The Rental

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

EACH MORNING, Jack and Raoul wait at the dock for Massimo. Daylight burning, Jack impatient, Raoul pissed. The other guides roar off, giving Raoul the universal hand sign for jerkoff.

Jack debated putting up a fuss about having to share the boat. But this whole thing with the woman was too interesting. The first morning, he watched her waving to Massimo from the doorway of their cabana, wearing a bathing suit, a straw hat, ready to spend her day on the beach or by the hotel pool while he fished.

“You sure she isn’t his fiancée or his wife or something?” Jack said.

“Sometimes it makes more sense to rent,” Raoul said, deadpan. “Or, what do they call it, short-term leasing?”

Half a fly rod dangles from a nearby branch. Blue fly line festoons the foliage. This sport isn’t as relaxing as people think.

Raoul’s sardonic wit delights Jack. Not what you expect in a fishing guide in a country as isolated and backward as Cuba is supposed to be.

But then nothing about Cuba is as he’s been told. There’s no need to exchange U.S. dollars for euros, no need to speak Spanish. No soldiers on every corner. The only thing as advertised is the fishing. It’s better than advertised, even for a neophyte like Jack. Tarpon under every mangrove. Bonefish by the thousands. Permit everywhere. Jack on the casting deck, rod in hand.

No cell service.

Forget the merger, the buyout, the stock price, the pending Xbox deal. Forget that video games were ever invented. He could stay down here forever.

A DEAD TREE SLUMPS INTO THE CHANNEL, ramping up into the foliage. The skiff hits it at full throttle and goes airborne, engine screaming, prop chopping through branches, leaves clawing at them like an angry mob.

A thick limb shears through the steering console, clubs Massimo backwards into Jack, crushes them both into the poling platform. Massimo, still clutching the untethered steering wheel, sails into the foliage.

There’s a burst of sunlight and blue heat as the skiff rockets out of the tree canopy, kisses the sky, and plunges back in again. Jack’s out of the boat now, too, feet kicking air, arms flailing. His head hits a thick branch and he hears something crack at the base of his neck. Fiberglass? Bone? Lights out.

He awakes on his back high above the waterline, locked in a fist of tree limbs and vines. Overhead, little white egrets course away into the sunlight like tissues in the wind. A black hawk wings off. Its mate follows.

Jack can’t feel his body but he tastes blood, understands his nose is smashed. He broke it in high school, lacrosse. And again when his ex-father-in-law sucker-punched him. He deserved that one. Deserves this one, too, now that he thinks about it: the woman does belong to Massimo. At least this week.

He feels the ferocious sun, hears the outboard howling somewhere below. He turns his head and sees the boat hanging straight down, like it’s trying to get back into the water.

The steering console and polling platform are gone—long shards of fiberglass everywhere—but the roaring engine is still clamped to the transom, throttle stuck wide open. It starts to cough, impeller sucking air, cylinders heating, metal expanding. A shudder, a metallic sigh. Then silence. The odor of scorched oil.

Half a fly rod dangles from a nearby branch. Blue fly line festoons the foliage. This sport isn’t as relaxing as people think. A big lemon shark glides by, hunting mangrove snappers in the root tangles. Everybody has to make a living.

There’s no sign of Massimo. One for the plus column.

THEY’D SHOWED UP AT THE MARINA BAR LAST NIGHT BEFORE DINNER.  More pouting than usual. Lots more. They sat with Jack, ordered mojitos. Massimo wore a deeply satisfied grin obviously intended to look postcoital. The woman slamming her little evening bag onto the glasstopped table.

Massimo introduced her. “Anna Iris.” Jack stood, offered his hand. She looked toward the water, the bloody sunset. Jack didn’t exist. She sipped her drink, not just petulant but pissed. Really pissed.

Up close, she wasn’t as beautiful as he’d thought. Crooked nose, complexion smeared with freckles, her mouth—who could tell anything about her mouth, locked in a scowl? But her eyes revealed a fierce intelligence. Behind that pout she was thinking. Hard.

Massimo was hectoring Jack about his casting when Anna Iris stood. “Con permiso,” she said, and walked out of the bar. Massimo bristled, made a face, eyebrows and shoulders high. Very Italian. “Women. What are you gonna do?”

Jack tried to join in the laughter. Failed.

Massimo started in on tarpon leaders, knots, tippet strength. Other things Jack had never heard of.

He pounded down his rum, stood to leave. “I have to get ready for dinner.”

An hour later they appeared in the dining room. Massimo stopped to loiter for effect, but this time she wasn’t holding his arm. She strode into the room, heels clacking like castanets. Picked a table, stood by it, waiting for Massimo to come pull back her chair. He remained in the doorway. Jack could almost see the steam.

