The enigma on the doorstep

Published July 16, 2006

I am on the tail end of my shower when my son's voice beckons from around the corner: "Mom, there's someone at the front door."

I have conditioned both my young boys never to open the door unless they know who is there. Our peephole is too high for them to see out.

"Don't answer it, Ryan; I'll be out in a few minutes." I'm guessing it is a salesperson or a neighbor.

He is back two minutes later. "Mom, whoever it is is still there, and they just keep on knocking and ringing the bell."

"Okay, okay, I'm getting out." Now I am feeling a little annoyed, followed by concern that this may be an emergency of some kind. I leave my steamy sanctuary and dry off. I can hear the insistent knocking now and rush to wrap a towel around my wet hair and throw on a robe. With water still dripping between my toes, I go to the door and look out the peephole.

Through the curvy fun house mirror I can make out a woman with shoulder-length dark hair and a creamed-coffee complexion. I do not know her. After a short hesitation, I break my own cardinal rule and open the door - just a crack, as if that were somehow safer.

The woman is slumped on the gray slate of my stoop, with her back against the wall, eyes closed. I poke my head out and look down. "Hello? Yes?"

Her eyes flutter open. "Can I . . . have a . . . drink of water?"

I notice she is wearing sweat pants and a sweat shirt emblazoned with the American flag. Her bare feet are dirty. It is the peak of summer, and she is drenched in sweat.

"Are you all right? Were you out jogging?" I had heard of women trying to lose weight this way. Then I remember her bare feet and think how silly this must sound. She does not answer either question. Did she not hear me?

"Water." There is a hint of an accent in her voice.

"Sure, hold on." After shutting and locking the door behind me, I return with a plastic cup of water and hand it to her. She takes two large gulps, then pours the rest over the top of her head. Her breathing is labored and she seems disoriented. This woman needs help.

But I am alone with the children in the house. Plus, in spite of Old Glory on her shirt, she is a foreigner. I am torn between the instinct to keep my family safe and the desire to help a fellow human being. Could this be a ploy of some sort for a home invasion? She might have a weapon hidden under those bulky clothes, or a partner hiding in the bushes.

Holding up the cup, she whispers, "More."

I bring her water, carefully, two more times. Next she asks, "May I use your phone?"

"Yes," I respond, "I'll bring it to you." Thank God for cordless technology. I give her the phone, and she fumbles without success to enter a number. It's as if her brain knows the numbers but her fingers won't cooperate.

"Will you dial it for me?" she asks.

"Sure. What's the number?" I press it in and hand the phone back to her.

Someone on the other end answers and the woman starts speaking in her native tongue. What is it? Arabic? My best friend was married once to a man from Saudi Arabia. It sounds like Arabic to me.

Now the hair on the back of my neck is electrified and my mind is racing. It has been four years since 9/11.

Her call ends. I ask, "Is someone coming for you?" No response.

After closing the door I decide to call the police.

For the next 15 minutes, I watch out my window. The woman wanders down my driveway and approaches two men working on my neighbor's lawn across the street.

"Where's she going, Mom?" my son asks while watching with me.

"I have no idea, Sweetie."

One of the workers hands her his cell phone, and she uses it briefly before stumbling back up my driveway. Next I hear my front doorknob being jostled. She's trying to come in!

I rush to the door and open it. She asks, "Can I use your bathroom?"

"I'm sorry, I'm not comfortable with that."

"More water then?"


She gulps down the water, and I tell her, "I've called someone," careful not to say police, "to help you." Again, she shows no reaction.

After a few more minutes, she takes to her bare feet once more and leaves my property.

Watching her walk away, I think of all the things I probably shouldn't have done. But mostly I think of what I could have done for her. After she disappears from sight, the only remnant of my strange visitor is the crumpled plastic water cup lying on the sidewalk. I realize it was the only true help I gave, and hope it was enough.

Michele Thomas Voight is a writer in Clearwater.