It was so cold that January morning the paperboy, McQueen Hamilton
Dillahey, decided to take his chances by stopping by the City Ice and Fuel
just to get warm. He'd rather be murdered by Speedy Frist than freeze to
McQueen, shivering and shaking like a dog shitting razor blades, pounded
on the faded sooty door, his head scrooched down in his coat. The door
yanked open. A blast of hot air hit him as the huge Quasimodo face of
Speedy Frist appeared.
"Uh?" it said.
McQueen drew his head in like a threatened turtle. His end near, he tried
to remember, but couldn't, his sins. Instead he kept saying help me,
Lord, help me.
"Can I come in?" McQueen mumbled into his chest still awaiting the end of
his fourteen year life.
"Uh," replied the knotty face and McQueen finally looked up, took the
grunt for yes and stepped in. It was so hot he immediately started
sweating and tried to shed his coat when rough hands grabbed him by the
shoulders and stripped the coat off.
"Uh," Speedy said pointing to a table. McQueen sat down. "Uh," Speedy
said pointing and McQueen removed his tall lace-up boots. Speedy shuffled
off through a blanket curtain. Pots and pans jangled.
As his eyes focused to the dimness the little room appeared. A roaring
coal fire churned in the ugly flew fireplace gushing heat out like the
breath of a volcano. Coal fumes stung his eyes. The boy stretched his
feet toward the fire and they immediately steamed up. A frayed electrical
cord hung from the center of the grubby ceiling, a yellow light swinging
from its end.
He'd heard so many stories about Speedy Frist being an idiot, a murderer,
and a boy lover. Stinky Jim told him Speedy Frist had spent time in the
State Prison in Raleigh for raping boys, killing them, and hiding their
bodies so well that they couldn't convict him of murder because they could
never find a body. Corpus something.
All kinds of junk hung on the walls, shovels, ice tongs and picks, chains,
a hatchet. Maybe these were his killing people tools. The dingy walls
revealed no trace of what color they might have ever been. Right in the
middle of the battered, paint flecked door hung a clean mirror just big
enough to see your face in. A bare but clean sink jutted out of the wall,
a bar of soap stuck to it. The more he looked around the more he realized
it was not dirty, just worn out.
Seeing Speedy shuffling back in reminded the boy of the stories he had
heard about the instant death potions the hermit had concocted and used.
Maybe it wouldn't hurt.
Speedy Frist slammed the cup in front of McQueen, poured it full of the
thickest, blackest, coffee looking stuff, he had ever seen. He grunted
for the boy to drink. McQueen hesitated, looking toward the door. If he
was to die from poisoning he wasn't going to willingly drink it. He
slapped the cup away and darted for the door which he missed by a foot,
slammed into the wall and came hurtling backwards like Icabod Crane, both
eyes knocked into he same socket.
Speedy Frist gently gathered McQueen and sat him up in a chair at the
table, got a wet cloth and washed the coffee and blood from the boy's
I'm done for thought McQueen Hamilton Dillahey. This crazy man is going
to cut my head off, probably my arms and legs too and burn me up in the
fireplace. But he was only aware of Speedy's gentle touch, the careful
and smooth way he wiped his lips with his knotty fingers. Though he kept
grunting, his touch became delicate, concerned.
When McQueen finally came around he realized Speedy trying to help him
into his coat. Ugly Speedy was not trying to kill him. Speedy shuffled
off again and came back with another mug of steaming coffee.
"Uh?" he asked offering McQueen the mug. When McQueen didn't take it the
toad ugly man set it gently on the table and shuffled around and sat in an
old cane back chair near a small book shelf. He crossed his legs and
looked at the boy. Once in a while he grunted.
Speedy was so ugly you couldn't tell if he was frowning or smiling and if
you could see through the knots you'd see he had clear blue eyes, kind.
When he reached for the mug, Speedy's face almost smiled. He grunted.
"Thank you, Mister Frist," the boy said and sipped. Speedy Frist grunted
Damn, this is pretty good coffee, McQueen thought as he stared back at
Speedy Frist. It stopped his shaking. He tugged his coat back and they
sat silently staring and in between sips, the paper boy tried smiling. So
did the ugly man, one time so big his one upper tooth came out like a
beaver's which forced a little chuckle from the boy. Speedy grunted three
times, uncrossed and crossed his legs, and patted his hands together like
a little kid.
