Harrison Scott Key is the author of The World’s Largest Man: A Memoir (Harper) and a contributing editor for Oxford American magazine. His nonfiction and humor have also appeared in The New York Times, Outside, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Best American Travel Writing, Southern Living, Salon, Reader’s Digest, Image, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. He teaches humor, memoir, and other writing courses at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia, where he lives with his wife and three children.
From “The Wishbone”
“It’s you that knows the plays,” he said.
I remembered none of the plays. Pop was always doing this, assuming I knew more than I knew about whatever game it was he’d ordered me to play. Overestimating my talent. Believing his DNA had won the battle with my mother’s and that I was like him in every athletic way, even though history had shown us both otherwise.
When I was five, he put me on a soccer team, believing the angularity and velocity of the sport would at least teach me to run, even though he considered soccer a game for boys with vaginas. I found it disorienting, a marriage of kickball and prison riot. My only physical virtue was this enormous head, bequeathed to me through the miracle of genetics, and so I resorted to hitting people with it. The other parents became worried, but not Pop.
“My boy’s got a powerful head, don’t he?” Pop would say.
Next, he put me on a baseball team with boys three years older than me, hoping I’d rise to the challenge. Mercifully, they put me in right field, a clear signal to all that I was mentally disabled. On the rare occasion when a ball limped my way, I’d hurl it toward the infield and would be as shocked as everyone else to see it flying in the wrong direction, toward the heads of children on other fields. The parents shrieked, sought medical help, but not Pop.
From “Fifty Shades of Greyhound”
There comes a time in every Greyhound journey when the switch is flipped. Gone is the sanguine, tolerant liberal arts major who believes in the beauty of human frailty and the quiet dignity of poverty, replaced by a famished hobgoblin with scoliosis. The transformation is largely a result of the seats. They are not bad seats. They even recline, which is nice, although it’s not really reclining, but more of an opportunity to continue to be uncomfortable while shattering the previously injured shinbones of those in one’s immediate rear.
The problem with the seats is what happens when there’s an empty one next to you. On an airplane, an empty seat is a small miracle, a sacred place to set one’s book. On a bus, though, the empty seat invites lurid napping positions that resemble the attitudes of those who’ve been buried in lava and discovered many years later.
On an airplane, seats are reserved. When a flier approaches, especially when he is ovular in shape, one quietly prays that the Lord has predestined him to sit somewhere else, preferably near a small screaming child, whom the large person may by chance desire to eat. But if he sits next to you, you understand: it is not his fault. Not so on a bus, where seats are unreserved, where one’s only recourse to keeping a seat open, short of detaching a limb and placing it there, is to appear insane.
There in Myrtle Beach, twenty of us had been invited to reboard while newer travelers pressed toward the door to menace the cabin. As they began to board, I looked around. Fifty seats. Twenty of us, sitting alone. That’s forty seats taken, leaving ten. Which is really five. The first five new passengers emerged, claimed these empty pairs of seats, and the cabin grew tense. Every new passenger shot up into the bus and began to search for a victim, someone with whom to mingle bodies and odors. Our open seats were our most valuable currency, and they were about to be taken from us. My only choice, I knew, was to look crazy.
But how does one look crazy? My wife had often told me to not look at her “all crazy like that.” “Like what?” I would say. “With the dead eyes,” she would say.
I made the dead eyes. Also, I set my baseball cap high on my head, so I looked like a farmer with dead eyes. But the eyeglasses, those professorial spectacles! They would undo me, make me look dependable and cogent. And so I turned them upside down, which made me look undependable and German. Then I slouched a little and bared my teeth, as though I had been dead for many days. A small, grandmotherly woman of what looked like Oceanic provenance shuffled toward me, surveying me like a large fruit she wished to purchase.
She moved on.
The bus exhaled, raised up, lurched forward. I held my pose of the German farmer corpse for a good ten minutes, until everyone was settled. A girl in a Haverford sweatshirt eyeballed me over a seat. What was someone like her doing on this bus? Was she taking notes? What was she, some kind of journalism major? Stop taking notes about me! I am not an animal!
From “The Old Man with No Pants”
There is an old man who comes into the coffee shop, and he wears no pants. I see him at least once a week, and more frequently in the summer, when life for the pantless is more accommodating. He is a large man, and must be nearing eighty. His face is leathery and worn out, like the fissured leather of a European sedan purchased many years ago. His skin is purple and red, the color of a maturing bruise. It is hard to tell his race. Many years ago, I like to believe, he was a white man.
And also he is very, very tall. Unlike other old men, his legs are not the color and texture of overhead spackling, and they are not hairless. The legs are as blushing as the rest of him, and covered in red hair. It is not as disgusting as it sounds. He is not a disgusting old man. But he does resemble an aging and emaciated Sasquatch. He wears the same outfit every day: a tall blue baseball cap pulled tight enough to touch the tops of his large square eyeglasses, brown loafers, and an ancient blue T-shirt draped over his aging skeleton, and also: his underwear. This is what I mean when I say he has “no pants.” Because he doesn’t have any on.
He also carries with him a small notebook and a pen, and he comes to the coffee shop, apparently, to write. It is a noble gesture for a man with no pants, and he is making a statement about other people like him and what they should feel free to do. So often, people with no pants are doing unwise things. I have seen people with no pants being arrested, or running down the middle of the street on their way to certain death. I have seen children in their underwear who have nothing better to do in their pants than poop in them.