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Devil Rabbit

November 1993

By Catherine Kitcho


Dear Volkswagen of America:

I received your recall notice dated October 5th, 1980. I would be more than happy to comply with the instructions, except that this car is no longer in my possession. In fact, that car is and always was possessed by the devil. I feel compelled to tell you this sad tale; perhaps someone in your design department could use the information....

Never look a gift horse in the mouth, they say. Well, sometimes I wonder if things would have turned out differently if I had not followed that time-honored advice.

It was a gift, indeed. I didn't need a car; I needed a house. Well, half a house, anyway. "But since you two aren't married and are just living together, well, we really can't help you with a down payment. It just wouldn't be right. But, why don't you go out and buy a new car, honey, and we'll pay for it." I should have known better. Any gift from my parents always had strings attached. Always. After I reluctantly agreed, her next phone call described the strings. "Well, we talked about it (we meant 'she') and we thought that you should look at the Fords and the Plymouths - uh, what do they call their little subcompacts now - uh.."

"Actually, Mom, the Datsuns, Toyotas, and Volkswagens are probably more reliable cars."

"Imports?!" she said with a hint of sacrilege in her voice. Living in the heartland of America's auto industry did that to a person.

"Tell you what, Mom. Today's Sunday. I'll go out and look at some subcompacts and let you know what I've found. What price range did you have in mind?" "Well, even in California I think you should be able to find something for about seven thousand. That's what Dad and I paid for ours. Oh, did I tell you we got a new car again this year?" "I'll call you later, Mom."

As we test drove the cars, Phil and I schemed about how we could just use the money for the house instead. However, my mother expected evidence that I had actually bought a car with the money; she wanted a picture of the car sitting in the driveway and a photocopy of the pink slip. It was no use. I had to buy the car. Phil would drive my old car, sell his, and we would apply the proceeds to our house. Not quite enough, but closer to our goal.

I settled on the car: a Volkswagen Rabbit "C", automatic with air conditioning, in metallic chocolate brown. I found the exact combination at a dealer in San Francisco. When I called Mom, she grumbled about the import , but agreed to do the wire transfer into my account. I picked up my new car four days later. I took the picture, made the photocopy, and enclosed both in a big Thank You note.

Commuting up Highway 1 to San Francisco had always been an adventure. Parking in the financial district was even more of an adventure. I had found a parking lot that was a reasonable amount; the all-day meters only accepted quarters or tightly folded dollar bills that you had to force in with a little metal pusher. I preferred quarters; they were faster. I had picked up rolls of quarters at the bank and dumped them into the new, deep ashtray of my Rabbit. Since no one was allowed to smoke in my car, it was the best place to put them. The first day I drove my new car to work, it rained. Not just the misty fog rain in the city - it was a real downpour. "Why today?" I thought. "I wanted to show off my new car today and now it's wet. My new car is getting wet!" I arrived early enough to find a spot to avoid dents from adjacent doors - I parked on the aisle in a row in the back.

Jim came by my office at 10:00 that morning. I sometimes commuted with him, except I preferred doing the driving. Jim had a 1955 beat-up pickup truck painted bright yellow. He called it "Sherman". It was like riding in a tank, except it was noisier. Sherman was in the shop a lot. Today was no exception.

Jim had grown up in Dallas and still kept his accent. I liked it a lot. He also was attractive; just my type with deep brown hair and eyes, beard, medium build. A bit shorter and heavier than Phil, and more macho. But, he had a very jealous wife who was always threatening divorce. He referred to the situation as feeling "pussy-whipped". I kept my distance from him but fantasized a lot. Phil was a good lover, but Jim's image crept in sometimes during foreplay.

"Hey, Jackie. Howzit goin'? " Jim asked.

"Let me guess. You need a ride tonight, right?"

"No good mornin' first?"

"Good morning Jim. It's great to see you again. Would you like a ride home tonight? You can see my new car," I said in a taunting voice.

"How'd you know I needed a ride? Well, never mind. I do. Marty dropped me off at BART this morning but she's got a meeting tonight. Is that okay? Can I ride in the royal chariot?"

"Sure, as long as you don't touch anything except the seat belt," I teased.

"What did you buy?"

"Actually, I didn't buy it -it's a gift. Mom bought it for me instead of a house. But - that's another story. I got a VW Rabbit - it's a pretty little thing. I'll meet you in the lobby at 4:30."

