Hailed as "remarkable" by the New Yorker, Emporium earned Adam Johnson comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut and T.C. Boyle. In his acclaimed first novel, Parasites Like Us, Johnson takes us on an enthralling journey through memory, time, and the cost of mankind's quest for its own past.
Anthropologist Hank Hannah has just illegally exhumed an ancient American burial site and winds up in jail. But the law will soon be the least of his worries. For, buried beside the bones, a timeless menace awaits that will set the modern world back twelve thousand years and send Hannah on a quest to save that which is dearest to him. A brilliantly evocative apocalyptic adventure told with Adam Johnson's distinctive dark humor, Parasites Like Us is a thrilling tale of mankind on the brink of extinction.
Release date: October 26, 2004
Publisher: Penguin Books
Print pages: 352
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Parasites Like Us
This story begins some years after the turn of the millennium, back when gangs were persecuted, back before we all joined one. In those days, birds and pigs were still our friends, and we held some pretty crazy notions: People said the planet was warming. Wearing fur was a no-no. Dogs could do no wrong. Back then, we'd pretty much agreed that guns were good, that just about everybody needed one. Firearms, we were all to discover, were feeble, finicky things, prone to laughable inaccuracy.
During this brief moment in human evolution, a professor of anthropology might, for the half-year he worked, fish in the morning, lecture midday, and stroll excavation sites until early evening, after which was personal/leisure time. I was a professor of anthropology, one of the very, very few. I owned a bass boat, a classic Corvette, and a custom van, all of which I lost during the period of this story, the brief sentence I served inside the cushiest prison in the Western Hemisphere, the minimum-security federal prison camp at Parkton, South Dakota.
Camp Parkton, we called it. Club Fed.
As an anthropologist, I had the job of telling stories about the past. My area of study was the Clovis people, the first humans to cross the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia about twelve thousand years ago. As you know, the Clovis colonized a hemisphere that had never seen humans before, and their first order of business was to invent a new kind of spear point, which they used to eradicate thirty-five species of large mammals. The stories I told about the Clovis were not new ones: A people developed a technology that allowed them to exploit all their resources. They then created a vast empire. And once they had consumed everything in sight, they disbanded-in the case of the Clovis, into small groups that would form the roughly six hundred Native American tribes that exist today.
I had a '72 Corvette and a custom van!
Dear colleagues of tomorrow, fellow anthropologists of the future, how can I express my joy in knowing there is only one profession in the years to come, that each and every one of you has become a committed anthropologist? The trials of my life seem petty compared with their inevitable reward: that the turbulent story of our species should end with all its members' becoming experts on humanity.
The fate of the culture we called "America" is certainly no mystery to you. Of that tale, countless artifacts stand testament, and who could fail to hear such a song of conclusion, endlessly whistling through the frozen teeth of time? Yet you must have questions. Dig as you might, there must be gaps in the record. Who is buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Indian? you might ask. Was the hog truly smarter than the dreaded dog? Were owls really birds, or some other manner of animal? So, my dedicated peers, I will share with you how the betterment of humanity began, and let no one claim I slandered the past. I am the past.
I'm not sure I can tell you the exact year this story be- gins, but I'll never forget the day. It was the season in South Dakota in which the Missouri River nearly freezes over-day by day, shelves of white extend their reach from the riverbanks, calciumlike, until they enter the central channel, where the current rips great sheets free and sends them hurtling downstream.
From my office on the campus of the University of Southeastern South Dakota, I could hear the frozen river wail and moan before a lurching crack tore loose a limb of ice. When the day was clear, I could even see from my window in the anthropology building scattered stains of red on the ice, where eagles had landed with freshly snatched fish and stripped them on the frozen ledges. An eagle was a kind of bird, quite large, and it was famous for the boldness it displayed when stealing another's prey. Most birds were about the size of rats, though some came as big as jackrabbits. The eagle, however, weighed in closer to a dog. Picture a greyhound, then add ferocity and wings.
It was a gray, brooding day when Eggers, one of my star doctoral students, stuck his head in my office. He was vigorously chewing something, and the odds were it wasn't gum.
Eggers wore goatskin breeches and a giant poncho of dark, matted fur, which he'd fashioned himself from animal hides begged off the Hormel meatpacking plant at the edge of town. I could smell him long before he made his way to the stacks of cardboard boxes that filled my doorway and spilled into the hall.
