Sadly, Heart Sounds Press and Pulse Literary Magazine have vanished
   from the Web; but here is their rendition of an excerpt from 13 Black Cats Under a Ladder.

Heart Sounds Press

Muss Me a Little

by P.S. Ehrlich © 2006

“Have you ever read this book?” she asks one morning on the bus. “I couldn’t make head or tail of it when I was at St. Kate’s, but now I think I’m getting it more.”

Doesn’t sound like a Sneaky Pie mystery story. I glance at the cover. “Ulysses?”

“I skim over the disgusting parts,” says Judith. “But look here, where Mr. Bloom’s feeding Pussens and she goes ‘Mrkgnao!’ at him. That’s exactly what a cat would say.”

I’ll take her word for it. Full of wonders, this one is.

In her study guide she finds that June 16th is Bloomsday and announces we should go out to celebrate it. Not pub crawling, but there’s a little French restaurant up in Fisherman’s Bend that she’d like to check out. Even if they don’t offer pork kidneys or blood pudding, Ulysses was published in Paris after all.

“You do know the 16th’s a Sunday?” I ask. I never see her on Sundays, she spends them being the grieving young widow, lighting candles with her in-laws. Then calling me at bedtime for phone solace. And to hear her groom her cat.

“I sent my own dad a card—I can send my father-in-law one too,” says Judith. Coolly.

The 16th’s not just a Sunday and Bloomsday, but Father’s Day as well.

And she wants to spend it with me.


(Yank that wind right out of my sails, why don’t you?)

But what did you expect? Yes, Bogart found Bacall—or if you prefer, Buster Keaton found his lemon-meringue blonde Eleanor—when he was in his mid-forties and she was in her twenties (barely).

I could cope with a relationship if Judith could.

Repeatedly, if she’s willing.

Wouldn’t be December-May—more like August-April. And the drawback doubles as an advantage: I am older this time around, and hopefully wiser. “Mature,” she might say. Not a kid, as in Kansas. Nor a callow youth, as in Milwaukee. And this one’s unlike the two I knew there: she’s taller, stronger, more tempered. Almost twenty-six.

And treats you no different than she would her own father, or any other forty-five-year-old coot.
Maybe on Sunday she’ll present me with a necktie. Well, I’ve got news for her—I already own a necktie. Which I have on that evening when Judith arrives to pick me up. And which she unknots and reties for me, without invitation.

What next? Be sure to wear your galoshes, Poppa.

“You’d look really handsome if you smiled a bit more,” she remarks. For all the world as though she were the first female to spring that line on me.

“You’re beautiful whether you smile or not,” I retort. And then she does, of course.

North we go, to the Fisherman’s Bend marina and La Maison du Pêcheur. Once upon a time this was, they say, the actual house of a genuine fisherman. Probably not the one who caught the wish-granting flounder and had the overambitious wife.

We’re seated outdoors under a striped umbrella; I still get the sun in my eyes. And canned accordion music in my ears. Judith orders our food in impeccable French, from what looks like a bewildered waiter. Correctly or not, we are served lobster bisque and poached salmon, with a bottle of homemade Beaujolais. Most of which gets poured into my glass; Judith allows herself only a few designated-driver sips.

“So,” she says after swallowing one, “have you ever been married, Aitch?”


“Lived with anybody?”

“Not really, no.”

“Ever been in love?”

I empty my glass, pour some more. “Of course.”

Twitter: the first I’ve heard from her in weeks. “Did you, um, sculpt... them?”

“Yes I did.”

Silence, while she chews salmon. Then: “Were those the ‘pieces’ in your studio?”

“A couple.” This wine’s not bad. Flavorful. Spirited. We buy a jug and take it back with us to Judith’s apartment. She has a full glass there; I have several. Sinking deeper into her sofa all the while. No sign of her black cat tonight, which suits me fine. Probably it prefers Pinot Noir.
“You understand, don’t you?”

I turn my head. Find her midnight blues zeroed in upon me. “Hunh?”

“You’ve gone through it too. With that first girl you ever kissed, the one who... did away with herself?”

“Hadn’t seen her for years, when she...”

“But somebody? Someone you loved, once?”

“More like twice.” Yeedge—I must be smashed. This spicy wine’s making my eyes water. Next thing you know, I’ll be spilling beans. Better haul ass off to her lavatory. Oops—better squat for this whiz. Bad manners to aim it all over a lady’s powder room. Stand and flush. Zip and turn. Reel back to be collected, directed down. Are these her hands on my face?

Oh Aitch—you’re so—

That same half-finished sentence.

Thirty years I’ve wondered what I was so...

Blink and the room changes. Lights off. Dawn on. Still sitting on the sofa but my tie has vanished, my shirt is unbuttoned, and Judith is curled around me. Head resting against mine. Tush pressed against my hip. Legs arched across my lap. Sunday dress replaced by a long purple tee with Wildcats across the front in gold, slowly swelling and subsiding.

What the HELL??

Secular humanist I might have been raised, but my first thoughts are scriptural: the beautiful widow who got the Assyrian drunk in order to behead him with his own sword. Can’t recall the Assyrian’s name, other than it started with an H—

Quick doubletake. The head resting against hers is still attached to my shoulders. The schweinhund’s saphead is likewise intact. Okay then. Not a crime scene. Still: here’s a how-de-do. Somebody’s been working their wiles overnight, and I don’t think it was me or mine.
Her chest continues to swell and subside.

