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From Ledge to Ledge

Rating: PG

But we are fated
To find no foothold, no rest,
And suffering mortals
Dwindle and fall
Headlong from one
Hour to the next,
Hurled like water
From ledge to ledge
Downward for years to the vague abyss.
- Friedrich Holderlin, "Hyperion's Song of Fate"

The porcelain hand was the cause of it all. It had pointed at him. At first, the movement was just a flicker in his peripheral vision, but enough nonetheless to stop him in front of the storefront window. The neon sign overhead read, "Psychic Mrs. Tina's - Advice on all life's problems." It cast a red glow that his breath picked up in the early evening cold. When he looked at the porcelain hand dead-on, it was motionless, one of two such life-sized hands on either end of a red rug that lined the window display. Oblong holes on the flat of each wrist held small satin roses. On the rug were a spread of tarot cards, a Mary and Jesus figurine, a series of I-Ching hexagrams printed on a black velvet mat, and a toss of bright yellow and orange artificial flowers. He was about to move on when there it was again, just as he turned his head: it was an almost imperceptible, "come here" twitch of the fingers.

Amused, Franklin assumed the hand was being animated mechanically, Psychic Tina's idea of an eye-catching display, even though his were the only eyes to catch on the corner of Dundas West and Roncessvalles that evening.

In the lower right corner of the window, a smaller, sliding section was open a crack. Franklin looked around and, seeing no one, he cautiously nudged the window a little further open. A stocky old Chinese man in a gray overcoat and winter hat with the ear flaps down, he looked for a moment like he was stretching his back when he leaned over to peer through the opening he had made.

Inside the display the florescent light appeared brighter, giving the rug a richer, living shade of red. The white porcelain glowed. He took off his brown wool glove and looked at his own hand in the light of the window display. Outside, the skin of his hand was as tanned, loose and wrinkled as ever, with the liver spots like black islands in a river system of blue veins. When he reached inside the window, his hand seemed curiously brighter and more intensely detailed. The lines and marks were suddenly given depth and precision that didn't look natural. He thought he was looking at a large-format photograph or magnification of his hand. He compared the effect, inside and outside of the open window, and once again, the porcelain hand twitched at him. Without breaking his rhythm, he reached inside again and deftly removed the white hand with its rose and dropped them into his coat pocket.

So quick was the movement that from across the street Franklin appeared only to have been stretching, or crouching to get a better look at the display. He resumed walking, quicker now, towards the Dundas West subway station. A bystander would have noticed Franklin's slight stoop, his thoughtful, removed demeanor, his barely hidden smile and furtive backward glance.

Past the Halal meat stores, the travel and real estate agencies, Blue Lotus massage table distributor, past Zellers and Loblaw's to the Crossways mall and apartment complex Franklin walked, half-expecting someone to stop him, to charge him with the theft. He didn't think he had been seen, but the thrill and dread of anticipation set his mind afire.

The human traffic on the subway eastbound from the station wasn't as heavy as that on the westbound train. Working nights allowed Franklin the occasional comfort of travelling in directions opposite to the late rush hour crowd. On the train, after looking once more over his shoulder, he took the porcelain hand from his pocket, withdrew the fake rose and left it on the stained red vinyl of the empty seat beside him. At St. George, he transferred to the northbound train, where he stayed for the long run up to Finch.

He held the hand, examining it. The porcelain was whiter than a set of perfect teeth, and warm from being held. It was hollow, about half a centimeter thick. When he rubbed his finger along the hand's insides, through the hole in the wrist, it left a powdery residue on his fingertip. He couldn't find any means of animating the hand.

The fingers were slender, with gently pointed tips. A woman's hand, he thought. His mother had hands like these. Even during the Japanese invasion, that winter in 1937, she had somehow managed to find ways of maintaining the smoothness of her hands. For the most part. Until the Datusha began, and everyone had to spend all of their time hiding from the soldiers, bartering or getting killed.

