Alphabet of Joy

T. C. Davis (Flickr/tcd123)
T. C. Davis (Flickr/tcd123)

All the time I was in Paris, Marcel stayed in bed. He’d had a terrible cold on top of his asthma. His housekeeper Celeste tried mustard plasters, Vicks, Contac, Sudafed, Actifed, Claritin, you name it—all the drugs I’d brought from the States because I’m prone to allergies. Nothing worked, and his respiratory tract got so bad I thought he’d never leave that room again.

So you can imagine my surprise when I saw him back in New York. I was riding up Broadway one day on the M104, and there he was, chipper as you please, in a navy-blue suit and string tie. Trying not to seem too eager, I said, “What brings you here?”

“I’ve decided to join you.” He brushed off the seat next to me and sat down. “For your trip to the Grand Canyon. You’re still going, aren’t you?”

Maybe I’d better explain. I’m afraid of planes. But last spring, after I forced myself to go to Paris and the plane didn’t crash, I accepted an invitation to read a paper in Tucson in the fall. From there I planned to go to the Grand Canyon, walk to the bottom and stay at Phantom Ranch for a few days, and hike out. I wanted company, so I’d asked Henry James, Kafka, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann. Even Tolstoy. No luck. Most of them are scaredy-cats or stay-at-homes like me. Only Colette was really interested, but her arthritis is too bad for such serious hiking. So I mentioned it to Marcel. All he did was stare, and I thought that was the end of it.

Never in a thousand years did I expect him to come.

Wrong again, Mona. I could almost taste my relief. It’s been a long, lonely year and a half. My boyfriend Stuie left one muggy April Saturday when I was gathering the laundry. Just lying there, his arms folded behind his head, and said, “I don’t know how to say this nicely, Mona, so I’ll just say it. I’m splitting. No point in discussing it, it’ll only hurt you, the last thing I want to do.” He left the couch and recliner and footstool we’d found at the flea market, and the art deco lamps from his Aunt Gladys. Plus his dirty laundry.

That’s when I needed my friends. Thank God they all came through for me, even Shakespeare, who can be so forbidding with that twinkling telescope of a right eye. When he turns it on you, you feel as if he’s already written the words you’re about to say. But then he asked me, “Why can’t you live alone, Mona? Lots of women do, especially now, it’s only a decade until the end of the century. And you are becoming a well-known social worker. Surely you don’t want to end up like Lady Macbeth or Ophelia, or Calpurnia.”

“I can’t imagine not having a man in my life,” I told him, wishing I didn’t sound so desperate. To my surprise, he nodded, and a few months later I went to Paris.

While I was there, I told Marcel about Stuie. He looked me straight in the eye. “You’re an intelligent woman, lovely figure, interesting hair, fascinating lips. Find someone who will appreciate you, someone more distinguished than Stuie.” He practically spit out the name. I flushed with embarrassment and wanted to ask, “Where?” but I held my tongue.

Yet, wonder of wonders, when I got back to the States, I met my Australian doctor, Ned.

“I hear some people ride down on mules,” Marcel said while we were poring over maps of the Grand Canyon.

“You on one of those mules? No, our feet are a lot safer than those mules.” The last thing I needed was Marcel somersaulting through the climatological zones of the Grand Canyon. Celeste would never forgive me.

First, though, we had to get to Tucson. “You know, I’ve never flown before,” he said. He had come from Paris on a transatlantic ocean liner.

“You’ll like it. It’s fun.” His eyes were like velvet. Never have I seen such eyes. They said: I know you’re lying, but I’m willing to try. I could have cried. But I didn’t, because Marcel hates wild displays of emotion. Still, when push comes to shove, he’s the best company—less moody than Kafka, not as ethereal as Rilke, nor as much of a kvetch as Thomas Mann.

This is wonderful, I thought, good for him and good for me.

Until my recent trip to France, I traveled only in the United States and had this obsession with a map my second cousin had made. That kid should become a cartographer, because his map made me want to see every state in the union. But when my relatives and real friends started to get married, I couldn’t find people to hike near Nauset Lighthouse or pop in to Tanglewood or see the leaves change in Vermont. So I was thrilled to discover that George Eliot and George Henry Lewes are crazy for sports cars. They’ll go almost anywhere, the faster the better.

