July 29, 2019 Issue
“The Little King”
There once lived, at a series of temporary addresses across the United States of America, a travelling man of Indian origin, advancing years, and retreating mental powers, who had developed an unwholesome, because entirely one-sided, passion for a certain television personality, the beautiful, witty, and adored talk-show host Miss Salma R., whom he had never met: an infatuation that he characterized, quite inaccurately, as love. In the name of this so-called love, he christened himself Quichotte, for the opera “Don Quichotte,” and resolved to be his “beloved” ’s knight-errant, to pursue her zealously right through the television screen into whatever exalted high-definition reality she and her kind inhabited, and, by deeds as well as by grace, to win her heart.
The truth was that Quichotte had almost no friends anymore—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 travellers like himself, as well as by an assortment of lonely hearts, 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, Quichotte would not be deterred.
He had worked in pharmaceutical sales for many years, in spite of his post-retirement age and his incipiently unstable, increasingly erratic, and, finally, mulishly obsessional cast of mind, because of the kindliness of a wealthy cousin, Dr. R. K. Smile, M.D., a successful entrepreneur, who, after seeing a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” on TV, had refused to fire his relative, fearing that to do so would hasten the old fellow’s demise.
Dr. Smile’s pharmaceutical business, always prosperous, had recently catapulted him to billionaire status, thanks to his Georgia laboratories’ perfection of a sublingual spray application of the pain medication fentanyl. Spraying the powerful opioid under the tongue brought faster relief to terminal-cancer patients suffering from what the medical community euphemistically called “breakthrough pain.” Breakthrough pain was unbearable pain. The new spray made it bearable, at least for an hour. The instant success of this spray, patented and brand-named InSmile™, allowed Dr. R. K. Smile the luxury of employing his poor, elderly relation without worrying unduly about his productivity.
The day inevitably came, however, when the full extent of his cousin’s delusions became known to him, and Dr. Smile had to put him out to pasture. He gave Quichotte the news in the kindest possible way, flying out personally from General Aviation at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in his new G650ER to meet Quichotte in Flagstaff, Arizona, after receiving a worried call from the director of West Flagstaff Family Medicine, Dr. D. F. Winona, to whom Quichotte had improbably confided during their appointment that he was thinking of escorting the delectable Miss Salma R. to the next Vanity Fair Oscars party, after which their clandestine romance would finally become public knowledge.
Quichotte and Dr. Smile met in Quichotte’s room at the Relax Inn on Historic Route 66, just four miles from Pulliam airport. They were an odd couple, Quichotte tall and slow, and Dr. Smile small, bristling with dynamism, and clearly the boss. “What were you thinking?” he asked, sorrowfully but with a note of finality in his voice, of this time I can’t save you, and Quichotte, confronted with his own nonsensical statement, replied, “It’s true, I got a little ahead of myself, and I apologize for getting carried away, but you know how lovers are, we can’t help talking about love.” He was using the TV remote to flip back and forth between a basketball game on ESPN and a true-crime show on Oxygen, and his manner struck Dr. Smile as affable but distracted.
“You understand,” Dr. Smile said as gently as he could manage, “that I’m going to have to let you go.”
“Oh, not a problem,” Quichotte replied. “Because, as it happens, I have to embark immediately on my quest.”
“I see,” Dr. Smile said slowly. “Well, I want to add that I am prepared to offer you a lump sum in severance pay—not a fortune, but not a negligible amount—and I have that check here with me to give to you. Also, you’ll find that Smile Pharmaceuticals’ pension arrangements are not ungenerous. It is my hope and belief that you’ll be able to manage. Also, anytime you find yourself in Buckhead, or, in the summer months, on the Golden Isles, the doors of my homes will always be open. Come and have a biryani with my wife and myself.” Mrs. Happy Smile was a zaftig brunette with a flicked-up hairdo. She was, by all accounts, something of a star in the kitchen. It was a tempting offer.
“Thank you,” Quichotte said, pocketing the check. “May I ask, will it be all right to bring my Salma with me when I visit? Once we get together, you see, we will be inseparable. And I am sure she will be happy to eat your wife’s fine biryani.”
“Of course,” Dr. Smile assured him, and rose to leave. “Bring her, by all means! There’s one other thing,” he added. “Now that you are retired, and no longer in my employ, it may be useful to me, from time to time, to ask you to perform some small private services for me personally. As my close and trusted family member, you will, I know, be entirely reliable.”
“I will gladly do whatever you ask of me,” Quichotte said, bowing his head. “You have been the finest of cousins.”
“It will be nothing onerous, I assure you,” Dr. Smile said. “Just some discreet deliveries. And all your expenses will be covered, that goes without saying. In cash.”
