Featured Prose | June 25, 2019
“Joy” by John J. Clayton
By John J. Clayton
A new patient is coming this morning, referred only by “word of mouth,” she says on the phone when Dr. Stephen Margolis returns her call. But when Edith Adler walks in the door, at once he knows he’s seen her before. An attractive, neatly groomed woman in her sixties, around his own age, in a taupe wool skirt, a white silk blouse that almost matches her long silver-white hair. In her walk, in the alertness in her eyes, she cultivates a youthful look—silk scarf in many colors, calf-high boots—as if she were in her twenties. She’s trying to look not girlish but capable, clear-eyed. She reaches out her hand. He takes it.
“Haven’t we met? Don’t we know each other?” he says, narrowing his eyes—and, wary, prepares to recommend she see another therapist. It’s textbook—not a good idea to offer therapy to someone you know, even if not well. If the doctor isn’t a blank slate on which the patient can write, transference is made more difficult. But the textbook also knows this: from the very first exchange of glances, the patient begins to create the doctor that the patient wants or needs. From the beginning, even before the beginning, there is no blank slate.
“We spent an evening together,” she says, “a couple of years ago. At the Graubarts for a dinner. You, your wife, me, my friend Beryl.”
“That’s right. Yes. Beryl. I remember.”
“We were very close. Beryl and I. For years and years. For almost half a century.”
Does she mean they were lovers? He remembers hearing from Joe Graubart that Beryl Gold died a couple of years ago. Already she, Beryl, has entered Margolis’ sunny office in a Cambridge attached house not far from Harvard Yard, with bay window and window seat, its Freudian couch lain on by patients in analysis with him. Margolis has only two analytic patients, patients he sees three or four times a week. The rest of his patients he sees once a week. She’s only a virtual visitor, this Beryl, brought here by Edith Adler, but he’s certain Beryl would become a frequent guest—would, if he didn’t suggest, as now he does, that Edith Adler see someone else.
She considers. “I know the drill, Doctor.” She sighs, as if she’s bored by his conventionality. “It’s different in my case. Like Beryl, you see, I’m dying.”
At once he believes her, and he admires the comfortable way she’s using her own death as tactic. Matter-of-factly he asks, “And that makes a difference?”
“Yes, yes.” She sounds impatient, irritable. “I understand. We’re all dying. But I am to have the privilege of foreseeing my end—bowing out, I’m told, in a few months. It’s a cancer, different from Beryl’s. Let’s not speak about that. I intend to let the disease run its course without self-pity and without major intervention. Even my oncologist says it’s too widespread for an operation to be of value. And given the side effects of chemo—no, I’ll take what I need to cope with pain. And so, you see, I’m not interested in untangling my neurotic conflicts, Doctor. Too late for that!”
She laughs. “I’m sure you know ‘Pirke Avot,’ ‘the Ethics of the Fathers.’ It prescribes that you repent when?—one day before you die.”
“It’s a joke,” he says.
“Of course—a Talmudic joke: we don’t know when we’re going to die, so it’s today you should repent. In my case, I do know—well, I know approximately. And I’m not repenting, Doctor. I simply need you to be clever enough, objective enough, to help me gather together the pieces of my life. Not that I can bring the awareness with me to another world.” She smiles. “It’s in this world I want to feel, however briefly—“ She gropes for the words—“a sense of completion. Here’s what I’ve made of myself.”
“But Ms. Adler—why come to me? Why not see a rabbi?”
“At that dinner party, you were very honest and simple. I trust you not to feed me sugar.”
Margolis laughs, knowing she wants him to laugh.
“You weren’t trying to be charming. You simply listened to me and to Beryl. We were impressed. This was just before Beryl was diagnosed.”
Right now he’s only half listening. He’s considering: Will he, after all, take her on? It’s not just sympathy for a dying woman that moves him to change his mind—for it seems he has changed his mind. Interesting! “Let’s see how it goes,” he says. “Tell me about yourself.”
Edith Adler grew up on the East Side of Manhattan, near Central Park. She attended a good private school. “We lived on Sutton Place, we summered in Chatham.” She went to Barnard, then Columbia for graduate work in literature. Foolishly—desperate to leave home, its rigidities—she married. “Less said about that the better. Except for the children. They are a distinct accomplishment.” In her thirties she divorced the father of her two children, and five years later married a man who manages a group of hotels. Yes, her husband knows the prognosis and expects to be there for her at the end. They’re not exactly intimate, but they’ve stayed married and are quite good friends.
