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Labor & Economy

The Dixon Family Chronicles: “Esoterica”

Gary Phillips

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Illustration by Jeffrey K. Fisher

“Hello again,” a familiar female said to Little Joe, who stood ready for flight or fight on the sidewalk. The woman who spoke leaned out of the Escalade’s open rear door. The pearl black vehicle had stopped near him on the street.

He frowned, recognition blossoming. She’d been the one with Teaflake at the burrito joint. He came closer so as to get a better look inside the SUV. “Hello yourself.” There was only her and a bald-headed driver. Well at least it wasn’t Teaflake, he reflected—though it could be one of his enforcers. He remained wary.

“Can I give you a lift?”

“Is this a rubout?” he said, only half-joking.

She laughed heartily. “You’ve been watching too many of those Jimmy Cagney movies.”

The woman was charming and his curiosity was getting the better of his apprehension. What the hell, he concluded. Dressed in slacks and a ribbed top, she slid across the rear bench seat to let him in. The vehicle pulled away from the curb. Playing softly on the car’s stereo was a jazz guitar number.

“This is Wes Montgomery, isn’t it?” Little Joe asked. He’d heard variations of this instrumental several times before. It was “Willow Weep for Me.”

She nodded. “You’re all about the old school, aren’t you?”

“Too much influence from my Uncle Hank,” he observed, smiling thinly.

“You live with him?”

“No, not now. But he was there for us, well, when we needed him. Me and my sis.” He wasn’t about to go into his complicated family history with a stranger. “You have a name?”

“Carmen Vaughn.” They shook hands.

“I’m called Little Joe. Teaflake send you after me?”

“Hardly. I came of my own initiative. Maybe I can help you find the elusive DeMarkus Williamson.”

“And why would you do that? What do you want from him?” The Escalade passed a billboard congratulating the Giants on winning the World Series. What the hell, Little Joe figured; yeah they were San Francisco’s team, but surely there was enough Bay Area pride to go around even for Oaktown.

She said, “You ever hear of a book called Gang Leader for a Day?”

Her seeming non sequitur piqued his interest. “Can’t say I have.” They rode comfortably on the plush leather seats, alternately looking straight ahead or at one another.

“For seven years or so,” Vaughn continued, “sociology student, then professor, Sudhir Venkatesh got close to denizens of the Lake Park housing projects in Chicago. He got to know the prostitutes, the addicts, the squatters and the hustlers. In particular he got to know this gang leader he referred to as J.T.”

Little Joe said, “And you’re doing a similar kind of study with Teaflake? He’s all cool with this?”

“He thinks he’s playing me.”

Incredulous, he blurted, “But you think you’re playing him?”

“No, I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that he doesn’t mind the attention. Fact, he’d read Venkatesh’s book. But actually I’m trying to answer the question posed by another researcher, an economist named Peter Leeson, in a paper of his entitled ‘The Invisible Hook.’ It had to do with pirates and how white and black pirates got equal pay for … equal plunder.”

She paused, noting his quizzical look. “Primarily he posed the question, ‘Can criminal profit-seeking generate socially desirable outcomes?’”

He snorted. “The cartels down in Mexico would indicate a big negative on that, professor.” They neared Waterston, the community center where he worked.

“There’s no denying that. Still, the dynamics of this country indicate a different trajectory.”

Her esoteric jive was sending him hip deep into the academic weeds, he groused inwardly. The SUV pulled to the curb again. “About DeMarkus.”

“Let me see what I can do.”

“Okay … I appreciate that, Carmen.”

They exchanged phone numbers on their devices and he got out.

“Talk soon, Little Joe,” she said, and the vehicle drove away.

Strange woman on a strange mission, he mused as he went inside. Next time, he’d ask her who her driver was.

At the desk, Sherri Spears, the receptionist, handed him a phone message. “They just called.”

“Thanks,” Little Joe said, walking and reading the note. It was from a detective with the Oakland Police Department. “Shit,” he muttered, imagining the worst.

.    .    .

“Crap,” Jess Dixon muttered. She’d tried to come up with a plausible excuse to not attend the house meeting at Macy Farmdale’s. Her friend had emailed a reminder and Jess felt pressure to answer her and not simply ignore the request. She could easily do it if she didn’t work with the woman, but how could she look her in the face, getting a disappointed scowl, knowing she knew Jess was bullshitting her.

Goddamn sneaky ass union, she lamented, using your friends to rope you in. No choice, she had to go to this organizer’s dog and pony show. But one war was enough for her. This kind of fight on the home front, that was asking way too much, to her way of thinking. Because there was always a meeting you had to be at, phone calls to make, canvassing for some fork-tongued politician. Damn. She would tell this union stooge what for, she concluded. The idea of speaking her mind and having some of Macy’s bomb ass Hawaiian chicken in the process would make the evening tolerable.

Roger that.

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 4: “Early in the Morning
Chapter 5: “You Gonna Step Up?”
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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