He paused in the doorway of the room. Quichotte was watching the basketball game intently.
“What will you do now?” Dr. Smile asked him.
“Don’t worry about me,” Quichotte said, flashing that happy smile. “I’ve got plenty to do.”
In the large and prosperous Indian community of Atlanta, Dr. R. K. Smile was known as the Little King. A few of the oldsters remembered Otto Soglow’s fun-loving cartoon character by that name, a small hemispherical monarch dressed in a fur-collared red garment, with a pointy golden crown and a flamboyant black handlebar mustache. He liked innocent pleasures and pretty women. If you took off the yellow crown, that was a good description of the Smile Pharma billionaire, too. He loved to play the games of his Indian childhood, was a whiz on the carrom board at his Colonial Revival home on Peachtree Battle Avenue, sponsored a team in the “hard tennis ball” Atlanta Cricket League (“We play casual cricket but with professional outfit!”), and from time to time organized informal kabaddi competitions in Centennial Park. He was contentedly married to his wife, Happy the biryani expert, but could not resist flirting with every attractive woman who crossed his path, so his other nickname, used only behind his back and primarily by the younger women of the community, was Little Big Hands.
In spite of these grabby tendencies, he was highly regarded; a benefactor of Atlanta’s best Indian newspaper, which was named Rajdhani—or Capital—as if to assert that Atlanta was the capital of Indian America; and a donor to most of the proliferating community associations in the city, which grouped people by their state of origin back home, but also by language (Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu), caste, subcaste, religion, and preferred house deities (Devi, Mahadev, Narayana, and even Lohasur the iron god, Khodiyar the horse god, and Hardul the god of cholera). He gave as generously to Hindu groups as to Muslim ones, even though he disapproved of the widespread local admiration for the Indian leader Narendra Modi, his Bharatiya Janata Party, and its ideological parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or R.S.S. He was popular across the spectrum of Atlanta Indians, and even spoke of himself as a unifying force, able to bring the seventy-five thousand South Asian Muslims in the area closer to their hundred thousand Hindu brothers and sisters. He was not a deeply religious man himself, and had never set foot in any of the three dozen mosques in the city, not even the large Al-Farooq Masjid, on Fourteenth Street. “To tell the truth,” he confided to his closest friends, “I (a) am not the praying type and (b) in fact like the look of the Swaminarayan temple better.” This was the large Hindu temple in the suburb of Lilburn. “But don’t tangle me up in any of that, yaar,” he added. “I’m a pharmacist. I make pills.”
On the subject of prescription medication he was outspoken, severe, and, as events would reveal, utterly dishonest. “Back home in the old days,” he said when he spoke at one of the community’s many gala evenings, “there was always a street-corner dispensary that would hand out drugs without a doctor’s chit. Cross-legged in his raised booth, the vender would wave a forgiving hand. ‘Come back and give me later,’ he might say, but when you came back for more he never asked where the last chit was. And if you asked for twenty painkillers he would say, ‘Why so few? Take the box only. Save yourself trouble. Why come back every week?’ It was bad for his customers’ health but good for the health of the business.” There would be nostalgic laughter when he said this, but he would wag a finger at the assembled worthies and go tsk, tsk, tsk. “Ladies and gents, it is not a laughing matter.”
Afterward, when his world came tumbling down, people would say, “It’s like he was confessing to us openly. Standing there in front of us and challenging us. Putting on a straight face even while he was telling us that he was crooked, and where he got the idea.”
“Many of us have done well in America,” he went on. “I also, by the grace of God. Our life here today is a good life. But so many of us still believe our roots are in the past. This is not true. Our old places are gone, our old customs are not the American ways, our old languages are not spoken. Only we carry these things within us. Our roots are in ourselves and in one another. In our bodies and our minds we preserve our identity. Because of this we can move, we can go out and conquer the world.”
Afterward, when his enterprises lay in ruins, people would say, “He was too greedy. He wanted to conquer the world. He told us this also, standing right in front of us. He confessed everything. But we were too stupid to see.”
In recent times, his wife had raised his profile higher than ever. Mrs. Happy Smile was a lover of the arts, and now she insisted to her husband that they should become involved in that world, even though he thought of the arts as useless and the people involved in the arts as useless people. At first he rebuffed her desire to set up an arts-sponsorship foundation, but she persisted, and when she found out about the extensive involvement of the OxyContin family in this kind of work she saw her opening, correctly guessing that her husband’s competitive spirit would be aroused. In the garden of their Peachtree Battle Avenue house, by the rhododendron bush, over a mint julep at the end of the workday, she confronted him. “We must give back, isn’t it,” she began. “That is the right thing to do.” He frowned, which showed her that this was not going to be easy. But she set her jaw firmly and frowned back.
