The Last Days of the Peanut Butter Mines
There are tunnels running through my brain, burrowing into the darkest recesses of my soul. My thoughts often come from these dark abysses. I buried so many of my friends alive there that I can't help but hear them cry out. The horrors of the peanut butter mines never leave me, even now as I know the cramped corridors have long since collapsed and sealed themselves shut. They can bury the miles of twisting passageways, the seemingly bottomless pits, and the caverns of peanut butter, but they can't bury the memories that linger in my brain.
My earliest memories are smeared with peanut butter. When my father would come home from a long day in the mineshafts, he was always drenched from head to toe in that foul paste. Dad was filled with guilt, believing himself to be the reason mom died. She vowed to love him forever, but her peanut allergies eventually got the better of her and that promise. She died before I ever got the chance to remember her. There was a time when he worked in the mines to support a family, but when the family fell apart he worked in the mines to punish himself. Eventually the mines took him away, too, and left me all alone. With no light in my world, I followed the ghost of my father into the mines. Little did I know I'd get stuck in the undertow of a sea of peanut butter. I cannot possibly begin to tell you how brutal life is as a peanut butter miner and convey the personal pain I feel each time I think about peanut butter. All I can do is tell my story in the mines.
For a time in my life, the peanut butter mines were all I knew of the world. I'd toil away on near endless shifts in virtual darkness only to escape into darkness. The others and I would waddle into the mines before sunrise, never seeing the first lights of dawn. By the time the shift ended, any trace of sunlight would be hundreds of miles away in some distant land. The moonlight would walk us to our shanty homes, and the dread of a new day would haunt us through the night. Sometimes I'd swear the dread spoke through the crackling fire, taunting me as I clawed at my pillow and begged God to save me. Before sleep I would wash myself until my skin burned trying in vain to get the smell of peanut butter off my skin. That horrible smell plagued us all. A miner could have all the soap in the world, and it still wouldn't be enough to cleanse away that despicable stench. After awhile, I wondered if I just smelled peanut butter out of habit, that maybe my nose didn't know any other scent.
Home for a peanut butter miner was a wooden cage, often shared with other miners. I bunked with three others, huddled close in the cold nighttime air. Our home was a glorified chicken coop forged of blistering wood and half-hearted intentions, a lumberyard cacophony that never hesitated to give splinters, to swell and smell in the rain, to creek and moan in the wind, and freeze throughout the harrowing winter months. It was hardly any better than the mines, but I never worried about dying when I was home, only in the mines. Compared to the hell of the mines, everything else was a small peace of heaven.
The mines were a lonely place, even with friends. As much as we tried to cheer each other up, the horrors of the job always smashed our spirits into a creamy paste. Except for Pete, anyway. His spirit was thick and chunky, and well suited for the grueling hours spent toiling away in pursuit of peanut butter. His soul shined brighter than the light on his helmet. Naturally, we all gravitated towards him. Even bitter Smitty was pulled toward Pete's light, though he'd never admit it. Old Gus, who had spent his entire life toiling in the mines admired Pete's naïve optimism, and probably saw the reflection of his lost youth in Pete's high hopes and grand ambitions.
Whenever one of us would lose our nerve, it was always Pete and Old Gus that got us thinking straight again. I can recall with vivid detail the grief and hysteria that ran through my body when Clive was swallowed whole by a bursting vein of peanut butter. It was especially gruesome, given his allergy to peanuts. His whole body seemed to come apart from the inside out all while it was simultaneously devoured by an oozing blob of creamy death. His head was the last part of his body to be consumed, and the look he gave me the second before his life was drained tore into me like a meat hook and hung me in a slaughterhouse of guilt. I could not save him, none of us could.
A minute before his death, Clive was telling a joke. "So he says," he started to say. Then, as if he was so overwhelmed with the joke he was about to unveil, exuberantly smiled and tapped his pickaxe on the cavern wall. Immediately after the clang of his pickaxe came a mighty rumbling from beyond the rocky surface. The joy in his eyes seemed to die instantly, and his face became white with terror. A minute later Clive was dead. An entire life lost in a sea of peanut butter. We miners often heard strange stories of alien people eating peanut butter, but it was never that way in our world.
"God darn it! God darn it to Hell!" I screamed as I threw my helmet down and began plucking the hairs from my scalp.
