In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried by Amy Hempel

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(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The unnamed narrator, a young woman in her twenties, has come to visit her former college roommate, who is dying in a Los Angeles hospital. The friend asks the narrator to tell her useless stuff that she will not mind forgetting. Much of the story thus consists of meaningless bits of trivia told by the narrator; for example, that insects can fly through rain without getting wet and that no one owned a tape recorder in the United States before Bing Crosby did. The narrator also tells her friend that when scientists taught the first chimp to talk, it lied, and about a “hearing-ear dog” who wakes up a deaf mother and drags her into her daughter’s room because the child has a flashlight and is reading under the covers.

When the doctor enters the hospital room, the narrator goes to the beach, a few miles west of the hospital, where she recalls being afraid of earthquakes and flying—neither of which her friend feared—when they were college roommates. However, she knows that her friend is now afraid and that she will not try to talk her out of her fears, for she feels her friend has a right to be afraid. When she returns to the hospital, she finds a second bed in the room and knows that her friend expects her to stay; she thinks that the friend wants every minute: “She wants my life.” The narrator continues to joke with her dying friend, reading her a story from the newspaper about a man who robbed a bank in Mexico City by pointing a brown paper bag containing a barbecued chicken at a bank teller, only to be tracked down by the chicken’s smell. Because the story makes her friend hungry she goes out and buys ice cream bars, which they eat in the hospital room while watching a movie on television.

When the dying woman is given an injection to make her sleep, the narrator also goes to sleep and dreams that her friend is a decorator who adorns her house in black crepe and bunting. When she awakens, she says that she must leave; she thinks of getting in her convertible in the parking lot and driving to Malibu, stopping for wine and dinner and picking up beach boys. “I would shimmer with life, buzz with heat, vibrate with health, stay up all night with one and then the other.” Her sick friend becomes angry, storms out of the hospital room, and hides in a supply closet from which she must be coaxed by nurses.

The story ends with the friend being buried in Los Angeles, in a well-known cemetery where a memorial to the film star and singer Al Jolson is visible from the freeway. The narrator enrolls in a fear-of-flying class, but she sleeps with a glass of water on her nightstand so that she can see whether it is the earth or herself that is shaking. She recalls the story of the chimp that was taught to talk with sign language. When its baby died, it stood over it, hands moving with animal grace, forming the words, “Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug . . .”


(Short Stories for Students)

The story opens with the unnamed narrator visiting her friend, who is also unnamed, in a hospital near Hollywood, California, where the friend is dying, presumably of cancer. The friend asks the narrator to "tell me things I won't mind forgetting." The things the narrator tells her friend are funny and light, items of trivia about the first tape recorder in America and the flying patterns of insects, things which may or may not be true. The friend is interested in hearing about the first chimp that was trained to talk until the narrator warns her that the outcome is sad, at which point the friend commands her to stop the story.

When the friend introduces the narrator to her nurse as "the Best Friend," the narrator is sufficiently attuned to language to note that her use of "the" here rather than "my" implies that in some way the friend views her connection with the nurse as actually being the closer bond now. Feeling guilty, the narrator ponders her reasons for waiting two months to come visit.

The doctor enters the hospital room and the friend flirts with him. Like the nurse,...

(The entire section is 1,166 words.)