“Give back what?” he asked. “What have we taken that we must return?”
“Not that way,” she said, in her most cajoling voice. “I mean only, give back out of our generosity to society in thanks for the so, so many blessings we have received.”
“Society gave me no blessings,” he said. “What I have received, I have earned by the sweat of my brow.”
“OxyContin khandaan, they give back plenty,” she said, playing her ace. “Their family name is so, so respected. You don’t want your name to be so, so respected also?”
“What are you talking about?” he said, sounding interested now.
“I hope you’re a snail person.”
“So, so many wings they have,” she said. “Metropolitan Museum wing named after them, Louvre wing also, London Royal Academy wing also. A bird with so, so many wings can fly so, so high.”
“But we are not birds. We have no need of wings.”
“At the Tate Modern, they have a staircase with their name. At the Jewish Museum in Berlin, they have an escalator. They have a rose also, pink, bearing their name. They have an asteroid in the sky. So, so many things they have.”
“Why must I care about asteroids and escalators?”
She knew what to say. “Branding,” she cried. “You buy naming rights, your name becomes loved. It will be so, so loved. And love is good for business, no? So, so good.”
“Yes,” he said. “Love is good for business.”
“So then. We must give back, isn’t it.”
“You’ve been looking into this,” he guessed, correctly. She blushed and beamed.
“Opera, art gallery, university, hospital,” she said, clapping her hands. “All will be so, so happy and your name will be so, so big. Collecting art also is good. Indian art is hot just now—so is Chinese, but we must support our own people, isn’t it. Prices are rocketing, so investment potential is good. We have so much wall space. Also, we can put pictures on permanent loan in best museums, and your name will be so, so loved. Let me do this for you. Also,” she said, clinching the argument, “art-world ladies are so, so beautiful. This is all I’m saying.”
He loved his wife. “O.K.,” he said. “Smile wing, Smile extension, Smile gallery, Smile balcony, Smile ward, Smile elevator, Smile toilet, Smile star in the sky.”
She broke into song. “When you’re smiling,” she sang. It was their song. “When you’re smiling.”
“The whole world smiles with you,” he said.
Very well. It is time to reveal certain secrets closely guarded by Dr. R. K. Smile and the upper-echelon executives of Smile Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (SPI, though everyone pronounced it “Spy”). These secrets have to do primarily with the hidden life of the enterprise’s premier product, InSmile™, the sublingual fentanyl spray that made the company’s fortune. It will not be a pretty story. After all, here was a man at the peak of his career, a generous man, widely respected and even beginning to be loved. It is never pleasant to tear down such a personage, to reveal the feet of clay. Such exposés tarnish the whole community, and are regarded by many as washing the community’s dirty linen in public. But when a façade begins to crumble it is only a matter of time before the unwashed linens tumble into public view anyway.
But to begin at the beginning: a long time ago, when Dr. R. K. Smile was just starting out in the pharma business, he had gone to India to visit family and friends, and on a Bombay street he happened upon an urchin distributing business cards. He took one. “Are you alcoholic?” it read. “We can help. Call this number for liquor home delivery.”
Excellent business model, he thought.
He had kept that card with him ever since, and SPI had followed the excellent business model with great success, sending its products in impressively large quantities even to very small towns. When the indictments were handed down, some startling facts emerged. For example, between 2013 and 2018, SPI shipped five million highly addictive opioid doses every twelve months to a pharmacy in Kermit, West Virginia (pop. 400). Six million opioid doses were sent to a pharmacy in Mount Gay, West Virginia (pop. 1,800). Call this number for liquor home delivery, indeed. A great many doctors and pharmacists made the call.
It was a unique characteristic of SPI’s sales force—a characteristic that set SPI apart from the rest of the pharmaceutical industry—that you could join it even if you didn’t have a background in pharma sales or even a college diploma or a degree in science. Only two qualities were required. You had to be the driven and aggressive type, and you had to be extremely beautiful.
