…Tavi sent me this pic at an astonishing early hour of the morning. So either her text got caught in the wires someplace and got delivered late or she was having an exceptionally fun and late evening someplace!
…Tavi sent me this pic at an astonishing early hour of the morning. So either her text got caught in the wires someplace and got delivered late or she was having an exceptionally fun and late evening someplace!
(I do like theSudsy Bubble’s neon sign.)
The continuous rustling, scampering, and whispering outside Uncle’s office door woke me from my full stop sleep. Cracking an eye slowly open, the first thing to kiss my retinas was a weak grey light sidling thru the gap in the curtains. Groaning inwardly, I rapped a knuckle against the hardwood floor twice.
The niblings giggled in response then scurried off towards the kitchen.
Taking a look at my watch, which read a ridiculously small single-digit number, I managed to heave one leg out from under the well-loved quilt and plant my barefoot on the cool floorboards.
I maintained this pose for the next two minutes.
(The late bedtime, beers, and bull shirting coupled with the absurd – but predictable – early rising of the niblings was producing a speed from me only a three-toed sloth could admire.)
Coaxing the rest of my limbs into coordinating their efforts, I finally sat up. Blinking, my eyesight gradually came into focus on the elephant sitting stoically on the edge of the oak desk, waiting for me to wake up.
The patient pachyderm being a worn inter-office envelope. In theory, it contains a list of names Big Ben dropped in his correspondence with Ira. But after examining the envelope last night, I’m certain Ira included a whole lot more information than just a simple list.
(I’d like to say my powers of deduction have improved…But the fact is the envelope’s bulky, somewhat lumpy and weighs approximately the same as Uncle’s leather-bound, fully illustrated, gilt-edged copy of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities made this illation rather obvious.)
Even though I knew the niblings would return shortly to strong-arm me into ‘helping’ them make banana pancakes and bacon – I longed to solve the riddle wrapped in buff-colored paper. However, the same sly voice in my head that staid my hands last night kept my butt firmly planted on the couch this morning.
It not-so-subtly reminded me that I needed a carrot.
Not a literal carrot – only donkeys are motivated into action by root vegetable dangling from a stick – but a metaphorical carrot.
Like New Magazine Day.
Founded just under twenty years ago, New Magazine Day developed in response to an unfortunate incident at the Sudsy Bubble Laundromat. When a tremendously tedious chore turned unexpectedly mortifying after the cute guy at the next machine remarked on the shabby state of my underpants.
In fairness, they were faded, ever so slightly pilled, and threadbare – but that’s beside the point. Snarky Underpants Guy’s comment was a Grade-A violation of laundromat etiquette! Tenets including: never leaving your clothes unattended, never overloading a machine, and never folding a stranger’s finished load.
You definitely don’t allude to, offer opinions on or critique another patron’s drawers!
They’re called unmentionables for a reason!
In any case, instead of wiping the smirk off his face with a well deserved verbal skewering – I turned beet red, stammered out a nonsensical apology, ducked my head, and scurried away (ah, the joys of being nineteen). His subsequent laughter at my very obvious embarrassment caused me to contemplate abandoning my clothes on the spot. Fortunately, I’m made of sterner stuff (and calculated I didn’t have enough money in my checking account to replace them) and waited the sixty-five agonizing minutes for the dryer to finish fluffing my last load.
Then I booked it out of there, vowing never to set foot inside those four walls ever again. A completely ineffectual vow, as the Sudsy Bubble was both the closest & cheapest of the laundromats in Rye.
Three weeks later, grasping at straws, i.e., dressed in the dredges of my closet, I showed up to Family Feast Day wearing a nuclear green polyester skirt and vest set given to me by my colorblind Grandmother one Christmas.
Aunt Pearl immediately sensed something was wrong.
After sussing out why I was wearing an outfit only Don Knotts could love, she told me I had nothing to be embarrassed about and offered to blister Snarky Underpants Guy’s ears for me. An offer I declined on the grounds it wouldn’t make the situation any less cringeworthy. Nodding thoughtfully over her coffee cup for a few moments, Aunt Pearl leaned forward and confided in me how she managed to sit thru her bi-weekly meetings with her sourpuss of a Principle.
