Archive for September, 2022

A story this time

Servitude

Godurn, the mute servant of the Lord Antipater, crossed the marketplace with a slow stride that barely disturbed the static hanging of his white robe. So full was it that his hands, the rhythmic pendula of his inner timepiece, did not alter the repose of the sleeves. Those mean of rank stepped from his path, though all knew that he wore the iron bracelet of slavery, and that his master no longer possessed the power to redress wrongs done his servants. Godurn laid hands on no man, nor did he cast spells, but the thought of opposing him was fearful. He bought from this stall and that with the inclination of his hand or the nod of his head, pressed his master’s ring to the tally sheet, then moved on, assured that the goods would appear as ordered. None dare short the Lord Antipater when Godurn bought.

One person studied him without awe, a massive, muscular man dressed in a short-skirted garment of fur. He watched with attention as the figure in white passed, noting all of his visible aspects. The remainder he could interpolate: the long, tight torso, the heavy wrists, the corded neck and straight shoulders. He knew the race of men from which Godurn had sprung, a race defined not by place or lineage, but by intent and introspection. In one land or another he had encountered them during the many centuries he had lived. They produced astonishment in the folk they lived among, but in him they engendered only anticipation. He had dueled them with swords of craft and guile and had defeated them all. He was prepared to do battle yet again, hoping as ever to meet the one he could not best.

Godurn strode from the market and up the hillside road to the fort of his master, which sat like a great wooden toad upon a tree stump. The portcullis ascended, admitting Godurn into the toad’s gaping mouth, then lowered again, ingesting him.

Within, the Lord Antipater sat in his accounting hall, a low, dank arena, less a room than an enclosed condition of space. Before him lay the books of accounting, with figures written in his own clumsy hand. A low-flaming oil lamp sat also on the table, the chimney so soiled that it appeared to absorb more light than it shed. The Lord Antipater had the countenance of sickness. None could name his complaint or put substance to their vague sense of his disease, but all knew that within his large frame the organs were in a state of slippage and dissolution. He had not long to live, though his skin remained yet full and firm.

Godurn strode into the hall, unannounced and unopposed. He placed both hands beside his head, palms forward, in sign of greeting. His left hand fell back to his side, his right dropped to a level three inches above the table, where it began a series of upwards and downwards motion of the fingers. The Lord Antipater read from those fingers and made notations in the books of accounting: round, childish zeroes, shoddy, leaning fives. When the last entry had been made, he sighed but said nothing. Near Godurn, his tongue forgot its forceful ways and returned to an earlier time when only taste and touch had set it in motion. He lost the aspects of a grown man.

The accounting was poor. The treasury had slid from equilibrium during these last years, and the further it shifted from its fulcrum, the more rapidly the losses mounted. They threatened to lever the fort and all the domain into a chasm. In the race between the illness without and the illness within, men wondered if the Lord would live long enough to be stripped of all but his name.

Godurn made no move to address this coordinated decline. He was a servant by position and by choice, insofar as he had done nothing to gain his freedom. He carried out his duties without attempt to influence their substance. The Lord Antipater, for his part, requested no solutions of Godurn. He had allowed himself to be drawn into a whirlpool which, though deadly, was comforting in its inexorability. To slow its suction would only prolong the day of the flood which would carry all away, halls and lands and the pitiful bulk of his battered corpse. He would not engage himself in so meaningless an act.

When the Lord had given the gesture of dismissal – right palm placed flat on the tabletop, then levered upward – Godurn inclined his head and left the hall. He proceeded by the worn back stairs to the kitchen, a soiled and sooty place which had lost the grandeur of past great meals. The ancient cook sat folded and sour on his high stool by the smoking stove. He glared at Godurn from the corners of his rheumy eyes, years of grudges written in his face. He had aged like a carrot or a potato, gone soft and bad by degrees. Godurn made sign that the food ordered for the week would be delivered that day, then touched lightly the side of the great washing basin. His fingertips exhibited circles of white grease. The cook acknowledged this reprimand with a gaze of unforgiving fear.

Godurn continued his rounds, alerting the keeper of the wardrobe, the gardeners and the groom that all would be provided for them as promised. They received the news according to their perceptions of themselves and of their station.

