Bullet in the Brain

Bullet in the Brain - featured image - man in leather jacket holding handgun with wildflower bouquet coming out of muzzle
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Our Hubris. Our Arrogance. Our Delusions. Our Guns.

By Steve Watkins

The only time I ever shot a gun I killed a turtle. We were visiting a family, the Collinses, who used to be our backyard neighbors, but they had moved somewhere else. It looked like a farm only there weren’t any crops or animals. There was a barn and a pond. The grownups went inside to do whatever grownups did back then. Us kids stayed outside. The Collins kids had a .22 rifle and were showing us what great marksmen they were, blasting away at cans and things. My brother and I weren’t allowed to have guns, though we were allowed to pretend we had guns—with sticks—unless it was a Sunday, when even playing with sticks was forbidden. I remember getting a pirate pistol as a present one time, but that was when I had my tonsils taken out, so I don’t think it counted. 

The Collins kids were down to their last bullet before they asked if I wanted a turn. Of course I said sure. I checked to make sure Mom and Dad weren’t watching, then I looked around for a proper target. Somebody pointed and said, “How about that turtle?” There was one sunning itself on a log in the middle of the pond. I took aim and squeezed the trigger and the turtle disappeared. It’s possible the bullet just hit the water and scared the turtle away. It’s also possible that I was a regular Deadeye Dick and killed the poor thing. I felt bad about the turtle, but wasn’t above bragging about my shooting prowess for the longest time to anybody who would listen.


I told that story to my friend Mary not long ago at a party in the country at a place not unlike the Collinses’ which we never visited again after I shot the turtle—a farm but not a farm. Mary matched my story with one of her own. Hers was about shooting a squirrel the first time she ever fired a gun. She must have winged it, she said, because the squirrel fell out of a tree and into her yard only it wasn’t dead, just suffering. She felt terrible, so steeled herself to put the squirrel out of its misery and shot it again. Only that didn’t kill it, either, and it started dragging itself across the yard with its front paws. Mary said she felt awful for having already shot the squirrel twice, but couldn’t bring herself to shoot it yet again, so she knelt in the grass next to the crawling squirrel and stayed with it until it finally expired.

We hit a quiet space in the conversation after that, which Mary broke to tell me she actually knew quite a lot about guns because she used to work as a home health-care nurse in a large East Coast city when she was younger, and a disturbingly high number of her patients were gunshot victims. She decided it was important to know what kind of weapon caused what kind of damage resulting in the overwhelming amount of wound care she was doing, so she studied up on all the popular models of handguns and long guns and semiautomatics populating the streets.

After the squirrel, though, she didn’t shoot a gun again until recently, when she and her husband, not realizing what they were getting themselves into, took part in a Project Appleseed retreat in a deeply hidden rural corner of Stafford County, Virginia. Project Appleseed is a nationwide gun-and-patriotism propaganda organization that sets up training facilities all over America to teach long-distance shooting and to rekindle a sort of Revolutionary War zeal for protecting our supposedly eroding rights as free Americans. For targets, the Appleseeders often use pictures of British Redcoats. They also use Oreo cookies, one of which Mary proudly told me she’d hit, after just a little coaching and practice, from 25 meters.


A distant family member told me a story several years ago about a woman who showed up at a shooting range he used to go to in central Florida. She had her young son with her, but she didn’t have a gun. She rented one, the family member said, and then she shot herself in the head with it, right there in front of her son and everybody at the range.

I was horrified, of course, and said so. We were driving somewhere. He paused for a second, and then said, “Yeah. And you just know the liberals are going to use that story to try to take away our gun rights.”


I saw a guy struggling on the side of the road the other day. It was hot out. He had his shirt off and was surrounded by a couple of unwieldy garbage bags full of stuff that he was trying to wrangle into a reasonable pile he could balance on an old clunker bicycle. He was right next to the highway and seemed discombobulated. I thought about stopping to see if he needed help, maybe give him a couple of dollars, but then I realized he had a gun in a holster strapped onto his belt, so I kept driving.


Two teenage boys our youngest daughter knew from high school have been shot and killed this year, one in February, one while I was writing this essay. My wife and I were at the hospital when they brought in the first boy. I was back in an examination room with a health scare that turned out to be OK. Janet sat near the anguished family for hours when security guards locked down the ER—police were worried that the unknown shooter might follow the teenage victim to the hospital—and she was still there when a doctor came out of the trauma room to tell the family the young man had died. He’d been shot multiple times. Janet says she’ll never forget the family’s despair. The other boy who died—he’d also been shot multiple times—was pronounced dead shortly after emergency responders found him in the middle of a street at 3:30 a.m. a mile from where we live. 