On the way home, after each of the aforementioned maddening meetings, she stops off at either the Yarn Underground, Warp and Woof or The Crafty Fox to buy herself a little something. A skein of yarn, a yard of fabric or kit – it just needed to be something she’d enjoy playing with – as a reward for keeping her mouth shut. By following her carrot down the straight & narrow, she got something new to craft, kept the peace, and remained gainfully employed.
(It also explains how Aunt Pearl’s sewing space slowly engulfed the neighboring room – she worked with said pettifogger for fifteen more years after giving me this kernel of wisdom.)
All I needed to do was find my carrot.
Mulling this over the next day while contemplating which would be worse – wearing my high school P.E. uniform or the ghastly bridesmaid’s dress Jesse’s new husband chose – my eyes landed on a stack of months old magazines I’d borrowed from the Library.
Eureka! My carrot! I’d buy myself the latest issues of all my favorites magazines to get me past my dread, thru the front doors, and recharge my closet with clean cloths!
(BTW – I ended up at the Sudsy Bubble at six-thirty am, carrying twelve magazines, in my old P.E. uniform. I used seven machines simultaneously to get every scrap of fabric washed, fluffed, and folded in one go. Thankfully it was a Sunday, and no one, other than the attendant, was around. Otherwise, I’d have been committing a Grade-B violation of laundromat etiquette! Speaking of violations, I didn’t run into Snarky Underpants Guy again for over a month, and happily, my stack of magazines allowed me to ignore him entirely.)
Ever since then, New Magazine Day has worked beautifully as my go-to carrot.
The foot-high stack of unread magazines next to my bed testifies that I needed something more substantial to compel me into investigating the Errant that Flared at Orin.
This is one of several adds I placed in local papers in New Mexico after Mrs. Lebondowsky settled on the text. As Big Ben loves holding the news in his hands I’m hoping he’ll see one of my messages….
For the second time today, I managed to snag my favorite seat in an eatery. Only this time, my backside rested against the vinyl seat of the best booth in my favorite dive in all of Rye.
Taking in a lung full of the wonderful smells emanating from the kitchen of the Rusty Hinge, my stomach reminded my mind the early lunch with Mrs. Lebondowsky was now a distant memory — gastronomically speaking. As today was Pie Day, or what the unenlightened call Monday, the sweet scent of apple and pumpkin spice swirled through the entire joint and proved impossible to resist.
Ordering a cup of coffee and a slice of pumpkin, I basked in the warm glow of the neon beer signs and the musical lures of the surrounding pinball machines for a few minutes (in point of fact, I was borderline giddy at being anywhere but inside the Lavender Lady this evening).
Tossing my chauffeur’s cap on the red vinyl stretching out next to me, I stopped reveling and took advantage of the forty minutes I’d stitched into my day. (Rather than heading home to change out of my uniform after my shift, I motored straight to the Rusty Hinge.)
Extracting my phone from my pack, I entered my code, tapped my recently dialed icon, chose the third number from the top, and dialed. Whilst listening to the ringing on the line, I pulled a pack of index cards and a pen out of my bag, then hung up a split second after the anticipated and ear grating first note of the out-of-service recording started playing.
Setting my phone aside, I slit open the pack of cards with my thumbnail, removed one, and started writing the message Mrs. Lebondowsky and I had crafted together over teriyaki.
Just enough information to hopefully pique his interest and pithy enough to catch the eye.
I’d managed to work my way thru a third of the pack, two cups of coffee, and my generous piece of pie before Leo joined me.
Leo (taking off his coat): “Hey boss, studying for an exam?”
Me: “Nope. Just part of my highly strategic plan to find Big Ben.”
Leo (flipping over and reading the top card of the completed stack): “Highly strategic? Wait, is this your real number?”
Me (finishing off the card I was working on): “No, I bought a burner phone…”
My explanation trailed off when Ruth, who’d apparently been keeping an eye out, popped by to take our order. Two local beers, three baskets of wings coated in tongue scorching sauces to split between us (maple-chipotle, sour-cherry habanero & lime, and gochujang-barbecue).
We’d shared wings once or twice before.
After Ruth moseyed out of earshot, Leo and I started speaking at the same time – I let him go first. So while I stowed my project away in my pack, he gingerly extracted a puffy plastic sack from his knitting bag.
Leo: “So what’s the grand plan?”