"Careful of Junior," I said and waved him in. I had just received an exciting new crate of raw ice-core data from Greenland, and Eggers' booties were covered with God-knows-what.
"Life's good, Dr. Hannah," Eggers said, making his way around the boxes. He displayed that impish grin of his. "Life is good," he repeated.
My office in those days was filled with houseplants of every variety, though I found indoor gardening so pointless and sad I could barely stand to look at them. Eggers ducked under the hanging tendrils of plants whose names escaped me, his feet crunching across the layer of flint chips that littered the floor from the hours I whiled away knapping out primitive tools and weapons.
He took a seat, and I was confronted with my daily update on Eggers' dissertation project, which was to exist using nothing but Paleolithic technology for an entire year. More than eleven months into the experiment, some of the results were already clear: the wafting custard of his breath, the thin mistletoe of his beard, the way the oiled gloss of his face had attained the yellowy hue of earwax.
I should have been working on a grant proposal or grading some of the endlessly simple student papers that flowed across my desk. But I couldn't concentrate, because of Glacier Days, a yearly carnival intended to lighten the gloom of winter by celebrating the recession of the glaciers that had carved the Missouri River Valley. They'd set up the midway in the Parkton Square parking lot, catty-corner to campus, and every so often you'd hear the muffled, rising moan and long wail of young people on the thrill rides.
"Okay, Eggers," I said. "Life's grand. We'll go with that hypothesis."
Eggers shrugged, as if everything was self-evident. "Oh, it's not some theory, Dr. Hannah. Life is tiptop," he said, moving aside a dusty stack of my book, The Depletionists, and settling into a high-backed chair. He slumped enough that his hair left a sheeny streak down the leather upholstery. God, his game bag reeked!
I was about to hear one of Eggers' continuing intrigues with a coed, or how he'd won some prestigious new grant. The anthropology journals were already fighting to publish his story. But I couldn't get that "life is good" phrase out of my head. It's what my stepmother, Janis, kept saying at the end, and it became one of my father's refrains after we lost her. I could see behind Eggers, framed in the window, a piece of ice slowly turning down the Missouri River-it drifted in from the future, caught the sun for a moment, and disappeared out into the past. From the Glacier Days carnival, a slow whoop arose from the next generation of South Dakotans as they mocked their deaths on bloodcurdling rides, and my eyes naturally fell to Junior-nineteen thousand notecards and twenty-seven cardboard boxes of research, all yet to be examined, all those stories waiting to be told.
Eggers shifted what he was chewing and went after it with his molars.
"Is this about Trudy?" I asked.
"Trudy? Why bring her up?" he asked. "Are you feeling guilty, Dr. Hannah?"
"What would I have to feel guilty about?"
"Nothing," Eggers said. "Nothing. Except you did file the paperwork to revoke her Peabody Fellowship and give it to me."
"The school's doing that. That's out of my hands. Congrats, by the way."
"You know me, Dr. Hannah. I yawn at money. Money's obsolete to me."
Eggers pulled something out of his mouth, inspected it, and put it back in.
"Don't gloat," I told him. "Everything will be hunky-dory once I explain things to her."
"Trudy's pretty upset. I mean, I was the one who broke it to her."
"This isn't even official yet."
"She needed to hear it from someone who cared," Eggers said.
"Please," I said. "Anyway, that's only half the story. Losing her Peabody is only the bad news of a good-news/bad-news thing. I'll explain it to her."
Eggers swallowed hard enough to make his eyes water, and then he opened the flap of his game bag. I could see a fuzzy tail sticking out of it, and it hadn't escaped the notice of the school paper that all the squirrels on campus had disappeared during the time that Eggers, an adult omnivore, had taken up residence in the middle of the quad.
"I wouldn't worry about Trudy," Eggers said. "Trudy can take care of herself. She'll bounce back." He removed another sinewy morsel and slid it into his mouth. Though grayish-brown, it crunched like celery. He chewed it contemplatively. "I've got my own good and bad news," he added.
I removed my glasses, folded them, rubbed the bridge of my nose.
"Just the good," I said. "Only tell me the good."
"I found something."
