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Good Ingredients

First performed 2003 at Edinburgh Castle

 

1. According to Mazzi, winning was never a question of what to do. Winning was a question of whether you were willing to do it. And we emphatically weren’t. We were in love with the comraderie, we were in love with the backheel, we were in love with Claude’s jokes. We tolerated good intention, rather than proper execution. And so Mazzi, who had only a year or two left before he’d be a slow old man, was taking Ray and Hagi to join the newly-formed Superteam, which had a lock on winning the league and climbing out of this lowly division. And with that news, he packed his cleats into his bag and walked off.

"Got to hand it to him," Ashur said. "He told us in person. That’s class."

"He couldn’t have told us sooner?" Freddie let out. The season started in a week.

Tony had moved back to Brazil. Spiderlegs was taking care of his father in Chicago. The heart of the lineup was gone.

Freddie was squeezing into his jersey. His fifty year old moves were crimped by his sixty year old knees. Ashur was hopping on one foot, the other tangled in his shorts, pushing the limits of his fine motor coordination.

For a moment, I thought of all the other things I could do with the 1,628 Saturdays that remained in my life.

Then Carlos Romero walked up and put his arm around me. He was in his black suit, exhausted from an all night shift. Carlos owned a small limo company. Eleven years ago, when he first got here from Peru, he worked as a dishwasher in Paolo’s restaurant, and he played in his soapy sneakers, too poor for cleats. And I remembered thinking, don’t be too friendly with Carlos, because there was no hope for him and soon he will be sleeping on your couch.

What I’m saying is, I’d been wrong before.

"I guess we’ll need some more guys," I said.

They say it’s the sport of the people. All you need is a ball, a patch of grass, and eleven guys.

But sometimes, getting eleven guys is not so simple.

 

 

2. "What about Paolo?" Ashur asked. We told him the story:

Paolo had refused to play ever since, six years ago, Freddie ate at Pasta Pomodoro, and the next day insisted it was good.

"No," Paolo argued furiously. "If you sell pasta for seven dollars, you cannot be using the freshest, best ingredients, and without the ingredients, it can not be good."

"Well, I’m telling you, I ate it, it was good."

Paolo slapped his forehead. "I roll my gnocci by hand. By hand! My olive oil costs me twenty dollars a bottle!"

"Paolo, as your friend, fourteen dollars for pasta is too much."

"So English!"

Freddie didn’t see a single ball from Paolo that day, or ever since.

So Ashur hears the story. "Freddie! Go eat at Paolo’s. It’s only seven dollars."

"I’m not ordering wine then."

"You’re ordering the wine!"

That night we ate at Paolo’s and discussed the team with him. According to Paolo, a team was like a good pasta. It couldn’t be good if you didn’t have good ingredients. Who did we have to play with him up front? He was not going to stand up there alone, marked by three guys. He would sign if Ollison would sign.

 

 

3. Ollison was from Trinidad, and he was fast, but that was mostly because he was only thirty three. The league was for players 35 and over. This rule was strict, and the punishment was a ban of up to five years. But according to Ollison, the game was like any other game. And in all games, there is one simple rule that trumps all rules. This was true for the game of life, or the game of love, or the game of pretending one country ended at this line in the sand and this other country began at that line. The rule is, you play until you get caught. The idea that some people play by the rules is a myth that is believed only in America.

So Ollison paid a visit to a guy who makes fake IDs for illegals, and like that, he was two years older.

With Ollison and Paulo in the lineup, we put up two wins to go with our two ties.

4. According to Adriano, the world was a swimming pool, or a big lake. And at the bottom of the lake were very pretty rocks. And you could swim across this lake and enjoy the view of the rocks, or you could swim down and stuff the rocks into you pockets, until you were so heavy that your belongings drowned you. And so he took it in stride, no problema, when his roommate had called immigration on him. His roommate called immigration because Adriano made too much noise again having sex with the Russian girl who lived next door. Two old Russian hags lived there, and Irina was their slave, they wouldn’t let her out of the apartment, they’d literally lock her in there, but she could sneak through the window of the lightwell into Adriano’s room, where he would swim with her across the big pool of a parallel, sexual universe.

