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  • 49. The Geology

    By Kristen Iskandrian

    Kristen Iskandrian’s work surprised me with every sentence: Her writing, elegantly framed and phrased, is equally knowing about our intimate interior lives and about how we find and place ourselves in society. The mother in her story is as fresh a character as you’ll meet, but the narrator is a revelation—awed by the past, even as she walks uncertainly into a future her mother lived to deny.

    *

    In other news: Some have asked, will we carry on past fifty-two? The answer: yes, yes, happily yes. The clock will restart in January, with new fiction and new features. Watch this space.

    I began to turn mineral last year, the year my mother left. Really, it probably started much earlier, this fossilizing, at birth or before, and had to work its way through so many striations of body to be seen and felt. My first and only visible cues were my feet, about two months after she’d gone: tiny cracks, like in playground dirt, spreading across my soles and refusing to close despite nightly administrations of thick lotion. They don’t hurt, but I can feel them there, razor-thin perforations running every which way, such that each step I take feels like the effort of many feet in close succession. Not unlike, you might say, the movement of a centipede. The process is happening, in order, from the feet up, and is happening slowly. In fact it will probably take my whole life, “take” my life as in snatch or usurp or possess it, and take “my life,” which I imagine myself illustrating by extending my arms, two or three yardsticks wide, to denote length, distance, a measure of time. But I have no sense of “how long” in terms of the calendar. Only a very few people in the world know exactly how long they will live, and fewer still know exactly when they will die. I still have my hair, abundant and thick. It seems to move when I am still, like seaweed in a tidepool. An unseemly crown atop such a calcifying body, it feels less to me like hair than some kind of murmuring, loamy clock.

    North of my feet, there is no discernible evidence that my composition has changed. My limbs look like ordinary limbs, small and wiry as is my build, and my trunk too is unremarkable. But I am unable to trust them as body parts. Their inner content has solidified—veins like unraveled paper clips, tissue liked baked clay—and as such they are no longer responsive, decipherable matter. I have to learn my body consciously as I once knew it unconsciously, how it bends and straightens, how it deals with stimuli, how it goes through doorways. I have not mastered these operations, but I have mastered appearing as though I have mastered them. Much of my effort goes toward seeming at ease. And in place of pain, pure and straightforward as I once knew it—its onslaught, its management after, say, a burn or a stub or a sprain—or pleasure, with its ebbs and swells, its smoothness or stickiness—I now feel a stunning neutrality, constant estrangement from my own person, from my sensory potential. I have lost my ability to feel, but my memory of feeling, and my vocabulary for it, seem to grow sharper and more vivid each day. What I feel the most is the continuous vexation of remembering everything, every moment with its inky trace and flattened chronology. I remember the specific pain of paper cuts, of loneliness. I remember the sartorial things—my mother’s yellow plastic belt, the angles of hats. I remember delighting in another’s touch, in my own touch, in the goodness of things. The million flapping wings inside have been stilled, but they are still there. I can see them, as through a display case. I have become museum.

    *

    My mother was a gypsy of mixed origin who lived much of her life in the Dordogne, roving in and around the caves of Lascaux, guiding hikers and tourists through the Lateral Passage, the Shaft of the Dead Man, and the Chamber of Felines. She picked their pockets and charged a nominal fee. To her shabby linen vest she pinned a badge she’d swiped from a smitten traveler, some kind of merit or forest ranger thing, and in time, she acquired a battery-operated lantern—she used both, she said, to appear more official and generate more business. My mother was nothing if not business.

    What did you do when the batteries ran out?

    I find a traveler—the weary, over-prepared ones are best—with a bulging backpack. Those silly bags with many small pockets, some of them mesh, pockets lined with pockets. Always I can find batteries in those backpacks, in just the place you imagine batteries to be.

    How did you stay warm in the winter?

    I find a traveler—the weary, over-prepared ones are best.

    I had many such questions, which I asked over and over the way some children ask for the same bedtime story. Except I suspect that bedtime stories are meant to be comforting. My mother, whose version of English excluded all but the present tense (I cannot be sure of anything that is not right now, she would say, nobody can be behind himself or in front of himself), had answers for almost all of them, but she knew very little of comfort—what it meant, how to create it. The very idea, used as she was to stone and weather, seemed to confound her.

