As I stood there, watching the smoke making its lazy trek heavenward in the tepid evening air of late July, I could not help thinking that I’d missed something. In fact, even given the intervening years and the hours spent in the company of Harvey, I still cannot say that I understand exactly what had happened for him. Four weeks into summer something had clicked. I could feel it, even if he wasn’t letting on. It was in the air like the smell of the fire before me, tangible as a bug bite after it starts to itch. Like a search for the headwaters of an anonymous river, I began to review the proceedings of the last two weeks, hoping to put my finger on the name of the thing that I could not quite identify.
Harvey Mayhem was my neighbor. Of course, in our neighborhood that wouldn’t necessarily mean that we saw much of each other – things are pretty spread out this far from town. However, Harvey and I had girls of the same age, so we got to know each other around the school. I don’t recall how his nick name came to be so well known, but I do know that it was not conferred on account of his infamous propensity for barroom brawls. No, it actually came from his work. Harvey Mayhem was a bomb technician for the Sherriff.
A little clarification is needed here: “Mayhem” had nothing to do with bombs per se. In fact Harvey had been dubbed with his nickname long before he took up working with explosives. Harvey Mayhem had found his light in the high stress calls – where fates were violently unpredictable, many lives were on the line, and the folks at the scene had been drafted by circumstance into the ranks of the mad. The man had a knack for calming people down. It wasn’t, I am told, so much any particular thing that he did, but the simple fact of his presence. Something about him just sort of ran the dark clouds away. Once he got to the crisis, the locals felt that they were no longer staring into the abyss of catastrophe, but watching a well-tuned machine systematically solving their problem. This ability to convert calamity into serenity is what made Harvey so good at his work.
On this Fourth of July – as most any other – there were several of us who refused to pay the parking fees at the fairgrounds. Instead, we parked our pickup trucks in a row on the firebreak between the railroad tracks and Flanders’ orchard. We brought sandwiches and beer, lawn chairs and blankets, and lots of snacks for the kids. Someone’s radio was playing softly. My wife had refused to hang out by the train tracks and walked over to the fairgrounds with our youngest. Tim Oakland, from Rotary, rode with me. Harvey had another single dad from the school with him; I think his name was Bill. There were a couple of other trucks up there as well, on either side of our group.
It wasn’t quite dark yet, the sandwiches were gone, and we were entirely ready for fireworks. I recall thinking that someone should have thought to bring a Frisbee. As if in response to the image in my mind, something bounced off the truck window behind me with a thud and landed in the bed of the truck. I looked in the direction from whence it came, to see Harvey’s evil grin and hear him say, “Not ripe, dammit!” Tim was rooting around under his chair, but as I turned to look he straightened up, brandishing something in his hand. It was a peach, with a bite out of it. I started to laugh, and returned Harvey’s smirk as Tim arched back to return the peach.
Nothing happened. I looked back at Tim, who sat motionless, with a goofy, slack-jawed expression on his face that made him somehow resemble a fish.
“What?” I asked, suddenly concerned.
“The face…” he proclaimed, trailing off dumbly, he was staring at the peach in his hand. Tim looked at me. Then, as if he suddenly realized that I hadn’t examined it, and he held the fruit out to me, turning it to the side he had been gaping at. He was right – the blushed part of the peach looked very much like a face. I took it from his hand as Harvey and Bill trotted up. I held it up for their view.
“Hey, it’s a picture of Jerry!” was Harvey’s remark, “well, sorta, anyways.”
“Jerry!” Tim’s voice cracked, “it’s the Shroud of Turin you fucking atheist!”
Tim was right. Not necessarily about the shroud – although the image did resemble the relic – but about Harvey’s atheism. The subject had come up one day in a conversation about his job. “No, I don’t pray before disarming a device,” (Harvey never used the word “bomb”) “If it’s my time, it’s my time.” When pressed about death, Harvey insisted that it is “no different then turning out the lights – you’re on one moment, off the next.” I didn’t see fit to point out the contradiction, that his statement regarding his “time” acknowledges a belief in fate at the very least – a bit superstitious for one who does not believe in something of the spirit.
I found it odd that a bomb technician could walk right up to an instrument of death – a poorly manufactured one at that – and place his hands directly upon the thing, having absolutely no faith. There are no atheists in foxholes, right? But Mr. Mayhem, moving from frontline trenches to no-mans-land as a matter of course, claimed to believe that there was no god at all. Does this make sense? I could not fathom. Then again, I thought it odd that Harvey would want to come and watch the fireworks, yet here he was. And he, of all people, had bit into a peach with the face of Jesus on it.
Tim was trying to give it back to him. “You have to keep it”, insisted my Samaritan friend, “it was sent to you!”
Harvey had a rolling chuckle going by now. Not a full blown laugh, but the kind that keeps interjecting itself in your speech. “Gimme a breakkk!”
“He’s right” intoned Bill, “this is definitely a sign of something.” Bill was obviously awestruck. He had a hold of a bit of Harvey’s t-shirt sleeve, as though to restrain the man gently. Then he stepped in front of him, saying “Not a sign, but an omen – you need to do something different.”
Harvey paused for all of two seconds, then busted up outright. He pushed his half empty beer into Bill’s hand, and turned to rummage a new one out of the ice chest. Further talk of the peach was interrupted by a loud ka-boom! from the direction of the fairgrounds. The show had begun.
Tim was not at the café the next morning. Harvey was there, as was the usual crowd, but Tim was conspicuously missing. I had nearly finished the paper when Bill came in – unusual, but no big surprise. He sat at the counter with Harvey, and I heard him ask if Tim had been in yet. As if summoned, in walked the man himself, bearing a paper bag. He saw me, and beckoned as he headed for the end of the counter nearest Harvey. As if having a second thought, he held his palm up to me, stopping me from rising (which I hadn’t actually been about to do) and spoke a few words to Harvey. Bill looked over at me, nodded, and the whole group came to join me at my table.
