“The Myth of Fingerprints” by Roxane Gay

It is said no two fingerprints are alike… whorls, loops and arches of flesh that separate one person’s identity from another. I leave fingerprints everywhere. In the elevator, I press the doughy pads of my fingertips against the walls, the cool metal railing, leaving an oily smudge behind. In stores I gently massage sales counters and merchandise racks. I’m afraid my life is going unnoticed.

If you dream of fingerprints, bad things lie ahead. I read that once. Last night I dreamt of fingerprints. I’ve decided to go for a long drive.

My mother always tells me to make sure I’m wearing good underwear when I go out—just in case. Everyone’s mothers say to wear good underwear, just in case. I’m not quite sure what just in case is but it is also said that mother knows best. I am wearing my good underwear, with no holes, or worn threads of elastic hanging from the waistband. The other underwear—the bad underwear, which has misbehaved in some way, hides in the back of my top dresser drawer.

I take one duffel bag and my father’s old atlas, which is encased in faded brown leather—one of those old fashioned atlases that fold open and snap shut. You can follow the vacations my family took when I was a child by the deep creases on the middle states and the coffee stains marking where we got lost, somewhere north of Cleveland, Ohio. As I lock the door to my apartment, I wrap my fingers around the doorknob, just in case.

I should probably call my mother but I don’t. I can picture my father, who is recently retired, slouching in a kitchen chair, idly scratching his chest, as my mother invents new and exciting ways for him to occupy his time and not hers. They are probably bickering, even at this ungodly hour. I decide to call her later, instead.

It’s November. The air is sharp, my lungs aching as I breathe. My car, twelve years old, has seen better years. The front bumper is nonexistent, and a rusty dent has disabled the driver’s side door. She’s named Matilda, because she reminds me of a lumbering Australian farm wife—sturdy, and low to the ground. I open the back door, and toss my duffel bag onto the seat, muttering under my breath as I crawl into the front seat, my knee banging against the gear shaft.

Matilda sputters to life, and while I wait for her to warm up, I empty the ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts that hold my fingerprints onto the parking lot pavement. Soon, the wind will pick up, and they’ll be blown away. Some disgruntled environmentalist or health nut will curse all smokers when they find one of the butts, dried, bent, stained with lipstick and tar.

After filling the car with gas, I head east on the interstate—away from Lincoln, away from the flat prairie of Nebraska. I keep one eye on the road while I stare at my fingers. In college, I majored in architecture, and my hands bear the scars thereof. Across the first knuckle of my right index finger is a corrugated scar borne from an Exacto knife at three in the morning.  From the pinky to the middle finger of my left hand is a jagged, fading line, created by a different Exacto knife, at the same time of morning. My fingertips are similarly scarred, pale marks of varying sizes interrupting the natural sequence.

In an hour, I will be late for my job, a good job by most people’s standards. I am an architect. I have a cubicle with 3.75 walls and just enough space to perform a pirouette, but that would be entirely out of character so I use the space pretending to work. Most of my coworkers try to add personal flair to the sterility of their workspaces, but I’m lazy, apathetic by most people’s standards. The only thing lining my 3.75 walls are lines I’ve cut into them, one for each day I’ve worked there. Today would have brought the grand total to 972, but today I’m not going to work.

The cup of coffee I inhaled at the gas station is engaged in a battle with the lining of my stomach, so I turn the radio on. I need distraction. Matilda’s antenna has broken in half, so I’m forced to listen to an evangelical AM station, 1040 KRST. Sister Mary Jo Butler of the Jesus Loves You Too Ministry is offering her seven listeners the inspirational tale of how she was saved by our lord, Jesus Christ.

“I hit bottom,” Mary Jo sobs. “I lay on the floor, cradling an empty bottle of Jack Daniels, when suddenly, I saw a light. I felt warm all over and I knew it was Him. I’ve been saved ever since.”

I consider lasting salvation. I shiver. The tremulous passion in her voice makes me uncomfortable. I have little faith that there is anything in this world worth sharing with people who listen to AM radio. I am further troubled by her need to share her passion. Her confession is so personal, so exposed; something better left to intimate conferences between parishioner and priest. If left to the narrow darkness of a confessional, I would have nothing to say. I listen to Mary Jo and wonder what bottom looks like for someone like her. Is it cold, dark, hard? Is it warm, full of celebratory people waiting for another to fall?

