Fiction by Luke de Castro: The Five Habits of Highly Effective Shoplifters

By Luke de Castro

 

  1. Keep Your Eyes Moving

Let’s go back.

Let’s go back to some point in the 1980’s.

It’s a warm day in late August, the amber-hued sun fat and heavy around five o’clock, and Fran keeps her sunglasses on as we enter the record store. Fran calls them her ‘Jackie-O’s,’ as in, “Where are my Jackie-O’s? Have you seen my Jackie-O’s? Never mind, I got ’em,” as she slides them up the bridge of her nose, snags her keys off the coffee table and breezes out the door. “We’re hitting the mall,” she tells me, checking her blind spot before making a left turn. “So put on your game face and look sharp.”

Do you remember the 1980’s? Were you aware then? Do you remember that the only telephone in your house was attached to a cord and that it was likely mounted on a wall next to the refrigerator? Maybe it even still had a rotary dial. Our phone did.

Do you remember record stores?

So we get to the mall–Sage Terrace, Crosstown Plaza, Maple Hill Shopping Centre–and weave our way through the skateboard kids, the housewives, the bored dads at the food court who stare into the middle distance slack-shouldered, measuring out their lives with coffee spoons until we arrive at Tower Records. We’re outside the entrance, Fran still has her Jackie O’s on.

She looks left. Then right. She leans in, puts a hand on my shoulder, and tells me to wait. But she didn’t just simply tell me to wait. She got close, intense, and stage-whispered a whole list of directives: “Give it a solid ten-count before you follow me in the store. One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi—like that. Stay posted up there by the front counter and look out for anything weird. Managers, security guards, floorwalkers–anybody with a necktie or a nametag. Anybody that even looks like they should have a nametag. Do like we practiced and don’t sleep on it. Are we cool, Clark? Do you got it?”

I looked down at my shoes. I nodded.

Fran snapped her fingers right next to my ear, hard and loud, and spat out the word “Hey!” in a staccato whisper that made me blink twice and look up. She lowered her sunglasses to expose her deep blue eyes, forcing a stare. “Are we cool, Clark? Do you got it? I’ve gotta hear you say it, man.” She was serious, serious enough to say it a third time, slow and deliberately: “Are we cool? Do you got it?”

I took a breath–in through the nose, out through the mouth–and I answered. “We’re cool,” I said. “I got it.”

She took off her sunglasses and flashed me a smile. “That’s what I needed to hear. Now I gotta get to work.” She snapped back to attention. “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom—or something like that—so keep an eye open. Keep both eyes open and watch for those nametags,” she said. “And no fuck ups.”

I smiled back. “No fuck ups,” I said.

“And remember,” she told me, “We’re just two regular people at the mall, just another couple of dumb-ass consumers. Looking for videotapes and rock music. We don’t even know each other—unless we need to know each other—right?”

“Just another couple of dumb-asses,” I said. “Just two sheep in the herd.”

She grinned at that one, nodded along with it for a second and said, “Two sheep in the herd. I like that,” before she got serious again. She looked me solid in the eye, dropped her voice down to a sharp hush and said, “Show me your game face.”

And I did. I set my jaw and I narrowed my eyes and I showed it to her—dead hard.

“That’s better,” she said. “Needs work, but it’s better.”

I didn’t mind Fran talking to me that way, bossing me around like that. Besides, I was used to it. I’d known Fran for years by then. And there was no malice in her voice, Fran wasn’t mean-spirited.

It was the 1980’s.

Ronald Reagan, Rubik’s Cubes, nuclear missiles… .

It was the 1980’s and I was eleven years old.

I was eleven years old and Fran Fischer was my mother.

 

  1. Blend In With The Crowd

We all know the deal with 12-step programs–Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous–and we’ve all read about them or seen them a million times on screen. Hi, my name is ‘Blank’ and I’m an alcoholic/drug addict/compulsive gambler.

But have you ever actually attended one of those meetings?

There’s a lot of hugging. And there’s a lot of God talk.

Fran Fischer–Mom, I should say–wasn’t so much into the hugging. Or the God talk.

Another Wednesday night, quarter to seven. She checks her watch and says, “Finish that macaroni, we gotta go,” as she slings on her coat and turns off the kitchen light. Next thing I know we’re out of the car and walking across a parking lot. “Just hang back when we get inside. Sit tight and keep it zipped,” she tells me, winking.

