Sadly, Heart Sounds Press and Pulse Literary Magazine have vanished
   from the Web; but here is their rendition of an excerpt from 13 Black Cats Under a Ladder.

Heart Sounds Press

Take My Breath Away

by P.S. Ehrlich © 2005

Sketch for a sculpture: a young lady seen from behind as far down as her sacroiliac— no, say “dimples of Venus”—with her face turned in lofty profile.

My impulse is to call the new piece Can You Read My Spine?, but that doesn’t jibe with the glint in the subject’s eye. Which, though only half-seen, advises the viewer to Watch Your Back.

On Sunday I sort through my 18x24 panels. Walnut, cherry, mahogany? Then my eye is snagged by a pearwood blank I’ve had for almost too long. Ought to get it off the shelf before it succumbs to dry rot. On the positive side, pear has a pinkish-brown tint lending itself to the incarnadine. An even-textured grain that holds sharp detail, polishes to a high luster.

Blink and this blank is clamped to the workbench, my design is transferred onto its face, and here’s the model standing agog in a spring outfit I don’t recall her wearing before.

It is Monday the 13th of May, and the dream goes on—

Judith on the bus (sounding keen) this morning; on the bus again (keener) this afternoon. Asking, urging, coaxing me to let her come watch as I start to carve. “Oh please, I promise not to ask any dumb questions. You won’t even know I’m there.”

I wave away the first promise as unnecessary. Express profound doubt the second promise could be kept. More likely I’ll be looking at her instead of the panel, and chop my flesh instead of the wood.

“Oh, you,” she pshaws. “Well then, I’ll be right there to help patch you up.”

I allow myself to be talked round. And to fetch a couple salads from the deli for us to eat domestically before washing our hands and heading for the workbench.

Actually what I want to do is have her pose again, numerous times, before any wood gets carved. But Saturday’s sketch was perfect and if I try luring her with ruses, she might cotton onto them and cut me off short. So resist temptation—get this piece done, and use it to induce more modeling. Lots more. Of more than just her spine.

Thus: Judith Formi standing fully dressed in her pretty outfit at the end of the bench, all agog. And not distractingly, but as though she’s always belonged there.

I explain how I’ll outline the design with a V-trench to defend against splitting and chipping. Nod nod nod goes Judith. I take up the light mallet and start to tap.

“Some would do this with a knife but I prefer the parting tool, which gives you greater control and just as clean an incision, so long as you keep its bevel-edges razor-sharp—”

—when I realize there’s more to be heard here than my taps and palaver.

Judith is emitting a low nnnnnnn.

One hand not quite over her mouth; the other splayed where her navel would be if she weren’t so fully dressed. Her eyes widely riveted on the pearwood blank—

—I look down, see only the channel I’ve been cutting. Uniform as you could ask for. No blood oozing out of it or me.



She blanches. Flinches. Backs away. “I can’t—I’m sorry—I’d better—I have to—”

She turns and flees and run downstairs. As I always suspected she might.

Should’ve had her pose more first, after all.

(No one ever said the dream would be carefree.)


I reach her at home on the second try. Judith sounding close to tears, afraid I’ll never want her to come back. Which I dismiss as absurdity; but she continues to sniffle.

“It was as if… nnnn… as if I were… nnnn…”

Not everyone is cut out to watch things getting severed. Friends of Anne Boleyn or Marie Antoinette, for example. Probably isn’t the best time for me to describe how I’ll set-in my stop-cuts with a firmer chisel, then waste—no, say lower—no, say ground: more reassuring—the surrounding surface as much as half an inch, leaving the outlined design in proud relief.

At a loss for other words, I pick up a pencil and start tapping it against the phone.

“What’s that? ARE YOU WORKING ON IT??”

“No, no—”

“I, um, I, um, I—I’ll see you tomorrow. On the bus. Bye now!”


Good one, Huffman. Freak her out twice in less than two hours.

I return to the workbench. Delude myself that her scent is still there to be inhaled.

Nice. Not to say heady. (Out of respect to Anne and Marie.)

All the more crude of me to intrude on her with a chisel. Begging your pardon, madame. It’s (tap tap) to protect you (tap tap) from splintering overruns (tap tap)—

Oh just get on with it.

Very good, madame. Allow me to provide you with some background. Make way there—give the lady room to breathe—steady as she goes.

Let the grain direct our approach. Small overlapping slices. No hurry, as the evening turns into night. Into which I work later than my habit.

(Not like I have more inviting alternatives.)

