The red balloon floated listlessly, losing air but still buoyant. It was tied to a chair-back in the large room. Stephen stared at it, then drew his jacket with the broken zipper together in front of him, each hand clutching at a serrated edge. He exhaled forcefully; it felt like his soul was deflating. He moved forward a couple of steps; there were around ten men in line in front of him, filing by the serving area of the homeless shelter’s dining room.
As he approached the stainless-steel tray-track, he peered at the volunteers in their blue shirts and red-and-white Santa hats on the other side of the counter. They were moving swiftly in assembly-line fashion, passing the pale-yellow plastic trays from one to the other, filling the indentations with the different kinds of food and cartons of juice, sliding the meals across the stainless-steel surface to the waiting residents. He wanted to say, Hold the green beans, or, More squash and turkey, or, Could I have an extra roll, please? But he bit his chapped lower lip and remained silent. When it was his turn, Stephen grasped his meal and a set of white-plastic forks, knives, and spoons, and turned quickly to find a place at one of the Formica-topped folding utility-tables.
He found an empty space, set down his tray. He pulled out a metal folding chair with a scraping sound that made his nerves tingle. He lowered himself into his seat and stared across as his new eating companion, who was bundled in an olive-drab coat, his black-and-white knit cap pulled down just above his ears as he spooned creamed-corn into his beard-encircled mouth. “Hi, my name is Stephen,” he said, and lowered his eyes, turned his attention to his food.
The other raised his eyes under his brows and gazed back at him, then straightened and tore at one of his Parker-House rolls “Gerard,” he mumbled around his chewing.
Stephen didn’t much care anymore if the people he greeted, responded. He’d made a habit of at least trying. He absently fingered the cool and waxy-pendant that hung from his neck as he started on the mashed-potatoes first.
“You new here?” Gerard asked.
Stephen looked up as a couple of stiff-jointed elderly men fumbled for seats beside him, their bent and cracked fingers extruding from fingerless gloves. He then returned his attention to Gerard and answered, “Yeah, they finally found me a bed. I got here this morning. Been all around the city, trying to find somewhere to stay before it snowed.”
“Gotta drink?” one of the newcomers said with a slobbering smack, as he no longer had any teeth. “This damn place don’t have no alcohol allowed.”
The old man smelled bad, and Stephen caught himself being judgmental, snippets of thinking from his previous life flashing into his mind … probably been drunk and on the streets for fifty years … mental issues … what a loser…. before he silently cursed himself and remembered he was on the streets, too. Loser is right, you fucking jackass, he said to himself. He jabbed the fork into the slices of turkey slathered with gravy and separated a medium-sized piece, stabbed it into his mouth. He suddenly wanted to cry.
Gerard blotted his lower face with a paper napkin. He cleared his throat and leaned back, making the chair creak. He patted his stomach. “That wasn’t half bad,” he said. He paused, then continued, “I been here at the Commons for about a month. Nice to be in city center. And they don’t preach so much, here.”
Stephen managed a small grin. “Yeah, but let me tell you, I had no place else to go, and even though they were full, the Light of Life Mission on North Avenue took me in, and I’ve gotten food from East Liberty Church and the Eastminister Cooperative on Highland Avenue. I can’t complain about the religious stuff.”
“So you from Northside?” Gerard asked.
“No, Shadyside actually. Born and raised in Pittsburgh,” he said. “But I don’t have any family left, and everything….” He stopped. He slouched over and scraped up the last of his gravy. His pendant fell forward and hit the aluminum edging of the table.
“What the hell is that thing?” Gerard wanted to know. He belched loudly, then chin-up drained the small container of orange juice, his Adam’s-apple bobbing.
“What?” Stephen responded, although he knew what the other referred to. He wished he still had a functioning zipper on his winter coat. He bent over his tray as he began eating the small slab of coconut cake.
“That … there…,” he pointed, “the thing around your neck.”
Stephen shrugged and shifted in his chair. He slid his fork straight down into the icing, wobbled it back and forth until he separated a section. He lifted it and brought it to his mouth. “It’s a dragon,” he finally said, and pulled the desert off the plastic prongs with his lips.
