It’s not always true that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, not in the strictest sense. Vita sees no fire at all as she looks down from her balcony. It is the acrid odor that draws her, like someone has wantonly put down, then set afire an old wet buffalo. It’s not something she’s smelled much all winter–meat–and it seems almost terrible and foreign. There is a general wafting of grey smoke rising to the fifth floor–the top– where she lives. She leans over as much as she dares without plunging to her death. She wants to see where it’s coming from. Hard to say. She stifles an urge to yell out, “Stop all that meat charring!” because, of course, she can’t say that. Not unless she wants the majority of tenants to come racing down her hallway with spatulas and forks clutched in raised, angry hands.
She determines she’ll have to scout out the nuisance from another vantage point, from the ground where she can see all. Vita slips on her clogs and clatters down the stairs, thinking a repaired elevator would be reasonable to demand. Mistral Manor Apartments, indeed. Every week it’s something, leaky faucets, stove threatening to roast nothing, windows sticking.
Once on the ground she peers up, hand creating shade for her eyes. She counts a dozen people lounging on their balconies. Just stop the rain and everyone crawls out of burrows like moles blinking in the garrulous sun, gathering up energy and courage to re-enter a dazzling world. Or maybe not. Residents instead look like they’re are drinking, leading up to carousing or barbecuing who knows what on their balconies and patios. No roaring fires that she can see from here but smokey, meaty cooking smells could come from anywhere. A couple people wave and Vita ignores them.
Then she sees it. A plate balanced on the balcony railing of Mr. Carpenter, third floor. The foolish old guy has put his food out to–what? Bask in the sun? Age for a fortnight? Send waves of meat stinkiness to her place? Birds seem to swoop closer to his plate and a squirrel is trying to decide if it can jump from tree limb to Mr. Carpenter’s open air cafe. Are they actually omnivores? What a thought. The man now sticks his head out of his French doors and sees her eyeing his set-up.
“What is it?” He yells down at her, voice so gravelly it could scrape the air. “You don’t like the menu again?”
“You know full well that things come right up to my place. Heat rises, so what you cook, I get to taste and smell.” Her hand went to thin hips and she glared at him. “Can’t you cook indoors and leave doors closed?”
“I’m the only one who cooks and opens a window or door? My foods’ ghastly smells pick on you, that right? Oh my goodness, hop on up so you can have that conversation with the cooling culprit.”
There is a spattering of laughter from other balconies. He now puts hands on his own hips and they both look to courtyard onlookers as if they’re going to have a real face-off. Except Mr. Carpenter is by far the least likely to mean harm, is just teasing Vita and as usual she is slow to get it and fast to react.
“I already am,” she says. “Really, it can be disgusting.”
“No, really, come on up, Vita. That offending buffalo burger–to me it stinks, too–was lethally burned. I’ll get rid of it, the grill is just smoldering. I’m throwing in the towel.”
“Oh no, you mean it is a buffalo?” She covers her nose and mouth with her hands.
“Oh for crying out loud, forget it, I have something to ask you.”
His demeanor projects a cordial nature more now that he smiles at her. He may as well smile for their attentive audience. Everyone likes Mr. Carpenter, it seems, except her. He aggravates her with his penchant for teasing her about being vegan, for one. She doesn’t like how he always insist on speaking to her and everyone else as they pass each other, as if people yearn to be stalled by his inane and cheery banter. He’s like a balloon that bobs in your face. He doesn’t know how to mind his own business, ignore others, and stick to his own kind. Like those in the retirement home four blocks east–why isn’t he living his last regrettable years there?
“I have things to do, cover up that animal carcass. Not everyone eats badly like you.”
Vita waves off Mr. Carpenter, then tries to hop up the steps two at a time to get exercise. She turns an ankle but rights herself and resumes. She ate a huge breakfast of oatmeal stuffed with currents and walnuts plus gluten-free toast plus an orange and it feels like it’s gone to belly fat already. This is what happens when your girl buddy and your boyfriend are too busy to bother with you.
