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Ah, the smell of it

Ah, the smell of it

In the movie Good Will Hunting, there’s a scene in which the Robin Williams character confronts the Matt Damon character, who has much knowledge of the world but not much experience in it. The Robin Williams guy says, do you know what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel?

I’ll go ahead and admit it right now: I don’t. I’ve never been there. Probably won’t ever go. Don’t really want to.

I’ve lived most of my life in Burnettown, S.C., and Nashville, Tenn. I’ve visited towns all over the South, mostly to play in redneck rock ’n’ roll bars. During those travels, I mostly saw the insides of the bars and the back sides of my eyelids. For the most part, the scenery didn’t change.

I lived for 13 months in Park Slope, Brooklyn. While I was there, I visited all of New York’s fine museums. I saw the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. But I knew it was time to come home when wife Brenda flopped down and rolled in the grass in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. She did it, she said, because she just had to smell something other than garbage, diesel fumes, and dog shit.

I’ve never been out of the United States. I’ve been within rock-throwing distance of Canada a couple of times, I’ve spent plenty of time on Atlantic beaches, and I’ve dipped my toe in Pacific and Gulf water. That’s my range so far. I haven’t eyeballed any castles or ancient temples or the Great Wall. I never sniffed any air that wasn’t purely American.

But I have smelled a few fine things in my day.

When I was a crawling baby, I got a noseful of the pine floors at my house in Burnettown. My mother mopped them once a week, with water and Spic & Span. She used a string mop, which flopped up onto the legs of the dining-room table and chairs, slowly removing the bottom inch of varnish. The legs looked like they had been airbrushed and blended into the gray pine floor. By the time I started smelling the Burnettown floorboards, there wasn’t much pine smell left in them, but there was plenty of Spic & Span.

I started playing recess baseball when I was in the third grade. We played with old balls that smelled like rotting horsehide and yarn. I lost track of my first baseball glove years ago, but I clearly remember the smell of a spot on the thumb, where I sniffed between plays. When somebody hit a ball to the fence, it rolled into a big stand of wild fennel, so the ball, and my glove, smelled like fennel for the rest of the game.

About the same time, my friends and I started organizing hunting parties after school. I remember the smell of my Benjamin pellet rifle’s walnut stock and the machine oil I used to lubricate the gun. Even more, I remember the smell of the unlucky birds’ blood, and the backyard bird stews, which smelled mostly like potatoes.

The day I met Brenda, she wore just a little strawberry-oil perfume. Over that weekend, I got that smell on my hands and transferred it to the neck of a gut-string guitar. I didn’t play that guitar much. It usually just sat in a corner of the room while I worked out songs on my electric guitars. But while I was waiting to see Brenda again, I took that gut-string out of its case many times every day, just so I could smell its neck.

Since then, I’ve accumulated many happy smell memories of lovemaking—in the wintertime, with a little wool-blanket smell in there; in the summertime, with sweat; and the special beach blend, with a little ocean breeze and old-cabin sheets mixed in.

These days, the first thing I do when I go to bed is bury my head in Brenda’s hair and take a good, long draw. Then I settle in. When I wake up in the morning, I aim for a warm and particularly sweet-smelling spot on her neck.

Just after daughter Jess was born, while Brenda was sleeping off 12 hours of labor, I climbed into one of West Side Hospital’s pink reclining chairs and tucked Jess’ head under my chin. As Jess slept peacefully, I pressed my nose to the top of her head. She smelled like her mother. As her little chest rose and fell, I caught the unforgettable smell of her brand-new breath. Even now, when Jess conks out in front of the TV and lands on my shoulder, I smell her head and try to catch a little whiff of her breath. Even after a hard day of ball-playing and fort-climbing, she still smells sweet.

There’s not a thing wrong with going to faraway places and doing special things. I’m all for broad experiences, but all things considered, I prefer deep ones. If I ever make it to the Sistine Chapel, I’ll be sure to pay special attention to the smell of the place. But I know, right now, that the experience won’t be a bit richer than the simple act of smelling my wife’s neck or my daughter’s hair. There’s no sight or smell that will take me closer to heaven than a slice of Brenda’s chicken pot pie. I know I’d be struck by the beauty of the art on the Chapel’s ceiling. But, truth be told, I’d rather watch Jess steal home, then see the umpire’s “safe” call revealed through the settling cloud of infield dust.

Oh, in case anybody was wondering: My friend Steve says the Sistine Chapel smells like old ladies, perfume, and incense.

Visit Walter’s Web site at, or e-mail him at

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