Issue #81, November 2005





an excerpt from 13 Black Cats Under a Ladder

by P. S. Ehrlich

Tap tap tap goes the mallet.

Turning a block of wood into a sculpture, in search of RELIEF.

Hands are steady, but the rest of me feels like a snowglobe in the Fist of Kismet.  Like I felt that year my mother and I spent at Gramps Rhine’s, waiting for comprehension’s other shoe to drop.


My grandfather was, in his own words, an honest-to-God Indiana boilermaker.  (Also partial to drinking the same and rooting for Purdue’s.)  He had five children, all girls; “the Rhine Maidens,” they called themselves.  Each was given a solid respectable hausfrau name—Mabel, Clara, Louise, Lillian, Thelma—but with Gramps being an incorrigible girlwatcher and moviegoer, he might have had the Misses Normand, Bow, Brooks, Roth, and Todd in subconscious mind.  At any rate his Maidens clamored all through girlhood to get out of the house and away from each other as soon as possible; then spent the rest of their lives keeping in constant five-way touch.  (According to Gramps, the racket they made caused the boiler factory to complain.)

My aunts produced a dozen grandchildren, all girls, with my half-sister making it a baker’s dozen.  By the time I came along, 40 years had passed since Gramps first wanted a son, and I proved too puny and wheezy for any kind of open-air sporting activities.  Except for one or two:  We spent a lot of time on the veranda watching the ladies of Terre Haute stroll by.  That is, when we weren’t watching latter-day actresses onscreen.  Gramps was a great admirer of Ali MacGraw and Sally Kellerman, as well as Jane Fonda “before she turned Commie.”

My mother barely escaped being classified in that species.  Of the five Maidens, she baffled Gramps the most.  All her friends and even her sisters called her “Rhino”—not because her nose was particularly large or sharp, but due to the hard-charging attitude she’d had since birth.  That and her galloping gait:  You could always tell when she was headed your way.  During our time in Indiana, Mom would gallop in and out of town “trying to line things up” that kept straying on her.  That is, when she herself wasn’t meandering.  More than once she would accompany us to the movies only to end up in another theater watching a different film alone.

“Take it from me, boy,” said Gramps, “there’s only one time you won’t be able to understand women.  And that’s your whole life long.”

At age 13 I wasn’t so intent on understanding women as I was on feasting my eyes while pressing their flesh.  Of course I never got beyond fantasy with my young art teacher, Miss Pankiewicz, who engendered quite a few; nor with any of the girls in her class or eighth grade generally.  But I did gain a handhold on sculpting in clay, with most of my early productions happening to resemble boobs.  (I ended up adding two eyes above the nipple and a fishtail in back to make them look more like bass or bluegills.)

Whittling was another veranda activity I shared with Gramps.  He would take a pine block and methodically pare it down to a miniature water heater, complete with inlet/outlet pipes and shutoff valve.  I hardly needed any instructions when given my first block and pocketknife, quickly carving a smooth bulbous oval that might have been a fish.  In fact, I found woodwork so instinctive, so effortless, that I put no great value on it—unlike modeling in clay, which took a lot more exertion.  That Christmas, Gramps presented me with a set of fixed-blade knives I still use today.  “He may be puny,” he told my mother, “but he’s got The Hands.”


After a year in Terre Haute, my mother announced we would be rejoining my father in Columbia, the gem of Missouri, whose university had offered Dad a full professorship.   He greeted us as though we’d just stepped out for a few minutes, but remarked I had grown so much he didn’t recognize me.  And from then on my father often seemed mildly puzzled as to who I was.

Not that I was entirely certain of that myself after enrolling at brand-new Stonehill High School, home of the Fighting Quixotes.  It was a complex of space-age buildings connected by skywalks, each with a giant banner proclaiming THERE ARE NO IMPOSSIBLE DREAMS.  Instead we got Large Groups and Small Groups instead of classes, Independent Time instead of study hall, filmstrips instead of chalkboards, and “modular scheduling” instead of regularity.  On some days, I had to eat a 15-minute lunch at 10:45 a.m.; on others, half an hour at 1 p.m.  The result of all this (besides dyspepsia) was ultradiscombobulation.  And never, not once in 4 years, did I get assigned consecutive classes in nearby rooms.  I ran myself winded going from one place to the next, up and down futuristic corridors.