Eggers was always finding things. He was the only person in town who walked everywhere, and over eleven months, his travels on foot had netted him countless arrow points, bison skulls, mastodon teeth, and a brass bell that may or may not have belonged to Meriwether Lewis. Sleeping in the same stretch of sand in South Dakota, you were likely to find a buffalo soldier's pistol, a conquistador's breastplate, the hooves of rhino-pigs from the early Eocene, T-rex teeth, and maybe even a Cambrian trilobite, frozen mid-wriggle at the dawn of time.
"Is it a spear point?" I asked.
"It's a point, all right," Eggers said.
"A Clovis point?"
Eggers shrugged, but in a way that said, You can bet the farm.
I threw a foot up on my desk to lace my snow-packs. "Show me," I said.
We tromped downstairs and cut through the Hall of Man, a natural-history exhibit that my predecessor, Old Man Peabody, fashioned himself back in the 1960s out of an empty classroom. The Hall was about thirty feet long and lined with glassed-in exhibits. On one side was a series of models depicting glacial advance and retreat during the late Pleistocene. Peabody had crafted the balsa glaciers by hand, painted them white, and used little stickpins to represent Clovis movement from Siberia to South Dakota during brief openings in the ice. On the other side of the Hall was an amazing series of very lifelike models that followed the ascent of humanity: in a row were displayed Homo habilis, erectus, and sapiens, followed by Neanderthal, and finally Clovis, all posed in natural settings with several artifacts that Peabody had excavated himself. This hall is where I came to pace and think in times of doubt. Simply to cross the room was to travel a hundred thousand years back in time; it was a place where things always seemed clearer to me.
Out in the quad, Eggers and I walked quietly through the snow. The limbs of the maples had been shorn off, so they were whitened posts against what was for now a clear sky. The sidewalks were sanded and salted, though we veered off through the hackberry trees, walking under their weblike branches and listening to the tap-tap of thawing icicles as they dripped constellations into the snow below.
Eggers' shelter was situated in the middle of Central Green, and ahead I could see its snow-crusted dome, made from six curving mammoth tusks draped with a mass of various animal hides that had been confiscated over the years by the Fish and Game Department. Also ahead in the courtyard was a large granite stone that held the plaque I'd placed in remembrance of my stepmother, Janis, and I was faced with my almost daily decision: should I offer a word to her, or should I close my eyes and simply walk on?
The proof of my cowardice was that my decision to talk to Janis always came down to whether or not I was alone. At least I didn't put a bench here, which I'd considered.
Eggers could see the apprehension on my face. "Maybe I'll just go check my snares," he said, and headed toward the arbor-vitae hedge.
"No, don't," I told him. "I'm okay." And like that, I resolved not to speak to Janis today. As I neared, though, I did look at her face, fixed in the mild relief of bronze. The birds had been crapping again, something I hadn't planned on when I'd commissioned the memorial. But, really, did it matter? How could someone be honored by impressing a face on a plaque or a name to an anthropology fellowship? I couldn't even decide if I should use an image of her from when she was young or when she was older. Eventually, I chose a picture taken on the day she graduated from stenography school, a time before she even met my father. She looks young and expectant in the image, but the ironies didn't escape me: since she left my life, I'd chosen to remember her with an image from before I'd entered hers. So now we looked upon each other as strangers.
My father had Janis cremated, something I'm against, but would it have made a difference if we'd buried her? Ten thousand years from now, when people exhumed her bones, what would they know of her life, her spirit? There would be her rings, traces of gold dentistry, perhaps. Would they know of her love of plants, that she longed to see Egypt, or that when she napped on the couch her fingers would type her dreams on her lap? Would the future know her goal in life was an impossible one: to be my mother after my real mother made a stranger of herself? Should I have put medicine bottles and a bedpan in her grave, so the future would understand her final struggle? Should I have chiseled out her story, start to finish, in granite, and what language will the future speak?
