Read story by Richard Ford online.
Richard Ford's excellent and well-known short story is right out of the Raymond Carver school of damaged lives from the white underclass. It's told first-person by Earl Middleton of Kalispell, Montana, who has decided to move his family, such as it is—his daughter Cheryl, their dog Little Duke, and Edna, who is separated from a violent husband and has been with Earl for eight months. Earl happens to be looking at serious jail time for passing bad checks and needs to get out of the state. Though an edge of desperation is always in his voice, he tries to front an optimistic attitude. He steals a cranberry-colored Mercedes Benz from an ophthalmologist and plans (dreams) of a luxury ride all the way to Florida. But about 30 miles outside of Rock Springs, Wyoming, an engine warning light starts to show on the dashboard. The car is disabled even before they reach the town, and Earl has to come up with a Plan B. For the most part the story goes rollicking along as a kind of unusual road trip adventure. Edna and Cheryl are often bored, restless, and peevish. Yet there's a sense of inevitable ongoing collapse, even as Earl soldiers on. The fights between Earl and Cheryl are about old things. Those between Earl and Edna are about old things getting fitted to new partners. When Edna complains about how much danger they are in, Earl offers to buy her a bus ticket back to Kalispell. Later, when Edna tries to take him up on the offer, it's as if the floor (the flimsy floor) of Earl's life has vanished under his feet. He tries to keep it all elaborately upbeat, but he is seething with resentment, stung to his core. The ending is a wonderful model of ambiguity. Earl can't sleep, and leaves the motel room to prowl the parking lot, obviously thinking of stealing a car. But then what? Will he abandon his daughter, who is no older than 10? It seems likely. We realize at that moment that we really don't know Earl well. We know he is a criminal, without compunction, and we have seen how hard he works to keep himself on an even keel for the sake of others. We sense the furies underneath that—we sense that he is dangerous. But we have no idea where the lines and triggers are, what could happen. Along the way, the symbology is rich and strange: a terrible story of a monkey, a gold mine company town setting, and the desperate sweaty voice of Earl, with a great big have a good day smile on his puss. Chilling and pathetic at once, perhaps even reminiscent a little of Jim Thompson.
American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks
The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff