Excerpt

The Children’s Crusade

Ann Packer

April 27, 2015 
The following is from Ann Packer’s The Children’s Crusade, which explores one California family over the course of five decades. Packer’s novel The Dive from Clausen’s Pier received the Kate Chopin Literary Award. She is the recipient of a James Michener Award and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.

All afternoon the children avoided their mother: moving from room to room, or from indoors to outdoors, a step or two ahead of her. They joined together occasionally, all except Robert, but they didn’t gather again until their father returned. By then it was late afternoon; when they stood on the driveway, their shadows stretched from their feet nearly to the house. Robert’s stomach hurt most when he stood up straight, so he walked bent over at the waist, hobbling like an old man. Their father had eight bags of ice, and they each took one from the trunk of his car and carried it to the deep freeze in the garage—each except James, who ran from one sibling to another, touching the bags of ice and yipping with something that wasn’t quite shock and wasn’t quite laughter.

“I think baths might be in order,” their father said. “Or showers, as the case may be,” he added, giving Robert a look that acknowledged his seniority.

Normally this would have pleased Robert, but he was too worried to smile or even nod. The others dashed toward the laundry room door, conscious of an earlier dictum of their mother’s that they avoid the other entrances to the house for the rest of the afternoon, since she had “done” them already and didn’t want to have to “do” them again. Robert trudged after them.

His watch was gone. He had been everywhere, retraced every step from his room to the piano to the shed; he had searched and searched, bent over examining every inch of the house and every inch of the ground. And now he was bent over again, not searching but shuffling in pain.

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In his room, he looked in his desk again, just in case he was wrong in remembering that he had already looked there, but to no avail. With no choice but to search outside a fourth time, he left his room and headed back to the laundry room, almost literally bumping into his father as he came in.

“Line for the tub?” his father said.

“What?”

“There’s hot water to go around. I’ll bathe James and call you when we’re finished.”

“Okay.”

With Robert gone, Bill took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It was 4:55 and the party started at 6:00. Early in the summer he’d suggested they have the party on a Saturday this year, so he could help more, but Penny had insisted that it was a weekday kind of party—that a Saturday party was a different sort of thing and would change the guests’ expectations and her ability to deliver.

He found the children’s bathroom door closed and tapped at it. “Is that you in there, Rebeck?”

“Dad, can you come in?”

He opened the door and poked his head in. Rebecca was in the tub, slouched so that the ends of her braids skimmed the water. “Can you pass me the good-smelling soap?” she said.

Penny had cleaned, leaving the countertop sparkling and fresh hand towels on the rack, but there was no soap in sight.

“I’m not sure where . . .”

“Maybe the medicine cabinet?”

He opened the cabinet only to have three bars of soap and a glass bottle of cough medicine come tumbling out.

“Oh, oops, whoops,” he said, slapping at the soaps but slowing the bottle enough that it landed gently and didn’t break. “Now which of these is the good-smelling one?”

Rebecca grinned.

“Ah, you want me to smell them.” He brought a plain white bar to his nose, then a yellow bar of Dial, and then a pink bar that smelled of strawberries and chemicals.

“Don’t mistake it for an ice cream,” he said, handing her the pink one.

She watched him from under her dark eyebrows and brought the bar close to her lips.

“How was your day?” he said, easing himself onto the closed toilet seat.

She dipped the soap in the water and rubbed it between her palms. She thought of telling him about not getting to help, but she didn’t want to make him sad. She rubbed the soap harder, but it didn’t get sudsy; there was only a little foam, large-bubbled and unsatisfying. She was a bit sorry she’d asked for the strawberry, which wouldn’t be the most mature thing for her to smell like. She didn’t like it when adults spoke to her as if she were a little girl. Or a little girl—she hated it when people were talking to the boys and then changed their voices when they started talking to her. She brought one foot up out of the water and rubbed it with the soap.

“Hot,” she said at last.

“A hot day. That could be a good day, I suppose.”

“It wasn’t.”

“You aren’t a heat-loving girl.”

“I’m a comfort-loving girl,” she said, “who tolerates heat.”

“Rebeck, it’s good to be home.” Leaning against the toilet tank, Bill felt the hours of work drain from his body.

“How many people are coming?” Rebecca asked, setting the soap in the soap holder.

