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The Last Peanut

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It occurred to little Jimmy Peter one August morning, after the electricity went and video games with it, that he hadn’t even opened the chemistry set he’d received from his parents for Christmas. In the backyard Jimmy tested the Bunsen burner’s flame on the chemistry set’s instruction book. He smiled with satisfaction as the fifty-five pages of red warnings in 11 languages burned away. No sooner had Jimmy mixed a clear liquid with a thick blue, added just a dash of salt, and heated the concoction, than a monstrous orange cloud wafted from his test tube and was picked up by the wind and carried away. The cloud continued to expand as it departed. He stared at it for a second, but the whole thing rather bored Jimmy, and he went inside to play with the dog.

The cloud soon covered the west coast of the United States, reached the east coast within hours, and had crossed the Atlantic by dark. Air raid sirens and emergency broadcast systems around the world were dusted off as people taped their windows and fought over bread and bottled water at the supermarkets. Lines for gas backed traffic up for miles and the price for a gallon nearly doubled. Industry insiders blamed increased demand, but Democrats pointed to a corrupt capitalist economy and decreased support for school lunch programs. Senior Republicans noted that this could all have been avoided if only kids prayed in school and we supported our troops.

No one claimed responsibility for the cloud, but by morning there were theories. It was a new strike in a holy war against the West, or sex, or poorly written sitcoms. This was clearly the work of the religious right, who would never be satisfied until the Ten Commandments were tattooed on the back of every infant’s hand at birth. Or it was the Democrats, who were using scare tactics to take money from the nation’s struggling corporate executives in order to give poor children the same chance as rich kids to view pornography. The militias warned of UN troops amassing on our northern border — the orange cloud could just be a diversion. Maybe it was a message from outer space, or an unexpected result of greenhouse gases. Some said the Day of Judgment was upon us, others were confirmed in their belief of a Jewish conspiracy, and more than a few were sure the earth was fighting back after years of abuse and that all the endangered species would soon rise up and take control of the world’s nuclear arsenals. A woman in Idaho who saw the Virgin Mary in her frozen waffles every other Thursday knew from a reliable source that the orange cloud was Satan’s work.

Everyone prepared for the end. Did it matter if this catastrophe was the result of affirmative action, which certainly put unqualified people in charge of dangerous chemicals? And why hold a grudge against wealthy, industrialized nations, just because of their obsession with progress and their disregard for its consequences? None of this would have happened if only everyone spoke English, but now wasn’t the time to start problems. So what if the Arabs blamed the Israelis, and fat people blamed thin people, and all of this could be traced, if one looked hard enough, to a dirty joke told by a man to another man in the presence of a woman on the floor of an automobile assembly line? The orange cloud was coming for them all. The cloud penetrated every home, every bomb and emergency shelter, every office, every school. But no one died. No one even got sick. The cloud dissipated, and blue once again dominated the sky. There was wild celebration in the streets, world peace, random acts of kindness, and alternate side of the street parking was suspended.

Then the cloud’s evil was realized. Calls came in from farmers all over the world. There were no peanuts. They were gone, melted away. The cloud had left the humans unharmed. The peanuts weren’t as lucky. Peanut farmers and peanut manufacturers were ruined, stocks plummeted, brokers threw themselves from office windows or else were gunned down by disgruntled clients. The medical community was outraged — how could the peanut’s untapped medicinal potential be recovered? Hadn’t anyone heard of the peanut’s ability to cure cancer? And what about the poor? the Democrats asked. Didn’t anyone know that peanuts were their main source of protein? Wasn’t this just an attempt to keep down developing nations, who depended on the money produced from peanuts for military power? And let’s not even mention elephants. How would they survive?

Answers. The nation, the world, demanded an explanation. Satellite spy photography, the FBI, a well-trained German shepherd, a three-minute call to the Psychic Hotline, and a spot on America’s Most Wanted soon traced the orange cloud to little Jimmy Peter’s backyard, and he was immediately arrested along with his parents. Accusations of treachery, of treason, soon fell away, and it became clear that Jimmy had acted alone. Daytime talk shows and respected nightly news programs interviewed his teacher, his doctor, the ice cream man in Jimmy’s neighborhood, examined the comb his barber used a week earlier on Jimmy’s head, checked for radical literature in his school’s library. Standardized tests revealed nothing, though a fight he had in the school cafeteria in the first grade indicated hostility and aggressiveness, if not proving the intent to destroy the world’s peanut crop.

Parents, they were the problem. Not enough love, or they didn’t read to him when he was in the womb, or they neglected to buy him a pony even though he really wanted one and promised to look after it. Jimmy Peter’s perversity had to be connected with having two first names. If not that, at least his mother was at fault for trying marijuana once before she met Jimmy’s father. Not that good old Dad was off the hook. Wasn’t it Mr. Peter who made Jimmy wash behind his ears before going to bed? How could such people be allowed to have children?

What kind of parents bought their kid a chemistry set, anyway? What was wrong with television and computer games? Environmentalists demanded that chemistry sets be outlawed, or at least a five-day waiting period be established, so a background check and mental stability test could be performed before purchases. The National Chemistry Association called the demand political grandstanding, noting that chemicals don’t kill peanuts — people do. Besides, they said, when chemistry sets are outlawed, only outlaws will have chemistry sets.

Just when it seemed that all was lost, it was announced that a peanut had survived the orange cloud. There was one peanut left, and it was apparently immune to the effects of little Jimmy Peter’s experiment. The world held its breath. The last peanut was immediately transported by ground, escorted by helicopters, army jeeps, and a New York City cab driver, to Washington, D.C., where it was presented to the assembled leaders of the world. Scientists explained how they could engineer peanuts from the lone survivor. The new peanuts would have the same immunity. In almost no time, they assured the many presidents, prime ministers, kings, evil dictators, and military strong men in attendance, the world’s peanut supply would be replaced.

The investigation had uncovered no malice, no intent, on Jimmy’s part, and had concluded that it was just an accident born from the natural curiosity of an eight-year-old boy. What a learning experience, the President thought, to allow the boy to acknowledge his mistake to all the world. There would be photo opportunities, and the President would be portrayed as a forgiving, sensitive man. It was an election year, and Congress agreed. Both parties were sure they had decided to forgive Jimmy first. There were protests from the peanut industry, claims of exploitation from child welfare groups, movie offers from four major studios. Jimmy and his parents were brought into the great hall.

They were led to the podium, where the last peanut sat on a plate beneath a crystal cover. Cameras were trained on Jimmy, who had to stand on a chair to reach the podium’s microphone. Before the apology, the President asked everyone to close their eyes and bow their heads in silent prayer, to give thanks to whomever they thanked when great tragedy is averted. The room was still, the universe at peace, leaders from every nation in the world prayed together.

Just then, as he quietly removed the crystal cover from the plate, it occurred to little Jimmy Peter that he’d never even tasted a peanut.



“The Last Peanut” was first published in Art Times in 1996.

Scott Stein is editor of When Falls the Coliseum and author of the novels Lost and Mean Martin Manning. His short comedic fiction, book reviews, and essays have been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Oxford University Press Humor Reader, The G.W. Review, Liberty, National Review,, Art Times, and Reason. He is a professor of English at Drexel University. Scott tweets @sstein. His author site is

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One Response to “The Last Peanut”

  1. I hate peanuts… but I love, love, love this story and hope little Jimmy enjoyed the last peanut!

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