Essays — January 8, 2013 13:22 — 0 Comments

MINOTAUR – Sean Finucane Toner

I hear rumors of light through my bedroom window: gulls calling to each other, children playing in my neighbor’s yard, a sander grinding as another neighbor polishes his boat. The doorbell to my grandmother’s shore house rings in the hallway and I turn off my book on tape, ditch the headphones, knuckle my way out of my room and down the hall. I touch the back of a chair here and there as I move through the dining room, toe-tap the bottom of the living room couch and finally reach the screen door.

“Hello?” I call out into the darkness, expecting a delivery man needing a signature.

“Are you Sean Toner?” an older-than-expected male voice asks.


The man introduces himself as Bill. He is blind, like me, and a mutual acquaintance helped him find my family’s place and up the stairs.

We part company with the mutual acquaintance and I, comfortable negotiating the front porch sans cane, have Bill follow my voice to the Boston rockers, and an unlikely friendship begins. His voice conjures up images of movie generals: no nonsense, weathered and ever-so-slightly antagonistic. He’d be the guy who wants to launch the missiles at the Ruskies. It’ll be months before I confide to him that I flunked high school gym in my sighted days, that I once wrote a novel about a cat who wanted to become human. But it’s clear to me, on this vibrant summer day, that he is sizing me up by my voice, as well.

We compare talking watches, trade our causes of blindness. Me, decades of poorly handled juvenile-onset diabetes. Him – pneumonia, temporal arteritis, a wait-it-out attitude over a weekend without sight which resulted in permanence. I wear sunglasses, he does not.

“They make me look blind,” he says. Then he changes the subject quickly. “You walk much?”

“Not enough,” I say. “But I can get around.”

We agree we don’t need to sit on a porch and I stand, finger-tap window, then wall, then finally door before heading back to my room to grab white cane and a bag of Skittles because there is always the chance of a dangerous low blood sugar when I’m out expending calories. I grab my keys because my cousin, who I’m staying with, is off to work, and I lock up behind me.

I show Bill how to safely find the bannister by tapping against it with my cane, guide his hand to the rail, and ask, “You good?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”


We descend, tap along the side of the driveway, and then we set forth on our first sidewalk expedition of our dark daylight labyrinth of Ocean City, New Jersey.

He assumes the lead and I hear his cane scrape from side to side – keeping him walking down the straight-and-narrow. He soon shows me he has a good ear when he says, “I thought you said you were blind.”

He has picked up my white-cane swing here, tap there; I’m more casual and confident than my new ex-military acquaintance. I don’t need to progress slowly, sweeping ahead every few inches of sidewalk the way beachcombers with metal detectors walk.

I keep my answer to, “I move best when I’m not thinking about it.”

The words seemed simple enough, truistic. At the moment it is hard to tell what impression they make.

“Damn,” he says a few steps later. “You ever run into a branch here? Or are you too short for it to matter?”

I pause a few cane lengths behind him, hold back a “Good time to be wearing glasses, eh?” It’s too soon for me to be busting his chops.

We walk on for no more than a minute when I hear him tapping around, not progressing forward. He’s figuring something out. I know we’ve gone past my house, the tree at the neighbor’s, and I know I’m a good clip along the lawn of the last house on the block.

Bill is at the curb. “What street is this?” he asks, presuming I know.

“North Street.”

I figure he’s turned around because when I come upon him, our canes cross. But he doesn’t give me time to say anything. “You know your compass points?”

Maybe I nod, an automatic response. Maybe I’ve got my useless eyes aimed at his useless eyes – another automatic response when I hear a human voice. I say, “Yes.”

We launch into a discussion about streets and their corners. I start by saying that Bay Road – my road – runs roughly north-south up the length of the island.

“Roughly?” he asks. “It runs more like northeast to southwest.”

I stand by my description.  “It runs more north-and-south than it does east-and-west.” The distinctions are important because intersections are both reference points and potential threats. The southeast corner of This and That must mean the same thing to both of us.

He throws hypotheticals at me – intersecting street names – and I lay out my world view; the bay side of the island is the west, the ocean side is the east, and this means “We are standing on the northeast corner of North and Bay.”

Bill, who had been a crewmember on B-24s during WWII, grudgingly accepts my definitions. “So, where are we headed?” he asks.

“How about we head up North Street and then down Asbury to McLaughlin’s Market?”

“Why not head up to First Street and then walk up to Asbury from there?”

Though I don’t realize it yet, I sense and respond to the drama playing out in Bill. Blindness is a great burden to him, an encumbrance, a stripping of his rank in the world. He is trapped and lets everyone know it.

I, on the other white-cane-gripping hand, see my loss of sight as an adventure. Maybe I whiled away a few too many video game hours in my sighted decades. Perhaps I worked a little too hard at putting my name in the high score box. Now, despite all the color and shape that has been taken from me, I see not seeing as advanced play. Championship level. Screen gone blank and me figuring the world out with hands and ears. I face peril as a Jedi knight, as a Kung Fu master, as a blind ninja.