Jim and I walked the four blocks to the lot, sharing a large umbrella. I unlocked the passenger side to let Jim in, then walked around the back to the driver side. I turned to the side to collapse my umbrella when I saw it. "Shit!" I yelled. "Not the first day. Already a dent. I can't believe this!" I walked to the left rear fender. Jim craned his head across to the driver's side and opened my door. "What's wrong?"

"Damn - it's a dent the size of the Grand Canyon!" Jim got out to stare at the dent with me. The dent was more of a crease - an ugly, diagonal gash about four inches long. The chocolate metallic paint had been scraped away too.

"Aw - that's not bad. A body shop can fix that pretty fast - it'll be good as new. You should take it to the place that works on Sherman. They do good work there." I thought, "Yeah, but I'll never get my car back again - they take forever."

I fumed all the way home, not good for conversation. Jim tried to cheer me up. At one point he reached his hand over and put it on my knee. Then he inched his hand up a little. He had never attempted anything like this in my other car. Maybe he couldn't reach across as easily; this was a really small interior, like most subcompacts. He said, "What can I do to make you feel better?" A fleeting fantasy of doing it in the car flashed through my mind, but I was not in the mood.

"Jim, Marty has enough to hassle you about as it is - I don't think you should add to it." He removed his hand.

"Yeah, you're right. She sure does give me a ration of shit."

I wondered if that was a firm enough "no" - oh, well, more fantasy material.

I took the Rabbit back to the dealer to do the body work. My insurance guy Lyle was sympathetic. "That first dent is a heart-breaker, isn't it?" Lyle asked. "No problem - you're covered under your policy. And, the car is still under warranty. Should be smooth sailing once this is behind you."

I recovered from the first dent. Jim and I commuted together occasionally. He behaved himself for the most part, but there were times I wished he didn't. My relationship with Phil was becoming increasingly strained. We finally bought the house, moved in, fought about where all the pictures were going, where all the furniture was going in the new floor plan. Money was another problem. My income was higher than Phil's and he had a lot of debt. We had had a few problems finding a lender who would give us a mortgage.

"Phil, why don't you pay off your credit card balances?"

"That's why they call it revolving credit - so you can pay it off whenever you can."

"But, Phil, when you're trying to buy a house, your debt balance is critical."

"Well, I'd pay them off if I had more money. I don't have rich parents, remember? I don't have a new car. I'm driving your clunker, aren't I?"

That hurt. Phil became more and more distant. As the holidays neared, we worked on our relationship. We planned a trip to the mountains together, a romantic getaway.

"My brother called. We can stay in their condo at Mammoth. The rest of the family will come up on Christmas Day."

"But we promised the Daltons that we would have Christmas dinner together. Remember, we were all going to cook it together."

"Oh, yeah. Well, how about if we take a few days off and go before Christmas, then drive back on Christmas eve?"

The compromise worked. We grew closer again as we planned our trip. I bought chains for the Rabbit so that we could drive in the mountains. We bought winter snuggly clothes to wear. We finished all our Christmas shopping. I prepared my Christmas dishes and put them in the freezer. We headed for the Sierra on December 21st. It was a crystal clear Nikon kind of day. A light dusting of snow covered everything, but the roads were clear and dry. We drove over 80 and down the eastern side of the Sierra to Mammoth Lakes. We had two romantic, cuddly days playing in the snow and in the firelit condo. Phil gave me my Christmas present: a delicate gold necklace with a little Capricorn the goat charm - my sign. He put it around my neck and I decided I would keep it on forever. Phil's family arrived the evening of the 23rd so we could spend some time with them before we headed back.

We awoke on the 24th to the smells of steaming hot cocoa, bacon frying, and a fire in the fireplace. Phil's mother had the television on. Phil and I sipped cocoa as we watched the morning news. There was a winter storm watch for the entire Sierra with record snowfalls expected.

I panicked. "Phil, maybe we should leave now instead of at noon. Maybe we can beat the storm."

Phil's father agreed. "I'd hightail it if I were you...it will take you about six hours. Best to do it in the daylight."

We quickly packed the car and got Phil's brother to help us with the tire chains. Four inches of snow already covered the ground.

