Lost in Furniture Land


            for B.


S. follows blue signs through wide, luminous aisles. Shortcut to Home Organization. To Bookcases, Media & Storage. Each, it seems, leads him deeper into this sprawling furniture labyrinth.

He wonders how long ago he pulled into that immense parking lot with vague intentions of buying a few things for his apartment: a side table, a reading lamp, a shower mat. Four hours, eight hours, twelve? An unpleasant realization solidifies in S.’s mind: he’s lost, lost in Furniture Land.


~


“Excuse me,” S. calls out to a Furniture Land employee, a tall, blonde in khakis and a blue collared shirt. “The exit,” he asks. “Which way . . . ”

The girl opens a large glass case and then pushes a red button that stops a metal piston from hissing down on a padded wooden chair. Resilient! a sign above the chair reads. 100% cotton cover. Clear lacquered birch veneer. Only $99.00!

“Hey, you mind giving me a hand?” the girl asks S. “With all this poking, these demo chairs don’t last more than a day. My manager Gustav’s always telling me to get this goddamn chair the hell out of here by ten or everyone will see they’re junk.”

She smiles, and for a moment S. forgets the searing pain on the tip of his big toe, the annoying stitch in his upper back, and his overwhelming need to escape Furniture Land. Appraising her Nordic beauty—the sharp nose and soft jaw line, platinum hair and skin like honey—S. is happy to oblige.

Together they carry the chair.

“Hedda,” he says, reading her nametag. “That’s an unusual name. Swedish?”

“It’s not my real name,” she says. “All new-hires get a Swedish name.”

“What’s your real name?” S. asks, stepping over a powder-blue footstool. His pant leg catches on one of the stool’s sharp corners and rips.

Hedda doesn’t notice. She stops and stares up at the recessed lighting. “My real name? I have a childhood memory of my mother calling me Elizabeth. Or was it Katherine? I don’t remember. I work a lot. Gustav says I’m on track to win Employee of the Year. He says he’ll personally write the recommendation and then sing my praises to the head honchos in the front office. Winners fly to Stockholm to meet The Founder, Viggo Kamprad. I’ll have to buy a new dress. I’ve heard he likes medieval peasant garb.”

S. watches moisture pool in Hedda’s magnificent blue eyes. A single tear trickles down her cheek and splashes onto her collar. “I want to tell him how much his Furniture Manifesto changed my life,” she says.

Hedda opens a metal hatch on the wall. The word Incinerator is stenciled on its smooth surface. S. feels heat on his cheeks, smells burning garbage. The chair moves down a dark tube toward a distant orange glow.

S. wants to ask where the tube goes, but the walkie-talkie on Hedda’s hip crackles to life.

“Hedda,” the voice screams through a burst of static. “Hedda . . . break room in two shakes . . . my back in knots . . . bring me a Coke.”

“Gustav,” Hedda says as she closes the incinerator hatch. She pulls back a curtain on the wall and pushes open a door that says Employees Only. “Thanks,” she says.

S. steps forward, raises his hand. “Hey, I’m S.” He clears his throat, straightens his spine. “I . . . Maybe tomorrow we could go for a coffee? I’m new in town.”

The smile vanishes from Hedda’s face. Her mouth hangs open. S. wonders if he’s offended her? Has she misunderstood his intentions?

“S.,” she says, her face pained and contorted, “you mean abandon my post? What would Gustav say? Who would bring his Cokes? He’d be thirsty and irritable. It’d be the end of Employee of the Year. Hilmar over in Rugs will win. I’d never meet Viggo Kamprad.” Hedda stops and stares at S. Her face softens. She takes his hand. S. feels a thrill in her warm touch that ripples through his groin. “Oh,” she says, “you’re attracted to me. You think I’m beautiful. You’re asking me out. That’s sweet.” She runs her hand across S.’s cheek. “I want you to know,” she says, “that you’re my favorite customer. I mean that.”

And then the walkie-talkie buzzes again. “Hedda,” the voice screams. “My back. Killing me. Coke. So thirsty.”

Hedda turns to go into the employee door.

“Wait,” S. says. “What’s your number?”

“Call me here,” she says. “Tell the operator to transfer you to Couches and Chairs.”

“I will,” S. says. “I’ll call tomorrow.” He looks around, smiling dumbly. “Hey, how do I get out of here?”

