La préfecture de police, 9 Boulevard du Palais, Paris.
It was the morning of the last Tuesday in May inside the office of Commissaire Pascal Gissarro, who was engaged in a heated telephone conversation when he was disturbed by a knock on the door, and then was further agitated when Lieutenant Marineau opened the door and stepped inside. However, the Commissaire nodded at his Lieutenant, and then used the intrusion as a means of ending the unwanted phone call.
“Tell me,” the Commissaire directed.
“A Mme. Sylvia Thompson is asking to see you.”
“Mme. Thompson? From Los Angeles?”
“Mais oui. The one with the missing husband.”
The Lieutenant left and soon returned with Sylvia Thompson, a distinctly attractive woman in her mid fifties with brown eyes and hair dyed to compliment and to disguise the gray that arrived with middle age. The Commissaire stepped out from behind his desk and offered his hand and then motioned for the woman to take a seat in a comfortably padded armchair. The woman did and the Commissaire sat beside her, while the Lieutenant stood unobtrusively beside the office door.
“Thank you for seeing me.”
“You have traveled far.”
“Yes, is there news of my husband?”
“I am afraid, madam, nothing?”
“I had hoped the photograph would help.”
“Perhaps madam, if you had sent a more recent photograph. Looking for a man of sixty with the much younger image – is not so easy.”
Sylvia Thompson laughed.
The Commissaire was obviously perplexed.
“That photo,” Sylvia explained, “was taken the day Jack left for Paris.”
“I do not comprehend.”
“Jack aged gracefully. Do you know he still doesn’t have a single gray hair?” Sylvia reached up and twisted her own between her fingers: “Sometimes that man would make me so jealous.”
The Commissaire nodded: “Tell me. Why travel all this way when a telephone call would have saved you much time and expense?”
“Perhaps, but I did not know how to explain the letter over the telephone.”
“What letter is that, madame?”
“A strange, fantastic, impossible letter from someone who claimed to be my husband but signed it Françoise.”
“What was in the letter that made it so fantastic?”
“It is indescribable. Do you also read English?”
“Oui, madam. Quite well.”
“Then please read this letter,” she said, and handed him the envelope.
“It was posted nearby, in the Latin Quarter,” he observed, and removed the handwritten letter.
My Darling Sylvia,
How did it happen? Perhaps it was my love for Paris. Perhaps it was Cécile’s love for Françoise. All I know is that when I stepped off the plane and into her arms I was no longer Jack Thompson but Françoise Etoille Champroux. Even after all these weeks I look into the mirror and marvel at the change. My hair is no longer brown but black as the darkest night in January. My eyes are hazel now and I can barely recall them ever being the baby blue you used to carry on about when we were first married. In fact, I can recall so little of Jack Thompson that I decided to write you before his memories disappear forever.
Where do I begin to tell you what Paris has done to your loving Jack. You know that I have dreamed of Paris my whole life. I knew her streets, her parks, her monuments, and her people as if I’d been born and raised there then plucked out and burned into the body of Jack Thompson. Sylvia, I know every crack in the Champs-Elysées from the Arc de Triomphe to L’Obélisque.
My darling, do you remember all those years I begged you to run away and live in Paris with me? Do you remember all of those years that you refused? We were once young and free and Paris would have been tres magnifique. When we became parents I still ached for Paris but I kept the longings to myself. When our last son started his own family I asked again and still you refused. I never would have guessed what you were to give me for my sixtieth birthday. Do you remember what you said? “Go. Go spend a month in Paris. Walk its streets. Explore its museums. Go live your dream for a month, a summer if you must, then come home to me and forget Paris forever.”
You surprised me my love and I think perhaps you wished I’d said no but I jumped at the opportunity. After all, sixty isn’t too old to walk her streets, to admire her glories, to hear her music, and to breathe in her scents. My love, you can’t imagine her redolence. She wears a perfume that I could never, ever, forget.
Do you remember how you took me to the department store to buy old man suitcases but I refused. Instead we stopped at the sporting goods store and you helped me pick out a nice canvas backpack. You laughed and said I wasn’t a teenager anymore but we left the store with it. All the way home we had so many questions. How long to be away? What to see? Where to stay? There were so many questions.
