The Writing Disorder


New Fiction


by M.E. McMullen

       I have a friend in Philadelphia. An art dealer. Out of respect for his family, I won’t mention his name. The jackpot he put me in started with a tip on a gallery in Mexico City run by a guy named Don Manuel. For this, he says, I owe him big time. My name is Al W. Houser, Jr. by the way. The ‘W’ stands for Wilburton. My mother, God rest her soul, was superstitious. Four generations back, at least one of the boys in the family got plastered with the middle name “Wilburton.” She wasn’t about to break the tradition of the “Wilburton” curse.
       They call me “Dash.”
       I may be a little slow, but unlike my dear ma, I am not superstitious. In Mexico City, shopping for art for the S.W. Florida Museum Combine, I dropped by Don Manuel’s gallery. Superstition was the last thing on my mind. Don Manuel, a gracious gentleman in his early fifties, poured cognac and lamented the loco art markets. “They sell off national treasures,” he said, “and collect hack art from the streets. Do you believe in maldicions, Senor Dash? Curses?”
       He took a rolled parchment from a worn leather case. It was an antique map of the Durango region. “The map was declared to be a tool of the devil by Cardinal Alva,” he said. “It shows the lost city of El Dorado and is on an official list of maldicions. Cardinal Alva claimed that the bones of many a lost soul lay bleaching in the sun because of this map.”
       “I don’t believe in curses, but a provenance like that can give a piece great value.”
       “Outside the Durango region, it’s a map,” he said. “I ran up there to look around,” he said. “The map started undergoing subtle changes; dots moving; lines shifting. I got lost.”
       “The proverbial wild goose chase.”
       He smiled. “Running down a legend.”
       Bringing Mrs. Brunzy up to speed was tricky. She runs the combine with an iron hand inside a velvet glove. I omitted the nameless Philadelphia dealer from my pitch because I knew she’d recently had issues with him and I didn’t want to muddy the waters. Mrs. B. is no more superstitious than I am, but she knows a good sales hook when she hears one. Don Manuel would give us first dibs to sponsor a US tour. There would be other exhibits — jewelry, fine art and sculpture, architectural achievements and antiquities — but the El Dorado map would be the centerpiece. Mrs. B. can smell money, even over long distances.
       A few days later, when she flew in to Mexico City expressly to see the map, I knew her plans went beyond a tour. “We’re going up to Durango,” she said. “I’ve hired Eduardo Sanchez, top guide in the region. The Rincon Brothers, documentary film makers from Mexico City, will accompany us. The university is on board. If there’s a lost city up there, Dash, we’ll find it. After all, we do have a map.”
       The sky was streaky blue the whole way from Mexico City. Mrs. B. wanted to get a feel for the region, so, we took a caravan. Don Manuel used his map case for a pillow. I enjoyed the scenery and chatted with Mrs. B., quite pleased with myself for steering her to this find. “Natives told tales of a city with gold lying in the streets,” she said, “where one could carry away a fortune in his pockets. If the conquerors were off looking for a city of gold, they weren’t hanging around abusing the locals, were they?”
       We spent the night in Aguas Alientes, famous for thermal baths, reaching Ciudad Durango the next afternoon. Our hotel was just off the Plaza de Armas. We met with Senor Sanchez. Sanchez was a stocky man in his early sixties, fixed with a look of natural skepticism in his eyes. He studied the map for a few minutes, shook his head. “I’m sorry to disappoint you,” he said, “but this is a fake.”
       Mrs. Brunzy hadn’t driven two days to hear such talk. “This map is a national treasure,” she said, with what I thought was remarkable calm. “Its authenticity has been verified by a dozen of the best experts in Mexico. It is not a fake.”
       Sanchez spoke softly, “This line of dashes on the map outlines the continental divide,” he said, “which curves through these mountainous regions north of Cuidad Durango. Forgive me, Senora Brunzy, but how can a map made hundreds of years ago show the continental divide, which wasn’t established until many years later?”
       Don Manuel smiled patiently. “The dashes weren’t there yesterday,” he said.
       Sanchez stared in disbelief. “The map developed the lines on its own?”
       “They started appearing when we crossed into the region.”
       Several people were nodding. It was true. Nobody had any explanation, but it was true. “What do you make of that?” Sanchez said.
       “You first,” Mrs. B. said, smiling.

