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From the novel-in-progress
by Donald O'Donovan
Roderick, the homeless former university professor, was full of stories. When he was lushed up, which was frequently the case, he’d tell the same stories again and again, but the details usually varied enough to keep it interesting. One of his favorites tales, often repeated, was the story of the Freakmaker, which he claimed he’d first heard in Paris years ago from the lips of a man named Grobbel.
It was a balmy day in Los Angeles. I went for a stroll in Lafayette Park and ran into Roderick and Mad Rosa the Flower Lady. Roderick—charismatic, professorial—had managed to corral a well-heeled tourist couple and a meal was in the offing. We all sat on a bench near the Marquis de Lafayette statue. I’d already heard the story, of course, and Mad Rosa had only a little English, so I suppose most of what Roderick said went over her head, but she didn’t seem to mind. “I never should have allowed Grobbel to accompany me to dinner that night at Marcel Arnaud’s,” Roderick began. “But Grobbel…Grobbel desperately needed a decent meal and Marcel Arnaud, generous guy that he was, told me: ‘A writer? Sure, bring him along!’ “It was Paris…1959. I was a student at the Sorbonne, and I was having trouble making ends meet. I was sleeping, in fact, in a wine cellar in Montmartre. Marcel Arnaud was a pastiche artist, and extremely successful. His work was collage, pasted fabric, also leather. I will say this: it meant nothing whatever to me. Still I thought we might hit it off, as friends, and the truth is, we did. Our evenings, at dinner and after, were delightful, even Biblical, as I often commented, with Naomi sitting at the harp, a concert grand, while Marcel and I discussed one thing and another over a glass or two of fins bois cognac. “The Arnauds were middle-aged, more than twenty years my senior, but that never matter at all. Naomi baked her own bread, and she always sent a loaf home with me, Old World rye or sometimes Russian culibac, a wonderful creation stuffed with chopped cabbage, onions and seasoned ground beef…”
“The Arnauds…” I prompted. I was hungry as a wolf and I didn’t want Roderick going on and on about food, as he had a tendency to do.
“Yes, of course, the Arnauds… Marcel Arnaud was extremely bright, a cultured man, erudite to say the least. He spoke Russian and Yiddish, and we shared many interests. He knew his way around the Old Testament, I can tell you that. We’d often talk in great detail about Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt and his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams. Another favorite topic was the monumental translation of the King James Version of the Bible in 1611 and the intriguing if apocryphal story—I’m sure you’ve heard it—that Shakespeare was called in to touch up the Book of Isaiah. An artist he wasn’t, Marcel Arnaud—he was more of an interior decorator—but he was an excellent companion and a thoroughly decent man. “Marcel Arnaud had invited me into his studio, into his home, and I felt very grateful for this. But I must confess that having gained the confidence of this man, having entered his world, if only into the vestibule thereof, that the foremost thought in my mind was: can I hit this joker up for a loan? I was desperate; I didn’t know how I was going to eat, and yet I wanted to go on with my studies. It was cold, bitter cold in my wine cellar in Montmartre, and there were rats. “What about Grobbel? You mentioned a man named Grobbel…” “Tom, stop interrupting,” the tourist lady exclaimed. “Marge, I’m just… Please, go ahead, Roderick.” “Grobbel, yes, I was coming to that. Grobbel…how to explain Grobbel? The phrase ‘warped brilliance’ comes readily to mind. Grobbel was an American, an unpublished poet who was both unable and unwilling to confine his antisocial impulses to his art. He had to have it out with people. An intellectual’s disdain for the herd, a savage contempt for anyone who wasn’t an artist—that was Grobbel. Just as I today have no regular address, so it was in those days with Grobbel. He camped on the floors of friends’ apartments in Montmartre, or more often, he slept on the Metro, a risky practice, but Grobbel was well over six feet tall, and due to the irrepressible hostility which he projected, he appeared to be—and was—a dangerous man. “I thought, wrongly, that in allowing Grobbel to accompany me that night, I was accomplishing a double purpose. One, I would secure for my pal Grobbel a square meal, something which, as I say, he desperately needed. Two, by having him