Hot Damn

By Martha Stallman Illustration by Charles Chaisson

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I woke up on the floor in a sticky cold puddle and said, “Great, beautiful,” because I figured I’d pissed myself or else the dog had pissed on me, but either way the shame, the shame, and oh my Lord did it stink and that’s how I realized no, no, it’s just beer (the bottle clutched loose in my marshmallow hand) and then relief and another wash of shame but this one milder, thin as cream cheese smeared over my morning. Passed out on the floor, a man of my caliber! I sat up and the dog came over, shovel-head mongrel dwarf, short and fat, cylindrical, shuffling duffel bag of minor mutations. He thrust his oversize snout in my face, snorting discount fish breath, and I grabbed the cane out of his mouth and launched it couchward. When he moved to fetch it, I took that huge hairy head of his in my hands and said “Goddamn it, creature, I’m lonely.”

So I called my wife and said the same thing: “Goddamn it, I’m lonely,” only without the creature part, obviously (I’m not nearly that stupid, not by a mile). She cursed, and I listened to the clatters and knocks on the other end of the line that sounded like war or vaudeville but really just meant she was trying to find her glasses. She won’t talk on the phone unless she has her glasses on, not ever, it gives her headaches maybe or maybe she just feels naked without them, unprepared to face the demands of a serious phone conversation with someone of rigorous intellect and devastating charm and uncompromised virtue and a heart as expansive as Montana.

“It’s occurred to me, Lucy, that the heart is the new frontier,” I said. “Big sky country. Come camping with me.”

“Pete? What time is it? What’s wrong?”

“The time is always right to do what’s right,” I said, and before me, Gandhi or maybe Jesus, I forget now, but still it’s a beautiful sentiment and I’m proud to be a part of its legacy, a pit stop on its travels through the universe. “Right now is what’s right, Lucy. My darling, my chicken potpie, why don’t you come over?”

“It’s 9:17 in the morning.”

She is so clever, the Patton to my Rommel, but I always have a counterattack, which this time was “So what? Come see me. I’m lonely. You’re my wife,” to which she replied, “No, I’m not. Role-play’s an extra 50 an hour you don’t have.” As always, she insists upon technical accuracy to the detriment of greater truth and I meant to tell her this and to explain carefully and compassionately all the many ways in which she is wrong (reassuring her of course that my love and respect for her remain undiminished), but what I actually said was “Creature, don’t be a dumb shit,” and then she hung up on me, damn it.

I gave her an hour to make coffee and I called back, humbled. “I was wrong,” I said. “So wrong. Unforgivable. Forgive me?” I was still on the kitchen floor; some bizarre and unheralded power rendered it plusher, cozier the longer I lay on it, and also there were still a few beers within reach. “Transubstantiation,” I whispered to the dog as he slithered his tongue in a bottle.

“Don’t call so early,” said Lucy. “You know I need my beauty sleep.” She’s right, I know better. Lucy’s beauty is a business matter; her face is her moneymaker as much as her breasts or her legs or her fine ass, maybe more so, because while a fine ass is fine, for most men any ass is fine if it’s an available ass, an ass they can access, but a pretty girl on his arm makes a man happy in a way that a truckload of asses never could. That is why Lucy can charge so much for her services, more than colleagues who’ve not been entirely snipped even, and I would say (though of course I am biased) that she is worth every penny.

“A thousand pardons. Come over.”

“Are we going to have to have another discussion about bound-aries?” she asked, and I groaned and clamored inside because there is nothing more tedious than discussions about ­boundaries, especially boundaries that are never going to be respected because of aforementioned factors (my loneliness, her beauty) and also because Lucy enjoys my transgressions, I feel certain. They allow her to feel comfortably motherly without the need to change diapers (like any real man, I change my own). “Really, Pete. Am I going to have to put you in time-out?”

“Dear God, no. Please,” I said. “I’ll be good.”

“Lies,” she said. She was in a fine mood and my heart swelled big as a stadium ringing with the palimpsest echoes of her voice: lies lies lies.

“Let’s go to the park,” I said. “We’ll have a picnic. We’ll walk the dog. It will be glorious.” The dog shuffled toward me wagging, the jelly beef of his middle quivering with excitement. He would know “walk” in Swahili.

