Lessons from the Masters

JT Price

In 1993, he found a job teaching English to elementary-age kids in Aguilar de Campoo, a town in northwestern Spain with a hill at its center. On top of the hill at the edge of the town stood the ruins of a castle among patches of tall yellow grass. A constant breeze stirred the grass and Bruce would climb the crumbling stone to look down over the town. They made cookies there. Standing in the ruins, Bruce could smell sugar wafting to meet him. He would find himself a nook in the weathered stone and lean back with For Whom the Bell Tolls or The Sun Also Rises or the short stories of his idol and read the words in the country his idol had loved. Occasionally he paused to flick tiny black ants from his exposed forearms. Like his father, Bruce always rolled up his sleeves.

Lessons Bruce learned while living abroad and traveling through Europe and Morocco, hiking whenever possible, through El Camino Santiago, the Pyrenees, the Picos:

1) Do not expect to break up fights that you did not start without getting hurt. Bruce had been naïve to think that men he did not know and toward whom he bore no ill will would not strike him, and he paid for his naïveté, in a bar lit by candles, with the original shape of his nose. Narrow, sharp, Anglican—no more. Even as the blood coursed through his hands, even as he could feel with his pressing fingertips the rubbery, disjointed mess there, he had the thought, could not help it: this will make a fine anecdote someday in my biography.

2) Writing is the only thing that can redeem time spent traveling alone. Otherwise, it all somehow evaporates. And yet when Bruce became too self-conscious—for example, when positioned in the window booth of the bar car of a train passing below the Swiss Alps alongside a lake whose tempered surface shone with the progress of the sun across it, while he looked out with pen and notepad unable to stop thinking about how beautiful the lake surface appeared and perfect for him to be looking out on—he was then unable to complete a single satisfactory sentence.

3) The solitude of hiking provides the nearest physical allegory for what it must be like to complete a novel. Since the summer following his junior year of high school, when his father paid for an eleven-day excursion through Nepal, Bruce had known he wanted to be a writer. His memory of that clean blissful remove was what motivated him to drop out of Cornell. Short of committing words to the page, there was no other method he knew to preserve the startling beauty he encountered on rising from his tent in the morning, where the sheer ice-encrusted expanse of the mountain climbed silent before him. The sound of prayer flags chattered nervously in the wind. His deep breaths, that vision—he wanted to slow his heart-rate, his sense of time—functioned as a perfect antidote to the social pressures his mother had enforced on him growing up in a Kansas City suburb: the people he simply had to talk to; the way he had to dress; the grades he had to achieve. He lost his virginity on the Nepal trip to a girl from Nebraska with a sly sense of humor and a tongue ring. In his backpack, Bruce carried Siddhartha, On the Road, and a collection of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, the first time he had read any one of those books, each handed over like an album of old family photos at the airport by his father. “You might find something of significance here too,” his father said gravely. Embracing the girl from Nebraska, Bruce made a promise he did not verbalize. In the melodrama unfolding in his mind, he had to speak for and beyond his era.

4) There are well-off, older, irresponsible Americans who live abroad, having fled their lives in the States out of some kind of shame. One such American offered Bruce all the hashish he could possibly desire and sat there cross-legged, watching him, as the breeze coursed through the open arches of the villa near the beach where this American lived. His cat-like smile would haunt Bruce for years, the way it lounged. “Have you ever read Aleister Crowley?” the American asked, his teeth slightly gray, perhaps entirely fake, and in that moment Bruce knew he had to go from there and never return, even if the name Crowley is one he did not forget. It is what he took with him from Alicanté.

