Dear Stephen Jay Schwartz,
Thank you for giving me “Yahrzeit Candle” to read. I find it shining. Evocative. Penetrating. I hope it will be published.
Nov. 20, ’85.
I wrote my first short story just weeks after my father died. Well, saying he died doesn’t really pack the right punch. I was twenty years old when my father killed himself. I had just finished my first year in college, studying jazz at what was then called North Texas State University, in Denton, Texas. I left music to study writing and filmmaking and was currently enrolled at Cabrillo Community College in Aptos, California. I was working as a grocery store bagger at Alpha Beta in Santa Cruz when I got the call that my father, a respected pediatrician in Albuquerque, had taken his life.
I’d been in shock before. I was fourteen when my parents divorced and it was six months before I came out of the stupor. I stumbled through those months like a zombie when suddenly it hit me that my parents had parted and I crumbled. I hadn’t known I’d held feelings of fear and anxiety beneath the surface. Everything had seemed under control.
So, when my father died, I knew that hiding my emotions would only make things worse. I decided to throw myself into my writing, hoping to keep my emotions at the forefront of my thoughts. Within days I had written a short film called Meditations on a Suicide, a dark poem of a script that represented our lives together from the moment of my birth to the day of his death. It was an angry, uncompromising film, taking place in two bedrooms and a hallway. There were only two characters in the script—the father and the son. It would take five years to make the film, after stops and starts and time spent in the Cal State Northridge film department. It was a labor of love and it eventually played in the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But that was later, after years of contemplation and, well, meditation.
Shortly after I wrote the script, in the months after my father died, I began a different project. A short story. This was different—a tender, almost nostalgic look at a father and son and the pain of their loss. It was a glimpse at the cycle of life between men and their boys and boys and their fathers and the fathers of fathers.
My writing improved upon my father’s death. I suddenly had things to say that were so important they couldn’t be masked in poor writing. The message was the key and the craft was forced to catch up.
I had an interesting epiphany when I was in music school. It was the kind of moment that taught me the best lesson I’ll ever know, or teach, or share. I was in a saxophone quartet playing lead alto. The quartet included a baritone sax, a tenor sax, and two altos. We were playing a Mozart concerto in preparation for one of the school’s required juries. Each semester NTSU forced its music students to face a jury of professors and peers. It was a place no one wanted to be, especially the performers. Especially if the performers really sucked. In all fairness, we weren’t terrible. But we were as close to the bottom as it got.
We had been practicing all semester under the guidance of a disinterested professor who had appraised the situation at our first rehearsal and made the quick assessment that we weren’t worth his time. We received scant instruction and were left to maul Mozart’s masterpiece unimpeded.
It came the moment of our jury. Two hundred students and professors sat in a concert hall in their stadium seats waiting for the performance to begin. We stood in the wings, my three compatriots and I, closing our eyes and holding our breath. I listened to the voice in my head repeating the words, “It’s just three minutes and fifty-six seconds of my life. All I have to do is get through three minutes and fifty-six seconds and I can forget this ever happened. I can handle this kind of pain for that period of time, I know I can. They can, too. The students, the professors, the members of my quartet. It’ll all be over soon.”
It was probably forty seconds until show time when it hit me.What the fuck am I saying? I thought. This is Mozart. Mozart! He wrote this beautiful piece of music, he tore it from his heart and put it on the page and when it is played, when it is really played, it is music. It is spirit. It’s the best Man can do on this earth.
In an instant I knew what had to be done. I had to become a vessel. This wasn’t about me anymore; it was about the music, the message Mozart wanted to convey. I thought about poor, dead Mozart, rolling around in his grave, raising his skeletal hands over phantom ears every time I lifted my sax and nodded time. The sounds of squawking and honking and the torture he must have endured. Stop! Please stop! I imagined him screaming.
Three minutes and fifty-six seconds. And, as a quartet under my leadership, we tended to rush even that. I could wreck that concerto in three minutes flat. So, what if I slowed it down? What if I paid attention to every beat and measure, lingered on the legatos and punched the staccato? What if I let Mozart breathe through me… would the music emerge?
I turned and looked at the other members of our quartet and the distant smile on my face widened their eyes. They seemed shocked and scared. It’s bad enough they had to endure the next three minutes and fifty-six seconds, now Stephen had gone mad. I nodded and, as the seconds counted down, I stepped onto the stage. The others followed and we set the music on our stands. I saw our professor in the third row, bored, twisting a Number 2 pencil between his fingers. The other students and professors shared his enthusiasm.
