the only one at the pump. I always get this feeling in that kind of scenario. Like the whole place is a target and I'm the bullseye.
After glancing around myself in every direction several times, my hand squeezing the trigger of the pump like I wished it were a real gun, he materialized. Right within breathing distance of me. Breathing distance, as in: I could smell the cheap vodka. I'm guessing despite the descent into madness over the decades, all that sniper training must still be in his blood along with everything else he regularly puts in it. I don't know what dark corner he'd been lurking in, but my five keen senses had failed me this time.
Of course, when someone is as messed up in the head as Ethan, rumors abound about that person which could be twisted into a full-length horror story. Any time you see him, get back in your car and lock the doors.
Too late to heed that advice on that particular occasion. He was standing right in front of the driver's side door, loaded in the face with his huge, chalky teeth glowing and a set of eyes that matched them.
I couldn't understand him. Nobody can as far as I know. But I understood, at least, what he was trying to do. I accepted the cold handshake while allowing him to use the other to finish fueling the car for me. Then, I dug into my pocket for what change I had as he began wiping the windshield with a handkerchief that had no telling what on it. He was Ethan the Filling Station Attendant that evening, and I was a customer.
Yes. Compared to that evening, or any given time I'd crossed paths with this unfortunate and dangerous soul, he's normal this morning. He's sitting over here in a patch of grass, waiting on Broadmore Discount Spirits to open. Pretty normal for him. But he isn't mumbling or shouting anything, isn't darting back and forth as though the delirium tremens is about to kill him if he can't hurry up and get to the next bottle, and isn't holding the car door open for me with a gracious bow in hopes of an alcohol fund. In fact, if I didn't know any better, my guess would be that he's deep in meditation.
The June sun beats down on his tattered blue jeans. I can see the perspiration bleeding through them. His skinny legs are crossed, his ebony arms reach all the way to his knees, palms turned toward the sky as if awaiting an answer to a deep question. His slumped shoulders are turned away from the building, facing the distant railroad tracks. As the whistle and rumble vibrates the ground, I wonder if he's imagining leaving this self-destructive life behind to go hop onboard.
Should I say anything?
As I gently push the car door closed, I ease toward him. Unpredictable or not, indecipherable or not, the man needs the same acknowledgement and courtesy we all do. He's a Veteran. He deserves respect.
But I pause. His statue stillness must mean he wants to be left alone. I shift my gaze to the sign that reads: "Must be 21 to enter". I'm so glad to be beyond that age now. I lean my head toward my wrist to check my watch. The store will be opening in less than fifteen minutes, and already the adrenaline of anticipation is rising within. When I was finally of legal age, I only came here late in the afternoon on weekends. Now I realize I've been pulling into this parking lot every other day, first thing in the morning. I notice the similarity between the two of us. Same slumped shoulders.
Maybe I'm not so glad.
I know, much like myself, there had to be a time in Ethan's life when things were better. When he could function as well as anyone. Even better. I'll bet he could write a book about his heroic adventures during the war, if only he could think now.
I'll walk up to him. I saw him move. Maybe he's aware of his surroundings.
"Good morning, Ethan."
He flinches. So opposite of the intimidating behavior I'm used to seeing. But then the chalky teeth appear as his lips creep open to reveal them. Breakfast gurgles deep down in my stomach. My stance tightens.
"Hey man, how's it going?" he asks with a calmness so unheard of I find myself looking into his eyes twice to make sure I have the right person.
He points a calloused finger down at the grass and motions me with the other hand. I grit my teeth in secret, shooting glances all around me, hoping no one else is around to label me "crazy" too. He wants me to join him.
As we sit there on the ground, legs crossed like a couple school children about to play "Patty Cake" at recess, my mind revs in search of what to say next. Should I make a remark about the weather? That's always a safe subject. Should I ask about his plans for the day? No. Of course I already know his plans: Same as mine. What, really, do I know about this guy other than that he's a Veteran?
This time, I initiate the handshake. "Thank you for your service, Sir."
He makes a vague choking sound, like my words went down the wrong pipe. "Thanks," he sighs.
I watch him switch his view to the burning sun in the sky. His eyelids flutter, clearly screaming at him to stop, but the sagging frown straightens to a bright smile. He stays focused on it in spite of the tears of irritation shining on his face.
"It was the Fourth of July, 1973. First celebration mama could afford, but she was determined. I'll never forget the smell of the fresh catfish. Best-tasting thing on the Lord's green earth. She could make a breading that would put the best to shame.
I was seventeen. She wanted this to be the best going away present ever, and it was. The whole family was there, the music was...it wasn't just harmonicas and banjos, it was angels in heaven playing. Sisters, brothers, cousins...everybody had a gift for music. And the way they all came together for me that summer, before I was..."
A second sigh. Judging by the weight of it, I venture a guess. "Drafted?"
That one-word question seems to slam into him like a gust of north wind. He ignores the store's daytime clerk as she greets us by name while unlocking the doors.
Ethan's curly, gray head shakes so hard he's stuttering now.
"I was ordered to snipe innocent civilians."
I spring to my feet, backing away. Not knowing whether to say anything, or do anything but leave and allow him to deal with his thoughts on his own terms.
"They thought it would end the war quicker," he said.
I understand. After all these years, I understand. Ethan has had to live with this for all these years. I'd be messed up too, even worse than I am. They say everyone has their moment in the sun. Ethan's was the summer of '73. That innocent age where life was all about catfish, music, and celebration.
He pulls himself off the ground, taking a brisk step toward that door. He stops to feel around in his pockets, then turns and looks at me like a lost child looking for directions.
I have no choice but to frown. This stuff is this poor man's only medicine now. Yet I can't give it to him without my own conscience bothering me. What will it turn him into this evening? Ethan the filling station attendant or Ethan the wino lying dead in a gutter somewhere? He's been pushing his luck with this poison daily for too long now.
I pull a five-dollar bill out of my wallet. "I'll give you this if you'll promise me something."
"God bless you," he spouts with relief as he takes it while shaking my hand again. "Anything!"
"Promise me you'll still be with us come July Fourth. I'm going to give you a celebration at my place. There'll be fresh catfish and music. I don't know how to play harmonica, but maybe you can teach me."
He gently lets go of my hand and a sunny expression lights his face.
"Yes, Sir. I would like that."