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There is something fascinating about watching one’s home and possessions burn. There is grief and panic and fear and horror, to be sure, but there can also be a frightening, overwhelming sense of relief and release.
One can see it on the television news when watching other people watch their houses burn down, when the screen shows the faces of families huddled on sidewalks wrapped in blankets, ignored by working firefighters, just standing there while everything they thought was important disappears. Mostly, one sees confusion and sadness and loss flowing across those faces, but if one looks closely, one will often see subtle smiles and dancing eyes as people watch themselves reduced to absolute freedom. Especially the ones without insurance; those folk can be hysterical.
There’s a noise that cars make when power steering starts to wear out; it’s a shrill, squeaking kind of noise that sounds like a cage full of screaming monkeys or millions of steroid-addled crickets in chorus. Anthony was amazed sometimes that he’d gotten used to it.
“Fucking piece of shit car,” he said.
The car shrieked in reply.
That was the kind of relationship they had, Anthony and his car. Sort of like the one his parents had shared for almost thirty years, though he and the car had only been together five. He loved hating his ride just about as much as his parents had loved to hate each other. Anthony had never known a girl well enough to hate her, so the car just had to do.
“Goddamn miserable cocksucking piece of whore-shit,” Anthony continued, thinking fondly of his dad.
The car squealed back just like mom.
It looked like a scarecrow. Or a crucifixion. But neither definition could explain its presence one hundred yards from lakeshore. They had to row out in a small boat to examine it. It was just a life-size facsimile of a person made of straw and crucified on a post sunk into the water with his straw back turned to the shore and his straw face turned toward the eastern horizon. Chief Margery sat in a boat that was rowed out for a closer look at the straw man. She was the head of local law enforcement after all (even if she was the only law enforcement officer on the force), and an investigation seemed clearly an official duty.
It was straw and skillfully made. Each stalk of straw had been carefully placed into each bundle then carefully woven into a near perfect, albeit straw-colored, simulacrum of a man in extreme pain. The detail of his straw face was extraordinary. The straw seemed molded, the parallel stalks shaping contours of cheek and brow blending to form a straw face, and the twisted rictus of his straw mouth drew back from meticulous straw teeth clenched in what appeared to be straw agony. Straw muscles strained against binding wires cruelly biting into straw flesh and straw tendons stood corded under straw skin along a straw neck. He shone golden in the bright summer sun.
Margery reached out from the boat to grasp the wooden pole supporting the effigy. A ring of rainbow oil haloed the spot where it entered the water’s surface. Looking up at the straw man, she marveled at the skill and effort it must have taken to create him.
“What the hell?” boat owner Mel asked no one particularly.
“It’s a man made of straw,” replied Tom, one of the many homeowners whose property now boasted lakefront views of this torture tableaux. “He’s crucified in the lake.”
And because Tom had said it out loud, they all had to believe it.
“What’s it for?”
“Who made it?”
“That’s fucking weird.”
“What should we do?”
The recognition of what they’d all been looking at released a tumble of words from their mouths. No one listened to what anyone else said; they all needed to speak a moment for release.
“Okay, okay, okay everybody,” Margery interjected and brought them back to quiet.
They waited, sitting in little rows in the small outboard boat that rocked in the slight motion of the lake’s currents. Since she had demanded their attention, they were giving it to her.
“Let’s just go back to shore for now,” she told them and Mel turned the boat and they returned to land. “I need to figure out how to cut this thing down and get it to shore.”
The impromptu reports delivered to those on shore did nothing to assuage the general unease. That it wasn’t a real man crucified there offshore was only slight comfort; for some, a real man crucified would have been less disturbing than this strange artifact. A real man would have been somehow more understandable. The unanswerable questions flew about Margery’s head and she was searching her own knowledge for some procedure or protocol to guide her through what was quickly becoming a “situation.”
“Chief Gold,” one of the assembled spoke. “What are you going to do about this?”
Margery was stumped. She couldn’t see any crime that had been committed, but that didn’t mean a straw man in the lake shouldn’t be investigated.
“Teenagers,” someone said. “Just kids fucking around.”
Based on what Margery had seen of the local youth since moving to the area 12 years ago, something as complex and even artful as this straw man was completely beyond their abilities. They were a mouth-breathing bunch, much like their parents, and Margery knew them from their drunkenness, their violence, their auto accidents, and their vandalism. She did not know them for their artistic abilities.
“Devil worshippers,” another offered. “It’s the fucking Manson family or something.”
“It’s blasphemy, for sure,” still another contributed.
“People! People!” Margery raised her voice above the lakeshore chatter. Again, all eyes were on her, waiting for her to speak.
“There’s nothing we can do right now, right here,” she told them. “Let’s all go home now and let me do my job.”
And she wondered what “job” she was going to do.
He was a man made of straw wired to a pole with a crosspiece and he was tortured in the water one hundred yards from the shore and someone must have put him there but she already knew no one would admit it and no one knew why he had been placed there in their lake, so they just left him there for the time being. They were too confused to do anything else and there he stood where everyone could see him and no one would take him down, similar in that way as well to the original.
“Does someone want to help me get this thing out of the water?” she asked and went to her car to see if she had some tools that would be useful.
Anthony had flooded the car. Again. The starter danced on the verge of accomplishing its mission but the car itself seemed determined to remain asleep, only mildly disturbed in its mechanical repose and certainly not to rousing.
