by Marie Estell
Black female bookstore owner in Chicago uses astrology and metaphysics to solve crimes
People never understood the relationship that Demetrius and I shared.
As a self-proclaimed ladies’ man, Demetrius usually only dealt with females related to him by blood or attraction. I met him when were both in college at Howard University in the 1980s. But from what I understood, he was like that as far back as grade school.
As far as I was concerned, it wasn’t so much that I was an exception as it was that I was an evolution. Demetrius and I met freshman year of college at Howard. He was very attracted to me. I was very amused. My lack of interest wasn’t because Demetrius wasn’t attractive. There’s no denying he was. He was tall, the color of a Hershey milk chocolate bar and fine as wine as we used to say back in the day.
He just happened to step up to me when I was crazy in love with someone else. And like most 18-year-old girls who were whipped up and swept up by love I couldn’t see past the object of my current passion.
But that didn’t stop Demetrius from trying. Truth is, he didn’t work so hard to get me because I was so devastatingly irresistible. Nah. I knew I was cute but not that cute. It was just that I said no to Demetrius with a smile. He wasn’t used to that. He was used to females succumbing to his reportedly amazing charms or he was used to women cussing him out because he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
He didn’t rape, he just rapped, before rapping became a whole musical genre, and pretty boy always thought that would be enough.
In my case, when I neither fell out over him or tried to annihilate him with rejection he actually came to like me. And when I got past his cocky, fragile, self-absorbed self he turned out to be one of my best friends.
He was a Libra which explained his finesse with the ladies. I was a Gemini which explained my seemingly endless ability to listen to Demetrius’ array of bullshit and actually like it. Over time, my interest in astrology rubbed off on him and we two air signs (with Aquarius being the third astrological sign in the element of air) just developed our own shorthand language in talking about people, places and attitudes.
I even gave him the nickname of Demi because Demi was French for “half” and Demi was so tall. Demi said anyone else would have just nicknamed him Shorty, but not me, I had to get all bourgie Negro on him and call him something French. He smiled when he said it because, for some reason, I was exempt from getting on his bad side.
At Howard, most people never got past Demi’s shell. Hell, once we all graduated and migrated back up to Chicago people learned to downright hate the shell. As the years went by, I frequently would see or hear the stray comment or incident that perpetuated the sense that maybe my Demi wasn’t such a good brother after all. But like all good friends do, I choose to focus on only the best, since, for the most part, that was all he revealed to me anyway.
I’ve always been good at writing, but I resisted that talent in favor of other talents that came more easily. Demi, who always dabbled with a morbid streak, used to tease me about that as early as Howard and our running riff never changed.
“Zora, just remember, if I go first I want you to write me and read to me on the other side.”
“What if I go first?” I always used to say back, figuring that Demi would die an old, well-preserved man with the honeys in wheelchairs and scooters still chasing after him in the nursing home.
“Then you ain’t got nothing better to do then to read to me and write to me from the other side.”
The last night I saw him he didn’t give his usual response. Instead he said while saying goodbye at I left his house after the party the night of his death, “Baby, it’s not the good who die young, it’s the wicked that just gets pushed off this earth first.”
So, even though I hate to write, it’s for Demi that I do.
He was my friend. I found that I didn’t know him as well as I thought I did, but I did love him. Now he’s dead. And maybe by writing this, I will have found some answers to read to him on the other side.
Begin at the beginning. And the beginning of Demi’s death, at least for me, seemed to start at the fundraising soiree he held at his house the night he died.
I remember thinking that night as I stood uncomfortably in rarely worn high heel shoes that all these black folks trying to sound high brow were beginning to stomp on my last nerve.
It was a political fund raising function pure and simple, that I understood. But the people at this party were trying to put on their precision speaking voices as if vacationing in the Hamptons. And not in the Hamptons hanging with P. Diddy and his crew.
While there were several white and Hispanics at the party, to my slightly jaundiced eye it appeared to be many of the blacks who were trying too hard.
“Girl, have you tried these little cookies? They are the bomb!” my best friend Maggie said, delicately brushing off crumbs from her ample, velour covered upper surface. “Say what you will about your boy Demetrius, he knows how to throw a spread.”
“Well, he knows how to buy a spread anyway,” I said, glancing at Demetrius across the room sipping from a champagne glass as he chatted up Mayor Joseph Evans.
