Picture this meme: Winter morning somewhere in Minnesota. We are outside a two-car garage. Its door is dark brown, and its bricks are mottled with a variety of white, cream, and tans. On the right side of the picture, a knee-high layer of snow has covered the driveway on the right. On the left side, the driveway has been immaculately cleared of snow; one can see the wet black pavement. A young short man, scruffy and flinty-eyed with a half-smoked cigarette bobbing from the edge of his mouth, is wearing a thick jacket, flannel shirt, jeans, sneakers, and a leg brace on his left shin. He leans forward on a shovel in front of the cleared driveway and sneers at us. Words in white stroked in black scream: WHAT’S YOUR DAMN EXCUSE? The image is shared online many times, usually with a LOL.
Picture the few minutes before the picture was taken: A sunny day. His father, gnarly as an oak tree, used a snowblower but it broke down halfway through the driveway. Paul, the young man in the meme, was hobbling in a rush from the house to meet his girlfriend waiting outside in her sedan. They have been dating for over a year. She waitresses nights in a restaurant and attends classes at Century College in White Bear Lake, so she rarely has free time. They have been dating for over a year. She is the first woman who has never made him feel like a freak show. He was hurrying down the driveway when Dad calls him to stop. Two shovels are staked in the front lawn.
Having just put the snowblower on the back of his truck, Dad points to the driveway. “We need to clear that snow outta there.”
“Really? You have to do this right now, do you?”
Dad hands a shovel to him.
“No! Harriet’s here!” He catches sight of her smiling and waving.
“She can wait.”
“No. I haven’t seen her in a week!”
“Family comes first.”
“What if I marry her? She’d be family then.”
“Oh, no. She’s not for you.”
“What if I were Grandpa saying that Mom isn’t right for you?”
“Just because you’re crippled doesn’t mean you have to get all smart-ass.”
“If I wasn’t a smart-ass, kids would’ve beaten me to a meaty pulp,” Paul says. “Guess who’d have to pay for the hospital bill? I think I’ve saved you a ton of money.”
Dad inhales, but says nothing.
By then Harriet has come out of her sedan to the driveway. In her hand is a phone. “Can you pose there, like some South Pole explorer?”
“Fine.” Paul leans against his shovel as if he’s arrived after a long trek.
Later that night Harriet posts the picture online. “I ♥ my Paul!”
A friend of hers swipes the picture, captions it, and shares it, which scores many likes and shares. He never bothers to credit Harriet.
By then it will be too late. Once the meme is released to the wilds, no one wants to listen to either Harriet or Paul talk about supercrips or ableist humor. Hey, lighten up, what’s wrong with having a little fun, they all respond.
Picture this twenty-one years before: September afternoon with overcast skies. Paul, not yet six months old and in a white shirt and diapers, is lying on a sofa. His aunt April sits before him, holding up his feet; she pushes them back so he bends his knees. She giggles when he tries to push back with his right foot, but she stops when he doesn’t push back with his left foot. “Come on, come on.”
But he doesn’t. A bit of drool dribbles out of his mouth.
April grabs a washcloth off the table next to her and wipes his face. “There you go.” She pushes at his left foot. “Oh, my gosh. You’re like a rubber chicken!” She bursts out laughing. “Rubber, rubber chicky!”
“April, stop it.”
“What?” She looked up at Paul’s mother.
“You don’t get it, don’t you? He’s got cerebral palsy.”
For the next twenty-one years, Paul would deal with an aunt who rarely said hello to him even though she lived only two miles away, an uncle who continued to pray hard for Paul’s redemption from the bad leg, and a pair of cousins who made fun of him at school and denied it when confronted at home. He would also live with a father who’d named him after the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan and expected him to grow up strong and strapping just like himself only to feel permanently disappointed, a mother who took Paul to the hospital for one test after another and tried to shield him when his parents argued again about Paul, and an older sister who complained about the amount of attention Paul got. His grandparents would gradually shift their attention away from him to his sister, and they would express visible relief when her first baby was found to be normal. Strangers on the street would pat him on the head and remark on what an inspiration he was. Father Almond would glance at him when he mentioned in his sermons the story of how Jesus cured the crippled in Mass. Teachers made veiled references to his condition in class while classmates rolled their eyes; the kids got a kick out of imitating his spastic movements on the playground. In solitude, Paul would seek solace from the family dog Babe.
One day, Paul kept telling himself that he would grow tall like Dad and prove his own worth. Little did he know—and this he wouldn’t realize until much later—that he would surpass anyone in his small town with his powerful chainsaw of wit, fueled by his spitfire cynicism and Harriet’s love, mowing down the old growth of parable and punch line until respect, the loveliest flower of all, could thrive in the sun.