Fiction by Paige Holland
Lyle Van Kirk’s grandmother had tried to teach him what it meant to be a man from the moment he was born. A man needed a god, a purpose, and a wife in order to live a simple, happy life. Throughout his fifty-five years, Lyle had held these truths within him and he began each day with a prayer. On this day, as he lowered himself to the wet morning grass and crawled silently alongside the short picket fence that separated his neighbor’s property from his own, he prayed that the bang from the newspaper hitting his neighbor’s screen door had not jarred his neighbor’s sleep.
The fresh dew gently soaked the knees of Lyle’s pajamas, and with each crawling inch, the sound of his fingers sinking in and sucking from the chilled mud of the earth grew a decibel louder in his eardrums. In his earlier years, Lyle could have army-crawled wet terrain with ease and would have relished gnawing the dirt from his fingernails, but after living through nearly all of what the world had in for him, Lyle found no pleasure in his new morning routine.
A slip and fall at the dairy he spent his life working at sunk him financially nearly a year prior. Newfound unemployment and staggering medical invoices left him with his head barely above water—on a good day. Some necessities had proved themselves more difficult to secure than others, the daily paper included. The moment his hands touched the lawn of his neighbor’s property, Lyle doubled his pace and made a direct cut to the front porch. As he felt his heartbeat vibrate through his body, Lyle hoped the blackness of the winter left him blind to any passersby who might be curious about the elderly man, who his grandchildren said resembled Santa Claus, but with more gray, crawling from one lawn to another to steal the newspaper.
But what choice did Lyle have in this matter, at times like these?
Tucking the newspaper into the body of his pajama shirt, Lyle quickly turned and crawled back to his own front porch, where he stood and tried to brush the blades of grass that covered his front before pushing his way through the rusted storm door into the warmth of his home.
Mary Ann had longed for a property by the ocean since she first visited the coast as a little girl. Her sister liked to tease her that the only reason she had married Lyle in the first place was because of the beachside cottage he had inherited from his grandmother after her passing. The day they married, Mary Ann took over the decor of the cottage and spent the next thirty years filling their modest home with seashell knick-knacks, throw pillows etched with anchors, and countless dried sand dollars that filled every dusty shelf and side table of the home. Lyle had never cared about what she did with the place and would always ignore the snide remarks from his friends that his home looked like a tacky Astoria gift shop. To Lyle, his wife found purpose in their home, and that was good enough for him.
The warmth from the kitchen felt soothing on his wet knees as Lyle placed the paper on the kitchen table, his first contribution to the household for the day, as he walked through to the laundry room. He stripped off his mud-soiled pajamas and traded them in for a pair of black slacks and a simple gray button-up that Mary Ann had folded after ironing the day before.
No evidence, Lyle joked to himself. Throwing his pajamas into the washer, Lyle buttoned his shirt and walked back to the kitchen to find Mary Ann reading the paper at the table. Sometimes when Lyle looked at his wife, he could still see the girl he had fallen in love with all that time ago. Back then, he had loved throwing his arm around her small shoulders as she looked up at him with her bright eyes. In those moments, Lyle felt himself becoming the man he was supposed to be, like he could see his successes waiting for him deep in her admiration. Often Lyle found himself wondering when Mary Ann had stopped looking at him that way.
“What’s the word today?” Lyle asked.
Tutting, Mary Ann glanced briefly up at her husband before returning to the paper and commenting, “Sometimes I wonder what the world is coming to.”
“Such is life,” Lyle said back as he went to pour himself a large travel mug of coffee. “If the world never changed, neither would we.” The chiming of the kitchen clock made Mary Ann jump, and in haste, she finished her steaming coffee in a few gulps and pulled her old knitting bag close to her before blowing a quick kiss to Lyle and rising to leave. His heart sank at the conversation cut short.
Since the kids had left for the city years before, Mary Ann had taken up crafting as a way to keep busy in retirement. Most days she left with that old ugly bag in the morning and didn’t return until early evening, tired—“too tired”—from a day of gabbing and gossiping with some other retired housewives who hung out in town.
After she had gone, Lyle started the engine of his old yet reliable truck, and he felt his chest tighten at the sight of the near-empty gas gage. Taking out his wallet, Lyle took inventory of what he had left; thirty bucks could get Lyle through today, but not much further. Instinctively, as if to remind himself of the man that he had once been and the man he was intending to be again, Lyle patted his old leather briefcase and pulled out of his driveway.
Lyle drove along 101 and watched the tide rush toward land. Even in the gray hue of the Pacific Northwest winter, and despite the fact that the salty air rusted the paint on his truck and that Mary Ann could expect to find at least one dead seagull in their yard every year, Lyle still found peace in living by the ocean. He continued down the coastal road before taking a sharp turn into the gas station parking lot, where he stopped his car with a squeal and shake from the engine.
