The Golden Calf

The Golden Calf
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It is fall–when grasslands turn to grey and brown and the sloughs and wetlands prepare for ice. The sounds of life get tuned down; frogs nestle in the mud, birds abandon their roosts and even peepers get quiet, the land feigns snowfall. Charlie and I talked about costumes. Getting the right costume could be tough, trying to be original, maybe scary, mostly warm. One year we went as quarterbacks, Canadian football quarterbacks. We had the shoulder pads, the ball and the dark paint under our eyes. The shoulder pads were made out of old margarine tubs but the Roughriders jerseys were real. We borrowed them from Uncle Chester, Charlie’s dad, who said if we got any candy on them he’d fucking kill us. That fall we also went swimming.

Photo credit: free photos for you via Flickr
Photo credit: free photos for you via Flickr

Auntie Audrey had a job at the Whitewood Inn. It was a big hotel, not like most of the one-floor, twenty-room, sideways shotgun shacks off the Number One. The Whitewood Inn had two floors, thick carpet in the lobby, a restaurant with a buffet and a pool behind locked glass doors. There were big windows so you could watch swimmers and hottubbers, like an aquarium. Audrey worked as a receptionist, maid and bookkeeper. Charlie and I would go to the hotel for free pool time on one condition–we had to go to church. We’d sit in the back seat of Audrey’s Buick and moan and stomp and kick our feet every time we pulled into the gravel parking lot. Church was boring. Upstairs the adults would talk for hours and downstairs was all kid’s stuff. The kid’s stuff wasn’t fun but at least we could keep our hands busy. We would listen to a Bible story on a tape and fill in coloring pages that went with the story, our swimming trunks swished under our jeans as the tape voice droned on and on.

There were no adults in the pool at the Whitewood Inn. They all went for the hot tub, roiling and reeking of chlorine. The pool was a five-footer so we couldn’t dive. Charlie tried once and conked his head bad. Mostly we did cannonballs or ran around the edge until we slipped and fell in. We were thrashing in the water, trying to dunk each other, when a guy in came through the glass doors. He had a beard, real long and narrow, like a trail of smoke. On his back was a five-pointed star with a circle around it, blood in the tattoo dripped off the circle in red blobs. He pulled his hair into a ponytail and sat on the edge of the hot tub, rings glinting in the light. He had headphones hooked up to a Walkman. Charlie took the opportunity to kick my feet out from under me. He pushed my chest down hard so it slammed the bottom pool, water shot up my nose, a good dunk. The guy was stayed there after we got out; his hands beat fast rhythms on the tub.

People would forget stuff in their hotel rooms. When Auntie Audrey cleaned she found a lot of goods, mostly travel junk, but sometimes she’d find something worth taking home. The cassette tape was wedged between mattress and bedframe. It shot out when Audrey pulled off the sheets. She gave it to Charlie later that day. The tape cover had an emaciated giant with stringy clumps of white hair reaching down to pluck a small devil that was singing into a microphone on a stage surrounded by flames in outer space. Charlie took the tape player from the kitchen counter after we got back. Uncle Chester was in the kitchen.

“Freeze,” he said.

“What?”

“Where you taking the tunes?”

“Just going to the basement. Mom found a tape.”

“Oh yeah? Let me see.”

Charlie handed over the tape. Chester turned it around then looked inside at the insert. “Some real heavy metal,” he laughed.

We went downstairs. The basement at Charlie’s was unfinished. There were a couple rows of metal beams, with holes in the centre. Piles of old toys and carpet remnants covered patches of the bare concrete floor. Charlie slid over a couple pieces of carpet to the electrical outlet. He plugged in the tape player and stuck in the tape. Upstairs Chester was yelling.

“What do you mean you didn’t get paid yet?”

“They said it was going to be a week late,” Audrey replied.

“Well fuck.”

“So it’s my fault?”

“You’re working there. It’s your job.”

“If I got a check in the mail every month too I wouldn’t need a job.”