Me: “I know someone who knows someone who knows someone else, who put me in touch with a citizen of Silver City, and they’ve agreed to help us find Big Ben.”
No need to out Mrs. Lebondowsky as my source and Tavi Blume as my Silver City Operative.
(BTW – Tavi is an absolute stitch. As an avid reader of vintage gumshoe detective novels, Dashiell Hammett, in particular. Tavi admitted to yearning for an excuse to abscond with her husband’s fedora. Combine this craving with week four (of nine) of her vacation? Tavi was absolutely thrilled to help us track Big Ben down – after we explained the who, the what and the why behind our inquiry.
The fact our favor also allowed her to evade cleaning her classroom’s beakers, test tubes and graduated cylinders for another week might also have enlivened her enthusiasm for the endeavor.
Her one condition? I refer to her as my Silver City Operative.)
Leo: “Sounds, Byzantine.”
Me (leaning back against the seat): “Not really, it essentially boils down to my Operative papering Silver City with this message. Plus, the personal ads, I’m placing in the two local papers and the University’s.”
Leo (arching an eyebrow): “Your Operative?”
Me (grinning): “My Silver City Operative to be specific, we decided code names made it more fun, I’m Ms. Pinkerton…Is that my hat?”
Leo (his eyes twinkling and holding it up): “What do you think?”
Me (reaching for it): “It’s perfect!”
Remember when my five cousins and their significant others all failed to place a bet on me in the Black-And-Blue-Becker-Betting-Pool?
Well, I decided to commemorate their insulting lack of faith in my ability to ruin one of Aunt Pearl’s mortifying family photos with an exceptional hat. A chapeau so extraordinary unforgettable none of my cousins will neglect to consider placing a wager on me again!
So what one-of-a-kind confection did I commission Leo to crochet for me?
The giant land squid concocted on the Island of Dr. Cousteau that I claimed dyed me purple the night I showed up on Uncle and Aunt Pearl’s doorstep covered in a bruise of epic proportions.
Me (pulling it on, I laughed as Squiddy’s arms tickled my ears): “It fits perfectly! I love it! Thank you!”
A genteel voice called out: Phoebe? Phoebe Arden, is that you?
Well crap, where’d she come from?
Walking into the library, I watched the librarians perk up like prairie dogs at the sight of the cake box I carried carefully thru the main doors. Passing by the main circulation desk, the staff forced me to revise my choice of wee beastie when they caught the fragrance of cake & icing emanating from the box and started chirping in understated excitement to one another. (We are in a library after all.)
Marmots, they reminded me of marmots.
Without breaking stride or making eye contact, I followed the roundabout route through the stacks to the perch of all research for the Rye Public Library System – the desk of Mrs. Schmit. The Librarian Extraordinaire was replacing the phone receiver when I turned the corner and covered the last few yards of space between us.
Mrs. Schmit: “What on earth did you bring in that box? I’ve fielded three calls about it!”
Placing it carefully on the counter, I lifted the lid and gave her a sneak peek before answering her question.
Me: “My part of our bargain.”
My Librarian Extraordinaire, as I’ve mentioned requires a commensurately complex sweet to question ratio – the more offbeat the question is, the more elaborate sugary treat I must provide (book/music recommendations are free btw). When homemade treats enter the equation, she knows I mean business.
In this case? The query wasn’t complex, so much as convoluted.
I need a sound strategy to work Ira’s list of establishments Big Ben might be patronizing. Hope, in my experience, is often as fickle as Luck and counting on either mistress to locate Big Ben felt foolhardy at best.
Especially since I’m conducting my search over the phone and from three states away.
However, last night’s discourse over dinner (i.e., the convergence of odd coincidences in Nevermore) left me in possession of two opposing desires – wanting everyone in Silver City, New Mexico, aware of my search for Big Ben and no one in Rye alert to my quest.
Placing Mrs. Schmit unintentionally in the position of needing to produce an answer with one arm tied behind her back. (Hopefully, she’ll take my informational reticence as a challenge and not as an insult.)
Hence the famed cake, half-payment/half-apology.
Sliding the box closer to her side of the counter, she carefully pushed the lid of the box further back and took a good long look & sniff of my offering (I’d taken extra time to decorate it).
Mrs. Schmit: “Your Aunt’s Orange Blossom Honey Cake?”
Me: “Made fresh this morning.”