Stepping out of his truck, Lyle gripped the neck of his jacket to protect against the cold, strong winds. “Give her regular,” Lyle said to a kid bundled in winter gear as he handed him the ten-dollar bill. The wind blew away the boy’s response and Lyle left him behind to fill the truck as he swung open the door to the adjoined convenience store and walked straight to the back coolers.
In times like these, one needs to economize, Lyle reminded himself as he carefully reviewed each case of beer and compared it to the wad of loose bills still left in his pocket. Lyle let out a soft oof as he hauled the dirt-cheap case onto his shoulder.
“Just this?” the checkout girl said as her dark eyes rolled from the clock still reading a.m. and back to Lyle. What she must see, Lyle thought as he slapped the remainder of his cash down in response. She probably thought he was a drunk, not a man on a mission for a better life. He was after the American dream, not that this girl-child could ever understand that.
As a boy, men would drink and no one would think a thought about it. His grandfather, his father, they were all good men, and if they wanted a beer, who could blame them? A day’s work needed rewarding; a day’s work needed fuel.
Lyle watched the girl carefully count his wrinkled array of ones and fives, wondering what life she had lived. He doubted she had enough experiences under her belt to deserve the attitude she had. Not like him, not like Lyle. He had been at life’s mercy before. Hell, Lyle thought, he was now; but he could keep his cool and wasn’t the type of man to let it get the best of him
“Have a safe day,” the girl said flatly as she handed him a fistful of coins and pushed the beer back toward him.
Jaw tight, Lyle nodded, before retreating to his truck.
His briefcase still sat on the passenger seat, a trusty partner in crime, and Lyle, considering things, patted it again for a moment before starting his truck and driving off toward his next destination.
Sucking the foam from his mustache, Lyle pulled sharply into the parking lot and let the car idle. Gripping the wheel, he looked up at the glowing neon light that buzzed softly over the fast-food restaurant. Mary Ann would chew his ear off if she knew that he was within fifty feet of a deep fryer. Cholesterol, she would warn.
Still, what Mary Ann didn’t know couldn’t hurt her.
Feeling the soft glow of reassurance within him as the mantra repeated in his mind, Lyle pushed the gearshift into park and reached into his briefcase for the necessities. Taking the open beer from the cup holder, he drank deeply before stepping out of his truck, the key still hanging from the ignition.
Lyle slipped a thick ski mask over his face as he entered the windy midmorning air. He listened to the rumble of his truck’s engine purring to him as he walked up to the restaurant’s door. Pulling his sleeve back, he checked the time. Five minutes.
Lyle pushed his way into the restaurant and shot one bullet through the glowing fast-food logo above the drink station opposite him and watched the glass rain down in bright and shining sparks. The sharp scrape of metal chairs moving across tile as patrons hit the floor as scared screams erupted from them like an orchestra and the familiar sonata made him grin under the thick mask.
Lyle spun toward the restaurant’s seating area and pointed his weapon toward the patrons. The breakfast rush had ended and the lunch crowd hadn’t yet arrived, but five people were cowering underneath their bolted-down plastic tables.
“Throw your cell phones toward me and lay on your stomach facing the far wall,” Lyle barked through the thick fabric of the ski mask and watched five phones hit the ground near his feet, followed by the soft thuds of obedience.
Turning, Lyle faced the front counter and pointed at a cowering teen behind it. “You. Registers.” The teen blinked wildly before turning his eyes down and opening the nearest register with shaking hands. Lyle waited for the teen to begin shoving the bills into a takeout bag before he dared peek at his wristwatch. Four minutes.
Lyle never got butterflies in his stomach; rather, his nerves were marked with sweaty palms and a tight, unyielding knot in his chest. When Lyle met Mary Ann, he had learned that no matter how many times he walked up to a pretty girl’s door for a date, the knot would twist just as viciously, teaching him that practice doesn’t always lead to perfection.
“Don’t forget the big bills under the tray—and keep your heads down,” Lyle said as he walked past the counter into the open kitchen, toward a group of cowering employees. What a sad bunch, Lyle thought. His eyes scanned over the employees huddled on the floor by the deep fryers, frozen at the sound of shots, his gaze stopping at the older woman in an ironed button-up knelt together. “You, black shirt! You the manager?”
Mary Ann pursed her mouth tightly and she answered in the affirmative as she rose from the ground. Lyle knew her weak knees were causing the movement to be slow and shaky. As she turned to face the masked man, she was careful to keep her eyes focused on the ground; a tip from her training guide that she’d hoped she would never have to use.
“The safe,” Lyle said. “And don’t the rest of you move!”
He kept his aim steady as he watched Mary Ann walk to the back of the kitchen and kneel down just behind an open office door. Lyle was impressed with her. Even faced with this she was calm, unlike the kids around them who were whimpering as if they were going to wet their pants.
Mary Ann’s fingers spun the dial in a smooth motion as she moved it clockwise and counterclockwise with every faint click. Brows furrowed, Lyle felt his heartbeat begin to slow, and he thought how beautiful she was still. Taking a nearby stack of empty takeout bags and tossing it at her feet, he said, “All of it.”
Mary Ann quickly took a bag and began shoving money into it. Lyle took his place outside the office door and faced the restaurant kitchen, where the employees still lay.
He could feel his own pulse pumping throughout his whole body at the sight of the scene he had crafted, lifting him in a way he hadn’t felt since he was a younger man first discovering the sweet taste of life.
Lyle turned his head back toward the interior of the office to look at Mary Ann. He could see she kept her gaze low as she continued to fill the paper bag. Lyle felt cold shivers flow through his extremities as he wondered if there was any part of her that recognized him.
Over Mary Ann’s head in the office, Lyle saw a wall clock tick another minute down. Two minutes.
He could feel his finger begin to cramp above the trigger as Mary Ann rose with her head bent down and the heavy bag clutched in her outstretched hands. Lyle snatched it from her and she flinched in response. If she did recognize him—the man that she had lain in bed with every night for over three decades—she did not show it, Lyle thought.
“On the ground,” Lyle said and he watched her lie on her stomach, her eyes never leaving the floor. Under the thick fabric of his mask, Lyle smiled, proud in her obedience. He allowed himself a second to wonder what she would do if he were to kneel besides her and take off his mask to smile down at her? Would she love him less, or more?
He looked down at Mary Ann again. Her graying locks were held in a tight ponytail that was pulled through the uniform’s black cap and her shirt was speckled with shiny grease stains. Her hands were on her head, and looking at them, Lyle wondered how long it had been since she wore her wedding band. For the first time, he noticed rough calluses marring her slender fingers, yet these blemishes seemed at home next to the chipped and broken fingernails.
Lyle blinked to break his gaze and walked a beeline past the counter, taking hold of the paper bags of money, and then outside to his still idling truck. As he pulled from the parking lot, he slowed to let a group of high schoolers, just released to their lunch, walk in front of him toward the restaurant’s door.
Right on time, Lyle thought, the lunch rush.
In his workshop, Lyle sat on the dirt ground in front of his grandmother’s old wooden chest. Simply made and varnished. Mary Ann thought it looked like it belonged in a pioneer museum. Now, it lived in Lyle’s refuge. When he was laid off last year, Lyle had taken his workshop, then a glorified tool shed, and turned it into his sanctuary. If Mary Ann saw this place, she would be proud of what he’d done with a couple of cans of paint and a Goodwill recliner. Of course, she would never ask to come out here and Lyle would never offer.
Outside, he could hear Mary Ann’s car roll over the gravel driveway. Lyle stood to peek out the window and saw her walking through the kitchen. She stopped to open a bottle of wine and pour herself a glass before heading upstairs. He could picture her stripping off her grease-stained uniform and hiding it out of sight in the back of her side of the closet, along with her knitting bag, heavy with a collection of cashed paychecks and past-due notices from credit cards she thought he didn’t know about.
A hard day deserves a hard rest, he said to himself and cracked open another beer before turning back to the task at hand.
Lyle knelt down and took the stacks of money out of their bags and added them to the chest. He couldn’t help but feel proud of himself. This is what a man was supposed to do: take care of his family. He always told himself he would do anything to meet that goal, and as he looked down at the near-full chest, he knew he was only a few more jobs away from being able to present Mary Ann with the life she deserved.
The tingling in his cheeks warmed him when, thirty minutes later, he walked out the back gate of his yard to his truck that sat waiting for him in the dark alleyway.
He drove in silence for the two minutes it took to circle the block and pull into his driveway. Inside, he found Mary Ann painting a pink shine onto her nails. She only looked up when Lyle slid through the doorway into the bright kitchen.
“How was your day?” he asked her, studying her face, looking for any signs of recognition—of truth. Her hair was pulled up messily, with a few rogue strands falling onto the shoulders of her worn bathrobe.
“Same old, same old,” she said.
“The gals doing good?”
“What? Oh, yes,” Mary Ann said.
“I went around town to pass out my résumé and shake some hands, you know.” Lyle took a beer from the fridge.
“That’s my man,” Mary Ann said, with a smile on her lips and eyes still focused on her nails. “Think we can afford to get the storm doors replaced sometime soon?”
“Sure thing,” Lyle answered. He sat across from his wife and drank the foam from his beer, letting the smell of hops and polish fill his nostrils.
Lyle and Mary Ann sat in silence, knowing full well that when life got in their way, they would have left only each other and the secrets that kept them together. For now, it would have to be enough.
Besides, what they didn’t know couldn’t hurt them.
Paige Holland is a writer and poet from Portland, Oregon. She earned her master’s degree in creative writing in 2020 and currently lives with her partner and two cats.