“Muh. Thuh. Fuckah,” Anthony swore as he twisted the key, as he tried to physically hurt the car for not starting. If he could have, Anthony would have stepped outside and whipped the car bloody.
When it did finally catch and sputter to life, Anthony was not grateful. He was irritated because it had taken so long.
Gears ground when he yanked the shifter and the squeal began as he pulled into the avenue. If the radio had worked, he would have turned it on very very loudly but it didn’t so he didn’t. The one working headlight, angled off into the night and away from the roadway, burned dull yellow.
Long after her workday was supposedly ended, Margery sat at her office desk and pondering the results of her internet search. She had entered the words “straw” and “man” and “straw man” and “strawman” and every other combination and tangent she could think of trying to find something, anything, which would be useful. What she found was right out of her college freshman English class:
“The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. This sort of ‘reasoning’ has the following pattern:
1. Person A has position X.
2. Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).
3. Person B attacks position Y.
4. Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.
This sort of ‘reasoning’ is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position simply does not constitute an attack on the position itself. One might as well expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to hurt the person.”
Following a tangent on the web-threads her search revealed, Margery also found reference to the Devil, to Satan, to Lucifer the Father of Lies as the originator of this particular fallacy: “Now we come to the heart of the matter. Having set up his straw man arguments, Lucifer knocks them down with one swift stroke. After vilifying the corporate church and predicting awful judgments from God to come upon her, he gleefully declares, ‘The church age has come to an end.'"
This disturbed Margery. The lakefront crowd had murmured of devil-worship and sacrilege, but she had dismissed it from her mind until reading the words on her computer screen.
“One might as well expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to hurt the person,” she spoke aloud. Looking up from the computer screen, leaning back in her chair, squeezing shut her tired and burning eyes, Margery asked, “Whose bad drawing are you?”
The straw man, propped in a corner of her office and filling her air with its clean stable smell, declined comment.
Anthony flooded the car. Again. It was 9:00 o’clock in the evening and Anthony was going to work. If such a thing were possible, Anthony hated his job more than he hated his car; in fact, Anthony often blamed his job for his car, reasoning that if it were a better job that paid him more money, his car would then logically be a better one and more inclined to get him to his better-paying employment.
As it was, working in an all-night convenience store, sitting behind smeared and grimy bulletproof glass, selling disposable lighters, lottery tickets, copper scrubbing pads, and disposable diapers to the crackheads and meth-tweakers who patronized his little corner of hell, was certainly not lucrative. None but crackheads and tweakers and crackhead mommies and tweaker mommies needed such things as he sold in the middle of a series of rotten nights and he hated them, his customers, while they counted out their dirty little coins and filthy bills into his steel tray. Of course, his customers hated Anthony as well. It was like family like that.
So, it was with a modicum of curiosity that Anthony watched the unfamiliar face (and body) enter the store. Squeezing between racks of pork rinds and Inca Cola, Chore-Boy copper scrubbing pads, macaroni and cheese, dog food, and diapers, was the most beautiful woman Anthony had ever seen in this or any other store. She wore little clothing, a micro-something stretched around her hips and what looked like a band of shiny black rubber across her breasts. Her feet were bare and beautiful and very dirty. Her legs and arms were adorned with bruises, beautiful somehow in their verigated hues of black and purple and green and yellow. She wore no jewelry. She was incandescent. Anthony hated her instantly and his rage burned whitely behind his darkened eyes.
She floated to the bulletproof cage protecting Anthony from the store. The closer she came, the more dazzled and enamored he became and the bile that rose to answer his infatuation, the red fury growing with each step she took, his rising wrath at her perfection flushed through his bloodstream like burning acid. She stood before him, languid eyes searching for his, long legs pushing her pelvis against his station, her long arms laid like a gift upon the counter.
“Cigarettes?” she purred.
Anthony just stared at her.
“Cigarettes?” she again spoke, moist lips barely moving, eyes hooded but hungry.
“Whaddya want?” he answered her finally.
“Something good,” she replied. “Something really good.”
Anthony just stared at her. If such a thing were possible, he would have reached through the thickly smeared glass and smashed her pretty face into an ugliness to match the ugliness he felt inside himself when he looked at her pretty face.
“Ferchrissake, lady,” he snapped. “Jus’ tell me watcha want, wouldja?”
“For Christ’s sake,” she murmured. “Yes. For Christ’s sake.”
Anthony fumed. And waited.
“Tell me, Anthony,” she eventually broke their silence. “Are you happy?”
And he wasn’t even surprised that she knew his name.
Chief Margery stood with the rest of them on the shore waiting for sunrise and looked at the new straw man standing there on the new cross sunk there in the waters in the lake shallows where the first straw man had appeared. Dawn light silhouetted this new straw man and then, when the sun’s first direct rays burned across the water and touched its straw head, there was sudden illumination, a burst of straw-gold light released holy fire and the new straw man was truly radiant in the morning light, the dawn of another holy day.
As the rising sun warmed his limbs, what used to be Anthony was feeling more and more happy. Things were finally going his way and the loss of hatred and rage lightened him as the sun’s rays lit him. As glow and heat grew, as the burning globe before him lifted itself from the watery horizon, Anthony smiled to greet what was looking to be the best day of his life.
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