An excerpt from
“What the hell are you doing?” Sondra’s voice blasted through the phone.
Adam gave his head a quick shake to clear it. What the hell he was doing was enjoying a post-coital joint with Dulcie. She rarely smoked pot, because she said it gave her acute munchies and, as an aspiring ballerina, she had to watch her weight. Her body was so lean, you could count her ribs through her skin, and her limbs were as thin as drinking straws except for the lemon-shaped bulges of her calf muscles. Her feet were particularly ugly; she’d said on more than one occasion that she expected to have bunions by the time she was thirty.
She wasn’t thirty yet. She’d told Adam she was twenty-two, and he chose to believe her, although her face was so dewy and her voice so breathy, he wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she was a couple of years younger. She had to be at least eighteen to be in the college-level program at Juilliard, so Adam knew he wasn’t in any danger of breaking any sex-with-a-minor laws.
She thought he was cool, which made him wonder a little about her judgment. He definitely wasn’t cool, although his apartment—which he’d been subletting from Julia ever since she moved in with Ron—qualified as cool. It was tiny, it was a walk-up, but it was Adam’s. Ac- Judith Arnold 126 cording to the lease, it was technically still Julia’s, but he was paying her to live there, so it was his, too. He wasn’t burdened with obnoxious roommates. The bathroom was big enough to accommodate a full-size tub, and the fire escape wasn’t caked with pigeon shit.
His mother apparently didn’t think he was cool, at least not at the moment. And he wasn’t about to tell her what he was doing. He handed the joint to Dulcie, who pinched it delicately between her thumb and forefinger—everything she did with her hands seemed delicate, even when what she was doing was X-rated— and pushed away from the pillow. “Hi, Mom,” he said, signaling to Dulcie that she should remain quiet. He was an adult, and he didn’t have to justify his sexual activity to his mother. But Sondra sounded furious, and he saw no reason to drag Dulcie into whatever Sondra was furious about. “What’s up?”
“What’s up is that you’re running off with your idiot uncle to start a new store.” How did she know about that? He hadn’t told anyone about it, not even Dulcie, who’d been the one to tell him about the available East Side retail space that made this whole enterprise possible. Uncle Jay had sworn Adam to secrecy, and he’d honored that promise.
He willed the pleasant pot fog, to say nothing of the even more pleasant sex fog, out of his brain and inhaled deeply a few times. Next to him, Dulcie took a final deep drag off the joint and then daintily snubbed it out in the ashtray on the night table beside the bed. Think, he ordered himself, shifting so he wouldn’t be distracted by the sight of Dulcie’s lithe body. Analyze. Figure this out.
He hadn’t broken his promise to Uncle Jay, but his mother somehow knew about their plans. No point in denying it. Instead, he said, “It’s a business opportunity.”
“A business opportunity to undercut Bloom’s? A business opportunity to stab your sisters in the back, and your grandmother, and me?”
“I’m not stabbing anyone in the back,” he said, wincing at the whiny defensiveness coloring his voice. “It’s nothing personal.”
“Are you joking? Nothing personal? You’re going to open a rival store and it’s nothing personal?”
“It’s no more personal than Julia was being personal every time she shot me and Uncle Jay down when we suggested opening an East Side branch of Bloom’s.” This was sounding violent. He was stabbing Julia. Julia had shot him down. The image of a duel to the death between him and Julia at the O.K. Corral rose in his mind and made him grin. Obviously, there was still some residual pot-high toying with his brain. He shook his head again and forced himself to stop smiling.
“So this is, what, revenge? Julia was just here at my apartment, sobbing her heart out. That’s how much you’re hurting her.”
Adam’s mother was good at inducing guilt. Because she did it so often, Adam had become equally good at deflecting her efforts. If Julia was sobbing her heart out, he assured himself, she didn’t have what it took to be a tough business leader. If Bloom’s went under, it would be because Julia was a weepy wimp. She wanted him to pick up the slack Uncle Jay’s departure had created, and he didn’t want to. Let her store go down the tubes. Not his fault.
