The Story of My Teeth: An Excerpt

The Story of My Teeth: An Excerpt

(Gwen Harlow / Flickr)

A man may have been named John because that was the name of his father; a town may have been named Dartmouth, because it is situated at the mouth of the Dart. But it is no part of the signification of the word John, that the father of the person so called bore the same name; nor even of the word Dartmouth, to be situated at the mouth of the Dart. —J. S. Mill

I’m the best auctioneer in the world, but no one knows it because I’m a discreet sort of man. My name is Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, though people call me Highway, I believe with affection. I can imitate Janis Joplin after two rums. I can interpret Chinese fortune cookies. I can stand an egg upright on a table, the way Christopher Columbus did in the famous anecdote. I know how to count to eight in Japanese: ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi. I can float on my back.

This is the story of my teeth, and my treatise on collectibles and the variable value of objects. As any other story, this one begins with the Beginning; and then comes the Middle, and then the End. The rest, as a friend of mine always says, is literature: hyperbolics, parabolics, circulars, allegorics, and elliptics. I don’t know what comes after that. Possibly ignominy, death, and, finally, postmortem fame. At that point it will no longer be my place to say anything in the first person. I will be a dead man, a happy, enviable man.

Some have luck, some have charisma. I’ve got a bit of both. My uncle, Solón Sánchez Fuentes, a salesman dealing in quality Italian ties, used to say that beauty, power, and early success fade away, and that they’re a heavy burden for those who possess them, because the prospect of their loss is a threat few can endure. I’ve never had to worry about that, because there’s nothing ephemeral in my nature. I have only permanent qualities. I inherited every last jot of my uncle Solón’s charisma, and he also left me an elegant Italian tie. That’s all you need in this life to become a man of pedigree, he said.

I was born in Pachuca, the Beautiful Windy City, with four premature teeth and my body completely covered in a very fine coat of fuzz. But I’m grateful for that inauspicious start, because ugliness, as my other uncle, Eurípides López Sánchez, was given to saying, is character forming. When my father first saw me, he claimed his real son had been taken away by the new mother in the next room. He tried by various means—bureaucracy, blackmail, intimidation—to return me to the nurse who had handed me over. But Mom took me in her arms the moment she saw me: a tiny, brown, swollen blob fish. She had been trained to accept filth as her fate. Dad hadn’t.

The nurse explained to my parents that the presence of my four teeth was a rare condition in our country, but one that was not uncommon among other races. It was called congenital prenatal dentition.

What kind of races? asked my father, on the defensive.

Caucasians, sir, said the nurse.

But this child is as dark as the inside of a needle, Dad replied.

Genetics is a science full of gods, Mr. Sánchez.

That must have consoled my father. He finally resigned himself to carrying me home in his arms, wrapped up in a thick flannel blanket.

Not long after my birth, we moved to Ecatepec, where Mom made a living cleaning other people’s houses. Dad didn’t clean anything, not even his own nails. They were thick, rough, and black. He used to pare them with his teeth. Not from anxiety, but because he was idle and overbearing. While I was doing my homework at the table, he would be silently studying them, stretched out by the fan in the green velvet armchair Mom inherited from Mr. Cortázar, our neighbor in 4-A, after he died of tetanus. When Mr. Cortázar’s progeny came to take away his belongings, they left us his macaw, Criteria—who suffered a terminal case of sadness after a few weeks—and the green velvet armchair where Dad took to lounging every evening. Lost to the world, he would study the damp patches on the ceiling while listening to public radio and pull off pieces of nail, one finger at a time.

Starting with his little finger, he’d press a corner of the nail between his upper and lower central incisors, detach a tiny sliver, and, in a single motion, tear off the half moon of excess nail. After he’d detached the sliver, he’d hold it in his mouth for a moment or two, roll his tongue, and blow: it would shoot out and land on the notebook I was using to do my homework. The dogs would be barking outside in the street. I’d contemplate the piece of nail lying there, dead and dirty, a few millimeters from the point of my pencil. Then I’d draw a circle around it and go on doing my writing exercises, carefully avoiding the circle. Bits of nail would keep falling from the heavens onto my ruled Scribe notebook like meteorites propelled by the current of air from the fan: ring, middle, index, and, finally, the thumb. And then the other hand. I’d go on fitting the letters around the small circumferenced craters left on the page by Dad’s airborne trash. When I was finished, I’d gather up the nails into a small pile and put them in my trouser pocket. Afterward, in my bedroom, I’d place them in a paper envelope I kept under my pillow. During the course of my childhood, the nail collection got to be so large that I filled several envelopes. End of memory.

