Tutti Frutti for Me — Short Story

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"Tutti Frutti for Me" was published in the New Ohio Review. It is one of the stories in my upcoming novel Floating in the Neversink. 

 

Tutti Frutti for Me

I’m watching The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet on the giant Admiral 21- inch console television, and I can’t wait for the commercial to raid the freezer and see if there’s any ice cream. My father, mother, and sister are in the living room; and it’s no use asking them because my father would not answer me, my sister would order me to bring her a bowl of whatever I find, and my mother would say that I should look myself if I want anything that badly. Besides, what I’m longing for does not exist in this small Brooklyn apartment. I need to find tutti frutti ice cream, and the only flavors my mother buys are butter pecan for my father and chocolate for my sister. Every time I tell my mother that I don’t have the same taste as my sister, she seems surprised and says, “Why, I thought chocolate was your favorite.” I always answer her with the truth, “I love vanilla.” But it may as well be tutti frutti because she never listens to me.

The reason I’m crazy with the tutti frutti is because in the show, the Nelsons see a story in the newspaper about a police sergeant who was keeping a lost boy happy with a large tutti frutti cone, entertaining him until his parents showed up. This is the one night the Nelsons decided to forgo dessert in order to cut down on calories. Ricky, the troublemaker, wants tutti frutti badly. Darning socks, wearing a high-necked sweater with a double strand of pearls, Harriet Nelson says, “I haven’t tasted tutti frutti in years.”

Ozzie and Harriet reminisce about their youth and where they bought large portions of this flavor. “Somehow you just don’t get ice cream like that anymore,” Ozzie says, and David follows, “You don’t get anything like that anymore.” Clearly, the Nelsons, dubbed by the announcer as, “America’s Favorite Family” who enjoy “good times together,” also agree about this lack of uniqueness in modern culture.

 

Even though it’s a cold night in December 1957, my mouth waters and I race to the kitchen. The freezer is crammed with a tundra of yellowing ice. A carton of Birds Eye frozen peas peeks out between the craters like the first spring growth in an arctic melt; and clinging to the side, pinned against the freezer edge, is a one-pint box of pistachio ice cream, my father’s second favorite. I open the carton and there are maybe two spoonfuls caked in frost. Not bothering to get a Pyrex bowl, I take the container and a spoon back to the living room and watch Ozzie, who is now in bed, immersed in a dream.

“You could have brought me some,” my sister Brenda says.

“I didn’t want to miss the show,” I say.

“Only an animal eats from the carton.”

I growl, pounce, and swing my arms wildly. I pull each of my brown pigtails straight from my ears and open my mouth in a huge circle, my small brown eyes like dots of surprise.

“Mother, your younger daughter is a monkey and belongs in the zoo.”

“Yeah, she’s as dumb as an ape,” my father says, looking up from the New York Post’s sports page. He sits at the far end of the small rectangular living room in his threadbare, red scotch-plaid captain’s chair, his slippered feet splayed on the matching ottoman. This is the first thing he says all evening.

In Ozzie’s dream, he and Harriet are sitting in an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor. It takes place in their youth, maybe in the 1920s. Harriet wears a cloche hat with a feather and a flapper dress; Ozzie sports a bow tie and striped blazer. Suddenly, Harriet bursts out singing “Goody Goody” in a throaty voice, as if she has smoked a pack of Chesterfields. Backing her up is the singing group, the Four Preps, echoing “goody goody for him” and “goody goody for me.”

Before long, Ricky is singing, “You got it comin’ to ya,” and the audience belts out, “Hooray and hallelujah.” The refrain “goody goody” becomes “tutti frutti,” with Ozzie and Harriet, followed by the Four Preps, singing, “Tutti frutti for me.” If that’s not enough, Harriet and other women get up to do the Charleston. Harriet pumps her arms and kicks her legs, and moves into a solo while Ozzie accompanies with his banjo.

And that’s why I love Harriet above all the other TV moms. She is not Margaret Anderson making dinner and kissing her husband when he gets home from his important job at the insurance company, convinced that father knows best. She is not Mrs. Goldberg yoo-hooing out her window while awaiting her family’s arrival. She is not Alice Kramden making fun of her wacky husband as he schemes away their poverty. Beneath Harriet’s short, modest bob and nononsense clothes, she is her own woman, even in Ozzie’s dreams.

 

I’m whipping my spoon around the bottom of the pistachio container because I like it best when it has a creamy consistency, and I scrape the bottom. Finally, I plunge in my pointer finger, wiping it along the edges, licking it to get the final taste.  

“Stop making those annoying noises!” Brenda says. “I can’t hear the show.”

