September 1, 2001
You think you’re going to visit a bosom friend and instead you meet a 12-point buck like a ghost coming down the porch steps. In the water bucket by the fence you drop your sunglasses and find a lost wedding ring.
All the while there are jets on runways, in hangars and in the air, waiting to be hijacked and destroy a city and a capitol.
That’s my story and yours and I knew or thought I knew a central player in each but in truth I knew nothing. I was waiting like a sick man in a doctor’s office, trying to remember all the missteps that had finally brought me there, as I sat on Donny Williams’ blinding stage and everything began to uncoil in front of a million die-hard fans watching on their TV sets the country-western version of the Johnny Carson Show.
Now through my drunk spider’s tangled web of thoughts I heard Jodie’s voice cut in again, strong and clear, as she finished our epic story for the studio audience and the folks at home:
“So one second I’m a lost hitchhiker in the desert, horny old Slim Frye’s put me out on Nevada 33, and Buck here’s in his beat-up pickup, on his way to town for supplies. After that, we were like two horses hitched to a wagon heading straight toward our lucky star!”
Jodie modestly dipped her head, for a moment silently recalling past woes, acknowledging the struggles would-be artists face trying to climb the shaky ladder of success:
“We had hard times too, but I always felt deep down we would make it, like we’d swim out just in time, from that underground river at Buck’s ranch . . . .”
I’d lived our romance again—the chance meeting, sudden lust, drunken fights, break-ups and bandaged reunions and ultimatums, thrown gold rings—half listening to Jodie’s elaborate version of our fated love and grand destiny that started on the desert highway outside Waverly and led like a lightning bolt to the leader of the Free World and his adoring wife.
“And make it you did, in the biggest way!” Donny Williams agreed, his sprayed hair swaying in a white Tower of Pisa. “You’re the friends of that lovely couple who live at the White House!”
I winced at the clapping roar and squinted at the spotlight dancing across my dark glasses and turned to lift the coffee cup of Jack Daniels. It might as well have been my name, since I’d separated from my old friend Travis Jackson.
“Do you still keep that black rock on your mantel, for luck?”
“I sure do, Donny. On a crystal holder. I kiss it every morning.”
The perfect smooth ball of obsidian came from Deer Canyon beyond the underground river, where the geodes, the dinosaur eggs, lay strewn for half a mile. Jodie had shown the volcanic glass to the President and First Lady and their daughters and they’d all touched it for good fortune, when we’d stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom and I’d dreamed of riding Captain, Travis’ fine pinto stallion.
The delayed applause exploded like a gunshot, crashing in rebounding concussions above the heads of the crowd, from the back wall to the curtain behind us and out again like the exhaling and inhaling of two huge leather lungs. It was suddenly hard to breathe and again I saw and heard Marlene Black’s weirdly just-delivered news—Johnny Black had been killed with a flintlock by Eddie Rat, trying to get the rapper to sign a record deal in Arizona—
“You killed us!” Marlene screamed, raising the white cake from the square pink box and letting it fly at Jodie as she sat in the make-up chair five minutes before we went on.
“Travis Jackson Lives!” our fans screamed on cue, chanting the battle cry from the bumper stickers pasted to several million pickups and cars. I felt the sound waves vibrating through my body and started to move, thinking I sat too close to an amplifier.
“What about it, Buck?” Donny said as the noise ebbed, flickered, then dissolved and my stomach settled down. The signs had quit waving, “Nashville Forever!” and “We Love Travis Jackson!” Again Donny sat behind his desk in his sky-blue suit with rhinestone wagon wheels, the big ring on his finger catching the spot so I blinked.
“When you hear your life story, does it ever sound a little unreal, like a fairy tale, almost too good to be true?”
“Sort of,” I said.
“I read an interview with Jodie where she said she got the name ‘Travis Jackson’ off an invoice, some bill for a shipment of cows. Don’t tell me you knew it’d be No. 1 and the President’s personal favorite? How does it go, fans? ‘Travis Jackson was a friend of mine, Cowboy heart born out of time’?”
“No, that’s wrong, Donny,” Jodie said quickly, before the crowd could join Donny in America’s anthem to a gone-but-not-forgotten West that would surely rise again, that somehow had turned into a hymn to our first Cowboy President. “I made that name up—”
“Ah!” came sadly from the disappointed audience.