But Adriano didn’t know it was his roommate who had called immigration, and so when they allowed Adriano his one phone call, he called his roommate.

"Look, Chi, there’s fifteen hundred dollars cash in an envelope taped to the bottom of my bed. Come bail me out."

So Chi stole the fifteen hundred dollars and moved away.

Half the team went to Adriano’s deportation hearing the next month.

"Your name is Adrian oh Pashitta?" the judge asked.

"No,"Adriano said.

"You’re not him?"

"I am Adriano Paschetta," he corrected unwisely.

Adriano was so good natured that even here he was all smiles. The judge thought he was making jokes. The judge gave Adriano a devil’s bargain: if he left tomorrow, they would pay for his airfare back to Italy. If he agreed to buy his own plane ticket, he could take 90 days to leave the country. We all knew Adriano had no real reason to stay. He was a wanderer. He was going to move to China after the season to study acupuncture anyway. He looked at us, filling the last two rows of the courtroom, one big boulder of a rock, there to drag him down.

"Okay," Adriano said. "Ninety days."

 

5. Rabbi was a scrawny Jordanian homosexual who wanted to join the team again. He was fairly worthless as a player, unless it was one of those rare stretches where he was getting laid, in which case he seemed to bring his luck onto the field.

"Well is he getting laid?" Freddie asked, in a rare logical moment.

"You know how he brags," Ashur said. "He’d never admit it if he weren’t."

So we went to Carlo, who explained that Rabbi’s sexual activity seemed to correlate with whenever one of his stories was published in a good literary magazine. In the glow of attention, crowned the It Boy once again, he snared boyfriends with ease.

So my agent called Rabbi’s agent, and learned one of his stories had just been purchased by The New Yorker, and it might run in the summer fiction issue.

For six weeks, Rabbi didn’t embarrass himself on the field. But the fiction issue came and went, without Rabbi’s story, and a month later the magazine wouldn’t promise when they’d run it, if at all. That day, he missed two sitters, in a game we should have won, only perpetuating his downward spiral of self-loathing. The next week, he stood on the sideline, refusing to enter the game even as a substitute, insisting he was too great a liability to be trusted with anything but the gatorade.

 

6. "Well, if you’re going to sit on the sideline, you might as well be useful," said Ennio.

And the next week, Ennio’s friend Luis was on the field, and Luis’s two little twin girls sat with Rabbi on the sideline, playing patty cake and ring around the rosie. Luis’s wife worked Saturdays. Luis wore two pairs of socks. The outer pair was our uniform socks, the inner a ratty pair of women’s nylons. He told Uli and Claude that in Peru, when he grew up, they had no money for a ball, so they collected socks and tied them into a ball. There was nothing to do but play, no crops to harvest, no work to do, so they played day and night, and at 2 in the morning their mothers would come chase them home with sticks.

Uli was entranced by the romance of the scene Luis painted. "And those nylons you’re wearing were part of the ball?"

"These? These are Leggs from 7 Eleven. Keeps me from getting blisters."

7. Ennio’s problem was existential. He was haunted by a mirage, a recurring illusionary memory in which he was tackled from behind. He believed this had really happened to him. He’d played only once, three years ago, and he had blown his Achilles heel and fallen in a bluthering heap. The snap of his tendon was so sharp and sudden that, to this day, Ennio was convinced one of our opponents had slid into him from behind with sharpened cleats up.

"But there was nobody there," I insisted to Freddie. "I was the one who passed him the ball. Nobody tackled him."

Freddie shook his head. "It doesn’t matter. Nothing will change his mind. He’s convinced he was assaulted. He’s still full of rage."

So we brought Ennio to the game, and pointed to a lazy gordo on the Ecuadoran team, playing on the other field. "It was him," I said. "He did it to you."

Ennio’s eyes narrowed. He saw his chance for revenge. "When we play them, I will make him suffer."