Dad no longer has any teeth. Or nails, or a face: he was cremated two years ago, and, at his request, Mom and I scattered his ashes in Acapulco Bay. A year later, I buried Mom next to her sisters and brothers in Pachuca, the Beautiful Windy City. It’s always raining there, and there’s hardly a breath of air. I travel to Pachuca to see her once a month, usually on Sundays. But I never go as far as the cemetery, because I’m allergic to pollen and there are lots of flowers there. I get off the bus not far from the gates, at a lovely median strip with life-size dinosaur sculptures, and I stay right there among the gentle fiberglass beasts—getting soaked, saying Our Fathers—until my feet swell up and I feel tired. Then I go back across the street, carefully dodging the puddles—round as the craters in my childhood notebook—and wait for the bus to take me back to the station.

My first job was at the Rubén Darío newspaper stand, on the corner of Aceites and Metales. I was eight years old and all my milk teeth had already fallen out. They had been replaced by others, as wide as shovels, each pointing in a different direction. My boss’s wife, Azul, was my first true friend, even though she was twenty years older than me. Her husband kept her locked up in the house. At eleven every morning, he sent me there with a set of keys to see what Azul was doing and to ask if I could fetch her anything from the shops.

Azul would generally be lying on the bed in her underwear, with Mr. Unamuno all over her. Mr. Unamuno was a pigeon-chested old codger who had a program on public radio. His show always opened with the same line: “This is Unamuno: modestly depressed, engagingly eclectic, and sentimentally political.” Idiot. When I came into the room, Mr. Unamuno would spring up, tuck in his shirt, and clumsily button up his trousers. I, in the meanwhile, would be looking at the floor and, sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, at Azul, who would still be lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling, passing the tips of her fingers over her bared midriff.

When he was finally fully dressed and with his glasses on, Mr. Unamuno would come over and give me a rap on the forehead with the palm of his hand.

Weren’t you taught to knock, Turnpike?

Azul used to come to my defense: He’s called Highway, and he’s my friend. And then she’d give a deep and simple laugh, showing disconcertingly long canine teeth with flattened points.

After Mr. Unamuno had finally slipped out—all anxious—through the back door, Azul would wrap the sheet around herself like a superhero’s cape and invite me to jump on the bed. When we got tired of jumping, we’d lie down and play pocket billiards. She was always very gentle. When we’d finished that, she’d give me a slice of bread and a pouch of mineral water with a straw, then send me back to the newspaper stand. On the way, I’d drink the water and put the straw in my pocket for later. I eventually accumulated more than ten thousand straws, word of honor.

What was Azul doing? Mr. Darío would ask when I returned to the stand.

I’d cover for her, inventing the details of some innocent activity:

She was just trying to thread a needle to mend her cousin’s new baby’s christening gown.

Which cousin?

She didn’t say.

It must be Sandra, or Berta. Here’s your tip, and now off to school with you.

I finished primary, middle, and high school and passed unnoticed with good grades, because I’m the sort that doesn’t make waves. I never opened my mouth, not even to answer at roll call. My silence wasn’t for fear of them seeing my crooked teeth, but because I’m a discreet sort. I learned many things at school. End of beginning.

At the age of twenty-one, I was offered a job as a security guard in a factory on Vía Morelos, due to that selfsame discretion, I believe. The factory produced juices. And the juices, in turn, produced art. That is to say, the profits from the juice sales funded the largest art collection in the continent. It was a good job to have since, although I was only in charge of guarding the factory entrance and was never allowed into the gallery where the art was shown, I was in a sense the gatekeeper of a collection of objects of real beauty and truth. I worked there for nineteen years. Setting aside six months when I was off sick with hepatitis, three days for an ominous case of tooth decay that ended up needing a double root canal treatment, and my annual leave, I spent exactly eighteen years and three months as a factory security guard. They weren’t bad years, but they weren’t good either.

