The narrator recalls her one and only hospital visit to her best friend, who was dying. Why has it taken her so long to make this visit? Because she is afraid. When she arrives, her friend is wearing a surgical mask, and so must she.
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I told her insects fly through rain, missing every drop, never getting wet. I told her no one in America owned a tape recorder before Bing Crosby did. The camera made me self-conscious and I stopped. It was trained on us from a ceiling mount—the kind of camera banks use to photograph robbers. It played us to the nurses down the hall in Intensive Care. I went on. Did she know that Tammy Wynette had changed her tune?
That now she sings "Stand by Your Friends"? That Paul Anka did it too, I said. For her I would always have something else. That when they asked her who did it on the desk, she signed back the name of the janitor. And that when they pressed her, she said she was sorry, that it was really the project director.
But she was a mother, so I guess she had her reasons. We look like good-guy outlaws. Good or bad, I am not used to the mask yet. I keep touching the warm spot where my breath, thank God, comes out. She is used to hers. She only ties the strings on top. The other ones—a pro by now—she lets hang loose. We call this place the Marcus Welby Hospital. A Hollywood hospital, though in fact it is several miles west. Off camera, there is a beach across the street. She introduces me to a nurse as the Best Friend.
The impersonal article is more intimate. It tells me that they are intimate, the nurse and my friend. But do they ask? They do not ask. Two months, and how long is the drive? The best I can explain it is this—I have a friend who worked one summer in a mortuary.
He used to tell me stories. A man wrecked his car on going south. He did not lose consciousness. But his arm was taken down to the wet bone—and when he looked at it—it scared him to death. I mean, he died. She shakes out a summer-weight blanket, showing a leg you did not want to see. Except for that, you look at her and understand the law that requires two people to be with the body at all times. I think there is a real and present need here.
You call them up whenever you want—like when push comes to shove. Then Bargaining, Depression, and so on and so forth. But I keep my guesses to myself.
God knows, I want to do it by the book. But she left out Resurrection. I like animal stories. Now, for example. Because the Good Doctor is a little in love with her, he says maybe a year. He pulls a chair up to her bed and suggests I might like to spend an hour on the beach. Or the gift shop. Taste is no object. I look in at her.
I watch her mouth laugh. What seems dangerous often is not—black snakes, for example, or clear-air turbulence. While things that just lie there, like this beach, are loaded with jeopardy. A yellow dust rising from the ground, the heat that ripens melons overnight—this is earthquake weather. You can sit here braiding the fringe on your towel and the sand will all of a sudden suck down like an hourglass. The air roars. In the cheap apartments on-shore, bathtubs fill themselves and gardens roll up and over like green waves.
If nothing happens, the dust will drift and the heat deepen till fear turns to desire. Nerves like that are only bought off by catastrophe. Like the aviaphobe who keeps the plane aloft with prayer, we kept it up until an aftershock cracked the ceiling. That was after the big one in seventy-two.
We were in college; our dormitory was five miles from the epicenter. When the ride was over and my jabbering pulse began to slow, she served five parts champagne to one part orange juice, and joked about living in Ocean View, Kansas. I offered to drive her to Hawaii on the new world psychics predicted would surface the next time, or the next. I could not say that now—next. Whose next? Was I the only one who noticed that the experts had stopped saying if and now spoke of when? Of course not; the fearful ran to thousands.
We watched the traffic of Japanese beetles for deviation. Deviation might mean more natural violence. I wanted her to be afraid with me. I have this dream before a flight where we buckle in and the plane moves down the runway. Still, we arrive in New York on time. It is so pleasant. One night I flew to Moscow this way. She flew with me once. That time she flew with me she ate macadamia nuts while the wings bounced.
She knows the wing tips can bend thirty feet up and thirty feet down without coming off. She believes it. She trusts the laws of aerodynamics. My mind stampedes. I can almost accept that a battleship floats when everybody knows steel sinks.
I see fear in her now, and am not going to try to talk her out of it. She is right to be afraid. But the beach is standing still today. Everyone on it is tranquilized, numb, or asleep.
They smell like macaroons. They pry open compacts like clam-shells; mirrors catch the sun and throw a spray of white rays across glazed shoulders. The girls arrange their wet hair with silk flowers the way they learned in Seventeen. They pose. A formation of low-riders pulls over to watch with a six-pack. They get vocal when the girls check their tan lines. When the beer is gone, so are they—flexing their cars on up the boulevard.
Above this aggressive health are the twin wrought-iron terraces, painted flamingo pink, of the Palm Royale. Someone dies there every time the sheets are changed. The ocean they stare at is dangerous, and not just the undertow. You can almost see the slapping tails of sand sharks keeping cruising bodies alive. If she looked, she could see this, some of it, from her window. She would be the first to say how little it takes to make a thing all wrong. There was a second bed in the room when I got back to it!
In The Cemetery Where Al Jolsen is Buried
In addition, critics praise Hempel for her poetic use of imagery and concise language that creates a short story filled with meaning. Hempel has compressed the narrative until every unnecessary and distracting detail has been squeezed out. Author Biography Born December 14, , in Chicago, Illinois, Amy Hempel moved to San Francisco as a teenager and attended several California colleges during an academic career that saw frequent interruptions. Deciding to become a writer, she settled in New York City and attended Columbia University where her creative writing instructor was Gordon Lish, a noted novelist, short story writer, and editor. Hempel credits Lish with having had a special influence on her work.
In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried
I told her insects fly through rain, missing every drop, never getting wet. I told her no one in America owned a tape recorder before Bing Crosby did. The camera made me self-conscious and I stopped. It was trained on us from a ceiling mount—the kind of camera banks use to photograph robbers. It played us to the nurses down the hall in Intensive Care.