“Here’s the thing,” started Tim, excitedly reaching into the bag, “this thing is really huge!” He drew out the peach – slightly mangled, with a single bite still missing from it.
“No it’s not,” taunted Harvey, “it’s a peach – it’s peach-sized!”
I looked back and forth between the faces of Bill and Tim. I could see they’d been talking since last night, and must have reached some conclusion. In confirmation, Tim piped up “I called Bill this morning because I have a theory: This thing is here to tell you something. Now, the picture on the outside is just to get your attention, see? It’s the face of Jesus – no doubt about that, I looked up the Shroud and the pictures match exactly!”
“Ummhumm…?” from Harvey, mildly impressed.
“If the face is there to get your attention, then there must be a message somewhere, an omen…” Tim trailed off as though his logic should imply an obvious and inevitable conclusion. Blank looks from two sides of the table.
Bill stepped up to the plate, “There’s probably a message inside, guys!”
So we cut open the Jesus Peach. I’m no atheist, but I had serious doubts about the productivity of this venture. I mean, if God wanted to tell Harvey – or anybody – something important, couldn’t He just implant him with some kind of irresistible impulse or something? Why bother manifesting the image of a face in the blush pattern of a piece of fruit? On the other hand, the resemblance to the image on the famous Shroud of Turin was certainly striking – hard to chalk that up to coincidence. But what made Tim and Bill so sure that there would be a message inside?
We removed all the flesh from the Jesus Peach. I examined the pit first, then passed it to Bill. Tim was carefully flattening the skin onto a small piece of cardboard and pinning it down with thumbtacks. Bill passed the pit to Harvey, and started sifting through the juicy pulp. The waitress, with a quizzical look, topped off our coffees without a word. Nothing. No evidence of a message. I started to speak, but Bill cut me off – “Every general sign, like this one, must point to a specific thing, or else it would be meaningless. God always puts things in our paths to get our attention; it’s up to us to see the sign and follow it to the thing his wants us to see. Like the star over Bethlehem – the three kings followed it to the Son of God…”
“Wise men,” put in Tim, “not kings, three wise men.”
“No, they were kings” insisted Bill.
“Wise men, or – more accurately – two wise men and a wise woman.”
“What? Are you quoting your Agnostic Bible again?”
After a laugh, Tim said “Ok, first of all it’s the Gnostics, and I was just making up the part about the wise woman… ”
Suddenly there was a popping noise from the end of the table. Harvey had cut the pit in half with his pocket knife. “No message, guys.” He held up the seed, released from within the pit. “Can we give up now?”
Tim was obviously disappointed. The talk continued, but the excitement was gone. “Maybe the message is back at the tree…?” “Maybe it’s gone now, since we didn’t look last night…?” Like conspiracy theorists, the two men tried to rationalize their disenchantment. Harvey was fumbling in his pocket to pay his tab; he was beyond chiding Bill and Tim.
I saw it first. I stared at the halves from the Pit, and felt my brows knit as I turned the question over in my mind: “Do I say anything, or let it go?” But I didn’t need to take any action – our waitress spotted it as she picked up Harvey’s cash. “Wow! That pit was meant for you, Harvey!” she said, and walked away.
Three pairs of eyes moved to the halves of the Pit, and instantly saw the thing as I did. We looked at each other. For the first time, Harvey Mayhem looked concerned. The dark color of the Pit’s mantle gave way to a lighter shade on the inside, exposed by Harvey’s knife. There, in clear silhouette, we could see the unmistakable outline of a mushroom cloud.
When we all went on our ways, Harvey played it off like he always did: no real concern, generally passive. Sure, it was interesting, he conceded, but it did not have the deep significance that Bill and Tim obviously attached to it. For that matter, I was starting to catch the bug by then. I mean, how far can the providence of random chance go? Harvey agreed to keep the Peach skin, and the Pit, and this seemed to satisfy Tim. We chatted about it idly in the following two weeks, and that was it.
Until the day I finished the yard work. I was finally burning the largish pile of brush which had accumulated earlier in the year from the annual trimmings. Harvey may have seen the smoke, as he walked over to my place cross-country, hopping the fence. We talked for a few minutes about the girls, the plans for upcoming school season, and such things as parents talk about. Then he broke out a story that rather surprised me coming, as it did, from him.
Two days earlier, he’d been on a call. Just like dozens of other calls he’d handled before: some kind of attack involving a rather nasty looking bomb which had been placed in a public building. It was attached to a timer, but the time of detonation was unknown, and the responsible party had not seen fit to enlighten anyone. Harvey Mayhem went to work. Onlookers watched as he approached the danger zone, like people with front row tickets to an imminent train wreck, they felt safe now that the man in the black suit faced the danger for them.
Then, in a radical departure from custom, Harvey paused. In his retelling, he claimed it was not a prayer that he said. He simply stopped for a moment, thought of his daughters, and spoke a few words to them – out loud – as if to help clear his thoughts. He paused, perhaps twenty paces and around one corner from the incoherent mass of pent-up evil, for about thirty seconds. At the very moment he started to move forward again, the wall in front of him melted way to a torrent of shrapnel, immediately followed by the concussive blast which would ring in his ears for years to come.
“That pause saved your life,” I stated the obvious, as if voicing it would help me get a handle on the magnitude of the statement.
“Are you still an atheist?”
“Yeah,” with a derisive chuckle.
I watched Harvey take something out of his pocket and toss it in the fire. “Don’t tell Tim or Bill about this, okay?”
We looked into the fire for a few minutes, then he went home.