“Didn’t I, Buck?” Jodie stared at me.
“I bought a lot of stock from Travis,” I said, turning to Donny. “When I was a cattle broker. He was a buddy of mine, best sidekick I ever had.” Johnny was dead and I had a right to mention my only other surviving friend. I leaned toward Donny’s eager waiting face. “Let me tell you a story about Travis, one I told the new President.”
“One time Travis Jackson was up in the hills on Captain and he saw something twinkling and shining, moving through the rock—”
“Buck! You stop now!”
“It moved like a snake but it glinted like metal. He rode Cap close, careful, until he could see. Sure enough, it was a big, fat rattler shaped like a figure eight, like it had swallowed an hourglass. There were two big humps on either side of a gold ring. A wedding band. See, the baby snake had crawled through it, then got stuck as it grew. Travis told me the other week.”
“That’s a wild one, Buck!” Donny raised both hands, signaling a touchdown and everyone agreed, shouting with our host as he led the raucous cheer:
“Travis Jackson Lives!”
“Oh, that’s just a made-up thing,” Jodie said when the hooting faded. She shot me a warning look.
“It’s true. Read the letter.”
“Buck Cole, stop pretending. All your Travis Jackson stories are tall tales!”
“You don’t think the President knows the truth when he hears it?” I started to stand up. “He’s the Leader of the Free World!”
“Hey, this is beginning to sound like Congress—” Donny grinned with his caps. “We need equal time.”
The people watching us howled and cheered but it made me angry. Even if they didn’t know it, they were laughing at me. And at Travis too.
“How about letting these two cool down? When we come back we want to hear about the Coles’ new album, ‘Lightning Strikes.’ Let’s take a break now before it does! Let’s hear the thunder!”
The ovation came hard and long, before a demo of the new song began through the house speakers:
Jodie leaned toward me and ran a finger across her neck, signaling a cut. I got up abruptly, tripped over the fancy throw rug, and fell face down into a dazzle of flashbulbs. I lay in the crossfire, listing to the clicking and excitement—someone exclaimed he’d get 60 grand from The Star—before a stage hand helped me to my feet and I limped off with a stiff knee.
Jodie had the limousine stop at a hotel downtown.
“Get some sleep, Buck.” She stood at the curb. “You need it.”
“Yeah. Right. Drive me west. I got a friend who’s got a ranch.”
“Take him home,” Jodie said to the driver, then looked at me with a tragic face. “I hope you’re happy, shaming the President and First Lady, after what they’ve done for us. I can see the headlines.”
“Mad Cowboy Ruins Country?”
“That’s really perfect, Buck, a truly great achievement. You trying to get him kicked out of office, before he even has a chance to straighten things out? What about their kids? How can they hold the line with the girls, with a friend like you lying drunk in all the papers?”
“At least widows in black don’t attack me with cakes,” I started to say. “Accuse me of murder—”
“Drive for a while,” I told the driver. “I don’t care where.” His name was Jeff Edson and he took me around for an hour or so, back and forth across the downtown, past the Opry where he said the New Texas Playboys were performing and Kitty Wells was receiving an award, and then back to the house. He asked if I needed help getting in.
“No,” I said, “I need help getting home.”
“You’re home now, Mr. Cole.”
It crossed my mind to ask him if he had a place I could sleep. I envied Travis his loft in the barn. By chance, Travis and his wife were having trouble too.
Then I remembered that Johnny Black was dead, Marlene had said so when she broke into the make-up room and threw the wedding cake.
That night in the guesthouse I didn’t dream of Johnny and Marlene but of Travis and Captain. They were galloping cross-country to my rescue. Jodie and the Bushes held me prisoner, tied to a chair, in the tool shed of the Crawford ranch. My hands were connected to a box with wires.
“What’s your name?” Jodie asked again.
“Tell her, Buck,” the First Lady said softly and lifted a cigarette, then turned and told her family to quit drinking.
“Travis Jackson!” I said and Jodie screamed that I was a liar, that they needed more juice.
The next afternoon, with a pounding head, I drove over to Sunnybrook Stables.
“You going to ride, Mr. Cole?” Holly Hames, the manager, came striding across the paddock in English riding boots. He looked concerned.
