A Walk With Fear Weaving Right Alongside

W By April Witt

wASHINGTON – Fear has come to suburbia, but I’m determined not to succumb.

I’m still eating a quick sandwich at noon at an outdoor cafe. I’m not making myself a target – I’m enjoying the sunshine.

Every night I still don running shoes, leash my knee-high mutt Sophie and stride through my dark and wooded suburban neighborhood for a brisk, four-mile constitutional.

“No fear” is my motto.

On Monday night I rounded a corner onto an especially dark and deserted stretch I’ve traveled a thousand times before. I spied a man at the opposite end of the street heading toward me and behaving oddly. He was weaving down the street, making wide, serpentine arcs. Despite the fall chill, he was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. He had a large gym bag over one shoulder.

He is not the sniper, I told myself. He doesn’t have a rifle in that gym bag. He has smelly clothes.

The man showed no sign of noticing me, swooping widely down the dark street. From a distance he appeared to be walking on the balls of his feet, his upper body crouched over slightly, catlike, as if he were ready to spring into action. Back and forth he went, concentrating on every step.

I thought about turning back to avoid him, but I strode on. Poor man is obviously mentally ill, I told myself, mustering the compassion I feel for the muttering homeless.

As I drew closer, I noticed the tippy-toed weaver didn’t look homeless at all. He was fit and muscular, with close-cropped hair. Militaristic, even. I batted away a stray thought: I’m fit, too, and sturdy, but he’s bigger.

But this is definitely [email protected] the sniper, I told myself.

And yet … It occurred to me that I won’t be at all surprised if the sniper turns out to be a fit-looking ex-military type or a cop-wannabe. I surprised Sophie by tugging her leash and executing a quick 180.

I was irritated with myself, but why take stupid chances on a dark street? I glimpsed over my shoulder to find, to my alarm, that my serpentine weaver was now making straight for me at a pretty good clip.

He’s exercising, I told myself, a split-second before evolutionary biology trumped rational thought and I realized I was sprinting down the street, Sophie in tow.

My mind was racing, too. As anyone who has ever watched a bad TV mystery knows, the way to find out if someone is following you is to make a few unpredictable turns. At the next corner, I swung right. A house or two down I spied an enormous hedge. I stepped into a stranger’s driveway to wait out of view until the man passed by harmlessly. The wait grew too long. The weaver didn’t pass. I realized he wasn’t going to. He was on the other side of the shrubbery. I could hear him breathing hard.

I screamed and bolted a few more steps up the driveway toward a well-lighted side door of some stranger’s house.

“Who are you?” the weaver bellowed at me over the hedge. He didn’t show himself.

“Who are you?” I bellowed back, hoping to convey the impression that if he knew what was good for him he would stay on his side of the hedge.

“What are you doing in my yard?” the man yelled.

“Your yard!”

“You better have a pretty good reason for being there,” he yelled angrily.

“I do!” I yelled back. “I’m hiding from you because you were weaving down the street like a total maniac.”

The man stepped out from behind the shrubs.

“Weaving,” he said, as if it were the most obvious point in the world, “is how you don’t get shot!”

“Wh-a-a-a-t?”

“Weaving is how you don’t get shot!” he repeated.

The man’s wife emerged from their house and heard enough of the conversation to realize her husband and a neighbor had given each other a fright in the dark. “Everybody is tense,” she said kindly.

I left thinking that someday we’d all laugh over this. Ten minutes later, when I arrived home and told my husband, I did. I laughed so hard about human frailty that I doubled over and fell on the sofa.

At 4 a.m., I woke disturbed. I got out of bed and sat at a front window surveying my neighborhood with its well-ordered houses. I thought about the recent dead, the lives the sniper ended and those he’s forever changed.

I have lived and lost enough to know that we don’t control our fate. We just try to maintain the illusion that we do. If we’re lucky, we get to maintain that illusion for a long time. It’s sad now to see whole communities losing that illusion at once and grappling with a strange new sense of reality.

Below my window, a streetlight illuminated the road. A lone fox emerged from the underbrush and walked into the deserted street. Normally, the sight of life continuing, the balm of nature, would have cheered me. But the fox looked thin and worn, harried from its suburban existence.

I watched as it cut an odd path back and forth across the street. Serpentine.