Fiction: Theodore Wheeler
Attend the Way
It’s because he has a train to catch that Rodney leaves his room after suppertime. He puts on dress shoes and his green suit, the one that looks good against his skin. Earlier that afternoon, the big woman next door trimmed his hair. He lives in the Kellogg Rooming House, an old brick building near downtown. It’s a fifteen block walk to the train station from his room and he wants to arrive early. It’s a nice evening, the lights of the big buildings downtown popping on. Rodney heads south to Leavenworth. He knows a few people on the street here but doesn’t stop to talk. He doesn’t even care when the boys he knows laugh at him for wearing a suit.
Two granite buildings sit on the Ninth Street hilltop. Each of them used to be central stations for rail lines at one time, but the one that’s bright and clean is a museum now and the other sits empty, its exterior gray and green from neglect, The Burlington Station etched at its top. The Amtrak station is a small brick building nestled into a depression behind these old giants. Rodney’s headed for Hastings, a town some hundred-fifty miles away. It will be two in the morning when he arrives. He’d have rented a car if he had a driver’s license and a credit card, but he doesn’t have these things. It’s either the train or a bus for a man with only government ID and a clip of small bills, and he doesn’t like being seen on a bus.
He’ll only spend one day in Hastings—his mother’s died there, that’s the reason he’s going—and then he’ll take the train coming home to Omaha.
When Rodney wakes up, he’s slumped cock-eyed in his seat, leaning against the young man who plunked next to him at the stop in Lincoln. It takes him a moment to realize where he’s at, to lift his head off that shoulder and straighten, to remember he’s on a train in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. “Good morning,” the young man says, an iPod on his lap. Rodney doesn’t respond. He merely rubs his face and looks out the window. The young man grins, laughing softly. “Have you come a long way?” he asks.
Rodney nods, looking out the window so the kid will stop talking.
The train is due to arrive at two a.m. and as far as Rodney knows it’s on-time. This must be Hastings, he thinks, the train slowing into a town. Even though his mother grew up here and had been living at the Medicaid home for years, Rodney has never been to Hastings before. Neither had his father, a man with skin darker than Rodney’s who died years ago. There isn’t much for Rodney to see out the window. There are some houses and some buildings, long lonely streets with cars parked here and there, faintly lit plastic signs marking off businesses that are closed for the night. It’s mid-summer and even in the bluish darkness of early morning things look yellow and dry.
Rodney waits on a bench after getting off the train because he doesn’t know where to go. A few others deboard with him, but they have people waiting for them, folks they sleepily embrace, who help load luggage into the back of a car and then drive off. By the time the train chugs off toward its next stop the station is quiet again, save for the shuffling of Rodney’s feet and the young man he sat by earlier talking on a cell phone.
When the young man closes his phone and slides it into his pocket, Rodney approaches him, slowly, because he doesn’t want to give him a fright. He asks, “Do you know how to find this place,” handing the young man a slip of paper with the nursing home’s address on it. It was his girl who told him about his mother, because her place was Rodney’s last known address. There was a message from her in the office at the Kellogg one day, telling about his mother’s passing.
“That’s easy to find,” the young man says and explains how to get there. “You can have a ride if you want one,” he adds. “My dad’s coming for me.”
“I don’t need a ride.”
“Let us take you,” the young man insists, but Rodney shakes his head no and walks off.
He likes to stroll along city streets when they’re empty. And he’s only thirty-seven, his legs are strong and elastic, more than capable of moving from place to place on their own power.
A few nurses are chatting at a kiosk when Rodney walks in and one of them says she can take him to where his mother’s body is being held. The nursing home looked like a warehouse to Rodney when he approached it, but there was a sign in front that told him it was the right place.
The nurse talks as she shepherds Rodney down the long white hallways of the home. “Your mom had good friends here,” she says. She’s a big woman, in her early thirties. There’s a door every eight feet or so, most of them closed, with the sound of medical equipment working inside, but occasionally one is left open, the room beyond it silent and empty.
“The body was moved to our chapel. The old timers get nervous for a few days after one of them passes on, as you can understand.”
