Issue #74, February 2005





an excerpt from 13 Black Cats Under a Ladder

by P. S. Ehrlich

Answer the phone is my wake-up call the next morning.   “It isn’t ringing,” I try to say; but before I can, it is.   At 7:15 on a Saturday.   A time that answering machines were invented for.   But I’m off the futon and onto the phone before its fourth ring.

“Did I wake you?”

“No, no...”

“This is Judy, by the way.   Judith, I mean.   Judith Formi—”

“Yes, yes...”

“You’re sure I didn’t wake you?”

“No, no...”

“Well I’ve decided I want to do this.   If you still want me to.”

“Certainly, certainly...   Er, would today—?”

“Um, sure.   How soon—?”


“Maybe about ten?   Is that too early?”

“Not at all.”

“Okay then.   Do you need me to, um, wear anything in particular?”

“Whatever you like will be fine.”

“Oh.   All righty.   I’ll be there around ten.   Bye now.”

And she hangs up the phone, gets out of bed, pulls a sheer lace nightie over her head and—

damn it .   Anybody’d think you were 15 instead of three times as old and six times as halfwitted.   She’ll take one look at your old-goatishness and run like a... whatever goats prey upon.   Children’s nannies in Tin Can Alley.

Now then.   Less than 3 hours to get ready.   Wash yourself clean.   Re-scrub and re-scour your surroundings.   Maybe you’re not in the habit of shaving on Saturdays or splashing on Skin Bracer, but time enough to do both.   And to air out the place.   And to camouflage the futon with magazines, so it looks more like a large low coffee table.

By 9:30 I am down in the back yard, searching for something floral to help put her at ease.   Like what?   Clover’s too stunted.   Dandelions have turned to puffery.   Then under a side shrub, I find a patch of small plum-colored items—microcosmic trees for all I know, an aborted orchard.   At any rate free for the picking.

Scrunch of tires on gravel.   Ten to ten: perfect timing.   One car door opens... and closes.   All on your own, lady?   I stay oblivious, Winston Smith among the bluebells.

“Are those supposed to be for me?”

“Oh hello.   For your poses.”   I rise as a younger man might, without a struggle, and hand her the purplettes.

She is wearing a headscarf, though it’s not windy; and sunglasses, though there’s no glare.   She buries her nose in the plumsprigs, though they don’t have that much fragrance; then holds the bunch against her chest.

“Grape hyacinths—how’d you guess?   I didn’t throw this on till the last minute.”   Meaning her modestly V-necked top, which is grapish-colored.   Throw it on, pull it off, go without.   Wrench your mind away.

“Didn’t bring your roommate?”

“What?” she asks, glancing furtively around.   “Oh!   No, I fibbed about that, to see what you’d say.   I do have a cat, though...   Um, would it be all right if we go on up?”

Willing and eager:   I can deal with that.   “After you ,” I insist.   She climbs my stairs; I follow.   Never seen her in slacks before.   They are black and becoming and could just as easily be called snugs.

Just short of the landing, she halts to peer over the balustrade.   What does she see?   No flayed skin suit on a hanger, no mummified Mrs. Bates in a chair.   Just a studio/apartment.   Two more steps, three, and she is inside it.

“You live here?   Alone?”

“Me and my artwork.   Make yourself comfortable.”

She twitters, removes the scarf and sunglasses and stuffs them into her bag, runs a hand over her adamant hair.   Which yields pliantly to her touch, though it looks like she aerosols it with Krylon—

I nearly bump into her as she halts again, taken aback by the sight of what’s atop my media center.   Oh shit!   Oh shit!  Doomed before we start!   Hadn’t even occurred to me to take the damn things down or hide them somewhere.   Now she’ll turn and dodge around me, run downstairs like a—

“You did these?”   She steps away from me... and closer to them.   “What’s their names?”

“Er, this one’s called A Perfect Fit , and that’s Plue Velvet...   I didn’t make the little cowlmask it’s wearing.   Contribution from the model.”

