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Labor & Economy

The Dixon Family Chronicles: “Early in the Morning”

Gary Phillips

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Illustration: Jeffrey K. Fisher

Night. In this version of the dream, the truck fishtails through the curtain of smoke and flame. Off to the right of her MRAP, the water tanker’s metal skin has split open, sending the liquid treasure everywhere. She watches in stutter shutter clicks as the vehicle’s driver fights to keep that bad boy under control, at the same time zig-zagging past the bombed, burning panel truck.

Corporal Jess Dixon is up top manning the M2 machine gun in the open turret. She swings the weapon about in tight arcs on greased ball bearings, sighting down, wishing for a target as she fires blind. The water tanker hits a slick of burning oil and, brakes screeching, flips, and tons of steel go into a slide. Over her headpiece, not the crackle of her CO, but Whitney Houston singing “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay.” The armored vehicle clips the tanker, but that ain’t no thing, Sergeant Burch would say. Only of course there’s another IED and it goes off behind her vehicle’s right rear.

Boom goes the equilibrium.

Jess woke not with a start, not bolting upright in bed or even with an elevated heart rate. Deathly calm and not disoriented—she knew precisely where she was: her hot and humid apartment in Riverside. In tank top and women’s pajama boxers, she got out from under her soaked sheet. Wincing from the blisters on her soles as she put her feet to the floor, she stood and confidently navigated the darkened apartment. It helped she didn’t have much. In the pale light it didn’t take long to take an inventory of the refrigerator’s contents. There wasn’t much in there either.

She did though have what was left of a bottle of Sprite. She uncapped it and, gulping some, felt momentary relief as the stuff cooled her throat. Jess went into the front room and threw a cushion from the couch onto the motel quality carpet. She lay on the floor, her head on the cushion. From her nightstand she’d brought her e-reader—bought at discount, the one perk of her job. Lying on her back, one leg over the other, Jess flipped the thing’s case open and the screen lit up. She continued reading On the Six, an account of a female soldier’s time serving in Iraq. How she dealt with sexism and sexual assaults on those in her command … and how she lost a leg and recovered from a particular ambush along the Six—the target-rich six-mile stretch of road from Baghdad airport to the Green Zone.

Jess was part of that escort convoy, the incident recounted in detail in the book. Afterward, the ones who lived were changed forever. She hadn’t got to that part yet. But she would. She was ready. Though like the U.S., she never really got all the way out of Iraq.

.    .    .

Little Joe Dixon was prepared this time. He’d been caught off-guard in his confrontation with Teaflake yesterday. It wasn’t like he hadn’t had would-be Scarfaces push up on him before, but he did have to be mindful of his new job. He couldn’t just snatch the fool’s gun and slap the piss out of him with it, though that had been his first impulse. Rather he had to be cool and placate the chump and get on with his business.

Not that he thought this time a gat would be involved. But you never knew, this was Oakland. He knocked on the door. It was warped from years of sun and exposure, and rattled loose in the frame.

“Who is it?” a voice called from inside the home. On an overpass several blocks behind the house, traffic moved back and forth on the 580 Freeway.

He said his name and he could make out the electronic muffle of voices on a radio.

The door opened a crack on a chain. “Yes?”

Portions of an older woman’s face and upper body could be seen. She wore stylish glasses, a handsome woman in her late fifties. The early morning light glinted on the lenses as she tilted her head up, taking in his six-four height.

“I’m looking for your godson DeMarkus, Miss Doty.” From a radio in the living room, Little Joe could hear two people debating the minimum wage measure on the November ballot.

“He’s not in.”

“Tell him I didn’t come around to bug him about going to school. I need him for the teams.”

“Teams?”

“Basketball and chess, ma’am.” He told her who he was.

“Wait, what are you saying?” The door hadn’t been let off the chain.

“New rules. You have to be on the chess team to play on the squad.”

A wistful look came and went on her face. “I’m afraid DeMarkus don’t play no chess.”

“All the more reason he needs to be at the first meeting tomorrow after school.” Turning from the door he added, “Thanks for your time.”

The door closed quietly behind him as he stepped to the sidewalk. Rounding the near corner came a late model black Escalade. The SUV had spinners and smoked windows. It cruised past him. Then the vehicle stopped and the rear door opened. Planted where he was on the sidewalk, Little Joe tensed.

To Be Continued-


The Dixon Family Chronicles appears every Wednesday. See also:

Chapter 1: “The Sink Man”
Chapter 2: “SOL”
Chapter 3: “Time Is Tight
Chapter 5: “You Gonna Step Up?”
Chapter 6: “Esoterica”
Chapter 7: “Which Side Are You On?”
Chapter 8: “A Little Past Seven”
Chapter 9: “No Justice …”
Chapter 10: “Live for Today”
Chapter 11: “The People United”

Watch Gary Phillips talk about his webserial.

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