Finally, Massimo walked past, took a seat two tables away, impaled her with his glare. He sipped from his water glass, waved to a waitress for wine. Anna Iris stood a moment longer—people watching to see what she would do. Jack watching.

She looked his way. Jack set down his fork, pushed his chair back, and stood.

She shook her head, No. Shot her eyes toward Massimo.

Jack’s eyes followed hers, toward Massimo, his hatred towering above his perfect silver hair.

She walked over to Massimo’s table, pulled out her own chair.

Jack found somewhere else to look.

HE’S STARTING TO COOK IN THE SUN. The egrets have returned to their roosts. He hears them muttering in the foliage. A gray heron glides past on ghost wings. There is a splash in the water below him— something eating something smaller.

Is anyone looking for them?

Raoul will have radioed the other guides by now. But where would they begin searching? There’s 500 square miles of mangrove mazes and open water in the preserve. They’d need a helicopter. A fleet of them. Circling overhead, coasting into and out of the sun as if fireproof, two black hawks circle. At least Jack hopes they’re hawks.

He tried to talk her out of his room last night. Sort of. He was changing a fly line on a reel when she knocked. He’d sputtered, “Are you crazy? Massimo will—”

“Massimo! Massimo is not nice to me.”

“No,” Jack said. “I’m sure he’s not.”

“When his fish does not swim like it should, he does filthy things.”

“Jesus. That’s more information than I need.”

Anna Iris pushed into the room, brow furrowed. “More informations’? You sound like an American.”

“I am an American.”

“Good. Our two countries,” she said, relaxing, “relations are warming. No?”

He took a step back. Or maybe he didn’t.

“Obama and Castro,” she said. “They are—how you say—in bed together now?”

Jack laughed. “There’s a hideous image.”

“Heedious,” she said. “Like Massimo. Heedious.” She pushed the door shut behind her with a feminine hip-check.

THE HEAT IS EVERYTHING NOW. Anna Iris fades away. For a moment nothing comes to replace her. Just the sun. Still no sound of boats.

Then he sees it. A game. Mangrove Maze. Speedboats racing through a jungle labyrinth. Racing to deliver supplies to people marooned on an island. The clock is running. Who gets past the obstacles first? There will be increasing levels of difficulty, of course.

And there are lots of maze games out there, dating back to Atari days. But this one has a humanitarian angle. Maybe something environmentally catchy. Aren’t mangroves supposed to be cushions against hurricane or something? Maybe a global warming angle. The water rises! Every so many seconds, the ocean rises and the island gets smaller. The millennials will love that. It’ll be huge.

Then Anna Iris fills his mind, the image of her getting out of his bed, pulling on her clothes.“What happens to you if he finds out?” Jack said.

“I have others,” she said. Then she sighed, sagged. “I’m tired of it. And things are changing here now. There will be other ways.”

“What about money?” Jack said. He’s richer than Massimo by far. Maybe there’s some way he could—

She cut him off. “I’ve been saving to start a travel business. An agency. I know all the best hotels. And my English is good, yes?”

Jack nodded. “Excellent.”

She opened the door and paused.

“Okay, then. Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself.” She stepped out, turned. “And Jack,” she said, smiling for the first time ever. “That was heedious.”

HE HEARS AN OUTBOARD NOW, a boat coming. But is it here, or in the game?

And something else coming closer, too, climbing along the branches he’s sprawled across. It’s real enough. No, not an it. Them. And not birds. Something else. When the first scaly faces push through the leaves, tongues lapping the air, he knows what they are.

Back in the days before Massimo, Jack and Raoul took a break from fishing and ate lunch on a beach in the shade of the casuarina trees. As Jack got out of the boat, the iguanas flocked to Jack, begging. They didn’t even look at Raoul. They knew the foreign client would toss scraps their way, and they climbed over each other like start-ups in the presence of investors. They fought over bread crusts, chunks of hard-boiled egg, sweet Cuban sugar cookies. Even lunchmeat.

“Raoul,” Jack said, “I thought iguanas ate only fruit.”

“They’re Cuban,” Raoul said, more serious than Jack had ever seen him. “They’ll eat what they can get.”

THE SUN CLOSES HIS EYES, his lashes are baked shut. He tries to remember the view from his house, the bay, the bridge, the cold Pacific swells beyond. But what he sees are the screens of a million devices. Digital skiffs careening through a green labyrinth. Digital birds flapping overhead. Digital sharks and crocodiles, spiders and snakes: a gauntlet of obstacles. The water rising. The island shrinking. Hurry.

It’s a gamer’s dream.

And there are iguanas now, scrambling to the beaches, crowding and shoving—urgent to sample all the good things about to arrive on this hungry, hungry island.


Rich Chiappone lives in Homer, Alaska, and teaches writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His collection of personal essays, Liar’s Code, was published by Skyhorse Publishing in May 2016.