But one day Fortuna spun her wheel, as Napoleón, the singer, says. On the very day of my fortieth birthday, the Pasteurization Operator got a panic attack while he was attending to a DHL messenger, a plump man of medium height. The Polymer Supervisor’s Secretary had never witnessed a panic attack before and thought the messenger of medium height was assaulting the Pasteurization Operator, because her workmate had put his hands to his throat, gone purple as a plum, turned his eyes up, and let himself fall backwards, collapsing spread-eagled on the floor.

The Customer Services Manager ordered me to apprehend the messenger of medium height. Following his command, I made straight for the suspected criminal. My old friend and workmate, El Perro, one the factory drivers, was just coming in through the door; he ran toward us and helped me to pin the messenger of medium height down. But when I then hit the messenger at the base of his spine with the tip of my truncheon—not even very hard—he started to cry inconsolably. El Perro let him go, of course, because he’s not a sadistic type. While I was hustling the messenger to the exit, I asked, in a more gentle tone, for his ID. With one hand raised high, he put the other in his pocket and took out his wallet. Then, with the raised hand, he extracted his driver’s license and handed it to me, unable to look me straight in the eyes: Avelino Lisper—a ridiculous name. The Customer Services Manager told me to go back immediately to help my moribund companion, because he was still lying on the floor and couldn’t breathe. I told the messenger of medium height that he could go—though, in fact, what he did was to just stand there crying, bathed in tears you might say—and ran to the Pasteurization Operator, using the tip of my truncheon to clear a path through the curious onlookers. I knelt down by him, took him in my arms, and, for want of a better solution, silently cradled him until the attack had passed. El Perro, in the meantime, had to comfort the DHL messenger until he too calmed down.

The next day, the Manager called me into his office and told me that I was going to be promoted.

Guards are second class, he explained to me in private, and you’re a first-class man.

The Senior Executives had decided that, from then on, I would have a chair and a desk of my own, and my job would consist of comforting any member of staff who required this service.

You’re going to be our Personnel Crisis Supervisor, said the Manager, with the slightly sinister smile of those who have paid many visits to the dentist.

Two weeks went by, and, as the Pasteurization Operator was on temporary leave of absence, there was no one in need of comforting. The factory had employed a new guard: a fat, overeager little lovemedo sort of guy who went by the name of Hochimin and spent the whole day trying to chat with people. Discretion is a quality that few people appreciate. I eyed him condescendingly from my new position. I’d been given an adjustable swivel chair and a desk with a drawer containing a divine assortment of rubber bands and paperclips. Every day, I’d put one of each in my trouser pocket and take them home. I managed to build up a good collection.

But it wasn’t all velvet petals and marshmallow clouds, as Napoleón says. Some employees at the factory, particularly the Customer Services Manager, began to complain that I was now being paid to bite my nails and look at the ceiling. Some of them even hatched a conspiracy theory according to which the Pasteurization Operator and I had worked out the little scam so that he’d be given a month’s paid sick leave and I’d get promoted—typical cock-and-bull stories and skullduggery of miserable wretches who can’t deal with other people’s good fortune. After a general meeting, the Manager arranged for me to be sent on specialized courses, to keep me busy while, incidentally, acquiring the skills needed for managing possible crises among the staff.

I began to travel. I became a man of the world. I attended seminars and participated in workshops the length and breadth of the Republic, even the Continent. You could say that I became a collector of courses: First Aid, Anxiety Control, Nutrition and Dietary Habits, Listening and Assertive Communication, DOS, New Masculinities, Neurolinguistics. That was a golden age. Until it all came to an end, like everything glorious and good. The beginning of the end started with a course I had to take in the Department of Philosophy and Letters of the National University. It was given by the Manager’s son, so I couldn’t refuse without putting my job at risk. I accepted. The course was called—to my horror, shame, and consternation—“Contact-Improv Dance.”

The first exercise in the workshop involved inventing a dance routine, in pairs. My partner turned out to be a certain Flaca, who, though indeed thin, was neither pretty nor ugly. This Flaca used me as a pole, dancing around me in the style of that curvaceous, exotic artiste of the sixties, Tongolele, while I just snapped my fingers, trying to follow the difficult rhythm of the song, which she totally disregarded. She slid her hands over my body, ran her fingers through my hair, undid buttons. I continued snapping my fingers conscientiously. By the time the song had finished, Flaca’s femininity was in full bloom and I was deflowered, converted into a contact-improv dancer, standing half naked on a parquet-floored stage in the Department of Philosophy and Letters, my balls the size of two tadpoles. End of memory.