She continues to gabber, but Rodney doesn’t respond. He merely smiles if she tries to reassure him or nods thoughtfully if she’s describing something that sounds technical. Rodney isn’t paying attention to her. He’s thinking about his mother. It’s been five years since he saw her last. Even before then, when he was away in the army, Rodney didn’t see her all that often, and that was fine by him. He prefers a quiet, lonesome kind of life. The bustle and prying interests of family make him nervous. His mother’s parents didn’t like coming to Omaha when they were alive, them the only other people he knew from Hastings, and they insisted on meeting at a restaurant outside the city when they visited, near the suburban hotel they stayed in. They were all embarrassed, having to do it like that. Being around family is a big embarrassment for everyone, Rodney understands this.
When he and the night nurse arrive to the chapel, Rodney is surprised to find most of the chairs there filled with residents, ten to fifteen of them. The old people face the casket, but they turn to look at Rodney and the nurse as they near the room, waiting to see if they’ll enter or walk past.
“Who are they?” Rodney asks.
“We hold a vigil when one of them dies,” the nurse explains. She shows Rodney to an empty seat and settles in next to him. “It helps them. These are people who knew and will miss your mother. Some of her friends.” Then she whispers, “A few of them just like to come and sit.”
The chapel is bright, spotlessly clean, and besides the chairs, there’s a bier draped with blankets on which the casket rests. A Chicana nurse sits beside the door and wears a pink smock and a white cap that tilts atop her hair. At the front, one of the old ladies is crying, a large woman in a loose dress who leans against the casket, her chair pulled close. It’s a strange thing to Rodney, this woman’s weeping, because none of the other residents cry with her. He wants her to stop carrying on and gets the feeling that the rest of the people in the room agree with him.
“I’ll leave you to your thoughts,” the nurse who brought him here says. “If you need anything, I’ll be at the kiosk. The funeral is tomorrow morning. That’s today, I guess. In five hours or so, when the pastor gets here. That gives you some time to spend with the coffin, as you’ll want to do.” And then, “I hope you knew a pastor was coming. It was her wish to receive final rites.”
“Of course,” Rodney says.
“The lid is closed, but we can open it. I’ll do that,” the nurse says, standing up, “so you can see her.”
She starts toward the casket but Rodney stops her. She halts and looks at the blotch on her arm where he touched her. “You don’t want me to?”
“No,” Rodney says.
“You don’t want to see her one last time?”
They stare at each other for a moment, Rodney and the nurse from the kiosk, both of them embarrassed as the old folks murmur about what’s happening.
“I understand,” the nurse says, although it’s clear she doesn’t. She leaves the room without saying another word.
No one speaks while they’re here. They merely look forward, slumped in their chairs, staring at the crucifix tacked to the wall or down at their slippers, or they play with something in the pockets of their robes, or readjust a walking stick if one lay across their lap. Most of the residents are dressed for bed and Rodney wonders if they’ve been here all night. It’s nearly four a.m., he notices, looking at a clock on the wall.
He closes his eyes after a while but catches himself before he nods off. He doesn’t want to fall asleep in this room, with these people, and for a while his nervousness keeps him awake. The residents look at Rodney from time to time then nod knowingly to each other. One of the old men along the wall rests his chin on his hands, clasped over the end of his cane, and stares hard at Rodney, at the sun-baked surface of Rodney’s face, at his hands crooked and shaky from holding the vibrating controls of heavy machinery for many years. They all eye Rodney, giving the impression that they’ve come for the sole purpose of sitting in judgment of him, this son of a woman who’s recently passed. All the while, the woman at the front weeps, quietly yet persistently, and none of the other residents move to comfort her. It’s this fact that makes Rodney think the others are here just to see him, to see what he looks like, to bear witness to his actions. If any of them would offer condolences to the crying woman he would feel different about it, or if they shed tears themselves while laying hands on the pine casket. But sitting in the chapel, having these old people silently watch him, it makes him feel like he too is dying, or that he should be.
Eventually, another of the women leans over and says something into the crying woman’s ear. But it doesn’t make a difference, she still weeps. The nurse tells Rodney that the crying woman was his mother’s friend. “Very devoted,” she says. “Her only friend in the world.”
Over the next two hours, the residents nod off, wake up a few minutes later, and then go to their rooms in clusters of two or three. Even the nurse in the pink smock leaves, her shift over, so that by sunrise it’s only the old lady at the front and Rodney sitting stiffly in his chair at the back. The old lady has quit weeping and sits further away from the casket, blotting her face with a tissue.