The snow thinned as we crossed Central Green, and it wasn't until you neared Eggers' dwelling, which he called his "lodge," that you realized it was situated, as if by chance, atop the one spot on the whole campus where there was no snow. There were underground steam tunnels that sent heat to the dormitories, and Eggers claimed it was just a coincidence that he had built his lodge over the main heat exchangers. Nearing, we stepped through shards from his flint knapping, and an array of his stone tools was lying around-scrapers, cutters, and percussion strikers. Finally, there was a rather shocking mound of bones that Eggers had accumulated over the year. I nosed through them with my boot-most of the bones were surprisingly small, shining dully from under a gelatinous goo that beaded water away, and though rodent anatomy was technically out of my field, I spotted among the prairie-dog and squirrel skulls more than one feline. Eggers was saving them so he'd be able to calculate his caloric intake, once his year was finished and he could handle lab equipment again. These bones were the cornerstone of his dissertation, and I counted them as a real document, as good a testament to Paleolithic culture as any. To keep scavengers away, Eggers urinated on the heap.
When Eggers pulled back the flap of his lodge, he was greeted by a package, wrapped in red paper and tied with yarn, and there was only the faintest smell of fire smoke. Of the gift, probably left by one of his female students, Eggers seemed to take no notice; instead, after the flap closed behind him, I heard him breathing on the fire, a patient, well-paced stoking that made me look away, as if this was a private moment between man and flame. Low clouds had again passed over the river, and of the Clark Bridge, only the upper trestle was visible.
Eggers emerged with a soft leather cloth that looked exactly like a chamois you'd use when washing a car. "This Clovis point is the cover of the Rolling Stone," Eggers said, handing it to me. "This is a feature article in Archeology Today."
Through the leather cloth, I felt the weight and shape of the stone. You never forget the feel of a Clovis point. A hint of pink was peeking from under the cloth.
"You know, I've never found an exotic one," I told Eggers. "In all my years of hunting. I've found some things, don't get me wrong, but never a colored Clovis point."
"Well, this one's yours," Eggers said.
I unfolded the cloth, and there it was. About five inches long, broad-headed, and cut from the rarest of materials, a semitranslucent rose quartz. Twelve thousand years ago, this artifact was the height of technology on the face of the earth, and no one in the millennia since has been able to reproduce the Clovis' lost craft. The afternoons I spent flaking flint in my office were merely exercises in humility, for the Clovis concerned themselves with nothing but producing the most dangerous weapons on earth. They left behind no art, no monuments, no shelters, few remains.
I ran my fingers down the dimpled spine of Eggers' pink point-the cutting edge was covered with serrated ridges that fanned forward to cause severe micro-hemorrhaging on penetration, while at the same time the plane of the blade was fluted with a ridge leading backward, serving as a channel to runnel the blood from the wound. This blade could snap bison ribs and still slice tomatoes.
Over the course of three centuries-at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, twelve thousand years ago-three amazing things happened: the Ice Age ended completely, and glaciers retreated from North America; humans entered the hemisphere, and these Paleo-Indians we call Clovis quickly spread across all forty-eight contiguous states, founding an empire that included Mexico and Canada before their culture came to an end; and, finally, thirty-five species of large North American mammals became extinct. All in three hundred years.
Mammoth and mastodon skeletons have been found with dozens of Clovis points lodged in their bones. Many paleo- anthropologists agree that the Clovis people eradicated the elephants of North America, though they tend to believe the other large animals were killed off by climate change.
It was my lone hypothesis, however, articulated in The Depletionists, that the Clovis blade was the demise of the North American camel, the giant sloth, the short-faced bear, and thirty-two other large mammals. And here was the very spear point that had done it. I marveled at its color, held it to the light, and saw that the quartz was clear at the surface with a cataract of milky pink veined through the center. Only a few thousand Clovis points had ever been discovered, and they were all logged in the National Clovis Bank. Fewer still of these super-bleeder spear points were cut from the exotic minerals only Clovis had a fondness for: smoky purple obsidian and ferrous chert, from feldspar, perlite, spider flint, or the blue-yellow of anthracite. And here was rose quartz. In the back alleys of anthropology, there was a black market for these points, and what I held was worth more than my Corvette and custom van put together.
"Okay," I asked Eggers, "where'd you really get this?"
"I told you," he said. "I found it."
An anger rose in me. "You found this and then removed it from the site? This point doesn't mean anything without context. Haven't I taught you anything? Unless it's in situ, where we can see its role in the bigger story, it's just a bauble."
"It's more complicated than that," Eggers said. Students were filing out of Gufstason Hall, and his eyes followed their brightly colored jackets as they descended the slushy stairwell, arms out for balance, in baby steps. I looked at my wristwatch. It was just after noon, and my father would be waiting for me.
