Featured Prose | December 06, 2017
“A Place in the World” by Alethea Black
Alethea Black’s story “A Place in the World” appeared in TMR 40:3 and will be published in her collection You’ve Been So Lucky Already, forthcoming next year. She talked about the story in this From Our Authors post.
A Place in the World
By Alethea Black
Before he died, your father told you he wasn’t afraid, he’d had a good life, his only fear was that he was letting you down. This was in June—Father’s Day—and he would die at his home in New Canaan eight weeks later. When he died, you hid in a closet so no one could find you when they came to put his body in a bag. You didn’t want to see his body without him in it.
Your father was holding your hand when he said he wasn’t afraid and when he asked, with his mathematical mind, if you knew why it was that people had to die. You pressed your lips and shook your head; speech was not available to you.
“To make room for the babies,” he said. Then he gave your fingers a squeeze. Don’t be afraid, the squeeze was saying. I’m letting you see, so you’ll remember this someday. It’s all okay.
But it isn’t all okay. You’ve been staying at your father’s house for a couple of weeks, now that he’s come home from the hospital and is in hospice. He isn’t watching you, but he sees.
When he tells you he’s worried about you, you try to reassure him that you have everything under control. You attempt some lie. You act casual while you tell the lie—you touch your ear, scratch at a mustard stain on your jeans. This is a performance. Everything is a performance. You don’t tell him that you often stay up all night and sleep all day, that you’ve stopped paying bills and doing laundry, that the IRS would like to speak with you. You don’t tell him you don’t understand where other people get the strength to lead their lives. You definitely don’t tell him about the eating disorder you have that flushes buckets of money down the toilet each night and takes up huge amounts of your spare time—although you have no job, so really, all your time is spare. You don’t tell him there’s a question that beats through your body as you move: you’re waiting for the world to give you a reason to stay.
Your father knows all this, of course. He’s your father. He knows everything. But you can’t discuss your situation with him because you don’t know how to explain it. If you’re depressed, you’ve been depressed your whole life. Whenever you see an infant wailing inconsolably, as if she’s confused, as if she does not want this life or understand why she’s been thrust in it, you feel a stab of recognition, as if she’s wailing for you.
Your father, your hero, your closest friend, continues to die before your eyes. You try to witness his deterioration with courage. You get out of bed, you walk around, you say things. This is a lie. It’s all a lie.
“I’m worried about you,” he’ll continue to whisper, even when the light grows dim and his voice begins to fail.
If things were bad while he was passing away, they become even worse when he’s gone. You’ve graduated from college, but you don’t know what to do with your life. You have a little money from your father, so you mope along, trying to figure things out. During the day, you wander the streets of Manhattan in a trance, half-floating above the pavement. Sometimes you ride the M104 bus all the way to the end of the line and back, staring out the windows at the city streets. You like riding the bus; it perfectly embodies how you feel: part of the world but also separate from it. You eat toasted Reuben sandwiches in steamy diners, your face in a book, and when you’re feeling downhearted, which is often, you go to the movies on the Upper West Side. You prefer the older theater that has homemade brownies and an escalator that plunges underground. While you watch the picture, your eyes glued to the screen, it’s as if you’re looking for something, but you don’t know what. After several mediocre movies in a row, you decide that whatever it is, it’s not Vince Vaughn.
After procrastinating for months, you force yourself to make an appointment with a grief counselor. You get the counselor’s name from the bartender who works at the pub on the corner. The bartender’s brother killed himself, and the bartender, who is attractive, sometimes refills your wineglass for free. These things conspire to make you willing to try his therapist, even though, generally speaking, you are deeply suspicious of therapy.
The day of your appointment, you wake up at two in the afternoon. Your appointment is scheduled for two in the afternoon. As usual, you were up until the sun rose, and you must have slept through your alarm. Oh, wait—you don’t have an alarm; that could be part of the problem. You scramble out of bed, which is a mattress on the floor of a basement apartment owned by your uncle, and sniff the clothes that are strewn about, trying to decide which are cleanest. It feels odd to be sniffing your own underwear, but you do so out of respect for your future therapist. You feel certain that if roles were reversed, she’d do the same for you.
