Memory is a funny thing. Most days, it seemed like he couldn't rely on it at all. Yet, there were times when it would turn itself on, so strong and clear, it was like opening up a door and stepping back in time.
The scent of chlorine mingled with the sweet sound of “Melancholy Baby”, undercut by girlish laughter. It tickled his brain like Angel Dust, and his memory swept him away….
The girls were laughing hard. A boy they were both keen on had been showing them how to do the Lindy, and fell into the swimming pool. Across the lawn, “My Melancholy Baby” played on the new Victrola, and everywhere he looked, he saw friends and family, chatting, eating, dancing, or swimming.
Although the sun beat down on him from a cloudless sky, it had nothing to do with the warmth that filled him.
“Hey, Baby!” His mother tousled his hair, handing him a plate with a piece of cake carefully centered on it. “How’s my birthday boy?”
“Just Jake, Doll.” He gave her a smile and a wink.
The warmth grew as he watched her tip her head back and laugh. Her real laugh, the one she couldn’t control, always came with her head back like that.
“Just Jake, huh?” She winked back, knowing he was pulling her chain.
“Okay, okay, you got me. It is ab-so-lute-ly copacetic!” He paused for a minute, thinking hard, trying to figure out exactly what made him feel so good. “Everybody here is someone I really, really like. And there’s no wet blankets. They’re all swimming, and dancing, and having fun.”
She nodded, encouraging him.
“We’ve got wieners and Kool-aid, and Pop took us for a ride in the breezer with the top down, and Uncle Harold got me this darb yo-yo, and the Yanks trounced the Sox today, and laugh all you want, but I just know that Gehrig hit at least one of those home runs on account of it being my birthday.”
She hugged him, mindful of his cake. “So, it’s been a good birthday, then?”
“It’s the berries, Ma. The very best it could be. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.”
The Great Depression, World War II, the intoxicating balm of Angelique's silken thighs, the crushing finality of a twenty-one gun salute…all of that came later. But the year that he turned ten—that had been his best year. Old enough to appreciate how good he had it, but too young for life to be complicated by lust, or sullied by expectations that could never be fulfilled. He was innocent, and life was simple, the year that he turned ten.
The barmaid moved on, taking her chlorine-scented rag with her. His song ended, replaced by something nasal and monotonous. The image he had held in his mind, his family and friends, the sunshine, the dancing, the laughter, it all faded.
The warmth remained.
He lifted his glass in a silent toast.
To the perfect day. The perfect memory.