A Prayer to St Jude’, M. Bennardo

As Madame Cassie turns off the neon all-seeing eyeball in the window of her shop, she spots that man standing on the other side of the alleyway. She’s seen him before, but not here. The first time, it was in Atlantic City in her original shop when he sat across the table from her, with two police detectives standing behind him. That was three full years ago, but ever since she’s seen him again in each and every new place that she’s moved to, one by one, up and down the shore.

Tonight, he’s leaning against the doorway of a shuttered up t-shirt store. It’s the shoulder season and the storefront she rents here is off-boardwalk in an alley, so there aren’t any other people in view. Instead, there are about twenty gulls picking at dropped popcorn between Madame Cassie and that man, but the birds don’t seem to mind the man. Nobody ever seems to mind him. Nobody except Madame Cassie, that is.

He’s a big man with a completely shaved head. He’s facing across the alley in the direction of Madame Cassie’s shop, but he isn’t exactly looking at her. That’s because he’s wearing dark glasses, with two big white eyes painted on the perfectly black lenses. The eyes are painted like cartoons eyes: big leaf-shaped whites, light brown irises, with perfectly centered jet black pupils applied by a Sharpie pen, and a set of curly eyelashes ringing the top and bottom lids.

They are Madame Cassie’s eyes and they are Madame Cassie’s glasses. Or at least they are an identical match to the pair that she keeps in a case on her table. The first time she ever saw that man, she asked him to wear those glasses. But Madame Cassie doesn’t know how he came to have a pair just like hers, or why he is wearing them now, or why he is standing outside her shop. Whatever the reason, it can’t be anything good.

Swiftly, Madame Cassie drops the blinds and shuts out the light in the shop. Tomorrow, she will think about how soon she can leave and whether after three long years there is still anyplace else left for her to go on her fading map of the Jersey Shore.

Next morning, Madame Cassie turns on the neon eyeball at nine o’clock as usual, but she keeps the blinds shut. That way, it won’t matter whether that man shows up, because she won’t have to look at him and won’t know if or when he appears.

Just a few minutes after turning the sign on, a woman Madame Cassie has never seen before knocks tentatively on the door as she pushes it open and calls into the shop, “Hello? Are you open?” But the woman doesn’t wait for an answer, and walks in still talking. “I’m sorry for coming in without an appointment, but I’ve got a terrible problem and the girls at the hair salon said that you could help.”

Madame Cassie is used to these kind of entrances, so even though her mind is still thinking about that lurking man across the alley, she smiles and nods, motioning to the empty chair across from her. “That’s all right. You’re missing something? I can tell. But don’t worry: we’ll find it for you. Just sit down there and we’ll talk it through.”

The shop is dim with the blinds closed, but Madame Cassie doesn’t miss a thing as she sizes up the woman. Not too young, not too rich. All the while the woman is saying something about her mother’s ruby bracelet, which she wore for the first time in five years and now like a fool can’t find anywhere.

Instantly, Madame Cassie knows that the mother is dead and that the bracelet is valuable in more ways than one. Madame Cassie can practically smell the sick feeling on the woman, just like you can smell a terminal illness on a patient in the hospital. A strong feeling like that is not necessarily good for her work: thick desperation is a hard thing for Madame Cassie to see through, but she has done it countless times before.

“They said it would be twenty dollars.” The woman takes out a single twenty dollar bill and holds it out in a shaking hand.

“Don’t pay it to me,” says Madame Cassie, rebuffing the money gently. “Pay it to St Jude. He’s the one who’s going to help us.”

At that, Madame Cassie takes out a St Jude candle from the box under the table and places it in front of her. It’s not the whole candle, just the painted glass holder with the actual candle scraped out. The woman slips the twenty dollar bill inside, curling it neatly so it stands up straight with half an inch of the bill sticking up above the rim.

Madame Cassie nods and moves the candleholder to the middle of the table. Then she says: “Here, put these on.”

She is holding out those dark glasses with the cartoon eyes painted on them, a perfect match for the pair that man had been wearing the day before. The woman looks at them doubtfully, but Madame Cassie is used to these objections. She knows that the glasses look goofy, but they are an indispensable part of her work.

