Ellie O’Leary

Annie Doesn’t Get It

Annie had started her day by screaming out the window for the birds to be quiet. Starlings. Millions of them, well lots anyway. She hated waking up to the sounds of nature. Annie had an alarm clock and didn’t need the birds to tell her it was morning. She didn’t like being included in their plans. It’s bad enough she has to hear nature. She doesn’t want to be a part of it.

She was on her way now to her first appointment of the day. Her real estate career was going strong. Lots of referrals. Good ones. Today she was meeting a woman who wanted to sell the family beach home. This was a referral from another agent she had met at a conference. He lived two states away and was a relative of a relative or something like that. Pulling up in front of the property, Annie took a good first look. White house, red shutters. Fieldstone foundation. Sprawling late Victorian with a wraparound porch. Right away she wrote in her mind, needs some exterior paint. Lots of potential. Nice location. Very nice location. In front of her the house. Behind that, the ocean. Not the bay. Not the mouth of the river. Point blank ocean. Waves breaking. She only had to think she might be getting the listing to sell and Annie was working on the ads.

A lovely older woman met Annie at the door. Lovely older women make Annie uncomfortable. Even if they’re genuine, they seem so pretentious. How could anyone actually be that nice? The woman, who introduced herself as Mrs. Worthington, wore a soft blue dress with a string of pearls. Her bright white hair was carefully groomed in a row of waves along the hairline.

Annie was hoping she herself wasn’t too much of a sight. Red hair, lots of it.  She had chosen a hot pink double-breasted business suit with a short straight skirt. She wanted to make an impression, and she hoped it was the right one.

Mrs. Worthington, as she showed Annie around, explained, “This was built by Papa, my grandfather. Everybody called him Papa.”

“Who was he?”

“He was my grandfather.”

“Is he still living?”

“No. He isn’t.”

“Who owns the house now?” Annie wanted to make sure she was talking to someone who actually had the right to sell.

“We do. The Family Trust. We own it.”

“How many are there?”

“How many what?”

“How many people in the trust?”

“Oh. There are ten of us. This is the main dining room.”

She wasn’t in the mood to ask if they all lived nearby. She had visions of overnighting nine sets of documents to various locations on the planet. She meant to pay more attention to the real estate itself when she noticed a large portrait on the far wall. Mrs. Worthington clicked on a switch and a light above the picture glowed.

“This is Papa.”

Actually, lady, it’s an oil painting. “Oh, I see. He’s the original owner.”

“Yes and he’s the one who named it ‘The Four Winds’.”

“Four Winds?” The house has a name. What’s a name worth? Could it contribute at least to the saleability? Or could it actually convert to dollars and cents? “Why ‘The Four Winds’?”

“Papa loved the ocean breezes and the four seasons. ‘The Four Winds’ was his way of combining them. He said the prevailing wind came from a different direction every season. That’s the way it seemed to him, so that’s the way it was.”

Oh, Papa, thought Annie. You would have been one to deal with.

Mrs. Worthington continued the tour of the house, showing Annie all the rooms on the first floor before going upstairs. The main staircase went from the first floor to a landing and turned right. Approaching the turn, Annie saw another oil painting. She thought she must have been staring because Mrs. Worthington immediately offered an explanation.

“Papa and his Lady.”

“His lady?” Wow, maybe a little off the shoulder history, too. Papa had a lady. “Papa had a lady?”

“His wife, my grandmother. Papa always called her his Lady. It was a term of respect. Papa’s whole life was based on respect. He respected her and all of us.  Most of all he respected nature and the natural order of things. He loved the way it all worked. Every day the waves broke on the beach. Every spring the flowers bloomed. Every fall the leaves changed. And, of course, everybody respected him.”

Papa didn’t get around much, thought Annie. She continued the tour with Mrs. Worthington and thought she had gained a pretty good sense of the house. She had taken lots of notes. Large rooms. Nice entrance foyer. Six beds, three baths. Good kitchen, needs updating, unless somebody actually wanted a kitchen like that. She thought she had seen all of the living area when Mrs. Worthington headed for a door in the upstairs hallway saying, “And there’s the third floor. Where Papa sat.”

Oh, Papa sat. Of course. Annie knew he had to do something after he built the house.

“In his last years Papa didn’t get around much, but he always managed to climb up this staircase to the best view in town.” Mrs. Worthington smiled.

She and Annie went up the narrow stairway that opened onto the expanse of the third floor. It would have been just an attic except the walls and the floor were finished. At the back of the one large room there was an old wing-back chair, a matching sofa, and a small table. The furniture sat nicely on an Oriental rug. The wall had three windows, all snug together. And, yes, there was an incredible view of the ocean and the lawn leading to it. Looking down onto that area, Mrs. Worthington told Annie about the great family gatherings she remembered there.