Slat, the young groom, was good-natured and loving toward horses and men. He revered Godurn and prayed that he might develop within himself the reserved dignity that would command universal respect, though he knew, with rare insight, that he was accorded a lesser station throughout life.

The gardeners, two bent brothers, taciturn by nature, spoke little more than Godurn himself. They replied to statements and questions alike with simple motions of the body and quiet yet dramatic eruptions of sound that were not words. They accepted Godurn as he was and thought no more of it.

The keeper of the wardrobe stood tall in emaciated thinness. He lived without alteration the glory of days when cloaks were trimmed in ermine and the flash of gold had dazzled the eyes of subjects. The gold, fleck by fleck and gram by gram, had slid down the long incline of the treasury; the ermine cloaks had fallen prey to mice. Only the keeper himself extended tradition through his living sartorial resplendence. The Lord Antipater no longer received him, for he sensed that the past should remain past, not stand present before him. To the keeper, Godurn was embodiment of the drought that had fallen on the finances of the domain. He did not oppose the servant, but whinnied like an aged horse that resents its bridle.

At the base of the Lord Antipater’s gently mounded hill, Denugar, the massive man in fur, stood with folded arms and feet planted apart, and he contemplated. Over the eons, he had discovered no others like himself, as though he lived outside the confines of time. Such others must exist, reason  told him, but where and how, that he should not have met them? Did his being reign as singular as a thought?

Though he cherished the strength of his limbs, they remained idle of proof when none dared challenge him in physical combat. Thus, with reluctance he relinquished the right to bodily triumph, turning instead to victories of the mind. In time, even these had turned routine, ebbing his desire for combat in all its forms. But today that desire blazed anew, like suppressed flames arising from low-smothering embers.

He tarried a moment longer, then returned to the market with a gait powerful yet agile, retracing the route Godurn had taken, visiting stalls and shops and the quiet workrooms of craftsmen. He presented himself with courtesy to these fleet-lived beings, enquiring of them only the type and price of their goods, yet at his visit, all felt the weary transience of their work weigh upon them. The blacksmith, oiled and golden in the light of his forge, shrank to an ill-formed rustic. The potter, her hands hung in Byzantine grace above her wheel, blew like a reed in the winds of time as Denugar’s forming hands compared her work to the masterpieces of Athens. Before the storehouse of his vast head, the printer labored as if without vocabulary at the ink and oil of his presses.

Truly, Godurn would be a worth enemy He bought only of the best, and only from the most deserving of men. Denugar had known this already. What he had hoped to discover from his inquiries were the quirks of the servant’s humanity, those shadings and castings of performance that might tempt the seller’s selfish eye. But Godurn dealt solely to the advantage of his master, leaving neither mark nor pattern of his own desires on his dealings

At evening’s end, the fort and the scattered huts of the peasants hung formless from the support of the stars. Only two earthly lights shone, on in the Lord Antipater’s chamber of records, the same self-devouring lamp transferred from the accounting hall, the other in Godurn’s room of rough-hewn wood atop the guard tower.

The Lord Antipater plucked from history the names and deeds of his ancestry, a shepherd race which had descended from the mountains to the plains, from pastoral solitude to domination through the passivity of the lowland populace. Godurn stood before his window opening, gazing into the night, the forms of the stars muted by the glow from behind.

The following morning was one of fitful weather. Clouds bedeviled the sky in patches thick and thin. Errant breezes stirred the leaves of a thicket, left the next untouched, rustled a third. The threat of rain advanced and receded, each change announcing itself with fleeting certainty.

Denugar paced the fields, unconcerned with the doings of sky or winds. He studied the disposition of the furrows and the craft of the tillings. A subtle malaise had beset the industry of the peasants, as it had invaded the body of their lord. Their lives were in the period of unwinding, that time when the methods which were yesterday sufficient begin to lose their hold on those who employ them. The blame would come to be laid on the methods themselves, leading to their abandonment and the last stages of decomposition 

Stretching before Denugar, the furrows were poorly laid. In five years or ten, the untamed and unnutritious cousins of strawberries and squash would invade and overcome the rows. Should Godurn be bested, the holdings of the Lord Antipater would become as a swamp. As Denugar knew this, so he knew also that, in the revolution of time, one land failed and another took its place, until the first recovered from its fallow phase and rose fertile once more. It happened again and again. This repetition did confine his sympathies.