An administrator comes into the room soon after the shift change and sits next to Rodney. “You’re the son?” she asks, resting her hand on the seat next to his. “I want to let you know that the pastor has called and she’ll be here in an hour or so. That’s when the service will begin and there’s no stopping it then. Nurse Haskell told me about last night. If you want to have a final glimpse of your mother, now is the time.”
All Rodney says is, “No.” He sits in silence until the administrator excuses herself.
It isn’t until then that the old woman at the front rises and walks to Rodney. She moves haltingly, resting her drooping weight on an aluminum walker. A paling redhead, her thin hair hangs loose over her ears, although it’s evident that it has been curled at one point.
“I tend not to need this,” she says, making a movement to indicate the walker, “but it’s a long night to be here for these vigils.”
“You’re my mother’s friend.” Rodney’s voice cracks, this the first real thing he’s said in hours. “The nurse told me you were.”
The old woman closes her eyes and smiles when Rodney says this, her red face creasing, becoming even redder.
“Come with me, Rodney,” the woman says. A slight twinge of brogue sneaks out when she pronounces the beginning of his name. “Follow me.”
The old woman takes Rodney to her room so he can wash his face in the sink of her bathroom. She gives him a towel and a fresh bar of soap, then closes the door behind him. Rodney lingers a long time in the bathroom, running cold water over his hands, examining the chair in her shower as he stands at the sink. When he’s finished, she’s waiting for him, leaning against the doorframe without her walker. The old woman is crying again and she embraces him. Her soft, wide body engulfs his skinny limbs. He opens his arms and guides them under the woman’s shoulders, kind of lifting as he hugs her because he’s taller and stronger. It’s odd to him how he lingers, ostensibly to comfort her. Yet it’s Rodney who feels a great surge of contentment rush through his body, holding this old woman.
“There,” she says. She touches his face, still damp with lather at his sideburns. “Now you look presentable.”
They sit together at the front of the chapel as the pastor performs the rites and then Rodney allows the old woman to stand at his elbow during the burial at a cemetery outside of town. They are the only two at the sunny plot, besides the pastor and the gravedigger, to witness the patter of soil falling on his mother’s wooden box, bits of white root showing in the dirt. When the pastor takes them back to the home the old woman asks Rodney if he would like to come to her room and rest a while. “If you have nowhere else to be,” she says, “you’re welcome to stay.”
“I took the train,” Rodney explains. He remembers that his return doesn’t leave until nearly three a.m. His plans are vague, at this point of the day, as to how he will pass the more than fourteen hours before the train takes him back to Omaha. It occurs to him that he might not be welcome here—if he tries catching a nap in the park he might be arrested as a vagrant. He doesn’t know what the cops are like in Hastings, if they will judge him at first sight like the old people at the vigil had, or if they will leave him alone like the police at home would. Being here without anything to do could mean trouble for a man like him. So when the old woman asks again if he’ll stay with her for the rest of the day, when she says that there’s coffee in her room, Rodney feels lucky to have found her.
When he wakes up after napping in a chair beside the old woman’s bed, she gives him the TV remote and tells him to watch what he wants. “Sit on the bed if you can’t see,” she says. A Cubs’ matinee is on. “You’re a nice boy. I have a sense for people.”
Rodney feels comfortable in the room after a while, talking to the old woman between pitches. It makes him feel like a nice person. Even though he never came to visit his mother, he’s not a bad man. He didn’t deserve the looks those old people gave him during the vigil. It’s just the way he was with his mother. If she ever felt differently about their arrangement, she never said anything to him about it.
She was middle-aged when Rodney was born; accustomed to privacy and calmness and didn’t like doing for other people what they could do for themselves. There was no waiting on hand and foot to serve the men in her house, so Rodney knew the value of keeping quiet and taking care of his own business. But it wouldn’t be fair to say that things were bad with his mother, like those cold stares at the vigil implied. It had been five years since he’d seen her, but Rodney loved his mother, that’s safe to say, as much as he’s loved anything.
The old woman seems to understand this, Rodney thinks, because she loved his mother too.
