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Authors: Lili Wright

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BOOK: Dancing with the Tiger
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Anna dried herself with a stiff towel, slapped her cheeks for color, pulled on a dress, then emptied her backpack, refilling it with a notebook, pen, water, Swiss Army knife, dictionary, key. This reduction felt good. She reviewed the next twenty-four hours: meet Lorenzo Gonzáles, take the overnight bus to Mexico City, get a cab to Tepito, buy the mask, be back in Oaxaca, margarita in hand, by tomorrow evening.

Then she'd bury her mother.

Anna sat on the bed, momentarily overwhelmed. The cross glared like a hex. Back in New York, David was screwing Clarissa with the lovely underwear. She was poring over press coverage, tweeting his Twitter, feeding his ego, feeding his face. She'd fix puttanesca. Blow his job.

Anna counted her money. Two grand for Gonzáles in one envelope. Given that her father had already wired the looter two grand, she owed the digger only eight. She put that in a second envelope. An extra two grand remained. Her father's travel money. A slush fund for masks. She slid the bills into her wallet. The money felt filthy and sensual. Like David. She checked her phone again. No calls. No texts. Sadness pressed the roof of her mouth, singed her nostrils, rose into her eyelids. She fought back. She would fight back. She poured half a shot, downed it. Revenge was a dish best served cold. Well, forget about it. This was Mexico. The journey to purchase the greatest pre-Columbian archaeological find of the modern era began with a single step. Anna got up, wobbled. On the threshold, she lowered her shades.

At the cupid fountain, she dragged her hand along the frayed edge where the concrete had crumbled. The baby's plump face was serene, his innocence made ironic by amputation. An angel with one wing was headed in one direction. The only question was how fast.

ten
THE CARVER

Emilio Luna rose from bed and felt, though his furrowed hands attested otherwise, that he was still a young man. The mask carver made coffee, padded onto the concrete patio of his home in San Juan del Monte, a hill town outside Oaxaca. His tools lay strewn in yesterday's wood chips. The air smelled like cedar. He bent to touch his toes, came close, reached toward the sky, came close, hiked his pants, sat down on his tree stump, propping a pillow behind his back. He picked a chunk of wood, then measured the customary thirty centimeters and saw he had a problem.

This piece of wood was too small; still, he didn't want to waste it. He turned it over, waiting for a solution to appear. He sketched his idea on cardboard. He drew human lips and eyes round as coins, with bulging, transfixed pupils. With a machete, Emilio Luna sliced off the bark, roughing out the form. Resting the mask in his groin, he worked pick
and mallet until a countenance emerged. Next step, sanding. Juanito, the boy with Tourette's, his usual helper, was not around. The boy's mother was sick and Juanito had to care for his sisters. The carver had forgotten the mess of sanding, how dust settled in your socks and ears. The boy deserved a raise.

His wife appeared. He didn't look up.

“Voy al mercado,”
she said. I'm going to the market.

“Sí.”

“What's wrong with the tiger? It's different.”

“Yes, I know.” His tone was more scornful than he meant it to be. “I am an artist. I don't have to do it the same way every time.” He had on occasion argued exactly the reverse.

His wife frowned. “I took money from the pillow.”

He nodded, pretending not to notice she wanted his attention.

“I'll be back.”

Only after his wife had turned did Emilio Luna look at her: her wide hips, bowed legs, apron ties. How had he married such an old woman? As a young man, he had imagined married life would be as peaceful as a Sunday picnic, where he would lie in the shade of a eucalyptus tree while a sweet girl soothed him with kisses that tasted like apples.

Of course, his wife would return. Where else could she go?

Emilio Luna painted spots on the tiger's face, which gave the animal a crazed expression, then shellacked the mask and propped it to dry. Tired, he fell into the hammock, listened to the birds.

An hour later, he awoke. The mask was dry. He punctured two holes and tied the mask over his face. He didn't usually try on his masks, but this one was different. Thin shafts of light entered from each side. He grabbed a pair of sweatpants off the drying line and
draped them over his head, knotting the legs under his chin. For Carnival, dancers bundled their heads with scarves, but the effect was the same. Darkness. Claustrophobia. His rising panic reminded him of the one time he'd put his head underwater.

The carver paced the terrace, picking up speed and adrenaline. He breathed in what he exhaled. Animal in, animal out. With a broom, he whacked the hanging laundry. His wife's enormous bra fell to the ground, and he hooked the strap and helicoptered it around his head until it soared into his neighbor's front yard. Emilio Luna whooped and chased the cat past the woodpile until the animal leapt over the wall to safety. He stabbed the bushes, jousted the unsuspecting hammock until he caught sight of a wicker chair sitting defenseless in the sun. He bludgeoned the innocent straight through its straw heart.

