Up in Smoke

By Ed Staskus

   Not everyone was too big at Time to Travel, but except for Ruta Zukauskas and Shlomit Bort, they were either chock-full or on the way there. Bernie was nuzzling up to the feedbag. Bruno had a hankering for the beefy. Sami and Simcha had fallen into the grease pit a long time ago and weren’t coming up for air.

   The office wasn’t the biggest to begin with, making it a tight fit. It was a squeeze coming and going to their desks. The staff of four had to wiggle sideways to make their way past the boss ladies.

   Bernie Katz and Shlomit, the office secretary, and Sami and Simcha were Jewish. Bruno Ricci was Italian, a gay man, and hated Sami and Simcha. Even so he was there before Ruta started working at the agency and he was still there when she quit after the gasoline truck flipped over and she had enough.

   Ruta was the blonde girl who was good for business.

   Before she went to work at Time to Travel, she worked at another travel agency on Fairmount Circle, not far from John Carroll University. A jug-eared Jewish man who lived down the street owned the business. He put her desk in the window. He wasn’t hiding it. He thought she 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 Fetterman were sisters. They owned the agency. They were from Israel, like Shlomit, their cousin, who was sweet-natured, but ultra-Orthodox. Sami and Simcha were on the lighter side of Reformed. They didn’t take it seriously, although they could get serious in a second, if needed. They came to America when they were children. By the time they were teenagers it was as though they had always lived in McMansions in Beachwood. They only ever talked about the homeland when one of their tour groups was going there.

   In the 1970s Sami was a dancer in downtown Cleveland. She worked at a disco bar serving drinks and dancing in a cage. The Mad Hatter had a bubble machine, a strobed multi-colored dance floor, and sticky red-shag carpeting. She wore white go-go boots. Twenty-five years and 200 pounds later she showed Ruta a picture of herself, in a shimmering sleeveless fringe dress, doing the funky chicken.

   Ruta could hardly believe it and said so. Sami didn’t like her tone. She lit a Virginia Slim and puffed on it, vexed.

   Sami and Simcha’s world revolved around food. They loved to eat. Their favorite time of day was breakfast lunch dinner. They weren’t food snobs. Their motto was, eat up. They were supposed to fast during the Jewish 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 rush home right away and make a big batch of potato latkes.

   Simcha had two sons in high school. Her husband worked at a grocery store. He was the head butcher. He brought kosher cows and sheep 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. He made a good living selling glossy naked girls.

   All of Sami’s daughters were pudgy-cheeked, fat and fluffy. The youngest one was 22 years old and clocked in at close to three hundred pounds. The oldest one’s neck was turning black because oxygen was being blocked by blubber. All three finally got gastric bypass surgery and lost weight when they started hunting for husbands.

   No one ever knew what got into her, but Simcha went to Weight Watchers for a month. She wrote in her journal about what she ate morning, noon, night, and snacks. But she lied to her journal.

   “I’m not going to say I ate all that,” she said.

   “They’re not going to be checking up on you,” Ruta said. “You’re just lying to yourself.”

   Bruno didn’t believe she was going to lose weight. “It’s a pipe dream,” he said. Bernie chewed his cud about it. Shlomit encouraged her to keep it up, but Simcha didn’t lose any weight.

   Sami went on the Adkins Diet. She loved meat and started eating a slab of bacon every day. She brought it to the office in the morning. There was a microwave in the fax machine room. She tossed slices of bacon into the microwave every morning, heated them up, and ate all of it. The office smelled like bacon for hours.

   “I don’t know about all that bacon,” Ruta said. “It can’t be good for you.”

   “I’m on the Adkins Diet,” Sami said. “I’m allowed to eat as much meat as I want.”

   “She’s double-crossing herself,” said Bruno. Shlomit looked the other way. Sami didn’t lose any weight, the same as Simcha.

   Whenever Sami had to go to the bathroom, she would hoist herself up from the desk. It took a minute. “Oy, vey” she complained. Her knees were giving out. When she came back and flopped back down in her chair, it bounced, the hydraulic hissing and moaning.

   Every year, two or 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, either. The ports they stopped at didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that it was a floating buffet with one-armed bandits.

   Ruta went on one of their dime-a-dozen cruises. The ship was old but not yet rusty. It sailed out of Miami into the Caribbean for a week. Sami and Simcha spent every waking minute eating and gambling. Ruta got sun poisoning the first day and couldn’t sit at the pool after that. The rest of the trip she had to sit on the shady side of the ship with the 70-year-olds.

   She was bitter about it every minute of the cruise.

   When gambling started coming to computers, Sami started gambling at work. She played winning and losing 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, and Simcha was the harder worker, 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 would have been indecent.

   It was when Simcha got false teeth that she finally lost weight. Her real teeth were a mess from smoking and eating sugary greasy processed food and not brushing and flossing enough. She was in pain for months because of the false teeth and barely ate anything. Her dentist told her to stop smoking, too. She wasn’t happy about it, but she lost weight for a while.

   She didn’t like having to buy new shoes before their time, but she had to. Her fat feet got skinnier and she needed them. She only ever had one pair of shoes, a kind of basic black loafer. When they wore out, she would buy another pair the same as before. “I can’t live with sore feet,” she said.

