Sunday, August 8, 2010

“The Tea in China” by J.S. McIntosh



My heart swells. It pounds and threatens to crash onto the tile floor. The line between us blurs and sometimes casts the illusion that it never separated us at all. If only.

“Dreams do not exist: Raw flesh exists.”

Lorca wrote. What could substitute two bodies colliding? We rub away the borders between selves. Words reverberate and meld into each other but they make no ground. These lines echo things you’ve said, thoughts I’ve had in passing, in solitude or when we lay next to each other.

I pause for a moment. Hugo cries and I rock him in his crib. Marlene will be coming home soon, then the neighbors will ask to use our room and then we will go to sleep.

The in-laws are moving in soon…

…I’m living in a bathroom.

If I had to live in a bathroom I would choose this one. There is a beautiful marble-imitation floor, a bidet, two large toilets, a gigantic Jacuzzi improvised into a bed. There are no windows but plenty of mirrors.

I don’t regret how I came to this place. The test of eternal reoccurrence would be passed: if a demon damned me to living this life all over again, I would laugh in his face and love every second of it.

Perhaps I can find some logic in the joke-of-life by telling this tale in reverse. The punch-line is revealed: I’m living in a bathroom with my wife, child and more will stay with us. No joke is funny when told backwards.


I paced around the house, intentionally postponing bathing. I couldn’t think of anything else but the memories which have passed. More will be made, I know, but I felt at the time as though the best had already occurred. Somewhere, far off, the young were having the times of their lives, someone was building something out of nothing, a million bodies moved at different speeds and sounds (intensities incidental to my lazy afternoon.)

Ok, me and Marlene almost split last night. I can’t take it or piece it together. It was the same conversation that’s repeated itself since before Hugo was born. We had a good night at the only bar in town worth going to: the Bonnie Sea. The drinks came down easy. The jukebox played our favorites and we danced together in the middle of the bar. Only when we got home did the trouble come. Hugo’s face wore a mask of baby vomit.

“We shouldn’t leave him alone.”

“It was your idea, Goshen.”

“It was a bad one, but you went along with it.” Then she told me she would leave Hugo (it’s too awful to actually write the things she said word-for-word). She couldn’t take the fact that she created a life in this world. She warned me that she never wanted to have children for philosophical reasons, for political reasons, “for selfish reasons,” I said.

Well…no, I didn’t. But I wanted to. I wanted to ask her what the hell the threat of nuclear annihilation or the base state of nature had to do with our son. I wanted to shake the stupid (and selfish and disgusting and wrong) out of her. There was a lot I wanted to do, but to walk away from everything wasn’t in the cards. It couldn’t be. I ran away from too much to do it again. From the dirt and gristle (*) and movements of human flesh, I had formed someone out of something; our bond was too tight. Nothing could sever you from me now, Marlene.


I whisper your name in circles. Those wide eyes betray innocence. Words yet to be invented hide in your tresses. The freckles on your face form a treasure map deep in the Congo.

“Tonight baby, let’s not say a word, let’s just be together.” (So that nothing could come between us.)

“Okay.” (So that we could be closer than close, at the center of each’s self.)

“The words you say are nothing compared to how you touch me.” (Your fingers rub and paw or tickle and tremble.)

“You feel the same way.” (Our affection mirrors itself)

“How is that possible?” (A glorious impossibility)

“I don’t know.” (Honeysuckle words)

“I want to.” (Wind words)

“I don’t.” (Stone words)

“We’re talking.” (Sweet redundancies)

“We should stop.” (Words never do)

“Okay?” (Seashell eyes)

“Okay.” This ceaseless miracle lives in simple words and tiny acts of affection.

Yesterday Marlene left some mint-chocolates next to the bath-bed. I stole some flowers from the adjacent apartment and folded them into her short story collection.


Me and Marlene, we are always on and off. Still, I came home every night and saw her reading or tending to Hugo. I want to write something grand to her. She deserves it. All my words are the acknowledgement of a debt owed to my wife. Her soul shines onto my own; demanding a reply in its pale glimmer.


The bickering, we didn’t always fight like we do now.

“You said that my mom could move in last night!”

“You caught me in a good mood, is that my fault?” The door slammed on me. Rushing after her I hear her say,

“You’re so fickle; you change your mind all the time. ALL THE TIME! And I don’t even know how to handle it.”

