U is for Ultra

When John awoke to look into the eyes of Hitler, and Pol Pot next to him, he had two thoughts:

1. Dead.

2. I was a worse person than I thought.

The first was not true. The second, maybe.

“He’s back,” said Hitler, who had come to prefer English a long time ago. Pol Pot went back to his crossword puzzle.

It was Sara, the Jessica Chastain lookalike who sometimes pals with Linda Hunt and kills terrorists, who had taken John down from his improvised hanging. John had in fact died, no one’s cheating on that, but Sara had brought him back to life. And now she pushed the former dictators out of the way to break the news that he was alive.

“How?” was John’s third question, directly after “Is that Hitler?” (Yes) and “Is that peanut butter?” (Yes). He meant the smell of her breath.

Sara blushed. “I got some of those orange crackers while I was waiting for you, but I made the boys keep watch so you wouldn’t be alone.”

“No, no, I meant–wait, what are you doing?”

“I have to hold your hands for a while. To readjust you back into the land of living. That sounds a little hokey, but, if the shoe fits…”

“You’re being shifty.”

“I am not.”

“Listen, I’ve been dead, I know what I’m talking about.”

“Okay, I’ve heard the whole ‘I’m dead and I’m wise’ act about a thousand times, so you can just check that little piece of designer luggage it won’t fit in the overhead.”

They held hands and looked into each other’s eyes for a moment. Sara looked away first. “So, what do you want for your first meal? All we have is orange crackers.”

“How am I alive?”

“Oh you know, mouth to mouth, a little spit and a polish.”

“Sara,” said Pol Pot, in that infuriating superior tone he had sometimes. Sara looked at Hitler, but Hitler was not making his view on the matter known.

“Okay look!” She held up a vial. “This is water from the Flood. This is aqua vitae. Literally. This stuff, it’s God’s mistake, you know? I mean, he never used the m-word, but he’s a man, so…at least he was back then. I’m getting off the point. God promised to never do it again, and this is the artifact of that. Somehow, when God changed his mind, the water changed its purpose. It became life-giving instead of ending. Noah found out about it after his wife tried to drown herself–that’s not in the book, of course, and I think she was just being dramatic, but she went full out Virginia Woolf on him on day forty-one when they all stepped onto dry land and she found out he had forgotten to pack the dodos. They were her favorite. But she just couldn’t stay underwater, even with pocket rocks, she kept bobbing back up. The whole thing just made her feel very well-rested. Cracker?”

She had big nervous eyes like a bush baby.

“Sara, what’s wrong?”

“Two things. First, Noah saved some of that water before it reentered the rain cycle and lost its power. He saved boatloads of it. He didn’t tell God, even though God already knows. It’s like an open secret between the two of them, like a parent who knows his teen is fingerbanging in the basement but never brings it up. I don’t understand it. I understand fingerbanging, that’s not what I meant. Although I’m not sure I agree with it. The point is, Noah’s been using this stuff for thousands of years to bring certain people back to life. Sorry people. Or, people who he thinks might be taught to be sorry.”

Hitler pointed to Pol Pot. “Eat me,” said the latter.

“Boys, please. Noah brings certain people back so that one day he can reveal them all and, um, prove that, I don’t know, nobody is unredeemable and so we should all get along. Boy my heart is just not in the elevator speech right now but you should hear the man explain it at a fundraiser. Pin drop stuff, really.”

“Wow. Huh. So Noah brought me back to life. Is it because I’m as bad as Hitler?”

Hitler ignored that. He was used to it.

“Not exactly. Well, you might be on the inside, I don’t know.”

“But he clearly thought I was important enough in some way for resurrection.”

“No he didn’t.”

“Nine letters: to throw out of order.”

“Distemper.” Sara pushed some hair behind her ear. “I did.”

Eye contact. She looked away. “That’s the second wrong thing. Noah doesn’t know. You went off his radar when you failed his test. He thinks you don’t really know what it means to be sorry.”

“I don’t.”

“That’s why I think we need you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Sorry sorry sorry. That’s not what’s going to get us out of this mess.”

Thunder rumbled on cue.

“And that’s not regular rain,” she said. “Come on.”

She took John to Sorry Hall, where the many miscreants of history shuffled around, playing checkers or just waiting for dinner. It was a little bit like the part at the end of Titanic where dead Rose goes back onboard and all the dead passengers are dressed real nice to see her and dead Leo offers his dead hand to dead her, but it was much creepier because of the rampant sadism.

“That’s Osama bin Laden.”

“Yes.”

“I thought you killed him.”

“I did.”

“Why would you kill him in order to bring him back?”

“We killed him to teach him a lesson. It’s like why adulterers get stoned, so they won’t do it again. I grant you it’s a little Old Testament, but that’s Noah. We’re trying to bring him into the twenty-first century but it’s a process. He has started to DVR Modern Family though and he finds it compelling, at least the first two seasons. Speaking of I’m going to go find him. I can’t keep you hidden forever and I think you can really help me get through to him. The whole thing’s gotten out of control. They’re serving chicken fingers in a few minutes.” She was gone.

John surveyed the dirty dozens, and chose to wait in a corner where a man and a woman sat with their guitars.

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“Not sure I would come over here, brother. We’re a couple of drunks and I’ve heard it’s catching.”

“That’s cool: I’m a problem drinker. I think maybe it’s a newish term, so I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. Mostly it means if I could take the amount of time and energy I spend wondering about whether I’m going to drink on any particular night, and then how much I’m going to drink, and then how much I’m going to beat myself up about how much I decided to drink, and then channel that into something productive, I would be making a lot more money. And I’d be thinner. My name’s John Lake. I didn’t kill anyone or anything, but I’m here.” He stuck out his hand.