I head up North Street, toward the ocean, and call back, “I’m headed for the northwest corner of North and Simpson.”

Tap tap, me in the lead.

Scrape scrape, him in pursuit.


* * *


We walk so many summer days, through mosquito-bearing land-breezes, muggy drizzle and scouring sunlight. Our adventures start with a phone call, a meeting time, and then Bill shows up at the bottom of my steps. We reach out, finally make contact and then shake hands. Then the contest begins.

We haggle over our destination and select preferred routes. Do we set out for the Garden’s Market? A deli at the center of town? The book store – owned by two gay men – where I used to work during the last of my sighted years? Bill, phobia discernable, always prefers a deli.

We take turns leading, being the guy who first trips over the root-buckled sidewalk, who toes aside the lids on trash days, the man who calls back “branch” when one overhangs the sidewalk and catches one of us in the face.

When we at last stop at one of our destinations, the conversation is awkward, forced, often mildly antagonistic.

“You a reader?” he asks. “Do you get the books-on-tape from the Library for the Blind?

“I’m reading The Lives of John Lennon,” I say.

“I never cared much for Lennon,” he says.

I try to appeal to Bill’s Pennsylvania Railroad days, ask, “Ever read Atlas Shrugged? Much of it has to do with railroads.” I figure this is his kind of book. Bill seems right-wing, but not churchy. He must have all of Ayn Rand’s writings on four-track cassettes from the Library.

But no. “I don’t care much for novels.” He listens to – reads, as we prefer to call it – histories, biographies, tales of documented fact. “But those can be tricky, too,” he says.

“You know Gay Talese’s boyhood home is a few blocks from your house,” I say. “We should try to find the place.”

But my idea of literary pilgrimage does not entertain him. “I never cared much for Gay Talese.” Bill and I don’t share interests. We share clashes.

On we walk, negotiating driveways blocked by boats, contractors’ vans, intermittent swarms of kids. I suggest, “We should cross Ocean Avenue here. There’s a lawnmower running further up.” And we head over, avoiding the intersection of busier streets and distracting lawn equipment. We walk near the Yacht Club, then along Battersea Avenue until we have more decisions to make. Cross and head into the winding roads of the Gardens section of the island? Stay our course until the road swings around and becomes Atlantic Avenue?

I learn a thing or two about him during our frequent point-counterpoint treks through town. He shared beliefs with the America Firsters. He may or may not have subscribed to the tenets of the John Birch Society. These are curious things to me, an otherness that I don’t have a full historical understanding of, but suspect are profoundly unlikeable. We both listen to the same overnight alternative talk radio, but I listen for the astronomical discoveries, the UFO talk, the ancient civilization speculations. Bill listens for the New World Order and the global conspiracy theories. We are united, however, in our lack of interested in Yeti and chupacabras.

When he gets animated about the Bohemian Grove or the Hollow Earth theory, I call out, “Branch!” Or I set a new course to distract him. Or I just change the subject altogether with a “I think I’m going into insulin shock.” When he’s not ornery, he gets the message.

But not even diabetic hypoglycemia spares me from the Battle of the Bevels.


* * *


The battle begins one ordinary day, the two of us setting paths, stepping aside for kids on scooters, striding with purpose past the house with the dog chained in the front yard. We march along Asbury Avenue, nearing our favorite hang-out deli, and Bill asks, “Did this block get longer?”

“I think I’m almost at the curb,” I say.

“Which street?”

“First  and Asbury,” I say, annoyed that he’s suggesting we crossed a street without knowing.

“You sure?” he says, meaning, “You sure we aren’t half-way up to 2nd Street?” Sometimes, because of wheelchair ramps, we can get out into a street without being aware. But it is a combination of ridicule and self-disgust that makes him suggest I’ve lead us partway down a block without knowing it.

I make the mistake of trying to one-up him with my memory. “I think we’re right in front of the house with the beveled porch.”

He stops. I hear him plant his cane tip. “What do you mean by beveled porch?”

“The house is on the corner.  It has an L-shaped porch facing both streets. But its corner where the front and side porch meet is planed off, cut at an angle, beveled.”

“I don’t think you know what ‘bevel’ means.”

“Cut at an angle. And that’s where the steps down are. And they lead to the corner where I’m standing.”

“Window glass is beveled. Vases are beveled. What you are saying doesn’t make any sense.”

“I think there’s a cupola on the second floor,” I add, to impress him because I know I’m not going to win the bevel point.

“You casing the joint?” Bill asks.

“Yes,” isn’t the answer I want to give on a warm, open-window day. And Bill doesn’t need to know that I think about the house frequently. Rather, I think about the female occupant I encountered once or twice, the way she said “Hi” and “Excuse me” when she passed me, or how sometimes I think I hear her coming into McLaughlin’s Market right after us and saying “Hello” to the couple who own the place. Bill doesn’t need to know I picture Meg Ryan, have fantasies about us – the Meg Ryan housewife and me –  eating cherry water ices on her beveled front porch, or the one where she invites me inside to her cool living room, or that one where she takes me upstairs where she keeps her box of handwritten poetry. These things I do not say. Instead, I hit him with a “Did somebody wake up on the wrong side of their Craftmatic?”