“Look, do you want your mom to move in?” That was a great question, I think to myself.

“No, of course I don’t. But she has to! She has nowhere else to go. You don’t get it.” And then Marlene walks right out of the bathroom-house.

Another unpleasant exchange in the past week. We ate dinner at McDonald’s.

“And then the idiot manager who complained for weeks said…”

“…Okay, I get it. I fucking get it. Yes, I know. You hate your job! I knew that since the day I met you and the point of every whiny conversation you have with me comes down to how much you hate finances, money, the economy, etcetera, etcetera, et-fucking-cetera. I am sick of it.” And then silence. I looked at Hugo and smiled. You know, I always hate those moments right after the fights. You never know what to say and you just sort of have to wait it out.


Pablo Neruda – 100 Love Sonnets

“I wish I could write like this for you.”

Federico Lorca – Collected Poetry

“It seems like he is literally writing from an alternate reality, but he is not. His world is our world.”

Nikolai Gogol – The Overcoat and other stories

“I wonder what they put in Russian water”

“It’s called Vodka, Marlene, and it tastes wonderful.”

I love the things Marlene says about her books. She only owns the favorites. They sit next to our bath-bed. I have none.


Just enough money was in the pocket to feed Hugo. I realized the other day that I couldn’t remember how long we had been in the bathroom for. Time was moving in the direction of a Samuel Beckett play: in circles, nowhere. Hugo’s growth would be the only measure of time. And if he never grew then we would all live forever.


We were convinced that Gloria was the only other person besides us living in the complex. She allowed us to store our food in her fridge and cook with her stove every Sunday while she took a bath or took a walk. That time we came over with eggs, bacon and pancake mix. “We thought breakfast for dinner would be fun,” Marlene said.

“I love the youth so much. You and Marlene and Hugo make such a great family.”Gloria cleaned off her large marble table. “Well, I can leave you three alone.” She beamed at Hugo while he cooed.

To be honest, Marlene’s cooking was mediocre. She undercooked the pancakes and the bacon tasted like char even though it was undercooked. We chewed at our food in silence. Then we finally spoke after the food digested. “Have you noticed something strange?”

“What do you mean?” Marlene asked.

“We never see any other people in the complex, only Gloria. You never hear people walking down the hallway, no sounds downstairs. Tonight, when Hugo goes to bed…” And then Gloria walked in and made small talk.


We went to the Bonnie Sea while Hugo was asleep. As we walked back I brought up the conversation we had after dinner, “Look, we should try and break into one of the other rooms…”

“…Oh, I don’t know about that.”

“Come on! We really should. It’ll be fun.”

“Fun. Fun. Fun. Just don’t say we never do anything fun after tonight.”

The plan was ingenious: get onto the roof and break into one of the rooms through the window. After explaining it, we shambled (*) through the window in the hallway onto the roof. Once we got onto the roof there was an altercation on who should break into the apartment. “Come on!” I said motioning to Marlene.

“No, you do it.”

“No, you!”

“My God, why must women do everything?” Marlene asked the sky and then pried open the window. “Was that hard? I made the first step, now you jump down there.”

“Okay, that’s fair.” I dropped down to a large, beautiful albeit tacky apartment. “It’s totally empty.” We paced through the many rooms. “This place doesn’t have a bathroom.”

“Neither does Gloria’s.” We sat at a large marble table with a bowl of wax fruit on it.

“Come here…”I said and gave a wry look.

“No!” I picked up a wax apple, looking at it glisten in the moonlight through the window. Then a crow squawked and we literally jumped from our seats.

“Let’s get the hell out of here.” Once we got back to our room we checked on Hugo and concocted a plan to secretly move into one of the empty apartment rooms.

If only.

The following week a couple moved into the room that we broke into. Nightly they use our room for a bath and every day they bother us about using the bathroom.


At my work I sell instructional software to people that already have installed one of our CDs into their computer. As you would guess, most people stopped using the service because they figured that they were being duped, that or they became computer literate, that or they became literally literate and read our fees and stipulations. So that’s it, that’s my job. I do what all good Americans do: sell things that people don’t need so I can eat, drink and sleep.

