“Jasper Rincon’s Loft” by Max Detrano


Albert Givens was a man who enjoyed counting. He worked for a bookkeeping firm, charged with the responsibility for seeing that columns of numbers matched to the penny. He lived in the same little house, on the same dead-end street, in the same Ballard neighborhood for the past 20 years. The house was paid for—he despised debt. The front yard was fertilized with chemicals—there were no dandelions—with every blade mowed to a precise 1 and ½ inch height. Boxwood plants, each exactly 2 feet high with a circumference of 48 inches, bordered the concrete pathway that lead to his front door.

So it shocked everyone when Albert announced that he had inherited a loft in Pioneer Square—a neighborhood of artists, bars, and bookshops—from a relative that he was not even aware of. It turned out that Albert was the closest living relative of the late artist, Jasper Rincon, an eccentric painter reputed to be a notorious womanizer. Jasper had taught at the Cornish Art College, and had a reputation for inviting female students to “pose” at his studio loft in Pioneer Square. Rumor had it that Jasper had affairs with most of them, but no one ever saw the paintings.

Jasper died of a heart attack in bed. It was widely believed he had not been alone. When the police did a DNA test of the sheets in Jasper’s bed, they came up with so many samples from hair and skin flakes, body lotion, lipstick stains and toenail clippings, that they deduced an entire community had been sharing his bed.

Albert received a phone call from Jasper’s estate saying he was a third cousin twice removed and, being the only relative on file, the loft was his to do with what he pleased.

Out of character as it was, Albert decided to move. He rationalized that it was close to work—he would be able to walk—but in his secret-self Albert knew he was taking a leap of faith. Albert was an awkward and lonely bachelor. When he found out that he was related to Jasper Rincon, Albert looked at himself and wondered why his life had taken the turn that it did, while Rincon’s life had turned out so differently?

The loft that Albert moved into was fully furnished. Jasper wasn’t much for planning, so there was no formal will. Along with the pots and pans and various sundries, Albert also acquired Jasper’s bed.

* * *

Albert sold his house in Ballard to a conservative woman who worked at a credit union. She was very impressed by the uniformity of the boxwoods that lined the walkway. After signing the papers she asked Albert if he’d like to have dinner with her and Albert accepted. Her height, he guessed, was 5’8″. She was willowy and attractive. Ordinarily a woman with her looks barely noticed Albert. But she was a numbers person like Albert, not shallow.

Their conversation over dinner came easily. They discussed the care and maintenance of Albert’s boxwoods. She had not bothered to dress up, and neither had Albert, but he had worn a nice sport shirt, creased pants, dress shoes and argyle socks. She, he noticed, had put on lipstick. Albert liked that she was a no-nonsense girl. She shared his distaste for debt—she’d paid cash for the house—and she obviously knew the importance of making two columns of numbers match. She knew more baseball statistics than Albert. She was a Lutheran, but did not attend church. It was more of a culture to her than a religion. Albert found himself very attracted to her.

After dinner she invited him in and offered him a glass of wine. That seemed like a good sign. But once inside her new home, she rummaged for a couple of juice glasses and poured wine from a box. She excused herself and came back in a tee shirt, still buttoning a pair of shorts that revealed long slender legs. She didn’t seem a bit shy around him. Collapsing onto the only comfortable chair in the room, her bare legs swung over the overstuffed arm. She left Albert to sit on a yet to be unpacked carton marked “Bedroom.” She asked Albert about the whereabouts of certain faucets and electrical hook-ups. After finishing her wine, she announced with a yawn that she had to go to bed. She had a busy day in the morning.

It was clear to Albert that although she had raised his expectations, she viewed him solely as the prior owner who perhaps could help her get acquainted with her new property. His heart sank.

Albert had no idea how to tell a woman that he was interested in her. She might misunderstand, or worse yet, she might laugh at him.

Albert thanked her for the evening and let himself out. He stopped at a liquor store and bought a bottle of Cabernet on his way back to Jasper Rincon’s loft. Once inside, he uncorked the wine and drank a glass straight down. Albert was angry, primarily with himself but after the second glass of wine he was able to transfer some of that anger to the credit union lady who had so hastily rejected him.

He began pacing. First he paced back and forth. Then he paced up and down. Soon he was pacing the circumference of the loft in big steps to work off his frustration. He counted the steps across the width of the open space and then the depth. It was cavernous. 722 steps across the width and 965 steps in depth. What was he ever going to do with all this space? He already missed his little house that now belonged to that credit union woman.

