Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea
In 1963, twelve-year-old Florine Gilham enjoys an idyllic childhood in small-town Maine—until her beloved mother vanishes. Untethered and adrift in the wake of her disappearance, Florine finds her once-cherished joys—watching her father’s lobster boat come into port, baking bread with her grandmother, and causing mischief with the summer folk—suddenly ring hollow. When a figure from her father’s past comes calling, Florine must find the courage to lay down roots of her own. Set against the gorgeous backdrop of the Maine coast, Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea is an extraordinary snapshot of a bygone America as seen through the eyes of an iconic New England girl.
“An authentic page turner…. Rogers [vividly] captures this era of Elvis records and small-town Maine fishing life.” —Down East
After we almost burned down a summer cottage, my friends and I were not allowed to see each other for the rest of July and August. It was 1963, and I was twelve.
After the fire, my parents decided that they should take me in hand lest I end up in jail. Grand, my grandmother who lived across the road from us, usually took care of me while they worked. Daddy made his living as a lobsterman and had to haul traps every day. My mother, Carlie, was a waitress at the Lobster Shack. She cut back on her shifts to keep me out of trouble.
Being under Carlie’s playful eye wasn’t the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I had her pretty much to myself for the last two weeks of July, and we did something different every day. We got ice cream cones at Ray’s General Store up the road and sat on our front steps eating them and watching the water wink at us from the harbor at the end of The Point. We hiked from our backyard through the woods to the nearby State Park and ate snacks at the picnic tables there. We hung out at the Lobster Shack, we window-shopped in Long Reach, the town closest to The Point, danced and sang to Elvis records, played cards, sunned ourselves, and goofed off.
On the day I was to remember best, we packed a picnic, piled into Carlie’s 1947 Ford coupe, Petunia, and set off up Route 100. We passed through Long Reach, went over a bridge spanning a wide river, and drove toward Mulgully Beach, which made up the nail on a thick finger of land.
We were to meet Patty, Carlie’s friend. Patty waitressed with Carlie. Her hair was buttercup yellow, her eyes were light blue, and her dimples were so big she could have hidden marbles inside of them. She didn’t take any crap, either. Rude customers had glasses of water accidentally spilled over their laps, or they’d have to wait a minute too long for her to serve them. Once, a table of ten didn’t tip her and had the nerve to show up again. “I’m getting them good,” Patty told Carlie and me. In between smiling and serving, she went out into the parking lot and let the air out of one of their car tires. As they stood outside wondering what to do, Patty went out and demanded, and got, her tip. I liked her style, although Grand might have said, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Carlie always got her tips. Whereas Patty flirted and giggled and made it known that she was full of hell and proud of it, Carlie didn’t have to flaunt it. Carlie lit up a room like a bright light and people were drawn to her. I thought the sun and moon circled around her. So did Daddy.
I always called her Carlie, never mother, mom, mommy, mum, or ma. She was eighteen years old when she drove Petunia up from Massachusetts. Daddy told me that she swept him off his feet in front of Ray’s store. “I was done hauling for the day,” he said, “and I thought I’d walk up to Ray’s for a six-pack of ’Gansett. The sun caught on the bumper of a car parked outside the store and I was pretty much blinded by the shine. Then someone blocked it. It was this girl, and she smiled at me. Pretty eyes, red hair. Skinny, but that didn’t matter.”
Carlie told Daddy that she was working up the road at the Lobster Shack for the summer. “I had supper with Ma that night,” Daddy said, “and even though she made me her finnan haddie, Carlie’s being down the road was the only thing I could think of.”
They got married in August 1950 and I was born on May 18, 1951. They named me Florine, after Daddy’s mother, Florence, and Carlie’s mother, Maxine.
That day, on our way to Mulgully Beach, Carlie tapped her pink fingernails against Petunia’s steering wheel. Her hair curled like red ribbon over her shoulders. Ah lewie lewa, Oh whoa, I saida we gotta go, thumped on the radio. My best friend, Dottie Butts, and I spent one afternoon listening to “Louie Louie” every time it came on, because we’d heard it was dirty. But it was hard to figure out the words. Dottie said the singer sounded as if his tongue had been cut to ribbons and he was trying to sing through the blood. We came up with the words, “Every night, at ten, I lay her again. I chuck that girl then I went away.” I asked Carlie about what she thought the words might be, but she shrugged. “Dunno,” she said. “It’s all about the beat, I guess.”