To save face, I had no choice but to marry Flaca a few months later. Et cetera, et cetera, and she got pregnant. I left my job in the juice factory, because she thought I had a real talent for dance and possibly theater, and shouldn’t waste any more time. I became her personal project, her social service, her contribution to the nation. Flaca was brought up in an all-girl Catholic school, and was as perverted as any of those rich white Mexican girls. But she had rebelled, or so she said, and was studying to become a Buddhist. As she had saved enough from her earnings—lies: it was her father’s money—she offered to support me if the dance-theater thing didn’t turn out to be particularly remunerative. I was ready to go along with that. I moved into her oversized apartment in Polanco and lived the life of a prince. Then, as always happens, after a pretty short time, Flaca got fat.

For all the élan I put into it, and despite the material perfection of my corporality, I couldn’t find work as a contemporary dancer or actor. I auditioned for the Icarus Fallen Dance Company, for Alternative Dimension, Cosmic Race, and even the Open Space group, which, as its name suggests, is very open and accepts anyone. Nothing. I was almost accepted by FolkArt, but in the end a shorty with the body of a shrimp and the ridiculously pretentious name of Brendy got the spot.

For a while I went around, as Napoleón says, like green wood that won’t burn and a tree that doesn’t put down roots. Flaca decided I had to cultivate myself, so she forced me to sit in on Classical Philology and Modern Literature lectures at the National University. At first I loathed the classroom life, but I grew into it, I believe because I am a flexible man. If I was going to be a father, I told myself, I’d need to be able to tell my son or daughter stories. I don’t know if I was a good student, since they never gave me grades, but it at least got me reading. I didn’t take to the novelists, but I did like some poets and certainly all the essayists: Mr. Michel de Montaigne, Mr. Rousseau, Mr. Chesterton, Mrs. Woolf. More than anything, however, I loved the classics. I read them from the first page to the last, word of honor. My favorite is Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, whose The Twelve Caesars I still consult, oracle-wise, every night before going to sleep.

Once in bed, the blankets pulled up to my chest, I reach with my right hand under the pillow and draw out the book—the way a cowboy would draw a pistol from under his pillow, but a bit more slowly. Then I close my eyes and, using both hands, open the book and raise it above my head, letting its pages dangle above me. Then I slowly bring it closer to my face, until my nose touches the edge of the pages and slides between two of them. Those are the pages I read. I often write the date on which I read them in the margin with a little note. On August 16, 1985, for example, I wrote, “I will be like Octavius Augustus when I am older,” and underlined the paragraph I had read:

His teeth were small, few and decayed [. . .] his eyebrows met above his nose; he had ears of normal size, a nose was prominent at the bridge and curved downward at the tip, and a complexion intermediate between dark and fair [. . .] His body is said to have been marred by blemishes of various sorts—a constellation of seven birthmarks on his chest and stomach, exactly corresponding with the Great Bear, and a number of hard, dry patches suggesting ringworm, caused by an itching of his skin and a too vigorous use of the scraper at the baths . . .

On September 19, 1985, there was a strong earthquake in Mexico City, as had been predicted by Julián Herbert, the astrologer in Diario Ecatepec. A few minutes afterward, Siddhartha Sánchez Tostado was born. That’s what Flaca called our son. I, for my part, liked the name Yoko, since I always had been keen on Japanese culture and the Beatles. But as the child was a boy, I had to accept Flaca’s choice. We’d agreed on that. Siddhartha was born healthy, without any distinguishing features. I won’t say that he was a pretty baby, but neither was he ugly. End of comment.

When Siddhartha was beginning to crawl and Flaca had finally gotten over her postpartum depression, I invited my friend El Perro to dinner. The evening had been going well, and we’d been recalling the old times with nostalgia until Flaca served the coffee, and El Perro told me that a few days earlier, he’d run into Hochimin, the replacement guard who chatted too much. He’d seen him in a cantina wearing an expensive suit and in distinguished company.

How did he do it? I asked.

He became an auctioneer, he said.

Just like that? I asked, struggling to swallow my coffee.