“She’s so cute,” says Judith.   “Or maybe cute’s not the right word, but...   These are yours too?   She’s pretty,” to Gatherin’ Stormin’;   “She’s scary,” to Frieze-Frame;  and “Goodness!” at Artificialities.   Or at all the racked knives and gouges.   “Kind of like being in a dentist’s office.”   She spies the bathroom—raises brows at me for clearance—and excuses herself behind the closing door.

Well, at least I got it minty-fresh for her.   And she’ll have to come back out sooner or later; there’s no window to elope through.   In the meantime I feed Ahmad Jamal into the CD player and adjust the blinds for improved lighting.

Judith reappears, one hand gripping her shoulderbag, the other her hyacinths.   Marching up to announce: “In case you haven’t noticed I’m a bit nervous about, about...”


“Posing.   For you.   I mean, deliberately.   I might be too jumpy to do well.   Maybe you’ll wish you’d stuck to what did you call it, ‘studying me from afar’—”

“Have a seat,” I tell her, presenting the model’s stool.   (Highbacked, with extra padding.)   “Can I take your bag?”

“Oh no, I’ve got it.   That is, I’d like to hold onto it.   If it won’t be in the way.”

“We’ll see.   Glass of water?   Seltzer?   Juice?”

“Oh I’d love some orange juice if it’s no trouble and you have any.”

When I return with the juice I find her bag on the floor beside the stool and both hands clutching the purplettes.   I set the glass on a taboret at her elbow, with a paper towel for patting her lips with.   She thanks me but doesn’t touch the juice or even look at it.

“Do you feel ready to start?”

Rigidly vertical:   “Oh sure.   I hope so.   Do I look okay?”

“Better than okay.”

“What... do I do?”

“Sit there and try not to move too much.   Just like yesterday at the Malt Shoppe but longer.   More detail.”

“Um, longer?   I have a little trouble sitting still for too long at a time.”

Ants in your pants?  I don’t ask aloud.   “You’re an active person?”

“Well I try to be.   But I need to keep stretching pretty often.   Will that be a—?”

“Are we talking every couple of minutes, or—?”

“Oh no, more like 10 or 15.”

“Not a problem.”

I take up the sketchboard, a sheet of Strathmore Velvet Gray already clipped to it, and assume my position on the less-padded stool opposite her.   Start outlining the overall ABC:   attitude, bearing, contours.   Using Conté crayons today, better than charcoal at approximating fleshtones and woodgrains.   For a moment, I wish I had affinity with liquid media, could paint her on canvas in a full spectrum of hues; but my expertise is limited to shades of earth and ash.   Sanguine, bistre, and white for highlights.

“Can we talk?   While I pose?”

“Till I get to the mouth.   I’ll tell you when.”

Her fingers emerge and remerge among the plumsprigs.   “Oh.   Well now.   My name is Judith Formi, you know that already, but I was born a Dahl—”


“D.A.H.L.   Like the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory writer.”

Or like the Dahls of Walse Falls, Minnesota, it’s scenic, I’d like it, being an artist and all.   Half the family are German Catholics and half Scandinavian Lutherans, with a lot of sniping between the two at every holiday get-together but no blood spilled.   Dad manages sporting goods for Sears, Mom sells dream houses for Century 21.   Judith is their youngest child and only girl, meaning she always got a bedroom of her own while her six brothers had to double up, a fact of life taken in stride by everyone except second-youngest, Rudy, who’s had it in for Judith since her birth which will be 26 years ago next month, so you’d think Rudy would’ve gotten over it by now, but he hasn’t even if he is a missionary.   He hasn’t changed a lick no matter what their mother might think, and as for her other brothers, Kenny’s a forest ranger and Andy’s a deputy and Joe’s in the Marine Corps—

“The mouth.”

“Oh,” she says, and closes it.

