The resulting blast echoed off everything, including the overcast sky. Tim's Dad was watching the cannon, but I was watching the sleeping guys. They all jumped awake uttering a variety of 'What the ...' type remarks. I just stood there with my arms crossed and looked at them.
When they looked like they'd come to their senses, I said, "I talked to Artie. You guys wanna tell me what's goin' on? You're not gonna hurt him, are you?"
They took turns looking at each other, and they all had somewhat guilty looks on their faces. Barry looked a little less hung over than the rest of them, and he stood up to look at the cannon and Tim's father, then at me. He was still pretty wasted. "We're not hurting him, Davy. Just what he buys with his dirty money." He knelt down and made a gesture for me to come to him. He pulled me into a tight hug. "Dave, we know you have feelings for Artie. We're just trying to bust up his business. I personally think he's a piece of shit, but if you think there's somethin' else there, it's good enough for me. What'd he say when you called?"
When I told them about our conversation, they seemed surprised, but happy. Ken stood up and, wobbling, looked toward where I was kneeling with Barry. "He really thinks it's the competition? He's not tying it to you?"
"It didn't seem like he was."
"It's PERFECT! Dave, the rest is up to you. We'll lay off. You got the guy's ear, just try to convince him he's dealing with dangerous people. Make him think that this is just the beginning. Use your imagination, Dave! You can lay Artie to rest without anybody touching him!" He looked over at Don, then back to me. "Donny spent all that time figurin' the guy out. We got him, Dave! It's up to you now. You know his fears and you know what he wants. Just go ahead and put him under!"
"Put him under?" I asked, "What's that mean? Like, you want me to kill him?"
Ken looked earnest. "No, Dave. Rescue him! You like the guy, just go ahead and give him a way out. He's gotta be dealin' with dangerous people on the other end. You gotta convince him that there's something wrong, that those people aren't happy with him. He didn't mention anything about the brickwork?"
"Um, yeah. I think he might find all the doors to the outside don't go there anymore. See, some guys we know had a little extra time last night, and they ... well, they did a little construction work at Artie's house. He might be havin' a little trouble with his drains, too."
"Well, yeah ... you know. They put up a few new structures. Artie probably just didn't notice yet. It's nothing, really."
I started to get the picture, then pictured how the house was. It was all brick! Brick that was painted white. "You didn't! You bricked him in?"
Ken gave me his most innocent look. "Did I say that? How exactly would you brick somebody in? I know I didn't say that. I can say that new bricks with nice white paint really look neat! I'm sick of knotty pine. I might try that here. This house has too much paneling. I always feel like a squirrel livin' inside a damn tree!"
I looked at Ken, wondering just exactly what went through the man's mind sometimes.
He was looking back at me, but I think he was wondering how well he was messing with my own head. He grinned at me, and this time it seemed truly evil. "Artie can't complain for a while, Dave. No matter who he dials, it's gonna ring at that old Howard Johnson's on Route 2 that's being renovated. He won't get an answer. He can take calls, though. You should call him once in a while to see how he's doing."
I was in awe! Artie was already scared when I talked to him a few minutes before. I tried to picture it. What could he do? If he was locked inside with no phone, still wondering who had it in for him, he must be in a panic by now. I was trying to think of what to do when my mother drove up with my two sisters in the car. I ran over to open my mother's door. She greeted me with a wide smile, which I returned.
I hugged her as soon as she got out of the car. "I didn't know when you were comin'. My stuff's all ready to go." I looked up to see my sisters, Lisa and Donna, looking at me with tears in their eyes. They were both older than me, and we had never been especially close. They were still my sisters, and they looked like they'd missed me. I went over to them and gave them each a hug, feeling tears form in my own eyes. Their hugs felt terrific ... another thing I hadn't bothered to miss.
I backed up a step and looked at them. We all looked very much alike, almost enough to pass for triplets. "I'm sorry, I really am. I'll never do something that stupid again, I promise."
We fell into a three-way hug, all of us crying quietly. My Mom came up behind me and tried her best to wrap her short arms around all of us. "I know I haven't said this enough, but I love you all. I know you love each other, and you should never be afraid to say it. Now, let's get David's things and bring him home."
"I don't need any help, Ma, it's just one little bag. I'll be right down."
I took my time walking upstairs to get my things. I felt like I was saying goodbye to Ken's house, even though I was certain I'd be back. I went into the bathroom and turned the lights on, just to see the glass tiles turn colors. I opened the doors to the living room to look at all the musical equipment in there. Then I got upstairs and saw my little bag sitting on the floor where I'd left it. I looked around that room, too. It was the one Ken had set up for his kids when they visited, but that was only for six weeks in the summer and certain weekends the rest of the year. It hadn't bothered me living with their toys and things for a week, but I wondered how Tim's Dad would feel.
When I walked outside, I saw my mother talking with all the guys. My sisters were looking at the street buggy, which still looked pretty sharp. Sherry looked like she'd fallen back asleep on a chaise lounge. Nobody noticed me at first, so I cleared my throat.
Don turned around and grinned. "Uh oh. HALFTIME! Change sides!"
Everybody jumped, and I laughed. "Halftime? You mean me and Mr. Atkins get to change sides?"
Don smiled at me. "You're not so dumb. That's exactly what it means." He looked at my suitcase. "That's all you brought? Put it in the car and help us with Rennie's stuff."
I put my suitcase on the front floor of my mother's car, then went to join the guys unloading Ken's pickup. Tim's father had a suitcase and a lot of boxes full of books and things. They all weighed a ton, but with all the hangovers evident in the yard I got to carry them upstairs one by one. Rennie carried a few, but he soon got winded and I told him to go sit down while I finished. After about thirteen trips I was out of breath, too, but before I could sit down my mother asked me if I was ready to go home.
I went around to each of the guys to shake hands goodbye. Each one of them said something, but when I got to Ken he pulled me into a tight hug. It was constricting enough that I had to push away after a minute. I looked at him and he had tears streaming down his face.
"Sad to see me go?"
He sniffed, then tried to smile. "Not sad, kid. I am so damn happy right now ... I don't even know what to say. You go on home and take care of your Mom and sisters. It's what ya should'a done all along." He straightened up and put a hand on each of my shoulders, then looked into my eyes. I was as tall as him!
"You're a good kid, Dave. Sorry, I mean a good young man. You're gonna make it, whatever you want. I just know it's true." He started crying again and pulled me into another hug. "God, you remind me so much of Butch. I'm sorry I'm bein' a sap, but you're just like him. You got everything, Davy. Put it to good use, or I'll hafta hurt ya. Promise you won't let me down?"
By now, I was crying freely myself. "I promise, Ken. My best promise, just for you. I can't be Butch - you know that. I never even knew the guy. I know what ya mean, though. I'll take care of everybody, don't you worry. I'll be good."
"I know ya will, I can see it. The door's always open here, and you got my number."
"You got mine, too. Bye, Ken."
"Bye, Dave. Don't forget the good times."
"And don't forget - you gotta take care of Artie. He's your friend."
"I'll think of something. BYE EVERYBODY!"
I took my Mother's hand and we headed toward the car. Everybody followed us. I opened her door and she got in. I walked to the other side and got one more round of hugs. Tim's father was the last one. We had our arms around each other when he said, "Don't forget, Davy. If you ever need a substitute, I'm your guy."
I looked up at him. "Thanks. I mean ... thanks ... substitute Dad!" I stood on my toes and kissed his unshaven cheek. "Thanks."
With that, I climbed into the car and shut the door. My mother started it and backed up, then headed down the driveway. I was waving, and could see everybody in the yard waving back. I kept waving goodbye even after we were out of sight. As soon as my mother reached the road, I saw Whit bent over in his garden. I reached over and honked the horn, then waved at him. He stood up and waved back, but I don't think he knew who it was.
The ride home only took about ten minutes. We went up to our second floor apartment and went inside. A few things were different, but not much. There was new wallpaper and paint in the hall, but everything else looked about the same. My mother told me to just drop my bag, she had cake and ice cream in the kitchen to celebrate both my homecoming and my last birthday.
The kitchen table was set up with a tablecloth, place mats, candles ... everything for a celebration. There was a wrapped gift on three of the place mats, and Mom said one was for each of us, but to put them aside until after we'd eaten. She served us what she called 'Italian Chocolate Dream Cake' along with vanilla ice cream. I know that the Dutch and Germans claim to have great chocolate, but the truth is that they just got bad lessons from the Italians. My Mom's cake was SO strong with chocolate, and SO creamy, and SO rich that the first bite actually affected your brain. Thought disappeared, replaced by pure sensation. It took a mouthful of vanilla ice cream to clear your head.