    On the subject of my father—his name, what he looked like, sounded like, where he was from, what she felt for him if only momentarily—she was stubbornly mum. At first I thought she was withholding in order to protect some enchanted, exquisite romance. But in time I came to understand that where he was concerned, she had nothing but silence, and that her silence was a kind of information, one I was ill equipped to read. It remains, as a memory, encoded, inscrutable.

    When she became pregnant with me, my mother decided she’d had enough of the caves.

    I am becoming cave, she said. I grow terribly sloppy, unfocused. Each time I go inside it is like invading my own body, dark and damp, like siphoning myself through my organs.

    We used to sit on the red carpet of the living room drinking tea. My mother liked hers scalding, and her tongue was little more than a wedge of scar tissue as a result. She took great pride in it. At night, as we stood in front of the mirror brushing our teeth, she’d stick it out as far as it would go, and then back in, repeatedly. Exercises, she would say. Keeps it strong. Otherwise it rots and comes unhooked and your mouth fills with saliva every time you want to speak. People have to learn to read the puddles you leave on the floor. She sees it happen, she said. She’d grip my chin with her fingers and order me to do it. Like this, she said. Out, and in, taut like the strings of a viola. Every night, you do this, whether I’m here or I’m not here. On some matters she was downright pedantic. Compared to hers, my tongue seems flimsy, inconsequential like the filler in a bouquet, the saggy petal of some flower no one knows the name of. I continue to obey, vigorously, and I drink my tea hotter now. Against all logic, I very much admire a sturdy tongue.

    So many days we sat on the floor with our cups, mine tepid and sweet and white, hers a steaming black, saying the same words as if we had never before said them. I, daughter, was the consummate conductor of an infinitely circular interview. I seem to have been born for this purpose: to ask. And my mother seemed to have been born to live her life, to create a means for recording certain parts of it, and then to disappear. My feet and legs would fall asleep, first in a fizzing of pins and needles, and then solidly, as though encased in concrete. Prophetic, I now understand; some kind of foretelling of this change now ensnaring my body.

    When you got pregnant, did anyone know? Did you tell anyone?

    Nobody knows. I barely know. It’s not a thing to “know.” I feel it. It is a feeling, all feeling, the entire world turning to a blade of feeling and lancing my heart. The tourists are restless and displeased, correcting me when I point to a horse and call it a stag. Suddenly I am everything’s mother. I can’t take money. I cry over all of it—insect, bird, Paleolithic man—all the dead, and then all the living, knowing how they die every day. All of us are weary. We are entering the rainy months. Everyone wants to leave. I need to leave. I leave.

    The “we,” this “everyone,” was always unclear to me. No one had names in my mother’s world. I never knew if she was referring to comrades, other Romani; or the travelers, the men; or the caves themselves, the drawings and secrets therein—as in some elemental “we.”

    *

    What I have learned, I have learned empirically. I was born in a now-defunct hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and raised here in the suburb of Ashland Hills, in this same house. For this to have happened, my mother must have indeed left the Dordogne and, pregnant, landed in America. By way of Canada, from what I can gather. In between there were, briefly, Portugal and Sweden. Or Germany and Norway. Or Belgium. It changed in the telling.

    *

    Ashland Hills really has only one hill, and my mother and I lived on it, until she went away and left me to live on it alone. This house, our house which is now my house, like the others on our narrow, steep street, is narrow and steep. A very vertical house attached to two other very vertical houses, one on each side. The front and back yards are identical—small squares of grass surrounded by the kind of metal fencing you see everywhere in this neighborhood, enclosing playgrounds and parking lots and the public pool. Non-angry fences, keeping you out or in politely, as if by mere suggestion, and graciously lending access if the demand is made. As a child I found them irresistible—the fat teardrop holes interconnected by elegant twists, the camouflage of the entrance gate, the medieval-looking lever that made it open and close, even the heavy padlock that usually hung open like a dropped jaw. I liked the way the toe of my sneakers fit neatly into each space; the honesty of being suspended and parallel, supported only by metal; how instinctively my fingers curled around the cold lattice; how like fingers it felt; how natural it was to climb this shaking, rattling, kindly beast, and how the final, echoing clank as I reached the top and jumped over sounded like applause—you did it, you’re IN. So much gravity in the world, and I had defied some of it. The fence was the whole point. Siobhan and I would arrange to meet at one of them at dusk or after dark, and whether the gate was locked or wide open, we climbed. Once over, we were aimless: drawing on the asphalt with some chalk, smoking cigarettes (which we could have done at either of our homes), sprawling out on the diving board. It didn’t matter. Whatever locale we chose, it didn’t make a difference. All of them were simply places with fences, places to get into.