“Just for a minute,” I add.   Actually I am nowhere near the mouth, but I could almost hear her heart pounding.   Try as she might to drown it out.

I get up and move around with the sketchboard, observing her from various angles and perspectives while she catches her breath.   Keeping her head steady without having to be reminded, but never taking her eyes off me.   Their sockets begin to hollow:   bothersome.   Yet I protract our first session till the basics are laid down, dimensions established, shadows sketched in.   Best to test the lady’s stamina right here at the start.   But a shame to make her succumb to the fidgets too soon, so I call our first break.

Whew! ” goes Judith.   “I never thought sitting still could be so strenuous.”   She steps down from the model’s stool—and slowly bends forward, arms extended toward the floor.   Yeedge!   Is she blacking out on me?   No, she’s rolling back up... slowly.   Incrementally.   Vertebra by vertebra.   (Her V-neck briefly U-shaped:   thunkity-thunk goes my heart.)   Still holding the purplettes as she lifts her arms above her head, bringing them together temple-style.   Bending to the left, then to the right, then back to center with another long! deep! swelling inhalation; concluding with an “Ahhhh...”

And how would Jackie Gleason phrase my response?

Hommina hommina hommina.

“That one’s called the full-body reach-up,” says Judith.   Who appears to have shed a few jitters.   Though surprised to find a full glass of OJ right there waiting to be drunk.   She quaffs it down, pats her lips, and smiles with teeth that glisten rather than glaze.

How many times can I hope to have her sit for me?   Stand for me?   Stretch, crouch, kneel, lie?   All of which cry out to be taken in, gotten down, carved out at length and in depth and as soon as possible.

She clearly wants (but does not ask) to see what I’ve done so far.   No time now:   back to her pose.   And, yes!   She resumes it exactly, the same headset and mouthset and flowerclasp.   A natural—even if she hasn’t let go of the hyacinths since I handed them over.

“Beautiful,” I tell her.

“What?” says Judith.

I replace Ahmad Jamal with Stan Getz and suggest she try concentrating this time on something “peaceable.”

“The cool-blue-ocean sort of thing?”

“Sure, why not?”

Bistre now, a darker overlay to strengthen and solidify our design.   Reinforce dimensions:   stroke stroke stroke blend stroke stroke stroke blend.   Or rather: skritch skritch skritch thpppp.   Either way it’s a matter of bearing down with a steady hand, not too heavily.   Mustn’t overwork the medium, or it’ll become smothered and unworkable.   Krylonified.

Study her values.   Explore her composition.

Not for the first time in Judith’s presence, I feel a sense of—what?   Something beyond visceral thunkities and homminas.   “Elegance” sounds too affected.   “Refinement” is done to petroleum.   Maybe “grace” is the word.   Or “cool,” as in that blue ocean she’s concentrating on.

Crystal clear ocean.

Clear?   Stan Getz counters with “Serenade in Blue.”   Cool, like a dip in a pool on a hot summer day:   agreeably refreshing.   Immersed or ashore, we can learn from the sea.   Straight-out, no surrealizing; just be true to the tide.   In a manner of speaking...

I’ll never pass muster with the Thought Police.

But I can, on occasion, tune in and tap into.

If I bear down with a steady brain.   Open up those inner ears.   Underhear what goes unspoken.   Even as the bistre flies across the Velvet Gray: everywhere at once, all at the same time, her subtle nuances brought along with full-scale totality, so we can catch—

Aye Calypso!... so long and so well!

Oh good grief.   John Denver.

As I begin filling in her face (smaller strokes, slighter blends), she focuses her gaze upon me.   Has this begun to feel less like a study than an extraction?   As if I’m capturing more than her looks in more than a likeness?

“It Never Entered My Head,” comments Mr. Getz’s sax.

Skritch skritch skritch thpppp, the Conté disagrees.