“That don’t look like no dragon,” Gerard said. “Let me see that.”
Stephen pushed his tray away from him by a few inches. He was tired. He just wanted some sleep. “It’s a dragon, a lóng. It’s fei-ts’ui, or kingfisher jade; a kind of red jadeite. He now pulled the two-inch high figure out and held it in front of his eyes, the black-cord chain looping from the back of his neck. “It’s apparently genuine red jade, natural, not artificially colored. Ferric Oxide gives it the orange-red.”
“Uh huh,” he grunted. “It still don’t look like a dragon. Is it holding something?” He leaned forward a few inches, and moved his eyes back and forth. “It looks like a snake or lizard with whiskers.”
“It’s an Asian dragon; they’re different from Western dragons. My late wife gave me this one before she passed away. It stands upright because this is supposed to be a talisman and supposed to be lucky. It’s holding a ‘pearl’ or ball of life-energy — has to hold it in a sculpture, but in paintings and drawings the energy-pearl hovers just out of the dragon’s reach. The dragon is a symbol of the male creative force, and also of rain, thunder, and rivers and lakes. You’re supposed to wear them or put them in your house for luck and success.”
“Sure. You really into dragons?” Gerard tilted his head slightly and brought his brows together, squinted. “That thing is creepy.”
“Yes, my little friend, my little Ti-Lóng the treasure-luck dragon certainly is creepy,” Stephan replied. He noted from his peripheral vision that most of the residents had finished and were clearing out heading for their rooms and apartments, and the volunteers were starting to sweep the floor. He extended the dragon pendant as far as it would stretch in Gerard’s direction. “See that tiny clump of dark-red in the chest? I mean, logically I know this is jadeite with swirls and stains of iron, but look at it. That’s a bloody spot. Like a heart. Sometimes I swear it’s beating….” He abruptly pulled the tiny dragon carving back, and dropped it. He pulled his jacket over his chest.
“So, is it valuable? What’s red jade?”
Stephen felt a flitter of panic. He should have kept the damn thing hidden. Even if it had never helped him one bit. “It’s just a stone,” he answered. “You can polish it, but it’s not valuable at all.”
Thirty minutes later, Stephen reclined — fully clothed with his shoes off — on a five-inch-thick, vinyl and foam mattress covered with thin sheets and an acrylic blanket. The back of his head rested on a white pillowcase that enveloped a crinkly vinyl pillow. The entire bed smelled of chlorine bleach. The small studio apartment contained a diminutive kitchenette, one table, one bed, an end-table, a closet, and a cramped bathroom. Nothing more. But it was separate, private, and his door was closed. To Stephen, it was The Royal Suite of the Ritz-Carlton. A place to live, for sixty days anyway, until he got a job, and could start paying a low, subsidized rent, or was asked to leave.
He folded his hands under his neck and looked up at the ceiling tiles. He could hear a siren from somewhere outside. He was on one of six floors that housed men only and felt both excited, and terrified. Excited because the Commons staff offered counseling, help finding employment, and low-income housing. Terrified because he figured it would all fall apart just like everything had collapsed into a heap of dust around him for the last two years. He groped for his dragon charm, and clutched it in a fist. The jade was smooth and cool. “You little shit,” he said. “Why am I afraid to get rid of you?” He seized the tiny figurine between his thumb and finger tips and moved it far enough away so that he could focus on it. “You didn’t bring me luck. You brought me one disaster after another.”
He remembered Meghan — her short, shiny black hair pulled straight back into a casual ponytail, her stylish glasses magnifying her hazel eyes. He pictured her just over five years before, when she’d given him the dragon as a present. “That thing is ugly,” he said. “I found it at the sidewalk art fair,” she tried to explain. “At a kiosk that sold all this gorgeous jade-work. It’s genuine Fe Yu or red jade, Fei-Ts’ui king-fisher jadeite.”