Albert was coming around for the third time when he lost count at the 863rd step. Losing count was unusual for him. There was something different underfoot at the 863rd step. He stamped his foot. It echoed. He stamped again. The floor was hollow. He stamped at the 860th step. It was solid. 863 was hollow… 864… 865… 866… All hollow. He stamped around the floor making a rectangle of all the area that felt hollow. It was 45 steps long, and 40 steps wide—the size of a small room.

It took another 45 minutes for Albert to locate the wood plug covering the handle that lifted the boards to the secret room beneath the floor of Jasper Rincon’s loft. It took considerable heft to lift the door, which was an almost seamless fit, but he was happy to find it was spring-hinged and, once free, lifted quite easily. There were stairs.

Albert descended the stairs into the dark space. There was no apparent source of light. In the center was a small square of open floor. The rest of the room was filled with stretched canvases, some as large as 6′ x 4′, but most 5′ x 2.5’, 3′ x 2′ and smaller. As his eyes adjusted he began to focus on the images before him. He was surrounded by paintings of beautiful women in a variety of poses. Some were dancing. Some bathing. Some seated. Some lying down. All however were naked. And all of them were beautiful.

* * *

Albert wrestled one of the larger paintings out of the hidden room, up the staircase and into the loft. The canvas was stretched over a wood frame and measured 6′ x 4′. Albert set it on the floor between two clerestory windows that faced west into the night. Moonlight lit the canvas, which was painted in oil. A woman’s figure sat on a platform in front of these very same clerestory windows, her legs folded beneath her, her head resting on her feet, her hands wrapped around the back of her head, her brunette tresses flowing over her ankles, her fingers crisscrossed like the wings of a large moth.

Albert emptied the last of the Cabernet into his glass and knelt before the canvas in the moonlight. His eyes wandered across the painting but always returned to the woman’s left shoulder where a tattoo of a lizard peaked over from her back. The lizard’s eyes were red—it’s body green—it’s face almost black. It was looking at Albert. He reached out toward the woman’s shoulder to touch the lizard, but it seemed to pull away. He withdrew his hand, then reached again. The lizard stepped aside. Albert traced the curve of the woman’s spine, touched her hair, her knees. He tried to run his hand up her thigh, beneath her breast, but the image was two-dimensional. His fingers felt the coarseness of Jasper’s brushstrokes that were invisible to his moon-drenched eyes.

The wine gone, Albert’s head cloudy, he got on all fours, and then up on his feet. He closed the door to the hidden room full of canvases of naked women, and went to bed.

* * *

Albert awoke with an erection. He felt something walking up his arm to his shoulder. He smelled fresh brewed coffee. He touched the feeling on his shoulder thinking it might be a bug. It was not a bug. Albert grabbed a finger. He opened his eyes to see a woman smiling at him, her index finger caught in his grip.

“Good morning, sleepyhead,” she said.

“Who are you?” said Albert.

She was brunette, pretty, with full lips, full breasts, a small waist that rose gently from her hips. Her legs swished in the sheets like the tail of a mermaid. She was naked.

“Who am I?” she said. “Well, that’s what I get for sleeping with an old artist.”

For a moment Albert thought he knew her. But how? Had he gone out again last night? His tongue was dry. A dull ache throbbed in his temporal lobe.

The woman extricated her finger from his grip, and grabbed Albert stiff cock.

“Now do you remember me?”

She gave Albert a peck on the lips and tossed back the sheets. On her left shoulder was the lizard with the blackface, its red eyes peeking at Albert as she leapt out of bed.

“I wish you hadn’t cut your hair,” she said. “I got your coffee,” and she was gone. She disappeared behind the screen that hid the stove, the sink, the table and chairs that substituted for a real kitchen. The bathroom was equally exposed on the opposite side of another screen.

Albert lay in bed trying to remember what happened the night before. He remembered the credit union lady, the bottle of wine, the room beneath the floor. He remembered carrying the canvas upstairs to the moonlight. He remembered touching the painting—the lizard. He did not remember going to bed.

He touched his pulsing cock with his left hand. It too had a memory. Albert put his hand to his face and he smelled the unmistakable scent of a woman.

Pulling on a tee shirt and the pants he had failed to hang up the night before, Albert went behind the screen. He found coffee freshly brewed in the Mr. Coffee machine. The woman, however, was gone.

Albert called out, “Where did you go?”

There was no answer. He went back to the bed. On the pillow he found several strands of long brown hair.

