Firmer and for the most part more substantially imagined stories than in the author's slighter Alive and Dead in Indiana (1984). Martone's gift here is story-as-meditation, and he shows himself master of the narrative that assembles itself by a nimble-footed series of associations as much as by the march of mere events. In ""King of Safety,"" the best in the book, a symbol-weaving narrator tells the story of his father's long-ago (and now obsolete) job with the telephone company while seamlessly pondering time, fear of death, and what it means to have been once protected by a parent in a sequence of vignettes and memories that are invariably captivating. The richest stories in the volume continue with these and similar themes (and sometimes with the same characters): in ""March of Dimes,"" a mother becomes newly aware of the frail vulnerability of her own young son--and, in another way, of her husband--as she collects money door-to-door in the cause against polio; and in ""The Safety Patrol,"" a sixth-grade teacher contemplates the various forms of doom that randomly await his growing charges. In general, with a vigilant and robustly delicate ear, Martone holds sentimentality just at bay in these pieces, and the best of them can generate real feeling (as in the high-risk ""Parting;"" about fear of death, disconnection, and a man who stutters); but there are other times when the stories tip over the edge into the merely flashy (as in the skillfully woven nostalgia-piece, ""Carbonation""), force too much conventional piety from their material (""Watch Out,"" about foreigners living under church care in the U.S., and ""Lost,"" about a search for a missing boy), or try vainly to find substance in what's vacuous (""A Short, Short Story Complete on These Two Pages""--about a man who works in a shopping-mall bookstore). On balance, though, the strong outweigh the weak in a volume (set mainly in and around Fort Wayne, Indiana) that's aesthetically muscular and vigorous, often insightful, and frequently moving.