El Perro explained. It seems that what had happened was that when I left my job in the factory, Hochimin asked the Manager for permission to take a training course in case of a crisis among the staff. I believe he did this because he wanted to be like me. They only sent him on one course, for First Aid, but the shameless trickster made use of the free time to enroll in an auctioneering course in Mexico City’s Korean neighborhood, in the Zona Rosa. A month later, he gave up his job at the factory and began auctioning cars. He was doing well. Better than the rest of us put together, El Perro said.

The next day, I took the metro to the Korean neighborhood and walked the streets in search of announcements for auctions, auctioneers, or anything at all related. After hours of fruitless searching and with my soul racked by hunger, I went into a restaurant and ordered kimchi, the specialty of the house. In one corner of the restaurant, a ghostly youth was playing the guitar and singing a catchy sort of tune about a man who lost sight of a woman in the Balderas metro station.

I started leafing through a newspaper, trying to keep at bay the implacable gusts of melancholy that assail you when you don’t eat your meals at normal times. I had taken to reading the newspaper right through, particularly when I was sunk in the self-pity engendered by my repeated rejections in the world of dance and theater. Other people’s misery and other people’s fortune always puts my own into perspective. I read a story that day in the newspaper about a certain local writer who had had all his teeth replaced. This writer, apparently, was able to afford the new dentures and the expensive operation because he’d written a novel. A novel! I saw my future, crystal clear. If that writer had had his teeth fixed with a book, I could do it too. Or, even better, I could get someone to write one for me. I cut out the article and put it in my wallet. I still keep it with me at all times, as a talisman.

As I’ve already said, I am a lucky man. When I’d finished eating and was walking toward the door to leave the restaurant, my eyes came to rest on a notice taped to one of the walls. In neat handwriting, the appeal to my destiny read: “Learn the art of auctioneering. Success guaranteed. Yushimito Method.” While the waitress was preparing my check, I copied the address on a napkin.

The intensive initiation course into the art of auctioneering lasted a month and took place every evening from three to nine in the back room of Hair Charisma, a Japanese-Korean barber’s shop in Calle Londres. The teacher—Japanese by origin—went by the name of Master Oklahoma, because he’d studied auctioneering there. His real name was Kenta Yushimito, and his Western name Carlos Yushimito. He was a man of great breadth of mind, elegance, and distinction; the living embodiment of discretion.

My characteristic awareness of what is seemly, as well as my loyalty to and respect for both my teacher and our profession, prevent me from revealing the secrets of the art of auctioneering. But there is one thing I can explain about the Yushimito Method, which derives from a combination of classical rhetoric and the mathematical theory of eccentricity. According to Master Oklahoma, there are four types of auctions: circular, elliptical, parabolic, and hyperbolic. The strand that any auction follows is, in turn, determined by the relative value of the eccentricity (epsilon) of the auctioneer’s discourse; that is to say, the degree of deviation of its conic section from a given circumference (the object to be auctioned). The range of values is as follows:

THE EPSILON OF THE CIRCULAR METHOD IS ZERO.

THE EPSILON OF THE ELLIPTICAL METHOD IS GREATER THAN ZERO BUT LESS THAN ONE.

THE EPSILON OF THE PARABOLIC METHOD IS ONE.

THE EPSILON OF THE HYPERBOLIC METHOD IS GREATER THAN ONE.

With the passage of time, I developed and added another category to Master Oklahoma’s auctioning methods, although I didn’t put it into practice until many years later. This was the allegoric method, the eccentricity (epsilon) of which is infinite and does not depend on contingent or material variables. I am sure that my master would have approved.

During our first meeting, Master Oklahoma sat before us in a hairdresser’s chair and, in order to demonstrate the parabolic method, auctioned a pair of scissors. He successfully sold them by telling a short, simple story about their origins. Despite the fact that we were all there, sitting in front of him, notebooks and pencils in hand, fully aware that we were his students and not a group of buyers of any variety, since we had already shelled out the exorbitant price of the course, our grandmaster took the pair of scissors from the counter and worked on us until one student, Mr. Morato, pulled out his wallet and paid 750 pesos for it.