Nobody told Ennio that we’d already beat the Ecuadorans, and wouldn’t play them again all season.

 

8. Igor was our goalkeeper. He was shy and traditional and spoke usually only when spoken to. We introduced Igor to Irina, the Russian slave, and he stole her from the two old hags and married her in Reno one weekend when we had a bye. Every man on the team was jealous. To be such a savior! To have a woman you could mold exactly as you liked!

But as soon as they were married, Irina’s Russian genes kicked in. She began to act just as bossy as the hags who had trained her. She sold his car. She complained about money. She told him to go find work on Saturdays. So he would act like he was going out to look for work, and I would pick him up at the gas station, around the corner from their flat. Sometimes, he would just lean into the window and say, "Can’t risk it today." Without sport, his life was barely worth living, but in a sad way, he gravitated to that state, it was the only state he’d ever really known.

"Come on Igor. Get in the car!"

"No. She will know. She senses when I am happy."

And right then I just knew. Irina was still in love with Adriano. Or in love with the parallel sexual universe Adriano used to take her to. In love with escape.

I got Igor in the car, and that day, we each gave Igor an earful on how to make love to a woman. Ollison suggested he train with a prostitute. Uli suggested he practice Tantra. Paolo told him to keep his eyes open and be in the present, not in the mind. Luis told him to eat peanut butter before going to bed, for stamina. Carlos told him to strap a big belt around his wife’s waist, and get her on her hands and knees and use that belt to move her around. Be the boss. We told him these things, but we knew there was no hope for Igor. We knew this would be his last season, with a certainty we could not explain.

 

9. We were within six points of the SuperTeam when the league’s Oracle approached us and demanded to see Ollison’s driver’s license. We refused.

"A copy of his license is in your files," we said.

The Oracle glared. He spoke to Carlos, who translated. "He says we cannot play Ollison today. He has a disciplinary hearing next week." If guilty, the team would be stripped of any points earned when Ollison was playing.

Who was the informant?

Mazzi?

"No way," said Claude. "Not his style."

Ray?

"Not Ray," said Ashur. "My wife babysits his daughter."

But Hagi?

Last season, Hagi had complained endlessly over being moved to defense, and he blamed this decision for our loss in the playoffs. On Wednesday, I went to the print shop where Hagi slaved over a press in subhuman conditions. Covered in sweat and grease and ink, with the presses thundering behind him, he got down on both knees and swore on his second life that it wasn’t him. "I was not a good person before I come to America. But here, God gave me a second life. I give myself to sport and to praying, and my life is good. Sport and praying and labor. All my problems have left my head. If I had done such a thing, God would send my problems back, and my head would be like a nest of bees."

We never learned who the informant was.

Ollison was given five years’ suspension.

The hearing was in Spanish, and he didn’t understand a word, but he didn’t care. Being caught was a worthy reminder of his mortality.

Our team was stripped of all but seven points. We went from being second in the league to the very bottom, positioned for relegation. Our team had turned into a nest of bees. Adriano had gone to China, Ollison was gone, Rabbi refused to play until the New Yorker ran his story, Paolo was losing more business to Pasta Pomodoro, Igor was scared of his wife’s sexuality, and  Pierre hadn’t come back from France.

 

10.  Pierre set jewelry. He learned the trade from his father. He had a tiny one room shop over Union Square. My girlfriend was pregnant, and it was time to do the right thing. So I made some drawings, and gave them to  Pierre to carve the waxing. He had it forged in platinum, buffed it, and then began introducing me now and then to Arab friends of his, who would show up at his office and pull an emerald cut diamond out of their pocket, wrapped in ruled schoolbook paper. Too yellow. Too narrow and long. Too cloudy. Meanwhile, my girlfriend had started to show, and it was about then that  Pierre’s wife discovered that  Pierre had a 14 year old son, thanks to a longtime girlfriend-on-the-side.  Pierre was not one prone to panic. He shrugged his shoulders, took my several thousand dollar down payment and fled to France to watch the European Cup. France won the cup, and  Pierre chose to stay another month to celebrate.