She’d always be making with the winks. Like we were in on something, just me and her. Like we were running a game and pulling something off. I remember her winks.

The meetings blend together and there’s a kind of sameness and repetition to it all–an automated slideshow, a memory collage held in wood-paneled multi-purpose rooms at community centers and church basements and assembly halls and Rotary Clubs. Lines of dead flies trapped between the panes of dusty windows. You look around the room and see hollow-eyed men, drawn and sallow women, sipping bottom shelf instant coffee from white Styrofoam cup, Sitting on the stained cushions of mismatched thrift store furniture, you listen to their rock-bottom stories. All their faces like telephone books wrapped in plastic, smelling like polyester and cigarettes.

I must’ve sat in on dozens of these things. Sometimes twice a week, sometimes more. But I didn’t seem to mind. I’d hang back, sit tight and keep it zipped. I had my Gameboy. I had the X-Men, I had those Choose Your Own Adventure books.

Mostly they didn’t care if I sat in the back and kept quiet. Mostly they didn’t even know I was there…except for the meetings at Sacred Heart. They were what they call “closed meetings” and the guy that ran the show, Rick, was a biker guy with a black leather vest, a beard and miniature tattoos on the webs of skin between his fingers.

“You can’t be bringing this kid in here. Uh-uh, no way. This is not happening,” he said, shaking his head and folding his arms.

“Is that so?” The sudden intensity in Fran’s words was tangible. It was like her voice gained color and substance, a gush of red mist spraying from her mouth. “What do you suggest I do with him then? Leave him at home by himself? Because his dad fucked off for cigarettes nine years ago. Or leave him in the car? Have him walk the streets? What do you propose? Because I am not going anywhere,” she said. “This meeting is court-appointed. This is a condition of my parole and I am not leaving.”

“Just…hold on a second,” he said. “There’s a storage room in the annex. We can put the little man there.” He offered up a smile.

“That’s more like it. That’s better,” she said, calming down, de-escalating. “And who signs my attendance sheet at the end? Do you know?”

“It’s me,” he said. “I can sign it.” And then he looked my way, saying, “The meeting’s about to start. I’ll show the little man where he can hang out. It’s just this way,” he said, pointing down a hallway.

My mother nodded, saying, “Go with this–what was your name?”

“Rick,” he said. “Big Rick.”

“Go with this Big Rick.”

He led me down the hall and opened a door to the storage room. He flipped the lights and an overhead fluorescent sputtered to life, revealing a small room cluttered with random flotsam and ephemera. Folding chairs, plywood panels stacked against the wall, a box full of pamphlets with names like Community Outreach and A Guide to Bloodborne Pathogens, a clear plastic bag full of salt packets, another box labeled ‘Surgical Gloves – Non-Latex.’

Big Rick made a single clap with his hands and held them there in front of his impressive gut. I got a good look at his tattoos, faded to the color of a dollar bill gone through the washer. “There’s a toilet just down the hall to the right,” he said. “We generally finish up in about an hour.” He looked around the room, as if he were scanning its dimensions, measuring it for a new wardrobe or something. And then he looked back at me. “Well…sky’s the limit,” he said, offering another of his strained, lopsided smiles before heading back to the meeting, back to the land of the 12-step.

I had my Gameboy. I had the X-Men, I had those Choose Your Own Adventure books.

The sky was the limit.

We stopped at McDonald’s on the way home. Fran plucked a single French fry off my tray and dipped it in a tub of ketchup, a blob of red sauce gathered at the tip. She nearly put it in her mouth but hesitated, held it there, angled her head to the side and asked me, “What did you think of that biker guy at the meeting?” She curled a loose strand of hair around her finger as she said it, twirling it in a sort of carefree, absent-minded way. Her eyes drifted to the ceiling, ranged around the room.

I’ll say it again: She twirled her hair.

“You mean Big Rick?” I said, flashing back to the beard, the leather vest, the faded tattoos at the base of his thumbs.

“Oh, was that his name?” And she said it like she didn’t know, like she just found a favorite earring she thought she’d lost–Oh, there it is!–finger still twirling that stray lock of blond hair.