Out of nowhere, the scent of subtle, expensive perfume and the person attached to it walked up to me and Maggie.
“Hello Maggie, Zora, what a pleasure it is to see both of you here tonight,” said Coretta Mae Evans, the Mayor’s wife, with that repressed contempt she always fought down when bumping into the two of us. “That’s a lovely outfit you’re wearing Maggie. It fits you like a glove. Well, I see one of my sorority sisters has just arrived. I better go say hello.”
“Heifa,” Maggie hissed to me, wanting badly to say it to Coretta Mae. “It’s twenty years after college and she still acting like someone’s trying to get all up in her pledge line. I have a good mind to leave her off the list for the reunion. Remind me why we’re at this party again?”
“I’m at the party because I was invited. You’re at the party because there’s free food, good gossip and Jamal was glued to the set watching a playoff game so I brought you along for some decent company. Anything else you wanna know?”
Maggie and I grew up together and went to college together and we still bickered like sisters sharing a bedroom. Even though she was short, light and a little on the heavy side and I was tall, brown-skinned and a little gangly, people always assumed we were family when were out because we would bicker like two old ladies and then turn around and share an almost singular belly laugh over an inside joke.
If there was a party I wasn’t anxious to attend, Maggie would be the first person I’d choose to bring. It saved having to dish to her later about it anyway.
“You see Valerie over there talking to Demetrius? She looks pretty lit already and it’s not even 8:30 at night yet,” Maggie said, looking over at Demetrius talking to his pretty ex-wife who held her glass of brandy like she was on a boat leaning in and out of the wind.
People said Valerie Randolph did her best job as a real estate agent in the morning. After lunch, the vodka tonics started to affect her quick and insightful judgment. I’ve often wondered why people continued to talk about her drinking but still run to her like she was the only real estate agent in all of Chicago. It wasn’t even like she was the only black real estate agent in Chicago for that segment of my people who still insisted on only doing business with other blacks.
Demi broke off talking to Valerie and walked in my direction. Well built and towering over most men in the room with an eye color that always reminded me of iced tea, Demetrius Randolph had a dozen looks track every move he made as he crossed the room.
If gaze itself had language, the looks directed at Demi would shout colorful curse words of hostility.
“How’s my favorite bookworm?” Demi said, kissing me on the cheek.
Maggie had wandered back over to the buffet table of appetizers to sample another delicacy. I saw Franklin Douglass, Demi’s business partner, rudely grazing up against Maggie as she searched for a napkin. I noticed Franklin’s mousy wife Shirley didn’t even bother apologizing for her husband as many long-marrieds seemed to do on automatic pilot on behalf of their clumsier spouses.
“I’m fine but not loving this party, that’s for sure,” I said, stretching my neck to look at Demi. “You know I’m not exactly a fan of politics so I’d really love to know why you insisted I show up.”
“Give me a break. Have I ever in life steered you wrong? You never know who you’ll meet at one of my functions. For all you know I might be planning on hooking you up with Mr. Right tonight.”
“Yeah, right. You haven’t taken an interest in my love life in well over 20 years so I’m supposed to believe you care now?” I joked, reminding myself of the days when Demi tried every move in the book to get a date with me back at college.
“You’re right, babe, I really don’t give much thought to your love life. Mine is far too tangled. On another subject, I’m glad Mercury is going direct. I’ve been putting off signing documents and some of these out-of-town trips left and right.”
I laughed, sputtering a bit in my wine.
“Demi, you don’t have to put your life on hold just because Mercury goes retrograde. You’re supposed to review and reflect, not stop moving.”
As always happens when astrology comes up in a private conversation, suddenly out of the blue several people decided to make their appearance strongly felt in our conversation.
Martin James, Demi’s attorney and friend, chimed in with the usual castigation of one of the few interests Demi and I actually shared in common.
“Zora, as the owner of one of the best independent bookstores in town, I really don’t understand how you and Demetrius take this Mercy Retrograde nonsense seriously,” Martin said, as if this was the first time he had expressed his contempt on the subject. Tall, dark and delicious, I was always reminded of how attractive Martin would be if he would just do two things – shave off that bushy mustache and keep his pompous mouth shut.
“It’s Mercury Retrograde Martin, not Mercy Retrograde, and if I recall, Demi and I were having a private conversation about he’s probably been frantically backing up every document on his computer since Mercury started wrecking havoc on computers a few weeks ago. Right Demetrius?” I said jokingly, but was startled by the unexpectedly angry glare Demi was giving me.
