There she is: the dame. You know the sort, twenty dollars of body stuffed into a ten cent getup. Not that the getup is cheap, this dame's probably got my whole year's rent on her person. And what a person.
We’re at Bintliff’s, an old Portland haunt. I’m at the bar and she’s at the window. Alone. I’d been given succinct instructions to document her near-future activities with a Paypal account to make it worth my while.
Wonder when her beau gets here? Or maybe he already arrived?
Bintliff’s is full of old wood and smiles. They’ve got knickknacks and yellowed menus on the wall boasting 10 cent burgers. Now that’s a time I wish still existed. I’ve got money problems out the ying, which is why I’m bird-watching – you can’t pay the bill collectors with kind words. So, I took the job. What red-blooded man could say no to that many commas?
Gigantic Lamp Picture
She’s looking out the window. The fog outside gives me a view of her reflection. In it a set of eyes, black as coal, slope down at the sides like Egyptian royalty. The kind of eyes you don’t forget.
Laughs carom off the walls and the air is humid and pleasant against the frost outside. But you can see this dame’s got a frost inside. Something’s dark and lost behind those baby blacks.
Can’t say this gig is hunky donky, though. Got my hackles up last night when the e-mail appeared. Unknown e-mail address: URF@IL.com. The message was succinct.
Subject: FOLLOW HER. DON'T BE SEEN.
Attached: (A picture of the broad I’m spying)
Message: “BINTLIFF’S SATURDAY 8:00 AM” And a link to a paypal account in my name. One click to “Accept Amount.”
You think I hesitated in clicking? You think a gig this simple paying this much would give me pause? Hell no. When you’ve been in this game as long as I have, you learn to take what people pay you.
This Bintliff’s place is a peach. Good coffee. People waiting out the door. Though, I never understood the whole “waiting for brunch” thing. Sounds a whole lot like the bullshit, “good things come to those who wait” mentality. I find the angles. I was never one to jog the full race. I’m the guy who ducks into the first alley and hails a cab to the finish.
The dame got a Florentine benedict; I can see the flakes of Parmesan from here. Apparently she’s got a figure that doesn’t need watching. But damn is it nice to look at.
Florenteen? Florentine? Either way, mighty fine.
The hash browns, garden-variety potatoes, reds and Yukon golds, mixed with sweet potato. All browned up on the griddle with a savory char. I haven’t had a meal this nice in I don’t know how long. Funny how good a little potato can be when you just…
Oops, almost forgot about the dame. These browns had me spinning my rusty hamster wheel. Bad news. I need to be sharper.
She’s on her phone now, talking quiet. She’s hunched over while she talks, those blonde tresses draping around her face like a veil. It’s not a good call, whatever it is, because soon enough she’s got her hand in the air for a check.
Huh, no ring. I guess a suspicious husband is out of the question. Her nails ain’t even chipped, means she probably got them done yesterday. This femme is on the hunt for a man.
Who wants me to watch her? A protective father? No, this has jilted ex-husband written all over it. The way she’s still sitting at a two-person table, rather than the bar. It’s habits that paint the most vivid picture.
This is too easy.
I signal for my check and leave a healthy tip. I’m feeling good about this one.
Her BMW is pristine as well, black that’s been polished to a silky shine, except for a couple mud flecks from the morning drive. My Corolla? I say its color is “Maine Winter Camouflage.” All black and brown with salt spray up the sides.
Keeping a car clean during a Maine winter is harder than building a house of cards in a shitsquall. This broad is some kinda careful.
Soon enough we’re both driving north. She’s weaving a bit on the road, probably talking on the phone again. Dames. Can’t keep them off those things. Sure, maybe I even get a bit sloppy too, tailing her too close. But if she notices she doesn’t let on.
It’s not long before she’s exiting at Freeport. Maybe to do a little L.L. Bean shopping? Though she doesn’t look like the type to go for Bean Boots. As plebian as I seem, I still got an eye for expensive taste. Just so happens that the expensive things don’t often come my way. Don’t ever, if I’m being honest.
Lawtta benedicts, guy.
That simple fact cost me a wife. Well, maybe the drinking and cussing didn’t help. She wasn’t too excited about ramen noodles at the end of the month, either. It’s for the best. What I lost in her I gained in a little extra income. Though it takes a couple more beers to supplement an empty bed.
She always thought she could do the private eye thing with me. Thought she had a knack for it. But I can tell you, she never would have lasted. I mean, I’ll allow that a woman may have a keener juju-sense – you know, feeling things in their guts and getting all spiritual on you – but I never had the North Star point me to a fat wad of scratch.
Though I won’t say business hasn’t slowed down since she left. Odd the way good and bad times tend to attract each other. Like good and bad have some sort of subtle gravity.
Luckily it looks like the good is starting to hove back my way. Where is this dame taking me?
These roads have more cracks than a plumber convention. Signs point us to “The Desert of Maine.” Funny she’d be going here. Probably a clever place to meet her secret man. Looking for love in Maine? Forget the snow. Go where the heat is: the desert!
God, I love how symbolic dames can be.
I’m tailing her so that I just catch taillights when I hit the top of the crest. She’s a cautious driver when she’s paying attention.
