“The Kingdom of Amateur Gods” by Brad Eddy

Jimmy and I climbed the rusted ladder and perched ourselves on the roof of the trailer. Our kingdom lay before us, mobile homes and overgrown yards, our subjects adrift, wandering for meaning. Fat Judy, still in her robe at 3:00 p.m., ate a frozen burrito on her porch. Donnie Hayes opened the hood of his Camaro and blinked like a cat at the dead engine. I wished him light and reformation. Jimmy shook his fist and threatened comets, lightning bolts, and personal blights.

We’d pegged Donnie as the center of adversity, the root of all problems in the trailer court. We’d seen him steal from sheds and scream curses at the top of his lungs as his prized Camaro refused to turn over. That Wednesday, when teenagers came to mow the lawns for ten bucks apiece, he shook the boys down, flipping a switchblade open and closed until they handed over their earnings. He was the closest we had to a villain, a Pharaoh, a man whose strings Satan had a firm grasp.

A screen door slammed and a freckled woman—maybe twenty—someone we’d never seen before, stepped out of one of the trailers. She held a bottle of Coke in one hand, a magazine in the other.

I closed my eyes, listening to far off barking and waiting for inspiration. “Her name is Heather,” I said. “She loves puppies.”

Jimmy rapped me on the head, said he knew better. Jimmy always knew better.

“She’s Brittany,” he said. “A journalist.”

“I’ve heard her mother call her Heather,” I said.

“You’re lying again, Max,” Jimmy said. “I can tell from your voice.”

Like always, he was right.

We watched her move toward Donnie. Jimmy pointed at her, tried to change her course. I imagined bees swarming, the earth quaking. But Donnie and his Camaro—working or not—had their own gravity. She leaned against the car while Donnie ran a hand through his thinning hair. We had no idea what he was saying so we imagined that too.

“I’m a lot of trouble,” I said, taking over for Donnie.

“I deserve better, but don’t love myself,” Jimmy said.

Both of them laughed. Brittany finished her Coke, and unlike the other hooligans in the trailer court, didn’t toss it to the ground. That little effort, her refusal to do the easy thing, was when I started to fall in love with her. It was why I thought I’d make a better God than Jimmy. I saw what people did right and loved them for it.

Donnie watched as she walked off, twirling the bottle like a lost ballerina. I blew gently, hoping to create a great wind, to carry her away from Donnie, back to the safety of her own place.

*        *         *

Last spring, Jimmy’s house caught fire. After the fire engines pulled away and the insurance men arrived to lean through the charred doorways, the family landed in the trailer court, a place notorious for shenanigans, loitering, fights, and drug use. Jimmy and I were fascinated. We figured it was the closest we’d ever get to the Wild West. We watched everything.

Around then, Jimmy’s mother, Sister Banes, turned into a wailing crying mess, and she spoke only of how unstable the world had turned, how devastation was everywhere, lying in ambush like the crack in their chimney where the fire had escaped. The gospel, the Holy Spirit, The Book of Mormon, all of it could protect us, and she demanded Jimmy, all eight-and-a-half years of him, be baptized and become an official member of the Mormon Church. Her husband, Mr. Banes, refused. He never joined the church, calling it “a clan of Mumbo Jumbo.” At last year’s Christmas dinner, he said it right to our bishop’s face.

For an entire weekend the Banes’ slammed doors and screamed, but when Sister Banes finally went to tears, she got her way. One of the church regulars, Brother Packer, began visiting to give Jimmy a crash course on the finer points of Mormonism. Brother Packer also happened to have a construction empire spanning all of southwestern Pennsylvania, and my family was convinced he’d volunteered to teach Jimmy as a means to get his foot in the door and grab the insurance money.

“The man could sell ice cubes to Eskimos,” my father said with considerable admiration. “You just watch.” So, I did. I hung around during the lessons, since I was eight too, old enough to get baptized if I could just kick my habit of lying.

