My Son the Medium Can’t Even Tell Me Why We’re Here

Laura van den Berg recommends "The Country" by Joy Williams

INTRODUCTION BY LAURA VAN DEN BERG

“The Country” by Joy Williams concerns an unnamed man. His parents have recently died. His wife has left him and their young son alone. He periodically attends a meeting group at the local Episcopal Church called COME AND SEE! There he is bedeviled by a woman named Jeanette, who has “discovered her purpose was to be there with the dying in their final moments.” The narrator believes Jeanette to be “evil,” though is also willing to concede that “maybe she’s more like one of those medically intuitive dogs they’re developing or exploiting.” He treks home through a desolate landscape, crossing from one “monstrous intersection” to the next. He longs to move to the country, but his son refuses—and, according to the narrator, “‘the country’ exists only in our fantasies anymore.” The narrator recounts how his childhood dog, Tank, was alleged to have gone to the country, though in time his “parents’ explanations and assurances became so elaborate that I knew something terrible was being withheld from me.”

Joy Williams has described the short story as “devious. It pretends transparency, forthrightness…But this is all a masquerade. What good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensibility of time, the encroachment of old catastrophes.” Indeed the premise of “The Country” is simple: a bewildered and isolated man mourns; attends meetings; does battle with Jeanette; and struggles to understand his son, Colson, who has taken to channeling the voices of his dead grandparents, who offer advice such as: “We are here to prepare for not being here.” This is the plot—yet it hardly captures the story. What exactly is the narrator mourning? What does his son know that he doesn’t? And where are they anyway? What is this here that they’ve arrived in? The sense of something terrible being withheld—from the narrator, from us readers—permeates every line. 

The story’s here is a landscape obliterated by capitalism and environmental ruin. There is also a spectral aura. The narrator is phantom-like. He speaks of wanting “neither the past nor the future illuminated.” He is nameless. The only other people in the story who acknowledge his presence are Jeanette and Colson—both of whom have a capacity to communicate with dimensions that exist beyond the corporal. In one of the story’s more disorienting scenes, the narrator’s ex-wife appears, seemingly out of nowhere, to hack at their orange tree with a small saw. When confronted, she leaves just as abruptly. The narrator admits that “were you to ask if we actually saw her leave we would have to say no.” Colson explains his mother’s behavior by saying: “That is because…she is only gone from us, not from the world she still inhabits.” Which in turn begs the question: what is this world that she inhabits and why do they no longer have access to it? The indeterminacy, the porous borders from one state of being to the next—the story makes a home in the liminal in a way that I found unmooring and altering the first time I read it and every time since. It is a story that brought me a strange kind of comfort after my father died. It is a story that I return to when I feel like I have no idea what to make of time.

It is Colson who reveals to the narrator, speaking in his grandfather’s voice, about the true fate of Tank: “he had been shot by a sheriff ’s deputy who thought he was a stray, and that the man had also shot a woman’s horse in winter, making the same claim, and that he had been reprimanded but neither fined nor fired.” After this revelation, the idea of the Country shifts from pleasant fantasy to willful delusion, a turning away that does not ease suffering but rather alleviates the need to address the suffering. The Country is metaphor for death, yes, and it is also a mask, a lie, a place that never existed. What else has been hidden away in there? 

Laura van den Berg
Author of I Hold a Wolf by the Ears: Stories 

My Son the Medium Can’t Even Tell Me Why We’re Here

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“The Country”
by Joy Williams

I attend a meeting called Come and See! The group gathers weekly at the Episcopal church in one of the many, many rooms available there but  in  the way these things are it’s wide open to everyone—atheists, Buddhists, addicts, depressives, everyone. The discussion that evening concerned the old reliable: Why Are We Here? And one woman, Jeanette it was, offered that she never knew what her purpose was until recently. She discovered her purpose was to be there with the dying in their final moments. Right there, in attendance. Strangers for the most part. No one she knew particularly well. She found that she loved this new role. It was wonderful, it was amazing to be present for that moment of transport. It was such an honor being there and she believed she provided reassurance. And she shared with us the story of this one old girl who was actively dying—that was her phrase, actively dying—and at one point the old girl looked at Jeanette and said, “Am I still here?” and when she was told yes, yes, she was, the dying woman said,“Darn.”

