Help Me, Hempel

I return often to The Man in Bogotá, a short story by Amy Hempel whose name, I suddenly realize, contains all the letters needed to write the words: May Help Me.

She has and she does.


I am not standing on a ledge, but I have had misgivings about a part-time job I have taken to help pay the bills and have some financial freedom. A woman needs money if she is to write, said Woolf, and time has only made this more true.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel lucky and grateful to have any job in this economy but it is the exact opposite of anywhere I ever thought I would be. It’s not that I even dislike the work; in fact, there is something meditative about its dull repetitiveness. And I have a swivel chair, and a potted plant, the staff are friendly, and it is warm and dry. But there is no future in it that I can see. It is a means to an end and nothing more, and that’s okay too, but a part of my brain is trying to make meaning from it, beyond its practicalities.

It’s in my nature to worry and wonder. I am used to, and accept, this part of myself by now. Simply put, I am curious, expectant, and unsure about what role this new and unplanned experience is going to play in my life beyond a paycheck. And, as at other moments in the past, I’m looking for comfort and reassurance in a story, and asking myself the same question that occurred to the man in Bogotá….

The Man in Bogotá

“The police and emergency service people fail to make a dent. The voice of the pleading spouse does not have the hoped-for effect. The woman remains on the ledge – though not, she threatens, for long.

“I imagine that I am the one who must talk the woman down. I see it, and it happens like this.

“I tell the woman about a man in Bogota. He was a wealthy man, an industrialist who was kidnapped and held for ransom. It was not a TV drama; his wife could not call the bank and, in twenty-four hours, have one million dollars. It took months. The man had a heart condition, and the kidnappers had to keep the man alive.

“Listen to this, I tell the woman on the ledge. His captors made him quit smoking. They changed his diet and made him exercise every day. They held him that way for three months.

“When the ransom was paid and the man was released, his doctor looked him over. He found the man to be in excellent health. I tell the woman what the doctor said then – that the kidnap was the best thing to happen to that man.

“Maybe this is not a come-down-from-the-ledge story. But I tell it with the thought that the woman on the ledge will ask herself a question, the question that occurred to that man in Bogota. He wondered how we know that what happens to us isn’t good.”


3 thoughts on “Help Me, Hempel

  1. and then, sometimes, ridiculous, absurd, funny, horrifying, surprising stories are born in mundane workplaces, just when you least expect it.

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