Edith Adler has written poetry and literary fiction most of her life, she tells him; she has taught poetry, first as an adjunct, then a tenure-track professor, at Tufts. She’s published three books of poetry, well received, and two novels, one of which sold well. She reviews for The Globe. She reads and speaks French, Italian, a little Spanish.
She’s pleased with herself, Margolis can see. He respects that. It’s better than false modesty.
Beryl Stern was her close friend. The last months of Beryl’s life, as her brain was taken over by glioblastoma, Edith watched over her. Now she has no Beryl, no Beryl to sit with her. “My brother David lives in Philadelphia. We’re not close. He’ll probably come to the funeral.”
“What about your children?”
Her son in Denver, her daughter in Baltimore. “I haven’t told them yet. That’s not our relationship. Why disturb their lives prematurely?” Yes, yes, soon she will have to tell them, so details of her estate don’t come down on them suddenly.
“Won’t they feel cheated of a certain closeness? And wouldn’t they be a comfort?”
“A comfort! That’s the last thing I want! It’s not easy for me to take comfort. Beryl, she needed comfort. I knew how to comfort her without pitying or being intrusive. I’m trusting you not to offer any ‘comfort,’ thank you very much.” Her agenda, she tells him: to take her life up in her hands and look at it, experience what she’s accomplished. Sum up.
A life seen as résumé? Beneath her impressive pride, something is wrong, something is missing. What stops her, he feels, isn’t dying; she has needs she doesn’t recognize. If he didn’t feel that, he wouldn’t take her on. His agenda for her, as for any patient: help her to hear the stuttering repetitions, the self-betrayals, help her to slip beneath the surface to the blocked places. To find joy.
He’s been thinking for a while now of the absence of joy in his own life. Edith Adler awakens in him the same question. Joy he rarely experiences now. He’s content that he gets through the day; he makes lists and checks off items with mental pencil, relieved by the diminishing of the list. Relief isn’t joy. Even sleep becomes another job, for when he has trouble sleeping, next day he doesn’t have the psychic energy to enable him to check off as many items on his list.
As a therapist—psychiatrist and psychoanalyst—he is gratified by ameliorations in the conflicted souls of his patients. He is gratified when his article on “Narrative as Denial” is published in a respected journal. Or, say, when he and Julia find a parking space in time to get to tonight’s concert at Symphony Hall in Boston, or when his stock portfolio grows unexpectedly or when he’s asked to lead a seminar for therapists. Gratified. But a success, a little victory, isn’t joy. When, tonight, the French horn cries out in the Brahms trio, he recognizes the leap it makes in dialogue with the violin and how the piano holds the musical story together. But the cry doesn’t touch his heart the way it once did. Julia, sitting beside him, squeezing his hand, seems to take the music inside. Her eyes are closed, she actually wipes tears away from her cheeks. He’s envious.
When he was young, joy had been accessible. He remembers, looking back half a century, that he’d brim over with impossible love the music drew from him—Brahms, Mahler, Bach; he’d have to keep himself from groaning aloud; it would hit him like a drug. Is it just that he’s getting old? He recites in his head the opening lines, memorized long ago, in high school, of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream
The earth and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night and day
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
In fact, Wordsworth tells us, yes, he can see them, but they don’t move him. Margolis’ love for Julia, for their sons and daughter, shouldn’t that love be a template? Last Shabbat when his older son Ben burst, laughing, through the door of the restaurant—Julia had known he was coming but kept mum and stood back, grinning—Margolis, overwhelmed by surprise, felt suffused with love, an outpouring over not just Ben but the whole world, die ganze Velt, and found tears welling up, and he began to babble foolishly about how much he loved and believed in Ben.
“Oh . . . happy birthday, Dad!” Ben was pleased but embarrassed.