We have our cubicles; I wear the same two polo shirts on alternating days. I own one other shirt for days when I don’t work. I work the nightmare shift: four twelve hour days. The good part is that gives me three days off and plenty of money. It all goes to the family, Marlene does not work yet, and she seems to have the post-baby blues. We can talk about that later.


Her grapes make wine. Our love is a daily miracle; like planting bare feet into dirt; like the rain; like Hugo’s every breathe (the honey smell); like twilight.

The next-door neighbors played an old record. I pictured them dancing (arm in arm). We stepped outside to the hallway where the music leaked and I held Marlene. She tilted her head toward mine. I had never seen bigger eyes. We do not have to tell each other our thoughts. Everything in that moment fell in place. Nothing moved, no one in the world cried, all birds were suspended in flight; all of the oceans lied waveless.

We made it through the hallway window to the roof. The cigarette Marlene lit smelled like a foreign nut. No cloud was out. The moon looked closer than I had ever seen it before. I crawled down lower than she was on the roof and held her left hand. “What are you doing?”

“I want to ask you to be my wife.”

“To be your wife? You’re kidding right?”

“No. I may not have a ring but I want you to be my wife anyway.”

“I’m flattered but we can’t afford it.”

“Who cares about the city hall or churches? I have no friends or parents, I have nothing but you. And you make my life better. I used to have nothing. Marlene…”

“Okay Goshen, I’ll take your invisible ring.” And then I wrapped my hand into the shape of a ring and put them onto her finger. “This is ridiculous, but I love you.”

Then we heard the sound of Hugo crying and ran back into the room.


We go back farther to the start. This is a story of beginnings; days soaked with the laughter of infants, dotted skies and the scuttling of feet.


Marlene birthed our son in the bathroom. One morning you wake in terror: your woman bleeds and screams with a mouth filled with cuss and love. Her wide eyes fill with tears, your hand numbs in her grip. “He’s kicking me open.” And then she kept on screaming something I couldn’t understand.

We did not expect Hugo to bust into life the way he did: he is revenging Marlene for bringing him into this world. He never agreed to this contract. When did we ask if Hugo wanted to exist in a reality where everyone he knows (including himself) would die? This is the same world with women and Shakespeare and sunrises and fireworks. You did not ask to be of this, we did. We signed your contract.

We had never seen a doctor but counted down the days, we expected Hugo to be born a week later. When the doctor told us everything would be alright I was able for once to stop worrying about how to pay for the hospital bills. While I sat in the front car seat (the wind blowing in my face) and looked back at Marlene holding Hugo I said, “our life will never be the same again.” We are one, then we are two who bind together to become three. Simplest thing in the world.


We realized we had skipped the best part of being a new parent.

“What’s his name going to be?”

“Didn’t you scream it again and again? ‘Hugo! Hugo! Hugo!”

“No, I wanted you to go to our downstairs neighbor and ask to use their phone like we said you would if this happened. I was saying, “You go! You go! You go!”

“Well, it’s a good enough name for me, Hugo.”

“Okay. That’s it.” And then Marlene looked up at me, red faced and plump.


I turned off the lights and rubbed her swollen belly. The child jolted and Marlene fidgeted in the bed. Nothing seemed at peace.

I woke to the sound of her tears. She sobbed and thrashed about in the bed, smacking herself and hitting her stomach. “STOP!” She said nothing, just wept and started to pull her hair... “STOP IT! NOW!”

“It’s…just…it’s…too much to take.” She stopped and the room became silent for a moment. Then after the pause, “He doesn’t want to be born. I know it. I never wanted this. I, I, I had another child and it was lost to me.”

“Why didn’t I know this? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Oh, trust me; there is a lot I haven’t told you. There is so much. You know nothing about me Goshen, face it.”

“I want to know.”

“No you don’t. Trust me.”

“I can’t take this.” I huffed and dashed for the door. Marlene grabbed my leg and I thudded onto the ground. I wiped off my face and walked back to the bed. We lay there for what felt like an hour. I thought she had fallen asleep. In the quiet, Marlene spoke.

“Let’s just go to sleep, dear, and forget about all this. Our talk was a ghost visiting us. This was the sour. When he comes into this world that will be the sweet. If we refuse to remember, it didn’t happen. Goshen, I want you in my life forever. There is so much I’m not proud of. I don’t want you knowing. If you knew, it would open up the floodgates. What if you didn’t want me after you knew?” She squeezed my hand. “You’ll learn about me as time goes on. We can learn new things about each other when we get closer. My sorrow will go away. I need to take more walks, read more poetry and try to be a better person. I want to be the best for you.” I wish I could have borne (*) that child in my belly myself, if only to know what your pain felt like. I would raise your burden, I would carry it.