You might think that an eleven-year-old wouldn’t notice something like that, that the subtlety of that gesture and what it implied–a woman playing with her hair–would be lost on a kid that age.

If you think that, then you don’t know any eleven-year-old kids. Because it sure as fuck wasn’t lost on me.

Sitting across from her at that McDonald’s, it was writ large and clear as day–that telling finger, that revealing twirl, that Who, me? and Aw, shucks tone of her voice. That was all I noticed.

Fran asked again: “Well…what’d you think of him? What’d you think of that Big Rick?”

“What’d I think of him?” I shot her a look, showed her my game face.

Then I snatched that dangling French fry right out of her hand, shoved it in my mouth, and saw her face tighten with a quick flinch. “Not much,” I told her, grinding the fry between my molars, talking around the wad of food. “At all.”

 

  1. Play to Your Strengths  

Gotta say it: Fran was the best at what she did.

But what she did wasn’t very nice.

Huh. She was like Wolverine that way. (“I’m the best at what I do, but what I do isn’t very nice.” Claremont and Miller. Wolverine four-issue limited series. Marvel Comics. 1982).

We cruised towards home from McDonald’s, Fran with one hand casually draped on top of the steering wheel and the other lazily flicking cigarette ash out the open window. She eyed me in the passenger seat and asked, “Are you up for something?”

I perked up at that. “I could be. What are you thinking about?”

“That,” she said, pointing to the Norton Avenue strip mall, pulling into the entrance, and backing into a parking space in front of an electronics store. Tech World.

She put it in park and left the engine running. She stared out the window as she spoke, stared at the Tech World. “I’ve been watching this place,” she said, “and they’re sloppy. It’s a bunch of kids in there, high school kids. I was here Monday and there were only two staffers in the whole store. And one of ’em had a Walkman on.”

“A Walkman?” I said, incredulous, shaking my head. “Fuckin sloppy.”

She crushed out her cigarette. “Tell me what you see,” she said. “Break it down.”

I sat up, turned to the window. “Ok. There’s at least one guy behind the front counter. Black hair, tall and skinny. There’s the main entrance and there’s another door at the side. I’m looking, I’m looking. It’s well-lit, but I don’t see any security cameras. Not any outside, anyway.”

“Good.” She arched an eyebrow, smiled. “You see the battery display?”

I looked again. “Yeah,” I said. “Right inside the front entrance.”

“A’s, double-A’s, C’s, D’s, nine-volts…damn. Who uses batteries?” she asked. “Who needs batteries?”

I had to think about that for a second. “Well…everybody,” I said. “Everybody needs batteries.”

She smiled again. “Exactly,” she announced, opening the driver side door and grabbing her purse as she exited. “Leave it running. I’ll be back in five minutes. Less than five minutes,” she added. “Mommy’s got some shopping to do.”

I watched her walk across the car lot–her head held high and straight, her stride marked with rhythmic purpose–and she paused, only for a half-second, to glance quickly over both shoulders before she entered the building. I saw her stop in front of the battery display–five seconds, ten seconds–before losing sight of her as she moved down deeper through the aisles of the store. I turned the radio on, moved that analog dial across to the right until Roger Daltrey bit back hard on his anger and sang out about the sad man behind blue eyes. One minute went by. And then a minute-thirty. Two minutes, with Roger Daltrey still singing out, and I was glancing back at the store every other second, waiting to hear the distinct click-clack of her flat-heeled mules against the pavement, imagining the flowing sway of her ankle-length skirt moved by her confident stride. Two minutes-twenty. Two-thirty. Three minutes and she’s still not there, no sign of her, The Who song fading off, replaced by an ad for home insurance, debt relief, carpet shampooing. Four minutes now–at least four, more like four-thirty–and I moved closer to the side window, close enough to cover it with a haze of fog, saying “Come on, mom. Where are you? Come on, come on, come on.”

And then the driver’s side door opened and she bounded into the seat. Smiling. Beaming, even. “Miss me?” she said.

I was floored. “How did you–? I didn’t–how did you get…,” but I couldn’t seem to speak.

“The side exit,” she said. “Employees Only. And then I went down the alley and doubled back around that donut store.”

“Right,” I said, still putting it together, still reading the essay question while the rest of the class was zipping up their backpacks.