    I asked my mother maybe a dozen times, maybe two dozen, Why here?

    Why not here, she responded an equal number of times. There are the caves, and then there is everywhere else. Everywhere else is one place. One place with many different names. You can convince yourself that you are somewhere different, but you are in the same place as every other place, unless you are in the caves.

    I could never totally comprehend my mother when she spoke. But something inside me could predict and believe every word.

    Do you miss them?

    What?

    The caves.

    What is “miss”?

    When you want a thing that you had once but don’t anymore.

    My mother’s eyes were soft and wet and moving, like larvae about to hatch.

    I don’t want. I don’t have. And I don’t once-but-not-anymore.

    *

    We owned two records. One was the soundtrack from The Sound of Music. The other was Born in the U.S.A. She loved Bruce Springsteen with an abiding, inexplicable love. Also, Slim Jims. Listening to “Born in the U.S.A.” while eating a Slim Jim was to her a near-perfect happiness, improved only by Siobhan’s and my presence. She liked having an audience, and we were an appreciative one. She would sway and munch and sing along, unsure of most of the lyrics and chewing through the rest. Sometimes, when the video came on television, she’d rush to find the song on the record and play it at the same time, loud. Of course she could never sync it just right. But she loved the resulting effect—Bruce in the living room in two places, competing with himself, before and after himself, Bruce everywhere, and my mother at the controls.

    *

    My mother ate Campbell’s condensed soup straight from the can, but still insisted that many things were beneath her. Cleaning was one. Year to year I saw our living room carpet turn from deep red to dusty rose to a sort of dingy purple, until I realized that it was dust and dirt and dinginess that caused the color change, and not some mysterious opalescence brought back with my her from the caves. Siobhan brought us a vacuum cleaner one day, sheepishly, and when I showed it to my mother, she shook her head.

    I am not using such a thing as that machine is.

    Can I try it?

    My mother shrugged. Let it walk you around like a dog all the day. You can drink water from a bowl, too.

    That is one way that my mother and I differed. I saw the vacuum as the dog. She saw me as the dog. From then on, I vacuumed the house every week. My mother hated the noise and would sit on the couch with her knees to her chest and her hands covering her ears, or she would leave angrily, slamming the door, and go for a walk. When Siobhan needed her vacuum back, I saved enough money from washing cars to buy one at the second-hand store near the entrance to the highway, where we did a lot of shopping for housewares and clothing. I still have it: a chartreuse Hoover with a plaid vinyl bag. I love the stripes it makes in the carpet, love creating precise designs, which my mother used to ruin by rolling across the floor. Why do you do this, she would ask. You know I hate these lines. Why do you torture me with vertigo in my own house when I take good care of you? Now the patterns stay intact between vacuumings, so that I always wonder, as I’m plugging it in, if it’s necessary to vacuum this week. And then I always do it anyway, painstakingly, making each track sharp like a crease, careful not to veer. Some kind of retaliation, I suspect—lame like my body, and belated like everything else.

    *

    Once, Siobhan asked me, Does your mom have a crystal ball?

    *

    Another thing my mother refused to do was laundry. She knew how, because she showed me, but it became my job as soon as I learned. We would walk up the hill to the laundromat, which was called The Sudseteria, me pushing the wire cart and her swinging a leg of nude pantyhose that was heavy with quarters. She liked hitting things with it as she walked—parking meters, the railings along front stoops. Each clang seemed to fill her with glee. It made me nervous, that spastic, elastic appendage, flailing within inches of kids on tricycles and dogs on leashes. I asked her several times if I could hold the quarters, but she said no, that was the only part of this she enjoyed, why do I want to take it away from her if she enjoys it? The Sudseteria had a green couch, a pay phone, a vending machine, and a few signs, mostly about not taking other people’s things and what to do if your quarters got eaten, and also one that said “Suds Your Duds Here!” New vandalism appeared on the sign almost every week—“Suds my dick homo,” “Rocco Rules,” and so on—but was always scrubbed off by the following week. The stuff written with permanent ink has by now nearly covered the original message completely, but someone still makes the effort to preserve the sign’s dignity by hanging it higher and higher up on the wall. The top of it is now mere inches below the ceiling, a fact that comes closer than many things these days to making me feel sad.