After the seventh inning stretch, the old woman opens a drawer and pulls out a grocery store cake under a plastic dome. She takes the heavily frosted German chocolate cake with both hands and gives it to Rodney, who’s sitting on the bed now, before shuffling back to the drawer for a spatula, a paper plate and a plastic fork, all of which looks like it’s been lifted from the cafeteria.
“Please stay off my bed,” the old woman says, “while you’re eating.”
“They let you run out for cake?” Rodney asks.
“They’ll take us to the bakery if we ask. There’s a shuttle van.”
“I guess that’s right.” Rodney remembers seeing those vans around the city before, old people in the back. He stands from the bed with the plastic dome and moves to the chair.
Rodney cuts himself a piece of cake, and the old woman tells him about herself, how her kids, the ones who are still alive, are wicked like their father was. “They wish I was dead. I don’t mind knowing that. I turn a hundred this winter.” She nods her head to confirm it. “It isn’t like I planned on living this long.”
The old woman says she moved here from Ireland, a long time ago, because her brother claimed there was a man in America who would marry her. “It was a load of bunk. There was a man looking to marry, but he wasn’t like Kieran said.” She tells Rodney how everyone in her family insisted she was an ugly girl and should be happy to have a husband at all, even if he did mistreat her. The man she married has been dead for forty years now, though.
“Tell me about yourself,” the old woman says. “Your mother didn’t say much. She wouldn’t fill in the details.” Rodney sits up in his chair and looks at the old woman. “Tell me,” she says. “What do you do for a living?”
Rodney looks back at the television for a time, pretending to watch the game. “I’d rather not tell you,” he eventually says.
“Don’t worry. There isn’t much that surprises me anymore, if it makes you feel better to know that.”
“I don’t bother no one,” he says. “I live alone.”
Rodney watches as the old women pops the plastic dome back on the cake and sets it near his jacket so he’ll take it home later. He senses the warm feeling surge through him again as he watches this woman fuss over cleaning the spatula and the plastic fork.
It’s then that Rodney tells the old woman he’s a gospel singer.
“Is that right?” she asks, her voice rising with surprise. “A singer?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Rodney mutters. “It’s for a bunch of churches in Omaha. I do the solos.”
“I don’t believe it,” the woman says. Rodney flinches, half-smiling to cover his nerves.
“It’s true,” he says.
“Did your mother know?”
Rodney hesitates and looks to the ceiling, his shoulders dropping. “I couldn’t say. We didn’t talk about it. Not about work. She did love to hear me sing, I know that.”
“She never mentioned it to me,” the old woman says, again like she’s surprised. For a long time she looks at Rodney, her head crooked, staring at his mouth, his neck, as if imaging what he’d look like standing at the front of a church straining to belt out some high-arching gospel. “Would you sing for me?” she asks.
“Yes,” the old woman says. “You could sing a hymn. What do you know,” she asks, pinching a strand of hair between her fingertips. “Have you ever sung ‘It Is Well with My Soul?’ Of course you have, that’s a standard.”
Rodney pauses, looking back at the TV before saying, “I’m not sure.”
“Well, don’t you know that one?”
Rodney nods his head—and it’s true, he knows the hymn. That was one thing his mother always liked to do. On Sundays, even if they didn’t go to church, they would sit in the front room at the piano and sing. Rodney learned a good many of the old hymns this way, his hand on his mother’s back as she sat at the piano to play the accompaniment.
“Well, if you know it, then sing.” The old woman touches his arm with her long fingers. “Will wonders never cease,” she says. “A gospel singer.”
Rodney looks away from her before he starts singing the hymn. It’s the warm feeling that makes him think he can do it—even though it’s been a long time since he’s tried to sing—and because the old woman asked him to.
His voice croaks when he begins, falling into a lower register, and then higher, unable to find or hold a note, until he stops to clear his throat.
“Try again,” the woman says. She rises to close the door and then returns to the edge of the bed.
“When peace flows like a river, attending my way. When sorrows like the ocean roil below. I will say to my Lord, it is well.”
Rodney thinks he remembers the hymn, the lyrics are mostly right, but his voice falters again. His tone is off, flat then sharp, and then he’s not really singing at all, but kind of humming the tune to himself, a word popping out now and then, until his noise peters off into silence. He stares at the corner of the room, his whole body trembling.
