I am air and fire


The night wrapped its arms around Beijing.  As they sat on the patio of the Pearl Street Market Restaurant dining on grilled lamb and gently fried rice, the stars swam in the firmament above them, coalescing in the seas of constellations.  The three of them, Jack Willoughby, Jerry Heard, and Dr. Abel sat quietly, musing on all that had transpired since their days at the Intercontinental Clinic.  Perhaps a decade had passed since they walked the hallways together; more likely it was fifteen years.  Now, only Dr. Abel remained, the others going their separate ways, John to another clinic in Beijing, Jerry to a practice back in the States.  Dr. Abel held on at Intercontinental by his fingertips doing all he could to bolster his rolls of patients.  As a psychologist who’d attained a doctorate from a prestigious school in the States, Dr. Abel was a rare commodity in Beijing, rare as a cab driver in the city who didn’t smoke.  More than once, John and Jerry discussed their colleague’s predicament.  To them, the problem was Abel himself.  Within that five-foot-seven inch frame burned the most incandescent anger.  It permeated every aspect of Abel’s life, leaving any human interaction an awkward transaction.  He’d unload to any stranger that seemed farther out on the limb of the DSM-V than they were.  Patients shied away from him just as they would a cur on the cobblestones of some down-and-out street dog foaming at the mouth, he could go by a week and see less than a half-dozen patients.  

Jerry Heard, tall, slim and slack, dark-complexioned with a shy, once burned, smile. He seemed equally cut out to run for public office or hang out on the beach.  Following his stint at Intercontinental, Jerry washed up upon the beach in Georgia, finally hanging his shingle out as a podiatrist outside Atlanta.  A good six inches taller than John, with a full head of hair, Jerry turned the heads of even the working girls on the street.  As a trailing spouse, Jerry followed his wife, of Chinese extraction to the mainland, where he found himself working at Intercontinental. He worked as a podiatrist during the day, and, occasionally at night, covering the clinic, where he became a pediatrician, the clientele mistaking him for one.  In a pinch, given something he couldn’t handle, Heard would call Dr. Mohammed up who was in charge of the medical staff at our small clinic.  Invariably, he would have Jerry summon the ambulance for the patient.  Before he got the whole machine in motion, like a good bird dog, Heard usually intuited what the master needed, be it the remedy for an infant in the middle of the night with a fever and a sympathetic words for the parents, or special potion for a Chinese businessman who’d had one too many and was suffering from dyspepsia.  Soon, his marriage plunging in flames like the Hindenburg with only two onboard, Heard embarked on the United 747, beating a retreat to the States, and the turmoil of Seventies back in the States.   

John Dial, an internal medicine doctor who sat beside them, caught a falling star at the corner of his eye as he listened to Dr. Abel. He had only overlapped with the other two for the short year they were there together.  Dial had moved on too, working at a general clinic in town.  There the patients were a little more sophisticated, and certainly more demanding.

Of the three, Abel, himself from Persia, incessantly talked about the States where he was a naturalized citizen.  “I don’t know that things seem pretty unseemly back home, but it’s still the greatest country in the world.” 

“How so,” demanded Jerry?

“In every way.  There’s no respect there anymore, for anyone or anything.  No respect for religion.  No respect for the law.  No respect for another’s basic rights as a human being.  Money.  It’s the only thing they respect.”

“Whoa,” said Jerry.  “Two of my sons are over in Iraq right now protecting the rights you have as an American citizen.” 

“I agree with Jerry.  Where there’s freedom, there’s going to be a lot of unhappiness, too,” John said.  The candlelight flickered on their faces and the faces of them eating at the next table.  

“And blacks,” Dr. Abel expounded, “blacks are taking over America.  They are responsible for most of the crime, most of the welfare babies….”

“Hold on, Abel.  Not another word.  My first wife was black.  That makes my first two sons half-black, and I’ll stand up to anybody when it comes to the black issue in America. If you keep on them like this, I’ll justify my feelings with my fists.”

Silence settled and there was just the hum of the mosquitoes and other insects that had descended at the rear of the Pearl Street Market.  John, trying to avoid the argument, gazed once more up at the stars.  Because of the miasma that hovered Beijing, it was so seldom that one saw them.  “I just meant…” But Dr. Abel didn’t get it out.

“I don’t care what you mean, Dr. Abel.  Not another word.” 

“Could you believe they elected Trump!” asserted John.

“Hell, I voted for him,” replied Jerry.

“How could you be such a dumb shit?”

“Fifty million people voted for him!” Jerry sat up in his chair.

“They’re all dumb shits!” John was sitting up in his chair a little more too. 

“Employment in the black community is up to twenty percent.”

“Look, Jerry, I’m not opposed so much to his ideas as I am to the man.  He’d lie to his own priest if he had one.  And what about his groping women?  You think they would have ever put up with that from Bill Clinton?”

“Bill Clinton lied to all of America.  He lied when he was under a grand jury subpoena.  He should have been impeached for that.  He lied a lot of other times too.  He lied about Monica Lewinsky.  And don’t think Hillary didn’t lie to!”  Jerry took a long slug of his beer, pushing his just finished plate away.  “In fact, Hillary should be brought up on charges.  She’s even responsible for the deaths of American citizens.”

“Wait a minute, Jerry.  Just where is the lesion where that piece of bullshit came from?  And what is it with you right-wing nuts.  You just can’t vilify her enough.  If Hillary is guilty of anything, it’s fudging her hours doing judicial work in private practice long before Clinton ever came to office.”

“As Secretary of State, Hillary made non-classified calls on top secret phones…”

“Oh, and Jesus, that’s a hanging offense.  I’m surprised anyone runs for president.  Who’d want the job?  Getting back to Trump, there were a lot of Republican leaders that I didn’t necessarily agree with, but they had substance.  They conducted themselves with honor.  They were presidential.  I don’t see that in Trump.  Do you think that Eisenhower would ever think of holding the front page up of a tabloid about himself where the title is headed, ‘the best sex I ever had.’  Eisenhower had class.  Dirksen had class.  Goldwater had class in spades.  Trump is never going to have it and that’s just my point.”

“I admit that the man has some character flaws.”

“Some character flaws.  Charles Manson has character flaws!”

“I tell you, it’s disgusting to have him head the country.  He’s not going to be happy until he gets us involved in a war.”

“No, he’s not.”  Jerry took another slug from his beer. 

“He’ll clean up on the blacks,” interjected Dr. Abel.

“Dr. Abel, shut up,” the other two said almost in unison. 

Minutes ticked off in silence.  They had all long finished their dinners.  John was peeling the label off beer that was beaded in moisture.  At the other tables, couples were laughing or studying aptly the screens on their iPhones. 

Leaving the restaurant, the sidewalks were teemed with Chinese.  They were near the Sanlitun embassy and commercial district, one of restaurants and upper end clothing and jewelry shops.  And everywhere the Chinese would stop to admire something, they managed to block the entrance of some establishment.  Dr. Abel was sulking, while both Jerry and John looked like they were just irritated. 

Reaching the corner where Jerry turned off to the apartment he still owned with his wife, Jerry said, “I guess we just have to agree to disagree.”

“Yeah let’s leave it that way.  There’s not a damn thing that’s going to change anyone’s mind here.”  Dr. Abel and John shook hands with Jerry and walked towards the Kempinski Hotel.  There they could catch a cab. 

 Later in Abel’s VW Santana, he said to John, “I could have taken him.  I’d beat the shit out of him.”  Jerry would have smiled at this bit of news. 

“Just what are you laughing about, John.”

“Just you, Dr. Abel.  Just you.”


By Joseph Dylan


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