Spring 2009, Volume 6

Fiction by Eric Morago

Brass Knuckles

“Next.” Ashley calls out from behind the Walgreen’s counter, looking as entertained as a four-year-old at a physics lecture. There are two people in line ahead of me.

I stop in Walgreen’s every Friday afternoon, because to the best of my knowledge that is the most consistent shift Ashley works. I’ve seen her stocking shelves on Wednesday mornings, working the register late Sunday nights, and once on Christmas Eve I bumped into her while crossing the corner of the frozen food aisle. I was buying frozen peas. I dropped them and she dropped a bottle of Windex. I tried apologizing with the kind of inarticulate finesse often associated with secret admirers or the disabled, and mustered a polite, “maaaaah.” She growled, and walked away—the sway of her hips in perfect unison to the blue liquid swishing around the clear plastic container in her hand.

But on Fridays she’s always here. And so am I, each week finding anything to fill a basket, pretending I’m just any other customer picking up their weekend necessities—paper towels, dish soap, bologna, pop tarts, and condoms. Every Friday I buy a pack of condoms to give the illusion I’m sexually active—that I’m wild and in heat. I’m not momentarily. I’ve been before. Twice. Needless to say there are a lot of unopened condom packages in my bedside drawer.

“Next!” Ashley says again, this time even more annoyed. The old man at the front of the line looks confused, picks at the hearing aid in his ear, and walks towards the register. His pants are too short and his mismatched socks—one navy blue, the other argyle—scream for attention. I feel bad for him and wonder if his ill fashion sense is a reflection of sock shortage or the onset of dementia.

“What do you want? He points at something behind her and leans in real close so none of us in line can make out what he’s saying. Turns out neither can Ashley.

“I’m sorry dude, I can’t hear you.” Ashley’s apology is more sharp than sincere. He whispers again, gesturing with shaky hands for her to slouch forward so he can be discreet.

“Oh. Gotcha.”

Ashley turns around. I am standing far enough away that I can see her backside from over the countertop, and can make out the lines of her panties—little boy shorts, probably lacy and black—under the kakis she wears tighter than Walgreens would probably like. This kills me.

She sifts through all the adult magazines kept behind the register along with the expensive booze, nicotine gum, cough syrup, and Pedialyte.

“Which mag was it again?” She asks nonchalantly like she’s inquiring about his favorite color. “The one with the fat chicks right?” The plus-size woman in front of me is not amused.

Ashley looks over her shoulder at the man for confirmation. He nods. She rings him up and puts his shame in a brown paper bag.

The woman in front of me, heavy set and wearing a moo-moo, takes her turn and walks up to Ashley.

“I’d like some ice cream please.” As soon as she says this I can just see the judgments swirling in Ashley’s head. She tries to keep face, but her hazel eyes betray her. Her pupils are ninjas—silent lethal killers and they shoot daggers at her.

“Alright.” Ashley is biting her tongue. She walks over to the ice cream case and lifts the glass. “What flavor?”

“Mint chocolate chip.” Moo-moo lady responds. “Two scoops please.”

I can hear Ashley mutter, “Really?” under her breath.

So does the woman. “What?”

“Oh. Nothing.” Ashley grabs a cone and is about to scoop, but is interrupted.

“Not that kind. The other one please. If I wanted sugar-free I would have asked for it.” She glares at Ashley and I’m afraid the lady is going to eat her.

“Here. That will be a dollar eighty-nine. Thank you. Bye.”

When it’s my turn to pay I avoid eye contact at all costs, afraid that if our eyes lock she’ll be able to read my thoughts and will know how I want her—how I think she’s the most dangerous beauty I’ve ever known. I see how she treats customers, and imagine that her harshness belies a wild spirit unafraid to say and do anything she wants. I bet she carries brass knuckles in her purse.

“Big night tonight?” She says, holding up the two boxes of Durex condoms.

“Huh? Oh. I have a coupon. Um. Buy one get one free.” She smells of cigarettes and cinnamon gum, and she makes me nervous. I wonder if she notices the stutter in my voice or my sweaty palm as I hand her the coupon.

She rings up my condoms, eggs, Men’s Health Magazine, and turkey bacon like she’s never seen me before. I’m not sure if this is comforting or upsetting.