The bevel talk does not end there. It weaves through our walks for several days. I come prepared to our next encounter armed with a definition. “My American Heritage Talking Dictionary says a bevel is ‘two rules joined together as adjustable arms used to measure or draw angles’.” And before he fends me off, I add, “Like the one the architect used on the blueprint of that house.”

He parleys with, “How many architects do you know?”

I block with, “Two.”

He jabs, “Their buildings still standing with all those corners they cut?”

I counter, “I’m at the northwest corner of Central and First.”

“Is it beveled?”

Swoosh. “Actually it is.” Slash. “It’s wheelchair accessible.”


* * *


We’re still at it the next time we walk. Sunny day, cloudy day, who remembers? We focus only on battle and crossing the busier streets safely. Then it’s game on as we pass sprinklers and brimming curbside trashcans. “I’m at the southwest corner of Battersea and West Station.”

“I’ve got a bone to pick with you.” He launches back into the debate. “I’ve been thinking about your liberal use of words. Is that how they taught you how to think in your schools?”

I swing, “Probably learned how to think in high school.” I attack with a “They had us read Orwell. He thought the way to keep people under control was to limit their vocabulary.”

“Orwell was a Socialist, wasn’t he?”

“And an anti-socialist.”

“How can he have been both?”

“That’s the defnition of genius.” Thwack!

We meet up with a woman walking a Golden Retriever, chat for a few minutes about guide dogs and why I don’t have one – I have no job, the dogs need routine, daily use, without which they become the equivalent of summer-vacation slackers. We run into a firefighter whose engine – per protocol – showed up with the ambulance during one of my recent unconscious insulin shocks. When we are free from distraction, Bill and I return to the melee.

He lunges: “That’s another thing. I’ve had enough of words getting twisted around. Words meant something when I was growing up. Like the word ‘professional’. Comes from the Latin ‘to speak out’. First it was just used to refer to professors and lawyers and doctors – people who spoke out for a living. Now you’ve got football players and golfers and Ping Pong players calling themselves ‘professional’. What do they have to say?”

I don’t say, “So Marcel Marceau can’t be professional?” I do say, “I thought ‘professional’ meant ‘to get paid’.”

“Look that up in your dictionary.”

Soon enough, I grow tired of the nicks and flicks of our verbal wordplay. I bring out modern weaponry, the big guns, Bazooka Joe. “What does your fridge, your wife’s car, your nose and your kitchen clock have in common? All run.  None have feet. Sounds like liberal uses of language to me.”

I like to think of this as the death blow.

But he does not concede. The jibber-jabber continues a while longer, until we both decide to call it a day. We shake hands, we part company, and the Battle of the Bevel ends with one of us the true but unprofessed victor.


* * *


Some days I look forward to forecasts of rain, or clouds, or plague – any excuse not to walk. Other days, we’re out, wasting precious breaths on trivial matters. But I start taking writing classes at a local community college, and Bill chips away at my reasons.

“They didn’t teach you to write in that high school of yours?” he says.

It’s not long before he extracts my real purpose. “There are women in those classes,” I say.

And he hits me with, “We used to call people like you Troxel Sniffers.” A seventy-odd year-old man has just called me a playground name, and has to explain its meaning. “Troxel made bike seats.”

The regularity of our walks dies away. Learning about pantoumes – though I’m not a poet – is more rewarding. The more classes, the greater the play with words, the less I need to swing words with the America Firster.

One day I’m seated at my desk, earphones on, listening to my own words, a classmates words, maybe an email from a housewife in Texas. The phone rings, it’s Bill’s wife with bad news.

“Bill was walking alone on the Boardwalk and fell straight off the ramp to the Music Pier. He broke a couple ribs and punctured a lung.”

She goes on to say he is in the I.C.U., that he is sedated, and that she would let me know how he progresses.

When we hang up, I am possessed by bad-news numbness. I picture him veering off course, straying off the boardwalk proper and stepping off the unrailed ramp. I can see his legs kicking in mid air, his arms flailing about, him coming down hard on the corner of a dumpster or the hood of a car. Were there people there, frozen passive as he fell? Was he conscious when the post-accident flurry of activity began?

I sit, hope that he gets put back together again, is back on his feet, annoying me on the streets of the barrier island. There is something missing in the world when one’s opposite is gone. I am a little less heroic, a bit less defined when I’m not engaged in battle with a man with the head of a bull.


Sean Finucane Toner is a Pushcart Prize nominee whose creative nonfiction has found homes in Ardor (forthcoming), Brevity, Hippocampus, The MacGuffin, Opium, Apiary, Word Riot, Referential, Perigee, Writers on the Job, Philadelphia Stories and "The Book of Worst Meals," as well as at a Literary Death Match at the World Café in Philadelphia. He has an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Sean has been sightless since 1995.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney