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Ned Randolph

A Myth of Fingerprints

          Unit 206 was occupied well before most of the building’s current residents signed their leases and paid security deposits. What most of them didn’t know – because people come and go in rentals – is the apartment once had two tenants.  But in the last decade, its sole occupant kept to himself. It was odd, many of his neighbors later thought to themselves, after packages and mail starting arriving on their doorsteps for him. Only when the landlord started asking about him, did they realize he had in fact been gone for some time. Thus they began to piece an entire puzzle together.
        A good mystery needs a protagonist if you will (and a foil). Ours was particularly vague, if one focuses solely on how he presented himself. But who really presents himself honestly? Instead, we must examine other evidence, which invites one to remember details ordinarily overlooked. We may begin to know him by the company he kept (or didn’t keep). We may remember muffled voices through the walls -- if there were voices – for signs of his temperament. Perhaps the commotion was a taste for reality television, that garbage! In this investigative space, we may begin to understand a person perhaps even more fully than if he were standing before us.
        Likely in the quiet of night, a neighbor felt stairs being climbed by the tired gate of an elephant, heard the rush of plumbing through a shared wall, a sink running and the brushing of teeth. Imagine him flossing, the wide grin of inspection, and a cursory look over an unkempt body; feet lifting from the floor and a torso collapsing into bed.
        Then peace.
        Usually interrupted by feet pressing upon the floorboard and lumbering across the room above (to the medicine cabinet?) to quell the agitation of a wakeful night. For some there is no easy sleep.
        Let’s imagine for a second he was one of those who panic about a coming morning. Something cruel in the light of day and chirping singsong from nearby nests that bombard a mind still raw and dilated. What keeps such a person up through the hours? What old bones still proffer meat to chew on that hasn’t already been stripped? A found letter. A dream. Something that finds enough agency to invade the present and rob a good man of sleep.
        Let’s imagine again there may be times when he actually did fall asleep, but wasn’t even aware of it because he dreamt about his insomnia. Imagine. He wakes up disoriented, exhausted even, because he dreamt of not being able to sleep. Alcohol may have worked for a while, until it didn’t. But why bother to stop drinking? When a person skates edges of sleeplessness in this way, his dreamscape becomes so lucid it encroaches upon the waking mind. The two realms simply fold into each other. He vividly recalls his dreams and often confuses them for actual memories. His dreams create an impression of a past. He wakes up convinced a dream is an actual memory. Which it kind of is: a memory of a dream.
        His dreams create entire worlds within worlds. When he does wake up, he gropes for the closest pen to write them down. But for the illegible scribbling, scraps of paper amass undated and hard to organize in their repetition. This is what happens when someone picks at his dreams like a scab. Let’s say he carried around one specific memory like a talisman. For a decade, this dream – this foil -- is older than the life two people actually shared together. Imagine what he could have done in the years spent pining for his ghost.

        He imagined the things being done in the world, such as delivering letters to mailboxes, repairing bicycle tires, preaching to a congregation. He could have learned to play the guitar. (His words) He could have learned to machine parts in a factory or massage the calves of an athlete. He could be aiming a rifle at the enemy or driving the mean streets for a fare. Lines like these were written by his hand, grocery lists of them. Instead of writing, he wrote once, he could have been testing fecal counts in a retention pond, pitching a business plan, tarring a rooftop. He could have been asking witnesses for the spelling of their names, loading speakers into a tour bus, pouring a soda in a football stadium. Right now, he wrote (we’re not sure when), people are fitting into Santa Clause outfits in mall changing rooms, campaigning at barbecues, waxing the hoods of cars, lugging pianos upstairs, weighing bags of pot, mixing paints on a palette.
            But he couldn't turn away from the green light. Her crooked tooth, the imperfection among uniformity; and a dad who went ballistic when the retainer broke, who gambled and drank, who never replaced the retainer. The tooth was left to its will.  Eventually, she – we’ll call her “Betty” -- grew up and left home, went off to college, got an apartment, made love, found him, got pregnant, disappeared. He imagined the tooth, still unrestrained. When he chose to believe he could forget and move on, that they had both changed and went about their tangled branches, there was the image of the tooth, uncompromising, unchanged, unwilling to play the game.
        One memory led to another that he kept trying to forget, and to lists that he shouldn't have been making; and dreams that could easily be mistaken for something else.


