With tragedy and violence all around us, I’m reminded of those moments when we find ourselves unexpectedly safe—asking the question, “Why not me?”
In September of 1974 my hair was long and parted down the middle — like all the girls.
Alone at home, I was packing for my move to college the following week. My parents were walking the dog on their property north of Spokane, and my brothers were back in school.
I hesitated when the doorbell rang, hoping a familiar voice on the other side would say, “It’s just me!” Instead, a 20-something man smiled through the glass of the locked storm door.
“Hi, I’m from Washington Water Power, here to read the meter.”
His brown-black hair was cut above the collar and slightly wavy; his handsome face was swarthy like my Swedish relatives.
“You’re not the regular guy,” I said, noticing that his pressed brown shirt was absent any emblem or name.
“Well, I’m the one they sent out today,” he replied, awkwardly adjusting the clipboard poised in his arm.
Where was the truck and why had he come to the front door? For years our meter-reader parked at the curb, knocked on the back door, said “hello”, ran down the stairs and gathered the numbers. Like fireworks on the Fourth of July, his pattern in the neighborhood was normal, and expected.
“You’ll have to come back another time.”
“Oh, come on, just let me in,” he politely coaxed.
I felt paranoid, self-conscious and 19.
“Well, okay, but move off the porch first.”
Obediently, he moved backward and stepped down on to the walkway.
Unlocking the door, I pushed it open to the outside, and quickly slipped around behind; hovering next to the brick exterior. I felt safe — visible to the neighborhood, but with a partial view into the house.
“Go through the kitchen and down the stairs, the meter is in the bedroom closet.”
Shrugging his shoulders, he walked past my glass-and-metal barricade, and disappeared.
Minutes ticked by, and my arms grew tired from holding the door backward close to my body. I resisted an impulse to find out what was taking so long. Was he stealing from us, or simply inexperienced at reading meters? My gut said he was up to something. A summer of waitressing and a few of my grandmother’s True Detective magazines had diminished some of my naiveté.
Abruptly, he reappeared; parking himself in our kitchen. With a wry smile he said, “I can’t find it.”
From my awkward perch, a crowbar was partly visible alongside his pant leg. Our regular reader didn’t carry one.
We both stood like statues and it felt like a stand-off.
Then, as if he’d been stung, he shot forward. My heart pounded as he raced past my barrier. Glancing over his shoulder he grinned, and then began jogging away.
My hands shook as I locked the doors behind me. Would he come back?
The power company later confirmed that no one was reading meters that afternoon and no one of that description was working for them. Mom’s questions seemed melodramatic and yet, eerie. I remember wishing I’d been brave enough to catch a glimpse of what the imposter was driving. Was it a Volkswagen? And, no, he hadn’t given his name.
In February of 1989, I saw photographs and a television interview of a soon-to-be-executed killer, whose victims looked just as I had, in 1974.
I pointed to the screen, “That’s him — that’s the guy that said he was from Washington Water Power!”
I felt cold fear and grief for the lost, mixed with relief and guilt for having lived. Were angels on hand that day, or was fate responsible for keeping me safe? I’m not certain if I believe in selective grace bestowed by a higher being, or in destiny, but I do believe instincts should be trusted, and sometimes, we’re just lucky.