* * *

Albert searched the loft but he couldn’t find the brunette woman who seemed to have stepped out of the painting. He took his coffee cup and a slice of dry whole-wheat toast wrapped in a paper napkin and walked over to the clerestory windows where he had propped the painting the evening before in the moonlight. There she was, hair tumbling over her arms, hands laced like moth’s wings, and the lizard with the red eyes, motionless, staring at him over her shoulder.

Albert finished his toast. He put the cup on the window ledge, and folded the napkin neatly. He located the plug in the floor that covered the latch and pulled open the door. He was late for work. But what was he to do with the girl?

Albert lifted the big canvas and steered it awkwardly down the stairs, descending one careful step at a time. He maneuvered the painting of the woman posed in her half lotus, down to the secret room beneath the floor and settled her in the place where he had found her. He wanted to thank her, but thought better of it. Foolish.

Yet, foolish or not, Albert took a moment to gather the images before him in his mind and sort them like a mental deck of cards. He selected one, a blond woman perched on a stool near the clerestory windows in Jasper Rincon’s studio where he had painted her. Her eyes followed Albert as he moved about the cluttered space as though urging him, seeming to say, “Choose me. Choose me.”

“I will,” Albert promised, and then turned and ascended the steps. He closed the lid to the secret room.

Absurd. This is absurd. He went to the shelves by the bed where Jasper kept his clothes in lieu of a closet. He took his Ralph Lauren pinstripe three-button suit from the nail where he’d hung it on a wooden hanger. He made a mental note to put up a clothes rail. Once dressed, he withdrew the shoetrees from his Ferragamo wing–tips. But before he could slip them on, he saw peeking out from under the shelf a pair of Jasper Rincon’s shoes. They were brown, cut-to-the-ankle boots. Albert slipped the shoetrees back into his oxfords and picked up the brown shoes.

The leather was soft and smelled rich, the color was dark, reminiscent of blood, and the soles were heavily stitched as though someone—not a machine—had made them. Albert sat on a low stool and slipped the shoes on. Remarkably, they fit. He stood and took a step, then another. Like gloves, they molded to his feet.

Shrugging, why not, Albert locked up the loft and went down the three flights of stairs to Yesler Avenue. The sky was gray, but Albert could see light behind the clouds. A taxi came past. It was the yellowest automobile he had ever seen. A man on the corner asked Albert if he could help a brother get something to eat. The man’s blue eyes held his own, as though there were a light behind them. Albert reached for some change, but instead, he peeled a bill from his wallet. It was a Franklin.

Although Albert was late for work, he walked slowly and deliberately. He felt rooted. He was aware of the lifting and lowering of his feet. He was aware he was walking in another man’s shoes.

* * *

After work, Albert thought about calling the credit union lady. Maybe he’d been hasty, over sensitive. Perhaps he should give her another chance. He weighed the despair he’d felt when he left the credit union lady against the thrill he’d felt waking up this morning in Jasper Rincon’s bed with the young woman and the lizard peeking over her shoulder. He decided to pick up a pizza and a bottle of wine and he went home.

Albert set the pizza, a large—he liked cold leftovers in the morning—with sausage and mushrooms, on the counter next to the sink. He went behind the divider to the bed and inspected the pillow. The long brown strands of hair were still there. The pillow smelled of musk and vanilla. His memory of the morning became physical.

Albert took off his suit and trousers and decided to put on one of Jasper Rincon’s old white shirts and baggy pants.

* * *

One by one, Albert brought the women who posed for Jasper up the stairs from the hidden room beneath the studio. One by one, he studied the paintings for hours in the moonlight by the big clerestory windows. One by one, they were there when he woke up in the morning. And, one by one, they disappeared behind the screen that divided the bedroom from the kitchen area, and then vanished. Albert soon stopped wondering where they went.

The women were not all young. Nor did they all have perfect bodies. But they were all beautiful in Jasper Rincon’s paintings. And they were all beautiful when Albert opened his eyes to find them lying beside him.

Once Albert got used to the routine of it, he realized that this was not a perfect arrangement. He fell asleep alone each night, and although he awoke with a beautiful woman, knowing he had been loved, he could not remember it. The playful female body next to him and the feminine scent on his shaft were his only proof. But it was proof enough.

More and more Albert wore Jasper’s clothes. After the shoes he put on the shirts. They were loose fitting and not suited for ties. Jasper apparently didn’t own a tie. Gradually, Albert abandoned his Ralph Lauren Polo wardrobe altogether and adopted Jasper’s looser, baggier look, preferring comfort to formality, function to form. Albert’s coworkers noticed the change coming over him and talked behind his back.

