“Are you still sure you can handle a full-sized book, Joe?”
The Cavaliere del Piave’s thick eyebrows and his height even seated put more fear in Joe than perhaps the man intended. Behind his desk, with the view of the City out two large windows and surrounded by the space and light of his office, the magnate exuded power more directly than in the intimacy of dinner the week before. “Business letters are just between me and my correspondents; this book has to cut a bella figura for the whole Group to the world.”
“I think so, sir,” Joe said, gripping his hands together below the level of the desk, where del Piave could not see them. “If I get into any difficulty, I will certainly call you immediately, hopefully in plenty of time for you to give the job to someone else.”
“I sincerely hope that won’t be necessary,” the tall man said. “I like the work you have already done for us.”
The conversation was taking place in the corporate headquarters of the Del Piave holding group. They spoke in Italian, which was more formal-sounding than English. Del Piave addressed Joe with the tu which adults use with children, and padroni with employees, while Joe used the Lei pronoun denoting respect for elders and employers.
The man continued, “I have a contract here, which your mother will have to countersign because the law requires it, but the contract is between us. We’ll pay you 800 lire per page when you deliver the final manuscript in English, and you can keep the typewriter and the dictionaries. I added two weeks to the time-line you gave me. Your deadline is the 25th of July, typed and hand-delivered to my office. You understand?”
“Yes, sir,” said Joe taking the contract. There were two copies. He signed all three documents and placed the original with one copy in his pack. Signor del Piave put the other copy in his desk drawer. “My mother said she would sign this if it suited me. I can bring it by tomorrow or Monday, as you prefer.”
“Monday would be fine, Joe.” He stood, indicating that the interview was over. Joe got up and shook the businessman’s hand. Del Piave smiled. “I hope this goes well. I would enjoy doing business regularly with a young man like you.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Joe. “Arrivederci.”
Del Piave pressed a buzzer as Joe turned and the secretary, a man in his late twenties, appeared to open the door before Joe reached it. Joe smiled and made his way down the hallways lined with Roman statues and frescoes from the Renaissance to the wide marble stairway that led to the entrance. The portiere opened the door for him and nodded approvingly at the Vespa as Joe drove off.
Traffic was light getting home from the Del Piave building. It being the Friday before Palm Sunday, Joe could tell that many had left town to spend Holy Week and Easter with relatives. It was also the fifth day of Spring Break.
Joe heard the phone ringing as he came home. Angela answered it.
“It’s for you, signorino. Your mother.”
“Thanks, Angela.” He put the handset to his ear. “Yes, Mom?”
“Good. I’m glad I caught you. Jack and I are just getting out of a meeting at the Hilton. Would you like to join us in the coffee shop?”
“Sure. I’ll be right over.” Joe dropped his rucksack in his room and went to the bathroom to wash his hands and face. As he combed his hair, he thought again how grateful he was that his suit was not sweaty and dirty.
He crossed the street, acutely aware that this was the first time that he knew of that Jack and his mother had met outside the office and not on business. They were seated at a table in the coffee shop when he walked in, but they had not ordered yet.
Nancy ordered a glass of wine, and Joe took a chinotto, the traditional citrus soft drink. Jack was intrigued, so he ordered one, too.
“This is an interesting taste,” he said. “An adult soft drink.”
“It’s not an automatic favorite,” Joe said, “maybe because it’s not all that sweet. I like it before eating, so it makes a good aperitif.”
“Well, TGIF,” said Nancy, holding up her glass. They toasted the weekend.
“I don’t know what the conference was about,” Joe said, “but I take it that it was successful?”
“Not that kind of a conference,” Nancy said, looking at Jack. “Kind of progress meeting with our European affiliates. I’m ready for the weekend.”
“Speaking of weekends,” said Jack, “Joe, you never really answered my question about tennis. And I can’t get your mother out on the court either.” Joe realized that his mother had not yet talked to him about their conversation.
“Come on, Jack. You’re the jock in the office,” said Nancy.
“And you need to get out of it more,” he countered. “Why don’t we meet just every other Saturday or Sunday. We’ll keep it fun and easy.”
“I don’t know, Jack,” Nancy said. “I try to spend weekends at home. Monday to Friday is such a rush for us.” Joe sensed her instinctive push.
“I’m talking about both of you, Nancy. What do you say, Joe?”
“I don’t know, sir. It would be fun, I guess.”
“Nancy, I don’t know why you don’t play. I’ve read the stories. US National Team for the Olympics, then you disappeared.”
“I lost my partner.” She looked out at the Eternal City through the picture windows.
“Sorry, Nancy. I forgot.”
“That’s OK. Little things like this make me wonder if I ever will.”
“Maybe getting back on the court would help,” said Joe. “Let’s try it, Mom. I did say that I wanted to learn.”
“Well, OK,” she said, punching Joe on the shoulder. “I have a different reason to play now. It could be fun.” Joe thought her smile was a little forced, but he also thought that Jack could not tell.
