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Home > Playing for Pizza(7)

Playing for Pizza(7)
Author: John Grisham

"I don't do coffee."

"It's time to start."

"What do these Italians think of Americans?"

"They like us, I guess, not that they dwell on the subject. If they stop and think about it, they probably dislike our government, but generally they couldn't care less. They are crazy about our culture."

"Even football?"

"To some degree. There's a great little bar over there. You want something to drink?"

"No, it's too early."

"Not alcohol. A bar here is like a small pub or coffee shop, a gathering place." 111 pass. "Anyway, the center of the city is where the action is. Your apartment is just a few streets over."

"Can't wait. Mind if I make a call?"

"Prego."

"What?"

"Prego. It means go right ahead." Rick punched the numbers while Sam worked his car through the late-afternoon traffic. When Rick glanced out his window, Sam quickly pushed a button on the radio and low volume opera rose in the background. Whoever Rick needed to chat with was unavailable; no voice mail was left by the quarterback; phone slapped shut; returned to pocket. Probably his agent, thought Sam. Maybe a girlfriend. "You got a girl?" Sam asked. "No one in particular. Lots of NFL groupies, but they're dumb as rocks. You?"

"Married for eleven years, no kids."

They crossed a bridge called the Ponte Verdi. "This is the Parma River. It divides the city."

"Lovely."

"Ahead of us is the Parco Ducale, the largest park in the city. It's quite beautiful. Italians are big on parks and landscaping and such."

"It's pretty."

"Glad you approve. It's a great place to walk, take a girl, read a book, lie in the sun."

"Never spent much time in parks." What a surprise. They looped around, recrossed the river, and were soon darting through narrow one-way streets. "You've now seen most of downtown Parma," Sam said. "Nice." A few blocks south of the park they turned onto a winding street, Via Linati. "There," Sam said, pointing to a long row of four-story buildings, each painted a different color. "The second one, sort of a gold color, apartment's on the third floor. It's a nice part of town. Signor Bruncardo, the gent who owns the team, also owns a few buildings. That's why you get to live downtown. It's more expensive here."

"And these guys really play for free?" Rick said, mulling something that had stuck from a prior conversation. "The Americans get paid--you and two others--only three this year. No one makes as much as you. Yes, the Italians play for the sport of it. And the postgame pizza." A pause, then he added, "You're gonna love these guys." It was his first effort at bolstering team spirit. If the quarterback wasn't happy, then there would be many problems. He somehow wedged his Honda into a space half its size, and they loaded up the luggage and golf clubs. There was no elevator, but the stairwell was wider than normal. The apartment was furnished and had three rooms--a bedroom, a den, a small kitchen. Because his new quarterback was coming from the NFL, Signor Bruncardo had sprung for new paint, rugs, curtains, and den furniture. There was even some splashy contemporary art on the walls. "Not bad," Rick said, and Russo was relieved. He knew the realities of urban real estate in Italy--most of the apartments were small and old and expensive. If the quarterback was disappointed, then Signor Bruncardo would be, too. Things would get complicated. "On the market, it would be two thousand euros a month," Sam said, trying to impress.

Rick was carefully placing his golf clubs on the sofa. "Nice place," he said. He couldn't count the number of apartments he'd passed through in the last six years. The constant moving, often in a hurry, had deadened any appreciation of square footage, decor, and furnishings. "Why don't you change clothes and I'll meet you downstairs," Sam said. Rick glanced down at his white slacks and brown ankles and almost said, "Oh, I'm fine." But then he took the hint and said, "Sure, give me five minutes."

"There's a cafe two blocks down on the right," Sam said. "I'll be at a table outside having a coffee."

"Sure, Coach." Sam ordered coffee and opened his newspaper. It was damp and the sun had dipped behind the buildings. The Americans always went through a brief period of culture shock. The language, cars, narrow streets, smaller lodgings, the confinement of the cities. It was overwhelming, especially to the middle- and lower-class guys who'd traveled little. In his five years as coach of the Parma Panthers, Sam had met exactly one American player who'd ever been to Italy before joining the team.

Two of Italy's national treasures usually warmed them up-- food and women. Coach Russo did not meddle with the latter, but he knew the power of Italian cooking. Mr. Dockery was facing a four-hour dinner and had no idea what was coming. Ten minutes later he arrived, cell phone in hand of course, and looked much better. Navy blazer, faded jeans, dark socks, and shoes. "Coffee?" Sam asked.

"Just a Coke." Sam talked to the waiter.

"So you speak the lingo, huh?" Rick said, stuffing the phone in a pocket. "I've lived here for five years. My wife is Italian. I told you that."

"Do the other Yanks pick up the language?"

"A few words, especially items on a menu."

"Just curious as to how I'm supposed to call plays in the huddle?"

"We do it in English. Sometimes the Italians get the plays; sometimes they don't."

"Just like in college," Rick said, and they both laughed. He gulped his Coke, then said, "Me, I'm not bothering with the language. Too much trouble. When I played in Canada, there was a lot of French. Didn't slow us down. Everyone spoke English, too."

"Not everyone speaks English here, I can assure you of that."

"Yes, but everyone speaks American Express and greenbacks."

"Maybe. It's not a bad idea to study the language. Life's easier and your teammates will love you."

"Love? Did you say love? I haven't loved a teammate since I was in college."

"This is like college, a big fraternity with guys who like to put on the gear, brawl for a couple of hours, then go drink beer. If they accept you, and I'm sure they will, then they'll kill for you."

"Do they know about, uh, you know, my last game?"

"I haven't asked them, but I'm sure some do. They love football and watch a lot of games. But don't worry, Rick. They're delighted you're here. These guys have never won the Italian Super Bowl, and they're convinced this is the year." Three signorinas walked by and required their attention. When they were out of sight, Rick gazed at the street and seemed lost in another world. Sam liked him and felt sorry for him. He had endured an avalanche of public ridicule never before seen in professional football, and here he was in Parma, alone and confused. And running. Parma was where he belonged, at least for now. "You wanna go see the field?" Sam asked. "Sure, Coach." As they walked away, Sam pointed down another street. "There's a men's store down there, great clothes. You should check it out."

"I brought plenty."

"Like I said, you should check it out. Italians are very stylish and they'll watch you carefully, both men and women. You can never be overdressed here."

"Language, clothes, anything else, coach?"

"Yes, a bit of advice. Try to enjoy yourself here. It's a wonderful old town and you're here for such a short time."

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