Jenna White, Demetrius’ light-skinned assistant and current honey of the month, judging by the possessive way she grabbed his arm, said, “I don’t understand what astrology has to do with computers.”
Demi’s “side” women always bothered me. They were usually educated, interesting sisters who turned into black Barbie dolls when Demetrius was around as if that would turn him on further. Wrong. It just made him focus more on the package than whatever else the girl had to offer.
But as his chief and only close female friend over the years, I learned to be patient instead of patronizing when bringing his women up to speed. Most of them had an instinctive desire to get on my good side and figured it would be easier getting introductory coaching on whatever Demi was interested in from me rather than going out and doing some actual research.
“I’d be intrigued to know more about that myself Zora,” Mayor Josesph Evans’ hypnotic and friendly baritone chimed in.
Great, the Mayor and that snooty wife of his Coretta Mae have weaved themselves into this conversation. Even though I barely knew him from our days together as undergrads at Howard, I always liked Mayor Joseph Evans even when he was just plain Joey. Although my dislike of Coretta Mae in college was never as strong as the loathing Maggie had for her, she would have been one of the last people I would have wanted to talk astrology in front of her. The critical, patronizing look she gave me provided enough frost to put ice cubes in the glass of Shiraz I was drinking.
“In a nutshell, the planet Mercury rules communication, so when it goes retrograde – appears to move backward in the sky – communications and the ways of transmitting them typically go haywire,” I explained. I was suddenly wishing I was drinking something other than wine so these people wouldn’t think I was a total loon with a drinking problem to boot.
“That’s why my computer seems to crash so much when Mercury’s retrograde,” Maggie chimed in helpfully. Trust my girl to have my back, I thought, as I smiled at her.
“Exactly,” I said to the small crowd who had mysteriously gathered. Actually, I guess it wasn’t a mystery, when the Mayor moved, it was like doing the wave, everyone else seemed to move in tandem also.
People asked a few more questions, made some comments and then I saw Demi take on that serious, “its about to be on” look he would get when he entered the zone of doing business.
“This would be a good time to prime the pump I’d say,” Demetrius said moving toward the center of the room while lightly grabbing Mayor Evans by the elbow and bringing him along.
Demetrius raised his voice and said, “I’d like to get everyone’s attention. I would clink glass but these were brought be the catering company and it would be just my luck to break one.”
Polite, low-key laughter reminded me of clinking glass.
“You pick the strangest things to be cheap about Demetrius. What’s one glass to break compared to all the other things you can damage in one night,” said Valerie from across the room, her voice clearly lubricated by the liquor she had been sipping on for a while.
Valerie’s comment brought on more silence than Demi’s attempt to quiet everyone down.
Someone let out nervous laughter which pierced the tense silence.
“Now that we’ve suffered through a moment of Showtime at the Apollo, I’d like to introduce you all to the man everyone already knows, our own Mayor Joseph Evans.”
Joseph Evans wore his two terms as Chicago’s latest black mayor with the acquired polish of one married to a tasteful wife.
Evans’ popularity and the escalating rumors made it clear to anyone here that we were being hit up for money for Evans to run for the Democratic nomination for the soon-to-be-open local Senate seat. With Evans’ rainbow coalition of supporters, no one doubted that he win both the nomination and the seat itself with the ease of sipping on cold lemonade on a hot Chicago day.
For the black community, Evans was almost the reincarnation of Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago.
I remember growing up in the late 70s and noticing how disappointed the adult people in my world were when Washington ran for mayor the first time and didn’t win. The political machine of Chicago and the racial divisions were too deep and too wide.
But when Washington won in the early 80s, even though I was in school at Howard at the time, the impact that win had was incredible. You would have thought that every black person and a few white ones in Chicago were related to him. When Washington died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1987 shortly after he was reelected, it was like a tear in the heart of the black community that never really healed itself.
Sure Jesse Jackson and Chicago-based PUSH took on the national arena, but it wasn’t quite the same as how people felt about Washington. As an amateur astrologer, I had looked at Harold Washington’s chart a long time ago and was surprised by what I saw.
He was born under the sign of Aries, which is usually the sign of people who like to be first. He was the first black to grab at the city’s very own brass ring and get it and some people still had a certain hushed reverence for his legacy.