“These glasses are the only way I can see through your eyes,” says Madame Cassie. “As long as you wear them, they give me the power to peer into your life and look around, and maybe to see something that you have missed. If you want me to look for your mother’s irreplaceable bracelet, then you’ll have to put them on.”

Then Madame Cassie offers the glasses again, and this time the woman takes them. After she sets them on her nose, she looks around the shop. “I can’t see anything. It’s all dark now.”

“It doesn’t matter,” coos Madame Cassie, patting the woman on the hand. “I’ll see for you now.” Then she tells the client to focus and take ten deep breaths and clear her mind as much as possible. Then she says: “All right now. Take me back to the last time you know you know you had that ruby bracelet.”

Then the woman says: “Well, I know I had it last Monday. I put it on special, as a lucky charm, to go to the doctor. I remember it caught on my jacket pocket when I was taking out my keys to lock my apartment door, but I made sure it didn’t fall off. After that, I’m not so sure. But I know I went to work, then to the doctor during my break, then because it was such a nice day I took a walk along the boardwalk on the way home—”

Madame Cassie holds up her hands. “No, not like that. You can’t go so fast. Take me back to the first thing and start over. That jacket pocket where the bracelet got caught. And this time you have to tell me about the jacket. You have to tell me about the pocket.”

The woman’s brow crinkles and she makes a motion as if to take the glasses off. But Madame Cassie says: “No! Please leave them on.” So far, the fog of desperation is only getting thicker. All Madame Cassie can see is a swirling yellow cloud of sick feelings, and she is starting to doubt that she will be able to break through. She has to calm the woman.

“What I mean is that you have to tell me what it feels like when you put your hand inside that pocket. Think about it and describe it to me. Is it warm and fuzzy like a pocket lined in down, or is it cool and slick like a pocket in a windbreaker? Does your hand sink all the way in like it won’t ever come out again, or does it only fit partway like the pocket is fighting to keep your hand out?”

Slowly, haltingly, the client answers the string of questions. Soon enough, she starts adding extra details that Madame Cassie doesn’t even ask for, and Madame Cassie smiles and leans back in her chair, nodding encouragingly. The sick yellow fog is still swirling and boiling around, but occasionally a pulse of something clear and solid comes through: the dyed purple wool of the jacket, the flash of fine gold links, the blaze of a big beautiful ruby.

“Good, good. Now tell me about the walk to work. Do you look through the peephole before you open your apartment door? Does it open onto a hallway inside the building, or on a walkway outside? When you lock the door, is it just one lock or two locks? Do you take an elevator down, or the stairs… ?”

And for half an hour, this mundane interview continues. Madame Cassie never lets the woman move on to the next moment of her day until she is satisfied that what she sees in her mind exactly matches the description that the woman is giving. It takes a long time and makes for a very dull conversation, but Madame Cassie doesn’t know any other method. Probably she has heard more descriptions of jacket pockets, junk drawers, couch cushions, car seats, handbags, and filing cabinets than anybody else in the state of New Jersey. But for a twenty dollar fee, she and St Jude always have time to listen to one more of the same.

And Madame Cassie never asks stupid questions like: “Did you try turning all your pockets inside out?” Or: “Are you sure you emptied everything out of the drawer?” Or: “Do you think it might have fallen behind the couch somehow?”

The fact that this woman has come to Madame Cassie and put twenty dollars in the St Jude candleholder means that she has already thought of all those things herself. She isn’t here for such obvious and trite advice. She is here for Madame Cassie to see something that she could never have seen on her own.

And as the woman answers the questions, Madame Cassie sees more and more details. She sees the small grey trapezoid of outside window, just visible from the woman’s desk at work when she cranes her neck. She sees one leg crossed over the other, and the foot on the end bouncing in preoccupation in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. She sees the weathered wooden fences lining the dunes on the way back home, miles of thin beaten slats held together by twisted rusted wire, striving mightily against the elements to keep the sand from overwhelming the boardwalk.

And at last, after thirty minutes of questions and answers, Madame Cassie sees the missing ruby bracelet and knows exactly where it is.

But Madame Cassie doesn’t say so. Instead, she takes the St Jude candleholder with the twenty dollars still inside and sets it on a shelf behind her where several other identical candleholders already stand. Then she hands the woman a card with the prayer to St Jude written on it. “Why don’t you go home and look one more time? If you say this prayer every morning for the next nine days, I’m certain that you’ll find the bracelet before the tenth day. But if you still can’t find it, then you can come again after ten days and take back your twenty dollars if you want.”

