Astrid Borg worked in a restaurant equidistant from Hollywood and Dodger Stadium. The ballplayers and movie stars whose tables she waited fascinated her. But Ian Kirby, despite his ordinary looks, fascinated her like no other the first time he came in. His English-accented resonant baritone acted upon her like the voices of certain extinct half-bird, half-woman creatures had once acted upon seafarers well south of the homeland of her ancestors. Astrid had no one to plug her ears with beeswax or bind her to a supporting beam. Hearing Mr. Kirby speak, she was moved to turn her back on the party whose orders she’d started taking. She walked to his table, assigned that evening to her friend Megan. She stood in front of the celebrated actor as if to throw herself on his mercy.
Another writer besides this one might have much to say about Astrid Borg’s residence in California instead of Minnesota. Another writer might discern evidence of decay in her family’s stolid farming stock. Previous Borgs had been salt-of-the-earth types, citizens of the heartland that pumps oxygen and nutrients—life’s very substance—into the country’s extremities, performing its ceaseless labor without complaint despite the unwillingness of the extremities to admit they are mere appendages to the heart. Another writer might suggest that if Astrid Borg had decided she didn’t belong in Minnesota, then perhaps she didn’t quite belong in California, either. In California the prevalence of corruption is such that an isolated instance will pass unnoticed. Perhaps Astrid’s flight from the heartland had indeed given evidence of decay—yet of a decay that could not be reversed in California, but only concealed.
So another writer might propose. However, this writer prefers to leave such analysis—or speculation—to more profound thinkers. This writer just wants to tell a story, so he’ll leave it at this: no previous descendant of the Borg line had moved farther away from Minnesota than Illinois or Nebraska.
Yet Astrid’s decision to move to California after graduating from the University of Minnesota hadn’t surprised her widowed father. Christian Borg stood for simplicity and practicality. Many people believed that anything not related to the possibility of maximizing corn or soybean production had no chance of capturing his attention. But the late Mrs. Borg had often found herself moved by the love of family that swelled beneath her husband’s reserved exterior. She’d often reminded herself that still waters run deep.
Sadly, Mr. Borg’s attempts to convince himself that the same reassuring thesis could apply to the youngest of his four children, divided equally between sons and daughters, had always rung hollow. The hollowness had echoed more eerily since his wife’s death during Astrid’s last year of high school. While Mr. Borg busied himself with the harvest, Mrs. Borg and Astrid drove all over Minnesota and into Wisconsin to visit colleges. The death had occurred on the way back from Madison, Wisconsin, at a gas station closer to that university town than to the Minnesota state line. Astrid had backed the family Chevy into her mother as she knelt to clean mud off the license plate.
Mr. Borg didn’t blame his daughter for the accident. But he’d never felt an affinity with her, and her measured reaction to Mrs. Borg’s demise gave him more cause than ever to wonder if she’d been a changeling child. He wasn’t devastated by her move west.
When Astrid stood tall, blond, and azure-eyed in front of Ian Kirby’s table, he thought he beheld a creature who was as much a daughter of the waves of the nearby Pacific as the goddess Venus had been a child of seafoam. He pictured her standing naked in a giant scallop shell as she introduced herself as a fan.
“You said your name was what, luv?” he asked.
Botticelli’s Venus uses her hand to cover one breast and with her auburn hair covers her genitals entirely. Ian Kirby adored Botticelli’s masterpiece but believed that our passion for art must be refreshed by the interpretive energy of each new generation. He pictured the young woman naked in a giant scallop shell but with her arms tied with rope behind her back and her eyes blindfolded. You never knew what a girl might be up for.
The question about her name flustered her.
“I don’t think I said.”
She looked for help to the raven-haired beauty sitting with Mr. Kirby. That very young woman, cast in a supporting role in the film Mr. Kirby would soon begin shooting, had noted his interest in the server.
“Must have a name, luv,” Mr. Kirby said.
Astrid knew her name. But hearing Mr. Kirby address her and her alone had mesmerized her.
“Perhaps Freya, like the goddess of love?” the hypnotic voice proposed. “Or Frigg, like the goddess of fertility.”
“Or Frick,” the raven-haired beauty suggested, “since she should fricking let us eat.”
“She’s right, Freya or Frigg,” he sighed. “Under different circumstances. . . but I shall dance with the one that brung me. Autograph?”
He held out his hand. Astrid gave him her pen.
“Paper,” he said.
She looked at the pad on which she recorded orders. She handed it to Mr. Kirby. He wrote on it and handed it back. His handwriting was illegible.
He turned back to the smirking raven-haired woman.
“My name’s Astrid,” she said, not sure he’d heard.
