God Chooses the Wheelbarrow

Dustin M. Hoffman

God and I are playing Monopoly again. He’s chosen the iron as his game piece. It is forever the iron and only occasionally the wheelbarrow. When I ask why, he claims to enjoy the novelty of the design, so simple and useful. So, pride in humanity, I assume. “No, not exactly,” he says. And then he puts a hotel on the yellows, and I’m staring down the barrel of an exorbitant Marven Gardens visit.

“You knew I’d land there,” I say.

“Eventually,” God says.

“Seems unfair, your knowing everything.”

“I don’t need to cheat,” he says. “Show a little faith.” He then licks a five-hundred-dollar bill and sticks it to his forehead. I don’t feel like laughing.

It’s hard to guess how many games we’ve played. Hundreds maybe. Thousands. Monopoly does that to you, its long yawn of capitalism stretching on for days, the cogs of profit churning, win some lose some, the ebbs and flows of the free marketplace. At least it beats my work back in life. Who knew how many hours I’d spent painting houses?

“71,629,” God said.

“Is that a lot?”

“You spread 16,480 gallons on the walls.”

“That seems like a lot.”

God realigns the hotel on Marven Gardens until it’s exactly straight. “Municipal development goes so smoothly when there are no contractors on the board to overcharge and push back deadlines.” God smiles, and the five-hundred-dollar bill flutters down from his face.

“Hey, don’t blame me,” I say. “Uncle Pennybags sure isn’t guilt free.”

“Maybe the proletariat are implied. They’re busy building green houses and cherry-red hotels.”

“After work, they’re all getting drinks at Baltic.”

“Ha. Yes!”

“And where are they now, the proletariats, the real ones?”

God pinches the wheelbarrow up from the board, holds it between us. “Nothing much is cleverer than this.” And then I land on Marven Gardens and mortgage everything.

God always requests another game. He’s always up for more. When I tell him I need a break, he suggests we walk.

God conjures red wooden bridges over coy ponds. Each coy throbs up to the surface flashing a different pastel color. God tells me I can snatch one and eat it raw, tells me they taste like marshmallows. Once again, I do not take God up on his offer. We sit on benches carved out of pink quartz.

I’m ready to ask again what I’ve been wondering since the first Monopoly game. In life, I couldn’t even bring myself to ask for a fifty-cent raise. Monopoly has been teaching me to roll the dice. So I ask it: “Where is everyone?”

“How do you mean?” God picks at a toenail with a fishbone that he then transmutes into a chopstick, then a dentist’s pick.

“Everyone, I mean. Anyone.”

“Well, people are busy, you know.”

“Are they in hell?” I ask.

“Dave, come on.” He ceases picking to look up at me. “You know that’s not my thing.”

“How about my mom then? My sisters?”

“Oh, they’re resting,” he says and stands. A pair of leather sandals materialize on his feet. He walks a few steps, stops, and changes them to some black Harley boots. I follow him because I hate to be left alone here. I have the sense that God is instilling this dread of loneliness in me, though I have no way to prove it and no one to prove it to. We traverse a few more bridges and he switches to some of those old Reeboks with the basketball tongue pumps, then some mink-lined slippers, and finally he settles into a pink pair of Crocs.

“Can we go see them?” I ask, tagging behind God, in my own pair of Crocs, powder blue, shockingly comfortable.

“See who?”

“My mom. My sisters.”

“Or is it ‘whom’?”

“If not them, we could see someone else. Your choice.”

“How about another game of Monopoly?” God says. He walks over the Milky Way, the rings of Saturn, a river of cats, Astroturf, an ocean, eleven YMCA swimming pools.

“Sure, God,” I say.

“I call the iron.”

No hunger, no tiring, no dips of that familiar melancholy—all that makes it pretty damn difficult to gauge the length of time we’ve played Monopoly. God keeps clocks. He finds them almost as amusingly designed as the wheelbarrow. But they all read different times and seem to tick at different speeds. God assures me that knowing wouldn’t make a difference. Despite no urges, no Earthly needs, I struggle to shake wanting to know what time it is.

And when I ask, God replies, “Time to get a watch!”

So, I have three houses on Boardwalk and Park Place and hotels on the greens. The bougie side of the board promises certain financial death, but God has Baltic to New York Avenue strung up in hotels. Plus, he owns the utilities, which I land upon with a greater frequency than seems mathematically probable. Every time I shake the dice to decide what I’ll have to pay him, he bellows, “Let there be light. Let there be water.”

I land on a St. Charles hotel and give God all my cash but a pale twenty-dollar bill. I take another stab. “I know my mom and my sisters are a big ask. They’re a lot. Believe me, I know. But I was thinking maybe someone like Winston. Winston’s the easiest guy in the world. He’d love you. How about we hang with him?”

