Lately

Overview

In this deliciously heart-rending collection, eleven interconnected stories present women and men whose lives have been influenced by Bob Dylan and Vietnam, childhood accidents and family mysteries. When two sisters throw a divorce party, it's a Martha Stewart vision gone haywire. A coed in the late 1960s muddles through an unplanned pregnancy while the father is missing in action. A vacationer thinks she sees her late father on a transatlantic flight. With charming prose, offbeat characters, and emotional depth,...

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Overview

In this deliciously heart-rending collection, eleven interconnected stories present women and men whose lives have been influenced by Bob Dylan and Vietnam, childhood accidents and family mysteries. When two sisters throw a divorce party, it's a Martha Stewart vision gone haywire. A coed in the late 1960s muddles through an unplanned pregnancy while the father is missing in action. A vacationer thinks she sees her late father on a transatlantic flight. With charming prose, offbeat characters, and emotional depth, Sara Pritchard illuminates our defining moments.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[Pritchard's] stories are like marzipan: dense with flavor and beautifully wrought . . . Lately demands to be savored."—Karen Karbo Entertainment Weekly

"[Pritchard] displays the grace and clarity of , say, Anne Tyler or even Alice Munro. But the truth is, Pritchard has a marvelous style all her own. She displays compassion and off-kilter humor in equal doses." Los Angeles Times

"[A] lovely collection . . . The full bittersweet spectrum of Pritchard's narrative imagination is perhaps most charmingly displayed in "The Honor of Your Presence," as two sisters throw a divorce party at which, amazingly and against daunting odds, a rollicking good time is had by all."—Amanda Heller Boston Globe

"Lately has all the elements that enchanted readers of Crackpots. Beautiful sentences, artful storytelling, a wickedly original voice, and, of course, unforgettable crackpots. Pritchard has perfect comic pitch, intelligence to burn, and writes the finest metaphors of any fiction writer I know."—Sigrid Nunez, author of A Feather on the Breath of God and The Last of Her Kind

"Sara Pritchard's writing is so astonishing and delightful that these stories, if they fancied, could run away and join the circus. Lately is one of the most incandescent and tornadic collections I have ever read. Pure white magic. I bow at the clicking ruby slippers of Sara Pritchard."—Will Clarke, author of Lord Vishnu's Love Handles and The Worthy

"The stories in Lately have a lovely strangeness. They’re full of  bright homely details and random events, desertions and disappearances, and their conclusions rise to praise the quirky human capacity for reinvention. A book of rare and fresh originality."—Joan Silber, author of Ideas of Heaven

"A dazzlingly original voice."—Andrea Barrett, author of Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal

"Sara Pritchard is the real deal. With precision and humor, she creates worlds the reader enters with effortless grace, never wanting to leave or interrupt the proceedings. I can think of no other writer who can take you from the hills of West Virginia to the train tracks of Morocco with such style and grace. More, Sara! More!"—Adriana Trigiani, bestselling author of Big Stone Gap and Lucia, Lucia

"Lately is such a moving and funny collection that reading it makes my heart ache. I would follow Pritchard and her characters anywhere just to hear what they had to say."—Vendela Vida, author of And Now You Can Go and Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name

"Lately, Sara Pritchard’s unforgettable linked stories, reads like a love-letter to the hysterical juxtapositions, absurd misses, and lost opportunities of the world. The book is funny, sad, irreverent, and dead-on; one that shouldn’t be missed."—Kate Walbert, author of Our Kind

"Lately is a page-turner, a collaged Valentine of a book, and Sara Pritchard is a genius. She embraces her characters' eccentricities—in youth, in middle and old age, and at the threshold of death—with wit, compassion, inventive surrealism, and a deeply realistic insight. Pritchard knows the secrets of both life and death and reveals them with a delightfully addictive insouciance. This is a book to fall in love with, and to read over and over."—Sarah Stone, author of The True Sources of the Nile

"Each of the 11 stories in the unsettling collection stands elegantly on its own, but collectively they branch out and intertwine with each other." Columbus Dispatch

