Hooks convinces himself that he doesn’t really mind the mess. He and Becka have been living together for almost a month now, and every day when he comes home it’s the same: empty Diet Coke cans on the coffee table and kitchen counter, clothing on the floor and flung across chairbacks, the cat box filled, the kitchen trash tamped down but still overflowing. It wasn’t like this during the six weeks they were dating. Becka kept the place—a condo she bought with the money her dad left—as clean as new white socks. Everything put away, ironing board in the closet, cabinet doors all shut tight.
“It’s what she does,” Topher told him a day or two ago. “Fly? Meet spider.”
Hooks puts a spaghetti pot of water on the stove, then goes into the bedroom. Becka is under the covers, curled up on her side, a pillow supporting her head, another pulled in like a lover. One of the cats, Macho Man, is asleep on Hooks’ side of the bed.
“Hi,” Hooks says. “You feel like something to eat?”
Becka opens her eyes, sees him, smiles. She holds out an arm.
“Get in here with me,” she says.
“I have water boiling,” he says.
“Let it boil.”
“Later, Becka,” he tells her. “I’m starving.”
She sits up on the side of the bed and stretches. “You’re no fun anymore,” she says in an exaggerated British accent.
Becka’s a licensed practical nurse at a place called Continual Care. She’s on the midnight-to-eight shift, has been since she started there almost a year ago. Hooks works the regular nine-to-five at Tire Seeker. When Becka gets home around 8:30, tired as she is, she still makes sure Hooks has something to take for lunch. Usually it’s nothing more than a sandwich and a piece of fruit, but when he forgets it on his way out, she drives it over to him. It’s this game she plays. Sits in the parking lot in her lime-green Kia and stares at him through the large plate-glass window until he sees her and comes outside. She’s told him. Coming face-to-face with Topher Mullings is off her to-do list.
This is not Hooks’ first live-in experience. While he was in the Air Force, stationed in Korea, he met a girl who worked as “a hostess” in a bar called The Frame. “Scarlet” was the anglicized name she’d chosen, and she told Hooks she was eighteen, which he strongly suspected wasn’t true.
They entered into a “yobo” arrangement, where he paid her a percentage of his paycheck every two weeks. In turn, he got to live with her off-base and she agreed to stay out of The Frame. Their relationship even became friendly; he’d bring her on base to play bingo and shop at the BX, she’d take him to Korean clubs where they’d drink mokkoliand listen to K-pop. Time went by, but neither of them talked about the future, about what would happen once Hooks got his orders to return stateside.
The afternoon before he was scheduled to leave, he took her to a Korean movie and sat in the dark listening to a language he didn’t understand. They had dinner at an outdoor dumpling place, and then Hooks walked her home through the damp August dusk. Good-bye, be safe, that was it.
He got back to his barracks around nine. His roommate, an E-5 named Tenpenny, was putting on sneakers and getting ready to hit the bars.
“Everything good?” Tenpenny asked.
“So how come you look like death taking a shit?”
Hooks shrugged. “You know. The girl.”
“Girl’s a prostitute, Hooks. I’ll probably run into her tonight at The Frame.”
“I need to get some sleep,” Hooks said. “I pull out of here at 0-5 hundred.”
Tenpenny extended his hand. “In case I don’t see you…”
They shook, but at the door Tenpenny turned when he heard Hooks’ voice.
“If you do run into her at The Frame,” Hooks said, “I really don’t need to know.”
Becka comes to the table in her pajamas, hair tossed everyway. The second cat, Stevo, walks across the kitchen counter until Hooks grabs it by the back of the neck and drops it to the floor.
“Hey,” Becka tells him. “Gentle.”
Becka, like everybody else at Continual Care, hates the midnight shift. “That’s when you get the real wackadoodles,” she says. “Fools who wake up in the early morning hours convinced they’re having heart attacks.” She insists that the people who run the place follow some secret Christian dictate where the married nurses get priority because God wants them home at night.
At the sink, Hooks pours ziti into a colander.
Becka says, “I’m sorry the condo is such a shithole,” and then she promises to “hose it down” on her next day off.
Hook has heard this before, but he still likes to envision them—a surgical team of sorts—in the bathroom, rubber gloves and spray bottles of bleach and at least one roll of paper towels apiece.
Topher Mullings isn’t exactly what Hooks would call a friend. They work together, back-to-back, inside a 6’x6’, chest-high, wooden-walled cubicle. They each stand at separate computers.
