Guilt by Association
Let’s get something straight from the get-go. I hate bullshit and I hate bułlshitters. Don’t ask me for nicey-nice—you’re not going to get it. So how the hell did I get myself into this situation?
I guess this is what happens when I try to be a good guy. You see, Brenda was in so much fucking trouble. Ralph was just trying to help her, and I figured he needed my support.
I met Brenda through Marty and Ralph. We’re all from Highland Park, outside Chicago, and go to Palm Springs every winter. None of our wives play golf, but we’re addicted. One day I’d just parred the tenth hole when I leaned over to pick up the ball and that was it. I couldn’t straighten up.
“No problem,” Ralph said. “I got a great massage therapist. As soon as we finish the round, I’ll take you over there.”
“What the hell am I supposed to do while you play eight more holes?” I asked. “I’m going home.”
Ralph gave me the look. He was a retired CEO and had developed this killer stare. I hate to admit it, but it even works on me.
Eight holes later they pushed me into the back seat of his Cadillac SUV. He’d already called the massage therapist from the course, but he called her again. It didn’t occur to me until much later to wonder why he had her on speed dial.
Brenda lived in this trailer court just off Monterrey in Palm Desert. Her trailer was small, but okay. It was like going back to the ’70s when you walked in the door. There was some incense burning by a poster of a guru-looking guy, but you could still smell the marijuana. And I remember thinking I could smell alcohol on her breath too. Whatever, she did give a great massage. She got real deep into the tissues. By the end of the hour, I could stand straight, and it only hurt a little.
So I started going to Brenda once a week for a massage. In no time my back was the best it had been for years. I knew Marty went once a week too, but Ralph went three times a week. He’d made it big with Apple stock and could afford it.
In February, after our regular Wednesday game, we were eating lunch and started talking about the coming summer.
“You know, I’ve been thinking,” Ralph said. “Why don’t we bring Brenda to Chicago when we go back home?”
I had just taken a huge bite of my pastrami sandwich and almost choked on it. “What the hell for?” I asked.
“Well, she’s the best massage therapist I ever had. And she told me she wanted to get out of Palm Springs in the summer. The heat is killing her.”
“Where would she live?” Marty asked. He sounded real skeptical, just like I felt.
“We could find her one of those small furnished apartments and help her out with the rent until she gets some clients and can manage on her own.”
“Are you kidding me! Help her out? I’ve got two kids and five grandchildren I’m helping out. I can’t afford to help anyone else out,” I said.
“Then I’ll pay for it,” Ralph said. Real casual like, he took a cigar out of his case and snipped off the end.
I shoulda known then and there to back away, but did I? No, not me. I just finished my sandwich and said yes to the waitress on a refill of my Diet Coke. I was a yes man that day and look where it got me.
So Brenda came to Chicago at the end of May. Ralph had found her a furnished studio apartment near Highland Park. I didn’t think much one way or another about her being there—my priority was worrying about my golf game and the Cubs. But I did feel a little uneasy that we decided not to tell our wives.
“They’ll just make something out of nothing,” Ralph said. Not liking it, I still went along with him.
It was on my second visit to Brenda that it began to get complicated. When she let me in, she looked like hell. The apartment didn’t look much better. It wasn’t just that it was dingy and dark. It was a mess. The cheap rental furniture was covered with all kinds of shit. Her trailer had always been neat and tidy.
Once I was on the massage table, I closed my eyes and tried to relax. I was there for a massage, I told myself. Her problems were not my problems.
That’s when she said, “I just need someone I can talk to.”
Uh-oh, I thought. Famous last words.
But what was I supposed to do? She had me captive on the table. By the time she finished the massage, she’d told me how she’d been abused by her father and her ex-husband. She was also slurring her words big time.
“But I really wanted to talk to you about Ralph,” she said when I was paying her. She liked cash and I liked paying with it—no trail.
“I gotta go,” I said. I tossed an extra ten bucks on the table and got the hell out of there.
By July I was trying to get out of my appointments. She was shit-faced no matter how early it was. And she wanted to talk the whole time. Like I said before, I’m not a touchy-feely kinda guy. The best massage in the world wasn’t worth listening to her crap.
When she started to talk about Ralph, I put the kibosh on that immediately. No way, José, I wasn’t going there.
“You want to tell me about your kid who went to live with your cocaine-addict ex-husband, fine. But Ralph is off limits,” I said.
As the weeks went by, she’d try to get Ralph back into the conversation, but I’d stop her. Once she started crying so hard she had to quit the massage. I’ll tell you I was a little pissed, but what could I do? I ended up with my arm around her shoulder, trying to get her to calm down. I wanted to get my damn massage, didn’t I? She kept saying her life was ruined and she had no future.
“No, it isn’t,” I said, but the truth? Her life was in the toilet. And if she’d been counting on Ralph to be her knight in shining armor, she was totally delusional.
Warning bells were ringing in both my ears that day, or the stress was making my tinnitus much worse. Whatever, I knew things were getting out of hand. I just didn’t know how much.
It had been raining that week so we had to cancel golf, but Ralph called and said we needed to talk.
Jesus Christ, I thought. What now?
We met at the Starbucks in Winnetka. Ralph had a Frappuccino and I had an Americano. I’m pre-diabetic so I gotta watch my sugar.
I took a sip of my coffee. “So what’s up?”
“I’m worried about Brenda,” Ralph said.
No shit, Sherlock, I thought. “Worried about what?” I said.
He looked at me. “This is between the two of us. We’re not even telling Marty any of it.” Marty and his wife, Donna, were on a four-week cruise in Europe. I’d thought he was such a sucker to get talked into it, but now he seemed like the winner.