When the woman takes off the dark glasses, there is disappointment in her eyes. Obviously, this is not what she expected. No doubt she had been hoping that Madame Cassie would give her a location where she could go to lay hands on the bracelet right away. But Madame Cassie doesn’t work that way, not with any of her clients. She has taken this woman all the way up to the threshold, but now she will have to walk through it by herself. That is the best that Madame Cassie can do.

A few minutes after the woman leaves, a man comes in. There is nothing tentative about his entrance: he bangs open the door of the shop and sweeps inside, making a beeline for the open chair at Madame Cassie’s little table.

“I’m glad I found you,” he says. “I’ve lost the goddamn keys to my storage unit again.”

“Hello again, Mr Catallus,” says Madame Cassie. “Always so nice to see your face.” She is already putting a St Jude candleholder on the table, and the man is pouring a cascade of quarters into it from a plastic Ziplock bag.

“It’s all there, eighty quarters. I double-counted this morning, in case I found you here. I thought it was you, from what the ad said in the newspaper. But why did you move again? And why did you change your name? First Ocean City, then Sea Isle City, and now Wildwood. You have to start leaving forwarding addresses!”

Madame Cassie only shrugs. “Oh, that’s me. Always moving. I just get the itch and I have to go.”

She hands him the dark glasses and he immediately puts them on. Then he leans all the way back in his chair, his arms crossed on his chest, his head thrown back until his nose and the unblinking cartoon eyes all point at the ceiling, and he starts talking without any prompting by Madame Cassie about the keys and where he last saw them and what he did step by step on that day.

When he’s done, Madame Cassie says: “I can see them pretty well already, Mr Catallus. You’re getting very good at this. Why don’t you go home and look one more time?”

Mr Catallus laughs and claps his hands together, just once. “That’s what I wanted to hear. If you say I should look, then I know I’ll find them. It won’t take any nine days either! I have a buyer who wants to pick up an armoire I have in that storage locker tomorrow. Five hundred dollars, cash!”

“All the same, we’ll keep St Jude over here in case you need to come back.”

“I’ll come back all right. You know I’m always losing those goddamn keys.” Then Mr Catallus folds up the dark glasses and sets them down on the table, picking up a prayer card as he does so. Madame Cassie wonders how many of those cards he has at home already. A dozen? Two dozen? But she understands the importance of routine. With a thing like this, if you can get it to work once then you don’t change anything the next time if you can help it.

Madame Cassie almost smiles, but by then Mr Catallus is opening the door to leave. And suddenly the image of that large bald man leaning against the shutters of the t-shirt store flashes through Madame Cassie’s mind. It’s as clear as anything she has seen in the past hour: as clear as the ruby bracelet and the keys of the storage locker. Is it a memory or a premonition? Or just an overactive imagination?

Madame Cassie turns her face away and frowns hard, averting her eyes so she cannot see out the door as Mr Catallus leaves. Memory, vision, whatever. She will not be seeing it today, not until she figures out where she can go next.

The rest of the day’s clients are less interesting. Madame Cassie doesn’t only do lost and found, after all. She also reads tarot cards and palms and horoscopes, and that’s what all her other clients want for the rest of the day. Madame Cassie knows she doesn’t have any special talent for those things, so she just follows the usual formula and says what she has learned to say.

Her real gift is with lost and found. In all the years she has been doing it, only a few people have ever come back for a refund. That’s how Madame Cassie knows that it really works. Sometimes she thinks she should charge a lot more, and focus only on that, give up the rote tarot readings and so on. But who knows if changing the fee might make it stop working? And besides, she doesn’t want people to think she is too good at it. She doesn’t want anybody to get the idea that she’s infallible.

But reading tarot cards and palms and horoscopes is easy. With tarot cards, you just deal them out from the deck and tell a story about what you see. You don’t have to coax visions out of yellow clouds of boiling bad feelings, seeing and then politely ignoring all kinds of things that the clients don’t really want to reveal to you.

