Serpent Blog

Like Sisyphus - The Serpent Box Letters 

January 15, 2002
Higher Grounds Café, San Francisco


I had a terribly depressing thought last night. I thought, ‘What if I’m not ready for this book?’, ‘What if I am over-reaching?’. I was watching Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary about Mark Twain. And it always makes me feel so feeble to hear of the lives and exploits of the great writers. I am worried that I say too much, show too much, describe too much and yet reveal so little. I look at my long-hand work, and I see that is falls so far short of doing the job – it is so sparse, these first drafts in long-hand require much tweaking. I spent much time working them and re-working them, as the potter throws clay and destroys…throws clay and destroys. There is a great story in the bible about this. I am trying to remember it now. God tells one of the prophets to go to a house of a potter, to watch this process of building and rebuilding, the pot is an allegory for Israel and the story is meant to show the reader that this Sisyphusian process never ends. I will look up this passage and share it with you.

The whole thing is very mysterious. Yet I resist the urge to attempt an explanation. I am not writing something from a plan. I did not even want to write this book. I wanted to write a collection of short stories instead. Mark Twain kept Huckleberry Finn on the back shelf for years. He needed to go back to the Mississippi, to travel down and then back up it once more in order to prepare. But this is not my Huckleberry Finn, this is not my world, nor do I draw from any childhood experiences or characters from my own life. I am proud of myself because this is pure imagination, pure fiction, pure dream. If I can pull this off Andrew, I can do anything, write anything. I will never ever give up. I have the faith of Job.

Now to work. The sun is out strong, the air is quite cold for this city and there are cowboy songs playing in my head.

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The Serpent Box Letters (cont.) Dreams, Visions and Self-Sabotage 
January 14, 2002
Higher Grounds Café, San Francisco

I must confess that I feel very uncomfortable hearing about other writers. I do not like to see them interviewed on television, and I do not like hearing about their prizes and awards. I do not like to go to readings and I despise overhearing conversations in which writers are talking. This is because I feel so insecure about my own work, and also quite impatient. I envy that they have finished (books) and when they talk about how they are deciding to write their next book, and what to write about, I am forced to muster great self-control so as not to scream. I have no money Andrew, and no income, and try as I might to not let this creep into my daily thoughts, I find myself worrying more and more – and perhaps this is yet another insidious way my subconscious attempts to sabotage my work. And there are so many ways. Steinbeck used to write his confessions in letters to himself that he would then immediately burn. I wonder if this helped in any way?

I have been dreaming. My night-time visions have been vivid and filled with strange and sometimes terrible things. It is wondrous and fantastic how the mind works. It always shows us what we need to see. Last night I witnessed the suffering of wandering men. I saw them sleeping in culverts, and beneath stairwells. It was very cold outside and they were wrapped in horrible blankets and castaway rugs. And they were covered in their own vomit and in excrement, and I did nothing to help them, In fact, I ran away. I choose not to interpret this.

But I wish I would dream of the book. Why don’t I dream of it I wonder? I am worried that it is not consuming me. Shouldn’t it consume me? Why doesn’t Charles Flint or Jacob Flint come to me in the night? I need them to come. I need them to tell me things. I never see them at any other time then when I am working. I want to be consumed and obsessed. I feel like such a sham. Who am I to write this book? I know nothing of them, I know nothing. Now this is a wonderful way to get started isn’t it? These letters are supposed to warm my engine, not drain its oil. Therefore I will stop. Know this my friend, if you are suffering, I suffer with you. There is no end to this I’m afraid. And I don’t think I want it to end. I only want to finish the book.


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The Serpent Box Letters - Light, Walking and Steinbeck 

January 11, 2002
South Park Café, San Francisco


I realize now that I misdated my previous letter. It was in fact the tenth and not the ninth of January yesterday…

Now, I must tell you, that I feel it is necessary for me to walk to my writing place, and if possible, to walk a significant distance in order to arrive there. I have made it my habit to come here, to this café, on Fridays, though it takes considerable time and effort to do so. South Park is a lovely and secret little place a quarter mile from the new baseball stadium and less than a hundred yards from the spot where Jack London was born. This is where I began my first story, and where I drew my early inspiration. I feel as though his wandering spirit bolsters my abilities here, and I am talking about Jack London, who resides in my heart and pantheon of influences and inspirations. But back to walking for a moment.