"Calm down, lad!" urged Old Gus, trying with all his might to settle my determined hands.
"Don't be a fool," chimed in Pete. "There's nothing we can do for Clive now! The best we can do is get this under control and pick his body out later."
"What kind of a life is this?" I pleaded with them to answer.
"The only one we know," said Smitty. Adding, "Stop being such a coward and get back to work. Clive got what he deserved for being careless. In this kind of work, a man can never afford to be careless. The peanut butter, it knows when you're careless. It waits for you to let—"
"That's enough!" demanded Pete. "Why don't you go make sure this tunnel is reinforced! Don't get careless yourself, Smitty!"
"Fine, Pete," replied Smitty. "I'll do just that."
"There's got to be a better way!" I shouted, unable to hold back the tears. "We can't go on like this. There has to be another way!"
"Where else are you going to get peanut butter?" said Old Gus in an angry voice. "Where? We have a duty to do. The world needs peanut butter, you darn fool!"
"He's in a better place now," spoke Pete in a soft voice. "There's no peanut butter where he's at now. There's no more peanut butter!"
"Don't be stupid!" I screamed. "It just ate him alive. It will eat us all soon enough! This is no kind of life to live! This is no kind of job to do! The people don't need peanut butter this bad! They can do without it!"
"Don't you understand?" asked Old Gus. "They don't care about us. They don't know we're down here. We're not like them! So we shut up and we work and we keep working and we save up our money, you see! Then when can't work no more, when we're broken, we take that money and we leave and we make something of ourselves!"
"Old Gus," I said astonished, "you're ninety years old!"
"Well, maybe I don't count. Maybe I'm here because I like it."
"Nevertheless," Pete interjected. "We can't dwell on this forever. Clive was a good man, but he's gone now. Let's get on with work and be thankful we don't have to work in those darn cottage cheese mines in the mountains."
"I guess you're right, Pete. I'm going to work until I bleed as long as I have to, so that I have money of my own. Then, one day, I'm going to take that money and I'm going to leave this place and find a girl to marry! I won't ever tell her of this awful place. I'll have kids, too, lots of kids. They won't ever work in a place this horrible! They won't ever eat peanut butter so help me God!"
Pete smiled at me and patted me on the shoulder, as did Old Gus. Then we went back and joined Smitty in cleaning up the mess. It was like this far too often. Clive was one of many in a long line of friends to fell victim to the brutal working conditions of the mines. There wasn't a week that would go by that didn't take a life with it. Each and every day people were being swallowed whole in the peanut butter. If it didn't burst through the walls and crush them, it poured out of the ceiling or rose up from dark chasms. Sometimes our makeshift bridges would collapse, sending some poor soul falling into a pit of brown oblivion. We were under tons and tons of rock and peanut butter with nothing but pickaxes and a job to do. We were peanut butter miners, and no one else was going to fill those jars with fresh peanut butter. No one but us.
Clive was the comedian of the mines. After Clive's death, the mines fell silent with fear. The dread gnawed away at each of us as we pondered dying so far beneath the Earth that they would have to carry us up miles just so they could then bury us again under six feet of dirt. Still, every miner did their job and that was that. Occasionally, one of us would try to crack a joke, like Clive always did, but it was always an awkward joke with an awkward laugh. We just went about our work, each of us looking to earn our money and leave the mines behind.
It wasn't until a month after Clive's death that I finally smiled a genuine smile. Not surprisingly, it was all Pete's fault.
"Hey," spoke Pete in a near whisper. "Come and take a look at this!" Pete began removing a small box from his chest pocket. It was delicately wrapped in a clean rag.
"What is it, Pete?" I asked.
"Take a look at this ring I got for my sweetheart! I'm gonna ask her to marry me!"
"Shucks, Pete! You're the luckiest guy in the world!" I said, wiping the peanut butter off my face and examining the diamond ring as it shimmered in the light of our headlamps.
"I just hope she says yes. I really don't know her, but she was the prettiest girl I ever did see!"
"I'm sure she will, Pete! You're awfully swell!"
"This ring is worth five years of my life, but it will all be worth it when I'm with her!"
"She'd be a fool not to marry you, Pete!"
"Gee thanks!" Pete said respectfully as he carefully concealed the ring case back in the rag and slipped it into his pocket. He was very gentle with it, and cautious not to smudge any part of the ring or the case in the filthy peanut butter that coated his hands.