“Can’t. I have a lunch date,” she said. “Promise Keepers convention, remember? We can’t all be gentlemen of independent means.”

“I worked hard for my millions,” I said, surveying the kitchen with a pugnacious eye as if seeking dissent from the microwave, the bag of dog food, the Styrofoam cooler I use instead of the fridge because the fridge stopped working well until I took a hammer to it, and then it stopped working entirely. “Lucy, it’s true, I’ve done terrible things, but surely it was worth it, all worth it, to rise above, to transcend——”

“Did you pick up your check yet?”

“Is money all you think about?” The dog trotted out from the kitchen, audibly farting, rounding the corner with quick lardy grace, a pig on roller skates.

“I’m a working girl. Rent is expensive,” she said. “Food is expensive. HRT is expensive.”

“But GFE pays well,” I said. “Beloved, let’s not hurl acronyms.”

“Life is expensive,” she said. “If you ever get around to paying your own bills, you may find that out.”

“Sweetness,” I said. “Why do you think I retain your services? You know I have no head for figures. What day is it?”

“Wednesday.”

“Of the month, creature.” The dog trotted back in with his leash in his mouth.

“Be nice. The third.”

“Success!” I said. “I’m flush. Come over. Come after your date. Help me write you a tender note. Let me rub your feet. Move in with me. I’d never try to hamper your career! I love you. How can you not know this? You know this.”

“I do,” she said. “But I’m busy. Can you make it to the mailbox?” The MS is an inconstant constant—I often can’t do today what I could yesterday. But I knew Lucy would never admit our relationship had transcended the bounds of the professional if she doubted my ability to provide for her (and if I didn’t get some sun soon, I would surely get rickets).

“There and beyond, to the moon and back,” I said.

“Good,” she said. “Go get your check. I’ll see you after, maybe. Be careful.” And then she hung up on me again and I turned to the dog and said, “Can you believe this shit?” and he dropped his leash at my feet and barked.

The kitchen is a galley kitchen, cramped and ugly but well-suited to my needs, and as I yanked open the fridge door (useless) with my left hand to gain leverage enough to reach with my right hand the sink (mystery swamp gas curling up from the drain) and from there haul myself to my feet, I was so grateful for the way the dark fake wood cabinets loom as they do, wall-mounted coffins for midgets. They’re so close I can pinball out of there easy enough, and once I make it to the couch then I’m golden; through time and trial and uncountable errors I’ve arranged this dark hole to be a marvelous engine of propulsion.

I ricocheted out of the kitchen (smelly dog bundle trundling behind, leash in mouth) and from the used couch propelled—incoming!—to the front door, swung it open and hung upon its knob to spin myself a quarter turn and drop into the chair chained around the pole that stands outside my front door and supposedly (hopefully) keeps the ­second-floor walkway from collapsing and killing us all. I kicked the front door closed like a man—with authority!—and fished the keys out of my pocket. I can still manage keys if they’re big enough, and the padlock on my chair chain is a big one by anyone’s standard, and a big lock gets a big key, yes indeed. I popped that lock on the very first try (no flies on this boy) and pulled the loose ends of the chain around my waist and slipped the U of the lock through the links of the chain and clicked it home and all the while the dog waited patiently but when he heard the lock click he couldn’t hide his eagerness and began to butt that monster noggin against my thigh relentlessly, insistent as a Witness when he knows you’re home, hears the dark siren call of your sinful thoughts no matter how hard you try to quiet them (I’m like porn to those people, I’m like crack) so I grabbed the leash from the dog’s mouth and leashed him and said, “There. Okay, creature? There.” He barked once in agreement and we were off: a wet-pants cripple chained to an office chair pulled by a blundering dog.

Despite everything, I know I’m a lucky man.

As proof I will cite that the wall of mailboxes are a straight shot from my door, in the very next building across the street that bisects this gray concrete complex, Satan’s Legos, crackerbox village of the damned. Barring rain or catastrophe we manage the trip and back in 10 minutes, eight if the dog sees a squirrel or 12 if we find a dropped and doomed pair of underwear never again to earn redemption through laundry. Fallen soldiers we call them, me and Lucy when she’s here with me, and when we do the dog looks at us like he thinks we’re profound, but that’s because the dog is a smart-ass.

