About the Writer
Karen Munro's work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Hunger Mountain, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. Her short story, "Shed Season," was nominated by Redivider for a 2013 Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and works as a librarian in Portland, OR.
That’s Pringreen. There--that mantis of a man propped on the corner with his hand in his pocket, fondling something. A dent in the top of his stovepipe hat as if someone put it there with a single outraged blow. The tails of his coat dusty and soiled. I think he’s looking at you. If he is, if he comes this way, I’ll go.
But perhaps he’s just considering the bakery sign behind us, or that scruffy fellow on the curb. Perhaps I’ve misjudged the angle of his gaze. You seem a regular, a decent sort of man. Not one of Pringreen’s. But it’s so hard to tell what secrets a man has heaped up inside.
Don’t run, he’ll only follow. Stand straight. Avoid his eye. Look at me as I talk, I’ll think of something to say. Perhaps he’ll go away on his own.
Pringreen wasn’t always quite this way. They say he was once a captain in the military, despite the tremor. They say the tremor is due to the spirochetes corkscrewing into his brainpan. They say the spirochetes are due to family relations, the Lady Pringreen his mother having been infected in an encounter with a Japanese rifleman, also possibly the reason for the narrowness of Pringreen’s eyes if not their greenness. If not his tall and stooping frame. But then they also say the Lady ate tulip bulbs and drank gentian violet for colds. It can’t all be true.
What’s certain is that whatever Pringreen once was, he’s something different now. Not just another man, with his own native twists and turns. He’s all twists now, all turns. He’s nothing but. That’s what draws him to certain men, the ones riddled with veins of murk. He sees it in you, and he knows you. Or perhaps he doesn’t know you. Perhaps he’s merely glancing at the sign. My apologies.
What's certain is that Pringreen is now a man of invisible means, that he lives on street corners and in dark passageways, that he knows secret ways from one point to another. He can disappear into one alley and emerge from another half a mile away in the jitter of an eye. He finds his men that way, and follows them. Wherever they look, there he is. His sallow cadaverous face, his rotten teeth and grey lips. His black eyebrows, tweezed thin as a woman's--Pringreen was a beautiful child, and never left vanity behind. His long fingers owning the corner of your coat. His knowing smile, his look of pitying surmise.
What he asks of the men he follows, I don’t know. Favors, perhaps. Money, maybe. If a man denies him, he'll appear again and again, night after night on any block, under any street lamp. His green eyes moist and knowing, his manner gracious. The man’s friends will scatter, as if from the stench of a corpse. After a week or a month of it the man may disappear from the ward, or he may be found shivering in a doorway, or he may wash up on the riverbank. Pringreen himself disappears back into the alleys, into the cobblestones and bricks. He never tells his reason, and his chosen man never squeaks it either. Well, obviously. I mean, would you?
They say that somewhere deep in the sewers, Pringreen has a home. Not the family manse, which was long ago reduced by lightning strike or arson to smoking rubble and a few brass doorknobs, and which was anyway far outside of the city, on a bald heath overlooking the sea. Now, Pringreen lives in a wooden box once used by the ward library as a book return. First he climbed inside and squatted in the darkness, mumbling approval. After a few days the box itself disappeared into the bowels of the ward, and no one has seen it since.
Pringreen wears wilted onion sets in his lapel in springtime. He wears a threadbare grey stovepipe hat with a dent in the top of it, and a brick-colored suit that smells of mold. He has one rotten tooth in the upper left side, another down below--so when he buttonholes a man his breath is like dead meat, and his smile a broken windowpane.
He’s smiling now. At you, I think. Or maybe at those girls, hurrying away down the sidewalk. We’ll wait another minute. If he comes this way I’ll go.
If the stories about Pringreen were strings tied to his jacket tails, they'd be knotted thick as church bell ropes by now.
Pringreen was a chantry prodigy: he could say how every martyr died before he walked a step.
Pringreen, in his military years, took a bullet to the head and never minded. He won a medal for his indifference.
Pringreen made love to the Infanta when she was forty-two, to the daughter of the Infanta when she was sixteen, and to the Infante when he was sixty-three.
Pringreen's mother dyed doves, with colors Pringreen ground from living whelks.