I turned back to my peers and gave them a meaningful look. Whatever was burning through me I wanted burning through them. They didn’t understand, but I could tell they knew that something had changed. This time would be different.
I looked at the notes on the page. The name Mozart above the staff. I would not rush through this music. I would enjoy it. I would live it, take its twists and turns, hear its surprises for the first time. I tapped my foot slowly, raised my chin and held it in the air. The other musicians watched for their cue. They waited. It was quiet in the auditorium.
I nodded and we began. I don’t recall playing. I remember listening. I remember hearing music.
When we were done the auditorium was hushed. I looked at the other members of the quartet and they seemed exhausted, tired in the way that people are tired after climbing a mountain, after making love. There was applause in the seats. I looked up to see our music professor standing, his mouth open, an expression of disbelief. He came to us as we were leaving the stage and asked where we’d been all semester. The truth is we had only just arrived.
This was what happened to my writing after my father died. My father was the music that had to be told. The message required that I step up my craft. The writer arrived.
I entered “Yahrzeit Candle” in a couple competitions at the community college. The story won both contests. There was a cash prize for one of them and when I went to the second-story office of the English department my teacher came to the balcony and said, “It’s a good story. You might not write another story like this for years. Don’t worry about that.” I thanked him and as he handed me the check a breeze came between us and lifted it from my hand and took it in the wind. We watched it dance in the air until it fell into the bushes below.“Easy come, easy go,” said my teacher.
I didn’t really know what to do with “Yahrzeit Candle.” I wanted to make films, so I focused on getting into film school and plotting a way to make Meditations on a Suicide. I transferred to Cal State Northridge and joined the film department. One day the local Hillel brought Elie Wiesel to speak at our school, and I found a way to introduce myself. “I have a short story I wrote,” I said. “It won a couple awards. Do you think I can send it to you?” “Of course,” he said.
There was no email in 1985. I put the story in an envelope and mailed it to the address he provided. I promptly forgot about it, and it seemed he did, too. I went on with my life, writing my first feature-length screenplay—another family-oriented story about a boy in music school and the troubles he had with his dad. The script would go on to win competitions of its own and get optioned by film producers and get me an agent. My life in film had begun and I had no reason to continue writing prose.
Then one day I received a letter in the mail. There was a note attached, from Elie Wiesel’s assistant. The note said that the assistant had been cleaning out Wiesel’s desk and found this letter he had written to me after reading my short story. She thought I should have it. I unfolded the letter and read those words. Shining. Evocative. Penetrating. I hope it will be published.
I put the letter in a frame and hung the frame by my desk. I moved forward with my burgeoning film career, a career that would distract me from writing prose for nearly twenty-five years.
I spent time as a screenwriter and development executive, in and out of the film business, taking jobs where I could find them. I had careers, I had a family. I threw my hands up one day and said I was sick of Hollywood and took a job in a different industry and started writing novels. I wanted to love writing again. The screenplays I had written in the film business lacked soul. They were not evocative. They did not penetrate.
I liked my novels—they came from a good place. They were dark and passionate and scary. They were fatherless stories, too.
Recently a peer asked if I would contribute a short story to a collection called Jewish Noir, to be published by PM Press out of Berkeley. I would be joining about thirty other noir crime authors. I agreed and promptly set out to procrastinate. The deadline for delivery came quick and soon I was on a panel at the crime-thriller conference Bouchercon when Ken Wishnia, the editor of the compilation, asked the panelists about their history as Jewish writers. I mentioned this little short story I wrote thirty years ago. My first story. “Yahrzeit Candle.” I mentioned I had received a note from Elie Wiesel. At the time I didn’t know it was a “blurb,” something intended to help me get the story published. To me it was just that nice letter I received when I was young.
Ken asked if I wanted to submit the story for Jewish Noir. I told him it wasn’t a crime story, it wasn’t noir. “It sounds dark enough,” he said.
I sent him the story and he accepted it for publication. The anthology, Jewish Noir, comes out in October 2015, with a blurb from Elie Wiesel on the back cover, and great stories from writers across the US on the pages in between.
Thirty years, three minutes and fifty-six seconds. Listen carefully; there’s music in the air.