From the autobiography of Jim Thompson

A Childhood Noir

by Jim Thompson


My earliest recollections are of being pinched. Not in the figurative sense, but actually. I was an awkward, large-headed tot, much prone to stuttering and stumbling over my own feet. My sister Maxine, though somewhat my junior, was quick-moving, quick-thinking, glib and extremely agile. When my actions and appearance irritated her—and they seemed to almost constantly—she pinched me. When I failed to respond quickly enough to her commands, she pinched me. The metaphor, “as smooth as a baby’s skin,” has always been meaningless to me. My infant hide appeared to have been stippled with a set of coal tongs.

One day, shortly after the Thompson family fortunes had undergone an unusually terrifying nosedive and we had moved into a particularly execrable section of Oklahoma City, Maxine spotted two Negro children returning home from the grocery. They had a large bottle of milk with them. Bringing me up from the steps with a quick pinch, Maxine dragged me out to the sidewalk and accosted the two youngsters.

Would they like to be white? she inquired. Well, in return for their milk, she would perform the transfiguration. She had done the trick for me, and I had been blacker than they were. Much, much blacker. . . and now just look at me.

The tots were a little dubious, but, being pinched, I loudly swore to Maxine’s tale. And, being pinched again, I hurried into the kitchen and got the implements—a bar of soap and a scrubbing brush—with which the transformation was to be affected. At Maxine’s instigation, I took the patients out to the backyard water hydrant, and began scrubbing them. Maxine took their milk into the privy (it was that kind of neighborhood), drank all she could hold, then dropped the bottle down the hole.

Emerging, she entered the house, beginning to scream with horror as soon as she had got through the door. Mom came running out, Maxine in the vanguard. Pretending to pull me away from the puzzled Negroes, she got in several energetic pinches, making me howlingly incoherent by the time Mom reached the scene. She gave the tots the price of a fresh quart of milk, wiped them off and dragged me into the house, declaring that she didn’t know what she was going to do with me. Snickering hideously, Maxine remained in the yard, free to go about her devilish designs.

Being very young, I was unable to explain the affair within the time that it would have done any good to explain. I got an impression from it, however, very nebulous, then, but one that expanded and jelled later.

I was going to catch hell no matter what I did. I might as well try to enjoy myself.


Appeared in This Land: Winter 2016. Excerpted from Bad Boy. Copyright © 1981 by Alberta H. Thompson. Reprinted with permission of Mulholland Books.