There once lived, at a series of temporary addresses across the United States of America, a traveling man of Indian origin, advancing years, and retreating mental powers, who, on account of his love for mindless television, had spent far too much of his life in the yellow light of tawdry motel rooms watching an excess of it, and had suffered a peculiar form of brain damage as a result. He devoured morning shows, daytime shows, late-night talk shows, soaps, situation comedies, Lifetime movies, hospital dramas, police series, vampire and zombie serials, the dramas of housewives from Atlanta, New Jersey, Beverly Hills, and New York, the romances and quarrels of hotel-fortune princesses and self-styled shahs, the cavortings of individuals made famous by happy nudities, the 15 minutes of fame accorded to young persons with large social media followings on account of their plastic surgery acquisition of a third breast or their post-rib-removal figures that mimicked the impossible shape of the Mattel company’s Barbie doll, or even, more simply, their ability to catch giant carp in picturesque settings while wearing only the tiniest of string bikinis; as well as singing competitions, cooking competitions, competitions for business propositions, competitions for business apprenticeships, competitions between remote-controlled monster vehicles, fashion competitions, competitions for the affections of both bachelors and bachelorettes, baseball games, basketball games, football games, wrestling bouts, kickboxing bouts, extreme sports programming, and, of course, beauty contests. (He did not watch “hockey.” For people of his ethnic persuasion and tropical youth, hockey, which in the USA was renamed “field hockey,” was a game played on grass. To play field hockey on ice was, in his opinion, the absurd equivalent of ice-skating on a lawn.)
As a consequence of his near-total preoccupation with the material offered up to him through, in the old days, the cathode-ray tube, and, in the new age of flat screens, through liquid crystal, plasma, and organic light-emitting diode displays, he fell victim to that increasingly prevalent psychological disorder in which the boundary between truth and lies became smudged and indistinct, so that at times he found himself incapable of distinguishing one from the other, reality from “reality,” and began to think of himself as a natural citizen (and potential inhabitant) of that imaginary world beyond the screen to which he was so devoted, and which, he believed, provided him, and therefore everyone, with the moral, social, and practical guidelines by which all men and women should live. As time passed and he sank ever deeper into the quicksand of what might be termed the unreal real, he felt himself becoming emotionally involved with many of the inhabitants of that other, brighter world, membership in which he thought of as his to claim by right, like a latter-day Dorothy contemplating a permanent move to Oz; and at an unknown point he developed an unwholesome, because entirely one-sided, passion for a certain television personality, the beautiful, witty, and adored Miss Salma R, an infatuation which he characterized, quite inaccurately, as love. In the name of this so- called love he resolved zealously to pursue his “beloved” right through the television screen into whatever exalted high-definition reality she and her kind inhabited, and, by deeds as well as grace, to win her heart.
He spoke slowly and moved slowly too, dragging his right leg a little when he walked—the lasting consequence of a dramatic Interior Event many years earlier, which had also damaged his memory, so that while happenings in the distant past remained vivid, his remembrances of the middle period of his life had become hit and miss, with large hiatuses and other gaps which had been filled up, as if by a careless builder in a hurry, with false memories created by things he might have seen on TV. Other than that, he seemed in good enough shape for a man of his years. He was a tall, one might even say an elongated, man, of the sort one encounters in the gaunt paintings of El Greco and the narrow sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, and although such men are (for the most part) of a melancholy disposition, he was blessed with a cheerful smile and the charming manner of a gentleman of the old school, both valuable assets for a commercial traveler, which, in these his golden years, he became for a lengthy time. In addition, his name itself was cheerful: It was Smile. Mr Ismail Smile, Sales Executive, Smile Pharmaceuticals Inc., Atlanta, GA, it said on his business card. As a salesman he had always been proud that his name was the same as the name of the corporation whose representative he was. The family name. It lent him a certain gravitas, or so he believed. This was not, however, the name by which he chose to be known during his last, most foolish adventure.
