Not everyone was big at Time to Travel, but except for me they either were or were on the way there. Bernadette and Shlomit were chunky. Bruno had a tendency toward the beefy side. Sami and Simcha had fallen into the grease pit a long time ago.
The office wasn’t the biggest to begin with. There wasn’t a lot of jiggle room. It was a squeeze coming and going.
Bernie and Shlomit, the office secretary, and Sami and Simcha were Jewish. Bruno was an Italian man, gay, and hated Sami and Simcha. Even still, he was there before I started working at the agency and he was still there when I quit after the gasoline truck flipped over.
I was the blonde girl who was good for business.
Before I went to work at Time to Travel I worked at another travel agency on Fairmount Circle, not far from John Carroll University. A small handsome Jewish man who lived down the street owned the business. He put my desk in the window. He wasn’t hiding it. He thought I would attract waspy people from the college.
“Oh, look, they have a Christian girl there,” is what he hoped everyone would say.
Sami and Simcha were sisters. They owned the agency. They were from Israel, like Shlomit, their cousin, who was sweet, but ultra-Orthodox. Sami and Simcha were on the light side of Reformed. They had come here when they were children. By the time they were teenagers it was as though they had always lived in Beachwood.
In the 1970s Sami was a dancer in downtown Cleveland. She worked at a disco bar serving drinks and dancing in a cage. She wore go-go boots. Twenty-five years and 250 pounds later she showed me a picture of herself, thin, in a tight bright mini-skirt, doing the funky chicken dance.
Sami and Simcha’s world revolved around food. They loved to eat. Their favorite time of the day was breakfast lunch dinner. They weren’t food snobs. Their motto was, eat up!
They were supposed to fast during their holidays, but because they were fat they were diabetic and had to take medication. They had to take their pills with food, so they couldn’t fast. But, they were sticklers about breaking the fast. Sami would immediately go home and make a big batch of potato latkes.
Simcha had two sons in high school. Her husband worked at a grocery store. He was a butcher. He trucked food home. Sami had three daughters and her husband, a tall balding man with a nice smile, was a porno movie wholesaler. He sold them to video stores around the state.
All of Sami’s daughters were obese. The youngest one was 22-years-old and more than three hundred pounds. The oldest one’s neck was turning black because oxygen was being blocked by blubber. All three later had gastric bypass surgery and lost weight.
No one ever knew what got into her, but Simcha went to Weight Watchers for a month. She lied in her journal about what she ate morning, noon, night, and snacks all day.
“I’m not going to say I ate all that,” she said.
“They’re not going to be checking up on you,” I said. “You’re just lying to yourself.”
None of us believed she was going to lose weight. “It’s a pipe dream,” said Bruno. She didn’t lose any weight.
Sami went on the Adkins Diet. She loved meat and started eating a slab of bacon everyday. She brought it to the office in the morning. We had a microwave in the fax machine room. Sami was so excited about her diet. She piled her slices of bacon inside the microwave every morning, heated them up, and ate all of it. The office smelled like bacon until lunch.
“I don’t know about all that bacon,” I said.
“I’m on the Adkins Diet,” she said. “I’m allowed to eat as much bacon as I want.”
“She’s double-crossing herself,” said Bruno. She didn’t lose any weight, either, the same as Simcha.
Whenever Sami had to go to the bathroom she would hoist herself up from her chair. It took a minute. “Oy, vey” she complained. Her knees were giving out. When she came back and flopped back down in the chair, it bounced, the hydraulic hissing and moaning.
Every year, two and three times a year, Sami and Simcha went on cruises. They loved cruises for two reasons, which were all the food you could eat, and gambling. They didn’t care what cruise line it was, as long as it was the cheapest. No matter how cut-rate it was, you could still eat all you wanted, and they all had casinos.
The nightlife didn’t matter. The ports they stopped at didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that it was a floating buffet with one-armed bandits.
I went on one of their dime-a-dozen cruises. The ship was old and rusty. It sailed out of Miami into the Caribbean for a week. Sami and Simcha spent every waking minute eating and gambling. I got sun poisoning the first day and couldn’t sit out at the pool after that. The rest of the trip I had to sit on the shady side of the ship with all the 90-year-olds.
I was bitter about every minute of it.
When gambling started coming to computers, Sami started gambling at work. She played games at her desk on her computer and made Simcha do all the work. She bossed Simcha around most of the time, anyway. Sami was the older of the two, but Simcha was the harder worker of the two, so Sami could throw everything at her without caring too much about it.
They bought clothes from magazines because they couldn’t find their sizes at the department stores. Catalogs came to the office in the mail every day. Their clothes were XXL, but nice looking. They didn’t wear sack dresses. Most of the clothes were sets, coordinated stretchy pants and a top, like turquoise pants and a turquoise blouse.
Sami and Simcha were both top-heavy, but both of them had skinny legs. Sami talked about her legs all the time. “Look how thin I am,” she said, pulling up her pants. “My legs are so thin.” But from the waist up she was huge. She never pulled her top up or down.
It was when Simcha got false teeth that she finally lost weight. Her real teeth were a mess from smoking and eating sugary greasy food and not enough brushing and flossing. She was in pain for months because of the false teeth and she barely ate anything. Her dentist told her to stop smoking, too. She wasn’t happy, but she lost weight for a while.