I drove the first section out of the Mammoth Lakes area up Highway 395. It felt strange to drive the car with chains on - I never got used to the thud, thud, thud - it sounded like there was something wrong with the car. My knuckles were white under the mittens. I never liked driving in snow.

"Want me to drive for a while?" Phil asked.

"Ever driven in snow ?"

"Well, not really. We never got much snow in Long Beach, you know. But, I think I can handle it."

I was wary of Phil driving. "Okay, this is a test. What do you do if the car starts to skid?"

"You slow down."

"How do you slow down?"

"Put on the brakes?" he asked.

"Wrong! You take your foot off the accelerator and then turn the front wheels in the direction of the skid - always turn into the skid."

"But I thought this was a front-wheel-drive car. Doesn't that make a difference?"

"No", I said confidently, " the same rules apply", frantically thinking back to my driving days in Detroit. They didn't have front-wheel drive cars when I took driving lessons. I hoped I was right.

I finally relented. After a few miles Phil said, "Piece of cake. I'm pretty good at this."

We came down a small hill, approaching a small town. "Slow down, Phil", I said, "It looks like it's snowing harder. There's a bridge coming up at the bottom of the hill; I just saw a sign for it."

As we approached the bridge, Phil put on the brakes. I briefly saw a sign on the right side that said "Watch for Ice on Bridge". Phil had braked too soon. The car spun around 180 degrees to the left, as if an alien force had picked it up and set it down again. The car slid one last time, and slammed into the concrete bridge abutment with a loud thwack! The impact caved in the right rear side of the car. After the car stopped, Phil tried to steer it away from the abutment, but the car fishtailed. I kept wailing, "Oh, my God, oh my God. Phil, turn into a gas station - find one, please."

He said, "Are you all right, Jackie - you okay?"

I replied in a shaky voice, "Yeah, I think so. The car sounds terrible, what happened? Pull over so we can look at it."

Phil steered the car to the side of the road, onto a frozen gravel patch. I leaped out, and surveyed the damage. Both hands covered my mouth as I said, "No. Not today. I can't believe this. Why me? We'll never back it back in time for Christmas."

Phil came over and put his arm around me. "Don't worry, sweetie, we'll figure out something, we will. Let's see if I can maneuver it up to the gas station up there and have them take a look."

There was one gas station in the town of Bridgeport. Phil struggled to steer the fishtailing car toward the service bay of the station. Two scraggly looking mechanics were manning the station. The older one came over to us and said, "Looks like the bridge done you in, huh?"

I said anxiously, "Do you think it's driveable? Can you fix it today? We have to get back to San Francisco by tonight. What's wrong with it?"

"Slow down there, missy. Let me take a look." He leaned down to look under the rear of the car, as Phil said, "It's really fishtailing - it was impossible to steer."

The mechanic stood up again, straightened his back and said, "Yup. I can see why. That axle is bent like a pretzel."

I said impatiently, "Can you fix it? Just enough so we can drive it back?" The mechanic chuckled and said, "No, missy. We aren't that sophisticated here. Have to get it to a big town to do that."

"Where's the nearest big town?" Phil asked. He replied at a maddeningly slow pace, " Well, for that kind of repair - probably Reno. It'll have to be towed."

I rushed back into the conversation. "How far are we from Reno? Do you have a tow truck? Can we tow it right now and get it there today?"

The mechanic laughed. "Naw. We can't afford no tow truck. Hafta call one from Reno. It takes about two hours to get here if the roads are clear - but, they ain't. And, nobody I know wants to do any tow job on Christmas eve. Most guys take off early - they'll be gone by 3:00. You best get yourself a motel room - the Shady Rest is over there across the highway - they got vacancy."

I was not satisfied. "Why can't we try calling them to see if they will do it? There's still time to have them come! I have a triple "A" card, and insurance, and credit cards. Why can't we try? Why..." I started sobbing, and Phil came over and hugged me.

Phil asked the mechanic, "Can we make arrangements to have the tow truck pick us up in the morning? We'll stay the night here."

The mechanic chuckled. "Well, ordinarily, yes. But tomorrow's Christmas. They don't work on Christmas. We can set it up for the day after, though. Should I call the guys for you? They can be here at 8:00 Thursday mornin'."

I stopped sobbing momentarily. "What do you mean - that we are stuck here tonight AND all day tomorrow? You can't be serious!"

