Shirley and Her Cookie Monster

By Robert D. Kirvel

She claims she used to watch him die three, maybe four times a day. I believe her. Studying a rise and fall of the chest until, sometimes, motion ceased, and he turned blue; she’d hold her breath. Ten seconds. Twenty. Three physicians offered one opinion. Periodic breathing, they labeled it, or central sleep apnea. Nothing obstructive, so probably not much to worry about. That was then.

Selecting the leather chair, she fumbles now with her designer handbag to pull out the latest iteration of smartphone. She might be switching settings to silent mode or checking for messages. I don’t ask. The phone slides back into the purse as she tickles the hem of a pencil skirt then tugs some fabric a millimeter down a leg, silky and lean for the mother of a thirty-year-old, plus two teenagers.

“The Saturday paper reported a man who killed his wife and children.” Her breath catches before a lengthy exhalation down a country lane. A stroll of remembrance. “Then himself. With a gun. Did you see?”

I nod once, catching the staccato cadence, and wait.

“On the front page. Out of nowhere.”

She leans my way as if about to thump sense into the desk but does not touch it, dialing down the usual in-your-face theatrics. Black hair spills and is tossed back as a swimmer might after a dip. Tangle-free treatment with salon product guaranteed to glow.

“All the relatives and neighbors said the same about how he was the last person on the planet who could do such a thing. An upscale rural community with five acres of property and a good job. Money. Can you imagine? Not a problem. Do you see?”

“I see.”

“My memories.”

“How’s that?”

“As a girl listening to adults spout advice, I used to have this temptation in the back of my mind. I don’t know where it came from, but I couldn’t stop it. I could see myself getting right in the person’s face and saying the most abrasive thing out loud no matter what. I didn’t care. Cut to the quick.” A hint of color blooms on cheeks, the afterglow of spent rocket fuel.

I offer something noncommittal. “When you were a young person.”

She sits back and re-straightens the hem that did not ask for adjustment the first time. “Well no, not exactly.”

My eyebrow is uplifted.

“I still feel the urge. But the point is, I don’t do it. Speak my mind or respond rudely to people, I mean, even if I don’t like what they’re talking about and think it ignorant. I hold back as any mature person does.”

An invocation of restraint for good reason. I do not say it but remember visiting an exhibition of impressionist masterworks hung along a museum wall. A patron remains motionless while studying a Degas. The painting is blues and yellows, and the woman is dressed in a tailored outfit much like the one my visitor wears today. A multicolored scarf drapes neck and shoulders. I stand behind this art lover and feel my arm move forward of its own accord, and in imagination I see the hand—my own, yet somehow not my hand—reach out to grasp her scarf as if she were a familiar, then tug. Pull it, revealing ivory shoulders.

“Everyone feels the urge,” I say.

“Do they?” Her question sounds more like disagreement.

“Everybody at one time or another imagines acting on impulse. As a kid, when the family went to a movie theatre downtown or an auditorium, the circus say, my dad always took us up to the balcony. Front row if possible. Even if the orchestra section was half-empty, he thought we had better views from balcony seats. I hated it.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I was terrified by an image boiling in my head of going over the edge. I could feel myself trying to brace back but leaning forward instead as if captive to some force pulling me over the brink. I could feel the physical draw. To this day I won’t go near a balcony.”

I decide that’s enough said, because two things are obvious. The conversation is not about some milquetoast family guy from a semi-bucolic neighborhood who murders his wife and children out of the blue. What Shirley is saying is not about Shirley’s imagined inclination to restraint. It is about someone else.

I picture him. A pika cheeking buttercups, roly-poly kid in red footie pajamas on Christmas morning flinging wrapping paper around the room. The two families are gathered once again at our parents’ house. My daughter is a few years older than my sister-in-law’s first child. Shirley spends too much of the day monitoring her son, picking up, making sure he behaves and answers questions from the grandparents and does not eat too many Christmas cookies, which she has baked and set out. One. You can have one, she tells the boy. Not two. Leave him alone, I recall thinking; give him some space. If he eats a cookie too many, he’ll upchuck, but she can’t stop. It’s like that sometimes with a first child. It’s like that when a baby scares the daylights out of you with periodic breathing or central sleep apnea, and you think he’s going to die.

I try a different tack, skirting advice. “Neuroscientists know about brain centers that stop individuals from doing certain things, inappropriate behaviors. They’ve identified parts of the frontal lobe, but if those areas are disrupted, maybe through injury or chemical intervention, then inhibitory connections can be shut down.” I look at Shirley’s adversarial lips.

