Suburbia in Blog Time (Fiction by Susan Newark) Humor
Susan wrote the following set of short pieces while in college in the 1980s and originally entitled the collection The Journals of a Suburban Wacko. All are fictionalized but based on real events of the era. They are now updated to reflect modern technology but otherwise remain as written almost thirty years ago. Though there are some serious overtones here and there, this one's mostly just for fun!
Suburbia in Blog Time
I’ve been having thoughts. Well, everyone has thoughts, but what I mean is that I’ve been filtering little scenarios through my brain, almost like mini-tales of my own existence. They’re not earth-shattering, but then neither is my life. I don’t have a blog, but I’ve been asking myself what I’d post on it if I did. Everyone these days, no matter how ignorant, gets to have a say. Cyberspace is crammed with disembodied voices, though I don’t suppose most people really read what others are posting. The true satisfaction must come from simply deploying the message, from believing they’re communicating even if their words are merely floating along in the abyss. That understood, I’ve decided to have my own say, and I’m not going to worry whether people are paying attention because the important thing right now is merely to discover whether I think my voice is worth listening to.
Dale has been a pain in the ass lately. It’s that time of year again when all good husbands temporarily turn into deliberately crass and inconsiderate juveniles in order to reassert their masculinity. I can just hear them down at the plant: “Want to have a beer after work with us?” And then as he fingers the phone ambivalently, debating whether to let me know he’ll be late: “What’s the matter? Can’t you even have a beer without permission from the old lady?”
Naturally, if he protests, they’ll call him pussy-whipped. And he’s not strong enough to withstand that. So he has the beer and another and another, not enjoying himself nearly as much as he pretends, because he knows he’ll catch hell when he gets home. And no—I don’t call his cell. I’m not a nag and shouldn’t have to grovel for respect. Either he’s considerate or he’s not. Sometimes he’s not.
I’ll bet it’s a comical sight, though—the guys all gathered around the bar munching peanuts or sucking wisps of stringy meat off the free chicken wings, simultaneously roaring with bravado at each other’s dumb jokes so they can drown out the little voices nagging them about how stupid they’re acting. And then pretty soon it’s two a.m. and the bartender is kicking them out. But they don’t know what to do, because they’re afraid to go home. Deep down they’re really not the kind of guys who would risk their marriages for some quickie pleasure with a potentially-diseased pick-up. So with the utmost paranoia, they ignore the barflies who bat their eyes at closing time, flashing gaudy rings as they woozily collapse into their palms. They ignore the voluptuous flirt in the sexy blue sequin gown who is mysteriously still alone and just might be a cross-dresser, not to mention the long-legged happy hookers out on the street with butt cheeks dipping below their lacquered hot pants. Hurriedly the guys head for their cars—this isn’t much fun anymore—brains zinging in nervous sobriety.
About this time Dale is so worried about the argument awaiting him that he works himself into a state of antagonism for protection. If I’m still up when he walks in, he shoots me that smug look which says “I dare you to say something about it.”
Now there are several approaches possible at this point, and I’ve tried them all. I’ve explained calmly and rationally that his rebelliousness is a waste of time, because I actually don’t mind if he hangs out with the guys—it’s just his being rude enough not to call that really pisses me off. This, of course, never works, because although it’s true, he refuses to believe it.
Then there is the attack approach, in which I shriek and accuse him of being a good-for-nothing who’s been out screwing around with other women. Naturally, I don’t believe for a second that he’d dare, but it’s advantageous in that it puts him immediately back on the defensive. Yet it bothers me to do this, because he accepts the verbal abuse in a way that he never accepts the truth; oh, he denies the accusation, of course, but he does so with a diminutive smirk indicating he feels almost complimented that I would think such a thing of him. But encouraging his idiocy is not my intent.
And finally, there is the silent treatment, which I can administer for days if I feel like it, but that hurts me worse than it hurts him, because I’m the one who has to hold in all the anger, which sooner or later explodes anyway or else dissipates into a forgiveness he doesn’t deserve.