Phil nudged me with his elbow and told the man, " Yes, please call the guys for Thursday. Is there any place in town where we can get Christmas dinner tomorrow?" Phil leaned over to me and whispered in my ear, "Could be romantic..."

The mechanic replied, "Well, the cafe and the grocery are open 'til 4:00 today, but they're closed tomorrow so they can be with their families. Tomorrow's Christmas, you know!"

I felt as if I was in the Twilight Zone. I was numb from cold and shock. We checked in to the Shady Rest, then bought our Christmas dinner (cocoa, peanut butter, crackers, and Danish Christmas cookies) at the grocery store. They were sold out of everything else. We called Lyle, my insurance agent. He was sympathetic, wished us Merry Christmas, and explained my coverage of towing and repair work. We called the Daltons. They were very supportive and pointed out that at least we were safe. We planned a makeup dinner for Thursday night.

Phil tried to make the most of it and be romantic. I could not be consoled all night. I sobbed through the soap operas on TV Christmas day, especially when people were shown enjoying their Christmas dinners with family and friends. We ate our sorry Christmas dinner. I found myself angry at Phil; why did he step on the brakes? He should have steered into the skid. What an idiot!

I bounded out of bed Thursday morning at 6:00 A.M. "C'mon, Phil", I said as I shook him. "Maybe they'll show up early." I had my suitcase packed. The towing guy arrived sharply at eight. Phil and I both rode in the tow truck cab all the way to Reno. I buried my misery in the management tasks that had to be done - arranging for the axle repair at the Reno VW dealer, booking our flights home, getting a rental car at San Francisco, filing the insurance claims.

The axle repair took four weeks. Phil and I drove up to Reno in his car one Friday morning to retrieve my car. As I drove my car home by myself, I relived the accident. The car felt like a stranger, the messenger of sadness and turmoil. I drove the car directly the VW body shop in San Francisco, to repair the right rear fender.

The body work took three more weeks. I was trying to remember what my own car was like; I had been driving a rental car for too long. Finally I picked up the car and drove it home, maneuvering it up the steep driveway to our house. I walked back down to the bottom of the drive to pick up the newspaper. As I walked back up, I noticed a path of dark, round drops staining the driveway from bottom to top.

"Phil, come look at this. What is that?"

Phil dabbed his finger on one of the drops, looked at his finger and sniffed. "Hmm", he said, "it smells like gasoline to me."

We followed the path up to the Rabbit. Phil leaned over the right rear fender, then peered up underneath. "It's coming from somewhere up in here." He craned his head around further. "There's a plastic bubble here. Hmm. I think they must have melted one of the fuel injection lines when they did the body work. That could be dangerous to drive. I'd take it back!"

I replied, exasperated, "I don't want to take it all the way back to San Francisco! I'll call the other dealer and see if they can do it. They probably can. After all, the car is still under warranty; it only has 9000 miles on it."

I picked the car up again from the dealer and brought it home on a Wednesday night. I declared to Phil, "Finally! It only took two months to recover from Bridgeport! I never want to see a rental car again." We celebrated that night and put the episode behind us.

I drove my Rabbit to work the next morning. It was a crystal clear, slightly chilly February day. Jim called at noon to hitch a ride with me. "I finally got my Rabbit back, Jim!"

"Aw - no more rental cars? I was beginning to get used to them."

We left work at 4:30. The ride down Highway 1 was beautiful. We took our time and admired the scenery. "It's days like this that I really enjoy living on the coast, don't you, Jim?"

"You got that right."

I put on my left turn signal and slowed to a stop where I had to turn to drop off Jim in Miramar. I automatically looked in my rear-view mirror and made double sure my turn signal was on; there was no left turn lane off Highway 1. Jim started to say, "About tomorrow..", but I didn't hear the rest. I dropped my jaw and tried to scream, but only a squeak came out. Then the sound of crushing metal drowned out Jim and propelled us forward as if we were part of an angry pinball machine. I heard the tinkling of broken glass. As we came to a stop, I looked out my window to locate the Mack truck that was surely the culprit. Instead, I watched the turquoise Maverick skid across the other lane straight into a grass filled ditch. There was one person in the car, now slumped over the steering wheel.

