“Referential” by Lorrie Moore

“Do you think of me when you look at the black capillaries of the trees at night?” – Lorrie Moore, Referential

With that line, Lorrie Moore’s story of a woman and her troubled son found that place inside of me where lingering thoughts live.

The line, especially the “black capillaries of the trees”, is both lonely and suffocating; equally empty and overwhelming. We have all driven a back road somewhere, on the kind of evening that has no moon and the only way to make it home is by following the lead of the headlights as they reach deeper into the darkness. On these kind of nights, I often find that my mind wanders to those who are no longer here. The people and places that I can no longer visit, unless I am traveling my own thoughts.

“Do you think of me…” By itself, the phrase could be anything. A desperate woman wanting to know if her love is reciprocated, or a child asking a here-today, gone-tomorrow father if he is thought about while they are not together.

But the rest of it, the “black capillaries of the trees at night“, defines the phrase, and makes me think of death.

In Moore’s story, we are given a mother who has a child that spends time in the confines of some sort of mental ward. A place that troubled teens can be protected, not from the dangers outside but from the demons that fester within. The mother has a boyfriend, a man who has been around long enough for the boy to regard him as stepdad, but the recent strain of caring for – and about – the boy and his mother has caused the boyfriend to question his desire to stay.

Black capillaries.

Though nobody dies in this story, there is still death to be found. The death of a possible future in which the colder evenings, the darker evenings, are shared with someone who understands, and cares.

The death of dreams.

And sometimes, that kind of death is the most lonely of them all.


“Referential” was originally published in The New Yorker. I read the story in the pages of The Best American Short Stories 2013, which was edited by Elizabeth Strout.



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