This story is by Jim Lotshaw and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
My manager, Paula, asked me if I had taken the new guy to lunch yet. When I told her, no I got the same look as when my quarterly reports are not finished on schedule. Normally I have lunch with any new employee in my department their first week; Bill had been here for a little more than a month.
“So, what’s the problem,” she asked.
“No problem, just been busy.”
“Do it today Sam.”
“Why are these lunch meetings so important?”
“They should be important to you, because you will be forty-two next month and if you don’t get promoted soon you never will be, and if you don’t show upper management you can handle personnel issues…”
“Ok, I got it.”
I walked out of her office somewhere between embarrassed and angry. Paula is ok, but she doesn’t understand guys don’t do lunch. She wants me to bond with Bill. The problem is we have nothing in common. I don’t think he has said more than half a dozen words to me. He is twenty-five years older than me; his attuite rubs me the wrong way; it’s like he has a chip on his shoulder. But orders are orders.
So when I passed his cubicle, “Bill you and me lunch tomorrow.”
“I don’t go out for lunch,” he said.
“Me either but were going. One o’clock, meet me in the parking lot.” I kept walking before he could say anything. Everything is a debate with this guy.
Now here we sit eating and not talking at some down-home restaurant that I never heard of.
“Bill, did you lose your leg in Vietnam, if you don’t mind my asking.”
“I was never in Vietnam, and I never lost my leg.”
“Ok, so what happened?”
“I had polio when I was young.”
“My aunt had polio, but unless you saw her bear right arm, you would never know there was anything wrong with her.”
“It seems like everyone I meet knows someone who knows someone who had polio,” Bill said looking up from his plate of chicken fried steak and potatoes.
“Well, at least you didn’t have to worry about serving in the military.”
I knew I need to change the subject, but didn’t know what to talk to him about so I open my mouth and out came; “How long you been like that?”
Ok, so I am not the best at small talk.
“You know, handicapped.”
“I am not handicapped,” Bill said loud enough that had a few heads turn in our direction.
“Oh, god now you are going to tell me there is some politically correct way of referring to you.”
“Referren to me, let me see. I am a man, a husband, a father, and a bookkeeper. Try one of those on for size.”
Bill sat there and stared at me for a minute. Then speaking slowly, he asked, “Why does that surprise you?”
“I don’t know; I just didn’t think…”
“That a crippled could have a family like a normal person.”
“There is no such thing as normal.”
“Bull shit that’s just what normal people say.”
“Is there something else I can get you, gentleman?” It was our waitress looking more nervous than when she took our order. She had our bill in her hand. It looked like a hint to me. I gave her my credit card and my best smile.
“I think we better go, Bill, before they ask us to leave.”
“Works for me.”
I had driven my truck, and this time I did not feel one bit guilty watching Bill struggle to climb in. In fact, the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. I made a right turn down Steward and left at third.
“Thought we were goin back to the office,” Bill said.
“We are, but I need to make a stop first.”
Ten minutes later I pulled into the parking lot of my favorite bar.
“We need to have a few beers and talk this out.”
“Talk what out?”
I pointed to the tables on what they call the back porch. “Palm trees are nice touch don’t you think?”
“What do they do in the winter?”
“They die, Bill, what do you think?”
We sat down and ordered a couple of beers. I lit up a cigarette, and before he could say anything I said,” Don’t worry I am down wind of you.”
“I was more worried about the waiter.”
“Don’t be concerned about Joey he’s a two pack a day man.”
“Fine, what do you want to talk about and why couldn’t we do at the restaurant?”
“You need a place that doesn’t care how loud you get, and I need a beer to tell you what I think of you.”
The waiter brought over two drafts, I picked mine up and started to clink glasses, but he just sat there. I shrugged my shoulders and drank half my beer. Then I looked him straight in the eye and said, “You’re a real piece of work, you know that?”
“What are you talking about now?”
“I am good at figuring out people, and I had you figured out ten minutes into lunch.”
Bill picked up his drink, and I said, “I doubt that.”
“You got a bad case of poor me.”
That’s when I let him have it.
I singled Joey to bring two more.” You’re a manipulator. The type of person who goes around telling everyone you can do anything you want, then you don’t do anything. Now I am not saying you haven’t had it hard but so what. Everyone has it hard they just don’t get to display it the way you do.”
“Is that all?”
“Hell no, I am just getting started. Most of us go through life without a net but not you. I bet there is always someone there to help the poor crippled. People probably don’t expect that much of you. If you try and fail, they will be impressed you tried.
“Two more Joey,” Bill called out. I didn’t think he could drink that fast.
“If I try and fail I am a failure,” I stopped to take a breath.
With a grin on his face, Bill said, “Do you believe that bull?”
It was the grin that wound me up.
“I just know it is not as hard as you make it out to be,” I said.
“And how to you know that?”
“Back in high school we had a kid in our class that was in a wheelchair, and some of the guys made fun of him. They didn’t mean anything by it just having some fun, but the coach got a bunch of wheelchairs and made us stay in them for a week. At least you can walk.”
That’s when he gave it back.
“You will never know the panic of not being able to catch up with your three-year-old before he runs into the street. You won’t know the shame of watching your wife carry all the heavy bags in from the car, or see the look in her eyes when you are unable to do some simple, manly chore around the house.”
“As for the great experiment in empathy training, you didn’t learn a thing.”
“What makes you think you know what I learned?”
“I don’t know what you learned, but I know what you didn’t learn. You see it did not matter how long your coach made you stay in that chair. A week, a month even a year, because you knew you could get up anytime you wanted. You knew if the school caught on fire you could run out of the building. It’s a lot different when you know this is as good as it gets.”
I didn’t know what to say. Bill was right I had never really thought of what it would be like to be handicapped.,
Then Bill said, “Sam there might be some truth in what you said about me. Some people go out of their way for me. I try not to take advantage of them but sometimes I do without meaning to. You are not as dumb as I thought.”
“Now isn’t that white of you?”
“Does your family really let you out in public alone?”
We called our wives, ordered some wings and more beer and stayed for another three hours. Then we shared a cab. His was the first stop, and I had to ask.
“If you aren’t handicapped what are you.”