The old woman is weeping—Rodney hears her and looks into her face to see her eyes water.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “This was the wrong thing to do.”
“No, no. It’s a beautiful hymn.”
Rodney moves to the woman and puts a hand on her back. “I shouldn’t have said anything about being a singer.”
“It’s a beautiful hymn,” the old woman repeats. She shudders when Rodney embraces her, they both do, his arms under hers again, his face on her shoulder.
“I’m glad you sang it. You’ve done all right.”
It’s six a.m. when his train pulls into Omaha. As he walks back to the Kellogg Rooming House, the plastic bubble with the cake inside held in front of him, Rodney thinks about how he’ll never see the old woman again. It doesn’t upset him that he lied to her about being a gospel singer, he just wanted to make her feel better. It was his mother’s funeral, after all, the funeral of this old woman’s best friend too.
His room looks empty when he gets back to the Kellogg, but this doesn’t bother him either. Rodney takes off the green suit and returns it to the spot in his closet. He stands there in his underwear for a little while, then puts on his work pants, changes his undershirt, and lies gently on the bed, his hands behind his head as he looks out the window.
He only had a short time to grab his things and leave his girl’s house this last time they broke up, before she came back from her job. Her brother stood in the living room to make sure Rodney didn’t steal anything when he left.
“C’mon, man. You know I won’t take nothing isn’t mine.”
“I know it,” his girl’s brother said, arms crossed over his chest. He wasn’t the type to enjoy watching a man pack up his belongings and move on. “But she asked me to. She said to stand here and supervise, so that’s what I got to do. She’s my baby sister.”
“You don’t have to do nothing you don’t want to,” Rodney said. He kicked a box across the floor but regretted doing it. It wasn’t her brother’s fault that he had to watch. Things just hadn’t worked out between Rodney and his girl, that was the problem.
Most all he has now are clothes and most of them are ratty. Olive work pants the city gives him, a bunch of tee shirts. Rodney mows grass in parks and vacant lots, around abandoned houses. He has a hot plate in his room, on a table next to his bed because he likes to cook lying down. There’s a pine closet that sticks out from the wall by the door and his twin bed is angled so he can look out the window. His girl had a TV and paid for cable. Rodney kind of misses watching what was on each night, especially in the summer after mowing was finished. He misses lying on the couch with his girl too, even though he won’t let himself miss her. Most of the time it’s more comfortable to be alone, that’s how he sees it. Rodney’s legs are hot and he doesn’t like being shut up in a room with somebody else whose legs might also be hot.
His room at the Kellogg has a big window, which is what he watches after work now, the downtown buildings reflecting the last light of sunset. And then he watches the fluorescent lights of the offices as they pop on after a while. It’s a drowsy sort of happiness this gives him.
Later in the morning he sits outside on the edge of a flower box and waits to be picked up and taken to where he will work for the day. Rodney has mowed for the city a long time, fifteen years or more. The man Rodney works with has learned a lot about him over the years, but even he doesn’t know Rodney’s mother was a white lady, that she came from Hastings and moved east to work for Mutual of Omaha in the fifties. She held more than a few jobs for them, over three decades, all clerical stuff before there were computers on every desk. Rodney’s father worked at Mutual too, that’s how they met. He was a custodian. They lived together for a few years in the Leavenworth neighborhood. It wasn’t such a great place to live, just as the Kellogg isn’t now, because there were junkies on the sidewalks and slumlords let most of the houses go to shit. But the people who lived there would let you be. They wouldn’t hassle you for doing things differently than most folks wanted you to. Rodney knew this, he understood it well.
His father left their midtown house when Rodney was thirteen years old, but he came back to visit most weekends, even when his life was running short, living alone by then in some innavigable parcel of land north of Cuming, south of Ames, east of 40th, west of the river. The man died and was buried during the three years Rodney was away in the army. Rodney could have had a furlough to return for the funeral, if he’d requested one, but he didn’t. His mother had moved back to Hastings by that time too, since he was in the military and she’d retired early. She was fifteen years older than Rodney’s father, and she worked a long time even after she retired from Mutual, simple stuff she was used to doing with insurance forms, for a while at the hospital in Hastings, a few years after that for a shyster lawyer.