She insisted he had to wear it. Meghan made him hang the thing around his neck. “It brings good luck and prosperity, it wards off the evil eye. It brings wealth and long life, fertility and wisdom, happiness and love,” she said. He had laughed — guffawed, long and hard. “What else? Cure male-pattern baldness? Stop hemorrhoids? Wipe away about twenty pounds?” Meghan wasn’t amused, and his joking seemed to irritate her more than usual. Maybe she already sensed something was amiss.
He didn’t wear it all the time, at first. It sat on his dresser when he went to work as a district manager for a local grocery-store chain. When his employer was purchased by a larger super-market brand, and his job was eliminated, he began holding and stroking the dragon every day; it almost seemed he was praying to it. When Meghan was diagnosed, he put it back around his neck and wore it continually, even when he went to church.
“Except things didn’t get better, they got a hell of a lot worse,” he whispered. His eyes stung and he clenched his jaw, ground his teeth. He hated self-pity. He used to hate a lot, and pass judgment, too. He used to have contempt for poor people who couldn’t get a job, who lost everything for no reason he could understand. He used to read about families that suffered a cascade of disasters, and it felt like he was watching a bad horror-movie where you shout at the actors on the screen, God, what a dumb-ass, how could you be so stupid? It seemed to him, people careened from one misfortune to another in the same way; why, if it happened to him, he’d always be able to find sure-footing again before the bottom dropped out.
It was shocking how quickly he was sucked into the vortex, once the whirlwind began. Well, not immediately, he remembered. He’d started looking for new employment almost at once, never doubting he could find a new job at age forty. Then Meghan was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer. And everything went to hell. The extended insurance his company was forced to offer was way too expensive per month, and he and Meghan lost their house. They asked Meghan’s family for help; her father sent a little money, then stopped. No one else was in a financial position to rescue them. On the other hand, because their tax returns recorded their “profits” from the sale of their house — all of which went to pay their medical expenses and bills, they fell through the cracks of social programs. They spent the last year of her life living in a Hospice House, their savings exhausted, their cars repossessed, their belongings sold at auction or pilfered by neighbors. After Meghan died, he had no one. He had nothing. His own immediate family were dead, extended relatives like aunts and cousins said God, what a dumb-ass, how could you be so stupid in their eyes, and wouldn’t give him a place to stay, or a few dollars for food.
“You’re a little piece of shit,” he said again to the jade dragon. “I kept thinking you’d protect us, you’d make it better. So, let’s see, ‘Luck’ — check, incredible bad luck, one crap disaster after the other. ‘Prosperity and Long Life’ – sure, Meghan is dead and I’m in a homeless shelter. ‘Wisdom’ — I can’t concentrate long enough to remember where I was two days ago. Protect us from the ‘Evil Eye’? I think the ‘Evil Eye’ has been staring at us without blinking for years. I need to throw you into the trash….” Anger bordering on rage flared — then he abruptly yelped and dropped the charm on his chest. “What the fucking hell?!” he shouted. He held his right hand for a moment, and clearly saw his thumb and fingertips were reddened where he’d felt a painful burning sensation. He lowered his chin and looked down; the tiny, ruddy clot inside the middle of the jade dragon was brightening. He hurled himself to a sitting position and tugged at the black silk cord, yanking it in different directions, trying to remove it as quickly as he could. It kept getting stuck on his ear, or his chin, or cutting into his neck like a garrote. Next he grabbed the amulet with both hands and attempted to pull it off where it was attached by a couple of knots. It wouldn’t budge. “God-dammit, get off me,” he said loudly, and swung his feet to the floor, thinking to stand.
But quickly he felt defeated, tired, and ashamed of himself. “I’ll deal with it tomorrow,” he abruptly muttered, and lay back down, turned on one side, drew his legs into a fetal position. The dragon also lay on its side, like it was sleeping.
The next day the snow came. Stephen awoke but it was gray outside and like twilight in the room. He felt hopeless, heavy, and moving was like hauling around weights hanging from his limbs. He washed his face but didn’t shave and didn’t shower. He thought vaguely that maybe he could give the Ti-Lóng pendant away.