So I’ve tried and failed with all the standard methods. But last year I discovered an all-new strategy entirely by accident. After one of his temporary sanity lapses, I got so mad that I took off the next evening just before he arrived home from work. Contrary to my six years of considerate behavior, always calling or leaving a note, I simply split and embarked upon a little cruise in the moonlight—a three-hundred-mile round trip (with my cell turned off) that brought me staggering tiredly to bed at four in the morning. I had driven all the way to Reno, played a few hands of poker (which was all I could afford), and then jerked myself awake at the wheel all the way back. Not much fun. But suffice to say that when I got home, Dale was conscious and remained so until dawn, tossing and grumbling as I slept it off peacefully. The poor guy. He couldn’t believe it—demanded to know where I was, who I was with. And then he accused pathetically, “I was so worried about you.”
And so he digested his lesson (I never did tell him where I was). The memory of it lasted longer than most, almost a year, whereas the episodes used to transpire right on schedule quarterly. But now he’s at it again, was supposed to go dancing with me last night and didn’t get home until 2:30. I haven’t said anything yet, but I’m exasperated. I know there’s only one way to cure him once and for all. I must leave for a long enough period of time that he’ll remember eternally how awful life was without me. But this creates a problem. I can’t just up and pretend to end it, because I’m fully convinced that the moment I do, he’ll win the lottery and then I’ll totally lose my share. Either that or I’ll have him thinking I’m mercenary for the rest of his life if I come right back, which of course I would, having never truly intended to end it in the first place. But worse, if he doesn’t believe me, then some other woman will eventually get the pay-off for all my hard work.
Every guy I’ve ever left has come into money within a year. Hairy Jerry Stanfield inherited thirty thousand dollars and a two-story, three-bedroom condo not two months after I saw him in the dumpy studio he rented when I kicked him out—an apartment that contained his portion of what he had brought to our relationship: nothing. And L.A. McKay (Larry Albert or Lazy-Ass—take your pick) got a hundred-thousand-dollar-a-year Chevy dealer management position and a company car through the influence of some doting aunt who suddenly took an interest in him after settling a twenty-year feud with his mother. A rather extravagant peace offering, if you ask me. And even when I was a kid, this curse seemed to plague me, like the time I broke up with Jamie Reeseberger for treating me like crap in front of his friends a few days before his sixteenth birthday. I expected him to come crawling. But not only did I miss the party, the next weekend he was cruising past my house with Lori Lipmeyer draped all over him in a sky-blue Camaro with “Born To Be Wild” blasting out the sun roof—the car a gift from his grandpa, who’d just bought a new convertible Mustang. No way could I live with that again. I mean, money isn’t everything. I don’t pick my men for it. And I certainly didn’t marry for it. But still.
Okay, I’m being facetious about Dale, having a bit of fun at his expense, but despite his occasional screw-ups, I do love him and we have a great marriage. I can’t imagine life without him. Sometimes it scares me. Here’s what happened (or what I dreamed) the other night. It was so surreal that I’m not sure which.
It wasn’t his restless thrashing that woke me up so that I heard his urgently spoken “I love you.” Nor was it one of those ethereal comforting moments when we both lie suddenly awake in the dark sharing disconnected but mutually-understood pieces of conversation before dozing off again. This awakening was different—I sensed it, whether by intuition or by the sudden tautness in the strand of awareness that always bonds us lazily as we sleep.
“I love you, too,” I reassured, opening myself to what I didn’t want to hear.
“I feel funny,” he confided needlessly. “My chest hurts. And my arm’s tingling.”
As my eyes adjusted, I stared at Dale’s moderately overweight outline stiffened with discomfort. I pictured myself climbing out of bed. There wouldn’t be time to make myself presentable. I’d throw on the pair of jeans and sweatshirt from earlier, quickly help Dale dress, and ride to the hospital in a haze of disbelief oblivious to the siren blaring overhead. When we arrived, the doctors would wheel him away as his eyes caught mine and begged a hundred things at once: Stay right here; don’t let me die; take care of my kids; don’t love anyone else when I’m gone; comfort the dog—she’ll miss me; I’m not ready to go yet; don’t let me die.
Then I’d sit frozen on a tacky vinyl seat in an antiseptic waiting room under the scrutiny of strangers pretending not to look at my disheveled hair and clothes. I would feel at a disadvantage, being such a mess outwardly as well as inwardly, the scent of lovemaking still pungent on my body. But I would handle myself as I always handle everything. I would not cry in front of them.
