The Continental Charm
by Harry Harrison (1960)
“Man oh man!” I sighed, “Coney Island was never like this!”
“Sack-Time, you are a disgrace,” the Sarge said to me. “You are in paradise, sipping at the champagne of life — and all you can think of is stale beer.” He hit the heel of his hand into the water and splashed it into my mouth. The Sarge is always a great kidder.
But neither of us was kidding about this being great. We were floating in the bright blue water near this little beach. The limestone cliffs rose straight up behind it, with green trees showing at the top, what looked like a mile above us. Everything else was sky and water, with the red-hot ball of the Mediterranean sun roasting it all. White yachts, people in the water and sunbathing in deck chairs. There was a sputtering roar behind us as a power boat tore by, towing a water skier. We turned to watch.
“A fibreglass hull,” I said. “That’s a boat — ”
“Get your head out of the grease-pit,” the Sarge growled. “And save all that technical know-how until you get back with the rest of the PX commandoes.
“Look at what the finking boat is pulling — that’s what you came to Capri to see.”
Like always the Sarge was right. The rope ended in a handle which was held by a piece of goods, the like of which I have never seen outside of a travel poster before. She leaned back on the water skis like she had been born on them, and waved with her free hand. She had this same golden tan all over, and you could tell it was all over because her bikini suit had about as much cloth in it as a shoulder patch and looked a lot better. When she roared by I looked at the back which was just as good as the front, until the wave from the boat washed me under.
When I came up I saw the Sarge had rode the wave out without taking a ducking and his eyes had never left the girl. They were as hot as a couple of jet exhausts and I knew now we were going into action.
“You’ve had your bath,” he said. “Now let’s get ashore and start the operation. I’m gonna show you just how it’s done European style.”
I didn’t answer, just tilted my head to hear better and waited. When Sarge talked he knew what he was talking about. He was almost forty though you’d never know it, and had been in the Army since Pearl Harbor. Which was the year I was born. What he did not know about the army was yet to be discovered. What he knew about girls was enough to raise your blood pressure and send you looking for a cold shower.
It was a chance in a million that we got our leave at the same time, and I met him on the train down from Germany. I didn’t know anything about Italy and when he said Capri, I said sure.
“European women are different,” he said as we got nearer shore, pointing with his chin towards the beach. “They are cold, calculating, beautiful, loaded with concealed passion and don’t like Americans who don’t
have polish. They know we got the biggest ships, the fastest planes and
the most TV sets. Which doesn’t mean a thing because they don’t give
a damn about any of those things. They believe in love and romance. They know what they got and they know what you want. So if you go
about it the right way everybody is very happy.”
“Aren’t we going to the wrong beach,” I said, paddling off shore. “We didn’t come in here — ”
“Of course we didn’t. We came in the public beach which is for the slobs and G.I.s. And we’re going to land on the private beach that is frequented by the rich and beautiful. Never settle for second best.”
We came out of the water and pulled off our swim fins. The pebbles hurt my feet. Except for a couple of kids it looked like the beach was empty, everyone in deck chairs on the platform above.
“There,” Sarge said, giving me a quick one in the ribs with an elbow like a battering-ram. “Soaking up the suit on that air mattress. French without a doubt.”
I squinted, even with my glasses my eyes aren’t too good, and looked at the girl on the air mattress The bikini covered but nothing. Her legs were long and crossed one over the other. Though her hips were full and round, her waist was that tiny and her stomach flat and firm. Everything else was of the same quality, but it was hard to pick out details, so staggering was the expanse of all that suntan-oiled flesh.
When I walked I stumbled on the rocks and had trouble breathing. Not Sarge. He stalked like a rooster across the barnyard. Giving me a last word of advice as he angled in for the kill.
“Watch and learn. And don’t forget this fly-speck island is the Playground of Europe. This girl could be from any damn country, but I’ll lay odds she’s French. She’s got the style.”
We passed close by her and stopped, as if maybe by accident. Sarge was so bored he almost yawned. He started to talk to me, then noticed the girl for the first time. He gave her an offhand word so she wouldn’t feel bad, like she was being ignored.
“Tiens! Je suis content avec la plage … ”
With the dark glasses, you couldn’t tell if she was looking at us or not. But when she turned away, you knew she was turning away. I expected to see some ice freeze on her shoulder. I looked around for my damp rock to get back under.
Not Sarge, though. He pointed at the view — which was the only reason he had stopped — then walked on. I hopped after him, wincing on the hot stones.