Your future therapist’s office is on Lexington Avenue, and you could take the bus—that’s a line you love, sometimes you ride the M103 up and back and then eat a pastrami sandwich at the Lenox Hill Grill and play with the puppies at Pets on Lex. But today, you’re in a hurry; there’s no time for puppies or pastrami; you have to take a cab.
You arrive at your future therapist’s office fifty-five minutes late. As she ushers you in briskly, the first thing you see is a shelf of religious figurines—there’s a wooden Jesus, a glass Gandhi, and a Buddha made of jade. You’re not 100 percent certain the glass one is Gandhi; it could be Golda Meir.
Your future therapist gives you a big, bright smile, even though nothing joyful has happened. She, too, is performing. She sits in a tall leather chair behind a desk. From the window to her left, slanted sunlight falls on the figurines, revealing dust on the Buddha’s belly. Your future therapist is speaking to you, telling you a little about herself, her approach. She seems open, genuinely interested in hearing all the things you never say. If you were ready, these are some of the things you might tell her: you’re not sure why you’re here, you don’t like it here, you don’t understand it here, and you don’t want to be here.
At the end of her little speech, she stops. You know that her stopping is your cue. But as soon as you open your mouth, tears pour out. In the real world, they are coming out your eyes, but in the cartoon world, they’d be coming out your mouth. You remain in full waterfall mode for about five minutes, which is all the time you have. You are still crying when a little alarm on the grief counselor’s desk goes Bing!
So your attempt at grief counseling is a failure. There’s grief, but there is no counseling, and you can do grief at home, for free. Even though the bartender is cute, and even though your future therapist seems nice, you never see her again. At the time, you tell yourself you’re not ready. You don’t realize then that often, by the time you’re ready for something, you don’t need it anymore.
A few weeks later, you wake from a dream with a vivid sense of purpose. You know what you need to do. You need to get a job, to make your father proud.
You love movies—the ones without Vince Vaughn in them—so you apply to be a ticket-taker at the movie theater you like, near Lincoln Center. When your cab pulls up on the day of your interview, you search frantically in your purse for the fare. You could have gotten the fare ready while the cab was still moving, before it came to a complete and full stop in the middle of traffic with twelve cars behind it, but you were putting on your make-up. Now, in your rush, you spill your change purse on the floor. Coins and bills scatter everywhere, and you start to swear under your breath as you get down and grope around for your money. It’s sticky and dirty and dark there on the floor of the cab, and you collect the bills but leave the coins because you don’t have time for that; you can’t be groveling for change out here when you’re supposed to be groveling in there. You decide to leave a dollar bill on the floor of the cab along with the change, so the cabbie won’t be fishing around on his hands and knees for just pennies, which feels sort of degrading. But you don’t have a dollar, you discover, so you have to leave him a five, which you sort of hide under the floor mat, so the next passenger won’t see it and grab it, and you realize, as you do this absurd thing, that it takes a special sort of person to actually find a way to lose money by becoming employed.
You slam the cab door and check your watch, cursing again, again the victim of your lack of alarm clock. If only you were still in contact with your future therapist, you might ask where she got that cunning little device that made such a pleasing yet authoritative Bing!
Adjacent to the box-office cubicle where you will perhaps soon work, there are two glass display cases, the one on the right filled with lingerie and the one on the left filled with baby clothes, and as you dash past, you think, as you always do: Before . . . After!
You arrive at the interview panting a little, sweating in your semiclean underwear, trailing your purse with its crumpled bills and a hairy hairbrush sticking out. But in spite of all this, the interview goes well. Even though they did not ask you to, you’ve worn black pants and a white shirt, to look the part. You don’t own a bow tie, but you’ve clipped a black hair bow through the top buttonhole of your collar, as an approximation.
The interviewer, a middle-aged woman named Roberta, asks you about movies, and this is where things really pick up. You love movies, you see them all the time, you think the unmasked heart of the universe might exist in a movie somewhere—you just haven’t seen it yet. When she asks which movies you love, your mind goes blank, and you have to root around in your memory for a second, because sometimes when you’re asked something directly like that, you get nervous, and the answer flies away. There was that movie you saw here just the other day. What was it again? A beat goes by. Another beat.
