Baby, I’m a tin picker now.
In a town below a mountain that’s steadily sinking in on itself. The summit has fallen a hundred meters over the past three centuries, if the conquistadors’ maps are to be believed. Which they’re not. So double that figure.
Cerro Rico has an inverted peak like a crushed soda can. It’s riddled with tunnels, their mouths marked by piles of multicolored rocks dredged from the depths and discarded as worthless. Lilac, pink, blue, kelly green. Everything elemental was taken long ago—copper, silver, tin—and the rest left in heaps. The sides of the mountain are a riot of nonmetallic colors. A pastel ruin, a bouquet of stones winking down on the town below.
Potosí, down below, is where they dragged copper and silver to sell, and tin to hammer into the walls of houses, municipal buildings, churches. The town once sparkled like a handful of coins. But that was many centuries ago, when it was a center of trade. A merchant town trussed up and glinting, bleeding metal across the Atlantic in ships so heavy they rode low in the water, the servants’ decks become submarines peeking out at the packs of fish needling through the sea like silver arrows, pointing the way home.
Daddy is how I think of myself, though I doubt you still think of me that way.
They built the town with the scrap metal and now it’s all oxidized. Mounds of tin rusting in the streets, the faces of buildings leaking black into the dirt. Tin is poison. Tin is garbage clogging the streets of Potosí. Tin is shit.
Tin isn’t worth the time or energy it takes to amalgamate it, and even if you do, the mercury will make your hair and teeth fall out and bring on fits of violent shuddering. But when there’s no more silver because a couple centuries back the conquistadors swept out all the seams in the mines with brooms—carefully, gingerly (the way they never were with their wives), so as not to miss even a grain of grey silt—a person turns to tin out of desperation. Even though the amalgam makes a far crappier mirror. Soft, crumbly, with a sapphire cast that absorbs more than it reflects. But with tin, Daddy will write you a message in light.
• • •
Is it ok if I still call myself Daddy. Maybe you don’t think of me that way anymore, but what are my options. “A”? “Al”? You never knew me by that name.
It was Daddy who took you for ice cream. Daddy who held the bucket for you to throw up in when you ate that rancid yogurt. Daddy who conducted parades of stuffed animals with you through the apartment, singing an invented version of the South Orkney Islands National Anthem, which is meant to be performed by a chorus of hundreds of gulls and accompanied by a mass synchronized swim. We improvised.
Daddy is how I think of myself, though I doubt you still think of me that way.
• • •
I’m doing as badly as I was before you came along. No, far worse off. Because I lost Pebble. One minute I was holding his little red crochet teddy bear paw and the next minute he was spinning off into space. I didn’t understand Potosí’s entropy runnels back then. The sky veins. I didn’t know that if I wasn’t holding on tight, I might stumble upon a vein running vertically from the ground up into—forever—and the next moment I’d be watching Pebble sucked up like a marionette, his puffy knit body like a Powerball being bobbled up a tube. Except there was no tube. No jackpot. Just invisible tracts in the air, leftover from the thermal mining of the atmosphere.
The conquistadors got the air too. When they’d drained the mountains dry of ore, they vacuumed the air of silver dust as well.
Yeah, the conquistadors got the air too. Little known fact. When they’d first arrived, everywhere they looked they saw veins of silver in the ground. But when they’d drained the mountains dry of ore, they vacuumed the air of silver dust as well—using crude hand pumps that left an irresolution of pressure, forming the sky veins that have been there ever since. People learned to walk holding their children, papers, picking tools tight. Learned to expect and endure the inevitable whoosh when they blundered through one, that sick feeling in your stomach like an elevator dropping, when the air pressure shifts around you, the ground falling away for a moment while your feet dance just a hair above the earth.
Legend has it that the sky veins run all the way into orbit. Maybe beyond.
• • •
“I know there is a God,” says Nastasia, my picking partner.
That’s not a real thing, picking partner, but we found each other in these heaps, and we like picking in each other’s company better than we like picking alone. Although we don’t talk much, and we don’t ever spend time together after, or before. So, technically I’m still pretty close to alone. But we do pick alongside each other, and that’s something.
“I know there is a God,” Nastasia says to herself—but also, because I am there, to me—at the outset of each day of picking. “The metal breeds like a sow.”