“Looks like about sixty.”

“Good thing it won’t rain!”

“That’s right.”

“No, that’s what you always say! You say, ‘Good thing it won’t rain,’ and Mom says, ‘You don’t know it won’t,’ and you say it’s never rained in late July since you came to California.”

“I believe you,” he said with a smile. “You are one of the most reliable people I know.”

Rebecca looked away. “Dad?”

“Sweetie?”

“I tried to keep James occupied.”

He smiled. “Of course you did. I would never have thought otherwise.”

Ryan had tried, too, and he was trying again, lying with James on their bedroom floor, playing animals. He had a number of props for this, and he’d brought them out of the closet: old washcloths for blankets, a collection of bottle caps that Badger and Dog could use when they were ready to eat.

“Dog sayin’ arf arf arf,” James cried, making his dog lunge at Ryan’s badger.

“No, James,” Ryan said. “Dog is gentle. You love him, right?”

James didn’t answer.

“Maybe we should give him a bath before the party. Then he can put his new collar on.” Ryan went to the closet for a shallow plastic basin. “Let’s give them a bath together.” He set the basin between them and walked Badger over to it. “One, two, three,” he said, and he jumped Badger into the imaginary water, where Badger bounced up and down, splashing vigorously. “Alley-oop,” Ryan said, and he jumped Dog in, too. “Look, they’re splashing.”

“Alley-oop,” James said. “Alley-oop, alley-oop, ALLEY-OOP!” He scrambled onto his bed and jumped, shouting, “NO MORE MONKEYS JUMPIN’ ON THE BED.”

Their father appeared in the doorway. He had the rumpled look of late evening, his tie pulled loose, shirtsleeves rolled. “Time for your bath now, James,” he said quietly, and James slid off the bed and ran to him.

In her room Rebecca considered what to wear. Her colorful dresses were on one side of her closet and her plain dresses were on the other, and though she loved getting a bright new dress like the purple-striped one she’d picked out a couple weeks earlier, she generally ended up with something darker and less adorned. She had a navy dress with a small white collar that she had worn at least once a week this school year, and she was reaching for it when she saw, hanging way off to the side, a sleeveless white dress decorated with yellow daffodils, not just printed on the material but embroidered with bright yellow embroidery floss, the effect being of real flowers floating over a white background. Her Michigan grandmother had made it for her and sent it in a box with small floral sachets tucked between the folds of tissue paper. She had never worn it for fear of ruining it, and she was relieved, as she pulled it over her head, that it still fit, though it pulled slightly across her shoulders and was shorter than most of her other dresses. She found some white socks with yellow edges, sat on the bed, and pulled them onto her clean feet, carefully folding them down so they were cuffed identically. She strapped on her black patent-leather Mary Janes and stood before the mirror. She was satisfied with the way she looked—satisfied was the happiest you ought to be about how you looked; she had read that somewhere—though her hair, in the day’s braids, wasn’t quite as partyish as the rest of her. In fact, they were yesterday’s braids. She needed her mother’s help to redo them, though, and at this point, with the party starting in under an hour, Rebecca didn’t want to bother her.

She pulled the elastics off the tips of the braids and combed her fingers through her hair. When she was finished, it fell in sharp zigzags halfway to her elbows, and tears pricked at her eyes. She should have washed it. She really should have washed it, but it was far too late now—James was in the tub, with Ryan and Robert yet to go—and even if she had time she wouldn’t take a second bath just for her hair.

Or would she? She was caught in the middle, with the right but difficult thing off to one side and the wrong but easy thing off to the other, and she imagined the bathtub empty right now, available, and herself carefully taking off the dress, and removing the shoes and spotless socks, and putting her robe on, and going back down the hall to the bathroom—and she couldn’t say for sure that she would do it, which made her imagine shaking a finger at herself, a picture that came to her so frequently it might as well have been a scene captured by her father’s camera and put in one of the family photo albums. Except it wasn’t a real picture: it was the Rebecca of the moment, in this case wearing the daffodil dress, shaking her finger at another Rebecca, usually a younger, smaller Rebecca, standing with her head down.

