Introduction: This follow-up to Max Sees Red again features the artist Max Birtwhistle, a self-appointed amateur detective: He is determined to find out who killed his intriguing new love, Britz Henneberg. The story is set in 1985 mostly in Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn, before it and neighboring Dumbo gentrified. The story involves witches, mafia, literary politics, gypsies, corruption in mainstream publishing and at a major NYC cancer research center.
Excerpt from Max Turns Yellow
Note: The time is 1985. Britz Henneberg has been murdered. In this segment, Theo, her younger brother, is meeting Albin, their estranged father, in the bar of the Stanhope Hotel in New York City.
The little black bird
asks for my heart
asking me soon to die
so I don’t have to look at my children
—Lyrics of "Oda kalo cirkloror" in The Song Folklore of the Roma in the Slovak and Czech Republics, 2016
Theo's anger was unabated. He wanted to hit this infernal father of his. Smash his face in. At the same time, he wanted to run. To split, go far away, and never think of the man again. To top it off he urgently wanted to hear what Albin had to say, while at the same time he was sure he couldn't or wouldn't believe a word of it, no matter what the man who is supposed to be his father said. With all the time the subway took, rumbling from station to station, conflicts continued roaring inside him. At the Stanhope he promptly used the house phone to demand that Albin return to the lobby.
"So you have some big tale to tell?" He cursed his father again. "Like who you are really. Like what you're doing really."
"Do you drink, Theo?"
"I'd like a taste of your blood. If you have any. No really," he switched up. "I'd like it to test whether you really are my father. Would be a great relief to get clear of you."
"You'd do better with a sample of my saliva these days. Have you heard about testing DNA? New thing. Just need a little bit of spit. Far more accurate than looking at blood types."
"Look, stop shitting me with your wah-wah erudition. Is that what I'm gonna get if I ask who the hell you are?"
"Whatever test you use you'll find that I am your actual father. No doubt. Don't you have a dark blue birthmark on the back of your neck?" Theo clenched his belly feeling that faint mark on his neck tingling. The Mongolian spot a biologist at Halcyon had called it, asking if Theo had Asian or African ancestors.
"Now, would you like a Scotch on the rocks? The bar in here has some pretty classy single malts."
"What happened to the Albin who favored plain water, room temperature? What happened to the Albin who bristled at the mention of class, not to speak of a disgusting term like classy?"
"Come on in here." Albin was at the open entrance to Gerrard's, the Stanhope's bar, all fitted out with dark green velvet sofas, dark wood over the bar, and more people than in the lobby. He led the way to one of the sofas. "I don't care who hears us, but I would prefer it if you refrained from blasphemies."
"Now there's a bit of the old Albin," Theo snarled. "Just so you know, I wouldn't drink Scotch. You can order me a red pepper vodka. Put it on your tab and I'll listen to your big story."
And so he did.
"My name is indeed flexible." Albin began. "You've figured that out. The patriarch of our American branch was Florin Motsham Silvanis. My six times great-grandfather. Your seven times. He was among a contingent of Roma men rounded up and ejected from France by Napoleon. They were shipped to Louisiana."
Albin accepted the two drinks being proffered on a small silver tray, pushing one across the service table toward his son.
"There was a labor shortage in French territories, a shortage of men to do jobs too risky for a slave. Slaves were worth a lot of money. Roma were trash. No one had paid for them, or invested in them, so they could be worked to death to no one's financial disadvantage."
Albin nursed his large single malt and crossed his long legs.
"Florin managed to run away. He ended up in Austin, Texas, where a small colony of other Romanis had established themselves. He and his descendants did well enough it seems. Lived in a shantytown, sure. Generations hung around together. Did the usual. Mending stuff. Dealing. A whole lot of horse trading, horse breaking, horse training. Everyone in the family except my father had a passion for horses.
"My father broke with many Roma traditions, especially so when he married your grandmother. She was Gadjo. That means not Roma. She was actually Dutch. May be why you and Godelieve are so pale. A musician, she played only Western classical when they met. Even when I was little she could play European cello like a dream of heaven.
"She lit out of Amsterdam during the Great War. World War One. Even though the Netherlands was neutral she was being watched. Her teacher and most of the players in her chamber orchestra were German. And they'd toured all over Europe so they looked like possible spies. Arbitrary arrests were common. So were food shortages. It was definitely a place to leave. I don't know how the hell she ended up in Texas, but there they met. It might have been the practice that brought them together."
Albin was enjoying himself so much it was harder and harder to see this as history rather than fiction, Theo thought. His father had finished his drink and was signaling the waiter for another.
"The practice?" Theo asked, forgetting his vow not to react.
"My father broke with the Romani order but he certainly kept to the practice. You'd probably call it gypsy witchcraft. He and your grandmother worked it together. She learned from him and she was a serious adept. Sometime in the 1930s, they settled in New England. By then she was using her cello to play Roma style. Nightclubs. Wedding parties. He got into used cars. That man loved machines like other Roma love horseflesh. He ended up with dealerships. New cars. Brighter the better. Made a huge pile. By the time I was a teenager I think he had more than fifty car dealerships all around New England. Passed himself off as Greek."
"Okay," Theo said. "So?"
"He died when I was 17. I was at Groton. He sent all six of us kids to expensive schools. Wanted us to be equipped for the WASPs, for high-class society, for politics, industry, the ruling class. My mother too. They were both into it. You bet I hated it. I didn't go home when they told he'd died. I went questing. I sold my typewriter, all my fancy sports equipment, dressy clothes, books, emptied my checking account. I knew I needed constant movement to sharpen my skills, shake off all the materialist logic I'd been so heavily drilled in.
"So who would have what I needed? The Sufi? The Evangelicals? The Vouduns? I moved and moved. You remember some of it. I needed sex and that's where your mother came in. Effa, the dawn. Lovely woman." Albin smiled beatifically at his son.
"You selfish son of a bitch," Theo managed.
"I never saw my mother again. Seems she died some years ago. She had stayed in New England and after a while my oldest brother took over the business. He died about six months ago. There is more than a billion dollars to split, the lawyers say, between me, my three sisters, another brother, and my dead brother's wife. I've been sent a retaining fee pending the final settlements. The lawyers do it all. "
"How did they find you?" Theo did it again. He couldn't help himself.
"The law firm put public notices in dozens and dozens of local newspapers, cryptic enough to keep the false replies down. Personally I think the family also sent some messages the witch way... and I'm not going to explain. There was a huge Roma funeral in Austin for my brother. Somewhere sometime there will be a huge funeral for your sister too..."
"Can they do that with just ashes?" Theo's curiosity was still flaring.
"Oh yes, as long as they can first burn her belongings and add her ashes to the fire.
Theo gave his father an icy appraisal. "If every word you've said is totally true," he said, "I still don't give a care. I'm looking for a way to nail the people who killed my sister. That's all I want. All this stuff from you is just words. "
"Words are your lifeblood, Theo. Don't speak lightly of words. Good lord you've become a writer, a keeper of words, a sender of words, a bender of words. You swim in the ocean of them and now they seep through you as if you had grown gills."
Martha King, born in Virginia in 1937, attended Black Mountain College in the summer of 1955 and soon after left the South for San Francisco where she married Basil King. They have lived in NYC since 1958. Her recent books are her memoir Outside / Inside, just outside the art world's inside (2018), and a whodunit Max Sees Red (2019). She is looking forward to a reading with Margaret Randall at the Poetry Project at St. Marks which had to be postponed until 2021. Both of them will read from their memoirs.
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