It was the morning of the eclipse. The moon was already passing partially over the sun by the time I arrived outside with my materials, at about 11:10 am. I stretched two canvases beneath a tree whose shadows were forming into crescents, reflecting the exact shape of the sun behind the moon. I noted a blue tint in the atmosphere and a subtle ease in gravity's pull.
All the while, my next door neighbor, let's call him Harry, was hanging his clothes to dry on the clothesline, casting occasional peeps and quiet glances over the wooden fence toward my hammering and stapling. He was bald, stout, ruddy-skinned, wore glasses and had somewhat of a gangster / gambler vibe about him, but was an otherwise friendly, cordial man. He was actually the landlord of the residential building where he also lived; an old house-turned-apartment complex type of situation, as is common around Capitol Hill and the surrounding areas. Our property is similar, our landlord lives in the apartment right beneath us. We essentially live in the second floor of a carriage house in the alleyway. But in the front there is a full-sized used-to-be-house divided into residential apartments. After I had primed the canvases I biked to the art supply store for fresh paint brushes and paints. When I arrived home I climbed the stairs to my apartment and gathered the remaining materials required to begin my day of painting outside -- my spontaneous way of reflecting upon the eclipse -- which, seemingly, everyone else had planned for in the form of parties and travel and nature hikes.
I gathered the rest of my paints, paintbrushes, water vessel, and three heavy art books for reference and inspiration: Grandma Moses, 3000 Years of Art, and an absurdist French Theater Design book with illustrations of dancers and costume designs that inspire many of my paintings. I also grabbed this little porcelain clown doll that appears in many of my paintings and cartoons, intending to paint him amidst the foliage of the courtyard.
I set up each canvas in front of an area of the yard with a lot of greenery, right next to the fence where Harry was hanging his clothes, and quickly took background impressions of the plant life. I grew frustrated with my idea of painting clowns, moved my canvases to a different part of the courtyard and stared at them. I sat down at the wooden picnic table and began flipping through 3000 Years of Art, and suddenly remembered a badly-painted garage door in an alleyway on 2nd ave from which I'd been meaning to sample a color scheme (a light grey-green with a big square of muted ultramarine blue as graffiti coverup.) I ran up the stairs for my camera and in my haste, tripped, wedging a wooden stair between my sandal and my foot, slicing through a huge chunk of the flesh on my big toe. I groaned, said fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck, and noticed my toe was bleeding profusely. Like dripping off the edge of my sandal.
I limped inside, cursing and groaning, and wrapped a paper towel around my toe.
I grabbed my camera and slowly hobbled down the stairs. I limped into the alleyway and headed North towards 2nd avenue.
My neighbor Harry was getting something from his car, parked in the alleyway behind his property. Enthusiastically he asked, "What are you painting?"
I am partially deaf so I said "What?"
"What are you painting?"
"CLOWNS." I corrected.
"Ah! Okay," he smiled, "well that's better than clouds, something something," he pointed smiling up at the sky, I think to note the lack of clouds on this particular day.
I nodded politely and continued limping down the alleyway with my bum toe.
I arrived back home, changed my blood-soaked paper towel bandage to a fresh paper towel with duct tape to hold it together this time. I printed the photograph of the garage door and hobbled down the stairs. I gazed with exasperation at my paintings attempting to cook up some new idea. I paint too many clowns, it's becoming gimmicky, I thought. I began drawing dancing nudes in my sketchbook, knowing I also paint too many dancing nudes.
Just then, my other neighbor, let's call him Jeff, a gaunt, Keith Richards-esque man in his early-to-mid 60's, also a resident next door where Harry lived, passed through the courtyard, and I didn't notice him until he began to speak to me. "I'm just passing through your yard ... because there's a crazy drunk guy yellin' an' pounding on the door tryin' to get in ..."
"... so I'm just taking the back way, cuttin' through your yard."
"I can understand that."
"I swear, something crazy happens every day around here," he shook his head in amazement and exhaustion. Not privy to his particular experience but recalling the crazy in my own life i said, "I know all about that!"