She tries to make us feel optimistic about the haul. I must have that despairing look in my eyes all the time now, the one I used to hide with sunglasses. But I lost my glasses somewhere in my rented warren above the butcher shop back in town, or in the streets, or at the noodle stall. And now my feelings are just out there, splashed all over my face for everyone to see. My eyes are bigger and more expressive than a man’s eyes ideally should be. With long dark lashes. There’s not a woman who’s studied my face who hasn’t voiced jealousy. But they’re soulful. I hate it.
If you archived every one of the not-so-many pictures ever taken of me you’d see me squinting as if into the sun. Even when there is no sun. Narrowing my eyes, hiding their brown depths. Except the pictures with you in them. Then I’m laughing, my face crinkled up like a rotten red apple in that way you used to sweetly poke fun of, then crawl up on my chest to plant little kisses on my (rotten red apple) cheeks. So, really, my eyes are narrowed in those photos too, but from smiling.
Anyway, Nastasia’s only sort of right. Every day the metal spills further out into the road, and the mess is greater, wilder. But it’s not that there’s more of it, just that it spreads. Rats root in it, knocking around with a sporadic clanging that shakes me awake every night. Packs of kids kick through it in the day. Loud herds of kids that remind me of you. Spots of speed in the throbbing sunshine.
• • •
Nastasia and I get along because we’re picking for opposite things. She’s hunting for discarded silver. There’s hardly any about, but she’s determined, and has found a pinch or two over the past months. She carries a vial of liquid mercury and a leather pouch of salt. She hunches down, fizzling salt over the scraps, then douses them with a drop of mercury. She grinds at the metal with an iron spoon, looking for the telltale darkening as the salt and mercury decompose into a slurry, expressing some hidden grain of silver.
We look like one of those typical pairs of strays, a big dog and a small runty one. I always saw these duos and wondered why the big guy doesn’t want another big friend.
I grab at any large scraps of tin. I’m not picky, just looking for the big ones. Then I lash them together with straps and lug them on my shredded, bleeding back, my denim shirt crunchy with dried brown streaks. I pick up the big slabs, and Nastasia pokes around underneath for any sequestered silver. From the outside, I suppose we look like one of those typical pairs of strays, a big dog and a small runty one that’s seemingly leeched on for protection. I always saw these duos and wondered why the big guy doesn’t want another big friend. But the truth is, Nastasia tires less easily than I do. More than once she’s brought me a cold amberade with crushed ice from one of the street vendors while I sit collapsed on a pile of tin, wilting in the sun like a lady at a garden party.
And I like the sound of her nearby. I like her permanent hunch, and the vaguely sour scent that her thin old skirts give off. Reminds me of my mother, I guess. So long gone now in the cold city night, soot blowing in the windows as her soul blew out.
• • •
Nastasia asked me once about Pebble. He was the only thing of ours I had taken with me. After all, you said you didn’t want him anymore. You’d outgrown him, I guess. Or it was too painful.
So I took him. The truth was, I couldn’t bear to be without your stuffie. There, I said it. I needed Pebble. I talked to him at night, conjuring you, the way you used to ventriloquize his voice—that fake British accent you’d get, the pomp and circumstance that would get me bent over, gut-giggling in bed with you. I’d watch old movies on my pocketscreen with him—or, well, I tried to watch those difficult art movies you like. I’d prop Pebble up on a pillow next to me, but I couldn’t get through much without you there, lying on my chest, explaining to me what in god’s name is interesting about fifteen unedited minutes of cows mooing their way through a muddy village. A “long take,” you’d once said it was. Something about the “de-reconciliation” (I think you made that word up) of everyday life and history. The cows’ walking representing everyday life. History, I guess, being outside the frame.
But the ad spots kept interrupting and I’d get off on a tangent, reminding myself I needed to buy deodorant or work on my amalgams in the yard. It wasn’t the same as watching with you, afterward singing our made-up national anthems for territories of no nation, falling asleep together holding hands. I felt safe knowing I was keeping you safe. I always told you Daddies miss their little girls worse than their girls miss them. It’s true, Baby. Isn’t it.