5) Women will spoil you abroad in ways they never would at home in the American Midwest where you knew their families and they knew yours. There were too many examples to name, the identities of the women blurring in his mind, so that he was left with a need to elaborate lessons, and swear by the wisdom of those lessons in order to keep from miring in the horror of his own forgetting. It was exactly the fragmented way Bruce came to know trusting girls and then, more frequently, the women who would recognize and take without any apparent misgiving the pronounced signals of Bruce’s faithlessness—his gradually becoming someone whose like he had not been raised to respect—that allowed for the proliferation of experience. Fragmentary visions of an encounter would return, as acid flashbacks are said to, unbidden. In this manner, Bruce came to understand literary metonymy: one taking his hand as the paddleboat beneath them rocked gently along the Guadalquivir, past a statue on the eastern bank that she said looked in the dusk-light like “a man fucking a dog”; one leaning quietly against his ample shoulder in the back of a bus on the way to Pamplona, an old-school camera around her neck whose pictures he would never see developed; one putting on hot pink exercise shorts in her rooms in Aguilar to signal a readiness to field his explorations, while the image of Frank Sinatra on the TV, overdubbed by a deep male voice singing the lyrics in Spanish, looked on; one, a native, speaking to him of her Catholic God, Padre Nuestro, while leading him at night to a secret, scratchy spot on top of the ancient aqueduct in Segovia where she curled her body into his, the little spoon, and passed back a silver packet whose purpose Bruce did not grasp until he tore it open and felt the slipperiness on his fingertips. Each of these women posed an unspoken question to Bruce, one he was not ready to answer, or that he went about answering with his every waking minute. By saying, in effect, Wait and You’ll See. Wait and You’ll See. As if he possessed an ability to return to moments long past and redeem inevitably broken endings. That is why it felt essential for him to publish. It was in the indulgence of the absent women’s regard that Bruce started taking his identity as a writer seriously. Their beauty possessed him in his loneliest moments.

6) Unlike in books, where all that happens remains suspended as in amber, time does not typically stand still while you are alive. On returning to the States after eight years, he felt hopelessly behind—a guy out-of-step, his hard-earned lessons mostly useless. Memories of life in Spain began to feel like a story that had happened to someone else, a character he knew from movies—or from books? Maybe Hemingway? Yes, he had hiked the entirety of El Camino Santiago over the course of his final April in country, burning the clothes off his back on the outcroppings of seaside Finisterra, the same way the early pagans did, but he had no e-mail account, no cell-phone. When he met a woman in New York City, he looked at her as if they were both already naked. This did not usually go over well with women his age, those who had already sown their wild oats and now sought an anchor of some kind. In their late 20s, his peers were drawing up arrangements, buying property, taking vows, birthing infants. He told himself the ill-defined situation in which he found himself was fitting for an aspiring writer and would compel him to write his way out of the obscurity his ambition had propelled him into. New York City announced itself as the overwhelmingly obvious destination.

And that is how he felt on first moving to New York City: overwhelmingly obvious.

He hated it. He hated living in New York City. He hated living and writing in New York City. His unpublished fiction swelled with evocations of his hatred for the place, his disdain for its most privileged avatars, their shallowness.

Friends told him he was crazy. Not regarding his writing, which no one read. They told him he was crazy regarding certain things he did and said on the spur of the moment, apparently failing to recognize his brilliance.

The woman he was sleeping with, Molly Fisk, laughed at him, right to his face, as if he meant to be cute. But he was earnest in his hatred.

So he broke up with her even though he liked her. Then he kept thinking about her while sleeping with other women—the kind of courage it took for her to be that unguarded with him. To punish her for making him think about her, he said to her over the phone and by e-mail the cruelest things he could think to say and write.

Bruce was speaking to his father over the phone more and more frequently, a landline for which the monthly charges were exorbitant, another facet of the city he hated. In these conversations, Bruce suggested he might soon return to Kansas City. Perhaps he would teach Spanish to Americans in the suburbs as he had formerly taught American to Spaniards.

There was a way things ought to be and the way things were—and no one in New York City seemed to care about the former, except as sound bite, a form of vamping, the ever fewer friends not embarrassed to spend time with Bruce and his fiscally restrained lifestyle, his growing bitterness, his disorientation. He had beheld mountaintops, ecstatic, near holy visions, and these city-dwellers had—what?

“That reminds me of…” he would start, thinking of some precious memory from Spain before trailing off. His friends—acquaintances old and new, extended family, one constant childhood companion now working in the city as a corporate lawyer—voiced the concerns they divined from his brooding, a manner of suggesting their empathy for his struggles. Bruce would hover behind a half-heartedly explored dinner plate, studying its outer edges. It was as if they thought empathy were all that was needed to ease his distress.

Holding eye contact with his dinner companion, whomever it might be, he would think to himself, on the one hand, “My friend is trying to understand.”

And then, on the other, “Fuck this friend!”