"What's your name again?"
"Thanks Alex," he began walking away, "Jeff," he pointed to himself. And smiled as he walked into the alleyway, and was gone.
About ten minutes later, as my sketches were degrading and my brain was losing steam, Patrick arrived home from his morning shift. He hugged me and surveyed my project, complimented the paintings so far. After I told him about my toe, I realized how badly I needed a nap. He helped me load all my supplies back inside and we both collapsed on the couch in the living room. I covered my face with a bandana and stared at the back of my eyelids for 20 minutes.
My imagination was abruptly taken by imagery of snakes wrapped around tree branches, and my creative block began to dissolve. I sat straight up, grabbed my paint palette and immediately began painting the outline of a snake onto the first canvas. Patrick went to the bedroom to watch Jeopardy, and I listened to him answer questions aloud while I continued painting the outlines of my serpents.
A loud, urgent knock at the door. I shot up and my eyes registered an unfamiliar face. POLICE, he said. I opened the screen door, revealing 3 more cops behind that guy standing on the stairs. "We're with the Denver Police Department. Are you the only one that lives here?" He asked.
"No, my boyfriend lives here too."
"Okay, we need to see him," he demanded. I began trembling with adrenaline, said okay, and peeked around the corner of the bedroom, "Uhm, Patrick, can you come talk to these guys?" He looked annoyed. I thought it was because he knew it was the police and he was pulling some macho shit. (I later found out he didn't know who was at the door and was confused.) "Okay," he said, "Let me put on some pants."
I panicked a little, thinking the slowness by which Patrick was complying would be seen as insubordinate. With wide eyes I barked apologetically to the officer "HE NEEDS TO PUT ON PANTS."
Subtly, ever so subtly, the officer snickered into his chest. He read the panic on my face and explained further, "We just need to account for everyone that lives here."
Patrick walked out from the bedroom and stood in the doorway next to me.
"Okay," the officer said. "Did you notice anything unusual going on outside today?"
"Hmmm ..." I reached far, far into my short term memory.
"Anyone acting suspicious?"
I remembered my neighbor passing through the yard and began telling him about that, realizing that i might have been snitching someone out, while actively, reflexively snitching as hard as possible. He wrote down key words while also looking over his shoulders and surveying the current conditions of the alleyway and instructing his cohorts to keep watching.
"Okay guys," he addressed Patrick and I, "The reason we're here is because there was an assault next door. Someone's pretty jacked up."
We gasped and mouthed 'oh shit.'
Addressing me, "I'm gonna have an officer come back up here with a form for you to fill out. Witness report. In the meantime if you see anything else call us." He grew more distracted by the goings-on in the courtyard, speaking to us mostly while looking over his shoulder.
"Call 911?" I asked.
"Yes, call 911." He began walking back down the stairs. "Oh, and one more thing," he leaned back up towards the door, "I know you guys wanna keep your door open, but it's probably best if you keep it locked tonight. You plan on going anywhere tonight?"
"He (Patrick) has to go to work."
"Okay, well be very careful if you have to leave," he emphasized, "Keep the door locked."
Patrick left for work. I turned on a police scanner on my laptop and tried to pick up some info on what was going on. Couldn't tell which officers were referencing the crime that occurred next door. Then, there came another Police-Grade authoritative knock on my screen door. I attempted to silence my police scanner thinking it would be in poor taste if the officer heard me listening in. I opened the door and immediately realized I had failed to silence the police scanner. He smiled and handed me the witness report form.
An official crime scene next door. Wrapped in yellow crime scene tape and surrounded all night by police cars, one of which was parked right under my kitchen window and guarded by a blonde female officer, who I accidentally made eye contact with and wondered if I looked suspicious.
I painted through the next 5 hours, at one point took a BIG bong rip right in the kitchen window having forgotten about the police car right outside. Around 10:30 pm heard "I'm telling you, she's not here! She's down at headquarters!" couldn't see who was addressing whom in the dark.