Nastasia only asked about Pebble once. I thought she’d seen him before then—this one particular day really early on, when we’d started running into each other in Potosí, but hadn’t yet acknowledged to each other that we were intentionally walking together. In those days I’d walk just a bit behind her, or she’d walk just a bit behind me. Not meaning to, per se, but then again never losing sight of each other, somehow perfectly paced despite our gulf of size and age (neither of us young, but she’s easily twice my nigh-on-middle-agedness, and probably half my wiry mass).
This was another one of those days when I got tired out and had to rest, and Nastasia had gone off to get me an amberade, then continued on her patient picking, quietly, like a chickadee hunting seeds amongst garbage, not too far off, but far enough away that I felt safe taking Pebble out. And Nastasia peeked over a couple times to see if I was ok. But she didn’t see Pebble that day. Or if she did, she didn’t say anything.
I took him out to feed him his amber, which was usually something I only did in absolute privacy. See, the people here know something about amber—same way they did back in the sixteenth century. Hell, actually, all the way back to Greek and Roman times, when amber was hlector, bestower of a healing magnetism. There is no question that they would think I was wasting it.
If I could hit the moon lander’s probe on its next cycle, I could flash you our made-up Morse code for “I Love You.” Would you see it? I liked to believe you would.
Nastasia had explained that you were supposed to swallow the amber grains at the bottom of the drink. She wasn’t even from Potosí, but she paid attention, made friends, had even joined a Mahjong circle that met in the back of the bakery on Wednesday nights. Which is where she gathered most of her information. While picking, Nastasia would mix the latest Mahjong gossip—who’d been expelled, who reinvited, what rival circles had sprung up—with critical local knowledge.
In Potosí, she said, amber is a prized remedy meant to draw all the toxic elements out of the colon, so you’d excrete any excess mercury your body held, or piss it away.
“Health drink,” Nastasia would say, pressing an amberade into my palm.
I’d glug it. Make grateful eyes at her, lifting my sunglasses over my brow to nod and give that little half-smile I could really not manage in my emotional state but did anyway. Then I’d filter the cold pine-rich water through my teeth, reserving the amber grains, sucking them clean. I’d spit them into my palm when Nastasia wasn’t looking and push them into that little hole I made in Pebble’s back.
At night, in the single room I’d rented above the butcher, with the scent of blood and Clorox spilling in the windows, I’d hold him close to my chest. Full of amber, he’d have gathered enough static in my pocket all day so that he’d be vibrating with electrical charge. I’d hold him to my chest and pretend he was you. Breathing against me. I’d feel his warmth.
• • •
The amber is probably what caused it, but really it was my own unthinkingness. I was out picking—it wasn’t long after I got here, having taken the IndentureShip south to the Potosí mines looking for any kind of work I could get. It was just after I realized I could mix mercury amalgams with the tin to make my mirrors for skywriting. I figured if I could hit the Chinese moon lander’s probe—Yutu 7—on its next cycle, I could flash you our made-up Morse code for “I Love You.” Three taps forward, three back. Silent beat. Three forward and back again. Would you see it? I liked to believe you would. But what were the chances.
Anyway, I was out picking, and I was struck down with one of those hot shots of missing you. The ones I get hundreds of times a day. Memory-pain. And I was already in so much pain, with my back aching, and the blazing sun, sweat pouring in foul rivulets down the inside of my filthy old denim shirt.
And then I was remembering, and I wasn’t there in the sun with Nastasia—not really. I was back in the night before our first Halloween.
• • •
Jesus you were precise about pumpkin carving. I’m not a precise person. But you were. Insisted we needed to stencil the designs before cutting them. So you stenciled, and I selected designs. Happy, unthreatening pumpkins. A chill Halloween scenario. You probably would’ve chosen something weirder.
I was struck down with one of those hot shots of missing you. The ones I get hundreds of times a day. Memory-pain.
You stood behind me tsking at every little falter I made with my knife. I told you to go sit down and be quiet, Daddy was working.
I gave you a catalog to choose any dress-up outfit you wanted. I said we could go to the store the next day and get whatever you liked. You said let’s each write down what we like and compare notes. You wanted to see what I picked out for you to wear, what I wanted to see my darling daughter in.
When I finished with the pumpkins, and we lit them and carried them out to the pitch-dark patio where no one ever came anyway (we were so secluded there at the end of the cul-de-sac), we came back inside and wrote down our choices and exchanged them.
Slutty schoolgirl, yours said.