Enough: I won’t cross the line at this hour to start shaping her ladyship. Put everything away, vacuum the bench; cover the work-in-progress with a cloth-of-terry. Pour a short snort and hit the futon.

Next morning on the bus and again in the afternoon I try to reassure the fretting Judith, who chafes at her inability to endure active woodcraft.

“When’ll you be finished?” she asks.

“Maybe a week.”

“No, I mean tonight.”

“Hard to say.”

“I know I said I wouldn’t distract you, and I won’t, but…”


“You could call me when you’re done for the night. Even if it’s late, I won’t mind.”

“Might be later than you think. Better you should sleep. I can fill you in tomorrow.”

She makes a moue; I pat her hand. (Even her knuckles are cool.)

I leave her at my stop, hike home, hone and strop all the tools used yesterday. Leave the mallet on the rack: from here on it’s all handiwork. Tonight the artist does the modeling. Brings anatomic curves out of blankness. Her hair, her face, her shoulders and elbows and waist. And her spine. Like… thus. And… so.

Modeling a relief panel separates not only chips from wood but the dexterous from the inept. Mistakes aren’t as remediable at this stage; bad judgment is less forgivable. Go far enough wrong and you can scrap the entire piece.

Again I work past my accustomed beddybye. Aiming to take rest breaks every quarter hour, give the gouge a few top-up strokes with a slipstone. But too often thirty, forty minutes pass between breaks, with me not realizing till the wood threatens to tear.

Prime rule of thumb: quit whenever you get tired. A blunt tool in a slack grip can endanger both sculptor and sculptee. But I press on a few steps further, then a few more beyond that. Here’s where we separate the dabhanded from the fumblefists…

Next morning Judith regards me anxiously.

“You look tired. If you want to try taking a little catnap, I’ll make sure you’re awake before I leave the bus.”

“What about your nap?”

“Oh, I always wake up right on time, just as we get off the freeway.”

So for the first time we sleep together. That is to say, simultaneously. That is, we would if I didn’t remain acutely conscious of her moderating respirations and unseen, unheard, unfelt but palpable nod. Nod. Nod

I plough through the day job on autopilot, and on the afternoon bus tell Judith I’ll be taking a sickday tomorrow to detail Watch Your Back. With any luck, she can come over Friday and see it ready for finishing.

“Just be sure you catch up on your sleep,” she says. “I—I hope it works out… I miss posing for you.”

If that’s not incentive, I should like to know what is.

Thursday I use my spotlight to illuminate cuts and scrapes made by smaller and smaller instruments. Culminating in a scalpel and a dental pick, which can bring out niceties in damn near anything. Here they’re tending toward Titian: the first artist to recognize the sensual appeal in a young woman’s back. “La contraria parte,” he called it; “volta di schena.” Where would all those Ingres bathers be if there’d been no Venus (and Adonis) or Diana (and Callisto) or Diana (and Actaeon)?

Not that I’m dismissing a young woman’s front—not by any means. Titian never did.

But see here: in Watch Your Back we find a different kind of seduction. More subtly voluptuous even while seeming more aboveboard. Nothing forbidden is exposed by this lady with slightly-wavy hair and slightly-uneven shoulder blades (delicately undercut) and the sinuous rest of her elongated back, right down to those two Venusian dimples (on whose excavation I devote quite an hour).

Yes, yes.

Less surrealizing in this piece than in most of mine. Perhaps a trace in her half-seen eye. The touch of moue worked into her profiled lips.

Oh really?

For all we know, madame.

Aught; not all.

I go to bed without a nightcap and saw logs for twelve unbroken hours by the kitchenette clock.


“How do you feel about sandpaper?”

“What?” says Judith.

It is Friday and she has brought a fresh casserole for another office potluck. Plus an additional portion in Tupperware as a surprise for my lunch. Which I’m sure must be delicious though in fact I scarcely taste it, my senses apparently unrefreshed by their zonkathon. Ditto my sensibility—at the Malt Shoppe after work I present Judith with her first week’s modeling check ($325 for 6_ hours) which she stuffs in a pocket with a whispered “Not here!” What was I thinking? What would peeping ice cream eaters think? To cover my gaffe I ask her opinion of abrasive materials and she says “What?” so I explain how minimalists spurn sandpaper, thinking every toolmark should stand out, whereas I like to finish my figures till they take on the smooth gloss of toned flesh. Does she think she’d be upset by watching me polish Watch Your Back? “Um no,” she murmurs, “that sounds… interesting,” adding “GOSH!” in the Honda when she unfolds my check: “I really do need to pose more for you.”

