Thanks for the Memory

Scientists have successfully created false memories in fruit flies.

    — Science Times      

Until a week ago, much of my own past was hidden from me. I don’t know why this happened. Maybe the vividness of my history, with its surfeit of loves and accomplishments, simply overwhelmed my mind. Maybe there was a persimmon. Who can say? The mechanism of forgetting is a mystery, to scientists as well as layflies.     

But recently — call it a miracle, or a healing, or simply the indomitable reassertion of truth — the fog lifted. Pictures of my life, real and vibrant, have flooded my consciousness. I never before believed in “recovered memory,” but trust me: What’s lost can indeed be regained.

Where to begin?    

Like most of us, I entered October of 1962 blissfully unaware of the crisis confronting our nation — until the summons came from the White House. They sent a long black car for me, with a beautiful mushy pear in the back seat. In a few hours, I was hovering in the Oval Office.     

“Look at this,” the vigorous young President said, laying out a series of aerial photographs on his desk. “These are secret Soviet missile installations in Cuba. They’re aimed at us.”     

I looked over the photos, then turned to face him. He needed my counsel, and he needed it now.

“Call Khrushchev’s bluff,” I said. “Get him on the hot line. Tell him you know all about this. Have Stevenson confront their ambassador at the U.N. Then find a big bunch of grapes. Threaten to drop them on Cuba, but save some for me.”    

Kennedy looked at me, his primitive, single-faceted eyes filling with gratitude and resolve. “Except for the thing about the grapes, you’re right,” he said. “Thank you.”      

He asked me to stay for dinner — just himself, Jackie, Oleg Cassini, Robert Frost and a really good leftover compote at the end — but I had to get back to New York, because Bud Powell was sitting in with my combo at the Five Spot that night.

And it was a night to remember, now that I can. On the third chorus of “Cherokee,” Sonny Rollins made a harmonic breakthrough that laid one of the crucial cornerstones of bebop. He always credited what I was doing on vibes as the inspiration, and sent me a lovely Thanksgiving basket from Harry and David every Christmas for years. But it was collaboration — let’s leave it at that.    

She didn’t come to the club that night — another long rehearsal with Marlon and Gadge — but she was waiting when I got uptown, and I told her all about it. To think that I might have forever forgotten my time with her! The wild nights of her premieres; the mad lovemaking; our desperate eleventh-hour glider flight to recover the stolen plutonium from the Argentine Nazis — it’s hard to believe that these precious moments could ever have been papered over with false, dull eternities of  circling over the three-day-old produce of a thousand suburban kitchens.  

These are some of the memories I can now bring to mind — some of the happy ones, that is. I have spared the reader, as I try to spare myself, the harsher side of my history, like a sundial that “only counts the sunny hours.” The childhood abuse? The abduction? The angry hands of Nelson Mandela barely missing  me over the brown bananas? I just don’t go there.

Charlie Haas’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Threepenny Review, and Narrative Magazine. His novel “The Enthusiast”  is published by Harper Perennial.