“I feel nauseous,” Dale’s voice entreated, drawing me back to the present. He rolled agitated from side to side. “If this gets much worse, you’ll have to take me to the hospital.”
I closed my eyes, a wave of exhaustion recruiting rebellion at the thought of abandoning our cozy bed. I was too tired to go through this. Reaching over to him, I felt the violent trembling of fear and stilled his involuntary movement with the weight of my body.
“It’s probably just heartburn,” I told him firmly, knowing he would believe me. “You eat too much junk food at work. And you need more exercise.”
Gradually his shaking began to subside as I held him. We were both thinking the same thing. The next morning when Dale left for work, he would remember the lunch I packed but would leave the cigarettes he was trying to give up on the coffee table. Then after work he would take our oversized mutt Saba for that long-promised walk.
“I love you,” Dale repeated, less desperately this time.
Echoing him, I sighed with satisfaction as he snuggled against me, breathing evenly. But as he slept, I knew that the urgency of his night promises would later fade back into entrenched habit, and I had the sensation that this whole incident was déjà vu in the reverse.
The Leaf Blowers
Everyone on my street plays “keep up with the Joneses”—everyone, that is, except me. It doesn’t really matter to the rest of them, though; I’m not sneered at too much, since I’m just a renter in what is primarily an owner’s neighborhood. In a way, being a renter has its advantages, because I’m able to observe the game without going broke trying to keep up. And watching the progress of the local fads established by my trendy neighbors is almost as interesting as going to the high school down the street and sightseeing the spiked Halloween hair and chains leashing lips to noses that all seem so far removed from my days of hip-hugger bells, tie-dye tees, beaded earrings, and Zig Zag man patches.
Two years ago, for instance, the rage was new satellite dishes chain-linked off privately in the side yards, each one positioned strategically on a cement slab surrounded by decorative chalk white landscaping rocks. Add a brass plaque from Pier 1 and some silk flowers from the dollar store, and they’ll look just like cemetery plots, albeit ones whose buried souls don’t necessitate disembodiment to commune with the heavens. Then last spring it was cutting down fifty-year-old shade trees overhanging the driveways so that bird shit wouldn’t get on the cars (first they tried fake ceramic owls and strips of white sheets that rippled in the breezes, but the birds weren’t fooled). Earlier this year it was new roofs for almost every house on the street (wouldn’t you know I timed my last garage sale so that it fell just downwind of the tar truck?). And now yard work is in. About six months ago the Smithers tilled up a whole front lawn of perfectly good grass to put in Ultra-Green Roll-On, and one by one, everyone else desiring that slightly more lush tone is following suit.
But the current yard work mania involves a lot more than simply mowing and showing the grass. The new power trip is power tools: edgers, weed-eaters, bush and tree trimmers, and of course leaf-blowers. This doesn’t necessarily indicate, though, that the residents do a lot of heavy work themselves, for having one’s own gardener is even more important than having one’s own tools. But since the neighborhood is filled with tract homes too inconsequential to justify a full-time gardener, the residents content themselves with sharing a part-time one. Each Tuesday the weather-beaten Chinese man pulls in with his gleaming cobalt pick-up truck full of gadgets and proceeds to work his way from house to house until every yard in the neighborhood is a virtual Garden of Eden, minus the falling fruit that might stain the cement. And naturally, this man is no fool; he began by convincing one couple that they needed a gardener and now does every house on the street except mine.
That is not to say, however, that my yard is the snake of our Eden. On the contrary, I enjoy a handsome landscape as much as anyone, the only difference being that I do all the work myself. I don’t really mind this, but once when I spent two hours sweating in the hundred-degree heat over my manual edger, I will admit being jealous of Sam across the street, who promptly sauntered out with his power edger to do his own lawn (which actually didn’t need it because the gardener had already done it). After he had finished five minutes later, he remained outside to putter around and watch me work. When I stopped to sop up my sweat with a towel and check the progress of my blisters, he even strolled across the street to chat and informed me that he always used to edge the lawn for the “girl” who lived here before me. Rather than offer, though, he just watched with amusement as I continued, which I did somewhat determinedly, since I’m not the type who would give him the satisfaction of begging for help, even though his power edger could have done my two-hour job in fifteen minutes.