When we reached the beach, Carlie paid a fee at a booth and we parked in a dirt lot. The sun bounced off the paint on the cars and made me squint.
“Don’t do that,” Carlie said. “You’ll get a line between your eyes and look old before you’re twenty. We’ll get you sunglasses at the snack bar.” She looked into the rearview mirror as she layered on bright pink lipstick, then we got out the picnic basket along with an old blanket and our towels and we headed for the bathhouse. When Carlie pulled off her panties, her thatch shone like copper. Fire crotch. I’d heard those words spoken about my mother one day as I waited for her to get off work. Two men were sitting close to me and one said to the other, “Redhead. I’ll bet she’s got a fire crotch.” Now, when I saw Carlie naked, that’s what I thought. She pulled her suit up over her hips, worked it over the penny-sized nipples on her small breasts, then wrestled the straps up over her back. I rolled my suit up over my skinny, hairless body, wishing something would bump out or curve in so I could say I was becoming a woman. Carlie had told me, not too long before when I’d been whining about my girl’s body, “Pretty soon you’ll be so dreamy the boys will walk into walls.” Because she had said it, I held some hope of it in my heart.
“Let’s go,” Carlie said, and we gathered our belongings and headed for the snack bar. Carlie bought me sunglasses with pink cat rims and we hopped and squeaked barefoot up over the hot boards covering the tarry, hot boardwalk.
“Run!” Carlie said. We pounded over the boards to the top in a rush and took in a strip of sun-beaten sand and curly, bottle-green breakers below us. More people than I would see in a year sprawled on blankets or jumped and screamed in the waves.
About halfway down the beach, a woman in a black bathing suit stood and waved at us from a yellow blanket. When we got close enough, Patty hollered, “Hey Florine,” and Carlie and I threw our picnic basket and beach bag down onto the blanket.
“Hot,” Carlie said. “I’m going to cool off right away.” She grabbed one of my hands and Patty grabbed the other one and they ran me down toward the waves. Before I could scream, a wall of water flung me down, tumbled me like laundry, scraped me along the sand bottom and spat me back onto the beach, where Carlie grabbed me.
“Scared?” she asked. Of course I was, and back we went, time and again, until we were scratched and beat up. We dipped into the backwash between breakers and cleaned the sand from our suits as best we could. We staggered back toward our blanket, me trailing behind the two most beautiful women that I knew. Even though they both were small in height, they walked tall and carried themselves high and proud. They tossed their heads at the same time, and their wet hair flung sprays of salty water into the air. When I tossed my head, I tripped over my big feet and almost fell over.
Back on our blanket, we ate peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches, chugged root beers, and looked out at the ocean.
“You behaving?” Patty asked me. “Haven’t started any fires lately, have you?”
“We didn’t mean to do it,” I said. “It didn’t burn down all the way.”
“I’m joshing you,” Patty said. “Rich bastards deserve a little smoke in their eyes from time to time.”
“Well, let’s talk about something else,” Carlie said. She took a deep breath and let it out. “Ain’t this grand,” she said. She pulled her bathing suit strap away from her shoulder. “Do I have a burn?”
“You just got here,” Patty said.
“I burn easy,” Carlie said. She poured baby oil onto her legs and rubbed it in.
“What about me?” Patty asked. Carlie snorted. Patty was golden in all the places we could see her.
“Am I tan?” I asked. Carlie took off her sunglasses and looked at my shoulders. “No,” she said. “You have my skin. Your father, now, there’s someone who tans easy.”
“How is the old man?” Patty asked. I wanted to say he isn’t old (even though he was twelve years older than Carlie) but Patty saw my look and gave me the gift of her dimples. “It’s just an expression, Florine,” she said. “Your daddy’s a stud.”
“What’s a stud?” I asked.
“He’s fine,” Carlie said. “Hauling.”
“Same old same old,” Patty said. “Oh, by the way, someone’s missing you.”
“Who?” Carlie asked.
Patty grinned like a cat. “You know,” she said. I couldn’t see Carlie’s face, but she must have given Patty a look, because Patty glanced at me and her smile got smaller. She grabbed a yellow-knotted string purse from beside her on the blanket and fished out a dollar. “How about you get an ice cream, my treat,” she said to me. “Okay?” she asked Carlie.
