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Pickled Eggs & Beer

That’s me, the jowly kid on the right, with my younger cousin. The picture was probably taken around Christmas, 1956, just before the smiling man holding us got his new name.

I was his first grandchild, and couldn’t manage Grandpa when first learning to speak. I dubbed him Bumpy for all the cousins to come and eventually all the aunts and uncles and even my grandmother.

Bumpy fixed plumbing and heating systems for a living. Coffee cans full of pipe fittings lined his barn. Binders of product specs for Eljer and American Standard lined his office. A pass-through from the barn into the house, the office included a giant oak desk and a spattered utility sink. On the desk sat an adding machine with work-worn ivory keys and a crank-arm that made an exciting, official sound as it mashed numbers onto the white paper tape.

Every day, two blasts from the horn at the fire station announced noontime to all in our small Massachusetts town. Bumpy would emerge from someone’s cellar to come home for lunch. Before entering the house, he’d stop at the utility sink and lather up to the elbows with brown Fels Naptha soap, which is now marketed as a laundry pre-treatment or a salve for poison ivy. Blackish-gray suds splashed down the drain, and he'd dry off with a gray, laundered-thin towel.

I watched him with fascination when I was at my grandparents’ house at lunchtime. Bumpy would sit down — not at the chrome-legged, Formica-topped table in the kitchen — but in his heavy, oak rocker on the enclosed porch. He'd pull me into his lap, wafting the smell of burnt heating oil from his work clothes.

A fascinated young child, I’d touch the rough, dry skin on Bumpy's hands and finger the blackened, vertical crack in his thumbnail. Then my grandmother would bring him lunch: a quart jar of pickled eggs, some saltine crackers and a mug of beer. Pickled eggs because they had chickens who laid the eggs for free and vinegar to preserve them; saltines from a large rectangular tin because they were cheap; and beer because … it went so well with pickled eggs. Bumpy and I would share the crackers, dropping crumbs all over us. I didn’t like the smell of the eggs, but I watched the black crack magnify as he reached into the brine to grasp one. I watched as he bit into it with his gold-rimmed teeth.

After lunch, he'd put me down to grab his pipe, which he cleared with an upside-down whack on the ashtray. Then he'd dip it into his foil bag and light it, sucking the flame down into the pipe and sending the sweet tobacco aroma into the air.

Over the years, this tall, lean man with stooped shoulders became Bump. He taught us to fling grapefruit rinds onto the compost pile, to soak half-shucked corn for charcoal roasting, to apologize when we’d hurt someone. Once when I was about five years old, he announced we would all go fishing — but first my brothers and I had to help him dig worms. A prissy little thing, I was horrified by wriggling worms and refused to go. But he insisted, pointing me sternly to the bench seat of his work truck. He drove us to the local ice cream stand where, he claimed, the juiciest worms could be found. The only question was what flavor.

We had just a short time with my grandfather, who died when I was still a kid. But you can see why I can’t forget the dry, rough feel of his hands or the smell of Fels Naptha, heating oil, and pipe smoke combined with pickled eggs and beer — the precious, singular smell of my Bumpy.

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