Clouds fled and the sun burst forth to shatter his musings. Before the gladness of the shimmering grain his confidence in the transience of life wavered. A force arose from the ground to stand against his sedition. In response, he shook his great head with exuberance and snapped a fence post clean at its base with one blow of his fist. His renewed flame was fully alight. The battle would be monumental.

It began not in Godurn’s normal sphere of duty, but within the courts and official chambers of the Kingdom. Grievances filed in the names of peasants and villagers, tidy legal documents signed with the seal of a wolf holding a rabbit loosely in its jaws, charged the servant of the Lord Antipater with acts of willfulness and oppression, the withholding of fair wages, and the destruction of the hovels of the poor. They begged the King for redress and demanded of the Lord Antipater compensation.

The Lord was forced to lay aside his books of accounting and turn to the answering of summonses. In the twilight of his lucidity, he probed the edges of these parchment compilations but could not enter into their substance. His mind rested instead on the single thought that he must keep his name, the truest of his possessions, unblemished before the attacks rained upon it. Insofar as the resources of his mind could be directed to this cause, so was the range of Godurn’s duties narrowed.

The white robe was now seen seldom in the fields and marketplace, but often in legal chambers, where the servant placed before the judges the written depositions of the Lord Antipater. The phrases of those depositions, textured by Godurn’s hand, blended fact and precedent in a fierce, inexorable logic. The judges, in whispered consultation, sought terms that would free them of the accusing presence of the defendant’s minion. In sonorous dignity they championed the rights of the peasantry but returned no guilty verdict.

Denugar cared naught for the verdicts. His purpose was not to humble Godurn before the courts, but to set doubts adrift in the mind of the Lord Antipater, the one being to whom Godurn owed fealty. The Lord, however, circling ever closer to a stasis at his center, could no longer view beyond the confines of his being. When Denugar saw that the confidence of the Lord in his servant was not shaken, he released his hold, and the legal attack fell to disarray

As summer passed and the harvest progressed, a series of calamities befell the land. Shocks of grain burst while standing in the field, and the wheat blew beyond regathering. The greatest of the Lord’s stone granaries, rent top to bottom, shuddered like a sickened beast, then toppled to ruin. Within the fort itself, a ravenous fire devoured the Lord’s stores and ate into the hand-hewn beams. When the flames had been quenched under Godurn’s direction and the tired vassals sat to consume a massive concoction of stew ladled out by the resentful cook, a second fire invaded their bodies. They screamed and retched, clawing their ragged garments to shreds. Some died in torment.

The Lord Antipater called Godurn before him. The increasing tortures of his domain had induced a rare surge of illumination within the cobwebbed chambers of his brain. The words of the wolf-sealed documents returned to him, their accusations ringed with cold fire. He did not answer the greeting of his servant. In his eyes lay a sorrow wide and deep, the grief of one whose trust has run aground. He lay before Godurn a list written in his own untamed scrawl, the words like tangled skeins of wool.

It set forth four duties of a steward: to oversee the handling of grain; to inspect the granaries and pass on their soundness; to maintain the watch within the fort; to provision the kitchen. When Godurn had read, the Lord Antipater placed his fingers on the books of accounting, indicating the figures of income, ever reduced, and the figures of loss, ever inflated. He uttered a sigh so deep within his being that the dim lamp trembled, then lowered his eyes and gave the gesture of dismissal.

Godurn paced the passageways of the fort in daily routine as he had for the two decades and more of his stewardship, but never before had the iron circlet weighed so heavy on his wrist.

Yet as the season of harvest wound to a close, the Lord Antipater grew again forgetful as his substance eroded, once more returning the greeting of his servant. At times he averted his eyes from Godurn’s fingers as they poured out their steady rhythm above the tabletop, but he could not uncover what drowned memories led him to do so.

Once more, Denugar saw his plan fall short of intention. More insidious strategies were demanded of him.

The domain proceeded into winter at a calm and predetermined pace, its physical outlines dimmed but otherwise familiar. In the faces and attitudes of those he encountered, however, Godurn met peculiar transformations. On a cold, clear morning, as the sun burned frost from the stubble, he found young Slat the groom hunkered in the corner of a stall, nodding and gibbering to himself and clawing his fingers through the mare’s great stools. At sight of Godurn, he threw his arms across his eyes and shrank as from a mad dog. As the servant strode swiftly to the fort in search of the herbalist, he was accosted by the brother gardeners, who tugged at his flowing sleeves and complained in shrill, chittering voices of the weather, the state of the earth, and the quality of their implements. They scampered around him like excited puppies, blind to the force of his person.