We ate happily for a while. We all had seconds, and I asked for one more thin slice of cake. My mother cleared the table, then served coffee and sat down.
"Open your gifts. They're all the same."
I grabbed mine and ripped the paper off, only to find myself looking at a framed portrait of my father looking like he had just before he died. I gasped. There were no pictures of my father! He hated cameras. I started crying so fast and hard that, I swear, my tears shot across the room. My sisters were in about the same shape.
"Your father loved you ... all of you. When your uncle Sal died, he finally agreed to have his picture taken. He did it for you ... you know how he disliked it. He thought he might have the same condition as Sal, and he wanted you to have a way to remember him."
I looked at my mother, confusion and anger clouding my thoughts. "Ma! Why wait 'til now? He died four years ago and the only picture I have of Dad is in my head!" I looked back at the picture. My Father! My sisters and I mostly resembled my mother, but everybody always said we had our father's eyes. I glanced at Donna, then back at the picture. My father was a tough guy in some respects, but he had soft eyes. I'm not really sure how to describe what I mean by that. I looked at my mother, then back at Donna.
You could always tell what my mother was thinking by looking at her eyes. They conveyed intent. Looking at the picture of my father, then at my sisters, their eyes seemed to evoke something else ... an inner softness ... curiosity and kindness.
Three of us were staring at the pictures, glancing at our mother from time to time.
"You're all old enough to know this. When your father died I was quite angry with him. Not because he was ill, but because I'm reasonably certain he was having an affair. He was gone all the time, spending every morning away from here, along with all the time he spent at his club. It wasn't just the time. He was spending money elsewhere, too. That's all I know. I never learned any more, but my suspicions seemed real. I've stayed angry for a long time now, and that is the one reason you never got this photo before. It was a very selfish thing for me to do. Whatever your father was doing to me had nothing to do with you children. He loved you all, and would have laid down his life to protect you. I had no right to keep this picture from you. Please forgive your dotty old mother?"
It was probably a girl thing, but my sisters both jumped up and went to my mother, hugging and saying it didn't matter. They understood.
It was bullshit! "Ma? We gotta talk right now! In private, okay?"
I looked at my sisters. They were surprised, but both nodded their heads. I got up and grabbed my mother's hand. We headed towards my bedroom, and I picked up my bag on the way. I closed my door behind us, then we both sat on the bed.
"Ma. You think it was another woman?"
"How long did it go on?"
"Eight or nine years. I'm not sure when it all started."
"I think I know the truth, Ma. Will you listen if I tell you?"
She looked at me. "You know the truth? How could you? You were just a child then, a little boy."
I was mentally cursing my father right then. He could have brought Artie home, my mother would have understood. He didn't have to hide him away at his club. I still had to explain it to my mother.
"Ma, um ... Dad wasn't with a girl. He was, um, with a little boy."
I recognized my bad choice of words as soon as they escaped my mouth. My mother's eyes were like saucers. "Ma! That's not what I meant! He was taking care of a little boy, a kid that Uncle Sal kidnaped by accident! Honest, Ma! He was just trying to help a kid. Him and Sal spent all their time with him because they didn't know what else to do. You got it all wrong, Ma!"
I looked at her. Her mouth was open, but no words were coming out. It took her a long time to say something.
"Don't take it wrong, Ma. He was helping a kid, that's all." I found myself yelling. "Ma! It wasn't another lady, it was just a kid in trouble. Do ya hear me?"
She stared at me for a long, long time before she said anything. "How do you know this, David? How can you know this? Is it really true?"
I had no choice. I had to spill. For about fifteen minutes I gave my mother the barest of bare-bones accounts of my last year. I gave no sexual details, but she understood that I'd been abused in that way and it made her cry pretty hard. I tried to concentrate on Artie and how he thought pictures of us were his family. That made her keep crying. By the time I thought I was done, we were both crying lots of tears.
I was leaning against her. "David, do you know where Arthur is now?"
"Isn't Artie short for Arthur? I mean, do you know where Artie is now?"
I was pretty sure I did. "Yeah. Why?"