You can’t depend on the world often to peel open and shower you this way with joy, joy entering, joy pouring out past the possibility of defenses. No. It’s knowing everyday joy, that’s the ticket. A quiet gratitude. But why put up defenses in the first place? Why do I require a diminished life? For yes, I do it to myself just as do my patients. Defenses—against what? It’s not just getting old that keeps me from joy, as if the wiring had begun to corrode. It’s as if full, joyful life were dangerous, threatening—but threatening to what?
He should know, if anyone. It’s his job to know. Every day he treats patients who blame their situation—their spouse, their children, their work, their health. If only their lower back were better or they had more money or the right spouse, they’d live in joy—though secretly they know better: in fact their left hand doeth battle with their right hand to make sure they’re able to stay stuck in place: able to avoid a full, passionate life that can brew joy.
Partly it’s fear. As long as you worry, as long as you’re watchful enough, nothing will go wrong. He dreamed one night last week of their roof leaking—water pouring down the walls, buckling the sheet rock. Is he so different, then, from his patients? When a patient takes a chance on a new narrative, Margolis is pleased: something is being accomplished. What about his own story?
Margolis sees patients thirty hours a week; but it’s the two hours seeing Edith Adler he thinks about most when not in a session. He can’t say she’s likeable. No. Not likeable, he thinks, sitting across from him in a matching Eames chair—but admirable. She’s cool, restrained, judgmental, arrogant. She doesn’t play up to him. Her posture says she’s contemptuous of weakness, of self indulgence. Her fingers stroke the roadmaps of cracked brown leather on the armrests; her back is straight, her chin high. Around her neck, a cashmere scarf. She speaks of her love for Beryl, but there’s little love in her voice. He senses she’s angry at Beryl for dying, leaving her to die alone.
In their second session together she insists on holding up to the light her “victories”:
~That she was able to make herself a scholar and a poet and not give way to the roles handed her: family manager, sainted mother, angel of the house;
~That she was able to extricate herself from an oppressive first marriage and later make her second—excellent—marriage on her own terms;
~That she found love with one close friend; that she helped that friend through her dying;
~That she transformed herself from timid, compliant child into independent adult.
But when he asks, “I wonder, Edith: as a child, you say, you were ‘timid.’ Can you say more about that? In what situations did you feel timid? Did it upset you to be timid?” Edith snaps, “That will be enough of that, Doctor. It’s not what I’m doing here.”
He almost says, I’m sorry but holds it in.
What she’s “doing here” is enacting, upon this stage, upon him, the drama of her own triumphant self-assertion. He’s being asked to support her vision of herself, to admire, to help her savor, her strengths. Not only does she not want to change. She wants to be reassured that she has no need to change or even to examine the possibility of change. Margolis wants her to expand her repertoire of feelings. Isn’t that his job? To help her die at peace in her bed. “You’ve done a lot in your life,” he says. How clearly you see your strengths. But I have the feeling,” he says, “there’s something more for you in this room. More going on for you. What do you think?”
She’s silent. She glances at her watch and sighs. “Perhaps I’ll need time to consider that.” She writes him a check, puts her glasses in her purse.
Wanting to stop her from leaving, pressing her, he says, “I’m curious. When you speak of ‘victories’—would you say they’ve brought you joy?”
“Goodbye, Doctor Margolis.”
He tells Julia the story without naming names. “I was foolish. She won’t be a patient long. We’ve had two sessions. I’d be very surprised if she returned next Tuesday. I pushed her too hard.”
Yet though prepared for her absence, when Edith doesn’t come back on Tuesday, he finds he’s both offended and disappointed. She leaves a message on voice mail: “I’ll be mailing you a check, Doctor, for the session I missed. You were correct. Perhaps it was a mistake for us to work together. But in fact, I have learned something. I’ve learned to be more suspicious of my need for self-congratulation. You’ve made me begin to question myself. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
He doesn’t believe her for a single instant. It’s precisely because he asked her to question that she backed away! And she’s so intelligent, she must have imbibed questioning and self-questioning along with mother’s milk.
It rankles him. Next day, Wednesday, when he gets the check in the mail, he’s inclined to tear it up. Then a bizarre idea comes to him, an idea completely inappropriate professionally. In his thirty-five years in practice, he’s never done anything like this; it goes against the most basic rules, rules he’s deeply internalized: his office is on Ellery Street, her house just a few blocks away on Dana. He’ll drop by on his walk home.
