In these ten exquisite stories, first published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1987 and now reissued as a Grove Press paperback, Richard Ford mines literary gold from the wind-scrubbed landscape of the American Westand from the guarded hopes and gnawing loneliness of the people who live there: a refugee from justice driving across Wyoming with his daughter and an unhappy girlfriend in a stolen, cranberry-colored Mercedes; a boy watching his family dissolve in a night of tragicomic violence; and two men and a woman swapping hard-luck stories in a frontier bar as they try to sweeten their luck. Rock Springs is a masterpiece of taut narration, cleanly chiseled prose, and empathy so generous that it feels like a kind of grace.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:February 16, 1944
Place of Birth:Jackson, Mississippi
Education:B.A., Michigan State University, 1966; M.F.A., University of California, Irvine, 1970
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Edna and I had started down from Kalispell, heading for Tampa-St. Pete where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn't turn me in to the police. I had managed to scrape with the law in Kalispell over several bad checks — which is a prison crime in Montana. And I knew Edna was already looking at her cards and thinking about a move, since it wasn't the first time I'd been in law scrapes in my life. She herself had already had her own troubles, losing her kids and keeping her ex-husband, Danny, from breaking in her house and stealing her things while she was at work, which was really why I had moved in in the first place, that and needing to give my little daughter, Cheryl, a better shake in things.
I don't know what was between Edna and me, just beached by the same tides when you got down to it. Though love has been built on frailer ground than that, as I well know. And when I came in the house that afternoon, I just asked her if she wanted to go to Florida with me, leave things where they sat, and she said, "Why not? My datebook's not that full."
Edna and I had been a pair eight months, more or less man and wife, some of which time I had been out of work, and some when I'd worked at the dog track as a lead-out and could help with the rent and talk sense to Danny when he came around. Danny was afraid of me because Edna had told him I'd been in prison in Florida for killing a man, though that wasn't true. I had once been in jail in Tallahassee for stealing tires and had gotten into a fight on the county farm where a man had lost his eye. But I hadn't done the hurting, and Edna just wanted the story worse than it was so Danny wouldn't act crazy and make her have to take her kids back, since she had made a good adjustment to not having them, and I already had Cheryl with me. I'm not a violent person and would never put a man's eye out, much less kill someone. My former wife, Helen, would come all the way from Waikiki Beach to testify to that. We never had violence, and I believe in crossing the street to stay out of trouble's way. Though Danny didn't know that.
But we were half down through Wyoming, going toward 1-80 and feeling good about things, when the oil light flashed on in the car I'd stolen, a sign I knew to be a bad one.
I'd gotten us a good car, a cranberry Mercedes I'd stolen out of an ophthalmologist's lot in Whitefish, Montana. I stole it because I thought it would be comfortable over a long haul, because I thought it got good mileage, which it didn't, and because I'd never had a good car in my life, just old Chevy junkers and used trucks back from when I was a kid swamping citrus with Cubans.
The car made us all high that day. I ran the windows up and down, and Edna told us some jokes and made faces. She could be lively. Her features would light up like a beacon and you could see her beauty, which wasn't ordinary. It all made me giddy, and I drove clear down to Bozeman, then straight on through the park to Jackson Hole. I rented us the bridal suite in the Quality Court in Jackson and left Cheryl and her little dog, Duke, sleeping while Edna and I drove to a rib barn and drank beer and laughed till after midnight.
It felt like a whole new beginning for us, bad memories left behind and a new horizon to build on. I got so worked up, I had a tattoo done on my arm that said FAMOUS TIMES, and Edna bought a Bailey hat with an Indian feather band and a little turquoise-and-silver bracelet for Cheryl, and we made love on the seat of the car in the Quality Court parking lot just as the sun was burning up on the Snake River, and everything seemed then like the end of the rainbow.
It was that very enthusiasm, in fact, that made me keep the car one day longer instead of driving it into the river and stealing another one, like I should've done and had done before.
