The Man of Straw

The man of straw takes a morning stroll. He needs to stretch his legs, which ache with sitting in place for so long. He has done his stint, a few hours at his desk. The stint may turn out to be wasted, so much paper covered with drawings that are neither useful nor beautiful, or it may turn out to be gold. Who can say?

The man of straw pauses to pet each dog that crosses his path. He greets the man or woman attached to the dog by a leash. One woman has a pair of greyhounds. They were rescued from a racing kennel, she says. Tall, thin and silent, the greyhounds are benign spirits in the shape of dogs. They crave the touch of his hands. He has a natural affinity for animals. With people, one never knows.

Striding along at a moderate pace so as not to jar his panama hat, the man of straw remembers his youth. Then he was supple and elastic, made of muscle and bone, blood and sinew. In those days, he had a spring in his step. He carried his weight on the balls of his feet like a fighter. Now he is stiff and brittle, stuffed with straw. As he walks, his joints creak.

The man of straw forgets to eat. The hour for lunch has passed, and the cafes are deserted. Empty tables spill into the street. In any case, he is bored with food and drink. He scoffs at the idea of nutrition. He becomes light-headed. His body feels dry and weightless, as though it might blow away with a puff. Stories of people carried aloft in high wind do not surprise him, not in the least.

The man of straw overhears passersby. They talk on tiny telephones attached to their bodies, or else to invisible demons. Which is it? They relate their everyday concerns in the tone of late-breaking news. How passionate they are! How important their lives must be! They radiate energy. They fill the space around them with light and noise and odor. They secrete a shell or an electromagnetic field that nothing can penetrate.

By contrast, he himself is pierced by a ray of sun, by the song of a sparrow, by the scent of a rose. A blow to the abdomen would break him in two. He would fall to pieces. As it is, he loses bits of himself. He is shedding. A tooth, a clump of hair, a patch of dry skin—they fall by the wayside. Chaff leaks from his collar and cuffs, which are frayed and loose. He leaves a trail of debris on the sidewalk. Someone will sweep it to the gutter.

The man of straw catches his reflection in a plate glass window. Behind the glass is a display of men’s clothing on bland and graceful mannequins. In front, he is lumpy and bent, his clothes threadbare and faded. He looks like a clown. Yet he once assembled a wardrobe, dressed for success, and chose his necktie with care. The reflection is like the recurring dream in which he is naked in public and must proceed straight ahead through a crowd.

The man of straw enters the shop. He and the owner exchange greetings. They have known each other for years. They discovered in the course of casual conversation that they are the same age. While the man of straw is gaunt and feeble, the owner is fat and vigorous. The man of straw does not want to buy anything, but by reflex the owner touts his merchandise. It is all of good quality, and therefore rather expensive. For no reason, the man of straw flares up and walks out. One day, he may burn up completely, leaving a trace of ash.

Returning home, the man of straw grows tired. While he crosses the street, cars approach the clearly marked intersection at full speed. He would like to lie down, to rest his weary limbs right in the middle of the street, where the sun is hot. Would the cars run over him? The street would then be strewn with straw, as if fallen from a farmer’s cart.

In the course of his walk, the sky clouds over. The man of straw gets caught in a shower. He cannot risk getting wet, because the straw would rot and get moldy. He takes shelter under an awning and watches the water fall in sheets. Drops bounce off pavement and sheet metal. When the rain lets up, when it filters down in a light drizzle, he opens a large, black umbrella and steps between puddles.

The man of steel? The man of straw appreciates the metaphor. He likes the colored tights and the cape, rippling behind the actor stretched prostrate in mid-air, an actor so handsome that one could gaze forever. And he likes to repeat the voice-over from the television show, which he watched as a flesh-and-blood boy: “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” But even a man of steel would eventually get rusty.

Home again, the man of straw sits for a moment and wakes an hour later, disoriented. This is due to the fact that at night he lies awake for hours on a mattress which is firm and springy, stuffed with inorganic material, not straw. His sleep schedule is disturbed. He confuses dreams with memories of things that happened. His dreams contain dialog, as though he were rehearsing a part. The fact that he reads in bed and dozes off while reading further confuses matters. If he slept soundly at night, he would function better during the day.

Robert Boucheron