To Create Such a Thing
To create such a thing requires a quality eluding precise definition. It requires the right combination, if you like, of insight and insanity. The silent rat-tat-tats of my neighbor’s creativity come to mind. I call them rat-tat-tats to allude to the soundless quality of the noise of creativity.
Now, letters about noise were written, I admit, but that was about noise from the outside. Sirens mainly, okay? There was no proof that I wrote those letters, by the way, but I was arrested all the same and charged.
I maintain my innocence.
This sound, this rat-tat-tat, haunts the hallway of the place at the foot of Ambler Street. He of the rat-tat-tat creating mode is the freak in 204. I am his neighbor across the hall, the freak in 205. He has a spectacular view of the harbor. I have a breathtaking view of the brick walls and barred windows of the west wing of Drayman General. I happen to know about his view because I looked at that flat before he took it.
I say rat-tat-tat as a kind of coverall phrase, to describe the indescribable sound of whatever he’s building over there. It reminds me of the sounds you hear when somebody builds something using a tack hammer, like maybe a little house for the cat, using those little thin nails that bend if you strike them the least bit crooked.
I’m not some disembodied voice spouting doublespeak platitudes here. My name is Lyle Vance, and I lived at the Y before I moved to the foot of Ambler Street, and I know cats don’t have houses. I sometimes speak in extended metaphors. It’s involuntary, like a tic. I was dropped on my head when I was a kid.
All right, all right.
My name is not actually Lyle Vance. I never lived at the Y. Lyle Vance used to live at the Y, but I’m not him. I represented myself as Lyle Vance because it’s easier that way. That rat-tat-tat sounds like random noise to the uninitiated because they don’t understand what it means, that’s all. The uninitiated, I mean. Once they get it, they’ll see that it’s just much easier to think of me as Lyle Vance even ‘though we know I’m not.
As long as we’re putting it out on the table here, Lyle Vance wrote the letters. Not me. I was out of town. The cops think I wrote them, sure, but they can’t prove it. I was down south on a secret junket, actually, investigating the possibility of opening a trade mission way south, near the pole. I know it sounds far fetched, but it’s pure and simple planning. Planning is what’s going to take mankind to the stars. Everybody pulling together, regardless of race, creed, national origin, shape of nose, eye, lip or mouth, any of that, all following a plan.
Take me, Lyle Vance.
All right, all right, all right. I am Lyle Vance, and, notwithstanding earlier denials, I do have more experience with this rat-tat-tat business than I let on. Rat-tat-tat is nothing more than the sound of making something. When you build a house for a cat, you make noise. Rat-tat-tat is the sound of that building. Across the hall in 204, he’s building something. That’s all. He would probably say he’s creating something, and that’s fine. You might tend to believe him because he has a harbor view, as opposed to my brick wall view, but he pays twice as much rent as I do.
Maybe you’re one of these people who gets all fired up when somebody blurts out something offensive, like when I almost used the word nuthouse earlier, describing the west wing of Drayman General. I left nuthouse out because it’s an insensitive word. It would be analogous to saying that they put Aunt Bertie in a nuthouse because they can’t trust her with matches. Broke their hearts to do it, needless to say. Poor old Bertie stashed away in a drafty, decrepit nuthouse is not a happy image, and it leaves me wondering if creative insight and visionary insanity aren’t actually separate manifestations of the same thing, like waves and particles, space and time, all that. Like me and you, actually. We’ve come this far in tandem.
As for reality of the foot of Ambler Street; first, you’ll see Drayman General looming on the left, a large building of dull yellow brick. Let your eyes drift across the parking lot. Follow the line of light stanchions to the foot of Ambler. You’ll see a sandy colored apartment building that’s seen better days. Go in the front. Take the stairs to the second floor. Turn right at the top. Down at the end of the hall, you’ll see 204 and 205.
The guy who lives in 204, Lyle Vance, has a most interesting and creative rat-tat-tat going. It’s actually not so much a rat-tat-tat sound as it is a series of seemingly unrelated events beginning with a queer smile, a tentative invitation, a clumsy greeting, wine and cheese, clam dip and crackers, reefer and snuff, stories long into the night about undergrad hi jinks. Creating stink bombs in the boys’ bathroom. Making crank calls. Who does Lyle Vance look like, so you can picture him? Well, he looks a little like me, I guess.
