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Tim and Pete, James Robert Baker

I wished Todd were in town this weekend. We might have gone to dinner and a movie tonight. But he’d gone back to New York for an ACT UP conference. In the last year he’d become increasingly involved in the L.A. chapter of the group. His own health was fine, although, like me, he was a hard-core refusenik when it came to taking the test. He’d lost a number of friends though, more than I had. But then Todd had always had more friends to lose. I’d given money to ACT UP, but resisted direct involvement, put off by all the bickering and in-fighting I’d seen at the meetings I’d gone to.

“Honey, please just go,” Pete’s mother said to him in a whiny little-girl voice.
“You really are a stupid fucking twat!” Pete said to her.
Look here!” Breyer barked as he zipped up his slacks. “I don’t know who the hell you think you are–“
“I’m her son, you fuck! Her buttfucking, cocksucking son! And you’re dead met, you evil pig! You’re fucking dead! I’m gonna have you killed!
Pete used his T-shirt to wipe the blood off his face. His nose was bleeding pretty heavily.
And Bryer looked down at his own chest and jumped when he saw blood. Pete’s blood, a homosexual’s blood, in the white chest hairs above his undershirt. With a look of cold terror, he said, “Oh, my God. I’ve got to get this off–”
Bryer started for the door, and with a sudden ferocious burst Pete grabbed him. “That’s right!” Pete yelled. “I’ve got it!
He pushed Bryer back against the wall, back against the framed photos of the congressman with Ronald Reagan and Robert Dornan and Patrick Buchanan and William Dannemeyer and Jesse Helms and an emaciated John Wayne and various other right-wing slime. And Pete smeared his bloody fingers across Bryer’s mouth. “I’ve got it and now you’ve got it, too! See how it feels, you vile fuck! You’re gonna die! You’re gonna rot in an AIDS ward surrounded by fags!
Pete kept smearing his blood in Breyer’s mouth despite the congressman’s groans and pursed-lipped attempts to spit it out. And to be honest, it’s an image that on a certain level of justice still does my heart good – though while it was happening I was completely freaked out.

“I’ve been thinking about doing a comic book with Todd. Or, you know, a graphic novel. A kind of satiric, surreal story about two guys – you know, boyfriends – who have all these different adventures.”

“Of course, Todd’s gotten so serious lately. I’m not sure if he’d consider it political enough, or political in the right way–“

He leaned back on the bus bench, staring out at the last of the sunset. “That’s how I felt this afternoon with Bryer,” he said. “I really did want to kill him. Somebody should. If you hadn’t been there…”
“I’m glad I was. I feel the same way about him, but I’d hate to see you ruin your life. I really think there are other ways to fight these people.” I opened the flap of Pete’s knapsack and dug out the mailing list ‘d lifted from Bryer’s office.
“I didn’t realize you took that,” he said.
“Yeah, it was too tempting.” I started looking through the list. “I’m going to give it to Todd. He’s seriously involved in ACT UP now. They do protests at politicians’ houses sometimes.”
“Protests? They should be lobbing bombs through windows. Killing the scumbags’ wives and kids.”
“That would get us lots of sympathy,” I said, instantly wishing I’d phrased it differently.
“Fuck sympathy. Fuck kissing up to straight people. That’s like Jew sucking up to the Nazis.”
“Not all straight people are homophobes.”
“Wanna bet?”

“I know, you just didn’t know what to say. You’re too self-aware to bring off lines like ‘Kevin, you can lick this thing, you’re a fighter!’” He laughed again.
“You’re right. I’m not very good at saying things like that.”
We turned up the driveway that led back through the seedy grounds to the Ambassador Hotel. “You might have at least sent me a card though. ‘Get well soon.’” Kevin laughed at the absurdity of that. “Someone should start a line of AIDS cards. ‘Glad you beat that oral thrush. And the toxo, too, before your brain turned to mush.’”
He laughed again but I couldn’t. I’d felt the same way after issue four or five of Diseased Pariah News, the “HIV humor” ‘zine, when the pus-and-retinitis jokes reached critical mass and collapsed back into horror again.

