At first, I was amazed by Amy Hempel’s short stories. Then after I read a bunch of them, I noticed that so many of the stories were told in the first person, and they were obviously supposed to be narrated by different characters, yet they all sounded like the same voice. And for a brief moment I actually started to feel a little irritated that Amy Hempel expected me to be believe all these characters wrote and thought and spoke in the same idiosyncratic Amy Hempel way. But my irritation didn’t last very long. I realized I was mostly just jealous that Amy Hempel could write so many wonderful Amy Hempel-like sentences, and so what if all her first-person narrators sounded that way? So now I’m back to being amazed.
I especially like “In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” because it touches on so many of my favorite themes: grief, guilt, death, jokes about death, and trivia:
“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said. “Make it useless stuff or skip it.”
I began. 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. I told her the shape of the moon is like a banana—you see it looking full, you’re seeing it end-on.
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.
“Go on, girl,” she said. “You get used to it.”
I had my audience. I went on. Did she know that Tammy Wynette had changed her tune? Really. That now she sings “Stand by Your Friends“? That Paul Anka did it too, I said. Does “You’re Having Our Baby.” That he got sick of all that feminist bitching.
“What else?” she said. “Have you got something else?”
For her I would always have something else.
“Did you know that when they taught the first chimp to talk, it lied? 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.”
“Oh, that’s good,” she said. “A parable.”
“There’s more about the chimp,” I said. “But it will break your heart.”
“No, thanks,” she says, and scratches at her mask.