SPI boasted the most supremely attractive sales force in America. As was later revealed, SPI’s Eastern-region sales chief, a certain Dawn Howe, was previously a dancer at Jennifer’s, a strip club in Savannah. At SPI she was in charge of selling InSmile™—a drug so dangerous that it required its own special prescription protocol—to the whole highly populous Eastern Seaboard. Dr. R. K. Smile’s national sales chief, Ivan Jewel, expressed one-hundred-per-cent confidence in her abilities. Jewel had a background in aquarium sales and sleep-apnea-testing devices, and had run a New Jersey-based online ticket-resale agency, whose company registration was revoked after it failed to file an annual report for two consecutive years. He was also quite a looker himself, the Clint Eastwood type; as he liked to say, “Anything for a few dollars more.” He agreed with Dr. Smile that a Georgia strip club was not the kind of place where Big Pharma traditionally recruited staff, but insisted that Dawn Howe was a major asset. “She’s the warm, sympathetic, good-listener type,” he said. “You gots to picture these pain-management physicians. All day, all night, they live around extreme agony and cancer. Then comes this beautiful woman, it’s a pleasant distraction, one, and then she wants to listen to all your sadness, she wants you to let out all your stress, maybe a little shoulder rub, whatever, that’s more than pleasant, two, and so she wants to sell you something, you buy it, boom, three, deal closed. To me, she’s a closer. I use her (a) after a first contact by another salesperson and (b) when there’s a client who’s undecided, who says yes yesterday, no today, and we need him to say yes tomorrow. A beautiful lady who cares for you is the best thing in such cases. She’s like a super-gorgeous no-commitment version of their wives.”
The Little King, a.k.a. Little Big Hands, liked this explanation. “If there are more like her out there,” he told his sales chief, “just get them all.”
But the beauty of the sales force—stunning women sent to visit male pain-management physicians, Clint Eastwood hunks of men sent to visit the female ones—wasn’t enough, by itself, to explain the huge sales numbers. Beauty allied to drive and aggression: still not enough. When you wanted to pitch a restricted drug to board-certified oncologists, you needed a raft of additional techniques. “Incentives”—that was a better word than “techniques.” A raft of additional incentives.
It was Dr. R. K. Smile himself who thought up the speakers’ bureau. Actually, the idea of recruiting big-name doctors to recommend a particular medication to other doctors was an old one. Word of mouth was always the most effective marketing device. But if you wanted to go off label, hmm. That was borderline. Maybe across the borderline, because going off label meant getting doctors to prescribe a drug for conditions other than the ones for which the drug was intended. Or, of course, for no conditions at all, turning a blind eye to recreational use, or, more seriously, to addiction. Another, more colloquial term for going off label might be “becoming a drug dealer.” Or even “becoming a narco lord.”
“I’ve spent my life crossing borders,” Dr. R. K. Smile said, at the opening session of SPEIK (Smile Pharmaceuticals Expanding Information and Knowledge), in Eureka, Montana, a smallish gathering that took place in the historic Community Hall, a single-story log building in the rustic style. “I read it in a book once: if you fly above the earth and look down, you see no frontiers. That’s my attitude. I’m a no-frontier guy in favor of flying high.” That was the secret ethos of SPI. They were all high-flying no-frontier guys. Over time, the speakers’-bureau project became even more sophisticated in its methods. Doctors were identified and booked, fees were paid, and then, more often than not, the events unfortunately could not take place owing to unforeseeable circumstances, but the terms of the agreements with the doctors stated that the speaking fees were nonreturnable. A budget of three million dollars a year, handed out in substantial dollops of, for example, fifty-six thousand dollars p.a., or forty-five thousand dollars p.a., or thirty-three thousand dollars p.a., or forty-three thousand dollars p.a., or even sixty-seven thousand dollars p.a., in return for performing speaking engagements that did not actually have to be performed! Such a budget offered opportunities that were attractive to a lot of doctors. Such a budget bought or, to use a more polite term, booked some very senior doctors. And these were tough doctors, ready to receive these substantial sums in return for prescribing InSmile™ off label, willing to recommend doing so to other doctors, and able to take any heat that followed.
Yes, unfortunately, some of them got investigated by their state medical boards, but they just handled it! They paid the fines and carried on. Yes, unfortunately, in the worst cases there was disciplinary action when, unfortunately, some of the tough doctors went too far! When, unfortunately, they allegedly handed out pre-signed prescriptions to patients and some of said patients died of drug overdoses from the drugs so prescribed! When, unfortunately, they allegedly prescribed InSmile™ to persons with zero cancer pain! When, unfortunately, they allegedly defrauded Medicare of multiple millions of dollars! A pain-management specialist from Rhode Island who was also a SPEIK speaker was reprimanded! A neurologist who was a SPEIK speaker was arrested! These matters were shocking to Dr. Smile and the whole SPI team. They moved swiftly to rectify and/or terminate their relationships with such medical practitioners. SPI was a reputable company. They were running a speakers’ bureau on the side, that was all. They were not and could not be held responsible for what their speakers might be doing on their own time. It was ridiculous and even slanderous to impugn the ethics of SPI staff.