            He dreamt that he was awakened suddenly. He moved towards the crying down the hall and took her out of the crib. He fed her a bottle and then held her in his arms rocking in the chair. Finally, when he was ready he set her down in the crib and tiptoed out of the nursery back to bed.

            There was once a time when life was heard in Unit 206. Commotion from a garage door opening, an engine huffing and tires rolling. Deliveries once came to his doorstep. Neighbors long gone signed for packages that couldn’t be left unattended. Paint cans collected outside. A sense of preparation, a fattening expectation, muffled dialogue, phones ringing and excited conversation; cardboard boxes overflowed recycling cans in the alley.
Possible names:

        Most of the current residents would not have been privy to the activity in Unit 206, off as they were chasing their own paths. Who would have guessed then, that their choices to seemingly ordinary events would lead each one of them here, together, to this one place? But such is the power of hindsight that in the words of our good man in Unit 206, “must be serendipitous at all cost.” Lest one admit that he or she is a bit player in a random universe.1
        Excitement led to anti-climax. A door shut one evening and the footsteps of “Betty” pressed on the hall carpet, moving towards the stairs, down the 44 steps to the garage, and then minutes later, pressed on the accelerator of late model Ford Escort that backed into the alley and headed in one of two directions.2

        Then nothing.  
        Windblown leaves collected on doorsteps, bushes grew unevenly by the garage, an occasional mailman passed with generic inserts. Time passed. Divorce hit the complex. Wives were exchanged. Husbands vilified. People come and go in rentals. New couples looked over the walkways with fresh eyes. Restaurant openings portended more foot traffic.
            Scribbled notes may have been discovered in a pantry, for instance, after he packed up. (Undated) "I felt like crying today. I felt like crying for some reason. I felt like crying. It felt like I wanted to cry. The feeling of wanting to cry haunted me. The feeling of being haunted by something as if it were outside of me.  The feeling of emotions taking over.  The feeling of not having control over myself. The feeling that I am not me. The feeling that I am not anyone."
        There were the recurring dreams. We know this from hindsight, of course, his dreams… about relatives that didn't exist and houses that didn't exist. He dreamt of an old woman who was a keeper of family records, photo albums and heirlooms. By invitation, he attended her play. Within the first minutes of the opening act, the audience realized she was acting out their histories. They began talking to each other, tracing the overlapping histories, and disrupting the performance. Only his grandmother -- the oldest relative in the room -- stayed in her chair to see how the show ended. He had already known about old woman, though no one believed him. He had seen her (in another dream). Her home had burned to the ground and been rebuilt. Sometimes it was a different family house that caught fire. Always in the same hamlet outside of town (from another dream). It had an attached shop that sold fishing bait. This is a place he frequently returned to, like an archeologist excavating for more clues.

        ... he could be tying a surgical mask around his face, asking for a price check at Target, issuing an arrest warrant, adjusting a down dog posture, waxing pubic hair from an ass crack, feeding the lions at the zoo, handing out boarding passes, asking room for cream, halting traffic at a school crosswalk, tuning spokes on a mountain bike, drilling a rotten tooth, spinning an open house sign, dealing a busted hand at a black jack table, asking passengers about their business in the United States, pouring pancake batter into a vat, asking dispatch for backup ...