Twenty years later, Joseph Evans was digging a deeper hole in the ground broken by Washington and you could feel the palpable energy in the room of people knowing there were on the official ground floor of something big, something heavy.
Evans was going to win, there was not doubt about it, and people were just calculating what would be the least amount of money they had to contribute to curry favor and secure favoritism.
“What sign is Joey?” Maggie whispered.
I gave her the shut up look, knowing that it would be worthless.
“My apologies, what sign is Mayor Joey?”
“I don’t know every body’s birthday’s off the top of my head, fool. Shut up so Demi can make his pitch and we can get the hell up out of here.
As usual, I found myself having to be louder than Maggie to get her to shut up in.
I focused back on scanning the room as all the political winds in the room started to blow so hard, you could see the curtains flutter. Even though it was just August, the primary was in the spring and the election would be the following fall. Despite being a shoo-in, it was still common knowledge that a candidate needed to have plenty of money. Especially in a world where racial politics could still be as capricious as jogging on thin ice.
As Demi spoke about Evans and his contributions my eyes casually followed the reactions of the people in the room. Most of the 40 or so people present were the black and liberal white heavy hitters who supported all the “right” causes with open purses and gleaming smiles.
But, besides me and Maggie being there, a few other surprises caught my attention too.
Franklin Douglass, Demi’s business partner, looked downright angry to be there. He was gripping his high ball glass like he was wrapping a hand around a scrawny neck. As one of the few white people in the room who wasn’t a political heavy weight I found it strange he was showing such outright irritation, if not downright hostility about being in the mix.
I noticed that Jenna White and Martin James were standing next to each other and that Martin couldn’t take his eyes off of Jenna. Unfortunately for Martin, Jenna stared with open adoration at Demi.
While listening to Demi talk about Evans and what he had accomplished as mayor, I had to admit that I was impressed – it’s hard to be a black entrepreneur and find reason to fault urban development, regentrification, and a better economy, the things Demi emphasized in his introduction.
And once Evans got up to speak himself, it was really easy to be even more impressed. Black Geek of the Week Joey Evans was truly all grown up. While I knew in a vague sort of semi-informed way of what a good job Evans was doing as mayor, it took hearing him speak and outline his accomplishments in a linear, but yet not cocky way, to really get a flavor of just how impressive he was.
In college, we used to joke about the women who were only at school to get there M.R.S. degree and Coretta Mae had certainly grabbed a more prestigious one than any of us would have guessed when she hooked up with Joey.
Even my half-assessed cynical posture on the political process triggered a mental commitment to add a trickle to his campaign coffers as the very grown up and polished Joseph Evans continued to speak.
Once a couple of the other bigwigs at the party started speaking up as part of the posturing, my cynicism reasserted itself and my mental commitment became a smaller number.
A few minutes after the official dog and pony show was done, I headed for Demi’s bathroom at the back of his house.
When I first saw this house, I teased Demi about how it had an indecent number of bathrooms for one black man to need. He grinned and reminded me that he did have a Taurus Moon – meaning he was very particular and emotional about his physical space. Tonight, I was grateful for his Taurus Moon so that I could use the bathroom off the beaten track and not the one the rest of his guests were using.
As I came out of the bathroom and headed back toward the party, the sound of Franklin Douglass hissing angrily at someone caught my attention and I noticed that the door to Demetrius’ den was cracked open.
“……I would call it blackmail but then you would claim I was being racial,” I heard Franklin say.
“You’re walking a dangerous line Frankie. I told you to be on your best behavior tonight and you were all but wearing a campaign sticker on your forehead for Mark Romanelli.”
“So what? Isn’t that what this great country of ours is founded on? Freedom of choice. Oh yeah, that’s right, that doesn’t apply to white people anymore, we only get to choose what’s politically correct nowadays.”
“What would be politically correct would be me putting my black foot up your uptight white ass.”
I realized that I was basically eavesdropping on my friend in his own house. But I found myself riveted to the spot, keeping one eye on people entering the hallway.
As I contemplated that I was being rude as well as nosy, the door abruptly swung open and Demi swept past me down the hall. He glanced at me standing there but didn’t so much as slow down.
I saw Franklin still standing in the middle of the room and decided this would be a good time to move back to the party. In a couple of minutes, I found myself worked into a group of women I didn’t know talking about I’m not sure what because I was still a little distracted by what I had just heard.