Her manager appeared, signaling his wish for a private word.
By the time Astrid returned to work, Mr. Kirby and his young woman had asked their assigned server, Astrid’s friend Megan, for the check.
“I think you creeped them out,” Megan told Astrid.
To say that Megan was Astrid’s friend is an approximation if not a euphemism. Astrid’s way of referring to the men she slept with gave Megan pause.
“Nice scalp in my belt,” Astrid had remarked of a supporting actor on a daytime soap.
As for Mr. Kirby—emphatically not a supporting actor—he and his date had arrived at seven. She looked for a moment when the maître d’ was supervising staff, hence inattentive to his reservations log. She peeked and found “Mr. Kirby – party of 2” written next to “7 pm.” She also saw a phone number.
The next morning Astrid sent a text to Mr. Kirby: “This is Astrid – let’s hang out.”
His immediate response was “Astrid?”
She answered “Your server last night.”
She remembered that Megan had been their server.
“Sort of” she added. “I interrupted you – the tall blond – sorry.”
Brown-haired Megan was of average height.
“Don’t be sorry” he answered.
“So we can hang out?” she texted.
His reply discouraged her:
“Elena’s a stone-cold killer.”
So the raven-haired woman’s name was Elena.
“I respect that” Astrid texted.
She wondered if that measure of candor had been prudent. She texted a colon and the right half of a parenthesis to indicate she’d been joking. He answered with a colon and the right half of a parenthesis.
North Atlantic Alliance, the film in which Ian Kirby costarred and Elena Valdez played a supporting role as a comically tempestuous Salvadoran housekeeper, succeeded commercially. Despite widespread objections to the “hammy” portrayal by Ms. Valdez of a character that The New York Times said had been “stitched together out of soiled and threadbare scraps of crude stereotypes,” North Atlantic Alliance was also by and large a critical success. Kirby plays a celebrated Professor of English Literature, teaching at Columbia University. His wife, an equally renowned Professor of English Literature, teaches across the Atlantic at Oxford. On weekends when the academic calendars of their respective universities coincide, they take turns flying across the ocean to be together. But the success of their arrangement makes the husband overconfident. Despite his wife’s objection he accepts a one-year appointment as Distinguished Visiting Professor at a major university in Southern California. The suddenly frayed relationship between husband and wife is subjected to additional stress by the husband’s young and beautiful Salvadoran housekeeper. She determines to bed the older man. But sanity and morality prevail: the professor resists the housekeeper’s entreaties and the California university releases him from his obligation. He returns to Columbia and his wife.
North Atlantic Alliance brought Ian Kirby his fourth Oscar nomination. He’d never won.
News reports suggested that Mr. Kirby’s romance with Ms. Valdez hadn’t survived his disillusionment with her performance in North Atlantic Alliance. They sat apart during the awards ceremony. After his victory was announced the camera passed quickly over her face because it betrayed no emotion. They attended different after-parties.
The next morning, some six months after obtaining by surreptitious means Ian Kirby’s phone number and exchanging text messages with him, Astrid Borg texted the Oscar-winner again:
“Hey it’s Astrid – let’s hang out.”
“Tonight?” he responded.
“Will you look at my screenplay?” she replied.
“You have a screenplay?” he texted.
In a fashionable Peruvian restaurant they swiftly agreed upon the nature of their relationship. Neither Ian Kirby nor Astrid Borg was a romantic. Sentimental considerations could hinder neither from pursuing a cherished goal. Each understood the other, if not through and through, then sufficiently to reach agreement on self-interested actions that would involve both. Each knew the benefit to Mr. Kirby would be sex while the benefit to Ms. Borg would be scrutiny of her original screenplay by a practiced eye.
At dinner they contented themselves with a broad-brush outline of their arrangement. During the drive to his Beverly Hills home they tackled the details. A question that each thought important concerned the order of the delivery of benefits. They considered the possibility that the delivery of each ought to take place simultaneously. But, recognizing that both the sex and the examination of the screenplay would suffer, they moved on.
Mr. Kirby’s argument was facetious yet decisive. He ought to receive his benefit first because, being some thirty years Ms. Borg’s senior, his residual life expectancy was drastically less than hers.
As they parked in front of Mr. Kirby’s home, she said “You’ve convinced me the sex should come first. Obviously you’ll die before me.”
“No guarantees,” he said. “But if we were to call upon an actuary. . .”
His honesty impressed her. Astrid had often found benefit in the honesty of others.
They went in.
“Living room there, kitchen there,” she said, nodding left and then right. “Perfect.”
She removed her fitted turquoise T-shirt, revealing a brassiere of the same color.