One of Albert’s workmates told him he was beginning to look like his crazy old uncle. It was true. His cheeks were more sallow. There were rings around his eyes and the crow’s feet had deepened. He walked slower. He gazed deeply at people when he talked to them. He seemed to daydream in his cubicle. He was caught doodling. Eventually his boss told him his attire was a poor reflection on the office and he would need to conform. A week later Albert was fired, told to clear out his desk.

Albert took stock of his financial situation and decided not to look for another job. With the time he gained, he decided to study painting. He enrolled in classes at the Daniel Smith Art Store. He learned to paint landscapes and still life. He painted birds and flowers, with water and fabric. He learned to sketch, and how to work with shadows and depth dimension. His instructors said he was quite remarkable for someone who came to art so late in life.

What Albert had discovered was a similarity between art and numbers. There was an order in nature, not so different from a balance sheet, but a lot more physical. Of course, there were differences as well. Albert could influence nature in a way he could never influence numbers. Numbers were constant. No matter how many problems he solved or columns he balanced, he would never create anything with numbers.

One day, after months of trying to replicate what he saw, Albert had an awakening. His challenge wasn’t to copy nature, but to release it.

* * *

Several months into Albert’s study of art, he took a class in figure drawing with live models. The class was given in a secluded room on the second floor of the art store. He had to climb a set of steel stairs to get to the room, which was like a windowless cage that hung from the ceiling. It was there in that room that Albert came face to face with real people, human beings, disrobed and posed for hours while a roomful of artists stared and penciled and charcoaled their impressions. No two artists’ sketches resembled one another. It was as though each artist was creating a different human being.

Albert poured himself into the work with an urgency that surprised even him. He soon learned that he favored diagonal poses to verticals and horizontals. He fell in love with triangles. He drank in gestures and loved to draw hands and feet. Drawing necks became an out-and-out obsession.

Then one day a middle-aged woman posed for the group. Her hair was raven. A scar snaked across her abdomen suggesting a cesarean birth. Her small breasts sagged somewhat. There was a slight thickening at her thighs. Yet, she had an uncommon beauty—her features simultaneously childlike and shrewd.

Albert made 20 sketches of the woman. He was very pleased with the outcome. His teacher praised the work lavishly and said Albert had made a real breakthrough.

That night, instead of retrieving one of Jasper’s nudes from the basement room, Albert put his own sketchpad on the easel by the clerestory windows in the moonlight. He opened a bottle of Cabernet and flipped through the pages of his sketchpad. There were the drawings of the raven-haired woman. Albert chose the sketch he thought the most expressive. In it, her eyes were closed, her neck pressed to one side, cheek resting on her shoulder, arms crossed with one hand lifting her small breast.

Albert studied the pose. He was pleased with the work. He could still smell the model’s musky scent as he had in the artist’s cage at Daniel Smith. It was a smell of cloves and tobacco.

Albert finished his wine, left the sketch out on the easel, and went to bed.

* * *

The next morning Albert awoke with an erection. First he smelled the cloves and tobacco. Then opening his eyes he saw her, lying on her side, her eyes closed, her arms crossed. At first he was embarrassed. This was not one of Jasper’s phantoms. This was that woman, the model from the studio. He reached out and traced the welt from the cesarean on her belly like a string of little knots in her skin.

“Are you real?” Albert asked.

She put her index finger to her lips and signaled for him not to talk.

“Are you going to disappear?” said Albert.

After a few moments, she touched his face, and like all the others, slid from the sheets and was gone behind the divider to the kitchen. He had long since stopped wondering where they went. They were gone. All that was left was their fragrance, their hair on the pillow, their imprint on the mattress, and the blood pulsing through his veins.

Albert felt more alone than he had at any time since he’d moved into Jasper Rincon’s loft. The hidden room in the basement filled with canvases of beautiful women haunted him. Had every artist suffered this? Was Jasper Rincon a lonely man, with all his reputation, with all his women?

Albert climbed out of bed and went to the clerestory windows where he’d left his sketchpad the night before. There was the raven-haired woman, as real on the pad as she had been on the bed. And just as far away.

* * *

Albert phoned the credit union lady on a Thursday. He heard the hesitancy in her voice across the line. He made an excuse about the garden, telling her there were things he had left undone—things she really needed now that summer was coming.

She was cautious. After all, when you buy a house, you are not required to provide permanent visitation rights. But in the end she relented.

