THE REAL WONDER BOY
by Dennis Loy Johnson
July 1, 2001 I first heard about Chuck Kinder's fabled manuscript at a party he'd thrown at his house in Pittsburgh for writer Tobias Wolff. Wolff was giving a reading at a nearby college where I taught, and I was there to ferry him back.
But Kinder insisted I join the party. His wife, Diane, plopped a beer in my hand and he took me on a tour of his large, Victorian house that ended in a kind of parlor/study, where we stood in front of several fat notebooks bookended on a sidetable. "There it is," he said, cheerfully waving a hand at what looked to be several thousand pages. "That's my novel. It's the saga of me and my buddy Ray."
"Ray" was the late, great short story writer Raymond Carver, Kinder's closest friend. By then, Kinder had toiled on their "saga" for almost fifteen years he'd published two novels in the 70s, but nothing since. A couple of years hence, one of Kinder's former students, Michael Chabon, would write "The Wonder Boys," a novel about a cheerful, roguish college professor working on an endless novel.
But ten years later, Kinder's book, "Honeymooners" has finally arrived, at a trim 358 pages. Even pared down, however, it was evocative of a much grander story, as an interview further revealed . . . .
DJ: When did you start the book?
CK: I can tell you exactly. We were gonna have a surprise birthday party for Carver. And we were always playing practical jokes on one another, so what we did, Diane and I, uh He knew people were coming over, but ostensibly not for his birthday. He wanted us to keep that a secret. Well, then Diane and I pretended like we got in a fight about what we were gonna cook. Neither of us were cooking dinner or doing a thing, and Ray kept getting more nervous, and he'd say, "Well, people are coming! Don't you care? Don't you have any class?" And we kept arguing, and I said, "No, screw it, man. We're ordering pizza." And Ray said, "You're ordering pizza? It's a sitdown dinner party!" We had him all aghast. And the trick was everyone showed up with TV dinners. We had a rotten turkey TV dinner for him. So that was the first gag.
The next thing was everyone had written either a poem or a little piece that parodied his work. So I wrote about an evening that my first wife and I had spent with Ray and [Carver's first wife] Mary Ann on their seventeenth anniversary, when we went to this Greek restaurant, and after dinner and everyone getting kind of loaded, we, uh, decided to walk the check. In fact, that's a chapter in the book that's called "They're Not Your Characters," I think.
Anyway, I read it and he laughed and wagged his old wooly head. And that was the start of it. And then, over the next few years, I did my socalled serious writing with my right hand and with my left hand I kept writing off scenes, sketches, and chapters, and I'd send them to him, or we'd be together we generally got together once or twice a year, you know, we'd take a road trip or meet somewhere, drive here or there and I'd show 'em to him. But that's what started it. It began, in essence, with a prank on the running dog, Ray Carver.
DJ: When was this?
CK: Seventyseven, seventyeight, maybe. I can't remember.
DJ: You were in San Francisco, right? Where were you both, at that point, careerwise?
CK: Well, careerwise, at that point, he was doing pretty well. "Will You Please Be Quiet Please?" had come out and it had scored critically and stuff. But he was still living that lowdog life. He hadn't, uh, advanced financially, and he and Mary Ann were still bouncing off the walls. And I think the night of that particular dinner party we were living on California Street, which is out in the Avenues. And Doug Unger and Amy uh, Amy is Mary Ann's sister, so that would make Doug, you know, Amy is Ray's sisterinlaw. They lived right across the street. They were all going back and forth. And Ray was either living with us he'd stay a week with us, and he and I'd get in a fight, an argument about something or other, you know, he'd be stealing something from me or something. Then he'd go across the street and live with Doug and Amy for a few days. And back and forth. That was just right at the edge of him quitting drinking, right around that same time when he finally just did quit drinking.
DJ: What do you mean he was stealing stuff from you?
CK: Well, he'd steal books from me he'd sneak in my office and, just, you know, go snooping in my stuff. 'Course I'd do it to him, too. Anytime he had to leave the house to go and get him a bottle or cigarettes, I'd just snoop around where he had his bedroom and office, and see what he was working on and, damn mostly I'd see what he'd steal from me. When he'd go across to Doug and Amy's with his little suitcase in tow, if I'd catch him in time I'd stop him at the door. He'd invariably have books of mine and rolls of toilet paper and cans of soup and toothpaste. I mean, he was a dog. Of course, he'd do it just to get my goat. He didn't particularly need, you know, toilet paper. He'd do it just to piss me off. So it was that level of stuff.
