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  • Gold

    The morning of my eleventh birthday was a Wednesday; the same day of the week I was born. And I placed a special importance on Wednesdays, on the cross-stitch poem framed in my grandparent’s house in Tennessee, “Wednesday’s child is full of woe,” hanging on the paneled wall. I’d inspect it on holidays, let the line beat a tattoo in my brain. I was Wednesday’s child. And on the Wednesday that I turned 11, I woke up early, before school, crossed the hall to my mom’s bedroom, and crawled into the big blonde-wood bed with her.

    She gave me a present that I don’t remember now: a sweater or a book, probably. And then I went into the living room, to the couch where my dad slept, and he was awake, adjusting rumpled sheets on the big red couch, watching the news. He turned to me, pulled something out of the pocket of his shorts. It was small, gift-wrapped clumsily, in Christmas paper even though my birthday is in October. He was smiling, he gave me a hug, pushed the present into my hand.

    “Happy birthday, Adele!”

    I ran my fingernail under the taped edge of the candy cane paper. Inside, there was a plastic pouch, thick Coca-Cola bottle plastic, folded over into an envelope, the size of the palm of my hand.

    “Thanks, dad!” I said, trying to match his excitement. But my voice sounded forced, tinny. This plastic pouch clearly did not contain the chemistry set from National Geographic, Kids! or a new set of colored pencils.

    I opened the envelope, read his handwriting underneath the packing tape—1oz US Gold Eagle. The coin, my birthday present, had a lady holding a torch on it. She was dressed in a sheet. I kind of smiled up at my dad and thought that I was really going to start asking for very specific things for my birthdays from now on.

    I heard my mom’s door shut, heard her shuffle out of her room and go around through the hallway to the den and then into the kitchen. She was avoiding my dad, not going the short way through the living room to get to the kitchen, going all the way around the perimeter of the house to start making me birthday waffles that we would eat sitting on the kitchen floor, enough birthday waffles for only the two of us. I blushed.

    My dad caught me on my way out the door. Mom was already in the car with her thermos and her briefcase, but I was still in the kitchen, trying to find my homework underneath the bills and coffee mugs and birthday cards from my aunts.

    “Where’d you put your present?”

    I shrugged, “Just in my room.”

    “Okay, well, keep it safe, it’s going to be worth a lot of money soon.”

    I put the plastic envelope with the gold coin in it in my underwear drawer. The coins kept coming at Christmas and once at Easter and then for more birthdays, in half ounces and quarter ounces. The detailed and widely distributed wish lists I made went largely ignored. I didn’t ever get my ears pierced, or jelly sandals, or lots of glitter nail polish and gel pens. I had to buy the Green Day CD and my first pair Converse myself. Even the practical gifts on my lists went unnoticed, the request for a 7-11 gas card, the demand for more black tights and nude bras. But the unmatched sock in my underwear drawer began to swell; its weight would sometimes clunk around against the plywood if I opened my bureau too quickly.

    And the sock stayed there after my dad moved out, even though he took the TV and the speakers and mom’s big blonde wood bed. He moved into an apartment, then a loft, then a condo downtown. Before college, he asked me where I kept the gold he’d been giving me.

    “My underwear drawer,” I said.

    “Bring it here, your dad will put it in his safe for you,” he said.

    The Egyptians were the first known people to smelt gold, to melt it and remove its impurities. In ancient Egypt, gold was considered a gift from the sun god Horus, a divine and indestructible metal. Only royals had access to it, used it in jewelry and finery and funerary trinkets.

    In 1922, King Tut’s tomb was found in the Valley of the Kings. In November, Howard Carter began to excavate site KV62, an unlikely burial place for the boy king. During Egypt’s New Kingdom, the area had become slave quarters. The site was beneath the ruins of worker’s huts. In 1922, it was thought by many that the Valley of the Kings had been exhausted, plundered completely. During antiquity, Romans visited the site on tourist trips, leaving graffiti in tombs written in Coptic and Latin and Phoenician. At the turn of the century, with the decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphics, interest in Egypt was rekindled; the valley was further explored. Treasures were found buried in the sand. The harsh climate of the valley, the sculpted hills of limestone riddled with rubble, had not deterred centuries of exploration.

    Still, Carter began his excavation. He had little to go on, a cup with Tutankhamen’s name on it found a few sites over. He was working for a rich English patron, and when Carter uncovered the first few steps and part of the plaster door, he sent a wire to Lord Carnavon. In the days it took Carnavon to get from England to Egypt, Carter continued to work, revealing more steps and the bottom of the door inscribed with Tutankhamen’s name. Three weeks later, with his patron by his side, Carter cracked opened a spot the plaster door and lowered a candle into the chamber, holding his breath, testing for foul vapors. The candle, after flickering from a rush of air, began to illuminate the inside of King Tut’s tomb:

    “As my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold - everywhere the glint of gold.”