(The unusual surname Smile, by the by, was the Americanized version of Ismail, so the old traveling salesman was really Mr. Ismail Ismail, or, alternatively, Mr. Smile Smile. He was a brown man in America longing for a brown woman, but he did not see his story in racial terms. He had become, one might say, detached from his skin. This was one of the many things his quest would put in question, and change.)
The more he thought about the woman he professed to love, the clearer it became to him that so magnificent a personage would not simply keel over with joy at the first declaration of amour fou from a total stranger. (He wasn’t as crazy as that.) Therefore it would be necessary for him to prove himself worthy of her, and the provision of such proofs would henceforth be his only concern. Yes! He would amply demonstrate his worth! It would be necessary, as he began his quest, to keep the object of his affections fully informed of his doings, and so he proposed to begin a correspondence with her, a sequence of letters which would reveal his sincerity, the depth of his affections, and the lengths to which he was ready to go to gain her hand. It was at this point in his reflections that a kind of shyness overtook him. Were he to reveal to her how humble his station in life truly was, she might toss his letter in the trash with a pretty laugh and be done with him forever. Were he to disclose his age or give her details of his appearance, she might recoil from the information with a mixture of amusement and horror. Were he to offer her his name, the admittedly august name of Smile, a name with big money attached to it, she might, in the grip of a bad mood, alert the authorities, and to be hunted down like a dog at the behest of the object of his adorations would break his heart, and he would surely die. Therefore he would for the moment keep his true identity a secret, and would reveal it only when his letters, and the deeds they described, had softened her attitude toward him and made her receptive to his advances. How would he know when that moment arrived? That was a question to be answered later. Right now the important thing was to begin. And one day the proper name to use, the best of all identities to assume, came to him in that moment between waking and sleeping when the imagined world behind our eyelids can drip its magic into the world we see when we open our eyes.
That morning he seemed to see himself in a dream addressing himself awake. “Look at yourself,” his half-sleeping self murmured to his half-waking self. “So tall, so skinny, so ancient, and yet you can’t grow anything better than the straggliest of beards, as if you were a teenager with spots. And yes, admit it, maybe a little cracked in the head, one of those head-in-the-clouds fellows who mistakes cumulus, or cumulonimbus, or even cirrostratus formations for solid ground. Just think back to your favorite piece of music when you were a boy! I know, these days you prefer the warblings you hear on American Idol or The Voice. But back in the day, you liked what your artistic father liked, you adopted his musical taste as your own. Do you remember his favorite record?” Whereupon the half-dream-Smile produced, with a flourish, a vinyl LP which half- awake-Smile recognized at once. It was a recording of the opera Don Quichotte by Jules Massenet. “Only loosely based on the great masterpiece of Cervantes, isn’t it,” mused the phantom. “And as for you, it seems you’re a little loosely based yourself.”
It was settled. He climbed out of bed in his striped pajamas—more quickly than was his wont—and actually clapped his hands. Yes! This would be the pseudonym he would use in his love letters. He would be her ingenious gentleman, Quichotte. He would be Lancelot to her Guinevere, and carry her away to Joyous Gard. He would be—to quote Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—her verray, parfit, gentil knyght.
It was the Age of Anything-Can-Happen, he reminded himself. He had heard many people say that on TV and on the outré video clips floating in cyberspace, which added a further, new-technology depth to his addiction. There were no rules anymore. And in the Age of Anything-Can-Happen, well, anything could happen. Old friends could become new enemies and traditional enemies could be your new besties or even lovers. It was no longer possible to predict the weather, or the likelihood of war, or the outcome of elections. A woman might fall in love with a piglet, or a man start living with an owl. A beauty might fall asleep and, when kissed, wake up speaking a different language and in that new language reveal a completely altered character. A flood might drown your city. A tornado might carry your house to a faraway land where, upon landing, it would squash a witch. Criminals could become kings and kings be unmasked as criminals. A man might discover that the woman he lived with was his father’s illegitimate child. A whole nation might jump off a cliff like swarming lemmings. Men who played presidents on TV could become presidents. The water might run out. A woman might bear a baby who was found to be a revenant god. Words could lose their meanings and acquire new ones. The world might end, as at least one prominent scientist-entrepreneur had begun repeatedly to predict. An evil scent would hang over the ending. And a TV star might miraculously return the love of a foolish old coot, giving him an unlikely romantic triumph which would redeem a long, small life, bestowing upon it, at the last, the radiance of majesty.
