[an analysis by Heather Peters]
Richard Ford’s “Optimists” is about a middle-aged man reflecting on the time when, as a young man, he witnessed his father kill another man with a single blow to the chest, as well as the whirlwind of changes that followed in his family’s life soon thereafter. It’s important to note that although Frank, the narrator, is said to be middle-aged at the time he’s recounting this to the reader, the majority of the piece takes place in the perspective of his younger self at age fifteen. The beauty of Ford’s writing is how, despite the significance of telling the reader of the ages at certain points in his life, Frank is consistently placated by his parents, but more specifically by his mother. The reader is introduced to Frank knowing that he is fifteen in 1959, but we somehow can’t help but feel the infantilization to the point where Frank seems to be a young child rather than a teenager. In one such instance, Frank recalls how he would lie in bed at night while his mother and her friends played cards until Frank’s father came home after work around midnight:
And in a while the door to my room would open and the light would fall inside, and my mother would set a chair back in. I could see her silhouette. She would always say, ‘Go back to sleep, Frank.’ And then the door would shut again, and I would almost always go to sleep in a minute.
Ford employs exclusion as a way of cementing the reader’s projection of Frank as a young child. For instance, Frank is never invited to play cards with the adults, and on the night the story centers on, he is “in the kitchen, eating a sandwich alone at the table, and [his] mother [is] in the living room playing cards with Penny and Boyd Mitchell.” His father comes home early from work, having witnessed a man get caught and die under a train on the railroad tracks. Frank’s mother “turned and looked for [him], and [he] knew she was thinking that this was something [he] might not need to see. But she didn’t say anything.” Boyd, who worked for Red Cross, drunkenly confronts Frank’s father, claiming he could have saved the man’s life if he’d tried to. This sets Frank’s father off, and after additional barbs from Boyd, the two men square off, resulting in the first throw being the last, with Frank’s father almost instantly killing Boyd with a single blow to the chest. Ford takes this opportunity, despite how caught up the reader gets in the scene, to remind us that Frank has been in the kitchen the entire time and that even as readers, we have sidestepped Frank in his own story, “and for that reason [he] walked out into the room where [his] father and mother were…[He] looked down at Boyd Mitchell, at his face. [He] wanted to see what had happened to [Boyd].”
When Frank is questioned by the police, even his response is wrought with naïveté:
I said Boyd Mitchell had cursed at my father for some reason I didn’t know, then had stood up and tried to hit him, and that my father had pushed Boyd, and that was all. [The policeman] asked me if my father was a violent man, and I said no […] He asked me if my mother and father ever fought, and I said no. He asked me if I loved my mother and father, and I said I did. And then that was all.
After Frank and his mother get his father out of jail, Frank says he “did not understand why the police would put anyone in jail because he had killed a man and in two hours let him out again.”
Later that night, Frank’s mother comes into his room and asks him if he thinks his “house is a terrible house now,” as if she is dealing with a toddler.
Over the years, Frank loses contact with both of his parents, and ends up running into his mother at a grocery store when he is in his forties. He approaches her, and soon their conversation turns to the night Frank’s father killed Boyd Mitchell. Ford brilliantly closes the piece by showing the readers that the way Frank interacts with his mother, even after their long estrangement, is still that of a child, even though he is a middle-aged man: “And she bent down and kissed my cheek through the open window and touched my face with both her hands, held me for a moment that seemed like a long time before she turned away, finally, and left me there alone.”