“You must have been admiring Demetrius’ book collection in his den. As a bookstore owner, you must have a pretty impressive book collection at home yourself,” one of the older women whose name I couldn’t quite place said to me.
“Actually, I don’t keep books at home other than cookbooks and the books I’m currently reading. I keep my private book collection in my office at the bookstore,” I said, distractedly scanning the room for Demi and wondering where he had disappeared to.
“Really, how interesting,” one of the others in the circle said.
After a couple of minutes of mindless chit-chat and people dropping in and out of the little group talking, I decided I would make a run for it.
I saw Demi across the room chatting up some gray-haired brother that I didn’t know while sipping on the glass of champagne that never seemed to leave his hand. I decided this probably wouldn’t be a good time or place to find out what was going on between him and Franklin.
“It was nice meeting you all, but I think I’ll be saying goodnight. I’m the early person to open Black Ink tomorrow,” I said before making my departure from the group.
I hunted down Maggie and our wraps and saw Demi just as we were heading for the door.
After our running riff, he kissed both me and Maggie on our cheeks.
“What was that about? He never does that. Is doing the kiss-kiss thing the new way movers and shakers say goodbye,” Maggie said as we piled into my BMW that was roughly the same age as Maggie’s son in junior high school.
I didn’t know what Demi’s sudden sprout of affection was about or what a couple of other things that seemed mildly off tonight, but it all crossed my mind again as I drifted uneasily to sleep.
In the middle of the night, I vaguely recalled muttering to myself that I needed to look up the meaning of dancing, all black penguins in one of my dream interpretation books.
When I woke up the next day, the unease from Demi’s party had drifted away in my sleep. When looking at my ephemeris, the book astrologers look at to determine what sign and degree all the planets were in on any given day, I saw that Mercury was at an odd angle to Mars, which might explain the edgy conversations I had picked up on last night since Mercury was the planet governing communication and Mars the planet in charge of war and anger
But despite the planetary configurations and the weather, I was determined to have a good day.
The weather was a vision of classic Chicago humidity, high on discomfort and short on charm even though it wasn’t quite noon yet. I wore the lightest, thinnest dress I could get away since I couldn’t really justify driving the short distance from my house to my store.
I had opened the shop a couple of hours ago and since it was Saturday, I was already doing some fairly brisk business.
My store had been in this same location for many years and I was blessed that I had the good sense to buy the building before the neighborhood became the trendy little spot it was now.
Black Ink didn’t hold itself out to be Borders, but the size allowed me to provide books for the highbrow as well as those just chasing down the latest bestseller.
It helped that I sold jewelry, incense and other kinds of eye-catching knick-knacks at Black Ink. People could buy a deck of tarot cards and feel oh-so-New Agey. My selection of incense was so wide, so I had many customers who came by regularly for that alone. A suburban matron was as likely to pass through my store to buy some Nag Champa as an air-headed college student trying to cover up a roommate’s stink. My guess is that plenty of people were still buying incense to cover up the smell of the illegal reefer that they were buying from someone else.
When Maggie walked through the front door of my store, I immediately knew something was wrong.
For one, Saturday mornings usually found girlfriend playing chauffer to whichever of her three kids her husband wasn’t taking someplace. I frequently told her that it’s too bad she couldn’t get frequent driving miles just for the car trips she made on behalf of her family. Between soccer and football and ballet and guitar lessons and school outings, I sometimes felt like popping a ginseng pill for energy just from listening to a typical Maggie Day.
“Do you have someone else working the store with you today?” Maggie asked, her usually smiling face creased with worry.
“Okay, woman, you’re scaring me, just spit it out. There can’t be anything wrong with Mama or Daddy because I just got off the phone with Mama.” My parents lived in Oak Park and, thank God, were as active and healthy as they were when I was growing up.
Mama had just called me because she saw something on a cooking channel about gazpacho and wanted to know who in the world would eat cold soup. Daddy was in the background yelling at her about not calling me a work which prompted my mother to yell back that I was the boss and could talk on the phone anytime I wanted. I interjected myself back in the conversation long enough to say goodbye and get them back to the Food Channel.
“No, it’s not your parents or your family. It’s Demetrius. I know you and the only way to tell you bad news is to just be direct – he’s dead. Valerie’s sister Shauna called me and I wanted to break it to you cuz I know it’s a shock.”
I had been standing behind the counter helping a customer. With Maggie’s words I automatically sat down in the chair that I knew was right behind me.
