The notary, for all his gravity, managed a sidelong smile, apparently suspecting a love affair.
Notre Coeur, Guy de Maupassant
I came, in the darkest hours of my career as a notaire, to the sleepy streets of the south of France, far from the hustle and bustle of Paris. Ah Paris, where young notaries flock like flies on un lapin morte, hoping to make their name in the fiercely competitive game of authenticating documents!
When I was young I--I, Emile Miromesnil--was just like the rest of them; starry-eyed, hoping I would be the one to ask Flaubert "Is this your free act and deed?" and require of him les deux formes d'identification. Then, below his signature, my name and date of commission would appear, making me the handmaiden of his literary fame. Biographers and critics would beat a path to my door for the answers to their intrusive questions: "Flaubert--he will not see me," they would whine. "Tell me--did he hesitate before signing? Did he give you a tip on top of the two sous you are rightfully entitled to for your notarization, or was service compris?"
But then I was corrupted by the temptation to cut corners, the downfall of so many notaires, we who must toil in obscurity, always stamping and sealing into the wee hours long after the businessmen have departed to dine in five-star luxury in celebration of the successful conclusion of a transaction!
I agreed--it shames me to admit it--to take an acknowledgment over the newly-invented telephone, and not in person. How was I to know that the League of Notaires would soon bar such an accommodation, even if you knew the voice on the other end of the line! It is no wonder that France plods along behind commercial giants such as les Etats-Unis, where even robots are permitted to sign documents in order to facilitate the financing of les mortgages du sub-prime!
I was stripped of my notary epaulets in a court martial that resembled something out of Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion--that American parody of French manhood--and busted down to the office of clerk, consigned to the back room of the office, charged with that most ignominious task of le process notaire--blotting the ink of signatures!
After a brief three-decade probationary period I was left to my own devices--moi, who owned no devices other than an alarm clock and a retractable ball point pen--and began to scuffle around, taking acknowledgements where I could find them. I pounded the pavements and the doorknobs of Paris--nothing.
And so I have repaired (Editor: Repaired what?) to the south of France, to Antibes. Here, perhaps I can restore my reputation and, after ingratiating myself with one of the local avocats, obtain the letter of recommendation that will allow me to retrace my steps to the City of Lights, the Capital of French Notarization--Paris.
Rams RB Marshall Faulk (en francais: Marechal Foch)
I have taken an office in Antibes on Boulevard Marechal Foch, a street that I gather is named in honor of the Hall of Fame running back for the St. Louis Rams, but also known as the Great White Goods Way, the Avenue of Major Appliances. It is here that a constant stream of notarizations is required upon les mortgages du chattels movable--the retail installment sales contracts that are the lifeblood of France's consumer sector.
I admit that I sometimes provide "enhanced" services to the avocats who send business my way, sizing up signers for character flaws that might give rise to ancillary legal business. Let me be direct to a reader who is perhaps tired of my roundabout ways; I can smell a philandering husband furnishing a love nest for his paramour a kilometer away, and the lawyer who sends me such a man may find him or herself the beneficiary of a lucrative divorce case as a little lagniappe.
I settle into my swivel chair for a breathtaking view of the garret across the alley below when a man appears at my door. "Bon jour," he says. "Can you perhaps notarize a contract for me?"
I give him the once-over. I've seen his type before. Seven years into marriage he's already started to itch, and I don't mean his scalp. I mean le groin, which unlike the groin in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, is filled with impure thoughts.
"Mais oui," I say. "Have a seat."
"I already have one," he says, "It's back . . ."
"Please," I say peremptorily. "Leave the stupid plays on words to me."
"Bien sur," he says and sits down.
"What have we here?" I say as I take the papers in my hand. There are, of course, three copies in different colors--white, pink and canary--separated by thin sheets of carbon paper.
"I . . . just bought a bidet."
My eyebrows rise involuntarily. I immediately suspect une affaire d'amour, but I nonetheless keep the poker face that high-stakes Texas Hold 'Em players affect in America.
"Very good. Nothing like a clean crotch to start--or end--one's day," I say.
"Yes," the man says. I believe I detect a certain . . . air of duplicity about him.
"Let me just examine your identification, if I may."
The man tosses his driver's license on my desk in a cavalier manner--Pierre Canard, it says--but he's not throwing me off my game.
"I will need to see something else, Monsieur Canard" I say brusquely.
"A utility bill, a student ID, a French postcard . . ."
"The naughty kind?"
"No, the nice kind with your address on it."
"Naughty" French post card
The man reaches in his wallet and pulls out a gas bill. "Will this do?" he asks nervously.
"Most assuredly," I say, trying to put the man at ease. I don't want him bolting, not when I've got him thisclose to capture.
"Is this your free act and deed?" I ask.
"What kind of question is that?" he says defensively.
"One that is required by law," I say. "Nothing more."
"Oh, sorry. I've . . . never entered into a long-term contract for the purchase of a big-ticket item before."
"It is . . . how you say . . . simply business," I saw with the most officious smile I can produce. "And now it is just a matter of filling in the blanks. To what address will this handy home appliance be delivered?"
"27 Avenue Curie."
"Which Curie . . . Pierre ou Marie?"
"Merci. You can appreciate that precision is essential when I report a case of adultery to les gendarmes!"
The man's face, flesh-colored when he walked in, blanches a whiter shade of pale, a monster hit for Procol Harum in the '60's.
"Mais . . . mais," he stammers.
"Don't 'but' me, buddy. I think that someone is having a little extramarital affair."
"I'm sure someone is . . ."
"No, I mean someone in this office."
The fellow looks around, trying to deflect attention from himself.
"Do not waste your time," I say with a supercilious tone. "I am not married, and therefore cannot have such a liaison."
"But . . . how did you know? You are a mere notary!"
"Your driver's license says Avenue Pierre Curie, but you wish to ship it to Avenue Marie Curie. Curious, no?"
There's no getting out of the Chinese finger trap that I have laid for the fellow, and he crumbles like a day-old baguette run over by a beer truck.
"Please don't tell my wife," he pleads. He is so pathetic that I am tempted, for a brief moment, to pity him.
"Give me one good reason why not," I say, offering him one last chance to save his marriage.
"Because if she finds out I bought a bidet for my mistress, she'll want one too."