excerpt from 'The Story of My Teeth'
The Story of My Teeth
By Valeria Luiselli, Christina MacSweeney
COFFEE HOUSE PRESS
All rights reserved.
BOOK II The Hyperbolics, 31,
BOOK III The Parabolics, 67,
BOOK IV The Circulars, 95,
BOOK V The Allegorics, 117,
BOOK VI The Elliptics, 145,
BOOK VII The Chronologic, 173,
(beginning, Middle, and end)
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. Afterwards, 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.
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 of 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, 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.
Excerpted from The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, Christina MacSweeney. Copyright © 2015 Valeria Luiselli. Excerpted by permission of COFFEE HOUSE PRESS.
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