An excerpt from

Blooming All Over

Susie could have been using this time to contemplate the course of her life. Instead, she was driving a truck—which was a lot more fun.

It wasn’t so much a truck as a van on steroids. The rear seats had been removed, leaving a vast car- go space in the back. The front seat was elevated, the windshield broad, and the steering wheel as big as a bicycle tire. She and her sister had rented the van from a downtown outfit called Truck-A-Buck, which specialized in cheap rates and vehicles that looked as if they kissed bumpers with slutty abandon. Among the van’s special features were an ashtray crammed with chewing gum wrappers, a crack in the passenger’s side mirror, mysterious streaks of dark red paint—or may- be it was blood—staining the driver’s side door, and an aroma of gasoline with notes of Lysol and barbecue sauce permeating the interior.

Susie loved the idea that she, a member of the Bloom family, a poet, a Bennington  College  alumna, the Bloom’s newsletter writer/editor—a position which came with the fancy title of “creative director”— and a sometime pizzeria waitress, was driving a truck. It felt right.

It felt more right than mentally rehashing the conversation she’d had last night with Casey, when he’d asked her to move in with him.

Casey was wonderful, she adored him, he was without a doubt the sweetest, hottest, smartest guy she’d ever hooked up with. But merely thinking about living with him caused her soul to break out in hives. So she decided not to think about it. She thought in- stead about inching her way through the ooze of traffic on the West Side Highway, wishing she were actually driving across the North American continent behind the wheel of an eighteen-wheeler packed with freight of incalculable value—gold ingots or high-tech ma- chines or cartons of Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate.

It would be a lot easier to imagine if Grandma Ida weren’t riding shotgun beside her.

“You’re driving too fast,” Grandma Ida said. She sat strapped into her seat, her arthritic hands clenched in her lap, her hair so black it looked like a blob of licorice glued to her skull. Someone ought to talk to her about her stylist’s lack of skill with hair color. Some- one had talked to her about it: Susie and her sister Julia had both mentioned to their grandmother that perhaps a new coiffure was in order, one that matched her face. Grandma Ida was eighty-nine years old, and for eighty-nine she looked amazingly good. But even if her face hadn’t been laced with lines, her eyes slightly faded and the skin of her neck pleated like an accordion, the ink-jet hair wouldn’t work. She needed a softer style with variations in the color, some silver mixed in, some gray. Something that looked as if it might have actually sprouted from a human scalp.

Grandma Ida should have gone in the car with Sondra, Julia, and Joffe. All four of them could have fit comfortably in the Toyota Camry Joffe had borrowed from his brother, and Susie could have driven the van up to Cornell University solo. She could have blasted Ben Harper and Ani DiFranco through the van’s admittedly feeble-looking speakers and sung along at vocal-cord-popping volume.

Of all the configurations the family might have sorted themselves into for their journey, assigning Grandma Ida to the van rather than the car had made the least sense. Climbing into the high-riding vehicle had been as big a challenge for her as scaling Everest might be for an aging Sherpa. The seats were stiff and unforgiving, and the smell could upset an elderly woman’s delicate constitution. But Susie’s mother had wanted to ride in the car so she could discuss Julia and Joffe’s wedding plans during the trip, and everyone except for Susie felt Susie should not have to make the four-hour drive to Ithaca alone.

For a person who shared a tiny one-bedroom walk-up with two other women, four hours alone would be a luxury. Of course, if Susie moved in with Casey, she wouldn’t have to share the tiny one-bed- room walk-up with Anna and Caitlin anymore.

No. She wasn’t moving in with Casey. He lived in Queens, for God’s sake.

“You’re driving too fast,” Grandma Ida said again. “I’m driving three miles an hour,” Susie retorted.

“It’s impossible to drive too fast on the West Side Highway.”

“You’re going faster than three miles an hour. You think I can’t tell? You think I don’t know from cars?”

Yes, Susie almost answered. “This is a van, not a car.”

“It’s too big. Who needs all this room?”

“Adam does. He’s graduating from college. He’s got four years’ worth of junk he has to move out of his dorm room.”

“Junk? You rented this van so he can move junk?” “He doesn’t think it’s junk,” Susie explained. “What is he, an idiot? All that money for a fancy-schmancy education, and he wants to move junk,” Grandma Ida muttered. “Where is he going to put the junk?”

“In Mom’s apartment. And then he’ll take it with him when he leaves for graduate school in September.” “Graduate school.” Grandma Ida sniffed disdain- fully. “Where’s he going again? That place with the chickens?”

“Purdue,” Susie told her. “And it has nothing to do with chickens. It isn’t even spelled the way the chicken company spells it.”