Movement, the pounding of one’s heart, the ever-changing scenery, exposure to people, regular people, working-class people, going about their daily routines, trains, buses, taxis, street-beggars, the sunlight dancing on the windows of the high-rises, the cold air and the steam seeping up from the sewer grates – all this frees the mind and prepares the conscious to greet the unconscious. There is also a sense of purpose when one journeys to one’s place of work. I have often felt the spark of inspiration for many of my writings on these walks. It seems that I must warm up like an old car in winter before I can drive….

I am excited now because I am developing my process, though it must remain a flexible process. I do not worry. I do not think very much. I trust it to come. I have faith, not so much in the end result, but in its inception. I know I can begin, and if I can begin, there is hope of an end.

Steinbeck said:

“Just remember that this book will go on forever. I do not ever intend to finish it. And only with this attitude will it progress as I wish it to.”

Andrew, nothing in my life or in my experience has prepared me for this kind of patience. I am most ill-prepared for the writing life - for the creation of the great and lasting novel. You may as well ask me to create one of those Navajo sand paintings that are crafted grain by grain over many years, only to be swept away upon the moment of completion. Did I get that right? Are they Navajo sand paintings? Or are they Indian, as in the yogis of India? Please correct me if I am mistaken. Andrew, it is my great wish to work side-by-side with you. I envy how you and Gina have your desks in one room the way you do, and I think you have a fine office and workplace. If we ever live in the same city, we must rent office space together.

I must get to the writing now. I know that my work today will be fine.


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The Serpent Box Letters 

There is a quote attributed to Hemingway that I cannot verify, but it sounds like something he would believe, if not actually say and it goes something like this:

"Some writers were born to help another write a single sentence."

And it is true. As writers we not only help each other to write, but it is our solemn responsibility to do so. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, including old Papa. But this duty, this responsibility goes beyond obligation. The gift that one writer gives to another, in helping him or her to believe, is an act of love.

This is a small story about one of those rare writers.

You wake up very early, sometimes before the sun, and you watch the light as it comes. You wake but not fully, you move slow and remain quiet and you wait for the feeling to come and then you face the page. There you sit. Alone. Day after day after day. What will come? You ask yourself this question every day and you fall asleep asking it of God. What will come? And nobody answers you. Will anything come today? You try to see things that are not really there and never were there before you imagined them. You stare at the blank page but you’re really looking inward, for some semblance of a waking dream. That’s what it is if you’re lucky, a self-induced dream. If you can will the dream to come you can watch it play and then it’s sort of like dictation except there’s no voice, only a stream of images that you record with your hand like some medium pulling messages out from beyond.

Writing is the loneliest thing there is. I mean riting from the heart. Writing beyond what you know. Writing toward the center of yourself. Writing as discovery. Writing as a means to knowing – not just who you truly are, but who we all are and what it means to be alive, and not merely alive but living, why do we keep on living? This is what you ask when your writing is true. Writing from darkness toward light. This is a great and difficult journey. This is a hero’s quest. And it is very lonely. And it is terrifying in its loneliness. And the world outside yourself will try to crush you with solitude and the world inside yourself will try to destroy you with doubt.

But if you are very lucky you will have a friend. Please God, help me. Send me an angel. If you are very, very lucky you will find another like yourself who understands this drive, this desire, this need, to plumb the depths of this living, with words, which are magic and which were given to us by God to literally create realities and to help us understand ourselves and to change our lives and, if used wisely, to change the world for good. This is true of writers, but it’s true of all people who sincerely want to grow, to transform, and evolve into a better, loving human beings. If you are lucky you will find a friend who takes you by the hand and guides you toward the light.

Writing Serpent Box was the most difficult challenge I have ever faced. How do you write a book? Where do you begin? You can research and plan and outline. You can read and study. You can travel to your desired locations and interview other human beings. But eventually you face the blank page. Then what? You have to put something on the page and someone has to read it. And when you’re new, and green and a child, with no preparation or background in writing, that person has to tell you the truth. And if that person understands you, and if they love you and believe in you, then you stand a chance at surviving the onslaught that will be hurled at you every single day. All the doubt, all the fear, all those voices that are telling you that you can’t do it, that you should quit, that you don’t have what it takes. All you need to weather the storm is another writer who is a friend.

