Meet Jace in the opening of BIG PICKLE!
CHAPTER ONE: JACE
It’s pretty great when a new Pickle comes into the world.
Today my cousin Greta is giving birth.
Like, literally, right now.
She’s walking the halls, having refused to lie strapped in the bed.
Her husband Jude is off talking to the doctor, hoping they can convince Greta to lie down and take an epidural.
Greta hates needles.
This is a fear we share.
Since I’m on her side, I’m chosen to walk with Greta, who stops every few minutes to let out a rather alarming groan.
I’ve texted both my brothers AND my dad to come walk with me because I have this terrible, awful feeling my cousin is going to squeeze out a kid on the linoleum floor.
And it’ll be my fault.
They’ll say since I hated needles and spouted off about how horrible they were in our treehouse when we were kids, that I’m the one who poisoned Greta on them.
And that is why she’s currently walking the halls of Mercy Hospital, deep into labor pains, and refusing to even put in an IV.
It’s on me.
I’m the eldest of all the cousins. I’m the big Pickle.
I was a tyrant in our youth. I made everybody listen to me. Follow my lead. Do what I say.
Especially when needles are involved.
And here we are.
Greta’s wheat-blond hair sticks to her forehead in sweaty clumps. She wears two blue hospital gowns, once open to the back and one to the front, to avoid having to worry about drafts.
I hold her arm as we walk along the hall, the occasional visitor looking at us with alarm as they pass.
“Maybe needles aren’t that bad—” I venture.
She cuts me off. “Shut up, Jace. I’m trying to have a baby here.”
“Wouldn’t it be better in bed? With sheets? And a doctor?”
“Walking helps labor go faster.”
“We’ve been walking half an hour—”
“Shut up, Jace!”
I shut up.
We make it a few more steps when suddenly, Greta’s face goes red, she bends over, and squats smack in the middle of the hall.
The groan that comes out of her mouth would scare off a pride of mountain lions.
I look around frantically for a doctor, a nurse, a janitor. Anybody.
Why is nobody outside their rooms?
We’re at least ten miles from the nursing station.
“You okay, Greta?”
She huffs in several big breaths. “I think he’s coming!”
She lets out another long screech and I do the only thing I can think of, harkening back to my football days.
I lunge to the floor between her legs and hold out my hands to make the catch.
My brother Max got a picture.
Of course he did.
While Greta holds baby Caden, who was born quite properly in her bed about ten minutes after my baby dive-bomb, Max uploads the shot of me on the floor, my hands outstretched beneath my cousin, to his Instagram.
I’m going to kill him.
But not in front of the baby.
He and my youngest brother Anthony snicker over it endlessly.
We’re about to get in a shoving match like we’re twelve instead of pushing thirty, when the great matriarch of the family, Grammy Alma comes in.
“Boys, behave,” she orders.
We stand still like we always did.
“Let me see that child.” Grammy moves to the bed, her orthopedic shoes squeaking on the floor. She’s spry for eighty and still runs the original deli of the Pickle clan, deep in the heart of Queens. My other cousin Sunny helps her.
Delis definitely run in the Pickle blood. My dad owns the massive Manhattan Pickle, which takes up an entire city block. As each of the three Pickle sons ventured off for college, he built a franchise for us in our chosen towns.
Anthony is the baby of the brothers. He’s dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt that reads “Another one bites the crust.”
He’s twenty-six and runs the deli in Boulder, where he went to culinary school. Apparently he’s been inventing all the new items on the menu. I don’t really pay attention to those, but Dad brags about him all the time.
Max, our middle brother, is two years younger than me. He is undoubtedly the alpha. He’s a workout junkie, and he’s tricked out like a bodybuilder. His deli is in L.A.
Dad built my deli, Austin Pickle, while I was at the University of Texas. I rarely visit it. Sure, it’s an all-right town. I definitely show up for the big music festivals and drop in whenever a blizzard hits up here.
But traveling out of New York is, quite frankly, a lot easier. And I prefer to be on the move. I spend a considerable part of my time on the French Riviera. The rest of it I spent either in my flat in Manhattan or our vacation house in the Hamptons.
