He loved to watch fat women dance. I guess O'Connor's last night on the planet was a happy one because that night he had an eyeful of the full-figured.
We had gone out that Saturday night for a drink at Banyon's, and somehow an honest-to-God bevy of bulging beauties had ended up in the same place. O'Connor never got up and danced with any of these women himself; I'm not sure he really would have enjoyed being the dancer as much as he did just watching them swing and sway with amazing grace. I don't think he heard a word I said all evening, which is just as well, since I was only grousing on a well-worn set of subjects. He just sat there, with an expression crossbred between reverence and desire, whenever some big old gal got up to shake and shimmy.
O'Connor and I had managed to remain friends through one of the ugliest divorces in the state of California -- the divorce of his son, Kenny, and my older sister, Barbara. We were friends before their romance started and we both thought it was doomed from the word go. My sister has been a glutton for lousy relationships for years, so no surprise there. But I'm still mystified about how a great-hearted guy like O'Connor could have had anything to do with the gene pool of a nasty little bastard like Kenny.
My guess was that O'Connor's ex-wife was a real harpy, even though he never talked about her to me. Barbara told me they had split up when Kenny was a baby. Kenny had lived with his mother until he was fourteen, at which time she had packed him up like worn-out clothing and sent him to live with O'Connor -- no note, no warning, just a call saying the kid was coming in on a flight from Phoenix that afternoon. She had taken off for parts unknown -- no one had heard from her for years afterward.
The dancing ladies called it a night, and we decided to do the same. As I drove him home, he started telling Irish jokes, a sure sign he'd had a few too many. The jokes were old, but O'Connor could make me laugh just by laughing this ridiculous laugh of his. It started as a kind of noiseless shaking, then guffawing, on to tears, and he ended by taking out his handkerchief and blowing his big nose. I could never watch this performance with a straight face -- by the time the handkerchief came out, I was a goner.
Kenny's red Corvette was parked in the driveway, so I pulled up at the curb. O'Connor climbed slowly out of the car. "You're dear to me, Irene," he said with a wink and little drunken bow.
"O'Connor, please don't sing it. It's one o'clock in the morning. People are trying to sleep."
I should have known better; he was going to sing it anyway, and my plea only made him relish doing so all the more. He laughed as he turned and took his bearings on the front door, heaved his big shoulders back as he took a deep breath and began to belt out "Goodnight, Irene" at the top of his lungs as he shambled up to the darkened house. This was old hat to me and his neighbors, but next door Mrs. Keene felt honor-bound to turn on her porch light to register annoyance. O'Connor grinned and went on in, waving as he closed the door.
The morning after our night at Banyon's, somebody left a package on O'Connor's front porch. Mrs. Keene was out watering her lawn and later she said she saw him come padding out in his bare feet and bathrobe to pick up the paper. He was a little hung over, I guess, because she said that he didn't see the package until the return trip. She was a little embarrassed to see him in his robe, so she didn't call out a "good morning" or anything, but she's a nosy bird and she was curious about the package.
Nobody knows exactly what happened after that, except that the explosion knocked Mrs. Keene on her keister and sent little pieces of O'Connor just about everywhere they could go.
I was at home, having a lazy morning, hanging around in an old pair of pj's and reading the paper with the supervision of my big gray tomcat, Wild Bill Cody, when the phone rang. It was Lydia Ames, an old pal of mine over at the newspaper where I used to work, the Las Piernas News Express.
"Irene! Does O'Connor live on Randall Avenue?"
"Who wants to know?" I asked, wary of her tone.
Now Lydia has only cussed one other time in her life that I know of, and that was when Alicia Penderson showed up at our high school prom in a gown identical to Lydia's -- a strapless affair, only on Alicia it seemed to be working harder to defy gravity.
So all of a sudden here's Lydia on a Sunday morning, talking blue and sounding like she was about to cry. I told her O'Connor's address. She didn't say anything for about four hours, or so it seemed, but I guess it was really about half a minute.
"Lydia, what the hell is going on?"
"Shit, Irene..." Now she was crying. "Irene, I think you better get over to O'Connor's place. We just got a report that there's been some kind of explosion -- Baker's on his way to cover it."
The whole time I was getting dressed and driving over to O'Connor's, I kept telling myself that Lydia was pretty hysterical and that I didn't really know that anything had happened to O'Connor. Maybe just his house, maybe not O'Connor but someone else, maybe some other house.
That all started to change when I saw the rising smoke from half a mile away. A slow, cold numbing started in my throat and eventually froze me in place on the sidewalk across the street from his house. Clusters of firemen formed tense huddles with cops. The place was surrounded by fire trucks, police cars, the bomb-squad van, the coroner's ambulance. The house was smashed as if it were nothing more than an egg; a yolk of mud and debris was spilling out of its broken shell. I wanted to find O'Connor. I felt certain that if they would just let me look, just let someone who had cared about him look, I'd find him.
I sometimes hear about people knowing right away that someone they loved has died, that they feel the dead person's spirit leave or something. O'Connor stuck around.
I heard someone yell "Kelly!" and turned to see a tall black man walking toward me. It was Mark Baker, the reporter sent out by the Express. "Oh, God, Irene, I'm so sorry," he said in a shaky voice. I wasn't ready for sympathy, and looked away. He understood and stopped talking, just put one of his burly arms around my shoulders and guided me away from the crowd. Mark took me over to where Frank Harriman was trying to get some sense out of Mrs. Keene, then left to talk to one of the guys from the bomb squad.
Frank and I had met when he was a rookie cop in Bakersfield and I was on my first crime beat as a fledgling reporter. Now he was a homicide detective with the Las Piernas Police Department. I hadn't seen him for a long time, since before I quit the paper, but this wasn't the time to renew old acquaintances.
As I stood to one side, Frank noticed me and gave me one of those very protective "are-you-okay?" looks. I tried to avoid his eyes, and turned away from him, but to my horror looked up to see a coroner's assistant bagging a little piece of something soft.
Thank God I'm not a fainter. I must have looked bad, though, because Frank took me gently by the elbow and said, "Go home, Irene." I just stared at him.
"You still live in the same place?" he asked.
I nodded, because I didn't trust my voice. I was also busy with a tug-of-war -- one minute I was trying to take it all in, the next, trying to shut it all out. I heard Frank say something about wanting to ask me some questions, later. I figured Mrs. Keene had told him about the previous night's serenade, but I was past caring. I heard the camera shutters of the forensic team, and out of the corner of my eye kept seeing the coroner's assistants with their goddamned plastic bags and forceps. I felt sick and weird...disconnected.
Frank was quiet for a minute; then he asked a cop to drive me home, but I shook it off and told him I could manage. I made sure he had my address, then left. I could feel him watching me as I walked to my car. I didn't look back at Frank or the house as I drove off.
As I rounded the corner I saw Kenny's red Corvette heading toward the house. For the one-millionth time, I felt sorry for him. He wasn't equipped for everyday life, let alone something like this. And for the two-millionth time, I knew I couldn't do anything about it.
It was a long time before I asked myself what had made Kenny get up and at 'em so early on a Sunday morning.
Copyright © 2002 by 1993 by Jan Burke