It’s a cool, bright sunny day, early autumn. He always walks home; this is in his neighborhood, hardly out of his way, but visiting a patient is so irregular that he feels he’s in a dream or in a strange city. It’s oddly exciting.
He changes his mind, then changes it again. He finds himself walking on Dana Street.
If she’s not there, he’ll put the envelope with the check in her mail slot.
But she is there. He sees her through the bay window. He climbs the steps.
“Well!” she says. “Do come in.”
“I was on my way home. I thought I’d stop—the check’s not necessary.” He hands her the envelope.
“Come in,” she says again, indifferent to the check. “May I fix you some tea?”
“Thank you.” It’s so odd: while his heart is pounding, while he feels this visit as a transgression, she treats it as nothing out of the ordinary.
When she’s served them, she sits upright in a wingback chair, as if, he thinks, tables were turned—he the patient, she the therapist. She says, “I regretted all afternoon missing our session.”
He can’t help saying, “You seem in conflict about the work with me.”
She doesn’t reply. “You spoke to me,” she says instead, “about joy.”
“Yes. I did.”
“You asked, do I experience joy? I thought that was somewhat pretentious of you, certainly not what I was expecting, but I did consider it. Now I have an answer. I wanted to explain: I don’t expect joy. At the moment I finish a poem, I may feel satisfaction. With Beryl, even at the end—no, especially at the end, when she was almost incapable of understanding or speaking and I—I was often at the verge of tears—I felt extended moments of gratitude and love. Now I feel some pleasure when I look back over my life, and I say, yes, I did all right. I did better than all right. But joy, Doctor, joy I don’t expect. Tell me. Do you think joy is really our natural condition?”
His visit lasts less than an hour. By the end, she asks if she can return to his office. For already Edith has begun turning him into the doctor she requires. She’s given him the role of combatant, antagonist, as if he’s been shrugging off her life as insignificant and she needs to defend herself. Which is not true—not at all true. He sees her, in fact, as strong; more: as splendid. But a reflection of her strengths isn’t what she needs from him. She needs him as enemy so she doesn’t have to see herself as her own enemy. His job is to get her to own her real feelings.
When she comes to his office again he sees she’s really not well; sees the effort she makes to sit up straight in her chair, sees the dark rings under her eyes. Though it’s warm out, she wears a bulky sweater that swallows her up, makes her look smaller. Now, when she talks about her “victories,” they’re both aware of an ironic cast to the words. Isn’t it the end of victories?
She spends some of their time remembering Beryl: the glow of her, her tenderness. “She was ten years younger. She was to see me out. This is all wrong.”
“You’ll have to be your own Beryl.”
She doesn’t fight this. She’s silent. She looks deeply into him, as if, Margolis thinks, she’s asking him to take the role—to be Beryl for her.
It’s only in mid-autumn, when she becomes too sick to come to his office, change begins.
Like an old fashioned GP, he visits her at home, each time for only a few minutes; but he’s no longer even nominally her therapist. Whenever he enters the sunny front room filled with plants and books—books shelved or piled, here and there a bookmark inserted—her daughter, Cassie, who’s come from Baltimore to stay, goes off to make them tea, and, sitting beside the rented hospital bed angled to look out on the tiny front garden, he forces himself to keep from showing Edith the pain he feels at seeing her this way. She’s so, so shrunken. She’s not in terrible pain. The morphine drip takes care of that pretty well. But her face has lost shape, the skin under her chin has fallen. The room is warm, too warm for him, but she wears a pale blue silk scarf to cover the wattle.
It’s hard for him to bear looking at her without moaning, expressing the pity he feels. Last thing she needs from him. He’s silent. He takes her hand. She lets him; she nods.
Do we really, we humans, have to go through this? My God. What purpose can it serve?
She fights so much against being the object of pity. She almost blames it on him, her weakness. “You just love it that I’ve gotten so soft,” she says in as firm a voice as she can muster.
But week by week she has fewer resources to permit her to feel strong, to appear strong. He knows she’s angry at him for her own weakness. Because she’s angry and knows she has no blessed right to be, she chooses to give him things. “My children don’t want my books,” she says. “I’d like you to have my collection of poetry.”
“You’re sure, Edith?”
