The sheep scuffling in the chute leading from the pen to the shearing barn huddle together for warmth and comfort. Those nearest the gate press against its bars, craning their necks for a glimpse of their fate. The round yellow eyes with their black slits, half-buried in the bone of their wedged skulls, remind me of the colored glass marbles we used to call aggies when we were kids playing Poison out in the schoolyard.
The pneumatic shears are mounted on a folding swing-arm contraption, similar to a praying mantis or a dentist's drill. A long, lipstick pink rubber hose winds across the dust to the air compressor monotonously chugging away in a corner. Monotonous, too, is the clip of the metal blades as Roscoe guides them through the thicket of matted wool on an underbelly.
"A lot of it's done with mirrors," he says, peeling back the fleece as he cuts.
Sheep are among nature's most skittish animals. But this one lies curiously still, bleatless, as if mesmerized by Roscoe's smooth, baritone voice. My neighbor Hank, who'd asked me a few days earlier to lend him a hand, was certainly right when he told me that the shearer worked slicker than a pickpocket and blabbed a blue streak enough to rouse the dead. A former carnival barker, Roscoe was regaling us with tales from the world of sideshows, ding joints, red-lighting and lot ladies, all the while the sheep was being parted from its winter coat.
One example of the carnival's clever use of trick mirrors was the live demonstration of Darwin's theory of evolution. After enticing the rubes into shelling out two bits to enjoy "the educational experience of a lifetime" -- the sight of a comely lass in a bikini turned into a gorilla -- Roscoe would casually issue a warning.
"She has to be placed in this cage for safety's sake, folks. It's a state regulation. Not that there's any cause for alarm. There have never been any problems, but you never can tell. Accidents do happen. Just in case, you should take note of the emergency exit, located on the left side of the tent. See the illuminated sign?"
The parents paid little attention, but the kids they'd herded inside picked up on the warning. The extra-large, extra-fake padlock had hardly snapped shut on its heavy-duty hasp when they were already edging, baby step by baby step, closer to the emergency exit. The lights went down. Ingeniously placed mirrors turned the naiad into a gorilla, which beat a hairy chest, roared, grabbed the bars and rattled the cage. Then the door was torn off as though it were attached by rubber bands (it was) and the kids shrieked, dashing for the exit, towing Mom and Pop behind them.
"That emergency exit bit is a killer. It would be hard to dream up a more elegant way of emptying the tent for the next show."
Roscoe shoves the shorn animal aside, tossing me its fleece. The ewe takes a few bewildered steps, as if she's lost her sense of balance along with her wool, then gingerly trots off through sheep dip to join her nude sisters, their muzzles rummaging in the feeding trough.
I stuff the pelt into a large canvas bag and tromp it down with my bare feet, like a peasant crushing wine grapes at harvest time. My skin is slippery with lanolin. For days afterwards, the soles of my feet will be as silky as the cheeks of a sultan's most pampered concubine, and my blue jeans will be waterproof.
"Of course," says Roscoe, running a whetstone over the blades of his shears, "it wasn't all mirrors. We did have a sideshow with some genuine freaks. A lady with skin like an alligator. Another, Miss Electra, we used to charge up with a Van de Graaf generator so she could shoot sparks out of her fingernails. This guy who could make his eyeballs pop clean out of his head. Reminded me of a lobster, it did."
In Roscoe's view, the freak that took the cake in the carnie sideshow was Difaccia, the man with two faces. One, plastered mostly on the front, where it should be, was extraordinarily ugly but could pass for normal. The other was just recognizable as a face, like the tragic and comic masks that adorn the pillars of theaters. It was on the side, behind where an ear should be. Folds of sagging skin suggested the eyes. There was a bump of veiny flesh reminiscent of the nose of a drunk, and a tear in the flesh, a hole, which suggested a puckered, toothless mouth. Even more remarkable than this deformed counterfeit of a countenance, which Difaccia would keep turned away from the audience at first, was his spiel.
