That Counting Steps NonsenseI’m planted on a cushioned wicker chair, on my grandparents’ South Jersey porch, the wind and gulls in my ears. But I’m all knuckles. Dad has come up from his latest state, Texas, with his new girlfriend to set me up at grad school. He wants me employable with benefits after seven years on the disabled list.

Though I’m in my mid-thirties, we’re using the toys I keep under my bed for times when I need tactile maps. Dad rummages through my Lego box, and I smell compressed plastic. He places the bricks on the campus map printout and without warning, grasps my left hand and casts it from one piece to another. “I think this is the main building. And these are the dorms.”

“How far apart?”

“Don’t sweat the details.” He’s full of catch-phrase bravado – for his current woman’s sake. “Maybe half a football field. Maybe more.” He lights a cigarette, blows fumes, and says, “Is this a forested hill, or just lawn between the buildings.”

There’s the strain of wicker. The girlfriend says, “A hill.”

“That’s a serious hill,” he says, a kick of glee in his voice. “What are these? Eight stairs? Eight sets of stairs? Just how high is this hill?”

“Tom, stop it,” she says.

“Could be a hundred stairs here.”

I deflate. I’m not old-school blind. There’s none of that counting steps nonsense. I’ve learned to process what my remaining senses report. Nevertheless, I need an idea of what I face. The university is providing me with sighted assistance, but I picture myself alone, halfway up an indeterminable climb. Are there sprawls of ivy? Fallen branches? A gang of hardened literati with ink-drop tattoos? “Well, look here, thriller writer,” they’d say as they brandish shivs of DeLillo and Simic. “Think you’re tough enough to face the ineffable?”

After my Dad lays out the campus, I must pay a toll – listening to his novel excerpts. I firm my jaw as I hear ambulanzi, artillery, a road to an Italian town. His prose is concise, more written into the white spaces than into the jots of ink. When he finishes his read, his is a car dealer’s voice. “So, what do you think?”

I don’t buy his stolen vehicle. “Only Hemingway could write better.”


Mountaineer pack over my shoulders, grocery bag tethered by a strap, I approach the dorm on Dad’s arm. My other hand grips my white cane. We check in like that. We meet one of my sighted assistants like that. We pass through a quieting, then quiet cluster of fellow grad students – just like that.

We find my room, unload my bags, food, and cooking supplies. Then Dad runs a two-minute drill showing me the lay of my dorm suite: stove, shower/sink/toilet – all the et ceteras of dorm life in perpetual blackout. I’m all neurosis embodied, all rechecking of my laptop and headphones, all triple-checking my insulin, syringes, my post-kidney-transplant drugs.

“What next?” he says.

“I need a sense of this building.”

He leads me through the dorm corridors, another pass through the troubling navigation of foyer furniture and disorienting empty space. I absorb the L-shaped route from my room to the vending machines. This rug crimp, that Coke machine hum, these laundry room pipe pings are all trail markers for future reference.

“I think you are all set,” he says.

“Looks that way.”


Outside, we walk the building perimeter, then practice the short transit across parking lot to the stairs up to the school.

“So? How many steps?”

He taunts, “I don’t even see the top of the hill.” A few seconds drop away – he’s sizing up what’s in store for me. Maybe. Or checking his watch. Likely.

I focus on the climb. There are avant-garde novelists up there. Brazen memoirists. Haiku samurai. The in-crowd around whom I must secret my Tom Clancy and Stephen King selves.

“Want me to take you back to your guides?” Dad asks.

“I’m good from here.”

He pats my arm and gives a “Call if you need anything.” Then he races off to beat traffic, back to the girlfriend. I imagine him ramping onto the Garden State Parkway. His SUV on a screeching semi-trailer’s blind side. His blood abandoning him on oil-slick pavement.

I hear jet turbines, close overhead, can almost feel an airliner shadow cover me. There are car doors slamming, then adult banter. Then it’s just August heat and stillness and an uncertain number of steps ahead.

Sean Finucane Toner‘s essays have landed in Opium, Perigee, Writers on the Job, Philadelphia Stories, Concisely Magazine, The Book of Worst Meals and at an upcoming Literary Death Match. He has an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson and lives with writer Robin Parks in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Photo by Annie Agnone