Jim and I sat dazed, likely in shock, for an eternity. We were soon surrounded by a circus of flashing lights, sirens and people. Both lanes were blocked by the wreckage, the CHP black-and-whites, the county sheriff, the Half Moon Bay police car, two fire trucks, the paramedics, and two ambulances. A county transit bus led the pack of southbound traffic that was stopped by the mess. All the patrons of the roadside seafood restaurant came out and joined the crowd.

Jim recovered his glasses from the dash and said shakily, "Are you all right?"

I replied, still in a daze, "I ..I don't know. Shouldn't we try to get out of here? Couldn't the car explode or something?" I frantically tried to remember where the fuel tank was.

"Can you get out through your door?" Jim asked.

My whole body was shaking. Where was my adrenalin at a time like this? I pushed on the door but it would not budge. "No, I think it must be sprung."

Jim pushed open the passenger side door with an 'oomph'. I crawled out through his side.

Two paramedics rushed over to us and hurriedly placed cervical collars around our necks, fastening the velcro tabs. "Don't move," one of them said. "We're bringing the stretchers over now." I started to protest, still in shock. "But I think I can walk...I"

The paramedic said, "Part of the procedure, miss. Something could be broken. We won't know until we x-ray you. Here's the stretcher now."

Jim ended up in the other ambulance. They put my attacker in the ambulance with me. My head was strapped to the stretcher. I wanted to roll my head over and look at him. I wanted to hiss at him, "I hope you have insurance, buster!" As I struggled to turn my head, the paramedic kneeling next to me said, "Don't move! There will be time to work out the details later." I could see from the corner of my eye that the other paramedic was bandaging my attacker's right arm. I couldn't hear what the paramedic was saying to him; the siren drowned it out.

When we arrived at the emergency room, they moved me off the stretcher and on to the gurney, but my head was still strapped down. All I could see were ceilings and side glimpses of white coats and shoes. All I could hear were nurses yelling to one another, and the doctor's voice calmly issuing directions to everyone. They treated my attacker first. I could hear snippets of the conversation - something about "kidney patient", "broken arm", and "18 years old." Jim and I were waiting on gurneys outside the x-ray room. A nurse arrived to get phone numbers of our spouses from us so they could call them.

They did one x-ray of me, then wheeled me into a room. I was alone until I heard a deep voice outside the door. "Ma'am?"

I replied, "Yes, who is it?" I looked peripherally to see black knee boots with brown pants tucked in. He timidly walked in the room.

"Ma'am, I'm Sergeant Price of the Highway Patrol. I was there when they towed your car. They took it to Curley & Red's in Half Moon Bay. I checked inside for valuables, and well, it was the strangest thing. I found all these quarters scattered all over the inside of the car. I picked them up for you. They're all here." I could hear him reach inside his pocket to gather up the quarters. "Should I put them hear on the gurney for you?"

I chuckled to myself, thinking, "Boy, the CHP, they're all right!" I replied, "That was very kind of you. That was my parking money to feed the meters. That must be what I heard after the impact."

He said, "Well, we did a detailed report on the accident and we'll send it to the DMV. The guy was going 55 miles an hour when he hit you. There were also some witnesses; some hitchhikers outside the restaurant saw the whole thing. Well, I need to be going. My name's on the report if you have any questions. I hope you'll be okay."

I found myself reliving the collision. Fifty-five mph was one hell of an impact. I was interrupted by the doctor's voice yelling, "Get one without the goat this time!". The nurse wheeled me back out of the room and through the waiting area, where I heard a familiar voice laughing. Phil came up and walked alongside the gurney. He took my hand, leaned over and said, "Your necklace is in the way of the spinal x-ray. I guess you meant it when you said you'd never take it off, huh?" The nurse carefully removed my necklace and set it down on the gurney next to the pile of quarters.

The doctor diagnosed severe whiplash, gave me muscle relaxers and pain medication. He said, "You may not feel much now, but when you wake up in the morning, you will feel like you've been run over by a Mack truck. Take some muscle relaxers before you go to sleep tonight." Jim and Marty were on the other side of the waiting room; Marty was glaring at me as if it was all my fault and as if I was screwing her husband to boot. She was heaping sympathy on Jim, saying, "Oh, you poor thing, you poor thing. Does it hurt, honey?" Jim yelled across the room, "Hey, Jackie, can I get a ride to work tomorrow?"