Little lamb outfit was mine.
Your upper lip curled in a combo smile and sneer. “You don’t want slutty schoolgirl? Exactly how fucking young do you want me?”
You knew you had me. It was the Age of the Ultra Families, after all. Really, how could I escape this particular fantasy.
You wriggled your bare thighs around on that scratchy grey couch.
“Little lamb outfit with that burgundy G-string underneath,” I confessed.
So that’s what I was thinking of the day I lost Pebble.
And it’s only burned on my memory that I was thinking of that, because of what came after.
• • •
I was walking along the streets with Nastasia, and I got that nauseous shot to my gut that meant some part of me—some unconscious part I was currently doing my best to stamp into submission—was remembering you. It stopped me in my tracks and I had to gasp for breath, the leather of my tin-straps cutting into my back with each sentimental wheeze. I was standing on one of the piles of tin, struggling for air, remembering: you wriggling on the couch, winking your legs open at me, my groin flaming hot and then I was between your legs, ripping your G-string off, and I was inside you.
Sometimes when we fucked—and that Halloween, if I remember properly, was one of those times—just to really turn me on, you’d hold Pebble’s paw. Ooh Daddy. I’d look up—remove my head from the hot nook of your neck—and you’d be holding Pebble’s little teddy bear fist in your own.
Goddamn it just threw me over the edge. You knew it would.
And so that day, there I was standing still on the pile of tin, gazing at Pebble, holding his paw, remembering you holding it, and—well, Baby, you might not know this but it is possible to hold back a single set of tears for several years straight. Many a filmic crescendo—not in those art movies you watch, but the schlock your Daddy watches—having to do with masculinity confirms this fact. Quiet shot of car interior. Night driving. Aging guy (red rotten apple face, say). Hands on wheel. Beard scruff. Black night. Cue music. Here it comes.
So, yeah, I was holding Pebble’s paw and fucking crying. Or, well, tearing up at least.
Nastasia must’ve heard something and looked over.
She didn’t look too alarmed, but she did ask, “You bring toys with you to pick?”
And I croaked out, “My daughter’s.”
Not exactly the truth, but close enough.
• • •
I didn’t know a daughter was what I was looking for until I found you. On our first date, you spent the entire evening grilling me about world history, current affairs, and the hidden political stakes of seemingly innocuous legislation. It was clear that you were in possession of the answers, whereas I had fumbled my way into a decent but inglorious position as a minor bureaucrat at the Ministry of Financial Affairs. A job that I would soon lose, as it turned out, anyway.
It was a night of being endlessly harangued by a beautiful woman. Not unpleasant but a bit exhausting. And then you asked me if I wanted children. I shrugged, but it was a shrug of: Kind of, yes. Which you had opinions about too. Something to do with how all of our hopes and dreams for futurity had been funneled into the project of children.
You were offering me something bigger than a kid. Instead of helicoptering over one small individual, we could devote ourselves to the future of planetary life. Sure, there wouldn’t be anyone to take care of us in old age, but we weren’t living toward a comfortable retirement, were we?
“It’s so narcissistic,” you said, “all these mini reproductions of the self.” You stabbed a penne and sat back, waving it around to emphasize your point. “It’s weird how we’re only supposed to love little versions of ourselves. So privatized.”
You hated privatization. This much was obvious from the answers on your dating profile, not to mention your useless graduate degree in Decolonial Commune Studies—a field that was being phased out from under your feet. You had little chance of getting a job in this area when they were closing departments right and left. A fact which, for some reason, you didn’t seem concerned about. Although you’d been clear you didn’t have a trust fund.
“Well, it’s the Age of Ultra Families,” I shrugged (again).
“Fuck the Ultra Families,” you whispered, leaning forward and looking me straight in the eye. “I’m talking about the future of all of us,” you gestured with your fork at the entire—sparsely populated, down-at-the-heels—restaurant as a microcosm of the world. “Not just some private family unit.”