As I made my way down through the hot, sweaty dance crowd, the blues song ended, and on a much higher pitch the band roared into “What This Country Needs (Is a Baader-Meinhof Gang).” At the door I stopped to look back at Pete, flailing away at his Rickenbacker.
This was one of the songs I’d criticized. It had upset me the first time I heard it, the violent imagery, and the sense that it was openly advocating political terror. Pete had defended it by saying it was a catalog of fantasies a lot of people had but usually censored, a suppressed rage that the wrong people were dying. When he’d put it that way, I’d seen his point, but the images were still extreme:
The Reagans let their friends
Turn this world to crud
That’s why I’d like to drench them both
With AIDS-infected blood

We’d joked about Whitney Houston covering that – she needed a hit. Or George Michael or Michael Jackson. My favorite verse had been and still was:
Like to see that Jeane Kirkpatrick
Machine-gunned in a revolving door
The death-squad dead won’t be avenged
Till someone smokes that right-wing whore

Now, as I stood watching from the door, I had no more moral reservations about the song. The music itself was pure, brilliant, cathartic, surging through wave after wave of ecstatic guitar configurations. “If you guys would do something about your lyrics,” an A&R man had once told Pete, “you could be as big as U2.” An insult to Drunken Boat. Pete sang:
It’s time to go down to Carolina now
Before it’s too late and I’m dead
I want to see the look in the senator’s eyes
Right before I blow off his head

I couldn’t believe how good Pete looked. Sweated out, soaked down into his faded black jeans, shining in the light, iridescent. He’d added some new lyrics, however, which did make it hard to believe he didn’t mean to incite. He sang:
This isn’t therapy
This isn’t art
Make this real
Go out and start
Pick up a gun
Kill a right-wing pig
Kill as many as you can
Kill someone big

Pete yelled the chorus:
I’m sick of watching the wrong people die
with a victim’s whimper instead of a bang
What I’d like to see
What this country needs
Is a Baader-Meinhof gang

“He had it, you know.”
“Had what?”
“AIDS. But he told me he’s cured. He went to Morocco and invoked the sun. Don’t ask me what that means.”
“Sounds like Crowley stuff,” Pete said. “I thought that was just a phase he went through.”
“He seems to be back into it again. He said he’d tested negative, after having been positive. Do you think that’s possible?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Who knows?”
“He said the whole thing was caused by people’s bad thoughts. Hatred aimed at gays like negative prayer.”
“I can see that in a way,” Pete said. “If people allow themselves to be magnets for that kind of shit. But the best defense is an offense. That’s what still pisses me off about most homos though. ACT UP and Queer Nation don’t go nearly far enough. I agree with Larry Kramer. They’re just putting on street skits. It’s Mickey and Judy in pink-triangle shirts. They should’ve gone into Saint Patrick’s with sub-machine guns. Here in L.A., they should kidnap Mahony and gut him. They should go into the Vatican, remove the fag art, and dynamite the place. Douse the pope with gasoline, set him on fire. But most gay men are still suck-ups. They’re still into playing victim and martyr, which is just what people want to see. Be a good little faggot and mince on off to the hospice and pay the price for your sins. Fuck that shit. Why should we always be nonviolent? That’s why I’ve had it with these fucking AIDS vultures like Louise Hay and Marianne Williamson. Hug a teddy bear, boys, and visualize Bambi, till you’re too weak to cross the room, let alone pick up a gun. George Bush couldn’t come up with a better containment plan.”
Normally this kind of rant wouldn’t have alarmed me. I’d heard most of it before. But this time the mescaline began changing his features so that he looked like a werewolf – murderous, psychotic.
“Am I upsetting you?” he said.
“Kind of.”
“Sorry.” He smiled and - magically - the craziness went away. He was a blue-eyed seaman in need of a shave now, a fresh young Jack London, as portrayed by Jason Patric, in a glistening, sublimating Joel Schumacher film.
“I think you’re being a bit unfair about Marianne, I said.
He shrugged. “Look, I know she does good work, schlepping meals to people. But I still think all those Hollywood power fags who are into her are vile flesh-eating slime.”
“I can’t disagree.”

“Speaking of West Hollywood,” I said as we climbed the stairs, “you know who owned this place, don’t you?”
“Yeah. Mister West Hollywood. Talk about scumbags. He kept this place open for years after people knew what was going on.”
“I know. I think it sent out the wrong message at a very crucial time.”
“It was unconscionable,” Pete said. “The greedy pig.”
“Denial, too, I’ll bet. The end of a way of life.”
“Yeah, his last chance to devour twenty or thirty more young guys. Fucking vampire.”