One of Dr. R. K. Smile’s favorite doctors, Dr. Arthur Steiger, an experienced pain specialist from Cormac, Arizona, was ordered to stop prescribing painkillers completely while serious allegations against him were investigated. At that time, he had received more speaker’s fees from SPEIK than any other medical practitioner, even though, unfortunately, all the much-anticipated events at which he had been billed to speak had had to be cancelled owing to unforeseeable factors. Dr. Steiger fought back when he was indicted. “There is a vendetta against doctors who prescribe opioids regularly,” he said. “But me, I’m the aggressive type. I aggressively help my patients. I’m the caring type also. I care aggressively. That’s just who I am.”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Dr. R. K. Smile said to Happy when he read this statement. She nodded lovingly. “You also are a fighter like this Dr. Arizona,” she said. “Look how you have fought for your family. So, so many achievements, so, so much success. And when I have done my work and your name is everywhere—museums, concert halls, fish tanks, parks—then you will be too, too respected by so, so many people and all this noise will go. It is the Age of Anything Can Happen,” she explained. “This I heard on TV. And I will make everything happen for you.” Her support warmed his heart. He loved his wife. He wondered if it would upset her if he asked her to lose a little weight.
The flicked-up wingtips of the G650ER reminded Dr. R. K. Smile of his wife’s hairdo. If Happy Smile’s hair were an executive jet, he thought, it would fly him nonstop to Dubai. The aircraft was his favorite toy. Sometimes on a still and sunny day he took it up from Hartsfield-Jackson just to potter about in the sky for a few hours, over Stone Mountain and Athens, Eatonton, and Milledgeville, or the Chattahoochee and Talladega forests, or along the route of Sherman’s march. Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Brer Rabbit, the Tree That Owns Itself, and the War Between the States were all down there, and he was above them, feeling at such moments like a true son of the South, which of course he was not. He had tried to read “Gone with the Wind” and to learn the words of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “Old Folks at Home,” but fiction and music weren’t his thing. Also, like all cultural artifacts, they reminded him of his wife, and when he went up in the sky he didn’t bring Happy along. Instead he invited a half-dozen of the most attractive SPI sales reps, former colleagues of Dawn Howe’s at Jennifer’s strip club in Savannah, and what happened up in the air stayed up in the air. Dr. R. K. Smile was not a perfect husband—he conceded that in his rare moments of reflection—but in his opinion these episodes (a) did not take place on earth and so didn’t count on earth and (b) in fact made him a better husband by satisfying his secret recreational urges, his off-label desires.
Flying home from Flagstaff after his encounter with old Quichotte, he was sad, and not even the ministrations of all six salesladies simultaneously could blow away his blues. His poor relation had always been an anomaly in the ranks of SPI employees, old among the young, emaciated among the luscious, a lonely figure, permanently out of step, everyone’s crazy grandpa. And yet he carried himself with a certain dignity, kept himself immaculately dressed and groomed, was well mannered and well spoken, and possessed an enviably large vocabulary, was almost always cheerful, and could unleash, at any moment, his one weapon of beauty, which was his smile. Dr. R. K. Smile feared the worst now that he had let Quichotte go. The old fellow would deteriorate into some sort of dharma bum, moving aimlessly from nowhere to nowhere, dreaming his impossible dream of love. And one of these days Dr. R. K. Smile would receive a call from a motel in the middle of nowhere and then he would have to climb into the G650ER and bring the old man’s body back to Atlanta and lay him to rest in Cobb County or Lovejoy. That day was probably not far away.
In his final exchange with Quichotte, he had hinted at asking him to perform some small private services, some discreet deliveries, but he hadn’t meant it. It had been a way of getting out of the room while leaving Quichotte with a scrap of self-respect and the sense of still being needed. The private-services, or V.I.P., division of Smile Pharmaceuticals did not officially exist, and its unofficial existence was known only to a very small group, which did not include Dr. R. K. Smile’s loyal wife. The discreet servicing of the desires of the very famous was a subsection of the American economy which it was important not to ignore, but the key word there was “discreet.” Dr. R. K. Smile was discreet, and was willing to make house calls to the right people. Lately, the demand for InSmile™ among these special, house-call-worthy customers had increased significantly, owing to a change in the OxyContin formula that decreased its appeal to recreational users, and to the special customers’ growing awareness that the sublingual spray offered instant gratification in a way that the other popular products did not. More and more gated properties from Minneapolis to Beverly Hills opened themselves to his unpretentious rental cars. He himself, small, physically unimpressive, was the forgettable type, and being forgettable was an asset in this kind of work. Like everyone in America, Dr. Smile was in thrall to celebrity, and when he entered the boudoirs and man caves of magazine-cover faces and bodies he experienced a profoundly American joy, which was deepened by his secret knowledge that his net worth was probably greater than that of most of the owners of those immensely celebrated, those erotically well-known eyes, mouths, breasts, and legs, those prime manifestations of what Dr. Smile—a doctor, after all—thought of as professionally assisted perfection. He, too, was a professional. In his own way he, too, could assist.