“Not French,” he said. “That’s one thing sure. But she’s a Latin and you can’t argue that. Spanish. Some millionaire’s daughter. Let’s have an espresso.” There was a little coffee bar on the sun deck and he ordered us a couple. We stood and sipped the burnt stuff, watching the girl on the beach below deflate her air mattress. When she kneeled down to roll it tip, we moved aside a bit so the guy pulling the handles on the coffee machine wouldn’t fracture his neck trying to look around our shoulders.
The girl had to walk right by us, the high heels of her beach sandals shifting everything back and forth like a slow dance step.
“Muy bien, la playa en el sol, ‘ey chiquita … ?” Sarge said in a low, throaty voice. Magnetic.
She never broke that churning pace or glanced at him. But her lips curled a bit with a sudden bad taste. Sarge absorbed all the details of her retreating anatomy and smiled.
“Now we’re involved in a flirtation,” he said. “As stylized as a minuet. I approach, she withdraws. But each time not quite as far. Did you notice that this time she came by us? Now let’s get to town.”
I gaped. “Leave her? After all this groundwork. You’ll never see her again!”
“You’ve still got a lot to learn, Sack-Time,” he explained as we walked back to the beach where our clothes were. “With a few words we’ve established a relationship. But she doesn’t want to continue it on the beach. So the next act is in the piazza — where else?”
We dressed and rode up on the bus to town. I knew Sarge was right again, about the piazza I mean. This is the town square, about as big as a baseball diamond, and covered with umbrella-hung tables and rickety chairs. Everyone goes there. Sarge looked around and then nodded toward a bar that opened on the square.
“That’s where we wait.” We leaned on the chrome counter and he ordered a couple of Cinzano-sodas. It looks like razzberry pop but tastes terrible, so bitter you can’t swallow. He drank his and I gasped over mine while we watched the tables outside.
“Prepare to advance,” he said, and I looked out and there she was. My elbows were hooked over the bar, and a good thing too because I would have dropped on the ground limp as a dead eel if they hadn’t been.
She had filed her bikini away in a small envelope someplace and was wearing a pair of Capri pants and a sweater. This doesn’t sound like much I know, but these were Capri pants from Capri, not from Klein’s or Macy’s basement, and I tell you this makes a difference. They got people on this island all they do is make these pants and have spent whole lifetimes over the science and engineering of the things. The way they fit, the skin on a hotdog is loose. They are so tight that if you had a tattoo it would show through like a bump.
This girl had no tattoos but she had everything else. She moved it across the piazza with that rotating motion that caused complete paralysis among all the jokers who watched. When she sat down at one of the tables Sarge prodded me up.
“Just like I told you,” he said while he steered me across the square. “She sat next to an empty table – that’s for us.” I would never have noticed that, because the place wasn’t crowded and it would have been hard find a chair that wasn’t next to an empty table. It took a guy like Sarge to really understand the difference.
There was some little skinny guy dressed like a California fruit who tried to get to the table first, but Sarge took care of that. One of his I2 ½ D’s came down on the guy’s foot quite by accident, and when the guy turned the Sarge smiled at him. For almost twenty years in the Army the Sarge has been perfecting that smile, which is very much like that of an alligator about to eat his lunch. It works on the toughest sad-sacks, and this little guy, not even having the benefits of military life, vanished like an ice cube in the sun. We sat down.
Of course Sarge sat next to her, and when he threw his arm over the back of his chair it just brushed hers. He pulled out a butt and when I leaned over to light it he gave me the word.
“Italian. I should have seen it at once. The nobility — from Roma or Firenze. Here’s where I score.”
When he straightened up, their heads weren’t a foot apart and his voice was like a sax, muted and lowdown.
“Bellissima giornata, Signorina … e doppo il, sole, il cadere della notte … tu e io … ”
She just twitched her fingers a little bit, and the hot ash from her cigarette dropped on his bare arm. I could see the hairs curl. He snapped his arm back just as she looked across the tables and beckoned to a cop who leaned against the church wall. The cop did a real take and pointed to his chest as if he couldn’t believe it. She smiled, nodded and curled her finger again.
That was all I saw. I was strolling across the square, getting lost in the crowd. A fast look at our table showed me that the Sarge had also remembered something important he had to do.
There was a newsstand at the other end, covered with papers and magazines in a million languages. I flipped through a French nudist mag and looked over the top. The cop was at the table, talking to the girl, bent over like he was broke in two. He straightened up and looked around and I dived back into the magazine. Someone said sssst in my ear and I jumped like I was goosed. It was the Sarge, smiling and wiping his hands together.