Albert arrived that Saturday morning in a little pickup truck. The sun was shining. He noticed the grass was cut and the boxwoods trimmed exactly as he had left them. He sat across the street from the house for a moment, drawing the scene in his mind. Strange, the house looked so small and sterile. He saw one louver of the venetian blind tilt at one end. That would be her eye level. He’d forgotten the color of her eyes, if he had ever known.

Albert ignored the bell and instead knocked on the door. He heard rustling inside. The door opened. She pretended to be surprised.

As he remembered, she was tall and very thin. She was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt that said University of Oregon. Her face searched Albert’s like she was expecting someone else.

“Good morning. I’m Albert.”

“Yes. Albert,” she said. “You’ve …”

“Changed?” said Albert.

“I wouldn’t have recognized you.”

Albert showed her the plants sitting in the back of the pickup. “They really belong to you,” he lied. “I bought them before I decided to sell the house, but never picked them up.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. Albert had designed this yard expressly for its efficiency.

He showed her the hydrangeas, the bags of dahlia bulbs, the sarcococca, also called sweet box that would perfume the front entry, and the weigelas for attracting hummingbirds. If she would allow him, he’d like to help with the planting. Living in Pioneer Square, he missed getting his hands in the dirt.

The sun was unusually warm for this early in spring. Albert suggested she might like to take a walk. He sensed she had no friends coming by, no dinner parties to prepare for. She accepted and went inside the house. She emerged again, having changed into a red cotton blouse—two buttons opened at the neck—a fresh pair of jeans, red sneakers, and no socks. She had put on lipstick, eyeliner, and she smelled of Chanel.

They walked down the hill to the marina, past the statue of Leif Ericson, until finally they reached the beach. Albert slipped off his sandals and squeezed sand between his toes. She was reluctant to take off her sneakers, but soon the grit began to scratch her feet, so she slipped them off. Her toenails were crimson, but chipped.

Albert greeted every new puppy, and there were many, as though each were a dear friend. They watched children play in the sand, smelled barbecue coming from the picnic tables, and watched cormorants dive for their dinner. He felt her hand brush his as they stood in the icy water, while sailboats flit across the bay. After a time he could tell she was getting cold. The sun was dropping in the sky. They had been gone for hours. They retraced their steps back to her little house.

On the porch Albert pressed his palm against the small of her back as she unlocked her front door—this wispy woman who had scared him so much when first they met. She turned to face him. Her neck craned from her blouse like a Modigliani model. Albert asked to see her hands. He took them in his and turned her palms up. Her fingers were long and graceful, worthy of a Sargent or a Gainsborough. Her life line was short. Her heart line troubled. Her physique was long and triangular, like a Picasso.

Albert said goodbye and turned to leave.

“Will you be coming back,” she said, “to plant?”

“I’d like that,” he said.

“When?” she asked.

He would draw her with charcoal on paper at first. Then oils, on canvas.

“Soon,” he said.

Max Detrano grew up in Hoboken, NJ. He’s been a waiter, a carpenter’s assistant, a printer’s assistant, an art importer, a book buyer, and an independent publishers’ rep. He studied writing at Denver University and the University of Washington. Max’s words have appeared in such diverse publications as: Small Press Magazine, Alaska Airlines, The Sun, Northwest Magazine, The Seattle Weekly, and 10,000 Tons of Black Ink. He writes with friends at coffee shops in stormy Seattle, WA.

Read Max Detrano’s comments on Candida Pugh’s “What I Wouldn’t Do For You.”

Notes from K. Anne Unger, Editor
A story written to haunt you is a story written to stay with you, and “Jasper Rincon’s Loft” manages to stick to your bones because of its inherent charm and the exciting fantasy world it creates. A fantasy world that just about anyone might want to experience. We are immediately drawn into the protagonist’s world, and delightfully pulled along as he finds his way, as he finds himself, and all along we’re thinking: good for him.

Comments on this story by Noah Ashenhurst, author of “Mr. Vargas

The compulsion to live a tightly controlled, regulated, and “safe” life—no debts, no weeds, no encumbrances of messy relationships—is a lonely, sterile, and empty existence. Change, thwarted by inertia, is sometimes so difficult that it requires a complete transformation. This is the case with protagonist Albert Givens in Max Detrano’s short story “Jasper Rincon’s Loft.” Albert’s metamorphosis is elegant, vivid, and surprising with elements of magical realism. Albert’s final realization leads him back to where he started, and just as the story ends, his life begins.

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