Impossible Price

Illustration by Mike Lee
It was no real surprise when Erik Cheeseburger’s parents finally informed him that he was a fictional character; he’d suspected it for years. First, there was his name: Despite his parents’ last names being Horberg and Wenzel, his was Cheeseburger — not the sort of name on which nonfictional lives are based. Then there were the dreams. Erik’s dreams were flat, silent, low-resolution animations. When, at the age of 12, he found out that his friends’ dreams were live-action — or at least raytraced and anti-aliased — and usually featured 16-bit audio soundtracks, he was understandably upset.

But it didn’t much matter. Not anymore. Fictional or not, Erik had grown tired of dreaming. He was a grown-up now, and he wanted to live in a real house with a real bed. But even though he had a real full-time job, he made only enough money to live in a leaky pup tent across from the cemetery. So every weekday evening after work, when his friends went home to their houses and apartments, Erik drove to IKEA in downtown Burbank.

Erik Cheeseburger generally left work at 5 p.m. It took about an hour to drive to Burbank and park in the structure at First and Cypress. That left him three hours until closing time. The first half-hour he’d spend eating a light supper of Swedish meatballs with bread, coffee and lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea majus) and reading a copy of the day’s Svenska Dagbladet (Swedish Daily Bladet) he’d downloaded and printed out at work for just this purpose. Then he’d refill his simple Sisu glass with water and set out for the showrooms.

IKEA was a magical place, where anything was possible. In this case, possible meant that Erik Cheeseburger could find a comfy bedroom display in which to get some reading done. Usually the place was busy enough that no one paid attention to someone lying in one of the beds, under the covers, reading a novel. Months ago, when Erik first started, some of the employees would advise him to leave, but he’d calmly and eloquently insist that he was on special assignment from corporate headquarters — Allt är bra; dra åt helvete! — and eventually they’d shrug and leave him be. Erik was friendly and clean and polite to the customers. He brought his own Sisu glass, and he always made the bed at closing time.

It wasn’t as if he spent all his time in the bedrooms. At least every two weeks he’d lounge in one of the kitchens, the home offices, the living rooms or the As Is area. Each department had its own comfort, its own smell, its own . . . reality. Once he spent the whole night in the self-service warehouse, stacking heavy boxes of furniture onto a cart, rolling the cart up and down the aisles, then putting everything back in its proper place.

Tonight he slipped into the complete Narvik ensemble bedroom display: queen-size bed, six-drawer chest, three-door wardrobe and matching night-commode in dirty-blond patinized pine. The Kalif Luxury mattress had been outfitted with an Emir Plus mattress pad, a Praktdun goose-down quilt and Mjukdun pillows, all covered in Erja linens. Beneath it all was a rug. On the night-commode, the Bjällra table lamp’s handmade paper shade focused 100 watts of soft beige light onto Erik’s hardback book.

This was to be Erik’s last night at IKEA for a while — his parents had given him a one-way ticket to Stockholm for his birthday — and he wanted everything to be just right. That’s why he’d selected the Narvik bedroom display. The Narvik display had Enni curtains. Erik likes curtains, because even though curtains sometimes get dirty, they’re rarely dirty enough to have to wash them. Like indoor cats. And slippers. Erik likes slippers.

Where did Erik Cheeseburger go upon his arrival in Stockholm? Download a QuickTime VR movie of some promotional activities adjacent to the Svenska Handelsbanken building (www.svd.se/images/multi media/qtvr/Whitb1.mov) from Svenska Dagbladet (www.svd.se), one of Sweden’s more popular daily bladets. Open the file in your QuickTime Player and scroll around until you see a white man with a brown beard and a yellow shirt with a blue “EF” on the front. Just beyond him, see the arm-in-arm couple walking along the sidewalk? Hit your Shift key to zoom in on them — they’re just about to walk into Erik Cheeseburger, who stands with his jacket draped over his left shoulder, staring directly into the camera. Can you tell what Erik is looking at?