            “Betty” always hogged his side of the bed. He would sit there watching her sleep, from the foot of the bed. Wondering what she was thinking about, wondering how to make space for himself. Whether to move the pile or climb in from the other side. She never saw him. She saw the inside of her sleep mask while he watched her.
Remember to pack:

sleep mask
New Yorker
Great Gatsby
jogging shoes
phone charger

            Cigarette smoke sometimes permeated from his wall. Perhaps out his window and into a neighbor’s. Imagine him smoking in his quiet despair, him smiling at his unkempt chest hair and aging body in quiet despair, his recycling bin filled with empty bottles of quiet despair. His sleep of quiet despair, of loving a woman in quiet despair, trying to stay open to possibilities in quiet despair, reading the newspaper in quiet despair, trying to stay upbeat in quiet despair.
            He dreamt they were sharing a berth on an overnight passenger train. The bunks stacked three high. Each stop, they climbed down from their respective perches and disembarked. It is the same station every time, but they are each someone else. His words come out of another’s mouth. Each stop, dialogue assignment changes. Lost, they keep boarding the train unsure of what they will say next.  
            Then, imagine his language games with “Betty”. How they raised the last syllable of sentences to avoid declaratives and thus avoid confrontation; their evenings punctuated with sparse statements that filled the air in letters that evaporated like skywriting. Is it so important who says what?
            Imagine that she became, unexpectedly, more adventurous in bed, even after the news. As he braces for changes that are underway, she begins to introduce something altogether different from his expectations. She moved in way that was new. She twisted and lumbered differently in his palms. She tasted different. She became kinky. She talked dirty. She started ‘cumming’ loudly. She created a new nickname for him. Was that the beginning of the end?
            Then footsteps down the hall to the garage into the Escort accelerator.

            Then movers arrived at the complex. His neighbors later remembered the truck in the alley, the undersized crew struggling with the heavy chest of drawers. (People come and go in rentals.) They remembered hearing them bump against the walls. He sees them scuff the paint with corners of tables and chair legs. He can repaint. He knows the contours of rooms, thinking back to Mr. A’s rough hands and paintbrush. He once knew someone who went about his job with quiet dignity, who needed nothing but time and space. There is no one like that now. Mr. A in the nursery with him, invisibly guiding his hands over the scuffs and marks left behind by movers. Someone whose age was only guessed by the generational purity of his work ethic. Mr. A’s skin was perfect, black and smooth. His eyes green. He had to take custody of his granddaughter because his daughter was a drug head or something. But there was only perfection in him. Mr. A teaching our man in his quiet way how to wash the brush at the end of the day. Run it under the outside faucet. Store it in a sheath. Use even strokes. Work with light and shadows. Mind the drops. Mr. A teaching the economy of movement. A time before “Betty”.
Stuff not to pack:

old notebooks


            He dreamt about Celine awakening to the world; she is a stem cell of creativity, capable of every language, every chord. Cells differentiate as she attunes to her surroundings: human, western, English, white. She whittles down the trunk of potentiality to a fine statue -- leaving behind what is not needed -- forgetting what is not realized.

            She would enter his dreams even as “Betty” was unbeknownst to him preparing to leave. Imagine sending out framed sonograms to family members, who through the distortion, found familiarity in the image like a family nose. Building anticipation during gestation. A waiting game. Then the wait stretches on in the wake of “Betty” and her late model Escort. It turns into ten years. The memory of Sanna -- would unexpectedly erupt -- stretch out with its long legs and arms. When she saw fit, she twitched into his bones and stabbed his heart, crying to be fed. And he had no idea whether it would ever stop.
        He thought back, retracing every decision, analyzing every effect. He should have taken responsibility, he would admonish himself. He should have given her a chance to say yes. "It’s not on you," she said then. Does she know or suspect or even worry that it wasn't his? Then ten years later, movers come, scuffing and scraping, and struggling under the weight of chests and chairs.
            That was the beginning of a new beginning.        

        (Undated) “We realize at some point that we are just carriers of DNA, coded to respond, coded to worry. We dream the best and worst of everything, and often confuse the two.”
        From the road, he scribbled notes and recorded voice memos into his cell phone. Listening back, one can hear the steady hum of the road and songs that he would grow sick of hearing.

            ... he could be straining a potato through a press, slinging frozen patties onto an iron skillet, brushing the glistened coat of a mare, blowing reverie through a bugle, pointing a video camera at a golfer, lowering a net into saltwater, skimming a pool..

            Movers returned things still in their boxes. A foreman with a clip board, watching them struggle under chests and chairs, and checking off items – the ones still in their boxes after all this time -- to return like an estate sale.

overhead mobile
chest of drawers with changing table
ladybug rug
diaper bag
laundry bin
ladybug wall decals
bath toy holder.

