Rattle? Roll?

by J. Michael Shell ©2013

When the prevailing winds of governance changed from raging neo-conservatism to a more light and liberal breeze, Maryanne Mossiter’s petition for disability benefits was finally approved. The tiny check she received each month kept her, barely, from the specter of homelessness. Instead, she managed to keep her tiny, vermin infested efficiency apartment in the seedy core of the Big Apple.

Maryanne had come to the city from Kansas, dragging her disability (manic-depression with a side order of schizophrenia) along like a clubfoot. At twenty-one years of age, she’d escaped the monotonous plains of the “heartland,” as well as the grueling psychological abuse of her mother—from whom she’d inherited her mental illness. For a while, the rigors of surviving in a place so different from what she had known all her life seemed to focus Maryanne, and allow her to live with (or perhaps in spite of) the faulty circuitry in her brain. But, eventually, the electro-chemical imbalances that ruled her became insistent, and Maryanne’s resultant bizarre behavior placed her—sometimes for months—in the custody of state run psychiatric facilities. Aided by drugs almost as debilitating as her illness, she’d eventually be released once more into the insanity of the City that Never Sleeps.

Maryanne had two passions—poetry and science. Sacrificing money she might have used to supplement her diet, Maryanne had acquired a television set and basic cable. With these two food substitutes, she indulged her craving for knowledge by watching shows on a variety of science-oriented channels. For her poetry fix, she frequented an ancient used book store filled with dusty, musty tomes. Fortunately for Maryanne, poetry was not a mainstay of the other patrons of Nikola’s Used-Book Emporium. The cost of most of her purchases amounted to small change, and did not encroach on her food money nearly so much as the bill for her basic cable.

One blustery fall day, as a chill wind wound its way between the oppressively tall structures, Maryanne similarly blew through the streets on her way to Nikola’s. Inspired by the manic breezes temporarily erasing the stink all cities cultivate, Maryanne had skipped her medication that morning. Filled with the energy those meds usually skimmed like cream off the milk of her consciousness, she danced through those autumnal gusts until she arrived at the dilapidated entrance to her favorite bookstore. “Hello!” she said cheerily to the boy manning the checkout counter that Saturday morning.

On weekdays, an old man hovered there near the antique, crank cash register. But on weekends, the boy—who was the old man’s nephew—assumed the task of ringing up the purchases of Nikola’s few, but faithful, patrons. “Uh...hi!” the boy said. There was surprise in his voice, as Maryanne had never spoken to him before—even when he had sheepishly tried to engage her in conversation.

“Isn’t it a pretty day?” Maryanne said, further surprising (encouraging?) the boy, who had allowed her visage to enter certain adolescent fantasies.

“You are,” the boy blurted out, causing capillaries in his face to engorge and create an intense blush on his cheeks. “I mean, it is...a pretty day...outside.” he said, trying to recover what little composure he possessed.

“Yes,” Maryanne said through a beaming, smiling face. “I’m going downstairs to poetry,” she told him, skipping toward a narrow, dimly-lit stairway.

“Have fun,” the boy said, further crimsoning his face. He could hear Maryanne giggling as she disappeared down the stairs.


In the bowels of Nikola’s Used-Book Emporium, Maryanne felt at home. The musty smell of the old, dusty books excited pleasant memories of hours spent curled in those stacks with Dylan Thomas and Hart Crane, Edgar Poe and Sylvia Plath. Robert Frost. There was even one episode that had been expelled from her memory, but was now trying to creep back in. It was a time when she’d been in the full throes of her mental illness. It was the day she’d come up the stairs from the poetry section naked and reading Emily Dickinson aloud. That day had also been a Saturday, and accounted for some of the boy’s fantasizing.

Shaking away that startling yet semi-pleasant memory, Maryanne began searching for some new configuration of words to satisfy her thirst for them. In a singularly jovial mood, she began flicking books that she didn’t like the look of onto the floor—leaving big gaps in the previously tightly shelved rows. In one of those gaps, Maryanne noticed that a book had somehow become errantly lodged behind the properly shelved volumes. It was something she’d never seen before, a collection called Leaves of Grass. “Walt Whitman,” she said aloud as she retrieved the work from its unorthodox position. “I’ve heard of you. What do your leaves of grass sound like?”

With her left thumb, Maryanne curled, then fanned, the pages. During this activity, she noticed that a sheaf of loose papers had been wedged into the book. There, on page forty-eight—where began Mr. Whitman’s sometimes controversial poem, “I Sing the Body Electric”—Maryanne found a collection of notes. At the top of the first page of those notes was the underlined title, “Resonant Deconstruction—Revised Apparatus.” Reading as an addendum to the title was the parenthetical aside, “(Earthquake Machine—how the press does rave!).” Alongside this observation appeared the initials, N. T.