Dead? Demetrius? He was only 42. How could he be dead? Time suddenly felt like thick, see through liquid that was forming around me and shifting shape. It felt like hours instead of seconds passed as I sat there struggling with trying to pin a thought down in my head.
“What kind of stones are in these earrings? Rubies? Because they’re lovely,” a new customer asked. She had walked up right after Maggie had broken the news and had no idea I was going through my own personal version of shock.
Glancing at the earrings, I reflexively said, “Actually, they’re garnets. The give away is they have a much richer and deeper red than rubies. Almost like blood.”
Blood. I still didn’t know how Demetrius died. I looked at Maggie and as if reading my thoughts she said, “He was found on his bedroom floor, apparently died from a bad allergy attack. The police assume that he had taken a cookie from the party up to his bedroom and ate it, not knowing it had peanuts in it.”
From owning this store several years, I had picked up on the various motivations that prompted people to wander into my store. This customer was a 40-something conservative who was taking a walk on the “wild side” by buying a frivolous piece of jewelry in a store that she would not have dared stopped in with her husband or neighborhood friends. Hearing Maggie tell me the details of Demi’s death bordered too closely on reality and responsibility so the customer beat a quick and hasty retreat to a part of the store with books on Angels.
Maggie tried to insist on going home with me, but I left the store to one of my employees and took myself home. I wanted to grieve and process alone.
Later, at my house, after insisting to Maggie that I was fine, I lay in bed and stared at my ceiling fan, watching it swirl and spin. I felt like I was that ceiling fan with so many thoughts and memories trying to push against each other for prominence.
Finally, as my mind settled, thoughts of what Maggie shared with me began to take on some logical shape. I needed to think in small, unemotional, bite-sized nuggets to keep from breaking down into tears again.
I sat up in bed and wrapped my arms around my overstuffed pillow.
Getting the overview of what happened came easy when Maggie was the source. Maggie pretty much knows and keeps in regular contact with any Chicago-based graduate of Howard University within five or six years of when we graduated. That’s why she was planning the first annual ChiTown Howard Two-Step Party.
Maggie said she was tired of being the only one who seemed to communicate with everyone else. I teased her that she wasn’t tired of it at all, that she liked the feeling of power it gave it her to be in the know. Also, with the advent of the cell phone and a free long distance plan, she could stay in touch all day long with the rest of the world while still being wife and mother extraordinaire.
Unfortunately, her being the Howard center in Chicago meant that she was the one to deliver me the news of Demi’s death along with a handful of details.
How Maggie came to know of it was a fairly simple chain to follow: The police called Valerie Randolph, Demi’s ex-wife because she was the first person listed on his list of emergency numbers that he gave to his housekeeper. Even though Demi had a brother and several close friends, he always had this quirky dependency on Valerie. After the police called Valerie, she called her sister Shauna and told her about Demi’s death. Shauna, being a friend of Maggie’s, made the call to her because she figured that Maggie would want to break the news to me personally since she knew we had all been at Demi’s house for the political fund raising party last night.
Last night. God, last night. I had to force my mind away from thinking that I just saw Demetrius last night where he was alive and healthy and playfully arrogant as hell. If I wasn’t fully awake, I’d think that I was painfully dreaming.
Shauna told Maggie that the housekeeper who came in this morning to clean up after the party found Demi on the floor by his bed, still dressed except for his tie. Cookie crumbs lay by his hand. Cookies that had been served at the party last night.
Something about this all seemed very strange to me.
For about as long as I’ve known Demetrius he was hypersensitive about what he ate because he had been rushed to the hospital in college with a severe allergic reaction to peanuts. He later told me that he grew up knowing that he was allergic to peanuts but that the attack he had in college was the worst one ever. A doctor at the time told him that while some people grow out of their food allergies, his peanut allergy would probably worsen as he got older.
Since then, I’ve known him to avoid eating altogether in situations where he didn’t know how something was cooked.
He could be downright obsessive about it, to the point where he didn’t even like to eat salads unless the dressing was made from no more than oil and vinegar for fear that someone would slip in something with peanut oil in it.
It was so well known that it became a source of tension during the 40th birthday party that Maggie threw for me by surprise a few months ago. There were only about three people on earth that Maggie didn’t particularly care for and Demetrius was one of them.