The brief sense of joy I had for Pete faded the next day. Pete asked that girl to marry him, and she laughed in his face. He carried that ring around in his pocket every day after that. I'd often see him take it out, look at it, then wipe his eyes. There was a time when he took great effort in keeping it clean, in keeping it pure, because it represented a clean and pure future for him. But after she said no, he didn't care anymore. He examined it between his filthy fingers, looking at it with bitterness and contempt.
"Pete," I said. "Maybe you can sell it and get your money back. You can't stay down here forever!"
"Maybe when I get to be Old Gus' age I'll have enough money to quit. But let's face it, I'm never going to get out of this place."
"You won't live long if you keep staring at that dumb ring," chimed in Smitty. "You're getting careless and soon the peanut butter will come for you. I don't like being around you when you're like this. You're getting careless! You’re a jinx, Pete!"
"Shut up, Smitty! Shut the heck up!" I demanded. Smitty was right, though. The light on Pete's helmet seemed to shine dimmer and dimmer in the latter days of the mines.
Old Gus wasn't the same anymore either. He spent most of his time hacking his lungs out. There was always a disgusting wad of brown goop that came out of his mouth. He had spent so much time in these mines that his lungs were full of peanut butter. His lungs weren't the only things ailing him. His mind drifted in and out of reality. It was as if his brain skipped off its track and was running haphazardly to God knows where. It moved, but it was never fully in line with what was happening. He'd spend his more clearer moments telling old stories that never happened to him... or to us.
"Back when you boys was kids," he'd say, "me and your mother used to take you to the ocean. There was a beautiful sight – the ocean! You used to play all day in the ocean!"
"You crazy old man, we ain't your kids!" Smitty would yell as he hurled a peanut at Old Gus. "We ain't never seen no ocean, either," he'd add in an angry, regretful voice, as if wishing he really had seen the ocean.
Old Gus had spent the better part of ninety years mining peanut butter. The whole world had changed but he didn't notice, because the only part of it he ever saw was rocky walls and oozing torrents of peanut butter. It was clear that his mind would never get to see the light of day ever again, even if his body escaped the mines.
The day the mines collapsed was the worst day of my life. We had heard rumors that mineshafts were collapsing all over, and we feared ours would be next. We worked hard to reinforce it, and thought we were safe, but we weren't. We had taken so much peanut butter out that large cavities were caving in, swallowing dozens of miners and tunnels in the process.
Work that day was tense. We were all high strung. Pete's depression was at its apex, and Smitty responded by being more confrontational, desperately trying to bully the old Pete into returning. I did my best to keep my eye on Old Gus, who was insistent that I was his pet dog from when he was a boy. When he wasn't petting the back of my head, he was telling me that I was a good boy and that I'd get a treat very soon.
We were working hard on a new tunnel, under strict orders to find more peanut butter. The more we dug, the more the mines behind us crashed into oblivion. In our shaft we would catch the echoes of dying screams. The person would be long dead by the time we heard them screaming for help. We ignored the distractions and chiseled away at the rocks before us at alarming speed, all fearful that the chaos would catch up with us. Deep down inside we knew it was futile, that these were the last days of the mines, but we continued because we knew no other way to live.
"We're going to die in here," Pete whimpered. "I hope that Jezebel knows what she did to me!"
"Shut up, Pete! Don't get careless! The mines are angry today!"
"Shut up, Smitty! I'm going to die and the last thing I want to see in Hell is your ugly face!"
I clenched my teeth and tried to hold back the tears, channeling all my energy into my pickaxe. I hammered away and tried to drown an ocean of pain beneath the clanging of rock against metal. Every time I looked away from the rocks before me, I saw Old Gus staring at me with the crazy eyes of a man who misplaced his sanity.
"Such a nice doggy," he'd whisper to himself. "Such a good, good doggy."
When it finally happened, when the inevitable catastrophe struck, it was almost a relief. First the tunnel behind us gave out, trapping us in a cavern, and then Pete tapped into a vein of the purest peanut butter we ever saw. It poured out of the wall and caused part of the floor to collapse. Pete fell in while the rest of us were pushed back by a wave of peanut butter. Smitty panicked and neither Pete nor Old Gus could calm him down. They needed saving themselves.
"This can't be happening!" shouted Smitty! "I'm alert! I'm not being careless! You can't come for me you bastard!"