One day I borrowed my boss’s convertible, and we drove to Myrtle Beach. A disaster. Too much noise and fast food and rock music. Headaches all around. “But the drive was heaven, Mona,” George said as she adjusted her scarf—on the Jersey Turnpike, it had been flying madly a la Isadora Duncan—before getting out of the car at the Metropolitan Museum, where I was meeting Ned.

My doctor Ned, a nice professional man who isn’t gay or married. “Miracle of miracles,” my cousin Stephanie says, which means that’s what my mother says. My mother and I never discuss my social life, but my mother talks to Stephanie, who reports to me. And now Ned and I were planning to meet at the Grand Canyon because one night, after two gin and tonics, I insisted that this country is as magnificent as Australia. But with doctors nothing is certain. That’s why I was so happy to see Marcel.

We were lucky on the plane. I convinced the man at the window to switch with me and then Marcel had the view. He stared out into the swirling clouds, and when a streak of blue emerged, he pressed my arm and we dozed until folds of patchwork in hues of brown appeared.

In downtown Tucson everything was closed. When the cabbie finally found an open 7-11, I asked the proprietor why. “Football,” he drawled. “Monday night, everyone’s home watching football.”

As soon as we checked in, we put on the game and, while munching cheese and crackers and peanuts and sipping wine, watched the Cowboys play the Giants. Marcel was ravenous. It was such a pleasure to see him eat. Celeste won’t let anyone watch him eat. She claims all he ever swallows is her specially prepared coffee. But that night he loved the food and the game. At first we were confused—so many incomplete passes or passes intended for so and so—but soon he got the hang of it, and before I knew it, he’d pulled out the notebook Celeste bought on the Rue Jacob and was drawing the plays. By the end he was able to predict what they would be, or should be.

As we were getting ready for bed, he asked, “Are you certain, Mona, that there are men who make their living figuring out how to get that pigskin?” His dark soulful eyes were wide.

“Absolutely sure.” He shook his head, incredulous.

While I was at my conference, Marcel worked in bed, then got dressed and walked a bit and met me for dinner. The third night he confessed that he’d called Celeste.

“Of course you miss her, that’s perfectly natural, she’s been with you forever,” I said.

“It wasn’t because I miss her,” he corrected me. “I wanted to tell her my asthma had disappeared, but she refused to believe me.” I nodded, remembering how skeptical Celeste had been when I hinted this could happen in the American Southwest. As soon as we had touched down in Tucson, Marcel’s head lifted and he breathed normally, no longer afraid of the air. Can you imagine being afraid of air? That must be worse than being afraid of people.

The conference was on old age. I’m an expert on sex and age. Most people think I’m some kind of kook to be interested in old people making love, but I find it fascinating that the sex drive lasts so long. I just ask questions most people can’t ask. “It’s all part of life and should be cherished,” my Aunt Beadie used to say. Years later, Colette agreed.

Colette and I usually meet in front of the Low Library at Columbia. She’s terrific-looking—maroon hair, the best eye makeup I’ve ever seen, and marvelous hands even if they are arthritic. Sensuous hands. And she knows more than a little about sex in the aged, or in any category. Actually Colette gave me most of the questions I asked in my case studies.

At the conference, people were interested. Envious, admiring glances came my way, but giving a paper is never as exciting as doing the research. Marcel nodded. “Like seeing the books in print. Always a downer. It’s the notebooks that matter.”

When the meetings were over, we rented an Acura to go to the Grand Canyon. This car is huge, the back seat practically as big as a studio apartment in New York. It reminded Marcel of his silent, cork-lined bedroom. When I told him that Nabokov wrote Lolita on a trip through these breathtaking canyons—Oak Creek and Sedona—he was delighted. Marcel loves Nabokov.

“We both adored our mothers,” he explained. Speak, Memory is his favorite. “And Glory is splendid, a hunt for the past, like my work, with the best passage about reading before going to sleep that I’ve ever read.” At that he rubbed his eye with the heel of his hand and dropped off.

