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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"Frigoland Draco, Viscount Dracul" or "Vlad the Engraver"

    He was a liar, and I’ll always love him for it. He was trustworthy, noble, and brave, but at the beginning and end of everything, Frigoland Draco was a liar. The lies he told were beautiful, so beautiful that even if you knew you shouldn’t believe it, you wanted to. He was only in my life for a part of a summer, but he changed the way I looked at truth, life, and the art of storytelling. 

            It was July of 1994 when Frigoland Draco pulled into a parking spot in downtown Rapid City in a beaten old Chevrolet truck with a camper topper. I watched from a wobbly chair in front of my workplace, the Atomic Café, a doomed espresso bar that catered to disaffected youth, as he climbed out of the cab and shoved open the rusty hood, which released a cloud of white steam. I was only fifteen, and by no means a mechanic, but I lit a cigarette and walked over to see if I could help in some way. Before I could even muster a word to him, he boomed out to me in a thick eastern European accent, “It is fucked. Do not bother. Does this place have food? We are starving.” I enthusiastically led him over to the café.

             He was an absolute beast of a man. His hair was wild in long black frizzed curls that became at some point an equally frizzled black and white beard. He was almost as broad at the shoulders as the blue Chevy that hissed at him, or at least so it seemed. He was barrel chested, clad in filthy denim jeans and a long sleeve thermal shirt. He removed his sunglasses, looked into me with shocking blue grey eyes and shook my hand, his massive fist squeezing my young hand until I thought it would shatter, and introduced himself.

            He was Frigoland Draco, Viscount Dracul, Prince of Gypsies and Rightful Heir to Carpathian nobility. It seemed too much to believe at the time, and even today seems too fanciful, but the vigor and confidence with which he introduced himself made a person want to believe. Over the course of the next month, as he waited for the repairs on his truck, he regaled the patrons and staff of the Atomic Cafe with constant tales of his past. He spoke of things from his bloodline as a direct descendent of Vlad Tepes (the inspiration for Dracula) to escaping with his life after seeing his family murdered at the close of World War II. He told tales of traveling Europe while exiled from his home and his eventual migration to the USA. He told tales of love and danger, tragedies of devastating loss and hilarious tales of hi-jinx. When he would begin a story the cafe would fall silent, every ear ready to be entertained by a master storyteller.

             All of his stories were larger than life, but always a story from his own life. For example, he told the story of watching his parents, Romanian nobility, being murdered when the rebels crashed the family palace gates during the popular uprising that followed World War II. His sun worn face contorted to a devilish scowl as he barked out in Romanian, the threats of the soldiers who kept their guns trained on his family. Tears glistened in his beard, his clenched fists did not wipe them away, and he sobbed as he played the part of his own mother, begging for her life, and his hirsute fist slammed frighteningly hard on the coffee counter to punctuate the gunshot that ended her. His steel blue eyes lit with a half century of focused fury as he quietly, and tenderly told us how he lay on the floor with his entrails spread beneath him, as he watched the soldiers rape his older sister while he could do nothing to stop them. There was not a moment where his body and posture failed to tell the story just as much as his words.

              It didn’t take long for slight holes to start showing in his stories, though. Dates would change, the sequence of events would become disordered, and characters from one tale would suddenly become part of another story. A greedy schoolmaster from London would play a role in a later story as a hard-nosed trucking boss from New Orleans. And, of course, the most obvious give-away was that his accent began to change sometimes. In the middle of a story his eastern European drawl would make way for a few sentences of an Irish lilt. When these hiccups in the façade came often, others who listened to him frequently began to become disenchanted with his tales, but not me. Knowing that he was acting from the very moment he met me made the performance even greater in my eyes. The most fascinating thing to me was that anyone who had never heard the story would be just as enraptured as I had been. Many listeners, like me, would listen delightedly in spite of the inconsistencies.

          Everything he did seemed to both contradict and confirm his tales. Thick scars across his massive body showed clear evidence of his bloody battles, until the story where they were clear evidence of his near death in surgery. He moved slowly and deliberately, showing signs of arthritis and back problems, until he leapt nimbly to the defense of a young woman being assaulted in the alley; his limbs suddenly lithe as any athlete. He would clasp his hands and twist his face as the pain would stop him from rolling a joint, yet those same twisted and agonized hands would etch amazing works of art into the bathroom mirror before he left.

          I spent nearly every day watching, listening and talking to him in the cafe. I would drive him around town to do his shopping, and frequently I would stay out far past curfew to listen to his stories as we smoked in the graffiti covered alley. I would watch as he earned his money by engraving fantastic designs on glass and mirrors, intricate scrollwork laced with flowers and mythical creatures. While he did his glass engraving he would tell his current customer a secret tale of his adventures, and I would watch and listen. At one point I quite frankly and candidly asked him why his accent would change sometimes, to which he laughed heartily and said, “I have been all around this world, and have learned many accents. Do not think of it.” A sly look warned me not to press the issue further, but also let me know this was all part of the trade of storytelling.

          Every afternoon was spent smoking Lucky Strikes and listening to these stories from the alleged Viscount, until the day came when his truck was repaired, his debts were paid, and it was time for him to leave. That afternoon I gave him a token, a small glass mushroom that I had made myself while learning to blow glass, wrapped into a leather lanyard as a pendant. He made a show of being overwhelmed with gratitude and took me by the hand. He pulled a ring from one of his fingers, a massive sterling silver eagle, and placed it in my palm. “It is too big, now. You will wrap it with thread to fit your thumb, one day it will fit. I am prince of the gypsies, and today I make you my little brother. You too are a prince, every road belongs to you. Wear this and go, it is all your kingdom today.”

             He left in late August, with promises he would be back next year, but I never saw him again. He has stayed with me in many ways, though. He taught me the art of storytelling, and how important it is to never let the facts get in the way of entertaining those who lend you their ear. He showed every single tale, not just the ones he told, is but an elaborate lie stretched around a framework of truths. Frigoland gave to me a crown of lies, a fable of nobility to fuel my own stories, and a silver ring as an anchor to reality to prove that this was as true as lies can be.