Now she does begin to fidget, and I leave off work at once.   Or nearly so; just a couple more strokes to the brow.   Till a furrow start to appear on her own, and I lay down my crayon.

clank goes something as Judith hops to her feet.

“What was that?”

“Nothing, that’s nothing,” she murmurs, scooping up a small object from the floor and hurrying off with it into the bathroom.   Now what?

She returns with reddened face and outstretched arm to aim a vial of pepper spray at me—

No, just to exhibit it, before dropping the vial into her bag.   “You know how it is,” she says.   “I didn’t quite know what to expect.   In fact I still don’t, not really.   If I could just take a peek—?”

“Not yet,” I tell her, turning the sketchboard away.   “One more session, and it ought to be done.”

“Is it going okay?   Or shouldn’t I ask, is that bad luck?   I concentrated the best I could, it seemed to help.   Um, I was wondering—is this supposed to be... your, um, muse?”

She is staring unerringly up at A Perfect Fit.   Part Marcello’s Pythia from the Paris Opera; part Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa; and part Mel Ramos pop-art pin-up.   My first sculpture in wood after abandoning clay.   A nearly nude girl frozen in midwrithe, couched on a Delphic tripod in the form of an open hand.   Would you call it oracular?   Or simply obscene, the girl being only 13, with hair in a ponytail and “Friday” on her panties?

“That is the spirit of the first girl you ever kiss.”

Audible quiver from Judith.   “What was she like?”

“She committed suicide 10 years later.   I don’t think as a direct result.”

Appalled stare from Judith.   “You’re kidding!”

“They say she left a note so long it was more like a suicide novel.”

“Oh, that is so sad.”   She reaches out, lays a cool hand on my arm, and for a second I forget all about the girl in question.   “I’m so sorry...”

“It’s because of her that I became a sculptor.”   (More or less.)

Nod nod nod goes Judith, looking pensive.   She lets go of my arm, returns to her stool.   “Come on, finish me.”

I have her regroup the plumsprigs (minus the pepper spray) and move a foot or so to the left, following the sun.   Now for the close work, the fine detail.   Facial features: the mouth whose teeth she clenches in her sleep, the midnight blues in their remarkable sockets.   Widening, hollowing.   White Conté now, for picking out highlights.   Reflectivity.   Transcendence.   By means of a reproduction, an approximation, but more than a Kodak moment; an image created by my hand in alignment with my eye.   And surpassing its waxy outlines, its arrangement of laid-on tones and shades.

Good as the real thing?   Irrelevant.

She is real; it is real.   As it breathes, so does she.

I beckon her to the sketchboard.   She comes by my side to see the finished work.

And the look she gives it, plus the one she gives me directly afterward, are two of the dozen or so things I intend taking with me to my coffin.


I give the sketch a sparse coating of matte fixative (too much will meddle with the colors) and think this is all I’m going to get out of her today.   But Judith has other ideas.

“I suppose you’ve seen a lot of backs—on your models—as an artist, I mean.   Would you mind taking a look at mine?”

And wheeling around she draws up her purple top as far as her latissimi dorsi.   Exposing a long-waisted line of spine.   Now it’s a cleft, now a row of little knobs as she darts an anxious glance over her shoulder—to gauge my reaction, or as if afraid I might produce a cat-o’-nine-tails.


Up the top hikes another inch or so, to reveal a band of lily-white lycra with an innocent laundry tag dependent near its clasp.   There is no air of flirt or tease about this; Judith seems in deadly earnest.

“It’s a very nice back,” says a voice I hope is mine.   “I’ve never seen a finer.”

Judith stands there motionless, a vision straight from The Horse’s Mouth :  all cream and gold and rose.   “You wouldn’t be fooling me?”

“Well—what I can see of it, at least.”

“Could you... could you make me look as good from the back as you did with my face?”

“If you’ll allow me.”

“Now?   Will you do it now?”

“If you’ll—”   I mime unsnapping and destrapping.