“You’re silly,” Hedda says.

“No,” S. says. “Really. Where’s the exit?”

“Easy,” Hedda says. “Go over to Cooking and Eating. Take the shortcut to Lighting. Don’t go right or you’ll end up in the warehouse. Youth Rooms, Kitchen, shortcut to Decoration and then the left staircase down to Bathrooms. Goodnight, S.”


~


A little bounce in his step, S. plods on toward Cooking and Eating. He can’t stop thinking about Hedda. What a smile! What professional commitment and work ethic! And didn’t she call him her favorite? Maybe she can plug him into the social scene, get him out of his drab apartment and into one of those Scottsdale nightclubs he’s seen on late-night TV. The thought cheers S. But where’s that shortcut to Lighting? Why is he in Shoe Racks and Drawer Organization? Has he missed Lighting?

S. walks on. More appliances and couch displays. More blue signs. Hours pass. S. looks down at the tear in his pant leg. It’s wide enough to put his hand through, wide enough to see the blotchy white psoriasis on his knobby kneecap. And where the hell is everyone? The lights are still on, the muzak still looping through the speakers. But no customers.

And suddenly, not looking where he’s going, S. practically falls over the extended leg rest of an over-stuffed maroon recliner. A black man sits in it, broad shoulders, thighs like tree trunks.

Hälningar, kamarat,” the man says, regarding S. through a pair of pink plastic reading glasses. He wears tapered jeans and a faded gray sweatshirt, both too small for his large frame. A striped red and white scarf is knotted around his neck. A thick book is open on his lap. “Vackra natten en promenade?

“I don’t understand,” S. says.

“Oh.” The man looks S. up and down. “You must be new,” he says in English, extending his hand. “Kwame Jackson. What’s your name?”

S. tells him.

“You look exactly like a guy who lives in Home Organization,” Kwame says. “Don Cooley. Nice enough, but he cheats at cards.”

“You work here?” S. asks.

Kwame throws his head back and laughs, a deep baritone his enormous chest amplifies. “Work here?” He runs a finger under his dripping eyes. “I bet you think I’m the big black badass who moves the furniture at night. Right? Lazing around while the Boss Man out. Me’s sorry, Master Sir. Me’s was taking a break. Hell nah. I don’t work here. I live here, son.”

“You live here?” S. says, hearing panic in his voice. This man is insane, a lunatic, perhaps even dangerous, S. assumes. Someone needs to call security to cart him off in a straightjacket and return him to the nuthouse. S. steps back. “I’m looking for the exit.”

“Can’t help you there, brother,” Kwame says. “Couldn’t help, even if I wanted to help. I’m horrible with directions, you see, and I bet you are, too.” He closes the book on his lap, removes his reading glasses and taps them on his chin. “Oh, I get it, man, your first day. Cooley whimpered for a week when he got here, kept saying he had bills to pay, that there was no one to feed his Weimaraners. He got over it. Says he’s never been happier.”

“This is ludicrous,” S. says. His head aches, his eyes burn. “What about your job? Don’t you have a family?”

Kwame makes a sweeping motion with his hand. “Good riddance.” He lifts the book from his lap and delicately balances it on his palm. “Vilhelm Moberg’s History of Sweden. I just started the second volume. Wars and wars and suffering peasants. Kings and bigwigs treading on the masses. Henpecked husbands. I’m checking out of that history. I’m done with it.”

Kwame opens his book and eases back in the chair. “I’ve chosen a simple life, reading sixteen hours a day. Politics, sports, cooking, history, all Swedish of course, but they’re a fascinating people. And what else? Bathrooms everywhere. If I need to shower, I duck into the employee locker room. When my clothes wear out, I go to the Lost and Found.” Kwame wags a finger at S.’s torn pants. “You in the market for some new threads, my man? Just yesterday I saw some nice Eddie Bauer slacks in the Lost and Found.”

S. doesn’t answer. He scans the panels of fluorescent lights above his head, follows the dizzying network of metal tubes hanging from the concrete ceiling. S. fully expects the host of So We Got You to emerge from a secret door, bad suit and bad hair, grinning ear to ear as he points to the hidden cameras.

Kwame squints down at his watch. “Dinner time,” he says. “Every night at eleven the cooks throw out the leftovers. I recommend the meatballs with lingonberry sauce. The vegetarian lasagna’s not bad. But I wouldn’t touch the lox. Fishy as hell.”