Mrs. Schmit: “Do you need help unraveling the meaning of life?”
Me: “I already have that answer. It’s forty-two. No, I need…”
Mrs. Schmit: “Hold that thought. Come around to this side of the counter and take a seat. I need to tuck this away, so the vultures stop circling.”
Rotating on my axis (aka my ankles), I discovered she wasn’t joking. Apparently, word’s gotten out about our arrangement. I counted no less than six staffers, not so subtly trying to catch a glimpse of the contents of the cake box. One librarian might have actually been assisting a patron, but her cohorts? Their actions were dubious at best, or perhaps one of Mrs. Schmit’s colleagues attended the Unseen University and learned to anticipate required call numbers? It would explain why the piece of paper he repeatedly referenced while edging his way towards the counter was blank. My favorite, other than the volunteer cleaning a shelf by waving a feather duster four inches above it, was the librarian who’d climbed one of the nearby rolling ladders to reshelve a mass-market paperback in the midsts of the Main Branch’s encyclopedia collection. (I wasn’t kidding when I said my Aunt’s cake is legendary town fave.)
Suppressing a smile at their antics, I followed Mrs. Schmit’s instructions and found my familiar chair.
Mrs. Schmit: “Their noses are better than a bloodhound’s when buttercream’s involved. Now that they’re dispersing, what answer do you need that requires your Aunt’s blue ribbon winner?”
Me: “I need help finding someone who isn’t missing.”
Mrs. Schmit: “Come again?”
It took a while to explain (without giving the game away), but eventually, Mrs. Schmit leaned back in her chair, her mind rapidly translating my theoretical explanation into practical application. The thoughtful silence and reclined attitude lasted for less than a minute before her fingers flew over her keyboard.
Mrs. Schmit: “Wait here and keep an eye on my cake, please.”
Standing up abruptly, Mrs. Schmit strode into the stacks, call numbers in hand. Fortunately, fisticuffs weren’t needed to defend her treat – my presence proved a sufficient enough deterrent to keep the frosting poachers at bay until the formidable Mrs. Schmit returned, books in hand.
Mrs. Schmit: “You need to perform an old fashion skiptrace. Though since you’re looking for a friend who fell off the grid, rather than someone actively dodging you, you should have an easier time of it.”
An hour later, Mrs. Schmit accompanied me to the main counter and checked out a stack of books with titles like How To Find Deadbeats, Dirtbags, and Cheats; Bill Collecting & You and Missing Persons And Where To Find Them. (BTW, the Librarian Extraordinaire was taking an early lunch so she could run her cake home, far away from her overly solicitous colleagues.)
None of the books entirely addressed my current needs. Still, they did provide inspiration on how to tackle the employees of the greasy spoons, motels, hotels, tackle shops, and taverns; I’m sure will feature on Ira’s list without sounding like a deranged stalker or an inept Private Investigator.
Me (thru clenched teeth): “What about that Brownie Stealing Bench?”
Aunt Pearl (lips twitching upwards in response): “Do you remember how she earned that nickname, dear?”
Pondering her hint, I took a bite of a crinkle cookie and nearly choked to death on it when the memory Aunt Pearl was referring to flooded my mind in full technicolor splendor (having a crumb go down the wrong pipe might also have played a part).
The summer I turned thirteen, my Uncle got a wild hair one night and took Aunt Pearl, my cousins, Wood, and I to a drive-in movie. We were initially bummed that we’d missed The Creature From The Black Lagoon by a week and were stuck watching Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
We’d seen the Disney version with all its singing and dancing, how different could it be? Turns out very. Watching the silver screen archery tricks and swashbuckling, we were soon spellbound, our disappointment of missing Gill-Man entirely forgotten.
(We were so enthralled in fact we forgot to bicker, squabble or pummel each other – bring peace & quiet into our midsts for the first time in a week, which was probably the point of the entire endeavor.)
The very next morning, we transformed the woods behind our house into Sherwood Forest. We into its Merry Me. Then we spent the rest of the summer questing and perfecting our swordplay. (BTW – both Uncle and Aunt Pearl steadfastly refused to arm a pack of six teens with bows and arrows – no matter how much we pleaded our case – pointing out our homemade wooden swords caused more than enough mayhem.)