Everything stopped. Quiet in an instant.

Dizzy and depleted, the carver ripped off his mask and fell into the injured chair, waking from a dream he was already forgetting. The cat inched back, wound crazy eights around his legs. Emilio Luna buried his fingers deep in its fur.
Dumb animal, so quick to forgive.

Maybe this new tiger mask had a strange power, or maybe he was just a light-headed old man on a warm day. He could make no sense of his feelings but was certain of this: When his wife asked how her bra had ended up in the neighbor's yard, Emilio Luna would blame the cat.

“Buenas tardes, Emilio Luna.”

The carver looked over cautiously. Good news seldom came unannounced. Sure enough, a drunk man was leaning on his gate. The
borracho
was short, sallow, unshaven. His faded pink T-shirt was streaked with gray stains. A half-empty Corona swung from his meaty hand. The man seemed pleased, enjoying a private joke.

Emilio Luna was about to tell the stranger to move along, when he spoke in a clear voice: “Why do you not greet me today, my friend?”

The carver recognized the mashed-up features and laughed. “Ah,
patrón
. That's a good one.”

It was rare to see Reyes in the village, but the drug lord showed up once a season, a reminder or warning, and bought a dozen masks with crisp bills. Emilio Luna didn't like to sell his art to the detestable El Pelotas—it was like promising your sweet daughter to a pedophile—but what choice did he have? The carver had his pride, but he also had a belly—and a wife, a cat, a donkey, a half-dozen children, and too many grandchildren to remember their names. Every man, woman, and child came to Emilio Luna with a hand open wide.

He stood, wiped his callused hands clean. Compromise was its own sort of courage.


Buenas tardes, patrón,
come in.” He beckoned his guest with a smile and a lie. “It gives me much happiness to see you in our village today. I have finished a mask that is perfect for you.”

eleven
ANNA

A muscular housekeeper with a string of earrings led Anna in to see Lorenzo Gonzáles. The dealer was an enormous man, whose faint goatee struggled to cover his flabby jowls. He was nearly bald and his skin looked anemic against his white guayabera shirt. Dusty books and withered plants cluttered his office. A chessboard rested on a precarious pile of paper. He was playing against himself, winning and losing. The only sign of modernity was a calendar of Garfield, grinning with pointy teeth.

Gonzáles offered Anna a warm, pudgy hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you after our phone conversations.” His English was perfect. “Please sit down, Miss Ramsey. Your father is coming.” He glanced past her.

“No, he's not here.”

“He's coming later.”

Anna shook her head.

“He sent you to Mexico alone.”

“I sent myself.”

“You do not collect masks.”

Anna hated when young people turned basic statements of fact into questions, hiking their voices at the end of sentences, even when confirming their names, but Lorenzo Gonzáles had the equally annoying habit of doing the reverse.

“I'm here to collect the mask, but I am not a collector.”

The dealer leaned back, looking concerned. “How is your father? The Centurion affair was a terrible shock.”

“You heard?”

“I heard.”

“Everyone here heard?”

“Everyone.” He sniffed. “It is a small circle. Collectors, scholars, dealers, curators.”

Anna hadn't realized the full extent to which she had been the last to know. “All the people he cares about.”

Gonzáles shrugged. “But your father has not given up. This is a good thing. He has faith in this new mask.”

“He has faith because
you
have faith.”

“I never make promises until I hold a piece in my hands, but I wanted him to have the first chance to see it. I try to keep my clients happy.”

“You trust this looter?”

“Trust . . .” Gonzáles's smile rose and fell. “Understand. I deal art. I collect art. I read. I write.” He gestured to his bookcases. “I know scholars from universities, museums, foundations. I know billionaires and princes. I also know gang members, looters, smugglers. I am not afraid
of either world. Both need me. With a stroke of the pen, I can make a fake legitimate or a legitimate fake.”

He stopped to consider her. “You have great faith in your father.”

Her faith—or lack of it—was none of his business. She changed the subject. “I'm planning to take the overnight bus to Mexico City,” she said, hoping he would offer her a ride.

“I would take you, but I must make a stop in Puebla first, so we will meet at the direction, sorry, the address, tomorrow. Take a cab from the bus station. Your father should have come. Tepito is no place for a woman alone.”

Nothing egged Anna on more than the insinuation she wasn't up to a task. Gonzáles seemed to sense this. “Four o'clock,” she said. “I'll be there. I'll bring half the money and pay the rest later, after I see the mask.”