“She was so cute,” Jeanette said.

My fellow travelers in Come and See! listened to this with equanimity. Jeanette was as happy as I’d ever seen her—she doesn’t come every week—and enthusiastic as she shared with us how positive and comforting it is to witness the final voyage. She’s affiliated with the church somehow, she studied chaplaincy services or something, so she has a certain amount of access to these situations; that is, she’s not doing this illegally or inappropriately or anything.

I sincerely cannot remember the circumstances that brought me to Come and See! for the first time and why I continue to attend. I seldom speak and never share. I sit erect but with my eyes downcast, focusing on a large paper clip that has rested in a groove between two tiles for months. Surely the chairs must be folded and stacked or rearranged for other functions and the floor swept or mopped on occasion, but the paper clip remains.

Beside me, Harold—he’s sixty-three and the father of two-year-old triplets—says, “I believe we are here for the future, to build a better future,” blandly cutting off any communal amplification of Jeanette’s deathbed theme.

My eyes lowered, I stare at the paper clip. I dislike Harold. Triplets, for god’s sake. One day I will no longer come here and listen to these wretched things.

After Come and See! there is a brief social period when packaged cheese and crackers and cheap wine are provided. There is always difficulty in opening the cheese packets. Someone always manages to spill wine.

Jeanette appears before me. After some consideration, I smile. She says,“I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.”

“That was my best wintery smile,” I say.

“Yes, it was quite good.”

I hope she thinks I would be a challenge, an insurmountable challenge.

Poor Pearl limps up. She has multiple sclerosis or something similarly awful and she begins talking about being with a number of her cats over the years as they died and it is not something she would wish on her vilest enemy and how she never learns from this experience and how it never becomes beautiful.

I leave the ladies to thrash this one out and exit through the courtyard, which is being torn up for some reason of regeneration. Or perhaps they’re just going to pave it over with commemorative bricks. Last year, Easter services were held in this courtyard because the sanctuary had been vandalized. Worshipers arrived for the sunrise service and found the sound system ripped out, flowers smashed, balloons filled with green paint exploded everywhere. Teenagers going through an initiation into some gang, probably. Several goats in some fellow’s yard were beaten and harassed that morning as well, the same group most likely being responsible, although the authorities claim there are no gangs in our town. No one was ever charged. The church would forgive them, that’s the way the church works, but the man who owns the goats is still upset. Perhaps the poor creatures were meant to be scapegoats in the biblical sense, cast into the wilderness of suffering with all the sins of the people upon their heads.

There is such evil in the world, so much evil. I believe Jeanette is evil, though maybe she’s more like one of those medically intuitive dogs they’re developing or exploiting. The dogs don’t suffer from their knowledge. That is, empathy is beside the point here; they can just detect that illness is present in a body before, sometimes long before, more standardized inquiry and tests confirm it. In Jeanette’s case, though some groundwork is undoubtedly required, she’s honing her instinct of arrival, appearing just before another is about to enter the incomprehensible refuge. She’ll be writing a book about her experiences next. I leave the courtyard and commence my walk home. It’s not particularly pleasant but there is no alternative route, or, rather, the alternatives are equally dispiriting. Highways are being straightened and widened everywhere, with the attendant uprooted trees and porta-toilets for the workmen.

I navigate my passage across the first monstrous intersection, where a sign announces the imminent arrival of a dessert parlor named Better Than Sex. I would like to move to the country but the boy refuses. Besides, “the country” exists only in our fantasies anymore. When I was a child, the country was where overly exuberant family pets often found themselves. One of our dogs, Tank, who liked to wander and eat clothes and the dirt in flowerpots, was dispatched to the country, where he would have more room to run and play and do his mischief under the purview of a tolerant farmer. When I returned from school that afternoon, Tank was settling into his new home. My parents’ explanations and assurances became so elaborate that I knew something terrible was being withheld from me.

Above me, billboards advertise gun shows, mobile-telephone plans and law firms that specialize in drunk-driving cases. I looked into renting a billboard recently but my application was rejected.

THE GREATEST PROSPERITY COMES TO ITS END, DISSOLVING INTO EMPTINESS; THE MIGHTIEST EMPIRE IS OVERTAKEN BY STUPOR AMIDST THE FLICKER OF ITS FESTIVAL LIGHTS
— Rabindranath Tagore

it would have said.