In all the cases of people I’ve known who died by gun suicide, it happened suddenly. Suddenly to those of us left behind, anyway. The first was a kid when I was in high school who was in our younger brothers’ club—three or four of us who lived in the shadows of more popular older siblings. The other younger brothers took me to a pool hall in our little North Carolina town to introduce me to something called a Hot Hamburger, which was a grilled beef patty, maybe two of them laid on top of one another, smothered in gravy. There might have been a slice of white bread under there somewhere. And maybe some onions. The kid got in an argument with his parents not long after. He locked himself in his bedroom. There was a loaded shotgun in the closet.

Years later, a student in one of my creative writing classes came by my office one afternoon to talk about maybe going to grad school for an MFA. He had been out of school for a few years but had just returned that semester. One of the stories he’d written had mentioned suicide and we talked about it for awhile. He assured me that he would never hurt himself, that it was just a character in his story and he had too much to live for. His girlfriend came to see me the next day. They’d broken up. He’d been drinking. He had a gun. He called late that night to tell her what he was going to do.

Then there was the mother of one of my daughter’s friends, who offered me half her sandwich when I dropped my daughter off for a play date. I wish I’d accepted and stayed for awhile and visited with her while the kids ran off and played. Later that afternoon when Janet went to pick up our daughter, she chatted with the friend’s mom, but only briefly. Neither of us saw her again after that. The funeral was a week later.

Just a few months ago, one of our nearby neighbors was outside chatting with a couple of our mutual friends on the sidewalk. It was early evening, still light out. Half an hour later, back inside the house, her husband called 911. The homes here are well insulated so nobody else heard the gun. 


Once a long time ago I found myself stuck for a couple of days in a remote fishing village in southern Thailand. This was shortly after a bloody military coup and the slaughter of hundreds of university students and other democratic activists by right-wing paramilitary forces in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. I had just ventured out of the dump where we were staying, looking for a morning cup of Thai coffee, which is mostly sweetened condensed milk with a few instant coffee crystals thrown in. They say the reason Thai coffee is orange is because of the added food coloring, and that it’s the same dye used in Kraft mac and cheese.

A Thai soldier stopped me in the middle of a dirt street. He pointed his American-made M16 at my chest, his finger on the trigger. He looked pissed off, but I didn’t have any idea why that might be. I knew there was a suppression campaign going on against what were supposed to be communist guerillas, but I’d been told that was further south, along the border with Malaysia. 

I froze, too confused to be scared. Then, after what felt like five minutes but was surely only a fraction of that long, he yelled, in English, “Hey you!” and started laughing. He lowered his M16. Several Thai men who’d been standing around burst out laughing, too. “Hey you!” they also shouted—then and every time they saw me in the village after that. “Hey you!” 


Shortly after we moved into the subdivision where we live, I went with a friend to join several other neighborhood guys sitting in camp chairs in somebody’s driveway with a cooler of beer. It was Halloween day. My friend was from one of those Scandinavian countries where you spend a compulsory year in the army riding bicycles in loose formation and training with wooden guns. The other guys had all served in various branches of the American military, and they were lecturing us about the importance of guns for self-protection. When we pointed out the troubling statistics—that you or a family member are at significantly greater risk of injury or death from a firearm in the home—they scoffed, and laughed at our liberal naiveté. If we only knew what a dangerous world it was out there, they said, we’d be the first in line to buy a gun for ourselves. We were just lucky to have guys like them around who were armed and ready to come to our defense when it turned out we needed them. 

That night when we took the kids out Trick or Treating, I was walking next to one of the military guys. He had daughters the same age as my youngest two. DEA agent. Retired Marine. Nice guy. Loving dad. I don’t remember how I found out he was carrying a loaded handgun in an ankle holster. I’d thought the takeaway story for the night was going to be the house where instead of candy they were giving out brochures on osmotic plastic body wrap for weight loss. The sidewalks in our neighborhood were packed with kids in costumes. Parents pulling toddlers in wagons. Babies in strollers. I kept nervously glancing down at my neighbor’s ankle and wondering why the fuck anybody would have a gun on them while out Trick or Treating with their kids.

We reconvened later with the other neighborhood families at my DEA neighbor’s house for a Halloween party. The kids disappeared down into the basement where he had set up a Ninja Warrior course his daughters called The House of Pain. Some of us guys followed him into a back room where he broke out a bottle he’d gotten in East Asia filled with some very nasty alcohol and a coiled and raised cobra with a scorpion in its mouth. The cobra and scorpion were both disintegrating but for the most part still preserved. You only swallowed a little of the detritus when you did a shot. Afterwards, the DEA guy showed us a video from a heroin operation he’d been on in Afghanistan where they came under fire and had to book it through a hostile village to their waiting helicopters. One of the guys he was with got shot in the butt, which was why he was showing it to us. Everybody thought that was pretty funny.