“Here.” I hand her my card to swipe and she prints out a receipt for me to sign. My fingers feel numb. In theory, it would be so easy for me to write my number on the back of this little piece of white paper. After eight months it shouldn’t be this difficult to make a move, any move. But it is. She scares and excites me. She just got a new tattoo; it reads ‘book’ on her left hand’s knuckles and ‘worm’ on her right.

I chicken-scratch my name and give her back the sales slip. Our fingers touch briefly and this is the highlight of my week. Her nails are painted cobalt blue, and are chipping. She bites them. I’ve never wanted to be fingernails more badly in my life.

“Thank you.” I say. “Have a great weekend.” I’ve been practicing saying this in my head for the past ten minutes to make sure I didn’t stumble over my words.

“Thanks. You too.” She lets her lips curl ever so slightly into a smile—a smile I could slit my wrists with. Its corners’ serrated edges should come with better handling instructions. Damn, she’s beautiful.

“So she’s beautiful? Big fucking deal Matt. Grow a pair.” Brad says before finishing the last of his beer and then points the empty bottle head in my direction and calls me a pussy.

“Your round, pussy.”

Brad and I have a deal that anytime I bring up Ashley I owe him a drink.

“Right. Back in a sec.” I get up from the table and go over to the bar for two more Heinekens. Brad’s tone doesn’t much surprise me—he’s had to listen to my pining for this girl for months now. At first he was great about the whole thing and really tried to offer advice—how I could ask her out, assuring me that I should ask her out.

“We’re just way too different. She’d never be interested in me.” I said, the first time I told him about Ashley.

“So.” He said. “Opposites attract and all that shit. Obviously, or else you wouldn’t be so hot for the girl. Maybe deep down she’s been waiting for boring ‘ole you to come into her life and ask her out.”

“Funny. I’m not that boring.”

“Matt, I love ya man, but you are. The last first date you went on you had tea and played Scrabble. My grandfather gets further on dates than you, and he’s in a fucking wheelchair.”

“So I take things slow.”

“Natural selection takes things slow. You redefine the word entirely.” Have you ever even kissed a girl on the first date?” Brad asked.


“Well, that explains why the girls you do end up with are probably left baffled as to whether or not they’ve actually been on a date with you. Seriously man, take a plunge into the deep end.” Brad has been singing this same song, different verse to me now probably close to a hundred times—he’s right to lose his patience with me.

As I make my way back to our table with the beers, I see him texting on his phone, no doubt probably trying to find some piece of ass for the night. Chatting up women comes easy to him, like breathing or masturbating. I am pathetic.

“Thanks.” Brad looks up at me and takes one of the bottles from my hand.

“Sure.” I say.

He puts his phone away, leans back in his chair and stretches. I sit down and nurse my fifth beer.

“So who were ya texting?” I ask.

“Some girl I met last night while I was bartending. Going to see if she’s free later.”

“That job is the best thing to ever happen to your sex life.” I tell him.

“What? You mean hot chicks don’t just hand out their numbers to you at the comic book store?”

“Sadly no. They seem to flock to your place of employment a lot more than they do mine.”

“Wasn’t there that one? What was her name again?” Brad asks.

“Ann. But it would have never worked out; she was a huge DC fan.”

Brad calls me a geek, I call him a tool, we laugh, but he can see I’m still in my head.

“Seriously man. Just ask Ashley out already. The longer you don’t say anything the longer she’ll just think you’re some freaky stalker creep.”

“Come on man, no…I only go there on Fridays. It’s perfectly normal for someone to pick up groceries the same day every week.”

“Uh-huh. The same day for eight months straight?” Brad asks.


“What about the long stares?”

“I try to keep those to a minimum.”

“Look,” Brad starts in, “I’ve said this before. I’m probably going to have to say it again—but whatever man. What’s the fucking worse that happens if you ask her out? She says no and you stop shopping at Walgreens. Boo-fucking-hoo.”

“I’m more afraid of her saying yes than no.”

“I get that. I do. But after all this time you’ve had to have built up enough nerve to find out for certain. You owe that to yourself. And God dammit you owe it to me.”

“You’re right. I know. We’ll see.” I say.

