His eyes were fixed on the western horizon as his truck sped upon the
dirt road to home. The dust trail it created was visible in the still
air. I recognized the engine's roar of the new 1957 Ford he loved. The
rising colors in the late afternoon promised a brilliant display. A
Monet sunset as Nicholas describes it. That's why he hurried. At the
same time, I fought my way through the maze of sheets after hanging the
last load before dinner. My face and hands were red from standing in the
cool spring air. I rushed to stand on the apple tree stump amidst the
clotheslines and now waited with shoulders just above the whitewaves. It
won't be long. My heartbeat increased with the sky's last hurrah. An arm
slid around my waist as Nicholas stepped beside me on our pedestal. For
an eighteen-year-old living in Mineville, moments like this last as long
as a firefly light.
No greeting or small talk interrupted our thoughts; our breathing
synchronized visibly in the cold. I may have been born to a life lower
than a snake's belly, but on this pedestal, it's the Fourth of July. I
leaned slowly into him, relaxing in the passing minutes. Another arm
surounded me to cover goose bumps that stood out noticeably. It wasn't
from cold. He pressed his head against mine; I thought. The Artist's
fading palate become various shades of blue to twilight, reminding me of
Nicholas's eyes. The breeze dropped a few degrees with the setting sun.
He sighed and stepped down, reaching up to effortlessly lift me off. I
fleetingly felt the brush of his face on my forehead. Lightly taking my
hand, he led me through the tunnel of sheets.
without warning, tears stung my eyes in the cold. Nearing the house, we
smelled smoke from Mr. Wheelock's pipe. He was in the rocking chair on
the back porch, one of the boarders in my aunt Flo's home.
"What's this, Dessa?" Nicholas spotted the tear tracts glistening in the
porch light. I tried to turn quickly away and escape to the sanctity of
the pantry. Calloused hands imbedded by coal dust reached for me in an
instant. He turned me toward him and cradled my face with little
resistance. Before my swimming eyes were blue eyes that mirrored my own.
"Such sad moons tonight, and it's Friday. You should be doing a happy
dance." Nicholas bent his knees to get eye level with me, softening his
questioning gaze. I know that look. He won't relent until he's satisfied
with my response to the unexpected sadness. "Roark drowned a litter of
kittens today." I could barely make it to the end of my sentence.
"Aunt Flo said there was something wrong with them, but I know that was
just to make me feel better."
As tears fell, Nicholas wiped them away with his thumbs on each side of
my face. Soon, he was unable to keep up with the cascade. Mr. Wheelock
cleared his throat, and we both flinched. We had forgotten him with the
emotions of the moment.
Nicholas pulled me through the porch door into the pantry and onto the
stepping stool seat. He reached above me and turned on the suspended
ceiling light bulb and then pulled himsef up to sit on the shelving. He
closed the door with his footas an afterthought. I gathered my thoughts,
and breathed the comforting smells around us. The fruit pies, warm bread
dough, and Nicholas created a sanctuary.
We were secure in the silence between us. How often he had struck his
head in the pantry to say hello while I made the day's bread or pie.
There was inevitably flour on my face that he cleaned away.
And sometime during the conversation, he would be rolling out the pie
crust or his specialty, punching down the rising bread dough. My whole
day centered upon a chance meeting with him, which was easy with pantry
aromas. Was there ever a time before Nicholas Westley?
He appeared almost four years ago on the heels of my arrival. I was
starting high school in Mineville. He had just graduated in 1953 from
some Canadian town near the St Lawrence Seaway. Nicholas boarded here
and worked the coal mines. That's what I know of his rudimentary
history. There's more to his character.
Outwardly, I was ware of his genuine caring and kindnessto all of us in
these tight quarters. At fourteen and self-consious, I told myself how
lucky I was to his comings and goings. Boarders left with little notice.
Nicholas stayed. He was one constant in my life. I could pick his voice
out in the din of conversation around the dinner table. I knew the
slight irregular sound of his footsteps because of a limp, and I saw the
unexplained sadness in the blue eyes. They were greatly contrasted by
his thick black hair that gleamed like coal from the ground. He regarded
me now as I contemplated the enigma that is Nicholas. We've come a long
way together. I have hope, and he laughs more easily.
