Issue #79, July 2005





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 sides.

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 Eighties.

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 that.

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 fidgets.

“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 decade.

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 castings.

“They’re all nayyyyked!!” exclaimed Vicki.   (Agitation brought out the chiCAHgo in her.)   “They look just like real peeeeople!   That are nayyyyked!”

“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 wood.”

“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 insulation.)

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 it.

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 lively.

She was worth the long wait.   If not the very best:   taking full advantage of all those wriggling squirms.

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 meeeeeee !!”

I didn’t think Chicago cops could look that nonplused...


P. S. Ehrlich 2005-2010


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[Sadly, Ten Thousand Monkeys is now gone from the Web.  Above is a replica of their July 2005 publication.]