"I've got to teach my Arc-Intro," Eggers added. "There's more than this spear point. I'll show you, but I need to ask a favor first."
Doing a favor for Eggers was no easy thing. He didn't use money, ride in cars, or borrow music. He didn't need my fishing pole or want a letter of recommendation. He'd been an unexceptional kid as far as I could tell, one who sat at the back of my classes, dressed like a golf caddy, and probably smoked some reefer. Then he embarked on this project, and somehow he'd become a lean, clear-eyed young man who had no need for anything from you but time, muscle, and wisdom.
"All right, what is it?"
"Meet me here tonight, when the moon is high."
"Surely, you're joking," I told him. "What time is that? Midnight?"
"Midnight sounds right, though I'd have to check the moon."
"Midnight's my personal/leisure time."
"And bring Trudy," he said. His big, shaggy figure was already heading off to teach.
I stood there a moment with the pink Clovis point in my hand. It felt wrong simply to stick it in my coat pocket as if it was a pen or a throat lozenge, and it seemed more criminal to wander the campus wielding it in my hand. I probably shouldn't admit this, but my first, brief impulse was to show Janis, to walk up the hill to the plaque that I tried to think of as her, and tell her all about it.
I admit this because these events happened long ago, and it's more than ironic that a man who spent his career trying to bring the past to life would, around the age of thirty-nine, begin to communicate certain things to the dead.
That's when Eggers came walking back to me. I was still standing there, hand extended with a pink spear point, looking toward the river so as not to look toward my stepmother. As Eggers neared, I for some reason felt that when he came close he would keep coming closer and give me a pat on the back or clasp my hand. He might hug me, I thought.
Instead, Eggers said, "Are you okay, Dr. Hannah?"
"What?" I asked.
"I better hold this for now," he said, taking the point from my hand. "I'll give it back later tonight. And get some rest, yeah?"
Then he walked away again.
I set off through the quad, following the snowed-in cardio-track, with its frozen fitness stations, then tromped past the Carney Aquatic Center, standing like a cube of jade with its steamed-up walls of Depression-era glass. I could make out the silhouettes of dive platforms, could almost smell the endless drizzle of mildewy rain that dripped from the glass ceiling inside.
There was no getting around the fact that I would be late for lunch with my father downtown, but still I cut through the dean's courtyard and the president's garden-the ground winterized with rows of burlap-and it struck me as I passed among the stark colonnades surrounding Old Main that the school paper was right: all the squirrels had disappeared.
The campus opened onto Parkton Square, a one-block park surrounded by multi-story brick buildings erected by people who believed towns like Parkton and Sioux Falls would one day be Kansas Cities and St. Louises. Parking was free dur- ing Glacier Days, so I walked past green-hooded meters in front of businesses that were mostly alive, though the Bijou Theater was now an indoor shooting range and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows lodge had been divided into the small apartments where my father now lived. If I looked up to the hill above downtown, I could see the library and buildings of Parkton College, the long-bankrupt Catholic school that was now home to the minimum-security federal prison camp.
I crossed the street at Bank, passed the statue of Har- old McGeachie, "The Farmers' Farmer," and watched a roller-coaster car swoop above the trees in the park. It climbed its white scaffolding, paused atop the hump to let its passengers fret and moan before the load of colored hats, thick parkas, and trailing scarves plunged screaming from view. Before I pushed into the brass revolving door of the Red Dakotan, I paused to read the movie marquee next door, which was billing a double feature of "His & Hers Pistol Special" and "Super Scope Sale."
The Red Dakotan had been built long before the dam, back in a time when Mississippi steamboats made it this far up the river, when wealthy passengers needed a place to freshen themselves and pass the time in luxury while military prisoners restocked the ships with coal. Inside, the wool carpets had a red fleur-de-lis design, and there was a staircase banister scrolled in the French style. Silver "smoker's companions" stood astride each chair. By the bar, below the Dakotan's wall-length gilt mirror, I spotted my father's houndstooth sportcoat.
When I joined him, he was holding the hand of a woman who was leaving. He bowed slightly to her, extended a business card between two fingers, and said, "Enchanté," before hailing the bartender with an order of two martinis.