Where the car went bad there wasn't a town in sight or even a house, just some low mountains maybe fifty miles away or maybe a hundred, a barbed-wire fence in both directions, hardpan prairie, and some hawks riding the evening air seizing insects.
I got out to look at the motor, and Edna got out with Cheryl and the dog to let them have a pee by the car. I checked the water and checked the oil stick, and both of them said perfect.
"What's that light mean, Earl?" Edna said. She had come and stood by the car with her hat on. She was just sizing things up for herself.
"We shouldn't run it," I said. "Something's not right in the oil."
She looked around at Cheryl and Little Duke, who were peeing on the hardtop sideby-side like two little dolls, then out at the mountains, which were becoming black and lost in the distance. "What're we doing?" she said. She wasn't worried yet, but she wanted to know what I was thinking about.
"Let me try it again."
"That's a good idea," she said, and we all got back in the car.
When I turned the motor over, it started right away and the red light stayed off and there weren't any noises to make you think something was wrong. I let it idle a minute, then pushed the accelerator down and watched the red bulb. But there wasn't any light on, and I started wondering if maybe I hadn't dreamed I saw it, or that it had been the sun catching an angle off the window chrome, or maybe I was scared of something and didn't know it.
"What's the matter with it, Daddy?" Cheryl said from the backseat. I looked back at her, and she had on her turquoise bracelet and Edna's hat set back on the back of her head and that little black-and-white Heinz dog on her lap. She looked like a little cowgirl in the movies.
"Nothing, honey, everything's fine now," I said.
"Little Duke tinkled where I tinkled," Cheryl said, and laughed.
"You're two of a kind," Edna said, not looking back. Edna was usually good with Cheryl, but I knew she was tired now. We hadn't had much sleep, and she had a tendency to get cranky when she didn't sleep. "We oughta ditch this damn car first chance we get," she said.
"What's the first chance we got?" I asked, because I knew she'd been at the map.
"Rock Springs, Wyoming," Edna said with conviction. "Thirty miles down this road." She pointed out ahead.
I had wanted all along to drive the car into Florida like a big success story. But I knew Edna was right about it, that we shouldn't take crazy chances. I had kept thinking of it as my car and not the ophthalmologist's, and that was how you got caught in these things.
"Then my belief is we ought to go to Rock Springs and negotiate ourselves a new car," I said. I wanted to stay upbeat, like everything was panning out right.
"That's a great idea," Edna said, and she leaned over and kissed me hard on the mouth.
"That's a great idea," Cheryl said. "Let's pull on out of here right now."
The sunset that day I remember as being the prettiest I'd ever seen. Just as it touched the rim of the horizon, it all at once fired the air into jewels and red sequins the precise likes of which I had never seen before and haven't seen since. The West has it all over everywhere for sunsets, even Florida, where it's supposedly flat but where half the time trees block your view.
"It's cocktail hour," Edna said after we'd driven awhile. "We ought to have a drink and celebrate something." She felt better thinking we were going to get rid of the car. It certainly had dark troubles and was something you'd want to put behind you.
Edna had out a whiskey bottle and some plastic cups and was measuring levels on the glove-box lid. She liked drinking, and she liked drinking in the car, which was something you got used to in Montana, where it wasn't against the law, but where, strangely enough, a bad check would land you in Deer Lodge Prison for a year.
"Did I ever tell you I once had a monkey?" Edna said, setting my drink on the dashboard where I could reach it when I was ready. Her spirits were already picked up. She was like that, up one minute and down the next.
"I don't think you ever did tell me that," I said. "Where were you then?"