    I went to Egypt with my dad when I was 16, during the summer. The heat was oppressive; we walked in the shade of buildings in Cairo, on one side of the street or the other depending on the sun. When we visited mosques and I had to cover my head and legs with scarves, I could feel the sweat trickling down my back. Police slouched in kiosks on every street corner, wearing white. If my dad walked too far ahead of me, sometimes they would whistle as I passed.

    Our hotel had a pool and two separate bedrooms for sixty dollars a night. The manager provided breakfast and dinner, earthy tasting tomato sauces and chickpeas and light pieces of naan. We went to bazaars during the day, shaded by swaths of cloths and drinking thick black coffee on tables inlaid with pearly stones. Once, my dad ordered a hookah, and it was only the second time I’d ever smoked tobacco. I got up to go to the bathroom feeling dizzy, unsteady on my feet and tangled up in the long skirt I was wearing. I went to the stall and threw up. The lady manning the restroom demanded a tip for the toilet paper she handed me, clicking her tongue and saying, “baksheesh, baksheesh,” but I had no currency. My eyes were watering and my face was burning with shame. When I got back to the table, my dad said, “Where’ve you been? There’s no hookah left.”

    “Fine by me,” I said.

    We went to the Egyptian Museum probably four times. Every time, we visited the King Tut room. It was the most air-conditioned room in Cairo.

    “Look at this, Adele, twenty-four pounds of solid gold! Can you imagine?”

    He would circle King Tut’s funerary mask, situated in the middle of the room, making no noise on the blue carpet. The mask behind the plate glass was more than a foot tall, and the metal looked soft. You could see where it had been beaten and shaped. There were precious stones inlaid on the chest, beads in the serpents entwined on the crown. The likeness of Tutankhamen’s eyes was painted white and black with a blue lining. I noticed his ears were pierced.

    “I can’t imagine, Dad.”

    My dad still sometimes talks about the funerary mask. One time, he said, “You know Adele, I want to be cremated and I want you to throw my ashes in the Ganges so you can see India. But if your dad got a twenty-four-pound gold-head-mask for being mummified, he would say yes.”

    “I think I’d rather go to India than see you get mummified.”

    “You’re damn right you would, I’m bummed I have to die to go there.”

    The Egyptians had Kushite workers pan for gold along the Nile, trading it for status and trinkets. Gold today is acquired by pit mining. The world’s largest open cut gold mine is in Australia. It is a wound, deep and red, over two miles long. It can be seen from space. The sides of the mine are stepped, not sheer, for stability. It looks like a spoon has taken a scoop out of the landscape. The “Super Pit”, as it is called, produces twenty-eight tons of gold each year. In order to get to these twenty-eight tons, fifteen million tons of rock must be moved, crushed. The gold for a single, 18-carat wedding band requires twenty tons of ore and wasted rock.

    Cyanide is used in the Super Pit, and in other mines around the world: in South America and South Africa, in India, Mongolia, and Colorado. After the rocks are blasted apart, cyanide is leached into the mixture. The cyanide solution is processed with carbon, in tanks, and then heated to extreme temperatures to release the carbon from the gold. The water used in this process is cycled back into the environment after a process that removes most of the cyanide, reduces levels to between 10 and 50 milligrams/liter.

    My dad does not care about cyanide levels in drinking water in Australia, though, or the waste of pit mines. He owns thousands of dollars of shares in gold mines. After a trip to Nicaragua to see a mine, he came back exuberant.

    “You should see it, Adele,” he said. “And the food is incredible, I had the best tongue I’ve ever had in my life, and your dad loves tongue. Smothered in this spicy brown sauce. Not even your grandmother could cook tongue like that.”

    “Yeah, I don’t think I want to eat that,” I said.

    “Only because you’re a hippy dippy vegan now,” he said.

    “I’m a vegetarian.”

    “You’re missing out. If it’s bad for the environment, your dad loves it, strip mining, coal, oil, plastic, eating meat.”

    “Come on, you don’t mean that. You hate people that drive SUVs.”

    “Because it’s fucking wasteful, Adele, oil is going to run out and then we’re going to be really fucked and those damn Hummers are going to be a fucking joke.”


    My dad checks the price of gold constantly. He tracks the fluctuations in price religiously, on the computer, all day long. The daily price of gold chart is the homepage on his computer. On Sunday nights, when I was in high school and we watched Masterpiece Theater together, he’d get up when Laura Linney came on the screen and go to his computer and tell me the price of gold and then come back to the couch and settle into its tan leather, gathering himself in a quilt, calling his dog Schatzi up to sit on his stomach. It became a kind of ritual. And the price of gold kept rising. When I was eleven, and I got that first gold coin, gold was at around two hundred fifty dollars an ounce. By the time I was sixteen, in 2008, gold was nearing one thousand dollars an ounce.