"You like to read?" McQueen said, looking at the book shelf. Speedy
clapped, grunted and nodded yes.
"Uh? he asked.
"Sometimes," said McQueen. "When I choose to read what I want to read and
not something somebody makes me. You know, like teachers?"
"Uh, uh," agreed Speedy. McQueen was sorry he brought up school because
he'd heard Speedy Frist had never been to school; idiots don't go to
school. You can't teach them anything. But after he thought about that
he remembered what some of his teachers said about him. That he was
incorrigible, recalcitrant, a miscreant, whatever that meant. So he
wasn't going to be too hard on Mister Frist. Mister Frist being a
derelict old piece of shit didn't bother him since he, himself, was a
piece of shit street rat cowboy.
"Uh?" Speedy grunted, jumped up and got McQueen another cup of coffee.
Then he shuffled to the books and pulled one out and handed it to McQueen,
A Treasure Chest of America's Best Loved Poems. As the boy opened it he
could tell it had been used a lot, maybe read a lot.
"Uh," grunted Mister Frist.
"You want me to read a poem out loud?"
The boy looked down at the book opened to page 25 to Invictus by William
Ernest Henley. He read the first line; it made no sense. Ah, heck, he
thought, what difference does it make, old Speedy won't know the
difference anyway. He read:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
"Unconquerable," said a voice so clearly the boy thought Speedy had turned
on a radio. When he didn't resume reading the voice repeated
"Oh, yeah," McQueen mumbled an attempt then went on:
"In the fell clutch of ............
"Oh, yeah: I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the ............
"Yeah, of chance
My head is bloody but, unbowed." McQueen closed the book quietly and
slid it across the table toward Speedy.
"It's you talking. You can talk, can't you?" Speedy opened the book and
read the rest of the poem, annunciating every word clearly, emotionally.
When he finished he eased the book shut, looked past McQueen into the
fire, sighed, shrugged, grunted, crossed, uncrossed, crossed his legs and
"Are you saying you can't talk to me but you can read out loud?" Speedy
Frist sagged, his huge head sinking between his rounded shoulders. "Shoot,
Mister Frist that ain't nothing. I can learn you to talk to folks. You
learn me to read like you and I'll learn you to talk like me." Like
Quasimodo checking his bells, Speedy Frist twisted his head to the boy and
So McQueen Hamilton Dillahey made him a vow. He would help Speedy Frist.
Why? Because he knew how it felt to be looked down on and tolerated and
snickered at and blamed for things he did not do. Him and Speedy had a
lot in common. Together they'd change things. An idiot and a street rat
cowboy could do a lot of things, together.
Mister Frist wouldn't have to be alone all the time. He could talk to
folks and make new friends and he, he would be able to talk like Orson
Welles or the announcer on the Long Ranger show. His voice would be clear
and sound and the words would come out right and he could go to New York
City and get on Broadway or go to Hollywoodcalifornia and make Marlon
Brando sound like a tweety bird. So McQueen made out a list of folks he
thought would help him teach Mister Frist to be a conversationalist. Or
at least talk without grunting and spitting.
Shoot, he knew a lot of famous people. He delivered their papers
everyday, doctors, lawyers, teachers, businessmen, preachers, coaches, all
big shots. Why, every Christmas they did special things just to see folks
like Speedy got presents.
When he told Miss Kilpatrick, the principal, what he wanted to do she
tolerated him, wrinkled her nose and said she'd do what she could but in
the meantime would he and Speedy Frist take a bath.
Pastor Bynum said he would pray for them.
Doctor Farragut said he'd look into it.
Officer Harrison said the best thing McQueen could do was stay away from
that crazy son of a bitch. That he might come home one day without his
Anyway, Speedy kept his end of the bargain reading aloud to McQueen two
hours every Sunday morning. Most of the things he read didn't make sense
but McQueen learned quickly and improved so much that he thought of
himself as becoming a great orator.
"To be or not to be," he howled.
"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," he cooed.
"The night has a thousand eyes," he groaned.
Speedy clapped and danced in circles and slapped the boy on the back and
The days warmed and spring came gently to Doaksville. The paperboy
peacocked around, taking every chance to show off his new found oratory.
He even won the high school annual spring oratory competition, a first
for a freshman. Teachers called him amazing, students changed their
attitudes toward him; he was a celebrity. Interviewed by the school
paper, he stated it was hard work and a desire to "rise above the norm"
that inspired him. He said he had had a great mentor but he did not say
it was Mister Frist.