“What did I do?”

“They aren’t going to screw me. Phil wouldn’t do that.”

“Like Phil’s going to pay for the fucking gas?”

Charlie turned up the volume to max as the tape started to whirr. It was fast. The guitars sounded jet-powered. The singer’s voice was high and twisted, total treble. The notes expanded in a long thin arc up and up then twisted back around, swooped down on us like the giant on the insert cover, fingers already reaching to pluck us out of this basement and deposit our husks somewhere on the outer rim of the black, expanding universe. Rock and roll wasn’t new–my mom used to listen to it all the time–but I hadn’t heard anything like this before. Gongs ended it. When we flipped it over we realized we had played Side B first. Chester and Audrey were still shouting but Charlie kept his eyes on the speakers. When the last notes faded, Charlie looked at me.

“Fucking good.”

“Yeah.”

Charlie flipped the tape. At some point the front door slammed and a car pulled out of the driveway, but we were focused on the music. When it was dark we went up to the kitchen and made dinner–peanut butter and Cheese Whiz sandwiches on white bread. Charlie left the fridge cracked for light. He went back downstairs to listen to the tape. I went to sleep on his bedroom floor, shoes on, sweatshirt balled underneath my head and wrapped in a Roughriders blanket, the faded green “S” on the logo was stained with rust from well water.

Weeks went by and Charlie took that tape everywhere. It stuck out of the back of his jeans pocket until the plastic cracked and splintered. He wouldn’t ever let me borrow the tape. “I’m listening to it,” he said, even though there wasn’t a tape player at the school. I didn’t push it. The tape was cool, it sounded good, but I wasn’t crazy about it. I said it was like his old G.I. Joe he used to carry around, the paint on the face got worn off and eventually the doll lost both its hands. Charlie looked away like he didn’t hear my joke.

Charlie said he was getting a drum set.

“No way,” I told him.

“Just you wait.”

Charlie always talked about stuff that never happened, like the Halloween when we dressed up as quarterbacks. That was Charlie’s idea. He was really into the CFL then, kept saying how the Roughriders would draft him, that his dad was taking him to a game, that they got the best seats at Taylor Field. Charlie’s only been to Regina once, on a field trip. He built these massive towers in his head overnight that took over his brain, all flashy to Charlie, they looked great, looked real, but inside they were all vacant and the walls were made of paper, soon to crumple into the next dream, the next tower. That tape built up a new spire in Charlie’s head, but I knew the drums would be just like the Roughriders tickets–talked about on and on but never seen.

Charlie brought the tape over to my house once. We didn’t have a tape player. Dad only listened to the radio.

“Why’d you ask to borrow it then? The fuck are we gonna do?” Charlie was tapping his fingers on the tabletop and his sneaker toes on the linoleum. He was shaking the table legs.

“Fuck man, settle down.” What I didn’t know then is that Charlie listened to that tape all the time. He had the words memorized.

“After I get the drums we’ll start a band, make our own tape.”

“What will I play?” I only had my old clarinet.

“You’re the singer.”

“The singer? I can’t sing like that guy,” I pointed to the tape.

Charlie shrugged, “You can’t play guitar.”

“Well who will, then?”

Charlie looked up at the ceiling, fingers still drumming on the table, “Benny.” Benny was another cousin of Charlie’s, on Audrey’s side, I only met him once. He could drive.

“You got a name?” I asked.

Charlie shook his head and handed me the insert. The lyrics talked about God, Satan, others about Vikings, women and prisoners. There was even one about Indians. For such violent lyrics it was weird they kept talking about the Bible. The Bible didn’t seem tough, but if it was in music like this maybe we were wrong about church.

Last time we went to church the story was about the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandment coloring page had two round stones, almost like gravestones, with all the new rules. But the thing was, when Moses went to tell all the people about the rules, it turned out they had made something else to worship while he was gone–a golden calf. God was ticked off. I wondered how the calf would have looked to those people, easily catching their praise. Maybe it had blood red stones for eyes; maybe it had a giant’s mouth, gaping wide; maybe it was small and soft and weak but the people were so tired and scared they clung onto it because it was all they had to believe in, all they could see.

