Tommy Explained: Album One, Side One, Track Three
Kevin Wilson


Tommy's father, Captain Walker, his wife three months dead, takes a six-hour train ride to Atlantic City to serve as one of the five judges for the Atlantic City Pageant. He has no idea how he came to be involved with the pageant and he has received almost no information on what he's supposed to do in his capacity as judge. His arms, from wrist to shoulder, are wrapped in tin foil.

He sits at the end of the table and watches women, each one more beautiful than his beloved wife, smile at him before ducking beneath the curtain. He eats so much salt-water taffy, provided free for each judge, that his jaw aches with the effort of chewing. He fishes a piece of taffy from his mouth and molds it into the shape of a baby, its arms outstretched, reeking of peppermint.

Without understanding how or why, he watches as a woman, gowned and pale, is declared the winner. She receives a golden mermaid, dying on a rock, the trophy too heavy for the woman to even hold. Captain Walker, clicking his teeth, thinks the statue should be melted down and recast so the breasts are smaller. The winner, only sixteen years old, is what Captain Walker wants so badly that he meets her as she walks off the stage. As he moves, his arms rumble like thunder.

Her name is Margaret, a beautiful bathing girl, a double for Mary Pickford. He explains: the dead wife, the baby, the tin foil on his arms to make him strong. He tells her she is beautiful and she says that she lives a charmed life. He asks her to marry him and she looks over at the golden mermaid as if to ask for advice. He is over optimistic. Someone takes him by his coat and pulls him away from Margaret, pushes him past the crowd of people and onto the boardwalk. On the train, he dispenses a dropper full of whiskey into both eyes and does not wake until he has reached his destination.

Oh how absurd it all seems to him, nearly blind, crackling like static, pushing open the door to his apartment. He finds his son, Tommy, exactly where he left him, wrapped in a blanket, smiling, able to brave bad weather, impervious to the needs of babies. Captain Walker brings the baby to his chest and the two of them, their eyes unfocused, their voices muted, unable to hear a single sound, readjust to each other's presence in a room that could, at any moment, burst into flames.

Kevin Wilson's stories have appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, Juked, Pindeldyboz, and elsewhere. A collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, is forthcoming in 2009 from Ecco/HarperCollins.

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Photo detail on main page courtesy of The Germ.

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