The first time reading this story, I was focused on figuring out what was going on. What was wrong with the narrator’s friend? Why did they have to wear masks? Was the narrator sick as well? Why does the narrator’s friend want to know so many useless facts?
After taking time to think and then reading the story again, it was easier to focus on the main points of the story. Because she knew she was dying, the narrator’s friend wanted to know things she wouldn’t care if she forgot because she knew she would soon forget the important things anyway. She didn’t want to learn something that she cared about because she wouldn’t have enough time to enjoy it.
One of the things I found most interesting about this story, however, was not the importance of the useless facts, but the section where the narrator talked about the man who was scared to death. “A man wrecked his car on 101 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…
“So I hadn’t dared to look any closer. But now I’m doing it – and hoping that I will live through it.”
These small paragraphs caught my attention immediately. The story of the man was used as a way of expressing that the narrator was terrified that her friend was going to die. She knew it was inevitable and that was why she stayed away for so long. She was afraid that being around the woman would make losing her even more difficult, but now she was ripping off the Band-Aid, so to speak, and hoping it wouldn’t hurt as much as she anticipated.
Fear goes on to play a central role in the story; the one who was never afraid of anything was now the one who needed someone to comfort her, and while she was scared as well, the narrator had to be brave and face what was to come. The fact that the narrator went on to take a “Fear of Flying” class showed that if her friend could be brave throughout her illness, then she could face her fears as well – especially after how frightening that experience had been.
Overall, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” is a story that really makes you think, even while keeping the dialogue and tone of the story generally light. Even though there is a death, the story has a happy ending in a way because the narrator tries to overcome her fears.