When a whisper reached him, the faintest murmur from one of his top, inner-circle speakers’-bureau doctors, that a certain Indian movie actress turned American daytime-TV superstar might appreciate a house call, Dr. R. K. Smile actually laughed out loud and clapped his hands. “Arré, kya baat! ” he cried out in the privacy of his home office. “Whoa, what a thing!” Because now, if it all worked out as he hoped, he just might be able to make his poor relation’s impossible dream come true, if only for a moment, before the tragic inevitable occurred. He might find it in his power, and in his heart, to bring fantasy-besotted old Quichotte face to face with his lady love.
Quichotte, arriving in Manhattan at the end of a long journey—his quest toward Miss Salma R. had led him through Tulsa, Oklahoma; Beautiful, Kansas; Cleveland, Ohio; Bunyan, Pennsylvania; Chaucer, New Jersey; and Huckleberry, New York—felt like a snail coming out of its shell. Here was bustle and thrum, hustle and flow, everything he had spent the better part of his life recoiling from, concealing himself instead in the heart of the country, leading a small life among other small lives. Now he was back in the big room, at the high rollers’ table, betting the farm on love.
He found accommodation in the Blue Yorker hotel, which stood conveniently just a couple of blocks from the tunnel exit, a hundred and three dollars a night, including parking, excellent value, no I.D. demanded, no questions asked, cash money required in advance, and only when he entered his Oriental Delights-themed room did he understand that he was in one of the city’s numerous no-tell motels, with six free porno channels on the TV. There was adjustable mood lighting. There were strategically placed mirrors. The night was full of noises, of pleasure, pain, and painful pleasure. It was hard to sleep soundly.
But, in the days that followed, Quichotte was pensive and sad. He stayed in his room watching TV (not the porno channels). He did not go to stand outside Miss Salma R.’s apartment building, or outside her office slash studio, in the hope of glimpsing the woman whose heart he had come to the city to win. “There is still much to be done before I am worthy of her presence,” he told himself, and then, seemingly, did nothing. The path to the Beloved was closed, even when he was so near to her, and he did not know how to open it.
Then, unexpectedly, he received a mysterious series of texts from his cousin and erstwhile employer, asking where he was, seeming unsurprised when he confirmed that he was in New York, and requesting an immediate meeting by an old red-oak tree near the Hans Christian Andersen statue in Central Park.
He went to the Park and Dr. Smile was waiting for him. Hat, coat, small leather attaché case, like an Old World medico doing his rounds. But there had been a transformation in his state of mind. He was no longer the warm and gleeful man Quichotte remembered.
“Best of cousins!” Quichotte cried. “I’m happy to see you.”
“Let’s walk a little,” Dr. Smile said. His mood, Quichotte noted with regret, was foul.
“There has been an event today in Atlanta,” Dr. Smile said as they walked in the general direction of the boathouse. “A shocking event, may I say. An offensive event concerning my good wife.”
“Mrs. Happy?” Quichotte cried. “That is indeed unexpected and woeful news! I hope she has not met with a misfortune?”
“ ‘Misfortune’ is too mild a word,” Dr. Smile said grimly. “I will tell you what has happened. I have a need to tell someone, and I believe I can talk to you—because, to put it bluntly, you are nobody, you know nobody, so you can tell nobody who is anybody, and, plus, you are borderline simple as well.”
This remark—its tone very unlike the kind manner with which his cousin had always spoken to him—struck Quichotte as harsh and, in part, incorrect. “But everybody is somebody,” he replied mildly. “Although the language can be confusing. When we say that ‘nobody is here,’ we mean in fact that ‘somebody’ is ‘not here.’ If I am here, I can’t be nobody. Look,” he said, pointing. “There, there, there. Somebody, somebody, somebody.” He pointed at himself. “Somebody,” he concluded with pride.
Dr. Smile heard him out with growing impatience. “I repeat,” he said, “borderline simple. And I don’t have time for small talk. I have something to say today about the injustice of the world toward a man who is only trying to do his best. And also toward his lady wife, an innocent bystander, Happy by name, happy by nature. She was with her lady friends,” Dr. Smile continued. “A circle of like-minded philanthropical ladies, meeting, as was their habit, at Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party in Candler Park.”
“Underwater?” Quichotte was lost now.
“This is a name only,” Dr. Smile said sharply. “This is a tea place, not a submarine.”
Quichotte inclined his head.
“Then they came in, how do they say in America? Like gangbusters.”
“The like-minded philanthropical ladies?”
“The forces of the law,” Dr. Smile said. “Bulletproof vests, dogs, assault weapons, as if it were a terrorist gang, not a social occasion. And why?”
“Because of me,” Dr. Smile said. “Because I am accused of crimes, and in my absence they went for her. Bastards.”
