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by Frank O'Rourke
Description: The year is 1964 and gold bullion is illegal to own. Private citizens are required to sell it to the government for a fixed price. Early one foggy November morning a small shop opens for business in the fashionable shopping district of downtown San Francisco. Showcased in their window is the one thing they sell. A small, nondescript can with simple lettering. Etched clearly on the plate glass window was ... Instant Gold. Could alchemy be real? Three mysterious inventors open shop after shop and everyone wants something. Big business and the mob want a piece of the action. The government wants to control them, and the public just want their 8 ounces of fine gray powder to turn into solid gold. Instant Gold is a modern day fairy tale that satirizes human greed and lays bare the whole paradox of free enterprise capitalism.
eBook Publisher: Mundania Press LLC/Mundania Press LLC, 2006 1964
eBookwise Release Date: November 2006
8 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [186 KB]
Reading time: 103-144 min.
"This is the hilarious story of how a chemical discovery upset the whole financial balance of the world. The first hint was in the discreet name of the shop: Instant Gold. The salesman claimed that if you added sea water to the powder in the can you would get gold. The can cost $500--the gold was worth $560. As the story develops, the reader gets more and more fun out of the situation, for how many of us do not get a laugh out of bureaucracy confused? But the best jokes of all are saved for the end, when, with a satiric scalpel, the author lays bare the whole paradox of free enterprise capitalism."--Tom Boardman, Jr.
Gold has reigned as the king of precious metals throughout most of recorded history dating as far back as 4,000 B.C. Its natural beauty, relative scarcity, physical properties, and other attractive qualities have contributed to an image of wealth and excellence. Gold, gold-adorned objects, and gold coins have served as a medium of exchange and measure of value for many centuries.
Gold is also highly prized for its combination of chemical and physical properties. Thousands of everyday appliances require gold to ensure perfect performance over a long period of time.
In 1792, the US Congress set a bimetallic standard (gold and silver) for the nation's currency. At that time, gold was about $19 an ounce and only rose a few dollars more by the 1930s. The United States, and several countries around the world, used gold and silver as their primary monetary standards and issued paper currency against the reserve.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in an effort to create more employment for the millions who were suffering the effects of the Great Depression, dramatically increased the price of gold to $35 an ounce. On April 5, 1933, to protect that inflated price, President Roosevelt issued an Executive Order that prohibited the ownership of gold bullion by private citizens. This order also included the banning of the export of gold, halted the convertibility of paper currency into gold, and ordered all US citizens to sell all the gold they possessed.
During the time of gold ownership restriction, the Treasury Department was required by law to buy any bulk gold that became available in the United States at the set price of $560 a pound ($35 an ounce). Only jewelry manufacturers and companies utilizing gold in various researches, such as gold contacts in transistors, were permitted the use of bulk gold.
That regulation continued for over forty years until President Jimmy Carter, with Congress' approval, took the US off the gold standard, and lifted the ban on private ownership on December 31, 1974. This allowed gold to be traded as a commodity, like wheat or corn and the price of gold has continued to climb since then.
Down through the ages, there have been mystic legends of alchemists--ancient wizards of science that labored over large bubbling cauldrons trying to discover the secret of turning lead into gold. Although a favorite myth of many, modern science has actually achieved this miracle, but the cost involved far exceeds the value of the gold produced.
Still the fascination with true alchemy lives on because the availability of gold, in vast quantities, is the greedy dream of many people.
Our story takes place in 1964, a time when private ownership of gold was still illegal. We ask the question: What if alchemy were real?
* * * *
One foggy Monday morning in November the proprietors of three shops--books, tea, and sweaters--on Billman Place, a cul-de-sac lane off Grant Avenue between Post and Sutter streets in the fashionable downtown San Francisco shopping district, discovered that the vacant shop previously occupied by an art gallery had been renovated over the week end. Number 16 Billman Place was a tiny jewel box twelve feet wide and twenty-four deep, with a rear staircase ascending to the storage loft and quarter bath. The window formerly showcasing objets d'art was now backdropped in royal-blue velvet which framed a sixteen-inch shadowbox of polished walnut containing one small yellow can. Discreet lower-case lettering etched upon the plate glass stated simply: instant gold.
