Mom Joke

by Harrison Key


 Photo:  Chia Chong

Photo: Chia Chong

 

About 18 months before I got famous

When I was 38 years old, I earned a magnificently fat book deal. Everything we had worked for, the decade of writing at a time of day when the world slept, the workdays when the world pried the dream out of my calloused hands, the abyssal nights of staring through the ceiling to the upside-down chasm of the great endless darkness of the universe, the rolling out of bed to grope around in the dark to remember the dream I'd forgot, all that was finished. Somebody was going to pay my family a lot of money for a silly book about my family.

I broke the news to my parents: We were all going to be famous.

"So this book is about us?" Mom asked.

"Yes."

"Who's the star of this book?" she asked. "Me?"

"Sharks," I said. "It's about sharks."

"And me?"

"You and sharks."

"Are you going to reveal all our family secrets?" she said.

"I'm going to tell everyone that you have no eyebrows."

This very silly book had some moments of tenderness and profundity, I hoped, but mostly I wanted it to be funny. I wasn't trying to write one of those memoirs where people write about their sad childhoods through the lens of sad adulthoods. I wanted to write a joyful and hopeful and funny book that got people thrown off airplanes and out of libraries, for laughing. I wanted people to compel their annoyed spouses to listen to them read passages aloud. I wanted people to laugh so hard they cried.

My father — Lanny Laroy Key, age 71 — could hardly believe it, when I told him how much they were paying me for the silly book about our family. And then, not long after, while carrying a sack of groceries down a sidewalk, he died.

***

I cried for three months. I looked at my book contract and saw how much money they were paying me and cried even more, and then I cried even more when I remembered that the book wasn't even finished, yet. How, exactly, does one finish a funny book, when sandbagged with mourning?

"Don't worry about the book," everybody said.

But I worried. At the funeral, I worried. At the cemetery, I worried. Staring blankly into the dark from my porch, I worried, because as silly as it was, this book was a declaration of love and meaning to and about everything that was important to me, my father, mother, wife, children. It's not like I'd been writing a science fantasy thriller, with elf droids and topless witches. I was living inside this very real human comedy, and the story had now jumped the rails and was heading to Sadville with a full head of melancholy steam.

It was June 2014, and the book was due at summer's end. I had three months to learn to be funny again, or give it all up: the money, the contract, the dream. Most mornings, the children toddled in and found me weeping at my writing table. This was real weeping, funereal weeping. I was mourning something deep inside that had been hiding there for a long, long time.

"What's wrong, Daddy?" they said.

"Nothing," I said. "I'm just writing."

"Why are you crying?"

"It's just a very funny book."

The weird news about my grief is that it was now, or would soon be, absolutely public. This is what happens when the book you're writing is about the man you're now grieving, and everybody wanted to know about this book.

"Tell us!" they said.

"Wow!" they said.

"You're going to be famous!" they said.

"So, when's the book coming out?" they asked.

"When will the book be finished?" they asked.

"When's this thing going to be a bestseller?" they asked.

They were happy for my family, obviously, but then I remembered that the book was about a dead man whom I'd long wanted to die, for reasons I was writing about in the book, and whom I now wished was alive. How do you smile, when all this is happening inside you?

"Aren't you excited?" people said.

"About?"

"Your book!" they say. "You must be very excited!"

Is a mother excited the baby's going to come out? Yes, yes, of course, so she can take a bath in a vat of gin. What will she say in the days before the baby comes out of her uterus? She will not say: I am so excited. She will say: God, get the thing outside of me, please, Jesus.


1987, probably

As I wrote, I thought a lot about how I'd ended up here in this strange dreamworld where I was paid money to write funny about things that were really, really sad: racism, death, violence, misogyny, abuse. As a boy, like so many others, I had believed I would become a doctor or lawyer, something modestly prestigious. Those options were announced to me early and often.

"A rich man ain't got to work with his hands," Pop would say, at the dinner table so long ago, tapping his enormous skull with an enormous middle finger. "A rich man works with his noodle."

I would look to Mom.

"You have a good noodle, son," she said, reassuringly, touching my hand.

"What you should do is be a lawyer, see," said Pop. He spoke about lawyers with a peeved and reverent awe. They were always trying to take our house, he said. "Even shit-ass lawyers make money," he said, "and most is shit-ass."

"Lanny, language," Mom said, then turning to me. "It's true."

"Every lawyer I know got two houses," Pop said. "A beach house or some foolishness."

"A beach house does sound nice," Mom said.

"Ole Miss, they got a good law school," Pop said. "That's what ye ought to do."

I was still in junior high, but this lawyer talk had already begun.