“The law-enforcement officers?”
“The people who betrayed me. Treacherous bastards. Who else could have informed the police? Only the people I made rich. Yes, I made myself more rich, but I was the one who made it happen. Little doctors here, there, turning into rich fellows. Then they turn me in. Bastards. How do they think you become a billionaire in America? Morgan, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Mellon, Rockefeller? At Underwater Tea Parties? I have done what had to be done. It’s the American way, correct? Corruption, they accuse me of today. Corruption! Me! Myself! Dr. R. K. Smile! Everyone knows that what I have done is not corruption. It is our culture from the old country. You are at a railway station—let’s say, Sawai Madhopur—and the lines at the ticket windows are long. You get to the front and the clerk says, ‘Wrong line, go and queue over there.’ This is frustrating, am I right? It would frustrate anybody. Then here is a little boy, maybe ten years old, tugging at your sleeve. ‘SSSS,’ he says. ‘SSSS. You want ticket? I have an uncle.’ And of course he wants a little something for his trouble. You can be smart and give it to him or you can be stupid and refuse. If you are smart, you find he really does have an uncle, and he can take you to this uncle in the office behind the ticket window, and in two shakes your ticket is in your hand. If you are stupid, you move from line to line for hours. We are like this only. You are in a yard, let us say in Thiruvananthapuram, and here is an antique dealer offering you fine objects of value, and you want to bring them home, maybe to Atlanta, Georgia, to share with your loving family. But there are laws, isn’t it, that say it can’t be done. So you can be stupid and say, The law is the law, or you can be smart and say, The law is an ass. If you say ass, the antique dealer will take you to the person who has the government stamp, the person who needs to be convinced, the amount it takes to convince him being specified in advance, and in five minutes your treasure is on the way to Buckhead. The law is useful, in fact. It tells you who is the correct person you need to convince. Otherwise, you can waste money convincing people who don’t have the stamp. Waste not, want not. We are like this only. We know what is the oil that greases the wheels.”
He paused for breath, panting a little. Quichotte waited patiently.
“You are a fool,” Dr. Smile said, and then, like a burst balloon, subsided. “But you are a fool who is going to have a very lucky day. My luck today is bad. However, I will not go to ground like a rat in a hole. I will not vanish like a thief in the night. I will surrender myself, I will pay whatever bail they want, I will wear the damn ankle bracelet, and I will fight. This is America. I will fight and I will win.” His words had a hollow ring, expressing a bravado he did not feel.
“That is an admirable course to follow,” Quichotte said.
“What nobody grasps,” Dr. Smile said with the weariness of a man who carries a burden other people are unwilling to lift, “is that business gets harder all the time. I do things responsibly, through medical personnel, et cetera. But there are gangs now. They threaten my people. You are lucky you quit when you did.”
I didn’t quit, Quichotte remembered. I was dismissed. This he did not say. “Can I ask,” he finally ventured instead, “why it is that you wished to see me? Why is it a lucky day for me?”
“Try not to let the word ‘slop’ color the experience.”
“You are like everyone else,” Dr. Smile said sadly. “Me, me, me.” Nodding with the bruised resignation of a man who selflessly works for the benefit of others and goes unappreciated and unloved by the selfish world, he indicated the attaché case he was carrying. “This you will keep safe,” he said. “Inside you will see little white envelopes. Each envelope is one delivery of InSmile™ spray, to be made once a month, directly into the lady’s personal hand. To this procedure she has agreed.”
“The lady is very unwell?”
“The lady is very important.”
“But she is a person with a medical requirement?”
“She is a person we wish to please.”
“And this is what you want me to do,” Quichotte said. His tone of deflation mirrored his cousin’s. “To please a person who is not sick.”
“Ask me her name,” Dr. Smile said. “Then let’s see what you think.”
When the name was spoken, a great radiance opened up in the heavens and flowed down over Quichotte in a cascade of joy. His labors had not been in vain. He had abandoned reason for the sake of love, and now in the valley of wonderment the name of the Beloved hung in the air before him as if on a giant flat-screen television. It occurred to him that he loved the man who had caused this miracle to occur.
“I love you,” he said to Dr. Smile.
The doctor, pondering his troubles, was startled and horrified by this remark. “What are you talking?” he demanded.
“I love you,” Quichotte repeated. The radiance was still cascading and now perhaps a celestial choir had begun to sing.
“Men do not talk so to men,” Dr. Smile admonished fiercely. “Yes, of course, there are family I-love-yous, and even between cousins, O.K., but the tone of voice is different. It is casual, like air-kisses near the cheek. What is this I luuuve you? Less emotion, please. We are not husband and wife. Tell the lady,” Dr. Smile said, changing the subject, “that we are making product improvements all the time. We will overcome our present obstacles and proceed. Soon we will have a small tablet, only three millimetres in diameter, thirty micrograms. It will be ten times more powerful than the InSmile™ spray. Tell her, if she wishes, this also can be available.”