“Haven’t you shown me that I’m always sure? Too sure?”
“Must you always answer a question with a question?” She laughs, for having beaten him, perhaps flustered him, and for having, herself, answered a question with a question.
He laughs, too. “You—you’ll do almost anything to feel strong.”
“I’m not cheating,” she says.
This interests Margolis. “Can you explain?”
She rolls her eyes, as if, oh, it’s so tiresome to put it into words, as if he’s really quite stupid at times. “When I say I’m not cheating . . .” She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath to organize her strength “. . . I mean that while in this awful state, I feel at times a little giddy, a little rambunctious. Not reliably and not always. You see? We’ve often spoken about joy. Well, perhaps it’s the morphine drip. Perhaps it’s my sickness, making neurons fire oddly. Maybe it’s simply us. I mean being with you. Yes. I believe it’s you and me. At times, yes, you know, you’re so much like Beryl. You are. Now, just now, these days, at odd times, for no good reason, I’ve experienced joy.”
They’re silent. Stephen Margolis doesn’t answer with a question, doesn’t answer at all. Simply us. He looks into her eyes in a way he never looks at anyone so intimately—except, at times, Julia when they’re making love. Joy. It’s as if, in an odd turnabout, he is absorbing joy from her, from their relationship. She’s turned things upside down. Rather than pity her, he wants her secret. The intimacy, silent, salves him. If he doesn’t catch the condition of joy, he catches, at least, a condition of intensity, an intensity of being.
He never knows, leaving her, if he’ll see her again or if he’ll get a call from Cassie.
Cassie, he knows, has her own family to think about and her work with a marketing firm. He watches her handle her mother’s dying by being soldier-like. She does her tasks, makes calls to the oncologist, the pharmacy, the insurance company. She feeds, bathes her mother. When free for an hour, she sits at her laptop analyzing marketing plans. Cool, regimented, her mother’s daughter.
But her mother seems so different as she gets closer to death. Cassie tells him, “I’ve never seen my mother so unguarded, so open to me. I can’t remember when we could talk as we do now.”
Edith is afraid, she whispers to Margolis, afraid of the pain, incrementally worse. “Have to balance . . . between pain and dark. Afraid, too, of the dark.” She gives him this, half begrudgingly, as if it were a kind of gift. At night, she tells him, like a child she needs a night light on. “So foolish,” she says. “What, after all, is so different between the dark before I was born and a dark into which I go?” He doesn’t answer. The dark enters him too. She knows this. She looks up at him. “Now, now, doctor. Be calm. And please tell me, ‘Be calm.’ It helps, when you tell me that.”
Cassie has ordered a blow-up mattress and sleeps beside the hospital bed so she can be instantly available. But really, he knows, it’s not to get her mother a glass of water or medication in the night; it’s as if she’s needed as mother to her mother, needed against the dark. It amazes Margolis that Edith can accept this closeness, this dependency.
The quips stop. At times he thinks he sees tears welling up in her eyes.
Edith still speaks, but the connections between sentences are unconscious, like free association, random words and phrases spoken to herself. Sentences trail off, fuse with other sentences. Between her sentences, centuries, ages. “The dark. . . . A good, good girl.”
At night he finds that he, too, is afraid now to go into the dark. He’s never especially feared death—never thought much about it; now its strangeness appalls him. One night, as he falls asleep, he imagines himself floating out and out, flesh falling away. Eyes closed, it’s as if he’s only eyes—he’s free from his physical self. For a certain time, a few moments, he’s not contained by body. He separates himself from himself, or rather, is separated; he lifts up above his body, rises to the ceiling and looks down at himself, sleeping. This is dream and not dream. He’s able to see himself as if in a mirror, or from a mirror. At once, frightened, he jerks awake—as if, dozing, he almost drove off a road. His heart is thumping, breath both deep and quick. Julia must feel his motion; half asleep she reaches out for him, strokes his shoulder, soothing, one eye open. He smiles at her, squeezes her hand, closes his eyes. He sleeps, dreams. In the morning he can’t remember the dreams but remembers the time of leaving his body. “God,” he says. “Dear God.” He doesn’t know what he means.