"Im waiting for the smile, Odessa." Just the sight of him had me smiling
Nicholas slid his hand down my arm and rested it on my knee while his
fingers strummed repeatedly, faking impatience. In the pale yellow
light, he appeared more a vision than flesh and bones.
I thought it a shame Nicholas spent his day underground, rarely with the
sun on his face, yet he was my sunshine.
The fingers continued to strum against my knee, and it tickled. I did
not want to give in too easily now that I had his anxious expression
searching my face. I thought of Roark to get control of the smile that
was just about to foil my attempt at keeping us alone.
"Where is it, Dessa?" Nicholas tried again. A scheme fluttered to mind
as I remembered he planned to ice fish tommorrow on Lake Champlain. "If
you take me fishing." It felt like black mail.
"You are the only girl I know that would ask that. Scout's going with me
tommorow. You know how he feels about women in a fish shanty. Women talk
too much and scare the fish away," Nicholas sounded annoyed.
I stared dejectedly at my clasped hands feeling badly about over acting;
then again, maybe I didn't. The longer it took for his answer, the more
I regretted the request . I'm surprised by how this irriated me and
wondered how much longer I could concentrate on a calm exterior .
Shaking his head, he finally agreed, squeezing my knee. Nicholas picked
up the nearest cloth to wipe my tear-stained face. His concerned
expression altered to a look of surprise. He had used the pie crust
cloth, making a gooey mess. He placed a hand over his mouth, lowering
his eyes to the floor to make the grinning;he then proceeded to try and
stop the snickersthat escaped his lips each time he looked at me. Had he
lost his mind?
Seeing my reaction, Nicholas grabbed the silver tray off the stacked
cookbooks and shoved it before my face. It appeared distrorted and worse
than reality; we collapsed laughing.
How shockingly handsome was the face before me transformed by the
uninhabited laughter. I realized his blue eyes seemed lit from the
inside shining out, not a reflection of light. I shivered involuntarily
as his light touch rectified the damage done by dougn. Aunt Flo suddenly
pushed open the swinging door to investigate the disturbance. Taking in
the scene, she swatted us both with the wire whisk she was using to make
gravy. Nicholas bolted, leaving me as scapegoat. I mouthed the word
"Chicken!" as he winked and dissapeared up the back stairs.
"Odessa, if you don't hurry, the guys will be down to dinner, and all
that's set is the Jell-O. A word to the wise is sufficient." she said
while wagging the whisk at me. Flo, barely five feet, turned away
chuckling. No one crossed her, cane or no cane.
Great-aunt Florence ran a boarding house in the Adirondack Mountains of
upstate New York. It was her only means of income after being widowed
young. Her home became carpeted by miners. It's more a dormity on the
second floor. Only Nicholas had the nook below the widow's walk. There
was literally no room in the inn when he found our home. Flo has good
discernment. She saw before her a young man who piqued her interest and
cound not turn him away. All she could offer was the attic space.
I moved here when I was old enough to carrry my load of the work. Aunt
Flo needed help with the added boarders. I needed a life. Not to dwell
on my early years, my father died young. The void he left in my life was
immeasurable. The memories were shadows of a five-year old. I have an
older brother. Three was a crowd in mother's estimation. She named me
for the swan princess under a spell with the ugly duckling last name.
Hans Christian Anderson would have approved. My birth certificate simply
stated Odessa Drake. My cheerless exhistence followed until Flo pulled
some strings and brought me to her home.
By the time I climbed the stairs after the last dash was washed, I was
bone tired. Most of the guys had left for their parent's homes or wives
and children, places too far to drive each night. They managed to crawl
to bed after the meal and wake to miss another day without the sun. As
soon as wether permitted, Flo would make them eat their meals outside on
picnic tables to soak in the sun.
Mines offered only a coating of soot. We had devised a way to wash up
for dinner in warmer weather. There was a "swimming pool" beside the
barn. It was a huge crater dugout and filled with water. It was a quick
fix for the coal soot that flow despised. Plus, it was exhiliarating,
plunging from a rope tied on the pulley in the barn's loft window. It
was a fountain of youth for the owl-eyed miners who emerged as boys
after one jump, or two or three more.