The billboard people told me they didn’t know who Rabindranath Tagore was and could not verify anything he might have thought. He was certainly foreign and his sentiments insurrectionary. As well, what he was saying wasn’t advertising anything. This night I see that space I tried to claim depicts black-and-white cows painting the words eat more chiken on the side of a barn.

I could far more easily drive to church and spare myself the discomfort of walking through this wasteland but I am in no hurry to reach home. I never know whom I will be coming home to, whether it will be mother, father, wife or son. Often it is just my son, my boy, and matters are quite as they should be, but since the end of school things have become more volatile. We live alone, you understand, the child and I. He’s nine, and the changes in this decade have been unfathomable. Indeed, it’s a different civilization now. My parents, with whom we were very close, died last year. My wife left in the spring. She just couldn’t feel anything for us anymore, she said, and was only trying to salvage the bit of life she could.

Dusty pickups speed by, gun racks prominent. Gun racks in vehicles have surged in popularity. Even expensive sedans display cradled weapons, visible through lightly tinted windows. People know their names and capabilities like they used to know those of baseball players. Not my boy, though. He doesn’t know these things. He knows other things. For example, we planted a few trees in the yard after his mother left, fruit trees, citrus. The tree that bears the fruit is not the tree that was planted. He knows that much, it goes without saying.

It’s almost dark now as I turn down our street. It’s garbage day tomorrow and my neighbors have rolled their vast receptacles to the curb. The bins are as tall as the boy and they contain god knows what, and over and over again.

The door is unlocked, the lights are on. “Hi, Daddy,” Colson says. He’s in the kitchen making sandwiches for supper.“Daddy,” he says,“we have to eat soon because I want to go to bed.” I’m not disappointed that he’s himself tonight, though more and more, given the situation, that self seems imaginary. He likes to play the Diné prayer songs tape as we eat, particularly the “Happy Birthday, My Dear Child” track. The chants are unintelligible but then the words Happy Birthday Happy Birthday to You arise in this morose intonation and he never tires of it.

In the morning my wife is in the yard, cutting back the orange tree. We rush out and prevent her from doing more. Summer is not the time to prune anything of course and we just planted the trees, they haven’t even adjusted to being in the soil yet with the freedom of their roots to wander. She dismisses our concerns but flings down the little saw, which I have never seen before, and leaves, though were you to ask if we actually saw her leave we would have to say no. The tree looks terrible and with small cries we gather up the broken buds and little branches. Still, it will survive. It has not been destroyed, we assure each other, at least not this day. There is no question of our planting a replacement. This would not be a useful lesson to learn.

Perhaps she is annoyed because, since her absence, Colson has seldom tried to invoke her except in the broadest terms. That is because, he explains, she is only gone from us, not from the world she still inhabits. I think her arrival this morning was a shock to him and I doubt she will visit us again.

I pick up the curved saw. It looks new but now blond crumbs of wood cling to its shiny serrated teeth.

“Should we keep this?” I ask Colson.

He frowns and shakes his head, then shrugs and returns to the house. He’s through with her. I wonder if somehow I have caused this latest unpleasantness. I have never known how to talk about death or the loss of meaning or love. I seek but will never find, I think.

I toss the saw into the closest container at the very moment I hear the trash truck moving imperiously down the street. It’s garbage day. Garbage day! The neighborhood prepares for it with joy. Some wish it would arrive more than once a week.

Later I bring up the possibility of moving. We could have an orchard and bike trails and dig a pond for swimming. We could have horses. “You can pick up horses these days for a song,” I say.

“A song?” the boy says.“What kind of song?”

But I can’t think of any. I gaze at him foolishly.

“Like the Diné prayer songs,” he suggests.

“Yes, but we don’t even have to pray for horses. We can just get them.”

Immediately I realize I have spoken infelicitously, without grace. He doesn’t say anything right away but then he says, “You have to be here to prepare for not being here.”

The voice is familiar to me because it is my mother’s voice, though I find it less familiar than it once was. She’s been in a grave for over a year now, my father with her. They’d been working at an animal sanctuary in their retirement and were returning home from a long day of caring for a variety of beasts. They had borrowed my car, as they were getting new tires for their own. I had planned to drive them home that night but the arrangement had been altered for some reason. We still don’t know exactly what happened. A moment’s inattention, possibly.