I realized then you were offering me something bigger than you, me, and a kid. You were offering me a way of caring about the well-being of, for lack of a better word, humanity. Instead of helicoptering over one particular small individual—making it your life’s purpose to ensure that this one tiny person doesn’t come into contact with poisoned water, ultraviolet light, vehicle exhaust, or even a flicker of boredom—we could devote ourselves to the precarious future of planetary life more broadly. Sure, there wouldn’t be anyone to take care of us in our old age, but we weren’t living toward a comfortable retirement, were we? We were engaging in the kind of selflessness that required fanaticism and gave, in return, a sense of purpose and meaning. And also, admittedly, the very real risk of arrest or expulsion in the Age of the Ultra Families. Which perhaps accounted for why you’d suggested we meet at Villa Papyri Lounge for our first date, a restaurant I was quite sure had been closed for decades, vines growing over its grey shingled face in that inauspicious bend on Route 17. It wasn’t closed. But it wasn’t exactly open, let’s just say, either.
I realized then that the other people eating in the restaurant were, by and large, also leaning forward, whispering conspiratorially to their dining partners. This, I realized, was a recruitment station for—whatever you were.
• • •
What you were was a rebel. A more glamorous term, really, than what it was. You ran a reading group out of the back of the Villa Papyri that met twice monthly. You invited me to attend. You hinted that, if I were interested, you could give me the passcodes to articles printed on vanishpaper, web addresses for songs that were broadcast on banned vanishchannels. You used terms such as revolutionaries. Comrades. And, most illegally of all: lovers. Unmarried, unchildrened people who fuck each other without the explicit goal of marrying or childrening.
Well, I was sunk. I’d been trying to imagine myself a parent and here I was being offered a partner. It was appealing. In a sparkly, illegal kind of way. We were back at my place by then. I was getting kind of drunk off Old Grand-Dad bourbon. “Fuck the Age of the Ultra Families,” I blurt-echoed.
“And still,” you winked. “No one escapes their historical context.”
Whatever that meant.
I wasn’t in a place to inquire further at the moment. Because you were sitting on that old desk of my grandmother’s—the only thing she left me, and my only inheritance in the whole world. Your ass was on my inheritance. It was perfect.
Time got extremely slow. You were wearing that dress that buttoned down the front. It had a small pull in the fabric up near the waist—I remember that—and fishnet stockings (long since out of fashion but what did it matter, dear god you looked good in them). Your eyes were bright and dark. I looked at you for some time.
You opened your legs a bit, twitched them open, really. Pursed your lips and smiled almost sarcastically. Watching you, I caught my breath, audibly, and you noticed.
“Oh my god,” you said, “you’re such a lesbian.”
You didn’t mean it cruelly. And you said it gently, because we shared an intimate understanding of something: I had been a woman. And this meant—in your complex lexicon of desire and permission—that I could touch you.
No, you didn’t mean it cruelly. Because you saw something about the quality of my desire: that I could feel you just looking at you. And that this was something of what it meant to be—or to have been, before my tits became the property of the California Municipal Waste Department—a lesbian. That a woman moving in your line of sight could have an effect that was total, atmospheric. That you could be hesitant, incapable, and not particularly interested in establishing the difference between touching and seeing. That you would indulge a dead love, dead in the eyes of the world, and valueless. A love that choked and burdened the mind, that might even be the very foundation of melancholy and despair. But, oh my long-lost love, looking at a woman you really get a feel for the way that fire is a phenomenon of touch. And my point is, if you have ever been a lesbian, you will not even have to touch a woman to know that.
But I did touch you.
I pushed up your skirt, and knelt between your legs.
I had the most beautiful, brilliant, sexy brat of a daughter I could have hoped for.
And when I touched you, the years fell off you like feathers from a bluebird at molting time.
I was making my way up your body with my lips. Your body seemed stratified by scent zones. I began—as I could not help but begin—with that immediately enslaving draught between your legs (wet forest flowers/plum/salt). Out along the powdery broken-straw aroma of your inner thighs, the alkaline tide of your genitals transitioned into an only seemingly contradictory vinegary cream toward your waist. All remaining sourness flushed out by the time I arrived at your neck—a dry, bright scent. Rosewater and cut grass.
You were young by the time I reached your lips. Or, you acted young. You inhabited your body, suddenly, as a much younger girl than I had begun with. You let me see you in all your historicity—all your ages at once. Maybe this is just what it is to fuck in general. Though this didn’t feel in general to me.