“He got what was coming to him,” Pete said. “God only knows how many men were infected here. Occasionally there’s some justice. I spit on his grave.”

“What’s down there?” Pete said. “The fistfucking room? Thirty bathtubs in a row for piss and scat?”
“No, this wasn’t that kind of place. Just the showers, as I recall. And the entrance to hell. I want to go.”
“Yeah, okay. I still think there’s somebody here though.”
We started up the corridor, the flickering lights setting off cartoon Egyptoid designs now. The black walls looked wet. I could feel them oozing decade-old despair.
“This place should be razed,” I said. “That’s Todd’s idea. They should level it and put in a park with a plaque like they did with that McDonald’s in San Ysidro where that guy killed all those people.”
“Or turn it into a hospice,” Pete said. “Plenty of beds. Name it after Mr. West Hollywood.”

We’d just been having fun, but this clerk really gave us a hurtful glare, and when we went up to pay, he was also manning the register and made a big point of not putting the change in Pete’s hand, as if he didn’t want to have even glancing physical contact with a homo. I’d experienced the same slight more than once paying for an Advocate, and Pete had also encountered it before, and leaving the drugstore, he’d been steamed. “If that fat sack of shit had said one word…” But we’d soon diffused our anger by imagining how the situation might have escalated – from an insult to a fistfight, to a gun being whipped out, to the clerk’s brains blown al over the tabloid rack, to screaming bystanders, hostages taken, the SWAT team arriving, tear gas, a fusillade, plate glass shattering, cops blown away, passersby killed in the crossfire, a wantonly excessive Peckinpah slaughter scene – all because two boyfriends had stopped to buy a pack of rubbers at one A.M.
“In a way that was kind of prescient,” I said. “A lot of Thriftys got hit during the [1992 L.A. Uprising] riots. I wonder if we were unconsciously perceiving something that was already in the air.”

Pete shrugged. “He’s having boyfriend problems. He found out that Bob’s been seeing someone on the side.”
“God, how discouraging. Do you think any gay man can stay monogamous for an extended period of time?”
“He can now – if he knows what’s good for him.”

“Whoa.” Pete was even more startled than I was.
Using paint and appropriated still photos, the picture depicted a naked young man with a fat, shiny erection blowing the brains out of a real-life Orange County congressman, a fellow every bit as vile as Gerald Bryer. The gay porno photo was cut roughly into the photo of the right-wing homophobe at his desk, a ragged image of a firing revolver placed over the young man’s hand. The exploding blood and brains had been painted in. The big sloppy block letters across the bottom of the painting read AIDS CURE.
“Jesus. Can he do this?” I said, meaning wasn’t there some sort of law against using a real person’s likeness this way.
“I don’t know,” Pete said. “But he’s doing it.”
There was another of Joey’s paintings on the wall at the stairway landing. A well-known conservative senator’s head was exploding at a backyard barbecue. The expressions of the other family members, no doubt smiling in the original photo, had been distorted with paint into smeary screams. MAKE THIS REAL, the messy text read.
“Is this a joke?” I said.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure anymore.”
Pete continued on up the stairs, as if he didn’t want to discuss what he knew I had to be thinking: that these paintings were very much like some of the fantasies we used to spin.
We’d fallen into amusing ourselves with political assassination scenarios once I’d gotten over my initial reservations about Pete’s Baader-Meinhof song. I’d seen his point, that anything in art was permissible, that to depict something was not the same as to advocate it, let alone do it, and I felt that our fantasies, besides being fun, were a kind of harmless way of blowing off steam. So we’d imagine, in the most extreme and lurid cinematic terms, the obliteration by gunfire of different right-wing people we disliked. William F. Buckley, for example, might be machine-gunned on his sailboat, or Jesse Helms in the doorway of a Southern church, or Patrick Buchanan might have his head blown “clean off” on TV. Sometimes these events were just passing episodes in wide-ranging fantasy adventures. We liked the idea that we could machine-gun George Will, for example, in Washington, and suck each other off in Mexico in the same sentence. Often though, we’d toss out the images as one-liners. “Dannemeyer with his brains blown out at a Sizzler salad bar,” Pete might say. “Smashing the Gipper’s head with a sledgehammer and Nancy’s reaction,” I might respond, and we’d convulse with laughter. Part of the fun came from the sense that there were people who would find our fantasies tasteless and shocking, especially, as Pete said, “the Gandhi wimps.” Or the “Sam Waterston liberal/humanists” (the sort of character Waterston often portrayed in films): “Good God, man! There’s nothing funny about killing people!” Or the female-identified queens who would say at any mention of violence, “Oh, you boys are just too butch!”
Sometimes, however, in a more sober vein, we’d wonder why there hadn’t been any AIDS kamikazes yet. And Pete would lament the fact that most gay men were “wimps and professional victims.” “We should’ve learned something from what happened to the Jews,” he’d say. This was usually where he’d add, not having taken the test at this point, that if he ever got it, he’d take someone with him. And that was usually where I’d change the subject to something more pleasant.
At the top of the stairs I said to Pete, “Have you seen those paintings before?”
“Not the originals.” He looked back down at AIDS Cure. “But they made some black-and-white posters of that one. I’ve seen them up on walls around Silver Lake and West Hollywood.”
“Well…I guess it’s all right to be provocative,” I said. “After all’s said and done, it’s still art. It’s not like they’re actually doing it.”
Pete didn’t say anything.