The last crest and there's the entrance to the desert. A cul de sac of a parking lot. And look at that – another car just happens to be parked already. Don’t know who could have predicted that. I was even thinking of calling my buddy Mick for backup. He’s a two-ton gorilla of a judo instructor. Normally backs me up on iffy jobs.
Now up close, looks like that's Mick's car. Haven’t talked to him in a while, actually. Maybe this dame is his? Mick you old so-and-so, getting mixed up in other people’s lives. And sure enough, I turn in a driveway just short of the desert proper, and Mick’s already getting out of his car.
Through the trees I can see him lean in the window of the dame’s car. Mick, I didn’t know you had it in you. She’s a looker for sure.
Is he pointing at my car? Can’t be sure, but it seems like something’s off. Now he’s walking toward me, waving. What the heck is this about?
I put the car in reverse. I don’t want to get caught here, lest that paypal account suddenly dry up. If that’s even possible. Can't take that chance.
But Mick, the lug, he blocks me in. Catches me trying to reverse and plants his moose trunk behind me. Awww now the dame is walking up too. Mid-winter fog puffing out of her mouth.
And as she walks she pulls up her long blonde curls, lifts them right off her head. She’s got the same spiky hair as Sheila underneath. Looks just like Sheila, come to think of it.
Jesus. It’s Sheila. It’s my ex-wife.
“Bobby,” she says, winking at me. She puts her arm over Mick’s shoulder.
“What the hell is this about?” I say. I have no idea what she’s playing at. Her eyes were never black. I tell her so.
“They’re contacts you idiot,” she says. She’s got her lips done up in a different color too. How did I miss it?
“You did the job, Bob.” Says Mick.
“The hell I did,” I said. “Who wants me following my ex-wife?”
“I did,” says Sheila. “Notice how all your old leads went dry? Notice how your services have been… less demanded.”
“Maybe I do,” I say. “I’m doing fine.”
Mick and Sheila look at my dirt-mobile and smirk at each other. So what if I haven’t had work in a while. What’s it to them?
“You still don’t see it, do you Bobby?” says Sheila. “You never had the eye for it. You always wanted to take the quick route. The easy buck.”
“Sorry Bob,” says Mick. “Life don’t work that way. Sometimes you gotta wait in the line to get the prize. And Sheila here, you kept her waiting. And she waited good. Now she’s the best P.I. in this town. By far.”
I look at Sheila. No way that muddleheaded broad could rock a case all the way to bed. I’ve got the head for this business. I was born for it. But then again, I couldn’t recognize my own ex-wife?
“You’re dried up, Bobby,” says Sheila. I look out at the Desert of Maine.
“So this is your symbolism,” I say to her. “You dames and your hidden meanings.”
“That’s all life is,” says Sheila. “If you can’t read the writing on the wall, you might as well be blind.”
“So who paid me,” I ask.
“I did,” says Sheila.
“You can’t pay for that.” I say. One nod to her beamer shuts me right back up.
“So what is this, an intervention?”
“You bet your ass it is,” says Mick.
“You’re done. You’re through,” says Sheila. “I’m pulling down more dollars in a month than you’ve made your whole career. You still living in that shack on Cumberland?”
I nod. What are you supposed to do when you’re whipped? You nod. You accept. At least that’s what they expect you to do.
“So you’re just giving me that money,” I say.
“Start a new life,” Sheila says. “Go and be a plumber or something. Something you can make some damn money at. Something where you can survive. Live.”
“Funny,” I say.
“Funny is you thinking you got an eye for anything. Just give it up. How’d you enjoy your Louisiana Bayou Benedict?”
Boom goes the dynamite.
I look down at the greasy steering-wheel, at the dust-littered dash. Getting bamboozled by my ex. Driving this junker out to the desert.
“OK Sheila,” I say.
Sheila looks at me with a suspicious eye. Disbelieving. “You’re out?”
“Look, I know I’m a no-good P.I.” She nods. Mick does too. Mick’s nod hurts more. “And I get the point. I never will be good. Hell, I’ll never even be passable. But what you’re talking about is who I am. Here.” I poke myself in the chest like a jerk. But it’s the truth. All I’ve ever been is a P.I.. On the job is the only time I'm happy. Give up my work, and I’m nothing. Nothing at all. I look from Sheila to Mick and back again.
“So the only way I stop hitting the streets is when I get an idea in my head that’s small and fast and made of metal.”
And with that I pull out of the desert to go back to my stinkin’ apartment and my cheap furniture and my shit life. Sure, I’ll never be worth nothing. But when that’s the guy you were born to be, how can you say no?
Bintliff’s has been around for years and their menu shows it. Each dish contains no little amount of care and craft. And with a menu this big, it’s surprising the quality remains so consistently high.
(Not that many) Dolla dolla bills y’all
You can pay for a filling brunch (for one) with a twenty and still have more than enough for the tip. Start getting bloodies and mimosy-does though? That’ll cost ya, stranger.
Most likely you’ll be upstairs where the lighting is low and the booths are comfy. Old wood and plenty of nostalgic pictures all over the walls will put any workaday drudgeries from the mind.
They keep your cup full. The hallmark of a fine brunch experience.
EAT OR SKIP:
Wait your turn. Don’t leave. Just grab a coffee from the bar, put some cream or sugar in it if those are your things, and just have some patience. You will like it. Heck! You might even love it. Rest assured, Bintliff’s is a Portland gem. Give it a try or many.