We fucked once on my grandmother’s desk, and then again in my bed. Afterward, lying together in the boiling pockets of my snarled comforter, we tried to sleep. You were tossing and turning, and then before I knew it I was on top of you again. This time, growling in your ear, Didn’t I tell you to go to bed now, didn’t I tell you to go to bed. And you were whimpering and writhing and you said, your nose against my neck, I’m sorry Daddy I’m sorry. And we fucked again, and this time it was the fuck you can never get away from.
• • •
“Can I call you that—Daddy?” you said the next night, over steaks at the Villa Papyri.
I reached across the table to cut your meat for you, by way of answer.
• • •
Because the truth was I wanted it too. That kind of, yes shrug I’d given when you asked if I wanted children—well, loving you had answered that, didn’t it. I’d cut the crusts off your bread. Watch anxiously from the window when you went out to get the mail at the curb. Hold your hand when we crossed the street. No spinning the roulette wheel with child-rearing and having to end up spending all this time with what turns out to be an awful brat. I had the most beautiful, brilliant, sexy brat of a daughter I could have hoped for.
Still, everything ends. It was criminal, after all, not to be a reproductive unit in the Age of the Ultra Families.
• • •
“Who do you expect to consume all the products we’re producing if you don’t make new consumers!” a blond, anger-ruddied bureaucrat screamed at us repeatedly the night they raided the Villa Papyri. He wore the silver pendant of the House of Cortés, legendary slayer of the Aztec Empire. An agent of the Ultra Families. Figured. This guy had drank so much of the Kool-Aid he had Kool-Aid coming out his eyeballs. He glowered at our vanishpaper (glitching, unfortunately, and not vanishing quickly enough), did a sarcastic, hateful reading of that evening’s discussion topic: “Not Everyone on the Cul-de-Sac Needs Their Own Snowblower.” After the reading—delivered at full volume and peppered by frequent expostulations about its wrongness while slapping his palm to his forehead—he shrieked, “No, the entire cul-de-sac cannot ‘make do’ with sharing one snowblower! First of all, how humiliating for the cul-de-sac! Second of all, good luck not being a self-contained family unit when the shortages hit which believe me they will! Food and commodity riots! What will you do then without your own snowblower!”
‘No, the entire cul-de-sac cannot make do with sharing one snowblower! How humiliating for the cul-de-sac!’
None of this was delivered as a question.
The rest of the reading group was silent, scuffing their feet. Their bravado was gone. But you were there, and things were already going wrong by that time between us anyway, no thanks to me. Or maybe I was determined to be some kind of idiot-hero.
“Fuck the Ultra Families,” I spat at him.
• • •
So here I am in Potosí.
And there I was, that day, croaking out to Nastasia, “My daughter’s,” standing stock-still on that pile of shitty tin holding Pebble’s paw in mine, and a tear wells up in my eye—probably the first tear in years—and I can’t rub it away with my hand because it’s got mercury and tin and sulfur oxides all over it, black with soot and poisons, and so I raise my right sleeve up to my right eye, and with my left hand, I go to fucking dab at my eye with the cuff, and I’m holding Pebble with my thumb and forefinger in my left hand, and I’m trying to use the middle finger of that same hand to work this dabbing action, and, Baby, why didn’t I just stuff him back into the cargo pocket of my pants. Why didn’t I just fucking put him back in my fucking pocket. Because I must have shifted and suddenly I’m in one of the sky veins. I’d crossed many of them before, but this one was different. And what with all the crying and the dabbing—I just—well, oh, there’s no easy way to say this: there was a whoosh and Pebble flew out of my fingers and up into the vein.
It must have been the amber reacting to the ionic charge. It must have been that, not that I wasn’t holding tightly enough. The fucking vein, the ones Nastasia was always warning me about, worrying over me, telling me to clip my ID papers to the inside pocket of my pants, in case the gust takes them. “Hard to get things back once you lose them,” she’d warned. She meant the papers, but hell, she’d encountered my eye-soulfulness and everything, so who knows what she meant. And I’d shushed her for weeks, months maybe. I’d never run into a sky vein that was all that strong.
But as I stood there on the tin, watching Pebble bobble up and away into the vacuum the conquistadors had left behind so long ago—so quickly and irretrievably out of my poisonous filthy hands, so quickly now a property of the sky, a red speck hurtling up toward the perimeter of blue, the horizon and then the endless distance of space—I knew that she was right.
After Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent
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