All of them were better off than he was, some very well off indeed, while Bruce grew into a dense ball of ire sinking down through the pavement stone. He attended fiction readings, but felt threatened by the success of others, even the most casual conversations turning up another writer paid to provide content at some ludicrous website. People said the future was blogs; they said e-books; self-publishing. He continued reading analog fiction and writing analog fiction and submitting analog fiction, even if doing so proved inevitably painful.

On more than one occasion, guys took what felt like a sexual interest in him, something to do with the transparency of his suffering. He smoked a cigarette bummed from a man outside an East Village gay bar, then walked away with his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his tattered cargo jacket.

Two things happened next.

Bruce befriended Aaron Ungarth over the course of a week in early September. Aaron was five or six years older but acted younger. He worked as an editor for the magazine where Bruce recently had started proofreading, at an office building off Houston St. Aaron was an alarmingly thin guy who dressed in punk rock tees and sandals no matter where he was going, the latter holdovers from his childhood on Nantucket.

Aaron, it turned out, harbored literary aspirations of his own. For the better part of a decade, he had been chipping away at a novel. It was about a former astronaut struggling with alcoholism and his brother, an ex-con stunt skydiver.

“It’s not a race,” Aaron said of writing. “But we probably need to feel like it is. Or no one’d ever complete a thing.”

They went out for drinks at the end of his first week, and Aaron dished on the magazine and the office-staff. Aaron Ungarth’s candor served as a kind of invitation: You Could Do What I’m Doing Too If That’s What You Really Wanted. Bruce felt immediately ready to pledge himself as Aaron’s most loyal ally.

The other thing was the worst.

One Tuesday morning a few blocks west of the subway stop, Bruce looked to the sky and saw a shroud of smoke spreading across it. He had noticed without slowing his step the clusters of murmuring people pointing and looking south. There was a story in his head and he did not want to lose it and felt he might if he stopped. As he stood on the sidewalk among onlookers—”Are they doing a movie?” one asked—another plane appeared at first like a tiny speck. Bruce already knew what would happen, as the speck became a bird, as if he had been dreaming it for years. People cried out. He studied the varicolored complexions of the faces around him. Their protesting and agonized faces were what he watched as the impact sounded.

He walked onward to the piers with his head down, willing the forward progress of his own feet. If he kept moving, maybe the guilt would leave him, the guilt of complicity, his hatred for the city, what he’d been stewing in. He stopped at the river running black and oblivious, the smoke rising higher in the sky.

He stared south.

Then turned around.

He must have looked composed because passersby met his eyes as if they felt there was something he could do to help them. As he approached 8th Avenue, an older, round-chinned, bespectacled woman, propping herself up against a mailbox, called out that she felt faint. For ten minutes, while the sirens wailed and the first trickles of the exodus from the tip of the island arrived north, Bruce walked with her at his side. They walked for blocks. It was a moment he would never forget and knew he would never forget while experiencing it. Like an abject wedding ceremony of some kind: the older woman’s arm across his shoulder, his own holding her up as they advanced step by step.

She had on a designer coat and a black button-down shirt. Her name was Victoria. Her parents and sisters lived in San Francisco, but her boyfriend, Truman, worked in the south tower on the 68th floor. Bruce asked her to recite the names of her family. Her phone was not working and Bruce did not own one. Crossing an intersection, she spotted a bench and said it would be OK to leave her there, she felt OK. She only needed to breathe. The smoke in the sky had grown denser. Bruce looked at the towers with their swirling dark coronas, then helped Victoria down to the bench. When he looked again, only one tower stood against the southern horizon. Cries rose over the rumbling, tremors passing underneath their feet.

“What has happened?” Victoria asked. “What has happened?”

“It’s bad,” said Bruce, watching through the canyon of the south-running avenue as a debris cloud surged over top the buildings in their direction. Maybe it would wash over them all, wipe away his life along with Victoria’s along with the rest.

It didn’t, settling and dispersing far from where they stood.

Victoria called out her boyfriend’s name, her eyes wheeling around wildly, wanting for focus.

“He’ll be OK,” said Bruce. “You’ll hear from him soon.”

“Oh God! Truman!” she said again, looking at Bruce as if he were her absent lover.

Victoria uttered some form of prayer and whispered words to the sky. Bruce thought of the Spanish girl on the aqueduct. He thought of Molly Fisk. He thought of his mother.

