The Incredible Shrinking Glossary of the Demented
by Kayla Chenault
The Incredible Shrinking Glossary of the Demented
In the path of the muddled inksplotches, in the land of milk and honey, in the shadow of that flowing river of food, in that mirror darkly lens-capped, in the corkscrew spiral of reading left to right and downwards, in that place where language is but the vapor of incense suggesting God but “not precious or sacred or a vessel,” in the wrinkled corners of gray matter, in that place near your frontal lobe where the Top-Forty hit list from 1992 plays on repeat: And I will always love you, there I sucker-punch myself with words my great-grandmother forgot as she succumbs to dementia.
The word Kayla was barely in her mind before it was erased, left in barely focused remnants of impermanent ink, and with it went yesterday’s lunch of dry turkey and canned corn with a side of misunderstanding. My grandmother, her daughter, tried to force feed words down her throat like she was on hunger strike. “No, that’s Kayla. KAY-LA.” My great-grandmother would ruminate on the word for a few minutes and then spit it in my grandmother’s face. Watching your mother shrink must fill the breast with fear. My grandmother’s high yellow hands push the words back into her mother’s mouth. It must not taste too bad, I think as she ruminates over the dry poultry and my name, “KAY-LA.” All I had known of her was her slight frame, her pack of camels, her muumuus, and her laugh which twanged. She was already gummy and hollow-eyed when I was born, now a teenager, she seemed to lose more teeth and sink deep into her eye sockets.
Words like Ann Arbor went away first. On the bus from Chicago, the gray-rimmed freeway buckled beneath the weight of her confusion, the wheels turned ever more, still headed back east to a place that seemed familiar but wasn’t at all like home, because it was her daughter’s home she was headed to and not her own, so she got off the bus somewhere. She somehow managed to call her granddaughter, my mother, Cheryl. She wasn’t far. My mom drove to get her. This was the first hint that the words were escaping.
In the pocket of her muumuu, a depression formed that smelled like fresh nicotine but also did not exist. This is where she would have kept her cigarettes. She never talked about her first husband, his kind eyes and his arm tracks. She traced his veins with her fingers. They met and married before the war, even, before he went to Europe, before he was shot, before morphine and heroin. When they were the Browns. Those days when a junkie was a negro criminal and not a man in need of treatment. She let him stay until she couldn’t take him anymore. She wandered into the arms of a younger man, clean with a fortune from the family salon franchise. She wandered into his bed and tossed off her married name. Mr. Brown wandered into the streets. She still visited with him; He O.Ded. Then I wondered if she even remembered him in the shuffle of forgotten names.
The word “Cheryl” went next along with quitting cold-turkey and her roommate’s name went every day with it. Cheryl, her granddaughter with hair down her back until Auntie took some scissors to it, and it never grew back quite right, Marion could smell the smoke that came from the hot comb running through that tangled hair, or smoke coming end of a long drag on some Camels, or smoke coming from the bulldozer rolling over the old house on DuBois, or smoke from the hills of the Vietnamese jungle on the TV, because the news comes on before sports. She reached for her cigarettes to find them not there and asked, “Who took my cigarettes?” My mother, her granddaughter shrugs, “No one. You quit.” “I did?” She didn’t, but the nursing home confiscated the Camels. My mom saw no shame in that, because Marion did quit in a way. Smoke equals smoke and the world equals the world and we are built upon the things we are and the things we are not.
What that young man was is a father of all of Marion’s children, and his wife’s children as well, and a cheater, and a pushover, and my grandmother’s bitter words settle in the back of molars and become my own. The promises of money and rings snatched by a near mother-in-law, Marion retreated into the duplex on DuBois, making Tex-Mex and brains and eggs, until the street was evicted to make way for the new plant. It was Detroit after all. It was the 70s after all. That factory is now abandoned. “What a waste!” my grandmother said. Marion had stopped seeing that young man but never spoke ill of him. She had no capacity for it. She married someone who could take care of her, who my mom called “Pops.” He was better than the grandfather she only met once. Better than GM excavating a neighborhood and erasing the traces of it. Better than Detroit relocating a street of Poles, Haitian Creoles, Blacks, Italians, and Mexicans and telling them to segregate themselves. Pops was better than forgetting all of this ever happened.
The word “Gwendolyn” went away too. And all the bitterest of mercies along with her. This is my grandmother, her own daughter. What’s a daughter to mother who does not know she has a daughter? An orphan. You can only choke down so many words in a day, before it all ends in a cataclysmic implosion of dark matter where gray matter once was. The gut-wrenching feeling of being forgotten while your other sister is remembered fondly, though she’s been dead about five years. Her name etched but your name sandblasted away. And every nurse who is about 5’5 with big hips is renamed your sister’s name, while you pay for the medical bills and visit twice a week. What would you do to keep yourself sane? Try to force feed your mother your words and conclude that her glossary is frail and broken?
It was years after she was gone that I dared to ask what happened, what hurricane had blown through Marion’s life while meditated in the eye, forcing peace down her own throat and swallowing all traces of her animosity. I wondered if she could trace any of those words back to their roots, if she could hear my grandmother say she was Gwendolyn and remember her first-born, or if she could remember that the etymology of DuBois was a street near Hamtramck where she shared a house with her kids and another family and the corner store had giant pickles. I wondered if she recalled that her etymology was a tomboy from Texas, a junkie’s wife, and a coward’s lover. Could she find the roots of her world in a glossary, even as it shrank? Because it scares me now that I know more of her story after her death than she did when she died.
The last words stayed until her final breath at 94. The last words are the first memories. Basketball—where she was the only girl who got to play and beat the boys. God—who she still prayed to daily. The Aggies—who she rooted for because her grandfather was the first black president at the school. The black widow spider—watching her father die in front of her in the dust of the Texas scrubland. Perlene—her bossy older sister. The war—a dark opioid madness of aimless shuffling leaning against a life that could have been happier. There were songs she hummed that made up for the rest of the words she lost. Songs without words, at first, and later without melody. In the empty spaces where rubber erasers took away the rest, in the short unknown struggles to begin again every morning, in the breakdown of unfamiliar phonemes—the last word she held to her breasts was her own, “Marion.”
Kayla Chenault has a Master's in Creative Writing from Eastern Michigan University, is a practitioner of black girl magic, and a former line editor and contributing writer for Cecile's Writers. Her previous work can be found on The Blue Pages Journal. You can find her personal writing and photography at museumofstardustmelodies.com.