My little deli does just fine without me. Probably better. Running a restaurant isn’t what I trained for. Although, I guess with a major in liberal arts, I hadn’t really prepared myself for much of anything.
I like my freedom. I never settle in one place for long. Life is to be enjoyed.
Grammy turns from where she’s been cooing over the baby. “Where’s Sherman?” she asks, her forehead crinkling in a way that makes us boys stand even straighter.
Max speaks up. “He went to get some balloons.”
Grammy nods. She settles in a rocking chair near the bed. “Good to see all you boys in the same place.”
“We wouldn’t miss it,” Anthony says.
A voice booms from the doorway. “It’s about time we all got together.”
It’s Dad, unmistakable in pressed khakis and a freshly ironed button-down. He holds a bouquet of blue balloons so enormous that he must have depleted the stock in the gift store.
“Oh, Uncle Sherman!” Greta exclaims. “That’s a lot of balloons!”
He peers around them, his hair a perfect gray wave. “Just want to make sure the newest Pickle knows he’s welcome!”
“He’s actually a Jones,” Jude says from the corner.
“Every Pickle’s a Pickle!” Dad insists, and his tone reminds everyone that nobody is to argue with him. He sets the base of the balloon cluster on a side table.
“What a lovely day,” Grammy says, clasping her hands together. “Now if we just had a deli spread, it would be the perfect occasion.”
I blanch. Growing up on nothing but deli meat and full-fat cheese while my parents worked madly to make their store a success ruined me on sandwiches forever. And twelve kinds of pickles? Who needs them?
But I never voice these things out loud. I’d be drawn and quartered.
Sherman approaches us, hand extended. I give him a hefty shake, like he expects.
“Jace,” he says. “I hear you tried to make the winning catch.”
I sigh. I’m never going to live that down.
He turns to Max. “Now that’s a physique. You trying to make your old man look weak?”
Max nods. “You make it too easy, Dad.”
Dad mock punches him in the shoulder. “You look good.”
When Dad extends a hand to Anthony, he instead pulls Dad into a hug. “Great to see you.”
Dad claps him on the back. “You still favor your mother so much.”
Everybody goes quiet at at that. Mom died ten years ago, a loss that never seems to get easier.
“Thank you,” Anthony says.
“Saving the old bat for last, are you?” Grammy calls from her corner.
“Always the best for last, Mother,” Dad says and approaches her rocking chair.
I glance over at Max. I still want to kill him. He gives me a sneer. “How’s the playboy mansion?”
“I saw you went out with that actress. She was terrible in that frat boy movie.”
He laughs. “I’m surprised you graced us with your presence.”
“I was already in town.”
“Hey,” Greta calls from the bed. “Pay attention to the real hero here.”
Dad approaches the baby and cups his tiny head. “A new Pickle son in the family.”
“You going to give him a franchise?” Grammy asks.
“I think the deli business is on your side of the family,” Greta says. She gazes down on her son. “Caden can be whoever he wants.”
“True, true.” Dad clasps his hands behind his back and faces the three of us skulking in the corner. “And it seems my own sons don’t want to settle down. Why, Greta’s the youngest Pickle of this generation and here she is, married and providing my brother Martin a grandchild.”
“Where is Martin and Fran?” Grammy asks.
“On their way,” Greta answers. “Caden wasn’t due for two more weeks, so they had to scramble to find a flight from Geneva.” She turns back to her baby. “You arrived on your own schedule, didn’t you?”
The baby yawns.
“It’s about time you boys got your lives together,” Dad says.
Max’s eyebrows draw together in concern. I know what he’s thinking.
Dad clears his throat. “When Greta announced she was having a baby, I started thinking about the future. The Pickle franchise is a pretty big deal.”
Chuckles fill the room, since Dad has inadvertently repeated the chain’s punny slogan, “We’re apparently a really big dill.”
He shuts us all up with one steely gaze.
“The delis have sustained my generation, as well as you boys.” His eyes meet ours. He gestures to the baby. “And it should help any of the family who choose to be a part of it.”
“Damn straight,” Grammy adds.