“Carry on,” her father sometimes said when one or another of the children was stuck in a bad situation. He didn’t say it in a mean way; it was more: I know this is hard, I’m sorry it’s so hard, there are various things you could do, you could sit down and cry, or you could try to carry on. Can you carry on? I have a feeling you’ll be able to carry on.

Rebecca ran her brush through her hair, and that helped—the kinked strands blended together, and it looked a little less messy. She decided it would have to do. She left her room and headed for the kitchen, pausing when she saw that her mother’s door was ajar. She stood outside the door, listening. Water running, drawers opening: there was none of that.

Just then James came running out of the bedroom hallway in clean clothes. Her father followed, and when he saw Rebecca he stopped and smiled. “You look lovely,” he said, and a flood of warmth rose into Rebecca’s face.

“I forgot to wash my hair.”

“I’d never have known. To me you look perfect.”

“Let me see,” her mother called from the bedroom, and then she pulled open the door as if she’d been standing right there all along.

But she hadn’t. She’d been sitting on her bed gathering strength for the final push. She had cooked and cleaned, but the last part, getting herself ready, was the hardest. With the house and the food, she simply followed a plan that was the same from party to party, year to year. But when it came to herself, to her hair and makeup, her clothes and shoes, she was not so easily satisfied. Yes, she was a doctor’s wife and a mother of four, a suburban matron to the core of her being. But she wanted, just once a year, to look like someone important. The women she saw photographed at galas—they had something that went beyond a fashionable hairstyle or an expensive couture gown. It was an air of not doubting their right to be photographed, an air of having. As the daughter of a hardware store owner, Penny had never enjoyed anything like the advantages these women probably took for granted.

“Look at you,” she said to Rebecca.

Rebecca looked up at her father. When he was around she understood her mother better, or at least found it easier to know what to expect. She waited for him to say something that would make her mother go further, tell Rebecca how she liked the dress.

But Penny said nothing, and Bill hesitated and then said he was making progress on getting the children bathed. Cutting her losses, Rebecca reached for James’s hand and led him to the kitchen. Trays of hors d’oeuvres lay everywhere: on the stove, the countertops, the table, even the top of the refrigerator. “That’s a ton of food,” she said, more to herself than to James. “She did a lot of work.”

In the master bedroom, Penny was telling Bill the same thing. She wasn’t complaining, but she wanted him to be aware of her work so that he would feel honor-bound to do his, which wasn’t simply the shaking of hands and the fixing of drinks—it was much more than that.

“I am glad to see them,” he said. “Or I will be.”

“But I want you to act glad. Enthusiastic.” “Spirited” was another word. She wanted him to be spirited in the way he greeted the guests and even more spirited in the way he moved from group to group and joked with the men and teased or complimented the women.

“I’ll try,” he said mildly.

“Why can’t you say you will?”

“Because I tried last year.” And the year before that, he thought but didn’t say. “I may not have it in me.”

She was at her dresser with her back to him, holding her hair on top of her head with one hand and using the other to pull tendrils loose in front of her ears. He could see her face reflected in the mirror, the way she turned her head slightly and cast her eyes sideways to look at her profile.

He said, “Is there anything else I can do?”

Dropping her hair, she found his eyes in the mirror and looked at him. She couldn’t say she wanted him to cross the room and turn her around to face him and then to hold her close. He couldn’t say he knew this but had Ryan to move along and himself to get ready—that even if he couldn’t transform himself as fully as she wanted, he needed to wash up and change. And so they held each other’s gaze for another moment until Penny—who of the two of them had more to lose—broke the look and opened a drawer in search of bobby pins. And with that, Bill returned to the children’s bathroom.

Rebecca and James were still in the kitchen. The cheese rolls were as tasty as she remembered from last year, and the cookies were mostly just the right light brown color, and the highball glasses were ready on one tray while the old-fashioned glasses were ready on another, but something was off.

“Where’s Robert?” she said. “Where is he and where has he been?”

James went to the sliding door. “Outside.”

And sure enough, just out of view, Robert was sitting on the bench, where so many hours ago they’d all had lunch. But no: Robert hadn’t been with them. She had barely seen him all afternoon.

He looked up at them.

“What are you doing?” she said.

“Go away.”

“Robert.”

“Go away!”

Robert could be like this, and she shrugged and went to check on Ryan. The bathroom was empty, and his door was closed.

“Ryan,” she said, knocking.

“Where’s James?” he called.

She opened the door and found Ryan sitting cross-legged on the rug, naked. She said, “Aren’t you getting dressed?”

He was holding his badger upright, while James’s dog lay on its side, somehow looking perkier than usual. “Where’s James?” he said again. “I thought he was going to take Dog to the party.”

“Ryan,” she said. “He might not want to.”

“Well, I thought he was.” Ryan went to his dresser. He didn’t put the badger down as he pulled on underpants and shorts and a clean shirt. “Why are you so dressed up?”

“I’m not.”

Robert would have argued, but Ryan just picked up the dog and set it on James’s bed.

“Maybe he’ll come back for it,” she said.

“Maybe,” Ryan said sadly.

They went to the living room and sat on the couch. The door to their parents’ bedroom was closed, but they could hear James on the other side of it, jabbering to their father. An ashtray was on the coffee table, and Rebecca leaned forward and looked at it. She said, “Not as many people smoke these days, but the ones who do smoke more.”

She and Ryan were sitting side by side when Robert came in from the kitchen, looking bedraggled and forlorn. He said, “What are you guys doing?”

“We’re ready,” Rebecca said.

“For the party,” Ryan added. He held up his badger and waved him back and forth. “Badger’s ready, too.”

Robert was tired and angry. His knees were dirty, and his eyes were red. He looked at Ryan and said, “Your badger makes me sick.”

“Robert!” Rebecca gasped.

The injury Ryan felt was enormous, and he reacted in stages: first not moving, then a hot feeling in his stomach, and finally an acute and terrible worry for Badger’s feelings. He bent his head and whispered some consoling words into Badger’s ear.

“You’re six,” Robert said to him.

“And you’re mean,” Rebecca said, jumping to her feet. “And you aren’t even ready.”

Robert stood in front of the coffee table. “Who cares about a stupid party? What’s that dress, anyway?”

They stared at each other. Rebecca, in the ten minutes that had elapsed since her mother had neither complimented nor ignored the daffodil dress, had arrived at a feeling of deep humiliation in regard to what she was wearing. This was the kind of humiliation that poses as insolence, however, and she planted her hands on her hips and stuck out her chin. “Grandma Blair made it for me,” she said. “As something special.”

Robert sank deeper into despair. The watch he’d lost had originally been owned by Great-grandpa Blair, which made it far more special than the dress, since Great-grandpa Blair was dead. But how special was a watch when it was gone?

“I’ve never worn it before,” Rebecca said. “It still smells like Grandma’s bedroom. Remember how I got to sleep with her when we visited?”

“You know that tree house thing?” Robert snapped. “It’s going to be just for the boys. That’s what Dad said.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“He did,” Robert said, but thinking of the tree house made him sink lower. When his father first mentioned the idea of building a tree house, he said they’d get some redwood and make it sturdy enough to withstand rain and time, a combination of words that had prompted Robert to try to come up with a haiku, as his teacher sometimes assigned the class during the last minutes before lunch. Mr. Gleason would write two words on the board, always one-syllable words, and say, “All right, class, fifteen more syllables. Go.” And they would write as fast as they could, the object being speed rather than elegance, for which Robert loved him all the more.

Rain in the winter

Hot all the time in summer

Spring and fall have both

Robert was pleased with himself for thinking so fast, and he recited the poem to his father and the other children, earning a smile from his father, a laugh from Ryan, and a long, curious look from Rebecca, who then said, speaking slowly, “In time all the world dangles like an ornament swaying in the rain,” and with his hands clenched into fists, Robert pressed his fingertips to his palms one by one, counting off her syllables, though he’d known as soon as she opened her mouth that she would outdo him.

“Robert,” she said, “why are you so mad?”

“I’m not.”

“Or sad.”

He gave her a mournful look. “I can’t find—”

“What?”

He couldn’t admit it. It was too terrible. Once he’d said the words out loud he would have to tell his father. “The key to the shed,” he finished.

“Why do you want the key to the shed?”

“I think we need that table up here. The table from the old patio furniture.”

“What for?”

“For people to put things on outside the kitchen.”

Rebecca was about to say they had the bench for that, but she stopped herself. “It’s in a drawer in the kitchen. The key.”

“It’s not.”

“That’s where it always is.”

“It isn’t there. But there’s supposed to be an extra one hidden on the foundation, and I can’t find it.”

“The foundation of the shed? You mean the concrete?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, let’s go look. Ryan and I will help you.” She crossed the living room and in one leap took the two steps up to the main level. From there she strode to the front door. “Come on.”

She skipped down the front steps to the driveway, Ryan following behind her and Robert a few long paces behind him, and James, alerted somehow that the older children were on the move, bringing up the rear.

Robert picked up his pace, wanting to be in the lead if they were going at all. The pain in his stomach was sharper now, a knife slicing into his belly each time his feet struck the ground.

“Wait,” James cried. Excited, he began to run, and he hit something with his toe and was on the ground before he even knew he was falling. He screamed a scream from his store of special-occasion screams, giant and piercing, and immediately Ryan turned and ran back up the driveway.

“James!”

“Dada,” James wailed, pushing up onto his knees, his chin scraped raw and the heels of his hands bleeding. “Dada!” “Shhh,” Ryan said, crouching at his brother’s side. “It’s okay, it’s okay. Should I go get Dog? He’ll kiss you.”

“Want Dada!”

“Should I get Dog and Dada?”

Robert and Rebecca were nearly at the shed, and they carefully avoided looking at each other so they wouldn’t have to acknowledge that they should go help Ryan. It was gloomy under the trees this late in the afternoon. They squatted and felt along the foundation for a gap where the key might be, probing with their fingers and then, when they came up empty, lowering their heads to the ground and peering sideways. They went around a second time on their hands and knees. At last they stood. Rebecca had gotten dirty again, her forearms and her shins in particular, but she’d tried to be careful with her dress, and she was relieved to see that aside from one streak of dirt at the bottom, it was clean. At least the front was. She twisted to look at the back and saw that one of the daffodils had snagged on something. The formerly pristine flower had turned into a mess of broken threads. “Oh, no,” she cried.

Robert stared at the dress, and his eyes welled with tears. “You think that’s bad.”

He told her about his lost watch, and they sat side by side in front of the shed, and because he was crying so hard Rebecca didn’t cry at all. She patted his shoulder a few times and waited. At last she wrapped her arm around him in an imitation of what their father would do if someone were upset. “Carry on,” she whispered.

He looked into her face. “I hate this party!”

“Me, too.”

Off in the distance, a dog began to bark. It was the six o’clock bark—the bark of their neighbor Mr. Pope arriving home from work. The Popes’ dog alerted the neighborhood to every move his owners made, and on days when there was no barking it was assumed that the Popes were all home sick.

“It’s starting right now,” Rebecca said. “And we’re filthy.”

They climbed to the top of the driveway, where there was already an unfamiliar car parked behind the Valiant, and circled the house to the laundry room. Rebecca turned on the water in the soaking sink. “Here,” she said, reaching into a basket of towels and holding a washcloth under the stream. She found a bar of soap, rough and harsh-smelling, and rubbed it against the cloth until it was soapy.

Robert took off his shirt and washed his face, his chest, his arms. He got out of his shorts and underpants, turned around for modesty, and washed his privates and then his legs. “How am I going to do my feet?” he said, and she looked around, uncertain.

“Climb up here,” she said, patting the washing machine, and she had him sit with his feet dangling in the sink and washed them for him, which reminded her of something, maybe a book.

“What about you?” he said. “You’re dirty, too.”

She unzipped her dress and took her turn. When she was done with her body, she turned the water hotter and stuck her head under the faucet. She sloshed water through her hair and used the bar to soap it up. After she dried off she looked at her dress long enough to determine that she couldn’t put it back on.

They heard party noises through the closed laundry room door.

“I know,” she said, and she opened a cabinet and found a box marked “Too small.” With younger brothers, Robert’s clothes never made it into this box, but some of Rebecca’s clothes could pass for something a boy would wear, and, giggling a little, they both pulled on checked shorts so tight they looked like underwear and T-shirts that exposed their belly buttons.

She held her finger to her lips and reached for the doorknob.

“You should see your hair,” he said.

She didn’t care. If satisfied was the best you could feel about how you looked, then dissatisfied was the worst, not nearly as bad as upset or embarrassed. She had squeezed as much water from her hair as she could, but already the shoulders of her shirt were soaked through, and she knew there’d be a huge wet spot on her back.

She opened the door. The party voices swelled, and she gave Robert a shrug.

He followed her up the hall. They’d decided he should wait until tomorrow to tell their father about the watch, and his stomachache had changed from the knife-stab type to the empty type. He was hungry, and he realized he’d never had lunch.

Standing in the living room were a dozen adults: holding drinks, talking, and laughing, already seeming to fill the space despite the fact that eventually there would be several dozen more of them crowding the room and spilling onto the patio. Their mother was there, too, wearing a black dress and black high heels, her hair in a twist on top of her head. For decoration, she had added a fake red rose. “Kids!” she called. “It’s the party! Come say hello! You can help me entertain!”

They recognized her elation and kept going, both of them aware that they were disappointing her. In the kitchen Robert pulled the plastic off a tray of cheese logs and stuffed three into his mouth. Rebecca poured them each a glass of juice and said, “What do you think happened to Ryan and James?”

Robert went to the sliding door. Outside, their father sat on the grass with the two younger boys, cradling James on his lap while Ryan leaned against him and rested his hand on his leg. Their father was in the clothes he’d worn all day, though his tie was missing and the top buttons of his shirt were undone. He looked up at Robert and Rebecca and smiled. “There you are,” he said. “Now we’re all together.”

“Except Mom,” Ryan said.

“Well, that’s true, but you know how she feels about the party. I think she’s where she wants to be right now.”

James’s face was smeared with tears and dirt, but there were Band-Aids on his knees and he was quiet, his thumb in his mouth and the side of his face pressed to his father’s chest. Robert and Rebecca sat down.

“Quite a day,” their father said.

Ryan lifted his badger. “Badger is feeling better.”

“That is one good thing.”

“And Dog is,” Ryan said. “Wait, James, where is he? You just had him.”

“Dad,” Rebecca said, “Robert had a good idea.” She explained about the old patio table in the shed and how it would have been good to have it at the house for the party. “We should remember for next year.”

“That is a good idea,” Bill said. “But I wonder what became of the key.”

“The keys,” she said. “We couldn’t find either of them.”

“There’s only one that I know of. In the junk drawer in the kitchen. If it’s gone we may have to cut the padlock.”

Robert had been silent until now. “No, Dad,” he said, “there’s supposed to be a key down there, remember?” He described his search, the careful way he, and then he and Rebecca, had crawled around the shed, feeling every inch of the way for the gap between the foundation and the wall.

“I’m confounded,” Bill said. “I just don’t have any recollection of that.”

“It’s there, Dad. It’s supposed to be. On the foundation.”

“On the foundation,” Bill said, something tickling at his memory, a June day in 1961 that began with the infant Robert standing on his father’s thighs, pushing downward with his soft wedge feet as Bill held him under the arms, his small body rigid with excitement. Or so it had struck Bill, who departed reluctantly, leaving the baby and his mother to wait for him while he drove to the Portola Valley property and poured the foundation for the shed. In the hardening concrete he scratched a capital R, and then, for no good reason, a second R and a third.

“Maybe so,” he said, “but I think that’s something to solve some other day. I have some hosting to do and I suspect I’d better change my clothes.”

There he is,” Ryan said, reaching behind Bill and retrieving James’s dog. “Here, James, don’t forget to hold him.”

James held out his arms for Dog. “He got a new collar,” he said proudly.

“He certainly did,” Bill said, lifting James from his lap and setting him on the grass. “I guess you loaned it to him, did you, Rob?”

“I borrowed it,” Ryan said.

Around Dog’s neck was Robert’s watch, and Robert put his face in his hands and began to cry again. This time he didn’t feel so bad. It was a free, easy kind of cry, gentle as a stream. Bill watched his oldest, puzzled by the tears but aware that he needed to get into the house. He stood still for another moment and then told the children he’d see them inside. Halfway to the door, he turned and looked at them. Rebecca wondered if he was going to ask what had happened to her dress, but instead he came back and lifted James in his arms. “James James Morrison Morrison,” he murmured, and he pressed his lips to James’s silky hair.

 

From THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE. Used with the permission of Scribner.  Copyright © 2015 by Ann Packer.


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