The herbalist, having examined the groom, reported that Slat had shown no abnormal symptoms and had spoken with great enthusiasm of his earlier meeting with Godurn. The gardeners, when visited on the servant’s regular rounds, behaved in their usual fashion, showing no inclination to make complaint.

So it went throughout the season. Wherever Godurn traveled, the behavior of those long known to him was turned upon its head, then righted again as inexplicably. One day the cook would command the kitchen in the petty ill-humor of old age, the next he would squat on his stool like a cornered cat, hissing and spitting, threatening Godurn with the jagged remnants of his fingernails. Without preamble, the keeper of the wardrobe would divest himself of his hauteur to tell rambling tales and pantomime pointless japes, giggling into his fists like a schoolboy. Even market vendors shed their awe, snickering at the white-robed form as he passed, later returning to their duties with misted eyes, as though emerging from daydream.

None but Godurn took note of these changes, and those in a position to test his observations refuted them at every turn. He began to find himself divested of that trust in his senses which before had been absolute. The grinding repetition of his duties and the continual diminution of the land was echoed by the growing hollow within him. His hands lost their rhythmic containment, hanging forgotten from stooped shoulders. His firm stride wavered to a shamble.

The vendors in the marketplace, released from Denugar’s previous arcane spells, dealt Godurn damaged goods from beneath their tables, and their mockery, which sorcery had previously placed upon their lips, now came unforced. Those who bore Godurn affection hung their heads before the sight of his robe, spotted and filthy as the bed linen of an incontinent drunkard. Others, the mighty who had stood aside from fear in better days, put forth their great square feet to trip him up.

Meanwhile, the ruin of the domain accelerated. Fences sundered and fell; horses roamed the highways, looking up at travelers in idle speculation while munching weeds that rose high against their forelegs. With spring half gone, the fields still lay fallow; Millers ground the last of the old grain and saw no hope of new. The peasantry, unstrung by the dissolution spreading from above, took themselves into neighboring lands, where they found neither home nor labor, but became a burden on the countryside.

In his hall of accounting, the Lord Antipater arose seldom from his chair, falling asleep across the books and fouling the untouched figures with the drool of his mouth. In waking, his wrinkled head, given way fully before the ravages of disease, rested upon his knuckles, as though without them it might tumble from his shoulders.

One day in early summer, Godurn stood before the Lord, empty of will, waiting his master’s pleasure. The Lord’s face bore a yellow cast and his eyes reflected nothing, so far had they retreated into their sockets. Godurn stood in the silence of the room until that silence brought the realization that no breath issued from the Lord’s slack mouth. The servant reached forward and touched the shoulder of the aged hulk, a gesture he had never before employed. His master’s fisted hands slid slowly from under his head and the body eased sideways, sweeping the blackened lamp to destruction. The Lord Antipater lay upon the wide-boarded floor, vast in body but empty of soul.

A wild grief welled up in Godurn and overflowed, turning the dusty leaves of ivy like a passing wind. Though bound by oath to one whose hold on life and reason had diminished daily, the bonds were those of love far more than duty, and thus transcended even the absence of life. He looked one last time upon his Lord, the face not unlovely in the lethargy of cessation, then descended to the courtyard by the massive timbers of the grand staircase, his days of servitude prematurely ended.

At the portcullis he woke the guard who sat napping at his post The man grumbled at the interruption and prepared to sink back into doze. But when he looked upon Godurn, he saw the face of former days and drew himself to attention, filled with trepidation and relief, for if the steward of the domain was now as he had been, the old standards must be met, and with these standards came pride of service. He wound the portcullis to its highest and stood with spear stiff at his side.

The death of his Lord lifted a veil from Godurn’s understanding. He saw that a chain of logic and purpose linked the mysterious occurrences of recent seasons. The servant, not the Lord, had been the focus of a malice at work within the domain. If this be so, then the wasting of both land and Lord had been hastened with cold indifference, as when a hunter despoils crops in the pursuit of game.

