In the 1960s, American singer Eydie Gormé recorded what would arguably become her legacy with a Mexican trio named Los Panchos. Yesterday, on August 10, she died at the age of 84. For the at least two generations, Mexicans have enjoyed her music many times on Sunday mornings. For many of us as we grew up, Gormé's resonant voice usually played loudly from record albums, 8 tracks, or cassettes with classics that sang of stars extinguishing before a lover would lose his sensual cinnamon skin in "Piel Canela," or how, even after a break up, the lover would always have "a taste of me" in "Sabor a Mi."
Eydie Gormé's romantic boleros mean even more to me because she sings the songs that define the character in my novel in the works. In chapter one, Pablo is a sixty-something Mexican man who lives around Chicago's 26th Street and sells fruit from a cart all summer. As he earns his money, he keeps Eydie Gormé's voice playing softly on a small cassette player. Eydie's voice and the music's rhythm help the fruit vendor contemplate life in Little Village in the classic American poetic form, the cinquain, which appears in a chain of reactions to the issues and people around him.
I offer up this story as a tribute to Eydie Gormé, an artist who helped expose the world to the eloquence and emotion of Mexican music: Pero el negro de tus ojos que no muera.
"El Bolero," chapter one from my forthcoming novel, The Serenade
When sunlight starts to soak the sky, Pablo the fruit vendor pushes his cart to its corner. His umbrella opens in a yawn as cars begin to honk. Brakes squeak. Engines tremble. Speakers pour frequencies out windows onto sidewalks busy with feet. Behind his cart, under the umbrella, Pablo pushes “play” on the small radio / cassette player. In seconds, high-pitched guitars plink rhythms like coins falling into an empty glass jar. Deeper strings sweep the melody forward. Harmony in the bolero rises like the scent bees sense from the old man’s fruit cart.
Pablo's optimism for a good day swells. Quickly, he prepares to make a living. The watermelon cubes, jícama slices, and cucumber spears remain cold in cups comforted by ice. He smiles at his first customer with a dollar. This old man grabs his knife and thinks:
Shake chili powder on
fruit cups as if it were luck on
“Man, Don Pablo,” says the young man on his way to catch the bus to college. “Don’t you get tired of haulin’ around this cart? Every day you do this. That’s a lot of trouble for a pocket full of singles.”
“I never get tired of working for a good life,” quips Pablo and hands the young man fifty cents in change, both brand-new quarters.
People form around Pablo quicker than hungry bees on sunny mornings. The fruit attracts the insects; Pablo’s red apron, red as a mango skin, monogramed with his name in yellow letters, attracts the hungry. His baseball cap, the same color as his apron, stands out against the brick wall of the grocery store he works next to. Even though he wears his cap, his graying hair is neatly combed with brilliantine. The little black comb he uses leaves long, even lines like the rows of crops he harvested over thirty years ago. His eyes, if customers look closely, have some swirls the color of light green from a watermelon rind mixed with other swirls brown as sunglasses. In his forties, Pablo looked taller with his strong build.
Now, he looks more round than lean in his white undershirt, old jeans, and flat leather sandals. Some disappointments, along with time, pulled down on his eyes lids, his cheeks, his posture. He has a belly. He can push back his shoulders, straighten his back. But, now, unlike other decades, he has to think about doing it—and he does it—to show off his pride.
Under the sun and the umbrella, Pablo consciously takes orders: a cup of watermelon cubes that dissolve on a young girl’s lips like a first kiss; a cup of crisp cucumber spears as refreshing as cold water; a mango on its wooden stick brighter than a sunburst at first, then shaded with an eclipse of chili powder; two cups of corn kernels with creamy butter and spicy cheese. He accepts money with a smile. He gives back change with good wishes. In between clients, he wipes his cutting board with a clean, wet cloth. He rinses off his knife. He listens to his collection of cassettes, watching everyone who passes by:
forty, wants honks
from a boyfriend’s car but
she won’t unwrinkle her face with
hugs a pole like
After nights with beer, he pukes in
Pink lipstick in
diaper bag. She has half
a broken heart. Her toddler the
“Hey. Gimme a mango,” commands the kid whose face is smeared. His dirty undershirt stretches out like a garbage bag. His hair is frozen from some past scare. “I’ll pay you tomorrow.”