“Why are you saying this?” She is about to unsnap her purse and dig but reconsiders, as if she has misplaced the accusatory tone. This is your fault. You started it. Maybe I did.

I shrug and continue. “Something called disinhibition. If the frontal lobe is dysfunctional, an individual sometimes can’t stop himself from acting out in a certain way. From saying or doing something inappropriate, perhaps in a repetitive manner. A perseveration deficit.”

She shakes the hair that reacts beautifully thanks to a product worth every penny. “He’s better off in the Yaak, if that’s where he is.”

Fewer chances to run amuck, she means, claiming conviction falsely, for the fact is that in her every gesture and statement are mixed feelings. As in everyone.

“Might be true.” I agree, though we do not know his whereabouts these days.

The toddler scampering through wrapping paper and allowed one sugar cookie grows up. Develops a personality. One day I see it: his Internet page, not so much through snooping as by chance. An investment client asks me to correspond through the social network, Facebook, which I have never had an interest in exploring. Never having viewed a single Facebook page, I nonetheless agree to the client’s request and decide to give it a go. What can it hurt? I sign up and am instantly sent messages suggesting “friends,” including some younger family members whose pages I scan as part of my experiment, thinking what can it hurt? Not much, with trivia everywhere until I encounter my nephew’s page and read what he has written about the stupidity of federally funded programs, and the excellent NRA, and idiot left-wing politicians. Rather than a rainbow of suffering families in America, he envisions a Black Sea of welfare recipients churning the waters of corruption, fat and lazy, every one. His language is less poetic, racist, vulgar. Big NRA supporter. Then I see the image he has posted. A photograph. I call my brother who asks me what the devil am I doing looking at the kid’s Facebook page; what business is it of mine? And maybe my brother has a point, and possibly he has seen his son’s photograph as well. He remarks that Shirley looks online occasionally, but he doesn’t admit to seeing the picture himself. After a certain age, you stop monitoring the cookies.

Shirley is right, I believe, about a man who kills his wife and kids out of the blue despite an instinct for survival. She is upset. She is ungrounded and has a right to be. Or my example of a child terrified of free fall. Maybe a million people consider shooting or jumping or slashing every day, or every hour, for that matter—who knows how often? For a thousand different reasons. Paranoia or fried nerves or disinhibition. Crossed wires or drugs. What are the chances a person will act out and do the unspeakable sooner or later? Miniscule, taken individually.

I have been a pussycat to Shirley’s panther, so I reverse rolls and tell her. “You are right about the man who killed his family and then himself with a gun. The neighbors are right. His relatives are right. The shooter is right.”

Shirley’s glare would melt metal, yet a blink suggests some circuit of conscience sputters behind the baby blues as conduit to history and the fraying membrane of intentions.

“The shooter is right? A man who slaughters his wife and children is right? That’s a grotesque thing to suggest! Just—”

My sister-in-law clutches her handbag as if preparing to sweep her pencil skirt and lovely locks out of my office. Instead, she cocks her head to something like the strains of Liszt’s Malediction then stares at scarlet fingernails while thinking, I surmise, about her seven-bedroom, five-bathroom house kept immaculate year-round for a son who will visit no more and a husband whose enthusiasm for her flesh—despite impeccable hair and gym-toned triceps and Retin-A treatments—diminished a decade ago, and knowing that the manicures and bedrooms and bathrooms and wiry limbs are indulgences—no, thin compensations—for hope and love gone sour. We are through the looking glass as I half-see, half-dream her—us—at a chic restaurant where she refuses to be seated by the staff because she must first wash her hair that is mis-styled into spit curls. She must do it now. At once. A restaurant where a customer can only be right, and a waiter asks me for our drink order. She pretends to massage and rinse as if this is the only place on earth to do so. In public, at a restaurant. Anywhere but at home, the unraveled architecture that is no home now. Father, brother, sister, mother not her relatives anymore, nor husband, nor children. She pauses at the threshold of a house that was her residence and wonders whether she can enter once more. Her life and the rumble of a sun failing to rise or the progress of a river gone dry, aromas of an empty kitchen and thoughts of caressing hands withdrawn.

My arm goes up, palm forward into a silent semaphore meaning: Let me explain.