"I don't care what you do," Mom said, "so long as you're a medical doctor."

Something was always swelling on Mom, nodules and such. She needed somebody to show her moles to. She went on about her thyroid like it was waiting in the woods across the road with a knife and a gun.

"You'll have to take care of me, one day," she said.

I tried to find a profession that would help protect my mother from her moles, but that's not what happened.


Thanksgiving 1998

"I'm going to be a playwright," I announced to my parents, when I was 23. Pop stared at his turkey leg and attempted to digest this new information. His boy, pride of the family, son of a son of a son, with a good noodle, the one who could have already been two years deep into the study of law, this boy, his boy, was going to become some simpering little animal, sightless and cave-dwelling, hunched over a desk. A playwright?

"Like Shakespeare," I said.

"Shakespeare?" he said, looking up.

"Shakespeare's dead," Mom said, clarifying.

"Hell, I know that," Pop said.

"I'm paying for it," I announced, proudly. "Loans, scholarships. I'll work it out."

"Good," he said.

"I want to write comedy," I said.

"You mean like Jerry Clower?" Pop said.

"Not really," I said. "Sort of. But no."

"Well, I think it's great!" Mom said.

"Long as I ain't got to pay," said my father.

"I think it's great!" Mom said again, in case we hadn't heard her.

"A playwright!" my older brother Bird said, coming up for air from the mountain of casserole. "And he ain't even queer!"

"Thank you," I said.

"He's not gay," Mom said. "You're not gay."

"Hell no, he's not gay. Look at him."

Everyone looked at me, searching for the marks of non-gayness which they reasoned must be visible on my person.

I made another announcement, too: I would no longer use my middle name, Scott, which I had always used, because my father preferred it, because Harrison simply had too many syllables, which to him made it sound foreign. Hank, Luke, Jack, Scott, these names are brusque and artless, like a good American boy. But the good American boy was dead, and the Great American Writer was ready to be born.

"But why?" Pop said. "I don't get it."

I explained: I would be using my full name, Harrison Scott Key, because a young creative professional with no talent needs a way to distinguish himself from other young talentless people.

Mom supported this decision.

"How fun, Scott!" she said.

"Harrison," I said. "It's a good writer name."

"You will be successful at anything you do, Scott!"

"Harrison."

"Oh, Scott, we're so proud!" she said.

***

16 ridiculous years after that announcement

It took me far too long to learn to write anything that made strangers laugh, and just when I had learned to do it, my father died, and I had to learn all over again. I had once believed that funny things were funny, and sad, sad. But I'd learned that in addition to funny things being funny, funny things are also sad, and sad can be funny, too, even if it happens to you, even if people say you shouldn't laugh, because that's exactly when you should.

Somehow, I finished the silly (now also sad) book. I met the deadline, and collapsed into a case of beer, and hoped the world would laugh, and possibly also cry, should the mood strike them, as it had me, often, in the writing.

"When can I read it?" Mom asked.

"Later," I said.

"When?"

"Later."

I wasn't ready. She wasn't ready.

"What's it called again?" she asked.

"The World's Largest Man," I said.

"I thought it was about me."

"It is."

"I'm not a man."

"You have a mustache."

"You're so mean to me."

"You make fun of me all the time, Mom."

"No I don't. Except for your teeth. You've always had bad teeth. And your nose."

"You gave me this nose."

"We got some Jew in us, I bet," she said. "Daddy always said we did."

"Please don't say things like that, after we get famous."

"Remind me your book's name, again?" Mom said.

"What have you been telling people?"

"The World's Biggest Man," she said.

"Largest."

"World's Tallest Man."

"Largest."

"Don't treat me like I'm an idiot," she said.

"Do you have dementia?" I asked.

"No."

People who want to write about their families think their families will care, will be obsessed with the book to the point of madness, but no. False. It might take your mother several months to remember the title because she has recently suffered a traumatic brain injury owing to prolonged exposure to Facebook, as mine had.

"I'm not letting you read it until you remember the name of it," I said. "What's the name of the book, Mom?"

"Don't be silly."

"What is it?"

"I don't have to answer that question."

"Tell me."

"The Largest Man in Town," she said.

"No."

"Big Man on Campus."

"No."

"Big Man in the City."

"Nope."

"The Planet of Large People."

"That's it."

It made me a little sad that my own mother could not remember the name of the book, but then this is the same woman who promised and failed to read my dissertation so many years ago and who, when I bring it up, finds reasons to begin dusting other rooms of the house.

"And when does it come out?" she asked.

"Spring," I said. "May."

"That's so far away."

"It takes time."

"May?"

"The month."

"May."

