Marcel's Letters, page 14
As I backed out of the driveway, I recalled I had promised a client I would be available all afternoon for a phone call. But I did not stop. She would have to wait.
50th and France is an upscale neighborhood west of downtown Minneapolis with a collection of one hundred or so street-level shops selling designer clothes, jewelry, paper goods, and gourmet kitchenware. It only took thirty minutes to get there in light midday traffic. Plus I sped.
I thought I remembered Belle Époque’s location, but the building now held a clothing store, so I scurried down the sidewalk, scrutinizing each window sign and scalloped awning for the store’s name. At the end of the block, I turned and retraced my path, certain I must have breezed past it. Back at the corner of 50th and France, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed the store’s number.
After eight rings, I hung up. Every bit of hope that had surged during the previous hour drained away. I knew.
I took a deep breath and stepped into the store on the southeast corner of 50th and France. A sea of designer yoga pants, dresses, and cotton T-shirts silk-screened with geometric kolam patterns—clothes people wear when they seek bliss and balance—were perfectly displayed on racks and shelves.
“Can I help you find something?” The saleswoman’s perky singsong lilt hurt my ears.
I pointed my thumb over my shoulder to gesture to the front door. “Is this 5-0-0-1?”
She stared back blankly.
“Building 5001,” I clarified, certain my false cheeriness sounded unconvincing.
With a pasted-on smile she responded, “I don’t know. Let me ask.” She walked to the store’s far corner and consulted with a second, older saleswoman. They both walked back to me. My question, it seemed, made the older woman deeply suspicious.
“Yes,” the perky one said, “this is 5001.”
“How long has this store been here?” I snapped.
“About five months,” she said with pride. The older saleswoman stood a few feet back, monitoring our interaction.
“Do you know what it was before?”
“An Ann Taylor store, I think.”
My shoulders fell. “How long was that store here?”
The women looked at each other. “Five years?” The younger saleswoman shrugged. “Can I show you some spring dresses? We just got them in and—”
“—No.” I knew she was just doing her job, so I added a curt, “Thanks.”
“Well, how about—”
“No!” I could not stand to hear what she wanted to sell me next, and I knew I was not going to remain polite for long. I turned and headed to the front door, fighting the impulse to reach out and throw every stitch of perfectly folded bliss and fucking balance merchandise onto the floor.
I slumped onto a frozen metal street bench, took my phone out of my purse, and dialed our home number. It had been reckless not to grab gloves as I raced out of the house, and the cold spring air felt like shards of glass cutting into my fingers. When I heard Aaron’s voice, I choked back tears.
“What a fucking waste of time.” I was humiliated I had allowed myself to be inflated with so much optimism. It was unlike me to run out so impulsively. I’m methodical! I have a level head! But Marcel’s letters had a hold on me I could neither control nor explain. “Online it still looks like it’s open. It even listed a fucking phone number.”
Aaron could not fix the situation. He said the only thing he could: “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know who else to write to. I don’t know where else to look. Wolfgang doesn’t know anything else.”
“I know,” Aaron said gently.
“I just …” I took a deep breath. “I just want to know if he made it home.”
“I know,” he said again. “Where are you now?”
“Sitting on a bench outside the store.” The words caught and stuttered.
“Come home,” he implored.
A cheery voice message from my client waited. But I did not call her back. I could not bear to hear her always-sunny disposition.
Aaron prepared a hearty dinner and served it with a big glass of white wine. Afterward, I did not go into my office to wrap up the day’s loose ends. I did not search for Marcel. I did not even want to say his name. I lay on the couch and watched some stupid shit-com; the show’s laugh track felt as ineffective as someone trying to fill the Grand Canyon with sound by whispering over the rim.
I had believed with absolute certainty I would eventually find some meandering trail that would lead me to Marcel. But after the trip to 50th and France, I faced the prospect I might never find him.
The thought made it painful to breathe.
The next morning I received a phone call from a freelance copywriter named Jon. We had never worked together, though we ran in overlapping professional circles. He was beginning a high-profile brochure for a medical device manufacturer. His go-to graphic designer had a family emergency, and he hoped I would be available to pinch-hit. The project was a good fit for my skillset, and the budget was generous, but the schedule was brutal. Layout concepts were due in less than a week despite the fact that copy had not yet been written. And in two days I would have to art direct a photoshoot for a product I had not yet seen—and knew nothing about. The project seemed destined to fail.
I agreed to help.
The only way to remove Marcel from my mind, it seemed, was to displace one all-consuming project with another.
The next day, I spent seven hours researching the client’s product, downloading reference files, coordinating the photoshoot, and sketching cover designs. During the next three weekdays and over the weekend, I logged more than fifty hours on that project alone, which was time over and above other client work.
By the time I presented concepts to the client’s marketing team, I was so exhausted I could barely string words into coherent sentences. I nearly fell asleep on the drive home.
But my plan had succeeded.
I had not thought about Marcel for days.
White Bear Lake, Minnesota
Late April 2012
Eventually, enough time passed that my impulsive trek to 50th and France felt more like a bruise than a cut.
