Volume 27, Number 4


Ken Poyner

You possibly find it strange, but an understanding of the mechanics insuring my failure with my first profession, provided the betting-man’s impetus for the booming success of my current profession. In that early profession, I had, during twenty-eight years, produced three books, the latest of which at the time of my awakening was new to the public and, without much notice, seeking a home with a wildly disinterested citizenry. Grand fame and recognition were never on the horizon, but I had hoped for some small ripples in the glittering toilet bowls of the literati. Yet, nothing. Nothing at all. No adoring fans, no sales; nothing but dark beyond the glaring edge of the barely audible dribble of an occasional embarrassed royalty check. 

One night, curling about the cheap wine that is obligatory to those saddled with aspirations similar to my own, I observed that this year more Americans will have sex with sheep than will buy my book.

Sadly, for both the sheep and me, it is true. As a starkly feathering statistic, more anonymous sheep in this stoically spread out year will get romanced by my fellow countrymen than, amongst those same selective countrymen, copies of my book will be sold.

I do not take it personally. There are books sold in numbers greater than sheep are violated, but by a relatively small number out of the clipped mass of authors frolicking about in our fickle world of publishing; and only books on a relatively few topics—such as pornography or the joys of serial incest or histories written from the new point of the newly imagined victor—do endlessly well. Yes, some authors produce bad work. But often it is not the fault of the authors. Often it is not the fault of the marketers. Consider: have you seen prime time television? Have you wondered who a Kardashian is sleeping with tonight? Have you gotten excited over whether this is the week Wild Man gets his bath?

Over the strikingly clear days after I made my claim of statistical loss, I reconsidered my observation and checked the numbers. You have to state your queries very carefully to get at the truth beneath any bland, simple, morose data collection on subjects such as these.

Then I decided: why not?

I put a mortgage on the house, dipped into my small savings and set myself to proving I could be practical. I opened a small shop in an abandoned space that had been a mini-mart once popular with the construction workers—until the big housing development nearby ate up all the land it was allotted and the construction workers migrated. It sat back in a brooding dark spot in a small, comfortable strip mall: gray and deceptively elfin and monstrously squat and ragingly unremarkable.

I did not expect that early on most of my customers would be locals: recent immigrants and longtime multi-generation-born-and-bred residents, all of whom intended a more epicurean than erotic use for their sheep purchases. They would come into the shop bent on business, in family groups, looking for non-existent scales and bringing simple ropes. They could have gone to local shepherds, driven out to the greenbelt that girds our small urban and depressing suburban core; but my shop is convenient, it is in town, and I take credit cards. 

These sheep I had selected myself, bathed, whitewashed, even festooned with ribbons along their backs and foreheads. I cringed to know what use they would be put to, imagining the quick ends and the mechanical sputter of a backyard grill; but I had to make my living.

For a while, it was as unsettling as watching the sales of my latest book hover unwanted and without purpose, like anonymous trash on the face of someone else’s swimming pool. I had even named some of the sheep.

At the lowest depths of my depression, I started to wonder if morally I could accept the unintended outcome of my fledgling business; but business was going not so badly. Customers returned. I had a profit margin, and I began to feel justified in letting an imagined ignorance of my product’s final demise casually consume me. 

Soon, however, I noticed a happy change in the character of my clientele. More nervous, distracted men—sometimes dressed in raincoats or unneeded overcoats—would show up alone, diluting the number of those large families that swirled in and poked and prodded the sheep: the earthy families looking only for meat potential. These new customers—slowly angling sideways into my shop, tipping forward their hats, sliding down in their unnecessary topcoats—would look over the sheep, have me turn the potential purchase one way or another and then back. They would stroke the animal’s withers and finger the wool along the animal’s side. They would ask me to walk the sheep around the aisles and ask to see the sheep’s feet, inquire about the health of the sheep’s gums. After the inspection and interrogation, a sale was quick and an exit quiet.