"Pritchard's trademark, often irreverent humor bubbles to the surface over and over again . . . Masterfully done, short stories impart whole chapters' worth of insight into a few brilliantly honed sentences. Pritchard proves she is a worthy contender in both the novel form and its concentrated cousin. Highly recommended." Library Journal Starred

"Well-calibrated forays into unwieldy moments of decision . . . . Pritchard's shutter-click views of her characters capture their messy human lives with a sometimes startling clarity." Publishers Weekly

"These subtly linked 11 stories give dignity to characters whose quirky secret natures are often overlooked. . . .While exploring issues of self- and re-invention, of rootedness and disconnection, Pritchard brings her characters deeply and movingly to life." Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Set somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic region ("Pennsy-hi-o") and featuring characters from a disconnected family, these 11 stories from Pritchard (Cracked) are well-calibrated forays into unwieldy moments of decision. "The Pink Motel" begins with the adult narrator's assertion that while in Florence the year before, she began thinking of becoming a Roman Catholic, then quickly segues into her memory of losing her father, who literally vanished from their Zanesville, Ohio, house: his disappearance prompts her lifelong pursuit to reinvent herself (the Catholicism just being the latest example). In "The Wonders of the World," elderly father Reggie is still physically sickened by the loss of his peace-activist daughter, Faye, killed in a freak explosion years before leaving Reggie only his glib, prosperous, unlovable son, Albert (and Albert's new family) to visit on holidays. "The Honor of Your Presence" builds up to a zany, after-26-years-of-marriage divorce party for the narrator's aphasic sister, Maggie, prompting all kinds of sweet and sour memories; while "Late October, Early April" delineates the poignant ramifications a generation later of a mother's prescribed use of the fetus-harming drug thalidomide. The title story's narrator is a middle-aged, twice-married woman resigned to watching her daughter make the same mistakes she did. Pritchard's shutter-click views of her characters capture their messy human lives with a sometimes startling clarity. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In these 11 loosely linked stories, Pritchard (Crackpots) examines the quirky lives of a handful people whose paths intersect over several decades. Using iconic markers (Thalidomide, American Airlines Flight 77, paint-by-numbers art projects), she moves the reader back and forth through the decades, tracking her characters as they carefully (and sometimes not so carefully) tackle life's stressors-divorce, birth defects, cancer, adultery, and the challenges of aging. At times clueless, often endearingly inept in their fumbling efforts to keep their families together, Pritchard's people sparkle with equal parts courage and bewilderment. Pritchard's trademark, often irreverent humor bubbles to the surface over and over again. In "The Honor of Your Presence," for instance, staffers at an ad agency fantasize about starting Last Suppers, a meals-on-the-go business for overscheduled Christians. The Pied Piper, a compassionate, music-loving exterminator in "Here on Earth," is thrilled to entice an enormous rat out of hiding with Saturday Night Fever's "Stayin' Alive." Masterfully done, short stories impart whole chapters' worth of insight into a few brilliantly honed sentences. Pritchard proves she is a worthy contender in both the novel form and its concentrated cousin. Highly recommended.-Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor District Lib., MI Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Set in the fictional towns and suburban subdivisions of what Pritchard (Crackpots, 2003) calls New Northwest Pennsi-hi-o, these subtly linked 11 stories give dignity to characters whose quirky secret natures are often overlooked. The first story, "A Winter's Tale," in which a woman named Celeste walks home on a cold night after a deer hits her car, seems to go nowhere. But the loose-endedness is deceiving, for in the deeply moving "The Christening," situated midway through the volume, Celeste reappears, first through the semi-demented eyes of her aged mother and then in stark reality as she cares for that mother and her tattooed but charming teenaged son while knowing that she has cancer. Similarly, characters grow in dimension as they reappear from story to story. Renata, who suffers a bad week in "Here on Earth," works with Jack and Bobbie, who throw a divorce party for Bobbie's sister in "The Honor of Your Presence." In high school, Renata hung out with Gloria, Beryl and Vincent. Gloria describes the "spiritual topography" within people in the volume's title story. While remembering her unhappy first marriage, she worries that her daughter, who has married Celeste's son, is repeating her unhappy pattern. In "Late October, Early April," Beryl gets pregnant with Vincent's child shortly before he ships out to Vietnam. In "The Pink Motel," Fanny, whose father disappeared when she was six and who never met Vincent, wears his MIA bracelet, claiming him as her lover in an attempt to re-invent her life. Elderly LaRue, whose brother Reggie mourns his daughter in the painfully sad "The Wonders of the World," does not care for Fanny as a tour guide in "La Vecchietta in Sienna," the final story.She is more concerned with the visitations she receives from the dead of Pennsi-hi-o on the streets of Italy. While exploring issues of self- and reinvention, of rootedness and disconnection, Pritchard brings her characters deeply and movingly to life.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618610044
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 1/2/2007
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 1,470,488
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Sara Pritchard is the author of the novel Crackpots, which was selected as a New York Times Notable Book and was chosen by Ursula Hegi to receive the Bakeless Prize for fiction. She holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from West Virginia University and has published stories and essays in a number of literary journals. She lives in Morgantown, West Virginia.