Ordering words on paper was the most idiotic thing. His entire adult life amounted to a series of wayward impulses, a long wandering from the path of the secure and the judicious.

That night, periodic shrieking of fighter jets overturned the sky’s silence.

Bruce called Molly Fisk. She was still angry but agreed to meet him for a drink. Afterwards, in her apartment, he found himself mired in her silence. She was on the coffee table, and staring at the ceiling, her sweater and jeans and panties on the floor beneath her feet, while he was lying flat on the floor to her right looking at her red hair draped over the side of the circular tabletop. She told him she was seeing someone else.

Those next few weeks he slept poorly, eyelids snapping open hours before dawn. The quality of his proofreading tanked and he quit his job before Aaron or one of the more senior editors was forced to fire him. Trucks freighted with destroyed remnants shuddered north through Manhattan. Thin contrails of smoke rose from the southern tip of the island.

A friend arranged for him to take a job as a custodian, which amounted mostly to wandering empty Midtown office corridors under fluorescent lighting. They asked him to clean the coffee machines. He found a used condom on the floor of a bathroom stall. Those who worked the longest hours would meet his approaching face under the fluorescence as if their crossing paths were not a real occurrence. Some smiled with exaggerated goodwill and moved briskly by. Some showed no affect at all and moved briskly by. Bruce felt keenly conscious of his displaced manners, egalitarian midwestern notions of politeness with no outlet for expression. These glancing encounters felt, in truth, not so different from the rejection notes he received for his stories, notes which seemed to become progressively more terse and less illuminating as time passed. Occasionally, “the Editors” misspelled his name or the title of his story. He stared at his own flesh with greater frequency, his palms, his forearms, his chest, alone in his apartment on waking in the early afternoon, the hair, the freckles, the absence of any trace of the women who had touched him. The appeal of tattoos dawned on him like an epiphany.

Molly did not return his calls, so he went in the afternoon to the East Village café he knew she frequented. She did much of her writing there, a set of reporter’s notepads spread across the ceramic tabletop in front of her. It was true that she wanted to see him—she could not hide it, the way her eyes widened, her expression an involuntary smile—but that did not prevent her saying the appropriate thing, which was that he should go. He told her to say it like she meant it, his tone passionate and vulnerable, and she looked down at her laptop for a moment, deciding what to do next.

She stood up to leave, and he followed her out of the café without speaking, feeling creepy and conflicted until he touched the small of her back. She did not flinch, and for a few strides he kept his hand there. She did not speak a word. They walked up the stairs to her third-floor apartment and began fucking while still in the hallway, moving into the apartment and slamming the door only when they heard someone enter on the first floor of the building.

This was Molly’s downstairs neighbor alongside Molly’s boyfriend, who had arrived outside at the same time. As the sound of footfalls on the stairs kept rising to her floor, Molly stared at Bruce, wide-eyed, wearing an expression of horror he had never seen before—and she rarely showed fear. A soft double-knock before a voice spoke from the other side of the door, Molly’s boyfriend’s voice, speaking Molly’s name. In her labyrinthine green eyes was the fact of her and Bruce, the inexplicability of their actions. As if she expected Bruce, the fiction writer, to speak some palliating truth she could repeat for the guy on the other side of the door. From the coffee table a half-carved pumpkin looked back at him with a smile but no eyes, only triangular outlines in pen. When all Bruce did was break eye contact and reach for his jeans on the floor, she hissed at him to go.

“Go how?” he whispered.

She pointed at the grated window to the fire escape. Carrying his boots by their laces between his teeth, he climbed the metal rungs in his socks and was still on the roof, putting on his boots and plotting how he would get down to the street, when Molly’s boyfriend surfaced on the ladder, a grizzled guy with an earring in each ear. Bruce did not like the look of him at all. He was not the sort of guy for Molly to be dating. The guy was stocky but shorter than him, and if Bruce had wanted a fight he was sure he could have taken him.

“What the fuck you doing, man?” the boyfriend said.

“What do you mean?”

“What’re you fuckin’ doing here?”

“I’m putting my boots on.”

“You’re fuckin’ up our lives, man,” he said.

“Let’s not be drama queens about this,” said Bruce.
The boyfriend punched him in the face, breaking his nose again.