The most important thing in this life, Master Oklahoma used to say at the end of each session, is to have a destiny. He would scan our faces with an expression that gave nothing away and the barest insinuation of a smile. Then we’d count to eight in Japanese, breathing deeply, with our eyes closed, and the session would be over. We’d reverently take our leave of him and our fellow students with a nod of the head.

I had a clear goal, a destiny: I was going to become an auctioneer in order to have my teeth fixed, like that writer did with his book. More importantly, I was going to have them fixed so I could leave Flaca, who was always going to be fat and ill natured. And after that, so I could marry someone else—perhaps Vanesa or María or Verónica, the three most attractive students in the course.

Flaca had become mentally abusive. She used to make me pee sitting down because, otherwise, I splashed; she’d send me away to sleep in a chair because I snored; I was banned from walking barefoot because my feet sweated and left prints on the floor. She had developed issues with me, because she was the provider and I the consumer. When she got mad, she called me Gustabo or sometimes Gustapo or even Gestapo. At nights, when I couldn’t sleep, I used to imagine Vanesa calling me Beefcake; María, Gamecock; Verónica, Himbo. Restless, wide awake, I tossed and turned in bed—beefcake, gamecock, himbo, beefcake—thinking of my brilliant future as an auctioneer, thinking of my future teeth.

My perseverance, discretion, and discipline during Master Oklahoma’s course earned me a grant for a six-month advanced course at the Missouri Auction School in the United States. The New Jersey grant, the most coveted, was won by Mr. Morato, he of the scissors. I don’t bear him any ill will; he probably deserved it. The course in Missouri wasn’t up to my expectations, because it focused on the sale of cattle. But it was worth the effort, as I came back from the United States speaking good English. It was also during my time in Missouri that I conceived and developed the theory of my allegoric method. This method is, of course, the product of my own genius, but I was inspired by the daily sermons of our grandmaster auctioneer and country singer, Leroy Van Dyke. Just saying that name, I get the urge to stand up and applaud. I completely disagree with my second-uncle Juan Sánchez Baudrillard when he says that “Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth.” Van Dyke had both a robust identity and good teeth.

Grandmaster Van Dyke had composed the anthem of our guild, “The Auctioneer,” which recounts the story of a boy from Arkansas who wants to learn to be an auctioneer and starts to practice every day in the barn of the farm where he lives, with the animals as his audience. When his father and mother realize that he has talent, they send him to auction school, where he grows to become a full-fledged auctioneer.

Listening to Leroy Van Dyke sing “The Auctioneer”—which is also the central theme of my favorite film, What Am I Bid?—gave me the impetus I needed to fine-tune the conceptual details of my allegoric method. I’d realized that there was a gap in my profession—a gap that I had to fill. There was not a single auctioneer, adept though he might be in the frantic calling of numbers, or expert in the manipulation of the commercial and emotional value of the lots, who was able to say anything worth hearing about his objects, because he didn’t understand or wasn’t interested in them as such, only in their exchange value. I finally saw the meaning of the words Master Oklahoma had once spoken with an air of resigned sadness: “We auctioneers are mere hired heralds between the paradise and hell of supply and demand.” I, however, was going to reform the art of auctioneering. I would bury the word herald in the distant past of my profession with my new method. I wasn’t just a lowly seller of objects but, first and foremost, a lover and collector of good stories, which is the only honest way of modifying the value of an object. End of declaration.

I returned from the United States brimming with ambition and ready to forge a path toward my new teeth. The first thing I did was to organize a private auction. I sold one or two pieces of Flaca’s furniture and, with the proceeds, was able to buy new pieces for myself and pay six months rent on an apartment. I never saw Flaca again, thank God. But neither did I see Siddhartha for many years. Always, there was something dying inside my chest.

I focused on my profession. I began by auctioning furniture in the Portales neighborhood. Afterward, I met Angelica. I auctioned cars in Cuernavaca. I met Erica. I started traveling more and more. On those trips, I began to gather a collection of objects that I bought at very reasonable prices at special sales. I auctioned antiques across Europe; real estate in California; memorabilia in São Paulo. I went on auctioning. I met Esther—and so on and so forth until the prostate kicked in, and then I stopped counting women, but not auctions. I auctioned jewels, houses, ancient art, contemporary art, wine, cattle, libraries, and vast assets impounded from the drug trade. I lined my pockets swindling millionaires with a tap of the gavel: going, going, gone.

