Sunday, July 26, 2020

SHOWCASE: “Sunday Dinner with la Famiglia (and Nonno’s Brain)” • by Franco Amati

Art by Justine Backes

Sunday dinner with the family was a little different this week.
We all sat around a dumpy-ass table in the middle of the nursing home. From where I was sitting, I could see a big bowl of pasta. My younger sister Gina was across from me, and next to her was the big jar with Grandpa’s brain in it. We called him Nonno, and he didn’t say much these days. A few of his usual phrases once in a while, but that was it.

The jar was filled with this blueish fluid, and there were all these sensors and wires coming out of Nonno’s lumpy old sponge. Attached to the cart that held the jar was a mounted rig with a large mechanical arm that Nonno could control if he wanted to.

“Whattatheycallit again? A vath?” Gina asked.

“A vat, honey,” Mom said.

Gina was a little bit of a moron. She also just had a kid. Her son, Baby Nico, was sitting on the other side of her in his high chair. Next to him was my mom, who was periodically feeding him spoonfuls of smushed spaghetti. I was on the other side of my Mom. My dad was next to me, and next to my dad was my grandma, Nonno’s wife, who will probably be getting her own vat real soon.

Technically, she’s Nonna, but for some reason we just call her Grandma. She had her fifth stroke last month on her ninetieth birthday. She’s practically catatonic most of the time, but if she gets riled up she has these uncontrollable outbursts where she gets violent, and you can’t understand a word she’s saying. When they put her in the vat, I wonder if she’ll act the way she does now or if the doctors can fix her brain up a little so she can act the way she used to.

“Hey Tone,” Mom said to me, “maybe you can get an internship here and help out with all the brains or somethin’.”

“Ma, I graduated college six years ago. They don’t let you do internships if you’re outa school already.” My mom doesn’t know anything. She’s never had a job in her life, and she’s got no clue what it’s like to try to get a career going.

“Okay, well then just volunteer or somethin’ to build your resume. You never know, honey. Gotta make connections is all. It’s all about who you know.”

She’s ridiculous. She goes on the same spiel every time we’re in public. Soon when the doctor guy comes over here, she’s gonna try to get him to talk to me about his career path. She’ll be like, “Hey doctor so and so, how could my Tony here get into the brain-jarring business? You guys are real miracle workers here. Extending people’s lives like that. I want my Tony doin’ somethin’ worthwhile like that.”

Out of nowhere a garbled computerized voice blasted through Nonno’s speaker. “Eyya, Happy New Year!”

“It’s not New Year’s, Pop. It’s the middle of July,” Dad said.

Then Gina said, “Hey, I always wondered. How do they get the computer voice to sound all Italian like that?”

“Nonno’s brain is being kept alive in a jar, and you’re worried about how they get his voice to sound Italian? Sheesh,” I said, “you’re so dumb.”

“Guys, behave,” Dad said. “Don’t be mean to each other, or no allowance this week.” He was wearing his traditional white and blue Sunday polo shirt with white pleated khaki shorts, which were pretty much the only pants he wore throughout the summer when he wasn’t working. And he had these stupid rimless glasses that he got like twenty years ago that he thinks still look good because, you know, without the rims no one can tell he’s wearing glasses.

“Hey can someone pass the sauce?” I asked.

“You mean gravy,” Mom said.

“No, I mean sauce. That’s what everyone in the freakin’ world calls it.”

“Well in Italy and South Jersey we call it gravy.”

“I’m pretty sure no one in Italy has ever called it gravy.”

Then Dad chimed in, “I dunno why you gotta always bring up the same shit all the time. Can’t you just respect your mother and call it what the family calls it? When you’re not with the family, call it whatever the hell you want. But when you’re with us, you call things like we do.”

Then outa nowhere Nonno spoke again: “Mincia, questo è stoonad!”

The volume of the speaker scared Baby Nico, so he spilled his juice. Gina completely ignored it because she was laughing so hard at what Nonno said. “Ohmygod Tony. See even Nonno thinks you’re a freakin’ idiot!”

I wasn’t gonna dignify it with a response, but then Dad defended me by saying, “He didn’t call Anthony an idiot. He called him a stoonad.”

“Same thing.”

“No. A stoonad is someone who can’t pay attention that good. Your brother’s not an idiot. He just gets distracted sometimes is all.”

I couldn’t believe this. I needed a break from these people. So I excused myself and got up to go to the bathroom.

The place was a weird kind of nursing home. It was sort of set up like a hospital, but since all the residents were reliant on expensive-as-hell technology to stay alive, the place looked more like a science lab. Even the cafeteria had rows and rows of hardware lined up everywhere, up against the walls, under the tables, on the ceilings. Even in the age of wireless, this place was somehow wrapped in a never-ending rainbow of extension cords. I guess brains require a lot of upkeep.