Susan, the owner of the arcade where he worked, she had poorly kept hands, he thought. What would his mother have made of Susan? Such a business-minded and beautiful young woman, Susan would have drawn out his admiration and affection - and probably would have intimidated the hell out of him - if he was thirty years younger. She could never have a hand like the porcelain one he held on the empty subway.

At the Finch station, the bus driver was a burly, talkative, middle-aged man. His hair was tightly curled and reddish-blonde. As Franklin boarded, the driver greeted him with a nod and a forceful, "Sir." In six months of regular conversation, Franklin had never learned the driver's name.

"The rat race never ends, hey?" the driver said. He pulled the bus from the station, and looked quickly over to Franklin, who held the porcelain hand and didn't seem to hear the comment. "You know what that means, the rat race?" the driver asked.

"You say that almost every time. I know what it means," Franklin said.

"You're supposed to acknowledge me, here. That's part of having a civilized talk." Everything the driver said had the tone of a broad, aggressive joke. In contrast, a conspiratorial undertone gave an edge to Franklin's otherwise low-key, laconic voice and manner.

"Six months of winter," Franklin said, following the regular pattern of their 20-minute chat towards Keele Street.

"Not like back home, right? I'll bet it never got like this back in Peking," the driver said. "You don't get that Siberia kind of weather where you're from, do you?"

Correcting him, Franklin said he came from Nanking, which is very far from Siberia.

"You're just trying to annoy me," Franklin said. "I've been watching you. You like to do that to people, I think." The driver said that was how he treated all of his friends.

"It keeps people on their toes. Keeps you young," the driver said.

Franklin, at 60, could have passed for ten years in either direction. He removed his hat, and rubbed his bald, freckled scalp with his gloved hand. He had the stocky, filled out body of an old athlete. It was the same shape his father had.

After glancing a few times at the object in Franklin's hands, the driver finally asked him what it was. Franklin showed him the porcelain hand, and told him it was his new good luck charm.

"You never struck me as a superstitious guy," the driver said, distractedly, as he maneuvered through traffic. "Is that some sort of Chinese mystical thing?"

"This isn't Chinese. It's from a psychic. Maybe it's made in China. Chinese things are like the I-Ching and Feng Shui. This is like a rabbit's foot."

"Feng Shui, right." The driver drew out the words as if they were exotic candies. Franklin didn't want to talk about it, suspecting it was another ploy to draw him out and aggravate him. The truth, he said, was that he didn't know very much about it.

"It's complicated. My mother used to practice it a long time ago, during the war. This direction ahead of us, west, is the home of Wu, the white tiger. It's supposed to be unpredictable, dangerous. The energy that comes from the west is called the shan chi. It means changeable energy."

The driver nodded sagaciously, and narrowly missed a taxi that passed the bus on the inside lane. Franklin continued slowly, trying to remember the old lessons.

"Shan chi brings anger and strength, autumn and violence. Sudden violence. How do you like that?" Franklin asked.

"It would explain some of these stupid drivers. Did you see that last guy?"

Franklin told him he should see some of kids who hang around the arcade at night. He called it a zoo full of tigers. The driver said he knew all about that.

"They're a lot of gang kids there. What's an old guy like you want to work with a bunch of roughnecks?" the driver asked. "I'm even too old for that place. Anyone over twenty is too old for that"

Franklin rubbed his fingers together and said he had to pay the rent.

"I'll tell you who makes a lot are the owners. They're only a little bit older than the customers are. I see how much money they make. It's incredible."

The driver asked him how much. Franklin held up four fingers and said it was over a thousand dollars on some nights. The driver whistled a low, admiring tone.

They could see the arcade approaching as the brightest building on the street. Crazy Frank's Game Palace was a wide, L-shaped, one-storey building with showroom windows along its front, looking onto an empty parking lot. A four-store strip mall joined onto the arcade's right-hand side, and an Italian-Chinese restaurant abutted the left. On Tuesdays in that area, not many businesses were open past six and the streets were empty. With its huge display windows the arcade was a cold spotlight.