“Sofa’s good,” she said, “and I like the kitchen so close. Maybe cook an omelette for you afterward while you read my screenplay.”
“We just ate.”
“Shag for long enough and we’ll want to again. I mean eat.”
Astrid didn’t appreciate being laughed at. She narrowed her eyes.
“Makes me feel like I’m in an Austin Powers film. You a fan?”
“I like dark,” she said. “My screenplay’s sort of giallo.”
She knew he knew the genre because she knew that as a young actor he’d had a non-speaking part as the victim of a serial killer of gay men in Aldo Totti’s My Dreams Are the Color of Blood (I miei sogni sono il colore del sangue).
She performed the act of love, if the expression is apposite, with the same goal-directed efficiency that had driven her negotiation of the act. Recalling his fantasy of the rope and blindfold, he thought she could be persuaded by the usual reward: a part in a movie.
They concluded. She sprang off the sofa with alacrity.
“You have eggs?” she said, and, from the kitchen, “Gorgeous knife.”
From the floor he collected her tangerine-colored knickers—a word of whose use decades of expatriation hadn’t cured him—and admired the sturdy cotton. He stretched them in front of his eyes like a blindfold. He sniffed them, lamenting the mild allergy problems that dulled his appreciation of their savor, and returned them to the floor.
She reappeared with the Wüsthof Classic Serrated Utility Knife.
“No cheating,” she said as he flipped through her screenplay. “From the beginning.”
“Love the self-referentiality,” he said, turning obediently to page one. “ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY you call it. What’s it about?”
“Read it from the beginning and I’ll amend our contract: more sex after you’re done.”
“Contract,” he laughed. “You kill me.”
“After my shower. But only if you read the whole thing.”
“Made your point, luv. Use the one in the master bedroom. Upstairs to the right.”
She took the knife with her. Meanwhile, Ian Kirby was pleased to see that Astrid Borg’s original screenplay, ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY, was self-referential throughout and not a bad effort for a beginner. It told of a young ambitious woman from the Upper Midwest, an aspiring screenwriter, who begins an affair with an older famous actor so that he’ll boost her career. A scene near the end gave him particular delight. On her first visit to the actor’s Beverly Hills home the woman proposes sex on the sofa because of the living room’s proximity to the kitchen. She wants to be able to cook after they have sex.
“Uncanny,” he laughed as she came downstairs swaddled in his luxurious bathrobe. “Like you’d cased the joint the way a bank robber does.”
“You promised more sex if I did,” he nodded.
She went to him. He touched the sash of the robe. She stopped him.
“Reading it includes telling me what you think. Is the ending a little flat?”
He’d set the manuscript down. He picked it up again.
“Reads less like the end of a movie than like the end of an episode in a TV series,” he said. “Like you should have finished with TO BE CONTINUED instead of END.”
She undid the sash as she walked around to the back of the sofa.
“Agreed,” she said, “so I added a real ending.”
“More conclusive than her going upstairs for a shower?”
“There’s a blank page, then the real ending.”
He turned to the last page, distracted slightly by the sound of his plush robe falling to the floor behind him and by the question of whether the moment had arrived to broach his rope-and-blindfold idea.
He didn’t know that she held in her hand the shiny object she’d placed before in the pocket of the robe. He read the few terse lines of text. They shocked him.
“Fucking hell,” he said. “Does this mean—”
Ian Kirby, Oscar-winner, had his uncompleted question answered when the young woman standing behind him wearing not a stitch indicated her plan to use his Wüsthof Classic Serrated Utility Knife to slice something other than tomatoes, mushrooms, and bell peppers. The answer to his question came when he felt the blade against his throat.
Don Stoll’s fiction is forthcoming in The Broadkill Review, Xavier Review, The Main Street Rag, Wild Violet, The Airgonaut, Between These Shores (twice), Pulp Modern, Yellow Mama (three times), Frontier Tales, and Children, Churches, and Daddies, and recently appeared in The Galway Review (tinyurl.com/y6nxt9nv), Green Hills Literary Lantern (tinyurl.com/y2lfxysm), Close to the Bone (tinyurl.com/y38ac6jv), Horla (tinyurl.com/y3k6eewx), Dark Dossier (twice), The Helix, Sarasvati, Eclectica (tinyurl.com/y73wnmgq), Erotic Review (twice: tinyurl.com/y8nkc73z and tinyurl.com/y36zcvut), Cliterature (tinyurl.com/y5m8arzn), and Down in the Dirt. In 2008, Don and his wife founded their nonprofit (karimufoundation.org) to bring new schools, clean water, and clinics emphasizing women’s and children’s health to three contiguous Tanzanian villages.