On my nephew’s Facebook page, following a tirade about progressive psychopaths, and the entitlement society, and violations of the Second Amendment is a photograph. It is a snapshot of Shirley’s son holding a gun. The weapon is pointed into the camera lens. My nephew, my brother’s son, Shirley’s boy, the one who suffered from periodic breathing as an infant, or central sleep apnea—not so much a “boy” now because he is thirty years of age—and who is unmarried, unemployed, and angry, is aiming a gun at the lens, which is to say at the viewer. On his face is the shadow of something I interpret as subhuman tinted with equal parts satisfaction and metastasized rage, an emotional landscape without a sugar cookie in sight.

I am stunned by the photo and bring it to my brother’s attention. He talks to Shirley. Parents respond first with denial but then confront their son. Dad and son argue. Son disappears into regions unknown, the Yaak, an acquaintance of my nephew suggests. We think it possible because he talked to his friends about such a place, though I need to Google the term to see where it is, what it means. Amusement park or insane asylum for fanatics? Likely both.

Shirley knows all this. She has lived it. She sees the headlines and is not innocent. She is intelligent and well read, though in my opinion, inclined to self-indulgence. In my opinion because I am not a clinician or man of science, just an uncle and brother-in-law.

What she does not know is what she cannot know. She understands that the shooter in the newspaper committed a horrifying act. She is right. The neighbors and relatives are undoubtedly right in their expressed opinions that the shooter seemed to be the type of person who would never do such a thing. For all the neighbors know. For all the relatives know. The problem is that they are all right, and they are also wrong because the neighbor, the husband, the good father did such a thing.

What does it feel like to be wrong when you don’t know you are wrong? I keep asking myself this question. What is the inscape for a shooter who is so horrifyingly wrong yet does not know he is delusional or engaged in irreversible self-deception to the point of annihilation? It feels like being right. How does it feel when a person perceives life as hopeless and is convinced of that final truth? It feels like being one-hundred percent correct. I say some of these things to Shirley, not all.

What does it feel like to be that person’s mother? To be Shirley at this moment? Her fingers flutter as if they do not belong to anyone. Three framed photographs sit atop my desk. One of my wife and children, a second of my parents taken during a wedding anniversary celebration. Shirley picks up the third and holds it inches from her face. It is the photo of her, my brother, and their oldest son taken last Fourth of July. Shirley stands while extending the photograph in my direction and then slams the picture, glass-side down, on the top of my desk, shattering the glass. She almost totters off her stilettos, and I feel my hand going out, but only in imagination. She straightens, and the hair bounces back with every strand in place. She whispers through tears of a failed past catching up.

“You think he’s damaged.”

Psychologically, she means, if firing electronic bullets is predictive of worse to come. But I am no soothsayer and cannot know that. What she really means is: You think all this is my fault, but I didn’t say that.

What does it feel like to despise minorities or embrace them, to support or oppose abortion rights or women’s rights or worker’s rights or gay rights or any other political position? It feels right. To love guns? Right. To detest guns and everything they represent? Right again. To love and fear a son?

What are the chances of one person pulling a trigger, given the gene pool of a million people with as many urges and invented reasons bolstered with a perfect storm of alleles together with inhibition switched to the off position? Pick a number: say one in a million in a land of hundreds of millions. Spin the roulette wheel.

I think about what she has said and feel myself falling off the edge of a railing while Shirley, somewhere within herself, is poised eternally at the front door of her house, dark inside, wondering if she might enter and, if so, what she will find. The children gone off somewhere and echoes of a marriage; the odor of decaying expectation; dead calm rather than the commotion of a family with kids and parents rushing to keep up with life. Now only a faucet drips or window blind clicks somewhere down a hall; otherwise, nothing today or tomorrow or next month, the house a maze of unlit chambers, dusty crevices, uninviting, cold, and—like Shirley—on standby for something to happen that might happen today or tomorrow or next month. Or never.

Her shoulders drop an inch as a tentacle of doubt twists her mouth. “He’s better off there,” Shirley repeats, meaning her cookie monster who used to tear through the living room in footie pajamas and now aims a high-powered weapon between the eyes of “friends” in cyberspace. Better off where people go feral. For now. Better there, as if we know where “there” is.

Or maybe she means we are better off.


Robert D. Kirvel, a Ph.D. in neurobiology, has authored numerous technical publications in peer-reviewed journals and anthologies. He now writes literary fiction and has published recent stories in Columbia College Literary Review, The Milo Review, Gravel, Shout Out UK, Riding Light Review, The Examined Life Journal, SHARKPACK Poetry Review Annual, and elsewhere.