She never naps like this on the bus. There she’s rigidly upright, jaws clamped shut on her plastic “night guard,” unbending only to nod—nod—nod. Here she’s loose, lax, slack—openmouthed, in fact. A nice Catholic girl from Minnesota, her slaver dribbling down my throat to pool inside my collarbone.

Wait a minute.

No night guard. No night light.

Yet sound asleep, more or less in my arms.

Well, I’ll be damned.

Romantic notion. Make it more. Awaken her with a kiss. Though not with this wine-dark breath. Pack of gum in my shirt pocket: dig out a stick, chomp hurriedly. All right. No need to scale brambles around an enchanted castle; just brush away the latest drooldrop, take her chin and lift it slightly upward...—jolting her awake. Lids popping open, eyes hollow-socketing—yeedge! is she about to scream? Not quite. She goes “OH MY FACE” and jumps off the sofa, leaping in the bathroom, whumping the door shut after her.

“My” face. Meaning hers. From which she didn’t remove makeup last night. Meaning she woke up slightly smeary.

I was willing to overlook it.

Instead I’m left here with morning wood. And a full bladder, which the sound of rushing water does nothing to ease. So much for romantic notions. I creak to my feet, hobble on over, tap on the door.

“Just a minute!”

“Judith? I really have to go.”

“Oh don’t, oh please stay!”

“I mean, go—in there—”

“Oh! Um... just a minute—”

Out she darts past me, muffled in a towel. I half-expect to find her face in an Eleanor Rigby jar by the door. Better that than the stubbly pallor I see staring back at me from too many reflective surfaces. Gah...

I manage to relieve myself without disaster. Dip a finger in her toothpaste to edge me closer to minty-freshness. Not that I’ll have much use for that now. Twist the knob, open up—and find her standing immediately opposite. Face scrubbed cosmetic-free. Looking both scared and brave, younger and older. Less finished, yet more timeless. Blanker, yet indelible.

“Do you still want to kiss me?” she asks.

Sometimes my mind is nimble. “More than ever,” I reply.

Thus: clinch.

So: dreaming.

Beneath the cotton T-shirt she is tense, taut, on edge. But her lips are like the Beaujolais, fresh and bright and berrylicious. (If a dream, what a dream.) I move my hands over her back, staying on top of the cotton, and she does not shrink away but comes closer, arms around my neck as they were that first Saturday a month or more ago. And I am Winston Smith among the bluebells, in the Golden Country, with birds singing outside and sunlight pouring through curtains and her body turning softer, warmer, melting in my hands and against my mouth, taking my breath away all over again—except she isn’t, she’s giving me hers, she’s filling my lungs. Building up my wind. Resuscitating my life. I can feel the graying bristles on my chin turning back to black. And the same words keep throbbing through my mind: Well, I’ll be damned—well, I’ll be damned—well, I’ll be damned—

Oh shut up and kiss me.

Yes dear.

And still I don’t know whether she did any liberty-taking last night, or if so whether she still respects me come the dawn, or if at an athletic 5'9" she weighs 120 or 130 or maybe more for all her willowiness, and if so will I be able to sweep her into my mallet-hardened arms long enough to find which of these doors leads into her unseen bedroom—

—when I get caught by her strong right hand in a downright intimate place. As in my ear she goes: “Hon—honey—have you got a thingee?”

What do you think you’ve got your hand on, lady?

No no, you know—FOR it.

Oh. Er. No.

“Oh, Aitch,” she sighs aloud. With exasperated reproach, as though I’d been promising to pack one day and night. Dammit!—Poppa forgot his galoshes after all. I’m almost ready to propose marriage, if that’s what it’ll take; but then she’d expect me to produce a ring, and I don’t have one of those on me either. RATS—

A distant alarm goes off.

Clockbuzz, to belabor the obvious.

“Well,” she says, “I better get dressed.” Disappearing behind what must be her bedroom door. Fat lot of good that discovery does me.

I try to put myself right in her powder blue shrine to hygiene. Cursing my rotten luck and this tardy wine-hangover, and wondering why we keep wasting so much time alone in each other’s crappers.
“Honey?” from without. “I need to put my face back on.”

Oog. “Honey”—guess she’s decided that’s what my initial stands for. How very affectionate. And “putting her face on”—reminds me of yet another Judy, the one in Vertigo who’s willing to let Jimmy Stewart muss her a little. Which he doesn’t do (despite her being Kim Novak, for crying out loud) because he’s just realized that Judy is in fact the False Madeleine—

—but who the hell cares whether she’s false or true or blonde or brunette or got used as a tool in a murder plot? It’s Kim Novak; go ahead and muss her a little, as much as she’ll let you. Though not so much that she falls off a bell tower.

“Here we go,” says Judith, crispy-clean in fresh makeup and her Monday mauve outfit.

Before we depart for the Park ‘n’ Ride, she lets her cat back into the apartment. Outraged at being left out all night, the creature won’t allow Judith to stroke it, pretends it doesn’t know her. As for me, I’m regarded as being nowhere near the premises. But when we head on out, the cat bounds up to glare balefully after us through the window.