On a tarot card, everything you need is already right there, printed in plain view. Take the Fool, for instance, stepping off a cliff and into danger with one foot on solid ground and the other foot about to plunge into the precipice. Something is distracting him, maybe the flower in his hand or maybe the mountain scenery in the distance. His dog is nipping at his heels, maybe blindly following its master to destruction or maybe trying to warn him away from the edge. The story is a little different every time, but it always comes out of what’s already on the card and you never have to see anything you don’t expect to see.

“But you don’t really see, do you, Madame Cassie?” That’s what people ask her all the time. Ignorant people who think there is no such thing as second sight. “If you could really see,” they say, “you’d just tell your clients where to look. There wouldn’t need to be any nonsense about praying for nine mornings and all that. It’s just that people come to you and talk things through, and then they get their own ideas. So when they go home, they can see what they couldn’t see before.”

Madame Cassie doesn’t respond to words like that, but they do trouble her. After all, she made the dark glasses with the cartoon eyes herself when she first started out, just as a gimmick to help her stand out from all the other fortunetellers on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. She hadn’t meant them to be magical, not really. They just turned out that way.

The same thing happened with the St Jude candleholders. Madame Cassie knows as well as anybody that St Jude is the patron of lost causes, and that St Anthony is the patron of lost items. But she had found an unopened box of twenty-four St Jude candles at a junk store for only fifteen dollars. Even if it was the wrong saint, she figured that they would make another good gimmick. But as soon as she started using the candleholders and the glasses, she started to see. To really, really see.

So when people say she doesn’t actually have any second sight, Madame Cassie knows it’s not just her that they are insulting. There’s a higher power involved, even if it doesn’t make any sense that St Jude or any other saint would want to have anything to do with her, an unimportant old woman who was never a very good Catholic in the first place.

Once, not long after she saw that bald man for the first time, she packed up the painted glasses and all the candleholders in a box with the idea that she would throw them away. She had been scared by that man and didn’t want to mess with any higher powers anymore.

But the knowledge of that higher power was also what stopped her. For how could she ever walk away from something so all-seeing? How could she dare to cut ties with something so clearly supernatural, so beyond human understanding? Madame Cassie didn’t know what kind of deal she had made to attract this power, or what forfeit might be claimed of her if she ever broke the deal, or what kind of angel or demon would come to claim it. So she decided not to change anything. Always, that was the safest thing. Just keep going the same way and never change. And if things get too bad, then just move on to a new town and take a new name and hope that the bad won’t find her again.

At the very end of the day, Madame Cassie can’t resist taking a peep outside the window. The sun is setting and the sky is darkening, glowing unearthly blue over the t-shirt store across the alleyway. Her neon sign burns red in the window. And between the two glows, there’s that bald man wearing the dark glasses leaning against the door, just like Madame Cassie had guessed.

Madame Cassie curses herself for being so weak as to look, and she curses him too, for the day he came into her life. It’s always the same: once the bald man starts coming, he never stops until she packs up and moves to a new place.

Through the glow of the red all-seeing neon eyeball, Madame Cassie suddenly sees herself as she was three years ago, back in Atlantic City, back in her original shop. She misses that shop, with its cozy collection of knickknacks assembled over thirty years, and her little claw-footed table and her worn leather chair. She misses her old self too. She had been more energetic then, less grey, with a twinkle in her eye.

But then, still in her mind’s eye, she sees that bald man come in. He comes in following two police detectives, and Madame Cassie feels her forehead crease into a frown and her stomach start to pinch itself in pain. This is what comes of people calling Madame Cassie a miracle worker, of people believing she has a hotline to a higher power. Because once people believe that, then they don’t just come looking for harmless things like ruby bracelets and storage locker keys anymore. They come looking for real things instead.

So Madame Cassie sets her face in her most unfriendly expression. She always thinks of her grandmother’s English bulldog when she puts on that face, trying to look as stubborn and stupid and mean as she can. “What does he want?” she asks brusquely, nodding her head at him. “You know this doesn’t work. Not for things like this.”

“Come on, Madame Cassie,” says one of the detectives. “We wouldn’t come here if it wasn’t serious. And what’s wrong with it anyway? It’s good advertising for you.”

She squints at the bald man, but she isn’t really looking at him. Suddenly, she realizes she is play-acting this grouchy crone just as much as she play-acts the wise and soothing aunt with her other clients. A little shiver runs up her spine and for a second she wonders why she can’t do it for real. Why can’t she turn him away without putting on a face and assuming a character? She really doesn’t want to talk to this man, after all. She really doesn’t want to hear about whomever he has lost. So why does she feel like she’s just pretending?

