Rock Springs by Richard Ford, 1987

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by Richard Ford, 1987

Richard Ford, often linked to the so-called dirty realism of Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, once said in an interview that he is primarily interested in people on the edge. Thus, he said, in his stories the lines of dramatic action take place in moments of time when connections can save a life or not. No Ford short narrative better illustrates this thematic concern and narrative technique than the title story of his well-received 1987 collection Rock Springs.

"Rock Springs" is told by Earl Middleton about a time when he and girlfriend Edna and his small daughter Cheryl, heading for Tampa from Kalispell in a stolen Mercedes, break down in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and Edna leaves him. The story is structured around a series of "bad signs" that disrupt the trip and Earl's hope for a new life. His problems begin when, halfway through Wyoming, the oil light of the Mercedes flashes on, "a sign I knew to be a bad one." Although he is running from the law, Earl feels that it is a "whole new beginning" for him and Edna. It is this very enthusiasm, however, that makes him keep the car instead of stealing another—an error that turns out to be fatal to his high hopes.

One of the thematic keys to "Rock Springs" is the story Edna tells Earl about a monkey she once won in a roll of dice while working as a waitress. When Earl indifferently asks her what happened to the monkey, she turns gloomy all of a sudden, "as if she saw some aspect of the story she had never seen before." A Vietnam veteran had told her that monkeys could kill, and she had wired it to a doorknob, from which it accidentally hanged itself. She put the monkey in a garbage bag and threw it on the dump. When she asks, "Isn't that a shameful story?" Earl knows that the story means something important to her that only she can see. When he tells her that he doesn't see what else she could have done, Edna, aware of Earl's inability to identify with her guilt, says, "I should've known that's what you'd think. You've got a character that leaves something out, Earl." When the car stalls, Edna becomes even more embittered, telling Earl, "You don't think right, did you know that, Earl? You think the world's stupid and you're smart. But that's not how it is. I feel sorry for you. You might've been something, but things just went crazy someplace."

Earl's visit to a nearby mobile home park attached to a gold mine is the second important symbolic key to the story's theme. There is a ghostly mystery about the plant and the all-white mobile homes in front of it; it looks like an "unbelievable castle, humming away in a distorted dream." He goes to the first trailer and meets a large black woman with a brain-damaged grandson, and the smell of something good and sweet cooking in the kitchen makes him feel that it is someone's home rather than just a temporary place. When Earl calls a cab and thanks the woman for saving him, she says, "You weren't hard to save….Saving people is what we were all put on earth to do." The encounter makes Earl ponder his mishaps, realizing that there is always a gap between his plan and what happens: "Between the idea and the act a whole kingdom lies."

It is typical of Earl's dreams of getting something for nothing that he thinks of the gold mine as a place one could go into and take whatever one wants. When he and Edna laugh over the irony of a gold mine in the middle of the desert, she is the one who recognizes, "We're a couple of fools." When they get a motel room, she says that she used to like to go to motels, for there was something secret about them, so that "you felt safe from everything and free to do what you wanted … " Now, she says, she is going to have to give up on motels: "I can't keep that fantasy going anymore."

Earl, however, cannot let the fantasy go. After Edna tells him that she is going to leave him, Earl goes into the parking lot to find another car to steal, looking in the windows at sunglasses, books, and kids' toys: "It all looked familiar to me, the very same things I would have in my car if I had a car." He thinks that the difference between a successful life and an unsuccessful one, between himself at that moment and the people who owned the cars, is the fact that either through luck or design they had faced fewer troubles than he had and by their own character had forgotten them faster. "And that's what I wanted for me," he thinks: "Fewer troubles, fewer memories of trouble."

The story ends with Earl asking what the reader would think if he or she saw a man looking in the windows of cars in the parking lot of a Ramada Inn: "Would you think he was trying to get his head cleared? Would you think he was trying to get ready for a day when trouble would come to him? Would you think his girlfriend was leaving him? Would you think he has a daughter? Would you think he was anybody like you?"

Earl is difficult to sympathize with because of his passivity, his attempts to get things for nothing, and his failure to sympathize with or understand others. There is, however, something poignant and painful about the final image of him in the parking lot of the motel, looking in the windows of cars of solid family people who have stopped on their way home from vacations. All of the imagery in the story suggests that the essence of Earl's life is transience. He longs for the solidity of the families represented by the cars in the lot, but he does not seem to have either the energy or the responsibility to achieve it. Rock Springs, full of prostitutes and pimps drawn by the allure of the gold mine, is not a place where Earl can get things on the straight track once and for all as he had wished.

—Charles E. May