The Bloody Head by Joyce Carol Oates - Issue 17

In the secluded inner courtyard of the HÔtel de l’ Abbaye on the rue Cassette, Paris, the American woman sat alone at a small wrought iron table, at breakfast. She was skimming the European edition of the New York Times which was scarcely recognizable here, thinned of lavish full-page advertisements; she was making out postcards for family and friends back home, though she understood that postcards had become passé, quaint gestures from a predigital age that her young grandchildren, enthralled by texting, would only glance at quizzically.

It was early, not yet 7:15 a.m. Fewer than half the tables in the courtyard were occupied. A fountain at the center of the courtyard made comforting sounds as of a slow-pumping heart: soothing and restful and (yet) suggesting promise. The American woman was the only individual in the courtyard at this time without a companion which gave her a sense of expansion, exhilaration.

That morning she intended to visit the Musée d’Orsay; she would not be hurried through the elegant high-ceilinged rooms, and would not press herself to see every work of art on display. She might return the next day to the d’Orsay, or she might go to another, smaller museum—there were numerous small museums listed in the guidebook, including the Musée Picasso, of much interest. Later she would stroll along the Seine with no particular destination, rejoicing in her freedom amid the languid beauty of Paris in autumn, and here too she would feel no pressure to hurry; that evening she would have a leisurely dinner at a new, one-star Michelin restaurant near the HÔtel de l’ Abbaye, which had been recommended by friends for its highly regarded female chef from the south of France. She was an attractive woman of late middle age with faded, fair hair and a smile that came easily, in formal settings like this; she was unfailingly gracious with service people—indeed, with everyone she encountered. She wore a white linen jacket and perfectly creased white linen trousers, with ropes of white pearls. On her head, a fashionably wide-brimmed straw hat. On her feet, her most comfortable low-heeled shoes.

The American woman’s name was not Isabel Archer but closely enough resembled that classic name that the woman had come to think of herself in secret as a descendant of Henry James’s naively noble-minded heroine, one who’d avoided the tragedy of Isabel Archer’s constricted life.

Sheer chance, it was. For most women. An accident of time, generations. If they lived freely, or not. Isabel Archer, whom Henry James had adored, had been a lady, inescapably. But no woman was required to be a lady in the twenty-first century.

The American woman was making annotations in her Paris guidebook when she became aware of guests at other tables glancing upward at a third-floor window of the hotel, and then shifting their eyes away. She heard a chilling, strangulated cry, and turned in astonishment to see how, in an opened window, a man was calling Help! Help me!—unmistakably, in English. The man appeared to be only partly clothed; at least, what the American woman could glimpse of his chest and part of his belly appeared to be bare. Clumsily, the man had wound himself in something white—a sheet, a towel. But there was also something white wound around his head. Help! Help me . . . Oh, what was wrong with the poor man? Why did no one seem to care? The American woman tried to signal the elegantly black-clad hostess who’d been hovering at the periphery of the courtyard but the hostess was now nowhere in sight; a waiter who’d been pouring coffee for guests had vanished as well.

The American woman did not want to become involved, desperately she did not want to become involved, the fleeting thought came to her—I cannot give up the promise of my beautiful morning: will not. If only she’d slipped away from the courtyard a few minutes before . . .

But still the man in the third-floor window was calling for help, desperately. Indeed he seemed to be calling now to her, since the others were looking stonily away. Why was it always thus? She was responsible! She could not ignore the man as others were doing: he spoke English, no doubt he was an American like herself, and must have had no one to take care of him.

Instinctively the American woman reached for her handbag, which contained her passport, credit cards, currency and enough tissues for an entire day, and hurried from the courtyard, which was bounded on three sides by hotel walls and on the fourth side opened into the little lobby. At the front desk there was no one, and though she rang the brass bell several times no one appeared from the inner office. Oh, where were they all hiding? Why would no one help? Though she knew the quaintly small lift, that could hold no more than three adults at a time, would be slow to arrive, she wasted precious seconds waiting for it, then ran up the carpeted steps, to the second floor, and to the third; now breathless, and crying softly to herself—My morning! My beautiful morning.

In the third-floor corridor the American woman tried to calculate where the man’s room was—obviously it had to be overlooking the courtyard at the center of the hotel, not an outer room—and so made her blundering way in what she believed to be that direction, seeing at the far end of the corridor the door that was ajar, though a sign was looped over the door knob: Ne pas deranger.

At least he’d had enough sense to leave the door open, she thought, as if he wanted someone to come help him!