Rodney wished someone would have been there to meet him when he came back from the army, but it wasn’t a big deal. In those days men still had to drive up from base after serving, which was from Arkansas in his case. He rode with a few guys he knew that were heading his way, one other from Omaha and a couple from Sioux City who had the car. They stopped at the dog track in Council Bluffs because the two with the car wanted to gamble. The family of the other guy from Omaha was waiting outside, and he wanted to give Rodney a ride.
“C’mon, buddy. Get in the car,” the man said, but Rodney shook his head and jogged after the two from Sioux City who were entering the track. “I’ll find a ride,” Rodney yelled back. “I’m going to bet some.”
Rodney did like to watch the greyhounds run and that’s what he did for a few hours, even after the guys with the car decided to head on. He sat inside the smoke-dense building with a smattering of others, men bent over the seats to study the odds. Rodney distracted himself by watching the greyhounds pound the earth on the other side of the glass, those long, graceful dogs chasing a mechanical rabbit along the rail. They went around the track and then back into a box.
He hadn’t thought about it in real terms until then, that his father was dead. It made him sad that his dad died young—he didn’t even know what had done it. Rodney wondered if he was a man then, since he no longer had a father.
During an intermission he walked out of the building and across the parking lot, jumped a fence near the interstate, and jogged across the bridge to Omaha. He was in fatigues still, a rucksack sagged over his shoulder. Rodney couldn’t keep his breath running over the bridge and had to stop every so often to look down at the river, as if he were lost in a strange country, a new man in a lonely and desolate place.
It was that summer Rodney found the job mowing, then there was the man he worked with to talk to if he wanted. And he’d see his mother a few times each year until she was unable to travel. And then he met his girl, although that never lasted as long as they thought it would.
Rodney and the other man work this afternoon in an overgrown lot on Park Avenue. This is still his neighborhood, in his part of the city. First they roll the mowers off the trailer, then tilt the blade houses up to unwind grocery sacks and wire fencing from the blades, then they put on goggles and gloves, spray bug repellant that smells like bleach on the fabric that covers their legs and arms. Rodney surveys the yard through blustering clouds of mosquitoes, looking for objects that might break the mowers—pieces of metal, chunks of lumber, a broken suitcase—and for bodies that have been dumped. He’s heard stories about corpses hidden in the weeds, girls with skin coal black from decay, their shirts torn off, skirts pulled up over their hips, but he’s never come across one himself.
The address of the house is spray painted in big orange numbers across the front. This house had a fire, a long time ago by the looks of it, and was abandoned. Through a hole in the roof Rodney sees the charred frame of two-by-fours and what looks like an exercise bike missing its wheel, the slow drift of white summer clouds churning in the sky behind it. Closer to the house there are empty bottles of booze, aerosol cans, containers of isopropyl alcohol meant to jumpstart cars that folks will drink if they’re cold enough. Homeless people live here in the winter, in houses like this, leaving behind piss stains and soiled clothes that can’t be worn anymore.
After starting the engine, Rodney drives towards a wall of weeds and pushes it over with the mower, then, as he circles the yard, his tires etch a concentric pattern into the undergrowth, jig-sawing around the fixtures, a fire hydrant, a light pole. The engine jumps under his seat, straining to turn over as it chops up the weeds and grass and beer bottles and whatever else is in there, stirring up dust and ten thousand furious insects.
Rodney keeps thinking that he would like to have sung the hymn right for the old woman back at the home. He doesn’t feel bad about lying, about saying he’s a gospel singer, but he would like to have sung to her the way the hymn was meant to be sung. As he kills the engine after mowing up to the charred foundation, Rodney thinks that maybe one day he will sing to her, or to someone else, to the lowdown woman in the room next to his who caterwauls the blues every night. He used to sing all right and might be able to again. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to him, sitting on top of the mower, watching the bugs settle back to the earth, but he thinks maybe one day he’ll sing again.
Theodore Wheeler is a fiction writer, roving bookseller, college professor, pub quiz host, and legal reporter living in Omaha, Nebraska. He is author of the novel Kings of Broken Things and the collection of short fiction Bad Faith. His short stories have appeared widely in publications such as Best New American Voices, New Stories from the Midwest, Boulevard, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, The Cincinnati Review, Narrative, Confrontation, and Five Chapters. In 2015, his chapbook On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown, was published by Edition Solitude.
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