About an hour later, when we stopped at an overlook, he said, “It’s amazing to be able to see so clearly how the land lies.” The phrase caught in my ear. I never think of it in relation to these dramatic lavender canyons and ocher deserts. It seems to apply more to the Berkshires or Cumberlands or Blue Ridge. When I said so, he replied, “It’s all land, Mona, what we have to negotiate in this life. Whatever it’s like, you must look ahead and make your way. If you don’t, you could end up living indoors, and no one really wants to do that.” I nodded, hating to hear him put himself down, but didn’t argue. Marcel hates hypocrisy and understands it better than anyone I know.

It was snowing when we pulled into the lodge. Dense flakes stuck to the windshield, creating a thick cocoon around the car. Marcel’s face was blissful as we slid all over the parking lot. I smiled, trying not to make him anxious. For months after Stuie left I dreamed about a truck with its bright lights coming toward me. While I was envisioning us injured and the car totaled, Marcel was saying, “Snow like this always reminds me of Combray.”

We lurched to a stop. “I’ll stay here,” he told me. I didn’t answer. A knot of nervousness was tying itself in the pit of my stomach. What if Ned had been delayed? Or had canceled?

A bright-eyed blonde was behind the desk. When I gave her my name, she produced a telegram. “Have been delayed. Will arrive tomorrow at Ranch. Helicopter arranged. Love, Ned.”

The knot in my stomach started to jump. “Is there a helicopter service to the bottom of this canyon?”

“Yes, ma’am, but it depends on the weather.” She looked out. “Not today, for sure, but they don’t think the snow’s going to last.”

I guess it was my dispirited look, or maybe the dry cold air. Who knows? As soon as I told him, Marcel straightened and said, “I’ll go to the bottom with you.”

“But you’ll need shoes, hiking boots, other equipment.”

He pulled some bills from his pocket. “I have lots of money.” His voice was gallant.

My cheeks began to burn. Why does everything in this world get reduced to money?

“It’s not the money, it’s …” I shrugged, “It’s—well, are you sure? Absolutely sure, I mean.”

He smiled. “Sure I’m sure.”

We bought the lightest Gortex boots, polypropylene sock liners, wool socks, a fanny pack, a sturdy hat, and some toilet supplies. After that we had a delicious Mexican dinner at a restaurant recommended by the woman at the lodge. Marcel loved the guacamole and refried beans. Back in the room we fell into bed, exhausted.

The next morning, crowds were already oohing and aahing at the top of the Kaibab Trail. Suddenly Marcel clutched my arm. The skittering of his eyes reminded me of my cousin who made my map and who also hates crowds. I tucked his arm under mine, and we wended our way to the store, bought tofu salad sandwiches, fruit and a ton of gorp because I need food every half hour when I’m sweating hard. After filling a couple of old amber Clorox bottles with water, I tied one onto Marcel’s fanny pack and one onto my backpack. A woman in mink, with cheeks rounded like a chipmunk’s from too many facelifts, said, “You’re not really going to walk down, are you?”

“We sure are,” I said loudly as she looked frantically on either side of me. Screw her, I thought, grabbed Marcel’s hand, and we hit the trail. Soon the crowd thinned and our feet found a nice rhythm. I worried about Marcel getting blisters, but those Gortex boots are amazing. After a few hours, I checked his feet—neat and small and smooth as a child’s. Not even the start of a blister. Relieved, we ate in silence because it seemed sacrilegious to talk.

Just as Marcel bit into his apple, James Baldwin approached. When I introduced them, Baldwin said, “I thought you stayed pretty close to home.”

“Well, Mona’s a special friend,” Marcel explained, “and this climate is superb.” Then they spoke about Giovanni’s Room but weren’t really comfortable.  After Baldwin left, Marcel murmured, “He tried to mask too much, he should have told it straighter.”

“But remember when it was written.” He stared at me as if I’d lost my mind. Of course he was right. He had written about Charlus two generations before. Besides, who cares what people think? his eyes wanted to know. I bent my head, ashamed.

Then I pulled out my book. Marcel made a pillow of his jacket and listened:

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado is a chasm that slices through the plateau country of northern Arizona like a gigantic and impossible desert crevasse … more than two hundred river miles long. At its center it is over a mile deep, averages ten miles across, but some of its bays swing back for twenty, thirty, even forty miles … it covers more than one thousand square miles.