S. runs his fingers through his hair. “This is crazy. You’re crazy. I’m not living here. I start a new job tomorrow. I have obligations.” He thinks of the aquarium he bought only yesterday, or was it the day before, of the glass catfish and blue gourami sliding through the bubbling water. Who will feed them? They’d devour each other if he doesn’t get home soon.

S. turns. “I’m getting out of here,” he calls over his shoulder.


~


S.’s brown loafers slap against the laminate flooring. Sweat pours down his neck. A dark spot widens around his crotch and inches toward his waistline. S. runs all night, into the morning and afternoon, into the evening. What day is it? He doesn’t know.

Customers regard S. curiously and move to let him pass.

Breathless, S. finally stops in front of a long row of tall windows dark with night and stares at himself, hardly recognizing the slovenly figure with the crazed expression staring back at him. He moves closer to the thick glass and peers down at the spattering of cars in the parking lot. Beyond it, a line of red taillights trace the serpentine highway that twists and turns through the moon-lit desert toward the city’s umber haze. S. cups his hand against the glass and squints into the farthest corners of the parking lot, and there it is, his red, forlorn Cavalier attached to the backend of a tow truck. The towman, in shades and mechanic’s coveralls, talks on a phone, bends over double and slaps his knee as he works the hydraulics that lift the small car’s front end.

“No,” S. shouts, pounding his palms against the glass. He looks around, lifts a metal swivel chair above his head and hurls it at the window. It bounces off the glass and shatters into a hundred pieces around his feet. And then the tow truck is gone, a pair of taillights speeding toward the city.

“Be calm,” S. tells himself. His hands tremble. His mind grasps for solutions. What had he learned in Cub Scouts? Don’t panic when lost. Direct yourself by locating the moss on a tree, which always grows on the north side. Follow a stream to a river, the river to the ocean. Look to the heavens. Follow the North Star. S. sees no stars, no moss, no stream. But there is a stream of customers, a trickle at this late hour, meandering through the wide aisles toward checkout and the exit beyond. S. has a plan.

Across the aisle, a young couple enters the Dining Room Wing. S. tails them closely, turning away and taking a feigned interest in the grain of the table tops or the structural integrity of the chairs if they happen to look his way. The fierce fluorescent lighting reflects in the man’s oily black hair and off his pointed leather loafers. The woman, her golden hair in a ponytail, wears a pair of black stretch-pants and high brown leather boots. She looks as if she’s just competed in some equestrian event.

The woman glances at S. and her smile vanishes. She whispers something to the man, who looks back before taking the woman by the elbow and leading her toward the next row of tables. S. follows.

Quickly, the man turns. “Hey, buddy,” he says, pressing his knuckle into S.’s sternum, “we already told your friend outside we wouldn’t sign his petition. To tell you the truth, we’re a little tired of you tree huggers. I couldn’t care less about your sacred red squirrel and your spotted owl. I’d eat them for breakfast if somebody served them up. Wouldn’t I, honey?”

“He would,” the woman says, peeking around the man. “In Liberia, he once ate an entire pygmy hippo, shot it and ate it right down to the bones.”

“That’s right,” the man says. “I’m the hunter. None of this passive aggressive shit like annoying people for signatures or tossing cream pies at CEOs. What’s that gotten you? If I were you, I’d be jabbing my thumb into some Senator’s eyeball or breaking his kid’s kneecaps with an axe handle. The only thing in this world that gives orders is balls. You understand what I’m saying? You ever seen Scarface? That’s what I live by.”

S. raises his hands in the air. “I’m just trying to get out. That’s all I want.”

“Do you hear that, honey?” the man says to the woman. “He wants out.” He rests his hand on S.’s shoulder. “So you’ve reached the end, seen the light at the end of the tunnel? You’re tired of the ashrams and the communes, lentil soups and chicks with hairy legs. I bet you want to tear into a big Porterhouse without someone calling you a monster. You want to be rich. You want power. You want to be like me. But look at you! Those pants, that shirt! You smell like a taco. You remind me of this homeless guy my fraternity brothers and I used to beat with baseball bats. Call me when you’re through with your hippy life. I’ll put you in my downline selling spray-on contraceptives. The Latinos are buying them up like hot cakes right now. But until then”—the man waves a fist in S.’s face—“until then, stop cramping us with your hippy stench and hand-me-down clothes, or I’ll call security.”