The dealer shook his head. “There is no later with people like this. If you do not bring the full amount, he will sell it to someone else. Such people lack patience. You can imagine why.”

“But it's not safe to carry—”

“If you want safe, go to the Zona Rosa and pay a hundred times as much. The mask is affordable because your father is buying it
first
. Naturally, there are risks.” Gonzáles sat back, making room for his stomach. “Bring me the mask after, and I will make a full report for you.”

“Haven't you already—?”

“The mask must be professionally authenticated and its value assessed. You can't do that from a photograph. Without documents, you have nothing but a stolen mask.”

“Stolen?”

“Unauthenticated. Without provenance. A lost shell on the beach. It cannot be legitimately bought or sold. The mask needs a history. I
will give it one.” He tapped his pen on the desk. “You work for a living, Miss Ramsey. Besides the book.”

“I'm a fact-checker.”

“I don't understand.”

“I check information before it goes to print. Make sure everything is accurate.”

“But your own book was full—”

“One's own mistakes are the hardest to see.”

“How true . . . A fact-checker.” The dealer practiced the expression. “The truth is seldom popular. So you are always honest—with family, friends, relationships.”

“I used to tell the truth,” Anna said. “Now I just keep quiet.”

The dealer was quiet himself for a moment, then said, “Your father wants revenge.”

“Redemption.”

“You travel to Mexico, to Tepito, for him.”

“I have my own reasons.”

“Professional.”

“Professional and personal.”

“What personal reasons could a fact-checker have to want an Aztec death mask?”

It was his first genuine question, one Anna had no intention of answering.

She waited out the silence. Gonzáles looked uncomfortable, then rallied a smile. “Well, that settles everything, except, of course, my commission.”

“Shouldn't we wait and see if everything goes smoothly tomorrow?”

Gonzáles pretended to actually consider this. “I think not . . . No, I'm afraid that's not how these transactions work . . . Not that I don't
trust you, but we've just met. I forwarded your deposit to our friend, as promised.”

Anna debated whether to argue, but thought better of it. She reached into her backpack and handed him two grand. The dealer fanned the bills and smiled.

—

Anna's phone rang
as she walked back to the
zócalo
.

“You went, didn't you?”

“I did.”

“You have the money, I trust.”

Anna was proud of her moxie, but her father sounded more worried than pleased. She told him she had the money. Had he noticed the urn was missing? Apparently not. She wouldn't bring it up.

“You shouldn't have gone,” he said. The springs in his chair whined as he sat. Anna listened for ice cubes. “I was going to go.”

She found some shady steps across from a toy shop and a
papelería
. “You're not much of a traveler these days,” she said. “It's better I went.”

“Nonsense. I'll meet you in Mexico City tomorrow.”

“Don't worry. I've got it covered. I'll call when I have the mask.”

“Where are you staying?”

“The Puesta del Sol, but—”

“See if they have another room. I'll go back to Oaxaca with you after. Or do you have two beds? That would save a few bucks—”

“I repeat:
Do not come to Mexico.
” He'd probably already packed his explorer's vest with bug spray and batteries. “By the time you get here, I'll have the mask. Then I'm taking a vacation for a week. Buying folk
art. Getting a tan. Everything's set. I'm meeting Gonzáles tomorrow in Tepito.”

“Tepito?”

Anna smiled. “That was the address. Google Maps. Click, click.” She couldn't help herself.

“Have the twigger come to his office instead. It's safer.”

“The twigger has an office?”

“Gonzáles's office.”

“Gonzáles doesn't have an office in Mexico City.”

“He probably does. The guy has a finger in every pie.” Her father still sounded put out. “If I'd known you were going to take off like that, I wouldn't have told you. Your mother would never forgive me.”

Her father did this a lot. Extrapolate what Rose would have wanted or done or thought. Anna softened her tone, told him she was happy to do this for him, for the family. “Mom would have done the same. She often did.”

His chair squeaked. He'd gotten up, was walking somewhere.

“You're not going into the kitchen for ice, are you?”

Her father said he was not.

“I mean it. No ice.”

“If you must know, I need to take a piss. I am walking to the bathroom, so when we hang up, I'll be eight steps closer.”

“No cocktail to soothe your nerves. No father's little helper.”

They spoke about his drinking with code words and black humor. Daniel Ramsey had never been a mean drunk, more a sentimental bore, weepy and apologetic, praising his late wife, building her into a saint.
Your mother understood me. She was the only one.
Anna had quit listening. She wanted to remember her mother in her own way, just as
she wanted to forget her father's worst days, like the morning she'd found him passed out in his chair, sodden with pee.