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Read an Excerpt

A Winter’s Tale

Full moon, first snow sticking to the pavement like confectioners’ sugar on a jelly doughnut. After midnight, snowquiet, and Celeste walking right smack- dab down the middle of Little Indian Creek Road, making a track like a rip in a long roll of gauze bandage. She could hear a car engine or the scrape and ring of a snowplow a mile away, plenty of time to get off the road, onto the berm, she reasons, and here in the center she’s safer than out on the edges, where the woods spread out deep and dark before the entrance to Johnson’s Orchard, the housing development where she lives, two or so miles up ahead. Celeste isn’t afraid of people anymore—not like she was when she was young and lived in the city—not out here on this cold December night. Just the wild things alarm her, like the deer that scared the bejesus out of her when it hit her car a few minutes ago.
She’d seen the buck standing way in front of her, in the middle of the road. She could still picture him. Big rack and heavy, dark body—too dark almost, it seemed, for a deer—dark and big like a centaur. He was captured in her headlights with his body in profile, his elegant head turned toward her, a perfect shoot-me pose like on the cover of Sports Afield. At the sight of him, Celeste stopped and turned off the headlights, remembering what Graham had told her that time they were driving through the Poconos soon after their wedding: turn off the headlights to break the hypnotic trance of a deer blinded by brightness.
Celeste lit a cigarette and waited a minute or so and then turned the headlights back on—all clear—and started out again, but she hadn’t gone very far when: thunk! A deer (the same one?) hit the car, slamming against the hood. Its head smacked against the windshield right in front of Celeste’s face, cracking the glass and making her scream. When it hit the car and landed on the hood, Celeste saw the deer’s face in the moonlight—its big, terrified face. Its imploring eye, the size of a yo-yo, winked slowly, like a doll’s.
She slammed on the brakes. The car skidded. The deer turned and looked right at her before it slid off the hood, scraping its hooves on the bumper like fingernails on a blackboard and sort of kneeling against the fender with its head bowed and front legs awkwardly folded, as if saying its prayers.
Celeste thought she heard the poor thing moan. Amen.
It snorted and struggled to its feet and then ran off at an angle into the black woods, its white tail waving bye-bye like a mittened hand. Celeste wondered if now the deer was sitting alone some place under a tree, stunned, too, and if it had seen her face as she had seen its—if her own terrified face loomed distorted and hideous on the silver screen of its memory.
When she tried to drive away, a hissing-dragging-scraping sound stopped her. She rolled the window down and leaned out, but she couldn’t see what was the matter. Snow was still falling, coming down steadily and heavily like in an animated Christmas movie. It was the only time Celeste had ever wished she had a cell phone, a thing she’d resisted adamantly. She always hated people with cell phones, all the private conversations rudely going on in public—in stores and checkout lines, on commuter trains and planes, in restaurants . . . everywhere. People laughing and chitchatting and arguing, talking about the most intimate things—relationships and yeast infections—and making the most annoying small talk, right within earshot of everyone. Had they no manners? And all the cell phone towers poking out of the landscape everywhere like cowlicks. She hated talking on the phone. Why would she want to carry one with her?
But now, on this snowy night, what a relief it would be to pull out a little toy-size telephone and call someone for help. But what good would it do? Whom would she call? She could call home, but Julian, her son, wouldn’t be there. He’d be off somewhere with his friends, and if he was home he wouldn’t answer. He’d be sleeping; that’s all he did at home anymore. She could call her friend Bobbie, but Bobbie lived on the other side of Indian Lake. It would take her a half-hour to get there. Celeste could walk home before that. Was there really no one else? Was 911—a three-digit number—her only savior?
