It’s late when Angelo comes home from his restaurant. Instead of retiring to bed where his wife is asleep, he goes to the living room and turns on Infant Magic, a wireless, twelve-inch baby monitor that sits on top of his large, high definition TV. It keeps an eye on his ninety-year-old grandmother who lives in the small house across the street. He sees she’s in bed, quietly watching her own television that is no doubt tuned to a weather channel or network of god.
He lowers the volume on Infant Magic, turns on the high def and settles into his recliner. From over 300 channels, he chooses to watch a documentary about the Brooklyn Bridge and how several men died from The Bends as they built foundations in the East River. He’s moved by the old black and white images of men working together and getting the job done, of men making history. Then there’s movement on the baby monitor. Angelo looks up at Infant Magic and sees his grandmother clawing at the air and speaking his name, the beginnings of her nightly ritual. He can’t help but compare her to some strange nocturnal animal, underweight and bewildered.
Her voice starts out low, as if asking a simple question.
Then she progresses to a wail.
Like he’s a saint.
Like he’s a monster.
Her voice squeezes through the tiny speakers as a crackle, but she’s loud enough that he can hear her yelling from across the street. If he doesn’t quell her typical paranoia about the end of the world and how the day nurses tamper with her oxygen tank and swipe her soup cans, she’ll work herself into a frenzy and disrupt this peaceful spring night. It’s only a matter of time before his neighbors call to complain about the screaming. Again.
Six months ago, when the ground was a crunch of snow, his grandmother was asked to leave The Sunnyside assisted living facility for starting rumors that the Jello was poisoned. Her two living children and seven other grandchildren stated that it’s Angelo who is a successful restaurateur, that it’s he who knows how to deal with old girl best. And besides, his wife is a patient woman and deep-sleeper. Yes, yes and yes. All statements true, he took care of her arrangements with a methodical approach, as if ordering prime cuts of meat, or drawing up the employee schedules. He now pays half of all her bills (rent, food and medical services), takes her to Doctor Mignosi and to the beauty parlor where all the ladies grab his hand and say, “What a nice man you are...I hope my boy takes care of me the way you take care of your grandma.” But sometimes his grandmother forgets that she’s grateful. Depending on how she feels tonight about her living situation, she’ll either throw a pillow at him the second he walks through her door or offer a slice of coffee cake. Angelo isn’t ready to deal with his night shift, not quite yet, at least not on an empty stomach.
Besides, he thinks as he rises from his recliner, this is what she wants to do. She wants to scream until she’s all screamed out.
Sometimes, he wishes he could do the same.
In the kitchen, where he cannot hear her, Angelo decides to make breaded egg noodles, a dish his grandmother would prepare for him during his two-year sleepover while his parents were separated nearly four decades ago. He also notices how quiet his large house really is. The family dog is too old for begging and his children, uninterested in the family business, are grown and gone off to college. Lately, he finds that he whispers instructions to himself during the moments when he is truly alone, like now, as he watches a stick of butter melt into the pan of breadcrumbs. Pat the crumbs with the spatula, he whispers. Salt the boiling water.
Then, like a mallet, her voice breaks through the silence. He detects a different quality to her voice though, like she’s younger, more confident. Perhaps he is imagining this, but he hears his name as a declaration.
As her voice grows, he is pulled back into his own history, their history, to that bright October morning when he was twenty-five, in debt but excited to finally hold the key to his first restaurant, a small yet promising place in Jersey City. When he arrived, he found his grandmother leaning against the storefront. A white apron was tied around her thick waist. Her graying hair was pinned into a bun.
“Angelo,” she declared, “I will work for minimum wage. No more. No less.”
She lifted her chin and crossed her arms, seemingly prepared to wait until she got the answer she wanted. She didn’t have to wait long. With only a slight hesitation, Angelo said yes and his grandmother, surprised but pleased, shook his hand. “Well then,” she said pointing to his key, “let’s get to work.” He opened the door and let her walk in first.
To this day, he’ll admit that he surprised himself with his quick response. She was and is undeniably difficult. But, in that moment, he realized that he’d be giving his grandmother her first paying job at age sixty-six. She had raised three children, helped rear her children’s children, and buried her husband earlier that year. He also understood that her tenderizing veal cutlets and chopping garlic really meant she’d make sure his employees didn’t slack off or steal. And on her watch, no one ever did. When he opened his next restaurant, nearly twice the size of his first, his grandmother was in her seventies and couldn’t stand on her feet for more than a few hours. So he insisted that she sit in a booth where she folded napkins and rolled silverware, all the while keeping an eye on his restaurant. Within a few years, her hands began to cramp easily, as well as her mind. There were complaints from both his employees and customers about her paranoia. It wasn’t good for business. Angelo had no choice but to ask her to retire. To his surprise, she didn’t put up a fight, just untied her apron and handed it to him. He knew then, sadly enough, that he had made the right decision.
There is one thing though that continues to mystify him. Not once, after all of these years, have they ever spoken a word of thanks to each other. Angelo turns down the flame under his pan. The smell of breadcrumbs and butter consumes him.
Thank you, he whispers to himself.
As Angelo fills a large green bowl with breaded egg noodles, the phone begins to ring. His grandmother’s voice, having reached that frenzied pitch, reverberates throughout the neighborhood, breaking into all the homes. She is loud, louder than usual. But Angelo doesn’t answer the phone nor does he peek inside his bedroom to see if his wife is still asleep. Instead, he listens to his grandmother intermittently call out his name and scream about the size of the moon. Without guilt or grief, he reaches into the cabinet, pulls out another green bowl and fills it with a healthy serving, more breading than noodles, just the way she likes it. He secures a sheet of tin foil over each bowl and waits.
And when the silence finally returns, whether it’s in a few minutes or an hour, whether it’s due to her strained vocal cords or pure exhaustion from being alive, Angelo will cross the street and present her with this late night snack. She’ll say his name, straining to lift up her chin. Her question will be asked. Did you use butter or margarine with these breadcrumbs? Butter, he’ll respond, and she’ll nod, quite pleased. With that, he’ll sit on his grandmother’s bed and carefully, ever so gently, place the bowl on her lap. He’ll take her hand, and together they will say grace.