by Dan Chaon
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
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. *
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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