(My good friend and fellow writer Mary Van Pelt suggested that I post this story, and I thank her for that. It’s an older piece, and since Henry and I have moved away from Jaroso and I’m no longer a notary, posting this was a good exercise in changing verbs to past tense.)
I had been a notary public for almost fifteen years. Way out there in the scrublands of Colorado’s San Luis Valley in a town with only a post office—six miles from a decent highway and sixty-five from Alamosa (the town where most of us shopped)—the services of a notary were often required. Someone needed to step forward and take it upon themselves. Why not me? Between gardening, carving marble, grading Freshman English, keeping house with my husband Henry, and writing (if I was lucky), I was a likely candidate because I was usually home.
I suspect I wasn’t the notary type. More often than not when I notarized something, I was dressed in my grubbies and my fingernails were at least as dirty as the farmer’s sitting across from me. On the rare occasion when I needed something notarized, the notaries I used in Alamosa were more the bank teller type, decidedly female with underwire push-up bras, sleek polyester clothes, and un-calloused hands tipped with glossy pink claws. Since none of them knew me personally, they asked me for my driver’s license, which they recorded with small precise handwriting in their leather-bound ledgers—proper procedure no doubt, but one I didn’t always follow.
I never charged a notary fee although I was entitled to, and on occasion my neighbors insisted on pressing a few bills into my hand. I never went to a convention of notaries or even a notary training. I was a mail-order notary, invisible to the state except for my signature and the stamp I embossed on the documents that came before me. The fee I paid to renew my commission was incidental; I figured being a notary was one way I could serve my community.
My coffee-stained ledger, starting in 1996 and continuing to the spring of 2013, tells a certain story of the comings and goings of this little town of Jaroso. Not a complete story by a long shot. It doesn’t tell of births and deaths, marriages and divorces, ruinous hailstorms and the precise date the town was last snowed in—for that history, you’d have to talk with a second generation resident like mutton-chopped Harold Anderson. Yet even in its record of more practical matters like quit-claim deeds, pasture or purchase agreements, powers of attorney, affidavits, and an occasional last will and testament, my ledger still hints at the vicissitudes of farming, town politics, and the enterprise of survival on the edge of civilization.
Although most notarizations occurred right in my living room, on occasion I was summoned to make a house call. One of the first notarizations I performed took place in an old farmhouse in the next tiny town just up the road, a town littered with chunks of red pumice, the crusted leftovers of an ancient ejaculation from the nearby extinct volcano. The cold spring wind scoured the ground and I had to close my eyes against the grit as I walked into the old frame house. The kitchen was overheated and the signatory was elderly, tethered to a wheezing oxygen tank. I wondered if he was a shut-in. His signature on the pasture agreement was thin and spidery, drifting above and below the line, but his grip when he thanked me was firm and unhesitating. A farmer’s grip. No need to ask for his driver’s license.
In the spring of 2010, I notarized a flurry of affidavits—nineteen in all in the course of a week—all addressing the same issue. Two households, both newcomers to rural life, sought to close a short stretch of dirt road running between their properties, a road that leads directly to the post office, the truck scales, and a large propane storage tank in back of Anderson’s grain silo. The same road happened to run in back of our property as well, but neither Henry nor I supported closing it. Apparently what was obvious to us when we first moved to Jaroso—that this short stretch of road was frequently traveled by hay trucks, UPS and FedEx trucks, propane trucks, the ice cream truck, the ditch-rider’s pickup, the postal delivery truck and most of our sixty residents, not to mention the farm kids just tall enough to work the pedals—apparently was not obvious to them. Or if it was obvious, these same newcomers (and in these parts “newcomer” can be a somewhat libelous term) still insisted that the dust and rumble and bother from the truck traffic impinged upon their comfort and safety. Arguing that there were other routes just as good to the center of town, they took matters into their own hands by gradually encroaching upon the road with landscaping, parked vehicles, and even a log barricade, with the not too surprising result of raising the ire of most of the town residents. All the signatories swore in one way or another to personal knowledge that the road had been in continual public use since at least the 1950s, a solid case for grandfathering if there ever was one. If notaries are allowed enjoyment in carrying out the duties of their station, I must say I relished signing those affidavits.