Brother Packer told us about the meaning of Mormonism, the Plan of Salvation, which was Heavenly Father’s experiment for humanity. According to the plan, our earthly existence was just a test, and if we performed well, if we went to church, said our prayers, spread the gospel, opened doors for old ladies, and kept our noses clean, then we’d be rewarded by becoming gods ourselves in another life. We’d run our own planet. We’d build mountains, make weather, fill the ocean with fish, and scatter our forests with bugs and animals.

“That’s why I read this,” Brother Packer had said. I’d expected him to pull out The Book of Mormon, but instead he produced a copy of The Wall Street Journal from his satchel. Our Heavenly Father, he said, was just a businessman balancing a complex budget of pressure systems, clay to topsoil ratios, shooting stars and solar eclipses.

“When my time comes,” Brother Packer said, “I’ll be ready.”

I was intrigued, but Jimmy was obsessed. After a few lessons, I kept telling pointless lies about what I’d eaten for lunch while Jimmy memorized scriptures and made proclamations about his very own kingdom of heaven. He planned to run a tight ship, a no frills humorless world where civilization lived with its cheek to the grindstone. In another week, Brother Packer was dunking Jimmy in the baptismal font. After the ceremony, Jimmy received The Holy Spirit—the conduit to our own Heavenly Father. Now, he had the man himself whispering wisdom, and so when we played our game—when we climbed the ladder to his trailer and pretended to be gods of the trailer court, when we named everything like Adam and discussed blessings and plagues we’d bestow—Jimmy had the final word on everything.

*        *         *

Most days, my mother dropped me off at the trailer court just to be rid of me. My lying had confounded her, and she hoped Jimmy’s newfound love of the gospel might rub off on me. Not long before the Banes’ house caught fire, I’d started making things up. This was difficult to sniff out because I didn’t claim to see Elvis or be the playground hero. Instead I told easy lies, the kind that restored order to everything. I’d learned from Jimmy’s fire, from my father’s bad year of business and my mother’s sickly parents that the truth could be hard and unforgiving, that a good lie could soften the blow. So when people asked me what I’d been up to, how my family was getting along, when Jimmy returned from the bathroom and asked if Donnie had screamed at the mailman or threatened a neighbor, I lied.

A few mornings after we saw Brittany for the first time, my mother dropped me off at the trailer court.

“Max,” she said. She always used my name when she wanted to impress a point on me. “I want you to think about how lying hurts people.”

I took a moment and thought it over. “How?” I asked.

“Do me a favor,” she said. “Just don’t say anything to anyone.”

She pulled away and I went off to find Jimmy. Since I’d last been in the court, the grass had grown and garbage was strewn everywhere. The alley cats had migrated into the yards chewing errant Popsicle sticks and scavenging bits from the ripped bags. I found Jimmy on top of the trailer peering through his father’s enormous binoculars.

“I made this happen,” he said and waved at the cats. “I wanted locusts, but this will do.”

“What’d I miss?” I asked.

“Everything,” he said and gave me the news. Fat Judy sat on her porch all day yesterday crying. There’d been a fistfight between teenagers over a pack of baseball cards, and two of the trailers had their electric turned off due to lack of payment. But he’d saved the worst for last. He handed me the binoculars, though I could already see.

“I don’t want to look,” I said.

“Do it,” he said, so I took them. Through the glass, I could see Donnie and Brittany lying on beach towels on the hood of the Camaro. Jimmy said they’d been walking hand in hand everywhere, even gone off in Brittany’s mother’s dented Ford Escort.

“For three hours and fifty-two minutes,” Jimmy said.

My stomach felt dirty and metallic like I’d swallowed pennies from a vacuum. Some truths were better off not knowing.

Jimmy claimed it was time for action. Before, he’d always said interference was beyond our scope as amateurs, but this was an emergency. People were miserable and we were in a position to do something about it.

“Come on,” Jimmy said and I followed him down the ladder and into the trailer. Inside, the fans whirred, but they failed to do anything but push hot air from one side of the room to the other. Sister Banes and Brother Packer sat at the kitchen table, looking over drafting plans and discussing crown moldings.