“No, I just wanted to see Chip.” I took a step and reached down and touched my leg.
“Antonio!” Holly called over his shoulder. “Get Chip for Mr. Cole!”
“That’s okay. I’ll go into the stable. I can make it.”
“Tony rides him every day,” Holly said at my shoulder as I limped through the door and started down the long aisle. “Just like you said.”
Antonio came running up in boots and padded riding pants and swung open the upper door of the box stall. “You want I saddle him, Mr. Cole?”
“No thanks,” I said. “I just wanted to see him.” I lifted a hand and the black thoroughbred snorted and stepped back. He didn’t know me or my smell. Maybe he couldn’t scent me over the alcohol. I’d only ridden him the day I bought him and one other time. We weren’t like Travis and Cap.
“He’s just frisky,” Holly said. “Isn’t that right, Antonio?”
“Si, seņor,” Tony said, reaching high for the halter. “A little nervous.”
“Aren’t we all?” Antonio held the halter and I stroked the horse’s nose and he quieted down. His big black eye rolled. “You don’t know me, do you, Chip?”
Holly handed me a carrot and I held it up to the horse’s mouth, watched him take it and chew.
“He’s a good horse, is he, Tony?”
“Muy bueno. Racehorse. Wants to run.”
Hi-O Silver! I was tempted to climb on and ride away like the Lone Ranger with his mask, surprise Travis as I galloped into the barnyard and the black stallion whinnied and reared a welcome.
“I bet he does.” I thanked Tony and gave him a hundred bucks. Holly walked me down the line of stalls to the car. The stable was like a musicians’ hall of fame.
“You should come more often, Mr. Cole. See some of your friends.”
I didn’t have any, only Travis.
“Why don’t you call me ‘Buck’? I think we’ve probably been introduced.” The front page of the morning paper had me sprawled across Donny Williams’ stage with open mouth and one closed eye.
“It’s easy to throw a shoe, huh Buck? What would Travis Jackson say?”
We shook hands and I headed up into the hills, past the big estates and horse ranches and through the wooded, shaded draws, all of it pretty but not the same as Travis’ spread in Wonder Valley. I wandered a long ways, back down a hollow that followed a tree-lined creek. I passed through two or three little towns, the storefronts peeling and the windows old wavy glass, the roofs red rusted tin.
I stopped and ate a delicious spicy barbecued pork sandwich at a diner with an autographed picture of B. B. King on the wall. I had a second cold beer as an attractive woman in white slacks played Jackie Wilson’s greatest hits on the jukebox. “Doggin’ Around.” “A Woman, A Lover, A Friend.” “Lonely Teardrops.” “Alone At Last.” Three times we exchanged glances. Her pretty shoulders swayed to the music. The fourth time we smiled widely at each other.
“Higher and Higher” came on with that unreal mixture of gospel and grand opera. I wanted to ask her if she wanted another beer, if she danced. Then I felt a stab of shame about taking advantage of a civilian. I got up and politely said goodnight and drove home slowly through the late August dusk.
Travis didn’t call and I was afraid to call him with his marriage up in the air. A day later Jodie came in just before dark.
We had a bland silent dinner Jodie cooked. The food was white and dry, mashed potatoes and ruined pork chops and canned applesauce. Neither of us looked up as we ate. She finished first, cleared her plate, and went to bed. The next morning I lay on a chaise lounge drinking greyhounds as she swam laps in the pool. She got out, dried off, pulled off her rubber cap and walked past me without turning her head.
“I suppose the White House is in turmoil, on red alert,” I started to say, then bit my tongue as she whipped me with the silent treatment. I’d noticed in the paper the cake incident with Marlene Black was written up; some informant had made a nice sale. The story was next to Johnny’s obituary framed in black, that mentioned the members of his old band but mainly Jodie and me, how we’d got our start with Johnny at the Broken Bit in Nevada.
I slept in the guest residence that night too. The robot pool cleaner bumped and splashed and kept me awake and finally I decided to get hold of Travis.
The phone rang at least 30 times. I wondered if his wife wouldn’t answer or had taken off, or if Travis was still batching it in the barn. Maybe he’d decided to go on a well-deserved bender to celebrate his freedom.
I got to sleep at four and at seven the Coles made the lonely morning ride to the studio. Jodie didn’t play the radio or one of our tapes, didn’t comment on what such and such band or singer had just done, what back-up musician had a sweet sound and how we should think about getting him or her.
I knew that Laura must have called but Jodie didn’t mention the First Lady or her husband or what funny thing the vice president had said. She didn’t breathe a word about Johnny and Eddie Rat or Marlene and the cake. As we pulled into the parking lot, Jodie finally spoke and right away we agreed we were both tired out, that wrapping up the CD would be a relief. We both looked straight ahead through the windshield.
“It’s partly my fault.”
“You didn’t know Johnny would run into the crazy kid.”
“I mean us. I own half the blame.”
“No, it’s all mine.”
“It’s a good album,” Jodie said. “Despite the aggravation.”
“I think so,” I said. “The music’s good, if we’re not.”
“We’re all right.” She reached over and touched my shoulder. “As long as that’s strong, we’re okay. Right, Buck?”
She looked me in the eye, for the first time in three days.
“Sure we are!” Her voice had perked up. She was happy again, ready to get to work. “You coming?”
Unbelievably, the first hour everything went like a charm, everybody was on cue, tuned and timed yet loose and alive, almost as good as the old Johnny Black Band. Walt Perkins with the sticks, Greg Stills and Larry Lawson on guitar, Al Schwartz handling pedal. The Wheeler Sisters sounded like songbirds.
There was just one problem. I hated to point it out but I couldn’t let it go. It was like a pebble in my boot. Any way I stood I felt it. I had Jerry the engineer play back the tape. Then again. Then once more. I cocked my ear as everyone watched me, like I was the head chef tasting the soup.
“What’s wrong, Buck?” Jodie said when the song finished again. “It sounds great.”
Something wasn’t right with “Lightning” and I told Jodie I wanted to hear it with less treble. Something rang false and brassy and spoiled the nuance of it, the way the lyrics unfolded and played off themselves line-by-line, stanza-to-stanza.When lightning strikes
And your heart starts to burn
Then your world catches fire
And there’s nowhere to turn,
There’s no one to call
And no place to run—
There was a plot, a theme that developed while it half-circled back. It was hard to explain. It was the best song I’d ever written, in its way as good as “Travis Jackson,” which I’d first called “Eldon Carter” before Jodie changed the title. “Lightning Strikes” was different and new and we’d blown it. Even if we’d only missed by a hair it was as good as a mile, as Travis might have said. It’d be a shame to let it go out the way it was.
“There’s nothing wrong with the mix—it’s clean.”
“We’ve got to do it again.”
“Again! We’ve done it ten times this week.”
“It’s not right. The last cut—”
“Screw the last cut!” Jodie exploded. “The mix is great— The back-up is lousy and you’re not hearing it.”
“I hear every note. I wrote every note—”
“You or Travis Jackson! I wished I’d married a normal alcoholic. I could understand rats and snakes, pink elephants, even crashing cars through garages when you made a bad speech.”
The president had been a better drunk than I was.
“Are you saying I don’t know my job?”
“I’m saying it’s time to grow up—”
“You made plenty of money off Travis Jackson.” I felt hot anger flower bright red in my chest.
“Don’t patronize me, Buck!”
We were six feet apart. I’d walked over to the booth, watching the control panel through the window each time Jerry played it back. Jodie looked over at the Wheeler Sisters, then just as I glanced back to Jerry she picked up a glass vase of yellow roses off the back counter.
I ducked as it grazed my ear and shattered the plate glass.
“Heck!” Jerry held up a red hand. The panel, switches and tapes were a mess of blood and shards, spilled water and rose petals. Jerry’s face was uncut. The flying pieces could have put out his eye or pierced his throat. I saw glass splinters on his shoulders.
“Jerry—” I moved through the door, telling him to sit still as I brushed off his shirt. Jodie burst into tears and pushed me aside. Jerry was folding a soaked handkerchief around one palm. He was stunned, working automatically, like he was wrapping a Christmas gift.
“Can you move your fingers?” Jodie said.
Jerry nodded, staring at his bandaged hand.
“Oh Jerry, I’m sorry! I just—” Jodie was leaning over him, trying to grab his wrist.
“Never mind— Forget it. It’s just a surface cut.” He began flicking switches. “I’ll clean this up. Why don’t you get something to eat?”