The strangest notary request I’ve ever received came from a woman I knew only as the Tattoo Lady. Although her moniker was apt, I’m embarrassed to admit that I can’t remember her real name, and I squirm to think that there might have been some who referred to me as the Lazy-eyed Lady because of my strabismic eye. No doubt Harold and his wife, postmistress Kathy May, would remember her name without any hesitation.
I’d seen the Tattoo Lady once or twice in the post office, the heart of Jaroso, the place where the farmers gather to lean on the old curved mahogany counter to talk about the weather, crops, and the price of beef; where the smattering of artist types like Henry and me found out The Way It Works Around Here; and where the Prairie People living even further out on the fringe slipped in to check the bulletin board for good deals or the free box for extra potatoes or a trashy novel.
One morning the Tattoo Lady and I stood next to each other working our combinations on the antique set of brass framed mail boxes, the smaller numbered boxes at chest height and above and the larger lettered boxes in a row at the bottom. I remember sneaking a glance at the black, red and blue designs wall-papering every inch of her exposed skin, all except her face. I still have an impression of the overall cartography of her tattoos, but it’s strange that I can’t remember any one tattoo in detail. Maybe she caught me looking, because I quickly mumbled “hi” as if suddenly remembering my manners. But instead of the biker babe howdy I must have been expecting, she murmured a very shy and modest “hello.” As Kathy May stood in back of the curved counter, its mahogany veneer peeling and the latest designer stamps displayed under a beveled piece of glass, she offered us both a pink cookie from the jar she kept in back of the frosted glass divider. I declined and sat on the old bus seat to sort the mail, but the Tattoo Lady accepted, mentioning to Kathy May that her bed-ridden boyfriend needed something notarized. Kathy May pointed to me, saying I was the local notary, and I agreed to stop by later that afternoon with my notary kit.
After the Tattoo Lady left, I waited for Kathy May to offer some comment or tidbit of gossip. If anyone had the pulse of our tiny community, she did. As postmistress, she knew all the old farmer families and local Hispanics, the newer Mexicans (legal and illegal), and the smattering of artist types like Henry and me.
She knew all the Prairie People as well—marginalized recluses, city refugees, and sometimes unsavory characters escaping the nuisance of civilization, like the law or alimony or child support. Most have bought their land sight unseen, land with no infrastructure at all other than rough-graded and often impassable roads laid out in some developer’s wet dream-grid superimposed upon wind-scoured swells of chamisa and sage full of rattlesnake and pronghorn. Few stay beyond their first winter. Most came to Jaroso for their mail and water. While Kathy treated them professionally, listened to their sad stories and sometimes even offered a big soft shoulder to cry on, she also kept a can of air freshener handy for when they headed out the door. No doubt I’d stink too if I lived in rough conditions and had to haul water. Harold would let them fill their makeshift water tanks and old barrels from the well across from his machine shop. I always thought of that well as the town well until Harold straightened me out one day. A good man, that Harold with his long sideburns and plowshare of a nose, taking matters into his own hands and cheerfully footing the bill so the Prairie People could fishtail home in their water laden and decrepit pickups.
I was still waiting for Kathy May to give me the scoop on the Tattoo Lady, but either she had mail to put up or nothing to say, not that day anyway. But no matter. I knew where the Tattoo Lady lived. In a town with only forty or fifty people, everyone knew pretty much everything about everybody else. That may drive some people nuts, but I took a certain solace in knowing that my weird habits and appearance, being so well known, must have also enjoyed some degree of acceptance. After all, we were all a little strange to want to live way out there on the edge of the world. In any case, I knew to drive to the old pink stucco house off of Road 9, about a mile from “downtown” along a lane where the wild asparagus had gone to seed and the cottonwoods were singed with yellow. But that’s about all I knew.