“Purdue.” Grandma Ida sniffed again. “I never heard from Purdue. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, right?”

“Indiana.”

“That’s what I thought. Who needs graduate school, anyway? I never went to college, and I made a life for myself. My Isaac, he never even finished high school, but he knew how to sell knishes. You don’t need graduate school with Indians to know how to sell knishes.”

“True—and if  Adam  wanted  to  sell  knishes, he wouldn’t have applied to graduate  school,”  Susie pointed out. “He doesn’t want to sell knishes. He wants to get a Ph.D. in mathematics and become a college professor.”

“He should consider sales. You and Julia work at the store. It wouldn’t kill Adam to work at the store, too.”

“Julia’s the president of the store. I’m only a part- time consultant.” Julia had given Susie that fancy title—creative director—in an effort to entice her into a full-time job with the family enterprise. But she refused to give up her waitressing at Nico’s. Keeping the waitressing job reminded her of her roots—or, more accurately, helped her to escape her roots.

“I don’t know why you want to sell food down- town and not in your own family’s store,” Grandma Ida muttered.

Susie sighed. If she was going to have to listen to the old lady rant all the way to Cornell, it was going to be a very long drive.

“As for Adam,” Grandma Ida continued, clearly warming up, “Isaac and I never got Ph.D.’s. We never even got Ph.A’s or Ph.B’s. And we built the biggest delicatessen in the world.”

Susie knew she ought to keep her mouth shut, just nod and smile and let Grandma Ida run at the mouth. But she couldn’t help herself. “Bloom’s is not the big- gest deli in the world.”

“The biggest good deli. We started with my parents’ push cart—they were selling knishes from the cart, in all kinds of weather, you shouldn’t know from standing in the rain on a cold day in November and trying to sell knishes…”

Susie braced herself for the entire up-by-the-bootstraps saga. She’d heard it enough times to be able to recite it verbatim. Her lips moved, shaping Grand- ma Ida’s words as the older woman spoke them.

“Just a cart on Upper Broadway, that was all it was until Isaac and I moved the store indoors. And it grew, and we expanded, first to the storefront on one side of us, then to the storefront on the other side, until we took up the whole block. I did the books, but your grandfather—” she wagged her index finger at Susie for emphasis “—he knew how to sell. Borscht, gefilte fish, bagels, stuffed derma—if it was edible, he could sell it. Chicken soup. I didn’t think we’d do so well with the chicken soup, but people got sick, they came into Bloom’s and Isaac would sell them chicken soup. And before you know it, they’d be feeling better.”

“Right,” Susie said wearily.

“Adam wants to be a doctor? Your grandfather Isaac was a doctor without college. People came in sick, he sold them chicken soup and they went home and got well. Without college he did this. Who could afford college? We were too busy working.”

“I know.”

“So, your brother is going to the chicken school out there with the Indians to get a doctor degree, and your sister is marrying that reporter. And what are you doing with your life, Susie?”

“Right now, what I’m doing with my life is driving you to Cornell so we can see Adam graduate.”

And I’m listening to you—for which I deserve a medal.

“You’re a waitress. All that education, and you work as a waitress.”

“I work for Bloom’s, Grandma. You know that.”

 

“Once a week.”

“More than once a week. I write and edit the Bloom’s Bulletin. That takes a lot of time.” “It’s an advertising circular.”

“It’s a newsletter with ads mixed in. Julia hired me to write it because I’m a good writer. And I redesigned the store windows, too, and spruced up the interior.” And she wasn’t going to do a damned thing more for the store. Enough was enough.

From the time she was old enough to daydream about what she wanted to be when she grew up, she’d resisted working at Bloom’s. Her father had been the president of the company until his death two years ago, and the store had been the pulsing heart of his existence. Her mother had worked side by side with him, and now she was working side by side with Julia, whom Grandma Ida had named president of the company last year. Her father’s brother, Uncle Jay, ran the store’s on-line business and its mail-order program. Enough Blooms had been sucked into the place. Susie preferred to live her own life, a life that had nothing to do with borscht, gefilte fish, bagels, stuffed derma or any of the hundreds of other items that filled Bloom’s shelves: breads, gourmet coffees, overpriced olive oil, cookies and kugel, cheese and chopped liver, and a spectacular array of kitchen tchochkes—potato peelers, garlic presses, melon ballers, pepper mills, vegetable steamers and egg timers.

She just wanted to live downtown, go to poetry slams, stay up late drinking wine, have mind-blowing sex when the opportunity arose—and not make a capital-C Commitment, or do capital-S Something with her life. She just wanted to be herself and enjoy each day. Was that so much to ask for?

Apparently, if you were a Bloom, it was.

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