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 1...

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 Jules.
Sandi 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 said.

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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