Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 14: Five Dollars for Sister Jane


Ah, the Lake! It’s always there, waiting for her. The hike and bike trail that surrounds this shimmering expanse of liquid sky is a 3½ mile loop of kaleidoscopic experiences.

Morgana navigates her way through the ebb and flow of people surging around and past each other. In addition to being the nicest place to walk anywhere around here, it’s also the hub of so many different neighborhoods, each with its own flavors, smells, sounds, illusions, and regrets.

She exits the path and dodges the street traffic on her way to Bucky’s Supermarket. Passing the donut shop, she inhales that buttery essence wafting from the cozy cottage kitchen of the loving grandmother she never had. She ignores the urge to go in and buy herself a crispy buttermilk donut; instead, as she enters Bucky’s, she remembers to pull her stomach in, stand up straight and square her shoulders. Practicing a regal countenance with her head held high, she locates the lemon juice and selects a giant bottle of the store brand, which is on sale for a just a little more than the cost of a small bottle of the name brand.

She avoids the shortest checkout line because of the screaming toddler in the clutches of a melt-down cycle whose oblivious mother is rifling through a folder of coupons. She assesses the wait time in the other four lines and gravitates towards the one that just might have the longest wait. Her mind never stops imagining scenarios. Yes, if she had to be trapped in an elevator with random individuals, she’d choose the people in this line instead of all the others. If she were to analyze her decision, she herself wouldn’t be all that surprised that she always chooses the line based on the absence of scowls, agitation, anger or sadness on the faces of those in the queue.

In the check-out line, still in regal countenance mode, she finds herself flirting with the guy in front of her, a handsome, distinguished-looking man wearing a suit and tie. Pictures of muscled men in thongs on a beach do nothing for her, but a nice, pleasant-looking guy in a nice suit? Fuhgeddaboutit!

He smiles at her when she puts her lemon juice on the conveyor belt.

“Making lemonade, by any chance?”

“Ha! No, actually, I’m getting this for my boss! I’m on a medical emergency mission—he needs it for a skin rash. It stops the itching instantly.”

“Is that so? I had no idea!” he says, as they both do their best to cast an inconspicuous eye on the other.

“Uh huh!” she says, “It’s true! In fact, my next article will be on the benefits of lemon juice—it’s good for everything, and if it’s not, at least it does no harm—just don’t squirt it in your eyes!”

“So you write for a newspaper or a magazine?”

“Yes—I write ‘The Advice Lady’ column for The Pregonero—you know, that free weekly newspaper that winds up all over the streets?” she says with a little giggle.

“Well, I’m intrigued….I promise you that I will start picking up The Pregonero for the express purpose of reading ‘The Advice Lady.’ I can’t wait to unlock the mysteries of lemon juice. By the way, my name is Percival Evander.” He extends his hand to Morgana. Her eyes sparkling, she modulates her voice as she replies, “It’s so nice to make your acquaintance, Percival. My name is Morgana Traczyk.”

Morgana instantly reflects on how formal she sounds, and then feels stupid using his first name in the same breath! Oh, why not mix the formal and the familiar? The dissonance seems to create a happy little tension which just might be keeping their conversation going.

Percival’s deli sandwich and bottle of sparkling water make rocking, jerky motions on the moving conveyor belt.

“That’s an unusual last name! Is it Eastern European?”

“It’s Polish! It means ‘sawyer,’ you know, someone who saws wood.”

Morgana knows that it also means a fallen tree that is underneath the surface of a river—a hidden menace that has sunk many a boat. She decides not to mention this to Percival, who at this moment seems to be floating HER boat!

Percival’s order is being rung up by a non-verbal, large, pasty-skinned person with rainbow-dyed haired and a few face piercings. He stops talking to Morgana while swiping his credit card. As the bagger packs up his deli sandwich and bottle of Perrier, Percival turns back to Morgana and says, “Morgana, I have a feeling I will be seeing you again!” Before she can respond, he thanks the checker and the bagger. Oh, a man in a suit, who’s good-looking and courteous! The smiling elderly gentleman with the twinkling eyes whose name tag reads “Ping,” bows while he hands him his bag. Once again, Percival turns to Morgana, and says as he is walking away, “And sooner, rather than later—I hope!” He gives her an unexpected but friendly, non-lecherous wink, and is gone.