“There were so many of us sometimes. Cousins, friends of cousins, aunts and uncles. And people who knew Papa. He and his Lady used to travel a great deal when they were younger. They always seemed to meet people on the crossing aboard ship or in some grand hotel somewhere in Europe. They were just the type to meet people and keep in touch. Sometimes some of those people would visit here and they were almost always enchanting. Oh, and there were the dogs, too.”


“Yes. The whole family raised Golden Retrievers. Actually we bred them. There were so many beautiful people and dogs when I was young.” Mrs. Worthington stared down at the large sloping lawn.

Annie couldn’t picture a large family gathering from her own memory. She was an only child from two quiet parents who had never thrown a party. She lives alone and hasn’t gotten around to getting married. She does have pets, though. One day, a bad day, when not even potato chips or ice cream could ease her frustration, she stopped at the mall and bought two kittens. She named them One and Two, after the order they came out of the pet store box when she got them home. She always left food out, and they seemed to entertain each other. She was happy to have them, but she wasn’t sure why.

Mrs. Worthington’s voice intruded on Annie’s thoughts. “One day when I was young I’d been sent up here on some errand. They didn’t hear me on the stairs, but I heard them. Papa was seated here in this big chair with his view fixed out the window. His Lady said he didn’t have to stare like that all day. Maybe he’d like to read something. He told her, ‘I can’t stop the tide from coming in, but I can be part of it. One day I’ll join the wind and travel again.’ It was eerie. When he did die some years later, it was comforting for me to think of him not cooped up here at the top of the house, but free again to travel, literally free as a breeze.”

Annie was moved by the story. She found it intriguing, actually, but she didn’t want to show that outwardly. She was there strictly as a real estate agent so she asked some more questions, especially the big question. Why would the family want to sell someplace meaning so much to them? How do these people manage to live so long? Annie’s parents had each died, natural causes, both of them, but these people seemed to go on for decades beyond what Annie expected from her family. She was thinking of her own experience and mortality and well-being and such things when Mrs. Worthington answered her question again.

“Oh, the last time we met as a trust some few people wanted to sell. Someone wanted to use their share to buy a condo in Orlando. Florida, of all places. Someone else said they couldn’t afford their share of the upkeep. Imagine. They’re only charged one tenth of the cost. People should be able to manage their finances well enough.” Mrs. Worthington was of a certain opinion.

Annie thought of her own up and down, in and out financial situation. Call it rainstorms. Call it spring showers. Her bills and her commissions didn’t always come in at the same time. She made plenty of money, but her timing was off occasionally.

She continued her review of the property with Mrs. Worthington and later walked around outside by herself. The large sloping lawn led to a clean open beach. Standing at the line where grass meets sand, Annie looked back across the lawn. She could imagine scenes of women in long dresses serving lemonade and men with linen jackets and straw hats raising their glasses in good cheer. She took pictures of the beach and the house to include in the market analysis report she’d prepare before returning to speak to Mrs. Worthington in a few days. Heading back across the lawn to go to her car, she looked up at the three windows on the third floor. Annie hadn’t remembered anything plaid there. The curtains were pretty, but they were white lace. No plaid. But now she saw a sky blue plaid in the windows.  Probably a reflection from the beach.

On her way back to the office, Annie thought about the rest of her day ahead. She had a doctor’s appointment she had unconsciously forgotten as many times as she remembered it. Before that she’d be having lunch with a broker who was trying to recruit her, and she wanted to plan her arguments for tomorrow’s office meeting. She was in favor of policy changes that weren’t popular with most of the sales force. The manager wanted to make the changes and Annie agreed they were necessary for efficiency. You can’t stop the tide from coming in.

Where did that thought come from?

After dropping off her film, she drove a few more blocks to her office. The only person she saw was Mags, another sales agent, closest thing Annie had to a friend in the office. Even she, though, crept back to her own desk as if hoping to avoid one of Annie’s comments. She was lucky. Annie was busy. She checked her messages, returned a few phone calls and headed out again.

Away from the office, Annie realized she was finally headed where she least wanted to go. She had thought about not even making an appointment but decided she’d let them confirm that, of course, there was nothing wrong. Once when she coughed, a few weeks ago, her hand had brushed across her chest and she’d noticed a lump in her breast.

Arriving at the doctor’s office she checked in with the receptionist.

“Anne Silver. One o’clock.”

“What did you say your last name was?”

“Silver. You know, one medal away from gold. I’m Anne Silver, one o’clock.

