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One Good Deed - Chapter 1

IT WAS A GOOD DAY to be free of prison.

The mechanical whoosh and greasy smell of the opening bus doors
greeted Aloysius Archer, as he breathed free air for the first time in a while.
He wore a threadbare single-breasted brown Victory suit with peak lapels
that he’d bought from the Sears, Roebuck catalogue before heading off to
war. The jacket was shorter than normal and there were no pleats or cuffs to
the pants because that all took up more material than the war would allow;
there was no belt for the same reason. A string tie, a fraying, wrinkled white
shirt, and scuffed lace-up size twelve plain Oxford shoes completed the
only wardrobe he owned. Small clouds of dust rose off his footwear as he
trudged to the bus. His pointed chocolate brown fedora with the dented
crown had a loop of faded burgundy silk around it. He’d bought the hat
after coming back from the war. One of the few times he’d splurged on
anything. But a global victory over evil had seemed to warrant it.

These were the clothes he’d worn to prison. And now he was leaving in
them. He comically lamented that in all this time, the good folks of the
correctional world had not seen fit to clean or even press them. And his hat
held stains that he hadn’t brought with him to incarceration. Yet a man
couldn’t go around without a hat.

The pants hung loosely around his waist, a waist grown slimmer and
harder while he’d been locked up. He was fully twenty-five pounds heavier
than when he’d gone into prison, but the extra weight was all muscle,
grafted onto his arms, shoulders, chest, back, and legs, like thickened vines
on a mature tree. In his socks he was exactly six feet one and a quarter. The
Army had measured him years before. They were quite adept at calculating
height. Though they had too frequently failed to supply him with enough
ammunition for his M1 rifle or food for his belly, while he and his fellow
soldiers were trying to free large patches of the world from an oddball
collection of deranged men.

The prison had a rudimentary gym, of which he’d taken full advantage. It
wasn’t just to build up his body. When he was pumping weights or running
or working his gut, it allowed him to forget for a precious hour or two that
he was squirreled away in a cage with felonious men. The prison also held a
book depository teeming with tattered, coverless books that sported missing
pages at inopportune times, but they were precious to him nonetheless. His
favorites had been Westerns where the man got the gal. And detective
novels, where the man got the gal and also caught the bad guy. Which he
supposed was a funny sort of way for a prisoner to be entertained. Yet he
liked the puzzle component of the mystery novels. He tried to solve them
before he got to the end, and found that as time went on, he had happened
upon the correct solution more often than not.

The jail grub he had pretty much done without. What wasn’t spoiled or
wormy held no discernible taste to persuade him to ingest it. He’d gotten by
on a variety of fruits picked from a nearby orchard, vegetables harvested
from the small garden inside the prison walls, and the occasional piece of
fried chicken or soft bread and clots of warm apple fritters that arrived at
the prison in mysterious ways. Some said they were dropped off by
compassionate ladies either looking to do good, or else hoping for a
husband in three to five years. The rest of his time was spent either busting
big rocks into smaller ones using sledgehammers, collecting trash along the
side of the roads, only to see it back the next day, or else digging ditches to nowhere fast because a man with a double-barreled shotgun, sunglasses, a
wide-brimmed hat, and a stone-cold stare told him that was all he was good
for.

He was not yet thirty, was never married, and had no children, but one
glance in the mirror showed a man who seemed older, his skin baked brown
by the sun and further aged by being behind bars the rest of the time. A
world war coupled with the brutal experience of losing one’s liberty had left
their indelible marks on him. These two experiences had successfully
robbed him of the remainder of his youth but hardened him in ways that
might at some point work out in his favor.

His hair had been long going into prison. On the first day they had cut it
Army short. Then he’d tried to grow a beard. They’d shaved that off, too.
They said something about lice and hiding places for contraband.

He vowed never to cut his hair again, or at least to go as long as possible
without doing so. It was a small thing, to be sure. He had started out life
concentrated only on achieving large goals. Now he was focused on just
getting by. The impossibly difficult ambitions had been driven from him.
On the other hand, the mundane seemed reasonably doable for Archer.

He ducked his head and swept off his fedora to avoid colliding with the
ceiling of the rickety vehicle. The bus doors closed with a hiss and a thud,
and he walked down the center aisle, a suddenly free man looking for
unencumbered space. The rocking bus was surprisingly full. Well, perhaps
not surprisingly. He assumed this mode of transport was the only way to get
around. This was not the sort of land where they built airfields or train
depots. And those black ribbons of state highways never seemed to get
rolled out in these places. It was the sort of area where folks did not own a
vehicle that could travel more than fifty miles at any given time. Nor did the
folks driving said vehicles ever want to go that far anyway. They might fall
off the edge of the earth.

The other passengers looked as bedraggled as he, perhaps more so.
Maybe they’d been behind their own sorts of bars that day, while he was
leaving his. They were all dressed in prewar clothes or close to it, with dirty
nails, raw eyes, hungry looks, and not even a glimmer of hope in the bunch.
That surprised him, since they were now a few years removed from a
wondrous global victory and things were settling down. But then again,
victory did not mean that prosperity had suddenly rained down upon all parts of the country. Like anything else, some fared better than others. It
seemed he was currently riding with the “others.”