Pringreen escaped the burning of the family estate because he was called out to the village by an angel’s voice. Or perhaps he was in the brothels that night, on top of the girl he favored. Or in the cellar, soaking rags in kerosene.
When the floor of the First Dominion Bank vault rotted and fell through, spilling thousands of dollars and guilders and kroner and francs into the burbling sewers...Pringreen knows where a small fortune ended up. He climbs headfirst down through the manhole in the middle of First and Main, unmoors a cracked rowboat from beneath a spillway, and rows a mile underground to visit his greening hoard.
Pringreen’s stories are so tangled that nobody can tease them straight. Did he woo the Infanta before or after he lost his place in the military? Dye doves for his mother while the family mansion still stood--or after its demise? No one knows. But there is one story everyone knows. The one that made him who he is--a dog forever at point for sin, a needle quivering in the red of vile appetite, a black and twisted seam like the half-melted relic of a silver platter in a burnt house. That story, everyone knows. I’ll tell it, while we wait.
A girl was crossing a springtime street in the finest quarter of town, holding hands with her governess. Behind was her house, a handsome slate pile with an empty oculus beneath the roof. In front was the park, where the child was going to feed peacocks with her governess.
The child was floss-haired, rose-stained, twelve years old. Pringreen stood stock-still on the corner with his hand in his coat pocket. As they passed, the governess glanced at Pringreen and stopped short. A man passing by said later that she looked pale. Then she started up again, and pulled the girl along into the park.
Pringreen, too, was struck motionless--but not by the woman. For weeks he haunted the street outside the child’s house, the shops where she bought sugared almonds and soft peppermints, even the theater where the family pulled up a velvet-lined coach and descended in the glow of the gas lamps. Trembling violently with spirochete, Pringreen drew himself up and grinned as if he were starving. The girl came to know him. She called him ‘the green man,’ and left him gifts of daisy rings and stolen fruit.
The child’s father, a florid solicitor, came out onto the front step and shouted into the night, waving his service pistol. Pringreen melted away. But he was back again the next day, shuddering in an alcove as the girl stopped at a box of kittens outside the butcher’s. She coddled one in her small hands. The governess refused. The girl cried. At last the kitten boy got a few coins and they left -- governess and child, and tender puss cradled in the child’s infatuated hands. Pringreen’s trembling increased.
That evening the child played alone with the cat on the front step. Pringreen, emboldened, drifted near. On the pavement outside the gate, he tipped his head and whispered. No one knows exactly what he said. But the kitten turned and stumbled down the steps toward him, as if pulled on an invisible string. The child came after.
It was late summer, a still sapphire evening under the plane trees, under the empty gaze of the oculus window. The child was barefoot, dressed for sleep. Inside the house, far down the long carpeted hallway, her parents murmured.
When the cat neared Pringreen’s feet he reached through the gate and scooped it up in one hand. He slipped it into the pocket of his coat and looked through the iron roses at the child.
“Come home with me,” he said. “I have more kittens,” he said. “Two are black with green eyes, and two are grey with blue eyes, and one is red and has just one eye.”
“All cats have two eyes,” said the girl.
“Not this one. This one is blind and bald.”
She gave him a doubtful look, then glanced over her shoulder, at the long shadows on the front steps. “I have to wash my face.”
“I washed the Infanta’s face with cream,” he said. “I can do the same for you.”
The child was only twelve years old. She put her hand to the latch.
Just then someone stepped up behind Pringreen on the pavement. Someone quiet and quick, dressed in a long dark coat and a soft hat that came down in front like a spent flower drooping from its stem.
There was something else--something that Pringreen knew but the child didn’t. Pressed to Pringreen’s back was the barrel of a pistol.
“Go inside, dear,” said the figure. It was a woman, with a voice that was familiar to the child but that she could not connect to the shadowy person in front of her--and so she immediately forgot it. “Your mother wants you.”
The child turned and ran back up the steps. She disappeared down the hallway like a candle blown out in a dark room.
Pringreen, trembling, latched his fingers through the gate’s iron rosebuds.