“Pulp Fiction!” you say, and the woman doesn’t say anything, so you figure it’s still your turn. Your only problem with Pulp Fiction, you tell her, was that you kept laughing when no one else was laughing, and then, when everyone else was laughing, sometimes you wanted to cry. For instance, that scene where Uma Thurman overdoses. You found that to be very upsetting and stressful. You did not think that was funny at all, yet everyone in the theater was laughing maniacally while you worried for her life and wondered why none of the bozos on screen were doing something more to help her.
The middle-aged interviewer nods. The interview does not go on much longer after that.
On your way out, at the concession stand, you buy a brownie. Later that night, in the privacy of your basement apartment, you will consume an entire box of brownies, plus a quart of Baskin Robbins Rocky Road ice cream. Your hunger for brownies is only sparked, not sated, by eating just one.
The movie theater does not want to hire you. They send you a rejection letter in the mail. You save it. You actually tie it to a piece of string and dangle it from the fan above your mattress so you can look at it whenever you want. For some reason, you think it’s hilarious. You think it must represent the absolute nadir in the history of something. Perhaps this is the lowest moment of your life. Then again, maybe it’s not the nadir, maybe it’s just another slip in a long, downward slide.
In college, you were a Tasti D-Lite girl, so you know how to swivel your wrist to make shapely chocolate-and-vanilla ice cream cones. Only Tasti D-Lite isn’t ice cream; it’s something else, for skinny people who don’t want to eat ice cream. Whatever it is, there’s a Tasti D-Lite a few blocks from your apartment, and you still need a job. This time, you’ll have that all-important asset in your favor: experience.
You pop by the Tasti D-Lite on a Thursday afternoon in your black-and-white getup, forcing a smile even though you think you might pass out from the PTSD the smell of artificial hazelnut is giving you. You wait patiently amid the low hum of the machines. Eventually, a guy in charge comes out from a back room to inform you that they already have six girls working three shifts, but you’re welcome to check back later, if you like, in the spring.
Two strikes is about all you have in you. You were never really all that revved about getting a job anyway, so you go back to riding the bus. To give yourself the illusion of making money, you decide to sell some of your possessions. You take the M15 downtown to Stuyvesant and pawn a couple of Billy Joel CDs to the guys displaying things on blankets outside Around the Clock. Then you take the money they give you and buy yourself dinner at Around the Clock. Ever since then, if you hear anyone suggest that Billy Joel is good for nothing, you think. No, he’s good for chicken.
On your way home, you get off the bus one stop early and amble into the Love’s pharmacy over on Broadway. It’s midnight, and you’re always very alert at this time of night; this is your peak performance hour. You move through the store methodically, aisle by aisle, stalking it like a cat. It’s not that you think you’re going to find something vital for life on earth in a Love’s. But you might.
In aisle 5, you spot a sleep mask. Now, that could be useful. Sometimes the morning sun hurts your eyes so much it makes you wonder if you might be descended from some branch of humanity that gave rise to the vampire myths. The sleep mask is satiny and purple and smells of lavender—it must have dried lavender stitched inside. You like the way it smells and the way it feels so much that you walk through the rest of the store holding it beneath your nose like a fake moustache.
In the stationery aisle, there’s a Trapper Keeper with a picture of a baby in an elephant costume. It could be the influence of the lavender, but for some reason, this strikes you as supremely useful. You add it to your basket. The expression on the baby’s face makes you happy, and suddenly you’re in one of those moods that comes over you every once in a while, where you begin to think that maybe—just maybe—you will be able to forge a life on earth after all.
When you get home, you’ll put a blank sticky label on this Trapper Keeper and write on it in neat, capital letters: current projects and unpaid bills. To this day, you’re not sure what the “current projects” referred to. The fact that you’ve pawned your Billy Joel CDs and purchased a folder in which to stick your unpaid bills makes this day feel like an amazingly productive, supercharged, gold-star day of achievement. So much so that, twenty years from now, if someone were to say: “Oh, the Trapper-Keeper day,” you’d know exactly what he meant.
With the Trapper Keeper in your basket, buoyed by your newfound sense of possibility, you proceed with caution to the aisle where they sell alarm clocks. You pick one up. Its black, folded cord dangles behind it like a tail. It has a sticker of red digital numerals on it, displaying a fake time of 6:46.