Honestly, I don’t get why so many people wanted to live this way. I could never. There’s no way any of these people are even remotely happy floating in fluid with only one robotic arm to do stuff with. The hand on it doesn’t even have the right number of fingers. Nonno’s probably so pissed he can’t give anyone the middle finger like he used to.

On my way to the bathroom I walked by a few of the residents’ rooms. I didn’t get why they had beds. Floating brains didn’t need to sleep. But then I walked passed another room, and I saw why. There was a sad, middle-aged woman curled up on the bed trying her best to spoon with her loved one’s vat. I guess it can be pretty hard to let go.

The bathroom was at the end of the hall. There was one urinal, and it was overflowing. So I had to use one of the stalls. When I got out to wash my hands, I noticed at the end of the room there was a vat just sitting there. I didn’t even hear it roll in. I pumped the pink soap onto my hands and tried to ignore it. But I couldn’t. It was just parked there, right in front of the full-length mirror, not moving at all. Does it even recognize itself? Jesus Christ. Creepy as hell. I rinsed my hands and got the heck outa there.

When I rejoined my family, it looked like they had stopped eating.

“What the hell, Tony—did you fall in? Get over here. We forgot to say the prayer,” Mom said. “Now sit down. We were waiting for you to get back this whole time.”

“Jeez, you coulda prayed without me.”

“Let’s go. Everyone hold hands. Gina, take Nonno’s arm.”

“Ew, no. I don’t wanna. It’s got hospital germs on it.”

In unison: “Bless us, oh Lord, for these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from thy bounty, through Christ, Our Lord, Amen.”

“I think I heard Nonno yawning during the prayer,” I said.

“Don’t make fun of Nonno. You’ll be like that too one day,” Dad said.

“No I won’t. I’m gonna be cremated.”

Mom, in her angry tone, “No you’re not. When your heart stops beating, you’re either goin’ right in the jar like Nonno or you’re goin’ in the mausoleum with Zia Carmelina and her cats. This way Saint Jude and Mary and all the other saints can watch over your spirit.”

I changed the topic. “Um, is Grandma okay? She looks kinda spacey right now.”

“She’s fine, she just needs to eat. Honey, make sure she gets some spaghetti down.”

“I don’t think Grandma even knows that it’s her husband in there. Every now and then she glances at the jar, and she gets this brief look of disgust,” I said.

“What are you talkin’ about?” Mom said, “She always looked at him like that.”

“I think she’s just getting hypnotized from all the bubbles in Nonno’s jar. Look at her,” Gina said.

“Stop it. Your grandma can’t get hypnotized. Remember when we took her to that psychic doctor to try to cure her seizures?”

Dad groaned, “What a waste of money.”

Dad was always talking about money and work. He was cheap as hell with everything. Probably because he was dropping a fortune to keep Nonno here.

Dad, looking right at Mom,“You shouldn’t trust anyone with your money unless you can see your reflection in the glass frame of their diploma hanging on the wall behind them. That’s what I always say.”

Then Gina said, “Not true Dad. Tony’s got a diploma hangin’ up all shiny in our house, and he’s still unemployed. How old are you now, Tone, thirty-two? And you still live at home with mommy and daddy.”

“Leave him alone, Gina,” Mom said. “He helps out more than you do. Isn’t that right, baby?” Then she kissed me on the cheek.

“That’s right, Ma. And at least I finished school. How long has it been since you started beauty school, huh? What’s this like the fourth time you’re gonna take that final test?”

“Uhh, third actually. And for your information, the average person does take multiple times to pass the practical.”

“The average dumb person.”

“Son, listen. What you need to do is find a good-paying trade, and just work until you retire. That’s all there is to it. Look at me. I got a family, a house, and everything I need.”

Mom adds, “Pshh, and a ton of debt! Oh, when is it that you’re gonna retire already? You’ll be sixty-six next month.”

“Amore, look at this body,” Dad said, flexing his bicep. “Does this look like the body of a man ready to retire?”

“Dad, why is Nonno Francesco in there anyway? Was it his choice?” I asked.

“He’s in there so that when they have the technology to transfer his memories to a robot, then he’ll be all set. When I was a kid, your grandpa told me one time, while he was reading me a story, that he was going to live forever. I believed him. And now we’re lucky we live in a time where we can make his dream come true.”

“But doesn’t it cost a lot of money to keep him here?”

“We’re not discussing this right now, Tony. Not in front of your grandparents. Don’t worry about it. You let your father worry about the money.”

Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it. That’s what he always said when he wanted to avoid controversial topics.

Dad’s voice was sounding kind of angry. It was upsetting the baby. Nico was getting restless and started crying. Mom and Gina tried to calm him down by giving him a meatball. But Nico started flailing and went full-on temper tantrum. He grabbed the meatball out of Gina’s hand and threw it wayyyy up into the air. We all gasped.

