by Dan Chaon
Safety Man is all shriveled and puckered inside his zippered nylon
carrying tote, and taking him out is always the hardest part. Sandi
is disturbed by him for a moment, his shrunken face, and she averts
her eyes as he crinkles and unfolds. She has a certain type of smile
ready in case anyone should see her inserting the inflator pump into
his backside; there is a flutter of protective embarrassment, and
when a car goes past she hunches over Safety Man's prone form, shielding
his not-yet-firm body from view. After a time, he begins to fill out--to
used to be a joke. When Sandi and her husband Allen had moved to
Chicago, Sandi's mother had sent the thing. Her mother was a woman
of many exaggerated fears, and Sandi and Allen couldn't help but
laugh. They took turns reading aloud from Safety Man's accompanying
brochure: Safety Man--the perfect ladies' companion for urban living!
Designed as a visual deterrent, Safety Man is a life-sized, simulated
male that appears 180 pounds and 6 feet tall, to give others the
impression that you are protected while at home alone or driving
in your car. Incredibly real-seeming, with positionable latex head
and hands and air-brushed facial highlights, handsome Safety Man
has been field-tested to keep danger "at bay!"
"Oh, I can't believe she sent this," Sandi had said. "She's really
lifted it out of its box, holding it by the shoulders like a Christmas
gift sweater. "Well," he said. "He doesn't have a penis, anyway.
It appears that he's just a torso."
"Ugh!" she said, and Allen observed its wrinkled, bog man face dispassionately.
"Now, now," Allen said. He was a tall, soft-spoken man, and was
more amused by Sandi's mother's foibles than Sandi herself was.
"You never know when he might come in handy," and he looked at her
sidelong, gently ironic. "Personally," he said, "I feel safer already."
And they'd laughed. Allen put his long arm around her shoulder and
snickered silently, breathing against her neck while Safety Man
slid to the floor like a paper doll.
that Allen is dead, it doesn't seem so funny anymore. Now
that she is a widow with two young daughters, Safety Man has begun
to seem entirely necessary, and there are times when she is in
such a hurry to get him out of his bag, to get him unfolded and
blown up that her hands actually tremble. Something is happening
There are fears she doesn't talk about. There is an old lady she
sees at the place where she often eats lunch. "O God, O God,"
the lady will say, "O Jesus, sweet Jesus, My Lord and Savior,
what have I done?" And Sandi watches as the old woman bows her
head. The old woman is nicely dressed, about Sandi's mother's
age, speaking calmly, good posture, her gloved hands clasped in
front of her chef's salad.
And there is a man who follows Sandi down the street and keeps
screaming "Kelly!" at her back. He thinks she is Kelly. "Baby,"
he calls. "Do you have a heart? Kelly, I'm asking you a question!
Do you have a heart?" And she doesn't turn, she never gets a clear
look at his face, though she can feel his body not far behind
is not as desperate as these people, but she can see how it is
Allen died, she has been worrying about going insane. There is
a history of it in her family. It happened to her Uncle Sammy,
a religious fanatic who'd ended his own life in the belief that
Satan was planting small packets of dust in the hair behind his
ears. Once, he'd told Sandi confidentially, he'd thrown a packet
of dust on the floor of his living room and suddenly the furniture
began attacking him. It flew around the room, striking him glancing
blows until he fled the house. "I guess I learned my lesson!"
he told her. "I'll never do that again!" A few weeks later, he
put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Sandi's mother is not such an extreme case, but she, too, has
become increasingly eccentric since the death of Sandi's father.
She has become a believer in various causes and sends Sandi
clippings, or calls on the phone to tell her about certain toxic
chemicals in the air and water, about the apocalyptic disappearance
of frogs from the hemisphere, about the overuse of antibiotics
creating a strain of super-resistant viruses, about the dangers
of microwave ovens. She accosts people in waiting rooms and
supermarkets, digging deep into her purse and bringing up Xeroxed
pamphlets, which she will urge on strangers. "Read this if you
don't believe me!" And they will pretend to read it, careful
and serious, because they are afraid of her and want her to
leave them alone.