Then Quichotte’s head swirled, the birds of the Park spiralled over him in a phantom dance, and he entered an agon, a great interior struggle, in which his whole being was at war, a battle in which he was at once protagonist and antagonist. The first Quichotte exulted, My love is within my grasp, while the second objected, I am being asked to do a dishonorable thing, and are we not honorable men? The first cried, The miracle is upon me, and I cannot refuse it, and the second replied, She is not sick and this is medicine for the terminally ill.
Then a heretical thought occurred. Was it possible that she, the Beloved, was unworthy? What he was being asked to do for her was wrong, yet she was asking it. A queen did not ask her knight, who wore her favor on his helmet, to perform immoral tasks. So if she was asking this then she was no more a queen than he was a knight. Her request and his fulfillment of that request would topple them both off their pedestals and drag them down into the dirt together. And paradoxically, he thought, if she was no longer a queen, then she was no longer out of his reach. Her fall from purity made her mortal, human, and therefore attainable.
Dr. Smile was saying something. Through the torrent of his thoughts Quichotte heard his cousin say, “Also in every envelope there is Narcan, in case of need. Both in nasal-spray form and in auto-injectors.”
Narcan was naloxone, the medication of choice in case of opioid overdose.
“Narcan, good,” Quichotte said. But his mind was still mostly elsewhere, and Dr. Smile grew irritated. “What’s the matter with you?” he snapped. “Maybe you’re not the person for this very simple job. Maybe you’ve just become too loony and dufferish. Maybe you’re not to be trusted and I need to find someone else.”
You know those films of an explosion in reverse? How—ffwwwappp—everything comes flying back together and the world is in one piece again? The effect of these words on Quichotte was like that. He was alert and present, and he would not let this opportunity slip. He would do what the Beloved asked of him and que sera sera. He straightened up and spoke clearly and firmly. “I’m your man,” he said.
“Very well,” Dr. Smile said, in a hurry now. He took a paper out of his coat pocket and passed it to Quichotte. “There is everything you need. Contact information, how, when, where, and amount to be collected. I’ll be in touch.” Dr. Smile’s cell phone buzzed. “My good wife,” he said. Now he was the distracted one. “I have to run. Yes, literally, I must run. A man like me. It is disgraceful. I have lawyers. This will be fought. I will return. Like Zorro, isn’t it? I shall return.”
Between the gods and mortal men and women there hung a veil, and its name was maya. The truth was that the fabled world of the gods was the real one, while the supposedly actual world inhabited by human beings was an illusion, and maya, the veil of illusion, was the magic by which the gods persuaded men and women that their illusory world was real. When Quichotte saw Miss Salma R. walking toward him through the Park, attracting not a single glance from the earthbound beings she passed, he understood that her power over the actual was very great, and also that he was about to have an experience granted to very few creatures of flesh and blood: he would pass through the veil and enter the realm of the blessed, where divinities made their sport.
He had rehearsed many times the words he wanted to say. He would hand her the envelope with a little bow of the head and say, “This is sent with all respects by Dr. R. K. Smile, and comes also with a brief story and with great admiration from myself.” If his powers of charm had not entirely faded, she would allow him to tell the story. It was an American story. Among the travellers on the Mayflower, there was a love story: John Alden was asked by Miles Standish to press his case to Miss Priscilla, who replied, “Speak for yourself, John.” And he, Quichotte, would say to Miss Salma R., “I am here on another man’s behalf, but given permission I, too, would speak for myself.”
She was in front of him. He had passed through the veil. He stood before her like a fool and stammered.
“Make it quick, darling,” she said. “Eyes everywhere.”
“This is sent with all respects by Dr. R. K. Smile,” he began. “It comes also,” he continued, “with a brief story and with great—”
She made a lunge at the envelope in his gloved right hand. He held it away from her. “No, no, no,” he said, wretchedly. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. It wasn’t supposed to go this way at all. “Your envelope for mine. Cash on delivery.”
She stepped back from him, gasping. Then, from the depths of her Moncler coat, an envelope emerged. She dropped it on the ground. “It’s all there,” she said. “Now throw yours to me.”
He could not know if the required sum was in the envelope on the ground. But she was his Beloved and he would trust her. “Madam, catch,” he said, and threw her what she wanted.
Which she grabbed and ran.
“It comes also,” he said hopelessly, with tears in his eyes, “with great admiration from myself.” ♦
This story appears in the New Yorker print edition of the July 29, 2019, issue.