Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. J. Robert Lennon’s “Breadman” was originally published in the January 19, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.
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I recommend “Breadman,” by J. Robert Lennon. It’s funny and serious at the same time, and it provides the reader the pleasure of a series of unveilings: the storyteller’s character (and general blindness), the Breadman’s  unconventional business, the author’s own attitude toward both, a few wonderful one-liners, and a use of religious imagery I found a very nice sleight of hand.

Actually, I don’t just recommend this story. I would like to say I loved it — it’s a little trip, and it also fits into the new year very nicely. I had the sense of opportunity from it, as if the story itself were about opportunity, about new beginnings, and also about being tested, the way we are tested, out of the blue, suddenly, in the most unlikely of places.

A married, middle-aged curmudgeon is doing his wife a favor: he’s picking up the bread that she loves at a place he wouldn’t have gone in “a million, billion years.” He’s the kind of guy who is “majestically enthroned at the center of [his world].” His wife describes him as having a “smug mode” when he is in control of things, and he’s even smug about his wife’s wisecrack: he takes the idea of himself being “enthroned” as a compliment.

What I admire most about this story (and I admire a great many things) is its pace. It is the story of about a half hour in a man’s life, but it’s also the story of his life, his marriage, his character, and his failings, all delivered in small, perfect, ironic, deft strokes. This story is wicked good. I enjoyed each devilish trick the author used to slow the story down, to deepen it, to make me laugh, to play with me, to make me think.

Here’s the thing: I have no idea whether Lennon is religious or not, whether he is using the Christian imagery as anything but a device, but I know this story is a religious speculation, a religious inquiry.

It has to do with this question: What is the bread of life? Or what Paul Tillich would call “one’s ultimate concern.” What is it that makes you happy? Or loving? Or useful?

What is it that makes you reject the opportunity to be so when it is offered to you point blank?

I am a reader who has a need for ecstasy and who is in a fairly constant failed quest for the sublime, and I am also inclined to accept “Love thy neighbor as thyself” as the ultimate competition that I am barely qualified to enter, and so the Christian imagery and allusions in this story don’t bother me. But here’s the question: Does this story work with the reader who is so disgusted with religion and all its stupidities that any mention of it makes the hair stand up on the back of the neck?

For me, the story lacks a dogmatic stance. It works for me as a query. What is the nature of happiness? But, for people who find religion disgusting, I wonder if the story can still work. I suggest that the story allows for just that disgust by being so funny and being mysterious and being oh so true, in a Garrison Keillor kind of way. But that comparison is a little casual. Lennon is an original, I think.

Lennon’s story reminds me of a storefront in the next town over, Hazel’s Place, where you can go if you need something free. Hazel is much older than the Spokefather of this story, and she seems to know a great many of the people who come and go. I went there last summer, several weeks in row, when I was having a fit of cleaning things out. Hazel sits in an armchair at the front of the store, at its mouth, where things stream in and out — toys, clothes, dishware, electronics, you name it. On one of those days, the air outside was warm and breezy, the sky was blue, and I was a little baffled. There was Hazel, smiling, a little pre-occupied, sitting inside in the darkish space with all the oldish things, contented.

I like the way Lennon’s story reminds me of her, and the way I hustled myself in and out, all business.

Anyway, I think “Breadman” is a tour de force: funny, entertaining, and, in its own way, deep.

Here we are, this week, dealing with the consequences of religion run amok. Some people, in the name of faith, have murdered a lot of other people, not just in Paris but also in Nigeria. It’s an old story, isn’t it? Amid the shards of failed religions, here’s a story that dares to use religious imagery to ask what the heck it is that saves us.

So the story works for me in general and works for me in this terrible week. But I wonder what other people think.

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By |2015-02-03T00:40:24+00:00January 12th, 2015|Categories: J. Robert Lennon, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |28 Comments

28 Comments

  1. Trevor Berrett January 12, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    I also loved this story, Betsy. Artisanal baking as religion, with all of its existential angst!

  2. Majnun Ben-David January 13, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    Betsy, great to have your thoughts. My full review (written before I looked at yours) is up now at http://www.majnunbd.com.

