As she pulls up to the house for the first time, Tess spots the white goat. It stands in the fenced-in side yard, chewing on tufts of weeds and watching as she steps out of the car. Grinding its mouth in a circular motion, the goat quickly loses interest in her. She debates whether to pet it, but veers toward the house.
The front door is bloated and warped from years of heat and cold, the forest green paint in shreds. The knob doesn’t turn, but with force, the door opens with a groan and a thump. It’s dark inside except for a teetering floor lamp in the corner. The main room oozes the dank, stale smell of beer. Flattened boxes from cases of Busch Light cover dingy floorboards. A brick fireplace’s gaping mouth devours more empty beer boxes, along with cigarette butts and a few empty bottles. A well-oiled Remington shotgun hangs above the mantle.
Garrett emerges from the other room and wraps Tess in his arms.
She stands on her toes to kiss him, running her hands along his broad shoulders. They’ve been together for a year, but she still gets butterflies when he touches her. She likes Garrett because he’s goofy, cute, and awkward—her favorite white-boy flavor. The same dumb puns, breakfast orders, and quiet moments together. It’s comfortable.
Opening her eyes, Tess notices a yellowing Confederate flag tacked on the wall above a sectional with collapsed, stained cushions.
“What’s up with that?” She points at the flag.
“It’s Bobby’s.” He nuzzles her black hair. “Left over from when his parents lived here. He just never took it down.” He tries to steer her away from the flag.
“And you’re OK with it?” she prods him.
“Oh, come on, babe. It’s just a flag. You know I don’t believe in that stuff.”
She bites her tongue. She doesn’t want to start the weekend with an argument. As the son of conservatives, discussions about racism are simply not in Garrett’s wheelhouse. She worried his parents wouldn’t be able to wrap their heads around their son dating someone who wasn’t white, but to her surprise, her race and their status as an interracial couple have, supposedly, been non-issues for his parents. It makes her feel like she is a non-issue too. She wonders if maybe they are just waiting out his Asian-girlfriend phase.
Garrett’s bedroom is small but tidy. On the dresser, there are photos of the two of them from their anniversary at her favorite restaurant and his brother’s wedding last year, both in Richmond, reminding her of how much fun they used to have when he lived there. Now Garrett’s in Toano, worlds away from any nightlife. It’s a dying small town rumored to be built on an Indian burial ground. Nothing feels alive there.
Garrett opens his top dresser drawer and points inside. She peers in and sees a clean toothbrush lying neatly on a paper towel next to a stack of folded boxers.
“You should keep your toothbrush in here too. Bobby never cleans the bathroom.”
“I miss your old place,” she says. “I mean, it was kind of gross too, but not like this.”
“Bobby gave me a good deal on the room, and it’s an easy commute to work. It’ll just be until I figure out my next move.”
Tess wonders what he thinks his next move will be. She wasn’t thrilled when Garrett took the position updating computer software at the corrections facility. His first week there, a guy tried to stab him with a shiv made from two plastic sporks. “What can I say, some dudes want to spork me,” Garrett chuckles whenever he tells the story. His new job, the crappy house, hurtled him backwards, away from the life together she imagined for the two of them in Northern Virginia. She would hang his artwork on the walls in their new apartment together, they would get a dog, and have happy hours with the nice couple next door. It would be perfect. She just has to get him out of Toano.
That night, she hears Bobby throw open the front door. His footsteps are full of booze, although he doesn’t stumble. He slams his bedroom door shut. The house shudders, then sleeps.
The next morning, the living room is dim except for spastic light coming from a muted TV. Bobby sits at a folding table, cleaning the Remington next to an open Bud Light. It’s a rare weekend off from his job at the 24-hour pancake restaurant. He greets the couple with jolly blue eyes and a wide smile.
“You must be Tess!” He sets the barrel down. He stands to give her a hug, and his embrace smells like gun oil, cigarettes, and a whiff of body odor. In an instant, Bobby’s hands sneak below her shoulders, and she jerks out of reach. He gives her a boyish grin, the one she assumes he uses to get away with bad behavior. Not sure what to say, she shakes her head and rolls her eyes. Although he creeps her out, she remembers Bobby is Garrett’s childhood friend and forces herself to gather her composure.
“I met your goat yesterday. What’s its name?”
“That’s Gloria.” Bobby sits down and picks up the shotgun again, wiping it with a rag.
“Gloria? Cute. How long have you had her?”
He cocks his head. “My parents got her for me when I was 15 I think. She’s awesome. If you want, you can feed her an apple later.” He speaks with a tenderness, almost love, for the animal, then the moment passes. Bobby takes a sip of beer as he redirects his attention to the gun. “A few of us are heading out on the river later. Going to do some drinking on the river on my day off.” Garrett smiles at the invitation and, without looking at Tess, throws his oldest friend a thumbs up.