He’s not quite as tall, but probably weighs a little more. Some of his friends say we both bear a mild resemblance to what they think one of the prophets might’ve looked like. We both have long hair trailing down to our shoulders, kind of parted in the center. We’re both slight of build, with kind of a thin face and a placid demeanor. If you saw us together, Lyle Vance and I, passing in the hall, let’s say, you might say to yourself, “Those two guys not only like each other, but they also look a little bit like I imagine one of the worldly prophets must have looked.” Lyle Vance and I both graduated from the street. These worldly prophets, as I understand it, were pretty much street guys, relating to the street folk, living in rent, not having accumulated much in the way of what they used to call, and may still, material wealth.
Lyle Vance in a nutshell?
Well, truthfully, I didn’t know what to expect that first night when he invited me, his new neighbor, over for dinner. Peach cartons and frozen ravioli maybe, but it wasn’t like that. Okay, there were beaded doorways. A stuffed raven perched on a shelf above the commode. A large tropical hammock hanging in the living room. There was jungle music, and a live parrot named Itchy, a beautiful blue and yellow creature, cawing out, ‘Stand down, Mr. Christian.’ No rat-tat-tats lying around that I could see.
Some people like to put their own art work on their walls, their visible light spectrum rat-tat-tat, you know. Lyle Vance was one of those.
I used to know a guy named Chester, who put his own art work on the walls. When I saw Lyle Vance’s walls, I was pretty sure we were dealing with another Chester. Chester was always running for office. Kissing ass. Fawning over people. Laughing too much, slapping everybody on the back, pretending he was interested in their petty bullshit problems when all he really cared about was getting back to his private car on the gravy train. Old rat-tat-tat Lyle Vance across the hall reminded me of Chester, putting his own art on the wall.
Chester bought a huge canvas, locked himself away with a paint set. He painted an amateurish looking portrait of his own feet, which he called FEET in capital letters at the bottom. He signed it, had it put in an expensive frame and hung it above his mantle. He told everybody that he’d been offered a lot of money for FEET because it represented a breakthrough of raw creativity translating into `Great Art’ even ‘though the art itself, by objective standards, was lousy. Somebody said that the FEET painting looked like something a chimp might do with finger paints after being given LSD.
Lyle Vance had something almost as good as his own art on the wall, a color photo of the sparkling harbor scene his window looked out on. “Why a photo when I can look at the scene itself?” he said. “I can take it with me when I go.”
I asked in a kind of neighborly way, what else he builds, besides moveable views.
‘Relationships’, he said.
We are freaks, okay? I mentioned it earlier. We don’t conform to the norm. The bottom of Ambler is the underside of the American Dream. Emergency sirens all night. Fire engines coming in the front window. They rip you out of a sound sleep at four a.m.; send you crawling off to the kitchen in defeat and humiliation. I don’t know if it bothers Lyle Vance, but it sure bothers me.
This is all I can afford right now, until this trade mission thing kicks in. I haven’t approached Lyle Vance just yet. I’m waiting until the right time. He’s building something over there. What, I’m not sure. Maybe a new relationship. The rat-tat-tats are sporadic, soft and loud, but he’s definitely building something. He says relationships, but you don’t need a rat-tat-tat hammer for that.
To create the trust that the word ‘relationship’ implies, one is compelled to ignore some things that are pretty hard to ignore. Nasty letters were written to the mayor, the hospital trustees, the police, the National Association of Emergency Rooms, and local politicians, complaining about the sirens.
All right, all right.
I pretended to be associated with an alderman in order to get some signatures on a petition against the sirens, but I really have no connection with the alderman, who is actually an alderlady. In truth, she’s never heard of me, which kind of hurts my feelings because I volunteered with her campaign.
She has heard of Lyle Vance, the one connected, which is why I used his name, merely to facilitate and expedite things, that’s all. If he had a problem with it, he should’ve said so. We’re just across the hall.
All right, all right.
I made a few threats, but it was strictly for show to help my anti-siren campaign. To create such a thing, you have to be assertive. I was a regular worldly prophet about it. Never got a penny. Well, — hardly a penny. Few meals, maybe. Couple drinks.
All right, all right.
I got a little money. A few bucks. Not enough to buy a ticket off lower Ambler; believe me. Hey, you do what you have to in hard times. Creation is an assertion of a person’s humanity, you know. Try telling that to the cops. Bastards.
- M. E. McMullen
Note: This piece was originally published in 2011 by Blue Lake Review