“Yes, Mrs. Silver. Please be seated. The doctor will be with you shortly.”

Annie took a seat on the far side of the reception area. Far away from the receptionist and far away from the fish tank. Who would want fish? Maybe One and Two would like to visit them. If the doctor feels he wants to leave his pets out on view maybe Annie would bring hers in and see if they all got along. Mrs. Silver? Why did the receptionist call her Mrs.? Does she look as if she’s supposed to be married? Annie sat in her seat as patiently as she knew how and looked for something to do. She didn’t drive all the way over here to read cooking or parenting magazines, and there were no business journals that would have interested her, so she rummaged through her own bag, which was more like an organizer than a purse. Finally, she found an old bank deposit slip and used the back of it to start a “to do” list. She had just started onto a short grocery list when she heard her name called.

The nurse escorted her to a small room with one of those bed/table things in it. They went through the usual dialogue. “When was your last menstrual period? Step on the scale, please. Please change into this with the opening in the back.” Unless she said, “Please change into this with the opening in the front.” Annie could never remember which way it went. “The doctor will be with you shortly.”

Annie, now left in the room alone, changed into the paper johnny thing the nurse had handed her. She left the opening in the front. After all, that was the part he was supposed to examine. She carefully arranged the clothing she had taken off so her street clothes covered her underwear. Then she waited, knowing the doctor would be with her shortly.

Dr. Sherman knocked and entered simultaneously. Annie was as ready as she knew how to be.

“Hello, again, Annie. Still in a hurry today as usual?”

“Me? I mean hello. What makes you think I would be in a hurry?”

“Always are. It’s in your face.” Annie didn’t know he ever looked at her face. “What brings you here today?”

“I have a cyst in my right breast. I’ve had them before, but this one feels different. I’m not thinking it’s anything serious, but I figured I’d come in to get all the serious stuff ruled out.”

“Good logical move on your part.” Dr. Sherman examined the lump and agreed it could well be a cyst, so he decided to withdraw the fluid it contained.

“This will make you more comfortable, and then we should be able to send you on your way.”

Annie thought more comfortable sounded just fine, but when no fluid came up into the syringe she became immediately less comfortable. So did he. Although they both remained calm in their own manner, for Annie the next hour and even the next few days became hectic. Dr. Sherman ordered a mammogram and before Annie got the full idea of the moment, the receptionist had scheduled outpatient surgery to remove the lump.

Leaving the office with a handful of printed instructions, Annie found herself wishing for something warm, but all she could think of was hot chocolate. It was only September, not quite cold enough for that yet. She didn’t know what she wanted. She decided to tell everyone. She decided to tell no one. Then she decided to tell just family, maybe some cousins, and then she decided to tell anyone but family. Finally, she decided to tell just One and Two. They’d kept secrets before. She would, of course, have told anyone who came right out and asked, “Are you having a lump removed?”  No one did.

She only had one day between the office visit and the surgery, so she used the time to tie up those loose odds and ends continually cropping up in the real estate business. She returned her usual stack of phone messages, made a few phone calls of her own and met with some buyers. She showed them a large house, a kind of new money executive home near the mouth of the river. The customers suited the property perfectly, but that day Annie didn’t like them or the house. The husband asked questions to demonstrate how much he knew— although that wasn’t so much. He was a software engineer who had barely touched computer hardware, never mind house wares. The wife beamed in the glory of her intelligent husband. They asked if they could come back for a second look and next time bring their two young children. Annie said, “Sure, that would be fun. We’ll schedule it soon. O.K.?”

On her way home, Annie stopped to pick up the photos of Mrs.

Worthington’s place. She hoped she would have at least a few good shots of the front of the house and the grounds. She did. There was also one picture of the back, including the three windows together on the third floor. Wondering again about seeing that blue plaid, Annie looked carefully at the windows. There was definitely something blue that might be plaid. Well, sure there was, if you believe in that sort of thing. Annie didn’t follow such notions. She was more able to believe she was seeing the sky and ocean reflected through the panes of the window. Annie had cleared her desk. She was up to date on phone messages and paperwork, free to go home and contemplate her surgical workout the following day.

In her mind, there wasn’t much to think about. You go in, they take out the lump, and you go home. Done. Of course, they always examine these things and report to you about their findings, but Annie decided to think about that later. Yeah, it could be malignant, but that’s not what Annie had in mind. Malignant could be serious, and Annie wasn’t interested in that. The last thing she wanted was to be in some support group where strangers blubber, then hug, and then probably exchange phone numbers or mementos or something. It’s true one night she threatened to commit suicide when her printer was jamming, but an illness would be different. Annie liked to make her own plans.

