“Would you think he was anybody like you?”
That’s the last line of the story Rock Springs by Richard Ford, in a collection of stories bearing the same name. I read the story and responded, “nope.”
It was probably 1996 or 97, and I had escaped the suburbs of Northern Virginia to the idyllic college town of Clemson. And now, sixteen years later, I’m headed back to Clemson to hear Mr. Ford read. I had to remind myself of the name of the story.
Rock Springs was published in 1988; it’s certainly not the work we’ll hear tonight. I think I might be embarrassed or surprised that I haven’t read anything else by Ford. But I’m not. The world of literature is so vast. And he’s not anybody. Like me.
How do you identify?
What I remember about that story is how vastly different the characters are from me. The main character, a first-person narrator, is an ex-con. He says he passed some bad checks but sounds surprised that it’s a prison-worthy crime. He describes himself as believing in crossing the street to stay out of trouble’s way.
Before the story begins, he has paired up with Edna, a woman he says didn’t want her children to live with her because she had already adjusted to them not being there.
He brings along a daughter, young enough to accompany the pair but old enough to not need constant looking-after. The daughter brings her dog. They travel in a stolen car, a nice car, one the narrator feels proud to own despite the way it came to be his. He gets a tattoo reading “famous times” on his arm.
The story has the tone of disconnection. It’s not unhappy, not really. It has no self-awareness, like the narrator doesn’t even know he’s telling a story. And until the very end he remains unaware that some other life might exist somewhere. Some other life like the one I live.
I can remember scorn my first reaction. Who does that? I wondered. What kind of life is that?
Only years later after I’ve read about a small town teeming with rattlesnakes, a father’s denial of his impaired daughter, a boy’s abandonment of his best friend, the cannibalism of shipwreck survivors, and The Road do I begin to understand how important it is to read the stuff that is not like me.
It’s more important to read what is not like me than it is to read what is like me.
Many readers think “not me” must be alien – blue people, vampires, animals, or post-apocalyptic mixed-breeds. But there are hundreds of not mes walking the halls where I work. Thousands in the town I live in. Millions in my state.
I’m related to several not mes. One of them just saw her baby’s daddy’s murderer, a 17-year-old kid, sent to prison for life +80 years. And thanked her God.
But as I told my friend who was a sex crimes prosecutor in Compton, not all of the not mes are bad people. Not all of them are suffering from post-traumatic stress or mental incapacities. Not all of them are solving crimes or running from stalkers. They’re not all on drugs or abused.
The Rock Springs narrator describes himself and Edna as “just beached by the same tides when you got down to it.” Makes me wonder how many of us are in the same trap and how many tides there really are.
The story is not always about what happens. Sometimes it’s about the person. Very often the story is really about what doesn’t happen because of the person. What won’t happen because that kid will never have a chance to do anything except the thing he did when he was 17 that sent him to prison?
What didn’t happen because I’m me and not him?
I don’t know if Richard Ford knew a guy that stole a car and drove his manic-depressive middle-aged girlfriend from Kalispell to Rock Springs with his daughter in the back seat. He may have just seen a guy lurking through a parking lot outside of a Ramada Inn and imagined how the guy got there. Or maybe that guy was Richard Ford.
We can write the life we know or we can imagine the life we don’t and write that.
Give it a shot?
I’ll take your suggestions here for the life that should be written. Leave a comment with your ideas and I’ll post some descriptions of possible stories. Or post your thoughts to my facebook page or tweet them to me (@KasieWhitener).
Or come to Clemson tonight for Richard Ford's reading at the Alumni Center at 8 p.m. EST.
What's the story?
Can you relate?