"Instant gold?" said Sweaters.
"How mysterious," Tea cried.
"We want no pitchmen on Billman Place," Books said. "This bears investigation."
And led his neighbors into the shop. Accustomed to bare floor, walls of action painting, and the pervasive odor of oil and incipient bankruptcy, they sank sole-deep into lovely gray carpeting and were soothed by walls newly papered in rich blue. The anterior part of the room offered four large leather chairs and a teakwood coffee table laid with Steuben ash trays, Kreisler lighter, and fresh magazines. Across the rear was an austere ten-foot walnut desk, shining bare but for a black marble pen set, one bud vase stemming one red rose, and behind the desk, a high-backed leather chair. In the chair was a man who rose smiling and greeted them in a soft, deep voice.
"Good morning, madam, gentlemen."
Tea giggled nervously. This was no pitchman.
He was a compact young man whose short-cut yellow hair and heavy buff brows accentuated warm blue eyes and a high-prowed nose that swept downward through generously scalloped wings into a wide, firm mouth and strong, square jaw. He wore a dark blue suit of unfinished worsted with muted stripings over a blue English cotton broadcloth shirt and a vest securing a hand-blocked maroon tie of Maddar silk. Sweaters could not see his feet but presumed (correctly) that he wore navy Scotch wool hose and Peal & Co. straight-tipped black calfskin oxfords.
"You are my new neighbors?" he asked.
Books said, "We are."
"My name is Adrian Ericson," he said. "Will you have coffee?"
He extended a large, strong hand that engulfed Books and Sweaters, and lingered intimately on Tea's slender fingers for the polite interval of three seconds. He repeated their names resonantly, emphasizing the vowels with the solicitude of a man respectful of others' only lifelong attribute.
He waved them into the leather chairs and brought an English silver service and handsome hunt cups from the buffet built into the staircase.
"Sugar?" he invited. "Cream? I am delighted you stopped by on my first morning in trade. Do you approve the shop?"
"Yes," said Sweaters.
Tea sighed, "Divine!"
"Instant gold?" Books said. "You have me stumped, Mr. Ericson."
"But it is so simple," Adrian Ericson said. "Allow me--"
He stepped behind the desk and returned with a duplicate of the small yellow can in the window.
"A can?" said Sweaters.
"A serviceable can of tin alloy," Adrian Ericson said. "Quite similar to the ordinary one-pound coffee can. As you see, it is sealed in the same vacuum-packed fashion and is opened with the key attached to the bottom. Directions are printed on this side."
"May I?" Books asked.
Books hefted the can gingerly. "Light."
"The contents displace eight ounces."
Books nosed his reading glasses and read the directions aloud: "Open can with key. Pour eight ounces sea water into can, mix thoroughly with small spatula or tablespoon. Replace lid tightly, store in cool, dark place one hour. Open and use"--Books glared--"use for what?"
"At the discretion of the purchaser," Adrian Ericson said. "It is a universal substance."
"Do you mean," said Sweaters, "that you have something in this can to which you add sea water, mix, store one hour, and get--oh please, Mr. Ericson!"
Adrian Ericson said, "Yes."
"Impossible," Books said. "Utterly impossible!"
Sweaters took the can from Books and shook it gently. "I hear something."
"A susurration," Adrian Ericson said. "It is a fine powder."
"Mr. Ericson," Books said. "Surely this must be a practical joke."
"Practical, yes," Adrian Ericson said. "Not a joke, I assure you."
"Am I to believe," Books said, "that you have leased, redecorated, refurnished, and opened this shop, in this district, for the alleged purpose of selling something you call instant gold, a substance you claim becomes real gold by adding sea water and storing one hour in a dark, cool place?"