A cog turns in S.’s dulled brain. A tumbler locks into place. “Security,” he says. “Yes, call security. Have them take me away. Tell them I’m mentally ill. Tell them I’m a pervert.”

S. considers spending an hour in some Furniture Land jail, making up a lame excuse about forgetting his medication at home, and then being escorted out into that beautiful heat and desert air.

“Always looking for a platform, aren’t you?” the man says. He turns to the woman. “I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction, would I, honey?”

“He wouldn’t,” the woman says. “He never gives satisfaction.”

“No,” the man says. He jerks his head to the side. His neck vertebrae crackle. “But there is one thing that would give me some satisfaction right now.”

“Baby, you’re so bad,” the woman says. She licks her lips. “Such a bad baby.”

And now the man and woman are on S., their fists hammering at his face and stomach. And then S. is down on the laminate flooring, hands shielding his face, knees pulled up to his chest. The woman shrieks and repeatedly drives the heel of her brown riding boot into the soft flesh covering S.’s tailbone. The man, breathing heavily, rams a clear plastic cylinder meant to hold pasta into the back of S.’s head. “So you want to dance?” the man says. “Say goodnight to the bad guy! Say goodnight!”

S. screams. His limbs jerk and jump. There’s an undulating blackness around the edges of things and then darkness and silence.


~


S. awakens in bed, every muscle and joint aching. A beautiful incandescent light surrounds him. What a nightmare, he thinks, burrowing deeper into a goose-down comforter. And then somewhere above him, he hears the scratch of a pen moving over paper. S.’s eyes snap open. A man—white lab coat, stethoscope tucked into his breast pocket—stands at the foot of the bed, scribbling on a clipboard. S. feverishly takes in his new surroundings. White floors, white ceilings, white fluorescent lights, beds with white sheets as far as the eyes can see, row after row of them, all occupied by sleeping, supine bodies.

“I’m Doctor Kröken,” the man says, clicking the top of his pen and sliding it into his breast pocket. “We had a betting pool on when you’d wake up,” he says. “It seems Doctors Framtid and Luftig owe me a Coke.” He looks down at the clipboard. “A Mr. Jackson brought you in. You’re lucky he found you, Mr.  . . .” Kröken covers his mouth and snorts a dry little laugh. “We’ve been calling you Mr. Scruffy-Pants. It’s just a little game we sometimes play. No harm. But anyway, someone assaulted you and stuffed you under a futon, left you for dead. Nasty business. Unfortunately, there’s been a bit of a criminal element in Dining, a lot of shopping-related stress. We’re cracking down on it.”

S. raises himself on his elbow. “What do you mean? Where am I? Is this Good Samaritan? Saint Joseph’s?”

Kröken smiles. “Heavens no. Those hospitals are so third-world. Filthy. Medieval. You’re a patient in the Furniture Land Clinic. Last year the Swedish Medical Association awarded us the Golden Herring Award for our optimal care.”

S.’s jaw drops.

“Oh, don’t worry about the cost,” Kröken says. “It’s all taken care of. You’re very important to us. We need color in your cheeks, a pleasant grin on your face. We need you out on that sales floor projecting an air of satisfaction and comfort.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” S. says. He gazes at the acres of sleeping bodies tucked between white sheets, hears the barely audible susurrus of inhaling and exhaling. “I’m not staying here,” he says. “You’re crazy.”

Kröken appears offended. “Don’t want to stay,” he says. “Do you feel that goose-down comforter, that Hagavik active response coil mattress? Think of your life here: not a care in the world. A life of ease and comfort. Have you experienced the massage recliners? Have you tried the Swedish meatballs? The coffee?”

“I’ll be on my way,” S. says, pulling back the comforter. He stands, swaying slightly. And what is he wearing? Some kind of hospital gown. “If you’ll be kind enough to show me to the exit,” S. says, suddenly winded. “No. Don’t a say a word. I’ll find it myself.” The hospital gown gapes in back. A cold draft slides across S.’s left buttock.

“Wait,” Kröken says. “You’re in no condition to walk. Look at your vitals”—he waves the clipboard in S.’s face—“and your mangled face. You’ll scare customers away.”