I heard Flo , Mr, Wheelock, and Mrs Sprague getting ready for the
evening. Their familiar voices were comforting. It was hot time in the
town tonight for the Geritol gang. I love them all dearly but I draw the
line when it comes to denture dominoes.
Flo called from the foot of the stairs, "Elise is on the phone!"
"I'm coming!" I dragged myself from bed, just having burrowed under a
quilt. Elise and I were supposed to have put our heads together to make
"Not tonight, Lise," slurring her name.
"Oh Dessa, don't make me come and get you! I'll even put anchovies on
the pizza. You know how revolting they are to me."
I hated to disapoint my best friend in the world, especially on a Friday
"Elise, I swear I'll make it up to you. These bones are dragons
"When you can talk sensibly, I know you've crashed. I'll call in the
morning. You better not be in the swing on the back porch with
You-Know-Who," she accused.
"That wish requires a genie in a bottle."
"I knew there was something that would cure what ails you. A genie named
Nicholas. Maybe that's what we can do tomorow. Hit the antique shops,
rub a few bottles." quipped Elise, pleased with her humor.
"Oh no, not tomorrow. Not until afternoon. Nicholas is taking me ice
fishing," I gushed, then regretted.
Elise choked on the other side and covered the phone with her hand. She
was havinga good laugh. It seemed like I was the source of everyone's
"Oh my gosh! Your plan is to catch him with fish, you romantic soul you!
Let me know that experiment works out. I'll wait 'till then to put a
fishing pole on my birthday list. HUrry, 'cause that would be next
month, April 27th, a Wednesday. I'm hoping my best friend shows up."
Elise was having way too much fun.
"Love ya, Lise. Bye." I hanged up with her still babbling about caviar
for her party and " Could I bring the fish eggs please?"
I fell asleep thinking of the sunset, hoping the acre of sheets would
not be stiff as boards in the morning.
My arms were wrapped around Nicholas's waist as we ride bareback through
the riverbed. Water splashed around us. The twinkle of the sun through
the trees reflect red highlights where it catches his black hair. I
giggle. It tickles my nose. We ride as one following the river. I hear a
faint horse's gallop echoing behind us. Alarmed, I turn and see the
grinning face of a masked rider gaining on us. His white teeth are
terrible in the light. Sensing my fright, Nicholas urges the horse
faster. I clinge to him, trying to stay on the horse; my eyes are
tightly closed and head forced to his back. The hoof beats keep coming
faster and louder. I panic. Glancing behind me, I see the rider holding
a while cloth, gaining on us.
Nicholas head the horse out of the riverbed into the trees. I hear a
noise like two rocks hitting together and see the red in Nicholas hair.
Only this red rund down his back and onto my clothes. I scream just as
Nicholas falls out of my encircling arms and off the horse!
Snatching the reins, I jerk them, trying to turn the horse's direction.
Instead, a steel arm clamps my waist and pulls me from it's back,
flinging the cloth over my head. His arms are vices. The more I try to
escape his grasp, the tighter his arms squeeze, until I can't draw a
breath. I scream and and nothing comes out.
Tapping at the door brings me bolt upright. His familiar voice called
out, "Dessa, what's wrong?"
I tried to slow my breathing, still grasping from the obvious nightmare.
I felt like I'd been kicked in the chest. The tapping came again and my
"You screamed, Dessa." Nicholas's head emerged through the crack.
Without having to look, I felt the piercing blue of his eyes on me.
"Don't you ever sleep?" I whispered. My normal voice was gone. The sight
of Nicholas aive made me want to run across the cold floor and fling my
arms around him. I noticed the thumping of my heart in my ears. Scanning
the room for an answer, Nicholas met my gaze. I looked away not wanting
him to see anything that might betray my state of mind. Which, at this
moment, I was not even sure I could explain.
"A rat ran across the floor," I lied.
"A rat huh." He was looking very dubious about that reply.
"Yeah, I was looking for my shoes to divert his attention from my face.
