EDITOR’S NOTE BY DAN WELLS
I got into publishing through bookselling. Needing to take a break from university I opened a used bookstore. I figured it’d fail sooner or later, I’d get the book-lust out of my blood, then go on and do a PhD. The shop was located, as most are these days, in an increasingly depressed downtown core, in a working-class university town. I assumed the university professors and other educated classes who worked downtown would form the majority of my clientele. It did not take me long to figure out that this wasn’t to be: the lawyers and bureaucrats and English professors, I quickly realized, often belonged to the class Rexroth encapsulated under the rubric of ‘cheap sons of bitches.’ No, the most ardent book buyers and readers, the most interesting customers, were the security guards and taxi drivers and janitors and bouncers, for whom good books and the conversations around them provided the proverbial lifeline to something grander; it was customers like the homeless Jonathan, who kept my ancient history section gap-toothed for more than a decade, and knew more about the history of Imperial Rome than any of the classics professors at the university down the road. There’s a common cliché about books and their covers, and that was never brought home more forcefully than in those first years behind the counter.
Kathleen Winter’s “Of the Fountain,” from her wonderful new collection of stories The Freedom in American Songs, explores the points where appearance and judgement collide, often leading us astray. Though the story may seem at first to be about the eccentricity — a word which I think has too often been used to try to encircle Winter’s writing — of one of its principal characters Ben, a homeless flamenco dancer, it seems to me to be much more about the perceptions of the narrator, and her inability, despite a willed openness, not to come at things with her own often fear-filled pre-conceptions. The story title is an English rendering of the narrator’s flamenco teacher’s last name de la Fuente: “You wouldn’t think,” Ben says, “that someone with a name as lovely as that would be so uncaring.” And yet Juliana de la Fuente is uncaring, and despite her best intentions, so is the narrator; and, perhaps by implication, so are we.
But the story dances around much more wildly than this moral outtake might indicate: it is also about the gravity of experience and the fragility of progress, the dignity of art and the greater dignity of people, if we only take a moment to get a careful look, things which can be learned both from behind a bookshop counter and, if you take the time, from a ten page short story in a well-crafted book.
Of the Fountain
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by Kathleen Winter, recommended by Biblioasis
He had a broken tooth and most of his body was stationary, but the feet moved in a special way that I understood. I did not look at him overtly but three men, not a broken tooth among them, they had a good look and I was afraid they’d laugh. We sat near the angel statue under the miniature crabapple trees. It was spring and everyone in Montreal had unfolded. How receptive and joyous we felt about the sun. We gave our bare arms to it for the first time that year. The man with the broken tooth did not appear to be thinking about the warmth on his skin. He was thinking about the accuracy of his feet. He wore headphones and his face was rigid with concentration. It did not seem possible that he should be doing advanced flamenco, not with his too-big sweatpants and, I think, a woman’s oversized sweatshirt, and filthy sneakers. But advanced flamenco it was: I recognized the steps because I had recently given up on flamenco classes myself, having had a merciless instructor. I was sad about it. I’d had high hopes.
“What kind of dancing is that?” asked one of the three men, slim, young and smart. He had a careful five-o’clock shadow. He did not sound mocking and I was relieved. I couldn’t have borne it if the smart man had made fun of the dancer.
“Yeah, man… it looks like some kind of ballroom thing, is it?” said the second one. He too seemed genuine. Maybe they were just nice men. Maybe I was used to toothless, shabbily dressed people being mocked, but maybe they weren’t mocked all the time. The dancing man knew they were talking to him but couldn’t hear what they were saying because of his music.
He peeled the headphones off. “Pardon?”
Pardon… He said it so formally.
“You doing some serious footwork there, brother? Some kind of European dance step… me, I’m into rap.”
“Yes, it’s… ” and he told them what I already knew.
“Flamenco? That is serious shit, man. More power to you!”
