Moments before the bullet that tore through his brain was fired, Anders was lost in a fit of laughter brought on by the surly bank robber’s use of the word capiche. As the narrator in Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain” explained:
He covered his mouth with both hands and said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” then snorted helplessly through his fingers and said, “Capiche—oh, God, capiche,” and at that the man with the pistol raised the pistol and shot Anders right in the head.
I’ve had my own Anders moment of sorts. Mine came at the ragged edge of the Florida Everglades. There were five of us in a minivan—the creative director, an account executive, the agency producer, the art director I was partnered with, and me, the copywriter. Running late this early morning, and apparently lost, we were on our way to a TV shoot at a location somewhere far down an eternal highway.
No one said much, sleep and boredom weighing us down, until the creative director, Richard, asked us, “Guys, how do you spell capiche?”
“Why?” I asked.
“I’m briefing the New York guys on the project. Giving them the lowdown.”
The New York guys were his guys. A couple of freelancers—one writer and one art director—he brought on board to help with a new business pitch. He was convinced that since they were New York advertising guys, they were better. But, if they were anything like Richard, a former New York ad guy himself, I knew they’d have little to offer.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’m making sure they understand my creative direction.”
I looked out the window at the rows of identical strip malls that seeped in after miles of swampy fields. In the blur, I identified a diner, a liquor store, a cash advance place, and several consignment shops. Everything around here looked the same.
Richard fumbled around with his iPhone a bit before rattling off a spelling. “So I’m thinking it’s c-a-p-i-c-e?”
I was checking my Twitter feed now and barely paying attention. The others were silently plugged into their iPhones, probably playing Candy Crush.
“Nah, it doesn’t look right. What about c-a-p-i-uhhhh-t-c-h?”
I finished retweeting three things I thought would make me look interesting to my followers, then turned around. “Why capiche, dude?”
“They’re New York guys. That’s how they talk.”
“Since when?” I asked.
My boss considered the email he was writing, seemed to read through it a few times.
“Is that Spanish?” asked the account person.
“Something foreign,” Richard said. “Could be Spanish.”
I let them mire in this moment of etymological uncertainty. The word capiche is 1940s slang from the Italian capisci, meaning, “Do you understand?” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, which I easily found with my iPhone.
“It’s Italian,” I said, finally.
“You sure?” Richard asked.
“I am sure.”
He sighed. “Okay, yeah, but how the fuck do you spell it?”
“What do you have now?” the account person asked.
“It’s more eeeeesh than ish,” she said.
In “Bullet in the Brain,” Anders’s death comes in the wake of a man weary of the cliché of mindless chatter, impatient with the pettiness of daily life. Trapped in this speeding car with nowhere to go, tethered to this conversation, I understood Anders in those moments before the shot.
Richard bristled. “I know it’s more eeeeeesh than ish.”
Of course, he never thought to look up the spelling on his smartphone. No one else did either. He just labored through it, his clunky thumbs clicking away, backing up, and retyping the word over and over.
“I don’t think people in New York say that,” I said.
“Yeah, they do.”
“In the 1940s. Not now.”
“Yes. Right now.”
Just before the robber kills Anders, he asks, “You think I’m comical? You think I’m some kind of clown?”
Anders says no. But the reader knows damn well he means yes. The robber asks, “You think you can fuck with me?”
Again, Anders says, “No.”
“Fuck with me again and you’re history. Capiche?” the banker robber says.
Capiche. It means do you understand?
I didn’t understand. Nothing about that car ride, or the job we were about to work on, or why I was still a copywriter even though I hated it, made sense. I heard Bill Hicks in my head: “By the way if anyone here is in advertising or marketing … kill yourself.”
I remembered a simpler time, too. Those first bouts with the blank page. The thrill and agony of those early stories. All the reasons I wanted to write fiction came rushing back. Yet somehow, I had lost my way. I became an ad guy. A copywriter. And right now I yearned for a bullet in my brain. I wanted to achieve that metaphysical death that leads to rebirth, the rite of passage into another state of being.
Richard’s insistence on the use of that word—capiche—harbored an absurdity that put me on the edge of my own fit of laughter. I wanted my metaphorical Anders moment, whatever the consequences might be.
I turned around and faced Richard. “It’s spelled c-a-p-i-c-h-e.”
“Yeah, that’s what I got now. But thanks.”
In the moments right before that bullet tore through Anders’s brain, he remembered a baseball field. A boy named Coyle. A simple phrase: They is, they is, they is. I turned back around and checked my phone as the car turned up a suburban street lined with production trucks and hurried crew. We were there. But my moment never happened.
Coe Douglas is the Managing Editor of Bridge Eight Magazine. He’s finishing an MFA at the University of Tampa and working on a novel.