Even his snores were different. I wished Celeste were here. When he woke up, he said,

“I’m not so interested in facts, Mona. What has always interested me is time. How everything happens simultaneously, how there is no past or future, how it’s all in the present, which is why people sometimes do the crazy things they do. Here time seems older than anywhere else,” he added. Of course he was right. The trail to Phantom Ranch meanders through seven geological zones, through formations of stone that were made 225 million years ago to 2,000 million years ago.

Incroyable, formidable,” he murmured.

I can’t tell you how comfortable I feel with Marcel. If I can be this comfortable with him, surely there’s someone real out there with whom I can relax, I’d told myself in Paris. Then I met Ned. I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence. The older I get, the more I’m convinced that there aren’t that many coincidences in this life.

Near where the Kaibab Trail branches off on the Tonto Trail, we saw his butterfly net. It bobbed this way and that as he stalked his prey. He looked unbelievably young, like the man my cousin Laura described when she was at Cornell in the ’50s, and he was always bounding after his beloved butterflies or walking happily, in immaculate whites, to play tennis.

Never have I seen a jollier expression. “I can’t believe I’ve seen a Karner Blue so far west,” he greeted us, “I named that butterfly on the banks of the Hudson River, and today I saw it again. Can you believe it? I’ve got to have it.”

Marcel was enchanted. Here was a writer who could forget his work. “I hadn’t thought it possible. Most of us are too self-centered to do that,” he murmured. “Here’s a man I can learn from.” After a while, Marcel and Vladimir had so much to talk about, they hardly knew I was there. I didn’t mind. As they went their way, I went mine, and soon I could hear merely the hum of their voices. Only the large net tipped me off, and when I spotted it, I would hurry to catch up to them. In exchange for all the butterfly lore, Marcel identified the various asters, mustard, helianthus, the late verbena, goatsbeard, the already wilting datura, and all the lupins. But more important than butterflies or flowers was the color of the canyon walls.

“It’s the color of time, my color,” Marcel exclaimed, his voice tender. Vladimir nodded as they watched the pinks, violets, lilacs, and mauves dissolve into the amethysts and plums and hyacinths and purples: all those wondrous, evanescent shades that permeate Marcel’s books.

Soon we reached a fabulous suspension bridge over the rushing Colorado River, then moved as if in outer space through a rock tunnel. Vladimir led us with the assurance of an Indian guide, twirling his butterfly net as he went. How blissful they were, these two men who could not be more different: Proust, who lived his life in one exquisitely appointed room, and Nabokov, who had lived in perpetual exile, traveling lighter than any man I had heard of, writing in rented rooms, in motel rooms, in the back of a rackety old car. My eyes brimmed as they shook hands a little shyly in the thickening twilight and Vladimir said, “Perhaps we can meet tomorrow?”

At the sound of “tomorrow,” my heart seemed to stop. Here we were, within spitting distance of Phantom Ranch, and where was Ned?

“What’s the matter, Mona?” Suddenly Marcel was very alert.

“Ned. He’s not here, I’m sure he’s not going to come.”

Marcel shook his head. Tactfully, Vladimir dropped back. “Of course he’ll come, he’s a reliable man, a doctor. Don’t trouble trouble, Mona. It comes quickly enough.”

Of course he was right. Ned was waiting outside the main office of Phantom Ranch, his face hectic with excitement. The helicopter had let him off a few hours ago at the Bright Angel campground, and he had walked over faster than we had.

In a flash Marcel waved goodbye. I knew he couldn’t go far. When we neared Phantom Ranch he had taken what he needed for the night. As he disappeared into the dusk, his gait was merry, his fanny pack and Clorox bottle moving up and down on his little butt in a jaunty rhythm with his steps.

I was so relieved to see Ned, I pretended I had swallowed wrong, and we found the bar and had tall glasses of water with our drinks. I confessed how I’d worried whether he would come. “But I promised, Mona, I don’t break promises,” he said, surprised that I had doubted him and with just a tinge of the slight, mysterious reserve that had attracted me to him.

In our little cabin were narrow bunk beds covered with real Hudson Bay blankets. And crisp white sheets. We made love slowly, happily, then went to dinner, which was simple and delicious. We planned to read but were so tired, we fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow. We slept like logs, our arms around each other. I dreamed of Colette.