“Who is it? His wife? How long has the foolish woman been gone?”

Madame Cassie still isn’t looking at the bald man. She’s looking at the police detectives instead. She’s hoping if she ignores the bald man and he gets offended, then he’ll just leave.

But then the bald man answers. “She’s been gone two weeks,” he says. “I haven’t seen Miranda in two weeks.”

And everything drops out of Madame Cassie, leaving her barren and hollow. And she remembers that this is why she play-acts all the time. Because if she was doing it for real, then this is where she would drop to the floor. This is where the big deep darkness inside her would swoop up and eat her whole. And it still does. It still happens. But at least it doesn’t show on her face.

“Two weeks,” says Madame Cassie. “You boys really are desperate now.”

And then she is sitting down at the table and taking out one of the St Jude candleholders. She hands the bald man her dark glasses with the eyes painted on them. Because it’s too late already. It’s too late to explain that it just doesn’t work if the client doesn’t know the place where the thing has gone missing. That Madame Cassie can only see through the client’s eyes, and that it doesn’t work if the missing thing has been stolen away and hidden in a place that the client has never seen.

“This is the last time,” is what Madame Cassie says instead. She stares down the two police detectives, who are slouched against the wall of her shop, their hands in their pockets as they watch her with the bald man. “I never want to see you two back here again.”

She gives the bald man a St Jude prayer card and tells him to put it into the candleholder. The candleholder can’t be empty, but she doesn’t dare charge him any money for something she knows will never work. And thank God that it won’t, she thinks to herself. Thank God I don’t have to worry about that! At least, thank God, I’ll never have to see whatever terrible things there are to see.

Then Madame Cassie blinks her eyes and she is back in herself again, back in her new shop, and she is alone. Outside, there is the darkening sky and the t-shirt store and the bald man leaning against the shutter. But that’s outside, through the glass of the window and beyond the flickering red light of her neon sign.

Madame Cassie’s mouth tightens into a grimace. Then she shuts off the all-seeing neon eye and lets the blind fall across the guilty window.

Madame Cassie knows that not every lost thing can actually be found in this world, and also that not every lost thing that can be found is good for the person who is looking to find. Sometimes things are better left unfound, and that’s why Madame Cassie never tells her clients exactly where to lay their hands on anything. It’s why all she ever does is take them to the threshold, leaving it to them to walk through the door themselves. That last step is theirs alone to take. Whatever might happen afterward, that last step is not her fault.

Madame Cassie also knows that the bald man never did find what he was looking for, and also that he never really was looking for it in the first place. Madame Cassie knows that he hadn’t lost anything that day that he came to see her. Madame Cassie knows that he was the one who had been trying to hide it.

Madame Cassie takes a fading map of the Jersey Shore out of her purse and moves it into the light of a lamp. She unfolds it and her finger moves up and down the coastline, reading the names of tourist towns dotting the big blue empty side. Too many of them have already been crossed off in red ink. Those are the places she’s already been to, and the places she’s already left behind.

Then Madame Cassie wonders: Does she really have it in her to do it again? To pack up her things in the old cardboard boxes that are splitting open after so many moves? To load up her van in the early morning hours and leave this town and her rent deposit behind? To rattle off down the quiet dark highway, living and working in the cramped squalor of her van until she can scrape together enough for first and last month’s rent on a new place?

Madame Cassie has lost almost everything she has ever owned in the past three years, moving from place to place. But she never lost the candleholder that holds the St Jude prayer card that the bald man put inside. Each time she finds a new shop in a new town, she unpacks it and sets it out. When she leaves, she takes it down and packs it away again. She has just never figured out anything else to do with it.

But now she picks it up. She holds it in her hand, rolling it around until St Jude is looking up at her. How is that prayer supposed to go? Though she has recited the words a thousand times with clients, Madame Cassie has never really prayed it in earnest and only a few phrases come to her now.

St Jude, the friend of Jesus.
Pray for me, who am so miserable.
Come to mine assistance in this great need.
That I may receive the consolation and succor of Heaven
In all my necessities
And all my tribulations
And all my sufferings.