My mother, however, was ecstatic to be in a college town again.  She quickly immersed herself in the MU campus swim, sprinting home one night from a faculty fest to bubble, “Do you know a girl named Crystal Smithson?  Well she sure likes you!”

Intriguing news (which I’d’ve preferred hearing from somebody else).  This girl who sure liked me:  Did she hail from the Black Lagoon?  Or was there any chance she could be a spectacular breathtaker?

Reality, as usual, fell between extremes.  Crystal Smithson proved to be the Tall Chick at my workstation in GAL (General Art Laboratory).  Fairly nice-looking, but painfully shy.  In childhood she’d suffered from a Cindy Brady lisp that made uttering her own name a torment.  By age 14 she was burdened with braces she tried never to reveal, and a height of nearly 6 feet that she could do nothing to hide.  Plus a frequent blush that exactly matched the vivid tomato shade of her long red hair.  When she saw me the day after our parents met, Crystal’s entire head turned the color of catsup.

As I said: intriguing.

“Wanna have lunch?” I asked her.

“With me?” blinked Crystal.

“No, with me,” I replied.  The suave new kid in town.

She tagged along diffidently to the cafeteria (1 p.m., half an hour).  Whether Crystal really sure liked me at that time I never found out.  She admitted only to blurting my name when quizzed by her mother about boys in high school—part of Mrs. Smithson’s nonstop quest to elicit info on every aspect of Crystal’s existence.

She fell silent for the rest of the meal, scarcely opening her mouth even to eat.  So I made a tentative stab at tuning into any vibes she might be emanating.


Chant that mantra.  I rather liked the use of “homely.”  Unlike “ugly” or “hideous,” it implied some degree of self-worth; even a touch of vanity.  Say about her vivid red hair.  Which I asked if I could use for my first Art project.  Which alarmed and confused Crystal until I explained “as inspiration.”

“It’s natural, you know, my own real color,” she muttered.

“Glad you don’t have to send away for it,” I said.

Her mutters turned into titters; and my reputation as a laconic wit took root.


We took 4 mortal years of GAL together, along with the other students at our workstation:  Link Letterman (related to neither celebrity) and his occasional old lady, Nancy “Green Springs” Ghillie.  They exemplified two of the three syllables in Stonehill High.  Link would blaze up anything remotely flammable—one of his projects was a large cross made of empty Hamm’s cans, topped by a ceramic skull full of airplane glue that Link set afire so the eye sockets would glow smokily.  Nancy G.S. could make hers do that without glue:  She was the only person I ever heard of who could mellow out on ditchweed, which is to true pot as baker’s chocolate is to candy.

The four of us joined the school art club on the insistence of Crystal’s best friend Elizabeth Erpe, a poisonous shrew with an adequate singing voice who discovered the music club was rife with controlled substances.  Music and Art were born allies (they took part in dramatics, we painted their sets) and jointly mustered enough college connections to form the stoner auxiliary called Our Gang.  I couldn’t smoke, except in the secondhand sense, and Crystal was afraid to inhale, no matter how much peer pressure Elizabeth applied.  But Nancy gained fame and Our Gang’s gratitude for her Green Springs hash brownies (ditchweed-free).  They made ultradiscombobulation a whole lot more palatable.

But didn’t enhance my esp-ability, which faded into static.

Certainly I had no success subliminalizing Crystal.  Give yourself to Aitch!  He will reward you with orgasms!  Nothing doing.  She was pleasant enough company, agreeably deferential as to where we might go and what we might do there—except for “bed” and “boff.”  Willing to hug and kiss and sometimes be fondled, especially when green-sprung.  But not to jettison her virginity or help me overcome mine.  It didn’t help that I was 5'1" when we met, achieving only 6¼ additional inches (eventually above, relentlessly below) by way of growth-spurt.  Crystal’s father, a professor of astronomy who could have expressed himself in celestial terms, called us “Mutt and Jeff.”  Even Our Gang, whose elevated remarks tended to sound hilarious or profoundly insightful, felt compelled to say, “Wow... you two, it’s like... she is like... so much taller than you, man...” at sporadic intervals.