I grinned and yelled back, "Not a chance. Think I'll stay home tomorrow. Gotta go get another rental car."

The doctor was right. The next day was hell. My knees hurt; my teeth hurt. Phil was sympathetic and a good nurse. I got a rental car the following Monday. I got in the driver's seat, looked in the rear-view mirror, and just sat there. I was afraid to drive. It took me several weeks before I felt at ease. I went to doctors, dentists, and my lawyer. I had fractured teeth and torn ligaments at the base of the skull. I had root canals and crowns and cortisone injections and tons of pain medication. The other driver's insurance company refused to pay my medical bills or to settle the wreckage. I had a rental car for four months. I was in a bad mood the whole time; Phil's patience was wearing thin. We had an argument about the attorney.

"Why isn't she doing anything? What is she waiting for?" Phil asked. The wreckage was still at the body shop at the place where they towed the car.

"She says to get the maximum judgment in a personal injury lawsuit, you have to show the long-term effects of the injury - establishing a pattern, I guess. I'm sick of this damn collar, and I'm sick of the physical therapy and I've had enough doctor visits to last me a century. I'm tired of the damn rental car. And, I'm still in pain."

"Gee, I never would have noticed, with all the whining."

I glared back at Phil. "You try going through this sometime!" I started sobbing. "It's all my mother's fault! I never wanted the damn car to start with!"

I called my attorney ."Louise, I think I'm ready to settle. Can't we at least get the car declared a total loss?"

"The other driver's insurance company won't settle. They want to take it to court."

"What if my own insurance pays the claim, then we get it back as part of the judgment? I want my own car again. I can't drive this rental forever. I'm at wit's end. Phil and I are about ready to split ."

"I'll look into it," she replied hesitantly, "Whatever maintains harmony at home, I guess."

I had the car towed to the VW dealer. They put the remains of the car on the hydraulic lift. The mechanic explained my alternatives. He pointed to the frame. "You see here - the frame is bent. The front is about 2 inches lower than the back of the frame. Now, the front half of your car is just fine. Nothin' wrong with it. The back looks like it's been in a trash compactor. We could - if you want - saw off the back half of another Rabbit and glue it on to the front of your Rabbit. That's the only way to fix it." I thought he was pulling my leg. I smiled at him, signalling I heard his joke. He looked at me very seriously and said, "I am serious, Ma'am. We can do that."

I asked incredulously, "How much will that cost?"

"Oh, about $6400 ."

"And what if you declare it totalled?"

"Well, the insurance would probably give you bluebook on the claim. We just sell the remains for scrap then."

"What's the bluebook on this?"

"About $6400 ."

I nodded, and said thank you. I took one last look at the evil Rabbit and left. My insurance company settled, sent me a check for $6400; I was finally free.

Two months later, Phil and I were still sniping at each other, our relationship still on the rocks. At work one August morning, I got a long-distance phone call.

"Hello, is this Jackie?"

"Yes, who am I speaking with?"

"Jackie, my name is Howard Gibson. I'm a high school shop teacher in Modesto. Did you used to own a 1979 Rabbit - chocolate brown color?"

"Why yes, I..wait a minute. How did you get my name?"

"Well, I bought this wreck in a salvage yard in Fremont. Ya see, I do that so my students can work on cars when the school year starts. I looked this one over, and I found your business card in the glove compartment. Say, the reason I called - what kind of gas mileage did you get with your Rabbit?"

I sat in my chair open-mouthed. My voice came from somewhere and I said to him "Don't go near that car! It's possessed by the devil! It wrecked my relationship and it tried to kill me several times."

The voice on the other end paused, then chuckled. "Well, it looks like it's been in a hefty wreck, but the engine looks great. Now, what would you say your gas mileage was?"

In October, I came home, picked up the mail, and there it was. A letter from Volkswagen of America. It was a recall notice for a problem in the electrical lines in the left front fender area. It was the only part of that entire automobile that had not been crushed, dented, smashed, bent, or scraped.

So, you see why I can't do the recall. I now own a Ford 2-ton truck with big bumpers on the front and back. We get along just fine. Phil and I split; we sold our house, and I used the proceeds to help pay for my truck. I bought it myself and Mom doesn't know about it. Maybe I should send the notice to the shop teacher in Modesto. What do you think?

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