    I didn’t read this story as invoking religion per se. Instead, I saw it as looking at the nature of tight-knit communities more generally, of insiders versus outsiders. Naturally, religious groups are a common example of such small communities, but secular groupings can share the same features spotlighted in this story — you pictured the store in the next town, I pictured a group of cyclists that occupy a local cafe every Saturday after their ride.

    For once, I can be sure that my reading matches the author’s intent, because Lennon shares his intent in the accompanying brief interview: “I wanted the story to sneakily present itself as a parody of trendy food, before quietly undermining itself and changing into one about the social mores of small communities, including the smallest of all, marriage.” Lennon also gives the origin of this story in the q-and-a, and it indeed involves a secular community rather than a religious one. My practice, which I followed here, is read the story at least twice and make notes before I read the interview, so I formed my view independent of Lennon’s statements.

    To me, the main conflict in the story is about whether the world should be run by rules (as Samuel, the narrator, prefers, with his more distant/objective style) or based on community judgements. This comes to a head over the the last focaccia, which are given to one of the revered regulars known as “Spokefather” (perfect name!) despite Samuel having signed in before him. The community judges Spokefather as the more deserving recipient, while Samuel protests that, “You have a system … It is very elaborate and highly specific. What’s the point of having a system if somebody can just walk in here, cut in line, and circumvent it?” To me, that basic conflict of “community judgement” versus “system of rules” is a very interesting one — strong arguments to be made on either side — and ubiquitous in our modernizing world.

    But I didn’t feel like Lennon did all that much with that conflict, beyond presenting it in an admittedly well-rendered and amusing context. To me, it’s just left as well, there are these two different approaches, the narrator takes one while other characters prefer the other, and that’s that. I didn’t get a feeling for much depth here.

    Also, some of his touches seemed over-the-top for me, especially in a realistic story (Vainberg, really? and the description of his skin as being “as if he had been brushed with egg white and baked to an even brown”??). I did like the way he integrated modern technology in a smooth way … so often when characters text in a story, it comes across as clunky (to me anyway). And I enjoyed the humor.

    But I didn’t love this story. Neither did I dislike it, though. Ultimately, I felt it was like the bread it centers on: enjoyable enough to consume, but not particularly filling or nourishing.

  3. Majnun Ben-David January 13, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    Oh, and I wanted to mention that the publication of Lennon’s short story coincides with his launch of a new on-line literary journal, Okey-Panky, under the auspices of the well-known Electric Literature. I don’t know if the timing is intentional or coincidental, but I think it’s great that the attention generated by a New Yorker story is being channeled toward the launch of a free online literary journal. A description of the journal is at http://electricliterature.com/introducing-okey-panky/, and the journal itself lives at http://okeypanky.com.

  4. Roger January 14, 2015 at 11:46 pm

    I found this to be a great example of what can be done in what is essentially a single-scene story. It felt like a smarter version of Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi.” The narrator interested me, especially near the ending, where he tells us, only semi-ironically, about how he has reached “the next level of my enlightenment.” It turns out he was not “Breadman People,” and that the conflict that summer day enabled him to achieve this and other realizations, most notably about his shortcomings as a husband for Kathy. The bread sounded delicious.

  5. henry January 16, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    There’s this place near where I grew up called The Hamptons (out here on Long Island, NY), which might as well be another planet to some. I’m one of those people I think, and it’s the place and people (these “Breadies” in Lennon’s story if I may) that immediately came to mind as I started to read “Breadman”. It probably doesn’t need mentioning, but The Hamptons is that final eastern third of Long Island partitioned off by the demographically rich folk who scatter themselves about this area on the weekends, which is really larger than just the name implies, after having done their rich type people jobs in NYC all week. I would bet the cost of one of those focaccia that there are places just like this in “The Hamptons”.

    What I couldn’t quite put my finger on was just how well off the people in Lennon’s story were. Apparently they have money, but they’re disinclined to spend it. They gather in a “nonwhite working-class neighborhood” and wear “technical” sandals. So while they fit the mold of people who have more than enough time and money to spend on fancy bread in a ritual setting maybe they’re not the same people who live in a place where politicians raise millions at fundraisers held at the palatial estates of corporate CEOs, where Billy Joel once owned a home, and where the Wolf of Wall Street rented a mansion to train and entertain his eager minions.