“It was Buck.” It was Jodie’s version of an apology. “He gets me so damn angry.”
“Murphy’s’ll come out. I’ve used them before. One time Rollie Webb swung a Stratocaster.”
“You better get to a doctor,” I said. Jerry was acting like a robot with a short. “Have Walt take you down. I’ll pay.”
Jerry didn’t look up as he kept checking meters and twirling knobs. I turned toward the door.
“May I ask where you’re going?” Jodie crossed her arms and pounded her yellow boot.
“To see Travis Jackson,” I almost said. “If he’s still alive.”
“I’m going out for a while.” It was the last straw, Jodie blaming me for throwing the vase. And Jerry just sitting there at his post without a whimper, his station covered with glass, the loyal trooper. He irritated me, the way he kissed up to Jodie. Anybody else would’ve slapped her or sued her or run her in for assault. She could’ve killed him.
But then Jodie could’ve killed or blinded me—she’d tried to.
“You mean you’re going to go out and get drunk, just to spite me?”
“I’m going to get drunk to spite myself.”
I knew Jodie’s fury would fall for the lie, not that I didn’t want 50 drinks. The same scene without the gore had happened plenty of times. My usual announcement that I was running to a bar would give me cover for my escape I’d been thinking of nearly non-stop. One of us was sure to murder the other. Blood has been spilled. I could make Wonder Valley by Wednesday morning if I started right away.
The phone rang before I could take the first step and Jodie jumped toward me, gripping my wrist. “Jesus.”
Jerry picked it up with his good hand.
“Buck, it’s for you.”
“Who the hell is it?” I wanted out for good.
“Give me that, Jerry. It might be the President. We need him.”
“It sounds a little like Red Stampley.”
“Don’t talk to him, Buck,” Jodie said quickly. She still had my arm. “That’s water under the bridge.”
I reached past Jodie and took the phone from Jerry. Johnny Black was gone and I figured Red would be upset—he was already fragile. The last time I’d seen Johnny he’d said Red had gone into the hospital, for mental problems, after Jodie let Johnny and Red and the rest of the band go and they couldn’t find work. Evidently Red had taken to assuming different personalities, famous generals and film stars.
Right away I knew who it was. All the tension flew away in a flash. We started in right where we’d left off two weeks ago, when he’d called at the bar downtown, about the rattlesnake stuck in the wedding ring. I’d given him the studio number.
“Where are you now?”
I was hoping we could get together right away, though I knew he must be at the ranch. I couldn’t ask if his wife was still living in the house, or tell him in front of Jodie that I was on my way to bunk there for a while. I knew he’d say, “Come on, Buck!”
“Who is it?” Jodie said.
“Sure, partner,” I said. “I miss you too.”
“Buck! What does Red want?”
“It’s not Red.” Through the broken window I could see the Wheeler Sisters standing together, looking on. I smiled at them, from one to the other as I listened to my new old friend. They all were smiling back, as if they heard him too. Everyone loved him. The whole country did, from the song. Jodie and Laura were the only ones who thought he wasn’t real.
“No ponies for him, no sir. He doesn’t care, he says laugh all you want. No quarter horse for Tex, thank you. He rides a two-ton steer, Spanish saddle with buckets and silver bridle and all. See, he sneaks up among ’em, the heifers don’t spook. More fish with flies than silver hooks, huh Buck?”
“Who’s on the phone?” Jodie insisted.
“Travis,” I said, before I could take it back. I was too happy and things had been too sad. We’d been apart too long. I loved the friendly familiar sound of his voice.
“Give me that!” Jodie snatched the phone. “Whoever you are, your joke is up! You hear me! I’ll call the FBI! I’ll get the President after you!”
“Don’t do that!” I reached for the receiver but Jodie slammed it down.
“No, this game’s gone far enough—” Jodie grabbed the phone again and threw it to the floor so it flew apart. “I mean it!”
I stepped from the booth, heading for the main door.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Jodie ran to cut me off.
“Get out of my way,” I said. Tracy Wheeler was picking up a bloody rose from the glass on the carpet. Jodie swiveled with clenched fists and screamed that Tracy and her sisters were fired.
“No,” I said, “they’re not.”
“Yes, they are!”
“Look,” I said, “if they go, I go.”