This is a terrible time to be awake. Nothing good happens at 6:46. Suddenly, you’re imagining all sorts of unpleasant sounds coming out of this thing at that time, startling you awake when you’d rather be sleeping, and as your gaze shifts from your silky eye mask to your shiny Trapper Keeper to this black instrument with the devil numbers on its face, you realize something. You don’t own an alarm clock because you don’t want to own an alarm clock. You resent alarm clocks because you know they represent a subtle form of slavery, keeping humans from their wildest dreams and deepest sleep. You put the ugly slave-master back on its shelf.
In aisle 12, there’s a makeup remover on sale that you like. It’s eight dollars if you buy a pack of six, or five dollars if you buy a pack of three. But the containers in the three-pack are 4.2 ounces, whereas the containers in the six-pack are only 3.9 ounces, which means . . . well, it means you probably have enough left in your bottle at home.
You find it amusing that you have zero aptitude for math, because your father wrote an equation that won the Nobel Prize. He didn’t personally win the prize, because it isn’t awarded posthumously, but they gave it to his coauthors, who said nice things about your father when they won. While your father was still alive, word got out that he was on the short list for the Nobel that year, and one of his colleagues asked if he should call up the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and inform them that he was terminally ill. Your father’s answer was something along the lines of: If you do anything remotely like that, I’ll kill you myself. So it went to John Nash that year, and by the time they honored your father’s work, he was dead. That’s just the way the cookie crumbled—no use feeling bad about it. Besides, he was never motivated by awards; he always said the greatest reward was the work itself.
As you proceed homeward from Love’s, enjoying the relative calm of two in the morning, you pass by the antiques and greeting card shop where the gypsy woman read your palm and said you were going to be famous. You didn’t buy it; you thought she was just trying to get you to buy a moon-rock ring—which you did buy, so apparently her little strategy worked. When she told you the ring was lucky, you said, “Oh, good! I could use a little luck!” but the gypsy woman fixed you with a sharp stare and held up a mirror. “You’ve been so lucky already,” she said.
You’re still feeling hopeful and buoyant when you get to your building, your Trapper-Keeper bag in one hand and your scented-eye-mask bag in the other. As soon as you step through the breezeway, you’re mugged. A wiry teenager in a hooded sweatshirt rushes you from behind as you’re unlocking the second door. Before you understand what’s happening, he jabs you in the back and grabs your purse. Out of some potentially lethal combination of stupidity, instinct, and outrage, you fight him for it. When he wins, you scream. You call the police. As they take down your description of the guy, you eye their guns. Voices rise, crackling out of their walkie-talkies. You tell them the assault felt more startling than menacing—you’d be shocked if the guy had any sort of weapon; really, he just seemed like a strung-out kid. After a few minutes, they successfully locate your empty purse in some bushes down the street and return it to you.
Only much later, when the shock has worn off and you’re safely consuming a quart of coconut ice cream with Famous Chocolate Wafers in bed, do you begin to feel bad for this kid, your mugger. Imagine, to be so desperate that you nerve yourself up to steal from a lonely girl at two am, and then, out of all the possibilities, you pick the one person in Manhattan who has nothing in her purse but a bus pass, a notebook, and Virginia Woolf’s diary.
After your mugging, you stay in your apartment for a while, holed up like a mouse. Lucky for you, you have enough instant raisin oatmeal, spicy canned chili, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch to last for decades, because there was an earthquake in California a few weeks ago, and you never know. You actually don’t mind remaining in a small, confined space. It feels cozy. You sometimes run to the greengrocer on the corner, buy a hunk of cheese, and run back, just to really explore the mouse-like feelings. As the weeks pass, you slowly find yourself venturing farther and farther afield again, which you see not as progress exactly but more as a kind of forgetting.
A couple of months later, you’re riding a bus crammed with people, a hulking, arthritic bus that strains its way up the avenue, when you pass by your future therapist’s office. You locate her window and try to catch a glimpse of the shelf of figurines, or the profile of some other woebegone person humiliating herself. A block later, you get off. You’re not sure why you want to get off there, you just do. You like to live life spontaneously sometimes, guided by the spirit.
You walk around aimlessly for a while. Then, rounding a corner, you see it. The Lighthouse: Dedicated to helping people of all ages overcome the challenges of vision loss. And just like that, you know. Reading to the blind—that’d be the perfect job for you. You love to read, and you often feel blind, as though the real truth of the world were hidden from you. Since you were a teenager, you’ve been convinced there’s an unseen reality lurking just beyond your senses.