DJ: Do you remember when you guys first met?
CK: Yeah, absolutely. At Stanford. We were both in the writing program. I'd seen him, sitting around in class. He always wore shades, he had these big choppedup sideburns, and dressed like a big goofy guy, like some kind of nerd, you know, corduroy pants and plaid shirts. And like I say, he always had shades on. And he'd mumble a lot, smoke a lot you could smoke in classrooms in those days. And he'd sit there and bite his thumbnails, and he wouldn't say much, but when he did, man, it just knocked me out. It was clear he was a real smart guy. But, you know, I didn't pay much attention to him, because I was a you know, those were the days of the last Whole Earth Catalogue, and the truck store in Menlo Park in other words, all these rich, hip kids who went to Stanford pretending like they were closer to the earth than thou, you know, all of them wearing work boots and Dickey coveralls and stomping around under the palms like they were some kind of hot hillbillies or something, I don't know what to call them. So here I arrived on campus out of West Virginia, and I'd been working in coal mines and steel mills, and been a barber and a moonshine runner and the whole thing, so I could affect that pose with a little more bucolic bluster than they could. I considered myself a really hip, hippie hillbilly, and here was Ray just looking like a goofus. He just didn't look like anyone I'd be interested in.
But one day I needed a ride down El Camino to Matadero Road to where I lived, and I asked if anyone was going in that direction. And Ray piped up, "I am!" And I said, "Oh, God."
So we got out to his old car, an old Mercury convertible just beat to shit, an old rattletrap that looked like if we got in it would collapse around us. He got it started, and it hopped a couple of times, and this bottle slid out from under the driver's seat. It was a bottle of cheap Scotch. And he looked at it like he'd never seen that before in his life. Like, "Where'd that come from?" He said, "Whoa! Look, look at this here, what do you what do you know Maybe we should have us a little drink." I said, "Okay. Let's have us a little drink." And it tasted like hair tonic, whatever Scotch it was. And we bounced down El Camino Real, just killing off that bottle. I made him let me out at the Taco Bell at the corner because I didn't want him to know where I lived. I kind of took a liking to him, but he was such a big goofus, I thought. So we said goodbye and I headed down the road.
And then, by God, the next morning, I heard a rap rap rap on my door, and my first wife and I rented this real nice little bungalow, it was back in the redwoods, you had to go across a bridge to get to it, it was like living in the woods. And I got cheap rent because the landlady, I told her I'd do work around the house. I told her I was handy, which was, you know, a lie. And she'd always come over and check on me and so I'd have the curtains drawn or I wouldn't answer the door. So I thought it was her, so I didn't answer the door at first, and I peeked out and there's old Carver. He had two sacks in his arms, and one of 'em had books some of the literary magazines that had published his poems and stories up to that date. The other had some more cheap booze. And that was it. By the end of the day we were best buddies.
DJ: So he was bringing over some of his work to show you?
CK: Yeah, yeah. It just knocked me out, man. And it was surprising, because stuff he would turn in in class seemed to be pretty rough. And it took me a long time to realize that he was smart enough to not care if he were gonna be the star of the workshop and get the wink and blinks from the girls or the beers from the guys. He didn't care, man, he really wanted to get some imput on the work that he thought was rough. I was always turning in my absolute best stuff, or what I perceived to be my best stuff, so that I would be the star, you know? (laughing) So, yeah, it just knocked me out. And we just started running together. And he brought Mary Ann over, and Mary Ann and my first wife got along, and the four of us just ran together, until my first wife, uh, till she parked me on the curb, and I went out to Missoula, Montana.
DJ: How did you end up going to Montana?