“I want to stay,” I said. I wanted to hear about who was missing Carlie. But Carlie said to me, “You get an ice cream and you come right back,” and I went. Mostly she was easygoing, but when she asked me to do something, I did it.
I traveled fast over the hot sand and skimmed up and down over the boardwalk to the snack bar. I stood in line for what seemed hours but was most likely minutes. I got a chocolate jimmy cone and headed back, paying attention not to get it all over me.
I was halfway back down the beach when I noticed the man with Carlie and Patty. He was a darker gold than Patty, and he had black hair. He was stretched on his back on the blanket, hiked up on his elbows, talking to Carlie, who sat facing him, her knees up near her chin, her hands wrapped around her legs.
I crunched the nubbin end of my sugar cone as I walked up to them. The man turned toward me, shutting one eye to keep down the glare of the sun. When he smiled at me, one tooth snaggled out of the left side of his mouth. “Hi,” he said. “You Florine?” His hair was slicked back, shiny. His eyes were blue. He looked at Carlie. “Looks like the old man, I guess,” he said. “She’s got some of your coloring, but she’s going to be bigger in every way.” Patty giggled. My ears felt hot. I swallowed the rest of my cone and decided I didn’t like him. “Can we go for a walk?” I asked Carlie.
She looked at me over the top of her sunglasses. Her face was turning pink. “Sure,” she said. She got up and brushed herself off. The man looked at her legs. He shifted his hips on the blanket and moved himself up onto his elbows a bit more.
“Who’s that?” I asked as we walked out of earshot.
“Mike,” she said. “He comes into the Shack. He’s a customer.”
“Is he the someone who misses you?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” Carlie asked.
“Patty said someone missed you.”
Carlie shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t miss him.” She stopped and stretched, looked out over the ocean. Then she said, “Come here. Stand in front of me.” I did, and she bent down and pointed toward the line between the sea and the sky. “See the horizon?” she asked.
“If you could walk through that line and come out on the other side, you would be somewhere completely different. Wouldn’t that be a gas?”
“Yeah, I guess,” I said. A seagull landed nearby, cocked its white head, and studied us with a yellow eye. Carlie waved it off.
We walked toward a pile of rocks and sat on a black one with a flat surface that fit both our butts just fine. We looked out at Carlie’s horizon for a few seconds, then she said in a dreamy voice, “When I was a kid, before I’d go to sleep, I’d put myself to flying. I’d go to all these places and touch down, look around, see if I recognized anybody. Then I grew up, drove up here, and there was your father, walking towards me with the sun hitting the back of his head like a halo. Blue eyes, big smile, big shoulders, big man, and I said to myself, ‘Well, here he is, Carlie. This is where you stop.’ He’s a good man, Florine. One of the best men I’ve ever met.”
She looked at me and said, “What do you think about before you drift off?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“’Course you don’t,” she said. “You’re your father’s girl. And that’s not a bad thing.” She patted my arm and I winced. “Oh shit,” she said. “Honey, you’re sunburned. We’ll go back to the blanket and pack up. Then let’s go home, okay?” It was fine with me.
Patty and snaggletooth Mike were jumping around in the waves. As we came closer, they waved at us and ran for the blanket.
Patty shook drops of cold water on me. “Want to go in some more?” she asked.
Carlie said, “We’re going home, Patty. Florine has a sunburn.”
Mike lifted the bathing suit strap near Carlie’s shoulder and ran his finger along the line between white and red skin. He said, “You got one too.”
“Stop it,” Carlie snapped.
Mike backed away. “You got to tell me the rules, Carlie. Just gotta know the rules.” Head down, he walked toward the pile of rocks we’d just left.
“I’ll talk to you later,” Carlie said to Patty, and we left her stretched on her back on the blanket, one leg bent, looking toward the rocks where Mike had gone.
We were both quiet on the way home and we didn’t play the radio.
About halfway to Long Reach, I saw a boy about my age swing out over a pond on a thick rope that hung from the branch of a large tree. When he was over the water, he let go of the rope. His baggy orange bathing suit flapped against his chopping legs as if he wanted to take it all back. Maybe he never hit the water. We passed him before I could see him fall.
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