He exited his apartment, closed the door; hearing it lock, feeling the key in his pants pocket, gave him a warm feeling, a positive glimmer that he hadn’t experienced in a long time. He headed for the stairs. He hoped the community kitchen served breakfast. He pulled open the door to the stairwell, and began trudging down, watching his feet while supporting himself with a hand sliding along the tile walls on his right. When he reached the next landing, he thought he heard something, and his head darted upwards. He found himself nearly on top of, staring into the eyes of, Gerard.
“Watch where you’re going, man,” Gerard said. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
“I gotta go,” Stephen managed, feeling uneasy.
It didn’t look like Gerard had changed his clothes, or had slept. “Wait up, man, hold it a minute…,” he was saying but all the while he started shoving Stephen, pushing him backwards two or three times until the older man was literally in a corner.
“Look, I don’t have anything. I don’t own anything….”
Gerard grinned. “That dragon thing, give it to me,” he whispered, his nose inches from Stephen’s.
Stephen lowered his eyes and averted his face as far as he could, breathing through his mouth so he wouldn’t have to smell the stale breath. “I can’t give it to you or anyone,” he said. “You’ll have to take it.”
There was a frozen moment; Gerard neither moved nor said a word. Then he stepped back a foot while continuing to use one outstretched arm to jam Stephen’s body against the wall.
Stephen held his breath. He could feel the pendant heating up.
Abruptly Gerard yanked the front of Stephen’s jacket aside and wrapped his muscular right fist around the jade figure. He tugged, then pulled with all his strength.
The cord snapped. Stephen pressed his shoulders and spine as far back into the angle of the tiled wall as he could. His hands were extended, his fingers splayed. His chest heaved, expanded. He felt dizzy.
“Don’t you tell anyone, d’you hear me?” Gerard said to him in a low, threatening tone as he spun around and began bounding down the stairs.
Stephen remained still, listening to the clopping, echoing sound of Gerard’s shoes on the marble steps until the noise diminished, then disappeared. It was quiet again. “I won’t tell a soul,” Stephen said softly. He inhaled, exhaled deeply. He came to his full height and squared his shoulders, adjusted his jacket. Out of habit he patted his sternum; there was no doubt about it, the dragon was gone.
From the high, old stairwell windows, long ago painted shut, came a burst of light. Stephen half-turned and craned his neck to see, shading his eyes with the back of one arm. It looked like the snow had stopped, and the sun was breaking through. A bubble of optimism, of hope, rose in his thoughts.
By the time he reached the dining hall, Stephen was walking with a firm, confident step. He didn’t care if he saw Gerard; in fact, he expected to see him, sitting at one of the brown, faux-wood-grain tables, all jolly and talkative. He approached the line and took his place. He circled where he stood and briefly scanned the crowded room. Gerard wasn’t there. “I wonder where he is?” he murmured out loud, more focused on the aroma of coffee and bacon, toast and eggs.
“Where who is?” the man in front of him asked. “Gerard? You friends with him? I’d keep quiet about that, if I were you. He’s in big trouble.”
Stephen faced forward; a few more of the residents in the line formed a clump around him and joined the conversation. “Why?” he asked them, feeling a sense of dread once more. I don’t want it back, I don’t want it back, he yelled repeatedly in his head.
“The police just got him,” the first man said, his voice low. “They found drugs on him.”
“But … I saw him five minutes ago,” Stephen said, his heart racing.
One of the others, a portly long-time resident with chin-length white hair, whispered, “He didn’t have no drugs on him. He was walking in the hall just outside the double doors there, and a guy came in off the street, the cops hot on his tail, and made-like to collide with Gerard, and slipped ‘em. That’s how come Gerard got caught with drugs on ‘im. He ain’t no dealer or user….”
The others argued about the exact circumstances, and what they should tell the Commons staff, but Stephen tuned them out. He waited in his place in line, pretending to listen, his arms loosely folded across his chest. He started to smile.