The Ugly Law

By Jillian Weise

Featured art: Futurist Garden by Benjamin F. Berlin

Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or
can I continue reading this? will it affect my psyche

to the extent that the next time David comes over
I will not be there in the room & instead I will be

wandering a Chicago street in my dress with my
parasol as a cane, on the verge of arrest, where arrest

could mean “stopping” or “to keep the mind fixed
on a subject,” where the subject is the diseased,

maimed, mutilated self of 19th-c. Chicago, the self
in any way deformed so as to be unsightly

& will I tell David to stop looking, tell David I’m tired
& I’m about to be arrested for walking in public

& I can’t possibly climax when I am an improper
person who is not allowed in or on the streets,

highways, thoroughfares or will David say we’re alone,
no one is watching, there is your bedside table

& there your mirror & who am I kidding? I won’t tell
David anything. There is no room in bed for this.

It does no good to bring things up from the 19th c.
or from last week when the things have to do with—

how do I say it—what is the word I usually use?
Last week I said it like this: David, a moth

came out from hiding just as soon as I had taken
my leg off & the moth said, “Ha little cripple.

Now you can’t get me with the broom.” Then
I laughed so David would know it’s okay to laugh.

I do it like a joke. I do it like it’s nothing. Why
the cover-up? Why are the laws stacked with it

& I never in high school heard of it? The maimed
shall not therein or thereon expose himself or herself

to public view under penalty of staring, of finger-pointing,
of whispers, of aphorisms such as “we are all disabled”

or “what a pretty face you have” or “God gives
and God takes away” or one dollar for each offense.

One dollar in 1881 is like $20 today. I wanted to compare it
to something like dinner at Ruby Tuesday or a bra

on sale at Victoria’s Secret, as if by comparing
the amount to something I have bought, I would buy

the penalty out. Then the penalty & all its horror
would be gone instead of arrested, kept in mind,

dwelled on when David comes over or forget David
when I am in the supermarket or forget the supermarket

when I am in front of twenty-four legs in a classroom
or forget the classroom when I am on the couch

watching TV: how will I not think of the woman
in Chicago trying to hide her limp, her thoughts

on her limp, trying not to bring it up, draw attention to it,
or what will happen if she is caught by the constable?

On the conviction of any person for a violation of this section,
if it shall seem proper and just, the fine provided for may be

suspended for 130 years until such a time as a person enters
“cripple” in the search engine on Project Muse because

a person has no cripple friends & has started to think
cripples don’t exist & never did & finds the law.

Why have I posted the ordinance on the mirror
& why have I traded the lube in the bedside table

for a twenty-dollar bill? what’s that supposed to do?
help the history slide in? help me remember?

Such a person will be detained at the police station,
where he shall be well in the company of criminals,

of concrete & moths & a window to the forbidden street 
cared for, until he can be committed to the county poor house.

I am not poor. I am not even unsightly. What a pretty face
I have I’ve been told. David, will you attest to my sightliness?

David, is this all in the past? Why are you sleeping
with me, anyway? Aren’t you afraid?


Jillian Weise is a poet, video artist and disability rights activist. Her fourth book is Cyborg Detective. Her essays have appeared in Granta, The New York Times and Tin House. She worked in editorial at The Paris Review and The Iowa Review. In 2020, Weise created Borg 4 Borg Productions and produced the short film “A Kim Deal Party”. It is only accessible to disabled people.

Originally published in NOR 9 Spring 2011

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