Oberlin Alumni Magazine: Summer 2001 Vol.97 No.1
Feature Stories
When Worlds Meet
Visions of Oberlin
Safety Man
[cover story] Caught in the Act
Round Robin Takes Flight
Message from the President
Around Tappan Square
  Safety Man

by Dan Chaon

continued from page 5...

Sandi used to have a normal life. Didn't she? She remembers thinking so, when they first moved to Chicago. She'd loved the big north suburban house they'd bought--so old, so much history! She loved that there was a little park right around the corner, and not far beyond was a row of small quaint shops, and beyond that was the girls' school, everything comfortably arranged. She was away from her crazy family at last, away from the small-town restrictions of her former life.

So it had seemed. But now, as she feels more and more unsettled, she can't help but worry that this comfort is only an illusion. Earlier that week, as she stood on the playground, waiting to pick her girls up after school, a thin, shrill woman--another parent, apparently--had harangued her about the hormones that were being injected into chicken and cattle. These hormones were affecting the children, the woman said. The girls are having their periods earlier and earlier, sometimes as young as 9 and 10! And the boys, the woman continued. Had Sandi noticed how aggressive they'd become? "Doesn't it frighten you?" the woman asked, glaring, and Sandi had nodded, somewhat dizzily.

"I saw a tooth," Sandi confided. "A human tooth, outside the building where I work. In an ashtray!" And the woman had looked at her warily, silent. After a moment, she walked away, as if Sandi had somehow offended her.

She must have seemed like a crazy person, Sandi thinks now as she sits at her desk. She frowns, moving her cursor along a line of numbers on her computer screen. Somewhere, over the tops of the thin-walled maze of cubicles, she can hear Janice laughing her flirtatious laugh, and she has to swallow down the presentiment that Janice will die soon, that Janice will, in fact, be murdered. She slides the arrow of her mouse, points and
clicks as the janitor who looks like Safety Man passes by and salutes cheerfully when she glances up. I am an insane person, Sandi thinks. They will all recognize it, eventually. She can't go on like this much longer. Sooner or later, they'll begin to realize that she is not really one of them; that she is in a different place entirely.

But she continues on: weeks pass, months, and yet here she is, driving through the flow of traffic, humming to a tune on the radio, and Safety Man smiles serenely beside her, gazing forward like a noble sea captain.

"You're doing fine," Safety Man tells her. "Everyone thinks so. You can go on like this for a very long time, and no one will notice. You keep thinking you're going to hit some sort of bottom, but I'm here to tell you: There is no bottom."

"Yes," she murmurs to herself. "Yes, that's true."

And maybe it is. Despite everything, she and her daughters arrive in the parking lot across from their apartment building. Despite everything, there is dinner to be made, and homework to be done, and storybooks to be read. Sandi almost hates to let the air out of Safety Man, but she does nevertheless. She deflates and folds him up, so they can all walk with dignity across the street, to their door. Later, after the girls are put to bed, she will reinflate him, so he can sit in the window while they sleep. But now, as she lays him out on the back seat, as his comforting face begins to shrivel and sag, as he gasps and sighs, she can't help but feel a pang.

"Poor Jules," Molly says. "He's passing away."

"Hush," Sandi says. She presses the flat of her hand against Safety Man's plastic skin. "Shh," she says, as if comforting him, and he replies back: "Shhhhhh...." It's all right. The street lights are beginning to click on above her, and the city sky glows above the silhouette edges of the rooftops. Far away, her mother is leaning over the bed of a comatose child, combing his beautiful hair; far away, a man suddenly shudders as he rounds a dark corner, whispering, "Kelly...?" uncertainly; in the distance, Allen's spirit pauses for a moment, mid-flight, and listens.

"It's all right," she says, and she smiles as the last bit of air goes out of Safety Man. Megan and Molly are standing behind her, solemnly, as she begins to fold him neatly into a square. They watch her hopefully.

"It's all right," Sandi says again. As if she means it. *

Dan Chaon is an assistant professor of creative writing at Oberlin. "Safety Man" is an excerpt from his book, Among the Missing (Ballantine, July 2001), a collection of short stories focusing on the modern family.

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