"I want you to call him. Invite him over. That boy deserves more than a make-believe family."
"That boy? Ma, he's like twenty three now. He's not a kid."
"It doesn't matter, David. It really doesn't matter. Don't you see what's happened here? Your father and your uncle made Artie believe that he's part of this family. Isn't it up to us to make that real for him?"
"Ma, Artie was the big figure in everything when I went to shit. I don't want you to know him, much less be nice to him. I'm just tryin' to figure out a way to get away from him. He's fu ... messed up in the head, Ma. He's a drug pusher. Let me take care of him, okay?"
My mother gave me a look that said I was full of it.
"No, David! Your father started something years ago, and I'll finish it. If Artie needs a family, then he'll have one. Do you know how much this changes things? You don't, do you?" Her gaze seemed to fix on something far away. "David, your father was a good man. I guess we'll never know just why he thought he couldn't tell me about Artie, but he must have had his reasons. I have spent a good many years being angry and frustrated, thinking your father was seeing another woman. I feel very foolish right now. I should have asked him right in the beginning, but I was afraid of the answer. I was afraid he'd leave us."
I was leaning against my mother, rubbing her back gently, as I thought about that. Here it was again. Unsaid things messing up life for good people. Was Artie a good person? A good person who did bad things? I hoped so, for my mother's sake.
"Do you want me to call now? He might have a hard time getting here."
"I'll pick him up, then."
I opened the door to the hall thinking she might need to bring a jackhammer with her. I realized that I didn't remember Artie's number, so I had to call Ken first. His phone rang for a long time. I was just ready to hang up when he answered. "Hello?"
I told Ken what was happening and got Artie's number. "Is he gonna be able to get out of the house? How good'a job did you guys do?"
"If he goes to his side door and gives the new wall a good shove it should just fall over. That one's not attached. How do you feel about all this?"
"I don't know, a little scared, I guess. I really don't know what the guy's like. I can't believe Ma's doin' this."
"She has to, Dave. You do, too. You're almost a man, kid. I admit that this is a strange situation, but you'll see lots of strange stuff in your life. I'm countin' on ya. You can handle this. You can always call here if things get outta control, but I don't think they will. If it was me, I'd make sure Artie knows that havin' a family comes with a string attached. Fuck string! It comes with a big fat rope attached. No more drug dealin', startin' right now! You get your Mom to agree with that before you do anything else. Make sense?"
"You think he'll do it?"
"I have no idea, but right now he should be as weak as you'll ever see him. Now's the time to try."
We talked a little more, then hung up. I found my mother in the living room explaining things to my sisters. They turned to look at me with nothing but astonishment on their faces. I hoped my mother hadn't told them everything.
"Ma! Ken says we need to make Artie promise to dump the drug business before we do anything else. If he won't do it, we should really stay away from him. You're not gonna go all soft and let him keep doin' that, are ya?"
She looked up at me with a question on her face, but she never asked it. Her look turned to stone in about two seconds. "There will be no drug dealers in this family! I'll see to that! Don't worry, David. I know you're a little afraid right now, but let's just see how it goes this one time. If we don't get through to Artie's head this afternoon you can just forget about him. I'll see to it that he's taken care of."
"Ma ... ? Never mind." I didn't want to know what she meant by that last bit. "I guess I'll go call him now. You sure about this?"
She just looked at me, so I turned around and went to the phone and dialed Artie's number.
"HELLO?" His voice was loud, high pitched, and shaky.
"Artie? It's me, Dave. Your brother."
"DAVE? What's goin' on? I'm trapped in my own house!"
"I don't ... "
"What did you say?"
"I didn't. You cut me off."
"I mean before. You said you were my brother?"
"Aren't I ... I mean, isn't that what you want?"
"I ..." I could hear him crying. I just listened for a while until he calmed down. "You ... you mean it? You'll be my brother for real?"
"I'm not a unit, Artie. If you want a brother, then you get a mother and two sisters, too."
I could hear him breathing, but it was a while before he spoke. "W-what do I have to do?"
"Come over for some cake and ice cream. Ma wants to meet you."
There was another long pause. "Is this a trick? Are you the one that's doin' all this stuff to me?"
"What stuff? I'm just invitin' ya over for some goodies. You comin' or not?"
"I can't. I can't. I'm stuck in this stupid house."