Information had to be somewhere, I realized. A paper trail had to exist that would identify who had owned Belle Époque, who paid rent, or who remitted sales tax.
And with that, the search was back on.
Pages of results appeared after I typed “Belle Époque” into a search engine. The store showed up immediately, of course, like salt on a wound. The long list of other results included bed and breakfasts, books, hair salons, and wine bars named after France’s “beautiful era.”
Several pages into the results, I found a breadcrumb: a link to an eight-year-old magazine article profiling the style-maker behind Minneapolis’s newest hip-and-trendy place to shop. A photo showed a petite woman with long blond hair standing inside the store at 50th and France. The first two words of the article were her first and last name.
“Gotcha,” I whispered with a smile.
I typed her full name into a search engine. After the store closed the woman—Kim—moved to California to focus on building a furniture and interior design company. Images of sun-drenched couches in perfectly styled living rooms and chairs upholstered in bold stripes or lush silks filled her website. Accent pillows inspired by her world travels combined prints and patterns in vibrant blues, corals, and yellows.
I sent Kim a short email. More than ten years had passed since I purchased the letters; I did not know if she would remember them. But I had to ask. No particular reason existed to be optimistic, but I felt certain Kim would write back right away.
When Hoover was a twelve-week-old roly-poly ball of black fuzz, a friend came to our house to meet him. After fondling his oversize paws and nuzzling his velvet ears, she grabbed his tail and whisped his nose with it. He chomped on the tip and whirled in a circle until he fell over. She grabbed his tail and tickled his nose agai
As I continued to search for answers, I lunged at any resource that looked encouraging. But I was wasting time on databases I had already scoured, and documents I had already reviewed. Hoover outgrew his tail-chasing folly in days. I was still running in circles with no sign of stopping. Other than an occasional lunch with Kathy, business meeting, Type Tuesday gathering, or quick trip to the grocery store, I barely left the house. I had not talked with friends or family for months.
Aaron tolerated my emotional absence, but I could not help but feel I was being unfaithful. I thought about Marcel each night as I drifted to sleep. I thought about Marcel each morning before I opened my eyes. His presence was so real, so constant, so strong, it often felt as though he were in the same room, breathing the same air.
Yet he remained nowhere to be found.
France seemed to whisper to me. Accordion music played between stories on National Public Radio while I drank my morning coffee. People in the grocery store wore bedazzled T-shirts showing the Arc de Triomphe. On the rare occasion I watched a few minutes of television, stories about France seemed to be front and center.
I could not decide if I was being beckoned. Or mocked.
One Saturday afternoon I ran to the local superstore to pick up shampoo, garbage bags, toilet paper; it was a resupply run that could not be put off any longer. After picking out the items on the list, I wheeled my cart to the cosmetics aisles to buy lip gloss or fingernail polish—something pretty to lift my hollowed spirits. A bottle of purplish-gray fingernail polish caught my eye, and I tossed it in my cart.
Back home, after packing everything away, I thought I would delay my break a bit longer, so I sat down at the kitchen table with the bottle of fingernail polish. After brushing the color onto my nails, I lifted the bottle close to read the tiny label imprinted with the color’s name.
It read: EIFFEL FOR YOU.
“How’d it go?” Aaron stood in the kitchen, chopping vegetables.
I kicked off my dress shoes and slung my blazer over a kitchen chair. Hoover leaned into my leg as I rubbed his ears.
“They like it, but they want to show it around,” I said with a shrug. The meeting was about the ongoing rebranding project—the project with the always-sunny client I ignored on the day I drove to 50th and France. The presentation went well, though I suspected the final design solution would be a diluted mish-mash of layouts once everyone had their say. Any other month, any other year, I would have ferociously defended the designs. But I did not have any fight left. A margin’s width, the paper’s texture, the photo’s composition: after spending twenty years obsessing over these details, they suddenly seemed shockingly unimportant. At one point during the meeting, I felt an escalating irritation with the clients’ back-and-forth discussion of how they might change this or that. I wanted to swipe the presentation boards away from them and announce, “This doesn’t fucking matter!”
What I wanted to do was spend every minute looking for Marcel. Finding out if he lived was the only thing that seemed to fucking matter. But I could not do that; it would have destroyed the business I spent a decade building. I had to let my client believe her project was the singular thing that mattered. For the first time in my career, I felt like a fraud.
Aaron used the knife to point to a stack of envelopes on the kitchen counter. “There’s a letter for you.”
The words Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, République Française were printed below blue and red stripes. “It’s from the French National Archives!” I announced, realizing Aaron already knew that. Without any shred of delicacy, I ripped the envelope open. The letter was, of course, in French.
I recognized a handful of words: Seconde Guerre Mondiale. Second World War. Date du décès. Date of death.
After skimming the page, I cobbled together a best-guess translation for Aaron: “Regarding your letter, it’s not possible to retrieve information about Marcel Heuzé … French man affected by Second World War a la Daimler-Marienfelde. I suggest you contact the civil service at Boissy-le-Châtel.”
