Four from "Last night"

Joe Amato

Last night, talking with Iraq's Prime Minister, I confided in him that I was allergic to sand. He confided in me that he doubted the Shi'ah would prevail. Together we improvised a serving of Phoenix dactylifera to be presented by a partisan of Ali to one of the surviving actors from a 1965 film about a plane crash in the Sahara. Ours would be a truly cinematic peace, as Lara Logan reported later on the CBS Evening News.

Last night a close Sunni friend confessed to me that she had no idea so many combat deaths in WWII were caused by flying pieces of shattered bone. I confessed to her that I had no idea the vast majority of the world's Muslims were followers of the caliphate. And imagine, I said, if you were allergic to sand. Imagine, she said—for every American killed during that war, 5 Japanese were killed, 20 Germans were killed, and 85 Russians were killed. Or something like that. Imagine, I said, if you were allergic to gluten. Imagine, she said, what it means when hell becomes just another place on the map. That reminds me, I said, of what Richard Boone growls to Paul Newman near the end of a terrific 1967 western: "Now what do you suppose hell is gonna look like?"

Last night I found myself at a powwow north of Pocatello, Idaho, wondering why so many Mormons decided to settle here. It was a sunny day, scorching hot and bone dry. There was a massacre of Shoshoni taking place midwinter an hour's drive to the southeast, while at the powwow, an eagle feather dropped from a dancer's costume, and time stood still for a moment. After the massacre, I found myself in downtown Pocatello, where everyone was dressed in Civil War garb. My wife was there too, trying to pretend she didn't know me. She was hawking her first book, about a little-known massacre of Shoshoni, which, she'd concluded, was followed by a mass rape. "Look," I heard her say to one old man with a beard and a hair shirt, "this kind of thing is happening today." And when I heard her say that, I suddenly recalled that we were trying to option a screenplay about the massacre.

Last night I awoke in deep pain, having gone to bed too soon after eating too much pepperoni and sausage pizza. I got up, took a piss, and recalled a poem I'd written while working as an engineer in a pharmaceutical plant. It was an unabashedly lyrical item, written before I really knew what "lyrical" meant, having to do with Theodora of Byzantium, Lepidoptera, and my beloved Claude Achille, who while on his deathbed could hear the Germans bombing his beloved City of Light. Were they using Zeppelins at the time? I didn't think so. La Mer played softly in the background, transporting me to a discourse—and here I beg you to listen closely—in which the problem of the critical idiom was posed as having primarily to do not with knowledge production, but with knowledge relations. In which case, I could hear myself respond, why am I having such a difficult time relating? And then it dawned on me, even as the morning sky brightened—giving me pause to consider what it means for paper to reflect blue light with a wavelength of exactly 457 nanometers, 44 nanometers wide—that this had much to do with days long past. In particular, with those visits I would pay to my mother while she worked as the main receptionist at General Electric CR & D in Schenectady. I was pursuing a doctorate in English at the time. Across the lobby from my mother's desk sat Edison's desk, atop which burned a low-voltage, tungsten-filament, incandescent bulb that, as I recall, had been burning for many decades. If you walked through the reception area, it opened out to a veranda overlooking the Mohawk. I would sit in a chair beside my mother, and we'd chat for a half-hour in between her various duties. I learned some local institutional lore—the days of the deformed and brilliant Steinmetz, the mechanical horse once built there, contributions to the Big Bang Theory. One of the scientists gave me a copy of the The Principle of Relativity, with original papers by Einstein, Lorentz, Weyl, and Minkowski. "A DOVER EDITION DESIGNED FOR YEARS OF USE!" $1.75. It sits even now on our shelves. One bright August day, while I was visiting with my mother, the mailman dropped off a number of packages wrapped in twine, which my mother signed for. She looked at the twine, tsking gently, and retrieved a large pair of shears from her desk drawer, snipping the twine from the packages. She turned to the waist-high cabinet behind her, saying, without any particular emphasis, "I try to show them how much they waste." And as she said this, she reached down into the cabinet to pull out a ball of twine perhaps one foot in diameter, quickly wrapping the snipped twine around the ball and knotting it into the other snippets. "Jesus Christ, Mom!" I laughed, trying not to laugh too loudly. She smiled, still irritated at the "waste." "You should have seen the last ball I showed them—it was this big." She spread her hands apart to indicate two feet. A quick burp, and it was back to bed for another couple of hours of shuteye.