But I’m no arriviste. I guess I could have owned ten apartments in Miami, but instead I decided to buy land back in my childhood neighborhood, in Ecatepec. With this in mind, I purchased two plots, side by side, in the lovely Calle Disneylandia: it’s important to invest in national assets. Added together, I think the two plots were several hectares in size, though I’ve never bothered to do the math, as I’m not tightfisted either. On one of the plots, I erected a colorful three-story house with towers, being careful to leave enough rebar in place for further development, and not to evade taxes, as most people do in Mexico. On the adjoining lot, I built a warehouse in which I stored all the objects I’d collected during my life. Opposite this, I built my auction house. One day, I was going to construct a suspension bridge to connect the two buildings. I’d already drawn up the plans. Then, in honor of my grandmasters, I was going to inaugurate it officially as the Oklahoma-Van Dyke Auction House. All that was lacking was the land-use permit from the local council, which will always be granted—mañana.

It would be inelegant of me to finish my story by listing the benefits my arduous training and natural talent for auctioneering brought to both me and my community. I only wish to set down biography-wise that, in the year 2000, during a weekend trip to Miami, where I went to auction automobiles, the long struggle against the ignominy in which I was born and grew up finally came to an end. On a Sunday evening, after receiving a hefty check for having advantageously auctioned thirty-seven pickup trucks, I went with some colleagues to an auction of contraband memorabilia in a karaoke bar in Little Havana. They had met some apparently lovely lady friends the night before and had arranged to join them there. They promised it would be worth the effort. It’s not my habit to indulge in licentious behavior or do business on Sundays, but I decided to accompany them. It was to my great peace of mind that the four ladies, when they appeared, looked rather the worse for wear anyway.

When the auction began, I thought that there would be nothing to tempt me, since the memorabilia on offer was clearly also fifth rate: a watch belonging to some U.S. politician or other, cigars belonging to who-knows-what Cuban millionaire, a letter written by some unknown hirsute novelist who had traveled to the island in the 1930s. I had no intention of blowing my check, but, without the least warning, the god of tiny details set paradise before me. And paradise doesn’t come cheap. Right there, in the depths of the Sunday solitude of a Little Havana auction, I found them: my new teeth.

In the small glass box the auctioneer held high lay waiting for me the sacred teeth of none other than Marilyn Monroe. Yes indeed, the teeth of the Hollywood diva. They were perhaps slightly yellowed, I believe because divas tend to smoke. There was a feeling of tension and unease in the air when the auctioneer opened the bidding. Several ladies who had seen better days, including one of our lady friends, already had their eyes on them. A fat man in outdated clothes spread a wad of bills on his bar table and stood up to light a cigar, to intimidate us I think. But I dug in my heels and got them: the teeth—my teeth—went to me.

I showed such skill in the bidding that one of the lady friends—the worst of the four, a journalist with hair stiff like a doormat from too much dying, and sagging cheeks—wrote an article about the auction that appeared in the Miami Sun. Clearly jealous of my achievement, because she too wanted the teeth, her report was stark and twisted. What did I care? She’ll soon be eating her words, I thought, while I’ll be dining with my Marilyn Monroe teeth. As soon as I got back to Mexico, each of the teeth belonging to the Venus of the big screen was transplanted into my mouth by a world-class dental surgeon, the renowned Dr. Luis Felipe Fabre, owner of Il Miglior Fabbro, the best cosmetic dental clinic and depository in Mexico City. I did save ten of my old teeth, the best-looking ones, for later, just in case.

For months after the operation, I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. I showed everyone the infinite line of my new smile, and whenever I passed a mirror or a shop window that reflected my image, I would raise my hat in a gentlemanly fashion and smile at myself. My thin, ungainly body and my rather ungrounded life had acquired serious aplomb with the appearance of my new teeth. My luck was without equal, my life was a poem, and I was certain that one day, someone was going to write the beautiful tale of my dental autobiography. End of story.


Valeria Luiselli is a Mexican novelist and non-fiction writer. She is the author of Sidewalks and the internationally acclaimed novel Faces in the Crowd. This excerpt, printed with permission from the publisher, is a chapter from The Story of My Teeth, a novel forthcoming from Coffee House Press in September. Copyright © 2015 by Valeria Luiselli.