Dad nods at her. “But it’s time to for me to begin the process of stepping down.”
Anthony gasps. “Dad! Why?”
“I’m not getting any younger, and I want to make sure the franchise is successful for generations to come.”
Grammy speaks up. “Sherman, you’re not going to die anytime soon. You’re fit as a fiddle.”
“That may be, but it’s time these boys took over the business. It’s getting beyond me anyway, with the TV deals and merchandising. But there’s one thing I do know. The company needs a strong leader. One leader.” He looks at each of us boys, and we all tense.
What’s coming now?
“All three of you have handled the business in different ways, but I wanted to give you all one more opportunity to show me who loves it the most.”
Holy crap. What was he about to do? Would he hand all the delis to one brother? Visions of not having an income flash in my head. I start running figures. Should I get a financial advisor to help me out?
“Each of you will continue to run the deli you currently possess,” he says, and I relax a little. “But the main franchise, and all the profits of the main franchise, including the Manhattan Pickle here in New York, will go to one son.”
Max elbows me. Yeah, I’m the oldest Pickle. I get it. But I’m also the one who is the most hands off. Surely he can’t mean me.
But then he drops the bombshell.
“The son with the highest profits between this day, March 1st, and the end of the year, will be the sole manager of the franchise, and will set the tone for all the delis in the chain.”
Anthony, Max, and I glance at each other uneasily. Dad has never pitted us against each other, not when we were small, not when we all picked different sports in adolescence, and certainly not when we began running our own businesses.
Why is he doing it now?
Dad clears his throat. “When you check your email, you’ll find our accountant has prepared a statement showing how each of you did last year. Now that you know where you stand compared to the others, you can work on where you want to be by December.”
My phone buzzes. I hear a tone from Max’s pocket. Then Anthony’s.
Dad sure planned this out.
“Enough on that,” Dad says, “Boys, one of you go pick up some deli trays. I’ll call them ahead. Then we’ll enjoy this glorious day as a new Pickle has been born healthy and happy.”
“I’ll do it,” I say. I want to look at my email alone. I haven’t seen the books on my franchise in months. Maybe over a year.
Okay, maybe never.
It hasn’t been an issue. The franchise does fine. It doesn’t need me.
But is it enough for me to take over the entire chain?
I hurry down the hall to the elevator. While I wait, I pull up the email from the accountant.
And read with a terrible, sinking feeling in my stomach.
Even though I had the first franchise and the most experience, I’m not even close to the other delis in gross, net, or growth.
In every single metric, I’m in the same place.
In fact, I’m barely keeping the doors open.
As I head down the lobby and consider my options after this gauntlet my father has thrown, I know one thing is true.
Something is terribly wrong with Austin Pickle.
CHAPTER TWO: NOVA
I’ve had it with pickles that are too damn small.
My coworker Lamonte has opened no less then six buckets of the supposedly biggest dill pickles in the United States of America.
I’ve seen bigger pickles in a dollar store party tray.
And, sometimes, unsolicited in my DMs.
I shove that disgusting thought away as Lamonte plunges his plastic-gloved hands into another drum of pickle juice.
“Nova, I don’t think this is the same company we usually get them from.”
He’s right. The buckets used to be a pale yellow, with the logo of a girl in some old-fashioned costume. These are generic white with the word PICKLES in bold black.
“Do we have the paperwork?” I ask him.
Lamonte withdraws his hands from the pickles. “I haven’t seen papers on a delivery since Susan left. It’s all digital.”
I stare at his face for a moment. His warm brown eyes are friendly, although a hint of concern crosses his features. He’s one of the few employees I trust. I hired him myself, because our last produce stocker quit without notice, and the head manager of the deli has been on extended medical leave for almost six months. In Hawaii.
Nobody believes she’s actually sick. Lamonte found her private Instagram, all beach pics and cocktails with umbrellas. She might even still be getting a paycheck. We don’t know.
This has left me doing the manager’s job on a regular employee’s pay. Which I have tried to bring up with our dear boss Jace Pickle a hundred bazillion times. But that man is impossible to get hold of. He clearly doesn’t give one rat’s ass about his deli.