along, Grobbel, an intellectual, a brilliant talker, sparklingly articulate, knowledgeable, and the rest of it, I would show Marcel Arnaud, by way of softening him up for the hoped-for loan, that I was a person of substance, a serious man, a student of life, if you will. "But Grobbel didn’t want anything good to happen to him, and, by extension, he didn’t want anything good to happen to me. He wanted to suffer, and he wanted me to suffer, that was the long and short of it. And so, after we’d put away a delicious meal, and after Grobbel had reviewed Marcel Arnaud’s facile collages, the cold contempt and sneering disdain which Grobbel found so easy to express began to surface. I was humiliated and I was furious, both with Grobbel and with myself. Grobbel, as I should have foreseen, was blind to the goodness that emanated from these two charming and kind-hearted people. And so Grobbel did what he’d so often done, at seemingly propitious social engagements in the past: he told the story of the Freakmaker. “Always Grobbel began this chilling story with an impressive list of credentials. The tale had been recorded, so he said, by a princess of the Hapsburg Dynasty. It was purportedly a true history that featured her mother, Melissandra of Avignon, as the heroine. It was written, of course, in Latin, presumably dictated to a scribe, since most women at that time, even those of noble birth, were illiterate. The account was translated into French by Jean de Vignay in his Miroir Historial in 1348, the same year that the young Princess Joan, daughter of Edward III, died of the plague near Bordeaux after setting off at the tender age of thirteen to marry Pedro the Cruel of Castile. The story was also included, Grobbel maintained, in Froissart’s Chroniques de France et d’Angleterre. I should mention, however, that years later, out of curiosity, I consulted Froissart in the New York Public Library and found no mention there of Melissandra of Avignon. Thus it’s possible that Grobbel made the story up out of whole cloth. If so, it was a masterful piece of legerdemain. “There was also a portrait, Grobbel insisted, of Melissandra of Avignon, from the hand of no less a master than Giotto, painted in the year 1321. The Giotto original was unfortunately lost or destroyed, but not before it was copied by one of the Van Eyck brothers in 1439. The Van Eyck portrait underwent a tortuous course through the centuries, finally to become the property of Luftwaffe General Josef Kammhuber. It was destroyed in the Thousand-Bomber Raid on Cologne in May, 1942. Very elaborate, these credentials, and, as I say, very impressive. “Once he’d gained his listeners’ undivided attention with this mesmerizing display of erudition, Grobbel invariably went on to deliver the story of the Freakmaker in point-blank fashion, a performance which never failed to evoke both disgust and dismay. After Grobbel had thoroughly chilled his listeners with this epic of deformity—for such it was—while simultaneously completely enthralling them, he reveled in his perverse triumph. Like a spider that transfixes some hapless insect and binds it with an intricate web, Grobbel, having performed these preliminary maneuvers par excellence, took great delight in embalming his victims with his own special brand of deadening venom. “But the story… Garrick the Freakmaker, a miser—he was a hunchback, according to Grobbel—went about in rags. He didn’t want anyone to know he was rich. His money he kept in a sump in the floor of the subterranean dungeon beneath the narrow crooked streets of medieval Paris, the habitat that he shared with his creations. “Numerous odd-shaped giant glass bottles, the contours of which determined the deformity of their inhabitants, were arranged on pallets set in neat rows in this chamber of horrors not far from the Cathedral of Notre Dame. “The Freakmaker fed his captives through the open neck of the bottle with a kind of long-handled forceps. The bottom of each bottle was in the form of a grated floor upon which the maturing freak stood and which permitted the passing of urine and excrement. For a bath, Garrick simply dumped a pitcher of water into the neck of the bottle and let it flow over the malformed mass of human flesh contained therein. “Thus, day after day, year after year, in this horrific potato cellar beneath the streets of Paris, the bottled freaks matured, becoming, with the passage of time, more and more intriguingly disfigured due to the odd contours of the bottles in which they were imprisoned, and consequently, more and more salable, more and more an expressly viable