CK: Well, actually, I'd heard Ray talk about Missoula Montana. He'd been up there to give readings a couple of times. He was great friends with Bill Kittredge. And Bill Kittredge, by that point, had come down to Stanford. He actually taught at the University of Montana at Missoula, but he'd come down as a Stegner [fellowship at Stanford] for a year, and he and I'd become buddies, so I said to Bill one night, "Can I come back to Montana with you?" and Bill said, "Yeah, come on." Well, it's pretty much covered in the book, but it pretty much happened that way: Ray had a bunch of love letters that his wife Mary Ann had found, and he, you know, wanted me to sort of take them back for safekeeping to his girlfriend who lived in Missoula, and that was Diane. I met her and exchanged the things that Ray had given me to give her, and we became friends and she rented me a room in her town house. I was tired of living in Kittredege's basement by then, and so I rented a room from her. Of course, you know where that led. Fell in love. And I married her. Our twenty sixth anniversary was last March.
Well, then the following spring, I came back to San Francisco to teach and then Ray and I tied up again. We started running together again. I have to admit, man, it's pretty much how I described it in the book: Mary Ann and Diane hit it off, and so the four of us became just fast friends, and spent virtually at least every weekend together, you know, a multitude of road trips together just hung out, just totally hung out together, for a couple of three years there.
DJ: It sounds as if you had quite a circle of friends at the school, too.
CK: Well, I was in a great class. I mean, it was actually a series of great classes. Right before us, there'd been people there like Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone and Ken Kesey and Ed McLanahan. And in fact a lot of 'em were still in the area. And their legends were still kind of shimmering, it had an aura around it. Especially Kesey. I mean, it had a lot to do, Kesey, with me even going out to California. 'Cause I'd read "The Electric CoolAid Acid Test," and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and all that stuff. So anyway, then in the other group let me think . . . there's Scott Turow, Alice Hoffman, of course Bill Kittredge, Richard Price in fact, Richard Price was working on "The Wanderers" there in class and April Smith . . . God, I know I'm leaving people out. Then, Toby Wolff came right behind me. And then I met Richard Ford, through Ray, actually, but it was in San Francisco.
DJ: And who were your teachers?
CK: Well, Wally Stegner had just retired, so I never officially had him as a teacher although he was very helpful to me, and gave me great advice and we were friends. But my particular teacher was Richard Scowcroft, who I dedicated the book to, along with Diane. He's just this dear man, and a great teacher. He's Brent Scowcroft's brother you know, Brent Scowcroft? And Tillie Olson was a teacher of mine. And William Abrahams. And then John L'Heureux I think I was out by then, but I sat in on some of his classes. And Nancy Packer.
DJ: So what took you out of that scene?
CK: Well, my lectureship was up. And I sold "Silver Ghost" and got a little money for it. I got an NEA, and I was invited to be writerinresidence at U.C. Davis, and I did that, and the same thing at the University of Alabama. And then the job came up at Pitt. I never expected to be here that long Diane stayed in San Francisco three or four years. I commuted. But Pittsburgh had kind of grown on me. And not only that, but we were just priced out of San Francisco. And the whole scene shifted, you know? I mean, Ray was long gone. He was living in Syracuse and Port Angeles with Tess [Gallagher, Carver's second wife], and so we just moved here, always expecting somehow that we'd go back to the Bay Area, but we never did.
DJ: Back to the book. How close to the bone is it?
CK: Well, the plot line kind of unfolds pretty much, I guess, as our lifelines. But I still consider it a work of imagination. I go back into my memory and shave here and cut a little bit here and collapse characters and events and combine them, and so it's not literal. It's sort of not fact and it's not fiction, it's I've heard this term before, and I rather like it faction. People call it a roman a clef you know, I had to look that word up at some point. I swear, for years I thought they were saying "roman a chef." I thought it was something about Italian cooking. But to repeat, man, the narrative projectory of the book remains pretty true to the sequence of things as they occurred, but so much of the other events you know, it's a work of imagination.
DJ: It's rife with moments, though, where I could just imagine people asking you, "Did that really happen?" For example, your character in the book sells drugs. Was that true of you?
CK: (laughing) Here I am, a tenured professor at the University of Pittsburgh, I'm gonna admit to you that I used to deal a little grass and stuff. No I'm not gonna do that, Dennis. I'm not gonna admit that to you.
DJ: Well, there it is in the book.
CK: Yeah, but it's a work of fiction. (laughing)
DJ: Well, that's what I'm saying it's a fine line.