In 1999 I went to Belize and met a writer who changed my life. His name is Andrew Wilson and he has been my mentor ever since. We became friends at the Zoetrope All-Story Short Story Writer’s Workshop. It was in Belize that I began my odyssey. Everything changed in that high forest near the Guatemalan border. I wrote the first line of Serpent Box in Belize and left that country determined to turn writing from a hobby into my life’s great passion. Andrew Wilson, who is more talented than I, who has more experience than I, who has written one of the best novels I have ever read (a novel as yet unpublished) listened to me, read my work, and was there for me during the dark and hopeless days when I not only wanted to quit, but wanted to die.

I wrote Andrew a letter every day before I began my writing and sent them to him via email. I used those letters to bolster my confidence and to weigh ideas. They were sounding boards, those letters were, and often Andrew would answer them with a few well-chosen words of advice, or, with a quotation from some great writer who had gone through what I was going through. My letters were cries for help and Andrew replied with love. I grew to trust him, and thus, to trust myself. Knowing that a living, loving human being was out there listening to me was enough to keep me going through some very dark times.

The Serpent Box Letters were inspired by The East of Eden Letters, written by John Steinbeck to his editor Pascal Covici while Steinbeck was writing that great novel. Reading Steinbeck’s letters showed me that all writers, regardless of stature or level of success, continue to struggle each time they try to pull a book out of themselves that is greater than themselves. Writing a book that is bigger than yourself, that is far-reaching, and that tries to answer a great question that burns within you, is a hero’s quest. And the great heroes of myth never do it alone.

Here now is the first letter I wrote to Andrew Wilson, only a few months into the process of writing Serpent Box. By this time it had become my routine to work in a local coffee shop each morning, a wonderful place called The Higher Grounds Café in the Glen Park district of San Francisco.

January 9, 2002 - The Higher Grounds Café, San Francisco


Today I begin what I hope will become a daily habit, a way to warm up my fingers and loosen my writing head. It is a glorious morning, and I cannot tell you how important that is for one’s state of mind. If there is sun, and most importantly, shadow, I know that the day’s writing will be rich and full of raw emotion. Yesterday I wrote in the morning in long-hand, as I explained, and in the afternoon I transcribed some of that onto my little Mac laptop which I love so much. I write everything in long-hand first and then transcribe onto the Mac. This process is arduous, and the transcription is many times more difficult than the actual writing. This is because I labor over it and mull it over, and read it, again and again and sometimes out loud so I can get a sense of cadence and tone. I fill in all the blanks this way and beef up the writing and it becomes rich like churned butter as I work it over and over during this part of the process. I know now that I will have to go back into the manuscript and add scenes. I suppose that on my first pass I hit all the highlights and perhaps leave out the broader and perhaps more important mundane aspects of the world my people live in.

I approach the work with great excitement today. This is because I think I know what the next scene will be. It is so strange to have these visions, these waking dreams in which I see fictional people alive and in motion. Sometimes I feel like an unwilling prophet, like Jonah or Isaiah, with these dreams thrust upon me from above. I feel as much pain and consternation as they, and I wish that if God actually wanted to speak through me, he would just appear and be done with it…

One thing before I go. I feel bad about yesterday. I don’t think I was much help to you, and I so badly want to give back. I sensed a reluctance in you, I felt that perhaps you had wanted to say more. I am nobody to be giving you advice about writing, but I feel we are kindred spirits in other ways too, and that I am more than qualified to speak on the subject of angst and pain. Particularly pain. And I feel it my friend. Like a an old wound of war, a bullet too close to the spine, it’s always with me, and there are days when I am so close to the black edge that I can hardly believe I escaped a darker fate…I know now that is the words that saved me, if I did not find books when I did, my path would have been very bleak indeed. Perhaps this is what Tim O’Brien means when he says that stories can save us…


To read more letters please come back tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that...

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U-Boat : A Story 
I am posting, for the first time here, a story in progress. The story is called U-Boat, and it was written (as so many of my stories are) in response to a photograph. I thank David Fox, a fine writer, for providing me with this inspiration and for continuing to challenge me with sparks and fuel.