We made our way in good time that day because it was sunny and squirrelly and I sang some Beyoncé to rouse us. We were roused! Lucy would come, I was sure, and I had a check waiting for me, and the dog was outside where his farts could simply float away instead of settling upon us both like an unseen sulfurous blanket.

“Creature, you smell like the devil’s deodorant,” I said, and we halted. I unhooked his leash. “Go. Go and do what you do,” and he waddled off to take a shit in private. Granted the freedom and plausible deniability I crave (I cannot scoop what I do not see) I was overwhelmed briefly by a world in bloom. Dandelions covered the courtyard like a rash; a fistful of ragweed erupted from the sidewalk ahead. Spring! I laughed and spun in my chair just in time to hit a boy running up behind me.

“Watch it,” he said, coming around. He looked left, then right, then at me. He looked maybe 14, or older or younger since I have no children and no head for numbers besides. Tall and strong, royally attired in purple and gold, dark muscles shining. His face ran through expressions in time-lapse speed: fear, relief, mild nausea (I smelled like an ill-used bar stool) and finally a small resigned sadness that looked far too old for him. I watched, fascinated, until he said, “Man, what you looking at?” He probably could have busted my jaw with one shot.

“I’m sorry,” I said, looking down. “I study the ground more intently than most. Great shoes, by the way.”

“Jordans,” he said. He looked around again and jogged away. “Careful how you roll,” he called over his shoulder. I blinked and he was gone. So fast. I’d kill to be 14 again.

My creature returned to me, wagging, mercifully, momentarily flatuless. If I were blind I would know him by his smells alone; I’ve banished him from my bed on these ripe grounds. He sleeps on the weight bench now (at least it’s getting some use), but how he ascends it with his stumpy little hooves, I’ll never know.

He nudged my leg and I releashed him. It was time to get moving.

We pulled up to the bank of mailboxes and I wiggled the chair up against another pole (poles! my truest friends) and threw off my chains, or dropped them rather, setting them gently on the seat as I levered myself up and (deep breath) closed the gap between me and my box with three confident strides, magnificent strides, saturated with manliness. I caught myself palms out on the brick wall and held myself there with one rubber arm as I flippered the mail key from my pocket; it’s smaller than the other, naturally, but I forgave it that long ago. Key in hand (eventually) I got the box open and clawed a weeks’ worth of papers out to fall to the ground and be gathered by the dog, moistened by flappings of lip. Junk mail, vet bill, clinic bill, doctor bill, mail-order pharmacy bill (unfair perhaps to call them “bills”—they call themselves “inquiries,” innocent queries as to whether you have any burdensome money you’d like them to take off your hands), appointment cards for appointments I missed days ago (“You are NONCOMPLIANT”) but what else, what else, and almost I despaired, almost I was ready to give up, but there! Crumpled into the corner! I pinched it and smoothed it out and read the return address and sighed, fulfilled. “Creature,” I said to the dog dropping mail in my chair. “Get your priorities straight! Only pain hides in compliance, but you can’t spell blessings without SSI.” I slipped the check into my front shirt pocket (from which it then jauntily jutted) and leaned against the wall of mailboxes to catch my breath, slid down to my ass on the sidewalk. The dog came over to lie beside me, maneuvered his head under my hand.

“Creature,” I said, looking into his eyes. “You feel both plush and quilted. Someday I’ll forgive you your smell and your runaround ways.” Darkness came over his face and I looked up to see more darkness in the shape of a man. My eyes adjust poorly in bright light, so I could only assume his intentions. I tried not to look rich or attractive, a feat.

“Good morning,” I said to this backlit phantom. “I’m terribly popular today. I can offer you a seat if you don’t mind an ass full of bills.” I waved toward my chair, so much more inviting than a walker, and normal. Who doesn’t have an office chair? I just like to take mine off-roading.

The phantom did not bend. “I’m looking for a young male,” he said. His voice was oddly metallic, as if he’d swallowed a steel drum.

“I’m flattered,” I said, “but my dance card’s full.”

“Black, five-foot-10, wearing an LSU basketball jersey.”

And Jordans. “Nope,” I said. “Doesn’t ring a bell.”

He cocked his head. “You’re sure? His name is Germaine.”

“To what?” I said, but he did not laugh. He was blocking my sun, and in his shadow I shivered. The dog licked my pants, tasting breakfast.