He wore a new pair of eyeglasses with amber lenses, tinted like the safety goggles that shootists wear. He sported a mustard-colored vest, and he'd acquired a pinkie ring that was nothing but a huge nugget of gold. Here was my father, a man who in the six months since Janis' death had managed to liquidate everything they owned together, sell his State Farm office, and reappraise all of southern South Dakota with a look in his eye that said, I'm ready. Man, I am ready.
"Enchanté," I said.
He pretended not to hear me.
"Did you bring the Corvette?" he asked. "I may need the 'Vette later."
"Let me see one of those cards," I said, reaching for his breast pocket. "I mean, I take it you didn't just try to sell that young woman insurance."
He brushed away my hand. "You wish," he said. "It happens I will be escorting that new lady friend to the radio theater tomorrow."
I swiped one of the cards anyway. It read, "Frank Hannah," and below, in fine script, "Appraiser of Fine Goods, Objects D'Art, & Rare Beauty."
I said, "I notice you didn't mention the word 'Antiquities.'"
Dad gave me his "wise-sage" look, which consisted of lowering his head enough to eyeball me over the top rim of his glasses. "Son," he said, "every woman has something hidden and valuable she wants to show you."
"Like her underwear?"
He snatched the card back. "This wouldn't work for you," he said. "Look at your limp suit and mail-order spectacles. Who taught you how to shave? I woke up. I stepped out of the fire."
He thumbed the length of his lapels and tugged his cufflinks, as if to say, See?
"The fire? You mean the inferno that is marriage, fatherhood, and a career?"
"Hey," he said, "I'm still your father. Don't forget that. But here's a tidbit I woke up to. There's no such thing as insurance. You don't bet against doom. You can't sell policies your whole life and just hope disaster doesn't come. You got to tip your hat when it comes, because it's coming. So-send in the tornadoes. Let's have the locusts."
"I hope you've been drinking," I said.
At the sound of the martini shaker, Dad closed his eyes. To the music of ice and frothy gin, he said, "Oh, lighten up. These are just musings. This is only Philosophy 101. If I wanted to give you real advice, I'd tell you to find a young girl, ten years younger, and marry her young. That's as close as you'll come to insurance."
Of course he was referring to the death of Janis, but we had, at some point since then, come to a silent understanding: he never spoke my stepmother's name, and I never said my mother's.
Dad's eyes popped open. "Come to think of it," he whispered, "forget the Corvette. I may need the van tonight."
He smiled for the first time, and I saw that his two front teeth, which had always been a tad discolored and out of alignment, now gleamed perfectly white with new crowns.
The martinis came, both dressed to my father's exact specifications-a toothpick skewering an olive, then a folded anchovy, and finally a cocktail onion-so I knew my father had walked the bartender through a couple trial runs before I'd arrived.
Dad put some cash in the bartender's hand. "We'll want that booth over there, by the wall, and we'll need our steaks sent over ahead of time." He turned to me. "Two or three steaks?"
I looked around for Trudy, who was supposed to meet us for lunch, but she was nowhere to be seen. "Two for now," I told Dad.
"Two it is," he told the bartender. "Make them porterhouses, keep 'em rare."
Then my father lifted his glass high, a thin film of fish oil catching the light.
"To floods and hail and the Great Deductible," he said, and drank alone.
In the Parkton landfill was Janis' Art Deco cocktail set, complete with flamingo-pink martini glasses and a tortoiseshell shaker. Gone also were her Bakelite clutch purses, her collection of dime-store brooches, and a little library of vintage etiquette guides, which her mother had taught from in the days of elocution. Dad had lightened his heart by shedding-the house, the furniture, the car-and, as if Janis' spirit was small enough to inhabit anything, nothing they'd shared was spared, not the nail clippers, the alarm clock, the plastic ice-cube trays. He even ditched his own glasses, because they had once brought her into focus. Now my father lived in a tiny apartment, and except for a fair amount of money he needed to give away, there was no evidence that my stepmother had ever existed.
I had two theories on my father.
The first held that he had fallen out of love with Janis at some point in their marriage, and that her death, while not pleasant for him to watch, was an overdue relief. This father before me now, yellow-tinted glasses, raw gold ring, was the man I'd always have known, had he not been hobbled by some marriage vows, a nine-to-five job, and a conscience as old and guilty
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