The Lighthouse interviewer bears an uncanny resemblance to your future therapist, but she does not give you the big, bright smile your future therapist did. You try not to take it personally. She may be used to working with the visually impaired.
She’s holding a copy of your résumé. Her expression is stern.
“What makes you think you’re qualified for this job?” she asks.
“I can read,” you say.
She says nothing.
“And . . . I like blind people. I mean, I like all people—some people just happen to be blind.”
She frowns and examines you more closely, letting her eyes roam over your person. She seems especially interested in your hair-ribbon bow tie. This is now the outfit that you associate with job interviews.
The silence is uncomfortable. You feel that one of you should say something.
“Did you know that Helen Keller’s favorite foods were hot dogs and martinis?” You have no idea why you say this. The words just come out of your mouth.
It turns out the Lighthouse does not want to hire you, either.
That winter, you get a job at a business magazine. This happens suddenly, unexpectedly—the job just sort of drops in your lap. The copy chief was an admirer of your father’s work, and the magazine needs a proofreader, so he calls you up. During the conversation, you mention that you are not a numbers person like your father, not in the least, just in case someone at the business magazine harbors a secret hope that you’re some kind of math genius. But the copy chief assures you the job is straight proofreading—very little math.
You’re unaccustomed to having to be somewhere at a precise time each day, so you struggle with this at first. But the other people in your department don’t seem to mind if you’re consistently twenty minutes late, or your blouse is missing a button, or your hair is flattened around your ears in the way hair might get flattened, say, by a sleep mask. The other people on the copy desk don’t care about these things because everyone on the copy desk is an artist in exile. There’s an Icelandic poet, a folk guitarist, a hand model, a children’s book author, an actress, a novelist, a short-story writer, and a playwright. They are witty, warm, and out of their minds. And they are yours.
They soon become like family, which means the other people in your department can make fun of you, and you can make fun of them, but it’s always in that friendly, stab-you-with-love way that family members do. One day, your boss, who is also a novelist, compliments your haircut.
“Thanks,” you say, beaming. “I cut it myself!”
“On just the one side?” he asks.
The job is wonderful. It’s so much more than a job. It’s a place where, finally, you can slow down and figure things out. No one scrutinizes you, so you don’t have to perform. No one interrogates you, so you don’t have to lie. When no one’s looking, you slowly come out of your shell and walk around.
Because of the job, you allow yourself a dog. One rainy Saturday afternoon, you go back to your old haunt, Pets on Lex, and pick out the loneliest puppy in the store. When you ask to hold her, she hides her face in your hair, and after that, you just never put her down. She’s a dappled miniature dachshund, and even when she weighs only two and a half pounds and fits in your shoe, already she thinks she’s a powerful hound.
You hail a cab and scoot in the back seat with the puppy—along with her crate, some treats, a bag of food, two bowls, and a squeaky armadillo. And just like that, you have a new best friend.
You’d like to say there was some big epiphany, some dramatic, defining moment like there is in movies. But in reality, things just gradually, slowly, start to get better. When the day comes where it seems likely that you’re going to make it in the world after all, there’s only one thing you want to do. You want to tell your father.
You get the idea to write him a letter and leave it on his grave, and you decide to do it on New Year’s Eve, because this seems a fitting day to say goodbye to the past and to mark a new beginning. You rent a car, but the only problem is, you haven’t visited his grave—it could be you’ve felt ashamed—and you were so dazed with grief when they buried him that you didn’t pay attention to where the cemetery was. Your father lived in New Canaan, Connecticut, so you assume he’s buried in the New Canaan cemetery. But when you get there, it’s dark and cold and nothing looks familiar.
Nothing looks familiar because you not only have the wrong cemetery, you have the wrong state. By the time you call your uncle, figure out he’s buried in Banksville, New York, and drive there, it’s approaching midnight.
Even when you’re in the right town, you still can’t find the cemetery, which is creating some cognitive dissonance, since the level of incompetence on display in locating your own father’s grave is undercutting your conviction that you’re going to be all right, the celebration of which was the whole point of this trip in the first place. Nevertheless, you keep your chin up and flag down a passing motorist.
“Do you know how to get to the Middle Patent Rural Cemetery?”