U-Boat is an oral story. It was written as if it was spoken. Soon I will post an MP3 of me reading it.

If you read it, and have an emotional response to it, please convey that to me. Here is the photo I began with:

And here is U-Boat.


The sky was bright and clear the morning the old captain disappeared, but the water was mysteriously black, and it was smooth as a mill pond after a night with no moon. The tide was dead bottom low. He was up before dawn, as was his custom, and he was seen at Fulton’s for bait. He bartered for a box of sandworms with Dewey Fulton and bought a quarter’s worth of Bunker chum he scooped into a Maxwell House can with a tin dipper that hung from a rope on a hook. When he left the chandlery about ten past six it was already warm enough to melt the creosote on the dock pilings and the glass was rising ahead of a squall that never did come. He was seen out near the Lost Banks around seven and the skipper of the Cornada spotted him at anchor at Torpedo Rock at eight. Beyond that there were no further sightings. Nobody paid much attention to him those days - though I always watched for him, to ask what might be running, and I’d often query him on weather sign and the draw of certain bait. But when I saw that old bicycle of his there against the dock-shed on past midnight I just had the feeling I’d never see him again.

I remember. When I was a boy, we’d see him dive the sunken wrecks to hunt conger eels with a three-pronged spear. And one time I watched him swim through a rough chop in a storm, with the bowline of that little Whaler he had in his teeth, pulling that boat against a swift current in the dark with the strength of the damned. We called him the captain. He was a man who spoke few words but those words he did speak carried with them the weight of one who knew the sea and all her means of betrayal. He would fish in the Narrows at slack-water or out at Bird Island when the tide pulled too fast, for he was old by this time and his hands were not quite as strong. He was a captain in name only, as there were many who claimed he skippered a submarine in the war, true or not he was a German sure enough. He had the mad blue eyes of an Aryan prince.

He lived in that gray shack at the end of the estuary, the one with the crooked stove-pipe and the raked tin roof and he kept more cats than he could feed with the guts of his daily catch. He had the tanned and leathered skin of an old waterman, his face was deeply lined and he had a great head of silver hair. But what I remember most about him were his hands. His hands were things of true ugliness and strength and they appeared to have been forged with hammers of ice. His skin was all red on his swollen knuckles and scarred up good and he lacked nails on some of his fingers and lacked a finger entire on his left hand where he also bore a smudged black tattoo that could have been an eagle or an anchor or some Teutonic creature from the walls of Wotan’s crypt. As boys we all called it the hand of death.

I set out that next morning and searched all the hidden coves of the island and all his favorite haunts but it was like he fell off the edge of the world. We never did find a body nor was he ever seen again on the waters of Maine. But later on that night I found his boat swamped and adrift in the reeds. The engine was an old Merc 30 and it was in good working order, with plenty of gas left in the tank. The oars were lashed tight to the gunwale as was all of his gear - his rods, his nets, the sandworms and the chum. The only strange thing was that the anchor was gone, its line trailing a good twenty feet in the water but still wrapped tight around a cleat. The bitter end looked like it was cut clean with a knife.

He was a skilled mechanic, the captain was, and he could perform marvels with old outboards and diesels alike. If he so desired he could have surely restored some old truck or a car. But he rode this red bicycle that he salvaged from the bay with a grappling hook and he refused to drive, nor would he ride in anything with wheels and an engine, even when offered a lift. He fished with poles and he fished with nets and like I told you there’d be times he’d dive the wrecks off the shoals with nothing to aid such endeavors but a harpoon he fashioned from a number eight treble hook and narrow shaft of ornately carved teak. He rode that old bicycle with all that gear lashed to a pair of hand-sewn goat-hide panniers and there was a time he’d ride fast, and in a crouch, with his elbows akimbo and his face down near the bars like some renegade boy on a dare.

