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The Erik Cheeseburger Menace
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, April 5, 2006.
Last Tuesday marked a year since an independent film-production company began shooting a documentary of Erik Cheeseburger. Up until then, Erik had been and would have remained a fictional character, but after the production company was unable to raise enough money for a feature film, Erik applied for nonfictional status with the Department of Personae, so that the film could qualify as a documentary, a much more affordable genre. And Erik ended up getting approved for dual status: If he has a change of heart (after fulfilling his contractual obligation to remain nonfictional throughout the production process and for 90 days following the film’s release on DVD), he can simply show up at the DOP offices on Spring Street, Monday through Friday between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., wait in a few lines, fill out a few forms, and declare himself fully fictional again.
The documentary was coming along nicely, and Erik had adjusted to nonfictional status with only minor glitches — serial nightmares, vague suicidal ideations — until the production company received an OTP (Order to Terminate Production) from the Department of Homeland Security.
It was a fine late Tuesday afternoon when associate producer Dottie Mattingly called with this news. The crew was shooting Erik on the south side of the Sunset Freeway in Holmby Hills, where he’d paused to talk with Nick O’Chan, veteran star-map salesman, about an adjacent marsupial.
“That your baby opossum?” said Erik.
O’Chan hadn’t noticed the baby opossum poking around at his feet. He’d been busy wondering why there was a film crew shooting him, and when they’d be offering him money. Even if he had noticed the animal, he wouldn’t have thought of it as a baby anything, least of all Didelphis virginiana, the semiarboreal omnivorous marsupial known for its pronounced sagittal crest and involuntary death mimicry in the presence of predators. “Nope,” said O’Chan, taking a slow step back. “Not my rat, either.”
“Cut,” said the director and camerafellow, Timmy-Anne Frappe, for no one’s benefit but his own. The rest of the crew, his assistant, Queef McMahon, tapped his arm and handed him his phone.
“It’s Dottie,” she said. “Says it’s urgent.”
Homeland Security agent Lime Barty was growing tired of the same assignments. Every week, the same thing: plant suspicious packages anywhere but at large malls, so that at the top of every hour, all day and all night, television news stations across the country will report that “authorities” have found a “suspicious package” somewhere. Good for the president’s approval rating, but boring. Ho-hum.
So Agent Barty was delighted to be assigned to Operation Fistforce, a Homeland Security investigation into verisimilitudinal aberrations in Hollywood entertainment products. The low-key investigation had recently gone into overdrive after Operation Fistforce intercepted dozens of suspicious e-mails between members of gay-rights organizations and other suspected al Qaeda operatives. By analyzing these e-mails, Team Operation Fistforce determined that the term “Eri” was Secret Gay-Rights Al Qaeda Code™ for “dirty bomb”; “K’chee” was code for “courtesy of”; and “Seburger” was Secret Code™ for “Saddam bin Laden.”
Agent Lime Barty and his partner, Agent Penelope Lynnrose, were assigned to surveillance on a production called Cheeseburger: The Movie, an allegedly documentary film about a person or character named Erik Cheeseburger, being filmed by a crew of apparent gay-rights activists.
Erik carried the baby opossum in his shirt pocket and walked home along the Sunset Freeway, with the film crew close behind. Erik rarely thought about them — about the film crew — anymore. They were always there, so they were never there. Except at night. At night they slept in their houses and apartments in Burbank and Echo Park and West L.A., and Erik slept alone in his leaky orange pup tent across from the cemetery.
It was twilight but still hot outside when Erik unzipped the front of his humble residence, bade farewells to the crew and brought his baby opossum inside.
“Welcome to your new home, Spam Rats!” said Erik. On the walk home, he’d decided to name his new friend Spam Rats, after the Star Maps sign where they’d met. (Spam Rats is Star Maps backward.)
As evening fell, Erik dug around the graveyard for grubs and earthworms; found some cockroaches, too, for which young Spam Rats seemed terribly grateful.
Just across the road, Agents Barty and Lynnrose lay prone beneath an AstroTurf blanket, between tombstones, observing Erik and Spam Rats through binoculars, listening to Erik’s high-fidelity voice as he read People magazine out loud to Spam Rats and paused between articles to admire and pet his new friend’s unusual but affable features.
Erik had never met a baby opossum before, but he’d seen full-growns, and having spent one whole childhood afternoon looking at pictures of marsupials in the library for a book report, he was certain that that was what Spam Rats was. The gray fur, cream-colored belly and face, and pale-pink tail . . . Actually, Erik didn’t recall opossums having tiny black microphones implanted at the base of their skulls, but the rest was familiar enough.
People magazine fascinated Erik: The notion that a weekly compilation of stories about people who make big money pretending to be other people would be of interest to people who do it for free never ceased to amaze. He longed for someone to explain, once and for all, the significance of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie; why people who have never met them cared more about these strangers’ lives than their own.
Erik closed the magazine, turned off the light and lay on his back. Spam Rats crawled up and set up camp on Erik’s upper chest.
Agents Lynnrose and Barty watched the tent go dark and continued to monitor the snores, marveling at the quality of the audio, which was being uploaded in real time to a hard drive in Virginia, where it would be analyzed in a few hours by a team of Homeland Security audio engineers and linguists.
The agents switched to their night-vision binoculars.
“Funny,” Agent Lynnrose whispered to her partner, bringing the viewfinders to her eyes. “He doesn’t look semifictional.”