“Thank you,” S. says, “but no thank you. Goodbye.” He totters on the balls of his naked feet, takes an uncertain step forward, blinks quickly. Brilliant bursts of white light dance in the air.

“You leave me no choice,” Kröken says. He snaps his fingers and two hulking men in white uniforms appear from behind a curtain, thick jaws with barely a trace of blond stubble on their dimpled chins, deep-set expressionless eyes.

“Back off,” S. says. He shuffles toward a set of double doors.

Kröken holds a syringe in his left hand. “Why don’t you lie down? We’ll talk about this.”

S. looks back as he runs for the doors. “Get away from me.” S. reaches the doors, pushes the handle. No give. Nothing. S. turns. The goons approach.

“Locked,” Kröken says. “Now how about something to help you sleep?”

S. looks up to the ceiling, then down at the floor. He leans against the wall. His hand grazes something smooth and metallic. A handle? A square blue hatch marked Incinerator?

“Not wise,” Kröken says. He pinches the syringe between his fingers, turning it in small circles. “A conflagration. You’ll be incinerated. Your ashes will fall from the sky.”

S. pulls the hatch open and stares down into the black tube. No trace of heat, no faint fiery glow. And before S. can process his actions, he’s sliding down the tube, faster and faster through the darkness. His screams reverberate around him. And then he’s on the ground, somersaulting through pillowy mounds of gray ash. It coats his skin. Great tears roll down his cheeks. And what is this place? A room? A furnace? Four cinderblock walls, an iron door with a square glass window, piles of ash and the metallic skeletons of recliners, couches, and love seats. Coughing, S. limps toward the door, looking back once at the great metal tube, expecting the goons to slide out.

The heavy door creeks open. S. moves down a narrow cement hallway toward a faint emerald glow. His tailbone’s sore. His left eye throbs. After a few minutes of walking, he stops, rubs his eyes. What does he see? A mirage? A hallucination? Can it be real, this illuminated exit sign above a metal door? S. is giddy. He’s never felt such joy. He runs for the door, pushes it open and enters the night. The air, heavy with desert scents, is like a furnace. The concrete burns under his feet. But S. doesn’t care. He’s free.

The black macadam of the empty parking lot stretches out before him. S. blinks, stares down at the crumpled hospital gown streaked with ash, dances on his heels. Out there beyond the empty parking lot is the city’s dim glow. His apartment is there, his fish. Thirty miles of asphalt to home. It will take an iron will to walk that distance, but S. is up for the challenge. He steps off the curb. Suddenly the door opens behind him.

Hedda stands there, as fresh as the first time S. saw her, not a stain on her khakis, not a blond hair out of place. She tips her head up and stares at the enormous Furniture Land sign fixed to the building. Her face is bathed in a pale yellow light. “I’ve always loved that color,” she says, fingering the walkie-talkie on her hip. “It reminds me of summer. It comforts me.”

S. doesn’t look up. “You said I was your favorite.”

The walkie-talkie crackles and then a voice squawks, “Hedda. Ibuprofen. Spasm. Coke.” Hedda looks down at the walk-talkie for a moment, then turns a knob that kills the voice. “S.,” she says, moving forward to touch his arm, “sweet S. You are my favorite. You’ll always be my favorite.” She looks over his shoulder at the winding road beyond the parking lot. The full moon reflects in her eyes. “You sure you want to travel that long road?” she asks. “And what’s at the end? Do you ever think about that? Those used to be the dark thoughts that kept me up at night.”

“What’s at the end?” S. stares at the distant city. “What’s at the end is life. The real world. This”—S. points to the enormous buzzing sign above—“this isn’t real.”

Hedda considers this. She nods. “That’s right, S.” Her voice brims with concession. “You’re right. None of this is real. But what about that real world out there, S.? How’s that worked out for you?” She smiles and reaches for him. Her open hand reflects the electric yellow light, and S. knows all he has to do is take that hand and follow. “It’s easy to forget,” Hedda says. “A nice recliner. A good book. Satisfaction and comfort.”

“So it’s that easy, huh?” S. says.

He scans the horizon. His gloomy apartment is out there, his fish, expired, he’s sure, a new job, maybe. And then S. looks at that hand, Hedda’s hand, so soft and beautiful he can never imagine it growing old. And then he feels himself turning, a new kind of turning. No tangle of lines on a map. No bewildering succession of detour signs. Nothing like that. A new feeling.  

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