It’s a good thing I’ve never met him in person. Because I would probably punch him in the face.
Lamonte arranges the pickles he’s salvaged on the cutting board. “Do you think Susan is changing our distributors from her medical leave?”
I shrug. “I sure didn’t change it. But maybe it’s a subcontractor issue. We use some delivery company, and they actually buy the pickles.”
It’s details like this that make my job harder than it has to be. And without access to the ordering system, which Susan has kept to herself, I can’t even double check anything. For all I know, this deli is one order away from bankruptcy.
Except that our lunch rush just ended, and our crew made a hell of a lot of sandwiches.
We take in scads of money every day.
But I still have a pickle problem.
“So what do we do?” Lamonte asks. “We can’t make the stuffed pickles with pickles this small. There’s not enough room for the stuffing.”
I close my eyes a minute, trying to keep my cool. “I know.”
“And you know we already have an order for a hundred stuffed pickles for tomorrow. I have to deliver them at ten a.m.”
“I know, Lamonte.”
As I keep my vision black for a moment, I contemplate:
B. Throwing pickles
C. Running off to Hawaii on medical leave
The bell jingles to signal a customer has arrived. Lamonte and I are the solitary crew mid afternoon on a weekday.
“I’ll take it,” I say. “Keep searching these pickles. If we can’t find enough to work with, just do what we did last week when the new salami was too salty.”
“Grab cash from the register and head to Costco?”
I nod. I hate doing that, because it messes with the books. But technically I’m not even in charge of the books. And if someone complains about the size of the pickles or the salt in the salami, it’s me they come to. Because like it or not, I’m currently the face of Austin Pickle.
I push through the swinging door into the main room of the restaurant.
And almost stop in my tracks. The man who has entered looks like he came straight from a GQ photo shoot.
I can see the headline.
The latest fashion-forward look for the man who has it all.
I don’t think he’s from around here, but that’s not unusual. With our downtown location, we get a lot of out-of-towners. Some of them have actually come from New York and want to compare our pickle deli with the original in Manhattan.
I take it a matter of personal pride when they tell us ours is just as good, and even better seeing as they didn’t have to wait in a forty-five-minute line.
Fresh, fast, perfect. Those are the words I keep in my head when I serve something from Austin Pickle.
“Can I help you?”
The man appraises me as he saunters from the door to the counter. “I don’t know you,” he says.
I plan to be friendly and say something cute like, “Tell me your favorite sandwich and we’ll be best friends.”
But the pickle thing has put me in a bad mood.
So instead I say, “That’s because you’re a tourist.”
He takes a step back, an expression I don’t expect crossing his face. Concern? Was I too harsh?
I quickly correct myself. “Of course, nobody’s a stranger in Austin Pickle for more than a few seconds. Tell me how you take your pickle.” I slap on a smile so fake it could win a damn Oscar.
The man relaxes, and the moment passes.
That’s good. The last thing I need is a nasty review that gets Jace Pickle all over my case when I’m already struggling to keep his stupid deli going.
Truthfully, I’m counting on a promotion, or at least a good reference for another job. I need to get back to college, and some of the restaurants in town give scholarships to their full-time employees. If this one goes well, I can use it as a leg up somewhere better.
The man leans on the counter. Every stick of his hair is in perfect place, dark, cropped short. The stubble on his chin is several day’s growth, perfectly clipped to the precise length to look brooding and sexy. His jaw is sharp enough to break ice.
In fact, the frozen parts of my anatomy are already feeling the thaw.
But he’s absolutely not my type. I like my men in jeans and flip-flops, graphic tees for local businesses, well-worn and no fuss.
I bet this guy irons his underwear.
“What did you say your name was?” he asks.
“How long have you worked here?”
“It’ll be a year this summer.” Last summer I’d run out of money, but gamely stayed in my classes through the Fall semester. I’d only been working part time, but when Susan took off and most of the employees got worried and quit, I found myself the senior member of the Pickle staff. So, I assumed her responsibilities.
I hadn’t thought it would go on this long.
“And your last name?” he asks.
Why does he need my last name? My neck prickles.