I’m having an affair with my boss, Bert, short for Bertrand, and I’m not sure why. He’s a tight, asthmatic little man, with incomplete features and an unfortunate wardrobe. One night, while working late, he stood just outside my cubicle, rubbing his invisible chin as he watched me sketch an arched entryway for a new medical complex. Stretching my leg, I pushed a box of pilfered office supplies out of his line of sight and tapped my fingers against my desk. He muttered something about my hair and when I turned around, he was gone.

Later, waiting for the elevator, he slithered towards me, wheezing slightly as he adjusted and re-adjusted his wrinkled gray slacks. I nodded politely, pressing my fingertips against the metal up and down buttons, and the elevator doors. Again, he muttered something. I stared at him trying to muster a polite smile of indifference. When he said, “Great, let me get my coat,” I nodded wondering what was so great. Two years later, I’m still wondering.

“If you have a story of how you were saved, call now, again that number is 593-SAVE,” Mary Jo says.

I grope the passenger’s seat before remembering I don’t have a cell phone. I don’t have a story to share with Mary Jo, but I do have questions. No one calls. Traffic is light, and the road feels bland, empty. There is no scenery, only mile after mile of corn or wheat or soybeans, I can’t tell which after a while. As I enter Illinois, the radio crackles. I have lost Mary Jo’s faith. I am relieved, no longer receiving the ministry of KRST.  My back aches and my eyes are watering. I can feel a burning sensation between my thighs, but I’m lazy enough to debate stopping, because I simply don’t have the energy to get out of the car.

A few miles down the road, I come across a truck stop, just outside of Joliet. I’ve never been to Joliet, but I’ve always liked the name. It reminds me of Shakespeare. Quickly, I climb into the backseat, again banging my knee against the gear shaft. I don’t stop to wince, because I really have to go. I stutter towards the dirty glass doors, my thighs dancing around each other, holding back the tide. I try not to breathe as I sit on the lukewarm toilet seat. The odor is that of the rank industrial disinfectant that wipes away the memories of the people who pass through here.

Before I wash my hands, I leave my mark against the chipping surface of the stall door, and the ceramic sink basin.  In the lobby of the truck stop, there is a large map with a bright red star over Joliet. YOU ARE HERE. I pretend to study the map as I press my fingertips along the route I’ll be taking to wherever I’m going. I whisper, “I am here,” again and again. There is a woman, close to my age, standing near one of those racks with all the colorful brochures advertising local attractions that aren’t really attractive. She is beautiful. I notice her staring at me. I don’t look away. Neither does she. I keep whispering, “I am here.” I wonder what the warmth of her neck smells like. I wonder if she’d join me on my long drive. I am not the kind of person who would do something so wild as to ask such a thing of a stranger. I would like to be.

Spending time with Bert is like attending the opera—an acquired taste. Once you overlook his symphony of bad habits and his aggravating penchant for wheezing and adjusting his pants, he is almost tolerable. The first time we made love was as accidental as our first date. I was wearing good underwear, just in case, and he had walked me to my door after an evening at Olive Garden. He shifted from foot to foot as he looked up at me, an almost sheepish smile on his face. I stared at the numbers on my front door, trying to make out the faint lines of fingerprints, pulling back slightly, as I felt his hand slide around my waist. Tilting my head, I forced a smile, waiting for the inevitable.

Bert kept clearing his throat, pulling his hand away to adjust his pants, occasionally switching the routine up, by running a hand through what’s left of his hair. I finally tired of his fumbling, and leaned down, kissing him softly. His body froze for an instant. His lips were thin, but soft, briefly comforting. Then his arms flew around me and Bert moved his head vigorously from side to side. I do not think he realized that he should probably move his lips as well. Standing there hunched over, because Bert is five inches shorter, I remember thinking, so this is what pursed lips feel like. He tasted like dinner mints and cheap cigars.

Later that night as we lay in my bed, I stared at his sleeping form, wishing for a marker with which I could add the facial features he seemed to be missing—a strong chin, two eyebrows, a fuller nose, maybe a scar or two, because I like scars; they tell interesting stories. Bert is not a bad lover.

On the Indiana Turnpike, little has changed in the way of scenery. Every fifty miles or so, there is a convenient rest area replete with greasy fast food and overpriced souvenirs. I refuse to stop at any of these, because they are inundated by irritable travelers, tired children and bored employees. Between cigarettes and fiddling with the radio, I clasp and unclasp my fingers around the steering wheel. I’ve done this so many times over the years that the steering wheel is now embedded with deep inward curves. If I look hard enough, I can see my fingerprints interlaced into an indefinable pattern. I should call someone, but I don’t. I think about Bert. He’s merely convenient and replete with annoyances, much like the rest areas.