He walked the long-idle lands, forcing a path through rising weeds. He studied the fields, untilled, deserted by agriculture. At the granary, he shifted aside the rubble, stone by stone, exposing a crack leading downward to a row of holes, each holding loosely a wooden peg. Those pegs had once been tight, doused with water to expand until the rock should sunder. A wrath rose in Godurn, leaping higher than the treble-storied walls of the fort. It burned clean his sullied robe, its whiteness rending the air. He acknowledged the force of chaos ranged against him and went forth to meet it.

Denugar, steadfast midway up the hill, saw Godurn approaching with the unfettered gait of a royal messenger, and his veins swelled with the ecstasy of true battle. No form had he wished to meet that day but he who inhabited the resurrected robe of white. To test the reflexes of his adversary, he wound the string of his desire about the core of his determination and hurled down upon Godurn a sphere of power that seared the grasses beneath its flight. Godurn threw his arms high, then flashed them downward. At the spot determined by his pointing fingers, the ethereal ball landed and rebounded, sailing high above his head to pass into the fields, scorching a path of sterility across the ground.

Denugar strained to contain his joy at this opposition, the first of merit in a millennium. Again and yet again he gathered forces from the earth and air and directed them upon Godurn, at each trial doubled and redoubled, but Godurn turned them aside, converting the energy of their launch to his advantage.

Thwarted, Denugar shed the raiment of power and took guile instead for his cloak. He descended the hill, his face open in the sun, the broadness of his body bidding Godurn receive him as a brother. Amity flowed from him as honey from a tipped jar, suffusing the space until the nodding heads of Queen Anne’s lace begged reconciliation and grasshoppers leapt in delight. Denugar curved an arm to enfold the white-clothed form, but Godurn, hands at shoulder level, deflected the advance without stepping aside.

As soaking waters leech the bitterness from kale, a true warmth invaded Denugar to flush its semblance. His calves relaxed, ease replaced tenseness in the sheathed muscles of his back. His desire for competition threatened to doze in comity. Only at the last instant did he snatch it back from slumber, blinking through his amazement. Never before had his own deception been turned back upon him.

He reassessed the enemy before him and his hackles rose, as though the fur he wore enclosed an animal roused from hibernation. The arousal blossomed into a spring awakening, releasing forgotten knowledge from the locked caskets of his fledgling days, enchantments and magical arts fallen into disuse through too-easy victories. Denugar glowed like a volcano come to life, and the air about him shook, set spinning like a dervish. The offensive returned to the man in fur, and he drew forth a long-neglected spell of domination.

In tones of thunder he spoke it. The hill trembled and the portcullis crashed down before the terrified guard. But no mere words could overthrow Godurn. From service he had learned acceptance. From the befuddlement of recent days he had learned what darkness lies beyond acceptance And from the death of his liege he had learned how the two can be bound together in destruction. Now the period of his learning was complete. He stood forth in full mastery, possessed of all knowledge he could afford to receive. As his robe of white had nullified the stains upon it, so the vastness of his silence encompassed the spell hurled against him and rendered it voiceless.

Even as the words fled his mouth, Denugar saw the scope of his irretrievable error. He howled the pain of his defeat, and the sound wracked even Slat, far off in his stable, where he clutched the mare’s corded neck for comfort.

Head bowed, Denugar moved to stand below Godurn, then followed him up the rising road. As they approached the fort, Godurn signaled for the portcullis to be raised anew, and they entered the stockade, passing the rotting outbuildings of carpenters and tinkers and through the echoing chambers. They stopped at the hall of accounting, where the Lord Antipater lay, he too silent, now and forever. Denugar lifted the great body as if it were a thing of parchment and carried it to the burial grounds of the Lord’s ancestors.

Once the ceremonies of death’s passage had been completed, they returned, and Godurn took the seat of the Lord Antipater before the stained pages which told their tale of decline. Denugar placed down a new lamp, its chimney spotless. It burned late for many a night, until the renewal of the land had been assured.

In the years to follow, the domain arose again, its fields tall with grain, its orchards heavy with apples and peaches. The great granary was rebuilt, to yet grander scale. The blacksmith sweated pools in his smithy to shoe the many horses and keep in good temper the plows. When the keeper of the wardrobe expired, his body was wound in yards of silk from his storeroom, and Slat the groom was promoted in his place.

