| Family First Serial |

Fallout: Chapter 36

Fred Burton stopped shouting. His face crumpled, as fury gave way to anxiety and hurt. “You’re right, Mrs. Levine, and I’m sorry. But it was such a shock”


August 1964

There is a moment of deep silence, Annie had once read, right before an atomic explosion: an expectant, ghastly millisecond before the thunderous boom.

She thought of that ominous quiet as Fred Burton stared at the group sitting around a scratched coffee table in the Freed Hotel parlor. Standing behind him, a handkerchief grasped too tightly in her white-gloved hands, Alice Burton, too, said nothing.

And then came the fiery blast.

“Where is my daughter?” Mr. Burton roared, in a voice that was half growl, half shout. Yeruchum stood up, put out a calming hand that Fred Burton pointedly ignored.

“Mr. Burton—”

“Don’t 'Mr. Burton' me. My daughter has been staying here, and if she’s gone I want to know where.”

“We don’t know,” Artie said, his voice as loud and angry as Burton’s. “We thought she was with you.”

And now the men were all talking at once; Burton and Artie shouting, Yeruchum trying to conciliate, Moe making suggestions that no one listened to.

Annie, in her mild manner, stepped into the fray. Papa was right, I’d better calm everyone down.

Somehow, amid the commotion, she made herself heard.

“Please, Mr. and Mrs. Burton, we understand completely what you’re going through. We also...” a moment’s hesitation, “we also love Marjorie, and we have to work together to do what’s best for her.”

Fred Burton stopped shouting. His face crumpled, as fury gave way to anxiety and hurt. “You’re right, Mrs. Levine, and I’m sorry. But it was such a shock.” He collected himself, and when he spoke, it was in a more normal tone. “So none of you have any idea of where she is?”

Annie spoke, her words chosen carefully. “Of course not, or we would have told you. Please sit down, and you can tell us what happened so we can all help find her.”

The story came out. The fight with the Burtons, Marjorie’s furious reaction to what Mr. Burton felt was a perfectly reasonable statement. “And then we got home the next day, and she was gone.” The anger and the sorrow had disappeared, leaving a father’s bewilderment at a child he’d never quite understood.

“Alice and I,” he continued, glancing at his wife, who hadn’t said a word since they’d come, “thought she was here. Though we’ve never understood what she saw in this place, she did seem to like it here.”

Perele spoke for the first time. “She did come here, but just to pack her things. All she told me was that she was going to look for a job. And no one has seen her since.”

Artie, who’d been sitting on an uncomfortable wing chair, his fingers tapping a nervous staccato rhythm, spoke up. “Actually, I saw her after you, Mrs. Schwartz. I met her as she was leaving, and we took a short walk. She seemed,” a pause, “I don’t know. All keyed up. Like she was about to do something exciting and different and fun. But she told me from the start that I shouldn’t ask her what.”

“And you didn’t try to find out?” This from Moe, a touch disapprovingly.

The finger tapping stopped. Artie jumped up, propelled by some strong emotion. “Don’t you understand? I couldn’t. She wouldn’t talk to me if I pushed too hard.” He gazed directly at the Burtons, who’d taken chairs at the side of the room. “You know how much Marjorie hates being pushed.”

Annie broke in hastily, before Artie could say anything more. “Has she ever done anything like this before? Is it possible she’s staying with friends?”

“Oh, Margie was always slamming doors and leaving. But she always came back a few hours later. And she didn’t talk a lot about her friends, not since junior high.” Fred Burton sighed. “She didn’t share much with us.”

A shaky voice, almost a whisper growing into a wail, as Mrs. Burton spoke for the first time. “Oh Fred, what about… Chrissie?”

And she burst into tears.

These were not the kind of tears that fell from Annie’s eyes at times of sadness, quiet droplets carrying with them her melancholy or fear. No, this was a flood, a sobbing unstoppable deluge: tears that Annie suspected had been held inside for far too long.

Annie looked to see if Fred Burton would react, but he seemed almost oblivious to his wife’s distress. Mrs. Burton’s voice grew even more high-pitched, and her breaths came swift and shallow.

She’s in hysterics. We’ve got to do something.

Annie exchanged a glance with Perele, who gave an almost imperceptible nod toward the kitchen door. Let’s get her out of here.

“Mrs. Burton,” Annie said, standing up, “please join us for a nice cup of tea. We’ll let the men discuss the next step. I’m sure they’ll figure it out, and everything will be fine.”

Perele Schwartz and Annie gently led the crying woman out of the room and into the warmth of the kitchen.

It was well after two in the morning when the Mustang wearily bumped into the curb on Ashbury Street. Marjorie’s half-closed eyes opened for a moment, but she was too tired to feel more than just a slight flash of surprise at how lively the neighborhood seemed. As she stepped slowly out of the car, practically sleepwalking, she was enveloped in a kaleidoscope of colors and sounds. The air buzzed with the twang of folk guitars, laughter, and the cloyingly sweet scent of incense. Tie-dyed banners hung from windows, and the streets were alive and busy: Here, a man in bright orange pants with green pockets wandering around holding a “Ban the Bomb” poster; there, three girls playing tambourines, surrounded by a group dancing around them.

