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As hard as I try, I can’t remember when I first saw Annie. She was just sort of always there—a pail of sudsy water in her hands, a great, throbbing smile on her face.

Annie was more than student janitor of our dorm—she was a kind of cleanliness campaign all by herself. The dean often said that the day Annie took over, every girl in the dorm changed. The halls, the washrooms, the spacious lobby, even the basement laundry, were always gleaming. 

 Perhaps it was some inherent respect for all lovely things that kept my friends and me from our usual careless habits. With Annie always there or sure to come soon, who could bear to drop a candy wrapper or an empty soap carton? Why, the girl would have taken it as a personal insult.

One day, sitting idly under the hair dryer in the washroom, I felt a sharp sense of detachment. Here were girls I knew, busy with the endless rounds of washing, pressing, and gossiping. I could see talk moving their mouths, see the changing of their expressions, yet I could hear none of their sounds. It seemed nothing they could do would affect me, apart from them as I was. It was as if I were some strange spirit visitor.


Then, through this brief minute of fantasy, I discovered something too obvious to be noticed during days of reality. There was another girl in the room who, although she moved and spoke and smiled, was apart from the others. Dear Annie, with her simple brown dress and too-big loafers, now offering sympathetic advice to a girl who had washed red pants with her undies; again, cleaning an iron for a helpless freshman. 

But Annie, for all the nice things she did for people, was as much separated from them all as was I, surrounded by the screaming wind of the hair dryer. And for the first time I saw her as a girl among girls, a classmate.



 That night I went to visit her in her basement room. She lived alone, and her room was bare to the point of bleakness. But the one thing I noticed then, and came to expect as my visits grew customary, was the huge bouquet of wildflowers that covered her desk. Annie told me that she loved going for long walks alone, and I knew she meant long walks, because flowers like those grew only high in the mountains surrounding the campus.


At first I was merely interested in Annie as a very unique girl with mad tales to tell of escape from Communist forces in China. But soon I was going to her room for another reason—I liked it there. I could stretch out on her faded cloth rug and study for hours without an interruption. Annie was never bothered with visitors.

I began to notice things—the steep grades she pulled in her math and science classes, her appreciation of beauty, the way she thought everything through and had reasons for each thing she did. Nothing in her life was insignificant; everything she did had meaning. There was more to Annie than the huge grin and inane mumbles that hid her real personality.

One evening as I lay on her rug studying, I saw Annie whispering softly over her book, her straight black hair pinned clumsily behind her ears. Boldness grasped me. “Let’s cut your hair, Annie,” I said. And to my surprise, she liked the idea.

“You do it,” she grinned, pulling some scissors from her desk. 

I was far from professional, but I gave her a simple, neat haircut and showed her how to put her hair up on rollers. The next day I was as surprised as everyone else at how pretty she looked. I was established in her eyes as something of a wonder girl.

I had never felt about anyone the way I felt about Annie. I wanted to make a speech in assembly; I wanted to walk up and slap people who ignored her timid attempts at friendship. I wanted to help her.


Because my home was in a distant state, I accepted an invitation from a friend to spend spring vacation in her home. Alice’s home was the most elegant I had ever stayed in. One morning over a late, luxurious breakfast we played a “most-interesting-person” game. We each described an unusual person and suggested reasons for certain colors of their personality.

I talked of Annie. Alice’s teenage sister, Julie, listened carefully as I spoke, and when I had finished, she left the room, although we were not through playing the game.

The next day as we were leaving for school, Alice’s mother carried a huge box to the car. “Just a few things Julie doesn’t need anymore,” she explained. “She thought Annie would like them.”

I was exuberant. Back at school my roommate, Barbie, and I examined the contents of the box—sweaters, skirts, a soft blue coat, a swirling formal dress—every single thing was exquisite. Barbie was a competent seamstress, so we decided to have Annie try on the things in our room; then, in case anything needed altering, we could pin and sew there.

After supper we led Annie to our room, chattering excitedly about the surprise we had for her. Her eyes grew wider and wider with each lovely thing we took from the box.

As we got out our pins and tape measure, I noticed that Annie was trying to tell us something. She stood in the middle of the clothes, one frilly blouse clasped absently in her brown hand. Her manner was so awkward, so embarrassed, it seemed—and I am sure she felt this too—that we were practically strangers. I smiled at her, and I think she realized how very much I wanted to understand what she was thinking. 

She began shaking her head from side to side, and finally she said, “I cannot be taking these things, for I not be needing them. I have two school thing, one work thing, and one church thing.”

Barbie and I laughed, relieved. “Oh, Annie, of course you don’t need them, but everyone has things they don’t really need. It’s fun to have lots of different things.”

But Annie was more serious than I had ever seen her. “There be other people who not have so much as I. They should be having these. I not be needing them; I have two school thing, one work thing—”

“And one church thing . . . We know.” Barbie was exasperated, and she couldn’t hide it. “But Annie, we want you to have the nice things. It will make us happier.”

Annie sat very still and listened thoughtfully to all our arguments. Her answer was always the same: “But I not be needing this.”

I knew all along it was no use. Annie liked her plain, clean dresses. They were all she needed; they were all she wanted.

Finally we persuaded her to take one brown sweater. When she left, Barbie looked at me with tears of disappointment in her eyes. “She’s crazy. Everyone knows that possessing for the sake of possession is wrong. It is a principle, but no one lives like that.”

I didn’t say anything. For the first time in my life my closet looked sickeningly full.

Several days passed, and then one evening I found a note under my door. The familiar scrawl said: “I hope you not be caring, but I gave the sweater to Ressie, who works at nights at the dairy. I really not be needing it. Like I explain, I have two school thing, one work thing, and one church thing.”  


This story originally appeared in the October 19, 1971, issue of Insight. At that time Joan Marie Cook was a freelance writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. This story was included in a short book entitled The Window Tree published by the Review and Herald Publishing Association when Joan Marie Cook was only 21. She went on to receive her master’s degree in social work and counseling from Vanderbilt University and worked in private practice for most of her career. She took up writing again in the last few years of her life, and she died in September 2015. 

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