Fran reached into her purse and pulled out a box, lightly tossed it to me. “Christmas in July,” she said. “That one’s for you.”

I turned it over in my hands.

It was a Walkman.

And not a Taiwanese knock-off without an FM radio or rewind button, but an actual Walkman. A Sony–brand new, perfect, and covered in shrink wrap.

I swallowed hard. “Mom,” I said, holding the box, staring at the picture. “Mom, thank you.”

She shrugged it off, no big deal. ” Sloppy.,” she said, pausing to light up another cigarette.” I coulda cleaned out that whole place, Clark. You said it: fuckin’ sloppy. It’s like they were practically begging for it. Check out the purse,” she said, putting the car in drive and steering out of the lot. “They didn’t know what the hell was going on.”

I opened her handbag–a voluminous beige leather handbag big enough for a regulation bowling ball and a New York City phone book–and the thing was filled to the lip with batteries. Dozens of batteries—A’s, D’s, nine-volts—every sort of battery I knew. Still in the blister packs, still with the price tags on.

She was the best at what she did.

She was Wolverine.

“Those things’ll move fast,” she announced. “We can sell those off inside the week. Because it’s just like you say, kid. It’s just like you always say.”

I smiled at her, knowing that she wanted me to ask. That I had to ask, that it was part of Our Thing. “What?” I said. “What do I always say?”

And she winked at me. There was that wink again.

“Everybody needs batteries,” she said, as we merged into traffic and made our way back home.

 

  1. Respect Your Competition

I was sent off for a week to my Aunt Beth’s place in Farmington, an hour north out in the country. Fran said she needed some “Me-Time.” Every few months, that’s what she was like. She needed some “Me-Time.”

It was a different scene at my Aunt Beth’s, way out there in the country, but it was cool.

I had my Gameboy. I had the X-Men, I had those Choose Your Own Adventure books.

And I had a neighbor kid to run around with, a kid my same age named Jett–that was his name, Jett–who came up to me the day I arrived and said, “Where’d you get the Walkman?”

“Oh, this?” I plucked the headphones from my ear and hit the stop button. “My mom got it for me. Christmas in July,” I said.

Jett nodded in approval. “Pretty rad,” he assured me.

“I know,” I said, as I held it up and admired its lines.

Aunt Beth’s. Wide open spaces, blue skies, fresh air. She had a dog, she had a cat. She had a glass bowl on the kitchen counter piled high with grapes and bananas and bright green Granny Smith apples picked from her own tree. Jett and I rode bikes, swam in a creek, lit bottle rockets out of a Pepsi can, melted army men with a magnifying glass and tore through mounds of fried chicken with our bare hands like we were Vikings eating our last meal on a burning ship. Those summer days in July were long and slow, one day merging into another and I wasn’t even sure what day of the week it was–Friday? Saturday?–when Aunt Beth said “Get your stuff, hon. We gotta hit the road soon.” I could see the dog’s face framed by the living room window as we pulled out of the drive. A yellow dog, a golden retriever mix.

Pippa was her name

I don’t remember the cat’s.

Aunt Beth pulled up in front of our house and gave me a hug. She wasn’t going to come in, she explained, because she was late enough already. “But tell your mom that her sister’s thinking of her,” she said. “And take care of yourself, Clark. I love you.”

“Ok,” I said. “I love you, too.”

She paused for a moment, held me with a look. Was she sad? Was she serious? I don’t know, but she said it again before we parted. “Take care of yourself, Clark. I love you.”

I hit the front door, nylon gym bag strapped across my shoulder, and I could smell it as soon as I walked in. I could smell it in the air. I could smell the booze.

Beer and wine. Fran Fischer drank beer and wine. That’s what she drank when she drank. Cheap beer and red wine. Never white. White wine? I’m not running an art gallery, she’d say. This isn’t first class on the Queen Mary. And she’d laugh at that. She’d laugh and she’d laugh and she’d laugh.

I stepped through the kitchen. A full ashtray at the edge of the kitchen table. The clock on the stove said 5:45. Some of the cigarettes were ringed with deep red lipstick traces and some were not. There were dull murmurs coming from the hall. I finally noticed the motorcycle vest draped over the back of a kitchen chair. Then the looming sound of bare feet against hardwood floor, and in walked Big Rick with nothing on but a pair of jeans, his gut hanging down like bread dough someone had dropped on a barbershop floor.