“Can I have ten dollars?” Jimmy asked.

Sister Banes scoffed, went to the kitchen and returned with a tube of sun block and began rubbing it onto Jimmy’s forehead.

“Why do you need it?” she asked.

Jimmy’s face screwed up. I knew he was grasping for some version of the truth that sounded acceptable.

“We’re thinking of starting a lemonade stand,” I said.

“Brilliant,” Brother Packer said and removed a wallet and took out a twenty-dollar bill. “Water it down until you turn a profit.”

Jimmy and I scurried off to the convenience store down the street. The place was stocked with peanuts and chips, toothpaste and dust-covered quarts of motor oil. The old lady behind the counter stared at us as we moved through the store. Jimmy grabbed a pack of batteries, a frozen pizza, and a Wall Street Journal and set them on the counter.

“This is going to cost a lot of money,” the lady said.

Jimmy handed over the bill and she held it up to the fluorescent light.

“Okay,” she said and pushed everything across the counter.

*        *         *

We started with Fat Judy. She had a bad cough and a worse limp; four kids who never listened to a word she said. Jimmy and I figured her life was at rock bottom. We could do nothing but improve things. We set a magazine and a pack of batteries on her porch, pounded on the door and sprinted down the stairs like pranksters in reverse. We climbed to the roof and watched as the door opened and Judy emerged in her robe, looking around and finally down at what we’d left.

Jimmy smacked his fist into his palm. He’d expected instant results, for Judy to emerge from the trailer a moment later in a power suit and briefcase.

We dropped off more stuff, planted snacks and crossword puzzle books. We knocked and ran, watched from around corners. The best of it we saved for Brittany. We set the freshest lamp-heated food and The Wall Street Journal that Brother Packer claimed held the secrets to success. Dumping a thieving loser like Donnie, I hoped, would be chief among them. We knocked but no one answered, so we climbed onto the trailer and waited.

“We can’t just give them good stuff,” Jimmy said. “I wish I could have her kids get kidnapped.”

“That’s terrible.”

“Terrible works,” he said. “Wars and cancer and stuff. All that happens for a reason.”

“What reason?”

“Why don’t you ask Heavenly Father?” Jimmy said and pointed at the sky. “Oh, wait, you can’t. You haven’t been baptized yet.”

“You’re a real jerk,” I said.

A few minutes later, Brittany walked into the yard and up her front steps to find what we’d left for her. She looked around, picked up the magazines and hot dogs and took them to Donnie who was painting his Camaro with a paintbrush.

“No!” Jimmy hissed.

She handed him a hotdog, and he took it with his paint-covered hand. Then she opened a magazine, and pulled a note from the pages.

“What did you write?” Jimmy said.

“Nothing,” I said.

“Well she’s reading something.” He punched me hard in the arm.

“I told her she could do better.”

Jimmy groaned. Brittany tossed the magazines into the yard. I felt responsible, the inspiration behind her fist act of littering. I hung my head as Jimmy jumped to his feet. He stood on the shingles, revealing himself to everyone and pointing right at Brittany and Donnie.

“I gave you the best hot dogs!” he yelled.

They laughed and Jimmy’s face flushed with blood. “Stroke!” he yelled and pointed right at them. “Cancer!”

“Jimmy,” I hissed. “You look like a crazy person.”

“I outta send seven plagues!”

Jimmy stomped and screamed, threatened the wrath of the heavens. Donnie and Brittany fell into each other’s arms laughing, then worked their way up to his trailer. I tried to talk him down, but there on the clouds of heaven—or the shingles of the trailer—he’d lost it. Still, there was part of me who admired his fire, his anger and petulance. I was already worrying I didn’t have what it took, that unlike Jimmy, I lacked the inner hatred needed to be a destroyer of worlds.