Off to my studio and the unveiling of the panel and Judith going Ohhhh which I counter with an Ah-ah-ah, staying her hand as it reaches out with fingers I’m not saying aren’t immaculate but did just leave a Malt Shoppe. I clean my own in the kitchen sink as Judith emerges from the bathroom asking about the state of takeout, twittering “I feel like Chinese—” But I say before we order sweet ‘n’ sour, let’s put in some sanding time on my lady’s spine. If the sight or sound bothers Judith in the slightest I will leave off at once and we’ll call the Black Wok. Agreeable?

She reclaims her rightful place at the end of the bench, agog again except for a momentary “The idea!” expression when I offer her a dust mask so I won’t wear one either, it’s not like I’m using a power sander on Western red cedar or some exotic beri-beri tree, just pearwood whose partridge your true love forks over a dozen times every Christmas, rich itch itch itch—I glance up from this friction but “I’m fine” says Judith with a tingly smile so there’s more than one way to make things chafe (not to say simmer) as I fill her in about the whole sanding process rich itch itch itch medium to fine (which she is) to very fine (which she could be) to extra if not super fine (which can close the wood’s grain if you’re not dabhanded) I seldom have any problem rich itch itch itch sanding to 320 grit or even 400 (which can give you an illusion of depth that’s damn near excuse me perfection) all depending on your lightness of touch and knowing rich itch itch itch how long and how far you can burnish every curve while maintaining every edge so that one very extra super fine day you might hope to achieve something absolute with the feel of living satin and my tongue is in BLATHERSKITE OVERDRIVE—

—what is it about this woman’s effect on me?—

—such as the tightness in my chest as I grab a stray gasp but can’t open wide enough to bring it in so try again with a yawn and a gape and a wedge of fist in my solar plexus but that doesn’t do the trick either rich itch itch “Aitch??” she is saying and to the bathroom I am pointing make that flailing like I’ve forgotten how to breathe what to do with my lungs suspended at the end of a rope down from a gibbet up from a concrete block somewhere deep underwater…

…like the stuff being tipped into my mouth…

—out of my own toothbrush cup, gyack!

Along with a fat white Bronkaid caplet, which goes down with the rest of the paste. And produces the dependable quick response.

Relief, in a word. Bronchia opening. Out with the bad air. In with the good.

My head, I find, is pillowed on her arm. And not just her arm—way to go, Huffman! All you had to do was wheeze yourself feeble and freak out Judith for the third time this week. The poor girl’s sockets are so hollow I can’t see how her eyes stay in place.

“Ummm,” she sighs. “Every time I come here, I seem to end up with my arms around you.”

“Drop by anytime,” I croak. Bogart to Bacall.

She smooths my thinning hair, then with the same hand gives my face the least possible slap. “You scared me. Half to death.”

“Sorry… Thanks, though.”

“Well I told you I’d help patch you up, didn’t I? You should’ve worn that dust mask. And why isn’t there one of those inhaler things in your medicine cabinet?”

“They give me headaches. Once even a nosebleed.”

Highstrung harp-giggle. “Well, we’ll just have to build up your wind. I tell you what—tomorrow if you feel up to it, I’ll take you to my gym. I happen to know there’s no better exercise for people with asthma than swimming.”

“I haven’t swum for years—”

“I’m a certified Water Safety Instructor and have trained loads of people, so you’ll be in very good hands.” (This said as she removes her arm etc. from behind my neck.) “Where’s that Black Wok menu? You’re getting soup. Egg flower or won ton—which do you think would be better for you? Oh, and Aitch? If I go wash up again, can I please touch the sculpture?”


The dream accelerates.

I try to keep my breathing slow and stable.

Judith is not the first woman who’s jumped at the chance to go caretakey on me. But she’s the first whose modus operandi involves immersing me in chlorine.

The interior of her athletic club looks like the Cabaña of Dr. Caligari as designed by Marc Chagall: all swerves and swirls and pulsating levitations in emerald, ruby, sapphire. With endless rows of stairmasters, exercycles, and a techno-rock juice bar around every tilted corner. The gym patrons are distorted as well: irregular bulges here, emaciated rawbones there, ironpumping refugees from Goon Island. “Yo!” goes one as we stride past. (Judith strides; I zigzag, her hand firmly guiding my elbow.)

She is more at ease, in her element, than I’ve ever seen her before. Probably doesn’t hurt that she’s the best-looking person here. Everyone greets her, though none by name. She in turn acknowledges them with gracious Hi’s: her courtiers, attendants, towel managers. No need for forelock-tugging, good people—it’s Saturday.