    There are some who, joking or not, may even call The Hamptons a cult. I’ll go with this because I like the parallel to the story. And the more I read the more it seemed like a kind of cult that our protagonist finds himself in. At first he’s amused by the whole affair, then bemused at the rules of inclusion, and eventually says screw it all I’m gonna be part of this because, well, I got here first. But just like alot of cult stories, often followers don’t know exactly what they’re getting into, the end result often not working out quite as they had planned. Thus Samuel’s smugness (self described) lands him in the hospital.

    Of course it’s easy to see Samuel as bitter, he paid the price for his attitude for sure, but in the end, although he comes off as a jerk, I can identify with his displeasure with these cult like “Breadies”. Maybe he’d have been better off not getting involved in something he just couldn’t understand. Maybe he wasn’t like them and never could be. And maybe they were just as terrible in their smugness as he was.
    The beginning of the story threw me off. The straightforward mundane style and story. Until I realized Samuel saying he wouldn’t have gone there on his own in a “million, billion years” was a direct reflection of his character in response to the situation he was in. On the whole I didn’t think much of it initially, but when I considered it from this “cult” viewpoint with Samuel as the outsider (and in his marriage and relationship with his wife) and his wife as part of the “cult”, it brought out a different level for me that made it more interesting. Or maybe it’s just about buying good bread.

  6. Trevor Berrett January 16, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    Welcome, Henry, and thanks for your insightful comment. You’ve made me realize something I hadn’t quite articulated to myself. I’m pretty sympathetic to the narrator here. His sarcastic and humorous tone, though I do not like that he also uses this tone with his wife and that relationship, works well in the strange world of the Breadman. For better or for worse, there is a strange sense of worship with “artisanal” goods and those who produce them.

  7. Parker January 18, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    Intentional or not, there seems to me to be too many traditionally religious symbols in this story for it not to be taken as some kind of religious allegory– at least on one level. On that score, I am in general agreement with Betsy’s comments. References to “bread” and “manna” come to mind. Even the names of the two main characters — Anton (short for Anthony) and Samuel have religious overtones, both Christian and Jewish. On this “religious” level, I like very much the way the story builds to its moment of truth– the denial of the focassia bread to Samuel and his subsequent lashing out at the Breadman. At that point, the story resonates for me, and I kind of wish it had stopped there. However, I still puzzle over the last few paragraphs of the story where Samuel emotionally unburdens himself to the reader about his wife’s infidelity, the divorce, his aversion to bread, his concern about reader’s happiness, etc. There seems to be what some critics might call a “lack of objective correlative.”

    Nice comments, though, from everyone.

  8. lotusgreen January 18, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    Early in the story, describing the scene, the people in this shop, the narrator says, They chatted amiably but unostentatiously. They smiled and laughed. None of them looked at their phones. I did, because I was by myself, and because I lived most of my life at a distance from the things and people I loved. Oddly, though, he is not with things or people he loved; on his own he would never be there in a a million, billion years. He has gone for his wife.

    Who, unbeknownst to him, is ready to walk out on him. But still she sends him here on her behalf, knowing she’s talked to them about him, knowing what they think of him — now who is really “at a distance”? Religious? I don’t think so. Cultish? Possibly. Maybe even probably. Anyone who has given over their will and free thought to a particular way of being can feel released; they no longer have to wonder or worry. And in a room, their clannishness will drive any outsider to challenge his own truths and values. And they do defeat him.Or do they?

    What kind of leader can this old man be if he notes the distress of the husband of someone he cares about, someone who is sick and who wants this particular bread, and doesn’t even then take at least one of the two focaccia he has taken for his dog and offer to share?

    And how can it be that he is the last in line? He’s there 10 minutes before they’re open, and is there for a long time, and yet nobody arrives after he does? How is that possible? How convenient, then, that they should have run out just before his turn (which he’s only “lost” because of the venerated rule-breaker).