DJ: Along the same lines, there were points where I wondered if you were addressing the historical record if you were using fiction to get the true story out. And one place I wondered about this was in the fight scene where Ralph the Carver character hits his wife with the liquor bottle. Now, that's similar to a legendary incident from Carver's life a notable one and a troubling one. To a remarkable degree, he's remembered as a gentle man, much beloved by those who knew him, a man who out of inherent goodness persevered over his own demons. I think this concept of his personality is actually now entwined with an understanding of his work. And yet there's this very dark incident. And I thought the scene in your book was really kind of an enlightening reading of that incident it offered a way to reconcile those two things, and still have him remain quite essentially a good man.
CK: Oh, absolutely he was a good man. It was just, uh, circumstantial. And that's not exactly how it occurred, even. Uh, actually, it's pretty similar, um . . . .
DJ: Were you a witness to the actual event?
CK: No, actually, I wasn't. In reality, Mary Ann and Ray had come up, and they were on their they were calling it their second honeymoon. And Mary Ann got this beautiful white dress that she had bought for this vacation. They were gonna go up to Seattle. We were living over on Fair Oaks, which is next to the Mission in San Francisco. And we were having dinner, and Shorty Ramos showed up. He was, uh when I first got out to San Francisco, I was kind of an expatriate West Virginia doper, and I lived right across the street from a guy named Shorty Ramos, a biker. And he and his brother Jimmy hung out with us a lot. And so Shorty showed up that night, just out of the blue. We were having dinner, you know, things were going well. And Mary Ann started kind of baiting Ray a little bit, kind of flirting with Shorty, and giving him a few little kisses there in the candlelight. Just to get Ray stoked. And they were drinking, we all were. But anyway, Shorty left, and things seemed calm to me, so I went to bed.
And the next thing I knew, someone was squeezing my foot. And I woke up out of my deep slumber and it was Mary Ann. And she was bleeding profusely, and I looked at her and her white dress was red. And she said, "Look what Ray did." I jumped up and grabbed a towel. And what happened while I was in bed, Diane and Ray and Mary Ann were sitting out in the front room and they took to arguing like they did. And she flung something up at him and he jumped up and he gave her just almost like a, like swept up that bottle, Diane said Diane was a witness and he popped her on the side of the head. I mean it just happened so fast. And she, I think, she had provoked him some. Ray was trying to kick back, and, uh, then she ran out of the house. And Diane followed her down the street, down to around the corner in an alley, and got her back. That's when Mary Ann woke me up and then Diane had an ambulance there by then. And then Diane went off with her. Ray went into the kitchen, wept and collapsed. So that's what happened. I wrote it differently in the book. Just for, again, narrative reasons.
No one was mean or evil, I don't think. I mean, clearly, you know, Ray and I were we had a lot of weaknesses. And also, Alice Ann in the book is not really utterly Mary Ann. There are a whole lot of tones of her sister Amy in there and other people, too. Uh, and I've always considered her to be one of the most remarkable people I've met in my life.
DJ: Mary Ann?
CK: Yeah. And I love her to this day, although we haven't spoken in years. But she's just a remarkable woman. And I understand that she's writing her own book about this, it's up to about fifteen hundred pages.
DJ: Is that right?
CK: Yeah, that's what Doug Unger told me. He just called me a couple of nights ago and he said, yeah, Mary Ann's working on her book.
DJ: Well, again, I was very impressed by the humanity of all the characters in that scene. It seemed to me that you had filled out a kind of sketchy, mythical scene involving Carver. And I wonder how conscious that was, if you were after setting the record straight at all, even though it is mostly fiction? Were you upset about things that have been said about Carver, or anything like that?
CK: Uh . . . I can't think of anything. You know, Ray is God, he's worshipped now. I mean, if anything, it's St. Ray, you know?
DJ: Well, there has been some criticism, I think.
CK: Well, just in terms of his work. I mean, Ray always hated the fact that people called him a minimalist. But in terms of his life, I mean, Ray always admitted that he didn't take things from whole cloth. You know, he wrote very close to his own life.
So I wasn't trying to set any record straight. I can't think of anything I've read that's upset me. It amuses me, that there's that St. Ray business. I mean, that cracks me up. I'm sure anyone from the old days will tell you that he was never a saint. Anyone can tell you even after he quit drinking he was still the same old Ray. Uh, in a documentary about Ray, in which Diane and I appear briefly, and Toby Wolff is in it I don't know if you've seen it or not
DJ: I haven't.