At breakfast we decided to rest and walk along the Colorado, and at teatime we were going to attend a lecture on the canyon’s geology. Tomorrow we would hike to Ribbon Falls. Ned was delighted by Phantom Ranch; its down-to-earth hospitality and the rough western speech of its staff reminded him of New South Wales, where he was born. We spent the day meandering, talking about our childhoods under the bluest sky I’ve ever seen. I spied Marcel and Vladimir once, while Ned napped with his head in my lap.

“Life is an alphabet of joy,” Marcel was saying, and then, like racehorses, they were off. “Awe.” “Amplitude.” “Beatific.” “Beloved.” “Chilly.” “Capacious.” “Doldrums.” Vladimir thundered. “Dapple.” “Effervescent.” “Erotic.” “Fragile.” “Friable.” “Ga-ga.” “Generous.” I smiled, and they were gone.

Only they could view life that way. The rest of us have to work our way through an alphabet of woe, like the prayer books say: avarice, gluttony, lust, malfeasance, transgression, venery, the list goes on and on.

Ned’s eyelids began to twitch awake. I counted his freckles. My mother likes dark men. She adored Stuie’s black curls, and my father always had five o’clock shadow in photos when he was young. But they couldn’t object to a few freckles, well, 27, to be exact. Not at my age.

“Don’t settle,” my mother says. But my mother also believes in love. What she really means is, Hold out for love. Then, “You’re so picky, Mona, a man doesn’t have to be perfect to have children with—everyone has faults.” The mistress of the mixed message with one goal: a grandchild. But I’m perfectly aware you can’t become pregnant by a figment of your imagination.

The next day we were up early. We wanted to get to Ribbon Falls before noon. As we entered the dining room, I spotted Marcel. How could you miss him, in that crazy khaki hat? His plate was piled high with blueberry pancakes dripping with syrup and a pile of sausage. Sausage! Celeste would have a fit. “It’s this air,” Marcel said, “I’ve never been so hungry in my life.”

“Don’t forget your sun block.”

“Don’t worry, I’m fine.” His voice was lilting, gay.

The pancakes were scrumptious. So was the sausage. Ned and I smiled as we ate, too happy to feel guilty. Then we collected our lunches, filled our water bottles and were on our way. I’d thought I might bring up what Stephanie calls the M word, but it seemed dangerous to disturb the fragile balance Ned and I, now finally away from the pressures of our lives, had achieved. We seemed to know what the other wanted without exchanging a word. For once in my life, I would let things take their course. Besides, it seemed a good omen to see so few hikers, astonishing, really, to have this lovely trail to ourselves. We walked in contented silence when we suddenly heard splashing water.

Ned’s eyes lit up. They’re gray eyes, a little flat until you get to know them. Now they had wonderful blue lights in them. I should have been warned, but I wasn’t. Mischief never seemed much in Ned’s line.

Ribbon Falls is a narrow waterfall that spills out of a tongue of travertine, stone not usually found in the canyon. It looked so tempting. The trouble was that there were about 10 teenagers frolicking on the rocks. The girls were ravishing—luxuriant hair, smooth faces, perfect figures. My heart sank. Compared to them, my svelte, exercised form in my black swimsuit would look like nothing. Even my bust, which my cousins envied, would amount to little. But before I could speak, Ned was dancing, naked as a banshee, under the falls. My dignified Ned.

The kids couldn’t have cared less and scarcely gave him a glance. That should have made me regard him with more compassion and affection. But I couldn’t. Such exhibitionism, it reminded me of Stuie. “Come on, Mona, join the fun,” he called, “loosen up a little.” Totally oblivious.

Of course I succumbed. It was hot, I was tired. I scrambled behind a bush and pulled on my swimsuit and stood under the falls while he danced around me, delighted. He looked so foolish. How disappointing. My throat filled. We had been so in tune! Of course I didn’t tell him. Always a coward. I longed for Marcel.

He didn’t disappoint me. While Ned slept, exhausted from his little show, I took a walk. Soon, in a whisper of a breeze: “Kiss.” “Loving.” “Lapidary.” “Music.” “Mesmerize.” “Nubile.” “Nymphet.” “Opalescent.” “Orthogenesis.” Then, “Prim.” A pause. “Isn’t it wonderful, Volodya, can’t you see her mouth pursed.” Finally, Vladimir’s triumphant, “But add an s and you have ‘prism’!”