       Mrs. B. rented six large ATVs.
       Using satellite images showing local roads, we began our advance toward the place marked “El Dorado,” going more and more slowly as the terrain grew steeper and increasingly treacherous. On the morning of the third day, a mist had come rolling in off the mountain. By noon, a slow and steady drizzle had developed, which lasted through the afternoon. Not unusual weather this time of year, we learned. The going got rougher. By early evening, one of the ATVs had tipped over and was blocking the road. While the crew dealt with that, we climbed the last few hundred yards. Within the hour, the tents were up, and we were out of the dreary weather.
       They spread the map on a table. “The San Lorenzo River flows south from the mountains,” Sanchez said, “turns west to the sea. We are here, north and east of the turn, not far from the lost city site.”
       “At the university, they did infrared and ultraviolet imaging analysis,” Don Manuel said. “They did X-rays, sonic waves, gamma rays and an MRI. After all that, they still couldn’t agree. El Dorado seemed to float between the mountains.”
       When we left Durango, three Federales officers came along. There were folks from the archeology departments of several universities, and the documentary film crew. The university people set up overlays of satellite ground imaging through the Durango GPS satellite booster systems, coming up with several possible routes into these remote areas.
       The terrain northeast of the Rio San Lorenzo is desolate and rugged.
       The going gets quite slow. While our Federales escorts scouted ahead for routes and watched for signs of bandits, we moved slowly along, coming to a stretch of bluffs that Sanchez thought might correspond to certain squiggly lines on the map. We made camp there and took another look. “If the El Dorado region is just beyond these bluffs,” Sanchez said, “it falls within the famous Zona Del Silencio. Did anybody mention that?”
       “What are you talking about?”
       “Mexico’s Bermuda Triangle, a region where unusual magnetic conditions hamper radio traffic. Some say the Zona Del Silencio is pure superstition, but a geologist I know in Durango says it’s very real because of the magnetic rock running through there.”
       Mrs. B. laughed. “Any UFOs or Big Foot sightings, Senor Sanchez?”
       Sanchez grinned. “No, senora, just meteor craters and radio dead zones.”

       At dawn, the camp was buzzing.
       Something ghostly had moved through the brush over night. Everybody heard it. At first light, they all went off into the bushes, with the film crew right behind. There was Mrs. B., leading the charge, sixty two inches of bad news for any bandito foolish enough to mess with our expedition. “Great documentary footage,” Don Manuel said, as we tagged along behind through the grass. Don Manuel had a touch of lumbago, which made him pretty slow, but I still had trouble keeping up. They don’t call me ‘Dash’ for nothing.
       Soon, we were all laughing.
       The ghosts that’d been shadowing the camp were grazing idly a few yards down the hill; a herd of wild donkeys. The Federales wanted to shoot them, but Mrs. B. wouldn’t hear of it. “Those animals are protected by treaty,” she said angrily. “You harm a single hair on one, and I’ll see that you face charges.”
       “Great footage,” Don Manuel whispered.

       Later that afternoon, Don Manuel looked worried. “Dots are moving around on the map,” he said. This wasn’t something we’d seen before. Three distinct clusters of tiny, tiny dots were moving around on the map surface, so slowly as to be almost imperceptible, but moving. We were standing there dumbfounded when a commotion drew us outside. A group of local farmers had been stalking the donkeys, spitting and calling them “langostas” — locusts. They were about to start shooting when Mrs. B. intervened. Their leader, Hector, was a young firebrand with a thick, black beard. “These langostas must to be destroyed,” he said in broken English.
       Mrs. B. wasn’t hearing it. “These animals are protected by the Treaty of Guadalupe,” she said. “Anybody harming one will be charged.”
       Hector frowned mightily. “I have sworn by the eyes of my children to kill these filthy beasts,” he said, moving toward the donkeys, who continued to graze nearby, unaware of the danger. Mrs. B. blocked his path, “I have sworn by the eyes of my late husband, Sol Brunzy,” she said, “and my son, Sol Junior, ungrateful lout that he is, that any cabron trying to poach these donkeys will have to shoot me first.”
       Paralyzed in disbelief, Hector gave no resistance when the Federales moved in and took his gun. It wasn’t long before Mrs. B. was on the short wave creating endowments for a Save the Donkeys Foundation at the Bank of Durango and setting up a fund to protect farmers from crop damage caused by incursions of wild donkeys. When it was over, we asked Mrs. B. if she was worried. She smiled.
       “This Treaty of Guadalupe,” Sanchez said, laughing, “There is no such thing.”
       “I’m sure our bodyguards would’ve stopped him,” she said.
       We laughed. The last thing she needed was a bodyguard.
       Moving dots on the map spooked the farmers, who backed away, blessing themselves and crying. “pulgas,” which means “fleas.” Sanchez got them back focused on the map, and after much discussion, they decided that the two sets of squiggly lines might’ve been a formation they knew, called “el estadio.” the stadium. It was made up of parallel ridges a mile or more long, they said, facing each other like the sides of a soccer stadium.
       For grueling days on end, we tramped the wild country, searching for the giant stadium. Fire ants got into everything. Scorpions and wasps terrorized us daily. My blisters had blisters. Strictly speaking, this wasn’t the `art business’, but the combine was by far my best customer, so my options were limited. The next day, stumbling up a lumber road like a dozen others we’d seen, I reached a personal low in morale. I asked Don Manuel, “What were we thinking about, coming out here?” He laughed. “The gold blinded us,” he said.
       We gathered around Mrs. B., who held the rolled up map aloft. “Senor Sanchez and I agree,” she said, “that if we don’t find anything today, we’re going back to Durango to rethink the plan.” This was met with sighs of relief by everybody but the fire ants.

