In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried is a short story that I go back to time and again. With each read, a new layer, a new element, something very subtle is revealed.
Amy Hempel is one of my favorite writers. This story comes from her first collection, Reason to Live and is also anthologized in The Collected Stories.
She has said that it is the very first short story she wrote. It was written in a Columbia workshop with the legendary Gordon Lish.
Hempel's stories are often a glimpse into a moment of life. Her narrators are nameless faceless women and the major conflict they face is internal--man against himself, which always makes for the most compelling and devastating story. Often, she dismantles the traditional structure of beginning, middle and end, and in doing so, throws the reader directly into a scene--an event or conversation--without a setup. She is a minimalist writer who is often compared to Raymond Carver.
At the Cemetery begins lightly.
"Tell me things I won't mind forgetting," she said. "Make it useless stuff or skip it."
The narrator proceeds to tell her best friend some "useless" trivia. And then a few lines down the reader learns about the camera above them. An uneasy feeling attacks the reader as it has the narrator and we find out that they are in the Intensive Care unit of a hospital. Little facts about the unit and the friend's illness and her slow death are revealed in glimpses, between breaks for "useless" facts and the narrators recollection of her friend's steady presence in her life.
We learn that it has taken the narrator more than two months to arrive at this bed side. Slowly Hempel reveals the narrator's fear and the story begins to take shape in her guilt. She says she doesn't understand the giddyness of her ill friend. This is where the reader sees what the narrator refuses to accept, the narrator's denial that her friend is ecstatic that she's come and forgiving but the narrator doesn't think she deserves that.
She says of her dying best friend:
She laughs, and I cling to the sound the way someone dangling above a ravine holds fast to the thrown rope.
The narrator reminisces specific moments of their friendship, each revealing something more about the narrator's fears and their relationship. An earthquake theme threads through the story as another one of the narrator's fears along with flying and death. In this story, dreams and reality are weaved together just as true facts and made-up facts blend. Yet it is very much a realist story. In doing this, Hempel evokes an airy mood that reminds of the arbitrariness of life against something as big as fear and the fear of loss and death.
There is such a great sense of uncertainty and flight, that throughout the piece the reader wonders if the narrator will stay or go.
At one point a doctor comes in to examine the ill friend and at his suggestion, the narrator goes for a walk on the beach, just outside the hospital--"off camera". When I haven't read this story for a while, this is where I think it ends. I think she goes for her walk and doesn't come back. The decision to so willingly go for a walk is what does it for me. But, in fact, she does come back. She stays long enough to watch a movie and eat ice cream and candy and to take a nap in the extra bed that her friend has requested for her. But eventually she does leave without any intention of coming back.
So where is the change in this story? For me, it's an emotional change that comes with the narrator leaving more guilty than she came and running away, still afraid, after looking. She's in a more miserable place now, because she's come and she's seen and she's left, but her ill friend doesn't have any of those choices. She must endure her death alone. Although the narrator is still afraid and miserable, perhaps she's in a better place because now she understands her fear and has faced it.
When she tells her friend that she's leaving the narrator says:
I was supposed to offer something. The Best Friend. I could not even offer to come back.
I felt weak and small and failed.