My father died on the kitchen floor, surrounded not by his wife and three young sons but by the six or eight firefighters and EMTs who'd been summoned to our apartment to try and save him. This took place on a Wednesday in October, at around 6 a.m. The sun had not yet risen.
The night before, we had gone about our usual routine. Right around my bedtime, Dad would be in the bathroom shaving. He always kept the door wide open and often could be heard saying this or that to my mother or to one of us boys. Before heading off to bed I would come up behind my father and tap on his leg or on the small of his back. He'd turn and bend down so that I could reach up and kiss him goodnight. His skin was smooth and moist and warm—it smelled of Noxzema. This was my favorite daily ritual; I looked forward to it each and every evening.
When the rescue workers carried his body from the kitchen into the bedroom, where it would lay covered until the undertaker came to collect it, I could swear that I smelled Dad's Noxzema as the men brushed past me and (unsuccessfully) attempted to shield my view.
Love doesn't stink, but it smells. A lot. And I can prove it.
You see, it's been nearly 50 years since I last kissed my father goodnight, and I can still smell his Noxzema today. I mean right now, at this minute, right here. I can summon the aroma at will. Anytime. Anywhere. Just try me. There it goes now.
But there is no jar of Noxzema on the desk where I am writing, nor anywhere else in the house. In fact, there never has been a jar of the skin cream with me, no matter where I have lived as an adult. I guess I just can't bear the thought of having it around. If I have been within 20 feet of an open jar of the stuff during the past five decades, I swear that I did not know about it—and certainly never got a whiff of it either.
The Noxzema is in my memory only. It's painful, yes, but also enormously comforting. You know, like Dad's long gone and yet he isn't, not entirely. How could he be? I can actually smell him.
It's a powerful thing, this sense of smell. Made more so when it becomes tightly linked with an emotion as potent as love. My father's skin cream may be my most powerful sense memory but it isn't the only one. Drop a nice hunk of butter onto a red-hot skillet and by the time it's all melted, I'm transported to my brother Joe's apartment in Queens, watching as he carefully makes the special pancakes that he knows I love so much. Pour out a glass of sweet red vermouth and at the first whiff, my dear uncle Dominic and I are sitting under his grapevine, telling stories and watching the bottle slowly drain as the summer sun sets. And don't even get me started about my mother: There are a good half dozen aromas that bring her back to me, each a little bit different from the next.
Only a few nights back, at around 2 a.m., I awoke to the smell of freshly mixed wet concrete. That may sound mysterious or even odd to most of you, but to me this was very familiar territory. You see, I love having the smell of freshly mixed wet concrete inside my head. Because when it's inside of me, so is my Uncle Joe.
From the time I was old enough to carry a handful of bricks or move a wheelbarrow filled with sand or gravel, my mother's eldest brother made certain to put me to work. He was a small-time general contractor who didn't need a little kid on his crew, but he took his job as uncle very seriously and tried to teach me whatever he could.
After dad died, Uncle Joe got even more committed to watching out for me, and by the time he himself passed, I'd become a pretty good laborer who actually earned his keep. I remember the last summer that I worked with my uncle, the one where I'd finally gotten the hang of not only mixing but actually laying down fresh concrete. It was a fairly large bit of sidewalk on a job in downtown Brooklyn. My uncle's best concrete man, an older guy named Neil, didn't make it to the job that day but the weather was perfect and rain was forecast over the next couple of days.
"This one's yours, chief," I heard that ever-benevolent voice say from alongside me. "Time you took charge, don't you think?"
I wasn't in charge, of course, but I did lay down an almost perfect sidewalk through the patient assistance of man that I loved as deeply as any other. I'm proud to have the smell of his sand and gravel and mortar living in my brain forever.
It just smells like love to me.