The front door slams; and because Brenda, my mother, and I are still in the living room, I know my father has gone out and he isn’t looking for ice cream. My mother’s shoulders pop up and she turns her head toward the hallway and then resumes reading her book. She is a big-time reader, taking out at least one book a week at the library. Her favorite subject is British royalty, and she knows every king and queen in succession, plus their offspring. All I know is that Henry VIII was ugly and wore a funny collar that looked like my crinoline squashed into a beehive.

“You girls better stay off the phone tonight,” my mother says.

I don’t question her because I don’t want her to realize that it is after 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, and most mothers would say it was getting too late to be on the phone on a school night. Not that my mother is like most mothers. With her perfect pink complexion, dimpled nose tip, and thick upswept hazel hair, she is prettier than Harriet Nelson and even Loretta Young. Not that prettiness ever helped her. It is both good and bad that, when it comes to being like other mothers, she leaves me alone.

My mother probably doesn’t remember, too, that Wednesday night at nine is the absolute cutoff for Brenda to receive calls for a Saturday night date. Brenda wouldn’t pick up the phone if I gave her an Elvis record. She would rather parade around on a Saturday afternoon on Flatbush Avenue, her long legs sticking out from her tight black pencil skirt and with hair in rollers (not that she needed them since she gave herself a smelly Toni home permanent) under a scarf, and pretend she was having a date that night than accept an offer on Wednesday at 9:15. Just turning sixteen, Brenda is an expert on the teen rules for dating.

Mostly I don’t want to remind my mother about phone etiquette because I know what she is thinking and it isn’t good. Last Friday night, I was on the phone with my best friend Francine and then Brenda was on the phone with a boy for at least an hour, and my father came home after the news stinking of whiskey.

Proudly, he said, “I was in jail.”

My mother for once was silent.

Brenda said, “You’re kidding, Daddy.”

“No, there I was with the boys at Angelo’s playing poker and we got busted by two cops for gambling. Can you believe it? They even took my shoelaces.”

“Why?” I asked, more startled at this than the fact that my father was in jail.

“So he wouldn’t hang himself, stupid,” Brenda said.

“So, Bill, why didn’t you call and tell us where you were? We were getting worried.”

Of course, I didn’t correct my mother then; I didn’t think anyone noticed that he wasn’t home since he had been either sitting in his chair all day not talking, still wearing his soiled striped pajamas, or sleeping in the bedroom for huge chunks of time, my family almost got used to his absence. My father had been lucky that night. He had explained that the judge laughed and let them go.

“Did you get your shoelaces back?” I asked.

My father went into the bathroom without answering. All I could hear was the long, steady stream of his pee, which I had to wipe from the toilet seat that he forgot to lift.

 

I place the empty ice cream carton on the coffee table and cover my lap with an old afghan, pulling it up toward my mouth so I can bite my nails without Brenda noticing.

After the Charleston, Ozzie wants to charge the two ice creams, but Dave, who acts as the waiter, won’t allow him. Before Ozzie and Harriet can taste them, Dave takes away the two multi-scooped ice-cream tulip sundae glasses from the table. In a semi-sleep, Ozzie pleads, “David, come back and give me my tutti frutti.” I don’t know why this makes me cry. I can’t take Ozzie’s frustration. I want him to have his ice cream already.

At this point, Brenda forgets that she just ordered me to shut up and starts to hum, “Tutti Frutti au rutti, a-bop-bop-a-loom-op, a-lop bop boom!”

“Shh,” I whisper.

“Brenda, please,” my mother says, one of the rare times she seems to be on my side.

“Oh Mother, that was a Little Richard song,” Brenda says.

“You know the guy who was in that Alan Freed movie. You’ve heard him on the radio lots of times.”

“You think I know Little Richard from Big Daddy?”

“No, but you know Richard III,” I say, swearing I could see an upturned crease in my mother’s penciled cat’s eyes.

Poor Ozzie is now a crazed man and goes to his neighbor Darby in the middle of the night, begging him to look in his freezer for tutti frutti. No luck. Later, Harriet and Ozzie get dressed to go out and search for tutti frutti.

 

There’s a commercial. In the beginning of the show, Ozzie introduced the Kodacolor 135 film, the “biggest 35 millimeter news since color slides.” But now, it’s not Ozzie, but another man, and he presents "one of the world's great cameras," a Kodak Retina Reflex, for the professional advanced amateur. But these people at Kodak are smart. They know their audience. The man now takes out the Pony II, for those people just getting started in color slides. He says it’s amazingly simple to use and only costs $26.75, adding the kicker: the Nelson family found it a real pleasure to use.

I want to punch the television screen and wipe off his royal smugness. Of course, the Nelsons can afford any camera they want and can probably get a Kodak for nothing. Who are they fooling? The only thing the Nelsons can’t seem to get is tutti frutti ice cream.