Succeeding, I picked one up.
"What's with the shoes?" he asked.
I took aim and let if fly. Nicholas knew intuitavely the idea that
crossed my eyes, slamming the door well before the shoe hit.
"You rat you!" I hear from behind the safety of the door. Nicholas
added, "Get your feet out on the floor. The truck is running."
Within minutes, I'd managed to make myself presentable and tiptoe down
the stairs. How good do I have to look in a parka jacket? I scribbled a
note to Flo telling her my whereabouts. On my way to leave the note on
the sink, something stopped me in my tracks. Piled thick over the dining
table were the sheets stiff as boards! Nicholas had gathered them early
I was betting. The ice melted in my veins, and I was warm.
Pulling myself up onto the bench seat, Nicholas was in gear and let the
clutch out smoothly, eager to go. "Is this the last time to fish before
you haul the shantly off?" I worried he'd begin where we left off, so I
started the conversation. I noticed then that Scout, his best friend,
was not going with us. "Where's Scout?"
"One question at a time please. Breakfast is on the seat." He was
nodding his head toward me. "Cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate. And yes,
we need to get the shanty off the lake before we lose more real estate
to the bottom. Scout is helping some of the guys get their off today." I
ate slowly, enjoying the ideaI had him to myself, remembering firely
night. Nicholas has always been a gentlemen. Flo certainly doesn't doubt
his character. She never worries when I'm with him, and she's from the
I sneaked a peek and found his profile in the spreaading light
irresistable. The lingering fright tried to flood my thoughts, but my
eyes focused more intensely on the angelic face at my side. If he sensed
me staring, he didn't let on during the drive to the lake shore.
Instead, Nicholas started humming a familiar melody. Not fair! The voice
of an angel to match the face.
"What's that called?" I asked when he fell quite again.
"Fur Alise," he answered, turning away to grin and waiting for the
response that he planned. When it hit me, I turned slowly my mouthwide
and eyes smarting.
"Your beautiful when you're angry, Odessa," he said as he tried to stay
on the roadI pulled his hat over his eyes.
Nicholas smiled all the way to his shanty.
There were lights flickering from across the lake through the early
haze. We drove right to the shanty. How could he tell which is which?
There must be hundreds of them dotting the ice, like a shanty city on
"You must be homing pigeon to know directions," I teased him anything
for a smile.
"Something like that," He smiled.
I thought how his smile was the loveliest way to begin a day. Inside, we
worked together to chop through fishing holes that had frozen over
during the week. It was hard task for over fifteen minutes; the windows
fogged up, and the coats came off.
Nicholas had on a light shirt. With the sweat from chopping, his defined
muscles were quite apparent.
He had a clean, manly-smell - not from a bottle. In our close quarters
it was intoxicating.
"Sit across from me so when you catch something, our lines won't tangle.
You have a knack of letting fish have a last dance before you pull them
in. Then I have to cut the line." He stated the truth.
I obliged him, for his pysique is infinitely more appealing than a
shanty wall. On the other hand, I wondered if he was having as much
trouble baiting the hook with the slimy worm - or was it my shaking
hands? The nightmare had seized my thoughts. Why would my mind play such
a cruel trick on me? I needed to talkto Mrs. Sprague about it. She is
one of Flo's boarders, several decades older. She knows alot about
everything., and she listens to all my nonsense. I've seen her and
Nicholas deep in conversations, an odd pair. Rheumatoid arthritis robber
her movement. Every night, he lifts her into bed from the wheelchair.
Mrs. Sprague says an angel carries her. There is never any pain in
'Need some help?" Nicholas jolted me from my thoughts. I looked down
where the pain seized.
I had baited my finger with the barb sticking out the top of my knuckle!
I planned on nursing school when I graduated. Nothing phased me except
this rediculous situation. " I'll take that help now." The shanty
started spinning as I bent over in pain. Nicholas was beside me in an
instant. He placed my arm around him, sitting with his back to me so I
couldn't see. I rested my head on his torso. I wished I'd thought of
this sooner was my first thought.
Nicholas reached back and held my head close. "Do you trust me?" he
"With my life" I whispered back.