When September rolled around, we retired our sabers and replaced them with pencils. While my cousins and Wood moved on to other extracurricular activities (ballet in Wood’s case apparently), I remained stubbornly fixed on Robin Hood. Devoting all my free time to the devouring of every book, the Librarian Extraordinaire Mrs. Schmit dug out of the stacks for me. Somewhere around the twelfth book into my self-imposed reading regimen, it happened…
I watched Josie Reville steal Summer Yates’ brownie.
Seizing my chance to foil a real dastardly deed, I reported the crime to King Richard the Lionhearted, aka my homeroom teacher Mrs. Sable.
(Snitches might get stitches, but if I’d attempted to thwart the Great Brownie Heist on my own? Josie would have sicced her sycophants – Agata Canetti, Larissa Cardenes, Thomi Margazoitis & Kiyomi Kimura – on me. So I opted for the possibility of stitches later to the guarantee of stitches now.)
Turns out, I’d misjudged Mrs. Sable – she wasn’t King Richard – but his devious brother Prince John in disguise. Instead of righting this very obvious wrong, she cut me off mid-story and scolded me (in front of the entire cafeteria) for tattling. When I asked what I was supposed to have done, instead, she expanded her dressing-down to include whining.
Then sentenced me to detention for the rest of the week.
Heaping insult onto injury? Summer’s brownie was never recovered, and Josie got off scot-free. (She snickered at me from behind Mrs. Sable’s back the entire time I was being told off.)
So my dumb-ass-adult-self quietly accepted my termination after eighteen plus years of employment (plus another seven years of volunteering) from Little Ben because I was afraid Big Ben might think me a tattle-tale if I called to ask, “What the hell man?” When his son let me go.
After Aunt Pearl finished pounding my back, she pushed her mug of coffee my way – to help wash away the offending crumb from my craw.
Me (rasping): “Well crap, of all the stupid reasons…”
Aunt Pearl: “Glad I could help you find an answer, dear.”
Me (saluting her with her mug): “Thanks.”
Perhaps now, if I ever get a hold of Big Ben, I’ll feel less tetchy while talking to him.
Pushing up from the table, I check the timer – two minutes left. Hoping to distract my Aunt away from her usual refrain pertaining to Nevermore and now FLYT (i.e., I was too smart to be a Caretaker or a Chauffeur), I placed a bowl under the stand mixer.
Aunt Pearl (falling for it hook, line and sinker): “You’re welcome…do you need help making the frosting dear?”*
Me (keeping my smile on the inside): “No, but I could use a ride to the library when I’m done. I don’t want to dump the cake on the ground walking there.”
Aunt Pearl (visibly disappointed): “Oh, the cake’s not for dessert tonight?”**
Me (controlling my lips): “No, Aunt Pearl, I made you guys cookies.”
Aunt Pearl (rising from her chair): “Let me know when you’re ready, and I’ll drive you.”
Hiding her “heartbreak” over losing the prospect of cake rather poorly, Aunt Pearl drug herself (and several krumkakes) out the door to get ready.
Her exit cued the buzz of my timer.
Pulling on the oven mitts, I let loose the broad grin that had threatened during our last exchange, and carefully removed the Orange Blossom Honey cupcakes from the oven.
*(Aunt Pearl Subtext: Can I “sample” a spoonful or five for you, dear?)
**(Subtext of her disappointment: You’re not leaving the cake here unattended, so I can nibble on it until your Uncle gets home. Then blame a family of mice, who’s conveniently scampered away into the aether, for the missing portion?)
Using subterfuge learned from my seventh grade English teacher Mrs. Krimple (who, when her back was turned, kept tabs on us in the reflection of the window next to the blackboard), I watched Little Ben stop dead in his tracks when he caught sight of me behind the desk. His surprise quickly morphed into suspicion, casting a swift glance over the contents of the conference table, his face filled with relief when he found the papers undisturbed.
Focused on controlling my breathing (no reason to make him wonder why I was huffing and puffing), I continued to feign ignorance at his entrance, then watched his relief fade and irritation grow under my continued silence (taking a page out of chapter seventeen of Wood’s textbook)
Little Ben (stomping toward me): “What are you doing behind my desk?”
Me (turning to look him in the eye): “Enjoying the view.”
Unwilling to relinquish my place behind the Proprietor’s desk, I leaned a shoulder against the chilly window, ignoring Little Ben’s shooing motions.