“Great,” said Jack. “Let’s start simple. I’ll meet you both here tomorrow about two. I have a dinner engagement, so we’ll stop on time.” Nancy sighed so softly that Joe almost missed her expression of relief.
“Mom, it’s just a tennis lesson for me,” Joe said, watching Nancy fret over a half-dozen tennis outfits laid on her bed. “You already play, so it shouldn’t be a big deal for you.”
Nancy stopped and looked at him. She let out a breath and sat down on the bed. “Joe, you’re right. It shouldn’t be a big deal, so why am I a nervous wreck? I haven’t played since your father died. This all feels very strange. Does that make any sense to you?” She reached for her purse on the dresser.
“You promised me not to smoke in your bedroom,” Joe said.
“I know, Joe, but …” she got up to take her purse to the study, looked at her watch, and threw her purse across the room. “Damn it, Joe, why did I let myself get talked into this?”
Joe walked up to his mother and put his arms around her. She buried her face in his shoulder, trying not cry or scream. Then she hugged him so hard, Joe was surprised by how strong she was. Joe felt her tears dampen his shirt.
“Mom, it’s not that important. I can go tell him you can’t make it.”
She stopped crying and stood back. “No, Joe. Jack is right. I have to play tennis again. Remember what your father said after you fell off your bicycle and broke your arm?”
“He made me ride again as soon as I got out of my cast.”
“Right. And look how you recovered. You’re fearless on two wheels now.”
She went to her dresser and got out a tennis outfit from the bottom drawer.
“Another outfit?” Joe said.
“No. The outfit. I wore this the last time we played before your father got sick.”
“Hi, Mom. I only just started the water,” Joe shouted as he heard the apartment door open.
Joe had left Jack and Nancy on the Cavalieri Hilton tennis courts, offering to start supper while they finished playing. He had hit more balls in his first lesson than he expected. He had discovered that he had upper body muscles, and that they were not happy with him. He had watched Jack and Nancy play for a set, then he walked home.
Secretly, he wanted to see if the Tiger Balm in the medicine cabinet still worked. He had not used it since he ran track last year.
Nancy tossed her tennis bag into her room and came into the kitchen. Except for a stray hair or two, she did not look like she had just played two hours of tennis. Not even scuff marks on her shoes.
“What’s for supper?” she asked, stretching her arms behind the back of her head.
“Pasta al mistero.” Spaghetti with mystery sauce. Joe winked as he tossed some dried oregano in the saucepan without looking. She sniffed the saucepan.
“Oh-oh, creative heartburn.”
“C’mon, Mom. It’s not that bad.”
“I know,” she said, messing up his hair. “What’s in it besides tomatoes, sausage, dried oregano and garlic — anything green?”
“OK.” She opened the refrigerator and pulled out some fresh parsley and a green pepper. She chopped them up while Joe stirred the sauce and put the water on to boil for the spaghetti.
“Did you say that you had the book contract?”
“Yep. I told Mr. del Piave that I’d return it to their offices on Monday.
“That’s great. How do you feel about it?”
“A little scared. It seems so long, although I know I can translate it.” He took the cutting board of green things and poured them into the sauce. “You have to counter-sign the contract. It’s on your desk in the study.”
Nancy Mather rinsed off her hands and went to the study. When she returned, the pasta was al dente, cooked to perfection, and Joe was pouring it into the strainer. They set the table together and sat down to supper. Nancy wolfed the first few bites, then stopped herself.
“I don’t know when the last time was I was this hungry.”
“You looked pretty impressive on the court with Mr. Arland. Burned up tons of calories for sure.”
“Don’t tell my shoulders and legs. They won’t believe you.”
“You, too? I have some Tiger Balm in my bathroom. It didn’t dry out from last spring.”
“I was going to ask about you. How did it feel?”
“I was surprised that I hit back so many balls,” he said. “I was sure that I’d be swinging at air for the whole time. It’s probably beginner’s luck, but it felt good.”
“You’re more of an athlete than you give yourself credit for, Joe. It’s in the gene pool, after all.”
“Are you glad you played?”
Nancy looked intently at her son.
“Yes, I am. And thank you for pushing me yesterday. I needed this.”
“So, can we do this every other week? Shouldn’t I be practicing?”
“Actually, Joe, since we’re both sore, we should go back out there tomorrow afternoon, then maybe again on Tuesday or Wednesday. Not let our soreness go stiff on us.”
“Lucky me, two teachers.”
They ate in silence for a minute or two.
“About the book translation,” Nancy said. “Aren’t you worried that our vacation trip to England will interfere?”
“No,” said Joe. “I have almost a month after we get back.”
“OK, but I won’t nag you on this one. It’s not like homework. It’s between you and him.”
“I know, Mom,” said Joe, not stifling his annoyance as well as he meant to. “Let’s talk about the trip. Have you figured out whether we drive or take the train?”
“Surprise. I think we’ll fly.”