I heard his heart race with my confession. Nicholas exterior did not
betray his emotions, but it thrilled me to know that I may have a small
place in his heart. I was enjoying this thought when my nightmare broke
my reverie. I was in the same posture on the horse.
"I've got to cut the barb off the hook, and well... you know, Dessa,"
sounding like this was breaking his heart. "Please, just try to hold
still. This will sting."
I shuddered and concentrated on his heartbeat.
Reaching down, Nicholas got the first aid kit from under the seat and
pulled something out of it. Then he braced my arm with his arm against
his chest, holding my hand very tight. I heard a snip and then felt a
stabbing pain throught my hand.
"Ive got to make it bleed a little." He was pouring alchol on the wound.
I about fell off the bench with the burn, cutting off the cry that
Nicholas grabbed me, steadying me on the bench. Then a hand lifted my
quivering chin, and his mouth was on mine. I must be dreaming again
because Nicholas was kissing me! What was the last thing to happen? I
was complete confused. I tried to get my bearing, but all I felt was
heat everywhere. He slowly pulled away avoiding my eyes and inspected
What just happened? The shanty was spinning again. The Wizard of Oz came
"It's out now. Just putting the finishing touches on," he said as he
rolled the gauze around the red, swollen knuckle. Heading outside, he
returned with snow and put it in the empty cinnamon roll bag, then on my
"Are you okay, Dessa?" he asked tenderly.
"W-Why?" was all I could answer.
"It was the first thing I could think of to take your mind off the pain.
Did it work?" He asked matter-of-factly, but blushing.
Was he serious? There was a genie working overtime somewhere. "Didnt't
feel a thing. Thank you, but it aches now."I confessed. Was I serious?
The one wish in all the world I pray for comes true today in a fish
shanty! and I say I don't feel a thing! Thank you! I plan on taking this
to my grave.
Nicholas held the ice bag in place until the ache was numb. He let my
rest my head as before. We were so close, yet sitting slumped against
his back, neither had to confront each other's eyes. I thought his heart
would lift us up and carry us away with the force of it's beating. It
wasn't my hand that ached; it was my heart.
This is how we were situated when the shanty door flew open half an hour
later. In stumbles incoherent Elise. Then I realize she's accosing us in
her native French. "Il fait froid! Quella est la temperature dehors? Que
faites vous donc ici? Vous etes fou? Il doit faire sous au moins O ce
matin" tumbled from Elise's lips in one breath. Then she seemed to lose
her tongue when she saw the sight before her.
Elise was at a loss for words. I let her squirm a few more minutes in
silence. That will warm her up! "Bonjour mon potit choux," I teased her.
"Yes, it's freezing and we are crazy."
"Don't be calling me your little cabbage! Je suis un veritable glacon et
en plus grace a vous!" Elise played along.
Nicholas moved first, closing the door and filling a cup with hot
chocolate. I stood and gave her the seat next to the heater while
Nicholas handed Elise the cup.
Looking at Nicholas but addressing me in French, she said, "L'endroit le
plus chaud n'est pas ici. Mais labas a cote du grand pois son! Vous
formez un couple parfait! N"est ce pas, Dessa?"
Nicholas quickly turned around from picking up the first aid kit when I
laughingly chided her, "Arrete! Elise!" The hot seat wasn't by the
heater. It was next to the big fish! We are perfect together.
"I speak French for heaven's sake! I lived across the border. No anrchy
please," demanded a very flushed Nicholas.
Elise turned her attention to me when she say my bandaged hand. "You
practicing for nursing school already?"
"Had a slight misunderstanding with a warm," I mumbled. Suddenly, a look
of guilt came over Elise's face about something, and I was sure I was
the "something" if my guess was correct. The next sentence confirmed my
hunch. "Odessa, we may have a problem."
Elise Maturin moved from Quebec the year I transferred to Mineville
High. Two girls without attachments at a new school naturally sought
refuge together in the small town. She was a chameleon, switching from
French to English with personalities adjusted accordingly. It's like
having two friends.
