The Rental

A Matter of Time, by Al Barnes. (Courtesy of The Sportsman’s Gallery, Ltd., Charleston, South Carolina)

You should take up something relaxing. Fly fishing, maybe. Bonefish. A sunny tropical paradise.

by Richard Chiappone

BECAUSE JACK IS AMERICAN, he speaks only one language. And with the big Yamaha outboard roaring three feet behind his ears, he can barely hear, let alone understand, whatever it is Massimo screams at him—Italian, Spanish, a mixture of both.

Massimo leans into the flats skiff’s throttle as they tear through the narrow mangrove channel. Branches flail the gunwales. Wading birds panic-flap away. The leaf canopy looms as heavy as a cave roof. All Jack can do is clutch the edge of the stern seat, hoping the jungle’s green claws yank the furious Italian from the boat before they yank him out.

He’d wanted to go someplace he’d never seen, but the inside of a Cuban prison isn’t on his list.

Massimo turns from the console, still raging, now in English. “You Americans! You think you’re gonna come down here and do anything you want? Anything?”

The channel doglegs hard left. The boat skids right. Fly rods rattle in their racks. Tackle bags slide across the deck.

Stay in the boat. That’s Jack’s goal now. But as the starboard rail plows into a wall of foliage, battering Jack’s face with a thousand mean slaps, he’d rather be anywhere than in this boat, speeding ever deeper into the jungle maze with Massimo ranting on.

How did it come to this?

Clearly Jack misread Massimo’s European suavity at the dock this morning. Clearly he shouldn’t have assumed that Massimo didn’t know about the girl—the girl Massimo brought from Havana to the lodge. His girl. That girl.

“Girl?” Jack’s ex-wife would scream. “What is she, eleven? That woman, you mean.”

Okay. That woman.

Raoul, their guide, calls her Massimo’s “rental.” Though not within Massimo’s hearing. Jack wishes Raoul were still in the boat. Wishes Massimo hadn’t sent Raoul back to the lodge for a misplaced fly box, then roared off.

The channel swerves again and the boat rolls up onto one side, the exposed prop stuttering off mangrove knees, shearing through new shoots. A vine whips Jack’s face. Sunglasses fly off, hat disappears. His eye aches, his face burns.

It’s Jack’s first time saltwater flats fishing. Somehow he hadn’t pictured it like this.

The boat settles back onto its keel, speeds on. Jack rubs his flaming cheek, feels a welt rising. Finds himself thinking about that girl—that woman. What will become of her?

The skiff rockets out from the shady leaf canopy, the Caribbean heat like a flame against his face. He’d wanted a break from the Bay Area fog, but this is no country for pale white skin, a shaved, hatless skull. “The Steve Jobs of Gaming,” the trade magazines call him. And not just for the bald pate. But the sun isn’t the real threat. No yet, anyway.

Wasn’t it the Italians who said revenge is best served cold? Leave it to them to come up with a food metaphor for murder.

Of course, the girl—the woman—must’ve confessed to Massimo about her midnight visit to Jack’s room. Probably this morning, as Massimo was leaving their cabana to come to the marina. That had been her plan from the start. Humiliating tit for humiliating tat. Did Jack honestly think she’d been unable to resist him?

Man, he wishes Raoul were still in the boat.

RAOUL AND JACK FISHED TOGETHER FOR THREE DAYS BEFORE MASSIMO ARRIVED. Hit it off right away. Raoul was funny, and had dropped out of biochemistry at the university in Havana to guide fly fishermen in the bonefish preserve, in the islands south of the Cuban mainland.

“You want to spend your life bent over a microscope for the same monthly pay a dogcatcher gets?” he told Jack. “A street sweeper? When every week you can get hundreds of CUCs or euros in tips? Hundreds! And for what? Racing around in a speedboat. Pointing at the fish and saying, ‘Bonefish, señor! Twenty meters. Cast!’ Not even Havana’s greediest taxi drivers are making as much, no matter how shiny they keep their stupid ’57 Chevys.”

Though Cuba is only 90 miles from Florida, Raoul’s command of American idioms and popculture references had astounded Jack. “You don’t like classic cars?” Jack teased.

“In America, those old cars are classics,” Raoul said. “Here, they are just old.” He flashed a grin. “Anyhow, who do those cabbies think they are, the Beach Boys?”

Jack laughed. “So, guiding is the best-paying job in the country?”