Prologue to “The Grief Orchid”

a novella


Ok. So. The story goes my Mentor and distinguished ex-professor Milton Munn faked his own death in the parking lot of Moonrise Movies, a fire-rutted cinema on the outskirts of Wissahickon, Wisconsin, at approximately 10:15 p.m. on April 16, 2011, and promptly disappeared without a trace. Yeah. I know. 

Leave it to the Year of the Horse to fuck shit up. A bucketful of ketchup and a closed casket funeral and you’re dead in the eyes of the ever-living world, apparently. Milton dead? Ridiculous notion. The Mer-People Living Among Us special on the Discovery Channel was more convincing. So I lingered around and kept my ear to the ground, listening for gossip of Milton’s ghost. Mostly I got nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zero. Draw a circle round me, cause I had nothing. Well, to be completely honest, that’s not all true; now and then tips would come trickling in from unseemly sorts. Ambulance-chasing psychics and confidence men, mostly. Some other professional noses. All in all: a whole lotta noise. Still I kept on with the chase; Milton was my golden goose.  

I spotted a disguised Milton reffing a high school girls’ basketball game last July. Come the shrieking of the final whistle I pursued him past the locker rooms. A thick steam emanated from the open door. A mob of bobbed cheerleaders emerged cackling. I weaved between them, but it was too late: Milton turned a corner and disappeared into a puff of smoke. In January of the next year, an ancient Russian witch by the name of Baba Yaga, slings hotdogs on the corner of Lake and Miles, does impressions of 18th century steam ships to concerned passersby, told me that her friend saw him buying a Polish sausage in Times Square on New Years’ Eve.       

Then there was the matter of the Lithuanian circus troop in Moscow’s Fire District, and the remarkably familiar-looking contortionist who jumped in a padlocked hatbox that was promptly thrown in the river. And then the Polaroid from Jakarta, of all places delivered in a nondescript manila envelope of a VW motorcycle ridden by a hooded man who, after some investigation, turned out to be a tall midget in a bald cap after all. 

And then, ho! What do we have here? Along comes Duke Finley, out of the baby blue of early March who says he’s spotted Milton hiking Mt. Pine right here, no less, in Wissahickon, not ten miles away from my doorstep. But let’s get one thing straight: Finley’s a drunk. He said he saw Milton when he was at work, but that would’ve been at nothing short of a thousand feet up a steel pole wasted on bathtub gin. See, Finley repairs cables in radio masts  He’s the only one in town who knows how, but he’s so scared of heights, he’s gotta be lush to do it. So I figured a thousand feet up a steel pole in a cloud of his own making, what does he know? and ignored it.

If all these scattered half-stories have scrambled you up - my sincerest apologies. I’ll elaborate. Allow me to rewind the tapes. A Terrible Incident occurred in March of 2011, and Milton was the fall guy. Someone’s got to face the music, I guess. But Milton and I, our research, we were on the cusp of a miraculous something, about to make history, toiling long hours for the Apollinaire Prize, the award given to “(s)he who Zealously Endeavors to break down the Wall between the Natural and the Supranatural, and thereby Loosen the Fetters of a Collectively-Hallucinated Reality.” Due to the sensitive nature of our research I dare not speak at this juncture to what we were working on, but know that by the advent of the Terrible Incident we had long since been entangled in a dark snare from which we might not have extracted ourselves had Milton not faked his own death a month before the project was to be finished. And just like that, he was gone.  

Still, with all communication with my professor severed, I decided to continue our work without him -seeing as I was quite capable to complete the work on my own- with the hopes of one day publishing it (with a memorial nod to my undead dead mentor, of course). The whole thing had been my idea in the first place, after all.

So here I was in Wissahickon, working away on a future breakthrough. It was nice, for once, to take a step from out behind Milton’s shadow. But then, two years later, I hit the Great Snag of 2013. My calculations were insufficient; there was one equation I couldn’t quite seem to solve, a gap as problematic as a missing capstone in an arch. I knew that, should that final piece fall into place, I would be able to complete the work on which we had labored for years. I also knew I couldn’t do it without him. So I was reduced to having to raise Milton Munn from the dead. 

Thus the goose chase. It was a challenge, sure. But I like challenges. But now, as of the mid afternoon hours of April 24th, 2015, I’m reasonably sure that my Milton Munn, 67, a brilliant and disgraced ex-professor of Botany at Northampton University, is back. And for once it turns out I was wrong. Finley was right. Milton Munn was on Mt. Pine. After two years of cutting my teeth as an amateur detective in search of the elusive professor-savant, Milton reveals himself to be hiding ten miles from my doorstep.  What in the hell were you up to on that mountain, Milton Munn? And why, exactly, have you chosen to come back?

I can’t confront him yet. He might be dangerous. The time will come. Until then, I’ll watch and wait. I’ll keep this journal. So here I am, Timofey Oleander, making a solemn vow to diligently follow and observe Milton’s movements, if not for my own sake then for Milton’s, and actually, now that I think about it, the Good of All Humanity.

Let these notes humbly serve as my field guide to Milton Munn. I swear on my life that I’ll solve this, even if it kills me. Ready or not, here I come.