Essential Smell by Peter Wortsman

Of late he had begun to smell like boiled potatoes.

In childhood he went through his sea scallop, lamb chop, spiced ham, and sour pickle periods.

In adolescence his private scent, a rarefied peanut butter and jelly musk, spiked with essence of anchovy, to which only his solipsist nostrils were attune, lodged in the pit of his left wrist—the left arm being the boney conduit to the central dynamo of self. He did not like being touched by others, as it spoiled his essential smell.

But as he grew older, and less risk-averse, that private essence dispersed, mingling with and sometimes even overpowered by the essence of others, exiled to the far corners of consciousness, sometimes seeping from the armpits and between the legs, sometimes clinging to the hairs of his burgeoning mustache, threatening to jump ship.


Some love interests gave off the scent of hot chestnuts, sizzling pizza, others emanated ozone after the rain.

Never mind the malodorous.

One old flame smelled like roast chicken. Unless he focused on something else, his nostrils quivered in her presence, aroused by the savor of an oven stuffer pouring out of her every pore. It was admittedly a bit incestuous, his mother’s family having been in the poultry business, but that was part of the thrill. Every time things got steamy between them it felt like swimming in chicken soup. Overpowering at first, the aroma made him want to devour her, chomp on the breast, gnaw at the legs, naturally saving the wings for last. But the fickle olfactory appeal eventually wore off, or rather inverted from attraction to revulsion: like getting intimate with Frank Purdue.


He fell in love with his wife because she smelled like warm French bread fresh out of the oven, and because her smell melded with his, sandwiching him in, so to speak, in the soft dough of her embrace. It was his cold cuts period, Prosciutto di Parma to be precise. With rum-soaked bread pudding for dessert.

Their scents traveled, hers dripping from her earlobes and gathering in the delicate dip of her shoulder blades, his descending from wrists to fingertips and knuckles, and settling in the fine hairs sprouting from the index fingers on either hand.

Over the years both of their essential smells fermented the way fine spirits do, hers into that of a single malt Scotch, and his, considerably less refined, into that of Polish potato vodka.

It was during his last conversation with his mother that the matter, in a manner of speaking, came to a boil.

“What are you thinking?” he asked.

“When the potatoes are soft,” the great mother hen intoned with a certain oracular intensity, “you have to peel them.” Whereupon her head fell sideways on the pillow and lay still like a squashed potato.

Last words have a way of lingering, like smells.

Long after his mother’s passing he lay beside his wife, distracted, pondering her last words, wondering if she had been hallucinating a pot boiling on the stove, enunciating a recipe for happiness, or sending him a last message to buck up and do what he had to do while there was still time?

“Honey,” he whispered to his wife, inhaling her essence, but his own fermented potato vodka odor intruded on the intimacy of the moment. “I won’t be a minute,” he said, “I need to shower.”

He washed and washed but could not wash away the smell of old potatoes. His skin started peeling, as it had in childhood after a bad sunburn, when, perversely, he had helped it along, peeling off dried-up flaps.

He stripped off the flap of epidermis dangling around the fingernail of his left pinky tip, baring the pink flesh below. In the jet of hot water it stung where he peeled it.

“Come to bed!” his wife called with distilled intensity.

“I’m not done washing yet!” he called back, sucking and sniffing at the wound, enticed by his newfound essence of steak tartar.

Peter Wortsman’s publications include a book of flash fiction before the form had a name, A Modern Way To Die (1991); a travel memoir, Ghost Dance in Berlin, A Rhapsody in Gray (2013); two stage plays, The Tattooed Man Tells All (2000) and Burning Words (2006); and a novel, Cold Earth Wanderers (2014). He is also a travel writer with work in five consecutive editions of The Best Travel Writing, 2008-2012, and a critically acclaimed translator from German into English, including Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, by Robert Musil, now in its third edition; Telegrams of the Soul: Selected Prose of Peter Altenberg; Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist; Selected Tales of the Brothers Grimm; and Tales of the German Imagination, From the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann, an anthology which he also edited and annotated for Penguin Classics. Recipient of the Beard’s Fund Short Story Award (1985), the Gold Grand Prize for Best Travel Story of the Year (2012) and an Independent Publishers Book Award (2014), he was a former fellow of the Fulbright (1973) and Thomas J. Watson Foundations (1974), and the Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin (2010).

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