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Chicagoist Presents A New Story By Barry Gifford: 'The King Of Vajra Dornei'

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 15, 2014 8:00PM

photo by moominsean

We're delighted to keep our annual tradition going by presenting a brand new story by Barry Gifford. His wintry tales have been brightening Chicagoist with their dark moods each December since 2009. So pour yourself a dark, bitter beer (or perhaps a stiff shot of țuică) and enjoy. Gifford's next book, The Up-Down, will be published in 2015 by Seven Stories/Random House.

The King of Vajra Dornei
Barry Gifford

One of Roy's most interesting childhood friends was Ignaz Rigó, who, following high school, had vanished into the greater world. Ignaz Rigó was a Gypsy kid whose family owned a two-story building on Pulaski Road next to the tuberculosis sanitarium. Roy had been to Ignaz's house a few times between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, and there never seemed to be fewer than twenty people, apparently all related, living there. The Rigó clan also occupied a storefront on Diversey, where the women, including Ignaz's mother and sisters, gave "psychic readings" and sold herbal remedies for a variety of complaints.

          Ignaz, Senior, Roy's friend's father, called Popa, was always at the house on Pulaski whenever Roy went there. Regardless of the weather, Popa and an old man, Ignaz's maternal grandfather, named Grapellino, sat out on a second floor balcony on lawn chairs overlooking the street, talking and smoking. Both men were always wearing gray or brown Fedora hats, long-sleeved white shirts with gold cuff links buttoned at the neck, black trousers and brown sandals. Roy asked lgnaz what Popa's work was and Ignaz said that his father kept the family in order; and that Grapellino was a king in Vajra Dornei, which was in the old country. Roy asked Ignaz why, if his grandfather was a king in Vajra Dornei, he was living in Chicago. Ignaz told Roy that Lupo Bobino, a bad king from Moldova, had poisoned Grapellino's first wife, Queen Nardis, and one of his daughters, and commanded a band of cutthroats that drove the Rigó clan out of Romania. Grapellinu and Popa were planning to return soon to the old country to get their revenge and take back the kingdom stolen from them by Babino's brigands.

          "I'm goin' with them," Ignaz said. ''We're gonna cut the throats of Lupo Bobino and everyone in his family, including the women and children. Last July, when I turned thirteen, Popa showed me the knife I'm gonna use. It once belonged to Sulciman the Magnificent, who ruled the Turks back when they kicked ass all over Asia. The handle's got precious jewels on it, rubies and emeralds, and the blade is made from the finest Spanish steel. Popa keeps it locked in a cabinet in his room. It's priceless."

          Roy lost contact with Ignaz, who did not finish high school with him. Just before Christmas when Roy was twenty-one and back in Chicago on a visit from San Francisco, where he was then living, he went into the storefront on Diversey and asked one of Ignaz's older sisters, Arabella, who told fortunes and gave advice to women about how to please their husbands, where her brother was and what he was doing. Arabella, who was not married, had big brown eyes with dancing green flames in them, a hook nose, a mustache, and a thin, scraggly beard, as well as the largest hands Roy had ever seen on a woman. She told him that Ignaz was on a great journey, the destination of which she was forbidden to reveal. Arabella then offered Roy an herb called Night Tail she said would bring him good fortune with women, which he declined with thanks. Looking into Arabella's eyes, Roy remembered, made him feel weak, as did the thought of what she could do to him with her huge hands.

          A year or so later, another former high school classmate of his, Enos Bidou, who worked for his father's house painting business in Calumet City, called Roy and told him that he'd run into Ignaz in East Chicago, Indiana, where Ignaz was repairing roofs and paving driveways with his uncle, Repozo Rigó.

          "Remember him?" Enos Bidou asked. Roy did not, so Enos said, "He went to jail when we were still at St. Tim the Impostor. Got clipped for sellin' fake Congo crocodile heads and phony Chinese panda paws."

          "When we were thirteen or fourteen, Ignaz told me he would go one day to Romania or Moldova with his father and grandfather Grapellino to take back Grapellino's lost kingdom."

          "Well, I seen him a month ago in Indiana," Enus said. "He's got a beard now."

          "So does his sister," said Roy.