“During this time of misfortune and reflection,” Mr. Leitner said to his sister, Mrs. Box, “I have decided to become a writer. I have already written the name of my novel.”
“Vince! Vince, come here,” Mrs. Box called to Mr. Box. “I have just found out that my little brother is a serious author.”
Mr. Box entered the dining room, expecting to hear something. His raised shoulders and eyebrows asked for an explanation.
Mrs. Box said, “Tell us the name of your novel.”
Mr. Leitner, impressed with himself but trying to appear modest, said, “It is called ‘Something Happens to our Faces When We Get Older.’”
“Is it a crime story?” Mr. Box said.
“No. It is a philosophic novel. It considers the nature of being and the stress of the modern world. In it, a man looks in a mirror and considers his face.”
The Boxes breathed and waited. Finally, Mrs. Box began to nod a little. She stirred just enough to let her brother know she was still alive and thinking it over. Mr. Box’s tongue played around with his partial inside his clamped mouth. Mr. Leitner felt the pressure to go on, but that was all he had so far.
“So, it’s not a crime novel?” Mr. Box said after a weighty silence.
“Have you considered writing a novel about a man who can’t see the forest for the trees?” his brother-in-law said.
“No, but I have considered writing ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ from the fish’s perspective.”
Mrs. Box said, “I’ve never been able to enter the mind of a fish.”
“Not everyone can get in there. Hemingway took the easy way out and entered the old man’s mind.”
“I enter an old man’s mind every day I wake up,” Mr. Box said. “So why should Mr. Hemingway become famous for it?”
“You should sue him for taking your idea,” Mrs. Box said.
“You can’t copyright waking up in the morning. And he is dead.”
“So he didn’t wake up in the morning? He didn’t get the idea the same place you did, then, Vince.”
“That weakens your suit.”
“I’d never sue an author anyway. Suing authors is like squeezing a baby. All you get out of them is curdled milk.”
Mrs. Box served chicken. After the chicken, Mr. Leitner said, “What a chicken that was.”
Mrs. Box said, “That is our last chicken. If we want another chicken, we will have to pray for it or buy it.”
“I never get anything I pray for,” Mr. Box said. “I always have to go out later and buy what I’ve prayed for. It’s a pain in the ass. I don’t know why I bother to pray anymore. I guess because I am a spiritual person. God has disappointed me many, many times, but I keep giving Him chances to redeem Himself. That is the person I am. When others disappoint me, I forgive them without being asked.”
“You are marvelous,” Mrs. Box said. “God needs people like you on His side. A lot of people are angry with God. He is declining in popularity. It is nice you stick with Him in spite of the fact you have to go out and buy everything you want.”
“It would be nice if it came to me out of the blue now and then like it is supposed to do with prayer.”
Mrs. Box rubbed Mr. Box’s wrist. “Keep to your knees, Vince. It will happen one day.”
Mr. Leitner dabbed at his lips with his napkin. “The protagonist of my novel is a spiritual man. He wonders, like you do, why God does not lend an ear.”
“So you are basing your novel on me? I could sue you for that, you know.”
“Besides being the same, my protagonist is different from you. His name is Wilbur.”
“Call him Vince so I can sue you.”
“Because Vince is the name of loud Italian truck drivers with huge fists. My character is cerebral, not visceral.”
“Can’t he be visceral some of the time?”
“He has an intellect.”
“I’ve known plenty of guys that would smash your face in and then go home and think about it for three hours. You can’t tell me those guys that think for three hours about smashing your face don’t have intellects. It takes a mind to think for three hours. If they were brutes, they’d go out and smash something after just twenty minutes. But these guys’ll brood for hours before they go out and do it again. They’re thinking. They’re not power hungry like the ones that go out after twenty minutes. No. These thinkers want a better world.”
Mrs. Box stood and smiled. “Let me do something with these chicken bones. Then I will return.” She returned with a flaming cake. “Don’t worry. If the liquor has not burned off in five minutes, we will make other arrangements.”
The cake burned for only three minutes, so they were not put to the bother of making other arrangements.
Mr. Box took a bite and wrinkled his nose. “I taste the flames of hell.”
Mrs. Box’s face assumed a curious expression. “I wonder why. It is not devil’s food cake.”
As Mr. Leitner was eating his piece of flaming cake, he looked up to find his sister and brother-in-law eating their cake ravenously, with the faces of wolves. He had never seen anyone eat cake so viciously. The shock of seeing the Boxes eating cake with such evil rapacious faces sparked an epiphany. He announced, “I have just realized that my novel is not merely a novel about a face. It is a novel about a face eating cake.”
“Do you mean,’ Mrs. Box said, “a cake that attacks people’s faces and eats them? A science fiction novel?”
“No. I mean the bestial nature of man revealed in the expression that takes him over and that his face assumes as he eats cake.”
“This is what I think,” Mr. Box said. He continued to make the face that had inspired Mr. Leitner’s artistic epiphany, the face of the man who has returned to the pack. “Your novel about a face should be about a man looking into the mirror at a botched plastic surgery job and deciding to sue the pants off the doctor.”
“No. God, no. It has to go deep, not skim the surface. I have found the key, the way into the underworld of the human condition. It is about all the depravity a face eating cake reveals.”
“I still don’t understand,” Mr. Leitner’s sister said. “A face-eating cake. That’s not good, is it?”
“I shall now call my novel ‘Something Happens to our Faces When We Eat Cake.’”
“I think,” Mrs. Box said, “a nice title for a novel about a face-eating cake would be ‘Losing Face.’”