"Missoula," she said. She put her bare feet on the dash and rested the cup on her breasts. "I was waitressing at the Am Vets. This was before I met you. Some guy came in one day with a monkey. A spider monkey. And I said, just to be joking, 'I'll roll you for that monkey.' And the guy said, 'Just one roll?' And I said, 'Sure.' He put the monkey down on the bar, picked up the cup, and rolled out boxcars. I picked it up and rolled out three fives. And I just stood there looking at the guy. He was just some guy passing through, I guess a vet. He got a strange look on his face — I'm sure not as strange as the one I had — but he looked kind of sad and surprised and satisfied all at once. I said, We can roll again.' But he said, 'No, I never roll twice for anything.' And he sat and drank a beer and talked about one thing and another for a while, about nuclear war and building a stronghold somewhere up in the Bitterroot, whatever it was, while I just watched the monkey, wondering what I was going to do with it when the guy left. And pretty soon he got up and said, 'Well, good-bye, Chipper'— that was this monkey's name, of course. And then he left before I could say anything. And the monkey just sat on the bar all that night. I don't know what made me think of that, Earl. Just something weird. I'm letting my mind wander."
"That's perfectly fine," I said. I took a drink of my drink. "I'd never own a monkey," I said after a minute. "They're too nasty. I'm sure Cheryl would like a monkey, though, wouldn't you, honey?" Cheryl was down on the seat playing with Little Duke. She used to talk about monkeys all the time then. "What'd you ever do with that monkey?" I said, watching the speedometer. We were having to go slower now because the red light kept fluttering on. And all I could do to keep it off was go slower. We were going maybe thirty-five and it was an hour before dark, and I was hoping Rock Springs wasn't far away.
"You really want to know?" Edna said. She gave me a quick glance, then looked back at the empty desert as if she was brooding over it.
"Sure," I said. I was still upbeat. I figured I could worry about breaking down and let other people be happy for a change.
"I kept it a week." And she seemed gloomy all of a sudden, as if she saw some aspect of the story she had never seen before. "I took it home and back and forth to the Am Vets on my shifts. And it didn't cause any trouble. I fixed a chair up for it to sit on, back of the bar, and people liked it. It made a nice little clicking noise. We changed its name to Mary because the bartender figured out it was a girl. Though I was never really comfortable with it at home. I felt like it watched me too much. Then one day a guy came in, some guy who'd been in Vietnam, still wore a fatigue coat. And he said to me, 'Don't you know that a monkey'll kill you? It's got more strength in its fingers than you got in your whole body.' He said people had been killed in Vietnam by monkeys, bunches of them marauding while you were asleep, killing you and covering you with leaves. I didn't believe a word of it, except that when I got home and got undressed I started looking over across the room at Mary on her chair in the dark watching me. And I got the creeps. And after a while I got up and went out to the car, got a length of clothesline wire, and came back in and wired her to the doorknob through her little silver collar, then went back and tried to sleep. And I guess I must've slept the sleep of the dead — though I don't remember it — because when I got up I found Mary had tipped off her chair-back and hanged herself on the wire line. I'd made it too short."
Edna seemed badly affected by that story and slid low in the seat so she couldn't see out over the dash. "Isn't that a shameful story, Earl, what happened to that poor little monkey?"
"I see a town! I see a town!" Cheryl started yelling from the back seat, and right up Little Duke started yapping and the whole car fell into a racket. And sure enough she had seen something I hadn't, which was Rock Springs, Wyoming, at the bottom of a long hill, a little glowing jewel in the desert with 1-80 running on the north side and the black desert spread out behind.
"That's it, honey," I said. "That's where we're going. You saw it first."
"We're hungry," Cheryl said. "Little Duke wants some fish, and I want spaghetti." She put her arms around my neck and hugged me.
"Then you'll just get it," I said. "You can have anything you want. And so can Edna and so can Little Duke." I looked over at Edna, smiling, but she was staring at me with eyes that were fierce with anger. "What's wrong?" I said.
"Don't you care anything about that awful thing that happened to me?" Her mouth was drawn tight, and her eyes kept cutting back at Cheryl and Little Duke, as if they had been tormenting her.
"Of course I do," I said. "I thought that was an awful thing." I didn't want her to be unhappy. We were almost there, and pretty soon we could sit down and have a real meal without thinking somebody might be hurting us.
"You want to know what I did with that monkey?" Edna said.
"Sure I do," I said.
"I put her in a green garbage bag, put it in the trunk of my car, drove to the dump, and threw her in the trash." She was staring at me darkly, as if the story meant something to her that was real important but that only she could see and that the rest of the world was a fool for.
