Roughneckby Jim Thompson
Incorrigible author Jim Thompson retraces his wild swath across America during the great Depression and World War II. Whether he's getting drunk in a funeral home or drafting a manuscript with the help of a big-hearted prostitute, Thompson is a mesmerizing guide to hard times--his country's and his own.
- Grand Central Publishing
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I pulled the old Ford into the curb and cut off the motor. Badly overheated from its flattened crankshaft, it continued to run for a moment or two -- pounding so hard from its exertions that the whole car shook. It was a sweltering August day in 1929. It had stopped on upper Grand Avenue in Oklahoma City. Wiping the sweat from my face, I stared glumly out the window.
Along this street I had hustled newspapers as a child, The Oklahoman in the morning and The News at night. Not far from here was the fine residence we had occupied when the Thompson family affairs took a sudden and fantastic turn for the better. And here, across the walk to the right, was the office building from which Pop had directed a multimillion dollar oil business. . . So long ago, and yet it seemed like yesterday. Now Pop was in Texas and his money was there, too, sunk into one oilless well after another. As for me -- me and Mom and my kid sister, Freddie. . . .
Freddie was a large girl, and she had always enjoyed an excellent appetite. She contended now, whimperingly, that Mom and I were deliberately trying to starve her to death. We had money, didn't we? We had some money, anyway. Well, why the heck didn't we eat, then? Just name her one good reason why we didn't eat!
"Shut up," said Mom. "Ask your big brother. He knows everything."
"Oh, for God's sake," I said.
"Well, I don't care," said Mom. "If you'd ever listen to anyone, you wouldn't get into such awful messes. We wouldn't be in this mess now. But, oh, no, not you. Now, I'm not going to say another word, Jimmie, but. . . ."
Being very tired and worried, and no longeryoung, she said quite a bit more. It seemed I was stubborn, willful, a consistent and deliberate flouter of convention. I seemed never to have used my very good mind for anything but involving myself in trouble.
I spent six years in high school, and I got out then only by falsifying the records. As a youth in my first long pants, I was an associate of chorus girls, grifters, gamblers, and other ne'er-do-wells. By the time I was fifteen, I had been variously employed as a newspaper "man," a burlesque show hawker, a plumber's helper, a comedian in two-reel pictures and in a dozen-odd other occupations. With equal ease, I could quote the Roman lyric poet Catullus, or the odds against making four the hard way.
I was not yet sixteen when I became a night bellboy in a luxury hotel. (This through the intervention of a good natured thug and con man named Allie Ivers.) I earned big money there -- and acquired still more by gambling -- and spent it all. At eighteen, I broke down with tuberculosis, acute alcoholism and complete nervous exhaustion.
I bummed through west and far west Texas for three years, slowly getting my health back in the high, dry climate. Then I returned to Fort Worth and went back to the hotel. A group of gangsters made me their distributor for bootleg whiskey. The dubious honor was thrust upon me, practically at gunpoint. I plotted to get even, simultaneously recouping my fortunes.
Starting off with a handle of a few cases a week, I gradually enlarged my order until, finally, the few had increased to twenty. In order to do this, I had to wholesale the stuff to other hotel employees at a very short profit and sometimes no profit at all. But that was all right. The total proceeds from the twenty cases were to be my profit. I intended to dump them for a minimum of three thousand dollars, and then skip town. My gangster associates could whistle for the dough I owed them.
Unfortunately, my cache of whiskey was discovered and confiscated by Federal prohibition agents. They took it all, but they only reported five cases. And this bit of official perfidy was an even harder blow than my financial loss. It prevented me from making a new start with the gangsters; it deprived me of any valid excuse for not paying their bill. I had the alternative of paying up or getting my head beaten off. . . or, of course, leaving town. So, with approximately a thirtieth of my anticipated three thousand -- a little less than a hundred dollars -- I loaded Mom and Freddie into the car and headed north.
Our destination was Nebraska, and we were not nearly so downhearted as we headed toward it as one might think. Mom's parents lived in a small Nebraska town, and she and Freddie would be welcome with them for a time. As soon as I could arrange it, they would join me in Lincoln where I hoped to enter the state university. I was sorely in need of some higher education, as an editor acquaintance had pointed out. He had also pointed out that I was much more apt to wind up dead, than as the writer I hoped to be, unless I abandoned the course I was following.
We chugged along quite cheerfully for a matter of five or ten miles. Then the car began to reveal its overall worthlessness. The motor steamed and smoked. It clattered, pounded and roared. I pulled off the road and lifted the hood. A brief examination uncovered the terrible truth.