This odorous incident is all she needs today to pummel her fragile mood. She did have plans. She was going out to dinner with Charles, but he has a last minute business trip or so he says. And reliable Terry hasn’t been such a fine best friend lately, ever since she got that promotion. Also since getting married. As if being wedded and climbing the ladder to success has power to dismantle an eight year friendship. How fair is it that two women of about forty end up like this, one now married and promoted and the other, herself, uncoupling (she fears) from Charles and finding her job as accountant at Sparling Paperworks so easy she cannot budge herself from its hypnotic lull to find another?
On the third floor landing she nearly runs right into Mr. Carpenter who steps aside in time, thus sending Vita bouncing onto the wall as she tries to avoid a crash.
“Sorry,” he says, “thought it better to not break my bones from a fall.”
“Really, Mr. Carpenter, can you only aggravate people?”
He makes a long face as if terribly hurt, then shrugs. “Do I? Well, why not come in? Only for a minute? I’ve been working on something. And I locked out beastly remains.”
Vita stares at his crooked black rimmed glasses which tend to slip down his distinctive narrow nose. What if it smells frightening in there? She doesn’t want to be entirely rude, has never been inside his place, not in over a year. Why on earth should she enter now, though? It’s likely piled up with detritus from his bumbling life, overcome with relics he sees as decorative and that he must tell her about in detail. Maybe he paints things, like green ware vases or velvet pictures. She suppresses a shudder, sets her head at an angle and looks him hard in the eyes.
“Oh, we won’t be much alone, don’t worry. I have Tobias and Ethel, Lucille and Gideon and so on.”
Mr. Carpenter opens his door. Curious despite his manner, she obliges more from being tired of it all. The conversation. The whole day.
It is not close to what she expects. For one thing, he introduces the inhabitants of his aquarium right off, those which he has already named and a slew of others. It takes up half a living room wall and is impressively lovely, making the warm blue room feel like a seascape, each fish gracefully making its way from one end to the other as if entirely pleased to do so. And no dirty clumps of disorder. No relics unless you want to consider paintings and a scattering of photographs as too aged and boring. But no, they are interesting to look at even as she is trying not to gawk. The furniture is mid-century modern and cleanly gleaming; there are lush potted plants placed at choice spots; a china cabinet filled with beautiful glass objects. It is almost elegant, if that’s possible in a less than stellar vintage apartment. It all does justice to the high ceilings and spacious rooms unlike her more pedestrian, haphazard interiors, she thinks, and finds herself following him through the rooms to the… kitchen.
Vita stops in the doorway, puts up her hands in protest. She can still smell some of his ruined dinner but not too badly; he likely cooked outside on that little hibachi she’s seen him use. Plus, there is a light room spray essence hanging in the air. She can deal with a quasi-tangerine scent since it masks the other.
“I salvaged some but it’s put away, no worries. What I have to show you is right over here…”
Mr. Carpenter moves to the farthest cupboard, turns and grins at her in anticipation before pulling out two small bluish glass bottles with stoppers. Vita crosses her arms against her chest and frowns.
He walks past her and takes a seat in the wallpapered–swans on a pond and willows overhanging, no less–breakfast nook. He sets the bottles on the round table.
“Come, have a seat there and help me decide.”
Vita sits down, suddenly worries he might be asking her to taste something. Perhaps he thinks he’s a gourmet cook and has developed fermenting sauces or worse. The rectangular bottles are about three inches tall. As sunlight falls across the space the contents look clear and harmless. She looks from the bottles to the hands that hold them, all spotty and edging toward wrinkly and fragile. Vita sighs audibly.
“What I have here are two of my newest creations. I have worked a long while, months, in fact. It has been dependent on my nose, rather my olfactory nerve functioning, and it was damaged by chemotherapy. I ended up with anosmia, no smell, then it became hyposmia, reduced sense of smell…Yes,” he squints at her over top of his glasses making their slow way downward,”I had cancer–throat–but now I don’t. And in the past year my it is coming back, slowly but surely! So I have begun again.”