    Other than the walk there, I loved everything about doing laundry. My first playthings were balls of lint from the dryer. I liked emptying the lint drawers of all the dryers and saving the contents in my coat pockets. My mother said it was stealing, but she never tried to stop me. I loved how they felt and smelled, how they were mostly whitish or grey or dark grey, but occasionally blue or pink. I collected the lint with reverence, somberly, enjoying how it peeled back from the still-hot mesh, and feeling very profoundly that this was the cast-off matter from other people’s clothes, and thus from their lives. I had pieces of their robes and sheets and shirts and underwear, and nobody wanted them back. At home, I created lint families, big and medium and small balls, tied in their middles with thread. Their personalities were little pieces of my personality, the lint of my personality. The first time Siobhan came over, I showed them to her, and she looked at me for a long time as though trying to decide whether or not to say something. In the end she said nothing, but picked up each ball and examined it thoroughly, and once picked up two, one in each hand, and brought them together in a kiss. We were friends after that.

    *

    I used to miss everything, things I’d never even had but heard about or saw on television and wanted. It’s becoming harder for me to miss; it is as though the objects of my missing have been placed in cages and are only handled and fed by someone who is not me, a zookeeper with a key and a bucket of meat. I stand outside the cage, safe and alone. But one time, years ago, my mother squeezed my face so hard I felt my cheekbones do something, which cheekbones typically don’t do. Typically they just lay there, inside your face, doing nothing. I am still able to miss what they did, that day.

    *

    With time I have come to recognize the symptoms, telltale signs that this turning, this hardening, is advancing. None of it hurts; it simply happens, passes through me as though I am an empty corridor connecting the before to its after. First, terrible laughter overtakes me, a laughter that is not my own. It bursts forth violently and at unpredictable intervals, long and loud before turning into persistent hiccups that shake my ribcage. Then comes a debilitating languor that pins me down in the bath or the tattered armchair, wherever I happen to be. When I finally am able to move, and with the precision of a record needle touching down, skimming gently against my cortex, the song begins. It plays from anywhere between two days and a week, punctuated by brief periods of static while it resets, a bit like driving under a tunnel during a rainstorm: the relief of the momentary silence burdened by an unbearable anticipation. Usually it is a song from The Sound of Music, often “The Lonely Goatherd,” its yodeled refrains a gleeful opiate hovering around a nightmare that never comes. If it only came, I’d think later, surveying myself in the mirror, wishing for proof, some little scar to substantiate what I’d just been through, I would be able to wake up from it. Interrupt the cycle, as with a washing machine: lift the door and the churning stops. But it is only ever me in the mirror, intact, if somewhat remote.

    *

    The television was always on. Now it is always off.

    *

    Siobhan lived across the street. Her mother was dead and her father was a janitor at our school whom everyone called Mr. Buddy, although his real name was something like Phillip. At night he washed dishes at La Divina, the only restaurant in Ashland Hills, down the only hill from our houses: a tiny, brick, semi-Italian, overpriced place with a legal occupancy of fifty people which the owner routinely ignores in order to cram in more business. The dining area has so many tables that it’s almost impossible to cut one’s meat or get up to use the restroom without upsetting a glass or bumping another customer. Siobhan and I overlapped in three different areas: we were neighbors, classmates, and wards of La Divina. Both of us ate the lasagna special out of take-out containers several nights a week and brought other surplus restaurant food to school for lunch, its grease leaking out of the foil and onto the workbooks and pencil cases in our bags. My mother worked there, in the kitchen, for as many years as she lived here. She started as a hostess—the owner found her beautiful and charming, with an alluring accent that seemed to him vaguely Italian—but her manner of speaking ultimately created too many problems for both patrons and waitstaff. Her work schedule was ambiguous. She seemed to be the one who determined when she would work and for how long. Some days she was there from morning until well past midnight, some days she worked for a few hours in the late afternoon or evening, and many days she didn’t go in at all. Like most things in my mother’s life, her job was a subject of her whim, but she was more than able to make ends meet through some combination of magic and math aptitude. We never went without, although the things we went with were arguably peculiar. We had a hot tub and cable television but a junked-up car and no working freezer. I have since sold the hot tub and gotten rid of the cable and I now own a new refrigerator. The car is the same and miraculously still runs.

