Fat Books & Thin Women


Story Sunday: Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” is a story steeped in the language of grief, although the narrator seems hardly capable of acknowledging that grief, or its accompanying guilt. Not just the guilt of not having done enough for her dying friend, but of not wanting to have done enough for her dying friend.

Hempel perfectly captures the feel of the hospital and the attempt to both accommodate the desires of the patient and normalize the situation, to act out a scene that does not have to happen in a hospital. When the narrator’s friend is hungry, she brings her ice cream and the pair act out a scene familiar to anyone who’s spent a night with a friend, though here it is tinted by what they used to be. Hempel never pushes for catharsis or attempts to point the reader to an appropriate emotion, but when she writes of the “men we used to think we wanted to sleep with” she captures in those few words the feeling of youth and of the loss of that youth, and communicates for just how long these two have been together and to what degree the narrator has failed her friend, in the months that have passed with no visit.

The story had made her hungry, she said—so I took the elevator down six floors to the cafeteria, and brought back all the ice cream she wanted. We lay side by side, adjustable beds cranked up for optimal TV-viewing, littering the sheets with Good Humor wrappers, picking toasted almonds out of the gauze. We were Lucy and Ethel, Mary and Rhoda in extremis. The blinds were closed to keep light off the screen.

We watched a movie starring men we used to think we wanted to sleep with. Hers was a tough cop out to stop mine, a vicious rapist who went after cocktail waitresses.

“This is a good movie,” she said when snipers felled them both.

I missed her already.

I can’t think of a story that more totally captures what is in grief, or what ties friends to one another even when they know themselves to be moving apart.

Read “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” online

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