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Portrait of Annie

Aaron Burden

I stopped by the other day to see my old friend Annie. Annie lives in a modest beach cottage which is fetchingly named “Off Plumb." I don’t know how old the cottage is, but its flooring is made of sections of an old bowling alley.

Annie acquired the cottage in the early 1980s, and for years she and her husband Bob split their time between Off Plumb in the summers and Key West in the winters. When Bob died a few years ago, she sold their Florida home, leaving her only the Cape cottage, so I was curious where she planned to live that winter.

I found her inside sitting at the small table, dressed in a red schmetta, holding a glass of water in one hand and a lit Indian cigarette in the other. She has acquired a dog, Archie, a small dirty-white Westie-looking canine whose actual breed is some three-part moniker, the last part of which is “puff.” He is a sweet-tempered, affectionate creature that provides her with much company and comfort.

Grabbing pillows, we migrated to the narrow porch, where we had a panoramic view of Loagy Bay at low tide. There were several pickup trucks on the flats, commercial shellfishermen tending to their oyster grants. There were freshly-laid lines of oyster clutches on the far side of the bay. The tableau had an almost industrial look to it, except for the eerie silence and immobility of the scene.

As we sat on the narrow porch, several barn swallows darted and planed through the air in front of us in search of invisible insects, landing on the porch railing only a foot or two from us, then shooting up into the porch rafters, where at least two of them had established nests. Never had I observed barn swallows up so close. They are such elegant, lovely little birds with sleek, glossy, deep blue-black coats and wings, rufous breasts, and a small rust patch just above the beak.

As I sat in the white rocking chair, I noticed that one of the rocker feet was rotten at the tip. Annie said, “Yes, can you believe it? The people next door threw this out thirty-nine years ago!”

When I asked her about her plans for the winter, she said she intended to stay here through Thanksgiving and that she would really like to stay year-round, but a local company that specializes in renovations told her there was no way they could winterize the place, “no matter how much money I throw at them.” She did have three mini-split heat pumps installed and has a wood stove as well, though as she put it, “I would need a house-boy to tend to it.”

Annie’s hair, once golden, has now turned gray and her face is heavily lined. She looks like nothing so much as an old Appalachian hill woman living in a ramshackle cabin, that is, until one notices the shelves upon shelves of books and a series of sketches she has made of famous authors in their youth. Her friend Wendy, who teaches at the University of Chicago, recently dropped in to visit Annie with a bunch of academics from abroad. Wendy said that Annie “wowed” them by offering them vacuum-sealed packages of orange slices.

She had weathered out the recent storm in that little house, and seemed to take it in stride, as nothing extraordinary or noteworthy, even as she pointed out the dried salt plastered on her windows – a woman in her mid-70s, living alone in a tiny, uninsulated house, seemingly content to be where she is.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.