“Great!” he said. “Wonderful. She gave herself away this time. No self respecting girl this side of the Iron Curtain would call a cop like that. They don’t like cops.”
“You mean she’s a Russian?”
“Never. She’s Yugoslavian, that’s what she is, nothing else but. So stick around and watch the fireworks. Just as soon as I get a copy of that Serbo-Croation grammar I saw here.” He dived into the back of the store, which was filled with books.
Just like that I was depressed. I couldn’t get over the feeling that I would never get the hang of this European intellectual seduction. Where I come from in Elmhurst, Queens, New York, we do things much simpler and it’s hard to break the habits of a lifetime. Besides, even if the Sarge scored, where did that get me? But nowheres.
We were leaving on the first ferry back to Naples in the morning and I knew the newsstands would be closed then. So I picked up a copy of the Rome American and a handful of comic books, so I would have something to read on the boat. Then I wandered around the corner to where a hunk of sidewalk stuck right out over the cliff, and looked at the view. The blue water of the Bay of Naples — Sorrento and Mt. Vesuvius on the horizon. Great. I still felt lonely and almost wished I was back in the PX having a couple of beers with the gang.
Something brushed against my arm, and I looked to see what it was and froze like I had just been rolled in dry ice.
It was the sleeve of a fuzzy green sweater. And the sweater was draped around the form that I had been watching float by all day.
It was her. And she was standing about six inches frown me and looking out at the bay like she was alone on a desert island. Then I saw the Sarge standing a couple of feet behind her and giving me the sign.
He jerked his thumb and nodded and pointed to the girl. Right then I knew he was the best friend I had ever had. He had spent the whole day
Softening up the target while at time teaching me the basics of continental charm. Now he was turning the package over to me — a graduation exercise.
But what could I do? My throat was dry and my brain went around like a roulette wheel with all the words I was supposed to have learned in all these languages. The pressure built up and I had to say something because the Sarge was waiting. I turned to the girl and I could see the little curly hairs on her neck and caught a whiff of her perfume.
“That’s some view, ain’t it?” I said. “How’d you like a Coke?”
The Sarge groaned, turned and dived into the nearest bar, and I heard him shouting “Whiskey … con ghiaccio … due whiskies!”
I had let him down. Muffed it. Forgotten every damn thing he had told me.
I looked back at the girl and she was smiling at me, her teeth white and even between those wet lips.
“It sure is nice,” she said. “I really like it up here. It’s really nice if you know what I mean.”
I told her sure, I knew what she meant, and said how’s about that Coke now. And all of this by reflex since my heart had finished beating at the same time I stopped breathing. There was a soda stand right there, and while we worked on the Cokes she kept talking and gradually my machinery began to turn over again. I still couldn’t talk, which was all right since once she got started she did enough for both of us. The pieces began to fall into place.
She was from Hackensack, and he had been to Chicago once, but never further until her aunt, who was stinking rich now that her uncle had died and left it all to her, asked her to go on this trip, and after a while she said yes, because it could be fun, and her aunt promised to buy her all new clothes in Italy and…
“But not so much fun as you thought,” I said in a sympathetic voice, beginning to feel my power enough to pat the back of her hand at the same time. She stuck that big red, warm lower lip out and nodded.
“You can my that again. My aunt won’t go out of her hotel room now because of what the sun does to her migraine, and there’s but no one to talk to. Though the place is crawling with wolves who are always whispering something to me that I don’t understand, though I bet I know what it means.”
I nodded and patted her hand again because I knew how it feels to be alone and in a foreign land.
We walked around and talked a lot and it was almost dark, so I gave her a how’s about dinner, and she thought it was the greatest. Only she would have to change first.
If this was back in New York I would have taken the turns a lot slower. But all the expensive romance in the air made a difference so I made a stab at it.
“I got no place to go,” I said. “So hows about my coming along?”
“Sure,” she said and laughed. “But you gotta promise not to get fresh.” She squeezed my hand, which she was holding, when she said it.
“Fresh? Me? Never!” I maid. And when she turned I patted her with my free hand, just where those Capri pants were the tightest, so there would be no doubt as to just what I meant. She laughed again, and we walked down the street trying to decide if we wanted spaghetti or pizza for dinner.
There was really only one thing bothering me now.
What would I say to Sarge on the boat, in the morning?
First published in The Gent, April 1960, p.28-30, 71-72.
Note: Manuscript held in the special collections department of the library at California State Univers