“The Hardboiled Notary” (by Kevin Mims)

In the following post Kevin Mims talks mostly about some of his occupations other than writing, so it’s worth mentioning a few specifics of his literary career. Kevin’s personal essays have appeared in the Modern Love column of the New York Times, on NPR’s Morning Edition, and elsewhere. His mainstream short stories and poetry have appeared in a range of literary magazines, and his short crime fiction has appeared in both EQMM and our sister publication, AHMM. Kevin is currently nominated for a Thriller Award for best short story for his July 2013 EQMM story “The Gallows-Bird.” —Janet Hutchings

Like a lot of guys my age (55), I grew up idolizing private eyes: Jim Rockford of TV’s The Rockford Files, John D. MacDonald’s beach bum turned freelance crime-solver Travis McGee, and various cinematic incarnations of Philip Marlowe by the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, and Robert Mitchum. I watched hundreds of TV crime shows and explored thousands of mean streets with dozens of recurring fictional detectives. I was less interested in police inspectors and FBI agents than I was in private eyes. Even then, I liked the idea of freelancing better than the idea of regular employment. My ideal was Harry Orwell, the private detective played by David Janssen on the short-lived (1974-76) TV series Harry O. Due to an injury suffered while on duty, Orwell received a monthly disability pension from the San Diego Police Department. The pension meant that he didn’t need to take on any work that didn’t genuinely interest him. He lived in a beach house and spent his days trying to renovate an old wooden sailboat called The Answer. He regularly became romantically entangled with beautiful women portrayed by the likes of Farrah Fawcett and Linda Evans. Except for the bullet in his back, Harry Orwell struck me as having a perfect life.

The TV detectives of the 1970s generally commanded $200 a day for their services. To a kid whose biggest expenses were comic books and pulp paperbacks, $200 a day seemed like a fortune. If you had asked me in 1973 what I wanted to be when I grew up, it’s likely I would have answered, “A freelance detective.”

Forty years have passed since then, and I have never managed to solve a single crime. Nonetheless, I have achieved at least a part of my dream. For much of my adult life I have been a freelancer. I have been a freelance merchant, selling used books and CDs and DVDs on the internet. I have freelanced in antiques, selling vintage collectibles out of a stall at an antiques co-op. I am a longtime freelance writer who sells fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to a wide variety of publications. The nonfiction writing can sometimes be a bit like private detective work. It often requires that I meet with some stranger and interview him about his life and livelihood. Alas, these interviews never result in my being menaced by thugs who threaten to cool me with their .28 caliber roscoes. No moll with great gams ever comes to my rescue by slipping a Mickey Finn to her old man and then lamming it with me to some cozy hideout in the high Sierra. Generally, when I finish interviewing a suspect—I mean, subject—I go home and write up a profile of said person for a local publication. Not exactly The Maltese Falcon.

I do have one freelance occupation, however, that occasionally simulates private-eye work. For fifteen years or so I have worked as a freelance notary public. I drive to houses and workplaces all over the Sacramento, California, area and help people sign legal documents, usually in connection with a home purchase or a refinance. These assignments bring in about $100 each. If I do two of them in a day I can earn what Jim Rockford earned for a day’s detective work (of course, Rockford’s $200 is probably closer to $500 today when adjusted for inflation). Rockford got much of his business via the telephone (each episode began with a different humorous phone message being woven into the opening title sequence). Harry Orwell’s clients often seemed to just wander up the beach to his oceanfront home and begin telling him their woes. Philip Marlowe’s clients tended to show up unannounced at his office on the sixth floor of the Cahuenga Building. My offers of notary work usually arrive via my home computer. If I accept the job, an escrow officer e-mails me the documents. I print them on my desktop printer, toss them into my briefcase, and away I go to my date with destiny. Alas, I drive a ’98 Corolla rather than a ’79 Firebird and I never have to punch my accelerator to the floor in order to elude a thug, jealous husband, or a crime boss who happens to be tailing me. I do, however, acquire a lot of personal information about the clients I deal with. While collecting signatures on documents, I usually learn how much my client paid for his house, what he owes on it, where he works, what he earns, whether or not he’s ever gone bankrupt or been sued, if he has unpaid tax liens or child-support payments or medical bills to deal with. This is all privileged information and—like a private detective, a lawyer, or a priest—I take care not to disclose the details to anyone.

Although you’re never likely to see a program called Kevin Mims: Mobile Notary on prime-time TV, notary work can occasionally be eventful. I once had to drive deep into rural El Dorado County to collect signatures at the home of a pair of survivalists who were refinancing their property. The husband’s name was on none of the official documents. He told me he hated all forms of government and did his best to avoid leaving a paper trail that could be traced through government records. Apparently he didn’t mind if his wife acquired a government paper trail. Everything they owned was in her name. The husband was a serious paranoiac. While I sat at the dining-room table collecting signatures from the wife, the husband sat and watched us like a hawk from a chair in the living room. A handgun lay on a small table beside him. He told me that if I tried to make a move on his wife, he would shoot me dead. I collected the signatures I needed and then hightailed it away.

