A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 26 – In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day twenty-six – In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, by Amy Hempel.

Read it online here:

In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried

Amy Hempel is one of only a few writers that work exclusively in short stories or other minimalist pieces. I like that. There is truth in brevity. There is efficiency in conciseness. There is power in knowing you don’t have the space to wander around.

In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried is the very first story she ever wrote. It came from Gordon Lish’s famous writing workshop – apparently in response to the prompt, write about “the ineffable, the despicable, the thing you will never live down.”

I don’t know about writing workshops (I suppose you can learn a lot – but it doesn’t take away the need to write for ten thousand hours) or about writing prompts (an icebreaker or maybe a handy crutch at best) – but this is one hell of a first story.

It’s definitely something that would be impossible to live down (although it’s something any of us would be capable of doing). How do you ask forgiveness of someone that isn’t alive any more? And who else would your really have to ask?

“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?”

Oh, yes.

For her I would always have something else.