The sanctuary that was so important to them was controversial, as the animals were not native to this region, though the natives hardly enjoy grateful regard here, being considered either pests or game. It has since closed, the animals removed to what are referred to as other facilities, where some of them can still be visited. In fact, Colson and I went out to see one of the elephants my father was particularly fond of. There were two in the original preserve—Carol and Lucy—but they were separated, which seemed to me a dreadful decision. We visited Carol, who is an hour closer. She has some disease of the trunk that makes it difficult for her to eat, but someone was obviously still taking care of her. It wasn’t a good visit, not at all. We felt bad that we had come. Knowing what we now know would break my parents’ hearts, I think, but when Colson talks on their behalf they do not speak of elephants, those extraordinary beings. They do not speak of extraordinary matters. Colson does not bring them back to perform feats of omniscience or magicians’ tricks. I don’t know why he brings them back. I tried to prevent him at first. I appealed to his reasonableness, though in truth he is not particularly reasonable. I threatened him with psychiatric counseling, hours of irrelevant questions and quizzes. I told him his performances were futile and cruel. I teased him and even insulted him, saying that if he considered himself gifted or precocious he was sadly mistaken. Nothing availed.

When he enters these phases I become exhausted. Sometimes, I admit, I flee. He doesn’t seem to need me to fulfill his conversations with the dead, if indeed they are conversations. They seem more like inhabitations. And  they’re  harmless  enough, if  disorienting, though this morning’s remark disturbs me, perhaps because his mother, my wife, had just made her unnecessary appearance. Really, why would she return only to hack wordlessly at our little tree? It seems so unlikely.

“Sorry?” I say.

“We are here to prepare for not being here,” he says in my mother’s soft, rather stroke-fuddled voice.

It’s as though he is answering the very question posed at Come and See! I took him there once. Sometimes someone brings a child or grandchild, it’s not unheard of. He listened attentively. No one expected him to contribute and everyone found him adorable. “Don’t ever take me into that stupid room again,” he later instructed me.

He may be right that it is a stupid room and that of all the great rooms he might or will enter, attentively and with expectation, it will on conclusion be the stupidest.

I study Colson. My dear boy is skinny and needs a haircut. He rubs his eyes the way my mother did. Don’t rub your eyes so! we’d all exclaim. But I say nothing.

Colson says, “Then you’re in the other here, where the funny thing is no one realizes you’ve arrived.”

He sits down heavily at the kitchen table.“Would you like a cup of tea,” I ask.

“That would be nice,” he says in my mother’s voice of wonderment.

But I can’t find the tea. We haven’t had tea in the house since they died. We’d keep it on hand just for them when they visited.

“I’ll go out and get some right now,” I say.

But he says not to bother. He says,“Just sit with me, talk with me.” I sit opposite my boy. I notice that the clock on the stove reads 9:47 and the stovetop is dusty, as though no one has cooked on it for a long time. I vow that I will cook a hot, nourishing and comforting dinner tonight. And I do, and we talk quietly then as well, though nothing of import is being decided or even said.

I find it easier to be with my father when Colson brings him. Though he always seemed rather inscrutable to me he now doesn’t sadden me so. He would not accept an offer of tea that he suspected was unlikely to be provided. He was able to confer with the animals in a way my mother couldn’t, and felt that great advances would soon be made in appreciating and comprehending animal consciousness, though these advancements would coincide with the dramatic worldwide decline of our nonhuman brothers and sisters. Once, I’m ashamed to say, I maudlinly brought up the Tank of my childhood, and my father said he had been shot by a sheriff ’s deputy who thought he was a stray, and that the man had also shot a woman’s horse in winter, making the same claim, and that he had been reprimanded but neither fined nor fired. Yes. And that they had lied to me, my mother and father. It was Colson who told me this in my father’s voice, Colson, who had never known Tank or felt his “happy fur,” as I called it as a child. Bad, happy Tank. He ate his dinner from my mother’s Bundt pan. It slowed him down some, having to work around the pan. He always ate his food too fast.