This Pony still looks very fancy, and I wish I could have a camera even if it’s only a Brownie. But since my father lost his sweater business over a year ago, partly from investing in a new sideline of taffeta cocktail dresses, I am lucky that I still get money for an occasional Archie comic.

Ozzie and Harriet find a drugstore with a light on, and the druggist searches his freezer. The closest he can come to tutti frutti is cherry. When they return home, the whole family is awake and gathers at the kitchen table. Ever resourceful, Harriet serves them fruit cocktail to mix with the cherry ice cream, her approximation of tutti frutti.

 

I remember when I made ice cream with Francine three years ago when I was nine. In her kitchen on East 22nd Street in Flatbush, two buildings from mine on the dead end, I helped Francine search her mother’s cookbooks for an ice-cream recipe. I was impressed that Francine’s mother, Mrs. Nederlander, had a cookbook with food stains on the red-and-white checkered cover. As far as I know, my mother never consulted a recipe, though she once read an article that said it was healthy to have two different-colored vegetables for dinner and the only thing she could think of besides green was yellow. So every other night, Brenda and I ate wax beans. At least, this got my father to say something funny, that for a long while I thought he made up: “Beans, beans, the musical fruit. The more you eat, the more you toot.”

Anyhow, Mrs. Nederlander’s cookbook contained a recipe for ice cream and it was for vanilla, my favorite. Francine and I got out a carton of eggs from the refrigerator and had no trouble assembling the other ingredients. Then the recipe called for separating the eggs and setting aside the egg whites and we were stuck. “What does separate mean?” Francine asked.

Being a year older, I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know. “Put them in separate rooms,” I said, hoping the joke would cover my ignorance. Then I got a brainstorm, “It must mean that you make hard-boiled eggs and then you can get whites and yellows.”

Without missing a beat, Francine got out the biggest pot in the cabinet, and we boiled the eggs until most cracked. Gently, with a large spoon, I lifted each out of the boiling water and, when they cooled to the touch, Francine and I peeled the shells, pried open the eggs, scooped out the yellows, and deposited the egg-white chunks into Mrs. Nederlander’s brand-new red electric mixing bowl. I may not remember that I didn’t know what “fold” meant and left that chore to Francine, but I’ll never forget the entrance of the Nederlanders.

“P-yew, what is that odor?” Mr. Nederlander asked, pinching his nostrils together.

“Are you girls cooking something?” Mrs. Nederlander asked, looking toward the kitchen as if she were expecting the fire department with hoses drawn.

“It’s like a sulfur factory in here,” Mr. Nederlander said.

But unlike my father, who would not have missed an opportunity to point out that my friend and I were dimwits; and unlike my mother, who would have shrieked louder than she did when she came home every night from her new job as a bookkeeper and I didn’t clean the house to her satisfaction, Mr. Nederlander opened the kitchen window and his wife dusted hard-boiled egg bits from her cookbook. Afterward, I heard them laughing hysterically in the den they used for a television room. In a cage hanging from a hook near the window facing the courtyard, Francine’s parrot, Timothy, screeched, “happy happy,” and I left Francine’s yearning for a bird who talked, among other things.

 

Ozzie calls the police officer, Sergeant Dolan, from the newspaper and asks him where he bought the tutti frutti he gave to the lost boy.

Brenda stretches and says, “Enough with the tutti frutti! I still can’t believe that Jerry Lee Lewis got married today.”

“Yeah, I heard,” I say. “It was his cousin.”

“It’s unbelievable. She is only a year older than you.”

“What’s that?” my mother asks, her voice louder than her usual loudness.

“She was only thirteen,” I say.

“Who is that?” my mother says as if she never asked a question.

Just then the phone rings. Brenda and I exchange raised eyebrows. My father hasn’t been out long enough for him to go to jail again.

“I’ll get it,” my mother says, with a tone of annoyance. Even she realizes it can’t be my father.

“Oh, no,” I hear my mother say from the hallway where the black rotary sits on the mahogany secretary.

“When did it happen?” she says in a voice rushed with worry. “Of course.”

After a few more words that I can’t make out, my mother stands in the living room entranceway, her rosy cheeks blanched. 

“What?” Brenda and I say simultaneously.

“I have some terrible news,” my mother says.

“Was Daddy in an accident?” I ask.

“No . . . it’s my sister,” she says in a slow, barely audible voice, followed by an “oh-h-h,” and a choking, crying sound. Aside from a loud fight with my grandmother Mashie last summer, I’ve never seen my mother cry. Terrified, I say, “Aunt Louise?”

“Yes,” my mother mumbles. “She just died. Nadine will come here to stay with us while her father takes care of things.”