Finally, in August, he showed up on his motorcycle. He’d smoothed it all out by agreeing to marry his wife.

Marry his wife!?

Apparently, in twelve years together,  Pierre had never bothered to marry Barbara, they’d just pretended. So on a Friday in September,  Pierre finished the ring, and a week later at City Hall I married my girlfriend, who looked like she’d swallowed a soccer ball, and a week later  Pierre married his wife, and we won both weekends, climbing back up from the bottom of the table.

We needed only one point from our final game – at least a tie – to prevent relegation. But we would finally be playing the Superteam.

"We can win it," Ashur insisted.

Nobody believed him.

"They’re so far in the lead, the points don’t matter to them," Ashur argued.

We looked over at the Superteam, donning their shiny sweatsuits. They’d just executed the Ecuadorans, seven nil, in a game that also didn’t matter.

A minute later, Ray and Mazzi approached Freddie and whispered something, then went off.

What was that all about?

"Their coach has offered to throw next week’s game," Freddie said. "For three hundred dollars. They don’t need the points, and we do."

"We can beat them," Ashur insisted.

Everyone looked at their shoes. We were all thinking the same thing. We couldn’t look each other in the eye.

11. There is a language that needs no translation. Like the American dollar and the rack of boobs, it’s universal, it’s accepted everywhere. This language is spoken in shifts of weight, lookaway passes, the imparting of spin with the hard crestbone of the foot.

And if you speak this language, you will be accepted everywhere. Case in point: A big German medical company sent a vice president to the Bay Area to locate a manufacturing plant here. His name was Uli, and he went to see Mayor Brown.

"Mister Mayor," he said, "Fremont is offering me tax breaks if I build my plant in their city. What are you offering?"

And so the Mayor escorted Uli down the hall to meet with Ashur. Ashur had built the Mission Bay Biotech complex, which needed tenants.

Ashur and Uli chatted, and Uli kept looking at the picture of our team on Ashur’s wall.

"You play soccer?" Ashur asked.

Uli did. He hoped to find a team.

"Well, I tell you what," Ashur said. "You bring your company to Mission Bay, and you can play on our team. You go to Fremont? You’re on your own."

The thing was, Uli was less than five feet tall. He was a little person. Nobody asked why he was so short, nobody cared. It didn’t matter. He spoke the universal language. We were ecstatic. We’d always been proud of our diversity, but having a little person on the team was really that extra touch, the shaving of parmesan on a handmade gnocci. The whole world was on our team. And there’s a power in that, a great natural kinesis, because who doesn’t crave, deep down, to be a citizen of the world? Who doesn’t crave a world where people are free to be themselves and yet also get along? Who doesn’t crave a world that’s integrated without being culturally annihilated?

So that Saturday, we summoned this inherent power. Our muscles twitched with its strength. We stood on that field, representing the whole world against this Superteam, and we said No. No to bribes, no to fixes, no to borders, no to prejudice, no to those who judge us, no to our creeping ages, no to the crappy fields, no to our jobs, no to the wives who think working can be sustained without playing. It also helped that Rabbi had filled the Gatorade Cooler with coca tea, which we all drank plentifully from before the game. Rabbi’s friend had snuck the coca leaves back from Ecuador. Igor was insane in goal, knowing it was his last game ever. Ennio and Uli scored two apiece. We were unstoppable. The Superteam wasn’t a super team at all, they were just eleven guys, with skills not really any better than ours. All they had was a willingness to do what it takes, and for that ugly character flaw, we pitied them.

After the game, I went to the Gatorade Cooler and unscrewed the lid. I pulled out one of the leaves, floating on top, bit into it. I turned to Rabbi.

"Bay Leaf?"

His eyes glimmered. "Just for appearance. The tea’s Yellow Zinger. Should I tell them?"

"Naw," I said. "We might need it again next year."

Next year! All we would need is a ball, a patch of field, and eleven guys.