    The Cult dispels the disbeliever (you could tell by his shoes). But he’s right, whatever that means. Will he regain himself, maybe even a better himself? Who knows. I only know that he’s got a way better chance of doing that given that he reacted rather than simply bowing his head. The one last standing wins the race, but not until he comprehends all the rules.

  9. henry January 18, 2015 at 10:29 pm

    Now that time has passed since I’ve read it, it seems that, yea, it has to be intentional, no? I didn’t quite pick up on the “religiousness” of it to the depth that you (Parker I mean, sorry) did, but now that you bring the relevant points to the forefront, i.e. the points that support a religious allegory, it now seems apparent. At the same time though I’m wondering why the author bothered to do that. Is that what the story is? A biblical message? If it is that’s fine of course.

    I’m thinking perhaps, a little Mission Impossible action might have been nice at the climax to spice it up a bit? You know, maybe have Samuel kick some Father Spokesman butt (oops I meant Spokefather ;)), and then totally expose and dismantle what is actually a cult that goes well beyond the innocence of multiplying yeast. That would have made me happy. So I’m feeling what I think lotusgreen is saying. That our protagonist is quite the outsider, but he doesn’t deserve the treatment he’s getting. The collective sentiment being he just doesn’t get it. But if someone named “Breadman” who worships a heaven gazing, eyes closed, beatific smiling Spokefather said to me, “We are friends to your marriage”, I might want to take at least a hypothetical swing at him.

    I’m glad Samuel got out of there (granted, minus a piece of his cheek). I’m probably overreacting. Of course I am. It’s just about bread.

  10. lotusgreen January 18, 2015 at 10:42 pm

    Henry — Ha!

  11. Sean H January 20, 2015 at 5:48 am

    Can’t say I agree with the consensus cheers for this one. More clever than legitimately funny, it unravels like a cheaper, thinner, more plasticy version of the flag flown by Gary Shteyngart (who is legitimately intelligent, critical and can actually make me laugh out loud). Satire needs elegance and eloquence. This has a bit of the former, not much of the latter, a tone that is simultaneously smug and self-deprecating (and being aware of smugness is not the same as negating it, sorry). Not particularly original, I don’t think it’s salvaged by religious allegory or a more “serious” ending. An unmemorable bit of fiction that makes me disinclined to peruse this writer’s other work.

  12. Rosalind January 20, 2015 at 11:13 am

    Sean, I was beginning to worry about my literary analysis skills until I read your comment. Thanks!

  13. Trevor Berrett January 20, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    Good point, Sean H, about this piece lacking eloquence while having moments of elegance. I agree, though I did find the story funny and that’s why my initial reaction was quite positive. I remain a fan if not a stalwart supporter, and I too doubt this will remain in my memory long.

  14. Sean H January 20, 2015 at 8:18 pm

    Thanks Trevor. I think on first reading we often find “recognizable” to be synonymous with funny/satirical. The whole “gimlet-eyed writer” thing: Wow, he/she noticed something that I notice in society all the time and was just waiting for someone to lampoon it. But I think on the whole that’s not enough. I remember everybody comparing Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk to Heller’s Catch-22 and thinking the reviewers didn’t understand this distinction either. Yes, Fountain “captures” the jingoism and the ‘Merica-loving down-home tenor of those times. He gets inside the Iraq war and America’s didactic and overly simplified response just fine. But on second read it’s just not all that memorable. The characters are more like sketches. The satire and wit doesn’t sustain the way Catch-22 or Animal Farm of A Clockwork Orange do. There’s a reason Candide and Tartuffe are timeless. I feel like Lennon is trying to deflate hipsterism, and I appreciate his desire to puncture everyone, his 1st Person POV protagonist included, but it’s just not layered or well-written enough to be a real literary gem.

  15. Dan January 21, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    I thought this was an interesting piece — ultimately I guess I come down with the consensus that it was pleasant enough without being truly memorable. I didn’t really find it funny, though, or even have the sense it was supposed to be funny.

    Initially, I rather liked the narrator. Maybe this comes from a place of white male privilege, but I thought it more sympathetic than annoying that he is flattered by his wife’s description of his “smug mode”. But his over-reaction to the ridiculously named Spokesfather’s sort of seigneurial privilege sent me in the other direction. Sure there are “written” rules, but you’re clearly an interloper here who doesn’t know or understand or care to learn the *unwritten* rules, and what’s the BFD if your wife doesn’t get her damn focaccia?