And what about Speedy? What about his deal with him? How could he go on
accepting Speedy's help and not returning it? They had a deal. Speedy'd
help him, he'd help Speedy. But it wasn't working, at least for Speedy.
Nobody wanted to help and the paperboy didn't know how.
What else could he do? He tried but folks just didn't want to help the
ugly little man with the huge head. Now, that he was famous, the boy
understood why. Speedy was ugly, repugnant, unclean. Some things just
can't be fixed.
He quit carrying papers because it didn't look right a person of his
talent doing such menial work. Mr Durr, the druggist, heard of him and
hired him on as number one soda jerk in his drugstore. Mister Hester of
Hester's Fine Clothes footed him a wardrobe; others sent gifts; girls,
pretty girls of fine families flirted with him; football players hated him
but respected him. Life is good when you got respect.
One morning between classes, Bonnie Jean Williams, the best looking,
sexiest girl in school, pulled him aside and offered to be his girl. He
accepted and they traipsed around, Bonnie Jean hanging on him like he was
Humphrey Bogart, she a senior and he just a freshman. Shameful but
He hadn't seen Speedy since he took the soda jerk's job. Oh, he'd
planned to go down to the plant every Sunday morning but something
always came up. He was going to church now because it looked good and
people expected it of him. When he finally saw Speedy it was from a
distance as he shuffled off toward town on a soft spring Saturday. He
made sure Speedy didn't spot him. Once he saw him standing outside the
drugstore on the corner across the street and panicked: what if Speedy
came inside and sat down at a table; he'd have to serve him. But Speedy
Frist just stood there, half grinning and patty caking. When the great
orator looked again Speedy Fridt was gone.
Yes, he was sorry it turned out this way. But what could he do? It
wasn't his fault people didn't like being around a dirty derelict.
Besides, he had the annual oratory competition to worry about. Winning it
would be the greatest thing of his life, the turning point. the chance to
be somebody. And he needed to concentrate on it, practice. Study.
He studied hard, enunciation, poise, body language, audience. Mister
Rutledge, the drama teacher, praised his work. However, he lacked volume.
He needed more volume. Because he had a soft, Southern accent, he needed
to work on this. Volume. He must be heard by every one in the
He forced his voice to hoarseness. He squeaked and a searing pain gripped
his throat. He panicked. Only two weeks before the big show. He did the
only thing he knew to do: go see Mister Frist.
Mister Frist welcomed him, grunting and spitting and patty caking and
dancing little jigs of joy. His prodigal son had come back and he was
"You want me to meet you by the train depot tonight? Is that what you're
"Why, Mister Frist? What? Oh, I understand. You want me to speak as the
train goes by?"
"I see. I need to speak above the rumble, the jingle and the roar.? That
will help my voice get stronger. For seven days? Yes, I can do that."
That night, a soft spring one, the paperboy went to the depot, several
blocks from the shotgun house he and his father, not longer deddy, lived
in, sat on a bench and waited. Soft shadows swayed gently, and when the
moon peeked around the clouds it glistened down the tracks like a streak
of lightening. A dog ran across the tracks in front of him, froze,
growled, then loped down the moonlit tracks and out of sight. Drunks
staggered in and out of Si Brown's Beer Joint a few yards down the track
and across Salem Street. He thought one of them looked like his deddy,
uh, father, The ugly little town squatting along the tracks gaped back at
him like a snaggle toothed jack-o-latern.
Something made him look up and across the tracks. Just outside the
moonlight stood Mister Speedy Frist. Damn, that old bastard is quiet,
Off in the distance to the North a beam of light wobbled toward town.
"Come on over," the boy called and waved from the shadows.
Mister Frist did not move. The beam grew wider and brighter as it neared
downtown. As it closed on them it cast a white starkness that abruptly
brought Speedy Frist into sight.
"Mister Frist," the boy tried to yell above the roar. Speedy Frist hung
like a puppet dancing in a spot light, his arms stretched out like a
scarecrow, his lumpy face twisted, smiling.
"Oh, God. Mister Frist." The midnight limited on its way to San Antone
zipped by and blinked into the night. McQueen Hamilton Dillahey stood by
the track and looked but he did not see anything. His heart crammed its
way up into his throat then slammed against his ribs.
"Oh, God," he said and sat down on the bench to wait for morning.
Author: Rocky Rutherford