       An hour later, gazing from the crest above yet another desolate valley, Sanchez broke into a grin. Looking through binoculars, he pointed toward a spot way out on the side of a hill where tiny specks were moving through a broad wash. It was the wild donkey herd. We soon realized that following their path would put us in the very shadows of two rocky ridges facing each other at the far end of the wash. Sanchez conceded it might be the elusive el estadio, but he still thought the map was a fake.
       Up close, the formation didn’t look much like a stadium.
       We set up camp, and soon, the crew was laying out excavation grids. Don Manuel and I hung around, pitching in where we could. After two days of digging, they turned up pottery shards, parts of tools, ancient fence posts, fragments of jewelry and ornamental stonework. Mrs. B. made no claims, but there was a fuss all the same when word got back to Mexico City. The press picked up on it. Soon, the Durango dig was being hailed as an archeological find, and speculation was rampant in the press that the little lady from Florida had found evidence of a lost city.
       At a press conference, Mrs. Brunzy discussed the USA tour, which would coincide with the release of the documentary. The El Dorado map would be featured. Mexican universities were inviting the worldwide scientific community to submit papers addressing the map’s apparent technologies. Affidavits establishing the spontaneous appearance of the continental divide lines inside the Durango region were put on file.
       Investigators at the university repeated their tests. Carbon-14 dating was inconclusive. MRIs, extensive electron microscope studies and sonic frequency modulation imaging revealed nothing new. Meanwhile, “All interested parties” were invited to the site in west Durango, to witness some “additional experimentation.” This should’ve made us suspicious. The army had set up a regular shuttle service going to and from a makeshift landing area near the El Dorado site, so, Don Manuel and I grabbed a ride out from Durango to join the others.
       From a landing area we didn’t recognize, we were driven by tight-lipped Mexican Army MPs to a camp without a single familiar face where we were stuck without explanation in a stuffy tent. A man with a narrow face appeared; Colonel Aguja. His faux smile grew more faux with his increasing frustration as we expressed our ignorance about the migrating dots and dashes on the map. Don Manuel shrugged and repeated a phrase in Spanish to him: Que mas corra.
       At one point, the colonel called me “Dash,” which I found unsettling.
       When our friends finally showed up, Colonel Aguja thanked us for coming, like it’d been a birthday party. Before he and his henchmen disappeared, he put a hard stare on Don Manuel. “Que mas corra,” he said.
       Don Manuel shrugged it off, saying that the army had its nose in everything. “Because they’re so corrupt themselves, these official types suspect mordida everywhere,” he said, rubbing his finger and thumb together. “They see the map as a tool against the cartels.”
       “What was that phrase you repeated?”
       “Que mas corra,” he said. “Whoever runs fastest.”
       “This tour deal is rolling down the track. Army Intelligence had better move quickly if they want to get some input about this map.”
       We told Mrs. B. and Sanchez about Colonel Aguja. They were dismayed but not surprised. The field tests, we learned, had been unremarkable. At one point, all the ‘interested parties’ were put in a dark room with the map. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were being observed under some kind of night vision system, to see if somebody was tweaking the map by remote control.
       Around the hotel, all during the ride to the airport, I felt creepy, like we were being watched. I’m pretty sure I was followed home from the airport by a man and a woman in an unmarked government car. I asked my lawyer to make inquiries.
       I dropped around to see my nameless Philadelphia dealer friend a few days later. He’d heard the hoopla out of Mexico.
       “Pretty strange, huh, Dash? That map?” he said.
       “Pretty strange.”
       “Mom and the combine had to be pleased. They can turn some serious money with the tour and a film. I bet she’s happy.”
       “Ecstatic,” I said, recalling the frown on Mrs. B.’s face when I told her that it was Sol, Junior who set me up with Don Manuel.
       “Maybe she’ll start returning my phone calls,” he said.
