If ever there were a picture of walking death, it was Celeste: at a hair’s breadth under five feet, her frame was so emaciated you could just make out the shape of the long bones beneath her baggy denims. The rest of her was hidden under a hooded sweatshirt many times too big, precisely how she liked it. Standing there in the barn next to this ancient gelding towering over her at 18 hands, she held the remains of a cigarette in her left hand while she spoke low and quietly to the old man and scratched him on the muzzle with her right; you couldn’t know precisely what she was telling him through her ruined voice. Celeste sounded like a man when she spoke. Several other horses poked their heads out of their stalls when they heard that unmistakable rasp, hopeful for apples and carrots: she really loved her horses, there was no denying that. Her habits, though, had damn near killed them on one occasion when another barn on the property had burned to the ground. All the horses had made it out and to safety in time; she and they were lucky. But here she was, on this cold, clear February morning, wooing these silly creatures with the promise of treats, with dry tinder all around her and a perfect ignition source at the ready.
She could draw in a listener with that death rattle, punctuated by a phlegmy cough, holding forth for long hours about politics, philosophy, religion—“Don’t get me started,” she’d say. “Episcopalians sure love their liturgy,” she’d opine. “I could never repeat all those words like I owned them, though. Take the Nicene Creed, for example. They threw me out of confirmation class when I said, ‘Y’all believe in one God…’ I shit you not.” Then she’d start bellowing, her laughter soon overcome by wheezing, and then an ungodly noise that suggested advanced emphysema, her face turning blue as she struggled to take in oxygen. Celeste was living on borrowed time.
Maybe you should have that checked, you might tell her on these occasions. She’d shake her head and wave you off, continuing to cough while she popped off the lid of the beleaguered-looking plastic cooler at her feet. It was where she kept Bud Light on ice, the salve that seemed somehow to keep her alive. There was another cooler just like it outside in the ring, where she’d spend the afternoon teaching children to ride their expensive ponies hunt seat. She’d pull the hood over her shock of tawny hair, hop onto the top rail of the fence and hook her booted heels over the bottom while she hollered out instructions; she’d cup the beer unapologetically in her hands, in plain view of horse and rider.
After she made her rounds on this cold morning, she climbed onto the wood stool next to the barn phone, an old green touch-tone on the wall, with a crazy, long cord that allowed her to navigate much of the straightaway. With the receiver pinned to her left shoulder by her chin, her hands were free to peel away the cellophane from another pack of smokes, deftly tapping it against one palm before she extracted and lit another one. Her hands were withered and tar-stained and her nails were filthy. Celeste came from old money, a truth that made her condition now so ironic, more ironic still that she held a master’s degree in English literature. When had this woman begun to morph into a sub-human creature? Was there a moment in time when she abandoned her destiny as heiress to a fortune, board trustee, impassioned Junior-Leaguer? Now she seemed always to greet the world with a middle finger raised high; surely somebody had done this to her—surely there would be a reckoning on judgement day, if you believed that kind of thing.