an excerpt from 13 Black Cats Under a Ladder
by P. S. Ehrlich
There is a significant percentage of women who, when they
hear you are a sculptor, immediately start to wonder just how
graceful and gratifying you could make a statue of them look.
Some will demand to find out right away; some prefer to
hint and fish and angle you into asking them. With the
latter, a certain amount of bait-hooking is done by both
During my Chicago years (the bulk of the Eighties), I saw a
shrink who looked like Bob Newhart’s apologetic stunt double.
That, plus his being named Dr. Harvey, led me to label
him the Friendly Ghost. Knowing me to be a film buff,
he would always begin our sessions by asking what I’d last
seen and what had I thought of it; then proceed to analyze the
film of the week more than the psyche in my head.
His office employed a string of receptionists who all
seemed to be auditioning for women’s-prison roles. No
Linda Blair lookalike, but various other Chained Heat
wannabes. I pointed this out to the Friendly Ghost, who
spent the rest of that session drawing parallels between the
performances of Eleanor Parker in Caged and Glynis
Johns in The Weak and the Wicked .
I probably would have jumped ship and put my therapy money
to better use—for a new VCR, say, replacing the old
Betamax—had Vicki not made her debut behind the reception
desk. Vicki Volester: rhyming with “bolster” not
“molest her.” Precariously balanced between the
beautiful and grotesque, like so much else in the
Another short dark narrow-eyed lady, she was the one who
doused herself with White Linen before putting on outfits made
of pure polyester. Plus fashionable shoulder pads that
would have been outsized on one of Da Bearssss. But
Vicki maintained a sort of balance (precariously) by having
her hair biggified, permed up and poufed out till it doubled
the scope of her smallish slightish noggin.
The same tottery alignment extended all the way down to the
soles of her feet. Everything about Vicki was a bit
off-kilter or just about to skew. Her chin, for
instance: Sseen straight on, it looked symmetric as you
please, but in profile it tended to disappear. Except
when uplifted—seen from below it somehow took on an extra
little roll of fat. No idea how she accomplished
Her disposition was off-putting, at first. Squinting
at us through tiny slits in bristling mascara, her mouth
screwed tight as a pickle jar. But if she called a
wrong number or mispronounced your name or knocked over her
pencil cup, those eyes and that mouth would sag open and hang
agape. A hand might wander across her face to twiddle
with an earring, while her lower half shifted from restless
cheek to cheek in a chair that always drew attention to her
“PLEASE quit squeaking!” cried an anguished patient one dog
day afternoon. I thought Vicki’s jaw was going to
dislocate right off her head, taking that multidimensional
chin with it.
Squirmy McWriggle. On guard against all of us in the
Friendly Ghost’s waiting room, as if we were liable to freak
out en masse. I started arriving long before my
scheduled appointments—not to gawk at her, not to ogle, just
gaze idly. At Vicki’s hands and cheeks in perpetual
motion: fussing with her neckline, tugging at her
skirt, shrilling in her chair. Giving me furtive little
glances. Was I still looking? What did I have in
mind? How did it make her feel? I noticed she
never went out to lunch or on break while I was around, or
lodged a complaint against me with Dr. Harvey or the Young
Receptionists Self-Defense League.
Then one day I felt a sudden tapping, as if a swarm of bats
was flapping round about my inner ears. Except that the
swarm wasn’t all bats—there were butterflies among them, as
many or more, adding their flicks to the batflaps.
They were the first things I’d underheard in well over a
Time to ratchet this up a notch.
I quickcarved the Friendly Ghost a panel, showing him
playing canasta with Freud, to mark 2 years of our making no
progress together. As expected, he asked Vicki to hang
it in the waiting room. As anticipated, it got her all
agog. She fidgeted less in my presence, emerging from
behind her desk to water the office plants or rearrange
magazines on coffee tables—tasks that involved stretching and
bending on Vicki’s part, and additional eyesnag on mine.
And when she worked up enough nerve to broach the
subject of sculpture—
—before she knew it, I was escorting her around town to
galleries, museums, exhibits. And a nicely-timed
retrospective at the MCA of John de Andrea’s life
“They’re all nayyyyked!!” exclaimed Vicki.
(Agitation brought out the chiCAHgo in her.)
“They look just like real peeeeople! That are
“It’s one approach,” I said, beginning a homily
(deliberately dry) on superrealism. Contrasting De
Andrea’s attractive starko figures with Hanson’s clothed
dowdies and Segal’s spookier apparitions. Vicki all the
while goggling with embarrassed fascination, as she might at
an on-pause nudist colony.
“Guys too??” she gasped, catching sight of
lifesize men among the lifelike women. Gaping at their
polyvinyl wangs as though she’d only been exposed to the laps
of Ken-dolls till now. “Do you make statues like
these?” she whispered.
“No. I don’t cast in molds, I carve my pieces out of
“Pieces? Who do you carve them... like?”
“Whoever snags my eye.”
Vicki’s sidled over to find mine upon her, and not just
gazing idly. Oh Gahd! No no no we mustn’t, I was
a payyyytient, she worked for my doctor, she shouldn’t even be
here with me, it was wrong. And besides—she knew she
wasn’t in the same league as these women, even if she could be
talked into undressing, which she couldn’t, so forget it
‘cause she would die of shame at being seen like that by
complete strangers or even worse people she knew, did I think
she was pretty?