Vita feels quite uncomfortable hearing this, yet she also feels a little nudge somewhere inside, something that asks her to be patient and fair. She wants to toss the nudge aside and just open the bottles but she sits still.
“I see. Well, what have you been whipping up here in your tidy kitchen? That I might want to know about?” Surely she could be nicer than this but no, she is not feeling it and she would rather get this over with and go back home. And bury herself in an eighties television series with a cold beer.
Mr. Carpenter twists open one bottle and pushes it across the table, right in front of Vita.
She can already smell it, however, cinnamon, perhaps citrus with a dab of vanilla and oddly, a bit of peppery something…or maybe something woodsy, a sharpness to it with flowery softness in there. It confounds her, and she can’t really find names for this amalgamation of fragrances unleashed.
She lifts it to her nose, holds it an inch away, sniffs very lightly. “It’s… perfume?”
“That’s the best you can do? What did you think, soy sauce? It’s a mixture of perfume essences, yes.” He slaps a palm against his forehead.
“I realize you’re unschooled. But you have a fine acute sense of smell. So I wondered what you could smell and what you think.”
Vita lists the disparate things she is able to sniff out and then shakes her head. She sniffs again, more generously.
“It’s like you let out a genie, it is taking over my brain! I can’t describe it exactly.”
“Yes, that might be part of the problem…part of solution…which top notes, which middle or base should be strengthened?”
“Wait a minute. How is it that you’re making perfume? Is it a late in life hobby? Is it a hidden quirkiness–you have this desire to inhale such scents? I mean, you have to admit, not very many…well, older men are making perfumes out there. And what do you mean by me having a good sense of smell? How do you even know that?”
Mr. Carpenter sat back and grinned at her. “It’s my profession, it was my life, my perfumery. But then it ended, I don’t make my living making perfume anymore. But once–and quite successfully.” He leans forward on his elbows, then holds hands out to her. “You think I moved here because I loved the place? It’s alright, more than okay. But I lived much differently before the cancer. Before my wife died.” He lifts his bony shoulders high and lets them fall, hands rising and falling with them, an exaggerated nonchalance. “It’s what happens in life, you work, you get ahead if you can, you lose some and win some and then you get old. But I still love perfume making. So I start again. Who knows?”
Vita closes her mouth, which has hung open as he spoke frankly. “My gosh, that’s something,” she says then opens the second bottle. She is immediately enveloped by a thickly musky fragrance that is odd but warm, then there comes to her an underlying amber and something more. She closes her eyes.
“I know you have a nose because of all the smells you complain about. And some that you like are noted clearly, as well. Look at you.”
She opens her eyes and takes a fresh breath. “But you’re not around me very much, how do you know things like that.”
“I have friends here, “he says and laughs.”I have not lost my hearing, either. What do you think?”
“I like them, I have to admit. I mean, they seem a little unrefined, but–I don’t know anything about this. I just know what my nose takes in and they’re pretty good so far.” She sniffs one, then the other. “Ahhh. But they need work.”
“You should clear the nose first–coffee beans, one way, surely you’ve been to perfume counters. The synthetic perfumes are a different breed of thing altogether, don’t get me started…Anyway, it’s a start and I thank you for stopping by. I think they may have promise.”
He leans back and folds his hands in his lap, content.
“Yes, perhaps they do. But you tricked me, lured me in somehow.” She smiles despite herself. He looks so benign but she knows he’s sharp and crafty and that makes her like him a bit more.
“It is what it is, you’re here. It was my ruined meat dinner smell, remember, that started it all?”