“I've been sober two years now,” he said, irritation lining his voice. “Don't worry. We'll celebrate the mask of a lifetime with sparkling water and low-fat Triscuits.” His tone switched to concern. “Call me when you have the mask.”

Anna promised to text.

He sighed with this new burden.

“I showed you, remember? It's easy.” She explained it again.

Before they hung up, her father told her he loved her. Anna said the same back. They didn't usually say this. Instead of comforting, the words reminded Anna how far she was from home.

Outside the
papelería
, a pretty girl twirled her hair. She had perfect skin. Anna tried to imagine being sixteen, innocent still, wearing a yellow dress in the sunlight, waiting for adult life to begin.

—

Water. Coffee. A margarita.
Anna needed three drinks to get where she wanted to go. She was gathering momentum, smoothing the ragged edges left from turbulence and translation, bracing herself for the night bus to Tepito.

Her café seat afforded a full panorama of the
zócalo
. She could see how her parents had been so completely seduced. Rose gardens encircled the bandstand. Older gentlemen on wrought-iron benches flexed their newspapers. A shoe shiner beckoned on bended knee.
Zócalo
, the word rolled off the tongue like music. One table over, a Mexican family chattered over Cokes. No doubt they mistook her for a tourist, a woman fretting about the exchange rate, the safety of ice cubes. How could
they know she'd traveled all over Mexico as a girl, riding cheap buses with her father, snoring elfin women tipping, tipping into her lap.

A motorcycle pulled up and parked. Its driver scanned the café, chose the table next to Anna's and sat down. He was tall for a Mexican, his features strong but irregular, a jumble of spare parts. With jeans and a frayed T-shirt, he carried himself with a bohemian nonchalance Anna coveted and resented. An elastic cinched his chin-length hair. He looked distracted, as if his body had arrived a few minutes ahead of his thoughts.

There is your tall, dark stranger. Now wrestle him into the shower.

The man ordered an espresso, lit a cigarette, opened a notebook. Anna pretended to watch some children by the cathedral who were lobbing giant cigar-shaped balloons. He was studying her. Her skin tingled and she tried to convey
no
even as she knew that with a second margarita the answer would be
maybe
. Chastity, like abstinence, was a virtue best begun tomorrow.

“The children are beautiful,” the man said in English.

Anna took in the particulars: his sideways smile, his shirt rumpled from wind, the dark circles under his eyes. Blue paint had dried in his arm hairs. On one thumb, he wore a silver ring, and on a chain around his neck, a small sphere.

“I like children at a distance.”

“You are not ready for motherhood. I was once asked to be a father, but I declined. One must know his limits.” He snuffed his cigarette. “You are American?” His presumption annoyed her. She'd like to pass for Swedish on a good day. German, on a lesser one. “You're on vacation,” the man said, unfurling his hand. He knew her story by heart. “To see the museums, Monte Albán, buy souvenirs from indigenous children?”

“Actually, I'm working.”

“Working?” He glanced at her margarita.

“I'm writing a book on Mexican masks.” This lie came out smoothly. Her father had said the same thing at every
rancho
they'd visited. Years later, it sounded only slightly less convincing in English.

The man twirled his coaster. “A book about carvers?”

“Carvers, masks, the history of folk art . . .”

“You are here for Carnival.” The man curled his hands into claws. “To chase the Tiger?”

Anna tilted her head. “I am always chasing a tiger.”

He introduced himself. Salvador Flores. A painter. His studio was three blocks off the
zócalo
. He invited her to stop by. Anna wondered whether he found her attractive or whether he pulled the same charming-artist routine for all the
extranjeras
, like the spindly Argentinean she'd met in San Miguel de Allende who'd invited her to see his yarn paintings. She'd gone to his apartment—how had she been so innocent, so trusting?—but there were no paintings, just yellowing newspaper clippings about an opening a decade before. They talked. He'd tried to kiss her, his breath reeking of sugar and smoke. She got up to leave, worried he might forcibly stop her, but he'd just watched her go, as if she didn't matter at all.

“You've come to the right place for masks.” He leaned in. “Did you know a mask is not considered authentic unless it is danced? Such a romantic idea. If you really want to meet carvers, you should hire a guide. Someone who knows the villages, speaks the language. I give tours, if you are interested.”

So that was what he was after. Of course. Anna slid her finger around her spoon.

“I can manage.”

“You speak Spanish?”

“Me defiendo.”
I defend myself. I get by.

“You have a car?”

Anna shook her head.

“You have been to Oaxaca before?”

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