by Dan Chaon
But she is
functional. At 68, she still works as a nurse's aide on the neurological
ward of the hospital. She'll regale Sandy with the most horrifying
stories about her brain-damaged patients. Then she'll say how much
she loves her job.
Sandi, too, is functional. Besides Safety Man, there is nothing
abnormal about her life. She works, like before, as a claims adjuster
at the IRS. She used to have trouble getting up in the morning,
but now she wakes before the alarm. She is showered and dressed
before her daughters even begin to stir; she has their cereal in
the bowls, ready to be doused with milk, their lunches packed, even
little loving notes tucked inbetween bologna sandwiches and juice
boxes. She stands at the door as they finish their breakfasts, sipping
her coffee, her beige trenchcoat over her arm. At this very moment,
hundreds of women in this exact coat are hurrying down Michigan
Avenue. She is no different than they, despite the inflatable man
in her tote bag.
The girls love Safety Man. Megan is 10 and Molly is 8, and they
have decided that Safety Man is handsome. They have been involved
in dressing him: their father's old black leather jacket and sunglasses,
and a baseball cap, turned backward. They are pleased to be protected
by a life-sized simulated male guardian, and when she drops them
off at school, they bid him farewell. "So long, Jules," they call.
They have decided that they would like to have a boyfriend named
works all day, picks up the girls, makes dinner, does a few loads
of laundry. She doesn't have hallucinations or strange thoughts.
She doesn't feel paranoid, exactly, though the odor of accidents,
of sudden, inexplicable death is with her always. Most of the time,
during the day, her fears seem ridiculous, and even somewhat cliche.
She knows she cannot predict the bad things that lie in wait for
her, can never really know. She accepts this, most of the time.
She tries not to think about her husband.
Still, when the girls are asleep and the house is quiet, Sandi feels
certain that he will appear to her. He is here somewhere, she thinks.
The most supernatural thing she can imagine is the idea that he
has truly ceased to exist, that she will never see him again.
At night, she goes down to the kitchen, which is where he passed
away. He had been standing at the counter, making coffee. No one
else was awake, and when she found him he was sprawled on the tile,
not breathing. She called 911, then pressed her mouth to his lips,
thrust her palms against his chest, trying to remember high school
CPR. But he had been dead for a while.
She finds herself standing there in the kitchen, waiting. She imagines
that he will walk in, a translucent hologram of himself, like ghosts
on TV--that loping, easygoing tall man's walk he had, a sleepy smile
on his face. But she would be satisfied with even something less
than that--a blurry shape in the doorframe, like a smudge on a photo
negative, or a bobbing light passing through the hall. Anything,
anything. She can remember how badly she once wanted to believe
in ghosts, how much she'd wanted, after her father died, to believe
that he was watching over her--"hovering above us," as her mother
But she never felt any sort of presence, then or now. There is
nothing but Safety Man, sitting in the window facing the street,
his positionable hands clutching a book, his positionable head
bent toward it in thoughtful repose, a Milan Kundera novel
that she'd found among Allen's books, a passage he'd underlined:
"Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that
occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeats day in and
day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us. We read its messages
much as gypsies read the images made by coffee grounds at the
bottom of a cup." Alone beside the standing lamp, Safety Man considers
the passage as Sandi sleeps. Because he has no legs, his jeans
hang flaccidly from his waist. He reads and reads, a lonely figure.
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