She didn’t like having to buy new clothes and new shoes before their time, but she had to. Her fat feet got skinnier. She only ever had one pair of shoes, a kind of basic black loafer. When they wore out she would buy another pair just like it. She always had the same flat black shoes on.
Sami wasn’t happy, either. She didn’t like Simcha losing weight, especially whenever her sister leapt out of her chair to go to the bathroom. Simcha started saying, “Oh, I can’t stand that smoke,” whenever Sami lit up. They were sisters, but they bickered most of the time, bickering about whoever did whatever it was better than the other.
Everybody in the office smoked, except for me. They were always blowing smoke out of their mouths and noses. We were in a non-smoking building, but they didn’t care. They were all addicted to tobacco. Besides opening the windows to air out the smoke, they had bought a couple of those things that supposedly suck smoke out of the air. One was next to my desk, although I’m not sure it did much good.
One night right after work I met one of my friends for dinner. When we got to the restaurant she said, “We can sit in the smoking section if you want to.”
“Have you ever seen me smoke?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
I always smelled like smoke, since I sat in the office all day, an office where everybody else smoked. Bruno’s desk faced mine, which made it worse. I had a cloud of smoke over my head half the day. It wasn’t just all of them, either. It seemed like most of our clients had the same bad habit, as though we specialized in people who smoked cigarettes.
If Sami wasn’t lighting up a Virginia Slims, Simcha was lighting one up. One or the other was always huffing and puffing.
Sami’s wastebasket under her desk caught fire one afternoon. She absentmindedly flicked her butt into it instead of crushing it out in her ashtray. We had to call the building’s security guard, who had to find a fire extinguisher, and by that time the fire burned the underside of her desk and all the wires to her computer.
She never said she hadn’t done it, at least not to us. She never said anything about it. But she denied it to the insurance company. She didn’t want to pay for a new desk and a new computer. She didn’t do it purposely, which made it all right in her mind, and she got her settlement from the insurance agent in the end
One day a few days before Halloween a gasoline tanker truck overturned on Chagrin Boulevard, as it turned off too fast on the ramp coming up I-271, just outside our office building. The road slopes downward for a quarter mile as it wends east. The gasoline from the broken tanker ran down the road like smeary river water. None of us knew anything had happened until a fireman with all his gear burst in.
“Everybody out!” he said. “We’re evacuating the building.”
I grabbed my coat.
Sami leaned halfway up from her chair.
“Nobody take your car,” the fireman said. “The ignition could spark the gas. If anybody even tries to start their car, you’re going to get arrested.”
Sami finally got to her feet.
We all went out into the hallway, everybody from the upstairs offices coming down the emergency stairs, shuffling towards the front door, stopping and waiting our turn to go outside. Standing in line, rocking back and forth, Sami took out her hard box pack of cigarettes, her BIC lighter, shook out a Luxury Light 120, flicked the lighter, and lit up.
The fireman came running over to us.
“Stop!” he yelled. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
He pulled the cigarette out from Sami’s lips and crushed it between his gloved fingers. “Give me that lighter,” he said. Sami gave it to him. She wasn’t happy, but she didn’t say anything. I thought she going to say something to him, but she gave him the stink eye, instead. He didn’t care.
When we got outside everybody was walking up the road, up to the bridge over the highway, away from the gasoline. Sami and Simcha turned the other way. We followed them.
As we walked past the gas pooling on Chagrin Boulevard where it levels off, splashing down into the storm drains, I realized why we were walking in the opposite direction from everyone else. Sami and Simcha couldn’t walk far and besides, they had trouble walking uphill. They could walk farther if they were going downhill. We were also going towards the stretch of fast food restaurants where all the fire trucks and emergency vehicles, their lights flashing, were blocking the road.
We stopped at McDonald’s and everybody had burgers and fries. Then firemen tramped in and evacuated us. We had to move on. We stopped at Taco Bell and everybody had tacos. The next thing we knew firemen were evacuating us again. We stopped at Wendy’s and everybody had a frosty.
I never pulled my wallet out from the bottom of my purse. The gas smelled like more gas than I had ever smelled in my life. I didn’t have an appetite. The rest of the office had the empty feeling, a hunger that got bigger and bigger.
Sami called her husband from the phone booth outside Wendy’s and he finally came and picked us up in his Dodge Caravan minivan. He deposited Sami and Simcha at their house, drove Bruno to his apartment in University Heights, dropped Shlomit off at the synagogue where she was helping with a potluck, and then drove me home to Cleveland Heights.
In my driveway he turned in his seat and said, “You’re a very pretty girl, have you ever thought about being in dirty movies?”
He flashed me a warm smile.
“No,” I said.
“You could make a lot of money,” he said.
“No thanks,” I said.
He looked sad for a minute.
Walking up the sidewalk to my front door, as Sami’s hubby drove away in their family van, I thought, I’m going to have to quit my job soon. All those butts burning down to the filter tips in the fingertips of Sami and Simcha can’t be good for me.
That’s what I did, finally, the week after Thanksgiving.
Where there’s smoke, there’s smoke in my face. They never asked me, ”Do you mind if we have a cigarette?” I was just the blonde girl in the window. They were living large, Virginia Slimming, lighting it up.
I didn’t care if they were living it up anymore, or not.