But this was the only time a disclosure occurred, and I am more cautious now in conversation. I find I want neither the past nor the future illuminated. But my discomfort is growing that my boy will find access to other people, people we do not know, like the woman the next town over who died in a fire of her own setting, or even one of Jeanette’s unfortunate customers. That I will come home one evening and that Colson will be not himself but a stranger whose death means little to me and that even so we will talk quietly and inconsequentially and with puzzled desperation.

The week passes. Colson has a tutor in mathematics for the summer who is oblivious to the situation and I have the office I’m obliged to occupy. Colson wants to be an engineer or an architect but he has difficulty with concepts of scale and measurability. The tutor claims he’s progressing nicely but Colson never talks about these hours, only stubbornly reiterates his desire to create soaring nonutilitarian spaces.

At the end of the week I return to Come and See! My passage through the construction zone is much the same. I suppose change will appear to come all at once. Suddenly there will be a smooth six-lane road with additional turning lanes and sidewalks with high baffle walls concealing a remaining landscape soon to be converted to housing. The walls will be decorated with abstract designs or sometimes the stylized images of birds. I’ve seen it before. Everyone’s seen it before.

Jeanette is the only one there. I feel immediately uncomfortable and settle quickly into my customary chair. There is the paper clip, as annoying and meaningless a presence as ever.

“There’s a flu going around,” she says.

“The flu?” I say.“Everyone has the flu?”

“Or they’re afraid of contracting the flu,” she says. “The hospital is even restricting visitors. You haven’t heard about the flu?”

“Only in the most general terms,” I say. “I didn’t think there was an epidemic.”

“Pandemic, possibly a pandemic. We should all be in our homes, trying not to panic.”

We wait but no one shows up. There’s a large window in the room that looks out over the parking lot, but the lot is empty and continues to be empty. The sky is doing that strange thing it does, brightening fiercely before dark.

“Why don’t we begin anyway?” she says. “‘For where two are gathered in my name . . .’ and so on. Or is it three?”

“Why would it be three?” I say.“I don’t think it’s three.”

“You’re right,” she says.

She has a round pale face and small hands. Nothing about her is attractive, though she is agreeable, certainly, or trying to be.

“I’m not dying,” I say. God only knows what possessed me.

“Of course not!” she exclaims, her round face growing pink.“Goodness!”

But then she says,“On Wednesday, Wednesday I think it was, it was certainly not Thursday, I was in this woman’s room where the smell of flowers was overwhelming. You could hardly breathe and I knew her friends meant well, but I offered to remove the arrangements, there were more than a dozen of them, I’m surprised there wasn’t some policy restricting their number, and she said, ‘I’m not dying,’ and then she died.”

“You never know,” I say.

“I hope they let me back soon.”

“Why wouldn’t they?”

“Thank you,” she says quietly.

“I meant to say why would they?”

She stands up but then sits down again. “No,” she says, “I’m not leaving.”

“It’s disgusting what you’re doing, you’re like the thief ’s accomplice,” I say. “No one can be certain about these things.”

Suddenly she appears not nervous or accommodating in the least.

We do not speak further, just sit there staring at each other until the sexton arrives and insists it’s time to lock the place up.

At home, Colson is watching a television special on our dying oceans.

“Please turn that off,” I say.

“Grandma wanted to watch it.”

He has made popcorn and poured it into a large blue bowl that is utterly unfamiliar to me. It’s a beautiful bowl of popcorn.

“You have another bowl like that?” I ask. “I want to make myself a drink.”

He laughs like my wife might have when she still loved me, but then returns to watching the television.

“This is tragic,” he says.“Can anything be done?”

“So much can be done,” I say. “But everything would have to be different.”

“Well,” he sighs, “now Grandma and Poppa know. She wanted to watch it.”

“Have you heard anything about a flu,” I ask. “Does anyone you know have the flu?”

“Grandma died of the flu.”

“No. They died in a car accident. You know that.”

“Sometimes they get mixed up,” he says.

Colson’s the age I was when I was told about the country. Ten years later I’d be married. I married too young and unwisely, for sure.

“Do they sometimes tell you stories you don’t believe?”

“Daddy,” he says with no inflection, so I don’t know what he means.

We finish the popcorn. He did a good job. Every kernel was popped. I take the bowl to the sink and rinse it out carefully, then take a clean dish towel from a drawer and dry it. It really is an extraordinarily lovely bowl. I don’t know where to put it because I don’t know where it came from.

A few days later my father is back. He was a handsome man with handsome thick gray hair.

“Son,” he says,“I don’t know what to tell you.”

“It’s all right,” I say.

“No, it’s not all right. I wish I knew what to tell you.”

“Colson, honey,” I say.“Stop.”

“That’s no way to have an understanding,” he says.“Your mother and I just wish it were otherwise.”

“Me too,” I say.

“We wish we could help but there’s so much they haven’t figured out. You’d think by now, but they haven’t.”

“Who’s they,” I ask reluctantly.

But Colson doesn’t seem to have heard me. He runs his fingers through his shaggy hair, which looks damp and hot. My boy has always run hot. I wonder if he’s bathing and brushing his teeth. My poor boy, I think, my poor dear boy. Someone should remind him.

The following afternoon when Colson is with his tutor, who, I think, is deceiving both of us, though to all appearances he is a forthright and sincere young man, I drive almost one hundred miles to see Lucy, the other elephant. She is being sponsored by two brothers who maintain the county’s graveyards, some sort of perpetual care operation, though to be responsible for an elephant is quite another matter, I would think. The brothers are extremely private and shun publicity. It was only after great effort that I learned anything about them at all or the actual whereabouts of Lucy. Someone—though neither of the brothers, a friend of the brothers is how I imagine him—agreed to show me around the grounds that she now occupies, but I find that once I reach the gate I cannot continue.

I turn back, ashamed, and more estranged from my situation than ever.

When I return home the tutor has left and Colson is putting his drawings in order, cataloging them by some method unknown to me. When my mother and father were taken from us so abruptly I knew that Colson was terribly bereaved. Still, he did not want my father’s safari hat or his water-bottle holster. He did not want his watch or his magnetic travel backgammon. Nor did he want my mother’s collection of ink pens, which I suggested would be ideal for his drawings. He wanted no mementos. Instead he went directly to communication channels that are impossible to establish.

“Where were you, Daddy,” Colson asks.

“Why, at work,” I say quickly.

Surely I am back at my usual time. I seldom lie, indeed I cannot even remember the circumstances of my last falsehood. Why would he ask such a question? I kiss him and go into the kitchen to make myself a drink but then remember that I have stopped drinking.

“A lady came by today but I told her I didn’t know where you were.”

“What did she look like,” I ask, and of course he describes Jeanette to a T.

I am so weary I can hardly lift my hand to my head. I must make dinner for us but I think the simplest omelet is beyond my capabilities now. I suggest that we go out but he says he has already eaten with the tutor. They had tacos made and sold from a truck painted with flowers and sat at a picnic table chained to a linden tree. I have no idea what he’s talking about. My rage at Jeanette is almost blinding and I gaze at him without seeing as he orders and then reorders his papers, some of which seem to be marked with only a single line. I feel staggeringly innocent. That is the unlikely word that comes to me. Colson puts away his papers and smiles, a smile so radiant that I close my eyes without at all wanting to, and then rather gently somehow it is day again and I am striding through the bustling wasteland to Come and See! The reflection concerns Gregory of Nyssa. He is a popular subject but I am forever having difficulty in recalling what I already know about him. Something about the Really Real and its ultimate importance to us, though the Really Real is inaccessible to our understanding. Food for thought indeed, and over and over again.

When the meeting concludes and we are dismissed I practically hurl myself on Jeanette, who has uncharacteristically contributed nothing to the conversation this night.

“Don’t ever come to my house again,” I say.

“Was I really there, then? I thought I had the wrong place. Was that your son? A fine little boy. He can certainly keep a secret, can’t he.”

“I’ll call the police,” I say.

“Goodness,” she laughs.“The police.”

It sounded absurd, I have to agree.

“I was concerned about you,” she says. “You haven’t been here for a while. You’ve been avoiding us.”

“Don’t ever again . . .” I say.

“A delightful little boy,” she continues.“But you mustn’t burden him with secrets.”

“. . . come to my house.” I couldn’t be more insistent.

“Actually,” she says,“no one would fault you if you stopped attending. How many times must we endure someone making a hash of Gregory of Nyssa? People are so tenacious when they should be free. Free!”

I begin to speak but find I have no need to speak. The room is more familiar to me than I would care to admit. Who was it whose last breath didn’t bring him home?

Or am I the first?

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