Her regal countenance seems to flag just a bit as she concludes her business at Bucky’s. She picks up her bagged bottle of lemon juice and sticks the change in her back pocket.

She pictures Percival sitting somewhere pleasant, eating his deli sandwich in a non-horse-like fashion, with his pinkies in the air, not talking with his mouth full, nor dripping greasy sauce onto his impeccable suit and tie, as he takes silent, non-gulping sips of sparking water. And although sparkling water does contain the very smallest of gas bubbles, she cannot, for the life of her, imagine Percival ever emitting anything as base as a belch.

Today is turning out to the very best day! And, thanks to Charlie’s generous insistence, she walks out of the store seven bucks and change to the good.

Back at the Lake, she consciously avoids the skateboarders, bicyclists, and sketchy-looking dogs on long leashes, keeping to the extreme right of the path.

“Oh, sweet Jesus! There’s that old battle axe, Sister Jane!” thinks Morgana. She throws a quick glance around her, just to convince herself that she didn’t say that out loud. But why worry? Everyone’s still in their own bubble of self-absorption. Besides, even if she were talking to herself, people would assume either that she’s just one more person in the throes of a delusional disorder or that she’s using a wireless earpiece—and those would be only the very few who would even notice or care. Sometimes she thinks she’s the only one paying attention. The good thing is that no one heard her…probably; the bad thing is that it’s definitely too late to avoid Sister Jane.

“Hello, I’m Sister Jane, your Sister in Christ!” she says in her sweetest voice. “Would you happen to have 75 cents?” she asks in the same lilting, gracious tone as one might say, for instance, “Would you care for a canapé or perhaps a vol‑au‑vent?”

Morgana pulls a dollar from her back pocket, only to realize that it’s a five dollar bill! Before she can substitute the “Abe” for a “George,” Sister Jane’s eyes light up as if a good Las Vegas yank on the crank of a one-armed bandit had produced three (“chakunk, chakunk, chakunk”) big, beautiful, golden Liberty Bells. Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding…

Foiled again! Morgana reaches the reluctant conclusion that she and her five dollar bill must part company—either that or Sister Jane will surely raise holy hell—but first, she decides to extract some value from her generous donation before it leaves her possession. It quickly occurs to her to ask Sister Jane about another denizen of the Lake shore she probably knows.

“Do you know who the Rubber Man is, Sister Jane?”

“No, but I do know that I sure could use that five dollars!”

Calling her bluff, Morgana answers, “Sorry, but I’m looking to give this to someone who can tell me something about the Rubber Man. So, bye! Have a nice day!”

You never know what’s going to work with Sister Jane, but if anything does, it would definitely be a five dollar bill. Morgana sticks the bill back into her pocket, just to up the emotional ante. Even though, in her mind, she’s already given the five dollars to Sister Jane, she recalls Will Rogers’ famous quote: “The quickest way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it back in your wallet.” Ha!

“Wait!” cries Sister Jane, upset but not upset enough to get on her feet. “I know the Rubber Man! Come back and give me that five dollars! Right now!”

Morgana turns around and faces Sister Jane. “OK, so what do you know?”

“He’s a crazy bum…bum…bum…Bumble bee? Did YOU say ‘bumble bee?’” She laughs, knowing that she sounds a little nutty.

“No, YOU said ‘bumble bee,’” says Morgana, feeling like this five dollar deal isn’t going to work out anytime soon.

“Oh, that’s right! YOU said ‘bumble bee,’” says Sister Jane, indulging Morgana with a crazy but sweet smile.

“OK, so the Rubber Man is a crazy bum—I already know that. I can’t give you five dollars for what I already know! What else?”

“Well, he’s a creep, is what he is! He swims in the Lake in the middle of the night like he’s a whale or an octopus, pus…pus…pus…Pussy? ? Did YOU say ‘pussy?’” Now she’s becoming agitated, and so is Morgana.

“No, YOU said ‘pussy,’” says Morgana.

“Oh, that’s right! YOU said ‘pussy,’” says Sister Jane, indulging Morgana with another crazy but sweet smile.

Morgana remembers the best advice she ever got from a fortune cookie: “Never stand and argue with a fool because a passerby will not know who’s who.”

