Read the introduction by guest editor Christine Schutt.
The Man Whose Face Fell Off
There was a man whose face fell off. It fell right into the bowl of soup he’d been eating. He could hear the screams of the other restaurant patrons, for his ears remained in place. Unfortunately, his eyes had gone with his face this time. He hoped that wasn’t going to be a problem for the surgeons. The last time something like this had happened, they’d been able to reattach everything, but on that occasion his eyes had remained in their sockets even as the flesh around them pulled away. This time things were fixing to be a little more complicated. Still, the man was just as glad not to be getting another behind-the-scenes look at his face. It hadn’t been pretty.
The man was tempted to have just one more spoonful of the soup. It was cream of broccoli, his favorite, and it seemed a shame to let the rest of it go to waste. But without lips it would be hard to keep the soup in his mouth, and anyway, the man was a vegetarian, and the soup wasn’t vegetarian anymore.
He set down his spoon. There was a gentle pressure on his forearm—his wife’s hand. She guided him to his feet and began leading him slowly across the restaurant floor.
“Did you get the ace?” said the man.
He meant face, not ace. You try making an F sound with no lips.
“Yes, I put it in the Tupperware,” his wife said. She’d kept a Tupperware in her purse ever since the first incident.
Good old wife, thought the man.
He gritted his teeth as he shuffled along in the darkness. He was getting a dank chill in the moist area that had been exposed when his face fell away. Think of the germs! he thought, and then he thought, No, don’t think of the germs.
His wife tugged on his arm, presumably to steer him toward the doorway. This was the moment when the already not very good day the man was having took a turn for the worse. For when his wife pulled on his arm, it detached at the shoulder—something that had never happened before, not to him anyway. The man almost fell over in the other direction.
Now his wife was screaming. It was terrible to hear her voice echoing in the now deserted restaurant.
“I okay,” the man said. “Let’s just get out uh here.”
The man’s wife stopped screaming, but she was still breathing raggedly, and this upset the man. He wanted to comfort her, but then he was having problems of his own. His wife put an arm around his waist—an arm of hers—and eased him over to the left. Soon they were out the restaurant door and were enveloped by the sounds of the city street.
“I hate to ask,” said the man’s wife, “but could you hold this while I hail a cab?”
She handed him his arm. He gripped it just above the elbow. He was surprised at the heft of it, the deadweight. He moved it around a bit. The fingers at the end of it brushed his leg, and he gasped.
“Taxi!” cried his wife, but all the automobiles the man heard were accelerating away.
The man took a jagged breath of the cool night air. It was time to start trying to be philosophical about the way the evening was going. As it happened, the man was a professional philosopher. He already glimpsed the outlines of a paper he might write called “Man Without a Face.” The paper would interrogate the notion that a man needed a face to be a man. Where does the sense of self reside? the paper would ask. The man could feel his own sense of self migrating away from his head, which was having so many problems, and toward his heart, which he’d always considered his best feature.
“Taxi!” his wife yelled again.
“Look, Mommy! A monster!” said a child’s voice.
“It’s not nice to say things like that,” said a woman’s voice as the pair’s footsteps hurried away.
Vertigo. The man got an aftertaste of cream of broccoli. He propped the stiffening arm on the ground and leaned on it as though it were a cane. What was his heart telling him? Why, that he might die tonight, that was all. What will become of me then? the man thought, but he realized the question was nonsensical. He pictured his wife alone, alone, alone. Then he pictured her with a new husband, someone who wasn’t always going to pieces on her. Maybe I have a new disease and they will name it after me, he thought.
He shook his head. If only he could think more clearly. He must have lost a lot of blood by now.
The man ran down the list of his regrets in life. That stock tip from his brother that he should have acted on. The fact that he’d never been able to shoot anything but blanks. The paper on counterfactuals and causation that Mulroney had beaten him to writing. And India—he’d never gone. How vibrant everything was there, people said. You haven’t lived until you’ve—
One thing the man didn’t regret was marrying his wife. He only hoped she knew how much she meant to him. The best moments of his life were spent either waking up next to her or dropping off to sleep next to her. There was a gentleness that went underadvertised when people talked about marriage.
The man bent his head in grief. He had a strong impulse to clutch at where his face ought to have been, but he suppressed the impulse. His hands hadn’t been sterilized.
In his wife’s purse, the Tupperware began to fill with tears. The resulting saline solution, the surgeons later said, helped explain the partial success of their salvage effort.
Douglas Watson is the author of a novel, A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies, and a book of stories, The Era of Not Quite. His fiction has been noted in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014 and anthologized in Astoria to Zion: 26 Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone's First Decade. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.