ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"The Fountain Project," by Joachim Frank


The Fountain Project is a story of a continuous process of reduction and abstraction and distillation and conceptualization, from the intent of constructing an actual fountain in our backyard — even though I have no prior training in plumbing, exterior design, or architecture — to the purchase of a pump and plastic tubes and a bag of cement at Home Depot, since I had a rough idea of what to do to make a real fountain —to the storage of these items in my garage, which was admittedly moist, but this would not have hardened the cement inside the bag if it had gone on for a few weeks instead of an entire year, leading to a solid piece of cement in the shape of the bag, still labeled as cement mix on the outside, just lying in my garage as a heavy, permanent testament to my total failure as a fountain maker. 

The fountain was an idea back from the time when I was a boy perhaps ten years old, just getting into radios. I found a little spring on a hillside during an outing with my father — typically on a Sunday afternoon when he would abandon his current caseloads of jurisprudence which he had worked on into Saturday night, and take us kids on a bus to the tame wilderness of the Siegerland.  I imagined water running down the hill, invisible beneath the carpet of moss and roots, to come out in the open with a spurt and present itself as a substance no longer shy and subterranean but useful to water the plants, to quench the thirst of animals passing by, or simply to delight the eye.  The fountain, then, was the idea to create a domesticated spring in our backyard but still make it appear natural, connected to the wild. 

Central to the realization of this idea was an electric water pump.  At that time, the possession of such a pump was so out of reach that I could only dream of it.  In fact in those days I did have a dream about opening a cupboard in the basement of our house.  Exhilarated, with the skip of a heartbeat, I saw half-slaughtered radios, valves, capacitors, resistors, and, right in the middle of it, a gleaning brand-new water pump.  The dream itself was proof that the Fountain Project had taken hold in my brain in a serious way; that it had become an autonomous thought process going on in the background while my mind was busy with things much less serious.

Now, after sixty-odd years, arrived at a station in life where I can afford to buy cement and a pump and all the rest of the hardware without any hardship, the experience with the fate of the cement bag was a stark reminder that, with all my projects thus far, I had always been long in planning but short in execution.  It was then that I decided to reduce the scope of the project, by simply stating its initial intentions and documenting the final stage of the bag. 

Instead of giving shape to the fountain, which implied having to choose among many forms and realizing the one chosen by building a corresponding mold, I would document the bag in its present state, where all possibilities had already collapsed into the most trivial but at the same time most profound: the raw material had coalesced into a solid shape preformed by the bag at the time it was stored in this imprudent way.  At the same time, I was free to describe in so many words the form I might have given the fountain if I only had pursued the matter with more perseverance and competence. 

The cement itself that I originally bought at Home Depot was a grey substance containing within it all possibilities of form, which according to Thomas Aquinas, who has given us the Mass — featuring transubstantiation of another kind — are merely accidental.  The picture that I took of the solidified cement bag was the closest I could get – or so I believed at the time – of the very essence of the matter.  The picture, being removed from the physical substance, was a record at least of my intent to give shape to the material before it hardened into something that could no longer be shaped.   

The taking of that picture instilled in me a sense of closure since I thought it dispensed me from the need to keep the physical evidence of the project around any longer. In good conscience I used a slash hammer to fragment the bag and its contents into manageable pieces that could each be discarded in the municipal dump.  I did keep the pump and the plastic tubes for a future revival of the Project, though at that point I was discouraged by the freshly experienced complexity of its actualization.

But at last, another unforeseen complication occurred when I accidentally deleted the file with the picture of the bag.  At that critical moment, the last document linked to the physical manifestation of the Fountain Project was lost.  The Project in its many stages of planning and haphazard execution became no more than a figment of my memory. 

This realization gave me pause for reflection.  If the only way the Project existed and persisted was as a set of recollections, then what could stop me from changing the narrative to create others with different and potentially more compelling outcomes?  Instead of a ten-year old boy inspired to build a fountain, I might have been an eleven-year old girl, who'd always wanted to build a pond.  As a girl I might have later succeeded and build a pond with water lilies and one resident frog.  On days when I'd feel sad I would sit by the pond, watching the play of the sunlight on the water rippled by the jerky movements of my dormant prince.

Joachim Frank is a German-born scientist and writer living in New York City. He took writing classes with William Kennedy, Steven Millhauser, Eugene Garber, and Jayne Ann Philipps. He has published a number of short stories and prose poems in, among other magazines, Eclectica, Offcourse, Fiction Fix, Hamilton Stone Review, Conium Review, Bartleby Snopes, Red Ochre Lit, theeels, Infiniti's Kitchen, StepAway Magazine, Textobj, and Wasafiri. Frank is a recipient of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. His novel "Aan Zee," has just been published by University Press of the South.

His website carries links to all his literary publications.

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