“OK, Sister Jane! If you want that five dollars, tell me right now why you said that the Rubber Man is creepy!”

Sister Jane’s face contorts through several tics, and when it smooths out again, she continues explaining.

“When we good folk are sleeping in the middle of the night, he crawls on up outta the lake and scares the hell out of us. I wish he’d just steal from us good folk instead of scaring the hell out of us AND stealing from us! Sometimes I wake up and he’s standing over me in that black rubber suit of his, dripping that nasty shit lake water all over me, laughing like he’s happy to be let out of hell, laughing like it’s funny that I’m scared shitless, laughing at me because I’m crazy, too!”

Sister Jane is good and worked up now. Morgana thinks she’s even forgotten about the five dollars.

“Does he ever hurt anyone?”

“No, he but he steals everything—our food, our shoes, our money, our drinks, our medicine. He even stole a dead dog once! And did I mention that he’s so creepy?”

“When’s the last time you saw him?”

“Just this morning!”

“Really???” Morgana is amazed that this guy has eluded the police for all this time, but yet Sister Jane saw him just this morning! Huh! Imagine that!

If gullibility were a tangible asset, Morgana would be a rich woman. Remembering not to believe everything she thinks, Morgana checks her own sanity, reminding herself that Sister Jane is probably not the most credible informant in the world.

All of a sudden, Morgana remembers that she’s still on the clock at The Pregonero and feels guilty for getting paid to waste their time talking with Sister Jane. She digs the five dollar bill back out of her pocket and hands it over to Sister Jane, who grabs the bill in shocked delight, presses it to her lips, throws her hands up in the air, and laughing dementedly, she scrambles up the hill on all fours to the edge of the park. Morgana loses sight of her as Sister Jane stands erect on her two feet, darts out into traffic and runs down the street, narrowly missing cars and colliding with pedestrians.

“Damn!” thinks Morgana. For a skinny minute there, she thought she was onto something. To think that she was actually going to call the police to tell them that the Rubber Man had returned to his old haunts! Jerinda’s case was still open and any lead would be given consideration, but as soon as the police would learn that Sister Jane was the source of this information, they’d think Morgana was as batty as she is.

“Well, I’m five bucks to the bad but at least I’ve still got Charlie’s lemon juice,” muses Morgana, while she strides briskly along the walking path back to The Pregonero.

Back in regal countenance mode, she struts past a thicket of trees choked with vines, bushes and small clutches of Styrofoam, cellophane, and other fast-food refuse.

Inside the thicket, sitting cross-legged on the urine-soaked dirt, a skinny, blond, barefoot man wearing a black rubber wet suit looks up from the raw, stinking fish he’s been gnawing on and watches a chubby woman all dressed in blue with a jiggling ass bounce on by.

Oh, yeah! He’s interested!

To Be Continued in Chapter 15: Tangled Up in Tango

Art Credit:
Music Credit:
“Creep,” by Radio Head (Subtitulado en Español)




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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 13: To Itch is Human, But to Scratch is Divine


The intense sunlight of the early morning glows through Morgana’s eyelids. She’s just spent the night passed out on the living room couch in her well-worn street clothes. Armhole seams, zippers and buttons, bra straps, taut panty elastic and a tight waistband have conspired all night long to torment her by digging grooves and boring indentions into her pudgy cushion of fat. Informed by low-level pain and general discomfort, she awakens to the disgruntled feeling of having been cheated out of a comfortable night’s sleep.

The steaming, magical elixir that summoned her into her ecstatic swoon just the night before is now just an abandoned cup of cold peach tea on the edge of the coffee table. The “Shift Happens” mug strikes an innocent pose akin to a long-suffering bystander awaiting the arrival of a bus that never comes.

Fighting the urge to get into her own bed for an hour of restful sleep in her soft, lumberjack flannel nightgown, she rearranges the pillows on the couch and carries the cup into the kitchen. She dumps the tea down the drain, squeezing the water from the tea bag and the spent slices of ginger before tossing them into the trash can under the sink.

Setting the wheezing, gurgling coffee maker into production, she pops in on Jack who is still sleeping the sleep of the dead. All she wants right now is to slip into a nice hot bath and not think about him, so she takes his still-comatose condition as a green light to a hot soak.