“Please, no food talk. But you’re right. Mom used to say I could smell things from miles away or smell what no one else could. I smelled a gas leak way before anyone else when I was seven, so saved us, I guess. I have a sense of smell that can cause me issues at times, unfortunately…some people’s body odors that they don’t seem to realize emitting. A few food or cooking odors. Noxious plants or just too strong flowers–gardenias and lilies are way too much …I could go on. And I really don’t like most perfumes, either. Sorry.”
“You don’t like them because your nose is extremely discriminating and so many perfumes are not naturally derived. Ah, well. Much to learn but you might manage it, and help out. As I thought.”
Vita sits up. “What? Oh, no. I’m certainly not going to be some old guy’s accomplice in–in, well, an illegally run perfume manufacturing operation right in Mistral Manor! I have my standards, too!”
He laughs a little, then laughed harder, until his eyes watered and he took off his glasses and wiped his eyes. “Vita, honestly!”
Vita is embarrassed by her outburst, knows it is foolish and perhaps mean, and is ready to leave. But those little bottles on the table pull her like a magnet pulls snug to metal. She fingers one and wonders over what he has said and how he is offering to teach her something different. Maybe fascinating. How she finds her job a mind-numbing bore. And how Charles is leaving her, she knows it as she sits here discussing perfume. He always wears one that she’s never liked but has been afraid to mention.
She forces herself to not run out. Instead, she clears her constricting throat, asks, “Do you have any tea?”
Mr. Carpenter pushes himself away from the table and gets up. Chooses a delicately aromatic rooibos and honeybush tea that he feels she will enjoy, and turns on the kettle. He feels a quiver of hope.
Vita props chin in hand and looks out the window at the tableau of balcony and beyond, sunshine intensifying the light turquoise dome of spring sky.
“Want to get rid of that buffalo out there so we can sit on your balcony?”
He does so, then opens wide the doors and ushers her through. There’s the offending hibachi, a few coals glowing, crusted with meat. They stand there watching the courtyard activities, children romping, dogs playing tag with each other, neighbors chortling and chatting, drinking cheap wine. Leisurely dinner hours. It hurts her, all this pleasure.
“I’ve got leftover spaghetti from last night. I can toss a salad. Want to eat with me? I warn you–I subject food to the microwave for reheating.”
She offered a sidelong glance of relief and defeat all mixed up. Then a smirk. “Sure, why not? My birthday celebratory dinner. Tonight I’m turning forty-one. And my boyfriend ditched me. Whoopee!”
“Whoopee!” he shouts after her. “You’re still alive and able to live a good life. You’re a bit over half my age and here we are making dinner together. And perfume. Imagine that. I may have found another feisty, goodhearted daughterly sidekick, mine’s long gone to Louisiana… Anyway, there are better critters in the pond to catch.”
“Now don’t go saying things that are foolish, you’re annoying just when we were getting along okay. ‘Feisty’ sounds like one of those damned scrappy little dogs that are always fighting over someone else’s good bone…Oh… Well, then, what’s with the bit about being ‘goodhearted’? Watch out for misguided words and ideas. And further, I’m sure not looking for any frogs to kiss.”
She looks behind her but he’s shuffled into the kitchen. The kettle is whistling. There arise on both her arms sudden goose bumps despite the warm, sweet air. She can smell lilies of the valley, they’re down there beyond the grove of trees, under the bushes. Heaven. She goes inside.
“I’ll make the salad, I’m quite good with veggies. I might possibly be good with perfume. We’ll see.”
Mr. Carpenter pours the water for tea. He hums as he gives the casserole a preparatory stir, shoves it in the microwave and sets the timer. He then tears off a chunk of buffalo burger from a delicious patty he earlier stuck in a plastic baggie. Savors the taste, thanks in large part to having a gifted nose that delivers more and more flavors and aromas to his brain again. And now there are two: one with raw talent and one who may regain it. Life, he muses (as Vita gathers and sniffs tomatoes, onion, peppers and lettuce) is surprising and sweet far more often than he’d expected as a scrawny, tossed about, lonely kid. How fortunate to have been saved by his nose. As she could be, too.