| Family First Serial |

Fallout: Chapter 38

Marjorie stared at the poster. Its message was blunt: We need rent money. Can you help?


August 1964

Heart and stomach: As she and Mama Mumu left Eddie’s lonely little grave and headed back to the Haight, Marjorie could almost feel them both, alive, pulsing, disturbed. Her heart ached with empathy for another’s pain, and with the unfamiliar concept of total forgiveness. And her stomach? That simply growled, demanding attention, begging for a steak, or a green salad, or even — yum! — Perele Schwartz’s potato kugel.

Thoughts of Mrs. S. brought her back to the life she’d left behind. Mother and Father: What were they doing now? Did they miss her at all? (Not likely.) Were they sending out police, asking others for help, or simply keeping her disappearance a deep, dark secret so that they shouldn’t lose face with the neighbors? Did Perele Schwartz wish she was with her in the kitchen? And what about Artie, with his funny poems and sweet smile? She remembered their last encounter, and the song he’d written for her: On a roller coaster, she travels far / Searching for who-knows-what, in her Mustang car / She’s going to try to make her own home / With dreams and drums, and this nonsense poem.

Well, if I’m going to make this my own home, I’d better get started. She quickened her pace; no more sauntering, enjoying the sights. First stop: Chrissie’s crash pad. It was early afternoon, and she hoped she’d find her friend awake — and something, anything, to eat.

Thankfully, Chrissie was, well, not wide-awake exactly, still yawning in her Mickey Mouse pajamas, but awake enough to shriek when she saw Marjorie. There were kisses, and hugs, and more shouts and as warm a welcome as Marjorie had dreamed of.

But no food.

“We’re all out of everything, Marge, kind’ve a drag, but hang loose, we’ll get some bread together.”

“Bread?” Hopefully: “You mean, like a sandwich?”

Chrissie giggled. “Moolah. Dough. Money, you middle-class bourgeoisie. Get with it girl, you’ll soon be talking our language. And speaking of dough, you got any to contribute?”

“I’m afraid not.” Marjorie recounted her cross-country adventures, ending with the cowboys’ theft of all her cash.

“Bummer, man! No bread in your pocket. Would have been pretty welcome, since we’re in hock for two months’ rent with the landlord and he’s flipping his lid.”

Not good. Marjorie had been counting on Chrissie to help her get settled, but her friend seemed very different from what she’d been when they were in school. Then, she’d been angry, rebellious, restless; now, she seemed like she was drifting happily in some strange and delightfully irresponsible world.

“So what are you going to do?”

“Guess it’s time to go to work, babe. Want to come along?”

This sounded hopeful. Work meant money, money meant food. It would be kind of fun to get a job all on her own, maybe selling psychedelic posters or working the night shift in a coffee shop.

Chrissie picked up a bright-red bucket, a metal box that had once been used for milk deliveries, a cardboard poster, and a guitar that was hanging on the wall. Puzzled, Marjorie followed her. Mama Mumu, who’d been quietly watching the two of them, walked behind her, an enigmatic smile on her face.

They got to the neighborhood’s busiest intersection, where Haight and Ashbury Streets met. Chrissie placed the red bucket down, leaned the poster board on a nearby storefront, and pulled the guitar out of its case. She sat down on the milk box and began to sing a folk song about peace, love, and flowers.

Marjorie stared at the poster. Its message was blunt: We need rent money. Can you help?

Her eyes opened wide, her voice came out high-pitched, almost a shriek. “Chrissie, you’re… you’re begging?”

Her friend gave a dreamy smile.

“Marge, get with it. You want to stick me in some stuffy office like my dad and yours, where all the guys wear suits and ties, like some cuckoo in a straitjacket, and the women sit and punch numbers and letters on typewriters and bring the boss his cup of coffee? It’s just not my scene,” she declared, twirling a strand of her hair.

“Um, it’s not my scene either, Chrissie, you know that, but asking strangers for money?”

Chrissie ignored the interruption. “People should learn to help each other out, you know? Like, why work so hard for things we don’t really need? We’re here to spread love, not just accumulate stuff. My mom and dad, yours, too, with their middle-class ideals, their rules and their rat race, they just don’t get it. We live, girl, we live and love.”

A young man with long, greasy locks stopped for a moment in front of them, pulled a nickel out of his jeans pocket and pitched it into the bucket, where it landed with a satisfying clang. Chrissie bestowed a glowing smile on him. “See, Marge, it’s all about love.”

Well… maybe… I mean, love is nice and yeah, who wants to be trapped in an office… and we’ve got to eat….

C’mon, Marge, I’ll take the sidewalk and you can use the milk box.” With that, she flopped onto the ground, still holding the guitar.

Marjorie gave an uncertain look in Mama Mumu’s direction. “Um… Mama?”

It was a question, a plea, a cry for help.