    Once, I came home from college and went out with my dad to El Taquito, a Mexican restaurant on Dallas’ east side. It is a dive; it has bars on the windows and a gaudy mural inside of people in sombreros making tortillas. We have been going there for as long as I can remember. The salsa is so spicy that if you get it on your fingers it burns. My dad and I have competitions over who can eat the most of it, our eyes watering from laughter and the jalapenos. The music is always terrible. Our favorite joke is that we don’t go for the food, only the jukebox. I know their beans are made with lard but I don’t care because I love everything about El Taquito, the tacky décor and the food and the waitresses that barely speak English.

    And when I was back home visiting, my dad and I went there and I was showing him that I’d gotten an iPhone, that it had the internet and applications and the texts came up in bubbles. He wasn’t very impressed: my dad has never owned a cell phone. But then he said, “Can you check the price of gold on that thing? That’d be useful.”

    I just groaned, rolled my eyes. “Yeah dad, I bet there’s an app for that. But you’ll have to get your own.”

    And that pissed him off, he said, “Adele, it should matter to you, you own gold too.”

    I had forgotten about the sock.

    The price of gold has not always been so volatile. From 1944-1971, the value of one ounce of gold was fixed, and tied incontrovertibly to the dollar. For twenty-seven years gold remained steadily at $35/ounce. This, for me, is difficult to imagine, thinking about my dad hunched over his computer everyday, analyzing graphs from hour to hour. But less than a mile from where my dad sits, in his condo with polished concrete on the twenty-ninth floor, John F. Kennedy was shot and the price of gold remained firmly at thirty-five dollars. A man was sent to the moon, and the price of gold didn’t change. Chairman Mao (whose likeness my dad carried around for years in his wallet next to a baby picture of me to show strangers our startling resemblance) took control of China and still gold prices did not change. Now, every time the economy dips, or the dollar takes a hit, gold prices soar. Sometimes, on days like that, my dad will give me a call.

    My dad has invested most of his money in gold and gold stocks because he believes that the dollar is going to collapse and that there will be riots in the streets of Dallas. He says that the turmoil in Greece right now is child’s play compared to what will happen in America when the US defaults on its debt and falls into a serious depression. He keeps massive blue plastic containers (full of gasoline maybe? Or potable water? I’m too afraid to ask) in the bathtub of his downtown condo.

    And he bought a shotgun on eBay. He made me learn how to fire it in Clifton, Texas, where one of his clients has a ranch. I was terrified, closed my eyes and pulled down on the trigger and felt the wind get knocked out of me, felt the butt of the gun kick into my shoulder. I could hear the shot through the earmuffs; felt tears in my eyes from the pain in my shoulder.

    “Hey, Adele,” my dad said. “Hey this was a bad idea, you don’t have to do it anymore. You’re okay sweetheart.”

    He took the gun from me, told me ice cream for breakfast would make me feel better. I smiled. When my dad first moved out of the house, I stayed with him on Thursday nights. He always promised me ice cream for breakfast if I did all my homework and didn’t tell my mom. I always did my homework, I never told my mom.

    And when I was about to leave for college, my dad cut all the lights in his condo and gave me a headlamp. Like the kind miners wear, with a bright light and an elastic and Velcro strap I had to adjust over my glasses. He made me search through the file cabinet under his desk for a folder that had an envelope taped inside with two keys. The first key opened a fireproof file cabinet in a closet. Inside the fireproof file cabinet there was a locked drawer, to be opened with the second key. In this drawer was the combination to the safe. And I had to turn the lock with trembling hands, eighteen years old and pretty convinced that my dad was an insane harbinger of doom, open up the safe with a light like a refrigerator light that turned on when it opened, and see the shotgun and then the gold, huddled there in the back, carefully labeled coins just like the ones he had given me when I was eleven.

    A few days later I drove to Austin with all my worldly possessions in the back of my car. My mom drove behind me. I hadn’t talked to my dad since the safe thing, I was angry with him. It had really shaken me up, fumbling around in the dark, him saying that if anything ever happened to him I would need to know how to get to his gold. Like I cared about that at all and really if anything ever happened to him I would probably go to El Taquito and cry and then book a flight to India. I was thinking about all that and driving, past empty grasslands and cows and weathered wooden fences, listening to the Talking Heads CD I’d stolen from my dad’s car.

    He called me a little bit after Waco, and he wished me luck. He told me that he loved me and that he would make a DropBox account for me so we could still watch Dr. Who together, so I wouldn’t get behind on Masterpiece Theater.

    “Your dad needs you to talk to movies about,” he said.

    “Yeah dad, I need you too,” I said.

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