The meatball was headed right towards Nonno’s vat.

Dad, in a quick motion, leaped out of his chair onto the table to try to catch the meatball before it landed in the vat. But in doing so he knocked over the pitcher of wine, and it landed right on Grandma’s lap, drenching her completely. Her white blouse was now covered in purple, and she started to flip out. Meanwhile the meatball splashed right into the vat and sank all the way down to the bottom, settling just under Nonno’s cerebellum.

Grandma unleashed a torrent of obscenities, a tirade of nonsensical Italian gibberish.

“Oh my gawd! The meatball is touching Nonno!” Mom shouted. “Please, someone help!”

For a second it looked like Dad was gonna stick his hand right in the vat to pull out the meatball. But one of the staff members came running to help. Another staff member went to help Grandma with her blouse, trying to pat her down with a towel. But Grandma fought back, throwing weak, old-lady punches and spewing more Italian venom in the aid’s face.

“Sir, please don’t put your hand in there!” a tall man said. “I’m Dr. Wilcox, head of Neural Gerontology. Please do not do that. The liquid will severely irritate your skin. The meatball is fine in there. Leave it alone. It’s not going to do anything harmful to your grandfather’s cortex.”

“What do you mean it’s not going to do anything harmful? It’s practically touching his brain stem. That can’t be good,” Dad shouted.

“It’s not ideal. But the brain itself doesn’t have sensory receptors. He can’t actually feel the meatball touching him. And that liquid can preserve anything. You can seriously just leave it in there forever and nothing will happen.”

“Oh no, I don’t want my father to have to live with a meatball next to him like that. It’s embarrassing.”

“I mean, we can do a complete replacement of the liquid. But it’s very expensive. Really, it’s only necessary from a cosmetic standpoint. If it bothers you that much, we can remove the meatball. But I doubt you father’s insurance will cover the unnecessary fluid replacement. But, like I said, if you’re willing to pay, we can take care of it.”

Then, as they were talking, I heard a creak and a clank behind us. It was coming from Nonno’s arm. He was moving his arm!

The doctor started to realize what was happening. So he called in his staff to intervene. “Hey, can one of the techs get in there and turn off that arm?”

That’s when dad stepped in.“You stop it right there. I don’t want any of you smart-asses touching my father. That is his arm. He moves it of his own free will. You have no right to turn off his arm.”

Dad knew what was about to happen. That Nonno was gonna reach into his own jar and pull out the damn meatball himself. That’s Nonno for you. When enough was enough, he’d always take it upon himself to do what he needed to do. It was good to see there was still some of that left in him.

So we all just watched Nonno raise his enormous arm and reach down into his jar. Some more of the juice spilled out as the hand became submerged.

We all looked at each other like yeah! Right on, Nonno! But then, something else happened. Nonno didn’t go for the meatball. Instead, he used his metal claw to clench his own brain, and he whooshed it right out of the fluid. The blue stuff splashed everywhere. We all got out of the way, worried the liquid would touch us. The arm stuck straight up in the air, brain trembling like jello, goo pouring down, with the still-attached wires glistening under the fluorescent lights. Then Nonno tossed himself right on to the table. The brain bounced once and knocked over the bowl of tomato sauce. Red splattered everywhere. The table was covered in grey matter and marinara.

“Folks! Everyone stop what they’re doing!” Dr. Wilcox said. “We can salvage your grandfather’s brain. But you all have to leave immediately. Nurse, please call security to escort them. Get this family out of here right now! And you,” he pointed to one of the orderlies, “clean up all this sauce!”

We grabbed our things and headed for the exit. We were all pretty much speechless. Except for Mom. She walked right up to the doctor and said, “It’s gravy.”


Franco Amati is a speculative fiction writer from New York. His educational background is in cognitive science. His fiction has appeared in The Colored Lens, Northern Speculative, Utopia Science Fiction, and other places. You can find more of his work at


Arisia said...

2020 adventures in normality:

Coming to a sentence apparently in Italian, I googled italian to english, copied and pasted the four words into the translator, and got the middle two words translated to this is. That wasn't much help, but the translator suggested I try Somali to English. That was even less help. None of the four words were translated. Next I googled the fourth word, stoonad. That produced chaos, mostly about words Google thought I must have meant. But at the bottom of my screen was the Urban Dictionary's contribution. Stoonad means stupid. Okay. I've come to appreciate the Urban Dictionary. Sort of. I recommend it for checking out words or names you make up before you use them.

When I reached the end of "Sunday dinner ..." I thought this was a strange story for Showcase, because there was no SFF in it. Some nice humor, but basically just a typical family trying to eat dinner. I actually puzzled over that for a few seconds. I blame that entirely on life in 2020.