The men watched him for awhile then left, and it was harder for me to observe him unnoticed, but I couldn’t help it. He was methodical about his steps. They were correct, but halting. He did not care one little bit what he looked like. If I could have had his attitude while taking my flamenco class I might have made better progress. As it was, I had allowed the teacher to deflate me. One day I came to class wearing a comb that had silk roses attached. I’d bought the comb from a little vintage shop on Avenue Mont-Royal. I wore black and red lace, too. The other students were young, and practiced in their street clothes, though of course we all wore proper flamenco shoes studded with nails. The teacher, Juliana de la Fuente, did not wear street clothes. She wore astounding tiered, asymmetrical flamenco costumes, and a different pair of shoes each week: blue, scarlet, silver and gold, with Cuban heels and every other sort of dancing heel. She was a real show-off, is what she was, and when I came in wearing my comb decorated with roses she laughed at it. True, a couple of roses dangled — I meant to stitch them back in place when I found some red or gold thread. She singled me out and mimicked my position — made her arms ungainly and ridiculous — and said I looked stupid. I was a bit taken aback — I wouldn’t have thought any teacher would do that to a student. Then I wondered if maybe it was because English is her second language. Maybe she didn’t really mean stupid — maybe she meant just that my stance lacked a certain amount of grace, or… never mind. There’s no excuse for what she said. It hurt, and I did not go back.
The man with the broken tooth picked his plastic bag off the ground and began to walk away. There was something so humble about him, and about the way he had danced, that I drummed up courage to talk to him. He made me remember what I had wanted out of flamenco in the first place. It had a grandeur to it, a ferocity. An elegance. You could be an old woman and do flamenco. I had seen it. You could be ancient and still do it. It wasn’t only for nubile young women. In fact, the older you became, the more you could imbue flamenco with the gravity of your experience. And those nails hitting the floor — they smacked it like horses’ hooves, like castanets. The sound was arresting and declarative. You weren’t pussyfooting around.
“Excuse me… would you mind if I asked you… I noticed… ”
He turned to me politely. He and I were, I surmised, around the same age. We each had a few silver hairs. “Yes?”
“Well I was watching your dancing — I know it’s flamenco because I started a beginner’s course not far from here, and I… well I wasn’t very good at it, and to tell you the truth, the teacher was a bit, well, she was a bit cruel, really… I sort of lost confidence and I was wondering…”
“Was it Juliana?” The broken tooth made him lisp a bit. He was soft around the edges, about twenty pounds overweight. There had been no men in the class I’d taken, no men in any of the classes in that building; not in the corridors nor the stairwells. “It must have been Juliana.”
“Juliana de la Fuente. How did you know?”
He had a gentle voice. His hair flew up a bit at the sides. He stood in front of me holding the plastic bag rolled up at the top. It bore a green dollar-store logo. “Believe me,” he said, “you shouldn’t take anything Juliana says to heart.” He looked past the angel and toward the street where the dance school was, between the subway station and a discount jewelry shop. “Did you notice she has a lot of students in her classes? And none of them has taken her class before. She goes through hundreds of students but not very many of them come back to her. That’s where I went, at first, but I didn’t stay.”
“But now you can dance. I was watching. You dance beautifully.”
“Thank you. My mother was a dance teacher in Edinburgh. I learned a lot from her. She’s eighty-nine now. My name’s Ben, by the way.”
I told him I had bought a pair of real shoes with the nails, and he said he couldn’t afford real ones but had bought a pair of men’s Italian shoes with hard soles that clattered.
“I got them for two dollars at the nuns’ Thursday bazaar.”
I felt bad for having said I possessed real flamenco shoes.
“I find,” he said, “you can make do with a lot of improvised things. For instance, a real flamenco hat, for men, is a very expensive black, Spanish hat. It’s specialized, and it will be a long time before I can afford one. But today I found a substitute at the dollar-store.” He raised the plastic bag. “Would you like to see it?”
“I’d like to see you put it on.”
He took out a black straw hat with straight sides and a wide brim and modeled it for me. It transformed him.
“Wow. That’s great.”
“I’m very pleased. I have to be careful about my spending. Have you ever seen people on the street selling the magazine L’Itinéraire?
“I think so… isn’t it a journal of news about street people?”
“Yes. You should, if you have any change at all when these sellers ask you to buy a copy… you should, I don’t mean to tell you what to do, but the magazine genuinely helps them to… it helps them transition from being homeless, to having a home. Myself, for instance, I just three months ago, after being homeless for years, got my own apartment because of my job selling the magazine. The next thing I’m saving up for is some plants. I want to grow some plants in pots — I have a little balcony in the back. I’d like to grow edible plants. Lettuces and carrots.”