commodity, more and more a supremely marketable item. “At night the Freakmaker lay down on his pallet of straw. Against the piteous cries of his charges he stuffed his ears with beeswax. In a world without radios, telephones or television, the dungeon was blessedly silent, except for the sound of drizzling water and nameless filth pouring down from the cobbled street above and the ceaseless scraping and scampering of rat feet. “The Freakmaker obtained his victims for a pittance. Often they were children stolen and sold by Gypsies, even the children of Gypsies themselves. Or, since at the time peasants, having no other recourse against famine, were frequently obliged to sell their children, they were the offspring of the poor, these pitiful products of the soil. “The Freakmaker received huge fees for his creations. His vintage freaks were very much in demand in the royal courts of Europe, where it must be said in all fairness that these monstrosities were assured of being kept, in many cases, in grand style. Curiously misshapen girls, for example, who had developed a sweet perfection of form analogous to the finish a great claret, were especially marketable to noblemen whose refined palates demanded unusual sensual delights.” “Good God!” “Tom, stop interrupting!” “The bottled children either died, went mad, or developed extraordinarily strong characters. Those of the first category didn’t last long. They languished and died of a broken heart or of a broken spirit or both. The Freakmaker had no recourse but to write them off as a loss. He buried the bodies of the ruined children in a common grave beneath the dungeon floor. “Child prisoners of the second category, unable to endure the inhuman conditions of their incarceration, sought escape in madness. Their minds became as misshapen as their bodies. Far from detracting from their marketability, the mental aberrations of these tortured creatures placed them in particular demand in the royal courts of Europe because the gentlefolk found their antics amusing. “Freaks of the third category, those who developed strong characters, frequently became court musicians, since they often exhibited an amazing facility with musical instruments, particularly the violin, undoubtedly due in large part to the unimaginable suffering they had endured. The souls of these stunted creatures had blossomed, faute de mieux, like tropical flowers.” “Incredible…heartbreaking…please go on.” “To the third category belonged Melissandra of Avignon, the subject of the curious history allegedly written by her daughter. This extraordinary woman may have been a Spanish Gypsy, but since she had been kidnapped and sold into slavery while still a young child, she had, according to the history, no recollection of her origin. “As Melissandra matured in her bottle, attended by Garrick the Freakmaker, who lavished upon her the full complement of his vintner’s skill, she began to display a strange and haunting beauty, as well as a singularly compelling force of personality. With her white skin, raven hair and enormous black eyes, made luminous by suffering, and her lopsided body—stunted, crooked, crab-like, yet possessed of an eerie and enthrallingly grotesque beauty—she managed quite easily to thoroughly enchant her captor while she was still, so to speak, in vitro. “Utterly bewitched, Garrick exchanged his filthy rags for a sporty tattersall vest, a velvet tunic, an ermine-fringed robe and pointed shoes of variegated colors. He arranged his wispy hair on his bulging forehead in comical spit curls. Much older than she, he hovered around his bottled tête de cuvée troll queen in humpbacked glee, displaying all of the foolishness which December invariably exhibits under the amorous spell of May. “Infatuated beyond all bounds, and very much the sommelier in his laughable grotesqueries, the Freakmaker adored Melissandra through the thick glass, dreaming in his hunchbacked dreams of the magical day when he would at last break the bottle of his adored ogress and inhale as it were her exquisite bouquet. “Garrick’s infatuation with Melissandra proved to be his undoing. Ironically, as Grobbel never failed to point out, the evil Freakmaker’s downfall was brought about by the only decent act of his life. He released Melissandra from her bottle. A priest of sorts was brought down into the rat-infested dungeon, and the hunchback and the gourd-shaped maiden were joined in a brief private ceremony. “For several weeks following her release and her forced marriage to the hunchback Melissandra exhibited a terrifying strength of will. With masterful aplomb