The workday is almost ending, and I doubt anyone has noticed I didn’t come in today. Because I’m not in the office, Bert has realized he won’t be getting laid tonight, so by now, I’m sure he has left a nasally message on my voice mail, wondering if I’m shutting him out again, assuring me it’s okay I missed work. He likes to use phrases like shutting out. Bert took a few psychology classes in college and thinks he can psychoanalyze me. I’m his pet project. He wants to reach me. He wants to understand me. He wants to fix me even though I am not someone who needs to be fixed. He’ll often suggest I’m emotionally detached. I know the problem is more that I have yet to find something or someone I care to attach my emotions to. I’m not emotionally detached, I’m emotionally careful. Bert doesn’t understand the distinction. He says I need to open up to him for our relationship to grow. Bert is married. I know there is nowhere for our relationship to grow.

Every now and then I’ll turn my head, my neck stiff, my shoulders tight, to watch people in other cars. It’s fascinating to see lips moving in conversation or singing. I try to imagine what is being said, and find myself joining in these private exchanges. It’s something to break the monotony of the cold asphalt and the waning sun.

If I had friends, they’d tell me I could do so much better than Bert. They’d tell me I’m selling myself short. I would nod, and pretend to agree, but I wouldn’t really care. My mother and I discuss Bert every now and then. She has met him. The three of us went to dinner in a hotel restaurant once. We were all very polite. She says he is the color of tap water. She doesn’t bother telling me what this really means or that I could do better, because she doesn’t like to state the obvious. Instead, she reminds me that he is nice, for a married man, and because she claims to understand me, she doesn’t judge.

Bert has been married forever. I’ve never met his wife, Brenda, but it is said, around the office that she’s a real gem of a woman. I work with very sarcastic people. I have seen her picture on Bert’s desk. She has an aquiline nose and watery blue eyes, over processed hair, and a fashion sense rivaling Bert’s. They have no children, only a pet poodle named Cookie they dote on lovingly, and a country club membership that keeps Brenda in tip-top social shape.

I pass through Cleveland. We came here once, when I was a child, but I don’t remember anything about that trip save for getting lost in the middle of the night. I sat staring at the darkness as my parents fought in the front seat. My mother was trying to navigate, my father was certain we were heading in the right direction. He got so angry he slammed his fist against the dashboard, sending a Styrofoam cup of coffee flying across the atlas. While he wiped the atlas with the tails of his shirt, pretending his hand didn’t hurt. My mother crossed her arms across her chest, smug.

I am sore. Even my fingertips ache. I wonder why I’m so out of shape, but I shouldn’t be surprised. It is only the grace of God keeping me thin. I smoke two packs a day, drink too much coffee, and don’t know how to cook, so my diet consists of pre-packaged ham sandwiches from the convenience mart near my apartment, and a wide variety of frozen pizzas. Bert is scandalized by my lifestyle, is always bringing me leftovers from Brenda’s table. He fails to see the irony in that.

A few miles away from the Ohio/Pennsylvania border a migraine is pressing the concave of bones behind my eyes. I’m tempted to drive my car right off the road just so I can stop moving. The next exit promises a choice of motels, so stifling a yawn, I pull off the interstate, and settle on the sleaziest looking one. I like sleazy motels. They remind me of Bert. While we’ve never frequented one, our relationship has that taint, with him scurrying home to his wife as I change my sheets and scrub his scent from my skin.

The Vacancy sign blinks intermittently. I throw a rock at it as I enter the small office. It’s about the size of my cubicle at work with bright floral print wallpaper and matching shag carpet. Again, I smell industrial disinfectant, so I make sure to press my fingers against the counter while I fill out the card with my license plate number and address. The bored clerk throws a key in my direction stares at my breasts. I roll my eyes. He is young, thin. I consider inviting him to my room.

The décor of in the room matches the office. The double bed, with a stained bedspread, sags in the middle, telling tales about the previous occupants. There’s no remote control, so I ignore the television. I’ve forgotten how to turn one on without modern convenience. Before I lie down, I creep along the walls of the room, leaving my fingerprints. It takes a long time. I stand on a chair with wooden arms to reach toward the ceiling. By the time I work on the last wall, my breathing is harsh and ragged. Tiny beads of sweat form on my forehead. My hands are sore, very sore, but I don’t want to leave an inch of this room unmarked. I am here.