That’s why Demi swore up and down that Maggie deliberately picked my favorite Thai restaurant as the location for the party. Between the peanut sauce served liberally with the appetizers and crushed peanuts sprinkled over half the entrees, it was just the kind of restaurant that Demi refused to even drive by for fear that a stray peanut might jump down his throat.
But halfway through the dinner, Demi swooped in, planted a kiss on my cheek and handed me my birthday present. Without even unwrapping it, I knew what it was – a book. Despite the fact that I had owned a bookstore for more than eight years, Demi kept giving me books thinking he was being cute. That night was no surprise even though I didn’t open the gift until the next day and saw the beautiful leather bound book on Greek mythology he had given me.
I found myself tearing up again at the thought of Demetrius Cutler Randolph and all the ways he found of making me smile or laugh even when everyone around him was shooting daggers at him and wanted to probably shoot real guns.
It never made sense to me why I was one of the few adults he seemed to truly care about with no hidden reason or obvious agenda.
Demi was my friend and for some reason I was uneasy about his death as well as sad.
Because I knew that Demi was not the most popular person around, I thought I might be one of the few people who might actually care about a few details that just didn’t seem to connect.
It wouldn’t make him any less dead, but it might make me feel better to ease the discomfort that gnawed at the edges of my emotions.
I jumped out of my bed, changed clothes and decided this might be as good, or bad, a time as any to pay my condolences to Demi’s brother.
“Zora Breaux, I should have called you before you came over here,” said Dillard Randolph, Demi’s brother who was just as tall and just as fine as Demetrius, as he opened the door to let me in.
“Dill, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say,” I said after we embraced. “Why did you say that you should have called me?”
We sat down on his couch, worn by the years of raising his four children. The oldest, who were twins, yelled at each other from another room about some failure to properly take a phone message.
“Well, I heard from Valerie about what happened and then a police detective came by. And I had to accept the fact that not only was my brother dead, but that you were more like family to him than I was.”
“Dill, that’s not fair. He loved you.” As I said it, I didn’t know if that was really true. I knew it was what people said in situations like this, what people were supposed to say.
I never had a good grasp on the relationship between Demetrius and Dillard, or Demi and Dill as I called them. I had an older brother and a younger sister who I always got along with great growing up because we were spaced out enough to be close but not bumping into each other’s worlds. My sister Deborah was an artist who lived in Texas with her husband and my brother Leonard lived here in Chicago no more than three blocks from our parents. There wasn’t a week of my life that I didn’t touch base with my parents, Deborah or Leonard by email, phone or in person. My moon in Cancer in my astrological chart made me very attached to home and hearth.
Demetrius and Dillard, on the other hand, could go weeks, if not months without talking to each other except through Trinity, Dillard’s youngest daughter. Considering that the brothers were no more than a 20 minute car ride from each other and fairly close in age, I never could understand that.
Demi attributed it to Dillard being jealous of him. That never made much sense to me since Dillard had these beautiful children, a solid career as a chemical engineer, and just didn’t seem to lust after the same things in life that Demi did.
Dillard’s voice broke into my straying thoughts.
“If it wasn’t for all the attention and stuff he gave Trinity, I’d never see him. It wasn’t like he bothered when the three oldest were younger.”
“Yeah, but he was still your brother. And in his own way, I think he was trying to get closer to you by being a real uncle to Trinity. How’s she taking this by the way?”
“Well, at nine, she’s a smart kid. She long since understood that the Easter bunny and Santa Claus don’t exist and she understands very well that her uncle has died.” Dillard’s hand passed over his face and his gaze drifted out the window.
“I don’t mean to be nosy but, why did the police call Valerie first? After all, you’re his next of kin. Why wouldn’t you have got the call?” I asked.
Maggie had told me that Valerie had been the first person the police called to break the news of Demetrius’ death, identify the body and get more information.
“C’mon Zo. You know that Valerie and Demetrius had the most complicated non-divorce in the history of marriage. She was always jumping in and out of his bed while he jumped in and out of everyone else’s.” I found it strange that Dillard’s brother wasn’t dead one full day and yet he seemed to speak of him with more bitterness than sorrow.
When it came to the family dynamics of other people, I guess I was just clueless. While I hadn’t found the proverbial Mr. Right to marry and have babies with, growing up gave me a decent world view of how families were supposed to get along. But I learned at an early age that how people got along in a family was just one big science project. In my blood family, the chemicals formed a decent mix, but with the Randolph clan the chemicals could sometimes create a volatile blend.
