| Family First Serial |

Fallout: Chapter 42

Moe’s unexpected, unbelievable statement stole their breaths away, making it impossible to utter a word


September 1964

Annie had often read the words “a stunned silence” in the women’s novels she enjoyed, but this was the first time she’d actually felt the phenomenon surrounding her. Except for Ruchele, who was playing with her Spalding ball while chanting a nonsense poem (“B my name is Betty, and my mother’s name is Barbara, and we come from Boston and we eat Bananas”), it seemed as if the entire group had been stifled by a heavy, suffocating blanket thrown down upon them. Moe’s unexpected, unbelievable statement stole their breaths away, making it impossible to utter a word.

The quiet lasted for about 45 seconds, and then the questions came hurtling toward Moe with the speed of a well-thrown Frisbee. “You what?” “The Manor House Hotel?” “Uncle Moe, you’re moving with us?” “Moey, you can’t be serious?”

Moe grinned and waited for the hubbub to settle down, clearly enjoying the moment. Then, finally, he spoke. “Look, it makes a lot of sense. We know Coney Island is going downhill, with all those low-income projects being built and the crime rate flying up. The building needs major repairs, and anyhow, soon it’s going to be half-empty. We do have some money for repairs” — this, with a grateful glance at Abe and Annie — “but why put it into something that’s failing? Real estate values are going down in Coney, but we might still be able to get a half decent price for the building.”

He stopped for a moment, gathering his thoughts, then continued.

“Everyone’s going to the Catskills for the summer, and a hotel in the ‘Borscht Belt’ can make some real money. And off-season, we’ll still have the boarders. They’ll have a safe place to live. Mr. Perlstein’s family are not being greedy. They’re asking a fair price. And now,” the grin broadened, “it looks like we’ll have some great neighbors.”

Abe was the first to speak. “You’ll have to run some numbers, Moe, get legal advice, check out how much it will take to make the place habitable. It’s a dump right now.”

“Of course.”

As Abe, Moe, and even Artie began exchanging ideas and figures, Annie’s first reaction to the announcement, a curious mixture of dismay and hope, now became a maelstrom of swift and powerful emotion, a whirlpool threatening to engulf her. Joy: If this plan went through, she wouldn’t be leaving her family and friends behind, they would be here, just a few minutes’ drive away. Shock: Though she’d lived in Boro Park for most of her married life, Coney Island — its beaches and ocean and boardwalk; the tinkle of the merry-go-round; the screams on the roller coaster and the frenzy of the amusement parks — these were things that had defined her childhood. Now, completely vanishing from her life?

And, overwhelming all other thoughts and feelings, there was… Papa.

Finally, she found words. “Moe, what will Papa say?”

The grin flickered and disappeared. “Look, Annie, it’s Papa’s hotel and his decision. And of course I’ll respect that. But if he says no, it he’s too stuck on his memories to move ahead, let me tell you, he’ll be making a mistake. A big mistake.”

Annie glanced at her watch. It was getting late; soon the kids would be hungry again, and tired and crabby. Time to start packing up. But before they left, there was something she had to say.

She cast a beseeching glance at Abe. “Get everyone quiet, Abie, please.”

For the second time that day, “Dad’s Voice” called the Levine family to order.

Annie was talking to all of them, but her eyes never left Mutty. “Kids, it’s been a big day, and we all have lots to think about. Nothing is completely settled. We are hoping to move, with Hashem’s help, and Dad will start a new job. But there’s still a lot to take care of before we know for sure.”  She paused; under the burden of so many conflicting emotions, her happiness had turned into deep fatigue. “Mutty is leaving in two days. Until then, no one”—her voice, usually so gentle, grew stern—“but no one is allowed to talk to Zeide about what Uncle Moe just told us, or even about our moving.” She turned to her brother, who looked puzzled. “Moe, I don’t know how Papa will take this, and I will NOT have the next two days filled with machlokes or arguments. We’ll break it to him gently, after Mutty is gone.  Mutty will leave a happy and united family. Is that clear?”

Mutty. Vietnam. War.

With Annie’s words, dark and ominous thunderclouds seemed to cover the sunshine of the young people’s excitement.

It was Artie who dispersed the gray clouds.

“Of course, we all know how to keep a secret, right kids? But, Mama, do you mind if we talk about it just one more time?” He turned to Ruchele and gently pried the ball out of her fingers.

“C’mon gang, let’s go.” He began to bounce the pink Spalding ball and sing:

“L my name is…”

“Levine!” the twins shouted together.

“And my mother’s name is…”

“Mama!” Mutty said, grinning.

“And we come from…

“Boro Park!” cried David, while his twin yelled, “the Catskills!”

“And we eat…”

“Pizza!” said Ruchele, grabbing the ball back.

And amid laughter and an almost palpable feeling of love — and with Mama’s and Dad’s permission to mark the occasion in a pizza shop — the Levine family headed home.

“Had enough of carrots yet?”

Marjorie’s laugh had a slight edge to it. “My fingers are turning as orange as my hair.”

“So let’s cut out.” Danny Lefkowitz glanced at his watch. “It’s been two hours. More than enough for our good deed of the day.”