“Oh!” Maryanne chirped, startling herself. “I know who you are!”


Maryanne Mossiter was a little bit of a genius when it came to science and mathematics. Of course, she was also a little bit mad—especially when she neglected to take her meds. Though she was enjoying reading the notes on Resonant Deconstruction, she folded them and stuck them back into Leaves of Grass. She wanted to buy, as quickly as possible, Mr. Whitman’s book—concluding that the notes would then become hers by purchase.

Spinning around like a dervish to make her way up the stairs, Maryanne took off and ran smack into the boy, who had just come down them. “Oh!” she said, as the collision pushed air out of her lungs.

When the boy began profusely to apologize, Maryanne placed her fingers on his lips—quieting him immediately—and said, “What’s your name?”

“Joel,” the boy answered, that telltale crimson creeping onto his cheeks again.

“I’m Maryanne. Who’s minding the store?”

“Oh...uh...I’m on break. I mean...nobody. I kind-of locked the door.”

Maryanne smiled her beaming face at him and said, “You saw me naked that time, didn’t you?”

“No!” Joel insisted. Then, relenting, he stammered, “I mean...I was here, but I wasn’t looking...well...I mean I wasn’t staring or anything.”

“Hmmm,” Maryanne mused. “When I came in you said I was pretty, didn’t you?”

“No! I mean, yes...but I didn’t mean it. I mean, I meant it, but I didn’t mean to say it.”

“Well, I don’t mind you saying I’m pretty, but it’s not nice to lock your patrons in the store.”

“I’m sorry,” Joel said softly. “I just wanted to come down and make sure you were all right.”

“And dressed?” Maryanne teased.

“No...I mean...you’re well now, right? They say you’re okay now.”

“I am okay, but you should know that they rarely know what they’re talking about.”

“I know, but I hope you’re okay. You sure seem okay.”

“I am. What time do you close up the shop?”

“Four-thirty on Saturdays,” he answered her.

“Well, I’ll come back at four-thirty and you can buy me a Coke and a doughnut. Do you have enough money for a Coke and a doughnut? Because if you don’t, I’ll buy them, but we’ll have to share.”

“I have money,” Joel said defensively. “I could buy you a whole box of doughnuts.”

“You better not,” Maryanne told him, “because I’d eat every one. Then I’d be all fat and you wouldn’t want to see me naked anymore.”

Joel blushed again, but he also smiled. He knew he was being teased, and he liked it.


Maryanne’s television was always on. Sometimes she muted the volume, but the figures and faces on the screen warded off the loneliness that followed her around like a pit. When she walked in with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass under her arm, “The Universe” was appearing on The History Channel. “Galactic Black Holes,” she said to the television, as she found the remote and turned down the volume. “I know all about it,” she mumbled, retrieving the “Earthquake Machine” notes from her book. “And I know all about you, too,” she said, poking the initials N. T. with her finger. “You never revised your Resonant Deconstruction Device. Or did you?”

Once she began reading them, the notes shackled all her attention to their contents. Every once in a while, she’d whisper in an astonished tone, “I understand.”

When, finally, she looked up from those fascinating instructions, she noticed that “Mega Movers” had replaced “The Universe” on The History Channel. “Oh, no!” Maryanne exclaimed. “It’s after five!”

Giving no consideration to the sinking sun and cooling temperatures, Maryanne ran out of her apartment in a tee shirt and thin, scrub-pants. As she dashed out of the building, she bumped into little-old Mrs. McGrady coming home from the market. “Careful, child!” Mrs. McGrady scolded. But she softened when she noticed the tear on Maryanne’s cheek.

“It’ll hurt his feelings terribly!” Maryanne called as she ran in the direction of Nikola’s Used-Book Emporium.


When Maryanne arrived and found the shop closed, she dropped onto the stoop and cried into the palms of her hands. But between her sobs, she heard a voice ask, “Why are you crying?”

Maryanne jumped up and wrapped poor Joel into an unexpected hug—knocking the box of doughnuts out of his hand. “I’m so so sorry,” she was sobbing. “Please tell me I didn’t hurt you!”

“Other than squeezing all my air out,” Joel said, gasping , “no, you didn’t hurt me. Why are you crying?”

Maryanne looked into Joel’s eyes and said, very gravely, “Because I thought I might have.” Then she beamed him her smile, let him loose from her hug, and retrieved the box of doughnuts he’d dropped. “Where are the Cokes?” she asked, cocking her head at him.

“We’ll have to go over to the market. All the doughnut shop had was Pepsi.”