“Okay,” I said, dragging the word out reluctantly. “But that still doesn’t explain why Valerie would have gotten the call from the police.”
“I don’t know, Zora. And does it really matter? He’s dead and I’m tired of answering questions. Valerie may be the next of kin as far as death notification is concerned but I’m the one who has to plan a funeral. At least he left good insurance.”
That comment set me back. I decided to just pretend I didn’t hear it.
“I’m sorry to keep bothering you, Dill. You know if there’s anything I can do to help, anyone I can call, I’m here. All you have to do is ask.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said, he voice sounding weary instead of bitter this time.
“One last thing I wanted to ask you was if the police have called you? I mean are they really sure about how Demetrius died and all?”
“Actually, I don’t know what they think. Some brother man detective, I think his name was Miles something, came by, asked me a few questions and then headed out. Look do you want to see Trinity before you leave? She’s pretty upset and would probably feel a little better if you went and talked to her.”
“Sure. Maybe we can both feel better. Although I have to admit, I’m still in shock. By the way, why weren’t you at the party last night?” I asked him after standing up from the couch.
“First, I wasn’t invited. And second, do you hear those screaming kids? Well, when you’re a single parent, you usually have better things to do on a Friday night than go to some bourgie party. Any more questions Nancy Drew,” Dill tried to say teasingly, but I could tell by the way his smile didn’t quite reach his eyes that I had overstepped and probably touched some nerve.
Dillard’s ex-wife had long since been out of the picture and I had to remember that it probably wasn’t easy being a single black man with four kids to raise.
I remember thinking more than once that it was a shame that Dillard didn’t get out in the dating world and find someone special. With all he had to offer, a good woman wouldn’t mind helping to raise those kids with him. Especially since two of them were a year away from college.
Although I liked all of Dill’s kids, like Demi I had a special affection for Trinity, mainly because I would frequently tag along with them when Demi would take Trinity out to do something. I always thought it was strange that he never asked the other kids along but after a while I just accepted it as the norm since no one but me seemed to find it peculiar.
A few minutes later I stood in the middle of the room and felt like a giant who had stepped in to a very junky kingdom covered in pink. Trinity’s bedroom had pink bedspreads, pillows, jewelry boxes, toys, mostly tumbled together in a squishy, girly mess.
Trinity was more composed over her uncle’s death than I thought she’d be.
“You okay Trinity? And is it okay that I sit down?”
“Sure,” she said sadly.
Thank God for yoga. It allowed my 40-year-old body to sit cross-legged on the floor with the agility of someone who could meaningful discuss the difference between Beyonce and Ashanti. My back brushed against something hard that I didn’t even want to know what it was.
“Baby, I’m not going to stay long cuz I know you’re still upset about your uncle and I’m upset about my friend. I just wanted you to know you can call me anytime you need to talk. You know that, right?”
“Thanks Zora, I do know that.”
At that point Trinity looked at me with the eyes full of confusion and sadness that was just painful to see in the face of someone so young.
Occasionally, when Demi would pick Trinity and hang out over the weekend, he would ask me to tag along if I wasn’t working at the store or he and Trinity would drop by the store if I was working. One of the things that the three of us liked to do together was run over to the DuSable Museum of African American History to see the latest exhibit. And if we were feeling really adventurous we might take a stop by the Art Institute also.
Demi once explained that he wanted to bring some adult, female stability into his niece’s life and I was probably the closest thing to female stability over the age of 30 that either he or his brother had since Trinity’s mother had long since run off with another man.
I considered myself far too young and hip to be thrust into the mother role but I liked the aunt/big sister role for some reason, and Trinity’s sadness made me want to wrap my arms around her and make everything make sense.
On top of everything I was dealing with, another wave of sadness hit me as I thought about the fact that the three of us would never hang out together again. And that in fact, I was probably looking at the only other person on the earth who would truly mourn Demetrius’ passing and wouldn’t have it distorted by the negative feelings he aroused when he was alive.
I made a mental note to myself then and there that I was going to make sure I stopped by at least once a month and continue to take Trinity out. I’m sure Dill wouldn’t mind.
In silence, I gave Trinity a hug, feeling the sobs from her little body break through as I continued to hold her. For some reason, she tried so hard to be the grown woman in this house, despite having an older sister. But at this moment, with me, I’m glad she knew it was okay to just let go and allow her pain to just come through.