Bruce did not lose his feet and would not meet the boyfriend’s gaze as blood from his nose dripped onto his shirt and his boots. The boyfriend made gasping sounds of disgust, maybe even fear, then returned to the fire escape, shaking pain from his fist.

He was standing at the front ledge of the building, pinching his nose with head tilted back in the October chill and looking through his vertigo at the street below, when Molly approached from behind him. She handed forward a bunch of tissue paper. He could taste the copper in his throat.

“I’m way off the fucking rails,” said Bruce, eyeing the empty sky.

“You said it,” she said. “Not me.”

The rising breeze stank of exhaust.

“I’m moving back to Spain.”

“Don’t move back to Spain.”

He looked at her intently with his head tilted, and Molly said, “You can’t look at me like that. I need you out of my life right now.”

Bruce nodded.

“I only mean, I don’t think going back to Spain will help you,” she said.

“My nose is fucking broken,” he mumbled.

“Jesus, I’m sorry,” she said. “The hospital’s only a couple of blocks away.”

“I love you,” he said.

“You need to leave,” she said. “I mean it.”

“I can make this better.”

“You have your own situation to deal with, dickhead.”

When he didn’t move to go, she said, “Love and desperation are not interchangeable.”

“Molly, I think they are, though.”

“Find someone you can talk to about that. I’ve already got a therapist.”

Aaron Ungarth was the one he found to talk to. Aaron was setting his novel aside in light of recent events, which “changed everything,” and had now embarked on a regimen of illicit pharmaceuticals to color his evenings and power his workdays. He assigned Bruce freelance articles that Bruce completed under a pseudonym and invited Bruce out wherever he went, nightclubs launched a couple of decades too late to appear in Bright Lights, Big City. Aaron conferred on Bruce a sense of belonging, the brotherhood of rebellion. The rhythm from the massive sound systems provided scaffolding for their spirits. Aaron bought the drinks as their nights drew onward. They had to shout to be heard. They had to choose their words well. Bruce swore he could see the circles around Aaron’s eyes turn darker, the skin of his face stretch thinner before his own eyes.

And then it was as if—as if it were just them, the conversation of two brothers, Aaron the older and more reckless, Bruce not too far behind and with scars to show for it. In a cab, Aaron told Bruce about the older brother he had grown up with, the motorcycle wreck and downward spiral he had helplessly witnessed, with that tone of there being facts in this life nothing can ever set right so why not leave the pretending and self-deception to those with an appetite for it? They were on their way somewhere, or returning, and it could almost have been romantic, thought Bruce, if Aaron weren’t speaking from the crest of a ‘shroom-high, Bruce himself extremely drunk, forehead pressed to the cool of the vibrating window. They passed across the Williamsburg Bridge and reentered Manhattan.

Bruce slept on the floor of Aaron’s spartanly furnished tenement apartment, a yoga mat someone had left behind providing a thin measure of comfort. In a corner at the front of the room was a tall black vase with a giant-leafed plant by the windows, the sole effort at decoration. Aaron emerged from the shower naked and stumbled into the darkness of his bedroom.

Bruce woke in the morning alone, replaying his memory of the night before.

“I knew what was going to happen,” Bruce had said, lying on the floor and eyeing the ceiling. “I saw it and already knew where the plane was going. It kills me I had that feeling inside of me, that hatred, that nihilism.”

“They are media whores like us,” said Aaron.

“I want to fucking disappear,” said Bruce.

“Making art’s always a kind of disappearance.”

“I’m just sick of my own striving. Sick as hell, you know?”

“Aleister Crowley lived his entire adult life either making art or fantasizing about humanity’s end—how we’d all disappear.”

That name again.

“Who’s that?”

“Aleister Crowley?”

Aaron had said a number of things that Bruce only retained on looking up the name later online. Yet he remembered how he felt, the excitement, a sense of dawning recognition as he trawled the internet the next day.

Frater Perdurabo.

Cambridge drop-out.

Intelligence agent.

Mountain climber.

Heir to a brewing fortune, occultist, bisexual, rebel idol, rock ‘n roll inspiration, writer and artist, straddler of the gap between Eastern and Western religion, founder of Thelema: pastiche spiritual code of the ascendant Will.