CK: Well, it was put out by the PBS out in Seattle, and we agreed to do it because Tess asked us to, she was heavily involved in it. But at some point this fella aw, I can't think of his name, man, the narrator . . . Anyway, he's an academic, and I don't mean to be an asshole about that, but he's an academic. (laughs) And he talked about how the source of Ray's work was the guilt he felt. And then they shoot to Toby, and Toby starts laughing at that, and Toby says, "I don't know, Jack Ray didn't have a greatly defined sense of guilt."
You know, he was always an outlaw and that's why he was fun to be around. So what I'm saying is, it's like the academics, see, now, are beginning to weave this cocoon, you know. And so the people who really knew him it cracks me up, man, but I don't have any record to set straight.
DJ: Well, I think a lot of people who read your book will feel somewhat comforted, reinforced in their opinion of him, though.
CK: Well, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was anything discouraging about him. I mean, I loved him like a brother. I guess he's probably the closest friend I've made in my lifetime. And it's just what unfolded unfolded, you know?
DJ: You mentioned showing him the workinprogress. Did you show him stuff like that scene where Ralph hits his wife?
CK: More than once. And he'd shake his head, and he'd say, "Well, who was that fella? Who was that fella did that? Who was that fella who was going around and doing those things and saying he was me?" And he'd shake his head in bewilderment, in wonderment of it. He actually didn't remember a lick of that. And of course as I've said, I wasn't even in the room, so I had to get some of the details Diane told me what happened. I can't recall that Mary Ann and I ever talked about it. She I remember her coming back either late the next day or the day after. And Ray and I were sitting out in the kitchen. And she had a big bandage on the side of her head. Ray was gonna live with us for a while, stay with us, and she decided she was going down to stay with, uh, I think a friend. At any rate, I remember her entering back into the kitchen, and Ray just sitting there shamefaced, feeling awful, smoking. And I remember her just going around behind him and kind of ruffling his old wooly hair and kind of patting him a bit. I don't remember her saying much at all. They just kind of mumbled to each other, and then she got her stuff and left. But then again they were back together in just matter of weeks.
CK: Yeah. They got a little apartment not too far from ours. And, uh, oh I can't when I try to get real literal about the facts I just begin to sort of misremember. I can remember generally what happened in a particular instance. I have images that kind of resonate for me. But all the absolute scenario of when, where, you know, actually where this or that happened that kind of eludes me when I try to think real hard about it, which I don't often.
DJ: Well, let's get back to your character, who's writing this saga, and trying to turn it into fiction over the years. How long was it? I remember you showing me your notebooks in 1989. And here it is over ten years later.
CK: Yeah. Well, by the time Ray died in '88 I had a stack of manuscripts. But I really got off track, man. I was too influenced at some points by academia, trying to be artsy fartsy and write metafiction and, you know, one thing and another. And I've said before and it's kind of a joke, but at one point I looked at it and I thought, God, what is this, man? It's sort of "Ulysses" meets "Dune" I even had science fiction crap in there meets "Dune" meets "On the Road" meets "Remembrance of Things Past," you know. And I said, What am I doing? And when Ray died in '88, I simply put it away. And I didn't look at it again for a long, long, long time. I deliberately didn't look at it at all for about five years.
I don't know what got me back to it. But I did, and then, basically, just started cutting stuff out, and I got it down to, uh, oh, I don't know, about 900 pages or so. And my old friend Scott Turow read it and gave me advice. And I took his advice and cut it more. And he just kind of opened that Farrar Straus door for me, kind of persuaded them to look at it. And lo and behold, it was one of these days I was setting out to go teach and there's a certified letter waiting for me behind my screen door, saying that, uh, uh, you know, they'd like to take it. And I dropped everything on the floor, my books, and ran for the telephone to say, Yes, yes, yes!
DJ: You were surprised?
CK: Yeah. After all, I mean, yeah . . . I'd pretty much gotten to the state of mind I figured I'd never get it published.
DJ: How long was it at its longest?
CK: At its longest it was really three volumes, and each of 'em were pushing over 900 pages.
DJ: And the version that you eventually showed to FSG was what?
CK: About 900.
DJ: So you cut the experimental stuff?