    So about the name “Spokesfather”. Like Henry, I couldn’t help relating that name much more to the word “spokesman” than to the named person’s arrival on a bicycle. Again, maybe my perspective is skewed, since I live in Davis, CA, and it is contrarily the rare gathering (or even line at the post office) when there is no old dude dressed comfortably, with ponytailed gray hair and carrying a bike helmet. Except for the pony tail, I’ve been that guy. Is “Spokesfather” supposed to be a play on words, like not only is he a cyclist, but he also has some kind of representative role? I didn’t get that sense, as he is much more an elder statesman (with “state” here being “the state” rather than “to state”) than a PR guy. And I also agree with Henry that Spokesfather was even more of an asshole than the narrator.

    Finally, is this an overt homage to Tobias Wolff’s classic “A Bullet in the Brain”? Same supercilious main character, same queue for something, same rather rude guy shows up, similar (though different) injury to the protagonist, similar (though different) flashback before the end. I sure hope this was intentional. But still: Wolff’s story is so very much better. I think I’ll go re-read it.

  16. lotusgreen January 22, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    Dan, I know “Bullet in the Brain,” “Bullet in the Brain” is a favorite of mine. This is no “Bullet in the Brain.” The more I think of “Breadman” the less well it hangs together. (Though I am simply unable to get the chorus out of my head, whenever I read the title, “I am the Breadman, they are the Breadmen. I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob.”)

    In Bullet, the flashback is the crux of the entire story, the memory of one moment of love lost at the moment of death. To say that that, and standing in line, make the stories somehow similar is like saying the myth of Sisyphus is like “The Little Engine that Could” because they’re both going uphill.

    This story, and it’s not the first, makes me wonder about the editorial staff at the New Yorker; what are their orders regarding making sure the beginning of a story, the middle, and the end are in some way consistent with each other? Does it depend on the fame of the author? Or what? What is the real reason the wife has sent her husband into this den of loaves with the magic words, of which he needs reminding? Why does nobody arrive after he does? Why are the only things clear about “Spokesfather” are that he’s too selfish to sign his name, to sacrifice any of his dog’s fancy bread, or to not take cuts. Who worships the rude God?

    And why have we readers all identified with the narrator in his hatred of all these people in their technical sandals, and yet are forced to abandon him in his self-serving self-hatred at the end?

  17. Trevor Berrett January 22, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    I suppose rather than defend this particularly story I’d just like to defend the idea that this is an enjoyable story, one that strikes some cords, and that I don’t need more. I’d rather read this each week in The New Yorker (but, no, if this were the case I would not keep reading), than the many stories they publish that sound so serious and precious. I know you don’t like those either, Lily, but I just don’t think this story deserves heaping praise or derision. It’s in the middle range.

    And while I don’t look for opportunities to defend the editorial staff at The New Yorker, I really don’t think this story failed to do much that it sets out to do. For example, I never felt — and still don’t feel — the need to know the answers to any of the questions you bring up in your third paragraph, Lily; the story posits them as mysteries anyway, and yet the story is not about the answers to these mysteries but, at least in some part, about the fact that we don’t have access to the communal (or individual, in the case of a marriage) conscience behind these mysteries, for better or for worse.

    As to your last question, I think that’s one of the interesting things about the story. As I mentioned above, a part of me relates very well to the narrator, both in the specific situation he’s found himself in this artisan food setting, with its false claims to authenticity, and in the general situation of bewilderment and, to a degree, resentment at not getting it. Yet I don’t like the narrator, don’t like his tone, don’t agree with his actions or self-satisfaction. I’m okay going with him down one path and abandoning him at the start of another.

  18. lotusgreen January 22, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    That’s very interesting, Trevor. I guess that for me the ending calls the whole rest of the story into question.

  19. Trevor Berrett January 22, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    Well . . . I suppose in rereading my comment and thinking about it, perhaps Lennon is trying to do something special here. I’m probably giving him a pass because I’m not giving him credit for that :-) .