On the day of her death, not a day when he expected to visit Edith, he stops by to find a hospice nurse busy at her bedside making Edith “comfortable.” He asks, “Is it all right I’m here?”
“Oh, yes. She’s not conscious. But she may feel your presence even now.”
He sits by the bed and takes Edith’s hand. It’s warm, perhaps from the oxygen she’s taking. Is she still here? Is she still Edith? Her body quivers under the sheets, her breathing is awful. It’s hard to listen to this guttural breathing, its struggle. Is she in pain? He doesn’t think she’s aware of pain. He remembers his moments at the edge of sleep, of lifting up from his body, and he wonders if, while her body is still functioning this way, as hard going out as in birthing, coming in, she is perhaps already somewhere else, outside, above. Is there joy there, where she’s present? Here—here there’s no joy he can imagine. He, Margolis, finds that he wants the struggle to end. While she may not be knowing pain, he can’t bear it that the rags, the shell, of her should go on in such turmoil.
Cassie sits beside him. She tells him that Andrew, Edith’s husband, is on his way from Paris. “Not that it matters now. Mother’s not going to wake up.”
“We don’t know that.”
James, Edith’s son, here from Denver, wanders the room. A big man, a powerhouse, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. At loose ends, he looks at his mother, steps out to make calls on his phone, returns, looks at his mother, takes her hand when Margolis gives it up.
James looks at Margolis with irritation. Margolis doesn’t blame him. What, after all, am I doing here? This is a time for family. But Margolis finds it hard to leave Edith.
No joy here. Then does it matter, her changing? Her softening? Is all that gone? Where is it kept? Where is it saved? Nowhere at all? And what has it to do with him? Her change was never his doing. It was the battering near the end that broke her down. He so much wants to affirm something of value that remains. Finally, as she struggles to breathe, he kisses her forehead and slips away.
That evening he gets a call from Cassie. “My mother’s gone. Her breathing stopped at about 7:15 tonight. I want to thank you for visiting these past weeks, for caring. You were important to her.” She gives him the address of the funeral home, the time of the service. “She didn’t have all that many friends. But enough so that it won’t be embarrassing.”
It’s hardly a service; there are barely enough mourners to call it a congregation. Cassie sits by Margolis and tells him who’s come. James, he’s met. Her uncle, Edith’s brother, from Philadelphia. A smattering of friends, including Edith’s bridge partner; the woman with whom she attended concerts; two members of her book group. A husband and wife who run a poetry series take turns reading a few of her poems. Edith’s husband Andrew, a beautifully dressed man who seems to know no one at the service, speaks briefly about Edith’s “humor and strength.”
“She never suffered fools gladly,” he says. Someone’s laugh explodes; the laugh echoes through the funeral home’s sanctuary. Andrew speaks of her tough, shrewd reviews in the Globe. He describes their times together in Paris, grateful, he says, for those memories. His eyes glisten. Suddenly, in a surprising, trained singing voice, he chants something beautiful in Hebrew or Aramaic and sits down.
Her agent talks about her literary career, reads a few sentences of praise for Edith’s work.
We can’t celebrate a résumé.
Stephen Margolis sees in a way he has never seen. It’s not that Edith has died and these others have escaped to mourn, but that each of them, even her well-groomed husband, is an undergraduate in death, a candidate waiting to receive his degree. Is that news for anyone? But the awareness is vivid in him. The light so precious, such a gift. All of us are slipping into the dark, to be mourned by others who will soon slip into the dark to be mourned by others. He wants to face this bravely, joyously, but he feels no joy. No joy—no, still, something: something like wonder—an apprehension of the preciousness of the light we’re lent for awhile. But her reaching, these past months, toward a deeper sense of her own life, where is that now? Hasn’t it gone with her into the simple pine casket? If anything is left it’s become part of her son and her daughter. Yes, and she has made herself part of Stephen Margolis, too. She’s a candle lighting his way into the dark.
“Joy” first appeared in Volume 40, Number 1 of the Missouri Review.
John J. Clayton grew up in New York City. He taught modern literature and fiction writing at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. His fourth collection of short stories, Minyan, was published in September, 2016. He has also published four novels, including Kuperman’s Fire and Mitzvah Man. Clayton’s stories have appeared in most major literary magazines and over fifteen times in Commentary.
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