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?”

Raoul shrugged. “Maybe some of the girls make as much. Their banker from Mexico City visits for a week, their French factory owner comes the next.”

“And those guys know about each other?”

“Jack, you rent a car, do you care who drives it before or after?” Raoul laughed. “Anyway, Cuba is so romantic! Those poor guys can’t help themselves.”

“Maybe you should change jobs,” Jack said. “Some of those guys might go for you.”

“I don’t think my wife will like that,” Raoul said, straight-faced. “Guiding is better. More fresh air. And, I don’t have to take my pants off.”

He turned serious, squinted at the horizon. “Plus, now many Americans will start coming. Many, many.”

He was right, Jack knew. They were coming soon, whole cruise ships full. And money, money, money, like no one here had seen in nearly 60 years. Only an idiot would dodge that tidal wave of cash about to hit the Cuban beaches.

Raoul told Jack he’s investing in a restaurant on the Malecón, “Across the street from the seawall. One block from the cathedral. Tour buses lined up like tarpon coming across the reef.”

Jack liked Raoul’s ambitions. They’re a lot like the ones that made him a techie shooting star. The youngest this and the youngest that. In all the magazines. He can’t remember half of it and doesn’t want to. Basically, he’s the reason tens of thousands of 18-year-old boys skip college to become video game designers. He’s the proof that when you’re truly a genius—even among uncountable neargeniuses—the money won’t stop coming your way. But what happens when there’s so much money, it doesn’t matter anymore?

His Friday therapist said, “Go someplace you’ve never seen.”

His Tuesday therapist said, “Do something you’ve never done. Not work-related. Something entirely new. Maybe take up fly fishing. They say it’s relaxing.”

The boat rockets on into the watery jungle. No dry land in sight. Massimo still raving, Jack not really listening. His injured eye throbs now, and he’s imagining how he’ll club Massimo over the head with the Boga-Grip, claim he got creamed by a low branch. Massimo may be at least 30 years Jack’s senior, but he looks like he can handle himself. Nothing you’d ever say about Jack. His fiercest fights so far have been with lines of uncooperative code.

Anyway, how could he find his way out of the endless mangroves, the winding creeks and channels? He has no idea where they are, how far from the lodge they might be, what direction the lodge is.

And who knows how connected Massimo is with the authorities? He’s a part owner of the lodge, a foreign investor. In a country like this, you’d have to know somebody high up to get in on a deal like that. And Jack is going to cold-cock him? He’d wanted to go someplace he’d never seen, but the inside of a Cuban prison isn’t on his list.

EVERY NIGHT AT THE BIG HOTEL, Massimo and the girl—the woman—pause in the dining room doorway, giving everyone time to appreciate his silver hair, silver mustache, olive-hued tan—Don Corleone with a makeover. To appreciate the woman, her tiny hands clenching his arm, a curve-strangling white dress that looks designed to slide into. And out of.

Massimo acts like he’s waiting to be escorted to a table, even though it’s open seating and a hundred sunburned foreigners are hurrying plates of food from the buffet or the pasta bar to their tables.

The woman pouts. Of course she does, Jack thought. She’s been watching the French women at the resort. Studying their calculated petulance. Nothing makes a man crazier. Act displeased, and make him guess why.

She turns up her nose at the dining room, looks like she would make that same face at the Four Seasons or Nobu. Still, she’s a refreshing change from the nerdier-than-thou techie crowd back home.

All good fun, Jack thought, until the morning Raoul told him they’d have company for the rest of the week.

“Not good,” Raoul said. Jack’s time on the casting deck would be cut in half each day.

But there are plenty of fish, and how bad could some Italian really be?

Raoul rolled his eyes. “Just wait.”

Massimo hogged the deck time, endlessly critiqued Jack’s poor casting, criticized Raoul’s boat handling. Before he arrived, Raoul and Jack had fished past the official five o’clock quitting time each day, taking advantage of the long afternoon shadows in the tarpon lagoons. But now they quit before three, Massimo wanting to get back to the cabana and the girl—the woman. Who wouldn’t?