            Boxed up with instructions to return to sender. Does our good man try to forget, pretend nothing happened? Is he aware of what happened?
Ladybug bouncer
ladybug wall clock
ladybug nightlight
ladybug stargazer
ladybug pillow.

            “Betty” would pretend nothing happened.
teddy bear blanket
baby books
bath chair
car seat
car seat base
monkey car mirror.

            He made a recording in Nevada at 8:50 p.m. "I should have lived in the mountains. There’s something about the stillness and scale that stirs the soul."
            Now, imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald – who is so acquainted with self-destruction -- running from the vortex that held the keys to his own personal ghost. Fitzgerald conjures the apparition at the end of the Great Gatsby. "For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in this presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." That was 1925. Vast stretches of “this continent” are still relatively unchanged.
Things to forget:
She was pretty
She kissed me back
She said she loved me too
She said never said no
She won at Gin Rummy

            In Utah at 10:24 a.m. our man spoke again: "Mesas sit like totems, chieftain heads, pyramids, a jury of stones.  The road stretches, contorts and turns. There’s nothing here. Gray charcoal with red tones. I am a visitor here. Self-conscious. I feel them staring, feel something lost that hurts because I'm moving further and further away from it."
Things to remember:
She was selfish with the TV remote
She could be bossy
She lost at Scrabble
She was the teacher's pet
She didn’t want a long distance relationship
You didn't want a long distance relationship.

            He stopped in a hotel in Ogallala, Nebraska. American cities, he scribbles, are patients on a respirator. He had come to believe – realize – that his insomnia is tied to technology. Smiling faces on laptops, messages saved on voice mail, emails, texts -- even without her hair dryer in the bathroom, he has been surrounded this whole time. He left words on a pad with Travel Lodge letterhead. He wrestled over letters, their contours and shapes as if working a mathematical theorem. No, as if he were hammering a floor joint with paint on his work boots or pulling cotton from black stalks.
           (Undated) "Irony happens when something is examined too closely. It becomes ethereal, like so many thoughts, like the uncertainty principal, like a wave and particle, like something that leads to inaction."
            He walked out to his car and took the frontage road around the gas station to a Quonset bar. Inside, four toads sat dimly with their bulbous heads craned to a black and white television showing a chart of numbers. A bird and her mate, whose brittle bones were partially hid by an ascot, watched the TV in the darkness from a table. He struck up a conversation with one of the toads, bought him a beer and borrowed $2 to play. He won, somehow, bummed another $2, and watched the toads watch the TV. A bartender was reacting to an insult that he missed. A middle age woman explained to a stranger that she didn't want to stay home with kids every night. His benefactor won $50, ordered another Coors and left a handsome $5 tip. He strained his eyes on the TV trying to divine the rules of the lottery.
            Back at the Travel Lodge, he considered into his pad what toad life would be like in Nebraska.


            He came to from his sleepwalk on the highway in Iowa.
           Driving for five hours straight he decided to stop and pee. There is nothing but corn to remember in Iowa. 

           The tollbooth operator outside of Chicago advised him that it was illegal to talk on his cell phone and drive. The phone recorded the conversation. He drove all day to Detroit. When he finally arrived, a landlord was waiting in the driveway with a new set of house keys. Pleasantries were exchanged. An offer to help with the bags was politely declined. Before unpacking, he took a warm shower without a curtain. He turned off the water and stepped into a cool puddle of water on the tiled floor.
Things to buy:
shower curtain
garbage can
toilet paper

            Somewhere between here and there, he wrote: "Memory is a myth. You start to change what happened as you look back, repurposing it. If you believe in fate, you end up identifying patterns that must be serendipitous, at all costs. I am trying to see that it is for the best. "
            He dressed and unloaded the car. The laptop and sleeping bag went in the bedroom, stereo in the living room, suitcases readied for closets, boxes of papers in the office. Everything looked small in the empty house. The laptop made its first journey into the living room with his sleeping bag. He found a plug for the charger. Note: order Internet service.
           Exploring the neighborhood, he passed a strip mall with an ice cream shop. At a pocket park, he sat in a playground swing and watched fireflies streak about the meadow.