Water licks her body and sprays her face as the three of them speed out on the river in Bobby’s motorboat. Tess has already lost count of Bobby’s drinks, but she tells herself he’s the kind of guy who can hold his beer. They approach a secluded strip of beach with ten boats tied up in a row. Bobby slows the motor. Through strains of Lynyrd Skynyrd and 2Pac, Tess hears laughter and the satisfying crack of cans being opened. Cigarette smoke and weed waft through the air. Sunburnt guys with too many blurry tattoos stand waist-high in the river holding beer cans. In between sips, they ogle the girls on boats—a mess of bikinis, sunglasses, and loose flesh.
After they tie up, Tess climbs down to stand in the water next to Garrett. He slides his arm around her, and next to his tall frame, she feels protected from the gaggle of drunk white people. From under her sunglasses, she reflexively scours the group of partygoers until she finally spots another Asian girl, simultaneously relieved and annoyed to see her. The girl flirts with a group of white guys on the beach, who are clearly enthralled. Slender with black hair that kisses the top of her ass, the girl’s string bikini clings to her bronze body like she was born wearing it. She catches Tess staring and abruptly looks away. Nearby, Bobby sees the direction of Tess’s gaze. He crushes his can in a tight fist.
“I’d bet that one likes it rough,” he mutters. “Chinese chicks will let you do just about anything.” He roars with laughter at a joke that doesn’t feel like one, his pale, wet belly jiggling in the hot sun. Garrett coughs loudly and tilts his chin towards the boat.
“Hey Bobby, that bottle of American Honey still in the cooler?”
Tess wakes up that night from an uneasy, alcohol-infused sleep. She hears a female voice in the living room along with Bobby and a few other guys. The girl’s voice is soft and husky. Though she can’t see her, Tess imagines her to be a box blonde from the river, complete with a “tasteful” Confederate flag tattoo on her ankle, tacky navel piercing from high school, lips prematurely wrinkled from a trusty pack of Camel Lights.
To quench her curiosity, she gets up to go to the kitchen. Gingerly stepping out of the bedroom, she sees the Asian girl from the beach sitting on Bobby’s lap, a blank look on her face. Under a sheer mesh tank top, she’s still in her bikini, long hair in a messy bun on top of her head, her once spotless eyeliner now smudged and drooping. The girl attempts to stand but crashes down on Bobby, who greedily pulls her back into his lap. Two shaggy white guys on the sectional hoot and cough puffs of smoke. Tess pauses mid step when she sees a row of orange pill bottles lined up on the coffee table. Garrett mentioned Bobby liked to party, but she figured it was just the usual alcohol and weed.
Hoping to avoid being noticed, she steps lightly into the kitchen and finds a water bottle in the fridge. She takes a sip and looks out the window to see Gloria asleep in her pen, so peaceful and innocent. How strange that Bobby loves the goat so much when he doesn’t seem to care about much else—not himself, not his house, and not the unfortunate girl on his lap. Tess’s mind wanders and she considers barging into the living room, pulling the girl off Bobby and shaking her soft, narrow shoulders. “Wake up!” Tess would scream and, with that, the spell over her would break. The front door would fling itself open, and the girl would be whisked out the door, away from the pills, away from Bobby’s house.
Tess caps the water bottle and slinks back to the bedroom. On her way, she sees Bobby whisper in the girl’s ear, his meaty fingers inching up under her tank top. The girl nods and reaches toward a pill bottle. Tess closes the door, relieved to be back in the bedroom, safe with Garrett. The situation she just witnessed makes her shudder, but she doesn’t want to get in the middle. It’s better not to be involved; confrontation has never been her strong suit. Back in bed, she reassures herself and falls asleep.
Tess dreams she hears a barely discernible knock on the bedroom door. From the lumbering footsteps, she knows it’s Bobby. Frantic, she looks at the door and sees it’s unlocked. She hears Bobby go into the bathroom and slam the door. She hears him vomit, a guttural, ghastly sound, and she leaps up to lock the door. When she turns around, Bobby’s standing beside her in the bedroom, blue eyes glowing in the dark, outstretched fingers inches from her skin. She wakes with a scream burning in her mouth.
Back in Arlington, Tess finds she’s desperate to clean the musty smell of the house out of her clothes and hair. It fades after a few days, but at night alone in her apartment, she thinks she hears Bobby’s slow, wasted footsteps. Even in the crisp white walls of her modern apartment almost 150 miles away from Toano, she can’t shake the house from her mind. Two weeks pass and she begs Garrett to come visit her, insisting the trip to see him wore her down. The truth is she can’t go back to that house; it’s haunted by a man who’s still alive.
