Alley A, by Heath Cajandig
Note: At the beginning of 2012, I made one New Year’s Resolution—to walk or run first thing every morning, for the rest of my life. In this one, fear has a way of getting in the way.
I don’t think anything of it when I run past an attractive woman in her twenties on the hilltop loop, early in the pre-dawn. Especially on weekdays, there’s a select few of us out and about at that time.
But I immediately notice the car crouched on the corner, engine running and lights dim. What is it waiting for? Just after I run past, the car slowly crunches forward, heading the opposite way around the loop, toward a point at which it will meet the runner I’d just passed. I head down a side street with a crawl between my shoulder blades, like the feeling you get watching a movie when the camera shows the back of the main character’s head and the soundtrack goes silent. When the lights from the creeping car finally disappear around the corner, I speed forward to a footpath that cuts through the neighborhood via a steep flight of stairs, and drop down to another street.
But there’s only one way off the hill, so eventually the car comes slowly rolling down behind me. I turn my head slyly to the left, to keep it in my peripheral vision without appearing as if I’m looking. What happened to the young woman? Should I be worried about what’s in the trunk of that car? And then I hear the strangely amplified sound of a card being dealt, followed by a thunk. Fffft-thunk! Wheels crunching forward. Fffft-thunk!—the sound of rolled newspapers hitting pavement.
I’d seen the Paperboy’s car before on my runs, but never stopped like it had been at the top of the hill this morning. I make the penultimate turn toward my house, and so does he, right behind me. We leapfrog down the hill, me jogging ahead slowly as he makes his careful throws onto people’s walkways, him rolling past as I slow for my walking breaks. I hesitate before the final turn to my house, not wanting to show him where I live. But he stalls too, so I’m forced to walk straight past the turn. Midway down the block, I pause to tie my shoelaces, waiting for him to pass me so I can double back to my street, and safety.
My mind is no longer on my writing, my music, or the day I’m beginning. I cannot appreciate the lightening sky behind silhouetted trees, or an erratic, twitting bat. I register them only as distractions to my survival. I’m now entirely focused on the danger that threatens my endeavor. I’m just over three years into this commitment to walk every day for the rest of my life. Now all that is threatened.
My mind quickly begins to spin an enumerated list of the things I can do to keep myself safe on my early morning walks. Wear contacts so he can’t shove my glasses into the bridge of my nose, or worse, blind me by knocking them away. Carry my cell phone instead of the featherweight MP3 player next time. Set my speed dial to the local sheriff’s office. Change my route every day. Leave a note for my husband describing my course, so he knows where to begin looking when I don’t return.
Tell someone I think I’m being stalked. Call the newspaper company to lodge a complaint, or at least find out Paperboy’s name. Since I don’t even know what newspaper he delivers, this scheme involves sneaking back along his route to pick up one of his papers. I reject this option as too dangerous.
I consider the orange safety vest I wear for my husband’s peace of mind, and weigh the risks of being hit by early morning commuters against the advantage of ninja black, being able to fade into the background if it comes down to a chase. I retrace my regular route in my mind, marking familiar houses. Dredging my brain for the names of half-forgotten acquaintances, I imagine myself running up to a door and pounding, trying to get a light, any light, to go on inside, or standing in the street and shouting a neighbor’s name over and over again.
The next time I walk, a thousand voices walk with me: the things people say.
- Words of caution about date rape from the dorm advisor in the late eighties, addressing a mandatory audience consisting solely of first-year women: “Rape is not a sexual act, it is an act of power. Most women know their rapists. It can happen to anyone. Trust your instincts…”
- Murmured attempts to wrest transformation from rape through courage alone, as young women stand next to painted chalk outlines on campus, telling their stories to a shadowy circle of candles at a Take Back the Night march: “I know they say to fight back, but I was too scared. I was too scared…”
- Solicitous inquiries from relatives, casting blame in advance: “Aren’t you afraid, living in the Mission?”
- Casual speculation about the fate of unnamed young women: “If you wanna know what I think, she was asking for it. How else could something like that happen? She must have wanted it…”
- Men joking: “That was the best Indian restaurant in all of Berkeley, until they shut it down. And you know what the owner ended up getting busted for? Turns out he was importing his relatives as sex slaves and keeping them above the restaurant—can you believe that?!”
I have left my music at home this morning, so that I will be forewarned by the thump of newspapers. I cannot outrun the voices, so I fall into a loose walk and let a remembered silence travel through my body with my slowing heartbeat. One ear on the present, I cast backward in time to another walk in the dark, long ago in China.
To be continued…