He spoke, I thought, eloquently for a homeless person. He hadn’t shaved in a few days but he had that eighty-nine-year-old mother who’d taught him to dance, and he had a desire to grow his own vegetables in pots…
“You don’t seem,” I ventured, “like a person who has always been homeless, or who has been homeless for most of your life… ”
“No,” he said. “I had a home. A lot of us had homes. A lot of people who sell the magazine had everything. But something happened that made us lose it all.”
He was vague. He implied some sort of story that involved the kinds of things that might make you judge or despise a person. He had done something that had caused other people pain, maybe something worse than pain. It was in the past and there was thick fog between then and now and he didn’t want to think about it, though of course it was always there. I put it out of my mind as soon as he said it and focused instead on the Spanish hat and the idea of him tending seedlings in terra cotta pots in the sun on a balcony. This city had balconies for everyone, not just the lucky few. That was one of the reasons I lived here and not in a more utilitarian town.
“The thing I wanted to ask you,” I said, “is if you might know another teacher, not Juliana de la Fuente… ”
“It means of the fountain.”
“Her name. You wouldn’t think someone with a name as lovely as that would be so uncaring. Fountains are generous… always bestowing.”
“Where did you live, before… ” It was hard for me to imagine a person who knew the Spanish word for fountain living on the street… a person who used the word bestowing.
“Before I got my new apartment?… There are shelters. You get to know where to go. There’s the Old Brewery Mission. A lot of men are there quite long-term.”
“So, you know another teacher?”
“I have a friend.” He took a bashed cellphone out of his pocket and fiddled around to look up a number. “I can call her now and ask her if she minds my giving you her number. She’s the real thing. A good flamenco dancer and a caring teacher. I go to church with her and her little girl and she doesn’t charge me for lessons.” He punched in her number. “Leni?… ” He turned away and I heard him say, “… a woman in the park… wondering if… ” When he was finished he wrote Leni’s number on the back of his dollar-store sales slip and gave it to me.
After that it was a long time before I saw Ben, and when I did he was selling L’Itinéraire in front of the liquor store at the outdoor fruit market. I had taken his advice and bought many copies from other sellers by then: a new issue came out every couple of weeks. Sometimes I bought the same issue several times, from different vendors. I bought one from him now and was not sure he remembered me. I had not called his friend Leni or taken any more flamenco classes.
“Ben,” I decided to remind him. Normally I’m happy when people forget they know me. I like to go around the fruit market without meeting people to whom I feel obliged to talk, but Ben was reserved, not ebullient. There was no danger he’d try to get too close. “We met in the park and you were practicing flamenco. You might not remember…”
“Right,” he said. I still wasn’t sure if he had any recollection.
“You gave me Leni’s number… I haven’t called her yet… ”
He brightened. “I’m doing a show with Leni next Thursday night.”
“You’ll be dancing?”
“Yes. It’s just a small part.”
“Is it open to the public?”
“Could I buy a ticket?”
He told me where to go. I knew the place because it had a cabaret-style set-up and I’d seen a comic book artist do a reading there with a cello player and a burlesque dancer. I didn’t want to infringe on Ben’s dancing life but if it was a public performance then what was the harm? The tickets were only ten dollars and I bought one. I wanted to see Ben perform his flamenco in a formal theatrical setting — it would bring to the foreground the elegance that came before his fall from grace in the world. I wanted to see that.
But on the night of the show there was a big electrical storm. Traffic chaos filled the whole downtown and crammed bridges leading to the city. The rain slashed down the way it does in New Orleans, like someone is up there chucking celestial buckets down everyone’s necks. The subways were down and it was hard to get to the place for eight o’clock, the time printed on the ticket. But I did it. I got there on time and the place was empty. I sat at a little table and drank a gin and tonic slowly, then another, while eleven or twelve more people filtered in. I knew lots of gigs didn’t start until a couple of hours after the doors opened, to give people time to warm up and spend lots of money at the bar, but by ten I realized the rain and the traffic congestion had kept everyone away. At ten-thirty I spied some glorious Spanish women and men looking tense behind the stage. A woman with a comb full of roses like mine stepped up and explained we were waiting for a busload of ticket-holders stuck on the bridge. Another hour went by and normally I’d have packed it in and gone home to bed, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave. At half an hour before midnight five men in black hats took seats onstage, and the women, in full Spanish lace and frill and piled hair and dangling earrings started a real firecracker dance set, all the imploded sexual rage of Spanish womanhood concentrated and then flung into the room with a flare of flaming skirt, a floorboard-shaking hard rain of nails, and those hands, twining incantations in the dim air, rings flashing — their foreheads and arms a sheen of sweat; little puddles glittering in the dips of their beautiful collarbones… but where was Ben?