We were neither’s ideal sweetheart.  Crystal mooned after basketball players; my eye kept getting snagged by shorter, darker, narrower-eyed girls.  We both nursed a hope that if the other left us for an Ideal, our own would be bound to appear.  (This was offset by dire foreboding that we’d be abandoned and have to scrounge for a replacement—in my case, ending up with toxic Elizabeth.)  But no one better came along, so we kept going together.  Farther afield, as time went by and we got our driver’s licenses.  Many an evening was spent on or around the MU campus at art-house cinemas, watching Fellini, Film Noir, and Bogart movies for the first time.  From these I adopted certain mannerisms, such as being laconically witty out of the side of my mouth.

One place Crystal and I never ventured was to school dances; we got enough Mutt & Jeff commentary as it was.  But when the junior prom rolled around, she yearned for an environment in which she might wear a strapless evening gown, so I bought tickets to opening night of Britten’s Turn of the Screw at the New Mizzou Opera House.  All the perks of a prom:  limousine, tuxedo, corsage, parents going through umpteen flashbulbs.  (I stood there imitating Philip Marlowe; Crystal sat beside me looking almost lovely.)  The house wasn’t full, and we got a loge to ourselves, which made canoodling a distinct possibility once the lights dimmed.  The production itself was typical New Mizzou:  outré for outré’s sake.  The children were costumed like the Jetsons, while Quint and Miss Jessel wore shrouds of aluminum foil and tossed a black volleyball back and forth at the beginning of Act Two.  Enough bona fide eeriness seeped through that I grew concerned about its effect on Crystal.  Would she be put off?  To the point of not putting out?

At which moment I found her giving me her hand.  And not for me to hold.

My first thought was:  This is a rented tux!

While onstage Miss Jessel sang:  I shall come closer, closer and more often.

Yet when the lights went up, Crystal seemed to emerge from a state of mesmerization, and everything below the navel was again off limits.

By our senior year, all futuristic gloss was gone from Stonehill High.  Modular scheduling had been scrapped, leaving nothing but impossible dreams.  Yet Crystal Smithson strode confidently through the skyways, shedding her braces and occasionally her bra, allowing that vivid tomato mane to grow so long she could sweep it back and sit on it.  Her mother fretted and quizzed as much as ever, but Crystal was able to parry every cross-exam.  She even inhaled now and then.  I take credit for none of this, other than being a passable stand-in boyfriend.

For her eighteenth birthday, I got a block of cherrywood and carved her a bust—as I told her more than once, to make her titter.  I used wood because clay would have taken too long and required a kiln.  As before, sculpting in wood was such a natural snap I didn’t rate it too highly.  Did I catch Crystal’s essential image, blending shy with bold and preserving it in Prunus serotina?  Maybe so, but without breaking a sweat.

And cherry bust or no, she still wouldn’t sleep with me.

We corresponded for awhile after graduation.  Crystal went to UCLA, got a degree or two in seismology, and last I heard was teaching college students about rocking their world.  Good for her.  (I wonder if she still has that bust?  Wouldn’t mind seeing it again—the wooden one, that is.  Not so much her own, after 27 years of wear and tear.)


Once upon a time there was a bashful beer baron called Gerhard Liederkranz, who gave the greater part of his fortune to the arts—always anonymously.  After his unassuming and beneficent death, they plastered Gerhard’s name all over an educational institute in Madison, Wisconsin.  I opted to go there for college because of its laidback attitude toward figurative art, which elsewhere enjoyed much the same respect as Rodney Dangerfield.  Laidback was the theme and casual were its variations.  Forethought yielded to the offhand, the impromptu, the spur-of-the-moment.  Intimacy might be superficial, concern might be nonchalant, and the atmosphere might be cheesy—but we were in Wisconsin, after all.  With plentiful ways and means to relax and unwind in the Long Lounge Act that was the mid-Seventies.

At Liederkranz one quick casualty was my chastity, thanks to sandy-haired Bonnie Pattering and her luminous lime-colored eyes.  Plus a sun-kissed gymnast/equestrienne’s body that she put to bountiful use.  If her unspoken ambition was to boink everyone at that institute, who were we to say her nay?  Least of all me, to whom Bonnie took an early shine as a fellow Missourian.  (She arrived at college triumphant from the State Fair in Sedalia, where she’d won a fistful of ribbons in assorted categories.)  SHOW ME read her snug gold crop-top the day we first conversed.

