May 28, 2012


By Lorrie Moore
~2800 words

A widow seeks support from a disaffected suitor as she attempts to deal with her institutionalized son.

The third-person narrative is told from the point of view of the widow, though it drifts on at least one occasion—perhaps unintentionally—into that of the son. Both characters remain anonymous. Only the suitor, Pete, bears a name.

All three main characters are finely and uniquely portrayed in the course of a very brief narrative. The widow eases into late middle age with her graying hair "undyed and often pinned up with strands hanging down like Spanish moss," so hungry for touch that she opts for airport pat downs rather than machine scans; life for her is "merely the hope for less pain." Her heavily medicated sixteen-year-old son bears self-inflicted scars that seem to spell out his own pain "in an algebra of the skin," and he speaks in obscure riddles such as "Do you think of me when you look at the black capillaries of the trees at night?" For his part, Pete disappears for weeks at a time, slowly disengaging himself from the burden of a relationship to which he has been unable to fully commit.

The strong characterization stands in contrast to a rather feeble narrative arc. This weakness may be justified to some extent by the story's brevity and by the presumable intention to show the reader the paralysis at which the characters have arrived:
On the ride home, she and Pete did not exchange a word, and every time she looked at his aging hands, arthritically clasping the steering wheel, the familiar thumbs slung low in their slightly simian way, she understood anew the desperate place they were both in, though their desperations were separate, not shared, and her eyes then felt the stabbing pressure of tears.
The meaning of the ending, however, in which an unidentified person calls the widow's house several times while Pete is there, feels too elusive to be satisfactory.

The strong characters and often beautiful language of "Referential" outweigh the plot's inherent (and probably intentional) weakness.


Note: I will be on vacation for the next couple of weeks. In my absence, my friend Dominicus will be guest-blogging the science fiction issue. Please make him feel welcome with a comment or two!

Reader poll: I found "Referential" to be ___.

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