  20. Dave January 23, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    Oh, come on folks–it’s about Ithaca, NY. Or really any town with enough money and intelligence to fetishize cultural products. Portland, Brooklyn, etc.

  21. Trevor Berrett January 23, 2015 at 4:37 pm

    It’s premised on that, for sure, Dave, but that’s not the only thing it’s about.

  22. Dan January 23, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    Trevor: you say, “I really don’t think this story failed to do much that it sets out to do.” Maybe what Lily is rebelling against is that the story seemed to set out to do so little? The New Yorker has certainly published enough stories that tried something more and failed miserably.

    It’s funny–when I read the story the first time, I concluded it was a decent enough story for what it was. As I wrote my comment, I gradually persuaded myself that it was much worse than that, and Lily’s response confirmed that appraisal. But now I’m kind of coming back into that middle ground.

  23. Jan Wilkens January 27, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    I appreciate how the discussion does so much more than consider the symbolism and characters and gets into deeper consideration of whether or not it is a “great”, or even “good” story. I agree with Betsy that is a modern day allegory about “disciples” who follow rather than question and who make up rules as they go along. The nonsense that is tolerated because a leader or guru or “Breadman” purports to have wisdom and insight into the truth of life has become outrageous. The narrator is amusing in a sort of sarcastic way and as a reader I needed to as D.H. Lawrence said, “trust the tale and not the teller.”

    Also I agree with Parker who expressed confusion about the last few paragraphs. It is when the narrator rants about his wife’s ongoing infidelity, her lack

    Of trust, the eventual divorce,and his annoyance with bread, it concludes with him stepping out of the story to ask the reader if he is happy. That was a jarring shift in time and tone; too jarring. It did however, an excellent job of capturing the frenzy that can swirl around a place or a product to the pint of ridiculousness but then leapt through too much time. Great discussion comments from everyone.

  24. Greg January 29, 2015 at 12:50 pm

    Thank you Jan for this wise D.H. Lawrence advice, “Trust the tale and not the teller.”

    Also, thank you Trevor for returning in 2015 to making regular comments on the New Yorker stories……We know you have so much website contributions on your plate so we really appreciate the time you take to read the stories and share your insight!

  25. Trevor Berrett January 29, 2015 at 3:10 pm

    Thanks Greg. I appreciate the welcome back :-) .

  26. Ken February 12, 2015 at 4:52 pm

    I enjoyed this for what, in my opinion, it mostly was–satire. I actually think a bit more of it now that I’ve read comments about religious symbolism and for the fact it provoked such debate. I’d have thought this one of those stories that gets very few comments here and was surprised at the volume of the discussion. I’m predisposed to like this sort of thing because I dislike the weird frenzy around food items which has become part of urban culture and I dislike the sanctimony combined with trendiness often surrounding those who swarm around the latest fad. I’m less predisposed to see religion in things, because I’m a materialist (Marxist style not Donald Trump style) more concerned with the physical world. Not an amazing story, but to me it was a fun, snarky change of pace. I must agree with Lily about the end of the story which, upon thought, doesn’t really work.

  27. Madwomanintheattic February 15, 2015 at 9:04 pm

    At least two of the commentators have quoted the phrase “in a million, billion years,” and it’s that delightful naive vernacular that made me identify with the narrator, to answer Lily’s question. I was enjoying the story for its unusual-for-recent-New-Yorker-fiction lack of morbidity, but like several other readers, the entrance of a Mystical Figure in the midst of an elitist but otherwise comfortable breadline did not sit well, When he turned out also to be a MEAN Mystical Figure, my disenchantment was complete. There also seemed to me to be an odd anachronism in the story where Samuel, not yet having obtained his own Focaccia talks about telling his pharmacologist about its symbolismlater on. The episode is surely meant to be satirical, but there’s something wrong with the time sequence. As for the religious significance that I haven’t had time to work out, I want to throw in that in my typographical experience, the Host is the only bread I’ve ever seen capitalized – unless you count a good Jewish rye bread that doesn’t exist anywhere except in my memory.

  28. Lyneesha March 26, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    I was way off. I thought the story was about Israel and Palestine and set somewhere along the border :-|

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