The next paragraph only made partial sense. But some words were devastating in their clarity: Bombardements. Bombings. Décès de la personne concernée. Death of the person concerned.
I silently read the closing paragraph, looked at Aaron, and shrugged. “Then, I think he’s wishing me good luck with my search.”
“Or he’s telling you to le fuck off.”
I forced a slight smile. “No, I don’t think so.”
“It was nice to get something back,” Aaron added after a few moments of silence.
During the previous months, I had begun looking forward to Sundays. Not for the extra hour or two of sleep it sometimes allowed; it was the only day mail was not delivered. It was the only day I was guaranteed a respite from disappointment.
I had received two other responses from various letters, one- or two-sentence emails noting they could not help, then wishing me luck. The vast majority of inquiries, though, including the letters to Jacqueline and Denise, and the email to Kim, remained unanswered. Apathy, it seemed, was my biggest adversary. This was the first piece-of-paper, stamp-on-envelope response, and despite the lack of answers, I was grateful. The signature at the bottom of the page made me feel someone cared enough to pick up a pen and sign their name.
“Are you going to send a letter to, where is it? Bossy-le-something?” Aaron asked.
“Already have. Boissy-le-Châtel. Berchères-la-Maingot.”
I had not heard from either one.
“How are you doing?” I stood up and gave Kathy a tight hug.
“Better this week,” she said with an exaggerated nod, as if she were trying to make the answer true. As she slouched down across from me, it looked like her petite frame was going to be swallowed whole by the restaurant’s large booth.
“Getting laid off sucks,” she said with a long sigh.
Again, I thought. Getting laid off again sucks. The economy was no longer in recession, though our industry was recovering in fits and starts. Kathy had only been at this job for one year. Dark circles pooled under her eyes, but she had a smile on her face. Kathy always had a smile on her face.
“I’m not ready to look.” She waved her hand to change the topic, though it looked like she was shooing an invisible fly. “What’s going on with you?”
After ordering lunch, I told her the medical device brochure was nearing final review, and that the corporate rebranding project was keeping me busy, but was on schedule. “Searching for Marcel is like a frustrating second job,” I said. The words caught in my throat and I immediately regretted my word choice. “Job” made it sound like it was something I was being forced to do when it was, in fact, the only thing I wanted to do.
“I think I’ve run into a dead end. I’ve written all these letters to France, right? I haven’t been able to find anything else online. Personal information is protected for one hundred years. Did I tell you I tracked down the antique store owner?”
“No!” Kathy said as her head bounced in surprise.
“It doesn’t matter. She’s not emailing me back. It feels like I am out of options. And I’m running out of ideas.”
The server arrived with our food; we picked at our lunches without saying a word.
“Have you given thought to the possibility he’s still alive? It would be possible, right?” Kathy offered a gentle smile. “How old would he be?”
Marcel had been born in 1912. “One hundred. He would be one hundred,” I said.
“So, it’s possible! Wouldn’t that be amazing! What if—” Kathy said as she slapped the tabletop. Her voice fell half an octave. “What if you find out he’s alive? What if he’s in a nursing home somewhere? What would you do? Would you go meet him?”
“Hell, yes! I’d be on the very next plane!” In my bones I knew it was not possible, b
It was silent for a few moments. “What do you think he looked like?”
Kathy’s question surprised me. As graphic designers, Kathy and I constantly thought about what things looked like. But I had to confess I never thought about it. I had spent a thousand hours looking at the tiniest details in his handwriting. I had tried picturing the barracks, the place where his girls lived, the trees and pond in Berchères-la-Maingot. It felt as though I had a crystal-clear picture of what was in Marcel’s heart, but I had never wondered what he looked like. What does a Frenchman look like? The visual that came to mind was a Hollywood stereotype: a lanky man wearing an off-white turtleneck, dark slicked-back hair, a cigarette hanging from his mouth.
An uncharacteristic seriousness filled Kathy’s face. “Do you think he made it home?”
Her question took my breath away. This was the question I had thought about a hundred times. A thousand times. Ten thousand times.
But no one had directly asked me before. Not even Aaron.
I did not want to answer. I did not want to commit to words the only possible outcome where I was not being naïve and foolishly optimistic. Seconds passed. It was as if waiting could allow the answer to be untrue for a while longer.
“No,” I said. Time stood still as that word—cruelly definitive in its verdict—hung in the air. I offered a silent apology to Marcel. It felt as though the answer meant I was abandoning hope. Abandoning him.
Kathy did not say anything, so I explained: “It didn’t seem there was any intent to release him. We bombed the factory until it was obliterated. He was always hungry. Sanitation was non-existent. People were worked to death …” I could have continued, but the list was already insufferably long.
“Why are you spending so much energy trying to find the answer, then?” The question was gentle, but blunt. The kind of question only a close friend could ask.
“Because I hope I’m wrong.”
The complete absence of World War II stories that ended happily was too unbearable to comprehend. If there was one story somewhere, somehow, that resulted in a prisoner returning to the people he loved, I wanted it to be Marcel. Why couldn’t it be Marcel?