The American woman entered the room hesitantly, with the anticipation of something terrible, and was astonished to see a naked man of late middle age, somewhat heavy, his chest and belly covered in glinting silver hairs, seated slouched on the bed, badly bleeding, stunned. He had wound a white towel around his head but blood was seeping through the towel, streaming down his neck, onto his fleshy shoulders and back, and into the glittering chest hairs. His face was a lurid mask of red through which his widened eyes, glassy- white with alarm, shone. Thank God!—help me—see if you can stop this bleeding. The voice was both desperate and reproachful, as if he had been waiting an unconscionably long time for the American woman to ascend to him, and was reaching the end of his patience.

No choice, I have no choice, the American woman thought. Despite the white linen jacket, and the white linen trousers, she had no choice but to come to the assistance of the stricken man, who seemed to have no one else to help him and was trying to explain to her—in a rush of words like a vehicle careening downhill—he’d had an accident. In the bathroom, he slipped on the tile floor, fell hard and struck his head against the porcelain toilet and could hardly move for some minutes—possibly he’d lost consciousness. It had happened too quickly for him to comprehend, but then, with much difficulty, he’d managed to stand—maneuvered himself to his feet by first turning over, and kneeling, and then grabbing hold of the sink and lifting himself grunting, in a delirium of shock and pain—and he’d seen himself in the mirror, bleeding from a cut in his head, at the crown of his head, and grabbed a towel, and had hoped to stop the bleeding but the bleeding hadn’t stopped, or anyway he wasn’t sure if the bleeding had stopped. He couldn’t see the actual wound, so maybe . . . she could look? She could help determine if the bleeding had stopped.

Of course, the American woman came to the pleading man as he bade her. Gingerly she removed the blood-soaked towel from his head and saw, with a sensation of faintness, what appeared to be a deep wound in his scalp, or in any case a wound that was badly bleeding, that had turned his silvery-hair a savage hue of red, and was even now bleeding onto his shoulders. Here! Use this—thrusting into her hands the thick white bath towel he’d wound clumsily about his body, that was only partly soaked with blood.

But this towel was really too big. Brisk as a nurse the American woman fetched from the bathroom another, smaller towel, to be wound like a turban around the bloody head, with care, for the towel must not work loose and fall off, and this she managed, though without much help from the agitated man who continued to describe, in a voice of incredulity, how the accident had happened—how it had happened to him, and nothing like this had ever happened to him before. It was the damned bathroom, the slippery tub, the too-small bath mat. How quickly it had happened: he’d found himself on the floor and his head was oozing blood, and there was no one to call to, no one to help. He’d been left alone in the damned room, and when he staggered into the bedroom to call the front desk the damn phone did not work, or he had no idea how to operate it, and so he’d had no choice but to stagger to the damned window, and call down into the courtyard, making a spectacle of himself . . . And no one had come for the longest time, though he’d seen her looking at him—obviously, she’d heard him, but had not seemed to react at once, as he’d have expected. But—Thank God you’re here!

The American woman was still upset. Her heart was racing dangerously, for the sight of the badly bleeding naked man slouched on the bed had been, in the first instant, terrifying. But it did seem that the stricken man might not be in great danger. So far as the woman could determine the bleeding was beginning to slow, his skull had (surely) not been fractured; the scalp wound was probably less severe than it appeared, for excessive bleeding was common from even shallow scalp wounds, as the stricken man was assuring her, for he seemed to know about such matters, using the term vascularized, there being many more small veins in the scalp than elsewhere in the body, and all close to the surface of the skin. Which was why, the man said, he wouldn’t need to see a doctor, no need to go to a hospital, in a few minutes he would be all right, he was sure.

All this while, as the man spoke, the American woman was trying to breathe calmly and deeply and not to be caught up in the man’s rushed words and his hint of reproach, for there was something about the man’s forceful head-on manner. When she could interrupt the flow of his speech, she managed to tell him that she’d come as quickly as she could. It was true that she’d lost precious time waiting for the elevator, before deciding to run up the steps; and the man cursed the elevator—Why do they make elevators so small in Europe, did everyone used to be dwarfs? And, with an air of reproach tinged with some humor, for this was an exaggeration surely—If you’d waited for the damned thing, I’d be dead by now.

By degrees the American woman was feeling less faint. She was not by nature an excitable person and the proximity of others who were excitable or overwrought had a disorienting effect upon her; at a distance, she imagined that she could control such persons, or at least guide them purposefully, but closer to them, within their gravitational orbit, she soon lost the thread of her own concentration, and succumbed to theirs. But it seemed clear that the stricken man was calmer too, less agitated, since his bloody head had been wound by the woman tightly, comfortingly, in a proper-sized towel, like a tourniquet. He was aggrieved yet managed to speak fairly cogently and not incoherently, like a man who has gained control of an emergency situation, and could begin to assess it, with an expression of incredulity, disbelief, annoyance, but amusement too, a man accustomed to giving orders, and to being obeyed, but also a man who is unaccustomed to being so incapacitated, so bereft of control, at the mercy of another, in such a dramatic visual display of masculine helplessness. By this time the American woman had determined that he was (probably) all right, she could leave him for a minute sitting on the bed. She would fetch from the bathroom washcloths soaked in hot water, more towels. She would wash the blood from his neck, which was a thick, muscular neck, alarmingly crimson in the morning sunlight slanting through the window. She would wash the blood from his back, his chest, his upper arms, for she did not trust the man, in his condition, to return to the shower, as with a half-hearted sort of bravado he was suggesting.