   Sami wasn’t happy about the change in her sister. She didn’t like Simcha losing weight, especially whenever she sprang out of her chair to go to the bathroom. Simcha started saying, “Oh, I can’t stand that smell,” whenever Sami lit up, since she had stopped smoking. They were sisters, but they bickered most of the time, bickering about whoever did whatever it was they were doing better than the other.

   Everybody in the office smoked, except for Ruta and Shlomit. They were always blowing smoke out of their mouths and noses. They were in a non-smoking building, but nobody cared. They were all addicted to tobacco. Besides opening the windows to air out the smoke, they had bought a couple of devices that supposedly sucked smoke out of the air. One was next to Ruta’s desk, although she was never sure it did any good.

   One day after work she met one of her friends for dinner. When they got to the restaurant her friend said, “We can sit in the smoking section if you want to.”

   “Have you ever seen me smoke?” Ruta asked.

   “No,” she said.

   Mendel Arenberg, Ruta’s boyfriend, made her change her clothes the minute she stepped into the house after work. He didn’t smoke and didn’t like the smell. “I know they’re well off, but it smells like poverty,” he said.

   She always smelled like smoke, since she sat in the office all day, an office where someone was always lighting up. Bruno’s desk faced hers, which made it worse. She had a cloud of smoke over her head half the day. It wasn’t just them, either. Most of their clients had the same bad habit, as though the agency 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 flicked her butt into it absentmindedly instead of stubbing it out in the ashtray. They had to call the building’s security guard, who had to find a fire extinguisher, and by the time he got it under control the fire burned the underside of the desk and all the wires to her computer.

   She never said she hadn’t done it, at least not to anyone in the office. 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 start the fire purposely, which made it all right in her mind, and she got her settlement in the end.

   One day a few days before Halloween a gasoline tanker truck overturned on Chagrin Boulevard, turning too fast on the ramp coming up I-271, just outside the office building. The street slopes downward for a quarter mile as it wends east. The gasoline from the ruptured tanker ran down the road like smeary river water. None of them knew anything about it until a fireman with all his gear burst in.

   “Everybody out!” he said. “We’re evacuating the building.”

   Bruno Bernie Shlomit and Ruta grabbed their coats.

   Sami leaned halfway up from her chair.

   “Nobody takes their car,” the fireman said. “The ignition could spark the gas. If anybody even tries to start a car, you’re going to get arrested.”

   Simcha and Sami finally got to their feet.

   They all went into the hallway, everybody from the upstairs offices coming down the emergency stairs, shuffling towards the front door, stopping and waiting their turn to go outside. Standing in line, rocking back and forth, Sami pulled 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 them.

   “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 was furious, but didn’t say anything. Ruta thought she was going to burst, but she gave the fireman the stink eye, instead. 

   He didn’t care. He threw the BIC lighter in the trash. He kept his eye on her.

   When they 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. The office followed them. As they walked past the gas pooling on Chagrin Boulevard where it levels off, splashing down into the storm drains, Ruta realized why they were walking in the opposite direction from everybody else. Sami and Simcha couldn’t walk far and besides, they had trouble walking uphill. They could walk farther if they were going downhill. They 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.

   They stopped at Burger King and had burgers and fries. Then firemen tramped in and evacuated them. They had to move on. They stopped at Taco Bell and had chicken tacos. The next thing they knew firemen were evacuating them again. They stopped at Wendy’s and everybody had a frosty.

   The gas smelled like more gasoline than Ruta had ever smelled in her life. She didn’t have an appetite, even though she had a frosty. Shlomit had one, too. The rest of the office had the empty feeling, a hunger that got bigger and bigger, and scarfed it up.

   Sami called her husband from the phone booth outside Wendy’s and he came and picked them up in his Dodge Caravan three seat family van. He deposited Sami and Simcha at home, drove Bruno to his apartment in University Heights, dropped Shlomit off at the synagogue where she was helping with a potluck, and then drove Bernie and Ruta to Cleveland Heights.

   After dropping Bernie off, while parked in front of Ruta’s rented Polish double, the engine running, he turned in his seat and said, “You’re a very pretty girl, have you ever thought about being in dirty pictures?”

   He flashed her a warm smile.

   “No,” she said.

   “You could make a lot of money,” he said. “We’re always looking for sick minds in healthy bodies.”

   “No thanks,” she said.

   He looked down in the mouth for a minute.

   Walking up the sidewalk to her front door, as Sami’s husband drove away, she thought, I’m going to have to quit my job soon. Who needs a sex maniac, and all those stinky butts? That can’t be good for me.

   That’s what she did, finally, the week after New Year’s. “Where there’s smoke, there’s smoke blowing in my face,” she said to Mendel, peeved. “They don’t even give me danger pay.” 

   They never asked her, “Do you mind if we have a cigarette?” She was just the blonde girl to get the goys to cough up. They were topping off the tank, Virginia Slimming, smoke screening it, gasoline flood or no gasoline flood, rolling in the dough, while she and her boyfriend were saving every penny to buy a house.

   “I don’t care if they are spoiled rotten, or not,” she told Mendel after clearing her throat and breaking the news. “They don’t pay me enough to stay. I’m not bringing home the bacon we need. I’ve got to go.” 

   Mendel waved his hand, brushing away imaginary smoke. “Go change your clothes,” he said.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

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