“Well,” Maryanne harrumphed. “We can’t have that!”


Sitting on a bus-stop bench, Maryanne and Joel ate their doughnuts and laughed at the silly jokes they told one another. Joel had finally relaxed in her presence, until she detected a spot of Bavarian cream on his cheek and licked it off. When he blushed his most crimson blush yet, she laughed and said, “Don’t be silly!” Then she dollop-ed a spot of cream on her own cheek and said, “Go ahead, lick it off. You won’t see me blushing.” When Joel hesitated, she said very sternly, “You lick that off of there right now!” Joel obeyed, and blushed even brighter than when she’d licked him. “How old are you?” Maryanne asked with her eyes squinted.

“I’m sixteen, but I’ll be seventeen in three months—December twenty-first, that’s my birthday.”

“And am I the first girl you’ve ever seen naked?”

Joel dropped his chin to his chest and said, softly, “Yes.”

“Would you like me to be the first girl to something else?”

Joel wanted to answer, but all that came out was a little squeak.

“Well, I might be,” Maryanne told him. “On your birthday, on December twenty-first, I might give you a surprise if you’ll help me build my Resonant Deconstruction Device.”

“Resident what?” Joel asked.

“Res-o-nant,” Maryanne corrected. “But don’t worry about the words—that’s my department. You just have to help me come up with the parts. No more doughnuts after today—we need all our money for materials. Now let’s go home, I’m cold.”

“Home to your place?” Joel asked.

“Of course, silly. You’re going to have to know where I live!”


Other than when he was in school (or home in bed with his fantasies), Joel was engaged, in some capacity, with helping Maryanne build her earthquake machine. When he’d gathered enough “parts,” and the device began to actually look like something, he asked her, “What does it do?”

“It shakes things,” Maryanne answered in a sing-songy, haven’t-taken-my-meds-in-weeks voice.

“How?” Joel pressed.

Maryanne looked up from her work at Joel as if she’d just noticed he was there. “Come here,” she told him.

Joel went over and knelt beside her. Gently, she placed her hand behind his head and drew him in for a long, hormone-inspiring kiss. “That’s a down payment,” she told him. Then she handed him a list. “I need these things, but I’m out of money until the first of the month. If we have to wait that long to get them, we might not make the December twenty-first deadline. And I really want to give you your surprise on your birthday.”

Joel looked at the list. “I’ll get them,” he said. “But tell me how it works, Maryanne. I really want to know. I want to love what you love.”

Maryanne smiled, and a tear welled momentarily into her eye. Then she placed her palm on Joel’s cheek and said, “I’m going to give you such a surprise. Okay, here’s what it does. Everything resonates at a certain frequency. If you tap a glass with a spoon, it will make a sound and that sound has a frequency. If I amplify that sound it will cause the glass to vibrate. If I raise the volume, the glass will break. The original device did simply that; amplify frequencies to deconstruct materials. This new one takes the resonant frequencies to another level—call it a higher octave—and transmits them directionally. I’ve made a little modification of my own to broadcast omni-directionally.”

“I don’t think I get it,” Joel told her.

“It shakes things, honey. Now run and find me my parts.”

“When was the last time you ate?” Joel asked her.

Once again intent on her work, Maryanne answered, “I ate just the other day.”

“You’re getting skinny,” Joel insisted.

“You’re so sweet,” Maryanne said, beaming him her smile.


It took him a week, several advances on his allowance, and cartloads of returnable bottles and cans, but Joel finally acquired everything on Maryanne’s list. He also purloined foodstuffs from home, which Maryanne continually ignored. Finally, stoking all his courage, he told her, “I don’t want you skinny as a rail when you give me my surprise! Now eat!”

When he said that, Maryanne’s eyes widened and she said, “I hadn’t thought of that. I’m sorry. Keep giving me food till you’ve got me where you want me, and I’ll eat it. That was very thoughtless of me.” Then she drew him to her for his second kiss and said, “Do you forgive me?”

“I’ll forgive you after you eat,” he answered. “Here, this is Mamma’s lasagna. Next time you kiss me I want to taste garlic.”

Maryanne smiled, but she didn’t beam. Instead, it was a tender smile through which she said, “You make it hard on me, Joel, to wait till your birthday.” When his eyes lit up, she added, “But I must. You can’t lose your virginity till you’re seventeen years old.” Then she went back to work while Joel shoveled lasagna into her mouth.


The new and improved Resonant Deconstruction Device was completed on the nineteenth of December. No matter how hard he tried, Joel couldn’t convince Maryanne that it was okay to lose his virginity two days before he turned seventeen. “Trust me,” she told him. “You’ll like it better this way. Now you’ll get two days of foreplay before your surprise.”