“Sir,” he said, “have you been drinking?” Oh shit.

“Forgive my casual appearance,” I began. “You’ve caught me on break, but I can assure you I’m an upstanding citizen, a pillar of the community, a veritable denizen of this fine establishment, and if I see this Germaine——”

“It’s important that I find him,” my phantom said, overwhelmed by my eloquence. “I’ll leave you my card. If you see him, please let me know.” He turned and dropped his card in my chair in one smooth motion.

The dog squirmed forward, but I held him back. “Seducer,” I muttered. “We’ll wait here till he’s well gone.” And we did.

Did I sleep as I sat on the sidewalk? It’s possible, but more likely I simply fell into a reverie about my Lucy, about the day ahead. I would bathe so that I might greet her more sweetly, wafting warm puffs of Dial, of ultra-light smoke because Lucy loves the taste of tobacco (though herself has quit smoking, citing her teeth, her smooth root beer skin), and she would walk into the apartment to find me waiting on the couch, limbs arrayed regally, Hot Damn chilling in the ice chest, gun oil tastefully displayed on the end table (an offer, an invitation, not a demand), the check on the coffee table, the dog sated with Slim Jims, the television on but muted so she could engage or ignore it as she chose. My resources are limited; my love is not.

I heard nothing and the dog did not move, but when I opened my eyes the chair was gone.

I blinked and the chair was still gone. The check. The check! Gone. I craned my neck left and then right and then left again. Nothing. No one. The chair was gone and the chain and the mail and my dull fat-boy padlock gone with it.

“Hello?” I said, and then louder “Hello?” The dog stood up and began to wag, anticipating company.

“Hey, whoever?” I said to the deserted courtyard, the closed doors around me. “Whoever you are, and no offense, but I need that chair, you dumb-shit creature, and my check as well. My wife is a lady! A lady with taste. For her love, I must be a high roller. Return my property to me at once, though you can keep the rest of the mail if it means that much to you, my compliments; learn the wonders of compliance and so forth, steal my identity to buy liquor and cigarettes, begin your downward spiral now, I’m happy to help, only please do return my chair and my check, please. Thank you.” It was a good speech, I thought, and the dog was a generous audience, but we stood there together alone. “Beautiful,” I said, and the dog licked my fingers.

“Okay,” I said, and again, “Okay. We are not without options.” We were not. I had my keys, and my phone filled with numbers for groups that would offer eventual, grudging assistance, and I had (God help me) an actual rape whistle on a cord around my neck that I could blow and blow until someone responded or the dog went mad and ate my face, whichever came first. There was no way to make it back to the apartment on my own, not all the way, because of the street: a burning plain with no handholds and nothing to lean on, plenty of gravel and glass to scrub up your cheek when you fell, and potholes of garbage water circling with cigarette butts and diapers and needles and scum.

“It can’t be done,” I said. “The only thing to do is sit and wait.” I scratched the dog’s head and he farted.

We had to wait. Someone would come for their own mail soon, surely, and who would object to walking a strange smelly man back to his home? Or Lucy would come and, when not met by me (she has a key to my place, of course—if I trust her with my heart, why not with my TV and booze?), would almost without question eventually probably come looking for and find me. And how would she find me? Lying against the wall limp and fragrant as a used condom. How enticing.

“Madness,” I said in the dog’s mud-flap ear. “Sheer madness. It’s a suicide mission. We’ll never make it back alive,” and he turned and licked my face like the breeze at low tide. I closed my eyes and sighed. I shook my head. Then I put my palms against the wall and began to stand up.

Heat, heat and light. I was on the ground with the sun in my face, so all I saw at first was a shadow and I thought of my phantom and quivered. Then I felt the shadow’s sneaker nudge my shoulder and then the shadow said, “You drunk?” and I laughed and said, “If only.”

I made it all the way to the corner just leaning against the building, and I felt good, strong, excited somehow, the promise of Lucy radiating through my legs (they were not at all rubbery, not even a bit) and I leaned against the corner of the building and looked at the street before me and thought, I can do this, I can actually do this, and believed it. There was no traffic; I just had to go slow. This could really work. My body was a boat, a steamship, mine to command, my first mate drooling at the ready. I took a breath and exhaled and stepped away from the building strong, sure, solid as a boulder rolling, inhaled and exhaled again, stepped, stumbled, recovered, smiled at the dog and collapsed right there, landed face-first on the sidewalk.