"Life slips through the fingers like water. We lose our way. One day we're young and full of dreams, the next we look into the mirror and see a shadow. Yes, one day you wake from a troubled sleep, look at your reflection, and how did it happen? Suddenly you're old, bowed with tribulations and sorrow, tired, your skin wrinkled, hair gray, heart sore, your eyes without luster, the rainbow gone, the days shorter, the years passing by faster and faster, harder and harder."
Hank, leaning on the gate to the chute where the sheep are milling about, rolls his eyes salaciously, like an actress in a cheap porn flick. Ninety years on the planet may have whittled him down a bit in size, but they haven't put the slightest dent in his ability to amuse himself.
"You who are still young and carefree, it will happen to you, too. You don't hear their footsteps yet, the sorrows and trials waiting in the wings for their cues, but the morning will arrive when you see somebody you hardly recognize in the mirror. And you will despair. And you know what I want you to do on that dark morning, when all seems lost, never to be called back, utterly hopeless?"
At this point in his monologue, Difaccia would jerk his head around so the audience could see his botched face. And at this, said Roscoe, as he bent over a sheep with half its coat already gone, a gasp of horror would fill the tent. People would involuntarily flinch.
"I want you to think of me then, folks. You see a face in the mirror that makes you unhappy. Imagine what I must feel. Double the trouble, double the sorrow. Imagine what it feels like to be me, disfigured by an extra face the most holy mother on earth couldn't bring herself to love. Abandoned, maimed, taunted. Think of me and what I do. Do I despair? Do I curse heaven for my misfortune? No! A thousand times no! I get down on my knees. I kneel and pray to the Lord God on high. I thank Him from the bottom of my heart for making me, praise Him for the most precious gift, life. Like an innocent child kneeling at the bedside before lying down to sleep, I pray for Heaven my soul to keep. I put my trust in His mercy, for He is the Lord and His ways are many and inscrutable. And that's what I want you to do on that cold, bleak morning, friends and neighbors. In the worst of times, when you're weary and heavy-burdened, I want you to get down on your hands and knees and pray. Put yourselves in His hands. Believe!"
In order to help them in that task, Difaccia happened to have something they could always carry with them as a reminder, something so small it would fit in a pack of cigarettes with room to spare and yet so large it held all of creation in its pages. It was the consolation, the hope, the promise of bliss everlasting--the world's smallest Bible, which he would make available to them for the next 10 minutes, and 10 minutes only, for the paltry sum of one dollar.
Another sheep, fleeced, scampers off to join the naked flock. Roscoe stands up and stretches.
"No bigger than this," he says, reaching into his shirt pocket and producing a book of matches. "A bit thicker, of course, with all the Gospels and a nearly complete Old Testament."
There were always buyers. They would fork over a buck, hold the Bible right up next to their eyeballs, squint at the minuscule print and wonder aloud if it could all really be in there.
"Ain't never seen a smaller Bible," drawls Roscoe. "Have you, Clem? Problem is, the letters are so durned small you cain't really tell."
The man with two faces wasn't finished. He had another pocket, and another pitch.
"I see you straining your eyes, trying to let the good word enter your hearts. Well, the Lord has mercy, the Lord helps those who help themselves, those who seize the day and walk in the path of righteousness. I see you straining, and for your aid and comfort, for the mere pittance of $2, because I see I'm among true believers thirsting for the word, I can furnish you today with one of these handy, sturdy, seven-power fold-up magnifying glasses with high-quality lenses, hand-crafted exactly to our specifications by our brethren in Japan. Guaranteed to last a lifetime, for your Bible-reading pleasure."
Roscoe pauses a moment to catch his breath. He waves the shears toward Hank, already coaxing the next sheep through the chute's swinging gate. The honed blades flash like silver in the sunlight that slants suddenly through the loose slats of the barn.