Despite my lack of fancy tools and the fact that I’m either too broke or too cheap to pay other people for something I can do myself, my landscaping is nevertheless as eye-catching as anyone’s. And each evening after dinner, I join my neighbors in their favorite pastime, touching up the yard. I shift my hose while they supervise their automatic sprinklers; I scoop up dog shit with a shovel while they open their garages to display the power tool collections and choose which ones to play with (they don’t have pets which might poop on their perfection). Then, if it’s fall, I rake my leaves into neat piles while their leaf-blowers play tag with two or three culprits that dared to drop after the gardener left. And finally, I water my petunias with my old flea market Tweety-Bird can, while the competition chooses a trimmer to go after nonexistent stray bushes or new tree limb shoots getting dangerously close to their cars. Then we all stand back, with perhaps a wave at one another now that the hard labor is done, and we observe our handiwork proudly, hands on hips, the pleasure of accomplishment beaming from our faces—as though we had done it all ourselves (I, of course, being the joke of the neighborhood because I really did).
The neighbors who shared the other half of my duplex, which faces the adjacent street because we’re on a corner, disappeared about a month ago. Maybe our sound battles had something to do with it. After tiring of waking up in the middle of the night to music that I might have enjoyed if I could have heard anything but the thumping bass over their partying voices, I decided to get even. One morning I’d been driven from the main part of the house by my visiting step-kids’ choice of movie rentals—the front room had become a Police Academy from which I had to escape. One can indulge kids only so much—even step-kids. If I’d gone to Blockbuster instead of trusting Dale, they would have been watching something intelligent and hating every second of it. Anyway, about the time I found myself exiled to the bedroom, the wall-banging started. I was only trying to escape the stupid DVD in the other room, but then I discovered that the neighbors who party all night apparently sleep after everyone else gets up.
That was the day our music wars started, and they weren’t too thrilled when, smiling evilly, I cranked up the volume of my old “Puppy Howl Blues” 45 until the wall they were banging on vibrated of its own accord. I knew they wouldn’t dare gripe about me because of their own indiscretions: beer and whiskey bottles lining the window ledges and overflowing into a nondescript pile in the back yard, which they had landscaped with smashed Pizza Hut delivery boxes, SKOAL cans, and screwed up Marlboro 100s soft-packs. (Not that I’d been spying, but I have to do something when I can’t sleep in the middle of the night.) So I knew I would suffer no repercussions for my revenge, since the landlord (whose rent is too cheap for what we’re getting) might have been interested to hear about what had become of the “nice young couple” he told me were moving in.
Well, they’re gone now but I almost wonder if I was better off before. The new tenant is a single man (Chuck) about my age, to whom I probably wouldn’t have paid any attention except that all the neighborhood children (including my five-year-old Davy) congregate in his front yard to pet his hulking but friendly Doberman. I didn’t mind about the dog, since I grew up with big shepherds and trust animals more than most people, but I did mind when I went outside one evening to check on Davy and saw that he was the only kid left over at the new guy’s house.
They stood together in the driveway, my son grasping a hose and following Chuck around his pick-up to rinse off the soap. Davy had that same proud look that he always gets when cleaning house for me or helping Grandpa with his woodwork. I hesitated to disturb his fun, but I was nervous about leaving him alone with a man I don’t even know. So I compromised by deciding it was an opportune time for yard work, but I’m sure I fooled no one. Chuck glanced at me periodically; I knew he was wary and I felt in control knowing that, just in case he was some kind of weirdo, he wouldn’t dare attempt anything while I was there.
I don’t know if Chuck did what he did because he was pissed off about my obvious distrust, but the next evening when I checked on Davy, he was not down the street at his friend’s house as he was supposed to be. Automatically, I glanced at Chuck’s, and my son’s little two-wheeler was parked outside—but there was no sign of him. Frantic, I rushed toward the house, wondering what kind of person would invite a five-year-old in without getting his mother’s permission. The horrible possibilities flashed through my mind as I ran, and suddenly I was twelve years old again, strolling through K-Mart proudly doing my own Christmas shopping with the twenty dollars I’d saved.
“Come here, honey, I want to show you something,” the grizzled old man said to me from between two racks of men’s shirts.
“No, I don’t want to,” I protested, fearful of his overly-nice tone.