Quichotte’s great decision was made at the Red Roof Inn in Gallup, New Mexico (pop. 21,678). The traveling salesman looked with desire and envy upon Gallup’s historic El Rancho Hotel, which in the heyday of the Western had hosted many of the movie stars filming in the area, from John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart to Katharine Hepburn and Mae West. The El Rancho was out of his price range, and so he drove by it to the humbler Red Roof, which suited him just fine. He was a man who had learned to accept his lot in life without complaint. That morning, the TV was on when he awoke with his bright new identity—he had fallen asleep without remembering to turn it off—and the KOB-4 weatherman Steve Stucker was on the air with his Parade of Pets, featuring the celebrity weather dogs Radar, Rez, Squeaky, and Tuffy. That meant it was Friday, and the newly named Mr. Quichotte (he did not feel that he had earned or merited the honorific Don), energized by his new resolve, by the opening up before him of the flower-strewn pathway that led to love, was full of excitement, even though he was at the end of a tiring week visiting the area’s medical practices in Albuquerque and elsewhere. He had spent the previous day at the locations of the Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services, the Western New Mexico Medical Group, and the Gallup Indian Medical Center (which cared for the town’s substantial Native population, drawn from the Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni tribes). Sales had been good, he thought, although puzzled frowns and embarrassed little laughs had greeted his jovial hints that he would soon be taking a vacation in New York City itself (pop. 8,623,000) with a new girlfriend, a Very Famous Lady, the queen of Must See TV. And his little quip at the Indian Medical Center—“I’m actually Indian too! Dot, not feather! So I’m happy to be here in Indian country”—hadn’t gone down well at all.
He no longer had a fixed abode. The road was his home, the car was his living room, its trunk was his wardrobe, and a sequence of Red Roof Inns, Motel 6’s, Days Inns, and other hostelries provided him with beds and TVs. He preferred places with at least some premium cable channels, but if none were available he was happy with the ordinary network fare. But on this particular morning he had no time for the local weatherman and his rescue pets. He wanted to talk to his friends about love, and the lover’s quest on which he was about to embark.
The truth was that he had almost no friends anymore. There was his wealthy cousin, employer, and patron, Dr. R. K. Smile, and there was Dr. Smile’s wife, Happy, neither of whom he spent any time with, and there were front-desk clerks at some of the motels he regularly frequented. There were a few individuals scattered across the country and the globe who might still harbor feelings similar to friendship toward him. There was, above all, one woman in New York City (she called herself the Human Trampoline) who might once again smile upon him, if he was lucky, and if she accepted his apologies. (He knew, or thought he knew, that apologies were due, but he could only partly remember why, and at times he thought that perhaps his damaged memory had got things upside down and it was she who needed to apologize to him.) But he had no social group, no cohort, no posse, no real pals, having long ago abandoned the social whirl. On his Facebook page he had “friended” or “been friended by” a small and dwindling group of commercial travelers like himself, as well as an assortment of lonelyhearts, braggarts, exhibitionists, and salacious ladies behaving as erotically as the social medium’s somewhat puritanical rules allowed. Every single one of these quote-unquote “friends” saw his plan, when he had enthusiastically posted it, for what it was—a harebrained scheme, verging on lunacy—and attempted to dissuade him, for his own good, from stalking or harassing Miss Salma R. In response to his post there were frown emojis and Bitmojis wagging fingers at him reprovingly and there were GIFs of Salma R herself, crossing her eyes, sticking out her tongue, and rotating a finger by her right temple, all of which added up to the universally recognized set of gestures meaning “cray cray.” However, he would not be deterred.
Such stories do not, on the whole, end well.
From the book Quichotte by Salman Rushdie published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.