Portrait of Vincenzo d’Orti

By | 2 February 2001

from The Invention of Everyday Life

Vincenzo d’Orti is a man who smells. Day in, day out,
waking or sleeping his nostrils register the world and convey
it to his simple brain. Like many, Vincenzo moves
between thinking his life a torment and thinking it a joy.

Outside his house grows a mean, gnarled lemon tree —
unusual, because lemons grow well in Half Moon Bay.
The fruit is a dirty yellow colour, not much larger than
golf balls and just as hard. There are almost no leaves.
While Vincenzo’s wife complains bitterly about the
lemons, he is grateful that there is one less smell to
torment or gladden him.

Spring is the worst. Vincenzo often joins his neighbours
on the surgery porch hoping for some relief, not unlike
that prescribed for hay fever. But aside from breathing
continually through his mouth, which of course cannot
be healthy, swathing his nostrils in scented cloths, or
wearing an oxygen mask, there is nothing that can be
done for him. And he suffers.

The first delivery of mangoes, as the truck rolls down
the highway from Queensland — the smell reaching him
from as far away as Werris Creek — soon mingles with the
tomatoes and flowers and onions in the huge produce
market in the centre of the city, a terrible cacophony of
odours! Rotten fruit, rat filth, chickens.

At night Vincenzo smells the sewers and drainpipes of
the city after the first rains come and feels he is in a cave
that has never been opened. Beneath his house he can
smell the black mould spores multiplying; outside, shit
from a thousand dogs on verges and in parks. He can
smell the opening of chrysalis and the slick wet of new
butterfly wings fanning the air to dry; passionfruit inside
their thick leathery skin, hanging green and hard like
secrets on the vine; their ripeness, when it comes, almost
more than he can bear, mixed as it is with the lovemaking
of the young couple next door and the clean laundry
blowing on the line in the sun.

He can smell the pages of books being turned in the
library on West Street, the photographs in his family
albums quietly fading. The carpet shrinking.

In spring there is the fragrance of new basil being
planted out from thousands of little pots and the smell of
artichokes cooking in the kitchens of old women — this in
and around the smell of algae and mud and mangroves
and garbage coming up from the bay; in the evening the
smell of crickets singing and in the morning the dew as it
settles on the grass; for weeks tomcats screaming and
fighting under the moon.

For Vincenzo there are some days which are unbearable
anguish. These days he smells himself — his body aging,
decaying, his blood moving sluggishly like a dirty river,
the bones in his hands and feet curling ever so slightly. On
these days the soap his wife uses, and has always used even
when she was young and had beautiful hair, smells worse
than urine. The meat she places before him stinks of
death, as do orchids and strawberries.

Vincenzo, like many, spends much of his life wishing it
were over and terrified that some day it will be.

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