I asked if anybody else was hit, and my DEA neighbor said yeah, an Australian guy, an officer—he got killed. But their door gunner laid down suppression fire, spraying the whole village as the helicopter lifted off, and they got away without anybody else getting dinged. We saw that on the video, too. It was from somebody’s helmet cam.

Still later that night, another one of the gun guys, Adam, asked my Scandinavian friend’s father-in-law if it was true he’d fought in Vietnam. The father-in-law, who was visiting from out of town, said yes. Adam said he bet the father-in-law had some great stories about the war and he should tell us some. The father-in-law said no.


One night when my Scandinavian friend had to go out of town on business, his wife was putting their kids to bed when somebody rang the doorbell. She went downstairs to answer it, but nobody was there, so she went back upstairs to the kids’ bedroom to finish up. The doorbell rang again, and again nobody was there. It kept happening—probably just some older kids playing Ding Dong Ditch—but after awhile, she got tired of it and called their neighbor, another one of the ex-military guys from Halloween. Would the neighbor mind keeping an eye out for anything going on?

The neighbor said sure. Then, after he hung up, he unlocked his gun safe, took out one of his guns, and grabbed his night vision goggles. He had his wife and two small children go inside a pre-designated safe room while he slipped out the basement door and hid in the darkness—with a clear line of sight on our friends’ front door. Both families lived at the end of a cul-de-sac two blocks from us, so unless somebody tried to come up out of the woods, there was only one way in—and the neighbor, armed and ready, night vision goggles switched on for maximum visibility, had it covered. Thankfully, the doorbell ringers never returned.


Not long before our friends moved away, they invited all the neighborhood kids over for a party and sleepover. It was their daughter’s birthday. Our two youngest daughters were there. The neighborhood parents were also invited for a cookout, and we all hung out until well after dark. Everybody showed up, including Adam, who came with his wife and infant son, plus an old Marine buddy who tagged along. The military guys always drank a lot, but Adam and his pal seemed determined to take it to another level. At one point they started wrestling in the driveway, which was weird but not altogether unexpected. The neighbor with the night vision goggles, who never drank much and who generally looked out for the other military guys, managed to separate the two younger men before they could hurt anybody or themselves.

By ten o’clock all the parents had left, walking, or in some cases stumbling, back to our own houses. Our friends said good night, then led all the children down into the basement for the sleepover, bracing themselves for more hours of junk food and sodas and cake and kid karaoke. 

The next morning, before the kids were awake, there was a knock on the door. It was Adam, looking very sheepish and very hungover.

My Scandinavian friend assumed he’d come over to apologize. Adam had been out of control at the party, after all. Instead, Adam had a question: Had they by any chance found his pistol? He’d had it on him at the party, but now he couldn’t find it. He thought he might have lost it somewhere in the yard.

That started a frantic search everywhere on the property: the yard, the deck, every room in the house, the basement where the kids still slept, sprawled all over the floor in their sleeping bags.

No gun.

My friend called me to come down and help him look. Adam was too hungover to be much use. We didn’t know where his buddy was.

At some point, the night vision neighbor came over, too, though his kids had been too little for the sleepover. And that’s when the rest of the story came out. Adam had passed out drunk in his own front yard after the party ended. The neighbor found him there, took Adam’s sidearm away for safekeeping, then carried him inside. Adam’s wife said she didn’t want him throwing up in the bedroom and could the neighbor please just dump him in their unfinished basement? If he vomited down there, he could clean it up himself when he got sober in the morning.

Adam asked for his pistol back and the neighbor gave it to him. My Scandinavian friend and I hung out for awhile after they left, trying to get our heads around what had just happened, and what could have happened. But there was no making sense of it. We cooked breakfast for the kids, and one by one the parents came to take them home. Our friends moved away later that year, and I don’t remember there being any more neighborhood parties after that.


When I taught high school for a few years, the Stafford County, Virginia, sheriff invited us teachers to attend an active shooter training session. It was voluntary, and after school hours, so hardly anybody was there. A teacher friend and I sat in the back and made wisecracks while the sheriff spoke authoritatively—and inaccurately—about what motivated school shooters. He showed a bunch of slides—most of them from Columbine, as if there hadn’t been dozens and dozens of mass school shootings since. Then he brought out a wooden Glock and a wooden AR15 and demonstrated what he said was the proper technique for disarming a school shooter.