The dog nosed me in my ribs, his snout a lever (he is well-trained) and I spat out a chip of something hard, pebble or tooth, and tongued my split lip and said, “Thanks, yes. Good creature,” and rolled onto my side and lay there God knows how long.

“How come you on the ground, then?” the shadow said and squatted before me, a boy suddenly, the boy from before, dark cap of lamb’s-wool hair shaved close to his skull. “Somebody fuck you up?”

“Not recently,” I said and sat up. My vision heat-waved a moment and settled. The dog wiggled toward the boy, wagging, and the boy looked to me in question.

“He’s friendly,” I said. “Knock yourself out.”

The boy enfolded the dog in his arms and they made a picture, I’ll say. “What’s his name?” the boy said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “He never told me. Your name’s Germaine, isn’t it?”

He nodded. If he wondered how I knew, he didn’t show it. “What’s wrong with you?” he said.

“I fell.”

“How come?”

“I’m clumsy.” The dog wiggled from the boy to me and back again.

“Your lip busted.”

“I suspected as much,” I said. I tilted my head from side to side, front to back, my neck stiff.

“I always see you,” Germaine said. “You stay in C building.” He pointed and I nodded. “You ain’t supposed to have pets.”

“I’m an exception,” I said. “He’s a service creature. Germaine, are you the one who took my chair and my check?”

“Chair, yeah. Don’t know nothin’ about a check,” he said, looking not at me but the dog, petting it fast to make the fur crackle and rise. “What kind of dog is this?”

“Miscellaneous,” I said. “Why did you take my chair?”

“You was passed out,” he said. “I thought maybe when you sobered up you ain’t want to go riding around in a desk chair no more. You look an ass.”

“You give me too much credit.”

“I ain’t steal it,” he said sharply. “I put it back next to your house. I’m trying to make this a nice place.”

“That’s noble of you.”

He snorted. “You shouldn’t drink so much. It’s a curse. You sober now?”

“Stone,” I said. “Germaine, you seem smart.”

“I am.”

“I’m told this is a Wednesday. Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“Yeah,” he said. “But I ain’t.” He smiled at me for the first time and I felt good, happy to take credit for it. “I can’t be on the street anyway. Five O come trolling, always tryin’ to hang some shit on me.”

“Are you a wanted man?”

“Man, they called me up to the office ’cause they think I’m the one tagged the portables, but I never,” he said. “I saw that cop from down the hall and I just ran. I got to find a place to hide out until my mom goes to work. She sees me out of school, that’s my ass.”

“Your mother sounds firm but fair.”

“She’ll beat me raw,” he said. “That’s probably what’s wrong with you, somebody ain’t beat you enough.” The dog licked his mouth and he sputtered.

“Germaine,” I said as he wiped the back of his hand against his mouth repeatedly. “Could I prevail upon you for a favor before you go?”

“Speak plain.”

“Can you go get my chair for me?”

“What for? You got legs,” he said, and he’s right, I do, and I’ve accepted their limitations (I have, goddamn it) and those of the rest of my body (which are many). I’ve heard any number of snickers and jokes and made for myself even more, but because he was young and spoke without malice I was blindsided and suddenly hoarse, ashamed.

“Please,” I said. “I need it. You can keep the check——”

He stood up, angry, and I’ll admit it: I flinched. “Man, I told you I ain’t know nothing about no check,” he said. “You calling me a liar and a thief, too.”

“I didn’t say that——”

“You lay around here drunk, nobody say nothing,” he said. The dog looked up at him and he patted his head. “I show up,” he went on, quieter, “everybody act like I did something. Wonder why.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, and meant it.

“You want your damn chair then go get it.” He had the dog’s leash in his hand and I realized he could just leave if he wanted, just up and walk off with my own goddamn dog (my only recourse a whistle) and then he did just that, and I was alone.

I used to bench 275. An impressive number, especially to the ladies.