The surgery was simple, not as simple as Annie had hoped, but simple enough. She was released from surgical day care into the arms of Mags, now her confused friend from the office.

“You had a mole removed? You look like crap.”

“Thank you. Did I say mole? It was more of a lump. I should be fine by tomorrow. I have One and Two for company.”

“They’re cats, Annie. You just don’t get it, do you? Do they cook?” The conversation with Mags bounced between friendship and tension. “Annie, you’re great with business decisions, but do you have any common sense at all?”

“About what?”

“That’s my point. I was kind of thinking medical common sense today.”

“I have written instructions. They say rest for a few days, then go to the doctor’s office on Monday for a follow up visit. I can handle that.”

Mags dropped her off at home and came back later with take-out. “Here, if you don’t feel like eating tonight at least you can microwave it tomorrow. I have to assume whatever you are not saying must be important. Keep in touch.”

“Thanks. Really. Thanks. I’ll probably eat tomorrow.” Annie was left in her own care, thinking ‘Mags’? What is she, plural? She put the food in the refrigerator and then after a cup of tea went to bed. She got up during the night, watched some crazy show called “Wildlife In Your Own Backyard” and then went back to bed. Friday was the surgery itself. Saturday was horrible, and Sunday was a little better, a little worse. Monday was the day. By Monday morning Annie considered herself pretty strong. She stopped by her office, checked new listings, and returned some phone calls. She saw Mags and told her she had a good weekend after all. Ok, an ok weekend, but nothing got worse. She worked on the market analysis for Mrs. Worthington’s house and she stared out the window. From her office there was no ocean view. She could see a parking lot with most of the cars there for a supermarket. She wondered who those shoppers were and how do they chose which foods to buy and did they pay by check or cash and did they drive straight home with their ice cream and how would she ever get the report done for Mrs. W if she didn’t turn around and face her own desk. She hung around her office until nearly 3 p.m. when she drove over to the doctor’s office.

“Anne Silver, 3 p. m.”

“Yes, Mrs. Silver. The doctor will be with you shortly.”

The fish again. This time she stared right back at them. She was in no mood. Glancing around the room, Annie caught the eye of the receptionist who smiled kindly. Why is she being so nice? Why is she so friendly today? Last week she acted deaf.

“Anne Silver.”

This is it. The moment. The doctor has news, but who knows if it’s good or bad? Does the receptionist know? The nurse knows.

“How are you today?”

“Oh. I’m fine. Thank you. Considering.”

“Oh, yes. I know what you mean.”

The nurse knows. Dr. Sherman knows. Waiting alone for the doctor, Annie pondered loads of things until he came in.

“Hello, Anne. How are you today?”

“Um. Fine.”

“Well, let’s look at that incision. It’s healing well, and fortunately you don’t need any further treatment.”

“You mean I don’t have cancer?’

“No, young lady, you don’t. Your pathology report came back negative. What we removed was a benign tumor. You’re as free as a breeze.”

Annie hadn’t been able to say cancer out loud until she knew she didn’t get it. Now she felt dizzy, light, and able to float. She got dressed and left the office quickly. The elevator took too long to come up to her so she walked down all eight flights, each turn of the stairs bringing her to a new level of realization. Stepping out into the street, she felt the warm air of Indian summer, a second chance at warm weather. As she started towards her car, Annie looked up at the windows of the surrounding buildings where she saw life on the street all the way up to the clouds reflected in the panes of glass. She thought of all the people living their lives who thought this was a normal day. Just then she felt a few breezes touch her cheek like four warm winds. Oh, Papa, she thought.

Two days later she met with Mrs. Worthington, who thanked her profusely for her time, but explained the family had decided not to sell. “There’s such a presence here. We can’t let go.” Annie admitted she understood, but asked if Mrs. Worthington would mind if she crossed the lawn to walk out to the beach one more time?  “Oh, of course not, dear. Please do.” Once outside Annie looked up at the three windows at the back of the house. White lace curtains just as she remembered. Annie picked up a small smoothed stone and kept it. She kept it for a long, long time.

Ellie O’Leary often writes about growing up in the village of Freedom, Maine. She is the previous host of Writers Forum on WERU-FM, has won the Martin Dibner Memorial Fellowship in poetry, and has taught writing at the Pyramid Life Center in the Adirondacks and at Belfast (Maine) Senior College. She works to help others find their own voice, particularly women and seniors who may not have written or shared their writing before. She graduated from the Stonecoast MFA program in January 2017. Much of this story was written while waiting for radiation treatments, the first time she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She now enjoys good health.