Everyone loved Winston, a guy I’d painted houses with in my twenties. He was always a little stoned, always hugging everyone, complimenting their posture, asking after the health of everyone’s grandparents, recommending they go on cruises. I never ran into him again throughout the rest of my life, but he’d been so sweet when we’d existed together. God can’t deny Winston.

“Take a ride on Reading,” God says to himself and hands me a corn-yellow hundred.

“Monopoly is even better with three.”

God rolls doubles, ends up just visiting. “Would he want to be the iron?”

“No way. Winston is a canon man, or maybe the car. A real man’s man,” I say, and, when God tucks his beard into his chest, I scramble. “But not in a creepy way. Respectful guy. And funny. Nice. You’ll love him.”

God buys a set of hotels for the reds, assuring my doom. “Your turn,” he says.

I land on Indiana, just like he knew I would, and that’s game.

God outstretches a palm and aligns three hotels and five houses upon it. His palmistry lines weave through the red and green domiciles like suburban streets. “Play again?”

“How about we play for him? I win and you invite Winston to join us for a game?” I say.

God closes his hand into a fist. “Let me think about it.”

We stroll the statue garden, which looks a bit to me like a junkyard of human ingenuity: a steam engine, a cotton candy machine, blow drier as big as the Chevy Silverado it leans on, jackhammer, woodchipper, box of deck screws, mannequin wearing a pastel blue leotard with headband and leg warmers, and his newest editions: a row of 3,003 different kinds of irons across from a row of 1,001 wheelbarrows. We count them together. God seems very pleased with himself.

“Any additions you’d like to see?” God asks me.

“How about Jesus?”

God’s smile sags. “I think you’re missing a key point here. See, this is a statue garden.”

“I mean, can I meet Jesus?”

God’s smile has one deep dimple on his right cheek. He ruffles his robe skirts in his fists. “Ready?”


“Wanna close your eyes?”

“Do I have to?”

“It would be more fun.”

When I open my eyes, there is the same God who’s always been there, grinning wide, his dimple dark as a hole.

“Where’s Jesus?”

“He’s me. I’m him.”

Most my life, I was working during church time, the sabbath, I suppose. But as a kid I’d learned the Sunday school fundamentals—the holy trinity: son, father, and holy ghost, all for the price of one. I never got how that worked when I was a kid. Like claims of paint and primer all in one can. Now I see that it’s all just God and more God.

I buckle down. I razor’s-edge my focus. I buy every property I land on and bolster my liquid assets by mortgaging everything until I’ve erected a line of hotels on the oranges, then the reds, then the purples. If I win, God will have to grant me someone. He seems reasonable. He’s been considering it. He must be getting bored with just me. I’ve written a list on a papyrus scroll: my first-grade teacher Mrs. Lamott, Mom again, my third cousin Trevor who lost a nostril to a dog and never stopped talking about it, my uncle Bobby, my car mechanic Walt, Lucinda at Sherwin Williams who mixed the paint and always called me “darling.” We play games back-to-back until my eyes should be bleeding, but I feel no pain. I never will or can again.

I win for the first time since our terms. God tosses down his properties with a playful smack. He says, “Winner picks up.” He hovers while I reorganize the dollar amounts and stack the properties and gather my hotels. My head buzzes with that thrill I used to get when rehearsing the compliment I’d give Lucinda for matching that last gallon so perfectly.

“Rematch?” God asks, balancing the top hat on his fashionable pinky.

I can’t feel disappointment, of course. Instead, I think of more names to add to the scroll. I repeat Lucinda. I rewrite Mom. I write down every soul I ever pushed a brush beside, except that claptrap Yancy. Then I write down Yancy anyway. When I run out of names, I write down the 1987 Detroit Tigers roster. I repeat the list. I repeat again.

God compliments my skill, once I’m rolling sixes on command. A few million throws and anyone can figure it out. God’s game steps up, too, a perfectly matched competition, enough for me to think I could win each match, though I almost always lose.

“Winner picks up,” I tell God.

We walk through the Gobi Desert, through the Mall of America, across the bottom of the Bering Sea, through the center of the Earth, through a blackhole, through my childhood neighborhood. No one else is ever anywhere. But I can tell God is making a gesture, letting me see where I grew up. He is God. He knows, of course, what I truly want, even though it is an odd kind of want that I’m not really able to feel in any kind of disparaging way so that it isn’t really discouraging but only slightly less blissful.

Yet I ask: “Why me?”

“All my children are special,” God says, as we walk-float over a flooded golf course.

“I never had any,” I say.

“You kept busy working.”

“Did I do it wrong?”

“You were rolling those dice, passing go.” God dips down to pluck a purple jellyfish.

“And where would I be if I wasn’t here now?”

“Oh, you’ve still got the wrong idea.” God lifts his robe as we wade across a stream. Radioactively glowing trout navigate between our legs. “Now doesn’t matter. It still doesn’t.”

But I start keeping ticks inside the Monopoly box, hidden under the instructions. I use the canon to scratch little plow lines. God doesn’t seem to notice. Maybe he doesn’t care.  

“What would my kid have been like, if I did have one?” I ask. “Is that a thing you know?”

God rolls doubles, passes go, rolls eleven. He’s going for speed, stacking cash piles. “I know everything,” he says, and then rolls twelve, then twelve, then eleven, and buys Tennessee. Unless one of us screws up a roll, we can tell how this one will end.

I imagine a girl, green eyes, left-handed and decent at guitar, like her old man. She’d do shitty in school, except for science class. She’d love chemistry, do too many drugs for too many years, and then go to graduate school before she engineered polymers for Dupont. She’d call every Friday at 6:00, stop by when she could, and we’d drink two beers together on those precious nights. I’d only get 183 of them, if she would’ve existed.

“Is that right?” I ask God.

He rolls another twelve and twelve and eleven.

“What I imagined just now—is that how it would’ve been?”

God doesn’t pass go. “I’m not so sure I see the point in this anymore.”

We try Battleship, Risk, chess, Stratego, but God grows weary of war. Connect Four follows, then Bagh-Chal then Majiang then Mystery Date and Mouse Trap and Life. Next comes the card games, but God has no imagination for cards, can’t get interested in a game held in a single hand. He prefers elaborately designed boards, our most absurd and inexplicable ideas.

I return to the Monopoly box to make my secret scratches. When I fill every inch, I celebrate the occasion by swallowing a green house. Next, a hotel, then three more houses. I pass God walking and pop one like a mint. He shakes his head, lowers his vision to his pink Crocs and hustles away. After the houses and hotels, I eat the race car, then the dog, next the top hat. I make sure to brush God’s shoulder over the coy pond bridge the day I pop the iron, his iron. His mouth opens, yet he says nothing.

They don’t come out the other end. No digestion in heaven. But they have to be somewhere.

God and I don’t cross paths for what may be one thousand days. I’ve given up keeping track, and I haven’t seen the Monopoly board in however long it has been. So, there is no way to know, but somewhere in my gut that has become a subdivision for plastic green houses and red hotels I sense time pass.

I linger at my childhood house. It’s the only home where, in life, I didn’t pay rent. The only place of any permanence in my lifetime of working on other people’s houses while I lived inside leases. So, I repaint every room red and then yellow and then black. I paint the outside green, and that feels productive. That feels like a labor God might find clever. I mow the lawn, which doesn’t need it, but the grass grows long just as the mower approaches so I always feel satisfied. I tear up the carpets and find hardwoods, which I refinish and then also paint black, and then I tear up the hardwoods to find more carpet, luxurious red shag. I smash all the windows and make the flooring sparkle. I reshingle the roof with pots and pans and stainless-steel kitchen appliances. 

I sneak into God’s sculpture garden and steal all his irons. I deposit them down my chimney. But then I decide I don’t like that God won’t see. I excavate them and build an iron tower God could spot from the coy ponds.

I forget about the green houses populating my gut, forget about the ticks inside the Monopoly box. Time—or whatever its heavenly equivalent is—passes lethargically but still with enough energy for erasure. I try to forget about Him, but it’s all just God and more God.

When I spot God from the shiny roof of my childhood home, nostalgia shoots through my toes. I want to ask him everything. I have better questions now. I know how I could’ve made Him prouder, spent my time better. But I trip over a skillet, ram my chin into a saucepan. God passes down the street.

He isn’t alone.

Which means I’m not alone.

I squint at God’s new guest. They seem shorter, my sister’s height perhaps, but they wear cutoff sleeves, like Winston wore to work every shift. The flash of tan flesh swings back and forth at God’s side. Their strides match God’s robe skirts. The guest wears skirts too. No face appears. God obstructs my view until they turn and only the back of God’s guest’s head remains.

I yell my sister’s name, then Winston, then Jesus, then Lucinda, then the name of my never-born, imagined daughter. Clarice, I shout again, from my pots-and-pans roof and into the heavens. They stop walking, and she seems like she’s going to turn. But God puts a hand on her shoulder, reassuring, warm and generous, and they turn the corner.

I return to work shining up my roof. I climb the tower to place a few more irons at the top so that on their next walk through my neighborhood they’ll slip by less easily.