I was what the city called a trades helper and the guys in my shop called a flunky. We went out on calls fixing streetlights, patching holes. It’s hard work but good money, get to be outside, get time to read or crack jokes or just goof off. It was everything I wanted. I was good at it, too, put up a pole or bust out a 12-foot trench like that. I was a monster! When I got sick, nobody could believe it, least of all me.

I dropped my head. Lucy, you’d never doubt me. I could have thrown you over my shoulder like a scarf. I could have thrown Germaine in a Dumpster. I hated him briefly, then let it go. If I saw a bum like me lying on the ground, I’d probably steal his dog too. How would a guy as weak as me be able to take care of a dog anyway? How would a guy as weak as me take care of anyone?

“Hey,” Germaine said, and I looked up. He crouched beside me, dog at his heels. “We back. I was just playing.”

“Fabulous.”

“Hey,” he said again. “You messed up, huh?” and I nodded, too low to be clever.

“Can you stand up?” he asked. “Walk at all? I’ll take you back to your house. We can go right now,” and he stood up and over me, suddenly giant, sun behind him blazing, a crown of fire.

We made it across the street easily, my hand on his shoulder, the dog trotting nimbly in the cool of our arching shadow. “Thank you for being tall,” I said.

“That’s how we do,” he said. “Thanks for being skinny.”

“That’s a relatively recent development.”

“See?” he pointed and I saw the chair against its pole, just like always. He walked me all the way to my door.

“I was wrong to ever doubt you,” I said. “I owe you one. You lift weights? Come in for a drink.”

He side-eyed me. “I ain’t like that,” he said, my smart boy, and I smiled.

“Me neither. I’m married.”

“Don’t mean nothing.”

“I love my wife,” I said, and he could see by my face it was true. He considered. “What you got to drink?” he said.

“Mr. Pibb and some Sprite, I think.”

He laughed. “I know you got more than that.”

“You like cinnamon?”

He nodded. “You got cable?”

“I do. And I got something to give you if you can use it.” The dog danced between us, flagrantly fragrant. “You may want to Febreze it first,” I said.

“How about me?” The rumble of drums! “Can I get a Mr. Pibb?”

Oh dear. My phantom.

He emerged from behind the shadowed pole. “Peter Simon?” he said. “You dropped this. I was just coming to return it.” The check! I took the envelope from him like thin folded grace, too stunned to mention his lie. Because I never would have dropped it, not in a million years.

“Germaine Cousins?” he said. “Could you come with me, please?”

It seems such a long time since I was young. When Germaine said the school sent police to find truants, I’d assumed he was joking or, at the least, that police sent for children would be different, cuddly, cartoonish, smiling, in spangled uniforms like some odd breed of G-­rated strippers. But now that I could see his face I could see this cop was just a regular cop and so I employed (as best I could) my regular cop stare-down, part intimidation and part weariness and a spoonful of sympathy—We are men who’ve seen trouble, you and I, brothers—and said, “I’m sorry,” my hand on Germaine’s shoulder squeezing. “You’re mistaken. This is my son.”

The cop had a picture and he made a show of looking at it and looking at Germaine and looking at me and looking at the picture again.

“Recessive genes,” I said and waved a hand slowly in front of him. “This is not the boy you’re looking for.”

“I look more like my mom,” Germaine said, accent polished to please.

“Officer Creature, my son is ill,” I said. “And I am ill. Please, we must rest.”

“I have orders,” he said. “Sorry.” And truly he did seem to be! He had the same water-blue eyes as my creature, and he turned them big and wet upon me. Could he be swayed? Could we be saved?

“We are nothing to you. A man and his boy.”

“I’d like to believe you, sir,” he said.

“Then do.”

“Give me one good reason.”

“Oh, come on,” I said. “If you’ll just give me a chance to get my wallet, my friend Mr. Lincoln will give you five.”

“Dad,” Germaine said. “It’s over. I don’t mind. I’ll go.”

My front door opened. “Go where?” Lucy said. “I made lunch,” and curled an arm around my waist. I swooned, laid my head on her shoulder. Germaine gasped.

To have seen her that day as he did! To witness, when all hope was lost, your salvation arrive in fishnets and pink leather, to stand glowing in the doorway with cinnamon schnapps, with hot dogs aboil on the stove. Lucy, beloved, my faith never wavered.

“Mom,” Germaine said, and his voice was a bird singing. “Mom, I’m so glad that you’re home.”


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