31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 22: “Eight-Ball” by Samuel Thomas Martin
fix v. 1 tr. mend, repair. 2 tr. put in order, adjust. … n. slang a dose of a narcotic drug to which one is addicted.
– The Canadian Oxford Dictionary
You forgot your wrench, man! the waiter calls to Harold, who is halfway out the door. The young clean-shaven guy walks over to Harold and hands him the shiny new monkey wrench and asks: So what’re you going to fix with this?
I’m good at fixin things, Harold mumbles as he staggers out onto the sidewalk. Goin to go fix things. – “Eight-Ball”
Harold, the protagonist of Samuel Thomas Martin’s dissection of drug-addicted urban hell, comes by his desire to fix things naturally. As the story opens, he is seen in flashback talking to his father, who is working on the underside of a Chevette. “Friggin Carl could’ve drained the oil before he let this piece of crap car rust in his yard,” Harold’s father complains as his son stands, defiant, on the brink of leaving his small-town Ontario home to strike out for the big city of Toronto. Harold’s father has tried to fix what’s wrong with his son by administering copious corporal punishments when Harold was a boy. A budding violinist and a “Goth” in the eyes of his prejudiced father (“even though [Harold] never wore leather, painted his nails black, or listened to heavy metal”), Harold leaves home with a grand total of $180 in his pocket and dreams of making a mark for himself. “If he could just get to Toronto he’d be able to land a bar gig – that was the only thing in his life, at that moment, that he was certain of.”
Like so many starry-eyed dreamers before him, however, Harold finds the urban environment much more inimical than he’d supposed. “You need cover tunes, okay?” the manager of one establishment tells him. “And a back-up band. Violin’s great if you’re Stravinsky or some crazy stunt like Ashley MacIsaac’s.”
The problem is that Harold is not Stravinsky, not by a long shot. He plays reels and jigs on the violin like his grandfather, who only played “when he was drunk off his ass.” Harold “played best when he was drunk too,” a testament to the cycle of alcoholism that repeats itself down through generations of a family, and makes him an easy mark for Neb, a dealer in downtown Toronto who gets the aspiring musician hooked on crack cocaine, in part by telling him about all the “big-shot users” who dabbled in the drug:
“Like that Sir Conan guy.”
“No! Not friggin Schwarzenegger! I’m talking about the guy who made up that detective Sherlock Holmes. He was a crack-head and his character was a crack-head. In those days crack-heads were the detectives and now the detectives are after the crack-heads.”
No one is going to give Neb points for historical accuracy, but in the cold of a Toronto winter, with nowhere to turn and nobody to offer him a break, Harold succumbs to his sales pitch and finds himself spiralling deeper and deeper into uncontrollable addiction.
This is not blazingly original material, having been thoroughly covered already by everyone from William S. Burroughs to Hubert Selby, Jr. to Irvine Welsh. What elevates Martin’s story is its canny structure, shuttling back and forth between the present – which finds Harold being ejected from a bar where he has got stinking drunk and heading in the direction of the University of Toronto to locate a music professor who, in Harold’s mind, denied the violin virtuoso his big break – and the past – which traces the downward trajectory of Harold’s unfortunate experience on the streets of Toronto.
In the narrative past, Harold attempts a disastrous impromptu audition for the professor’s secretary, who ends up calling university security to have him thrown out. “I was trying to fix things!” he yells at the men who unceremoniously toss him and his violin to the curb. Although the idea of swallowing his pride and returning home to his father is, on one level at least, abhorrent, Harold decides to purchase a new monkey wrench as a peace offering and secure a bus ticket away from the city. He is sidetracked, however, by an offer of cheap shots at a campus bar, which leads to an unfortunate encounter with his would-be musical mentor. The wrench, a tool often employed to fix things, ends up being the instrument that lands Harold a kind of notoriety, although not precisely the kind he was hoping for.