Hooks looks out on the waiting area—half-a-dozen chairs and a mounted TV tuned to the Cooking Channel—Topher faces the front door.
It was indirectly through Topher that Hooks met Becka. Just walked around a stack of Bridgestone Potenza RE-11s one morning, glanced out the front window, and watched as she stepped from the Kia and walked to the front door.
When she asked where Topher was, Hooks explained that he’d just left to pick up doughnuts.
“I think he might rather have this,” she said, and held up a pink, igloo-shaped cupcake incased in a plastic dome. A single candle was pushed halfway down through the top. “It’s his birthday.”
Hooks took the offering and promised not to eat it.
“Could you pass on a message? Could you tell him when he gets home tonight Becka’s going to give him the gift that keeps on giving.” She smiled. “He’ll get it.”
I bet he will, Hooks thought to himself.
Twenty minutes later, Topher shook his head and took a bite of the cupcake. They were both in the cubicle, Hooks searching online for a set of Pirelli Scorpions while Topher fooled with his cellphone.
“Screwing,” Topher said. “It’s all the girl wants to do.”
“I’d think that would make you happy.”
“It’s not just me, bud. It’s anybody with a bottle of rosé and some meat between his legs.”
Topher dropped the rest of the cupcake in the trash bin. “Do me a solid. If she comes back, give a heads up.”
When Hooks asked about the woman a couple of days later, Topher told him they weren’t together anymore.
“That’s too bad,” Hooks said. “She seemed nice.”
“You wanna ask her out?’
“Becka’s like a library book,” Topher said. “Meant to be enjoyed by all.”
By her own admission, Becka loves sex. But she’s quick to point out that she’s a “one-man woman,” that guys like Topher have no idea what they’re talking about.
It’s about 11 pm and Hooks is sitting up in bed watching her get into her powder blue scrubs. They just finished going at it, and Becka hasn’t even bothered to shower.
“Mind if I ask you something?” Hooks says. “How many guys you figure you’ve been with?”
Becka turns to look at him, and Hooks sees she’s smiling.
“What kind of question is that?”
“I’m just curious.”
“Yeah, well curiosity killed the cat.”
Hooks makes this face where his mouth moves to one side and his eyes look toward the ceiling, and even though they haven’t been together that long, Becka already recognizes the expression. She sits on the end of the bed and squeezes his foot.
“I’m with you now,” she says. “Trust me.”
“You smell like sex,” Hooks says.
“Gee,” Becka laughs. “I wonder why.”
One Monday morning, a week or so after Hooks had moved into the condo, Topher asked if Becka mentioned running into him.
Hooks shook his head.
“Last Saturday,” Topher said. “Stop & Shop. She was picking up oranges.”
“It must have slipped her mind,” Hooks said. They were in the back office, waiting for the coffee to brew, Hooks wiping out his mug with a paper towel.
“I know you’re a couple,” Topher said, “and I respect that. But I think you should also know that the girl still suffers from ‘Topher Fever.’”
Hooks asked if the coffee was ready, but Topher ignored the question.
“I’ll let you in on a secret,” Topher whispered. “If you ever wanna get her really revved up, try playing around the backdoor.”
“I don’t need to know this,” Hooks said.
“Just passing on some knowledge that was passed on to me.”
“I don’t remember. Frankie over at the superette. Dougie Lee, maybe.”
“Who cares?” Hooks said, reaching around for the glass carafe. “I don’t even like her that much.”
On Sunday afternoon, Hooks persuades Becka to get out of bed and begin the deep cleaning she promised.
“Wouldn’t you rather play?” Becka says seductively.
“It’s not about what I’d ratherdo,” he tells her. “It’s about what has to be done.”
Becka pushes out her bottom lip in a pout.
“Besides,” Hooks says. “We’ll have time for that later. When the house is clean.”
They decide to begin in the kitchen, Becka’s removing the food from the refrigerator, laying it out on the table, and scrubbing the racks. Hooks is using ammonia on the stovetop. It’s a blustery, March day outside, but Becka wears a pair of red gym shorts and one of Hooks’ old t-shirts that’s so worn it’s become almost see-through.
“How’s work?” she asks.
“Topher driving you nuts yet?”
Hooks stops work and looks over. “What brings him up?”
“You’re with him all day, aren’t you?”
“I’m just surprised he’s the first thing on your mind when you wake up.”
Becka shakes her head, goes to the sink, rinses out her sponge. “Forgive me,” she says, “for trying to make conversation.”