"Yep."

The next day: "When does it come out?" she said.

"May," I said.

"Really?"

"Really."

"May, you say?"

"The one right after April."

"Don't be ugly."

"Have you recently fallen?" I asked.

Finally, when I thought she was ready, I handed her the manuscript, which felt like presenting her with the jewel-encrusted skull of Saint Albert. I fully expected messages at four o'clock in the morning about why I didn't find more opportunities to describe how beautiful her hair was in the morning light.

"My goodness," Mom said, taking the book in both hands. "So this is it."

"Promise," I said. "No text messages about factual errors. It's too late for that."

She was still grieving Pop, both of us were, and his memory rose up like smoke from the pages. I was afraid the book would ask too much of her, might ask her to realign structural elements in the cathedral of her memory. Her hagiography of my father had already begun.

It was winter now, 2015, the year of the book's release, barely nine months since Pop's sudden exit from the story. His death certificate and the receipt for the funeral costs still lay in an envelope on my writing table. I felt treasonous. His death had transformed the memoir, providing a powerful end to the book. Part of me knew a gruesome thing I could not tell my mother: His death had made the book better, profounder, not only the final chapter, but all of it. His passing had pulled out truths from me I'd been hoarding — how I'd hated him, wanted him to die, even fantasized about it as a boy. I wanted to unmake the book, to rewrite an ending where he didn't die, where I could hand him a copy the way I now handed my mother a copy.

The first night she had the book, she did not call. I expected it at any moment, a tearful jeremiad via text and phone call.

How could you? she would say.

Why did you? she would say.

It didn't happen like that, she would say.

She was implicated in some of the sin of the book, too. She might stop talking to me, I knew, might want to throw herself on a pyre or in a river. She is full of feelings. She listens to a lot of Susan Boyle.

The next morning, a text.

I just love it, she said. I read it three times.

In one night?

Your wife let me see it three months ago, she said.


Finally, geez

The book was out, the baby was born, and I became a famous writerly connoisseur of economy rental cars. The road was as lonely as all the songs say it is, and I needed a traveling companion. My wife refused to come, for complicated and painful reasons that I shall explain later, and so I asked my mother. She would enjoy what glory there was to be had. I owed it to her, this woman who'd carried me in her womb, who'd provided half of the family's household income as a schoolteacher, who'd driven me to the library as a boy, the one who'd made me funny. She'd made this dream possible, this woman who always said, "You have so much talent."

Who said, "So handsome. Your forehead is a little big. But so handsome."

I guessed she would love joining me on tour, and I guessed right.

"I'm glad you're here," I said to Mom, on the plane, on the way to one of our first events together, in Mississippi.

"I think it's fun," she said. "My son, the famous author!"

"Don't expect hordes of adoring fans," I said. "Just so you know. This is how publishing works. You write a book and nobody comes."

"I'm sure people will be very excited to meet me," she said.

"I'm sure."

"I'm so proud of you," she said, patting my arm. "I just want you to know."

When the beverage service began, I asked for a tiny bottle of bourbon.

"What time is it?" Mom asked.

"Noon."

She studied the tiny bottle.

"Are you an alcoholic?" she said.

"No, mother."

I poured the tiny bottle over ice.

"You're one of those alcoholic writers," she said. "I've read about it. All writers are alcoholics. Are you? You are."

"Can you get me a pillow?" I asked a flight attendant. "I need to asphyxiate this elderly woman next to me."

"You think I'm old," she said. "I could show you pictures of my friends. They look dead."

I closed my eyes and tried to sleep and thanked Jesus for giving me a mother who loves me and asks if I am an alcoholic, despite the fact that on many occasions I have witnessed her killing a box of California Red like it threatened her family.

At every book event she attended that year, she gloated over me as though I was a large prize-winning hog, marching me around the bookstore and presenting me to old schoolmates, second cousins, support beams, doorjambs. It was sweet, and the worst.

"Have you met my son, Scott?" she said.

I reminded her: I was no longer Scott. I hadn't been Scott in nearly 20 years.

"Right! Okay! Got it," she said.

"Nobody calls me Scott except you and, like, three people from junior high," I said.

My mother, it turned out, was very excited to get to call me Scott constantly in front of people who now knew me as Harrison. She'd sit down beside me in the signing booth and commence to bewildering everyone.

"This is my son, Scott," she said.

"Harrison," I said.

The thing is, it's very hard to pretend to be famous while your mother is explaining to everyone in line that she gave birth to you and can call you whatever she wants and also when you were a baby, you had a staph infection around your rectum, the scars of which are still evident, should my readers wish to know.

"Oh," strangers said.