I finally said what I’d been thinking since I’d seen the artwork in Valencia. “I take it you shared a lot of our terrorist jokes with Glenn and Joey.”
Pete sighed irritably. “I don’t know that they were our jokes, Tim, in the sense that I was violating some sacred trust by repeating them.”
“I’m not accusing you of anything.”
“Yes, you are. Look – I probably did need to know I could still laugh about that stuff with someone. At that point I thought I was never going to see you again.”
"I understand. I tried to do the same thing, I guess. Except Todd doesn’t laugh at anything anymore. And Gregory…you know how he is about anything violent.”
“Yeah, I know,” Pete said. “He’d mince right into the cattle car – as long as they told him he could shriek at Bette Midler comedies once he got to Auschwitz.”

Glenn squeezed Pete’s knee. “All joshing aside, there’s no way we could nail sweet little Pete’s hands to a Protestant church cross – it’s unthinkable. Why, he’s written our anthem.”
“I never meant that song to be a blueprint,” Pete said.
“Oh, bullshit, you did, too,” Glenn said. “Save the disclaimers for the MTV news, assuming you get out of this alive. We’ve talked about all this far too much off the record, Pete. You’ve been hungry for something like this to happen. For someone to go ‘much too far.’ Someone, naturally, with nothing to lose. Well – here we are.”
“I didn’t mean killing innocent people.”
Innocent. Well, it’s like this, Pete. If Hitler were in chapel at the Berchtesgaden–“
“It’s not the same thing.”
“No, you’re right, it isn’t,” Glenn said. “The damage is already done. This is payback. An object lesson. That not all queers are going to mince off to the hospice or be content to carry signs and blow whistles. That passive genocide earns aggressive retribution.”

“You’ve really gone over the edge,” Pete said.
“Oh, boy, have I ever,” Glenn said. “And it feels so goddamn fucking good. I learned that in Santa Fe. Guess Joey filled you in on that stark little piece of high-desert minimalism. Well, how to describe it, Pete. When I blew those smug heartless fucks away, they were everyone who’s ever called me fag or a queer, every shitty hateful and/or condescending straight fuck….And it felt so exquisitely fine. I’m here to tell you it beat aesthetic bliss by a long country mile. It made me want to spread the word to every queer and dyke in the land. The next time a hetero pig gives you some shit, talk back in their language: blow their fucking brains out. They understand that.”
I knew I should keep my mouth shut, but I said, “Is that the kind of world you want to live in?”
“No,” Glenn said. “Not at all. But it’s the kind of world they’ve made.”
Mikey looked at me. “He’s a Gandhi queen, I knew it. He wants to be a victim.”
“I’m not a Gandhi queen,” I said.
“I don’t know what you think you’re going to do now,” Pete said to Glenn.
“Well, then, let me spell it out for you – since it’s all your fault, Mr. Good Intentions, that one of us must now hand-deliver the Gipper his gift.”
“Who’s going to do that?” Pete said.
Glenn looked at me. “I was hoping your chum might volunteer. In a proper suit, I’d say he’d pass quite nicely as a fresh-faced, white-bread Republican. ‘Mr. President, sir, I’d just like to shake your hand and tell you how much I –’ Boom.” Glenn smiled. “But all whimsy aside, Pete, I wish I could say we’re going to draw straws. But it’s got more to do with T-cell counts, I’m afraid.”