But after close to 18 hours of driving, living on Coke and potato chips and stopping only for gas, Marjorie was simply too exhausted to take out her bongos and join them. She hardly paid attention to the row houses, with their intricate woodwork, colorful facades, and steeply pitched roofs. The dizzying hot-pink exterior of the building Mama Mumu led her to could have been the light beige (intensely boring, she used to say) stucco of her own home, for all the notice she took of it.

She followed her companion up the building’s steep steps, praying that Chrissie would be home to welcome them. A waft of patchouli and the distant strumming of an acoustic guitar greeted her as she knocked on a door sporting a psychedelic poster that proclaimed this to be The Freedom Place. Where All Are Loved.

No answer.

She pounded on the scratched wooden door, accidentally ripping a corner of the poster. Please, please, please be home. Answer the door, or I’m going to sleep right here on the steps.

Mama Mumu broke the silence. “Just try and see if it’s open, babe.”

Wonder of wonders — it was!

The house was silent. There was a musty smell, like garbage left too long in the sun. A few candles in colorful holders and the reflection of a neon sign for Jack’s Bar & Grill coming through a window gave off the only light, and when Marjorie flicked the switch the place remained in darkness.

No one was home. But at this point, she didn’t care. She opened Mama Mumu’s duffel bag, which she’d carried up the stairs, pulled out a blanket covered with the sand and rocks of the canyon where they’d slept, threw it onto the floor in one of the bedrooms, and plopped down upon it.

Within seconds, Marjorie was asleep.

While Perele busied herself with perking coffee for the three of them and cutting generous slabs of chocolate cake, Annie sat Mrs. Burton down at a small table in a corner of the kitchen.

In her brief encounters with Marjorie’s mother Annie had found her a cold and critical woman, but looking at Alice Burton now, her face powder stained with lines carved by her tears, her carefully applied eye makeup drizzling down her cheeks, Annie couldn’t help but feel sorry for her.

The sobs had subsided, and, after a few sips of steaming coffee, Mrs. Burton began to speak. Once, while still living in Coney Island, Annie had seen hurricane-force winds whip the ocean’s waters into a frenzy. She’d watched in awe from her window in the hotel as the waves lashed at the beach, dissolving the sand in its powerful and merciless grasp. She thought of that now, as Alice Burton’s uncontrolled tears seemed to wash away her stiff and proud reticence.

She spoke about her daughter. A difficult baby, an impossible toddler. So impulsive and heedless of danger. If there was a chair to climb and fall from, little Margie would find it. They became regular visitors at the local emergency room. Testing showed a dizzyingly high IQ, but she was restless, always restless. Homework left undone, studying for exams nonexistent, report cards a disaster. They tried having polite little friends over to play, but instead of wanting to dress her Barbies in pretty fashions, Marjorie would send them on great adventures that usually ended with at least one dolly’s head coming off — and the polite little friend in tears.

They tried, she and Mr. Burton. They tried so hard. They would not spoil her. They pointed out all her defects hoping she would improve, punished her for misbehavior, were careful to discipline. But the toddler turned into a difficult child and an impossible adolescent.

And then came Chrissie….

“Chrissie?” Annie said the name cautiously; she had no desire to have to deal with still another fit of hysterics.

There was a threat of tears in Alice Burton’s eyes, but she controlled herself. “Chrissie Stewart. They were friends from junior high. Such a fine family, her father a successful attorney, her mother the head of a major charity organization. But Chrissie — a beatnik! Writing awful poems that didn’t even rhyme. Wearing black slacks. And then—”


“Eight months ago, in the middle of her college term, Chrissie disappeared. And Mr. and Mrs. Stewart haven’t heard a word from her. Not a word! And I’m afraid… so afraid….” Her eyes filled with tears once again. “What if Marjorie disappears, too?”

Annie spoke a few soothing words, and Mrs. Burton seemed to regain her composure. She allowed Annie to lead her to a bathroom to freshen up. When she came out, her makeup and face powder cleaned off, she looked so sad and so vulnerable that Annie couldn’t help but give her a hug.

Mrs. Burton looked startled, but she gave a small smile.

“Come, let’s see what the men have decided.”


this is the plan.” Gone was the distraught father; here was an executive used to making decisions and giving orders. “I’ll speak to my lawyer, see what can be done through the local police. Margie is over 21, so I’m not sure if I can list her as missing. Maybe they can trace the Mustang. It’s registered in my name, so I have a right to try and locate it.

“It’s a big country. We’ll begin with Manhattan, I’ll get a private detective on the case. She liked Greenwich Village, he can start there.”

His face was grim and set. “Wherever that girl is, we’ll find her.”

“With G-d’s help,” Yeruchum interjected, his face as resolute as Burton’s.

A moment’s hesitation. “Yes, Rabbi Freed. With G-d’s help.”

To be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 880)

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