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PLAYBACK / James Frazee for Elsie Clisbee Every other Sunday after church the first three years of my teens I would go to visit my great-grandmother with my parents who took turns— not worth repeating—convincing me it was my duty, but it wasn't that I didn't love her—I did—it was that she had had a stroke and was living out her last days at a convalescent home. Once inside it, its whiteness could dry the mouth Uke the white blur you see before passing out. High-gloss floors and walls shone white, just as each room's steel door, wide enough to wheel through a hospital bed which made you fear all the more what was behind the door but I feared too the shallow wading pool in the center courtyard whose water, on a sunny day, would throw round lights on all the windows, bright as headlights in a procession of cars behind a hearse. Wind spattered the lights, and curtains would be pulled, or strangely, nurses might hand out sunglasses. When you were fifteen, did you ever see a very old person wearing sunglasses, and if you did, didn't you swallow glass because you thought that's what you will look like before you die? I was that young once, young enough that the tubes and oxygen tanks and beds with gray rubber tires were louder conversation than the coughed words The Missouri Review -217 and empty stares given out to loved ones, young enough to think old men were the worst, creaking down hallways—the straps unfastened on their gowns, their asses gone—wearing black wingtips and inching along with ancient canes begging visitors for a beer or a roast beef sandwich because what they got daily was sucked through a straw. Isn't it a shame that old men who have lost their minds and are reduced to leathery skin and the smell of wet gunnysacks cannot die with dignity but must return to the aleatoric noise of indecipherable syllables, what they haven't uttered since infancy? Women are better, I used to think. In their rooms I would see them reading and imagine they were cut out of stone, or rather, they were alive just sitting there in that stony silence, so still I wouldn't even hear a page turn. But it was this stillness I wanted to break my great-grandmother out of the day I brought in one of the first small reel-to-reel tape-recorders, presuming she'd like to hear her voice played back to her for the first time in her life. I told her how it worked and this made her a little nervous— she wasn't certain she wanted to hear her voice. I must have forced her into it making her think it would please me, the way kids do, making the recording a game in which if she only took part, I would be the happiest boy in the world. 228 · The Missouri Review James Frazee She told a true story about her riding horses in the circus, standing on them as they circled inside the main ring while above, trapeze artists hung by teeth or hair without a net below. But the words slowed down, the sentences trailed off, and she asked me who I was, and I froze, not knowing someone's mind could switch on and off, erase everything before it. I don't think any name would have been the right answer. I looked to my mother and she waved me out and I ran on those white floors, ran without thinking and took the first open door which put me out by the wading pool. Who was I? Who was I? I thought I hated old people— as if she had hurt me—and I promised myself never to see her again. But this promise fell apart as quickly as I had made it, though not for reasons of youth. Drifting near me on the surface of the water, some leaves cast vague shadows on the pool's bottom, shadows I saw not as the way a life blurs out into invisibility, but...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 217-219
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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