“Goddamn it, Glenn!” Mikey said. “You’re going to let this pussy botch one of the greatest moments of the twentieth century–”
“Don’t you call my boyfriend a pussy, mister,” Glenn said in a stiff Gary Cooper parody.
“This is bullshit,” Mikey said. “I could come up through the lot and take that guy out without a sound.”
“Yes, I know.” Glenn slid his hand across Mikey’s back. “You’re our favorite little ninja. Which is precisely why we’re going to need you in the weeks and months to come. We must be pragmatic. You’ve only recently sero-converted. You’re far more likely to die in an FBI fusillade, Mikey, than by [with French pronunciation] complication du HIV. Of if, by a fluke, you’re taken alive – why, there might even be a cure for you several years down the line in federal prison. You’ve got everything to live for, not the least of which is helping us kill as many powerful right-wing pigs as we can. And when Dexter and I begin to fade, as we no doubt shall before you do – why, the bomb with the burning fuse will be in your hand. So you see, you’re the last one who should bear Ronald Reagan his gift. Whereas Joey” – Glenn took off his glasses and looked at Joey – “how I wish it weren’t the case. But I think we all know that any way you slice it, this is Joey’s last summer.”
“Glenn, this is despicable!” Pete said. “You are morally insane!”
Everyone looked at Pete. For a moment I even imagined that Glenn had sobered.
Joey got up and came over to Pete. He was mad. “That’s just a tad disingenuous, coming from you, Pete. Or does it make a big difference because you know me? Because I’m not some distant AIDS kamikaze you can cheer on the news, but someone you know and really care about? What do you want me to do, Pete? Die a miserable death? To pay for my sins? You want me to die in some fucking hospital after endless days of agony like everybody else? So that everybody can say he was a fighter who died with dignity? Is that what you want?”
“Because fuck dying with dignity! Too many people have died already, and there’s nothing dignified about a corpse pile! I want to see another corpse pile – in that fucking church! I want to see Ronald Reagan’s guts pulled out and thrown all over the room! I hope a bunch of stupid little cunt girls die, too! The more innocent victims the better! We’ve died and we’re innocent! Let the slime who let it happen see what it’s like!”

Glenn looked over his glasses at Pete and slid into a Southern accent much like the senator’s: “Why are you providing us with this option, sir? I thought you had serious reservations about violence.”
“I have serious reservations about Joey throwing his life away on what’s basically an incredibly sloppy vendetta,” Pete said. “Especially when you can do something else that will affect the future in a very profound way. These are the people who invented Ronald Reagan, and now they’re setting the agenda for what’s to come.”

I had to make a decision and I didn’t have time to ponder all the moral nuances and ramifications. I knew that if I could convince them to go to La Jolla, I’d have to bear some responsibility for what happened. But if I said nothing, they were going to do something just as horrendous – in fact, more horrendous; that’s what I decided. That’s what it came down to. If Joey went to the church, a lot of more or less innocent people were going to be obliterated along with the two – and their circle of wealthy benefactors – whose narratives blatantly urged violent closure. Whereas in La Jolla, in the Neptune Room, the ratio of innocent bystanders to guilty participants was inevitably going to be lower.
That logic wouldn’t win Sam Waterston’s endorsement. “Good God, man! They shot off a busboy’s hand!” But I had exhausted my appalled-humanist response. I thought of something Todd had once said, even though he opposed violence. “Assassination does change things profoundly. You can’t say it doesn’t.” It was just that usually the wrong people got assassinated.
Pete was right. It was a rare opportunity to decimate the right wing and thereby affect the course of American politics, the state of humanity, in an incalculably ecstatic way. There’s no point in pretending that I didn’t find the prospect exhilarating, that I didn’t also long to see the right people die for a change.”
But I hesitated as Glenn and Joey and Dexter came in the room. Dexter was limping, as if he’d injured his leg while he was jogging. Glenn looked extremely disturbed. I wondered if Dexter might have discovered that the Reagans weren’t going to church this morning after all. If that was the case, I wouldn’t need to say anything, of course. But the possibility that nothing might happen, nothing at all, suddenly seemed unacceptable, an intolerable visceral disappointment, as if a momentum had been building, a drive toward catharsis, and I had become caught up in it as much as anyone. So I felt an awful sense of relief when Glenn said to Mikey, “He’s coming to church all right.”