“Oh,” says Judith.   “Um, I’m sorry, but I have to ask this.   Promise you won’t—grab me, or anything?”

“Honor bright,” I say.   “I’ll just step into the other room.   Call out when you’re ready.   Would you like the blinds lowered?”

“Well, but won’t you need the light to draw me by?   Better than using lamps?”


“It’s all right then,” she twitters.

In the bathroom I stare at the mirror, yank sharply at an earlobe: yow.   Apparently awake.   Make good use of the toilet, then; put yourself right.

“I’m ready... I think.”

She sits facing away from me, astraddle a reversed chair.   Her front is firmly covered with both folded arms over doffed V-neck and hidden cuppage.   But her back—

The phone hasn’t rung, there’s been no wake-up call, this is a dream I’ve fallen into:   vertiginous and incredulous.   Here she is:   one-quarter naked in a near-stranger’s abode.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this...” she sighs.

If you’d rather back out I nearly reply.   “If you’d really rather not—”

“Yes I would be quiet!...   It’s just that no one I know would believe it either.   But I’m going to do this.”

Not much in the way of tanlines.   The lycra has left pink stripes across her susceptible flesh.   Photographers call such tracemarks unsightly; I find them humanizing.   In a good way, if the flesh is good; and hers is Better Than Okay.   A demurely muscular back, loftily tapering, tautly exquisite; laid bare and vulnerable from nape to waist.   With Judith waiting for me to validate it artistically.

“Have you started yet?”

“Look at me, please—”

“No, I’m not turning around!”

“Over your shoulder, like before.”

She complies, all too ready to misinterpret whatever I might have in mind.

“More in profile.   As if you’re keeping half an eye on me.”   Damn, yes! with her head at just the right angle, nose and chin and lashes finely displayed—“Keep doing that!”


“That!   Hold it as long as you can!”

She does, but it is futile.   I haven’t prepared the sketchboard or brought out fresh Contés, and so off-balance is this dream that I can only stumble and blunder and spill.

“I’m getting a bit—”   Tremulous with effort.   I apologize, have her take a prolonged breather, or what passes for one in our mutual dizzy spell.   Which she makes dizzier by rotating neck and shoulders bareback, stretching each limb in turn, sipping from the refilled juice glass I serve at arm’s length to show I’m beyond grabbiness.

Merrily merrily merrily merrily...

“Um—could we have some more music, please?   I’ve got something to tell you.”   Oddly put, in a voice sounding far from rested.

“Something hard to say?”

“Kind of, yes...”

Music to tell me something kind of hard to say by.   That would be Miles Davis: Kind of Blue.   Pop it into the player.   Pick up the sketchboard.   And as we ease into the first notes of “So What,” I start to draw and Judith starts to talk.

Youngest of seven, the only girl, the Little Princess of Walse Falls, not spoiled but admittedly indulged all through childhood.   Born with a good face and just kept blossoming.   Grew tall quickly but never gawky, never awkward; loved shooting hoops with her boisterous big brothers.   Tennis, volleyball, obstacle-course footraces—any sport that involved leaping and jumping.   Meanwhile everyone said here was a future fashion model:   Look at that face, those eyes, those legs, that form.   Don’t slump, dear.   Stop slouching.

At 13 she was diagnosed with scoliosis, curvature of the spine.   Ordered to wear a back brace that would correct the crookedness... in 3 or 4 years.

That night in bed she turned her good face to the cold wall and cursed God, beseeching death to take her swiftly.

Skritch skritch skritch thpppp.

It wasn’t that she was vain or conceited.   Just an eighth-grade girl who, even before this, had a horror of deformity.   Her brother Rudy had tricked her once into looking at pictures of circus freaks, and the memory still gives her teeth-grinding nightmares.   Now at 13 she was one of them, gooble-gabble! one of them! and thought she would crack up—had cracked up, become a gruesome misshapen basket case.   Her mother saw her as damaged goods, saying, “If only you hadn’t roughhoused so much...”   Her father, a walk-it-off-and-quit-complaining type, lost all patience with her constant fantods.   And Rudy (the future missionary) cut unspeakable capers behind and about her back.