The guy in the car seems odd, as if he’s out trolling for trouble, and he avoids eye contact.
“The really old one?” he says, staring straight ahead. “Where the Revolutionary War soldiers are buried?”
“That’s the one.”
He knows where it is and tells you, but you get a chill as he drives away, as if maybe it wasn’t your sharpest move ever to let a creepy-looking guy, alone in his car at midnight, know you were on your way to a cemetery by yourself. But by the time this thought occurs to you, there’s nothing to be done.
The cemetery is beautiful, cloaked in moonlight. There’s so much you didn’t take in the day your father was buried. There’s an antique water pump at the base of a hill, a stone angel pointing fiercely into the distance, and a stand of elegant, stately trees. A fat moon rests just above the silhouetted treetops, bright as a spotlight.
You locate your father’s plot and kneel beside it in the snow. He never had much interest in religion; there’s no cross or lines from scripture on his grave. When he was dying, his friends joked that he should be cremated and have his ashes scattered over the New York Stock Exchange. The carving in the bare stone spells out a single word: Black.
Wispy flakes of snow have begun to fall, but it isn’t cold. When you touch it, the stone is warmer than the air. You keep your palm pressed to it for a long moment. There are times when you have the feeling that your body can communicate more effectively than your words.
When it comes time to leave him the letter, you imagine that your father is listening and can hear you. You try to believe that he lives—as you so often strongly feel—on just the other side of an invisible veil.
“Everything you did for me, everything you taught me wasn’t wasted,” you say. “I know it didn’t look very promising for a while there, but I found a place in the world.”
You start to cry, because it seems so impossible, yet you did—you found a place.
You lift the letter to your lips, kiss it, and nestle it in the snow, leaning it against the headstone. You leave one of the mechanical pencils he used to love so much too, as a gift.
A soft loneliness clings to the air like frost. You close your eyes. “You didn’t let me down—you could never let me down,” you manage to say. “I got a little dog—” The thought of the dog makes you cry again. “She’s a furry rascal. The two of you would have loved each other.”
You don’t want to leave, but you know it’s time to go, time to tell him what you’ve traveled years and miles to say.
“You don’t have to worry about me anymore,” you whisper.
And the instant you say the word “anymore,” you see the rippling flash of moonlight against a man’s shirt.
All your energy exits through your feet, and as you remain there, paralyzed, you suddenly understand that there were moments in your life before this when you believed you were experiencing fear, but you were wrong. This is fear. Mixed in with the nauseating vertigo and the dizzying premonition of your own death, you find something else, something that surprises you. You are incredulous.
Wow, you think. I wouldn’t have believed someone would actually have the audacity to come and kill me at my father’s grave, but I guess I wrong. Well—live and learn.
Most days, you’re someone who looks fate in the eye, but not this night. After the initial sighting, you keep your gaze lowered—you don’t want to see the ax, or the rope, or the gun. You don’t want to see the eyes that were previously so shy now taking you in with eager hunger.
A minute passes. Then another. The cemetery is quiet; only the wind stirs. From the woods, you feel the watchful presence of solemn deer.
By the time you lift your head and discover that it’s not a man’s shirt but an American flag that’s rippling in the moonlight, it’s as if some invisible part of you has already broken loose and flown away, slipping down through all the graves, past bone and rock and water, way down deep to the ululating center of the earth.
For the rest of your life, when you think of this night, its edges will remain scalloped in mystery. You will wonder if you didn’t somehow find for yourself the exact kind of rite-of-passage moment you must have subconsciously been seeking. You’ll wonder what became of the letter—which was gone on subsequent visits—and presume it was swept up and thrown away by the groundskeeper. You will wonder about the Revolutionary War soldiers buried there, if any of their descendants ever visited, laying flowers upon earth their forebears had won. And you’ll wonder about the angel, with her fierce eyes and one arm extended, as if trying to draw your attention to some vista of the unseen realms. ♦
Alethea Black was born in Boston and graduated from Harvard in 1991. Her first book, I Knew You’d Be Lovely (Broadway, 2011) is in its seventh printing and was chosen by Oprah.com and for the Barnes & Noble ‘Discover Great New Writers’ program. “A Place in the World” is part of a new collection of true stories—You’ve Been So Lucky Already—forthcoming in 2018.
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