LIFE ON THE LEDGE--an original story by Steven Jon Kaplan

I had developed the habit of taking an early morning walk for one full hour before work, especially after the coldest winter months had passed and the early yellow crocuses were poking up through the melting snow. Though I had relocated to Chicago three years before, I had never really explored the city on foot. I decided to make up for lost time by visiting as many neighborhoods as possible, hoping in some way to assuage the inevitability of aging which was manifesting itself in too many aspects of my life.

Things being what they are, I began to favor certain routes over others almost immediately. In one direction I encountered an increasing number of vacant lots and dilapidated buildings, and though I was never approached by any sinister figures I became a little frightened about how a middle-aged red-haired Caucasian might be treated and stayed away more frequently. Heading another way, the insistent screeching and grinding of the El created an unwelcome dissonance that was only partially tempered by the excitement of seeing the massive metal cylinders in motion. On some routes, I was disconcerted to discover that the neighborhood dogs eternally considered me a stranger, no matter how often I passed by their yard. Thus I found myself repeating a limited series of circuits, and yearned for a little excitement to enliven the hour.

For a month nothing new happened. I tried to vary the scene by exploring some small side streets, but they often ended up crossing a main street far from a traffic crossing and I got weary of dodging the taxis and buses. I even headed to the path by the lake, but was intimidated by runners who covered three blocks to my one and reminded me too insistently of my increasing distance from my youth. Still I continued to walk, whether out of habit or just to find a ready escape from the pressure of my employment I did not know, nor did it really matter. But I did hope that something would happen soon.

Then finally it did, probably because I wanted it to. As I passed by an office building a mere half mile from my house, one that I must have walked past at least fifty times that spring, I notice a man watering a bright orange clay flowerpot on his windowsill on the floor just above the ground level. To the average person this might not have been a great revelation, but I was eagerly scanning for anything different. I gazed closely at the surface upon which the flowerpot was perched, and decided that he could have put a dozen or more small trees up there without overcrowding, so wide was the ledge. In fact, it extended for six feet across as far as I could see. Sensing the beginning of an idea, I walked around the perimeter of the building, and discovered to my increasing satisfaction that the ledge formed a continuous path around it. I entered the lobby and ascended a white marble staircase to the next level.

I entered a restaurant deserted at the early hour, unlocked a patio door, and proceeded to the ledge. As I found myself about four feet away from the dropoff I had a sudden primitive rush of fear, which gradually subsided. I gingerly stood still for a full minute. Then I turned to my right and began to walk; tiny steps at first, then with increasing courage and speed. I made an entire lap around the building, knowing that if I fell it was a ten-foot drop onto the pavement. Afterward I rapidly exited the ledge through the patio door, relocked it, left the restaurant, ran down the marble steps, and greeted the street level once again. I was exhilirated.

The next day I repeated the same sequence of events, this time with a surer sense of purpose and direction. Throughout the summer I maintained my secret walk above the city. After a while my movements were so regular I must have been taken as an employee of the building; I began to recognize the faces of those who waved to me during my walk. I had become a part of the scenery, as predictable as the Sears Tower or Lake Michigan, but smaller and in steady motion. And steady it was, too; I lost all fear of the height and looked out comfortably at the cityscape as I strolled by.

When winter came again and ice began to form on the ledge, I decided to play it safe and extend my walk without passing the building. Next spring, though, I was ready to go around again. As I approached my favorite marble staircase for the first time in more than three months, I must have felt an extra portion of mischievousness, so I went up two flights and looked around. At first I planned to descend to my usual strolling level; then I discovered that the restaurant had a balcony section an extra flight up. How could I resist? I found a door immediately above my former exit to the dangerous perimeter, and proceeded through. I closed my eyes briefly, not wishing to act too hastily. Then I plunged ahead and went outside, and being sure to stay away from the twenty-foot disaster which awaited me on my left, I proceeded in my customary clockwise direction around the building. It took me twice as long as usual and my heart was beating a little quickly, but I made it. Quietly I returned to my normal life at ground level.

Such became my routine that second year; within a couple of weeks I was making the rounds at the same speed as last year, but one flight higher. Here, too, I became a welcome sight to the employees; the offices on this floor were distinctly more corporate, so I was more often greeted by a carefully dressed and manicured person. Still, the camaraderie was evident. I think my punctuality reassured those whose lives were threatened by the rapid changes around us. Or maybe I just made myself a slightly unusual conversation piece.

One day the staircase was blocked for cleaning, so I unhappily interrupted my steady stride to take the elevator. Without checking carefully I found myself on the "Piano Bar Express" to the top floor, so I decided to tip my hat to chance and walked out into a sleek modern gourmet bar complete with grand piano and fresh irises. Off to the side was a small staircase; I quietly walked to it and ascended to the top. Opening a door, I found myself on the roof of the building. Did I dare to peek at the edge? At first I turned back and walked down half a flight. Then I paused, uncertain about my next move. I was growing uneasy about varying too greatly from my daily pattern, but I remembered that it took that first adventurous step to develop the routine to begin with, so I eventually, hesitatingly, returned to the roof. The view was truly magnificent, so I did nothing for five minutes but look out in all directions at the farthest reaches of the city. Gradually I became conscious of the shouts and whistles of kids; at first I filtered out these sounds because they seemed incongruous, but as I could not deny my senses I proceeded to identify individual boys' and girls' voices. "One two three four, you're on the line!" "You cheated!" "No, I didn't!" "You have to do it on one foot!" "Says who!"

Intrigued, I walked slowly toward one edge of the roof. Looking down, I noticed that as on the second and third floors where I was accustomed to strolling, there was a ledge that circumnavigated the perimeter of the building. Here it was a little bit shorter around, and more decorated with greenery. Similar to the lower floors, there was no protective grating to prevent anyone from falling off. Yet all around the ledge were children happily playing innumerable variations of hopscotch--right by the edge. I looked around for older adults and saw only one mother apparently unconcerned about anything except preventing half of a sandwich from falling apart. Was this a dream? Was it I who was the timid one, content to risk my limbs twenty feet above the pavement, when so many others much younger did not fear a height of more than thirty stories? The sheer unanimity of unconcern made me completely unnerved; my notions of mortality and existence were no longer compatible with reality.

After half an hour or more I approached one of the "older" boys, maybe six years old, sensing that even though fifty years separated us he would have perhaps the closest psychic connection with our shared fate. "Are you not afraid to fall off?" I gently questioned, not wishing to alarm him in case I posed a dilemma that had occurred to him for the first time. "Of course not," he snapped back, "look down!" Look down? I wondered. Were these special children, unmoved by the concept of great heights? Then I noticed a fully enclosed and thickly padded ledge just below the roof, which completely encircled the building and was ringed by a formidable high inwardly arching steel rail. If anyone fell, it would be just a couple of feet onto a soft landing; even if someone wanted to scale the fence in order to jump, that person would have to be a champion climber and contortionist to succeed.

I still occasionally pass by the office building during my walk but never enter. I find myself more often passing by an unfamiliar vacant lot or a neighborhood in which the English language is rarely heard. Though there's no padding to protect me from the world, I don't allow the fear to encompass my innermost thoughts. Yes, I was mugged the next year--right in front of my own house. Even some of the dogs have gotten to know me. Though I still haven't completely adjusted to being called Pops instead of Red, life makes more sense. Or at least it seems to, which is all that anyone can reasonably expect.