The Elise that sits here now was moody, devious, sociable, and
beautiful. The other side, thankfully more dominate, was caring, loyal,
honest, and exquisite. She's very approachable. That sets her French off
when I mention it. She loves Flo's home with all the activity and
opportunities to flirt. Elise had never flirted with Nicholas. She says
he's Edward Rochester to my Jane Eyre. When was I going to get a clue?
"I'm plain Jane?" I remember asking , a little crushed.
"Only that you need to clean your mirror, Dess. You are so blind to the
envy that follows you at school. Beauty, brains, and character don't
come in one package very often."
Then Elise spoke of an incident that I've cherished. "Nicholas and I
were talking one day after the flu epedimic. Remember? You cared for
over a dozen boarders, even Flo. He said some would have died. 'She was
this young girl with the weight of the world on her shoulders. I never
saw her more determined in my life. The sickness was the enemy, and she
was not giving in while she stood on two feet. Doc Whitford helped as
much as he could, but there were too many demands in town for his
attention. Dessa must have climbed stairs dozens of times, day and
night. When one's ill, it's hard to see the toll it takes on the care
taker. She carried on without complaint, cooking, and bathing to bring
down the fevers. I didn't get the flu and helped as much as I could.
She's good at giving orders but not good at taking them. Toward the end
of it all, she would not slow down. I saw how she looked: possessed. In
the middle of a standoff about getting rest, Dessa collapsed in my arms.
She took my orders then. 'Nicholas said you were 'the chocolate mousse
in this fudgesicle world.' What greater complimint is there from a man
who is blind to the same envy"
I wanted to blieve this is from the girl who was obstinately honest.
Sitting and sipping cocoa, Elise said casually for Nicholas's benefit,
"Roark Cafaro is asking you to the prom."
Instantnly, I was alarmed. This was the worst thing to happen after the
last two days. Of course, Elise was unawareof the kittens, recent
nightmare, and more importantly, the kiss.
"I wanted to warn you in case there's someone else who might ask before
Monday." She glared at Nicholas the whole time, who was jigging his
He concentrated too hard on the jigging.
I gave Elise a look that could paralyze.
"How did you get here?" I dropped a hint to leave. She's enjoying her
matchmaking role at my expense.
"Bart dropped me off, but he couldn't wait. Work you know," she added.
Elise purposely tilted the cup over her head to drain the last cocoa. I
knew she was trying to cover the guilt.
I looked warily at her. "The garage opens at five a.m.? Saturday?
"Every week," blinking innocently. "Well, I've done my deed for the
day," she added.
"You left out the word 'good,' I said. Ignoring me, Elise went on, "If
you don't want to put up with me until the fish holes freeze, could I
get a ride? Course I could hoof it or hitchhike."
Rolling his eyes at me, Nicholas headed out the door without a coat.
Taking Elise by the shoulders, he nudged her out in front of him. To me
over his shoulder, he said, "You keep the holes from freezing while I'm
gone. And no worms!"
And to Elise, "Keep quiet! No Questions! I'll let you live!"
Elise had to be dragged to the truck by Nicholas . She was bent over
trying to get her breath laughing. I still heard her as he slammed the
door and when he opened his side, still hysterics. It's going to be a
long ride for the Good Samaritan.
What I was afraid of was Elise's plan to give him a good tip.
I was glad to have some time alone to think about things. My hand was
hurting. The shanty smelled too much of fish, and the sun filtered
through the porthole windows beckening. I stirred the water in the holes
as orderedand stepped outside. The sun was high. It looked like everyone
has the same idea to fish this last weekend. Every shanty appeared
occupied. There was a steady stream of traffic across the Champlain
bridge. Flo's brother Ben collected the money to cross at the toll
When I was a little girl, each weekend was an adventure with any of
Flo's eleven siblings living in the area. The toll booth was my favorite
hideout. I collected the change, and Uncle Ben rested his feet.
Area residents knew me, and I felt special. Every little girl needs to
be a princess, even in a toll booth. It was going to be awhile for
Nicholas's return in this traffic.
Excerpted from "Can't Buy Forever" by Susan Laffoon. Copyright © 2015 by Susan Laffoon. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.