He would need to see a doctor, she told him. She would arrange for an ambulance to take them to a hospital.

But: No. No doctor. No hospital, the man insisted. He would be all right in ten minutes. He had no intention of going to a hospital in Paris. Non.

The woman objected: of course he must go. The wound in his scalp required stitches . . .

No. Absolutely not. No hospital here. They’d all be speaking French.

He was being ridiculous, the woman cried. He’d seriously hurt himself! He might have died. She would notify the front desk that he needed medical treatment. They could call an ambulance, or at least a taxi. At the nearest emergency room he could be examined, an X-ray taken of his skull, for what if there had been a fracture, and the wound must be cleaned more thoroughly, disinfected to prevent infection. The wound would have to be stitched up properly so that it would heal and not continue to ooze blood . . .

Still, the man objected. There was not a chance he would go to a hospital here in Paris. It was the shock of it—the accident. A little blood wouldn’t hurt him. He’d had worse head wounds as a kid. It’s well known that head wounds bleed like hell but heal quickly, so vascularized. What he needed urgently was to get dressed, to get out of this hellhole, all this mess. Look at the bedclothes, look at the towels. He needed to go downstairs to the courtyard, that great place with the fountain, and have breakfast—croissants, jam. Why he’d slipped was partly because he was damned hungry.

The woman could not bring herself to argue with the man, since it only excited him, and it was not likely that his wishes could be overcome, regarding a doctor, hospital, stitches; he would never con- sent to go, now that he’d begun to feel stronger, and the shock of the fall was fading. So the woman pleaded with the man to at least come into the bathroom so that she could wash him more thoroughly. He couldn’t get dressed otherwise. He would get his clean clothes bloodstained, and there was blood in his hair that would have to be rinsed out before it dried, or they would never be able to get it out.

With a nervous sort of exasperation the woman spoke. Yet vast relief as well. Her heart was pounding so rapidly, she feared that she might faint after all.

She was looking white-faced, the man said, with sudden concern. Maybe she’d better sit down . . .

But no, she would sit down later. She would finish her breakfast, with him. Now, she needed to wash away the rest of the blood so that no one would see it.

A shocking amount of blood in the bedclothes, the woman saw, appalled. The front desk would have to be alerted. If a housemaid entered the room unaware the poor woman would be horrified, thinking that someone had been murdered.

The man was concentrating on heaving himself to his feet, which took some effort. It was clear that this was a man who’d once been stronger, more certain of his body, better coordinated, difficult for him now to realize that he no longer inhabited that body, though he was (was he?) the exact same person. Indeed, he could probably not have managed to stand without the woman slipping an arm around his fleshy waist, and gripping him tight. He was panting, though also laughing, or making a sound of a certain sort of incredulous laughter, a laughter that signaled How could this happen, how to me, nothing like this has ever happened before in my life but it’s nothing really, ridiculous to make such a fuss. In the bathroom the woman ran hot water into the sink, used the excellent fragrant soap to wash the man’s neck as he stood submissively before her, with an air of patience. From time to time he stole sidelong glances at himself in the mirror, smiling ruefully, wincing, allowing the woman to wash him as if humoring her, acquiescing to her overzealous solicitude, though he stooped to help her, when required, and took his hairbrush from her hands to make swipes at the silvery-white hair that was disheveled and wild. He marveled at what he could glimpse of the wound in the mirror, whistling thinly as if the wound were quite an achievement. He winced when the woman daubed gently at the wound, and warned her not to start the damned bleeding again— Please!

The woman saw that the interior of the bathroom looked like— what was the French word?—an abattoir. Smeared blood on the impracticably white tile floor but also on the edge of the bathtub, which was made of old, yellowed marble, and on the shower curtain, which was a double curtain with a practical plastic inside and an outside of an impractical white lacy fabric, and onto the sink and counter, for in his flailing about the stricken man had gotten blood everywhere; the woman could not bear leaving the bathroom quite so shocking, for a poor chambermaid to clean, and swiped at the bloodstains with tissues and toilet paper while the stricken man continued to peer at himself in the mirror, tried to see the wound at the crown of his head, with a kind of pride now, and finished brushing his wavy, silvery-white hair that was thin at the crown of his head but thicker elsewhere.