CK: I did. But it's not like everything I cut is gone forever. It's like, down home, in front of their doublewides they always have a big old car, like a Buick, up on cinderblocks, that they use for parts. And that book it's just like a big old Buick to me. I can pick it for parts. I can go out, lift the hood, and I can pull me out a poem or a story or a novel, or three novels. So it's not like all gone. Essentially I cut out, um, there were really about a hundred pages of letters. I won't even go further about that than letters. And I cut out a couple hundred pages of material set in Missoula, kind of cowboy outlaw stuff.
DJ: One of the more interesting moments for me is the flash forward near the end of the book, where you have Ralph going to South America with his new wife.
CK: Yeah. That's just one page.
DJ: But it's kind of a wonderfully startling moment.
CK: I copped that directly from a poem of his. I can't remember the name of the poem now. But it's just pretty much about a visit he and Tess had, you know. I copped the imagery and stuff, it's just I admit it's just a copy, you know.
DJ: So that wasn't from some kind of longer flash forward or some such?
CK: No, no, that never was. In earlier, earlier versions there were a lot of flash forwards, but I cut all of those.
DJ: Well, let's go on to the Michael Chabon business. Where were you with the book when "The Wonder Boys" came out? Were you back to working on it?
CK: Uh, by then I would have been, yeah.
DJ: And was Chabon really one of your students in particular, or just a student in the Pitt writing program?
CK: He wasn't even in our program. I mean, he was an undergraduate here, and yeah, Michael took a bunch of classes from me. I gave him special permission to sit in on graduate classes because he was clearly one of the most brilliant young writers I've ever been around.
DJ: And did you have a friendly relationship with him?
CK: Yeah, we were quite friendly.
DJ: So how did you feel about "The Wonder Boys"?
CK: Well, I thought, uh, he wrote a real good book. In fact, it's a fine book. I'm just pretty much amused by the whole thing.
DJ: Are you?
CK: Yeah. And the character of Grady Trip the way I look at it is he's really Michael's character, and he's a much more generous and nice character than I am a person. I mean, it's Michael in that character, and, uh there's really not that much I can say. Michael and I are I just love him. I just have nothing but respect and love for him. And the only thing I've said for quotation is that, in my opinion, Michael Douglas is not nearly cute enough to play Grady Trip.
DJ: Did you see the movie?
CK: I enjoyed it. It's a good movie. So, you know, all to Michael's credit.
DJ: Did he talk to you about any of this? Did you receive word from Chabon about the book before it came out?
CK: I received word, but not from Michael.
DJ: Then from who?
CK: Oh, just a mutual friend . . . telling me that Michael's writing a book that well, that it's an interesting book about a professor in Pittsburgh.
DJ: Did that make you nervous?
CK: Oh, I didn't care. No. Why would I be nervous? (laughs) I mean, you know, I don't much go through life much caring what folks think. I mean, I pretty much, uh, you know, try to get along with everybody.
DJ: Did you hear from Michael Douglas or any of the movie people?
CK: No, uhuh. Not that I expected to. I mean, when they first hit town, I did hear from various production people, this and that. You know, one thing and another. I was asked for some interviews. I just declined, I just declined everything. I just my thought is, it seemed to me, because of all the parallels that people were drawing, that seemed to me such a, oh, kind of a sad way, kind of a backdoor sad way to get your fifteen minutes of fame, you know? Riding someone else's coattails. Which also makes me leery even now. I'd be disingenuous, man, if I didn't the stuff I wrote in "Honeymooners," there it is, you know? Whatever amount is sort of based on Ray, there it is. But that's also, again, a little bit coattails, you know? And so, to be kind of caught riding two pairs of coattails I mean, Chabon and Carver, it's like I'm gonna swing between 'em, you know? And I really want the book to be accepted on its own as much as possible. To repeat, I'd be disingenuous to go around an deny it and stuff so I just let things happen.
DJ: The publicity material sent out by your publisher, FSG, makes kind of a big deal out of the whole "Wonder Boys" connection. Did that bother you?
CK: I didn't know they were gonna do that. I flat out, I simply didn't know they were gonna do that. So it took me a little bit by surprise.
DJ: You prefer they hadn't?
CK: The answer is yeah. I don't see what good it does. It's a notoriety that doesn't reflect on your ability to write or anything.
© 2001 Dennis Loy Johnson
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