I go for the redirect. “Would you like to sample some of our pickles? We have twelve varieties. We’re not the sort of deli that slaps a random spear on the side of your plate. We take pride in the original flavors we produce.”
“I’m actually here –” he stops talking when Lamonte emerges from the back room and opens the cash register.
“What’s he doing?” the man asks.
“Someone’s got to buy the pickles,” Lamonte says, lifting a stack of twenties. He fans them out in front of me. “You think this will do it?”
I nod. “Get whatever you need.”
Lamonte gives me his signature broad grin and claps me on the back. “I can always count on you.”
He takes off out the front door to his car.
“Did that employee document the money he just took from the register?” the man asks.
He sure was pushy about how we ran the store.
“It’s fine. We found ourselves in a pickle shortage and he’s grabbing some more. We do love our pickles around here.” I plaster on another fake smile.
The man takes a step back from the counter, rubbing his hand across his cheek. He seems terribly concerned with what just happened, and visions of another type of online review dance in my head.
“You know,” I say. “You definitely look like you could use a sandwich. How about one on the house? Can I recommend the pastrami and rye? It goes wonderfully with our bread and butter jalapeño pickle.”
But the man doesn’t seem to be paying any attention to me. He circles the room slowly, occasionally touching a chair or gazing at a photo on the wall.
I start to worry that he’s actually unhinged. I inch closer to the telephone in case I need to call the police.
“Are you okay?” I call out.
He moves near the door, and I begin to pray he will just leave. I don’t really have time for well-dressed weirdos, no matter how good looking they are.
He notices the “Help Wanted” placard in the front window and picks it up.
Good Lord, please tell me he’s not here for a job.
I put that sign up yesterday, and two people have filled out applications. Neither one seems very promising, but compared to this crazy guy circling the store, they’re starting to look really good.
The man turns around. “Who does the hiring for the store?”
Oh, no. I knew it.
“Well, normally it would be our general manager Susan.” I hesitate, not wanting to give her last name to this lunatic either.
“She’s on medical leave.”
“So who is interviewing the people who come in to apply?”
I do not want to tell him that it’s me. Maybe I should pawn it off on the owner. Yes. That’s exactly what I’ll do. It would serve Jace Pickle right for never being around. He can deal with this crazy man.
“You can contact the owner,” I suggest. “His name is Jace Pickle.”
Shoot, he’s walking back to the counter. I lay my hand on top of the phone. One wrong move, Buster, and I’m picking this sucker up.
“You haven’t had any new hires since the manager left?”
I falter. “Well, sure, but…”
“That other fellow seemed to act like you were in charge.”
“Well, I have been, since Susan’s been out.”
He stares me down. Who is this guy? We once had a couple men arrive who insisted on speaking to the Pickles because they wanted to buy this building. But they hadn’t been as adamant and scary as this one.
“What position is open?” he asks.
“Just an all-around helper. Start on chopping and work up to the sandwich line.”
When he frowns, I think I’m scott free. Mr. GQ isn’t going to want to slap mustard on bread. Feeling bolder, I say, “And yes, I’m able to hire for that. But it’s clearly not your type of work.”
And just like that, something in him changes. He taps the sign against his hand. He looks around the restaurant another time. Then he comes back to me. “Do you know Jace Pickle?”
“I know he’s the owner. I’ve never met him.”
He sets the placard on the top of the counter. “Well, I do. And he assured me that I could get a job at this deli.”
He holds out his hands. “I can get my hands dirty just like anyone else.”
I’m flabbergasted. “Your outfit costs more than you will make in a week.”
“I want to run a restaurant chain myself,” he says smoothly. He’s completely turned his personality around, flashing me a charming smile. “Jace kindly offered me a position here so that I could learn the ropes. He talks very highly about how this restaurant is managed. He may have even mentioned you by name. Nova, right?”
I’m not moved. This man is slicker than snake oil now. Besides, I already told him my name. “I would need to put in a call to make sure this is all right.”
“Absolutely. You do that,” he says. “Just tell him Jason arrived to start the job.”
“Do you have a last name?”
