The Nonfictional Erik Cheeseburger

Illustration by Mitch HandsoneFor the past six months, a prominent independent motion-picture director has been developing a feature film based on the true story of Erik Cheeseburger, a fictional character. “Things,” the director kept saying, were going “fine” and moving “right along,” until two weeks ago Saturday, when Erik was informed that the director had failed to raise enough money to make the originally envisioned film. He had, however, raised enough to make a documentary. That was fine by Erik, but there were complications. A veteran entertainment attorney determined that in order for the film to be legally called a documentary, Erik would have to be nonfictional. Erik wasn’t necessarily fine with that. When, as a lad, he first learned from his nonfictional parents that he was fictional, he hadn’t been terribly surprised — the ridiculous surname Cheeseburger, which he did not share with his mother or father, had aroused his suspicions — but he was still confused and upset. Over the years since returning from a soul-searching trip to Sweden, however, Erik had adjusted quite well, eventually finding meaningful work as a showroom mascot at IKEA and two-dimensional writer in residence inside a Pottery Barn catalog. He liked being fictional now. That was just who he was. He liked being able to circumvent laws of physics. He liked living in his leaky orange pup tent across from the cemetery. Got along well with the neighbors. But his Powerbook just died, and his creditors are really counting on his paychecks from the film, so Erik made a loud gulping sound and got in line to file for nonfictional status at the Department of Personae (DOP) on Spring Street. He’s spent 11 days meeting civil servants in big buildings, inking thumbs and fingers, filling out forms, and being photographed by several cameras at once, day and night. (The production company is paying for all of Erik’s filing fees, and is filming his every step and breath.) On his first day of line-standing, Erik was delighted to learn that he had the option of declaring dual status — if at any time during the course of his nonfictionality he has a change of heart, he can declare himself fictional again. The veteran entertainment attorney concluded that if Erik were to hold dual status, that would be legally sufficient to designate the film as a documentary, provided Erik remain officially nonfictional throughout the production process and for 90 days following the film’s release on DVD. Erik signed the papers. According to page 231 of the International Department of Personae’s Application for Nonfictional Status Instruction Manual, “. . . perhaps the most important part of the application is the testimonial.” Two letters of recommendation are required; more are encouraged. So far, Erik has collected three letters of recommendation — two from former supervisors at IKEA and Pottery Barn, neither of which I’ve read (but I hear they’re impressive), and one from semifictional dictatorial lounge singer Tony Clifton, which reads (with Mr. Clifton’s permission) as follows: To Whom It May Concern: I totally support my good friend Erik Stilton Cheeseburger’s appeal to be occasionally nonfictional. But if he ever decides to come to Vegas, he’s not getting in. —Tony Clifton Las Vegas, Nevada Erik’s asked me to write an LOR as well, and I’ve spent the better part of the last few days working on it. Letters of recommendation have always been difficult for me, both giving and receiving. When I was applying to graduate schools, one of my friends who’d also been one of my undergraduate professors wrote what I thought was an ideal though ungrammatical letter: “To Whom It May Concern: Dave Shulman is good. He makes good student. I highly recommend him graduate school.” I didn’t get accepted to any schools that I could afford, but it was still a damn good letter — handwritten, incidentally, in pencil, diagonally across a sheet of yellow legal paper. As the relationship between the writer and the readers of a letter of recommendation is often one of nonexistence, the letter should be formal, but not sterile. It should sound confident in its humility, suggesting everything, guaranteeing nothing. It should be short enough to imply intentional brevity, but long enough to feel complete. Its tone should remain embedded in the reader’s soul forever, but its grammar and punctuation should be forgotten instantly. Every fact presented must be invulnerable to either confirmation or rebuttal. It should specify as little as possible, but do so in italics. To Whom It Concerns: As a freelance citizen, I’ve known Erik Stilton Cheeseburger for five (5) years. During that time, I’ve come to believe that he possesses the qualities of our finest nonfictional characters. He is beloved by all around him, fictional and nonfictional, living and dead, and he keeps an exceptionally tidy pup tent. I trust, implicitly, his every decision on issues of morality and justice, and therefore recommend, unequivocally, that he be granted full fictional/nonfictional status, including the right to reproduce. It still needs some work. Meanwhile, Erik’s slowly been writing his own Personal Statement — a two-minute expository essay, to be presented orally before a panel of five DOP officials, proclaiming the applicant’s allegiance to both fictional and nonfictional worlds, and offering suggestions as to how his dual residence might improve both. In his first draft, Erik writes: The nonfictional world has always fascinated me with its narrow applications of logic. Inorganic farming dictates that crops be bred for weight, at the expense of flavor, because apples are bought and sold by weight wholesale, but at the consumer level, they’re more often purchased by count. I believe that apples might better be graded and sold by flavor quality than by weight and appearance. Like octane in gasoline. Furthermore, the cost of movie tickets should not be based on the patron’s age, but on his or her height. Why should the impoverished 38-year-old, who at 5’3” will never block another patron’s view, pay 40 percent more than the 6’5” 12-year-old billionaire in a stovepipe hat? A seat is a seat, and if you approve my application, I’ll do my best to prove it. At least I hope it’s his first draft.


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