Three teenagers were playing the basketball video game near the front door. Entranced by their game, the teens didn't seem to notice their enormous shadows that swept across the parking lot and Keele Street into the frost covered field of the Canadian Forces Base across the street.

"Watch out for that tiger, now," the driver said as Franklin stepped off the bus. He waved the porcelain hand at the driver.

As usual, Susan was ready to leave when Franklin arrived. Walking through the parking lot, he saw her staring blankly in his direction. She probably couldn't see him through the glare on the glass, he thought. Her black leather coat matched her long hair, and was just as shiny. Her skin had been tanned all winter long. Franklin wondered if it was because she was Greek, or if she went to tanning salons to maintain it.

He had to jostle past the three teens ensconced at the video game by the front doors. When he had settled into his familiar position behind the counter along one wall of the room, Susan told him to watch out for the teens.

"They've been rowdy all afternoon. Except for them it's been dead in here all day. When they get going, though, it drives me nuts. I know they're going to steal something. Maybe they already have," she said. Her young smoker's voice was still attractive in its roughness. Susan always spoke with an unnecessary gravity, Franklin thought.

He set the porcelain hand on the counter next to the change dispenser.

"You'll keep an eye on them. You're a good manager," she said. She pulled her hair into a ponytail and donned her bright blue and white Maple Leafs toque. She apologized for being frazzled.

Franklin told her to breathe deeply. It would help to clear her mind.

"You're such a calm old guy. I need you around here more often," she said, and smiled warmly, briefly. As always, she reminded him of where the alarm code was written, and that he would have to turn the alarm system on before he locked the arcade up later. He suspected she did this to remind herself more than him.

Then she left and Franklin's shift passed into routine, until closing time.

It was 2 am, and Franklin was leaning forward on the counter. The cracked vinyl seat of the chrome-plated bar stool creaked under his weight. He spun the porcelain hand on the linoleum counter top, and looked impatiently at the trio of boys. Next to the hand was the canvas pouch holding the night's receipts and cash - close to $1300, which must have been a record, Franklin thought. A flurry of customers had hit the arcade midway through his shift: children, teenagers, soldiers from the base, and even students from York University. Through it all the trio of boys had remained, sometimes playing other games, sometimes hanging around in the parking lot.

Now, the boys were back at the NBA Challenge video game, their concentration erupting in sporadic bursts of furious button-tapping, stick-rattling and yelling. Franklin looked past them at their long shadows in the parking lot, and for a moment, tried to convince himself of the illusion that the boys and their shadows didn't match. One boy suddenly slapped the side of the video game cabinet.

"It's time to go," Franklin said. The boys glanced at him and continued playing. He told them again. One boy asked him if he was in a hurry to get somewhere. "Yes, home," Franklin said.

Fifteen years old at the most, the boys probably lived nearby like most of the arcade's customers, maybe from Northwood Park, to the west of Keele, or from Downsview, to the south. This trio wore bright, thickly quilted winter jackets adorned with totemic sports logos: a bull, bear and dinosaur. It annoyed Franklin that even their clothes were loud.

He had already vacuumed the stained and worn burgundy area rug, and wiped the screens and consoles of all the games except the one the boys were on, from Killer Instinct to Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat to Death Racer. By comparison, the boys had taken to one of the least violent games in the arcade.

Franklin spun the porcelain hand again. This time, its revolutions seemed to slow down sooner than before. When it stopped, the loosely held fingers were pointing towards the boys. He spun the hand again, to the same effect. Franklin smacked his palm down on top of the change dispenser, rattling the coins inside like broken glass. One game token fell from the dispenser's lip to the counter top.

Once, just before the Nanking massacres of 1937, he found an old coin on top of the wall that used to surround the city. He was a child, holding his father's hand. At the southern tip of the city, where they stood, he saw over the roofs of the crenellated battlements to the working-class district homes made of brick. Everything was gray. Towards the north were the wealthier homes, where the roofs were tiled in deep red and blue, and everything seemed to sit in front of the tall, modern buildings of government. Before they could move into their house on Chungyang Road, his mother had insisted that one of the local Taoist priests bless and plan the layout of the rooms according to the correct Feng Shui. What good had any of that done, Franklin wondered?