    *

    Mr. Buddy left La Divina shortly before my mother did and started spending more time at the track. She used to drive him there or to Atlantic City and come home late at night with wads of money, strange smells rolling off of her.

    It is because I know maths, she would say. Mr. Buddy says no one bets like me. I never lose a dime. I always win a lot of dimes. When he has none and I have a lot, I give some to him. When he has some and I have a lot, I give some to him. When we both have a lot, we go to the diner for the cherry Dane. We divide it exactly even.

    Math was very important to her. She let me miss a lot of school, but insisted on seeing my math homework every night. She didn’t care about any of the other subjects.

    If you don’t know math, you are never happy. All of life is math. Canceling out. Dividing. Making things smaller. Borrowing. Finding the zero.

    She had been told by the school nurse that I had hypergraphia, after my teacher discovered the insides of my math books saturated with my handwriting. The diagnosis didn’t mean much to either of us. I liked the way it looked was all, small and pressed together and covering whole pages, burying the numbers and instructions and exercises. My mother thanked her. Then she told me to be better at math. I told her I did not like numbers because I could not make words out of them.

    She would yell, Words are not important because they are not math! Words wrap around and around like boa constrictor, pushing out all of the air! Lying and cheating you! Do your math and learn some quiet!

    Math is depressing! I would yell back. It doesn’t say anything! It doesn’t mean anything!

    Nothing is depressing! Nothing means anything! Math is only math! Stop describing it!

    Sometimes I changed my tone and tried apathy instead. What’s the point, I would say. I have a calculator.

    Which made her furious.

    You let the machine think for you, you slap all of nature in the face, she would say. You slap me in the face.

    And she would slap me in the face. Eventually she hurled my calculator at the window, shattering the glass. She assumed she broke the calculator, too. I acted as though she had, throwing it away and appearing appropriately cowed. But later I took it from the garbage, wrapped it in toilet paper, and hid it in my bag. The mark from her hand would be gone by the next day, but I always felt a curious coldness emanating from the site of impact. The kind of cold that had once been warmth, like stone after the sun goes down.

    *

    On weekends, Mr. Buddy didn’t go anywhere. His weekdays started before dawn at the school and were spent mopping up mud and vomit, changing impossibly high light bulbs, scraping gum from the undersides of small desks. Nighttime found him elbow-deep in greasy bleach-water, after which he would spend a few hours at the track or the tables, where he lost more often than he won but broke even, probably, with my mother’s help. He spent Saturdays and Sundays lying in bed reading periodicals like Popular Science and thick books like Finnegans Wake. Late in the day he would emerge to make pancakes or sandwiches and tousle Siobhan’s head before going back upstairs. When she wasn’t at our house, Siobhan spent most of her time sitting on the floor of her living room, her head perched perfectly still and straight-ahead on her shoulders, as if it was a screen and the television, a projector. If you sat facing her, you could watch television in her eyes. She liked singing theme songs and mouthing the words to commercials. It was serious, her viewing, a task that seemed to require concentration and intelligence. I sat beside her, watching her profile more than whatever was on and feeling idle, fluffy. After a while we’d walk down to the gas station and buy candy and potato chips and Slim Jims for my mother, and then return to one of our rooms and do what we did in front of the television, only in front of the radio. I guess we did a lot of sitting on floors back then. It seems impractical to me now. My thighs and hips are brittle, and I’m still feeling the aftereffects of a recently yodeled chorus. But back then, sitting in a chair meant being far away—from one another, from the waves of sound and light.

    My mother seemed to like Siobhan, and never objected to how much time she spent at our house, or I at hers. I became used to seeing Mr. Buddy in his pajamas on the weekend, walking stiffly and noiselessly through the house as though he were pushing the world’s heaviest mop. A few times, on his way back upstairs, he tousled my head instead of Siobhan’s, but I don’t think he ever noticed the difference. I liked how it felt, that brief heat. But when I saw him at school, I felt embarrassed. The intimacy of the home seemed like a liability in the hallway. Not to Siobhan, though. She was always looking straight ahead, no matter where she was. At school when she saw her father she’d nod almost imperceptibly, and he would do the same back.