The job, yes the job. I hated it from the start. The very first call was terror and agony. So awkward it became absurd, so absurd that I recall wondering if this were all a farce that the man in red concocted.

“Hello, may I speak to Colin Woodworth?”

“Who is this?”

“My name is Goshen; I’m calling from Ruby Software for Colin…”

“I don’t care who you’re calling for.”

“Is Colin Woodworth available?”

“This is Dr. Woodworth to you, bitch. If you call again, I am going to sue you.”

“…Sir, I was just calling to inquire about…”

“Did you just hear what I said?”


“What did I say?”

“Well, I was just calling to say that if you come back to subscribing to our service we will send you a complimentary…”

“What’s your last name?”

“I can give you my employee number.”

“No. Now I’m not just going to sue your dumb ass fucking company but I’m going to ruin you as well. You are going to bleed money through your ass when I am done. Where do you live? Give me your phone number. I’m going to call you at 5 AM”

“But sir, it’s not 5 AM right now.”

“I don’t give a fuck. I will rape your wallet.” Click. I wonder what the chances are of Mr. Woodworth calling us back. And then I find out. The chances were good. So good that I got the call and had to get a supervisor. They talked them down after an hour, the all-time record for longest call, as well as honorable mention for some of the most profane things ever heard in the history of the telephone. That was the first call in a twelve hour day. Needless to say, the calls got better but not that much. As I walked down the train tracks to home, I wondered what Marlene would do if I quit this job. I didn’t want to know and wouldn’t find out.


We had been together for a month, then one day Marlene felt a great lust for chocolate and ice-cream, steak and bacon. A few days later Marlene woke and vomited up her breakfast. Then we saw a bump form. I was overjoyed. To say the least, Marlene was not but what could we do? We couldn’t afford an abortion and she knew that the thought of her bearing my son made me walk lighter, talk freer and laugh deeper. We didn’t go to a doctor; we didn’t even talk about names or our future. Me and Marlene don’t work that way.


Marlene moved in and got comfortable. We sectioned the giant room so we could create the illusion that we had our own space.

“And here is my room,” she said as she placed down the Chinese partition. “And there is yours,” and she moved another. “And there is the dining room!” She smiled. I was living.


We were alone. Everyone in the building left for the night. The candle flickered. Marlene read Lorca, eyes glassy wet. The words spilled out of her mouth, one by one, little drops of honey. “Those who fear death will carry it on their shoulders.” I paused her,

“I think I am one of those, Marlene.”

“There is nothing to fear. I am with you. Think about life, you have so much ahead of you.” She moved to the corner of the tub-bed and squeezed my knee. “Life is made for living, not dreaming, not pining; phantoms don’t exist.” She rose up and kissed me. “Our bodies exist,” Then she read more, “Beware! Life is not a dream.”

“Sometimes it feels like a dream,” she gave the sort of nod one gives when they anticipate something said that they won’t agree with. “Life seems so brief.”

“No. That’s not it. Life is also long,” her eyes grew even larger, “Tell the man in jail that life is short, tell that boy trapped in a well in Memphis or the old man buried alive about life’s brevity. Trust me,” her hand touched my left leg, “don’t carry death on your young little shoulder. This is real.”

The rain pelted the roof. A crow cried. I realized that Marlene had grown closer to me than anyone had before. Caroline and all the women I had known – only to have forgotten – had never weakened the soft, weak line between selves. I could not let this go, I would not, I will not. That night, as I held Marlene while we drifted toward sleep, I decided to release the things that weighed me down: death, the past, time, all of it fell and as I lay there I thought that the following day I could walk more lightly. Now I was free.


“Let there be light…” And there was light, fluorescent in the bathroom’s barrenness. I expected a gasp, but there was none. I tried to explain to Marlene my situation but I did not think she would understand. Now she was here. The room would either repel her or she truly loved me and would follow wherever life took us. “So, it’s not the best living arrangement, but we can make do.” She paced around the small space. “Just leave the toilet seat down,” she let out a cackle and her freckles glowed. “Goshen, honey, we can make this work.” I was happy she hadn’t turned away screaming.