The men’s locker room is standard-issue industrial jock. Takes me back to happily forgotten phys ed classes taught by crewcut jutjaws with names like “Coach Beltz” or “Coach Sparger.” Their concept of treating asthma was to make me run nonstop laps around cindertracks. Helping me earn the physique I have today: concave chest, convex waistline, stouthearted forearms, and brand-new swimtrunks already starting to droop.

Till Judith appears. Not twittering for once, but twitting me with a mock spin.

She wears a navy maillot that fits as close as what she doubtless calls her birthday suit. Comfortably, too: no diffidence, no bashfulness. Eloquent testimony on behalf of the long-torso’d shortish-legged combination. Especially when you factor in the rhythmic flexes and clenches by her highset these and upswept those and outthrust tothers—

That’ll do, pig.

I notice she’s waited till now to tuck her hair into an unbecoming rubber cap.

Also that I’ve got my gut sucked in like any middle-aged idiot.

“Okay,” she is saying, “let’s see what you can do.”

In we go. This gym is her studio, the pool her workbench, and I’m not just the agog spectator but also the block she intends to mold. Make that the blockhead: I demonstrate my timeworn dogpaddle and end up spluttering. Damn, this stuff is wet.

“Now watch me.” I do, as do other men, as she travels forth and back like an all-purpose sea lioness. “This is the back crawl… this is the breaststroke… the sidestroke, with scissors kick… the butterfly stroke, with dolphin kick…”

I lead a round of splashy applause.

“Oh, you. Now you try. Let’s start with the front crawl and flutter kick.”

I rerun my dogpaddle. Spluttering when Judith lays dynamic personal trainer hands on me, fore and aft.

“No, silly, this way—”

One HELL of an improvement over Coaches Sparger and Beltz. But it’s no use; the only aquatic creature I bring to mind is a flounder.

Haul myself out to watch Judith swim solo. Pushing herself a few strokes further, then a few beyond that. Dab-bodied is she, most definitely.

Blink and I’m outdoors and it’s days later and there’s fluff in the air. White-plumed seeds coming off the cottonwood trees, falling, floating, blowing in the wind like so many random-assed snowflakes. I am driving to Judith’s place with the window rolled down and fluff drifting in to hitch a ride. Can’t adulterate Watch Your Back, though; it’s secreted within bubblewrap in a box strapped under a tarp.

I have completed its finishing without further incident. Patterned the background for additional contrast to the polished figure. Oiled and waxed the whole, or rather that quarter of the pearly pearwood lady we’re permitted to see. Her back turned on us, as if disdainful. Checking us over a bared shoulder: are we still there? Is she engaged in watchful dalliance, leading us on, we following attentively?

It is Friday again, May 24th, and I am ostensibly giving Judith a lift to work. She is beside me now, with this week’s casserole and a larger portion in bigger Tupperware for me. “You’ve got to eat better,” I’ve been told more than once over the past seven days.

With the underheard intimation: I need you to keep making me feel beautiful.

I am her magic mirror, assuring her she’s the fairest after all.

And yet I am not giving Judith a lift. She has cottoned onto that ruse, all right. “It’s here in the truck, isn’t it? You’re taking it in to the gallery today?”

“Er, yes. Deadline time for the group show.”

Deep forlorn sigh. “I wish I could buy it.”

“You’re supposed to be saving your money.”

“I know that! I said, ‘I wish…’ It’s just—I hate the idea of somebody else taking it away from us. We might never see it again.”

“I’m giving you the sketch,” I remind her. “And there’ll be photos—”

Harp-snort. “‘We’ll always have photos.’ ‘Here’s looking at me, kid’—yes, I know, I’ve seen that movie lots of times.”

For a few miles I ponder my response to that, to her, while Judith falls silent. Except for the noise her rings and bracelets make as she meditatively pats the potluck dish. Then:

“It’s going to be like this every time, isn’t it? With every sculpture you do of me? How can you bear to let them go?”

“I don’t sell every piece I carve. This one might not sell.”

“How can you SAY that?? Of course it will! Anybody’d be proud to buy it!… And isn’t that the point? Didn’t you tell me—”

“The point is to create it, as best you can. After that’s done, you can try to sell it—or give it as a gift—or keep it for yourself. You’ve seen ones I’ve kept.”

“Wish this could’ve been one of them.”

“There’ll be other sculptures… There will be, won’t there?”

Hands-on lady that she is, she takes one cool dry palm off her casserole and returns it to the crook of my elbow. Taking my breath away all over again.