The woman stepped away with an air of distaste, taking the pistol from his back. He turned and saw the governess, wearing the gardener’s mud-splashed overcoat. Her hat was the battered old fedora that the child’s father sometimes wore on Sunday afternoons in the park. In her hand was the child’s father’s gun.
“I want her,” said Pringreen, fixing his corkscrew eyes on the governess’s steady brown ones.
“I know that,” said the governess. She raised the pistol and pressed the barrel to his chest. “If I see you again I’ll put a ball through you.”
“I want her,” said Pringreen again, as if she hadn’t spoken.
The governess moved the barrel of the gun to his forehead. “Right here,” she said. “And we’ll see how much you want her after that.”
Pringreen’s green eyes grew crafty. “I have money,” he said. “A fortune. More than you can imagine.”
The governess laughed. Behind her lips her teeth were brown and crossed. “You don’t know me,” she said. “But I know you.”
Pringreen looked confused, so she lifted her chin to help him. He looked at her for a long moment, his eyes swimming. Then his eyelids dropped, and he looked away.
“I don’t know you.”
“No,” she said. “But you remember me.”
Pringreen said nothing.
“A long time ago,” said the governess, “when you first came to live in the city, you knew a girl. In Madame Agathe’s house.” Pringreen made no response, though his lip trembled. “Pretty and blonde. She came from the country.”
Pringreen’s hand went into his pocket. There was a quiet mew.
“You used to visit her,” said the governess. “You’d spend the night, and come back again the next day. You used to lie on top of her and cry.”
Pringreen was seized by a single, violent tremor that shook him from head to toe.
“She had a daughter, about three or four. She’d make the girl sit outside in the hallway when you visited. When you stayed the night. The girl slept there while the men walked by. Sometimes they were drunk or cruel, and stepped on her.”
Pringreen shrugged, looking away.
“The woman caught pregnant,” said the governess, “and you stopped coming.” She tilted the pistol so that its barrel caught the last of the light. “It’s a lovely piece, don’t you think?”
Pringreen looked at the gun.
“Heavy,” she said. “Made for a man’s hand, of course. But I know how to use it.” She drew back the hammer with her thumb, and the pistol gave a solid click. “A girl learns how, growing up where I did.”
Pringreen’s mouth worked, but he said nothing. There was a movement in his pocket.
The governess put out her hand, the one that wasn’t holding the gun. “I paid for that kitten. I’ll have it back.”
Pringreen hesitated, then took his hand from his pocket. Between finger and thumb was the cat. He put it in the governess’s hand, and she slipped it into the pocket of the gardener’s coat.
“And I’ll have you fitted for a coffin,” she said, “If I ever see you round that child again.”
Pringreen’s eyes slid sideways, regarding her with a modicum of fear. “I never stepped on you.”
“You made her sick, like you are. She died badly. The baby too, not that you’d care.”
She raised the gun until the barrel lined up with one of Pringreen’s jittering eyeballs.
“Look in there,” she said. “Black, isn’t it? Black and secret, the way you like it. And why should I give you what you like?”
She let the gun dangle loosely from her hand. “What I will do,” she said, “is allow you to continue as you are now. A disease. Let every decent man and woman turn away from you, and every filthy one be your friend.”
Then, with a single quick gesture, she chopped the barrel of the pistol into the top of Pringreen’s hat. The blow forced the brim down over Pringreen’s eyebrows, and left a dent behind. That same dent he still wears now.
Pringreen raised one hand and touched the dent with careful fingers. His eyes gyroscoped. His mouth trembled. He drifted across the street to the park, where he melted into the evening trees.
The girl’s family moved east shortly after that, and the governess went away. No one ever saw her in the city again.
But Pringreen stayed, and there he is now on the corner, with his green eyes fixed on you. On you, I’m certain now. Not on any other man, and thank God not on me. And oh Lord, here he comes, with his legs shaking and his hands thrust into his pockets, stroking something unseen.
I’ve told my story. Not my story really, but the story that we all know, the one that taints the air around every one of Pringreen’s men. You’re welcome to it. Because I can see now that you’re his man, whether you knew the tale or not. I wish you luck, or courage, or maybe just a speedy termination to your dealings. Whatever it is that men like you need.