Denugar, his skirt of fur replaced by a loose-fitting habit of earthen tones, strode the roads and byways, seeing to the maintenance of the domain. The pain of his defeat no longer burned, replaced by the recognition of duty and the hope of completion. Now, perhaps the number of his days, like those of all others on earth, would be confined, and the suppressed terror of an unimpeded eternity extinguished.

On his return to the hall, he reported to the land’s master, who spoke no greeting but inscribed his wishes in a clear, decisive hand. Behind the master, on a hook placed at the glance of a standing man, hung the iron bracelet of slavery, a reminder of the resplendent preamble of his servitude.

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Dinner time staples

Dinners at Baring St. tended to get quite interesting when we had guests over, which we did fairly often. In their teens, Ben and Erin would bring some of their entourage by and we’d have a fine time swapping absurdities and making obscene comments about the food. 

Once the weekly communal house meals with the Tilleys dissolved (too many conflicting schedules), we set up a rotating weekly dinner with our friends Deb and Dave. Their daughter, Bessey, was best friends with Cait as they moved from toddlerhood into pre-teens.

Deb, a poet, taught English at Penn; Dave was a photographer, real estate agent and golf referee (a combination I have not encountered elsewhere before or since). These dinners had a stronger intellectual cast without getting righteously boring.

Other guests were all over the place, and none moreso, of course, than Jim Knipfel. He and I always tended to get gigglingly, then howlingly drunk. But it usually took awhile, with a fair amount of food going down before and during the howls. 

In those Jim-soaked days, Linda was director of the Powelton Mantua Educational Fund, a local after-school program for non-latchkey kids. They did all sorts of neat things in the couple hours before their parents picked them up, much if not most of it artistic. A tall lovely blonde young lady, Jeannie, taught the art programs and later became lead teacher. (When PMEF closed down a couple years later, Linda made the mistake of asking me what I’d most miss about the place: “Jeannie in shorts.”)

Before Jeannie took the lead, the classes were overseen by LCH (let’s call her) Rachel, a brunette of equal pulchritude but oddly reticent demeanor. She seemed forthcoming yet at the same time … not … quite … in there. And she blinked compulsively, something you’d think would be neither here nor there in conversation but that I found peculiarly unsettling.

One time Rachel and her husband had to go to some meeting or other and asked if their son LCH Dan, Cait’s age, could stay with us till they could pick him up. Fine and dandy. Jim was coming over for dinner too. Finer and dandier. 

Aside: Rachel’s husband was some sort of minister: a missionary? His thin face held a thinner, pinched mouth. I think he found it difficult to open it wide. He shook hands with purpose and looked at life in a very purposeful way. Did this somehow relate to Rachel’s blinking? Dan was a nice kid, but had the look of someone seeing himself as continually being very close to doing something that would be considered wrong.

I can’t remember how much I’d had to drink, but we were all having a  jolly time, Jim slowly approaching blotto. Dan seemed slightly puzzled by our whole menage. Somehow – I don’t know how it came up – we got off onto a discussion of… not exactly self-harm, but doing ridiculous things to our bodies. 

Jim brought up his sometime habit of stapling his head. So of course I had to hunt up our stapler. I brought it down from my writing hutch and handed it to him. He was still wearing his trademark black hat at the table, so he removed it and stapled his head.

He offered the device to anyone else who wanted to join the fun. Linda isn’t into self-mutilation, the kids were off-limits and I was too busy laughing to the point of choking. Cait, as near as I can remember, took it with her usual amused response to Jim. But Dan’s amazement spread across his face like a cosmetic application. I can’t recall anything he said, but his normal worried reticence blossomed. Jim felt encouraged and applied a few more cranial staples, not one of which, I’m glad to say, pierced his skull. (He and I share a rhinoceros upper bone structure.)

Linda was unsurprisingly mortified. Here, as both Rachel’s boss lady and, at the moment, caretaker of her child, she had allowed Dan to be spectator at a remarkably unChristian ritual. Well, when Rachel and minister hubby returned, they quickly learned what the dinner entertainment consisted of. Rachel tried hard to force a smile that didn’t successfully materialize. I was still giggling. Hubbister – oh, that pinched mouth could have cut a slice from the curtains (if we’d had curtains).

I don’t recall that they ever again came by our place. Or that Jim ever again stapled his head in my presence. Dammit.

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