“You get outta here! You don’t pay nothing.”
“C’mon old man.”
“Who you calling old! Get outta here—you lazy ass. Huevón!” Pablo swipes his knife. The kid jumps back, glares angry, unafraid.
“Fuck you, Old Fart.” The kid punctuates with a spit then swoops away with a middle finger aimed at the old man.
“Stupid kid bothers me every day. But never has money,” Pablo complains to the woman now buying watermelon slices.
“He’s dangerous,” adds the woman with the white scarf around her neck. “He tried to steal my neighbor’s purse at the bus stop the other day. She screamed so loud. No one helped her but enough people stared to scare him off.”
“He should find a job with all that courage,” Pablo concludes.
The old man lived off all the fruit he sold. Jobs had not been constant the last twelve years. Two factories closed. One meat warehouse moved. A restaurant replaced him with a younger man who spoke good English. Some jobs wouldn’t pay. Others, like landscaping, were unreliable. One week, yes; the other, no. For a while, he carried around a rake, like he used to carry a guitar case in his youth, and raked anyone’s yard for five dollars. This only worked in the fall. In the winter, he wanted to shovel snow. After all, he shoveled heavy dirt on a farm decades ago. But his back, now, was only strong enough to shovel one or two small walkways.
So on a hot summer day, when he was fifty-eight, while sitting in a kitchen chair outside the basement apartment he shared with his wife, he thought, “What do people want all day? What will people pay for?” He thought and thought—then knew: “Fresh fruit on a sunny day!” Since then, for seven years now, he sells fruit from a cart starting the first sunny April day to the first cold October eve.
“Lluvia, I’m going to make money,” Pablo shouted the day of his decision into the apartment. He wanted his wife to come running. Lluvia was too busy running fabric through her noisy Singer sewing machine. Pablo stormed into the tiny living room that rumbled underneath him as his wife pushed the fabric away from her, like she wished she could do with aspects of her life.
“Make me an apron with my name in big letters!” Pablo ordered with a smile.
“Are you going to cook me dinner with it?” Lluvia responded without taking her eyes or hands off the fabric in front of her.
She lifted her foot from the pedal. Her gray hair, which had been pulled tightly into a bun that morning, was now fuzzy from the heat she worked in. Her wrinkled eyes focused on this frazzled man she married almost forty years ago. Her shoulders couldn’t relax anymore. Her back was stiff from sitting. She just wanted to finish this last hem so she could sit outside and get some air.
“It’s for my cart. I’m going to get rich selling cucumbers and corn.” Pablo rushed into the kitchen to begin rummaging through the crooked drawers. He wanted knives, a cutting board, a clean kitchen towel, paper plates—anything and everything he could use to sell fruit all day.
“That old cigar box!” Pablo announced to no one but himself. He needed a place to keep his change.
“Don’t make a mess!” Lluvia shouted. “I mopped this morning.”
He didn’t listen. He found a lemon squeezer, a stack of Styrofoam cups, a bag of salt, and a knife big enough to slice two jícamas at once. After Lluvia finished sewing him a bold apron, he could open for business. But he needed a cart.
Within two days, he built his own. With the help of a neighbor who worked construction, he got a drill and wood.
“Look,” he told the young guy, “I need strong wood about this long and this high. Can you get that for me? I’ll pay you for it.”
The young man found enough big scraps to give the old man the pieces he needed, cut to size, for free. At the nearby hardware store, Pablo found the brackets and caster wheels. He asked for help selecting the appropriate screws. He created a cart about three feet high and four feet long that he could push. On one side, he made two doors so he could store supplies and money. In the counter, he drilled a hole for an umbrella.
“I need a better counter than plain wood,” Pablo thought. For a couple of hours that day, he went up and down the alleys: down between Lawndale and Ridgeway, up between Ridgeway and Hamlin, zigzagging all the way between Hamlin and Avers looking for a table someone didn’t need. No luck.
“The thrift store . . . ” Pablo remembered. In the Salvation Army shop, he found a solid kitchen table that would fit.
“Unscrew the legs,” he told the volunteers. To make a sale, they did. Pablo squatted and asked the volunteers to lay the table on his back.
“You’re going to get hurt, Sir,” one store employee warned.