And then there was The Case of the Dead Woman in the Next Room. This one occurred just a few weeks ago. My client was a 91-year-old man. He and his wife were selling the house they had lived in for most of the sixty-six years they had been married. Unfortunately, the wife was suffering from dementia and had recently been declared mentally incompetent. The husband was now the only one authorized to sign legal documents on behalf of the couple. I arrived at the couple’s house at ten a.m. Despite his advanced age, my client was in excellent condition both physically and mentally. It’s always necessary for a notary to copy information from a client’s driver’s license into the notary book. When this client saw me write the numbers 7-19-17 into my book, he mistakenly thought I was documenting his birth date. He said, “I was born in 1923, not 1917.” I told him, “That’s not your birth date I was copying, it’s the expiration date.” He laughed and said, “Oh, I’m likely to expire long before that.” When I informed him that I would have to collect a thumbprint from him, he joked, “You can try, but I’m so old that my fingerprints have all been rubbed away.” It turned out he was right about that; his thumbprint was mostly just a thumb-shaped black smudge without any whorls in it. “That’s what happens when you get old,” he said, “your identity starts to fade away.” I thought it was a rather poignant comment, considering his wife’s condition.

But it turned out that I was wrong about his wife’s condition. The first document he needed to sign was an addendum to the real-estate contract asserting that the wife was non compos mentis and that her husband would be signing all of the documents on her behalf. After I explained the addendum to him, my client said, “Perhaps we won’t need to sign this document anymore, now that Rose is dead.”

Like a TV detective after being told that his client has skipped bail, I did a double take. “Your wife is dead?” I asked, confused. The escrow officer had assured me just the previous day that the wife was alive but incompetent.

“She died about an hour ago,” he told me, and he pointed towards a doorway at the end of a hallway. The door was open and I could see a body lying on a bed inside the room. “I haven’t called the authorities yet,” he said. “I want to give my daughter a chance to come over and say goodbye to her mother first.”

Suddenly I felt as though I had committed some horrible social gaffe. “I can come back some other time, if you’d like,” I said.

But my client just smiled and shook his head. “It was a very peaceful death,” he said. “Her breathing gradually slowed down until finally it just stopped. Shortly after that her heart quit beating.”

And so we continued with the signing. In a single morning my client was forced to say goodbye to his wife of sixty-six years and to sign away ownership of the house they had shared for most of their married life. Not once did he display any bitterness or self-pity. When a private detective leaves behind a house in which a woman lies dead, he is usually in an unpleasant frame of mind. But I departed the house of this dead woman impressed by the composure and courage of her husband and determined to face the challenges and setbacks of my own life with similar equanimity.

On another occasion, I was supposed to meet a young woman at her house in Sacramento’s north area for a signing that was scheduled to take place at six p.m. The woman worked as a showgirl in Las Vegas but owned a home in Sacramento, which she was refinancing. She called me from the road at five o’clock and told me that she was running late. She was driving in from Vegas and had underestimated her travel time. “No problem,” I told her. “Just call me when you’re a half-hour away, and I’ll meet you at your home.” At ten she called and asked if we could do the signing at my house instead of hers. She thought it would be quicker that way. “Fine,” I told her. I gave her my address and told her I’d wait up for her. She finally showed up at my house at one in the morning. She was still dressed in some kind of showgirl outfit—sequined miniskirt, stiletto heels, scanty top. She carried a large purse with a small dog in it. When I opened my front door, I felt as if I were in a cheap detective novel. I found myself hoping she’d tell me that she had stolen $250,000 from a Vegas mob boss and then ask if she could spend a few days hiding out at my place. Alas, she had no interest in anything but signing her loan papers and hurrying home. I signed her up at my dining room table (her thumbprint had plenty of whorls). My wife was asleep in the next room, so I couldn’t even offer the showgirl a drink, the way Jim Rockford or Harry Orwell surely would have.

Being a notary isn’t as exciting as being a private eye. On the other hand, no mob boss is ever likely to show up at my house looking for his ex-girlfriend and the $250,000 she stole from him. And though it may not be an ideal apprenticeship for a life of crime-writing, being a freelance notary does occasionally prove useful to my crime fiction. Whenever Lew Archer or Philip Marlowe or (my personal-favorite among fictional detectives) Bill Pronzini’s Nameless walks into a stranger’s house, he usually makes a quick assessment of what he sees and then uses that information to try to gauge what kind of person he is about to be dealing with. I’ve learned to use this same skill in my notary work.

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10 Responses to “The Hardboiled Notary” (by Kevin Mims)

  1. David Dean says:

    This was a lovely piece, Kevin. And I’m not so sure that a TV series would be out of the question. Very interesting stuff.

  2. NessaH says:

    Very interesting reading.

  3. NessaH says:

    Reblogged this on Notaría Paralegál and commented:
    A very interesting blog entry about some unexpected notary experiences. Hee hee

  4. Kevin Mims says:

    Very interesting and Very good mental description.
    “The Other Kevin Mims”

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Here’s a quote about John D. Macdonald that I often see bouncing around the web (I hesitate to quote from Wikipeida, which we all know is generally stuff we can wipe our asses with, but this seems legit). “Macdonald is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only Macdonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human heart chap, so guess who wears the top grade laurels?” That’s from Kingsley Amis.
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2015/01/john-d-macdonald-look-at-some-aspects.html#.VNHn89L

  6. Elizabeth says:

    As we might expect, the Travis McGee novels indulge in a fair amount of superhero, bubblegum, cartoon or comic strip stuff, and that’s fine. Certainly one of their primary purposes is to entertain. But Macdonald also has other aspirations that go far beyond divertissement. McGee is a kind of philosopher of his time – that is, he makes philosophical statements about the society he finds himself in and, periodically, about the cosmos in general.
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2015/01/john-d-macdonald-look-at-some-aspects.html#.VNHn89L

  7. Pingback: “How to Read Disreputably” (by Kevin Mims) | SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN

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