The seated men had a special function and he was not among them. They played guitar or clapped: the clapping was fervent and meticulous — it gave voice to the dance and its rhythm was absolute, necessary and serious. The men’s role was complicated and mathematical — the rhythm they clapped was far from obvious; completely unpredictable to me, yet perfect and dangerous. I decided Ben was not going to appear onstage after all and resigned myself to watching the show without him. I felt terrible about being one of only a dozen audience members and I’d be damned if I was going to leave before the show was over.
But then began a different kind of song: a break in the feverish Spanish passion wars. One of the men began playing an accordion — Under Paris Skies — and the dancer in the white dress — a woman I now supposed must be Leni — floated from stage left to meet… yes, it was… in a beret, and carrying a folded umbrella… Ben, floating to take her hand and, straight out of a painting by Toulouse-Lautrec, the two waltzed together while the other dancers caught their breath backstage and perhaps drank gargantuan glasses of cold water. Ben did not do any of the steps I had seen him practice in the park. He was all soft-shoe. Together he and Leni finished the waltz and sailed offstage, not one clack of a castanet. Had he worn a striped jersey with a red cravat? I couldn’t remember. I left the barman a tip and rose from my solitary table, which I realized felt lonely, and went home.
What had I expected? A cabaret full of people in mantillas? Bangles to the elbows? Billows of cigar smoke and a few treacherous moustaches? I had not expected a Parisian waltz, that was for sure. How disappointed Ben and Leni and the other dancers must have been, to find not enough people had shown up to make even the appearance of a real audience. How I’d wished I could turn myself into forty people.
I did not see Ben selling his magazines at the fruit market for some time. But when I did, I was with Gerald. I’d told Gerald about Ben, about the day in the park and the flamenco evening and how we should buy L’Itinéraire whenever we saw anyone selling it, and he always bought it now. I introduced Gerald to Ben and Gerald bought a copy. It featured a cover story about a New York saxophone player who had been homeless throughout the nineties. Ben and I talked about the show. I told him I’d attended and he said it was too bad about the bridges and the traffic and I agreed, and then Gerald and I went into the indoor part of the market where they sell hard salami studded with lumps of white fat, and where there is sometimes another man, an older man, standing by the garbage can and selling more copies of L’Itinéraire. He has a red face and gets out of breath and leans on the garbage can as if it were a podium. Gerald usually buys the magazine from him, and gives him a two-dollar tip each time. So this time, as Gerald approached and the man saw he already held a copy of the magazine, having bought it from Ben, his face grew redder.
“Where did you get that?”
“From Ben,” Gerald did not intercept my signal to shut up. “Down there… outside, in front of the liquor store… ”
The red-faced man is not normally a fast-mover. But he whisked his papers under one arm and leapt away from his garbage can. “He’s selling them here, at the market?”
Before Gerald could say anything else, the red-faced man was out of there, round the corner and having it out with Ben over territorial rights. I don’t know what happened but I know the next time I saw Ben he had gained another ten pounds and lost about the same amount of life-force. His neck and arms were bruised and he had difficulty coming up with conversation. He’d fallen off his bicycle, he told me. He’d had a bit of a hard time. A few setbacks. He managed a wan smile. I wondered about his lettuces and carrots in terra cotta pots — whether they’d ever happened, or had remained in the land of dreams. Come on, Ben, I wanted to say, get your trowel, dig the sacred soil. But who was I to talk, my own flamenco shoes, studded with glorious nails, stuffed in a sack and shoved in a corner of the closet; my comb with its roses collecting dust on top of the Quality Street toffee tin where I keep my needles and thread?