“I’ll be fine,” the old man assured and remained in a squat waiting for the weight of the wooden table. Two teen employees carefully lifted then rested the table on the old man’s back and hoped he wouldn’t fall inside the store. Pablo stretched his arms wide, reached behind him, and grabbed the left and right sides of the table. Leaning forward, he stood up slowly on an angle. He paused to take a deep breath and remind himself he had the strength. Slowly, Pablo shuffled his feet to make the soft sound of a maraca carrying the beat in his favorite bolero, and, little by little, he progressed.
No one on 26th Street looked twice at him or asked to help. Not the Mexican man with well-combed hair and a V-neck undershirt with black socks and sandals watering his grass. Not the gangbangers smoking weed in a doorway where they did not live. Not the high-school dropout who sat on his front steps eating cookies, scratching his calves, bored, staring at the ants trembling by his bare feet as they carried away crumbs.
Pablo walked six blocks home without stopping. Once home, the old man slid the heavy table top off his back, as smoothly as an old record comes out of its sleeve. He straightened his back so it could crack. He asked his wife to give up her vinyl kitchen table cloth, which she hesitantly did. Pablo wrapped the old table top with red roses and green leaves on a white background. With the drill, he attached it to his cart. He remembered to drill a hole through it for the umbrella. With some wood blocks and an old broom stick, he made a handle. Now, he could push it anywhere in Little Village to make a living selling cucumbers and corn.
In four seasons, Pablo made enough money to invest more in his cart. Three times a year, he changes the table cloth. Inside the cart, his blue cooler holds fruit buried in chunky ice. The red cooler carries hot water and corn on the cob. There are always three gallons of water, for morning, afternoon, and evening, to rinse his cloth and knife and hands. Always, he stores enough cups, napkins, and utensils. He makes sure to have a small garbage can along with a dust pan and brush inside a plastic bag. The cigar box car carries his coins. A shoe box holds his cassettes.
On the counter underneath the umbrella, the little cassette player plays his boleros. Usually, it’s Eydie Gormé with Trio Los Panchos. Each time Eydie sings, Pablo likes the way her voice flirts through bumps in her accented Spanish when, perhaps, something is hard for her to pronounce. Eydie’s voice pours out clearly at the end of each line in that song about cinnamon skin, clear as the new water Pablo pours from a gallon to rinse his hands so he can work.
He cuts his fruit to order but has one cup of each fruit in stock on display. As Pablo prepares his cups, he remembers the time he saw Eydie on the black-and-white TV. She walked effortlessly down the stage in that snug glittering dress, smoothly as his knife gliding into the fruit he slices. Eydie’s undergarments held her torso in the glimmering dress tightly, the same way Pablo holds his fruit cups while he assembles them to make sure they do not fall. He packs the display cups in ice that will sparkle in the sun, just like Eydie’s dress did on black-and-white TV.
Pablo covers the display cups with plastic wrap to keep flies away. Next to his knife and cutting board, Pablo arranges the mayonnaise jar in a bowl of ice, the butter spread in a squeezable bottle, the chili powder shaker, the salt bowl, the spoons and forks in cups, and a roll of paper towels. When Edyie hits that long high note, Pablo remembers the guitarists all around her on that stage. The last step for Pablo is to place the small garbage can near his feet. Now, with Edyie singing “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps,” Pablo is prepared to sell.
“Don Pablo, are you this neat at home?” A single woman in her thirties with brown hair still wet from her shower smiles as she walks up to the cart knowing what she wants. Her pink blouse with two unbuttoned buttons reveals skin with perfume that makes Pablo inhale deeply to create a memory.
“I can’t find a man like you anywhere,” she says with a smile usually reserved for someone on a date.
“That’s because they’re all sitting on a sofa exhausted from a little bit of work,” Pablo explains with a wink.
“I appreciate a man who works. Let me have a jícama, Don Pablo, to make you earn your keep.”
Pablo pulls a fist-sized root vegetable from the blue cooler. Round and smooth, with a pointy tip, the natural-colored root reminds Pablo of a woman’s breast. With his knife, he peels off the jímaca’s skin as if it were a woman’s tight blouse. The woman watches, waiting comfortably. The cassette plays on as, silently, the woman and the man stare at the round root losing its covering. The instrumental part on the cassette begins: the requinto, high pitched, reverberates quick notes. The pace is good—for pecks upon a woman’s neck. Her clavicle. Her cleavage.
