MINERVA by Seamus O'Connor
Excerpt from the novel, Bitter Oranges, by Seamus O’Connor
MINERVA, CALIFORNIA — 1960
The night I arrived in Minerva we came into town over the old drawbridge, into that god-forsaken part of the city that lies alongside the river wharfs. Drunks hunkering in doorways with bottles in brown paper sacks, streets dusty and trash-strewn, cars out of The Grapes of Wrath, khaki mud-splattered bus disgorging brown-skinned men at a cantina. Sudden blast of mariachi trumpets on a sudden shaft of light, blaring out into the dark street when the doors open — ceasing just as suddenly, taking back the light. Darkness again even darker. Men displacing their own volume in sound and light. Archimedes has been here.
Eureka! It was the State motto of California. I’d read that in a Chamber of Commerce brochure. I never forget what I read in brochures.
It was our first night in America.
We drove slowly past the foreign-looking, dusky men leaning against walls in the shadows of dark sidewalks, angry-glowering men, eye-whites cutting at us, wary.
Cannery Row, Tortilla Flats. I’ve been here before; I’ve met these men before; reading, shivering in that cold, damp Irish dormitory — they’d been exotic then. But 2nd Street, Minerva, wasn’t the book “America” nor the movie “America” — not the Disneyland America, certainly. The bell would not ring for night prayer tonight and the covers of my book would not shut on these men tonight, freezing them in place till tomorrow — not Steinbeck’s word-people, not toys-to-go-back-in-their-box-people. Real people.
“Checks Cashed,” “Rooms for Rent.” Empty wine bottles, wind-blown newspapers wrapped around lamp posts; urine running off crumbling walls to the gutter; brown children playing jacks in the shadows, dark, liquid-eyed children — nothing like them in West Tyrone — playing in the dark streets behind the whores on the corner.
I had not pictured California this way at all. I had devoured Steinbeck’s novels of dust and heat and passion, while huddled in the wet chill of Ireland’s winters. At least it was dry in Oklahoma. How bad could things be if the days were hot and dry enough to raise the dust? They had been hard, those times he’d written about, with drought and prejudice and poverty. But nothing like that existed in the modern Golden State, not now, we’d been told by the Bishop — not since the Depression.
Pat O’Reilly, from the class ahead of us in Trinity, had met us at San Francisco airport that evening and driven us out to Minerva. Jerry sat on the huge front sofa between me and the driver.
“It’s the friggin’ Queen Mary!” I’d said when O’Reilly pointed out the car to us in the parking lot.
Now that DeSoto was the real America; the braceros on skid row belonged in a different book entirely. Salmon-pink and gray, colorful and extravagant, a set designer’s fantasy car. Not an earth-bound car at all, as our Vauxhall Velox was a car, but an auto-mo-bile. From its great flamboyant fins flaring to the heavens, to its gleaming, grinning chromium snout it had streamed out of a Hollywood musical surely. Row upon ivory row of buttons for magically changing gears and getting heat and playing music; creamy steering wheel with silvery horn-rings and yards of dashboard chrome, it was straight from M.G.M. It was Vera-Ellen in tap pants, Debbie Reynolds in a yellow slicker, it was Ginger and Fred. Nothing of its kind had ever come out of an English car factory — no Austin or Morris or Hillman had ever looked anything like this. And its likes had never graced the narrow roads of Tyrone. And the blackberry briars — that had scratched the old Vauxhall’s paint down to rusty metal — would never have laid a thorn on a goddess like her!
I’d have to get my hands on one of those DeSotos, I decided that night, riding out to Minerva.
Coveting thy neighbor’s car. So began my California ministry.