Bullet in the Brain


Tobias Wolff

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Anders, a book critic known for his temper and his scorn, arrives at a bank gets stuck in line behind two women who are having a “stupid conversation.” The bank teller closes her station, prompting the two women to make sarcastic comments about her. They turn to Anders, expecting him to join in with their mockery. While Anders hates the teller too, he refuses to play along with the women, and makes fun of them instead.

After this sarcastic exchange, two masked men enter the bank, and one of them holds a pistol to the bank guard’s neck. The man tells everyone in the bank to keep quiet, or they’ll be “dead meat.” Anders, unable to stop himself from being sarcastic, comments on the criminal’s cliched words.

The other robber handcuffs the bank guard and knocks him to the floor, and then hands out plastic bags to each of the bank tellers. When the robber comes to the empty window, he asks who usually works there, and the bank teller who closed her position claims it is hers. The robber threatens her personally, and Anders comments to the women he mocked earlier that “Justice is done.”

Anders’s comment gets the attention of one of the robbers, who threatens Anders by pressing his pistol against Anders’ gut. The robber asks if Anders thinks he is “playing games.” Anders says no, but has to stop himself from laughing out of ticklishness. Anders looks into the masked robber’s eyes and finally begins to “develop a sense of unease.” As a result of this intense eye contact, the robber calls him a “bright boy,” asking if Anders is being flirtatious. When Anders responds in the negative, the robber tells him to look up at the painted ceiling, which Anders begins to mentally criticize.

Anders silently makes fun of the ceiling’s mural, and the robber asks him what he finds “so funny.” Anders claims it is nothing, prompting the criminal to promise that if Anders keeps messing around, he will be “history.” To make sure Anders understands, he asks, “Capiche?” Anders, struck by the clichéd, gangster-movie phrase, cannot stop himself from laughing, and the robber shoots him “right in the head.”

As the bullet travels through Anders’s brain, various unremembered moments from his past play out. One scene involves a college professor reciting Aeschylus in Greek, a moment in Anders’s academic career that moved him deeply. Another involves Anders witnessing a woman’s suicide and shouting “Lord have mercy!”

The last scene, which is the one memory Anders actually recalls as he is shot, is from a childhood baseball game. A boy from out of town, Coyle’s cousin, joins the game and asks to play shortstop, claiming it is the best position “they is.” The mispronunciation excites Anders, as he appreciates its “unexpectedness.” The bullet continues to travel through Anders’s brain while this memory unfolds, and the story ends with Anders suspended between memory and death, thinking of the “music” of those mispronounced words.