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?”
“This is Judy, by the way. Judith, I mean.
“You’re sure I didn’t wake you?”
“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
“Whatever you like will be fine.”
“Oh. All righty. I’ll be there around ten.
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
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
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
“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
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
“Have a seat,” I tell her, presenting the model’s stool.
(Highbacked, with extra padding.) “Can I take
“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?
“Oh I’d love some orange juice if it’s no trouble and you
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
“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
“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
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—
“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
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
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
“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
“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,
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
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
“I suppose you’ve seen a lot of backs—on your models—as an
artist, I mean. Would you mind taking a look at
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
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
“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
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! 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
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
‘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
It’s a very nice back. And recognizable as the
Judith touches her sanguine dorsals with the extreme tip of
Then turns to me and wraps her long strong arms around my