Step One, barricade the door to your classroom. Step Two, hide next to the wall just inside the door and wait. Step Three, when the shooter breaks through the door and enters the classroom, grab the barrel of the gun and force it down toward the floor. This goes for both the Glock and the AR. If the shooter has already been firing his weapon, the barrel will be hot and will most likely burn your hands. Be ready for this. Grab the barrel anyway. Lives will be at stake. Step Four, have a second person—preferably your biggest and strongest student—standing at the ready right behind you. As soon as you grab the gun, he should tackle the shooter by the legs. It’s very important to get the shooter on the floor. Step Five, once you have the shooter on the floor, do everything you can to wrestle the gun out of his hands—and then sit on him. If he tries to get up or get away, beat the shit out of him with your fists, your feet, a desk, a chair, whatever it takes. Step Six, wait for law enforcement. Don’t go out into the hall because they might think you’re the shooter and shoot you instead. 

I rehearsed this with my students. We were in a windowless classroom on the second floor of the high school where I taught, and they’d been worried that if a shooter came we’d be trapped. Now, though, with our self-defense practice, they were heartened by the thought that they might survive.

The central office had issued black-out blinds to go over the tiny windows on all classroom doors so shooters couldn’t see inside to where we were hiding, but I didn’t have the sense that students thought those would be very helpful. I once asked them how many knew other students who carried weapons to school in their backpacks. A third of them—10 out of 30—raised their hands.


One Monday, a kid came to school with a loaded gun because a couple of other kids had jumped him after school on the previous Friday. One of my students told me the kid with the gun asked her to hide it for him in her locker for part of the day but she refused. She confided this after they’d caught him and secured the gun. I told her and the class that they had to report it any time they heard anything about anybody with a weapon. I got summoned later to the assistant principal’s office and told I wasn’t supposed to talk about guns in school.

On the anniversary of the Parkland shooting, a bunch of kids planned a protest walkout, something that was happening at schools all over the country. The administration agreed to let them, as long as the students only walked out as far as the gymnasium, because if they went outside there could be hidden shooters waiting to gun them down in the parking lot.

When the student leaders painted a banner that said “Stop Gun Violence in Schools,” the principal ordered them to change it to “Stop Violence in Schools.” He was afraid there might be community backlash otherwise. The kids, who were way too amenable, or perhaps scared, agreed to all the conditions—the gym instead of outdoors for the walkout, the revised banner decrying gun violence but with no mention of guns. 


Janet took one of our daughters to the March for Our Lives in D.C. organized by Parkland students. Tens of thousands of people crammed the streets in Washington. Students who’d survived the mass murder delivered speeches on a giant stage. One recited the name of dead classmates. One threw up while talking. Janet said it was the second time she’d seen a gun violence survivor do that. The first was when she was working as a reporter for a Florida newspaper and went to speak to a young man who’d seen his mother get shot to death by her boyfriend. The young man met Janet at the house where it happened, stared for a moment at the blood-stained carpet, and vomited.


In Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” a robber shoots a mouthy bank customer in the head. It’s the customer’s hubris, his arrogance, and his delusion that do him in. And a bank robber with a gun. The second half of the story takes place in the time it takes for the bullet to travel through the customer’s brain and kill him.

Here’s how Wolff describes the moment: “The bullet smashed Anders’ skull and ploughed through his brain and exited behind his right ear, scattering shards of bone into the cerebral cortex, the corpus callosum, back toward the basal ganglia, and down into the thalamus. But before all this occurred, the first appearance of the bullet in the cerebrum set off a crackling chain of ion transports and neurotransmissions. Because of their peculiar origin, these traced a peculiar pattern, flukishly calling to life a summer afternoon some forty years past, and long since lost to memory. After striking the cranium, the bullet was moving at nine hundred feet per second, a pathetically sluggish, glacial pace compared to the synaptic lightning that flashed around it. Once in the brain, that is, the bullet came under the mediation of brain time, which gave Anders plenty of leisure to contemplate the scene that, in a phrase he would have abhorred, ‘passed before his eyes.’” 

Sometimes I think that’s us, America. Our hubris. Our arrogance. Our delusions. With so many guns everywhere, we’ve already pulled the trigger on ourselves. And though we think we’re the ones still in control of the narrative, there’s no longer any stopping what is already happening, and what’s about to happen next. 


You can read Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” HERE if you’d like. You can also watch a short film based on the story HERE. And you can listen to Tobias Wolff himself read “Bullet in the Brain” HERE


Steve Watkins, editor and co-founder of Pie & Chai, is the author of 12 books, a retired professor emeritus of American literature, a recovering yoga teacher, and the father of four remarkable daughters. He is also a tree steward with the urban reforestation organization Tree Fredericksburg and founder of Rappahannock Area Beaver Believers, a wildlife advocacy group, which you’re welcome to join on Facebook. His author website is