Like I said we called him the captain but the name on his mailbox was Wilhelm Schmidt and he was hated by some for what he might have been. This is a small island remember, and many served in that war. We don’t forget those who go down to the sea in ships. There are mothers here still whose boys went down with the Hermione. There was one woman, spat right in his face. She had two sons aboard that ship. Darling was her name. Henrietta Darling. The boys were named David and Skip. Walked straight up to him and spat in his face. Middle of Mulhoon’s this was, and she had an arm-full of groceries and the captain he came in for a bottle of milk. He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve but she spit again and hit him right in the eye, and that time he let it stay. Just stood there like she shot him dead. He left a quarter on the counter-top and never was seen in there again. Mulhoon threw that quarter out in the street and later on I went and picked it up. I keep that old coin in my wallet for reasons I still don’t understand and I have it there still.

Well, after that he’d take company with no man and he began drinking alone at The Scupper, talking to himself in that old language of fairy tales and myth, just talking and talking, as if some phantom might answer back. Many a time he’d pound on the bar with his fist and storm off in a rage. But that was the only occasion we’d ever see him that way. Mostly he was quiet and he was always kind to the children. I remember that. Carved us little animals out of wood. Made us bamboo fishing poles and taught us the secrets of current and wind. On Sundays he’d fix our bicycles for us and he’d make us boys these kites out of newspapers that could fly higher than anything you could buy in a store. As the years passed, and we got older we saw him less and less. He became like a ghost, wandering out there on the water searching for something he lost long ago.

One night, I remember I was filling in for the barman at the Scupper when old Billy, as I came to call him, was in there alone on a bender. Told me it was his birthday and he got me good and drunk. He was singing to himself some old song that pleased him greatly when he leaned too far backwards and fell off the stool on his ass, and he took with him a shelf full of glasses that broke all over his head and face. They cut him up pretty good. I brought him back into the kitchen to pick the glass out and I made him some coffee too. He was stinking drunk and started talking in German with bits of English mixed in and then he suddenly seemed sober and he looked at me with those crazy blue eyes of his and told me I had always been a good little boy.

You were always a good lad Steven, he said. And I told him told him to shut up and hold still. But he kept talking.

You were always good to me, he said. Always polite.

Well, I had a pair of tweezers in my hand and I was holding his chin, trying to turn his face to the light so I could get the last of it. He was bleeding and there were small shards of glass, which I could see the glitter of, in the light of a single hanging bulb.

There’s gold down there Steven, he said and I paid that no mind. I told him to stop jabbering.

I need you to hold still, I said and I picked all the glass out of his face and he kept quiet long enough for me to get the job done. I cleaned him with alcohol and dabbed iodine on his cheek and tried to send him home but he couldn’t walk by himself so I carried him, with his arm around my neck like some wounded chum. All the way down to the docks where he lived alone those many years.

It was late by this time, and the stars were out in all their glory and he saw them too, and maybe it’s the effect of such a sky that gets a man to thinking about the time he’s spent in this world and the time he has left. Maybe there’s some message in those far off lights that we can somehow understand that reminds us how small we really are and how foolish and how we just can’t hide from our God. Whatever it might have been was in him now and he trembled and he began to cry like a boy. He fell to his knees on the dock there at my feet.

We were to set a man ashore, he said. An SS man.

I didn’t know what he was saying.

You’re drunk Billy, I said.

But his voice had changed. His voice took on that death-bed quality when your mind suddenly becomes clear and you realize you’re finally free from all your lies. He held my arm just above my wrist. He held me in the death hand. So strong was his grip, I can feel it now. And he looked at me.

This was October, he said. 1942. And there was a beautiful yellow moon on that night. We surfaced. We came up to launch the boat. Close enough to see the lights of Chahanatuck.

And he stared out at the lights of our village across the harbor as if he had just discovered some new land.

The man’s name was Oldong, he said. Karl Oldong. He spoke perfect English. Hands like a woman he had and a briefcase full of Kugerants. I know this because I saw it Steven, and because I would also operate the wireless. I knew what he was.

And then he let go of my arm, and he let out a small cry, a sound came out of his throat that might have been a word not fully formed. He looked me square in the eye.

I was the only one Steven, he said. I was the only one who survived that night.

And I remembered.