she feigned affection for her gaoler and freely engaged in sexual relations with him until she had gained his confidence and learned the location of his buried treasure-hoard. On the very next night, after Garrick had enjoyed her banjo-shaped body and lay quiescent in her arms, Melissandra plunged a dagger into his hump and subsequently she unceremoniously slit the stricken man’s throat. “There followed, according to Grobbel, a frenzy of rage and repressed anger. Melissandra seized a hammer and ran amuck through the dungeon, randomly smashing the bottles of the incarcerated freaks, the lumpish and malformed oddities that had been her companions in misfortune. The bewildered misshapen creatures, many of them bleeding from superficial or even life-threatening cuts and lacerations, wandered out into the crooked darkened streets of medieval Paris, never to be heard from again. “Grobbel sometimes added at this juncture the following detail regarding the Van Eyck copy of the original Giotto portrait of Melissandra of Avignon: that whoever so much as looked upon the portrait of this extraordinary woman with her beautifully-disfigured Quasimodesque body, her blancs de blancs complexion and her hypnotic gaze, fell immediately and irrevocably under her spell. “Following the death of Garrick the Freakmaker, and a trial for murder, from which she emerged victorious, Melissandra went on to build several sumptuous chateaux, financed by the hunchback’s treasure, one in Avignon, another in Hamburg, and yet another in the Hanseatic city of Danzig. Subsequently she lived on a grand style, mingling freely with nobility, buoyed up and carried forward not merely by her newfound wealth, but also by the irresistible force and magnetism of her personality, as well as her extraordinary appearance. “She married, as the history shows, a prince of the Hapsburgs, and lived a rich and fulfilling life. There were born to her numerous sons and daughters, all of them normal, and one of these daughters—according to Grobbel—wrote the history which I’ve just related. I should add, as Grobbel sometimes did, in certain versions of his tale, that there was also a child born to Melissandra of her union with Garrick the Freakmaker, an exceptionally beautiful child, a perfectly normal baby girl. She killed it.” “My God, Roderick,” Tom muttered. “That’s quite a story.” “Yes, well, you can thank Melissandra of Avignon—or Grobbel.” “What happened with the people, I mean, when Grobbel finished telling…?” “You mean the Arnauds? Well, as you may imagine, when Grobbel finished his tale, his epic of disfigurement, if you will, his listeners—in this case, the Arnauds—were stunned. Naomi sat at her harp, utterly immobilized. Not single lilting note came from her fingers. Marcel, aghast, bewildered, numbed, stared wordlessly at his half-finished glass of cognac. Finally, without looking up, he muttered something like, ‘Well, it’s been a wonderful evening…’ “Without a word I stood up and walked out the door, with Grobbel close behind. Snow was falling in Montmartre. The wind was howling. The streets were desolate. As we pounded the pavement in silence Grobbel kept grinning at me slyly as if he expected to be congratulated for having achieved a resounding success. When, to my huge relief, he ducked like a scarecrow into a Metro entrance, I didn’t bother to look at him or say good night. My feet were freezing. Slush was seeping into my torn sneakers. Alone, chilled, dead broke, I leaned into the wind, heading for my wine cellar and another night of bone-cold shivering.”
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Donald O’Donovan was born in Cooperstown, New York. A teenage runaway, he rode freights and hitchhiked across America, served in the US Army with the 82nd Airborne Division, lived in Mexico, and worked at more than 200 occupations including telephone psychic, undertaker and roller skate repairman.
A former long distance truck driver, he wrote Confessions of a Bedbug Hauler while running 48 states and Canada for Schneider National. As a volunteer at the Braille Institute in Los Angeles he recorded several western novels, and subsequently studied voice acting with James Alburger and Penny Abshire. O’Donovan lived for two years at the historic Wilshire Royale Hotel while writing Tarantula Woman (to be published in February, 2011 by Open Books), and wrote the first draft of Night Train (Open Books, 2010) on 23 yellow legal pads while homeless in the streets of LA.
An optioned screenwriter and voice actor with film and audio book credits, Donald O’Donovan lives mostly in Los Angeles.