"Well, that's horrible," I said. "But I don't see what else you could do. You didn't mean to kill it. You'd have done it differently if you had. And then you had to get rid of it, and I don't know what else you could have done. Throwing it away might seem unsympathetic to somebody, probably, but not to me. Sometimes that's all you can do, and you can't worry about what somebody else thinks." I tried to smile at her, but the red light was staying on if I pushed the accelerator at all, and I was trying to gauge if we could coast to Rock Springs before the car gave out completely. I looked at Edna again. "What else can I say?" I said.
"Nothing," she said, and stared back at the dark highway. "I should've known that's what you'd think. You've got a character that leaves something out, Earl. I've known that a long time."
"And yet here you are," I said. "And you're not doing so bad. Things could be a lot worse. At least we're all together here."
"Things could always be worse," Edna said. "You could go to the electric chair tomorrow."
"That's right," I said. "And somewhere somebody probably will. Only it won't be you."
"I'm hungry," said Cheryl. "When're we gonna eat? Let's find a motel. I'm tired of this. Little Duke's tired of it too."
Where the car stopped rolling was some distance from the town, though you could see the clear outline of the interstate in the dark with Rock Springs lighting up the sky behind. You could hear the big tractors hitting the spacers in the overpass, revving up for the climb to the mountains.
I shut off the lights.
"What're we going to do now?" Edna said irritably, giving me a bitter look.
"I'm figuring it," I said. "It won't be hard, whatever it is. You won't have to do anything."
"I'd hope not," she said and looked the other way.
Across the road and across a dry wash a hundred yards was what looked like a huge mobile-home town, with a factory or a refinery of some kind lit up behind it and in full swing. There were lights on in a lot of the mobile homes, and there were cars moving along an access road that ended near the freeway overpass a mile the other way. The lights in the mobile homes seemed friendly to me, and I knew right then what I should do.
"Get out," I said, opening my door.
"Are we walking?" Edna said.
"I'm not pushing." Edna reached up and locked her door.
"All right," I said. "Then you just steer."
"You're pushing us to Rock Springs, are you, Earl? It doesn't look like it's more than about three miles."
"I'll push," Cheryl said from the back.
"No, hon. Daddy11 push. You just get out with Little Duke and move out of the way."
Edna gave me a threatening look, just as if I'd tried to hit her. But when I got out she slid into my seat and took the wheel, staring angrily ahead straight into the cottonwood scrub.
"Edna can't drive that car," Cheryl said from out in the dark. "She'll run it in the ditch."
"Yes, she can, hon. Edna can drive it as good as I can. Probably better."
"No she can't," Cheryl said. "No she can't either." And I thought she was about to cry, but she didn't.
I told Edna to keep the ignition on so it wouldn't lock up and to steer into the cottonwoods with the parking lights on so she could see. And when I started, she steered it straight off into the trees, and I kept pushing until we were twenty yards into the cover and the tires sank in the soft sand and nothing at all could be seen from the road.
"Now where are we?" she said, sitting at the wheel. Her voice was tired and hard, and I knew she could have put a good meal to use. She had a sweet nature, and I recognized that this wasn't her fault but mine. Only I wished she could be more hopeful.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Rock Springs"
Copyright © 1987 Richard Ford.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
GOING TO THE DOGS,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
i was enjoying rock springs so much, i started looking for a new book by richard ford and saw the dismal review by connie-j and had to put in my own two sense to counterbalance: this is a wonderful book. if you like raymond carver, tobias wolf, andre dubus, etc you won't be disappointed.