"Can't you do your cleaning tomorrow or somethin'?"
"Cleaning? Dave, I don't have any doors or windows anymore. I can't get out of here. I've been trying to call the police and the fire department all day. Nobody answers their phone. What the hell am I supposed to do? The toilet won't even flush!"
"Somebody took your doors?"
His voice got high pitched again. "They didn't take them. They filled them in. I can't get outside. Can you help me, Dave? I don't know what to do!"
"I'm not sure what you're talkin' about. Somebody filled in your doors? How do ya fill in a door?"
"If I open the inside door I'm just lookin' at a wall of bricks."
"That house was always brick, Artie. Are you losin' it or something?"
"I'M NOT LOSING IT! There used to be holes in the bricks. Holes for doors and windows. They're all filled in now. Do you get what I'm saying?"
I figured I could keep this up forever, and I was enjoying it. It had to end sometime. "Have you tried pushing on them? Maybe they're fake. Try that little door next to the kitchen. I'll hang on."
"You're not gonna hang up, are you? I don't know how to call you back."
"I'll wait, I promise. Just go try the door. I bet it's just fake stuff somebody's foolin' around with."
I heard Artie set the phone down, then some other noises followed by a loud WHUMP sound. Then I heard a far off squeal of delight. In a few seconds Artie was back on the phone. "It worked! You were right, Dave, except I think they're real bricks. You still want me to come over?"
"Well, ... yeah. That's why I called."
"I just don't know where you are."
I didn't know how to give directions, either. I wasn't good with street names. "Do you know where Fair's Doughnut Shop is downtown?"
"Yeah, I know it."
"I'll meet ya in the parking lot. It's right around the corner. You comin' now?"
"I should get changed. How's a half-hour?"
"See ya in half an hour, Artie."
We said goodbye, then hung up. I went in the other room and told my mother. She just nodded, looking apprehensive and determined at the same time. I went into the kitchen to get the picture of my father that my mother had just given to me. I stared at it for a minute, feeling a real ache in my heart. Then I carried it into the living room.
"Ma? You got any paper left? I wanna wrap this up for Artie."
She looked surprised. "David! I just gave that to you. I can get another one if you want it for Artie. You keep that for yourself."
"No, Ma. Get me a new one someday. I can look at Donna's, but I want to give this to Artie today. Dad and Uncle Sal took care of him for a long time. If it doesn't work out here, at least he can have this to remember Dad by. He already has pictures of the rest of us."
Tears came to her eyes as she looked up at my face. "That is so generous, David. I never thought you were a bad boy, but you've just shown me how much goodness is really inside you. Give your old mother a hug. I'll wrap that up while you go to find Artie."
I sat beside her and we hugged each other for several minutes. I really didn't want Artie to come to where I lived, even to know where I lived, but I promised myself that I'd make the best of it.
"I better go, Ma. I don't think Artie's evil, but you gotta know he's got a few screws loose. He doesn't think there's anythin' wrong with what he does for a livin'."
"He will. Believe me, he will. You go get him while I wrap his gift. I love you, David. You're a wonderful son."
We broke our embrace and I ran down the stairs to the front door. I hadn't looked outside since we got home, and it had started to rain. I thought about going back up for a jacket, then decided not to bother. I ran around the corner to the doughnut shop, then stood under the overhang to wait for Artie. I wasn't there a minute when his Eldorado pulled in. I got in the passenger side. Artie was all dressed up in a gray suit with white shirt and tie.
"Hi, Artie. You gotta go around the block because it's one way."
"Dave, I ... I don't know what to say. We're really going to your house?"
"Our house, Artie. Wait'll you meet Mom! She made Italian chocolate cake. You're gonna love it!"
I guided him around the block to a parking space near the house. I was getting excited, though I wasn't sure why. I had been scared earlier, and some of that was still there, but the excitement came from thinking about what might happen. When we were getting out of the car I looked at Artie's face. He was looking at the house with something like wonder in his eyes. When he got around to my side, I grabbed his arm and we ran to the porch, then through the door and upstairs.
Before I opened the door to the apartment he asked me how he looked. I assured him that, except for a few rain spots on his shoulders, he looked fine. Then I really looked, and for the first time since I'd met him he looked his age. He had always seemed much older than he was, but right then he had a look of almost childlike apprehension on his face.