When she finally found the flashlight under the passenger seat and got out to examine the damage, the first thing she saw was a big smear on the road as if the deer had tried to make a snow angel, and a few round drops of bright red blood scattered like a handful of change. At the top of the rise, Celeste stopped to catch her breath and light another cigarette. She peered down the road to see if the lights oof her Civic were still in sight (no) and then looked down at her tracks in the yellow beam. There seemed to be some letters . . . a wooooord? . . . there in her footprint. What? She leaned in closer.
ES . . . what?
ESPRIT. ESPRIT, her footprints said.
“Goddammit,” she said out loud, smearing the footprints within reach with the toe of her boot. What a vulgar, sneaky marketing technique, Celeste thought, this branding of the sole. If she’d noticed the logo imprint on the bottom of her new boots, she’d never have bought them. She imagined herself breaking into the Esprit shoe factory like those radical feminists who broke into the Mattel factory in the seventies and replaced all the Talking Barbie voice boxes with the voice tapes from GI Joe.
“Let’s take the beach head!” postoperative Barbie shouted in her authoritative baritone.
“I love your hair!” GI Joe squealed.
ESPRIT. SUCKS. Celeste’s boots would say. Or maybe JESUS. SAVES. JESUS. SAVES. Ha-ha-ha! Tammy Faye Bakker boots. Seriously, though, why not something philosophical—CARPE on the left; DIEM on the right—or some lovely image? A snowflake, a ginkgo leaf, a Celtic cross. Or how about the lovely Chinese characters Julian had tattooed on his arm last year?
Celeste was startled when she first saw the tattoos. Julian had kept them concealed, but she spotted the black marks on his arm through a thin T-shirt one morning as he was going from the bathroom into his room. Her first thought: leeches. Then: melanoma. She never saw Julian anymore, she realized, when he was not fully dressed. For years now she’d seen him in nothing but baggy jeans and a T-shirt and a hooded sweatshirt over that. When Julian pulled up his sleeve at her request, Celeste was at first surprised and then suddenly disappointed that he’d never shown her the tattoos. For so many years she knew his little-boy body so well: every scar, every scab, every freckle, every slight imperfection—washing him in the tub every night with that washcloth mitten shaped like Bullwinkle. She’d do all the voices for him: Dudley Do-Right, Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Boris and Natasha. How Julian would giggle and hold his nose and go under the water, blowing bubbles. “Porpoise,” she called him for years, “my little porpoise.” Why had he never shown her the tattoos? He’d had it done last year, he said. What did she care? It was his body, he said defensively, before she even had a chance to respond.
“What does it say?” Celeste asked. The characters were beautiful—indigo, almost black—and looked like they’d been painted with a Sumi-e brush. She wanted to touch them, put out her hand to touch them, then drew it back.
Julian pointed to the first character. “Danger,” he said.
The character underneath—even more lovely—the one that looked like a jack pine next to a mountain, he said meant “opportunity.” Together they meant “crisis.” Celeste was baffled. “Why do you want the word crisis tattooed on your body?” she asked. She was careful not to sound critical. She was just trying to understand. Weren’t there more than a thousand Chinese characters? He could have chosen any one, any combination at all, any word. Why crisis?
“Why not?” Julian answered. “Why do people do anything? Why do you get up in the morning? Why do you read all the time? Why do you go to your stupid job?” Julian was not shouting, but his voice was reproachful, full of disdain. He turned quickly and stepped into his room, closing the door in Celeste’s face and clicking the lock.
Celeste walked down the hall and into the bathroom. Two blue jays were fighting at the redwood bird feeder just outside the window, squawking and spreading their wings and tailfeathers like cheerleaders showing off their two-toned skirts in a herkie jump. Celeste looked at herself in the medicine cabinet mirror, searching her face for something familiar.