“He’ll know who Jason is,” he says. “We’re best buds. Just call. Trust me.”
“I never get hold of him when I try. He’s apparently very busy.”
This Jason person frowns at that. “I’ll mention it to him. I know he’s sort of a hands-off guy. It’s because he trusts you so much. I’m sorry I made a bad impression. I was just so surprised to see the place empty. I got the impression that this was a very successful store.”
“It’s midafternoon on a Tuesday,” I say, leaving the chill in my voice. “You should’ve been here an hour ago. The line was out the door.”
He nods. “Good, great. Sounds like you could use my help for lunches. You give him a call this afternoon and tell him I’ll be here tomorrow morning to assist with the lunch rush. Or to chop things ahead? Isn’t that what you said the job was?”
Who is this guy? He would probably come in here with his MBA or whatever and try to make us do whatever he learned in business class. Hire focus groups. Or something worse. Like hold meetings.
Hopefully I wouldn’t be able to get a hold of Jace and I could send this guy packing. I really would call the police.
“Just leave your number,” I say. “If I get the go-ahead from Mr. Pickle, then I’ll let you know what time to be here.”
He grabs a napkin and scribbles the digits. “That sounds perfect. And forget what I said about the guy getting the money out of the register. It makes total sense to me. Good thinking on your feet. That’s what good managers are made of. I’m really excited to be joining this team.”
With that, he takes off out of the store and into the bright March afternoon.
What was that?
I’m torn about even calling Jace Pickle about this. He’ll probably laugh at me for being so gullible as to think that the owner would send some random man-model to work on the sandwich line.
The whole thing seems off.
But what if he is a friend? I really need this job to go well. I have a whole future ahead of me, or at least I think I do.
Probably it doesn’t matter. I’ll never talk to Jace Pickle. It hadn’t worked all the times I’ve tried since Susan left. And she mentioned back in the day that he was extremely difficult to reach. Sometimes she called Anthony, the Pickle brother who owns the Colorado branch, for clarifications. He, apparently, is great.
Maybe I should be working for that Pickle.
Still, I guess I have to try.
I pick up the phone and flip the directory in the drawer below the counter until I find Jace Pickle’s personal number. As soon as I see the digits, I frown and turn around the napkin Jason handed me.
They have the same area code. In the era of cell phones, this doesn’t always matter, but it did suggest that Jason’s story isn’t as far-fetched as it seemed.
Maybe they grew up together. Maybe his family put him up to it. Shoot. I have a sinking feeling this particular story might be true.
I quickly dial Jace’s number.
Instead of rolling to voicemail, the call connects with a female voice.
“Office of Jace Pickle, can I help you?”
Since when did he have a secretary on his personal line?
“I need to speak with Mr. Pickle. I’m Nova Strong. I work at his deli.”
“Oh, hello, Nova. Jace said to expect your call. Did Jason make it into the deli? We’re hoping you have space for him there.”
Well, shoot. It’s true.
This can’t be some elaborate scheme if I called him.
“Should I talk to Mr. Pickle himself?”
“He’s away at the moment. We don’t think Jason will bother you for very long. He’s not the sort of guy who gets his hands dirty for more than a few days.” She laughs like glass tinkling. “Make him do everything all the regular employees do. He’s not to get special treatment.”
That’s promising, at least. “Do I have him fill out all the paperwork? And give him the usual starting hourly wage?”
“You know, I’m not sure about that part. Have him fill out the forms, but before you cut any checks, I’ll get you an answer. Probably he’s going to be happy to work for free. But I’ll make sure.”
I set down the phone, feeling sort of aghast.
I have a new employee. Sort of.
Hot. Smart. Well-dressed.
Able to turn on the charm when necessary.
Stupidly good looking.
And he has to do what I say. Everything I say.
No special treatment.
He might be wealthy or well educated or well-born.
But now, I’m his boss.
Email or text Deanna/JJ with your thoughts.
I’m really looking for: Is it funny? Light hearted? Do you like Jace? Do you like Nova? Is this a MUST READ or is it sort of okay? Would you bump it to the top of your list or just get to it when you could get to it?
Thank you for reading!