That night I dreamed of Paris, and I dreamed of Cécile Aimée Champroux. No, perhaps it wasn’t really a dream. That night, I don’t know how, but I visited Paris and I made love to Cécile, ma femme. That night and every night that followed I fell asleep and Françoise awakened to be with his bien-aimé Cécile à Paris. You must remember those nights because you accused me often of having orgasmes dormir and I just laughed and said: What, an old man like me?
When I stepped through immigration I saw her. Sylvia, I saw her and I knew she was there waiting for me. When she saw me she ran to me crying; “Françoise, mon amour, Françoise.” I opened my arms and I hugged her. I kissed her and called her name and told her I loved her and would never leave her again.
I don’t know how to explain it but I speak French like a native. Cécile sings at a small dinner club and I accompany on the piano and sing harmony. We have a small apartment on the Rue Cujas and we are very happy.
Sylvia, I know I am where I have always belonged. I am finally home. Please remember Jack Thompson fondly for he loved you as much as a man could possibly love a woman.
“Madam, it is a most unbelievable letter.”
“It is Jack’s handwriting,” she said. She removed several handwritten documents from her folder and handed them to the inspector.
“I am not a handwriting expert but, yes, madam, they are nearly identical.”
“People cannot become other people and my husband cannot speak French anymore than he can play piano. Do you think he’s been murdered?”
“This I cannot say but I do happen to know a young couple who perform as Cécile et Françoise Champroux. They are quite new to the Paris music establishment and they perform nightly at Chez Lerand. They have become tres populaire in the past weeks with the, eh, nostalgia. They sing songs from the decades before the war.” The Commissaire turned to his Lieutenant: “Would you bring M. Françoise Champroux of the Rue Cujas to me.”
The Lieutenant nodded and left.
Commissaire Gissarro continued to question Sylvia Thompson for a few minutes and then made several phone calls using the language of Paris. The Lieutenant soon returned with a young couple and a rolled paper held in his left hand.
Sylvia Thompson stood and turned to face the new arrivals. The young man stepped back as the blood drained from his face: “Cécile,” he exclaimed, “c’est elle. La femme qui hante mes rêves.”
“What did he say?” Sylvia asked.
“He said,” the Commissaire replied, “you are the woman who haunts his dreams.”
Sylvia Thompson stepped close to the young man and asked: “Jack, could it really be you?”
The young man stood straight and proud. He pointed at his chest and said: “Je m’appelle Françoise Etoille Champroux.”
The Commissaire instructed the young couple to sit upon the chairs previously occupied by the woman and himself and then questioned them in French for nearly ten minutes before showing the letter to Françoise. The young man’s eyes widened as he read the letter silently. Cécile pushed her chair beside Françoise’s and shook her head as she read.
Françoise finished and muttered: “Pas possible.”
Cécile gripped his arm and stared at the Commissaire.
“Mme. Thompson,” the Commissaire started, “I have reason to believe that all is not what it should be. This young couple claim to come to Paris from the village de Oradour-sur-Glane, where they insist they were both born and married. From their answers I have reason to believe that your husband may have been a victim of …”
“No Commissaire,” Sylvia Thompson interjected, “I have watched and listened and I see the man I married in him. I am convinced the letter is truthful and that it is now over.”
Commissaire Gissarro studied her face and then nodded: “Il est de plus. Lieutenant, will you please return this young couple to their apartment.”
The Lieutenant nodded, stepped to his superior and handed him the rolled paper. “From the manager of Chez Lerand,” he said. “He’s a collector and was amazed by this coincidence. They died in the 1940 bombings.” The Lieutenant turned and addressed the young couple in French, who seemed very much relieved, and the three left the office leaving the Commissaire and the woman.
The Commissaire unrolled the faded, yellowed, and cracked poster, shook his head in amazement, and then showed the April 1939 playbill headlining Cécile et Françoise Champroux, Musiciens Extraordinaires; below which was an Art Deco rendering of the young vocalist and her accompaniest.
“Unbelievable,” Sylvia said, and collapsed into the chair trembling.
“What was it the English playwright wrote?”
“Shakespeare. ‘Il y a plus de choses au ciel et sur la terre, Horatio, qu’il n’en est rêvé dans votre philosophie.’”
This short story appeared in the August 2013 issue of Fresh Ink, the journal of the California Writers Club, Inland Empire Branch. It is derived from a recurring dream I began having prior to my own trip to Paris in March and April 2009.