“Listen, child, don’t you worry, you’ll be fine.”

With that, Mama Mumu turned and began to walk away.

“Where are you going?” It was the annoying sentence that Mrs. Burton used to say all the time when Marjorie was leaving the house. Strange, to hear the words coming out of her own mouth, but somehow, she felt that she needed Mama Mumu near her, a guide to this very foreign country.

“Got things to do, people to see.”

She thought about Eddie’s little grave. “Living people?”

“That’s right, baby. But don’t you worry, I’ll be back.”

A giggling young woman threw a quarter into the bucket. And Miss Marjorie Burton, college graduate, formerly of the New York city suburbs, owner of a trust fund and a bank account in her name, sat down on a metal milk box and began to beg. For money. For breakfast.


was horrible. Just horrible.

Worse than the time in sixth grade when her teacher, at her wits’ end, had placed her for a day with the third graders, right in the middle of the classroom, where every little girl could see her shame. (I will not cry, 11-year-old Marjorie had told herself grimly, over and over. And she hadn’t.) Worse than when, for some long-forgotten sin, she’d been left at home with a crabby babysitter, while Mother, Father, and Perfect Brother got to go to the movie theater, watch Peter Pan, and eat pizza and ice cream afterward.

No, sitting on an uncomfortable metal box, staring at a red pail that seemed to sneer failure at her, surrounded by indifference or contempt or — perhaps worst of all — pity; this was horror and shame and a living nightmare.

But she couldn’t leave. Something was keeping her there, something heavy and dark, tying her down to that awful milk box.

The words of a strange old children’s poem ran through her head, again and again: Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief….

Chrissie was just fine, smiling, humming, thanking every passerby for pennies or nickels, and singing songs about peace and war.

Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief.

Indian chief. She remembered the Freed Hotel on Purim, wearing warpaint and feathers in her hair. She remembered chicken soup on Shabbos. Her mother’s cheese omelets. Her own French gourmet foods.

Beggar man. Beggar woman.

Hungry, so hungry.

Yet when Chrissie triumphantly counted the day’s proceeds and went with her to a local deli, Marjorie could hardly swallow the burger and fries.


he sunshine was brilliant on this summer day, hugging Boro Park in its humid, sweaty arms. But though the sky was a bright and radiant blue as Annie Levine hung out her wash to dry in the backyard, she could sense dark clouds moving in: black and white clouds of newsprint, in the headlines, the passionate editorials, the strident articles about North Vietnamese treachery, Communist threats, and the urgent and vital American response. She’d read the text of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed almost unanimously by Congress, over and over, until she could practically recite it by heart:

Whereas naval units of the Communist regime in Vietnam… have… repeatedly attacked United States naval vessels… Whereas these attackers are part of a deliberate… aggression of the Communist regime in North Vietnam… Whereas the United States is assisting the peoples of southeast Asia to protect their freedom… Therefore be it resolved… the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America… approves… the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.

Abe had been reassuring, as he left, together with Moe, to attend the ceremonies at the end of Mutty’s Basic Training. “Don’t worry about Mutty,” he’d said, as she drove them to the airport, where they were catching a plane to Georgia. “He’s still got plenty of time before they even think about shipping him out. There’s corpsman training, and he’ll get extended leave before he goes abroad. By then, this will all be over. Our army beat the Nazis and the Japs — you think we’ll have trouble with some little guys in pajamas?”

And yet… Annie worried.

How she wished she could have been with them, watching with pride as Mutty finished up his training. But her doctor had made it clear that she should not be flying at this stage of her pregnancy. She wouldn’t get to see her son so soon afterward either. After he’d finished corpsman training, Mutty had been told that he would be given a much longer leave, maybe even a month, but since his extra training was scheduled to begin soon, it made sense for him to stay on base, rather than come home for just a few days.

Well, at least Abe and Moe would be back soon, and she’d hear all about it from them. She snapped on the final clothespin and went back to the house. Baruch Hashem, she was feeling well in these final months, but she did tire easily and her legs tended to swell up if she was on them for too long. That’s what happens when grandmas become new mothers, she told herself, with a wry smile. She headed for the couch, still thinking about that little unimportant country in Asia and hoping Abe was right. Her eyes closed, and she was soon asleep.

A knock woke her. Look at the time! Could it be? She raced to the door.

“Abie! Moey! Welcome back.”

She caught a glimpse of a figure behind them.


And then there were hugs and kisses and tears and more hugs, before he could even say, “Hello, Mama.”

Finally, she found words. “But… I thought… didn’t you say… you’d be staying on base until after your training?”

Mutty exchanged glances with his father and uncle. “Um, yeah, Mama, but they changed my orders right before graduation.” He took a deep breath. “Mama, I’ve got two weeks leave.”

“How wonderful!”

“Yeah. And then, Mama, I’m shipping out. To Vietnam.”


To be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 882

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