       (Now, I’ve gone and revealed the identity of my dealer friend, whose name I wasn’t going to mention. Knowing Sol Brunzy, Jr. as I do, I’ve never doubted he would stiff me or his mother’s combine in a heartbeat, if he thought he could. As for my outing him, these things happen.)
       “One other thing, Sol.”
       “Hey, you’ve thanked me enough, Dash,” he said, holding up his hands in defense against further deluges of gratitude. “You recognize that you owe me big time for this map steer. What’s left to say?”
       “Don Manuel got the map through you, Sol. You left that part out.”
       A guilty smirk passed across his face, followed by a frown. “So?”
       “So, running it through Mexico City makes sense, of course, but if you don’t mind my asking. Where did you get it?”
       “Well —”
       “Just so you know, Sol, there’s been a white van parked down the street from my gallery all week. My lawyer’s been asking around, but there’s a lid on.”
       Instead of being straight with me, Sol slipped into one of his routines. Maybe old Dash was getting a little, you know, paranoid. Maybe they shouldn’t really get into this map pedigree thing because these people wanted to, you know, remain anonymous. He hoped I understood.
       Yeah, right. This is what people say who don’t care whether you understand or not. Sol managed to keep the grin going, but it didn’t mask a look in his eye which I interpreted as uncertainty and fear. “This isn’t public knowledge, Sol,” I said, to tweak him a little, “but they’ve studied this map pretty thoroughly. In Mexico, the scientists are calling it an “anachronismo,” something out of time. Everybody is going to want to know where it came from.”
       “It’s not that simple, Dash.”
       “Sure it is, Sol. You invest your reputation and money in something, you want the full pedigree. These people aren’t stupid.”
       He made a nervous laugh. “There’s a gallery in L.A.; Cal Davis and Associates. I have a credit line. Cal kept his eyes open. If something came along, he’d give me a shout. He called me about the map. We decided to run it through Mexico City. He recruited Don Manual to broker the deal. There was a note saying that the map might’ve once belonged to Durango’s `most infamous citizen.’”
       “Most infamous citizen?”
       “My buddy, Benito Alverez, who is from down there, said that could only be Pancho Villa. Benny told a story. There are caves in the hills north of Durango. The legend goes that Pancho Villa met the devil in one of those caves and traded his soul for power. Because the devil gives double what he gets, Villa was promised he would rule Mexico, and was given something to seal the bargain, a valuable object.”
       “What object?”
       “Who knows? The bill for the Last Supper? The lost San Felipe diamond? The key to Maximillian’s vault? Who cares? Who’s to say it wasn’t a treasure map? Villa never became leader of Mexico, but he plundered a lot. There are documents listing property seized when he went down. There’s a pedigree in there somewhere, Dash.”
       “You checked it out, Sol?”
       “I spoke with Cal Davis’ daughter. He got the map from Waterson Antiques up in the bay area. Let the Mexicans talk to them.” Solly laughed. “You know, Mom wouldn’t have touched this with a ten foot pole if she knew I was involved, Dash. You would’ve been skeptical if this came out of L.A.”
       “Well —“
       “I forgot to mention, by the way, that Mom broke her arm yesterday. I didn’t know if you heard. She had a fall at the house.”
       “That’s terrible.”
       “Freak accident.”
       Speaking of, Don Manuel’s gallery in Mexico City was flooded by burst pipes. When I called, he told me about Sanchez being in a car crash.”
       “My mother tripped over a delivery sitting in the foyer.”
       “You’re joking.”
       “A nice piece. Twenty inches tall. A donkey carved from milk chalcedony.”
       A chill crept down my back. I told Sol how the angry farmers and wild donkeys had basically led us to the site.
       “All the makings of a curse,” Solly said, smiling. “The press will pick up on it. Count on that. You’re looking at some serious commercial potential here.”
       “And to think I had this figured for a scam on the Florida combine.”
       “How could you think such a thing?”
       “My faith in you began to wane, Sol, around the time I learned that your art dealing pals in Miami were wanted in six states.”
       “Two states, Dash, be fair; — and Dash?”
       “Be careful going home.”