I reinvested my profits and had the front of my building painted pink. I had some decorative plants placed at the curb to project the face of my storefront further out into the main line of the shopping mall. My lease-holder remarked the increase in traffic, opined that all the tenants of the strip mall were feeling the improvements my shop was making. In front of my newly bright business he gestured with a sloping hand across the great bounty of his real estate. He was open to my suggestion that he move the newsstand brooding on my shop’s right side and let me put in a grooming salon. In the early days, there was no need for it: sheep leaving my shop would not be back, and I prepared my product in the small back room next to my unloading dock: I used a child’s wading pool, a hose and occasional spray glitter. But the character of my customer was changing, and I was beginning to see the strength of the statistics I had found. I could customize my product. The landlord could taste at least the edge of my vision, grasp the mathematics I was driving my future with.

With a boutique, I could hire a professional to whitewash the sheep, custom cut coats, clean teeth and wick creative with ribbons and bows and strings of foil. People who bought sheep for relationships longer than a single-meal could return with their beloved other-species family members for touchup and beautification, for professional bathing and an individualized deep shearing.

As the months progressed, couples began to come in, and the market marginally changed again. I dyed a few of my sheep and sold them with the names I had long playfully created for them. Oh, there was still the occasional brute of a man who showed up, selected the smallest and most ordinary of sheep in the shop, paid cash and carried the startled animal out to the back of his truck. Families who saw nothing but sustenance in our transactions still patronized me, all but carrying tableware. Young college students still arrived in oversized raincoats. But more often there would be a well-dressed couple, each individual reaching out to scratch the sheep between the ears, to look in the animal’s comforted eyes, to feel about the healthy belly and to exult at the small, utterly meaningless vocalizations the sheep would make.

I took the retail space on the left of my main store, turning it into a customized lingerie shop. I carry fishnet stockings shorter than you can find anywhere else. I stock garter belts with a ninety-degree dip. I display leashes of the softest leather: tethers and restraints made of calf’s hide, made even of ostrich feathers.

I spend my time researching new accoutrements, the latest styles in shearing, trends in tastes. A while ago, I even put in a book section. You would be surprised how many books there are on the scintillating joys of cross-species sex. For individuals. For couples. For groups. I put in two thick shelves of pure print to go with a thin shelf of video.

I can finally feel comfortable in my success. I have a total seven thousand square feet of retail floor space, four employees and three local suppliers. I became a member of the retail merchant’s association. I get half a pound of marketing junk mail each day. I know when I arrive at my shop each morning that there will be recognizing and welcoming bleats from the handsome stalls where my in-stock wares have been resting overnight.

Yet, there is still an old pull, a deep lust for communication; and at times I stealthily retire unknown to the back den of my home, curling in on my secret activities like clipped feathery sheep shearings on the floor: to write. Quietly, with the desk light pulled low and the draperies closed, I fold over my notebook and try to call up the enthusiasm of my misspent, unprofitable, unsophisticated earlier years. I let no one know, and the few pieces I send out to the still hopeful, though never read, small and unheralded literary markets, I do so under an obscure and unfathomable pseudonym. In polite company, writing for the literary market is not pristinely unheard of; but it is not something one brags about. Your neighbors mention it at a party only if they are trying to get you to leave. Sheepishly, you would admit to it only if you wished to be a public pariah. And those of your closest intimates—those who know that this inane scribbling is how you selfishly, with improbable joy and meaningless accomplishment, express yourself—recoil silently and allow in the most forgiving parts of their hearts that there is room in this world for all manner of strange, unholy and pointless things: perhaps.

But not even they believe that lie; not even as they look into your sad-while-happy, emptying eyes and think: what might there be behind those eyes that could cause him to shamelessly take up pen and paper and wander purposefully so far away from the light?

In ways, I am glad that all the public needs in its literature is the rough outline of want—and a doleful, uncomprehending, yet blissfully apprehensive, bleat. And thankful that I can rely on my presentable business to keep me from revealing my brazenly unpardonable one.