As soon as Marcel saw my face, he turned to Vladimir, whispering a few words. Nabokov quickly disappeared. I told Marcel what had happened, but when he looked directly into my eyes, his voice was weary. “Sometimes people become drunk on physical beauty, or on tiredness, and they do uncharacteristic things. Think about it. He’s a decent, sweet man. They are not easy to find. They weren’t easy to find in the 1890s and they are even harder to find in the 1990s.”

“My mother says not to settle.”

“And does your mother know what it’s like to be alone?” His voice had a sharp edge. My head shot up. I wanted to tell him what Shakespeare said about ending up like Lady Macbeth, but he didn’t give me a chance. “You know, Mona, life does not have to be a litany of woes. There is joy in the world.” Then he took off his hat, spinning it on his fingers.

“No one is perfect. Why, even Volodya was unfaithful to Vera, whom he adored. People make mistakes. Husbands aren’t pots of gold, only people. It’s not easy to find someone who is decent and sweet.”

Decent and sweet. The words suddenly sounded important. But who wants decent and sweet? Well, what do you want? Another Stuie? I was so confused, I wanted to ask Marcel a million questions. But when he saw me frown in desperation, he shook his head and scrambled up a rock to join his new friend. He didn’t need to say a thing. It was clearly time for me to sort this out by myself.

When I found him, Ned’s neat body was curled around my book. My heart began to pound. As soon as he woke, he held out his arms. “You’re angry at me, aren’t you, Mona?” I feigned surprise. “You thought me a fool in front of those kids.”

“It doesn’t matter, Ned, really. And it’s done, no sense making a big deal out of it.”

“It does matter, Mona, because I have to know what annoys you and what doesn’t if we’re going to spend the rest of our lives together.” Now his eyes glimmered with those blue lights, and he seemed about to grab me and pull off my clothes. But he simply bent and gave me a proper kiss. Later, while Ned went to pee, Marcel appeared. A rim of sweat sprouted on his upper lip.

“I can’t go back, you’ll have to phone Celeste. Tell her I’ll call her every year on her birthday. It feels so good to breathe. If I had only known.” He looked behind him. “Volodya’s going to teach me how to play tennis, and we’ll explore geology and time. This place is irresistible, Mona. And I’m happy for you, he’s a good man.”

The walk up from Phantom Ranch was tiring, but Ned carried the pack and we had a good supply of gorp. After a while, we changed from T-shirts and shorts into sweaters and wool pants. It seemed impossible that Ned had swum naked yesterday under Ribbon Falls. I was beginning to feel as if I had dreamed it all. At the top it was colder than we expected. Though the sun was dazzling, people were bundled up, a few huddled into fur coats. Was Marcel warm enough?

Then I saw them, carrying steel racquets and dressed in fancy sneakers, white pants and shirts, pastel V-necked sweaters—Nabokov in pale yellow, Marcel in baby blue—and gleaming white hats. Vladimir was explaining how to serve. Marcel listened intently. When he tried, his coordination was amazing. Vladimir was impressed. I sidled up behind them. “Ripple.” “Sibilant.” “Sashay.” “Tender.” Then, “Undulating.” “Ubiquitous.” “Vixen.” “Vibrant.” “Wacky.” “Winsome.” “Youthful.” “No, young, listen to that dipthong.” And finally, a wild burst, “Zephyr.” “Zigzag.” “Zealous,” “Zounds!”

I could feel Ned watching me. When I turned, he mouthed, You look wonderful! I felt incredibly content. The rest of the world and what they think doesn’t matter when someone real is that glad to see you. I decided not to say goodbye. Goodbyes are superfluous when people are true friends. Somewhere, somehow, we would meet again. My mother’s voice was faint and Stuie’s even dimmer. All I heard was, “You know, Mona, life does not have to be a litany of woes …”

Just one more look, I decided. When I turned, they were tilted toward each other—as if they had just shared the most marvelous secret—waiting patiently, happily for the sun to stain the walls of the Grand Canyon the most spectacular shade of violet that any of us had ever seen.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Roberta Silmanis the author of the story collection Blood Relations and of four novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, Beginning the World Again, and Secrets and Shadows. A new novel, Summer Lightning, will be published in 2022. She writes regularly for the online magazine The Arts Fuse.


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