He was a sturdy-bodied man of something beyond late middle age, in fact. A former athlete perhaps, or at any rate a man who’d kept himself fit longer than most out of determination, and vanity; the woman found herself admiring the man’s body, so much more solid than her own, so much more stolid, that resembled the Greek warrior statues she’d been seeing in the museums: broad-shouldered men with curly beards, broad chests covered in a sort of pelt, muscular arms, shoulders, legs wrought in the most exquisite antique marble. What gratitude the woman felt, what a flood of relief, that the man she’d discovered in the hotel room had not been seriously hurt!—had not been mortally injured. Never forget this moment, when things might have gone so differently.

Feeling better now, decidedly stronger, the man scarcely took note of the woman’s mood. Naked and confident he returned to the bedroom, to seek out underwear in a bureau draw, needing the woman to steady him as he balanced on one leg, stepping into navy blue Spandex shorts that fit his drum-like belly almost too tightly. On his torso a thin white much-laundered undershirt through which short crinkly chest hairs poked like the quills of a small beast.

Will you pick out a shirt for me, dear?—the man asked, with a curious sort of submissiveness. Please.

As if after the debacle of the accident, a man so foolish could not dare to select a shirt for himself.

The woman peered into the closet, and selected a long-sleeved cotton shirt with a small geometric pattern, dark blue on white, not the sort of shirt an American tourist might wear on a balmy September day in Paris but a shirt that suggested a measure of dignity, and authority. A shirt that might have been worn by a professional man, a Parisian—attorney, physician, professor. The selection of this particular shirt the man appreciated, for the shirt was one of his favorites, and fitted his image of himself as having a certain degree of achievement, reputation, and affluence—though (in fact) he was the very man who’d slipped ignominiously on a bathroom floor less than an hour ago, struck his head on a porcelain toilet, stunned himself, and might easily have died, in which case he would be dead at this very moment and not buttoning up his favorite shirt, and the American woman downstairs in the courtyard making annotations in the Paris guidebook would not (yet) have known what awaited upstairs in room 341 of the HÔtel de l’ Abbaye.

As he dressed, and tied his shoelaces, the man could not resist recounting to the woman another time what had happened to him, for it was quite a remarkable episode—an accident, a freak accident, nothing that had ever happened to him before, or would ever happen again. His voice was expansive, bemused; the woman understood that soon the incident that had occurred in the bathroom of the French hotel would become an anecdote, one of the man’s travel anecdotes, to impress others, to startle others, to entertain others, to make them feel concern for the man even as his affable manner deflected concern, and to make them smile, for there had been no tragedy, no cracked skull, no abrupt and irremediable death, only a comical sort of accident involving a slippery floor, a mere pratfall the man would call it.

So relieved was the woman to see the man in good spirits, so relatively quickly after the accident, she came to him, to kiss him and give him a hug, as a mother might give a difficult child a hug, of reassurance, yet chidingly, with a sort of warning in the gesture, that the child might or might not acknowledge. The man thanked her again for saving his life, as he said, extravagantly, helping him when he was helpless, abandoning her breakfast to come to his aid, and he kissed her in return, though distractedly, for there were other things on his mind, and he was very hungry by now, and was looking forward to the New York Times downstairs in the courtyard, and a basket of croissants, and those jams in miniature jars.

By the time the man was ready to leave the hotel room the woman had discovered belatedly that she was looking disheveled herself, and would have to comb her hair again; to her horror she saw that there were blood smears on both the white linen jacket and the perfectly creased trousers, and so she would have to change her clothes. The man was leafing through the guidebook, which the woman had brought to the room, telling her what he wanted to see that morning was not the Musée d’Orsay but the Musée Picasso.

He’d never seen the Picasso museum, he said. Every time he’d come to Paris he had wanted to see it and he never had.

The woman objected. She’d thought they had agreed on the d’Orsay and the man said no, they’d agreed on the Picasso. Looking at the guidebook the previous day, that was what they’d decided.

The woman protested faintly but it was no use—it was never any use. Even if she were correct, and she could not now absolutely recall if she were correct, as the man adamantly recalled that he was correct, if he were obliged to give in to her he would be sulky and sullen and not enjoy the museum despite its great art and its extraordinary setting; better if they visited the Picasso museum, which was much smaller, and would not tax the man’s strength so much as the mobbed d’Orsay. And no doubt the Picasso museum would be excellent, too. The woman would purchase postcards in the gift shop to send back home, and no doubt these would be perfectly adequate. It really didn’t matter what the postcards pictured at which the young grandchildren would do no more than glance, and perhaps not even glance.

At last making their way along the dimly lit corridor to the carpeted steps the woman slipped her arm through the man’s arm, not to steady him or even to guide him, or rather not obviously to perform these functions, but out of great relief, a vast swell of relief, which would return to her through the day in waves, long after the man had (more or less) forgotten what the reason for such relief might have been, in the HÔtel de l’ Abbaye on the rue Cassette, Paris.

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