“Why do people do anything?” she repeated to the flat face in the mirror.
“There’s just no reason to carry on,” the face whispered back. This was its mantra, its standard reply to any inquiry Celeste made.
The blue jays squawked and fought and carried on some more.
From Julian’s room, Janis Joplin’s voice crescendoed, singing “Piece of My Heart,” until it seemed to Celeste that the ghost of Janis Joplin was standing right next to her, screaming in her ear. She could almost smell the intoxicating cocktail of Jack Daniel’s and patchouli, the Zippo’s flame scorching the stainless steel spoon. The lyrics flung her back to her own youth—India prints and love beads and little cones of incense, pipes fashioned from aluminum foil, peace marches and draft card burnings, turntables spinning Cheap Thrills, Are You Experienced, In-a-Gadda-da-Vida.
That night in bed, after she’d first seen Julian’s tattoos, Celeste lay awake for hours, tossing and turning in spite of the pill she’d taken, imagining what word she’d have tattooed on her own body, what summed it all up. At one point she came up with a Post-it note tattooed on her back bearing Kick me in a cartoonish font, or maybe a simple question mark tattooed on her forehead, a price tag on her toe with DRASTICALLY REDUCED in red boldface type. A bar code, like a stripe of war paint, on one cheek.
Why couldn’t she be serious? Even in her darkest hours, when suicide came knocking at her door in its yellowed shirt and drab, ill-fitting suit, ringing the bell like a sugar-crazed trick-or-treater, even then, feeling so desperate, something about her was so nonchalant, so flippant, so devil-be- damned. She was nearly always, it seemed, so much more alive and brave in crisis situations than in everyday life.
It was a character flaw. A bad smart-ass gene. Embarrassingly enough, she’d even gone so far as to tell a joke at her husband’s funeral. Not a joke-joke, just a tasteless anecdote about how her uncle had driven a U- Haul in her grandmother’s funeral procession—from the funeral home right to the gravesite—so he could get back to the house lickety-split and snatch all the antiques and valuables while the rest of the heirs were still eating spiral-cut ham and tortellini at Madeleine’s, licking their lips and anticipating the reading of the will.
Her own father, who had been appointed executor of the will, whispered to Celeste at the gravesite, “To the buzzards go the spoils.” He nodded toward the U-Haul parked on the cemetery’s narrow gravel path and laughed and never questioned, never confronted his brother regarding the ransacked, half-empty house they all returned to after the reception.
And as she told the story at Graham’s funeral, Celeste couldn’t stop laughing, recalling what that procession from years before must have looked like: the hearse, the limousines, the U-Haul, parading along Montauk Highway to the cemetery, their little funeral flag hood ornaments whapping in the wind. “National Lampoon’s Death in the Family,” Celeste called it, laughing and spilling her drink.
But at Graham’s funeral, she was the only one laughing.
“I guess you had to be there,” Celeste said, and laughed and burped and laughed some more.
Everyone was horrified. Julian was twelve then. He glared at his mother and shook his head. “Asshole,” he swore under his breath. Graham’s mother spit into her handkerchief and turned away. Unthinkable, crass, how Celeste had acted at her husband’s funeral. Yes, she’d had a few drinks, and yes, she’d been taking the pills to get through it all, but still . . . she’d told the story because it was one of Graham’s favorites. He loved Celeste’s stories and how she could make people laugh. Time and time again, he’d say, “Celly, tell the one about . . .” Had it really been seven years since Graham died? Almost twenty- six, then, since her own father passed away? And Miriam, her mother, poor Miriam. “Don’t put me in a nursing home,” she had pleaded. She’d said it for years, but there came a time when Celeste had to. She just had to. She couldn’t do it anymore.
Maybe that’s what Celeste should have tattooed on her body: TO THE BUZZARDS GO THE SPOILS. Or maybe the inscription her father had joked that he wanted for his tombstone: I TOLD YOU I DIDN’T FEEL SO GOOD—a joke or a final insult, Celeste wasn’t certain—to the wife who always scolded, “Ach! Don’t pay him any attention; he’s a hypochondriac” when the poor man complained of any discomfort.
