Her mother's health insurance was for shit, and pretty soon Celeste found herself working simply to pay the minimum due on monstrous medical bills for monstrous diseases that weren't quite monstrous enough to put her mother out of her misery. Not that her mother didn't enjoy her misery. Every bout with disease was a fresh trump card to wield in what Dave called the Rosemary's Life Sucks Worse Than Yours Sweepstakes. They'd be watching the news, see some grieving mother weeping and wailing on the sidewalk after her house and two kids had gone up in a fire, and Rosemary would smack her gums and say, "You can always have more kids. Try living with colitis and a collapsed lung all in the same year."
Dave would smile tightly and go get another beer.
Rosemary, hearing the fridge open in the kitchen, would say to Celeste, "You're just his mistress, honey. His wife's name is Budweiser."
Celeste would say, "Momma, quit it."
Her mother would say, "What?"
It had been Dave who Celeste had ultimately settled? for?? on. He was good-looking and funny and very few things seemed to ruffle him. When they'd married, he'd had a good job, running the mail room at Raytheon, and even though that job had been lost to cutbacks, he eventually scored another on the loading docks of a downtown hotel (for about half his previous salary) and never complained about it. Dave, in fact, never complained about anything and almost never talked about his childhood before high school, which had only begun to seem odd to her in the year since her mother had died.
It had been a stroke that had finally done the job, Celeste coming home from the supermarket to find her mother dead in the tub, head cocked, lips curled hard up the right side of her face as if she'd bitten into something overly tart.
In the months after the funeral, Celeste would comfort herself with the knowledge that at least things would be easier now without her mother's constant reproach and cruel asides. But it hadn't quite worked out that way. Dave's job paid about the same as Celeste's and that was about a buck an hour more than McDonald's, and while the medical bills Rosemary had accrued during her life were thankfully not passed on to her daughter, the funeral and burial bills were. Celeste would look at the financial wreck of their lives? the bills they'd be paying off for years, the lack of money coming in, the tonnage going out, the new mountain of bills Michael and the advent of his schooling represented, and the destroyed credit? and feel like the rest of her life would be lived with a held breath. Neither she nor Dave had any college or any prospects for it, and while every time you turned on the news they were crowing about the low unemployment rate and national sense of job security, nobody mentioned that this affected mostly skilled labor and people willing to temp for no medical or dental and few career prospects.
Sometimes, Celeste found herself sitting on the toilet beside the tub where she'd found her mother. She'd sit in the dark. She'd sit there and try not to cry and wonder how her life had gotten here, and that's what she was doing at three in the morning, early Sunday, as a hard rain battered the windows, when Dave came in with blood all over him.
He seemed shocked to find her there. He jumped back when she stood up.
She said, "Honey, what happened?" and reached for him.
He jumped back again and his foot hit the doorjamb. "I got sliced."
"I got sliced."
"Dave, Jesus Christ. What happened?"
He lifted the shirt and Celeste stared at a long sweeping gash along his rib cage that bubbled red.
"Sweetie, Jesus, you have to go to the hospital."
"No, no," he said. "Look, it's not that deep. It just bled like hell."
He was right. On a second look, she noticed it wasn't more than a tenth of an inch deep. But it was long. And it was bloody. Though not enough to account for all the blood on his shirt and neck.
"Who did this?"
"Some crackhead nigger psycho," he said, and peeled off the shirt, dumped it in the sink. "Honey, I fucked up."
"You what? How?"
He looked at her, eyes spinning. "The guy tried to mug me, right? So, so I swung on him. That's when he sliced me."
"You swung on a guy with a knife, Dave?"
He ran the faucet and tipped his head into the sink, gulped some water. "I don't know why. I freaked. I mean, I freaked seriously, babe. I fucked this guy up."
"I mangled him, Celeste. I just went apeshit when I felt the knife in my side. You know? I knocked him down, got on top of him, and, baby, I went off."
"So it was self-defense?"
He made a "sorta-kinda" gesture with his hand. "I don't think the court would see it that way, tell you the truth."
"I can't believe this. Honey"? she took his wrists in her hands? "tell me exactly what happened."
And for a quarter second, looking into his face, she felt nauseous. She felt something leering behind his eyes, something turned on and self-congratulatory.
It was the light, she decided, the cheap fluorescent directly above his head, because when his chin dipped toward his chest and he stroked her hands, the nausea went away and his face returned to normal? scared, but normal.
"I'm walking to my car," he said, and Celeste sat back on the closed toilet seat as he knelt in front of her, "and this guy comes up to me, asks me for a light. I say I don't smoke. Guy says neither does he."
"Neither does he."
Dave nodded. "So, my heart starts clocking a buck-fifty right then. 'Cause there's no one around but me and him. And that's when I see the knife and he says. 'Your wallet or your life, bitch. I'm leaving with one of 'em.'"
"That's what he said?"
Dave leaned back, cocked his head. "Why?"
"Nothing." Celeste thinking it just sounded funny for some reason, too clever maybe, like in the movies. But then everyone saw movies these days, more so now with cable, so maybe the mugger had learned his lines from a movie mugger, stayed up late at night saying them into a mirror until he thought he sounded like Wesley or Denzel.
"So?so then," Dave said, "I'm like, 'Come on, man. Just let me get in my car and go home,' which was dumb because now he wants my car keys, too. And I just, I dunno, honey, I get mad instead of scared. Whiskey-brave, maybe, I'm not sure, and I try to brush past him and that's when he slices me."
"I thought you said he swung on you."
"Celeste, can I tell the fucking story?"
She touched his cheek. "I'm sorry, baby."