A month later, when Garrett tells her Bobby got fired from the pancake restaurant for being drunk, she pictures Bobby strumming his guitar in the dark, the pile of empty beer cases steadily piling up, his beloved goat growing thin and desperate—the man and his house held together in their decay.
Monday 10:11 a.m.: Garrett calls while she’s in her weekly team meeting.
“He’s dead, Tess. Bobby’s dead.” His voice breaks. She clutches her phone and hurries out of the glass conference room.
“What? Oh my God. What happened?” It comes out a fervent whisper.
Outside, she sits down on a bench and stares at the sky. Her suit jacket starts to strangle her.
They stay silent, listening to each other breathe. It’s over. The house wins.
When Tess pulls up to Bobby’s house for the last time, the street is full of trucks with mud slicked on the sides, hatchbacks with Phish and FloydFest bumper stickers, old sedans needing coats of paint. They are Bobby’s friends, the people who loved him, and she’s come to join them for the country boy’s last rites. It’s beginning to get dark and as she gets out of her car, the smell of bonfire tickles her nose, and she hears the familiar twang of bluegrass. Garrett comes over and gives a tight hug, a sad smile on his face. Her hand in his, he guides her behind the house to the people circled around the fire. The rag tag group eyes the newcomer as he seats her in the blue camping chair next to his.
“Hi,” she says with a little wave. “I’m Tess.” The fire crackles in response. A dreaded blonde guy across from her nods as he continues playing the guitar. Everyone else, clutching red plastic cups and cigarettes, ignores her introduction. Tess sits back. She gets it. They don’t know her, and she didn’t like Bobby. There’s no use in trying to make friends. She’s just there to support her boyfriend. Garrett comes back and sets a cup full of a dark liquid next to her.
“Moonshine and Coke. Dan got it from a guy in the mountains last time we went tubing.” She takes a sip and grimaces. “Go easy, it’s strong,” he cautions. It’s worse than rubbing alcohol, but she knows to drink it if she’s going to sleep tonight.
The evening goes on with music, drinking, and reminiscing. Tess pulls the hood of her sweatshirt up and takes big gulps, nodding along to the stories and jokes, even taking a hit or two from the bowl being passed around. As she reaches the bottom of her second, maybe third cup, she tears herself away from the fire to find the bathroom and makes her way to the living room. Emptier and cleaner than she could have ever imagined, it’s almost unrecognizable. The flattened beer boxes are gone, and there is only an outline of where the Confederate flag hung on the wall for all those years. She wonders who cleaned, maybe some of Bobby’s friends or his family. Tess shudders thinking about what they found—beer cans and bottle caps, stray pills, cigarette butts, mouse droppings. God knows what else.
The smell of stale beer lingering in the house begins to turn her stomach as she reaches the bathroom. She closes the door and presses her forehead against the grimy mirror. She knows if she pukes she’ll feel better. Holding her hair away from her face as she hovers over the toilet, she recalls Garrett’s warning about the bathroom and tries not to touch the seat. Hearing herself make horrible retching sounds, she thinks about all the times Bobby must have thrown up in the same bathroom. She wants to be sad about his passing, but she can’t. His death, the heroin, it all felt inevitable.
When it feels like everything is evacuated from her stomach, she rinses her mouth and splashes her face in the sink. She walks out of the bathroom on wobbly legs towards Garrett’s room, where he’s staying until the end of the month. They’ve looked at a couple of apartments near her place in Arlington, but they have yet to agree on any of them. He always finds something wrong, the timing, the deposit, the smell of the lobby. Tess worries he’s not going to grow up, and Garrett thinks she’s pushing him too hard, but mostly they argue about the high cost of living and shitty Beltway traffic. She realizes the end of their relationship is probably inevitable, too.
Something behind her makes a sound. She freezes. She hears it again, unfamiliar footsteps, closer this time. She turns slowly. Standing a few paces away is the goat, silhouetted by the dim light behind her. Gloria looks at the human curiously. Tess exhales with relief.
“Gloria, old girl. What are you doing here?”
She extends a hand, but the animal backs away. A wave of laughter rolls in from the open window reminding her of Gloria’s former owner.
“Bobby’s gone, sweetie. I’m sorry.” The words come out before she can catch herself. Oddly enough, she finds she means them. The goat takes another slow step back and then another. Tess is surprised by the thick, muddled emotion she has for the animal. Was this what Bobby felt for her? Through Tess’s wasted state, a thin line of resolution appears; Bobby is free, and now it’s Gloria’s turn.
She carefully guides the goat to the empty living room and opens the front door. Bugs buzz and flock toward the light. Gloria walks to the threshold and hesitates, sniffing the cool, crisp air. Tess smooths the animal’s coarse pale fur as together they take in the night. “Go on,” she says softly. “Get out of here.”