I take a final swig from my Heineken, and smirking, push the empty green bottle on the table towards Brad.

“I’ll take another.” I tell him.


“Technically, you brought her up that time.” I say.

Before getting up to get us two more beers Brad grins and says, “You’re going to be all right, Matt.” And just then I know he’s right, in the end I am, going to be all right.

“I’m open over here.” Ashley waves me over to her register. She’s dyed her hair since the other week—it’s darker, more plum in color than her usual red.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what Brad said to me at the bar last Friday night—how I do owe it to myself, after all this time, to find out for certain what Ashley would say if I asked her out. And he does kind of have a point; if I don’t do anything about these feelings and come out of the shadows, I’m no better than some weirdo with a crush. That ends tonight. Tonight I find my balls.

I walk up to Ashley and put two items on her check stand counter, a bouquet of lilacs and half a pint of Jack Daniels—for courage. Not wanting to make things awkward for us in front of the customers and other employees I decide it best to wait for her in the parking lot until she gets off work.

As she rings up the flowers, I’m excited by the thought of giving them to her later. She puts them in a plastic bag, careful to not disrupt their light purple petals, and sheaths the bottle of Jack in a miniature paper bag. I am almost giddy.

“Thanks.” I say handing her the money. I consciously choose to pay by cash, because I imagine my hand would tremble too much if I attempted to sign a credit receipt.

“Your welcome.” She says. She looks tired. I’m not certain what time she started work tonight, but it’s a little before nine now. At the latest she’ll be out sometime after eleven when they close. I smile, take my flowers and whiskey from her, and make my way to the parking lot to wait. The automatic glass doors part and as I walk out of them I can feel the crisp fall night air tingle my cheeks. I open my little bottle of whiskey and take my first sip; the smooth charcoal finish instantly warms me, along with thoughts of things to come. My head is full of fantasies for the next two hours as I imagine how the conversation will go. I get drunk off of Jack and wishful thinking.

Half past eleven, I notice employees start to trickle out of the store making their way to their cars. I quickly toss the empty bottle aside and grab the flowers from the passenger seat. I wait but I don’t see her right away.

Finally she makes her way out and lights a cigarette—the flame from her lighter makes her face glow orange like a jack ‘o’ lantern. As she heads towards a group of cars where hers is most likely parked, I make a B line for her from across the lot.

“Um. Hi. Ashley.” I say.

“How do you know my name?” She hurls this question at me like bolder and catches me off guard.

“Uh, your nametag. I, um, thought we could, I mean I wanted you to, well if we could just, my number—“

“Look asshole,” she cuts me off, “I don’t know who you think you are coming in here every week making God damn googly-eyes at me and always buying condoms, but get a fucking life.”

“But I was just…” I try to get a word in, but she clearly isn’t interested in listening as she interrupts me again.

“Fuck off creep.” She says as she walks past me giving me her backside and the middle finger.

“Wait, these are for you.” I almost completely forget about the lilacs I am still holding onto like they were my last shreds of dignity. I go to grab her shoulder to get her attention, but she quickly turns to face me, pulling something from her purse. Before I realize what it is, my eyes swell with tears, I begin coughing uncontrollably, and my face feels as if it’s on fire.

Pepper spray? Pepper spray? Really?

My body spasms so violently that I can’t bear to stand and fall to the ground. I can’t see anything, but sense Ashley is near.

“Stay out of the store asshole!” She crushes the flowers under the sole of her Converse—I hear the plastic around them rustle between rubber and asphalt before she stomps off into the distance, leaving me curled up into a heaving coughing ball. I’m coughing so much now the whiskey in my gut starts to make me even sicker, and I vomit off to my side.

I lay there next to crumpled lilacs, crying, with the taste of vomit in my mouth, and the realization that all I ever was to her was just another nut job she got paid to put up with every week—the condom guy.

If this is what taking a plunge into the deep end feels like, forget it.

BIO:  Eric Morago is in the MFA Creative Writing Poetry Program at California State University, Long Beach, and is an active member of Los Angeles and Orange County's performance poetry and spoken-word community. He has taken first place in various poetry slams, and his work has appeared in various publications, including an anthology of Orange County poets entitled Carving in Bone.