Kevin Smith’s latest film Tusk has landed here in the UK with little fanfare. It’s out on DVD and I’m sure you can download it also. It stars Justin Long as a shitty little podcaster who gets turned into a human walrus by Michael Parks’ reclusive old loon. Smith was evidently trolled into turning this idea into a movie after coming up with it with Scott Mosier in one of his own podcasts. For this title I’ve decided to take a slightly different approach. Here then is a short story. It has nothing to do with the events that happen in Tusk, but I think it says enough about the experience of watching it.
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A vagabond roams the countryside at night without aim, destitute and bitter, a bindle slung over his shoulder like some humbled figure from a children’s cartoon, but with no cheer in his heart. Filthy, reeking of his own sweat and worn-in excretions, his nose now long accustomed to his own stench as simply part of the same grim daily repetition. Trudging across a field, he spies a campfire. Our man is instinctively drawn toward it, cautious at first, but embolden upon seeing two figures at the fire of similar appearance. Weathered faces. Threadbare layers. Fingerless gloves on hands stretched toward the tender flames. Of the two, the younger man sits cross-legged and away a little, lost in his own dejection nursing a whisky bottle.
Our man approaches. The older man rises at his approach. They stand in tableaux a moment before our man breaks the potent silence.
“Mind if I join you?”
“Be our guest,” the older man tells him, evidently giving the proxy of the youngster who remains silent, the flames reflecting in the lost pools of his eyes. Our man nods his thanks and takes his seat by the fire on a log, setting down his bindle, thankful for the rest.
“Boy, be a gentleman and offer the man a drink.”
But the boy remains as he is, clutching to the bottle tighter, lost to his own oblivion; a whirlpool of thoughts betraying one another, swirling down into his private hell. The boy’s lip twitches, exposing gritted teeth and his older counterpart sits back, realising there’s no victory to be had there at present. Let the kid greet his demons quietly.
“What’s your name?” our man is asked, the older stranger returning his attention. Our man doesn’t respond, just releases a long sigh.
“No name? That’s fine, I suppose. But if you’re going to share our warmth here then share something of your own. What brings you to us on a night like this? What’s your story, stranger?”
Our man looks up from his brief reverie.
“Yeah. Who were you,” the older man nods to a distant everywhere, “Back in the real world?”
Of his own volition the boy hands the bottle to our man, appearing out of his reverie to hear the story. Our man nods gratitude and takes a drink, then rolls the bottle in his hands.
“Back in the real world,” our man sighs, “I ran a bar. Had a wife. Things were fine for a while. The kind of halcyon days you take for granted, not knowing you’re blessed when you are. Gratitude only happens when you’re on the back foot.We’d been trying for a baby for a while. Greta – that was my wife – she wanted a daughter. I guess so did I, really. Anyway. We tried a while, weren’t quite ready to talk about getting assistance, but things were good.
“But then, then there was Ray. My younger brother. He’d had some problems a way back. Drink. Drugs. Petty crime. Shit that escalated. He did a stretch for six years as accessory to a robbery. He was the kind of kid who had this wild optimism about him. Like whatever happened to him couldn’t really touch him. It’s a gift, that sense of… of life. Anyway. Prison knocked some of that out of him. He was quieter when he got out. But he still had that way about him. He got himself straight. Quit the drink. Quit the drugs. Found religion but kept it to himself, mercifully.
“Somewhere along the way he decided he wanted to become a lawyer. A lot of people laughed at that but he had that way about him and just let it slide right off. And credit to him he buckled down and did what was necessary. I was never good at that. Applying myself. Too many distractions. I went through my life sort of by accident, tilting where the wind blew me. I’d been lucky. The bar. Greta. Anyway, I digress. Ray buckled down and he did what he needed to and it took him years and there were setbacks along the way but he did it. He worked as an intern at a local law firm. Stayed late. Studied. Even got himself a fiance along the way, though I don’t know where he found the time. Ellen. And he passed. He did it. That son of a bitch showed everyone. Everyone who said he was from the wrong side of the tracks and that he’d never amount to anything. He did it.
“He came and told me at the bar,” our man grows more hesitant at this part of the story, biting down on his own lip, “It was near closing and I’d had a couple while tending that night. I didn’t tend to do that, but that night I did. So I’d had a couple and Ray came in with this good news. And I convinced him to celebrate with me. A drink. He said his usual ‘thanks but no thanks’… but I wouldn’t take it. I wore him down. And I could tell he resented me for it, even as I was doing it. But I wore him down. I insisted. He’d been six years on the wagon. And we drank.”
Our man looks down at the whisky bottle in his hand, the fire dancing through it. “It got passed late to near early. And I hadn’t told Greta where I was or that I was staying late. I never stayed late those days. My phone had died so anyone calling wasn’t getting me and time got lost the way it does when you’ve had more than your share. Ray wasn’t accustomed to it and it hit him hard and after a while he wanted to go on home, which was a little room above a laundrette for him at the time. And I let him get in his car, an old pickup, and I watched him drive away out there in front of the bar on that cool night. He was drunk and it was my fault.
“Greta I guess had been going out of her mind with worry and she had decided to come find me. Half three in the morning out in town by herself. I’d gone back into the bar by then, stumbling about trying to do my best to lock up like it had been any other goddamn night. So I didn’t see the accident. Didn’t know right away that Ray had driven up onto the curb at thirty miles an hour and crushed my wife into the wall of the local chemist’s. Shattered her pelvis. Her skull cracked open on the brick wall of the building. Greta had been pregnant then. Seven weeks. She hadn’t told me yet. Coroner broke that bit of news to me, later on. After Ray had hung himself awaiting trial.
“I about fell to pieces. I hit the bottle hard the way Ray had used to. And one night I burned down the bar. Sent it up into the sky as flame and ash like the rest of my ruined life. Left town the same night not waiting for the police to come talk to me about arson or what have you. I walked out of the ruins of my life. I became the ghost of myself. That’s the man sitting here. Not whoever had all those things back then. I’m just the husk of that man. There’s no core here now.”
Our man turns the bottle around in his hand and looks up at the haunted faces of his comrades.
“But hell,” our man says, “Listen to me going on. What happened to you two fellas?”
“Oh we just went and saw Kevin Smith’s film Tusk is all,” says the older man.
Our man goes cold, the weight of these words sinking in to him. Their meaning. Their import.
“Shit,” our man says, “Why the hell didn’t you say?”
He passes back the bottle.