“I don’t want to talk about this right now,” he said. “How I choose to make a living is not your business.”
“Not my business? I’m the vice-president of Human Resources, in case you forgot. Bloom’s is my business, literally. And now I’ve got to hire someone to re- Judith Arnold 128 place you, too. I’ll put an ad in the paper—or on that LinkedIn thing. Wanted: a new son.”
“You do that, Mom,” he said. Wearily, not angrily. He didn’t want his mother to hate him. He didn’t want his sister to sob her heart out. But he was an independent adult. He got to choose his life path. He got to decide whether to spend his days in the basement of Bloom’s, monitoring the ebb and flow of the store’s inventory, or to become a partner—a partner!—in a brand new venture. If Uncle Jay knew how to do everything other than inventory, their store was going to be a grand success.
And it was going to have an ideal location, thanks to the slender dancer who’d drifted into a deep slumber beside him in his bed. She had a pretty loud snore for such a petite girl. He hoped his mother couldn’t hear it through the phone. Although if she did, big fucking deal. He was an adult. He got to choose his sexual pleasures along with his life path and his career.
“You’ll regret this, Adam,” his mother warned before disconnecting the call. Adam sighed, tossed his cell phone onto the night table, and reached for the extinguished joint. It still had a few good tokes on it. He relit it, inhaled deeply, and stared at the ceiling.
A joint in his hand, a naked ballerina in his bed, a new career awaiting him. Life was good, even if his mother was pissed at him.
The real estate was perfect.
Well, not quite; true perfection didn’t exist. Dulcie was a perfect girlfriend, except that she snored and was flat-chested and obsessed with her weight, and she didn’t read newspapers or understand the first thing about mathematics. Uncle Jay was a perfect uncle, except that he was too full of himself. He talked too much, he bragged too much, he played too much golf, and he wanted to call their venture Jacob Bloom’s Delectable Food Emporium. But other than that, he scored pretty high on the near-perfect scale.
And this empty storefront on Lexington Avenue was as close to perfect as Adam could have hoped. He’d decided to go AWOL from Bloom’s the morning after his mother had threatened to hire a new son to take his place. Why bother checking in for work when the secret was out? If he showed up at the store, Julia would probably fire him. He didn’t want to get fired. He wanted to quit on his own terms.
Seated on the cross-town bus, staring out the window as Central Park blurred past the smudged pane during a two-block stretch when the bus actually moved faster than ten miles per hour, Adam contemplated whether his sister would actually fire him. If she did, she had to know he’d be unable to pay the rent on the apartment he was subletting from her. She was charging him less than the market rate, losing money every month, which was awfully generous. If he moved out, she might not be able to sublet the place to anyone else—that would depend on the terms of her lease— and the cost of breaking her lease would be an entire month’s rent, at least. But still, she could have charged him a lot more, and she hadn’t.
He felt kind of bad about that.
But this new store was an opportunity. He’d given his sister so many chances to let him spread his wings a little—or, more accurately, spread Bloom’s wings. She’d rejected him every time.
Reminding himself of that made him feel a little less bad.
Hell, Julia would never fire him. She didn’t have the guts. Just the thought of his quitting the store had reduced her to tears.
He got off the bus and turned the corner onto Lexington Avenue. It wasn’t as crowded as Broadway, but the skimpier flow of pedestrians moving along the sidewalk was an indication of the Upper East Side’s classiness. Over on the Upper West Side, huddled masses jammed every square inch of sidewalk, making walking to Bloom’s almost impossible.
So their store would be exposed to less foot traffic here on the East Side. But more people would be able to see the windows. More people would be able to access the place. A higher percentage of that foot traffic would enter the store. Adam wondered whether they should get information on the pedestrian density, on the number of potential customers in the neighborhood in general, and on this block in particular. That seemed like a mathematically sound thing to do.
But then he saw the actual store and thought: it’s perfect.