Immediately upon opening the door to my old Subaru station wagon, a very large dog approached me. This was no average farm dog, no barking Australian shepherd or chow mix eager to sniff and say howdy. This dog was tall, long-legged, scruffy-coated, gray, and decidedly wolf-like.
I got out slowly. I’ve been dog-bit before and I have to work at controlling my fear, especially since I know dogs are so darn good at sensing it. Hoping to be rescued from my interrogator, I looked to the crumbling old house, but nothing stirred. I hesitantly faced the big dog standing before me. His eyes were yellow, a cold yellow that burned into me. He made no sound and his tail did not wag. This dog was all business. I felt compelled to offer the back of my right hand. The dog assessed it with military thoroughness. I held out my left hand to the same treatment. Then I turned them both over so he could inspect my palms. When he was finished, he shoved his long snout into my crotch. I dared not protest. Satisfied at last—with what? My sex? The olfactory chronicle of my hands? His dismissal of the pitifully small threat I posed?—he strode away to mark all four car tires with a seemingly endless supply of pee.
Just then, the door to the house scraped open, and, making no apologies for the imperious wolf, the Tattoo Lady beckoned to me. Once inside, I had to stand a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dark. All the curtains were drawn and the house felt cool, but there was something else, a sweet odor, sweet but also rotten.
She led me to a table and chair across from a bed set up in what I guessed had been the living room. I got my ledger and pen and embossing stamp out of their cardboard box. By then my eyes had adjusted to the dim light and I could see a pale figure lying in the bed, a sallow-cheeked, rumple-haired, wheezing, closed-eyed man.
“This here is my boyfriend, George,” the Tattoo Lady said. She looked down at the rough pine boards and a tattered braided rug. “He’s dying,” she said matter-of-factly. She paused ever so briefly before continuing. “We want to get married so I can get his veteran’s benefits.”
I looked at the pale bed-ridden man. He was yellow, not the cold acid-lemon of the wolf’s eyes, but a decaying yellow like over-cooked acorn squash. I looked back at the Tattoo Lady standing across the room, trying to see her and not the cartography of her tattoos. Snapping back to the task at hand, I nodded as if I understood, as if my experience being a notary were so vast and varied that all this was old hat.
“What is it,” I mumbled before I had to clear my throat of phlegm. “What is it exactly that you want me to notarize?”
“This here,” the Tattoo Lady thrust an application for a marriage license on the table in front of me.
Back then I didn’t need reading glasses like I do now, but if I had, I expect I would have used the act of putting them on as a way to gain time, take a breath, consider what I was about to do. I must have made my notes in the ledger and located the place on the document where he would sign and I would notarize. But now, as I look at my coffee-stained ledger, I see I have recorded the date, County of Costilla, State of Colorado, application of marriage license and his name. Inexplicably, I have no record of her. None at all.
As I write this, I am trying to put myself back into that dim cool room that smelled of sweet and rotten death, trying to make the memories appear as if they were tattooed red, black and blue on my skin. But my memory floats off like the wind-whipped clouds over the Sangre de Cristos, and I’m left puzzling why I can remember the wolf but not the man. I can’t remember if he understood what I was asking, or if he even woke up. Did she hold the paper in front of him for his signature? Did he stir, grunt, give a small nod or a brief flicker of recognition? All I can remember is his descent into that yellowing, wheezing, sallow-cheeked slumber.
I signed and dated the highly questionable document. Gripping the paper between the jaws of my embosser with a firm hand, I squeezed down hard, leaving the official Braille-like stamp of my office. So, not unlike my contentious neighbors erecting a barricade across a road, or Harold sharing free water with the Prairie People, or the wolf-dog guarding the people in his pack, or the Tattoo Lady attending to the practical necessities of ensuring her financial future, I too took matters into my own hands. When you live on the fringe of civilization, you have only to slightly shift your weight to exceed its reach.