"And what," Books continued relentlessly, "are you retailing this--this can for?"
"Five hundred dollars!"
"We deem it a fair and equitable price," Adrian Ericson said. "Study of current prices will bear me out."
"Now wait," Books said. He was an avid reader and, encouraged by a specific friend, had delved considerably into the study of minerals. "Gold is pegged at thirty-five dollars an ounce."
"And sixteen ounces--one pound--of gold is worth five hundred and sixty dollars."
Books stared. "If I am to believe you, the customer may purchase and mix a pound of gold for an outlay of five hundred dollars, then resell for a sixty-dollar profit?"
"Quite correct," Adrian Ericson said. "We are content with a fair return. The purchaser thus benefits, if he so chooses."
"And you will sell to anyone?"
"Yes, with prudent reservations. I refer to the mentally incompetent, the odd drunkard, and children."
"But this is impossible!" Books said. "Man has tried for centuries to--no, it can't be done!" And remembering, "Gold! Federal law! All gold must be sold to legally designated agencies. You cannot sell gold over the counter to the general public."
"We are not selling gold," Adrian Ericson said gently. "We are selling instant gold. Our own product, our own trade name. More coffee?"
"Thank you," said Sweaters weakly.
"Please," Tea smiled.
Books said, "Trade name?"
"Yes," Adrian Ericson said, pouring. "The problem of product name gave us many weeks of thought. In final summation, civilization itself determined the choice. Our modern age demands modern terminology; we were inexorably drawn to the infinite variety of trade names instantly and favorably identified with a host of worthy products--instant bread, biscuits, cake, pie, cement, soup, soap, all the riches of the earth. We perceived that instant gold was the only possible trade name. As you so aptly pointed out, gold per se is legally entangled by a web of laws that makes its sale to the layman absolutely illegal. But we are not retailing gold. You appreciate the technicality, the fine point--of course you do."
"Instant gold?" Books said. "Gold? One is not, one is."
"You've got a legal opinion?"
"Based on precedent?"
"There is no precedent."
"My God!" Books said. "There can't be, of course not. Just supposing--mind you, just supposing--I buy a can, mix, and take the result to the Federal Reserve on Sansome. Will they buy it?"
"They must," Adrian Ericson said. "They are enjoined by law to purchase."
"But wait--instant gold! Let me understand you. I mix, I store. Then I have sixteen ounces of--?"
"Oh no," Adrian Ericson said. "Metallurgy has not yet solved that final challenge. The manufacture of perfectly pure metals has not been attained. The so-called commercially pure metals contain tiny but significant impurities. 'Pure' gold contains as much as four-tenths of a percentage point of copper, plus other substances. However, according to all standards, you will have sixteen ounces of twenty-four-carat fine, acceptable to all authorized agencies."
Books gulped. "Thank you for coffee, Mr. Ericson."
"You are welcome," Adrian Ericson said. "Immediately I have affairs running smoothly, I will visit your establishments."
And rising, he ushered them to the door, bid them good morning, and closed it softly. They stood in a runner of sunshine cast earthward between the tall buildings; it was proper the sunbeam bathed them in a yellow glow. Books shook himself like a shaggy old hearth dog given one forgotten whiff of wildness from his ancient past.
"I'm sane," he said. "In good health, breathing familiar air. I'm not dreaming, I haven't stepped through a crack into some fiendish fourth dimension. And yet! You saw him, you heard him. We know what that shop leases for, we saw the furnishings, the remodeling, cost a pretty penny--and him, we saw him!"
"So young," Tea said. "So handsome!"
"He talks a blue streak," said Sweaters.
Tea sighed. "Like poetry."
Books pondered. "If he was about to pull some new variation of con, gold brick, or what-have-you, would he invest several thousand dollars? It takes time to catch a sucker and recover that much investment. No, it doesn't make sense. I must be crazy."