"Calm down, Smitty!" I pleaded. "We're not drowning! We'll just have to tunnel around! Then I say we get the heck out of here!"
"Hey boy," said Old Gus. "Go fetch Pete! Go get 'em, boy!" He was rubbing my shoulders and pointing me towards the hole in the floor.
"Darnit, Smitty! You and Old Gus have to tunnel out of here. I'm going to find Pete down in that hole! We're getting out of here together!"
"Okay," he said. "Okay, we'll get out of here. Together, we'll get out of here. We're careful today!"
Just as he and Old Gus began chipping away at a new tunnel, I lowered myself down into the hole. I clasped the oily rocks, carefully descending into the haunting dark with nothing but the light on my helmet. It was difficult to see anything as I looked down at the infinite dark below me.
"Pete! Are you there? Pete! Answer me!"
I lowered myself further and further and stopped when my grip allowed me to look around. After I had climbed down what seemed to be a hundred feet I saw a light shining in the darkness. It was the diamond ring rising from out of a sea of peanut butter. Pete's brown hand just barely broke through enough to hold it in the air. I climbed down further until his hand was within reach and tugged on it as best I could. I was able to pull his head above the surface.
"Pete! Pete, can you hear me?
"Get—" he started to say but lost his voice.
"Pete, come on, we have to climb out!"
"Get outta h-h-here!"
"I'm not leaving without you, Pete!"
I tugged his hand harder to show him I meant it, but he resisted. He was still alive, and that was all that mattered. Somehow, somehow I'd help him climb up over a hundred feet. Somehow we'd help Smitty and Old Gus tunnel out of here. Somehow we'd make it to the surface.
"Just go!" he said as he jerked loose of my arm and cast himself back into the peanut butter. "Just go!"
"No, Pete! We're getting out!"
I frantically reached for him, but he was just inches out of my grasp. There was no way to reach him without losing my grip on the rocks, and neither of us would ever survive if I did that. I watched him drift beneath the surface as peanut butter spread itself all over the spot he once occupied. He was gone. I had no choice but to climb up and help Old Gus and Smitty, knowing full well Pete would never again see the light of day. The brightest light to ever inhabit these mines had finally burnt out.
When I made it up top, Smitty and Old Gus had made good progress in chiseling out a small tunnel. It was cramped and hard to maneuver, as they were coated in peanut butter when they squeezed themselves through it. I sucked in my gut and squished myself into the tunnel, slowly following in their trail. I made it to the other side, a small section of our tunnel on the other side of the cave-in. This part of the tunnel was rumbling that same terrifying sound that signaled death for poor Clive. Smitty was there, crushed beneath a boulder. And there was Old Gus, watching over him. In the light of Old Gus' headlamp, Smitty seemed macabre, like he had been dead for years.
"What happened to Smitty?" I asked Old Gus.
"He's taking a nap," Old Gus replied. "Go on boy, run and get out of here. This is no place for dogs to play! Go out and find a nice home and a new master!"
I don't know why I listened to him, but I did. I ran like hell and didn't bother to take him with me. He once said he liked it here, so I guess I figured this was where he should die. I ran like hell and the whole world seemed to cave in behind me. I ran and I ran and I ran and then I saw something I hadn't seen in ages. At the end of the last stretch of tunnel was the most amazing light I'd ever seen. It was the sun. It was daylight. My life in the dark of the mines was finally over.
A long time has passed since then. Life above ground is very different. I don't like it very much. It's too colorful and confusing. There's so much to see and do that it overwhelms me. The mines may have been a cage, but at least I understood them. I wish there were more mines. I wish I were still a mile beneath the ground with Pete and Old Gus and Smitty and Clive.
Sometimes I find myself in a grocery store in need of some item sharing space in the aisle with peanut butter. I won't walk down that aisle. I won't look at those jars of peanut butter. I know what's inside them. There's a little piece of my soul in each of those jars. There's a little piece of my friends in every jar.
Year's later I'd read a newspaper about a woman who made a fortune suing the Great Peanut Trust after she found a diamond ring in her peanut brittle. They showed a photograph of that ring. It was Pete's ring. She made the million-dollar fortune that none of us ever imagined. We worked for dirt and died in those mines, and everybody but us benefited. That's the life of a peanut butter miner I guess.