St. Barts 2012 #3 - This book was a mixed bag for me. There were several stories i loved.....and several i did not. My rating is based on that as well as the fact that so many of them were similar settings, some with similar or the same names, that sometimes i thought we were reconnecting with an earlier story......however we were not. But the ones i really liked were: 'Great Falls;' 'Going to the Dogs;' 'Optimists;' & 'Communist.' There were definite sharp moving moments and themes that carried consistently throughout (actually, maybe too consistently!) - the coming of age in broken homes in the upper mid-west, for the most part, and the hopelessness that evolves from truly decent people reacting to situations rather than thinking things through and acting with a strong moral base. This book is full of characters that find themselves in all kinds of trouble when, in fact, they deep down are decent folks...they just have had very little guidance as how to make good judgement calls when faced with adversity. A clear depiction of this part of the country as a somewhat depressed and sad place to be......at least in Ford's depiction of the people and places he shares with us. No regrets.
One of the best collections of short stories of the past 25 years. Stark in it's simplicity, stunning are the fully developed characters within these pages. Notables: Rock Springs and Optimists, though all reveal their own charms.
Some books leave such a lasting impression that you can remember where you were and what you were doing when you read them.I was sitting in my bathtub when I read the opening chapter of "Jaws." (No kidding!)I was sitting in the back row of my senior high English honors class, teetering on that border between adolescence and adulthood, when I turned the first pages of my first John Updike novel, "Rabbit, Run." (A novel, by the way, that would scare me away from the grim world of adults for at least a few more months.)And when I first read "Rock Springs," a collection of 10 short stories by Richard Ford nearly 15 years ago, I was standing in the Public Library of Livingston, Montana. I¿d come to the library that night not knowing what I¿d walk out with, but I knew I wanted to read a great piece of literature--one that would make my heart pound, my palms sweat and the little hairs on the backs of my hands stand up. At the time, I was married, the father of two, a reporter for the town newspaper and living paycheck-to-paycheck. Our budget was so lean, Jack Sprat looked like a glutton. To conserve gas, I walked to work, head down and collar up as the harsh winds of south-central Montana scoured the streets. We were so broke, my wife and I thought of co-authoring a cookbook: "101 Things To Do With Macaroni-and-Cheese." Of course, buying books was out of the question. That¿s why I was at the public library that night, looking for a piece of writing that would take me out of my struggling, lower-middle-class life.Little did I know I was a character straight out of Ford¿s stories.I can remember standing there in that library in Livingston, opening this collection of short stories at random and reading the following words: "This is not a happy story. I warn you." They were the first two lines from the story "Great Falls." The words were like an opera aria and this is what the diva was singing in my ear: "This writer knows you." The hairs on the backs of my hands rustled.Indeed, Richard Ford (whom I¿d never even heard of prior to that night in that library) does know all about me¿and, I¿d venture to say, a lot about you. Ford has made it his business to delve deep into the mysteries of human behavior. His characters are flawed, occasionally hopeless, but always hopeful. In fact, one of the finest stories in "Rock Springs" is called "Optimists" and it starts like this:"All of this that I am about to tell happened when I was only fifteen years old, in 1959, the year my parents were divorced, the year when my father killed a man and went to prison for it, the year I left home and school, told a lie about my age to fool the Army, and then did not come back. The year, in other words, when life changed for all of us and forever¿ended, really in a way none of us could ever have imagined in our most brilliant dreams of life."Ford writes of shattered marriages, distrust between fathers and sons, life¿s gamblers on the perpetual losing streak¿and all of this set in the bleak, wind-swept plains of Wyoming and Montana (that¿s right, not only was Ford writing about me, he¿d also set his stories in the very place where I lived at the time!). Characters struggle to come to grips with their situations and, more often than not, end up regretting the paths their lives take.All of this may sound pretty depressing, but in the hands of a talented prose artist like Ford, the hard realities of life become, somehow, mysteries that shimmer and sparkle. There¿s much to think about in these stories, but he manages to slip in the messages with concrete, riveting language that is deceptively simple and unadorned. Here¿s another example (this one¿s from "Children"): "When you are older, nothing you did when you were young matters at all. I know that now, though I didn¿t know it then. We were simply young."With "Rock Springs," Ford joined the ranks of the great short story writers like Anton Chekhov, Flannery O¿Connor and Raymond Carver (who, by the way, was a close f
I hate to give up on a book, but couldn't force myself to finish this one.