They all stared up at him with fear, or suspicion, or sometimes both
running seamlessly together. He saw not one friendly expression in the
crowd. Perhaps humankind had changed while he’d been away. Or then
again, maybe it was the same as it’d always been. He couldn’t tell just yet.
He hadn’t gotten his land legs back.

Archer spotted an empty seat next to an older man in threadbare overalls
over a stained undershirt, a stubby straw hat perched in his lap, brogans the
size of babies on his feet, and a large canvas bag clutched in one callused
hand. He had watched Archer, bug-eyed, for the whole time it took him to
reach his seat. An instant before Archer’s bottom hit the stained fabric of
the chair, the other man let himself go wide, splaying out like a pot boiling
over, forcing Archer to ride on the edge and uncomfortably so.

Still, he didn’t mind. While his prison cell had been bigger than the space
he was now occupying, he had shared it with four other men, and not a
single one of them was going anywhere.

But now, now I’m going somewhere.

“Joint stop?”

“What’s that?” asked Archer, eyeballing the man looking at him now. His
seatmate’s hair was going white, and his mustache and beard had already
gone all the way there.

“You got on at the prison stop.”

“Did I now?”

“Yeah you did. How long did you do in the can?”

Archer turned away and looked out the windshield into the painful glare
of sunshine and the vast sky over the broad plains ahead that was
unblemished by a single cloud.

“Long enough. Hey, you don’t happen to have a smoke I can bum?”

“You can’t really borrow a smoke, now can you? And you can’t smoke
on here anyways.”

“The hell you say.”

The man pointed to a handwritten sign on cardboard hanging overhead
that said this very thing.

More rules.

Archer shook his head. “I’ve smoked on a train, on a Navy ship. And in a
damn church. My old man smoked in the waiting room when I was being born, so they told me. And he said my mom had a Pall Mall in her mouth
when I came out. What’s the deal here, friend?”

“They’ve had trouble before, see?”

“Like what?”

“Like some knucklehead fell asleep smoking and caught a whole dang
bus on fire.”

“Right, ruin it for everybody else.”

“Ain’t good for you anyway, I believe,” said the man.

“Most things not good for me I enjoy every now and again.”

“What’d you do to get locked up? Kill a man?”

Archer shook his head. “Never killed anybody.”

“Guess they all say that.”

“Guess they do.”

“Guess you were innocent.”

“No, I did it,” admitted Archer.

“Did what?”

“Killed a man.”

“Why?”

“He was asking too many questions of me.”

But Archer smiled, so the man didn’t appear too alarmed at the veiled
threat.

“Where you headed?”

“Somewhere that’s not here,” said Archer. He took off his jacket,
carefully folded it, and laid it on his lap with his hat on top.

“Is all you got the clothes on your back?”

“All I got.”

“What’s your ticket say?”

Archer dug into his pocket and pulled it out.

It was eighty and dry outside and about a hundred inside the bus, even
with the windows half-down. The created breeze was like oven heat and the
mingled odors were . . . peculiar. And yet Archer didn’t really sweat, not
anymore. Prison had been far hotter, far more . . . peculiar. His pores and
sense of smell had apparently recalibrated.

“Poca City,” he read off the flimsy ticket.

“Never been there, but I hear it’s growing like gangbusters. Used to be
the boondocks. But then it went from cattle pasture to a real town. People
coming out this way after the war, you see.”

“And what do they do once they get there?”

“Anything they can, brother, to make ends meet.”

“Sounds like a plan good as another.”

The older man studied him. “Were you in the war? You look like you
were.”

“I was.”

“Seen a lot of the world, I bet?”

“I have. Not always places I wanted to be.”

“I been outta this state exactly one time. Went to Texas to buy some
cattle.”

“Never been to Texas.”

“Hey, you been to New York City?”

“Yes, I have.”

The man sat up straighter. “You have?”

Archer casually nodded his head. “Passed through there on account of the
war. Seen the Statue of Liberty. Been to the top of the Empire State
Building. Rode the rides over at Coney Island. Even seen some Rockettes
walking down the street in their getups and all.”

The man licked his lips. “Tell me something. Are their legs like they say,
friend?”

“Better. Gams like Betty Grable and faces like Lana Turner.”

“Damn, what else?” he asked eagerly.

“Had a box lunch in the middle of Central Park. Sat on a blanket with a
honey worked at Macy’s department store. We drank sodas and then she
slipped out a flask from the top of her stocking. What was in there? Well, it
was better’n grape soda, I can tell you that. We had a nice day. And a better
night.”

The man scratched his cheek. “So, what are you doing all the way out
here then?”

“Life has a crazy path sometimes. And like you said, folks heading this
way after the war.”

The man, evidently intrigued now by his companion, sat up straighter,
allowing Archer more purchase on his seat.

“And the war was a long time ago, or seems it anyway,” said Archer,
stretching out. “But you got one life, right? Less somebody’s been lying to
me.”

“Hold on now, Church says we get two lives. One now, one after we’re
dead. Eternal.”

“Don’t think that’s in the cards for me.”

“Man never knows.”

“Oh, I think I know.”

Archer tipped his head back, closed his eyes, and grabbed his first bit of
shut-eye as a free man in a long time.