“I think you’re gorgeous.”
“But do you think I’m pretty ?”
Attracted but affronted, afraid yet attuned. I nobly
offered to seek a different shrink, but Vicki wouldn’t hear of
it. She genuinely believed her Friendly Ghost was the
Carl Jung of Wabash Avenue and refused to let me compromise my
mental health just so we might have a legitimate relationship.
Amorous or artistic.
So we entered a holding pattern that lasted for months.
During which she had other suitors, most of them
humpty-dumpsters—or so I imagined. All Vicki would say
was that her friends kept setting her up on bad blind dates.
I urged her to go out on an open-eyed limb with me,
anywhere she liked—even if that meant wistful-drippy movies
like Some Kind of Wonderful or Peggy Sue Got
Married. Lulling Vicki into thinking me no worse
than benign, till I touched her hand or took her arm.
Then back would swarm the flaps and flicks.
She begged me not to breathe a word about us to Dr. Harvey,
but I said it was therapeutically crucial for me to allude, at
least, to everything we did and everything I dreamt.
“Oh Gahd!!” went Vicki. (I did tell him I’d started
watching films in a theater surrounded by Real Live people,
including this one Real Live girl on an irregular basis.
“Really?” said the F.G. “What’d you see last,
and what did you think of it?”)
One night it was Moonstruck , which swept Vicki
right off her susceptible feet and back to my place for the
first time. There I reached second base on a stand-up
double, discovering her shoulders weren’t the only things she
padded. Needlessly: she had a stand‑up double,
to whet the appetite and water the mouth. If I’d been
Italian, I might have gotten past the second course and all
the way to dessert—but no no no we mustn’t, she shouldn’t even
be here getting her pretty little yummies nuzzled, it was
wrong, so wrong, oh Gahd, oh stop !!
Which I did, having more at stake than mere mouthwatering.
Vicki dried off and reupholstered herself, and we went
out to eat too much pasta.
But I’d stirred her to the extent that she agreed to pose
for me. Clad in an overcoat to begin with. (It
was winter, and my North Side garret could have used more
Only incrementally did she unbend and divest. Taking
off her clothes one garment at a time, with maybe a week
before the next removal. Not since Scheherazade had
there been a striptease this slo-mo; Nina Silbergeld would be
a quickchange artist by comparison. But the more Vicki
bared, the less able was she to keep still. It was
Squirmy McWriggle all over again—except that now she was at my
place instead of the office, a model instead of a
receptionist, with only polyester undies (guaranteed to ride
up) to preserve her modesty. Becoming such a
tantalizing jitterbug toward the end that I could sketch no
more than brief impressions-in-motion.
She had skin the color of eucalyptus or honey oak.
One warm evening in May she finished getting down to
And did not die of shame, at least not immediately, but
stood there trembling. Eyes and mouth and arms and legs
all nomadic. Handling herself as if she were trying to
bathe without soap or water or a washcloth.
“Vicki?” I rasped. “You okay?”
“M-my name is Victoria
Lorraine Volester,” she quavered, “an’
I’m 25 an’ a Pisces an’ I went to Malcolm X College an’ my
favorite movie’s Moonstruck an’ my favorite actor’s
Nicolas Cage an’ my favorite artist looks just like him an’ my
favorite f-f-fantasy is men with wood in their hands...”
Break my heart wide open.
I’d intended to mark the moment by playing a Puccini
cassette, but in my distraction, I got hold of the Pointer
Sisters, and they thundered forth about being so excited they
just can’t hide it, they’re about to lose control, and they
think they like it!! Which sent Victoria Joanne over
the brink, me close behind, and we spent the rest of the
evening making butterflies. Lots and lots of
butterflies. With a few bats thrown in to keep things
She was worth the long wait. If not the very best:
taking full advantage of all those wriggling
This, I decided, must be significant otherhood.
And clear as a bell in my head, I heard: I
wouldn’t be doing This if you weren’t so dreeeeamy and I
didn’t love you so awwwwful.
Perhaps all women are capable of doing this (as well as
This) if they put their minds to it.
That was so good, that was so right, I needed it so
bad, it’s been six whole months since I had any loving—six whole
months! How ‘bout you?
The truth had been effective before, so I turned to it
again. (Big mistake.)
Eight whole years.
Hysterics. Not the laughing kind, either.
“Eight whole years” had to mean I’d infected her with every
STD imaginable, plus a host of disorders, phobias, and
derangements. This last seemed provable, the way she
was carrying on. Trying to order me out of my own
garret, then fighting for the sheet off my bed to wrap herself
in, then crashing around in the concealing dark even though
this meant she couldn’t find any of her clothes.
“What’ve you done with my paaaanties, you psycho perv??”
she was yelling as the police arrived. They found Vicki
skewed completely off-kilter, shielding belly and bosom with
loose shoulder pads.
“What’s the problem here, ma’am?”
“I told him I loved him! He hasn’t had sex for
eight! whole! years! and now he’s gone and done it with
I didn’t think Chicago cops could look that