The atomizing reach of the internet, each user a node of quantifiable desires, had its spokesperson and prophet in the madman Crowley, whose entire life was striving to fulfill the insurrectionary power of the individual will. In Crowley, Bruce Copeland had the subject of his first novel, Mount Ire.

While researching Crowley at the 42nd St branch of the New York Public Library, Bruce grew quantifiably more like him, or maybe always had been and only now realized it. Like Crowley, Bruce revered his well-spoken father who, like Crowley’s at a much younger age, was dying of cancer. Like Crowley, Bruce found he had a talent for writing about sex, which he transmuted under a pseudonym into a steady paycheck from a nervy website. Like Crowley, Bruce lusted after long hikes, hard climbs. Like Crowley, Bruce had burned for sexual experience, holding it to be somehow synonymous with his desire for recognition as an artist-individualist. He would fall asleep with his head hanging back in the library chair, then startle awake to the image of Crowley’s face posed like a sun beaming through the expanse of time. Bruce, or the un-Bruce he had become, grew into the story of this man, this iconoclast.

And yet there were also ways Bruce was not at all like Crowley. Recognizing as much, Bruce considered how he might serve as a corrective consciousness, the one who could set right Crowley’s own corrective consciousness—calm the excesses of Crowley’s misogyny, the crippling cocaine addiction, the belief in magick. An earthy scent rose from the library copy of the autobiography’s pages.

Magick was the pretense Crowley needed to make his acts of transgression socially palatable: the drug intake, sexual barriers overthrown, cavalier adventuring, his means of inculcating new seekers, new pupils. Remove the title of master and Crowley would only have been—what? One more dissolute maniac. So, while Bruce initially condescended to the idea of magick, his understanding of the term gradually evolved, taking on deeper meaning: what was the difference, after all, between the obscurity of Bruce’s present life, selling his writing under fake names, and his desired future where his actual name appeared on the cover of a novel, if not, in some sense, magic?

Or magick, as spelled by Crowley, clever at making everything his own. The fantasized transformation in Bruce’s life had mostly to do with a transformation in the way he would be perceived, which, above all other games, was Crowley’s most passionate:

1) Invoke an authority seized from history.

2) Commit yourself to actions considered transgressive by the standards of your time.

3) Show no qualm about propagating the myth of yourself.

4) Convey how your work stands as a corrective to, or an escape hatch from, the faults of the present-day.

5) Welcome followers; ravish them; make them see as you see.

6) Number all lists in sixes as Crowley would appreciate your doing if alive to see it.

The manuscript for Mount Ire did not sell for three years.

Molly Fisk embedded with troops on the way to Iraq, her work in the months-long interregnum between invasion and insurgency prescient of the chaos to come. When she returned to the states, she returned to a book deal and a position as a foreign correspondent for the Paper of Record. Her agent read Bruce’s work and recommended another agent, who signed Bruce on.

Before she moved to Jerusalem, Bruce memorized a poem by William Carlos Williams, and early one evening, recited it to Molly in Battery Park. Until she interrupted.

“Is there a better way to say what you want to say?” Molly asked.

“Without you, I’m nothing,” which brought tears to her eyes.

Over her shoulder hovered the dented sphere salvaged from the plaza beneath the towers. People milled around it, taking photos.

“Fuck you,” she said, brushing her cheeks with the back of one hand.

He reached to her face to help. “I love you, too.”

“We’re making a scene.”

“No,” said Bruce. “Nobody cares.”

Mount Ire sold.

Bruce was not expecting much.

His father died, and Bruce returned to Kansas City for the funeral. He gave his mother a box of autographed copies of the novel.

A TV book club chose the novel for the month of May, 2005.

Bruce surprised Molly in Jerusalem. By the time of his departure, they were engaged.

The novel sold well and Bruce was offered an adjunct position at Columbia. He stopped writing porn-for-hire and quit what he imagined would be his final odd job.

Crowley already had dimmed in memory, buried beneath the demands of the following two manuscripts, each of which subsequently sold to a prominent publishing house for seven figures.

Bruce found himself possessed of the sort of wherewithal he had resigned himself from ever knowing.

A movie was made of Mount Ire.

Molly returned to live in New York City, taking a job as a talking head on a foreign affairs TV show.

Bruce invested in the stock market.

He donated generously to charity.

“The famous Bruce Copeland,” Molly called him.

“Shut up,” said Bruce.

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