It was small compared to Bloom’s, but of course it would be. Bloom’s stretched an entire block, from corner to corner, while this storefront was one of seven shops on the block. Bloom’s hadn’t started out so big, he reminded himself. It had begun its life as a pushcart from which his grandparents had sold knishes—he’d heard Grandma Ida recite the origin story too many times to count. When she and Grandpa Isaac had moved their business indoors, it had taken up only a tiny sliver of a shop. And then it had grown. It had expanded like yeasty dough, taking over the adjacent shop, and then the shop next to that one, and the next shop, and the next. Then it had expanded upward. Then the company had purchased the whole building.
Give it time, Adam thought, craning his neck to scrutinize the bland beige apartment building rising above the empty storefront Jacob Bloom’s Delectable Food Emporium would soon occupy. Someday, they might own the whole building, too.
Uncle Jay and three other men were just inside the door of the empty store, waiting for Adam. He’d phoned Uncle Jay that morning to say he wanted to see the site, and Uncle Jay told him to come on over. He didn’t ask Adam why he wouldn’t be working at Bloom’s today, pretending he had no intention of leaving. Did Uncle Jay know the news had leaked?
Uncle Jay swung open the door, his face ruddy with pleasure, his apparel—twill slacks and a cotton sweater over a collared polo shirt—as well suited to the golf course as a business engagement. “Adam! Come on in! I want you to meet some people.” Adam was not dressed for the golf course. As usual, he had on a pair of cargo pants, a T-shirt, a hoodie, and sneakers. If he’d known he was going to meet some people, he would have exhumed a button-front shirt from the back of his closet.
Uncle Jay didn’t seem to mind Adam’s appearance. “Guys, this is my nephew, Adam,” he said to the men. “A brilliant kid. He’s going to manage our inventory. And probably lots of other stuff, too. He’s great.”
Adam was unable to keep from smiling. Hype came naturally to Uncle Jay, but Adam still appreciated being the subject of it. When was the last time Julia or his mother, or even Grandma Ida, had said he was great?
“Adam, this—” he gestured toward a young-ish guy in a semi-stylish suit “—is Harold Marzicanti, the realtor in charge of renting this unit. And these two men—” he swept his hand toward the other two, who, like Uncle Jay, were dressed on the upper end of business casual “—are Gil Jenners and Rupert Niles. You may think you and I are important, but they’re ten times more important. They’re our financial backers.”
“Oh. Wow. Nice to meet you,” Adam said, shaking their hands and trying to remember which one was Gil and which one was Rupert. They were both middle-aged. One was going bald; the other had reddish hair that rippled in rolling waves, like the corrugated roof shingles on a hacienda.
He wondered how much they were investing in the store, and what they wanted in return for their investment. He also wondered where Uncle Jay had found them, how he knew them.
After shaking Adam’s hand, Rupert leaned toward Uncle Jay and said, with a pronounced British accent, “A fine young chap you’ve got here, Jake.”
Adam hardly thought of himself as a chap. Didn’t chaps have to wear bowler hats and carry walking sticks? Didn’t they have to drink tea? He wasn’t a big fan of tea. And why did he call Uncle Jay “Jake”? Was Uncle Jay planning to go by Jacob, his birth name, now? Would Adam have to call him Uncle Jacob?
That sounded all wrong to Adam, but he couldn’t very well grill his uncle about it. Instead, he whispered, “Are these guys going to be partners, too?”
“No.” Uncle Jay released a booming laugh. “No, Adam, they’re just investors.” To the two men, Uncle Jay explained, “He wants to know if you’re going to be partners in the store.”
“Me? Run a store?” The bald one guffawed. His accent screamed Long Island more than British Isles. “No way! We’re just investors,” he echoed Uncle Jay, giving Adam a broad smile that should have reassured him.
Adam couldn’t pinpoint why it didn’t. The men looked affluent enough, but they didn’t fit his mental image of investors. Investors ought to be old and musty, with checkbooks that looked like loose-leaf notebooks, three checks per page. They ought to sit in oversized leather chairs and peruse the stock charts in the Wall Street Journal or Barron’s. In fact, they ought to be so wealthy, they had agents and brokers who handled their investments for them.