“Okay. It’s just between you and me. What is it?”
I was pretty sure he was going to tell me he was schtuping Brenda. I didn’t want to hear it. That would make me an accessory after the fact, but the options were closing down. “Tell me already,” I said.
“Well, you know I have been getting closer and closer to Brenda. She’s a nice woman.”
“Yeah, okay. So why the need for a powwow?”
Ralph cleared his throat like he was real nervous. “I’m pretty sure she’s an alcoholic. You must have noticed that she’s always drinking.”
I nodded. I felt so relieved this was what was going to be the topic—I didn’t want to be Father Confessor.
“So, I talked to her about rehab. I found a place for her to go. They can take her in three weeks.”
“Jesus,” I said. At the same time I felt my phone vibrate against my thigh.
I pulled it out of my pocket and checked the Caller ID. “It’s Brenda. She’s been calling me two-three times a day.”
“Yeah, me too,” Ralph said. He twisted the ring on his little finger.
“It’s driving me crazy,” I said. “And she’s always drunk.”
“I know. That’s why I’m setting her up for rehab.”
Ralph outlined his plan and how he wanted my help. I wasn’t crazy about it, but I agreed.
So now it’s three weeks later and you’re just about up to date. Brenda was all set to go into rehab tomorrow. Ralph and I were picking her up in the morning and driving her to a place in Wisconsin. She started calling me at ten this morning. I was sick and tired of her calls and I was playing golf.
What the hell, I said to myself. She can wait until I’m done.
When I called her back after lunch, there was no answer. I didn’t think much about it until Judge Judy was over. I called Brenda again and didn’t get an answer.
At about 7:00 I called Ralph.
“You talk to Brenda today?” I asked.
“Yeah, early. I’ve been gone all day. You know our grandson, Taylor. It’s his tenth birthday so we had dinner over there.” He paused. “Why do you want to know if I talked to Brenda?”
“Well, she called me a bunch of times, but when I called her back this afternoon, she never picked up. I just called her again and there was no answer. Was she going anyplace?”
“I don’t think so. She said she was getting ready to leave tomorrow. Let me give her a call right now.”
Fifteen minutes later he called me back. “No answer. I think I’m going to go over to her place. Will you come?”
It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I couldn’t see how to get out of it. I was beginning to feel very guilty—I could have texted Brenda back at least once.
I gave my wife some sort of excuse and was standing outside when Ralph drove up. We made the trip to Brenda’s in silence. I was beginning to picture all kinds of things, one worse than the other.
Her front door had one of those knockers and Ralph used it. He waited a minute and hit it again, louder. After he did this a couple more times, he pulled out his key chain.
He had a fuckin’ key? I couldn’t believe it.
He opened the door and called, “Brenda?”
When there was no answer, we walked into the apartment. The living room was totally trashed. The massage table was turned on its side, clothes were thrown everywhere, and a lamp was smashed. It looked like someone had thrown it against the wall. Three or four empty bottles of booze were next to the couch.
Ralph and I looked at each other.
“Fuck,” he said. “What the hell happened in here?”
He pushed his way around the mess until he was in the hall. I was still by the door.
He turned to look at me. “Are you coming?”
I don’t remember if I said anything, but I did follow him. By then I was sweating—I don’t know if it was because the place was hotter than hell or if it was because I was so fucking scared of what we were going to find. I started imagining she’d cut her wrists or something.
“Brenda?” Ralph called out.
There wasn’t much of a hallway—the place was so small. When we got to the bedroom, the door was closed.
Ralph knocked. “Brenda?”
When there was no answer, he opened the door. She wasn’t in the bedroom either. I began to hope all my worst fears were just too many CSI shows, and she was out shopping or something. Maybe for cleaning supplies. But then I saw a light coming from under the bathroom door.
“She could be in the bathroom and didn’t hear us,” I said.
Ralph pushed open the door. She was there all right, but everything was wrong. She was in the tub with her head half under the water.
“Oh my God!” Ralph said. “Shit!”
He ran across the room, kicking liquor bottles out of his way.
“Call 911,” he yelled.
My hands were shaking so much I had trouble getting my phone out. I punched in the numbers as I watched him grab the back of Brenda’s head and yank her face out of the water.
I told the emergency operator what had happened and where we were. He started asking me questions, but Ralph was yelling for help so I just dropped my phone and rushed over to him.
“Come on, Brenda,” he said. “Come on.” He slapped her cheeks like that could wake her up, but I knew it was too late. Her lips were already turning blue. I’d been in Vietnam and seen several dead bodies.
“She’s not breathing,” Ralph said. “We have to get her out of the tub so we can do CPR.”
I wanted to say, “She’s dead,” but he was close to hysterical so I kept quiet.
We managed to get her out, but it was difficult. Her whole body seemed waterlogged. And she kept slipping out of her hands.
Ralph tried CPR to get her breathing. Then I tried. It was gross, but we were still trying when the paramedics came and took over.
Now we’re sitting in the police station in different interrogation rooms. They keep asking me the same questions over and over. Did she take pills? Was she suicidal? Had I been there that morning? What time did we get there?
I keep telling them what happened. But really all I can think of is Brenda’s bloated face. I know I’ll never forget it. And I do keep asking myself one question: What if I had answered just one of her phone calls? Just once.
Copyright © 2014 Cyndy Muscatel
Cyndy Muscatel’s short stories and essays have been published in many literary journals. A former journalist, she now writes two blogs. She teaches fiction writing and memoir, and is also a speaker and workshop presenter. She is writing a memoir of her years teaching in the inner city of Seattle.