The U-Boat. So many of our merchantmen sunk that dread summer. And that’s how it was with the Hermione, a trawler bound for Nova Scotia who took two dud torpedoes astern that didn’t explode and one amidships that did, breaking her neatly in half so that her bow rose straight up out of the water tombstone black and burning like a Roman candle, like some torch from the netherland in the hand that swallows ships, and we saw it all, we gathered on the beaches and we gathered on the cliffs and we watched her out there till dawn, spewing great arcs of fire, and refusing to go down, her survivors coming ashore in ones and twos and drenched in oil so black you’d hardly know them as men, so badly burned we thought it seaweed hanging from their limbs, wading up on Danger Beach in a night so quiet we could hear the flames out there and those great sheets of Pennsylvania iron, buckling, tearing, this terrible groan, the leviathan itself I imagined, I’ll never forget that sound as long as I live, the collective sigh of all man’s demons, the pride of his generations unwrought by the curse of Prometheus himself, sinking, just slipping away with a final hiss of smoke and bubbles into the very bosom of our creation.

And that was that. Later on that same night the U-Boat was sunk by a depth-charge from a coast guard cutter. And that’s all the captain ever said about it. I put him to bed that night in tears and never spoke of it again. We were drunk, the two of us, and this was years ago and of course I went off to Korea and learned a thing or two about what it means to be the only one who comes back from something so terrible and wrong. I gained what you might call perspective on this art of killing men that we call war. The things you see and the things you do. To live. To survive. But you don’t think about that. You can’t. You only think about living in that moment, not living with yourself later on, or you won’t make it, you just won’t, and only after does the feeling hit you, that maybe it would’ve been better to not have lived at all. Only later, when you see a child like the one you saw lying in the road at No Gun Ri, or when you smell apple blossoms, or cordite in the air, or that other smell that will never leave your hands or leave your clothes. The dead. The dead. You see them in every elbow now, every knee, the Adam’s apples, all the teeth, it’s in every face and every body and enough to drive you mad like it must have driven him mad, living among us as he did, all those years, and do you know what he was doing? All that time? Diving the wreck of his U-boat. No air supply. No tanks or nothing. Going out there, night after night and bringing things back that were better left alone.

Well, after I found it that night I towed his boat back into the harbor and I pumped it out and tied it up in one of my empty slips. I brought his bicycle down to the dock shed, where it stands to this day, and that night I jimmied the lock on the door of his shack and went in with a lantern to see what clues I might find there. Everywhere I looked there were things covered in barnacles that seemed vaguely to resemble the handiwork of men and all around me were things living in the shadows and slinking back into the darkness whenever I raised the light. They ran between my legs and brushed up against my shoulders and I could see them perched all over and up in the rafters, their eye-shine red as the spectral lights of chaos. His collection of feral cats. And the sound they made together was horrible amidst the grisly exhibition of things he pulled from the wreck. They wailed like babies and darted about so fast that I fell among them and the heavier objects he must have raised with a winch - hatch-covers and wheels and iron gears and a torpedo entire. It must have taken him years to gather what I saw there laid out before me like some museum of the Paukenschlag - all the plates and cups he had, the spoons and sliver forks, the rotten uniforms and tarnished buttons, their caps and shoes, and their skulls. Yes he brought them up too. God lord I had stepped into a tomb.

Now I know what you’re thinking and I know what you’re going to ask so I’ll just cut right to the chase. I never did find that German gold, though I searched the shack through and I dug up around it and I even found the U-boat. Sunk in less than forty feet of water, past the shoals about two-hundred yards off Danger Beach. I found his charts and I found the map he made of the wreck and I read his log through and through. I never said a word to nobody and I brought it all back to where it belonged. Every last relic. I dropped them all back into the wreck. And I bought his little shack. I had to or he’d have been discovered. I cleaned it out and kept the cats and sometimes I go in there and sit on his bunk and read what he wrote. I got a hold of German dictionary and pretty much translated all his journals and his letters too. Believe me, there’s a whole other story there I could tell you, the things he’s seen and the things he’s done. We misjudged him we did. All of us. If they could only know what I know they’d build a statue of him in the square.

Ask yourself this. How did that cutter find them so quick? How did Billy survive when none of the others did? Something to ponder on nights like this. And one day I’ll tell you what I think. But not now my boy, not now. Now is a time for bed. Now is a time for dreams. But I’ll tell something. Sometimes I just sit there in his shack, in the quiet. Sometimes I go out in his boat and just drift there above the wreck. And every once in a blue moon I’ll hop on that old red bicycle of his and I will ride like the ever-loving wind.


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