“It’s not permanent.”

“I know.”

“Soon as I get more hours or find a better job, we will get out of here.” Marlene surveyed the apartment.

“You don’t have to say that, I know. Don‘t mess it up by saying those things. Only those who never leave say that. One day we can just do it without saying a word.” She let out a long laugh and at the trail end said musingly, “I have to use the bathroom, would you mind stepping out for a second?” I shut the door on my way out and paced around the hallway.

Goshen, you did it. You found yourself a woman that loves you. That’s what mom would say if she were alive.


I had been waiting for Marlene to come back to the Bonnie Sea and then one day she did. She came back dear reader, a week later. I had what I needed, then I got what I wanted. That’s right, Marlene came back to me.

There she was in the Bonny Sea, shimmering with her long tresses of straight black hair. I approached her, nervous. “Hello.”

“Why hello there.”

“We had unfinished business.”

“Yes we did.”

“Let’s complete it. Do you smoke?”


“Too bad,” she gestured to leave. We went outside the bar. I remember the warmth of the air pressing against my face. The moon was waxing (*) its way to fullness. And the moon glows for you tonight. We were in the middle of a park. We ran arm in arm, the trees passed in a manic blur and when we fell down, I put my arms around her, yes, and we drew each other into a tangle of mouths.

Flash to Marlene’s bedroom. I didn’t know how we got there. She had large tapestries of elephants and Hindu symbols and other pieces of psychedelic ephemera. I drunkenly bumped into a cup of water on the floor.

“I don’t know you.”

“I don’t care.”

She stirred the creamer into the coffee. The white dissolves into a soft brown. She has such tiny fingers; they look like they could crumble in an instant. This is the fruit of living.


I looked through cans and collected dust on my face. I was the least of these in my interim between zero and Marlene. And then the man in red came. He wore a black suit and an article of clothing which was red. Every day.

It was my second day at the ‘Bon without having seen Marlene. I noticed the man in red at the front of the bar, shelling away money. I decided to grab a stool next to him. “Hey stranger, want a drink?”

“What is it?” I asked. A man almost as disheveled as I was spoke up,

“Jus’ ‘rink it, cuz'.” And that I did. It came down and I guessed it had something like pineapple juice and lots of coconut rum. “’Called a Faithful Wife.”

“Oh, I guess not as fun as Sex on the Beach or a Redheaded Slut.” I demurred (*). “But it sure tastes as good.” The man in red let a low chuckle rumble through him.

“I like your drift.” Then we talked about this and that, everything but the tea in China. The night sank into a soft blur as he continued to buy me drinks. I started to talk about my situation. And then, the man in red changed my life. “Look, buddy, I’ve got a place for you to stay, it’s not the best.”

“Wow, man” (I like to use buddy-names when drunk) “That would be just…grand! Seriously.”

“Well, it is a special room.”

“Oh yeah, friend?”

“Yes, it is. It is a bathroom.”


“Yes. Let’s talk about it tomorrow,” and then he gave me his phone number.

The man in red escorted me through the large apartment complex. This was a veritable (*) fortress, a safe place. “Here it is, this is Forest Meadows” and then he showed me an apartment complex. It was spacious and tasteful room with hardwood floors and other trappings of bourgeois living. It would not be where I would live. “Now… I just have one space that’s in your price range,” and then he showed me the bathroom.

“How much?”

“Fifty dollars a month.”

“For a bathroom?”

“It is a big one.”


“Forty.” And it was a deal.

But there was more. A week and a day later the man in red offered me a job as well. I didn’t know where this strange grace came from but I found out long ago not to ask too many questions. It seemed like a decent job, and could pay for beer money and rent; even if I worked part time. Thank you, man in red.


I was living. I was drunk. I was in the Bonny Sea for the seventh day in a row. The money: gone with the pregnant hopes of a man who cannot lose them. I entered the bar not knowing a soul there.

And then she entered the bar. She was disturbingly forward, she wore a wry (*) smile and beautifully unkempt hair. We exchanged names. I recall thinking how beautiful her name was, I remembered that I always wanted a daughter with that name: Marlene. She told me she wanted to find the most boring person in the bar. In trying to keep her, I told her she had found her man. My dullness was incredible; my words were endlessly banal; my personality: translucent (*) at first conversation. These are the things I told Marlene. She didn’t believe me. This began the longest conversation with a woman I had had since my separation with my ex-wife.

Her eyes honed in on me before we even spoke. As we spoke, I drank. As we spoke more I drank more. I drank so much to such oblivion that I could sing along to songs I had never heard before. The stars could have fallen, horses could have moved into “the Bon’” (as the kids called it) and I would have thought it was normal. Anything could have happened. I attempted the absurd, for the sake of achieving the impossible. I asked her to come over to my bathroom-house. She declined, thank God. She gave a consoling smile and the lights in the bar blared on. The bar tenders rang a bell and yelled out that it was last call. As I walked out of the bar I saw her smoking a cigarette with friends. She told me we had unfinished business. I woke up the next day in my bed with the memory of her wide-eyed cat smile.


There I was with a film of dirt on my face, skulking through empty garbage cans and picking at my scabs. I wandered through empty streets at twilight and memorized when different neighborhoods took out the garbage. Once I was told that zero is not a number, it’s the absence of value. I was near the beast of nothingness, so close to it that I could smell it’s breath. This was the great crisis. My friend made a joke at the bar yesterday, “they called it the Great War, and then World War II after the second one happened. They called it the great depression, now we are in world depression II.” Here we are, WDII.

I was on the streets drifting through broken hallways of halfway houses. I sank in YMCA pools, gradually lost all of my things and nearly all memories. Life is more comfortable that way, you have less to carry. So there I was, free of possession and obligation. I’m thankful I remembered my name. At least that remained -- and I was living.

One day I was eating Caroline’s home cooked meals, the next I was rummaging through garbage cans. I quickly realized I would not be able to stay at my zero state for too much longer. It would be impossible to live, and I was no longer enjoying it. Perhaps the point was never to live with nothing but to stretch the limits of what was possible to live on. To flirt with the edge and taunt it is much more meaningful than going all the way.


So here’s why I ran away: I had everything a man could ask for: a wife, a comfortable living situation, financial security, etc. It wasn’t enough. I wanted to dissemble (*) my life down to its core. Caroline loved me but her love was too safe. It was not easy to leave but it had to be done.

I remember the night I escaped well. It was a Friday, Caroline was on a business trip and her parents slept quietly two floors above us. I put my backpack on and took all of the money which was mine. When I stepped out of the back door of the Caroline’s parent’s house I felt something I had never felt before. Outside the stars were shining for me and I thought that all the wonders of the moon could be mine if I sought them. This world was made for me. This is my time and my place and the gods will cry out in tears when I finally rebuilt my life. I thought those things while walking to the nearest bus station.


The beginning of this farce starts here. I’m reading the Bible in Caroline’s parent’s bathroom. I longed for more time on the toilet. I thought -- if given enough time -- I could create my own secular reformation. I felt wise on that seat. The pattern on the tiles made sense. Everything was at one. There were no pangs of a dying marriage. No worries came. I was comfortable. I called that little room home.


From the end to the beginning and back we come. The letter I started can be continued later. Marlene came home and she is asleep.

So it is.

Gloria grows tired of hearing little Hugo deep into the night. He wakes the dead when he cries. I don’t think we’ll be invited to dinner anytime soon. My phlegm filled cough keeps Marlene up at night. We toss about in our makeshift bed (away, toward; holding each other, releasing; kissing in the glow of the hallway, shivering under the sound of cold water running through pipes) Hugo babbles even in his sleep. I lie awake, thinking of fond moments I had in Caroline’s parent’s house; the comfort, soft bedding, hot chocolate, Mrs. Lake’s stories and ironically enough, the bible in the bathroom. This grotesque farce will not cease.

I long to return to the dens of comfort which left me so empty in their sterility. I miss places I never let myself enjoy. I imagined that in Caroline’s house my bones were forming into jello. Now they jut out and pierce the skin. This hide is worn thick, toughened by my time on the street but the heart remains swollen. Marlene, you have ripened me, matured me and made me enjoy what remains of my youth. Yes, we have had our days of hate but you, Marlene; this suffering would provide no punch-line without you.

It is far too late. I must sleep. The in-laws are moving in next week.

And I’m living.

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