The FBI has millions of fingerprints on file but I’ve never committed a crime. I often wonder what would happen, if someone came upon my fingerprints. My complicity with the law has rendered the whorls, loops, and arches meaningless. Before I leave the next morning, I throw the ashes from the cigarettes I’ve smoked against one wall and the end table, smiling as the fine gray dust reveals my fingerprints, however meaningless the gesture may be.

My body aches in familiar ways as I sit behind the steering wheel and head into upstate New York. This region of the state is wine country, and on all sides, I can see the harvested vines withering. From the large billboards looming above, I know Niagara Falls is near. I’ve never been there either. I’ve never been this far from home. I live ten minutes from the house I grew up in, and my parents will probably die in that house, because like me, they are apathetic by most people’s standards, including mine. I suppose, rather, I am like them. They appreciate the comfort of an existence that doesn’t require much effort. When they’ve had one whiskey sour too many, they’ll babble about moving to Florida, taking up golf or bocce, but when they’ve sobered, they’re still sitting in the kitchen, my father scratching his chest as my mother reviews her recipe collection.

My parents met in high school, and got married because it seemed like the right thing to do. They aren’t particularly enamored of each other and they love to fight but their disagreements are trivial and rarely interesting. They stay together because a divorce would require some amount of passion. I get the impression I was an afterthought because I am an only child. My parents only took notice of me because my mother was in labor for eighteen hours. She never lets me forget that fact though she doesn’t share this reminder with bitterness or malice. When I was nine, I’d go to Sunday School where Mrs. Frink often talked about purgatory, this mythical place where our souls were cleansed before moving on to Heaven. One morning, I raised my hand, asked if purgatory was living. My conclusion made sense to me.  Mrs. Frink frowned. After class, she gave me a note for my parents, patting me on the shoulder. She never answered my question. I still wonder what that note said, but I threw it away without showing it to my parents or bothering to read it myself.

My knowledge of New York City is limited to what I’ve seen in movies or read in books, so my goal, now that I have one, is to reach the fabled Brooklyn Bridge just as the sun is setting. If I were a romantic person, I’d go to the Empire State Building, or take a few rides at Coney Island, but I’m not. I’d like to be that kind of person, but I don’t know how.

I’ve realized lately that my body feels lonely. I need to commit the act of touch with someone who means something to me. I don’t have that someone, so I continue to want. All I ever do is want. Right now, my father is staring at the TV, drinking a sweaty bottle of beer. My mother is in the kitchen, cooking. Later, they will sit side by side eating dinner, exchanging nary a word. They will watch more television until ten, and then they’ll go to sleep, wrapped around the edges of their bed, a wide expanse of emptiness between them. Its how Bert and I sleep when Brenda is visiting her mother in Palm Beach or her sister in Chicago. Sometimes I want to reach across the bed and touch him, to remind myself he’s in my life, there is someone in my life. I want to feel the pale, thin skin that covers his bones. I want him to cover my bones. I want to feel something for him. I want I want I want. My hand slowly inches across the sheets, but I always stop with my fingertips a whisper away from the sharp slope of his back, gentle words dangling from my lower lip. If he stirs, I immediately pull my hand away, pressing my fingertips against the bed frame, listening as he resumes his steady snore. And then my hand will slide back across the bed, tears sliding down my cheeks, because I cannot reach far enough.

It will be a few days before my parents realize I haven’t called. They have their routines. There is a rhythm to their lives, quiet, steady. When I was a child, I came downstairs every morning to find my father sprawled in his favorite chair, snoring gently. His lips would part slightly, a thin strand of saliva swaying back and forth with every breath. His clothes were always the same, a dark tie hanging limply around his neck and a short-sleeved dress shirt, the armpits stained with sweat and ineptitude. His cheap polyester pants would cling to his body awkwardly, showing how his body had given way to weakness, flesh. In my worn Spiderman pajamas, I would tiptoe around the room, picking up his discarded beer bottles before my mother could wake to find he had drunk himself into a stupor yet again.

I never knew why I did this. Everything I knew about my father, my mother knew as well. We had a pact, my mother and I, to avoid the truth at all costs, besides which, some nights, she lay right next to him, cradling a bottle of cooking sherry or an empty box of wine. They are well suited despite their indifference.

