One Good Deed by David Baldacci
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.
“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.
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 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.
“Killed a man.”
“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.”
“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.