“Charlie.”

“Yeah?”

“What about The Golden Calf?”

“That a restaurant?”

“No, for the band.”

He shrugged. “It sounds like a kind of smokes.”

Charlie called me up. He had talked to Benny who wanted to jam. I asked about the drums. Charlie said they’d go get them on Saturday, so we could practice Sunday. I figured Charlie would wait until Saturday night to let me know practice was canceled, but the call never came. Sunday Dad drove me over. Charlie had left me the insert to work on lyrics. When I pulled it out of my pocket on the drive a corner was crinkled down.

It was the kind of day where the wind carries a weird warm, doesn’t bite, caresses a little, and I stood in it after I got out and watched the Chevy pull away, letting it leak into my jacket. A thump, thump, snapa-thump, was beating through the front door. Downstairs was Charlie sitting behind a drum kit. Those drums were blue flecked with glitter in the paint that made them shine and the skins were worn, black marks and nicks everywhere. Charlie had some rhythm. He tried snapping on the snare drum, a brisk sound.

“Guy at the store said you have to roll off it.” Charlie moved his wrist up and snapped like the way we broke a garter snake’s neck. Then there was a pounding at the door upstairs. Charlie called back with the bass drum.

Benny came down with a black guitar case and a small amp. He looked at the drums, “Not bad.” Benny plugged in his stuff against the wall and kicked away a Fisher Price lawnmower.

“What are you going to do?” asked Benny.

“I’m the singer,” I held up the notepad, scribbles from the last twenty-four hours.

“Ok,” he said. “Where’s your mic?”

Charlie jumped in, “He’ll figure it out after we get a song. Besides we don’t need to hear him yet anyway.” Benny nodded and started noodling on the guitar with a lot of feedback. Charlie banged on the drums. Each instrument on its own going at different paces, sending the sound back-and-forth, made me dizzy.

Benny stopped and shouted. “What?”

“Are you guys making a song?”

“We’re jamming man, this is jamming.”

I looked down at my notebook. The guy on the tape’s voice was so powerful. I knew I couldn’t do that, but I had to do something, so I started humming under the sound. Then I switched to talking, trying to follow Charlie’s bass drum beat, “Give it to the calf, give it to the calf.”

We didn’t hear the car pull up. Then there was Uncle Chester, “What’s all this fucking noise?” Charlie stopped. Benny let a chord hang out in the air.

“Chester, leave them alone!” Audrey’s voice came from upstairs.

“Where the fuck did these come from?” Chester was eyeing the drums, shouting up to Audrey but glaring at all of us, the unholy racket.

“That boy should play the drums,” Audrey’s voice got louder.

“Where’d you get the money?” Chester was staring at the drums now, “Phil?”

“I got them on credit.” Audrey was in the doorway.

“You’re trying to bribe my boy with an old drum set.”

Audrey crossed her arms and stared at Chester, Chester stared at the drums, Charlie looked down, Benny clutched his guitar, and I stared at Charlie. Chester said it again, “Bribe my boy, bribe my boy.” He swung his boot into the bass drum. He grabbed a cymbal, sent its edge straight through the snare’s skin. He kicked the tom over. He stomped the high-hat until it flattened out. Our eyes were glued to Chester. Audrey guarded and tight-lipped, Benny bunched on the basement wall, me with feet glued to the floor and Charlie, the innocent wrongdoer, sat rigid on the small black drum stool.

B. Mason Judy

B. Mason Judy

B. Mason Judy is a prose writer. He is currently completing a Masters in Creative Writing at Newcastle University. His work has been published in Canada and the United Kingdom.

B. Mason Judy is a prose writer. He is currently completing a Masters in Creative Writing at Newcastle University. His work has been published in Canada and the United Kingdom.

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