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

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 look human.

Safety Man 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 slipping."
Allen 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.

Now 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 to her.

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 her.
Sandi is not as desperate as these people, but she can see how it is possible.
Since 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.

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