My heart sinks and then explodes in my chest. It feels like I just swallowed the whole thing, like it swiveled up my windpipe and is beating in my mouth. My aunt was only forty-two, two years older than my mother. Their brother Bernard was killed in World War II; Brenda was named after him. My mother’s other sister Rachel has mental problems, though nobody talks about her except to say that she used to be a beauty. Aunt Louise was fine until six months ago, and then before I knew it, she had some bad headaches and acted strangely and now she is dead from a brain tumor. I wonder if this is inherited. I wonder if my mother’s family is doomed.

No matter how much my mother and father act strangely, I can’t imagine them ever dying. If my mother ever gets really sick, I expect her to fall down and bang her fists on the linoleum floor in the kitchen, refusing to give in to fate. I remember seeing The Eddy Duchin Story and how I cried when Tyrone Power, as Eddy, died of leukemia at forty and that was a real-life story. When my mother does her New York Times crossword puzzle on Sundays, she plays the movie music on the Victrola, something by Chopin. She claims that Chopin is schmaltzier than Beethoven, but that doesn’t stop her from playing the record so many times there are permanent skips in three places.

“Amanda,” my mother says as she pivots toward her bedroom. “Being the same age, it’s up to you to be extra nice to Nadine. Remember when your aunt was first diagnosed, how much she counted on you to spend time with Nadine.”

My mother slips into her room and closes the door. Brenda gets up and turns down the volume on the television.

“Oh my God,” she says. “I can’t believe Aunt Louise is dead. Poor Nadine.”

“I know,” I say, remembering one girl in my class, Rhoda, whose father died from a heart attack. Everyone in the class talked about it and looked at Rhoda as if she had leprosy.

I listen at my mother’s door. There are no sobbing noises. I hear something that sounds like furniture squeaking and then my mother yells my name and says, “If that is you spying by the door, please go away and leave me alone. Finish watching your show.”

Brenda turns up the volume and we both sit on the sofa transfixed.

 

I’ve missed what seems like Ozzie and Darby getting lost in trying to follow Sergeant Dolan’s directions. Finally, they find a drugstore that has tutti frutti. In the next scene, they delight in their piled-high ice-cream cones with none other than Sergeant Dolan. Ozzie calls Harriet and says, “Why don’t you and the boys get lost and come down here.”

But I can’t concentrate on Ozzie and Darby. I keep thinking that any second now, my cousin Nadine will be here. What will I say to her? How will she behave? I know this is terribly selfish, but I can’t stop thinking about Nadine moving into my room and sharing my bed. Not that I mind the squishing together, but it is Nadine that bothers me. She thinks she is a big shot because she has a television and a piano in her bedroom, and she won’t let me touch either one. I once heard my mother say, “Louise and Jack spoil Nadine as if this can make up for their absences.”

Nadine also brags about Jerry Feinstein in my class. She calls him her boyfriend just because he once came to her house and they watched I Love Lucy on her tiny television and he kissed her. But I know for a fact that he called Francine and asked her to go to a party, and Mrs. Nederlander said she was too young to go on a date without a chaperone.

“Ugh,” Brenda says.

“What?” I say.

“All that ice cream in the middle of the night.”

I have to admit that Ozzie and Darby’s tutti frutti ice cream looks pretty disgusting. It reminds me of that icky fruitcake people eat at Christmas. By now, I am getting a little nauseous. I am happy that Ozzie and Darby got what they craved. I am happy that the whole Nelson family joined in the search and accompanied Ozzie in both reality and in his dreams.

And while I realize that this Nelson family is not real, that Ozzie never seems to have a job, that Harriet never acts annoyed, that Ricky gets the attention, and that Dave, though pretty cute, always suffers from his brother’s talent, still they are really the Nelsons. They aren’t what they seem, but they are America’s Favorite Family, enjoying good times together.

 

The doorbell rings, and I catch my breath, startled. I know it’s not my father because he would use his key. My mother comes out of her room, her full lips freshly painted with Hazel Bishop’s no-smear secret red, holding a lit Chesterfield with the ash almost as long as the tip. 

“I’ll get it,” she says, the same thing she said when she picked up the phone only minutes ago.

My mother opens the door and Cousin Nadine is standing there with her cleaning lady, Gladys.

“Darling,” my mother says, clutching Nadine to her chest. “This is so, so terrible.”

Nadine breaks away from my mother’s grip. She unbuttons her camel car coat, throws it on my father’s empty chair, and lumbers to the sofa. “Make room,” she says to me. “Did I miss Ricky and David?”

It’s the end of the episode and Ozzie announces a new Kodak Signet 50 camera with flash, only $82.50.

“I’m going to get that,” Nadine says.

Now is not the time to remind Nadine that her father has a brand-new 8mm movie camera. I watch the credits and hear the announcer say that Ozzie and Harriet are brought to you on film from Eastman Kodak Company . . . “your guarantee of quality.”