“Fine by me! You think I’m paying them to service my husband!” She whipped around, red hair flying as her eyes scanned the room, the guitar players, pedal steel and the drummer, then locked on the ruined recording booth.
“Jerry can take your place!”
Jerry’s stricken face looked out through the empty window frame. Nobody moved. The Wheelers had gathered together for protection against Jodie’s latest onslaught. She’d accused them of sleeping with her husband, then fired them and Buck Cole and chosen a new partner.
“Hell, maybe W can sing. Why don’t you call him?” My sympathy and concern for Jodie’s innocent victims began to slide away like smaller stones in a landslide that was taking half the mountain as it raced downslope to the valley floor of broken rock.
If I didn’t get out the rockslide would take me. I felt a spasm in my throat as I remembered the avalanche had already taken Johnny Black and his wife Marlene.
And poor Red Stampley, the gifted pedal steel player and mimic.
Now Red answered to “Roy Rogers” and “General Patton” among a dozen other names.
“George is going to be furious when I tell him you’re drinking again! All the days he’s wasted his precious time praying with you over the phone!”
As I stepped past the Wheelers into the long hall of studios and offices, I told myself I’d see Travis the day after tomorrow, after three sodden years, if I started now and drove straight through to Waverly.
“He’s keeping the world together while you talk crap to some nut!”
Travis would have me dried out in a week, riding Cap and swimming and fishing the pure river, helping with the cows and collecting geodes and arrowheads from Deer Canyon.
“It’s a wonder you haven’t started him back on the booze!”
We’d eat lean venison steaks from the freezer with fresh homegrown white corn and beefsteak tomatoes, crisp cress salads from the creek. I planned to sleep deeply at night, go to bed early and rise with the sun. I saw Dolly Parton standing in an open doorway and waved goodbye as she smiled and blew me a kiss. I swung right at the lobby, nodding to Pat at the security desk, and strode briskly out the wide double doors.
“You drunken fool! You want to throw it all away!”
Jodie’s voice echoed across the mown blue lawn and past the tall shooting fountain where everything seemed rosy, suffused with warm and gentle light. Her angry cries might have belonged to a shrill bird fighting over crumbs with a blue jay. Jodie’s threats and warnings weren’t made of human words anymore or directed at me.
I felt strong and alive and had no idea that soon I’d bend to take a drink and lose my sunglasses in a 30-gallon barrel under the empty corral’s dripping faucet, across the barnyard from the 12-point buck watching from Travis’ bedroom window.
I searched the murky water with my arm wet to the shoulder, sure I’d lost Travis for good, before I touched a fat washer and brought it up to see.
“You stop and turn back now, Buck. I’m warning you! It’s your last chance!”
I couldn’t keep my feet and fell to the ground, breathing hard and sobbing. On all fours I clutched the awful thing and crawled toward the porch where the big buck came leaping down the steps, a ghost with white flour across its head and neck.
Jodie and Travis Jackson, Forever! 1998.
Through hot tears I read the names and date again inside the gold band as the earth rocked sharply, lifted suddenly and tilted, everything sliding like food off a plate, landing on its other face.
Three years ago in the barnyard Jodie had thrown the ring at me, when I said I didn’t want to leave the ranch, before she’d changed our names and we’d gone out on the road, with Johnny and his band to sing “Travis Jackson.”
“You want to wreck the whole country!”
I didn’t know that the voice Red Stampley used was my own. Jerry was right, when he said the guy on the phone sounded like Red. And Jodie was right, when she’d yelled it was my last chance. It was, but in a way Jodie and I didn’t understand.
“You hear me, Buck!”
She shouted at my back as I stepped through the balmy late-summer air of the new 21st Century, into the bright morning that seemed sunnier than before. I remembered it was the first of September, a good day to begin a new life.
I stopped short, 10 feet from the car, as if I’d been shot from behind like Johnny Black, pointblank with a muzzleloader by the punk rapper Eddie Rat.
Travis Jackson was a friend of mine—
My eyes clenched and I made a heartfelt silent prayer, without a clue who Buck Cole or the President really was or would become or what strange violent thing might happen next.
I thanked God for my friend Travis Jackson, and that so far our precious country was still at peace.
Then I heard Jodie’s running boots on the asphalt and without looking back I walked on toward the waiting white Caddie I’d filled with gas the day before.
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