I dipped my right shoulder and let my gym bag, weighted with jeans and t-shirts and comic books, drop to the floor with a heavy thud.

“Hey, little man,” he said. “We didn’t expect you back ‘til Saturday. Your mom and I, I mean your mom’s sleeping off a headache. She’s, she’s got a headache there. Like, a migraine. She’s been pretty sick and I’m, well, I been holding down the fort while you’ve been away. You have a good time with your Aunt Beth?”

The look on his face...I had my game face on.

“This isn’t gonna end great for you,” I said. “This isn’t gonna last.”

Fran’s voice floated in from the hallway, muted through the walls. “What’s going on? What’s happening out there?”

I stepped over my gym bag, opened the fridge and took a long drink of orange juice straight from the carton. “You might want to get her an aspirin,” I said, wiping off my mouth and closing the fridge door. “For that headache she has.”

With that, I left him there and went to my room.

I had my Game Boy. I had the X-Men, I had those Choose Your Own Adventure Books.

 

And soon, within a week or two came the familiar shouts and insults. Then finally, the sound of clothing shoved into a bag, a metal zipper being ripped shut across the open mouth of a suitcase. Pounding footsteps thundering over the floor. “You two deserve each other,” he’d yelled. “And kiss my ass!” The slam of a car door, the hot bite of tires squawking against the pavement.

I came out to the porch in time to see the tail-lights of Big Rick’s pick-up truck round the corner and disappear.

Fran was there in her bathrobe, smoking a cigarette with one hand resting on her hip.

“What happened to his Harley?” I said.

“He crashed it,” she told me.

“Huh,” I said.

Fran sighed, hugged her bathrobe tight against her shoulders. She looked out at the street, at the space that Big Rick left empty. She was somber, plaintive. “There’ll be other guys,” she said, a sad sort of smile on her face. “There’ll be other guys for your crazy old mom.”

I opened the screen door and turned to her before I went in the house. I looked right at her to make sure that she heard me.

“They’re all the same guy, Mom,” I said, watching her through the hazy mesh of the screen. “They’re always the same guy.”

 

  1. Meet And Exceed Your Goals

12-step programs, one after the other. Fran’s grand tours rarely differed. Late August once more, the amber-hued sun fat and heavy around five o’clock, my mother would enter Tower Records.

One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, I counted up as instructed, before I edged my way into the store and hovered just inside the main entrance. The store was busy that day, lots of shoppers, lots of movement. And at least four name tags, at least four that I could see.

Fran lingered near a poster display, walked slowly down the aisle to pause here and there at various sections, thumbing through the racks and the bins, casting the occasional glance over her shoulder. I saw her do something with her hands and then shift her purse from her left shoulder to her right. She walked down another aisle, paused, bent down to fix her shoelace and crossed over to the middle of the store.

She shot me a wink as she neared the entrance. Just another couple of dumb-ass consumers, the wink said. She was ready to go.

She was good. She didn’t need long. I hitched up the strap on my backpack and got ready to follow her out.

But a woman would stand right in front of Fran. Blocking her à la one-to-one defense, got right in her face. Her wiry and angular frame shook, a streak of color and images: a silver nametag, a nest of black hair, the sweeping swish of a floor-length skirt, she was so mad! She hissed. She hissed when she spoke. “I watched you in the aisles. What’ve you put in your bag? I’m the assistant manager and I saw you conceal merchandise in your bag.”

I moved in to get a better angle and saw something shift in my mother’s face and a pulse flipped through my gut that felt like cresting the first hill on a rollercoaster, that scary-sick moment before hitting the plunge. I thought we were done for, busted cold. I thought we were sunk.

It was a long moment. And in that moment I saw case workers, I saw foster homes, I saw 90-minute visitations through a panel of reinforced glass.

But it was Fran.

Fran didn’t drop the ball. Fran didn’t lose it. She took a glancing blow but Fran didn’t fall apart.

She was Wolverine in that record store—claws popped and hard as fuck, slicing up anything that moved—and she narrowed her eyes and she squared her shoulders and she hissed right back at that assistant manager, right in her pinched and sour little face. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” she said. “But you are making a big mistake.”