True to her word, and maniacally happy that her device was completed, Maryanne kept Joel in a nearly constant state of delirious anxiety and anticipation. She also made him promise not to “whack off” until he got his surprise. “I want you to give me your best shot,” she explained.


Joel was anxious, but Maryanne was out of her mind. Beneath her apartment building was a deep cellar, in which she placed her device. Around the contraption, she constructed a cage made of stainless steel rebar (which had cost poor Joel another allowance). Though she was now well fed, there was often an animal-hungry look on her face. Sometimes her head jerked as if she’d caught a glimpse of something menacing out of the corner of her eye. But she seemed to calm a bit in Joel’s presence, and appeared practically serene whenever he spooned his mother’s cooking into her mouth.

December twenty-first arrived on a Friday. With Christmas vacation beginning the following week, attendance at Joel’s high school was poor. Joel also skipped school that day, and arrived at Maryanne’s apartment at eight in the morning. He carried with him a box of doughnuts, two Cokes, a single red rose, and a foil packet containing a condom.

Though he knocked, Joel was used to Maryanne not answering the door. Using the key she’d given him, he made his way into the apartment. Maryanne was sitting on her tattered little couch, staring at her television which was saying something about fourth dimensional physics. Joel sat next to her, but she didn’t move. He touched the red rose to her nose and she came to with a start. “I could take it to the ninth,” she said as her eyes began to focus. Then she saw the rose and said, “Oh! Is that rose for me?”

“Of course it’s for you,” Joel told her.

“And you brought me doughnuts!”

“And Cokes.”

“No Pepsi,” she smiled. Then, with her face in full beam, she teased, “So—when is your birthday, anyway?” Joel blushed for the first time in weeks. Maryanne took his face in her hands and gave him the best kiss ever. Then she said, “Let’s eat the doughnuts first. I want you all sugared up for your big surprise.”

“I have to tell you something before we do it,” Joel told her in a very serious voice.

“So tell me,” she said through the jelly doughnut she was stuffing into her face.

“I love you, Maryanne”

The sob that welled in her throat almost caused her to choke on her jelly doughnut. When, finally, Maryanne managed to swallow, she asked, “What does it feel like?”

“It feels like I miss you all the time. Even when we’re together, I miss you because I know I have to go home eventually, or to school, or somewhere that you aren’t with me. When we’re not together, I think about you all the time and it hurts. It hurts me when I’m not with you.”

Though Maryanne was smiling, tears were running in rivulets down her cheeks. “I can’t feel it, Joel,” she told him. “When you’re gone I can’t see you, but when you’re here I’m happy. Maybe love feels different to me. Maybe I do love you, but just when you’re here.”

“I wish I could stay with you all the time, Maryanne,” he said.

“You can,” she told him. “You never have to leave again. Now listen to me. I’m going downstairs to start your surprise. When I get back you’re going to be naked and in that bed, okay?”

Joel reached into his pocket and pulled out the little foil pack. “Should I put this on?”

Maryanne took the condom from him and sailed it across the room. Then she giggled—a sound Joel loved that she rarely made—and said, “You aren’t going to need that, you silly boy.”

It didn’t take long for Joel to disrobe and hop into Maryanne’s bed. At first he lay on his back, but the enormous protrusion in the sheet made him turn on his side. Then he felt something strange. At first he thought it was he himself who was shaking. But soon he realized that it was the bed. As he was wondering about this phenomenon, Maryanne walked back into the room. Undressing as she went, she made her way to the foot of the bed.

As she crawled seductively up Joel’s body, Maryanne pulled back the sheet. After giving him a serious, tongue-filled kiss, she looked down his length and said, “I think you’re ready for me.”

“The bed is shaking,” he told her.

“Vibrating,” she corrected. “It’s part of the surprise. You should actually feel me vibrating. Now lay back and relax.”

When Maryanne climbed onto his lap, Joel shuddered a vibration of his own. Between being his first time and the intensity of the vibrating—even deep within Maryanne—it didn’t take long for Joel’s dam to burst. Just as it did, the world seemed to roar and tremble. “When will it stop?” he yelled to Maryanne.

“I gave it its own power source,” she called back. “It could be weeks.”

Joel still loved Maryanne when the ceiling came down on her head. He loved her still a moment later when it came down on him. Had he been alive, he would have loved her as all the buildings on that tiny island fell to dust. And Maryanne would have loved him back—in her own way—as the rest of the world shared his big surprise.

x x x

Ah first love; so sweet, so innocent; of course, in this case, it was last love, as well. I liked this unusual tale. Let this debut author know how you feel about it at our BBS -GM

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