Glenn and Joey asked me questions, and I showed them where the interior doors were, the kitchen, where the dais would be, the “most important” tables. They began to plan how they might do it, who would go where.

In the back of my mind I heard Gregory saying, “My God, what about the backlash? This will set us back thirty years! They’ll create a police state!” But I knew how Todd would react. He’d “empathize with the rage” of the attackers, while abhorring the actual violence. While visibly trembling with elation that someone (else) had finally done it.

“A plane!” Mikey said. “I could steal a plane!”
“Mikey, you don’t know how to fly a plane,” Joey said.
“I can grab a pilot at gunpoint!” Mikey said. “Some fucking Sunday pilot! Make him crash his Cessna into the church!”
“It’s a fantasy, Mikey,” Joey said.
So what?” Mikey said. “Everything starts as a fantasy! You’re just chickenshit, that’s all. You’re just glad you’ve got some more time.”
“You’re fucking right I am!” Joey said. “I don’t want to die, Mikey.” Joey wiped dripping sweat from his eyes. “This makes a lot more sense.”
“It does at that,” Glenn said. “Yes, I’m beginning to have a very warm, glowing feeling about this La Jolla adventure. I see a rare, open window of opportunity. If Bush was there on Friday, that was surely their moment of keenest alert. They’ll be relaxed now, in the wind-down stage, the afterglow. There still may be the remnants of protest – so much the better. While the ACT UP and Queer Nation kids are out front whining, “Shame, shame, shame,” we’ll be slipping in the back way to cut the shit and take care of business.”

“Just be careful,” Pete said. “Try not to get shot by some moonlighting cop with a .38 under his blazer.”
“I’m alert, I’m leveled out now, don’t worry,” Joey said. And in fact he’d stopped sweating and seemed much steadier. “I know you used to say you’d do this sober, Pete. Like that AA bumper sticker: ‘Do it sober.’” Joey smiled. “So your aim would be better.”
“I know I said that, but–”
“Well, who knows, maybe you’ll still get the chance to see if you really meant it.” Joey seemed to instantly regret the caustic tone of the remark. “I hope not,” he said. “I hope you guys are really okay. That you stay together and all that. Play house, fuck a lot, don’t cheat on each other. Don’t bring home that HIV. I hope someone lives into the next century.”

As we bumped down the rutted dirt road I said to Pete, “So what the fuck is going on? You’re not going to warn those people in La Jolla, are you?”
“No, no. I don’t see how I could do that. But there is one aspect of it that might be very bad. I’ve got to check on something.”
[Pete later ascertained that his mother was attending the targeted conference with her conservative politician lover, and arranged a ruse by telephone to convince her to leave the conference without alerting anyone of the impending attack.]
I covered the mouthpiece and told Pete, “Bryer’s there.”
He can’t come with her,” Pete whispered vehemently.

Within a few moments he was sleeping. I listened to the waves crash in the distance, children squealing in the surf. I looked at the clock. It was 12:07. I imagined the gunfire and screams in La Jolla, Gerald Bryer with a bullet hole in his forehead, pitching hard across the tabletop like Sterling Hayden after Al Pacino shot him in The Godfather. I pictured other grim conservative faces I’d seen on TV, the tops of their heads exploding in misty pink Zapruder sprays, blood and brain tissues spattering the delicate art deco nautical friezes that lined the Neptune Room’s walls. I kissed Pete’s pale, warm shoulder.
I looked at the colorful 1950s Mexican travel poster on the white wall, the poster Jeff had given me. Saw Jeff sleeping naked on his bed in Mexico. Thought of Joey’s painting of his boyfriend asleep the same way. Thought of Joey’s painting of the two men asleep together.
I imagined I was looking at a painting of Pete and me, as we were right now, the way Joey would have painted it.


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