The calls have been coming all morning. Dexter Mercurius sits on the couch in his ground-floor apartment in Brooklyn, gauzy curtains drawn to mute the sunlight, as another one lights up his screen. Sometimes he’ll pick up to find a stranger on the other end, but this is a call he’s been expecting. Mercurius answers and begins to recite the information about his child.
Born July 29, 1999, in Georgetown, Guyana. Social security number is, is — he double-checks the notes he made on his phone before putting his mouth back to the receiver and reading the nine digits aloud. Studied at Edward R. Murrow High School. Would have been a senior next year.
The funeral director finishes his questions. Later he will use the details to complete the death certificate of Mercurius’s daughter, Shemel.
It had happened the Tuesday after Memorial Day. She was 16 years old. That evening, Shemel was at her aunt’s East Flatbush apartment babysitting her 3-year-old cousin, who looked on as a gunman stormed through the door and fired multiple rounds. Multiple bullets pierced Shemel’s arm and chest, according to police. The shooter turned himself in two days later.
Mercurius sinks back into the brown paisley-print cushions. His chin is unshaven, his eyes bloodshot.
Because she was young and beautiful and babysitting, and because the crime was so baffling (police have not yet released a motive), Shemel’s murder was the kind that did not just make the local papers but the national news, where it stayed for days. Mercurius spent them trying to explain to the reporters who tracked him down how it felt to lose his only daughter. Still shell-shocked, he told them how she loved to dance, that she wanted to be a nurse. Every time he said her name, he’d start crying all over again.
He’s made it through that phase. Now he’s in the part where queries from journalists and cops are joined by the work of memorializing a life abruptly ended.
Shemel’s body is still at the medical examiner’s office. It needs to be taken to the room where the funeral director will prepare for her burial.
“You gonna pick up the body today, right?” Mercurius asks.
Next he ventures a request. “I have a watch and a necklace she had on when she passed away,” he starts, resting his head against the back of the couch. The accessories are sealed in a plastic bag inside his top bureau drawer. “I want you guys to put them back on, please.” He notes to himself that the watch is still covered in blood. It will need to be washed off.
Mercurius is 38, a native of Guyana. He’d brought Shemel and his son, also named Dexter, to the U.S. four years ago. “We came for a better life,” he says. The first thing he did was sign up his children for school. Later, he found a job doing security for a Rite Aid in Queens. He made enough to support his kids, for dinners out at the buffet. Shemel was doing well, living with her aunt and cousin. She and her dad spoke every day.
Mercurius fidgets a bit on the couch. His stomach aches. The phone rings with another call.
It’s his aunt, calling from Guyana. She’s been checking in almost every day. He catches her up on the funeral planning in bursts of Guyanese Creole. They share not just a language but a private vocabulary. Unlike with other callers, he does not have to worry about being misunderstood.
“We gotta pick a white casket for her,” he tells his aunt.
“We gonna get a blue dress,” he says. Every teenage girl is mystery to her father but he will honor her with what he does know for sure. “Shemel always liked white and blue.”
The thought brings a memory that allows a laugh. “I’m always afraid to buy white for Shemel or Dexter,” he says, either stuck in or clinging to the present tense, “because they get it dingy in two seconds, you know?”
Casket and dress decided, there is much left to resolve. The services will sprawl over several days, and he’s not sure how he’ll get through it. There will be the wake, the viewing, the ceremony. The burial. The traditional feast.
Before she clicks off, she tells him to be strong. A lot of the callers have said that. The others don’t know what to say at all.
Mercurius tells his aunt that some friends are offering to cook a huge Guyanese meal — chicken curry, dhal puri, cook-up rice. Others have volunteered to play music. Mercurius has found a church hall for the repast. He hopes it will be big enough.
“The kids from school and the teachers might wanna come.
“The police might wanna come.
“Then we got people from the church, they might wanna come.”
Other mourners will cross borders and an ocean to come. News of Shemel’s killing sent tremors through the Caribbean. Relatives felt it in Guyana, in Trinidad, in Barbados. Her mother, a police constable who lives in Guyana’s capital city, learned about it on the news. She’d called Mercurius, hoping it might not be true. He had to tell her it was. She will need an emergency visa to make it to New York in time for the funeral.
There will be some relatives who cannot make it — a cousin is still waiting for a seat on a flight out of Trinidad — and a few who do not want to. Mercurius’s mother is one of them; he says he understands her reasons. “She can’t take Shemel just lying there,” he says.
Mercurius hangs up with his aunt. Another call comes in. He recognizes the number: Shemel’s middle school.
It’s one of his daughter’s old teachers. “Yeah, Ms. Jacobs, how are you doing?” he says, but Ms. Jacobs wants to do the asking.
She asks after Shemel’s brother, who Mercurius has been sending to class to keep his mind occupied.
“Don’t want to leave him home because he’s studyin’ and he will be cryin’, so go let him be around the kids,” Mercurius will say.
She asks after Shemel’s grandfather, whose idea it had been for the family to settle in New York.
“My father, who choose for us to come here, he’s like, ‘I bring my granddaughter to this country and now she die.’ He’s hurt so bad.”
Ms. Jacobs asks if Shemel’s mother is going to make it to the funeral. Classmates have collected what they can — $137, as of June 3 — to help with costs of the ceremonies. A few days later an airline will announce that it is buying Shemel’s mom a ticket.
But mostly, Ms. Jacobs gushes about how much she liked having Shemel as a student in her eighth grade class. Mercurius presses the phone close to his ear as she talks. Back in Guyana, he had gone as far as high school and then worked for the fisheries. He used to imagine Shemel graduating from Edward R. Murrow and going to college. It gave him goosebumps. “Every time I go to the school, when they talk, my pores be raising, because I feel so nice about it,” he says.
Ms. Jacobs makes Mercurius promise to come see her and the other teachers. Before she clicks off, she tells him to be strong. A lot of the callers have said that. The others don’t know what to say at all.
It’s quiet in the apartment now, save for the whir of the air conditioner. Mercurius pulls up the photos on his phone, scrolling through pictures of Shemel. Here’s one of her as a baby in a tiny white dress. Another of her standing with her brother and father at a zoo.
He lands on an image of her in a safari-green jumper, taken at a barbecue two days before she died. Her smile is easy and wide, her head tilted to the side. He rests the phone on his stomach with the screen still lit, Shemel beaming up at the ceiling.
Her sweetness delighted him. Sometimes it worried him, too.
“Shemel, sometimes you gotta be a little rough,” he used to tell her, “because this is America. You can’t be too easy.”
“Daddy, I don’t need to be rough,” Shemel would tell him. “I’m good.”
[Photo illustration: Joel Arbaje for The Trace]