We find the calf under a pile of busted-up sinks. The thing’s the size of a Great Dane and resembles those animals you used to see in barnyard Christmas scenes or whatever. Crches. Its wooden, chunked-out face has a terrible expression, like it’s really not into this idea of existence. It’s the look I see everywhere.
Pearlman goes, “Grab that.”
Around us, trash mountains stretch over acres of asphalt, probably once a giant parking lot. Everything in our squat we found here, including a mattress, a table with no legs, and an old space heater that sometimes even works.
I go, “No way. That fucker looks heavy.”
But Pearlman calls the shots, so what can you do. I grab the thing, haul it back to the squat, and drop it in the center of the room. Pearlman slips the ingot into his palm and holds it up. “Here’s the plan: we hammer this out, cover the calf in gold—boom: we’re millionaires.”
The ingot is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen: two whole grams of gold pressed into a neat, soap-like shape. Pearlman won’t tell me how he got it. He keeps it secreted away in his crotch or armpit or whatever at all times. Once, we got jumped by a pack of teens with bike chains and he popped it in his mouth, ready to swallow it whole. You just never know.
“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” I say, because it is.
But the idea’s already caught him like prey and he doesn’t hear or care. “This is how you do it. You invent something, you tell a story. You can make a killing in the god business. Remember L. Ron Hubbard?”
I don’t, but I won’t tell him that. Instead I say, “I don’t like its face.”
“No one will look at its stupid face. They’ll be prostrate before it, bowing to its cloven hooves.” Pearlman’s eyes get glassy behind his lenses. He’d nicked the specs off a dead guy we found in the street months ago, but it’s the wrong prescription so he squints all the time.
I go, “You should sell that gold, I’m telling you.”
He stares at the water stains in the ceiling. They outline a map of a dying world, the only geography anyone knows anymore. “It’s not what I want. It’s what the gold wants. It’s telling me to take a leap of faith, Chuck. To fate, to destiny.”
“The calf won’t even be golden,” I say. “It’ll be gold leaf, which isn’t even close. Not even. Plus, we don’t know how to do it.”
“I saw it in on a video once. It’s easy enough.” He rubs the ingot between his thumb and forefinger, as if making a wish. “You just hammer the shit out of it.”
In the streets outside, the crowds seethe and scream.
We give it a go. I pull out the table with no legs and dig a hammer from the tool pile. Pearlman starts pounding, though pretty soon he quits and says we’re taking turns. Which means I’ll be doing it from here out. That’s just how it is with him. He says we have to get it to the thickness of a few atoms.
Then he wanders around the room. He goes, “Chuck, religion is the only thing that’s kept the species alive for the past million years. Famine, war. Life has always been shit. But the old religions are useless these days. We need a spirituality of now. Something simple and easy. A magical, golden calf—something that feels familiar but isn’t. Something with an air of legitimacy. That’s all we need.”
Air of legitimacy. The phrase thins itself into a skin that coats the inside of my head. This is why I stick around Pearlman: he remembers language like this. I keep hammering.
After the third day, the sheet covers the floor and flakes off in pieces like forgotten countries. Pearlman and I converse about things from the time before. He studied theology then, philosophy. I don’t know what I studied, though I think I had a wife, maybe a kid. The details are lost to me now, and it’s better if I never find them.
Pearlman goes, “All this was a long time coming. The point now is to get people to believe and hand over whatever they have left. Then we high-tail it to Vanuatu.”
I don’t even know what that is. It sounds like a Class M planet from Star Trek and might as well be, for all our hope getting there.
I go, “Who will lead this church?”
“A prophet, Chuck. A for-profit prophet. I’ll find one.” Then he goes and sits in the corner and shuts his eyes.
I keep hammering. The crowds outside yell and fight. They scare me; they’ve always scared me. I eat some beans, a sleeve of crackers, and hammer until gold creeps up the walls while Pearlman sits cross-legged in his corner like a yogi.
Days pass. Finally, he opens his eyes and starts going, “We’re going to kill it,” over and over again. He squints at the gold walls and floor and studies the calf until his own face mirrors its expression. Then he goes out, no goodbyes.
At the window, I watch the mob absorb him. Behind me, the wooden calf glares. I don’t know why I ever thought it meant anything. My arm vibrates from hammering as if it’s full of bees. I tear off the largest piece of gold I can and wrap it around my head, shoving it up my nostrils, into my ears, over my eyes and throat like a shroud, then return to the window to face the masses and wait for the sign to raise my hands.