On their way out of the soup kitchen, Marjorie glanced into the dining room, where a crowd was already sitting around the tables. She looked at an old man who’d picked up the entire bowl and was noisily downing it. At a girl who looked about 14, the edges of her greasy hair slipping in and out of the soup bowl as she bent over it. And… wait! Yes, wasn’t that Mama Mumu sitting in a corner, her back to Marjorie?

Suddenly she couldn’t bear to stay here any longer. “Let’s go,” she muttered, racing out the door without a backward glance.

“You okay?” Danny asked, when he caught up to her.

“Yeah, I guess. I couldn’t breathe in there. The smell was horrible.”

“What you were smelling, Margie, was misfortune. All the people not blessed with money or family to take care of them.”

Marjorie frowned. “Don’t lecture me. Let’s just get away from here.”

“Let’s go to the park. Plenty of good air for you to breathe.”

It was a short walk to Golden Gate Park. Danny was right: Here, on the lush grass, surrounded by thick and beautiful foliage, the heaviness that had been weighing her down in the shabby kitchen seemed to dissipate like a cloud of drifting steam coming out of a greasy soup pot.

They walked through the park silently, each lost in thought. A group of teenagers were throwing around a Frisbee, reminding her of Artie and Mutty and the hotel. Well, I kind of kept Shabbos, she thought. At least, I didn’t work…. Okay, she’d turned on lights and now, as they reached Stow Lake, she agreed to go out rowing with Danny, which meant he had to pay at the dock, which was not what you were supposed to do on G-d’s holy day, but really, was it so bad, and did He really care if you took a couple of bucks out of your wallet?

Shrugging off an annoying and almost inexplicable feeling of guilt (Hey, I never promised G-d I’d be religious), she jumped into the rowboat.

“I’ll row,” Danny said, following her into the boat and grabbing the oars.

“No, let me do it. I’ve got a lot of energy to work off.”

Danny watched as she moved the oars backward, forward, faster and faster, leaving a spreading wake behind them. “Hey, Margie, it’s a beautiful day. Why don’t you slow down and enjoy it? Are you escaping from Alcatraz?” he added, pointing in the direction of the infamous prison in the bay, just a few miles away.

A vision flashed in front of her eyes, even as she plowed through the lake’s placid waters: a Greenwich Village pawnshop, a strange woman in an oversized dress, Mama Mumu speaking to her: So you’re searching, babe? Or are you just escaping? They’re not the same thing, you know.

Escaping? To where?

Searching? For what?

She let the oars slip from her hands. “You take over. I’m tired.”

When they’d switched seats, and Danny was rowing at a much more restful pace, Marjorie spoke again.

“Why accounting?”

“Why not accounting?”

“You know what I mean. You really want to spend your life looking at boring numbers and finding ways for rich people to weasel out of their taxes?”

A grin. “No, Margie, I do not want to spend my life looking at boring numbers and… how did you put it so eloquently?… helping rich people weasel out of taxes. What I want is to earn an honest living.” His voice grew deeper, more serious. “I want to get a good job so I can help my folks. I want my Pop to be able to work less than twelve-hour days. I want my Mom to go on a vacation once in her life, instead of threading needles and fixing hems and fitting dresses on hot, smelly, and rude customers.” His lips tightened. “I’m their only child. I’ve got enough brains to have gotten myself a scholarship. I like numbers, accounting is a good career choice… and I don’t think that working in an office in a gray flannel suit is a death sentence.”

Danny had grown more and more heated and had dropped the oars in their locks. The boat drifted slowly as he and Marjorie stared intently at each other.

Marjorie was the first to lower her gaze, looking instead at the bright green foliage on the shore.

“And you… you’re doing this for your parents?”

“Of course. Wouldn’t you?”

“My parents? My parents?” She started to laugh. Not her usual contagious giggle, this laughter had a harsh and almost hysterical sound. “You don’t understand, Danny, you can’t understand. Father and Mother — they don’t care about me, and I don’t… I don’t care about them.”

There. She’d said it.

Other boats passed, their occupants occasionally waving a cheerful hello, but neither Marjorie nor Danny noticed.

“Of course they care about you. Okay, maybe they’re a little too strict, but I’m sure they miss you and want you to come back. Haven’t they told you so?”

Her laughter had completely dissipated. “No, Danny, they have not told me so. They don’t miss me, and they don’t even know where I am.”

“What? You mean—”

“I ran away from home. I took the Mustang and ran away, just like little kids do in books.”

“How could you do that to them? You mean you’ve been gone for weeks, and they don’t know where you are?  They don’t know if you’re living or dead?”

Marjorie shifted uncomfortably but stayed silent.

Danny’s voice became stern, implacable. He picked up the oars and began rowing toward the shore. “Marjorie Burton, you are coming with me. We will find a telephone booth and you will call your parents, reversing the charges.”

“You don’t know them. They won’t even accept a collect phone call from me. They despise me, don’t you get it? Ashamed of me. Wish I wasn’t their daughter.”

“I don’t believe it. And even if it’s true, you’ve got to keep your side of the street clean. You’ve got to do the right thing.”

“Which means telling them where I am?”


Marjorie shook her head. “Nope. Never.”

And with that half-hysterical pronouncement, Marjorie Burton stood up and jumped into the water.

Once again, she was running away.

To be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 886)

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