Unless they were investing in something really risky and crazy, like the theater. Then they were supposed to hang out in penthouse apartments, gathering around grand pianos and listening while actors sang the songs of some new show in an effort to convince them it was the next Oklahoma! or Hamilton.
They weren’t supposed to be two guys in middle-age prep attire, checking out an empty storefront. Except, apparently, they were.
Whatever. If they were prepared to invest enough money, Adam could start drawing a salary, and then he could quit his job at Bloom’s—if Julia didn’t fire him first.
“So, we’re just running through the place before we sit down and sign the lease,” Uncle Jay went on, as bubbly as champagne. “The way I see it…” He took Adam’s elbow and ushered him through the barren store. “We’ll have the cheese cases here, right inside the entrance. Along the back wall, the deli department. Hot entrees, cold meats, salads. Right wall will be baked goods. Shelving through the center of the store, with non-perishables. How does that sound?”
It sounded exactly like the layout of Bloom’s. Which, Adam had to admit, worked for Bloom’s. “Are we going to have kitchenwares on the second floor?”
Uncle Jay grimaced. “Absolutely not. That’s something Bloom’s would do. Not us. We’re completely different.”
Okay. For a minute there, Adam had thought Uncle Jay was simply planning to launch a Bloom’s franchise under a different name, with different ownership. But this store would obviously be totally unique. Nothing like Bloom’s at all, except for the exact layout of the merchandise.
Adam didn’t know much about the science of retail displays, anyway. There was probably a logic to the way foods were organized in a store. Maybe customers entered craving cheese, so the cheese had to be right at the front. Maybe they had to toss cheese or meats into their shopping carts in order to be inspired to buy bread. As for the non-perishables on the shelves, they probably needed to be in a certain sequence. What that sequence was, Adam didn’t have a clue.
He hoped Uncle Jay knew. Glancing behind him at Gil and Rupert, he doubted they’d be much help.
Susie would know. Somehow, she had an instinct for that kind of thing—how stuff should look, how it should be exhibited, how it could be made enticing. He had no idea where she’d developed that talent. Did they teach Shelving 101 at Bennington? Wherever she’d learned it, she was good at it. The windows she designed for Bloom’s were freaky and fun. She understood, in some intuitive way, that certain shapes of pasta should be on a middle shelf and certain other shapes on an upper shelf, that people would bend over to reach some kinds of crackers but not others, that expensive things should go on the end caps because people seemed to think that if something was displayed on an end cap, it was a must-buy.
Shopping carts or baskets? The store was so much smaller than Bloom’s. Would they have enough room Full Bloom 135 in the aisles for carts? What if customers bought everything in sight and got fat? Would they have to make the aisles wider? That would be a nice problem to have— not the fat part, but the buy-everything-in-sight part.
He wandered around the open space, visualizing the layout as his uncle described it and picturing Bloom’s. Susie had done all that rearranging after Julia had taken over the store. Tweaking, she’d insisted, but she’d moved quite a few things around and sales had picked up. Adam wondered if she would do that for Jacob Bloom’s Delectable Food Emporium. Could they hire her as a consultant? Or maybe as a full-time employee?
How much was all this going to cost? How much money were these investors going to cough up?
The visions his brain had conjured as he’d wandered through the empty store—shelves teeming with merchandise, refrigerated cases piled high with cheeses and meats, check-out counters beeping as the scanners racked up sales—dimmed, as if a white mist had settled over the scene. He blinked a few times to clear the mist away. Finance was Uncle Jay’s department, not Adam’s. Raising the money, kissing up to the investors—not his problem. He would handle inventory. He’d pick Susie’s brain. Or—as Uncle Jay had described things—he’d simply mimic what Bloom’s was doing. It worked for them. Why shouldn’t it work for Jacob Bloom’s Delectable Food Emporium?
The business really needed a new name, though. Jacob Bloom’s Foods. Jacob Bloom’s Emporium. Jacob Bloom’s Period.
Better yet: Jacob and Adam Bloom’s.