The woman’s glare sharpened to a mean and bitter squint. “I know you,” she said, nodding rapidly and jabbing her finger inches from my mother’s face. “We’ve got your picture. We’ve got a picture of you taped up in the staff room.” She was relentless, aggressive. She gestured wildly to a man behind the counter. “Jerry! Jerry, this is her, this is the one!”

The guy walked over. He had a clipboard in his hand and a pen tucked behind his ear.

Fran took one look and exploded—berserker rage. “I am so sick of you people,” she said, her voice keen and burning. “I am so sick of you people and your fucking nametags! ‘Carla’ and ‘Jerry,’—Jesus! You people and your goddamn nametags.”

The guy—Jerry—made an attempt to speak. “Ma’am,” he said. “We’d like you to show us the contents of your–” but Fran cut him off quick, steamrolled right over him: “The contents of my what? The contents of my soul?”

There was a stunned silence. I knew the whole store was staring, everyone was holding their breaths.

“You wanna see,” she said. “You wanna see what’s in my bag?”

She opened her bag.

She lifted her enormous brown leather bag all the way above her head.

Flipping her bag over, the contents rained down limply. I counted five different things that came out of her bag.

Her Jackie-O’s.

A hairbrush.

A wallet.

Cigarettes.

And a pack of batteries. Double-A’s.

And that was it.

She stared at the two staffers, Carla and Jerry, shoving her bag and its wide open emptiness at them and said, “Is that good enough for you? Are you satisfied, goddammit?” She took to one knee to collect her things and shoved them into her bag. “Do you think I might go now?” she asked, rising to her feet. “Do you think that might be ok? Because I am fucking going now,” she announced.

She walked right past me when she left. Not a word, not a glance, not a wink.

I knew the score: We didn’t even know each other–unless we needed to know each other.

Carla and Jerry followed her out of the store. They stood outside the entrance, hands on hips, elbows out and triangular, and watched her walk away.

I lingered on for a minute or two. Flipped through some music, checked out some videotapes. Then, for the hell of it, I did a ten-count in my head–one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi–before I left to meet Fran at the car.

She was in quite a state, sucking hard on a cigarette and pacing back and forth in front of our beat up Honda. “I could feel that witch watching me,” she said. “I could feel her eyes on me. I had to ditch the shit, Clark. I had to bail on it.”

It all came together. I saw it all at once. “When you bent down to tie your shoe,” I said. “That’s when you ditched it.”

“She was all over me,” she said. “I had to make a move. Fifty, sixty bucks worth of shit and I dumped it under that record bin. Fuck,” she said, and flicked her spent Winston into a dirty puddle. “Fuck-fuck-fuck.”

I came to her then, a son to his mother.

“But Mom,” I said, swinging my backpack around and opening it up. “It’s not all bad. It’s not a total loss,” and I showed her what was inside.

A VHS tape of The Empire Strikes Back.

Two digitally re-mastered copies of Dark Side of the Moon.

All of them still in the shrink wrap. All of them brand new, untouched, price tags still on.

She touched the hollow of her throat. She smiled, she beamed, she lit up at the sight of it. At me. “My little star,” she whispered, blinking back tears. She touched my face, her hands pressed lightly on my cheeks as if touching something delicate and precious. Like I was made of jeweled glass. She placed a soft kiss on the center of my forehead, a sweet mother’s kiss, and I could smell that mix of perfume and cigarette smoke that I’ve known for all my life as the smell of Home, the smell of Love, the smell of Mother. She smiled and she cried and her tears came steady, dripping from her face and flowing on to mine. “My bright little morning star, my dearest angel. We can get twenty bucks for that stuff–maybe even thirty–at the pawn shop on Milton Road.”


Luke de Castro 1973-2017

Raised in Detroit, Michigan, Luke de Castro travelled all over the world, living in Japan and Australia before enrolling in the Creative Writing MSc at the University of Edinburgh in 2013. The piece Five Habits of Highly Effective Shoplifting was one of the works created during this time. In his writing, Luke worked to capture the turbulent difficulties of family relationships, bringing to life unapologetic females and fierce underdogs with deftly placed humor. Readers including his family and friends will remember a unique and eclectic voice reflecting his perpetual interest in people and the telling of their stories.

by Jenny Lindsay Gray

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