The woman feels goose bumps and rubs her left arm to make them disappear. The root, finally, rests white and bare on the board ready to be sliced. Pablo cuts the bulb in half, then in circles, then in strips. With a napkin, he covers the naked pieces to arrange them in a cup.
“Lime and salt?” he whispers.
“Please,” she sighs.
Pablo showers the strips in juice to make them more refreshing. He pinches the bowl of salt and lets go the crystals in a dizzy swirl.
“No chili, please,” the woman softly requests searching for money in her purse.
“Enjoy. No charge,” Pablo offers smiling, presenting the cup to the woman as if it were bouquet.
“Don Pablo, no,” the woman hesitates. "This is your job.”
“This is my pleasure,” he interrupts.
She smiles and walks away, her hips in a white skirt waving side to side a long good bye Pablo appreciates:
Women’s heels click
like empty guns. Damp hair.
Short skirt. Unshy thighs for pinching
CLICK! The button pops on the cassette player. Side A is over. Without moving his feet, Pablo reaches over to flip the tape so the music can accompany the images of women on the street.
Men from all parts of 26th Street love to stare at bus stops in the morning. Women with dark lashes look down the street for the next bus. They stretch one leg behind them, emphasizing a calf, and lift themselves on their toes, hoping the bus will not let them down. The double-parked trucks delivering their goods, however, make the women hard to see sometimes.
unfold like covenants.
Calm employees’ appetites on
“What happened, Maistro? No work today?” shouts Pablo to greet a man whose first name he does not know but whose face he recognizes.
“The damn agency sent me home again,” explains the frustrated man, his eyes red from staying awake all night at the day-labor agency. I sat awake in that dirty lobby all night waiting. And this morning, I hear, ‘No work. Go home.’”
“Take it easy today so—tonight—you can go back,” Pablo advises, preparing to slice a mango.
“The problem is I can’t find work,” the man snaps back. His mouth is tired from explaining how much he needs a job. “And when I do work, they take three weeks to pay me. Or they take away half for the cheap work shirts we have to wear. Who can get ahead like that?” the man demands an answer.
“Look,” Pablo responds, “have a fresh mango and get some rest. You can’t complain on a sunny day.”
The man lowers his head. Pablo notices the dusty baseball cap held together in the back with a safety pin. Pablo slices off the mango’s skin and stabs it with a wooden stick. He takes his knife and, with the twist of his left hand and a few chops from his right, makes wedges to separate the meaty fruit from the flat seed. The wedges help hold fresh lime juice, lots of chili powder, and a few grains of salt sprinkled over like magic. He hands it to the man who shakes his head.
“No, Pablo. . . thank you . . . but . . .”
“. . . No worries,” Pablo interjects. “You buy two when you get paid.”
The man stretches out his hand slowly still embarrassed to accept something without paying. But his hunger that morning is as strong as his motivation to work. Waiting in the smoky day-labor agency all night in a plastic chair drained him. His stomach is growling.
“Go home. Take a shower. Sleep. Start over,” Pablo encourages quietly holding the mango before the tired man.
The tired man tightens his lips to hold down the knot in his throat. He wants to say he how much he appreciates the gesture. Instead, he tilts his head right and touches his chin to his chest. He steps aside to bite into the tender fruit. The potent chili powder makes the man sneeze out the day-labor agency’s stench of cigarettes and sweat in his nostrils. He savors the small piece of mango as his jaw relaxes while the juices dissolve on his tongue. The day laborer, too grateful to speak, raises the mango in quick toast to the fruit vendor. Then he continues his walk home down 26th Street, holding up the orange mango on a stick as if it were a torch.
Pablo grabs his moist rag to wipe down his cutting board when, at the intersection, he sees the neighborhood politician’s luxurious, dark car make a rolling stop. The dark sedan reflects the sunshine off the long trunk as if the rays were not good enough to shine on it. Pablo lifts the hand holding the rag and waves it side to side. From the back seat, the stoic Chicago politician looks at Pablo. From inside his air-conditioned car that he does not drive but is driven in, the city leader squints at the old man as if he were jealous. He does not return the old man’s wave. Pablo does not expect him to. Pablo glares back at the moving car wishing he could wipe away the politician with his rag and throw it in a garbage can.
