The Common Breath Fiction Series, January 2021

The Man of Straw
by Robert Boucheron

The man of straw walks to stretch his legs, stiff from sitting so long. He has done his stint, a few hours at his desk with paper and pen. He may have spun straw into gold, or he may have fussed over nothing. Who can say?

Shuffling, so as not to jar the Panama hat on his wispy hair, the man of straw remembers his youth. Then he was made of blood and muscle, sinew and bone. In those days, he had a spring in his step. He carried his weight on the balls of his feet like a fighter. As he walks, his joints creak.

The man of straw stoops to pet a small dog. He unbends to greet the man attached to the dog. The man nods. Farther on, a woman has a pair of greyhounds, thin and silent. They were rescued from a racing kennel, she says. The greyhounds crowd in. They crave his touch. Animals smell the open field of tall grass, the earth and sky inside him.

The man of straw forgets to eat lunch. The hour has passed, and the cafes are deserted. Bare tables spill into the street. In any case, he is bored with food and drink. His head is light. His body is dry and weightless. A puff of air might blow it away. Stories of people carried aloft in a 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 to invisible demons. Which is it? They tell their every thought in the tone of late-breaking news. How passionate they are! How important their lives must be! They fill the space around them with light and noise. They radiate an invisible shield, an electromagnetic bubble no word or weapon can penetrate. By contrast, he is pierced to the heart by a ray of sun, the song of a sparrow, 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: a tooth, a clump of hair, a patch of skin. Bits of straw leak from 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 pauses at a shop window. Behind the plate glass is a display of men’s clothing on bland and graceful mannequins. Reflected in front, he is lumpy and bent. His clothes are threadbare, and his shoes are scuffed. He looks like a scarecrow. Yet he once assembled a wardrobe, dressed for success, and selected a necktie. The reflection is a shock.

He enters the shop. He and the owner exchange greetings. They have known each other for years. They discovered in the course of conversation they are the same age. While the man of straw is gaunt and feeble, the shop owner is fat and vigorous. The man of straw cannot afford to buy, but the shop owner touts his merchandise. Selected by himself, it is all high quality, sewn from imported fabric. The man of straw flares up and walks out. One day, he will catch fire and burn to ashes on the spot.

In the course of his walk, the sky clouds over, and a shower starts. The man of straw cannot risk getting wet, because he will rot and grow moldy. He takes shelter under an awning and watches the water fall in sheets. Drops bounce off pavement and sheet metal. They throb and drum and drown the world in noise. When the rain lets up to a light drizzle, he opens a big black umbrella. He proceeds with caution and sidesteps puddles.

The man of steel? The man of straw appreciates the metaphor. He likes the colored tights and the cape. They ripple behind the actor stretched in mid-air. From the television show, which he watched as a flesh-and-blood boy, he repeats the voice-over: “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” But a man of steel would rust in the rain. The sun reappears, and he folds the umbrella. Steam rises from the pavement. In a moment, it dries.

Near his house, cars approach a striped intersection at full speed. The man of straw waits to cross and totters on the curb. He would like to lie down and rest his weary limbs in the middle of the street, which is warm. Would the cars run over him? The street would then be strewn with straw, as if fallen from a farmer’s cart.

Home at last! The man of straw sits for a moment. He comes to an hour later, disoriented. His sleep schedule is disturbed. He confuses memories with dreams. The dreams contain dialogue, speeches, and explanations. The talk reverberates in his head.

At night he lies down by habit. The mattress is firm and springy, stuffed with inorganic shreds, not straw. He reads in bed and dozes off. He wakes in a pose of repose. When he slept soundly at night, he functioned better during the day. A gay blade, what a life he once led! Now his insides rustle and shift, and he knows no rest. ●

Author Bio
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His flash fiction and essays appear in Bending Genres, Fiction Pool, Fictive Dream, Free Flash Fiction, Ink Sweat & Tears, Lunate Fiction, Reflex Press, Virtual Zine, and other magazines. //// t: @rboucheron