Ahhh! Peeling off those stale clothes provides instant relief. She regards the still-warm clothes on the floor with disdain, thinking that she never wants to wear them again. The hot water soothes and smooths her outraged skin.

Out of the tub, she wraps a towel around herself. While the luke-warm water glugs down the drain, she walks down the soft, Berber shag-carpeted hallway and into her room. She drops the towel in front of the full-length mirror. The image of Rain in her black, lacy underthings flashes for just an instant in her mind’s eye, but is replaced by what she actually sees: a not-unattractive woman “of a certain age” in a neglected body with about thirty pounds of extra weight that can’t relax due to the standing-room only nature of nowhere else to go. Suffice it to say that extra weight has the unjust propensity to distribute itself in a consistently artless fashion.

Morgana is not one, though, to dwell on her imperfections. It is what it is—not that she likes it, but over the course of her 47 years, she has become a person of faith (albeit non-religious) who sincerely believes that everything can always be just a tad better than it is right now. Of course, self-loathing is always an option, but she’s been there, done that, and knows from bitter experience that it’s one rabbit hole she doesn’t need to fall into.

She opens her closet and finds some blue pants and a bluish top that match more than they don’t. Even though they are snug and not as comfortable as she’d like, she’s surprised that they both fit—the last time she tried them on, they didn’t! Pleased, she figures that the tightness will serve as a reminder to not eat all the calories-be-damned goodies that seem to find their way to her always-appreciative, non-discerning palate.

Her hair? Hmmm…needs some work. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there’s not much to work with. She doesn’t think about her hair all that much…and it shows. She usually brushes it straight back and tucks it behind her ears. It’s hard to say what color it is these days. Her natural color, which has grown out a good four inches, is mousey-brown with more silver threads every day. She dyes it a richer shade of brown once every six months, whether it needs it or not. Almost shoulder length, her hair is as straight as a board, and never did hold a curl. Adding insult to injury, it’s been getting thinner over the years, and the ends have all split, giving them a dry, bushy appearance.

“OK,” she thinks, “Gonna have to do something with this hair. What, I don’t know, but anything would be better than nothing. Maybe some time this week? Yeah, why not? But for right now, behind the ears it goes!”

She puts on some lipstick, which was not easy to find, and then goes hunting for some earrings. She manages to locate a nice pair of small silver bangles.

“Stand up straight!” She says to her reflection in the mirror, channeling her father. He always reminded her to put her shoulders back and to hold her head high, because a round-shouldered appearance did not inspire confidence. It’s surprising to her that this actually makes a difference.

The doorbell rings. It’s Rocky!

“Hey, Morgana! Where are you going, all dolled-up like that?”

“I thought I’d go to work a little early today. Got time for a quick bagel before I leave?”

As soon as he says, “Sure,” and sits down at the kitchen table, she pulls two frozen, already-sliced cinnamon raisin bagels from the freezer and pops them into her four-slotted toaster. She pours them both a steaming cup of coffee.

Rocky sips his coffee with apparent appreciation. “Well, I’m glad I caught you. How would you feel about Jack being moved back to the Stroke Unit at the Medical University Hospital? The therapy I’ve been able to administer has been fine in terms of maintaining his health, but we were hoping for a little more progress.”

Morgana feels a mixture of sadness and relief. She puts two plates and two knives on the table along with butter, jelly and cream cheese. The toaster pops up. She barely notices her burning fingertips as she transfers the hot bagels over to the plates on the table.

“Well, sure, Rocky—whatever’s best for Jack. But what can they do for him there that they can’t do for him here?”

“Like they say in real estate, the three most important things are location, location and location. At the hospital, there is a whole care-giving community of professionals in one place. They can keep sending people here individually, but the continuity of care could make a bigger difference. No promises, but it doesn’t hurt to try, right?”

“I’m with you on that. Of course, I’m always open to miracles, but I guess the type of miracle we’d be hoping for would be more likely to happen in a medical setting than here at home.”

“Well, the nice thing about miracles in a medical setting is that the doctors get to claim the credit! The humble ones share it with God. Oh, and one more question: Would you consent to our using some newer experimental techniques?”