Behind the Death Racer video game, the power bar was wedged between the wall and the gathered edge of the rug. Franklin held on to the side of the game cabinet and reached with his leg in behind it. The dust left gray streaks across his blue work pants. When he depressed the red lit switch of the power bar, a bank of four games were extinguished, including the NBA Challenge.

On most nights, this was the moment when he would begin to relax. The sudden silence made the room expand and he would feel a momentary weightlessness. Tonight, the boys erupted at him. They demanded money back for their interrupted game, and gathered threateningly close to Franklin.

He stopped listening to them. Everything seemed to happen quickly. He pushed one of them, the boy with the shark jacket, towards the door. One of the other boys pushed Franklin and all three started yelling at him. He managed to corral them toward the front doors. He forced the doors shut and turned the lock. One boy kicked at the glass and cracked it.

Franklin turned off the main lights and finished cleaning up behind the counter. The boys lingered in the parking lot. When he thought they had left, a small rock dinged one of the display windows. In his peripheral vision, Franklin saw it hit the glass. Not long after, the still lit remains of a cigarette also hit the glass.

The distant yellow moon, and the streetlights that dotted Keele Street, lent a thin sheen to the darkness. In the unlit arcade, he imagined himself in an aquarium. The overriding hum of the building's ventilation system encompassed him. The game cabinets looked like confessionals in the dark, the pinball machines a row of jewelry cases.

Then the porcelain hand moved. More than a subtle twitch in the corner of his vision, this time the hand's movement was slow and prominent. It rotated slowly and deliberately, performing an almost complete turn before stopping. It pointed at the canvas money bag.

The usual routine was to zip up all of the night's cash and receipts in the bag, and then push it through a slot on top of the small safe behind the counter. Usually, Franklin would have done that already. He wondered why he had left it so long.

He went to the front door and inspected the cracked glass. There wasn't a hole in the glass, but the cracks were enough to warrant replacing the entire pane.

The parking lot was empty when he stepped outside.

Taking a deep, cold breath, he stamped backwards at the cracked glass, once with his heel. A dull crunch, the cracks spread and spider-webbed the bottom half of the pane.

He moved quickly now. Back at the counter he took all of the money from the canvas bag and hid small stacks of bills on himself - in his shoes and socks, in the lining of his old coat, and anywhere else he could think of. He left the arcade in time to catch the 2:48 am bus. He would be home by 3:30 am.

At almost the same time, the arcade's alarm system began to ring. He hadn't turned them on before locking the front doors, which caused the alarms to sound 45 minutes afterwards. He knew that would happen because Susan reminded him of it so often.

She was the first to call him, around 4 am. She was afraid he had been murdered. The police rang his apartment buzzer a few minutes later.

The break-in was blamed on the three boys. Franklin admitted forgetting to put the money bag into the safe that night. He said he had been shaken up by his tussle with the boys. The money bag must have slipped his mind. Everyone - the police, Susan, and even the parents of the boys, when they were picked up the next day - seemed eager to believe that the boys had broken into the arcade after Franklin had left. The boys confessed to kicking the glass in and, Franklin learned, they even suspected each other of returning later to rob the place. Before the next day was out, one of the parents accepted blame on behalf of her son and agreed to pay the money back by herself in exchange for a reduced sentence. It was his first offense and he was only fifteen.

The second day after the robbery was supposed to be one of Franklin's off-days. He went into the arcade in the early afternoon. The broken glass had already been replaced. Susan was not happy to see him. He guessed that, once her panic had died down, she had begun to blame him for leaving the money out of the safe and vulnerable to theft. If the boys hadn't been so suspicious to their own parents, perhaps he would have been found out. He didn't want to wait and see if that would happen.

Accepting as much responsibility as he could for the robbery, he quit. Susan had already prepared his last paycheck. Before leaving the arcade for the last time, Franklin took the porcelain hand from his coat pocket and gave it to Susan as a good luck charm.