            … he could be a letter summoned onto a page, the scorched trunk of a sequoia, an overused guitar chord, a virus bombarded with brainless white blood cells, a sperm racing for the egg, an impure thought, gossip in a salon, a machete used on child arms, bald brakes on a school bus, the sexual energy between strangers, methane in a compost pile...

            Gatsby stayed in Louisville a week haunting the birthplace of his lost love, walking the streets “where their footsteps had clicked together through the November night and revisiting the out-of-the way places to which they had driven."

            On the way home, our man stopped by a market for a six-pack of beer, eggs and sandwich meat. He put the eggs in the fridge. No skillet. He drank the beer on a patio chair left behind by the landlord.
Things to buy:

coffee filters
Dijon mustard
light mayo
garbage bags
paper towels

            Back in the beginning, they lived on his futon, his single piece of furniture. They made love every night, afraid of not making love, afraid of becoming comfortable, hoping in desperation the loving would not end. They stayed naked through the afternoon, spending the day in bed, baking cheese fries, making love, listening to music, watching TV, making love again and again, in desperation.

            “He stayed there a week, walking the streets where their footsteps had clicked together through the November night and revisiting the out-of-the-way places to which they had driven in her white car. Just as Daisy’s house had always seemed to him more mysterious and gay than other houses, so his idea of the city itself, even though she was gone from it, was pervaded with a melancholy beauty.”3

            … he could be a stolen idea, a lie, the membrane of a pimple, antimatter…
           … he could be you,
           … he could matter,
           … he could be a hit record, a faded memory, the tooth of a child, a binary number, as if he were someone else's dream, the spirit of the law, a figment, food for thought, a failed marriage, a favorite book, value-added, a paradigm shift ….

           “Then out into the spring fields, where a yellow trolley raced them for a minute with people in it who might once have seen the pale magic of her face along the casual street.”4

            He was undecided on the details. The idea of a grand gesture must have surfaced one night and festered inside his vulnerable mind. A compulsion that kept him awake night after night as he lay in an empty California bed and compelled him eastward to the very spot where he both feared and wanted to be. He had nothing to lose. Driving east, his boldness gave way to ambivalence. And now that he had arrived, he trembled. The first night he lay in his sleeping bag trying to breath. His heart pounded through his chest cavity. He postponed a dramatic drive-by the first day, although he had mapped the way. The second day, he decided, he needed a haircut and a car wash. Perhaps he should wait for Internet service to email. A grand gesture would catch her off guard, say something about him. Tell her that he wasn’t who she thought he was. He was bold, capable of action. Capable of being an adult and taking responsibility. It would clear everything up. After all this time. He had saved her letters. He could turn back the clock. They could start over. Seen from another angle, though, it looked impulsive. Flaky. “Too much of a free spirit.” These had been negatives to her. She wanted security. She wanted foundation. He thought about this for another night.

           … as if he were outside of the box, the straight and narrow, a pace maker,
           … as if he were a clipped wing, as if he were the burr under a saddle, as if he were a figure of speech, as if he were AC/DC, as if he were analogue, as if he were irony, as if he were an adverb, as if he were civil disobedience, as if he were progress, as if he were a watchful eye, as if he knew all along, as if he were the alpha and omega.

           He dreamt of a funeral where he was lying in the coffin greeting everyone for coming. He felt guilty they had come so far to pay their respects and offered to validate their parking. His grandmother sat in the front row next to “Betty.” They were holding hands. He kept asking them to speak up because he couldn’t audibly hear what they were saying. They ignored him, or rather looked past him to the minister who was addressing the congregation. He kept asking everyone to speak up, almost yelling it.
            He wrote on the Travel Lodge pad from Ogallala that his backyard was filled with fireflies and that he should write a poem about fireflies. He remembered catching them as a boy.

