Wanda Thorpe can take a punch. Everyone knows that. Everyone knows she once slapped a woman right across the face with a little baby halibut–some say, but more likely a flounder–it was enough to splash the headlines in every Otter Cove Times-Picayune that lined the tables at J.R.’s diner, coffee rings by the end of the day circling in on Wanda and Rita Hickock, both booked, Wanda owed Rita something or other and refused to pay up, it spiraled from there, Rita’s crooked mugshot nose harder to conceal in print than Wanda’s missing molar, knocked from her face when we were growing up for trying to steal Missy Wheeler’s boyfriend, brown curls spilling off the porch and out onto the dirt, flat on her back, blood filling her mouth like a hot bloom, flooding her barely ripe body. She whistles through it like a lullaby on windy days, tasting the nerve pain like homesickness.
She’s sliced her fingers so many times her hands stopped swelling. She shuffles her feet in knee-high waders as she saws open the belly of each fish, cuts out the filets and the cheeks and the collars, slides their carcasses off the dock. She shuffles them in time to songs with names like “Crying” or “Squeeze Me Just a Little” or “In the Middle of a Heartache.” She scrapes the scales off her knife and it looks like scraping the shine off the moon and dumping it right into the ocean. She likes to think she sees them all shimmering on the surface still, each scale; each body she lays hands on leaves a little lighter than before; each song she touches the shivering heart of. But everyone knows, or should, that used-up flesh and sound can’t float forever; it’s really just the translucent bodies of jellyfish, reflecting what little light there is, a quiet sting dissolved by morning. Wanda knows it. She won a Wanda Jackson look-alike contest once. She pinned her hair just-so to match the long-gone queen of hillbilly music, but all the same, that her name was already Wanda didn’t escape her.
What grows in winter? Everything here. Nothing shrinks from the salt, the wind, or the freeze; nothing sheds its old self or begins again under the doting warmth of a summer day. It’s all one long day to an evergreen; rocks only gain more barnacles. Nothing forgets, and nothing backs down. Not Wanda, remembering Brendan Markham’s fingers unspooling all her dreams onto her father’s front lawn among the engine parts and broken reels, illuminating the dead and the stalled and the rusted with a cast-off light like the ever-burning neon of a distant city until they almost seemed to dance, and seeing him and Missy kissing on his front porch the very next day like electric eels up her spine, a sting that scorched her insides, a sting she knew would be worse to live with than any blow. Not Rita Hickock with what she felt the world owed her. Not anyone. There is no new heartache under the Otter Cove sun. When she heard “Everybody Loves Me But You” on vinyl, Wanda knew she was living a story that had been told before.
Say you’re Wanda on a Saturday night. What do you do? Maybe Duane Eddy has the answer. “Because They’re Young,” and because you are too, still, you could argue, maybe you can still go out and make rust dance when you paint it on your lips and let them speak for you, still lose yourself in a place you’ve walked a million paces though, digging your ruts right into town. “You Can’t Have My Love,” you’ll tell them, and they won’t know which Wanda is which, which is good, because between the Wanda who sings about how she’s gonna rock it up and rip it up and how it doesn’t matter anymore, and the Wanda whose hand trembles with need around her glass, it’s good to have a little confusion. Or maybe Jerry Lee Lewis will walk you through how this night goes; “She Still Comes Around (To Love What’s Left of Me),” so maybe you put ice packs on someone’s split lip, knowing but not asking and not caring who started what, everyone started everything a long time ago, cooling a fever for a night that you can only really ever starve to death. Maybe when the throbbing subsides you slip into the ocean together at the edge of the world, emerge with lashes on your legs, a quiet sting dissolved by morning when you’re lying awake feeling your own warm breath underneath your sheets as if someone else had never been there.