My father came home from work, heading directly to the refrigerator for a cold beer, and every time I approached him, I could feel… I could smell his apathy. I would sit at his feet, staring at the cheap black leather shoes with worn tassels, watching his legs cross, then uncross as he stared at the television screen. At times, I wanted to reach out, resting my small hand against his thigh, but there was that smell telling me I shouldn’t. I invented stories that might grab his attention, chattered about my day at school. He would pat my head and reach for the remote. He was not a bad father.

In my mother’s sewing room I sat at her feet, staring at the wrinkled nylons sagging around her ankles, watching as she made a Halloween costume or Christmas decorations or a new apron. Sometimes I was content with surrounding myself with the smell of her jasmine perfume and face powder. Other times I would sit so close to my mother, only a breath of air sat between us. We never touched. I would only sit, telling my mother the same stories I told my father, hoping sooner or later, she would look up from the needle she was threading. Instead, she would tap her foot, listening to Jimmy Buffet, humming softly, a thimble on her finger and a vacant expression on her face. She was not a bad mother.

I reach the city and it is late afternoon. My father’s old atlas has new creases and stains.  After passing through the Holland Tunnel into Manhattan, I toss the atlas out the window. I’ve never seen traffic like this, an endless stream of cars engulfed by monstrous buildings. My window is rolled down, and a painful blend of radios, voices and horns interrupt the silence I’ve been surrounded by for the past two days.  I’m driving in the middle lane, slowly, and angry drivers pass me on both sides. I’m not lost, but I feel misplaced. I want to pull over and leave a fingerprint somewhere, anywhere, but there are so many cars around me. There’s nowhere to go, but forward.

A while later, I’ve negotiated the city traffic and I’m at the Brooklyn Bridge. I park my car in a deserted lot, and grabbing my cigarettes, I walk to the anchorage located in the pilings on the Brooklyn side of the bridge. The chambers are vaulted like cathedrals, with unbelievably high ceilings. The place is overrun with tourists and their sticky children, high-pitched voices echoing back and forth. Closing my eyes, I run my hands along the walls, careful to leave my fingerprints. I remember reading about this bridge in an architecture class. It was hailed as arguably the most influential bridge in American history, and my professor mentioned something about the architect dying during its construction. I find that poetic.

As I leave the anchorage and head for the walkway in the center of the bridge, I have to admire its elegant structure. The bridge is anchored across the lower East River by two neo-Gothic towers and a delicate lacework of steel wire cables. Squinting, I stare up at the soaring lines of the bridge, jostled back and forth by nameless people with somewhere to be. My hands fumble along the railing, as I leave a trail of fingerprints. Only this railing and about a foot and half of thin wooden planks separate me from the river. I notice a few people staring at me, but I ignore them, looking down at the water. It looks dirty and cold; dark yet calm.

I wonder if water holds fingerprints.

Again, I close my eyes, lighting a fresh cigarette. I’m tired and thirsty and cold. I ache.

I want to scream… say something, say anything, but my throat is dry, so instead, I take a long drag on my cigarette, the acrid smoke burning its way into my lungs. I want to leave something more here than just fingerprints.

I think of Bert sitting at his desk, chewing his nails furiously and the office supplies still hidden under my desk and Brenda playing tennis at the country club while Cookie the pet poodle has a manicure. I think of my parents—I never did call them and I realize I forgot to lock my car.

Passersby move past me, and my cigarette hangs from my dry lips while my hands dance along every surface I can find and I’m thankful I’m wearing my good underwear. The air sluicing around me feels like ice.

Nothing momentous is going to happen here. I want to go home. Shoving my hands into my pockets, I spit my cigarette out, watching it float in the air beside me, before falling into the churning river. Then I’m walking back to my car, almost running.

I pull out of the abandoned parking lot and drive onto the bridge. Again, the traffic is overwhelming. My car is barely moving forward. I look around, remembering the dark calm of the river. I slam on the brakes, and as the angry blare of horns fills the air, I crawl out of the car and stand right in front of it. Cars stop. A few drivers roll their windows down, yelling as they veer around me. Sooner or later the police will come, and my fingerprints will become attached to my name. I light another cigarette and place a foot on the hood of my car and then I’m on the cold roof sitting, my legs crossed, smoking, rocking back and forth, shouting, “I am here.”

A different version of this story originally appeared in a 2003 anthology, The Mammoth Book of Tales From the Road, now out of print.

More fiction at Used Furniture.


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