But before I could get away, he grabbed me and lifted me up, putting one hand under my arm from behind to cup my developing breast while the other hand clamped onto me from below and fondled under my dress.
“Put me down!” I demanded, horrified, as I struggled to push away his invading hands and then managed to escape his ugly, wizened, gloating face.
The whole incident took place in less than a minute. Eighteen years later, it should be insignificant, but it’s not. I didn’t sleep for months afterward, because each night when I closed my eyes, those disgusting hands would return. I sat in class each day, fighting the images. I was dirty and ashamed and guilty. I never told my mother. Instead, I concocted elaborate fantasies of confronting him and physically beating on him until he was powerless.
As I grew older, the invading hands haunted me less than the gloating expression, and my scenarios altered to those where I could expose him: no longer a naïve child, I would scream loudly, “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Get your dirty hands off me!”—so that everyone in the store would know what he was trying to do. I wanted to shame him as he had shamed me. I still do.
One night I thought I was going to get my chance. As I walked through the Cal-Neva Club the night before my wedding near Reno, some guy approaching me with that same gloating expression grabbed at my ass as he passed. But when I turned to confront him, all that anger from my childhood rising to the surface, he was gone. He had ducked quickly between aisles of slot machines. I was determined and stared suspiciously down row after row at hundreds of faces all ignoring me. I scrutinized each one that matched the general impression my brief glimpse had offered, waiting for some acknowledgement of guilt, some sneer of triumph to identify him. But I saw only the mechanical movements of those intent on the risks of chance, heard only the ringing bell of a jackpot that somebody else had won.
And as I ran toward Chuck’s house, all I could think was that this was not how I wanted my chance at retribution to be. “Davy!” I yelled loudly as I approached, hearing through the open window my son shrieking with laughter—as though being chased.
“Oh-oh, your mom wants you,” I heard Chuck say conspiratorially, and Davy came running out the door with that nervous half-smile pasted on his face which always tells me he knows he’s in trouble.
“You were supposed to stay at Mickey’s,” I reprimanded sternly. “Don’t you ever go anywhere again without telling me where you are.”
I stood and waited for Chuck to come outside and apologize for not checking with me, but he didn’t, although I could sense his presence on the other side of the curtain as he listened to everything I said. I felt a vague conflict between finding his behavior suspicious and sensing anger directed at me for my being so suspicious. I knew that my tone of voice when I approached had given away every awful thing I was thinking.
After taking Davy home and questioning him carefully, I was satisfied that nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
“We were just playing, Mom,” he repeated argumentatively, but then he accepted without question my forbidding him ever to go into Chuck’s house again, almost as if he sensed I was protecting him from something he didn’t understand.
Later, Davy told me that Chuck once said he was writing a story about me. Maybe he’s a writer observing child behavior, now working on a piece about paranoid mothers. Maybe I did him an injustice. Maybe he’s just a nice guy who likes kids. But this is my son we’re talking about, and where he’s concerned, I have no choice but to condemn Chuck for being guilty until proven innocent, instead of the other way around.
Oh, the drama of it all. They’re out in full force today, the whole group playing together instead of maintaining twosomes holed up in viciously-guarded bushes or the big dog house in my back yard. It’s amazing what four days of rain can do. But the peace won’t last. The elements of the battle are all in place. Davy is standing on the grass out front with Cindy. She’s a few years older than he is—about eight, I’d say—and when I first met her, I thought she was rather strange. She walked right up to me at my yard sale and asked flat out if she could have the pair of skates I was selling. Her mother couldn’t afford to buy them for her, she said. That’s a new one, I remember thinking as I fended off piles of kids I’d never seen before who appeared from nowhere to try their hands at bartering. But recently I met her mom—an exceptionally agreeable single woman—and I found out Cindy wasn’t lying. Now I wish I’d given her the skates. Anyway, I’ve come to like the girl a lot. She’s the only one who doesn’t disappear within five seconds when someone’s about to get into trouble. Like now.
The bigger boys are on their bikes, playing chicken with Cindy and Davy and ripping up my grass with their tires as they circle and charge their unwilling victims. Watching them, I’m reminded of those sixties’ movies about motorcycle gangs who terrorize innocent citizens. Danny, the ringleader, is responsible, of course. God, I hate that kid. He’s at that pre-teen bratty age when only his parents could love him (though I don’t know how they manage it). He’s Dennis the Menace gone ballistic. He throws rocks, starts fights, picks on all the younger kids, chips the new paint job on my car, teases the dog mercilessly, and just lately has developed a crank phone call fetish with me as his primary target. I haven’t told his mother yet, because complaining about him in the past hasn’t done much good. Besides, I’ve got better plans for him.
He must know that I know it’s him calling repeatedly and that I have plenty of proof, despite my not having a caller ID on my old Princess model house phone. I only get the calls after school while his mom’s out running her errands. The last time, I recognized the voice behind his mangled noises when I purposely provoked him into saying something by not saying anything myself. And since he always calls four or five times in rapid succession, I dialed him right back after his first call yesterday, and sure enough, the line was busy. Then I let Davy answer the phone the second time while I listened, and Danny was so surprised that he identified himself and asked Davy if he could play (a ten-year-old asking a five-year-old to play?). But when I told Davy to say he’d be right over, Danny immediately recoiled from his offer because his mom wasn’t home and he couldn’t play until she got there.
Circumstantial evidence? Perhaps. But overwhelming, nonetheless. Yet Danny’s no fool. He knows I don’t have absolute proof and is pretty sure, but not quite sure, that I won’t tell on him. There’s a cunning mind lurking beneath his obnoxious exterior—a mind which I have decided to play with. This morning was Step One. When I saw his parents outside with him washing the car, I walked purposefully towards them. Danny apparently thought I was going to tell on him, because the color drained right out of his sarcastic kiddy kisser when he saw me coming (at which time I began walking really slowly). My pithy errand, of course, was unrelated to his pranks but served its purpose well. That kid was paranoid. I think he’s over it now, though, because the little bastard just flipped me off a few minutes ago when I chewed him out for riding on my grass. But he’ll get his. Wait until he experiences Step Two.
Meanwhile, I have the future Hell’s Angels out there to contend with. I just hope Danny’s little brother Mickey, who’s usually a target but has joined the gang for the moment, doesn’t turn out as badly. I don’t have much hope for him though. I’ve observed him carefully when he comes over to play with Davy. Aside from the fact that he wants all Davy’s toys but won’t share his own, he has this irritating and fake (but bloodcurdling) yell that he lets out whenever he thinks he might have hurt himself. And he’s a hair on the stupid side, too.
The other afternoon while I was doing some yard work, old Sam across the street (who tends not to put up with any bullshit from the kids) was transferring a few new tools from his truck to his garage. Mickey was over there pestering him and doing those God-awful He-Man yells. When Sam was finished, he told Mickey to stand back because he was going to close the garage door (he has one of those automatic kind). Well, after Sam disappeared inside to activate the switch, Mickey walked up to the descending door and positioned his feet right under it, to see what would happen, I suppose? And of course what happened was that his feet got stuck under the door. I could hardly believe it when I saw him trapped there screeching as he tried to pull himself free, but what really cracked me up was that Sam waited just a teeny bit longer than necessary before raising the garage door. I had to hide a grin when Mickey’s dad went ripping across the street to see what happened. And then Sam came out and said innocently to Mickey’s dad, “I can’t imagine how he got stuck. I told him to stand back!” My kind of man, that Sam.
But then I was talking about Mickey, wasn’t I. Strange. Six-year-old toothless smile on a bulldog mug flashes sweetly at me when he asks if Davy can play. Then he heads for the bedroom, climbs on Davy’s alphabet bedspread with dirty shoes, and draws crayon murals on the wall. But I swear, I think that kid really comes over here every afternoon just to take a shit. Whenever I go in the bathroom after he leaves, there’s a pile my dog would envy in the un-flushed toilet. And there’s never any paper in it either.
Well, there you have it. A potential blog. A blog waiting to happen. But I think I’ve reconsidered. Shall I send my reflections out into cyberspace to an audience of one and call myself published? Shall I keep them secret from the blogosphere, whose synthetic attentions may render me so keen on talking that I forget what I meant to convey? Maybe I’ll offer them to real readers, understanding that—ultimately—even authentic writers talk to themselves, the difference being that when they strive for a medium where someone might listen, they invariably and reverently re-evaluate exactly what it is they intend to say.
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The photograph at left is of Susan in the 1980s.
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