At any rate, shouldn’t you try to be a bit original in death—and tattoos? How original was a butterfly? A rose? The cracked, puffy heart pierced with its little dart? But, say you loved the butterfly, the rose, the heart. Did it really matter at all how original you were in anything, especially, especially in death? Who would dare call a tombstone inscription—or a body tattoo—on charges of plagiarism?
Death, the great equalizer. Who said that? Tolstoy? Donne?
Celeste’s mind was racing. Or was it just a theme that replicated itself again and again like a seed crystal? Some universal pipe dream of eventual equality, ultimate justice, everlasting fairness, rendered with the reaper’s annihilating swoop?
Maybe she’d just have the entire text of The Iliad tattooed on herself from head to toe. In one-point type. In the original Greek. Or better yet: DANGER OPPORTUNITY CRISIS, like Julian—like a coat of arms it would be—drawn in the beautiful, mysterious Chinese characters.
“Danger, opportunity, crisis, oh my! Danger, opportunity, crisis, oh my!” Celeste repeated the phrase over and over as she walked through the snow, like Dorothy and her entourage en route to Oz. Only Celeste was all alone, no skipping, no arms locked with a lion, a tin man, a scarecrow.
“Danger, opportunity, crisis, oh my!” In the deepening snow, Celeste’s boots embossed their subtext: ESPRIT! ESPRIT! ESPRIT!
Far in the distance, a car engine raced and tires spun. Nearby, something crashed in the woods—animal, vegetable, or mineral, Celeste couldn’t discern. From the direction of the old Johnson barn came the sound of someone whistling, a sweet melody Celeste couldn’t quite place. Years ago, a young girl’s body had been found in there, buried in the hayloft like a pretty egg in an Easter basket. A perfect body. Fully, neatly clothed. Not a mark on it. No indication of foul play. No cause of death, no motive, no murderer. As if the girl had just burrowed in there and died.
Celeste stopped and shined her light into the trees. Quickly something moved outside the hoop of brightness. Another crash and crunch. Was something or someone shadowing her there in the woods? Where once she would have frozen in fear or, easily startled, fled screaming, tonight Celeste did neither. She stepped toward the noise, across a narrow ditch, losing her footing for a second but grabbing on to a stout rhododendron branch for balance and pulling herself up. The flashlight tumbled and rolled a few feet away as Celeste climbed up the low, slippery embankment. Without the incandescent light, the woods shone eerily bright, like a high-contrast black-and-white infrared photograph. The vision was almost blinding, and in the starless sky the moon gleamed like a silver dollar in the palm of a black hand.
What a beautiful sight! What a beautiful night! Celeste stared into the woods, hypnotized by the beauty, big snowflakes falling all around her like confetti on New Year’s Eve at Times Square. The trees, twisted and vine laden, some half-fallen and caught in the arms of others, looked a bit like gigantic letters, like an elaborate sylvan alphabet, an enchanted calligraphic forest where at any moment a letter-tree might yawn and stretch its limbs and begin reciting a silly poem or singing some nonsense song. Look: There was an ornate W right in front of her, an illuminated P leaning against it, a cursive S slouching next to that.
“I’d like to buy a vowel,” Celeste called out into the woods and laughed. The sound of her laughter shimmered and tinkled in the cold air like a small glass ornament, a crystal hummingbird, say, a precious heirloom from a Victorian Christmas tree. Another noise. A snap. A crunch. A branch underfoot. Celeste didn’t move.

Copyright © 2007 by Sara Pritchard. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents

A Winter’s Tale 1 The Lost Pilot 11 Late October, Early April 23 The Honor of Your Presence 32 The Wonders of the World 53 The Pink Motel 71 The Christening 102 Reading Raymond Carver, Waiting for Bob Dylan 116 Here on Earth 134 Lately 158 La Vecchietta in Siena 176

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