“He’s useless,” mumbles Pablo loud enough for a customer to hear. “Why don’t you like him?” asks the woman who manages the dry cleaners now waiting for her fruit. “He tries to make this neighborhood look better.”
Pablo chops off the ends of the cucumber with quick knife swipes. “New sidewalks and fancy light posts aren’t going to make this place safer. It’ll just be easier to see the trash. What’s the point of Aztec designs at every crosswalk if people don’t feel safe walking around at night?”
“It’s not his fault people don’t raise their kids right,” the woman shot back raising one eyebrow.
Pablo concentrated on the fruit cup he was assembling. He felt unsure of what to say. He only raised a little boy for four years before he was hit by a car and died. Pablo could have sued the driver for lots of money. But he decided he did not want to use his son’s dying to make a living.
Pablo arranges the last cucumber spear in the cup. “He doesn’t have to spend all that money on fancy decorations for the street. All we need is more garbage cans so people put the trash where it belongs. And another park. And more playgrounds on empty lots. That’s how he should use his influence at City Hall.”
But the woman sees it differently: “Look at the kids. Every time they buy a Popsicle, the wrapper ends up by the curb. Drunks throw the empty bottles on everyone’s front lawn when they drive by, honking their horns or slamming their brakes. People don’t care about living in clean spaces.”
Pablo decides to cut up another cucumber for this customer’s cup to keep the conversation going. “Every morning,” Pablo adds, “I see at least one grandmother on every block sweeping away puddles on the street. All the way to this corner, I hear the swish, swish of old brooms in the hands of old women. They pick up trash, even if it’s not on their grass. They make sure the rosebushes are untangled and all their flowerpots are watered. They mind their front gates like heaven.”
“I didn’t ask for that,” the woman interrupts to make sure Pablo does not think she’s going to pay for more than she ordered.
“It’s a little extra from me to you today,” Pablo clarifies.
“There’s still only a few people who clean up,” the woman continues. “That’s why my husband and I are selling our house. This neighborhood isn’t good enough for us and our daughter anymore.” She hands Pablo a ten dollar bill for a one dollar cup.
From his back pocket, Pablo takes out the small stash of bills. He puts her money behind the two twenties he has from exchanging singles yesterday. He finds four singles and gives them to the woman with a smile, thinking of a way to end this conversation.
“I’ve lived here for over thirty years, Señora. And I’ll live here as long as God lets me. May you find what you are looking for somewhere else.” Pablo rests his hands on his cart.
The woman turns and walks away without saying thanks.
“Get all that crap off the sidewalk!” the owner of the grocery store yells out to Pablo. “Yesterday you left crap all over.”
Pablo throws his shoulders back and huffs, “I clean up every day.”
“No you don’t,” the balding business man argues back approaching Pablo almost waving his index finger in the street vendor’s face. “Pretend it’s change,” the business man blurts out. “Then you’ll make sure to pick up everything off the sidewalk.” The insult hums like the silence at the end of Side B.
Pablo disregards it because he doesn’t want to move to another spot. For the last couple of years, he’s made himself comfortable on this corner. His cart is close to a school, the dry cleaners with the laundromat, two bus stops, and a bar. People recognize him now. He dislikes the grocery store owner with the giant belly. But the fat man stays inside his cold store on hot days, so Pablo puts up with him because he doesn’t see or hear him much. Besides, sales are good this sunny day. And Pablo enjoys nothing better than hauling home a fruitless cart.
By early evening, the wind doesn’t motivate Pablo to work like the morning breeze does. He begins to feel the push toward home. The sky is fading into a darker blue. Businesses begin to turn on their signs and kids on bikes are becoming difficult to see. The tavern is starting to glow like a pirate’s chest. A beer to end the work day is tempting. But Pablo decides to head home before Edyie begins another song.
With all the corn on the cob sold, Pablo can dump the cloudy water from the red cooler in the sewer. He rescues one cucumber and two mangoes from the cold water in the blue cooler before he dumps that. He stores the condiments and cups. Then, he puts away his clean cutting board and knife. Finally, he takes down his umbrella, holding it briefly like a rifle across his chest, before laying it to rest and tying it to his cart. With the dust pan and brush in hand, Pablo crouches to get all the watermelon seeds and any other trash that fell throughout his busy day. He thinks about his profit and pats the money in his pocket.
rattle in the
cigar box. I put bills
in my pocket. Keep twenties from
He begins to push. He turns down Hamlin and crosses the alley. The dumpsters are full and flies rest on top from their day of slurping trash.