The crankcase was filled with sawdust and tractor oil. It had been doctored thusly to conceal a flat crankshaft -- the one incurable ailment of the Model-T Ford. No repair, as the term is usually used, would correct the difficulty for more than a few hours. We needed a new shaft, new bearings, new rods, and other internal accessories. Briefly - - and it would have cost us little more -- we needed a new motor.
It took us two days to get to Oklahoma City, a distance of two hundred and fifty miles. It also took almost seventy of our one hundred dollars. We had traveled no more than a fourth of the way to our destination, and more than two-thirds of our money was gone.
Here we sat, then, on that sweltering August afternoon in 1929 -- a tired, middle-aged woman, a tired, hungry young girl, and a tired, somewhat saturnine-looking young man. Here we sat, nominal beggars in a broken-down Ford, at the site of our one-time glory. I closed my eyes against the brilliant sunlight, and I could almost see Pop bustling out of this building -- young, smartly dressed, hurrying toward his low-slung Apperson-Jack or the big Cole Aero-Eight. I could see us all riding home together, out to the big high-ceilinged house with its book-lined walls. I could see the friendly face of the cook as she dished up the dinner. I could taste--
I opened my eyes again. Mom gave me a frown.
"Now, that's a nice way to talk," she said. "That's nice language to use in front of your mother and sister."
"What did I say?" I said. "All I said was ship. I was thinking how cool it would be, you know, to be out on a ship and -- "
"You did not!" said Freddie. "He did not say ship, Mama! He said s-h-i--"
"Well," I said hastily, opening the door of the car, "I guess I'd better be going. Wish me luck."
The man I went to see had come to Oklahoma from Germany in 1912. Due to some flaw in his immigration papers, he had been detained on Ellis Island for several months, and when World War I broke out he was taken into custody as an enemy alien. The case came to Pop's attention. Through his then powerful political connections, he got the man released and started on the way to becoming a citizen. Moreover, since the man seemed incapable of doing anything for himself, Pop set him up in business. He bought the guy three heavy-duty oil field trucks; he leased the trucks back from the man at a very fancy rental. He gave him a fat "bonus" of oil stock which climbed from its dollar-par to one hundred dollars a share. I don't know why Pop did such things, and I doubt that he knew. It was simply his way -- until his money ran out.
Well, I went up to the guy's offices -- they occupied a half floor in this building -- and I was admitted to the inner sanctum the moment I sent in my name. With tears of pure joy in his eyes, he wrung my hand; and then, seemingly overcome with emotion, he gave me a bear hug. . . Why hadn't we kept in touch with him all these years? What oil fields was Pop operating in now? Was he, perhaps, contemplating a return to Oklahoma?. . . He babbled on, firing questions about the family, telling me about his own. His wife and daughter were in Europe. His son had just returned to Harvard prep. They had a "nice little house" -- the mansion of a former governor -- out on Classen Boulevard, and he insisted that we come out and--
I finally managed to cut in on him, to make him listen. He heard me out, nodding sympathetically; and while I thought I detected a certain coolness in the atmosphere, I attributed it to my own hypersensitive feelings. He neither did nor said anything out of the way, and I incline to a defensive apprehensiveness when asking for favors.
Of course he would help me, he declared. It was no more than right. He was delighted to have seen me, even under these unhappy circumstances, and he wanted to see Mom and Freddie also. His car was about due to call for him, but there would still be time for a chat.
We rode downstairs together. He greeted Mom and Freddie as warmly as he had me. Then, his car pulled up at the side of ours, a chauffeur-driven, twelve-cylinder Packard, and regretfully he bade us goodbye.
He pressed a bill into my hand. He hopped into his limousine, and it glided away into the traffic. I looked down at the bill. Silently I handed it to Mom. She was still staring at it dazedly as I climbed in, and I winced at the stricken wonder in her eyes.
"It must have been a mistake," she said, slowly. "Don't you suppose it was a mistake, Jimmie?"
"With friends you're not careless," I said. "With people you care about, you make sure."
"Why don't we eat?" Freddie demanded. "That man gave you five dollars."
Copyright © 1954 by Jim Thompson
Meet the Author
Jim Thompson was born in Anadarko, Oklahoma. He began writing fiction at a very young age, selling his first story to True Detectivewhen he was only fourteen. Thompson eventually wrote twenty-nine novels, all but three of which were published as paperback originals. Thompson also co-wrote two screenplays (for the Stanley Kubrick films The Killing and Paths of Glory). Several of his novels have been filmed by American and French directors, resulting in classic noir including The Killer Inside Me (1952), After Dark My Sweet(1955), and The Grifters (1963).
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