Patrick came home after midnight. He said the house was swarming with police when he left for work, and that they were questioning/talking to Jeff when he left.
The next day, in the afternoon, we were sitting in the courtyard, I was painting, Patrick was reading. Our landlord, who is deaf, came out from his apartment and waved hello. He'd been gone for the past two days, having taken a trip to Wyoming to watch the eclipse. Unclear whether he'd arrived home that morning or the night before. He began gesturing about what happened the day before. He made a 'throat slit' gesture, and Patrick and I looked at each other, mouths agape. Our landlord then shrugged, made a 'life is crazy' gesture and began showing us pictures of his trip to Wyoming, the eclipse and the saloon-like bar he hung out in all weekend.
An hour later, a man approached us from the alleyway with long, slow, careful strides, and my eyes focused on the laminated badge dangling from his front shirt pocket. "Hi," he smiled at us, "I'm with the police department," he spoke slowly, with gentle half-smiling eyes, sort of like an adult speaks to a child, so as not to startle us, "Were you around when everything happened yesterday?"
"Yeah," I said, "I filled out a witness report."
"Oh. What was your name?"
"Ohhh," he reflected. "I don't think I read your statement. What did it say?"
I rehashed it.
"But oddly enough we didn't hear anything. We were right inside" (pointing to carriage house that overlooks crime scene) "and we didn't hear anything at all."
"Wow, that is strange!" he was so kind and likable, immediately, maybe skillfully and calculatedly rousing our trust, "Mind if I look around in this brush over here?" He indicated the very foliage that I had been painting the day before, while Harry was hanging his clothes on the line. "Yeah, sure, go ahead," we responded with the same kindness and friendliness with which he spoke.
He poked around in the greenery for a few minutes and when he finished, Patrick asked, "Are you able to tell us anything more about what happened yesterday?"
He paused for a beat. "The guy died," he said. "It's a homicide."
We gasped. We verbally expressed our surprise and astonishment at our proximity to an actual murder, in some way that I can't recall.
"Can I see what you're painting?" he asked me. "Sure," I said, wondering subconsciously if somehow I could be arrested for sharing my art with a police officer.
"It's a snake," I explained.
"Wow, that's great. That's wonderful. You're really good," he examined it for a while and began walking back towards the alleyway. "I wish I had talent. I don't have any talent at all!"
Patrick replied, "Oh I'm sure that's not true!" and we all said goodbye and thank you. After he left, we reflected for a few moments about how nice he was, and speculated about who'd been murdered.
Our very quiet neighbor, whose name I still don't know, who chain smokes on the front patio every day, and with whom, over the past six months, I had only ever exchanged hellos, wandered out into the courtyard, approaching us to commiserate. The conversation came easily, as though we were bonded like family instantly by our proximity to a homicide.
"Hi," we said to him.
He nodded and said something like, "Did you guys hear all the commotion yesterday?" We nodded back.
"Do you know anything about what happened?" I asked him, curious to know who died. Wondering if it was Harry , who I hadn't seen since we exchanged words about clouds in the alleyway.
"You guys probably know more than me, you were right here when it happened," he replied.
"We don't know anything. We didn't even hear it happen and we were right inside."
"Ohhh," he said. Paused for a moment and took a drag of his cigarette. "Harry is dead. Homicide."
"Girl who lives next door, Harry always had some problems with, her boyfriend was crazy always coming over, some kind of gang banger, yesterday he came over being very aggressive, got into it with Harry. He got his throat slit."
We gasped. "Oh my god. Holy shit," I said, covering my mouth with my hand, looking at Patrick.
"It's very strange but I can see how that would happen. Harry was very passionate and when you get two people like that in a room ..."
"Wow, that's so crazy. I just spoke to him in the alleyway right before that happened," I said.
"Yeah, her boyfriend is a gang banger or something like that. I saw her in the alleyway laughing with her mom packing her things and she seemed like she didn't even ..."
"Yeah, we saw her this morning. She was acting totally nonchalant ..."
"Yeah, nonchalant, exactly. I don't know how you can be so uncaring after something like that."