“Well, why not? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Jack couldn’t be any worse off than he is right now—true?”

“In a perfect world, that might be true, but I always like to remind myself that there’s no good thing that can’t be better, and there’s no bad thing that can’t be worse.”

Rocky and Morgana share a guilty laugh, each hoping that the other doesn’t think that the humor is somewhat at Jack’s expense.

Rocky clears his throat and reaches into his therapy bag which is on the floor, leaning against the leg of the kitchen table.

“I have the consent forms here for you to sign if you are comfortable with the arrangement.”

“Rocky, if it’s got your seal of approval, then I say, ‘Let’s do it.’”

As she signs the papers, Rocky slathers his bagel with cream cheese.

“We can move him today. If you like, you can go to work as you had planned. I’m going to do a therapy session with him while I’m here, and after we’re done, the hospital will send a transport team over, and I will accompany them back to the hospital.”

“But shouldn’t I be there, too?”

“No, it’s not necessary. I’d say you’re better off coming to visit him tomorrow morning—any time after 10. If there are any problems, I’ll give you a call right away, but I don’t anticipate anything going wrong. What do you think?”

“This is all so sudden, but something’s got to give. Just speaking for myself, though? I really don’t know which way to turn about this.”

“I know, Morgana! It’s tough. Strokes are so common—you’d think we’d know more than we do, especially with severe strokes like Jack’s. We can keep people alive for years, but that’s not the point—the point is to restore them back to living again. Once we exhaust all our best practices, all we can do is just keep trying new things. And that’s where we are right now.”

While Morgana is talking to Jack and kissing him goodbye, Rocky is in the kitchen rinsing their plates and cups.

Before leaving the apartment, Morgana gives Rocky a long hug.

“Don’t worry, Morgana! I’ll take good care of Jack. The change of scenery just might do him some good—so let’s keep our fingers crossed!”

As she leaves the apartment, she feels almost free. She takes the stairs rather than the elevator, and walks, rather than drives, to work. It’s only about a mile from her house.

As she walks along the Lake, she calls Gerri to tell her the news about Jack.

“Oh, Mom! I’m so happy! I think this is great news! You deserve a little break from all this—you can’t tell me that this hasn’t been just awful for you! And besides, poor little Pop-Poo will be in good hands over there at the Medical Center.”

“Yeah, I’m starting to think it’s a good thing, too. I wasn’t sure at first, but dear, sweet Rocky will be there to keep me posted. Now that I’ve spoken with you, I feel a lot more confident about this whole thing.”

“Mom, I hate to cut you short, but I’ve got a meeting I’m running off to right now. You let me know if anything comes up, OK?”

“OK, Gerri! Love you, sweetie!”

“Love you, too, Mom. And don’t worry—all’s well, and if it’s not, we’ll deal with that, too!”

Stepping into The Pregonero, Morgana surprises Maddie who looks up suddenly and croaks out an automatic “Good Morning” to Morgana. She does a double-take, as she notices her nice blue outfit.

“Good gravy, Morgana! Look at you, all gussied up! I hope I’m invited to the same wing ding!”

Maddie laughs at her own corny comments, her laughter turning into a cigarette-induced coughing jag.

“Maddie, you just made my day! Thanks!”

Morgana enjoys the compliments! That makes two so far this morning!

She knocks at Charlie’s door, and goes in. He’s surprised to see her. A guilty look sweeps over his face as he tries to withdraw his right hand from under his shirt without her noticing, but she notices anyway.

“Morgana! You’re a sight for sore eyes! What are you doing here so bright and early in the morning?”

“Hi, Charlie! It just seemed like a good morning to get an early start! Got anything you need help with?”

“As a matter of fact…yes! I’m miserable! I woke up this morning with a full blown rash all over my stomach. If I didn’t have such a big gut, I’d show it to you. It burns and itches like a son of a bitch, and I’ve tried every goddamned thing in my medicine cabinet and nothing works. I’d go to the doctor, but you know how I hate doctors, so no dice, but I’ll tell ya, I’m just about that desperate. Got any ideas?”

He scratches his stomach with a focused agitation while he waits for her answer.

