Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Hmph! (03/04/10)
TITLE: Mr. Humphrey's Angel
By Beth Muehlhausen
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Mr. Humphrey lived next door to seven-year-old Alice Winkley. He was an opinionated old coot with bushy eyebrows resembling fuzzy black caterpillars. Alice expected someday those Groucho-Marx-eyebrows might decide to crawl over the very thick lenses of his black glasses and march right on down, down, down to the ground.
“Hi, Mr. Humphrey!” Alice said one afternoon as she rode her bicycle on the concrete driveway separating their lawns. Even at a distance she remembered he had way too many creepy black hairs growing out of his nose and ears like misplaced scrub brush bristles.
He bent over a precious rose bush and snip-snipped it here and there. “Hmph!” he relied, without looking at her.
“Look – I’m riding with just one hand!”
Old Mr. Humphrey’s left caterpillar-brow pointed to the sky while the right one sunk into its eye socket. “It’s Sunday, child,” he growled. “Sundays are supposed to be quiet, private days. Ride your bike somewhere else and leave me in peace.” He waved her on, and then tottered to the next bush.
“Okay, I’ll go ride on the sidewalk. Bye!”
Mr. Humphrey had earned the nickname “Hmph” among those who lived in his neighborhood, but of course no one was brazen enough to use it to his face. Still, Alice had heard her parents speak of him as “Hmph,” although never unkindly.
One evening Alice heard her mother approach her father. “Honey, I took Hmph some fresh-baked bread this afternoon, right from the oven, and all he could say was, ‘Got any nuts, seeds or grainy things in it? I can’t eat those with my false teeth, you know.’ He’s getting crankier all the time.”
“That just means we have to love him even more, doesn’t it?” her father replied.
Although Hmph’s behavior was often eccentric, Alice’s parents made every effort to teach their daughter respect. “Remember, he’s an old man; I’ll be one of those someday,” her father told her.
“Mr. Humphrey needs us to be especially patient and kind,” her mother said. “He lives alone and he needs us. He just doesn’t always know it.”
Perhaps their coaching made a difference the day Alice glanced next door and saw Mr. Humphrey cleaning his garage gutters from an extension ladder. She witnessed the very moment when his weight shifted and the ladder began slip-slipping in slow motion. There was a loud c-r-a-s-h, and Mr. Humphrey let out a muffled groan.
Alice unlatched the gate to Mr. Humphrey’s white picket fence and ran as fast as she could to his side. She knelt down beside the stunned old man and offered his glasses that had flown off on impact, but he didn’t reach out for them. “Are you okay, Mr. Humphrey? Can I help you get up? Should I go get my mom?”
He looked at her blankly and mumbled a few words under his breath that seemed to make no sense. Among them she thought she heard “angel.”
“Did you see an angel, Mr. Humhrey? A guardian angel?”
As he lay prostrate on the finely manicured brick walkway with his shirttail out and the heel of one foot planted in the purple petunia bed, Mr. Humhrey stared into the blue-blue sky. “What did you say, girl?” Then he interrupted himself. “No - hand me those glasses, child. I’m all right. Don’t get your mother! I don’t need a woman fussing over me at a time like this.” He slowly leaned onto one side, rested on his elbow, and glared at Alice eye-to-eye. “And no, I didn’t see any angel - not today - not EVER.” He snorted characteristically and stared at her with that I-don’t-want-to-be-bothered look. “Hmph. There’s no such thing as guardian angels.”
Alice squatted down with childlike verve until her nose practically touched Mr. Humphrey’s eyebrows. “Oh, but Hmph – I mean Mr. Humphrey – don’t you believe God is good?”
Mr. Humphrey sputtered. “What’s that … got to do with … with ANGELS?”
“Well, don’t you WANT to believe God has ways of watching out for you?” she replied.
“Never thought about it, I guess,” he grumbled. “Now here Angel, take my hand and pull hard.”
“Hey – my name’s not Angel!”
Mr. Humphrey staggered to his feet as Alice stabilized him. “Oh … I mean … Alice.” He spoke gruffly and gestured toward her house. “Now go along. GO!”
“Sure, Mr. Humphrey.” Alice skipped through the gate, grinning. “But if God wants to use me to be your angel again sometime … well, I’ll be ready.”
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