       I was careful going home.
       My first check on the El Dorado deal rolled in a few days later. Five nice figures. Money I could use. It sat on my desk. A creepy feeling came over me every time I saw it, like depositing it would put me over some line.
       Russ Waterson called back from San Francisco.
       He bought the map at an estate auction in Marin County. He’d gotten lost, arrived after practically everything was sold. There were some lots lying around that hadn’t been bid on, including these antique maps. They had a washed out look, ragged edges and cramped writing. It was easy to see why nobody wanted them. He was about toss them back on the table when one caught his eye. Among the places identified was “El Dorado.” There were El Dorado legends in abundance to be sure, but none relating to the mountains west of Durango so far as Russ Waterson knew. He bought the lot for a minimum two hundred dollar bid.
       Barely a week later, people from the auction house were at Waterson’s door. There’d been a mistake. They wanted the maps back. They offered him two thousand, then, five. When they saw Waterson wasn’t going for it, they left. Within days, he was in the hospital, close to death with acute food poisoning. He eventually recovered, but had to sell his business. He admitted it was irrational to blame the map for his troubles, but he did anyway. They never figured out where he got the food poisoning.
       My lawyer checked out the Marin County estate liquidation.
       There were antique maps on an inventory of the estate of one Gerald Hawkfeather, a well-known Native American collector in the bay area. The entry for the map in question said, “Antique Map (ED).” No indication how Mr. Hawkfeather acquired it. Roberto Morales, meanwhile, one of the university people, called to tell me that they found an item on a government inventory of goods taken from one of Pancho Villa’s plundered estates in 1925. “Antique Map (ED),” it says. May not mean anything, but he’s faxing a copy. I told him about Waterson’s unfortunate experiences and was met with stunned silence.
       Last night in my dreams, the FBI had me surrounded.
       Their leader was a Mexican with a mustache, bandoliers, a floppy hat and a bullhorn, demanding I turn over the devil’s map or die. I came awake in a cold sweat. The white van was gone by then, but I started noticing suspicious people hanging around, vehicles parked in odd places, overlong glances in the supermarket line. One highly suspicious guy in CIA sunglasses turned out to be a dad waiting for his soccer kids. I felt stupid and more than a little disturbed about how silly I’d become, which set me to thinking about something Mrs. B. said.
       It was a couple days after her confrontation with Hector. We were having lunch out at the site, talking about the map. “When my husband died,” she said, “I didn’t want to go on. Life lost its purpose. Eventually, I got over it, but the feeling came back at times. That map allowed me to let go of it for good. I don’t know why. Somehow, that weird map gave me hope.”
       That didn’t strike a chord with me at the time, but it does now.
       Strange, but the map gave me hope as well. It was something nobody could trivialize with tedious explanation. It was mysterious, the tip of a metaphysical iceberg, standing for the mysteries of the world that can’t be marginalized to banality by relentless dissection and analysis. My own personal truth is that I should never have gone out there to El Dorado in the first place. I’m a lard-assed art dealer, not an archeologist; — and, I didn’t go just once. That could be forgiven. I went twice, and would do it again, miserable as it was. I was part of something mysterious out there, something historical. That map wasn’t just an over-the-top artifact find for all time, which was plenty; it was a national treasure, the only important piece I’d ever be associated with in my entire back burner career. As long as there were things around that no one could explain there was hope that there was more to this life than met the eye. Scientists from around the world had tried. Working off a hypothesis involving highly sophisticated smart material nanno-technology operating within an undetectable wireless connection grid, they came up with an explanation which actually sounded plausible, but involved a great deal of supposition. Who made it? Hard to say. There was nothing anybody was able to see that gave it any kind of identity. Somebody made it. Why is also hard to say. People ask me, like I know something. You can stand with Cardinal Alva that the map is the devil’s tool, luring greedy fools to death in the burning sun. Plans for one are supposedly on the internet, but I doubt the veracity. I learned that Mr. Hawkfeather acquired the map in Durango; where and when isn’t clear.
       If the map is cursed, and I’m not saying it is or isn’t, nothing especially bad has happened to me. I turned my ankle last week, but that was my own fault and not something to pin on the curse of the map. If I break my leg, or if the fire ants survive the winter in the crevasses of my luggage, I may reevaluate. I’ve been living with the Wilburton Curse all my adult life, so one more doesn’t bother me.
       The bad experiences of Mrs. Brunzy, Don Manuel, Sanchez and the dealer, Waterson, don’t prove anything, of course. As for their not finding any gold lying around on the ground down there, consider that everybody involved stands to do well when this takes off. Who says the map didn’t lead them to gold? Not me. Who says we won’t continue to be confronted by things no one can explain? Not me. I deposited the check this morning. Here goes, huh?

M. E. McMullen's work has appeared in numerous print and online journals and been nominated for both the Pushcart and Hugo awards. This year his stories are appearing in Untoward Magazine, Temenos, Newport Review, The Tower Journal, Nova, The New Renaissance, Raft Magazine (sound recording), Pif Magazine and Blue Lake Review. His non-fiction commentary 'Pub Crawl,' exploring online markets for fiction writers and poets, will be appearing in Press 1.

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