“I’m Gerry Rafferty.”

“Sandy Denny.”

They passed a flask.

“So um, what are you two in for?”

Sandy and Gerry looked at each other.

“Music.”

They shared a little laugh.

“Music? What’s so bad about that?”

“Nothing, brother. Music’s not why we’re sorry. It’s why he brought us back. He’s hoping we might turn sorry, but…”

They laughed again. Passed the flask.

John looked around the room. Jeffrey Dahmer was watching Jeopardy with the sound turned off. “How exactly does Noah go about getting people to…you know…repent?”

“He sits with.”

“…With what?”

“With you. With ‘it.’ With time, I guess. He sits with. Sometimes he lies with. Not in the Biblical sense, but next to. Sometimes he stands with. Mostly it’s with. Mostly it’s silent.”

“I see.”

For reasons passing his understanding John was thrown into the memories of the brief period during which he had been obliged by his nut-shrinking company’s pro bono policy to be the coach of the fifth grade baseball team they sponsored. The lads were known as the Swinging Nuts, and they lost a lot. Like always.

So John would sit with them at Cici’s. They ate their cardboard with cheese in relative silence. The boys didn’t care about losing but they sensed that John did, so they were quiet for his sake. And he did care. He sat with the loss they didn’t feel, and it sat like slick liver in his gut. As did the pizza.

A series of letters to the editor ended John’s tenure. They were ghostwritten by one Braxton Hinchcliff, a colleague who was tired of his pro bono work running the American Legion bingo game and wanted John’s more presumably plum gig. The letters mused openly whether it wouldn’t be quite the coup if the terrorists could infiltrate the ranks of our little league coaches in the hopes of releasing America’s stranglehold on baseball mastery and so ending our freedoms. The ensuing uproar prompted an investigation. Authorities gained access to John’s computer and found he had Googled

How to coach baseball

How to coach young people baseball

and the nail in the coffin

How to play baseball

It was generally agreed upon that John was not a terrorist, but was probably a moron, athletically speaking at the very least. Still it had been a worthwhile experience for him, as it brought the realization that each sports contest, or at least each season, is a complete emotional life in miniature. The elation and anxiety and rage and despair were a full workout and each was necessary in its own way. The necessity in losing was not because it made victories taste sweeter, but because it made you feel bad, because it kicked the shit out of you, and that in itself was good.

He told that to the boys on their final trip to Cici’s together, when everyone knew the end had come and nobody ate the cinnamon pizza because it didn’t feel right. But the Swingers didn’t understand. He knew that was part of it too.

The other time John really sat with was at the Gulf County Health Department. He was in town for a beach vacation and went one morning to get tested for STDs. There was a kid in the waiting room screaming about some shot he’d just had, and this fat Florida woman without all of her teeth cackled and said, “The pains of life is just started for him!” It was a line she was so pleased with that she repeated it to anyone who would give her the time of day and a few who wouldn’t. The doctor told John he could find out if he had AIDS in two weeks, but he’d have to come get the results in person. John said he would be gone after two more days. The doctor said, “Why did you come here, and not where you live?” And John said, “It just felt like it was time.” The doctor stuck in the needle. John still doesn’t know if he has AIDS. But he knows you can’t go through life feeling you are better than people who go to malls.

Well you could, but you’d never make it through Gulf County Public Health, and sooner or later we all stop there.

“He’s really in it,” Gerry told Sandy. They laughed and had a drink. The rain pounded and the wind wounded.

“Sorry,” said John, and shook the space-out from behind his eyes.

“S’alright. More important than talking to us. Whatever’s written in your heart, brother. You’ll say it someday.” Gerry laughed. “It’s writing that song got me on Noah’s list. Made him think given a second chance I might repair the mess I made of things. Or Sandy here, might make it down the stairs without falling. And I still believe it. The song. I do. It’s just that, comes a time in your life, it’s harder to change what’s written in your heart than it used to be. Maybe impossible.” He took a long drink.

Sandy looked longingly at the flask, then turned to John. “Worried?”

John thought about it.

“Yes.”

“You don’t have to be. No one needs to sit with you to see it. It’s in your blood, love, it runs through you like water. Yeah.” She nodded, plucked the guitar. “It carries you, though you can’t tell if it’s taking you to joy or sorrow. That’s the nature of this particular donkey ride. But what you have to figure out, John Lake, or maybe what you get to decide, is whether, in the face of that uncertainty, the love in you is an ocean or only a stream.”

She patted his face sadly, then looked out the window at the flood. “Someone’s drowning out there,” she said, but looking in John’s eyes. “This donkey only goes one way you know, Pancho. No matter what the man says.” She sighed, and looked down at her dress. “Not to worry though. The whole thing will be dry by tomorrow. You’ll see.”

At that point the roof crashed in and killed her instantly. Gerry too. John narrowly avoided a crushed skull and was carried away by the cascading water, two minutes before chicken fingers.

He sped out a shattered window into the maelstrom where, luckily, an ark was afloat. It was the right number of cubits and everything.

“JOHN!” Sara threw a knotted rope over the side, like in gym class.

“I’m an athletic moron!” John said. “I’ll never make it!”

Sara couldn’t understand the words but figured the tone. “LISTEN MISTER. DON’T YOU THINK IT’S TIME YOU SAVED YOUR OWN LIFE?”

What Mrs. Noah didn’t know, despite how her husband tried to tell her, was that the dodos, along with the moitles and the jabols and the yellow kneffers, simply chose not to get on the boat when the time came. They had their reasons, and their reasons weren’t the same, and their reasons would be hard to translate across species.

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The truth is sometimes you get on the ark and sometimes you don’t.

This time John did.