“Hey, Fucker.” Pablo hears and turns to see the kid who wanted fruit for free earlier. The dirty kid continues crawling out from behind a dumpster. His eyes are red even in the dimming daylight. Pablo focuses on the kid’s stained T-shirt.
“Gimme the bills,” the kid commands.
Pablo knows he can’t run away. His knife is packed away. In a blink, the sky goes from dark blue to light black. Pablo looks side to side. No more kids on bikes. No one sits outside.
“I know you got money, Fucker.”
The dirty kid jumps on Pablo and pulls him in the alley. The cart begins to roll away. Pablo swings his arms but can’t hit the kid hard enough for it to hurt. The old man’s right sandal slips off. His balance is lost. Easily, the kid pushes him down. The cart bangs against a pole with a light too dim for anyone to notice the attack. Pablo hits the pavement. The kid drops on top. With his arms flailing for survival, Pablo feels like he is drowning.
“Where’s your money, Fucker.”
Pablo tries to push the kid off him. He ends up face down on the gravel. His mouth presses into the ground. Sharp bits of broken glass cut into his lips and nose. From the dumpster, Pablo gets a whiff of rotten fruit.
The kid pats his dirty hands on the side of Pablo’s pants, searching for the wad of dollars. Pablo reaches behind. His fingers feel the shirt. The kid, now grunting and exhaling hard, grasps Pablo’s wrist. He twists the old man’s hand into his back. With his other hand, the kid grabs Pablo’s back pocket and feels the pad of bills. With one yank, he picks the pocket like a harvest. The old man hears the tear.
“He’s robbing me! Police!” Pablo tries to yell more but his screams become muffled by the concrete.
“Shut the fuck up,” the kid orders and slaps off Pablo’s cap to grab him by his hair. He pushes the old man’s face hard into the ground. The old man can no longer yell. The concrete cuts his cheek as he feels the kid’s weight lift off him. He hears the pounding of the kid’s sneakers echo in the empty alley. The kid runs in a straight line then jumps over a fence. He disappears. Not too far away, a few single dollar bills flutter on the ground. The old man flutters, too, struggling to get himself up.
Pablo eventually sits up and reaches for his baseball cap and left sandal. His elbow bleeds and his cheek tingles with the pain from being punched. He scrapes gravel from his burning palms. His hands tremble. He breathes deeply and pushes himself up slowly feeling the pain of every cut on his arm. Looking down, he sees a drop of blood fall from his face onto the concrete. He does not want to cry.
He reaches back to feel his pocket. It is ripped. His underwear is visible. Looking up, he sees some stars a million miles away. At that moment, the few vague stars in the dark sky are closer than his pride.
Pablo tries to push his shoulders back. They hurt. He wobbles toward the other sandal that lies upside down. He smells a baby’s dirty diaper and rotten beans. Still, no one is around. Even the flies on the dumpsters have flown away.
Pablo rubs his shoulder while he thinks that he’ll slice that kid open next time he sees him. He knows to keep his knife handy from now on.
He shuffles over to the crooked cart against the lamp post. The cassette player fell of the cart with the bump. The plastic cracked. Pieces from it landed by the curb. Pablo picks it up.
“It won’t work,” he thinks and rests it on the counter.
Pablo grabs the cart’s handle but struggles to start pushing the heavy cart. Slowly, slower than he’s ever walked, he heads home. His limbs tremble as the cart quivers over many broken sidewalks. All the way home, everyone’s front door is closed.
When he arrives, Pablo parks the cart on the side of his apartment building, right outside the door of his basement home. The blue plastic tarp, folded and placed there by his wife, is leaning by the entrance.
He unlatches the cart’s doors, ignores the cassettes, and takes out the cigar box. With one sore arm, Pablo shakes open the folded tarp. Carelessly, he covers up his cart. He doesn’t bother tying it down tonight.
Holding the cigar box of coins in his left hand, Pablo stands before his front door. He barely raises his right feeble fist:
I have not seen
my face. How can I not
feel ashamed when I show my wife
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