Soft Tiger

Soft Tiger

He trembles, sparking faint friction of flannel between his thighs. The brushing is soothing and rhythmic, keeping him calm as he paces toward the base of the climb. Cold, he’s reluctant to raise his head from the chest of his coat. The peak is high and gray, out of the range of his blurred sight. He only loosely makes out his mark. Quivering. Flustered. He pulls cracked hands from beneath his coat, steadies his shakes and braces himself for the challenge.

I’ve gotten old, I’m an old man now, cruel and fat? Why does this matter so damn much? Why try this, something no one in their right mind would try. It’s cold and damp, you bitter old fool.

He strains through his neck, shoulders, core and ass — tightening his back to shooting, sharp spinal pains. Each reach intensifies his exhaustion. He’s moving slowly at a modest climb, it seems further and further away.

Is it moving, moving back? Am I looking at the right thing? I’m blind and soft in my mind. I’m here, a state of uncertainty and tameness.

His arms tired, his chest aches, but he keeps a good grip. He holds strong in need of rest. Digging in with his back and boots, he clenches as a gust of wind whips across his face. He holds strong and thinks back to fierceness, to physical power he sees fading.

*

His father forced maturity on him. He had to accompany the old man on cross-country trips during the summer, keeping inventory and delivering large scale farming equipment as a truck driver. He helped with the driving, the loading and unloading, and the fill ups.

He watched and joined his father in binge drinking and accompanied him to local whorehouses. He’d been back to back with his old man in bar fights, slashed by broken beer bottles and treated for gonorrhea on those trips away from his mother. He knew time on the road was not the sort of summers a 17 or18 year old boy naturally experienced. He respected his old man for that reality.

His mother was a saint and an artist, a poet and a mistress. His folks separated while he was a child, but the old man kept them comfortable enough. His mother had the freedom to maintain her pseudo-urbanity. She forced culture on him, compelling him to join clubs and debate teams. She took him to plays in the park, readings on the bank and used her rich, married boyfriends to take him on long trips to Spain, Paris and Nicaragua — she kept him curious.

He fell in love with all things new and different, fresh and peculiar. He’d learned how to fake accents and cultural mannerisms. Those trips taught him how to be inexpert and open, accessible to learn from anyone and any experience. It was a reality authentic and factual, but not completely true. He adored his mother for that veracity.

*

He plods, climbing higher with measured exertion. Fatigued and cold, he still can’t make out the mark. Still he’s closer now. He won’t hurry. He won’t scramble. Up he climbs, straining his neck to keep his nose from chafing the hardened snow.

Muddy flakes fall, increasing in number as he rises. Too many muddy flakes distort his mark. He digs in to rest, waiting out the flurries. He feels his lungs fill then empty. He calms himself thinking of deep breaths, his own breathing and reminiscing on imprisonment.

*

His sense of adventure, his mother’s spirit and father’s grit made him a robust man looking for exploration, culture and chance. As a freelance photographer and translator he’d traveled. He’d snapped celebrations, inaugurations, religious zealots, upheavals and war. He was a courier, a fixer and a criminal.

The courts, the jail and camp were nothing more than a collection of dirt mounds. For two weeks they probed him like meat waiting for more than a mouthful of useless babble. He gave them drool. It was easy; he didn’t know much and didn’t care about their cause or their war. He was the hired camera and tongue, paid to snap images and lead correspondents back to their campsites.

He wasn’t particularly fond of their kind as a whole. Not the natives nor cowards, not even the expats. But the unconscious rebels, the antagonist and mercenaries motivated by selfish ideals, indifferent to the populace as a whole; they were the reason he was detained, the reason he’d lost a thumb. He gave them drool.

For two weeks he ate gruel and drank stale water. He thought less about adventure, about women during those hours. He thought about beer and pork, football and the botanical gardens. He thought about pride and being American. A hired hand for more than 21 years, he’d finally wanted to be home.

*

The flakes stop, his control loosens. He’d shifted down more than a peg and needed to regain his grip. He digs in with boots and nails, he begins again. He can feel the pain in his wrists crawling to his elbow. He re-positions his knee and back, changes his course. His mark now lifted from a heavy gust scaled up, still he doesn’t scramble. He stays patient, resting again.

*

He’d never been one for rest or leisure. Now back in the states after weeks of gruel and stale water, tiddlywinks and bureaucratic red tape, he welcomed a steady bed and respite miles away from those dirt mounds. He welcomed strolls down long avenues, dark coffee, whiskey lunches with red meat and the women. Soon he welcomed Maggie.

She was young, 17 years younger. She was wild but mature for a 25 year old. Two years had passed before she felt she could lay down an ultimatum — two years and a pregnancy. For two years she’d been by his side while he drank, fornicated and captivated the imaginations of her peers. Now she wanted comfort and stability. He had to work again.

*

Work found him easy. There wasn’t a publication on the east coast that wouldn’t pay handsomely to have Jordan Coppell head their Photojournalism staff. Back to travel, to adventure and culture, and chance. Now at 46 he climbed higher mountains, sailed wider oceans, and crossed dryer deserts. Neither home nor woman, child nor comfort kept his mind; he’d fallen back in love.

He’d fallen back into routine, into welcomed exhaustion. Back into selfish rabble rousing and the greed for the perfect shot at the perfect moment. He accepted his craving for women, for culture. He stayed at work and overseas cavorting with tulips, drinking rum and wine, working days then moaning mornings. He tended tight control over his staff during the clock and fed their appetites at day’s end. He’d gained control abroad, he’d lost Maggie and child at home.

*

Now here he was, holding firm to bark, bleeding beneath nail and straining to keep from breaking his neck. His eyes glued to his mark, his chest glued to the Honey Locust. Inches he pulled, inches he rose before resting.

I’m an old man. Been a boy, a young man and a tiger, now this. I’m tired, I’m drunk and I’m horny. Punks. They’re fucking punks. They couldn’t hold my water. Now I’m soft, weak. My drinking money, my cab money. The great and worldly brooding louse, Jordan Coppell, rolled by punk kids, by Rudies.

Now steady he moves creaking upward. He sees his mark, he stays on course pushing through rest. Up he climbs, tired and bruised, parched and horny. Closer, he can almost touch it. Whipping in the wind, stretching to its limits, holding lose, it flusters. Straining, stretching, pulling and pushing, he swallows phlegm thick and coarse. Stretching out his arm, opening his hand, stretching. The plastic flutters across his knuckles and through his palm. He snatches it, plants his boot on the thick of a branch and pushes erect.

He stands tall, clinging to a tree limb and plastic bag, braced by branch and trunk. He stands up tall in the Honey Locust bush. He smiles and watches the curious pedestrians walking beneath him. He smells the plastic, the bark and winter air. He thinks of adventure, culture and chance. He opens his ears to the city he calls home.

“Sir, are you alright?” a young man shouts. He looks down and stops smiling. The kid wasn’t thirty yet. He was full and strong, probably dumb and lazy, but he was young and worried about the old man in the tree. “Sir, do you need help down from up there? Do you want me to help you out the tree?” again the young man shouts. Staring down impatient and cold, tired and horny. Yes. Please.