*        *         *

In the evenings, when Mr. Banes came home from his long shift, he’d take me home in his truck. Often he took me meandering down back roads—the scenic route, he called it, which seemed to just be an excuse to avoid your destination. It seemed like the travel equivalent of lying. I loved it.

That night, he fidgeted with the radio and told me about being a miner operator for the second largest coal company in the country. He asked how we spent our days, and I explained that mostly we watched people.

“It’s some place, isn’t it?” he said of the trailer court. “Do you know what they’re charging me to rent that place?”

“What?” I asked.

“You don’t want to know.”

Mr. Banes talked about the price of plasterboard and tile, how the insurance company didn’t want to pay for the water damage caused by the fire department. I nodded along and offered no advice. I’d always liked Mr. Banes even though my parents said it was a shame he hadn’t joined the church. When other parents mingled in the kitchen at birthday parties, Mr. Banes would come out and hit grounders to us in the yard. His voice lacked that high-pitched simplicity that most adults used on us. Now, his voice turned dull and heavy as he told the story of the chimney fire, the endless string of mishaps and incompetence.

“I’m enjoying the drive,” he said after a while. “How about you?”

I told him I was. The sky had gone from dusk to dark. We were somewhere I’d never been before. The dark outlines of trees flanked the road, and overhead the moonlight was vague through the clouds. Ahead, there was a white light at the side of the road, and Mr. Banes pulled into the empty lot of a gas station.

“Need anything?” he asked.

“Lottery tickets,” I said.

He looked at me for a second, then shrugged and got out of the truck. When he came back a few minutes later, he handed me a bag of M&Ms and a stack of scratch-offs. I stuffed it all in my pocket as he took a beer from his fresh six-pack. Mr. Banes pulled back onto the road, telling me more about his seventy-hour workweek, how when he got home his wife had spent more money in a day than he’d made in a month.

“You’ll have a great house soon,” I said.

“And I’ll be paying for it the rest of my life,” he said and tossed an empty can out the window and cracked open another. “The lesson here is simple.”

“What?” I said.

“Life’s a bitch and then you die.”

I felt the torn edges of the lottery tickets in my pocket. I had a pocketful of chance, and I imagined that this was what God felt like all the time. He could print it anywhere, make them all winners and give them to everyone. As I listened to him moan about a life gone wrong, I hoped that our God was up there paying attention. Even if Mr. Banes wasn’t a believer, even if he’d never gotten baptized and become a true Mormon, I hoped God might have it in his heart to reach into his own pocket and sprinkle a little mercy, maybe even a little luck on the guy.

*        *         *

After his implosion on the trailer, Jimmy and I went our separate ways. He retreated to a shed on the other end of the court where he hid behind rusted rakes and shovels and peered out from the cracks between the boards. When I walked past, I could hear him mumbling hexes and calling out names. The amateur God had turned to a mad man in a shed. I climbed a maple tree near the creek and watched. I stuffed most of the lottery tickets in mailboxes, but they were all losers. Crumpled, scratched-off tickets were scattered everywhere. Still, I kept a few. Ones that felt special. Sure winners I kept for Brittany.

After a week of this, my parents announced they were going on a weekend trip to the Mormon temple in Washington, DC, and that I’d be staying at the Banes’ trailer. While they planned their trip, I emptied my savings from birthdays and holidays—it turned out to be just over fifty dollars—and filled my bag with self-help books from our shelves, with knick knacks and utensils my mother never used. I placed the money on Brittany’s porch, and as she marched it directly to Donnie I pounded my head against the trunk of the tree. The rest of it—the books, the snacks and spatulas—all ended up scattered in the yard, tossed away and ignored. Nothing I’d done worked, and I worried over the last few tickets in my pockets, ones I couldn’t manage to let go.

“See?” Jimmy said one afternoon during my stay. I was in the tree and Jimmy was standing in the shade looking up at me.

“What do you want?” I said. The only thing Jimmy liked better than telling me what to do was saying I told you so.

“Let’s pick up the trash,” he said.