“So you’re H.  Huffman, hunh?  What does the ‘H.’ stand for?” she wanted to know.

“The eighth letter of the alphabet,” I told her.

“What’s it stand for besides that?”

“Hydrogen, enthalpy, and Planck’s constant.”

“You are so weird!” said Bonnie, not without delight.  Nothing she did ever lacked that element—bliss, felicity, euphoria, what have you.  In this she anticipated future decades of aerobics instructors:  Let’s see which of us can touch our toes!  Now let’s see how many cookies we can pop in a single sandy-haired hayroll!

Encouraging enthusiasm.  Which sometimes chimed with being laidback, and sometimes disrupted it.

I hit sandy hay on three separate occasions with Bonnie Pattering—chimingly at first, given her jubilant blue-ribbon glee.  More disruptively the second time, she pausing again and again to call me names that start with H and watch for my reaction.  Our third time she pulled this stunt during the deed itself, panting a series of question-marked H-names into my ear while doing her pelvic best to hotbox the answer out of me.  But Bonnie’s best was far too good for that purpose:  I was beyond verbalizing, unless Uhhhhhhh counts as a verb.

Though I welcomed further rolls, she decided to label me “Herkimer” (after her favorite pet rock) and move along—roaming the coed dorm in impish nightshirts, reinterpreting Wee Willie Winkie as she brought joy to Liederkranzers.  An uptight lithography major on the fourth floor denounced Bonnie as “promiscuous,” which was like accusing a Good Humor truck of fostering juvenile delinquency.  Some of us rushed to console her, but Bonnie just laughed, saying we would never meet a woman more choosy about whom she had fun with.

Choosy, and changeful.  She liked to sing a ditty about there being safety in numbers, the more the merrier and so forth.  (This was still possible in the later Seventies:  That fleeting interlude between the claps of old and high-fives on the horizon.)  Not many were granted three different hayrolls, which only goes to show what initial abbreviation can get you.

After we left the dorm and moved offcampus, I saw Bonnie less often, though she’d always greet me with a “Herkimer-smooch” whenever we ran into each other.  Her sharing an apartment with Angela Thorwald (whose ample chest sported tiny buttons reading I CAN CRUSH YOUR NOSE WITH THE HEEL OF MY HAND, SO BACK THE HELL OFF) enabled Bonnie to play the field in every position.  Angela was already at work on her scathing Pudenda in Absentia that would later make waves on the independent film circuit.  It had no effect whatsoever on Bonnie’s exultant affability:  At graduation, she was given a not-a-joke award for outstanding achievement in interdisciplinary art, and we stood and cheered her thirty-times-three.  She looked happy yet accustomed to receiving such plaudits.

I lost all track of Bonnie Pattering after college, and have no idea whether she settled down or came to grief or continues popping cookies to this day.  But if there’s a lime-colored field in Casual Elysium, she deserves a luminous place there.


When I saw that my attempts to sculpt in clay were lumpish, I disposed of them and turned to wood.  (As it were.)  When all else loses definition, you can work your will upon blocks or blanks with a knife, a gouge, a chisel and mallet.

Seeking RELIEF.

When all shook up by the Fist of Kismet.

My luck in love has been bad more often than not.  Sometimes the bad luck stems from circumstances beyond my control; more often, from my inability to understand women.  Even Crystal, even Bonnie; all the other wavelengths I’ve tried tuning into, the essences I’ve attempted to tap.  Yet at 45 I’m still stuck on the Terre Haute veranda or in the New Mizzou loge, callously callow in the face of indefinite infinitude.

Your whole life long, Gramps warned.

Women are transcendent.  Transcendence is unfathomable.  Only through artwork—shaping wood with chisel and gouge—do I even seem to come close.

Outside, skyrockets are splattering the night like motion sickness on an astral plane.  It’s the 4th of July, and the people next door are celebrating independence by blowing things up.  I stay indoors under the spotlight with my scalpel and dental pick, bringing out niceties in Honduras mahogany.  Adding traces of all the ladies I’ve remembered:  diffidence, derangement, delight.  Bountiful mettle and butterfly pluck.  Hot fidgets and cool grace.

There we go.  There they are.  This is it.

I snap off the spotlight, step away from the workbench, and mix myself a drink.


© 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 November 2005 publication.]