We used to call them lightning bugs, she said
I remember that too
catching them
and re-releasing into air
as if we were
given the power of light


            He dreamt that Amanda wouldn’t look like either one of them so much as a blend; that she would wrinkle her nose when flirting. A thumb-sucker. She would babble, make raspberries with her lips and hum in octaves. She would smile for the camera and rarely cry. She would like strangers and make you feel better when you held her.
            He stayed there for some time, walking the streets that he remembered, likely plotting places to visit even as his affects began arriving on our doorsteps back at the old complex. Neighbors signed for boxes and every few days an envelope. We stored them in closets unsure of where to send them. Maybe he would come back for them.5
           Inside one of the boxes – let’s imagine now that one had been opened – and among the receipts, maps and scribbled notes was a typed statement. It said the following. “I'm convinced the only way to go through life is with my wings extended to collect all the moss. Trip up the nests and hives. Roll my grubby hide in dung. Pollinate. Let my wings flap and wave, torn as a battle flag. Be not the bullet or oily sea lion, darting and arriving too soon. Be the smelly beast that rumbles over the horizon with an army of pests, locusts and lice, and take the soil with he to the grave. Count my cuts and bruises as passports, my fallen skin as advice, my rutted trail as a row for planting.”
           By autumn of that year, his email account was shut down and his phone disconnected. But affects kept arriving, fanned out to neighbors who spent little time talking to each other, but for occasional dog walks. There had been some concern about his whereabouts. The old landlord looking for a final rent check. Bill collectors. It wasn’t until they began interviewing residents that they pieced together what he had been up to.

            “I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”6
           After some time, people stopped asking about him, and whatever search -- let’s imagine there was a search – had been called off. Eventually his cell phone arrived. The last voice memo was at least a few weeks old when it was discovered. It was bagged and placed into evidence with his other keepsakes. 7 8
           It appeared that the old sport had been reconciling what he believed with what may have actually happened. Unfortunately, we do not have the record to piece together the proper silhouette of “Betty.” We could just assume that she callously walked down the hall, to the garage and drove her late model Escort back to Detroit to start over with a coming baby among her own kind. Or we may imagine there was a complication. Imagine “Betty” instead confused and distraught. Imagine the loss of her only parent – a mother – takes her confusion and pushes it over the edge, where not only “Betty” falls but also the unborn child. What good does imagining do anyway? You can imagine anything, and feel better about it than the cold plate served by the official record. Then we play the last voice memo on the phone, and imagine that our old neighbor has found reconciliation. Or at least closure.


            “We dreamt last night about her sitting in her mother's arms and smiling up at us while we kissed. She looked back and forth to each of our faces as we kissed, her smiling, us laughing. It was a game. We kissed, she smiled, we laughed. Her doing it, then us doing it, her laughing; us doing it again, her laughing. Sometimes she would cry and sometimes she was laughing. She would roar at us, and we roared back to change her tears to laughter. We went on and on like that for some time.”





1From a letter that was included among his affects that arrived in a box to the Goodson family in Unit 101.

2The general destination of the Escort, originally assumed to be eastward, now in question.

3The Great Gatsby, Chapter 8


5According to official reports that were based on interviews with neighbors who once lived in the complex as well as those presently living there.

6The Great Gatsby, Chapter 9

7The prevailing theory was that Betty left California in 1999 to return home to Detroit. It was his theory that no questioned. Although many questioned the wisdom of trying to resume a relationship after a decade if anything can “resume” after such time.  There is no evidence he found her. In fact, there is no official “record” of her ever to returning to Detroit in 1999 other than for her mother’s funeral.

8Another theory, proposed by the officer investigating his disappearance is that she never left California.  There was no investigation of her whereabouts then. Detective Timothy Coburn discovered that her mother, who was her only surviving parent, died in 1999 the same year she left. None of his neighbors were aware of her mother’s death. In the Detroit suburb, interviews with childhood neighbors yielded no results. She had returned for the funeral and then flown back to California, they thought. A trail can go cold in a decade when someone has not been sought. “So until one of them resurfaces….” Detective Coburn said the inquiry would be put on hold. That satisfied the neighbors who were glad to return his personal things stored in their closets, and others possibly forgotten in storage by those who had moved out of the complex or separated from their spouses, who were not contacted.