It was as close as Jimmy got to an apology, and I accepted.

We picked up tickets, then the wrappers and plastic bags, the cans of beer and soda. I found a candy dish I’d taken from our living room, a book about Joseph Smith’s miraculous life. Life in the trailer court, it seemed, looked more or less like a shipwreck, and I couldn’t help but feel I was the one who’d driven us into the rocks. But after a few minutes in the grass, we turned to regular kids. We roamed, kicked and tripped each other. After a well-timed knock to my shin, I spilled onto the lawn. Jimmy cackled like a villain and I grabbed a crushed beer can in the grass, jumped to my feet and pulled back my arm.

“You won’t do it,” he said. His fat face held that familiar smirk of condescension, the sucked-in lips and squinted eyes. It was the same expression he wore when he issued cancer and tragedy on the unsuspecting people below. I couldn’t help myself. I released and warm beer flew into my face as the can missed Jimmy by feet.

“See?” he said. “You’re no good at this.”

I ran at him, and he disappeared around the corner. He knew the court better than me, knew the hiding spots and hidden recesses under pick up trucks and behind swing sets. I could hear his voice calling out, “Hey, moron! You have cancer!” I ran frantically, calling out his name, losing my breath. I was about to give up when I caught a glimpse of him and filled my lungs for one final chase. He was never fast, and I pushed myself across the lawn. I could feel the violence in my blood dissipating as I sprinted up the hill after him. When I finally caught up to him on the road above the trailer court, I was too exhausted to do anything but collapse.

“Another failure,” he said, and gave me a swift kick in the side. What little breath I had was gone.

“Doesn’t look so bad,” Jimmy said and pointed at the court. I pushed myself to my feet and leaned against the guardrail. From here, the place looked quaint and meaningless, like the inhabitants weren’t mired in dysfunction. I wondered if sometimes God took a step back and looked at us that way, then got distracted with something else. It explained everything: skinned knees, house fires, parents who had no idea what to say to you.

“If you could do anything, what would you do?” Jimmy asked.

As I caught my breath, I thought it over. “Good weather,” I said. “All the time.”

“You’re wrong,” he said, and I knew he was right. Nothing I’d done had worked.

“What would you do?” I asked.

Jimmy gave the trailer court a long look, and in that moment he might have been mistaken for wise. He started to say something about a flood, a fire maybe, when an engine gunned to life and we heard screams of joy. It was Donnie’s Camaro, resurrected like Lazarus. Brittany jumped into Donnie’s arms, and he twirled, then deposited her into the passenger seat. He climbed in, revved the engine again, and spun the car out, sending gravel everywhere. We watched him fly out of the court, turn past the mailboxes without stopping. The Camero streaked past us in a blur of burnt orange, made a hard right at the corner and fishtailed into a cluster of garbage bags. Tires squealed and pigeons scattered.

“Moron,” Jimmy said and waved his finger, but Donnie, the Camaro, and Brittany were gone.

One of the birds bounced in the street, unable to suspend itself into flight.

“Look,” I said and we ran to it. One wing flapped as the bird circled over a broken spot in the pavement.

“Heal,” I said and waved my hand. I imagined bone mending, muscle reforming. Far off, I could hear Donnie gunning the engine.

“You’re too generous,” Jimmy said. “There are consequences for being slow.”

The pigeon bounced, and I thought of Mr. Banes in his truck, moping over the mounting expenses, Brother Packer selling everything to Sister Banes. I thought of my own parents struggling to make ends meet, my father’s long hours and my mother’s endless complaining about the rising price of gasoline, bread, my constant need for new shoes and church clothes. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than the truth, the way it slowly ate at everything. It was the worst punishment God had ever given us.

While I bemoaned the horrors of reality, Jimmy shuffled over with a broken piece of cinderblock he’d found in the alley.

“What are you doing?” I said. But already I knew. Already I was crying.

The pigeon’s eyes were wide, its feathers gray with dirt.

“Ending suffering,” Jimmy said and dropped the piece of cement on the bird’s head.

*        *         *

That night, curled inside a sleeping bag on Jimmy’s floor, I dreamed of men building a planet with fresh steel and enormous plywood panels. Jimmy floated on a cloud overhead designing animals and smashing their skulls in favor of something better. There was a terrific roar, and scaly dragon bared down on Jimmy, blowing orange fire onto everything. I woke in a sweat, but the sounds continued. Through the thin trailer walls, I could hear curses, and the roar of the Camaro’s engine. I wiped the grime of sleep from my eyes and slipped out of my sleeping bag.

I moved through the hallway like a burglar, silent as a watching God. I opened the door and went down the stairs. Dozens of people were on their porches or in their overgrown yards. Brittany stood in the grass screaming as Donnie roared the engine. At some point, he must have had enough, because he threw the car in reverse, flying backwards until he hit the corner of one porch so that the entire trailer shook. Then he peeled out, spewing gravel everywhere, his lights off, burrowing through the darkness as a chrome smear.

After a few seconds, people walked off. A few stared at the porch Donnie had backed into. Brittany went to her trailer and slammed the door behind her. I screwed up my courage. Sometimes, I thought, God had to press. Besides, I was tired of imagining and pretending. For once, I longed for the truth, so I could better make things up.

I knocked on her door, waited, and knocked again.

“Oh, good god,” she said when she opened the door. “It’s one of those little weirdoes. Isn’t it past your bed time?”

“I don’t live here,” I said. “I’m visiting.”

It took a moment, but I realized this explained nothing. Brittany sniffled, and wiped the snot and tears from her face. She was still beautiful, but I figured too many more nights like this, too much more time spent with Donnie or men like him, and that would change.

“I just want to know why you like him,” I said.

Brittany seemed to consider slamming the door in my face, but then she walked out and sat on the edge of the porch. I watched her legs dangle over the side, her toes touching the edge of the long grass. I thought of Donnie scaring away the boys who came to mow their lawn, how he’d threatened them with his blade and laughed when they handed over their money. They’d never been back, and now the entire place was overgrown.

“He’s ugly,” I said.

“He’s weathered,” Brittany said. She ran her hand through her long red hair, turned and gave me a dimpled smile. “Do you think I could do better?”

“Anyone would be better,” I said. “No one would be better.”

“Hey, kid,” she said. “How come you don’t live here?”

I considered it. For the first time, I was glad I didn’t.

“Because I live somewhere else,” I said.

“Because you have someplace better,” she said. “I don’t. None of us do.”

We both said nothing. I put my hand in my pocket and felt the edge of the lottery tickets, and the last few dollar bills I’d saved.

“Can you believe that son of a bitch was married the entire time?” she said.

“Yes,” I said.

“Some ugly slug in Oklahoma,” she said.

I closed my eyes and tried to imagine how Brittany’s life could change, how it might shake up. I knew it would take an act of God, and I knew I wasn’t him. I never would be, because I’d never be able to watch the world I’d created turn ugly and wrong, let the people wallow in their own misery as I rooted for them to pick themselves up. I didn’t have the patience, the fortitude to watch them all break, to issue war and cancer, to drop cinderblocks out of the sky and onto the partially broken bodies. I decided then that I’d start small, start with that moment, and work my way up.

“Do whatever you want,” I said and went down the porch.

On the walk back to the trailer, I took the lottery tickets from my pocket, gave them one last look, and ripped them over and over. I climbed the porch of the Banes’ trailer and tossed the pieces high into the air like confetti. The next day, when Jimmy and I picked up the pieces, he was furious that someone had blown such a wonderful opportunity, but I stayed quiet, never once regretting my decision. I knew every last one of them was a loser.

Brad Eddy received his MFA from The University of Montana. His fiction has recently appeared in The Normal School, The Saint Ann’s Review, and The Greenbriar Review. He lives in Pennsylvania and is currently working on a linked collection of short stories.