Me: “Ben, why did you ask The Naturalist Club and the Historical Society to leave Nevermore?”
Little Ben (stopping at the edge of the desk): “I didn’t ask you up here to discuss my plans.”
Me (the sting of an electrical current sparking over my toes sucking the civility from my voice): “Oh, I’m sure you didn’t, but that’s where we’re starting.”
Gaining a slightly distracting ally, Orin strolled past Little Ben to stand next to me.
Orin (surveying Little Ben): “Do you need help, Caretaker?”
Little Ben (attempting to override my question): “I want to talk about a blip in security.”
Without taking my eyes off Little Ben, I shook my head no once, Orin tapped my shoulder in acknowledgment.
Orin: “Well, let me know if you do. When you finish up here, can you meet some of us under the Big Cedar?”
With an acknowledging dip of my chin, Orin departed, and I got down to brass tacks.
Me (glomming onto the title of Little Ben’s pipe-dream-dream-boards): “Does Big Ben know your plans to rebrand Nevermore?”
(Not that I knew what they were, but fifteen feet of poster board denotes some significant changes in the works.)
Little Ben (grinding his teeth): “Dad made me Provisional Proprietor.”
Me (flatly): That doesn’t answer my question.
Little Ben (defensiveness lacing his voice): “I don’t need to. I’m the Provisional Proprietor. Dad’s letter is there on the desk if you don’t believe me.”
Following his outstretched finger, I spied an envelope sitting in plain sight on the side of the desk (which probably reassured Little Ben that I hadn’t pawed thru his papers), pushing off the window I stepped over and picked it up. Coffee stains covered the entire front, the address reminded me of an inkblot from the Rorschach test, as the liquid had rendered the writing nearly illegible.
Flipping it over, I slid several (shockingly pristine) pages out and started to skim Big Ben’s neat writing. When Little Ben answered his cell, I took advantage of his distraction and took a pic of the letter’s first page (I’d taken pictures of everything else).
It confirmed Little Ben’s appointment as the Provisional Proprietor, which was hardly surprising, he was Big Ben’s son.
Me: “I don’t doubt he put you in charge, Ben.”
(I am still surprised that Big Ben rubber-stamped my lay-off, however.)
Little Ben (still distracted by his phone): “So glad we cleared that up. Now, about this security blip. A few weeks back, Dad’s alarm code was used to disarm this building. Obviously, it couldn’t have been him and I’m not sure what happened. The cameras malfunction the same night as well, so they’re no help.”
Ignoring his question for a moment (since I knew what was behind his “security blip”), my mind spun in another direction, on to another explanation for Big Ben’s prolonged absence.
Big Ben always said he’d only retire when he went toes up.
Taking advantage of my stupefied silence, Little Ben used his personal space (i.e., bulk) to edge me out from behind the Proprietor’s desk. Taking a seat, he fiddled with his papers for a moment, then waved me towards the guest chair already occupied by my stuff.
Me (blindly following his invitation): “Ben is your Dad okay? Did he have a heart attack? Stroke? Broke a hip? Cancer?”
Little Ben (on the back foot): “No. No. No. No.”
Me: “Was he in a car accident? Diagnoses with dementia? Blood clots?”
Little Ben (flummoxed): “No. No. No! Nothing’s happened! You know Pop, he’s healthy as a horse.”
Me (continuing my rapid-fire): “Then where is he?”
Little Ben (defensiveness lacing his voice): “He’s still in New Mexico, working on a project with a buddy, said he needed some extra time to get it up and running, so he made me Provisional Proprietor.”
Me (still fishing): “Does he still call for weekly updates?”
Little Ben (throwing up his hands): “Not weekly. Look, about the security blip, none of the locks were tampered with, nothing was taken or disturbed. I don’t want this happening again, do you have any ideas?”
Deciding he could do more harm if he tried to solve this problem on his own, I outlined some steps to ward off future ‘malfunctions’. Including carrying out long-overdue system maintenance and issuing new alarm codes to all employees. Which, unfortunately, will seriously curb any future surreptitious after-hours undertakings by yours truly.
Me (closing my eyes and taking a deep breath, I debated my options for a moment): “If you can’t find any evidence of tampering, this is what I would do…”
This day just keeps getting better and better.