Morgana digs into her purse, and removes the biggest obstacles impeding her search: her reading glasses, her cellphone with its accompanying charger and earbuds, her hairbrush, her plastic bag full of plastic forks, spoons and knives (just because you never know when some edible-but-messy-delight-sans-utensils might present itself for immediate consumption), a Stanley Power Lock 25-foot tape measure, a Victorinox Swiss Army Knife, and a good supply of napkins and wadded up tissues. The bottom of the bag is now accessible, and amid the matchbooks, paper clips, safety pins, rubber bands, and a few rogue, lint-covered aspirins, she locates just the thing she remembered was there: a nice little packet of perfectly good lemon juice that would have been thrown away had she left it on the table in the little diner near the Lake, The Buttery Crunch, where she had lunch with Jerinda just a couple months ago.

She waves the packet of lemon juice like a victory flag and hands it to Charlie.

“Look what I’ve got! This is just what the doctor ordered!”

Charlie looks at the packet with skepticism. “And what am I supposed to do with this? Put it in my tea?”

“No…you’ll rub it on your stomach! And it’s going to burn and itch unbearably for about five minutes—but whatever you do, don’t you DARE touch that rash! Just let it burn and itch! The payoff is huge! I promise you that you’ll get relief all day and all night long. It won’t itch, but be careful not to scratch it just for old times’ sake, or you’ll set that itch off all over again, and it will come back with a vengeance!”

Charlie takes the packet and can only manage a ham-fisted fumble with the jagged edge. He hands it back to Morgana.

“Here, Morgana—can you get this damned thing open for me?”

Morgana makes a slight tear through the jagged top edge. “OK, Charlie! Put your hand out.”

Charlie puts his hand out to her and she squirts half the lemon juice into his palm.

“Now, without letting it drip all over the place, carefully rub this all over your stomach.”

He turns around so she can’t see his stomach when he lifts up his shirt.

“Oh! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whaaaa! Ooooo! Son of a BITCH!” He huffs, puffs and pants.

“Here, Charlie! Quick! Rub the rest on while it’s still awful! No sense suffering twice!”

By the time the second application is on, over and done with, Charlie is standing up, facing her and gripping the edge of his desk, muttering every foul word he’s ever learned and, by the sound of it, making up a few new ones just for the occasion.

Morgana pats Charlie’s hand as the expletives run out of steam. Exhausted, Charlie sits down, breathes a sigh of relief, a breaks into an ear-to-ear grin.

“Morgana, I gotta hand it to you! You’re one class act! How did you know about the lemon juice, and how did you even happen to have some on you?”

“Good luck, a love for home remedies, and a purse full of random things that I never clean out.”

Morgana, what on earth would I ever do without you! You’re a life saver! Do you feel like doing me another favor?”

“Of course, I do, Charlie! Whatcha got?”

“If you feel like taking a walk, could you pick me up a bottle of lemon juice?”

This is the part of her job she really loves–getting paid to go out gallivanting!

“As you must have already figured out, I love shopping for lemon juice! Is there anything else you want?”

“No, but pick up something for yourself, too! Here’s ten bucks. You keep the change!”

“I can’t take your money, Charlie!” she insists.

“OK, it’s your choice—I’ll just bring you back two desserts today, then, instead of just one!”

“Tell you what, Charlie! Just between you and me, I’m trying to lose a few pounds, so while I love the desserts you bring me, I’ve just gotta stop eating them. So, I’ll take the change instead!”

“That’s my girl!”

“OK, then, Charlie! I’ll be back with your lemon juice, tout de suite!”

She leaves the office practically skipping down the street. Oh, how she loves solving problems with good, old-fashioned horse sense! And best of all? Charlie, that sweet, wonderful, kind, indulgent man, really, really appreciates her!

Back on the walking/jogging path that encircles the Lake, she plugs into an oldies podcast. Listening to the song, “Poison Ivy,” a bounce comes into her step. With a smile on her face, she takes long, spirited strides that seem to pump up her already-elevated mood.

To Be Continued in Chapter 14: Five Dollars for Sister Jane

Art Credit:
HEAD FROM HELL (NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN),Tina Thomas, created in Austin, Texas, ~ 1986-1990, Acrylic on canvas, Donated by Susan Grant

Music Credit: – The Coasters (with lyrics and dancing girl) – “Poison Ivy”

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