"Next," I'd say at the book-signing table, waving another reader forward while turning to my mother, whispering: "Please call me Harrison. It's on the book. It confuses people."

"Why did you even change it?" she'd say, getting loud. Other people were staring, deliberating, were we fighting? Was this real? I didn't know. Did she?

"Oh, do you actually go by Scott?" readers asked, when Mom started this routine.

"No," I'd say.

"He's an alcoholic," Mom would say, to everyone.

It was like a spiritual ATF raid. Do you see Billy Ray Cyrus chasing Miley around the VMAs going on about how she used to be Destiny Hope Cyrus?

"Harrison," I said, right there in front of everyone. "Say it. Harrison."

It's important to remember that this whole time, three or four people are right there, waiting to have their books signed.

"Are you ashamed of who you are?" she said, often.

"I'm ashamed of who you are," I said.

"Don't be so sensitive."

"One day you're going to need me to push you in a wheelchair," I said.

People would laugh at all this, while I entertained visions of rolling my mother's future wheelchair into light traffic. Was this her unconscious retaliation for my having written so transparently about our family? Was she seeking a hidden vengeance for my emptying out the psychic closets of our crumbling ancestral manse? Didn't she know I could drown her?

Yet she seemed genuinely proud. I decided not to drown her, not yet. There was time still. America has many rivers.

***

At one bookstore, my mother sat there surrounded by a few old friends, and I stood up and drank from a bottle of water and began to speak. I decided to read from a whole new section of the book, something I hadn't yet auditioned for a live audience.

As I started to read, it dawned on me that the story I'd chosen contained quite intimate details and conjecture about my mother's emotional inner life, and there she was a few rows back, beaming. I could see it coming a few lines ahead and wondered if I should censor it. But my psychic torpor had diminished the capacity for complex problem-solving at high speeds, and there came the perhaps overly revealing passage about Mom, and I plowed right through the delicate parts like a fat baby rolling over a sack of taco shells, and I hoped, prayed, that Mom enjoyed the attention, was flattered to be in a book, but wow, it was true stuff, real stuff, and as the laughter died down, I could feel everybody looking at the back of my mother's head and wondering if she felt it, too, this hot bright naked truth about her, just being spewed across a roomful of strangers by her son. And then we all came up through and out of the hole and it got funny again, and they laughed, and she laughed, and it was over.

"What did you think?" I said, after.

"I think people enjoyed it," she said. "Since it was about me."

"I mean, was it weird?"

"Weird?"

"To see all those people hearing true things about us?"

"I wasn't really paying attention."

"Mom."

"Son."

"I hope you had fun," I said, giving her a hug.

"I did. I always do. I just wish your father was here. He was so proud of you, Scott."

I guess, deep down, I knew she was calling me Scott because that's what Pop called me. She had let go of so much of him in these last few years, but not that, not yet. Every time she said it, she heard him saying it, too. That, and she liked tormenting me, because she's funny, because that's what funny people sometimes do. I'd said funny things about her, which meant she got to say them about me. This is how it worked.

And then one day, at a bookstore, while she was making jokes in the audience, it clicked: Wait. Oh! Oh. She is part of the act. I'd entirely forgotten the cardinal rule of comedy, that we must plunder the holy of holies of our own hearts first, seize the golden calves we've constructed and melt them down into gold.

All that discomfort I felt about my name was an idol, representing the false god of my fame, a god which I now knew was perfectly imaginary. Mom's gentle pasquinade had exposed the idol. With this revelation, I could no longer pretend to be important. Finally, I knew what to do. I'd come up to a microphone in this or that city, engaging in gentle comic banter with the audience, clearing my throat, about to begin, and she'd interrupt.

Do you need some water? Mom would exclaim, from the audience.

Ma'am?

You've got phlegm.

She'd be saying this from about six rows back, while everyone watched.

I'm fine, I say.

You need a lozenge.

I don't need a lozenge, thank you.

Here, pass this lozenge to Scott.

Harrison, I say. Can somebody please remove this woman?

You just try it.

I can have you killed, I say, into the mic.

Then who would come to your readings? she'd say, bringing down the house.

I gave up correcting my mother, which is one of the things comedy lets you do. The woman could call me whatever she wanted. I stopped asking her to stop. It kept things real, never too far from the hard, heavy earth in which everyone, in time, is buried. One day she'll be gone, too, and I'll desperately want someone to call me Scott, or an alcoholic, or both, and nobody will, and it might be a little sad. Funny things always are.


This excerpt is adapted from Harrison’s new memoir, “Congratulations, Who Are You Again?”  and is reprinted here with permission from Harper Perennial.