The eye of asthmatic artist H.Huffman is snagged on the morning bus by a young Sleeping Lady, who is jolted awake to become a Staring Lady. This provocative image pursues Huffman through his dayjob at Selfsame Art Supplies, then back to his solitary studio above a plumber's garage. Here Huffman conceives a sculpture in wood to be titled The Mute Commute—before choking, briefly, on his supper. (Huffman would like to think he resembles Bogart, but knows he looks more like Buster Keaton after the bottle started taking its toll.)
Over the next three months Huffman carves this new sculpture, continuing to observe the Sleeping/Staring Lady on the bus. Ordinarily he hires models (a dozen over as many years) from the Cairney Academy, at whose Figurative Festival he once won the Bronze Figleaf. Now aged 45, an artist of minor repute, Huffman exhibits his surrealized (or "laddered") relief panels at the Crouching Gallery in Jackdaw Square—despite critic Io MacEvelyn's accusations of objectifying women. The finished Mute Commute quickly sells for a four-figure price, and gallery dealer Geraldine Crouching requests more like it.
Huffman is approached at Selfsame by the Staring Lady—who turns out to be Judith Formi, new sales rep for the Formi-Dable supply firm (and widowed daughter-in-law of its boss). She and Huffman meet again on the bus, where Judith is astonished to learn she inspired an expensive sculpture. Uncertain how to react, she takes Huffman to a suburban maltshop and agrees—after seeing an impromptu sketch of herself—to consider posing formally. For this boon Huffman thanks his crypto-deity: Rotwang, the mad inventor in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
Judith comes to Huffman's studio and poses (fully dressed) for a drawing in fine detail. The result so impresses her that she confides in Huffman about her bitter struggle coping with scoliosis as a teen. Could he make her bared back look as good as her clothed front? He can and does; the enchanted Judith hugs him; and they embark upon an artistic/romantic relationship—clandestinely, since Judith's in-laws (and employers) still think she is mourning their late son.
From these drawings Huffman creates a new relief panel, Watch Your Back, in time for the Crouching Gallery group show. Judith can't bear to see it being carved, but returns for the sanding—during which Huffman has an asthma attack. Vowing to build up his wind, Judith takes him to swim at her gym (where he mostly watches her); back to her place for a home-cooked meal (where he is confronted by Judith's hostile cat Noir); and to the annual Whoopjamboreehoo carnival (where he hears about her husband's fatal car accident).
As they start work on another panel, Prized, their intimacy deepens—as does Huffman's overawareness of the difference in their ages. Judith is laid off by Formi-Dable just before her 26th birthday, on which she gets drunk and reveals a secret about her husband's death (and its aftermath). Even so, Huffman is ready to love her, praying to Rotwang that she be spared any more grief or pain (or coming unhinged). But a thunderstorm and Noir the cat give their climactic night together an explosive, divisive, unraveling outcome.
Too soon afterward, Huffman discovers that the suicide journal of Rozay Franzia (his childhood Girl Next Door, who first named him "Aitch") has just been published as Baseless Mime, 25 years after her death. Steeling himself to buy this book, Huffman recalls their time together: the fits Rozay was subject to, their experiments with ESP and intimacy, and his ignominious parting from her. But when he reads Rozay's memoir, even between its lines ... Huffman finds no mention of himself at all.
Taken aback by these disasters and disclosures, Huffman reviews more of his past: his further adolescence, other girls he knew in high school and at college; all the wavelengths he's tried tuning in to, the essences he's attempted to tap. Yet now, having left Judith, he's no more able to fathom women than he could when he left Rozay three decades earlier. Only through artwork—shaping wood with chisel and gouge—does he even seem to come close.
Huffman leaves town and heads west for an extended retreat at the Old McRale Place, a "little timeshare on the prairie." With him he takes blank wooden panels, intending to ladder these into his masterpiece: a carved screen of three doors (later titled The Absolute Woman). Surrounded by isolation, Huffman finds the atmosphere balmy and renews his old motto: "Loneliness is not so bad once you consider the alternatives."
The Old McRale Place is invaded by a small black cat that Huffman can't get rid of and grudgingly accommodates. "Willamene," though quite silent, makes its fluent presence felt in Huffman's thoughts, reminding him of certain models he's known and used: zany-klutzy K.T., petty-klepto Amy-Kay, and overinnocent Pluanne. Trying to incorporate them all into The Absolute Woman, Huffman loses his grip on a dire bottle of Wild Turkey.
Laddering leads Huffman down to his darkest memory: Kimberly Wu alias Cranky Lynnette, gothic photographer and punkette cellist, whom he saw first and last as a flashing reflection in a lofty casement. Between those glimpses, Huffman came to suspect Lynnette of harboring the late Rozay—perhaps to give him a second chance with her... or so that she might take a second crack at him. Either way, their great expectations end with Lynnette suspended in macabre midair.
Trying to resume work on The Absolute Woman, Huffman's sleep is disturbed by phantom noises that sound at first like faulty plumbing. His insomnia is aggravated by Williamene's apparent disappearance; by the noises escalating to wracking phlegmy coughs; and by gouging a sleep-impaired hand which has to get stitched at the county hospital. At the end of his rope one interminable night, Huffman rereads Baseless Mime—and realizes its text is a constantly-repeated acrostic of the letters A-I-T-C-H.
Following a sudden wind/hail/thunderstorm, Huffman seems unable to escape from the Old McRale Place or make any contact with the outside world. Abandoning his would-be masterpiece, he searches for one last inner ladder to rescue himself with—or, if that's no longer possible, to use his art to retrieve one last woman, sleeping or staring, prized beyond possession, from all he has lost.