Humpford E. Dempsey, the Third, lived in an apple tree in his mother’s backyard.

The middle E in Humpford’s name was just an E; it didn’t stand for anything. Or rather what it stood for remained indeterminate, elusive. It was written as an initial, followed by a period as if to abbreviate a middle name in the ordinary way; but, as had been the case with Humpford’s father and grandfather, what the E stood for was an empty shell, a key (in the key of E) without a lock, a mystery wrapped in a capital-E Enigma. So, rather than standing for nothing, it could be that the E stood for Everything. Or at least everything beginning with the letter E., which was by far Humpford’s favorite letter of the alphabet.

As for the apple tree, it had a history and significance of its own which was not entirely unrelated to Humpford’s name (or at least to the two prior bearers of that name). The tree, a Golden Delicious, had been planted by Humpford’s grandfather (the original Humpford) on a fine September day in 1949, the very day Humpford’s father (the second Humpford) was born into the world. The treehouse, in turn, had been constructed by Humpford the Second, assisted by young Humpford the Third (our Humpford) and inaugurated on the latter’s eleventh birthday in the spring of 1986. Two days later, this middle Humpford (our Humpford’s father) had flown his Cessna four-seater from Spokane to Seattle to attend to some business, as he often did. On the return trip, the plane, and with it Humpford the Second, disappeared. The weather in the Cascades had been stormy that day and it was presumed that the plane went down in the mountains somewhere between the Canadian and Oregon borders. But the wreckage was never found and Mrs. Dempsey, along with Humpford the Third and his two sisters faced a long and open-ended process of alternating hope and doubt and frustration and grief. But mainly grief.

To add to the grief, Humpford’s grandfather (Humpford the First) died of a heart attack later that year, a few days after a dismal Thanksgiving, and only in his mid-sixties. In a way, though, the death of Humpford the First was a blessing in that it brought a sort of conclusion to the uncertainty surrounding the death of Humpford the Second. In grieving for the grandfather, the family was able to begin to close the book on their grief for the father, and although the sun would not shine very brightly for them for a long while, the clouds at least would begin to part.

There was some truth to that, sure; and yet, some two decades later on a fine Saturday morning in April, here lay Humpford–the sole surviving leg of that three-legged stool of Humpfords–brooding in the treehouse (reconstructed a couple of times over the years, to be sure) in the tree (now grown large and gnarled and filling up a good quarter of the backyard with its audacious blossoming splendor) that linked him to his two forefathers.

Humpford’s cell phone vibrated on the treehouse floor. He almost always had the phone set to vibrate rather than ring, although lately he had been experiencing phantom vibrations in his upper left thigh with disconcerting frequency. That and the occasional sensation of wet hands when they were perfectly dry had begun to make Humpford examine whether there wasn’t something wrong with him, some nerve damage perhaps from when he’d had a fever and had fallen out of the treehouse a couple of weeks prior, either from the fever or the fall or both. He propped himself up on one elbow on his futon mattress, picked up the phone and saw that it was Esther, the girl, well, woman, well, young woman (four years older than Humpford, in her mid-thirties, let’s say) from his mother’s bowling team who seemed to have taken Humpford on as a special project and potential father of her children. Humpford didn’t feel like talking to Esther, so he pushed one of the buttons on the side of the phone that stopped it vibrating and hastened Esther into voicemail.

To be continued ….


  1. Matthew Lickona says

    Well, hello there, fiction-boy! Nice of you to come out and play! I’ve been telling Rufus to let you out of the basement for years!

  2. Rufus McCain says

    America’s longest-lived apple tree was reportedly planted in 1647 by Peter Stuyvesant in his Manhattan orchard and was still bearing fruit when a derailed train struck it in 1866.

  3. Rufus McCain says

    Some apple trees will grow over forty feet high and live over a hundred years.

  4. Quin Finnegan says

    Hmm… Humbert Humbert + Mumford = Humpford?

    A magic “E“? Like Truman’s “S“, which, Henry once joked, should not be followed by a “.”, because the S doesn’t stand for anything or everything, but two things.

    Dempsey, as in the “The Manassa Mauler”, aka “Kid Blackie”, the Irishman who became the Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1919?

    Does living in one’s mother’s apple tree mean that you’re out of your (own) tree?

  5. He’s fording a waterway,but in a humping sort of way. A Cosmic Drill Sergeant is telling him to hump it.

  6. Quin Finnegan says

    My favorite letter is Q, for obvious reasons. An “O” with a cigar stuck in his mouth. Rich Uncle Pennybags with half his mustache shaved off. Unfortunately homonymous with queue, to form a line, or even the line itself, both of which I have no patience for. Fortunately homonymous with cue, helpful in billiards, which I do enjoy.

    Good Q.

    Bad Q.

    Other fun facts about my favorite letter may be found here, and you will find a couple of fun lists here, and here.

    I hope you have enjoyed this brief intermezzo concerning my favorite letter.

  7. martin Buber says

    But whenever the sentence “I see the tree” is so uttered that it no longer tells of a relation between the man–I–and the tree–Thou–, but establishes the perception of the tree as object by the human consciousness, the barrier between subject and object has been set up. The primary word I-It, the word of separation, has been spoken.

  8. Rufus McCain says

    I and Thou, p. 23

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