“Wow. How’d you swing that? Plane tickets cost a bundle.”
“True, but it happens that there are some meetings in London that the company wants me to go to. If you can stay out of trouble for a couple of days, I could afford your part of the fare for what two train tickets would cost us.”
“Neat-o. I’ve always wanted to fly.”
“I know, though for some of us it’s not so hot,” said Nancy.
“You mean you get air-sick, too?” Joe remembered that his mother could not come out of their cabin for most of the trip to Europe in 1956. And the SS Independence was a big, stable ship.
Nancy nodded. “C’mon, let’s get the dishes done. Then I want to change. We should go walk these screaming legs of ours.”
The following Monday a large, heavy package was waiting at the counter of the portiere‘s window when Joe came back from dropping the contract off at the Del Piave offices. Inside he found two brand-new dictionaries and a big black Underwood typewriter, made of steel. It looked like the big boxy typewriters Joe had seen in black-and-white movies and history books. He checked the plate on the front: “U.S. Patent Reg. 1896”.
He hefted it out of the box and set it on the table. Dr. Mom was right, he thought. His arms did not ache as much today as they had Sunday morning. They had played easily, just to keep moving. Joe missed more returns at first, until he figured out that Nancy was serving him a predictable rhythm that he could match.
“Angela, vieni a vedere,” come see, he called. He pointed as she came from the kitchen. “What do you think?”
“Oh, signorino Joe, that’s a nice one,” she said. “My sister Vittoria worked on a machine like this in Florence before she got married.”
“Your family works all over the country, Angela.”
She shrugged. “We go where the work is. It only takes my father and one brother to run the farm. Anyway, is this the typewriter from the big businessman?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Seems he could spring for a newer one.”
“I thought so, too, but maybe he thought I needed the American keys. See, it has J, K, W and Y in different places, because we use those in English and but not in Italian.”
“Maybe so, I can’t type, so it would not make any difference to me.”
“Me neither,” said Joe, “but the Cavaliere del Piave doesn’t know that.”
She patted his arm. “You have fun with it, signorino, I have fish to fry.” Joe laughed. “What’s so funny?”
“Oh, nothing, except that in English, pesci da friggere, ‘fish to fry’ also means to take care of business, which is exactly what you’re doing.”
Angela waved her hands in mock disgust and went to the kitchen smiling.
It took him a while to arrange some room on his small desk for the machine. He tried typing something, but after getting the keys stuck together twice, he moved the typewriter to a table and finished his homework by hand.
After lunch, Joe looked at the typewriter, then took out paper like he always did. He started on the book for del Piave. It was heavy, about 12 by 14 inches, with beautiful photographs. It was about Gruppo del Piave SpA, a holding company that owned many other companies. Gruppo del Piave SpA executives would give the book to important guests. Joe recognized the company that built the Cavalieri Hilton Hotel across the street from his home. The Italian was like the language in Signor Del Piave’s letters, so Joe used the same kind of English as in those letters. Obviously, it was intended for investors and others that the Company wanted to do business with.
Joe did not have to look up much in the big Dictionary of Economics and Banking that del Piave had given him. This is going to go quickly, he thought. He finished drafting the introduction and decided to work on some of the material in the Arland file after supper, while his mother was doing her work.
This latest batch was giving him trouble. The letters starting back in the fall were straightforward, but now he was getting some with clips from magazines and newspapers about Smithson, most with handwritten notes in the margins. Some of the articles had sidebars from other articles in the same magazine stapled to them, with hand-drawn circles around the sidebars. Joe had not had a chance to ask Jack Arland about these strange excerpts, but Jack had told him earlier that the handwritten stuff was important, because it gave him background.
The problem was abbreviations. The sidebars, especially, were full of acronyms from articles about politics and the military. Some, like NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and MEC (European Common Market), he recognized. But SIFAR, MI6, BR, B-M and FT-9 stumped him. Some of the abbreviations were hand-written and not always easy to read.
He knew that he could not ask Jack about them yet. The few that he had figured out had all turned out to be in Italian, which explained why Jack did not recognize any of them. Joe figured out OTAN (NATO in French or Italian) by himself, so he kept working on these alone, too.
I need help, he thought, but this stuff is confidential. That the company would consider a magazine article confidential annoyed him, but he knew that it was probably the handwritten material that made it secret.
And why did Smithson Italia care about this? Jack said that his mother had read all this stuff, but Joe wondered if she read the articles, or these very pages with the writing on them. They were from national magazines. He wished more than anything that he could ask her about it, but, for now, his promise to Jack seemed more important.
Joe wrote out all the words and abbreviations that he could not find on a single piece of paper in alphabetical order. He would carry the list around without the articles and check libraries and experts until he found answers.
I’ll start with the history teachers, he said to himself, when he finished the list. Brother Mark is a current-affairs freak. He could get me started. The list was over four pages long. It was almost midnight when Joe finished it and went to bed.
(to be continued)