"Sixty-dollar profit margin," said Sweaters.
"Stop it," Books said sternly. "I'll not have you swallowing a fairy tale until I investigate it thoroughly."
"Don't worry," said Sweaters. "I wasn't."
"But he is so handsome," Tea said. "How could he be dishonest?"
"Harrumph!" Books snorted.
"What are you going to do?" asked Sweaters.
"Never mind," Books said. "We'll soon get to the bottom of his scheme."
And bidding them good morning, he hurried through his shop to the telephone and dialed a Palo Alto number. "Hello," he said. "Dr. Dibblekorn."
"One moment, please--" and soon came the voice of his old friend, the eminent scientist "--yes, yes?"
"Henry," Books said. "I've got to see you."
"I'm busy," Dibblekorn said. "Extremely busy."
"Tonight!" Books said. "Don't ask questions, this is beyond belief--"
As Books talked, Adrian Ericson was making a phone call to a Ross number in Marin County.
"Adrian here," he said. "We are launched, Oscar."
"Yes," Adrian said. "He reacted violently. I've no doubt he is phoning the good doctor this very moment."
"It begins," Oscar said. "As all works of genius, in obscurity, with immodest modesty. Will you be home on time?"
"Barring premature development."
"Drive carefully," Oscar said. "Watch that bridge traffic."
"I will," Adrian said. "Goodbye, Oscar."
Replacing the phone, Adrian ascended the stairs to the storage loft. Removing his coat and rolling his sleeves, he took a clipboard from the adjacent stack of cardboard boxes and continued his stock invoice. The loft was filled with boxes containing eight thousand yellow cans, packed two dozen to the box. Adrian finished his count, put on his coat, and descended. He made a fresh pot of coffee and settled back with the latest issue of Scientific American. He passed a quiet morning, undisturbed by customers; at twelve o'clock he donned a light gray topcoat and gray small shape felt, locked the front door, and walked via Post Street, Union Square, and Geary Street to lunch at O'Doul's. He took roast beef rare, green salad, and custard, and ate in a booth beneath the assorted portraits of sinewy baseball players, posed forever young and omnipotent on their fields of honor. He returned to the shop at one o'clock and spent the afternoon reading; at four he snapped certain switches concealed within the desk and departed. He went up Post to Mason and down to the O'Farrell parking garage. He drove a yellow Ford sedan to Van Ness and hence by Lombard into the Golden Gate Bridge traffic; crossing the Gate, Adrian drove swiftly through Marin County to the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard turnoff, followed that artery into Ross, and moved sedately south on tree-lined avenues to Number 716 Upper Road where he garaged the sedan and entered the house. Exquisite odors quivered his nostrils; and the concocter of those smells shouted a greeting from the kitchen.
"Good evening, Adrian!"
"Hail, Great Chief!"
Oscar Pitchfork appeared, apron snug across his capacious stomach, brown face glistening with stove heat. Oscar was a man of huge parts, so deep of chest and stout of thigh that his stomach, rather than offending, seemed the only appropriate size for such a gargantuan frame. His coal-black hair shocked thickly over his great head from low widow's peak to the nape of his size-twenty white shirt collar. He wore white Taos moccasins, charcoal wide-waled corduroy trousers, and a red-black-checked Pendleton shirt.
"Any more customers?" he asked.
"Good," Oscar said. "Slow but sure. Hungry?"
"We are having roulade of beef," Oscar said. "Tiny onions, braised asparagus tips, and a nice Krug cabernet. I'll give you thirty minutes to bathe."
Adrian laughed and went upstairs on the run. Undressing, drawing his bath, he glanced downward into the backyard at pool, trees, and twelve-foot wall festooned with ivy. Oscar had spent six weeks ferreting out a house in this unchanged, very private residential area. San Francisco was a splendid place to dwell but its exits were limited and easily corked; in Ross one enjoyed a wider choice of routes. Adrian again commended Oscar's infallible taste.