Then Sister Genevieve at Holy Visitation School stepped in as guardian angel.   Gave her Judy Blume’s book Deenie, which might have been written expressly to rescue her.   See here:   You could be a regular teenager, even with a crooked spine—temporarily crooked.   And while overcoming scoliosis, you could still be considered pretty, attractive, desirable.   Dance and party and even make out, to a proper degree, instead of being a warped sideshow wallflower.

“I wrote Judy Blume a four-page fan letter, but never mailed it ‘cause I was afraid she might publicize it somehow, she and I having the same first name and all—and then everyone would know about my back.”

She started collecting scoliotic celebrities:   Daryl Hannah, Isabella Rossellini, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans.   Swimming became her passion, with Janet Evans as role model and Sister Genevieve as coach.   “We called her ‘Sister Geronimo’—she could do a triple somersault in a tuck position from a handstand.”

Swimming’s done unbraced, allowing her a chance (Sister G. didn’t quite say aloud) to have a bod and show it off.   But her father didn’t count swimming as a “real” sport, considered it simply exercise, however many ribbons and trophies Judith brought home from meets.   Her mother was dead set against it, saying she would rack up her spine and wind up in a wheelchair.   And Rudy held his nose and blew repugnant bubbles.

By this point we have gone through multiple breathers, moving on from Kind of Blue to Miles Smiles, with Nefertiti standing by.   So absorbed has Judith been in what she’s relating that she takes no notice of my using a stepladder to scrutinize her from above.   Or of her unhooked Maidenform straps gradually creeping into view, like timid woodland creatures wanting to hear Snow (or Lily) White sing:

            Someday my spine won’t twist
            ‘Cept when I want it kissed—

“Finished,” I tell her.

“What??” she goes with a leap and a jump, almost losing hold of her Maidenform altogether.   “What are you doing on that ladder??”

“Finishing you,” I say, stepping down.

“Oh!   Turn it around, turn it around!” she demands, meaning the sketchboard.   Then after a quick backward glance:   “Now you turn around, you turn around!”   I do; she throws back on her top, then hastens alongside me for a longer, closer look.

On or off the stepladder, I saw nothing imperfect in the length of Judith’s spine; it would do credit to any Ingres bather.   Her scapulae might in fact be a trifle irregular, but asymmetry has its share of allure.   Of beauty tempered by present tension and remembrance of pain.   She has yet to tell me about Chad the Cad, her first serious boyfriend at Holy Visitation, who got off on her back brace and dumped her when she was at last able to discard it; but all that is here too, prefigured.

I have grabbed her, despite my honor-bright pledge.   The angle of her head recalls its turn to the cold wall.   The cast of her half-seen eye reintroduces the Young Empress of the #104 bus, her misgivings and disquietude and latent majesty.   And elegance.   And refinement, not limited to oil and sugar.   Her hair’s inflexibility is complemented by slightly-waving resilience.   Wiry femininity:   The same trait pertaining to the rounded shoulders, their straying uneven blades, the provocative spinal groove, the finesse of flank and loin.   She is neither lean nor spare but willowy—like the trees on Green Creek Lane, deft with supple grace.

It’s a very nice back.   And recognizable as the original.

Judith touches her sanguine dorsals with the extreme tip of one finger.

Then turns to me and wraps her long strong arms around my neck.


© P. S. Ehrlich 2005-2010


Copyright 05 © The artist retains all ownership of the work; however, M10K retains the right to post any submissions it receives, and it bears no responsibility for the content posted here, its originality, or how it is used or downloaded by others. At the artist's request, any submissions will be removed from M10K within five days of receipt of the request.

[Sadly, Ten Thousand Monkeys is now gone from the Web.  Above is a replica of their February 2005 publication.]