“You ran into him awhile back. You never even told me.”
“Is that what this is about?”
“No. It’s just… He tells me stuff about you two.”
“Well that’s sick.”
“I don’t expect you to be a saint,” Hooks says, “but according to Topher there are certain things you can’t control.”
Hooks shrugs and Becka drops the sponge in the sink. She pulls down a hand towel and dries her hands.
“I’m done in here,” she says.
Hooks follows her as she leaves the room.
“It would just really, really bother me,” he says, “if I thought you were seeing other guys.”
“What would you like me to do?” she asks as she opens the hall closet. “Stay home all day? Buy a chastity belt on Amazon?”
Becka pulls the Hoover upright from the closet and wheels it into the living room, almost running over Macho Man on her way.
“I like you,” Hooks tells her as she pushes the plug into the wall outlet. “I just need to be sure.”
Becka faces him and lets out a breath like a chain-smoker. “Listen,” she says. “There’s no way you can ever be my first. But if you trust me, if you treat me well, maybe you can be my last.”
She switches on the Hoover and begins running it across the rug under the coffee table.
Hooks wants to continue talking, wants more assurances, better guarantees, but over the din of the vacuum he wouldn’t be able to hear her unless she screamed. He decides instead to return to the kitchen and put all the food back where it belongs.
Sunday night Becka has off, and even though she sleeps peacefully next to him, Hooks drifts in and out. When he does allow himself to go under, he dreams about men. Legions of them. They crawl toward him on their hands and knees in a wedge formation, like geese flying south. Topher and Frankie and Dougie Lee and the staff down at Continual Care and Jimmy Kimmel and the kid in the wheelchair who used to live across the street and Mr. Magoo and the last three presidents and the New York Knicks.
Hooks decides to get up, even though the condo is clean, and patrol the place with a black garbage bag in order to pick up anything he may have missed.
In the kitchen he sees it. Becka’s cell. Right there, right on the counter, charging. He picks it up, and hits the phone icon, and up pop a bunch of numbers he doesn’t recognize. He’s tempted to call a few, but it’s 3:30 in the morning and if Becka even found out, he’d be toast.
“I don’t think you want me to do this, bud.”
“Afraid she’ll shoot you down?”
Topher says that’s the last thing he’s afraid of. He and Hooks have just gotten into work and settled into their cubicle. Outside, anxious customers wait, but the two men keep their backs turned to the locked front door.
“Make it worth my while,” Topher says. “If she says ‘yes,’ you owe me twenty bucks.”
“What if she says ‘no’?”
“Then it’s an ego-win for you.”
Hooks hesitates only a second before he agrees to the terms. Topher punches in the number on his cell, puts it on speaker, and sets it on the counter. Hooks turns his computer on and the screen lights up.
“Aren’t you gonna listen to this?” Topher asks.
“I can hear it from here,” Hooks says.
The two men look at one another, then Topher turns his attention to his phone.
“Becka. It’s Topher.”
“What you need?”
“I was just wondering if there was any chance I could see you again.”
“And do what?”
Hooks moves to Topher’s side and they both gaze down at the phone like it’s some kind of crystal ball.
“I don’t know. I was thinking maybe we could get a bottle of rosé and go solve the problems of the world.”
“I’d love to, Topher. Really. But how do we keep Hooks from finding out?”
“Hooks doesn’t need to know anything.”
“How can he not when he’s standing there next to you?”
Hooks looks toward the plate glass window beyond the line of growing customers. He sees the Kia and it hits him like a handful of gravel. He forgot his lunch.
He gets to the condo around six, but Becka isn’t there. His stuff is already packed for him, already set in the living room. He thinks about pulling the cleaning supplies from under the kitchen sink—giving the condo one more going-over, but after Sunday’s scrub-a-thon, the place is practically sterile.
So Hooks sits on the sofa and waits. Becka will eventually return and he’ll plead his case, but the sentence has already been passed and now he’s simply a man waiting to be led away.
Macho Man circles his ankles and then moves on. Stevo jumps up next to him, settles on his lap. Outside it starts to get dark, but Hooks leaves the lights off, even when he hears her taking out her keys, even when the front door opens and the fluorescent glow from the common hallway makes him squint.
Z.Z. Boone is the author of Off Somewhere, a 2015 IndieAward nominee for Best Short Story Collection. His fiction has appeared in New Ohio Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, FRiGG, and other terrific places.