    There was a rumor that he had killed a man by cleaning him to death, pouring ammonia down his throat and following it with a toilet brush. Like most rumors, it wasn’t true. But everyone agreed, tacitly, on the importance of it. As a town, we needed the myth—the horror, the gruesomeness, the way it could slip from mouth to mouth like an eager, adolescent kiss—the same way we needed La Divina. To put on the map, as it were, ourselves. To make us feel as though we were capable of being fancy, being dangerous. I still like picturing Mr. Buddy in the school basement, kneeling near the incinerator where he might have shoved the cleaned-to-death man, if he had really cleaned him to death. Or laying on some dirty cot down there, tears of remorse darkening his work clothes. I picture him often, more than I actually see him. From what I can gather, he spends more time at school than at home these days. I’m pretty sure he sleeps there at least once in a while. We wave to each other when we happen to be outside at the same time, checking our mail. He never looks at me or says anything, but I feel his thoughts as palpably as my own. They are of invisibility, and cleanliness, and soreness, and at least a little, missing my mother. I feel that I must miss her, when I see him, but my doing so is met with a flinty resistance, some kind of refusal that seems to reflect my mother’s love of math: one person misses, the other does not, a certain balance is achieved. Siobhan used to visit more, during the first few years after she’d moved to Cincinnati with an older woman she’d met at a white elephant party—the only detail about the woman that I’ve ever retained—but eventually her visits became shorter and more occasional until they finally stopped altogether. Like me, Mr. Buddy is alone. I think about Mr. Buddy on Saturdays and Sundays as I lie in bed reading cookbooks until I’m ravenous. I wonder if he still reads serious literature.

    *

    Increasingly, I think about rock formations in this country, and what my mother would say about them. I fantasize that maybe she left to go look at them; maybe she is building a tiny home at the base of Mount Rushmore or in some corner of the Grand Canyon or deep in the bowels of Luray Caverns, and when it’s finished I’ll get a letter and an invitation to come. But I don’t think she went in search of familiar terrain. My mother loved America precisely because of its strip malls and highways. She loved the yard and the fence and the gas station. She delighted in all of it as though it were engineered just for her, as though it were the present she saved until last to open. Sometimes, dizzy and numb after an episode, I feel keenly that she is communicating with me, though the communication offers no currency that I can use to learn where and why and how. It is pure feeling, untranslatable, informationless, much like the silence she kept about my father. But I understand it better, somehow, and I feel her presence like a vapor. I think she exists in millions of tiny particles around me and across every inch of this town. It’s why, I suppose, I can’t seem to leave.

    Evenings, I like to walk. It helps ease the tension in my legs and makes my feet feel less breakable. I walk a good distance, down to La Divina and the gas station, up past Mr. Buddy’s and the Sudseteria and the community center, all the way to the school. Tonight I decide to hop the fence, although the gate on the far side of the playground is open. I approach the school apprehensively, as though I have something difficult that I must say to it, but there’s nothing, really, no reason to feel the way I do. I remember how I felt each morning when I went into the building, and each afternoon as I left. Some combination of good and bad, apart and a part of. I wonder if Mr. Buddy is inside, down below the classrooms in the fabled basement, stretched out on the imaginary cot, wiping away tears for the rumored dead, tears for his supposed losses. I enter one of the small courtyards that adjoins every classroom on the schoolyard side. One wall of each quad features a plaster tile depicting a scene from a nursery rhyme. I find myself facing Little Jack Horner cradling his Christmas pie, oblivious to the chips and cracks that speckle his body, his prized plum. I lean against the wall, pressing my cheek against the cold stone and feeling like a daughter.

    *

    © by Kristen Iskandrian. Used by permission of the author.

    Watch Kristen Iskandrian blog at this spot . . .

    Read her thoughtful thoughts about friendship here . . .

    And here, in another beautifully written piece.



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    1. […] Kristen has an amazing story of love (of mothers) and loss (of mothers) and gypsying over at Harper Perennial’s 52 Stories. This one will be remembered. […]

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