But what had St Jude ever done for her? What help had he ever been? If he had done anything, it was to put the burden of second sight upon her, and that was what was crushing her now.

Suddenly Madame Cassie is up on her feet and opening the door of her shop. Suddenly she is out in the alley and barreling across it. The bald man in the dark glasses is still there but he doesn’t even look at her.

The seagulls squawk and scatter before Madame Cassie’s approach, but the bald man just stands there, still wearing those dark glasses with the painted eyeballs. In all the years he has been appearing to her, Madame Cassie has never before approached him like this, and she half expects him to vanish in a puff of smoke. But instead he just stands there, looking exactly the same as he always does.

“What do you want?” screams Madame Cassie, louder and angrier than she knew she could. She knows she isn’t play-acting now. She is a single raw nerve, worn to its end. “What do you want from me?”

But the bald man doesn’t do anything. He doesn’t flinch and he doesn’t answer her. If he were one of her tarot cards, she could just look up in the book what he’s supposed to mean. But instead, all she can do is keep asking. Keep trying to get him to respond to her, to tell her what he wants so she can give it to him and finally be free again.

In a fury, Madame Cassie raises her hand and throws down the St Jude candleholder that holds his prayer card. It makes a dull pop on the concrete of the alley, but it doesn’t break apart because the sticker wrapper with St Jude’s image keeps all the pieces together. Through it, Madame Cassie can see the candleholder is webbed with cracks, broken into shards. But still it clings together. She stamps down with her foot, trying to grind the fragments apart.

“Don’t you hear me?” she hisses. “Tell me what you want!”

As far as Madame Cassie is concerned, she already gave that man the only thing he could possibly want, the first time she saw him. Because that time, she really had seen. The day he had come into her shop with the police detectives, the boiling yellow mists had separated and she had seen everything.

Madame Cassie had seen exactly where the bald man’s wife was hidden. She had been able to see because the bald man knew the place. And Madame Cassie had known exactly what that meant. The wife wasn’t actually lost. She had been put away, and the bald man had been the one to do it.

And Madame Cassie had just sat there, still talking to the bald man, still acting her part, not even skipping a beat. Inside, she had been heaving with horror and fear, but outside she had looked just the same as always. Then at the end, Madame Cassie had just said the same thing as always, too scared and sad to say anything else: “Take this prayer card and go home. Say the prayer every morning for the next nine days, and if she’s there to find then I know St Jude will lead you to her.”

And now Madame Cassie is face-to-face with him again at last. From inches away, she looks up into the leaf-shaped whites of the painted-on eyes. She looks up into the light brown irises. She looks up at the sickening curls of the eyelashes. Madame Cassie looks up into the deep black points of the permanent marker pupils.

Then she reaches up and she starts to scratch. Boiling with dread, she scratches at the paint with her nails. It flakes away, falling in a snow around her hand. She knows now that the bald man isn’t appearing because he wants something from her. She already gave him everything he wanted, the first time she saw him. She already put everything back into his hands: letting him make the decision whether to pray or not, whether to look or not, whether to find his missing wife or to let her lie where he had put her.

No, that man doesn’t keep appearing because he wants anything. He keeps appearing because Madame Cassie must want something from herself. And whatever that might be, it had to be under that paint. So Madame Cassie scratches and scratches and scratches, and doesn’t stop until the paint is all gone.

But under the paint, the glasses are still dark. Madame Cassie still can’t see what they are hiding. All she can see is herself: two images of her pleading face and staring eyes, one in each lens, her expression wild and despairing, and her hands reaching down toward herself in duplicate reflection as she takes the bald man by the shoulders and tries to shake him loose.

“Just tell me what you want!” Madame Cassie says, tears in her voice this time. Because she knows that she isn’t asking him anymore, and she knows that he won’t be the one to answer.

“Just tell me what to do!” Madame Cassie says again. But she knows already what the bald man is: that he is a door, and the she is herself at last standing at the threshold, and has been for three full years now.

“Just tell me! Just tell!”

But the bald man doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t move either. He just looks down at her, through his impenetrable dark glasses, and Madame Cassie looks up into her own reflected self.

“Just tell…!”

But she doesn’t need the answer in so many words. She knows what it must be already. It’s the same answer that anybody would give to anybody else at the threshold of a door:

That now that she is here, she must take the last step herself.

© 2022 M. Bennardo

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