"I've been ready, Dave. Let's go in."
I opened the door, only to find Lisa's hand on the other side of the knob. I went in and stood aside, waiting for Artie to come in. He didn't, so I looked at him. He was staring at Lisa with his mouth open. After a second he turned it into a little smile and held out his hand.
"Hi, Lisa. I'm Artie. You're much prettier than your pictures. I mean, you're all grown up now, and you're ... well, you are very pretty. Can I come in?"
Lisa still had his hand in hers. She smiled at the compliment and practically yanked him into the room. I closed the door. Lisa kept hold of Artie's hand and led him into the living room. My mother was sitting on the sofa, but she stood up when they entered the room.
"Hello, Arthur. Imagine! I just learned about you today and here you are. We have much to discuss, I imagine, but first David has something to give you."
Artie looked at me with surprise, then back at my mother. "You called me Arthur! Nobody's called me that since ... in a long time." He looked back at me. "You have something for me? Really?"
I didn't know where the picture was, then I spotted it all wrapped up on an end table, and picked it up. As I handed it to Artie, I said, "Artie, I don't know if we can ever really be brothers, but this is for you from me. I want you to have it."
Artie sat down next to my mother and, after looking around at us, started to carefully unwrap the present. As soon as he saw the picture, his eyes welled up with tears. He stared at it for a few seconds, then hugged it to his chest and burst out bawling. My mother started patting his shoulder, and Donna came running into the room. We all just watched Artie, averting our eyes every time he looked up. After about a minute, my mother pulled him to her and let him cry it out. When he'd gotten down to random sobs, Mom told me and my sisters to go and fix up some ice cream and cake for everyone. She said to close the kitchen door and take our time.
We went out there and started getting things ready. Donna looked at me with a look I hadn't seen before. "Davy, um, Mom says you think you're gay. Is that really true?"
I blushed from my toes up. "She told you that? Yeah, it's true I guess. It bother you?"
She pulled me into a hug. "Bother me? I think it's totally cool! You're cute anyhow, but I can't wait to see you with a boyfriend! You had to go pick Timmy, though, didn't you? He's a total dream!"
I started to laugh, then looked at Lisa and she was laughing too. Donna was a complete ditz, but you had to love her. She lived for her teen magazines and the latest idols, but she didn't have a mean bone in her body. I had to tease her.
"I like Tim, but I'm not sure how much he likes me. He's always asking about you, though. I didn't know you had an eye for him, you should'a told me. I could'a fixed ya up years ago. I could already be an uncle or something."
She grinned at me. "Well, now you'll hafta settle for being an aunt, won't ya?"
We all laughed. We didn't know how much time Ma wanted, so we sat down at the table and talked about the last year. They talked, anyhow. I didn't want to say too much. After about a half hour we fixed up plates with ice cream and cake and brought them into the living room. I ran back into the kitchen for napkins, which we'd forgotten. Artie was introducing himself to Donna when I got back. I looked at my mother, and she shot me a glance that I understood to mean we had to talk. Before I sat down, the phone rang and I ran to answer it. It was Timmy asking if he could come over.
"Can Tim come over for a while?"
There was a slight hesitation. "Of course he can. Did you leave any cake for him?"
I didn't answer her. "Timmy? Artie's here. You sure you don't wanna wait?"
"You think I should wait? What kinda cake?"
I gave up. "Get your butt over here before I eat it all."
We talked for a while, then hung up. When I got back to the living room, Artie was telling my mother and sisters about his history with my father and uncle. He had a rapt audience, so I just sat down and listened until Tim knocked on the door. I ran to answer it, but he'd already come in. I pulled him into a dark corner of the hall and tried to suck his surprised lips off his face in the few seconds that I knew we had.
I don't think I realized how wired I'd been all afternoon until I felt Tim's comforting hug. I do know that I practically melted into him, but we didn't have any time right then. I whispered, "I love you, Tim," then we walked into the living room with my hand on his shoulder.
Everybody smiled when they saw Tim. My mother handed him my plate of cake and ice cream, then asked to speak to me alone in the kitchen. Artie immediately started joking with Tim and my sisters, so I didn't feel too bad.
My mother and I hadn't taken two steps towards the kitchen when I heard Artie's voice.
"Take it easy on him, Mama."
... to be continued
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