Saturday, December 23, 2017

I'd asked myself a question while standing in a lengthy line at one of the ticket booths outside the park, and now zigzagging our way through crowds of ankle-bruising strollers and oblivious wanderers on Main Street, I asked myself the same question. "What the heck prompted me to bring Annie to Disneyland on a weekend two days before Christmas?"

Actually, there was a somewhat reasonable answer to that question, but I wasn't ready to explain it to Annie yet. Instead I put my arm around her, lest I lose her in the crowd, and we continued slogging through the hordes until we got to the Walt and Mickey statue at the hub in front of Cinderella's Castle. There, we turned left and headed for New Orleans Square, Annie's favorite Disneyland "land."

As we approached Walt's interpretation of the Big Easy, strains of Bourbon Street Parade drifted over the heads of the crowd. Ever enthusiastic about any kind of live music, Annie pulled on my arm and said, "Oh! There's a Dixieland band playing outside the French Market. Let's stop and listen!"

A minute later we found a small corner where we stepped out of the constantly moving stream of park visitors and listened. Standing close beside me, Annie was jostled by a ten year old on a tear. She grinned and looking up at me from under the brim of her blue and white straw fedora. "Derek, please be sure to tell me when the Disney magic starts. I don't want to miss it."

"Okay, don't rub it in. I picked a lousy day for our annual Disneyland Christmas visit. I admit it."

Giving me a gentle elbow in the ribs, Annie said, "Oh, come on. I was kidding you. I'm really having fun. Honest."

The Dixieland band played one more standard I recognized, but couldn't name, before disappearing to wherever Disneyland "cast" members go when their services are no longer required. As they waved goodbye to their fans, I asked, "Where to next, Darlin'?"

She pulled a pair of FastPasses out of her faded blue denim jacket pocket. "Well, it's only a few minutes before the time on our FastPass tickets for Pirates."

Fondly remembering the old days before FastPasses, when lines inside the park seldom had waits longer than half an hour, I used a growly tone of voice to say, "Aye, matey, then Pirates she be."

Annie laughed. "Gosh, you sound just like Captain Jack Sparrow!"

A little kid chose that moment to trample my heel. Looking back over my shoulder, I glared at a father who was totally oblivious to his little brat's behavior. To Annie I said, "I could put Sparrow's cutlass to good use right about now."

Annie leaned in close to my ear. "You know, if you ever get around to marrying me, that could be our kid."

I shook my head. "I guarantee comments like that will not hasten me in the direction of the matrimonial alter."

Our FastPasses allowed us to bypass the Pirates of the Caribbean's long line and go straight to the ride's loading dock. At the dock, a young male ride attendant helped Annie aboard our pirate boat, giving her an appreciative once-over as he did. As our boat pulled away from the dock, I said, "Well, judging by the way that fellow checked you out, he'd probably marry you tonight."

She shook her head. "Thanks, but I want a man, not a kid. He can't be a day over twenty-one."

I laughed, thinking I was only six years older than Annie's estimate of the ride attendant's age. Maybe racecar drivers mature faster than ride attendants, although that seemed highly unlikely. Oh, in case you're curious, that's what I do for a living. I play bumper cars in the International Motor Sports Association GT Le Mans road-racing series.

After hobnobbing with the pirates, we made use of our reservation for a waterside table and lunch in the calming atmosphere of the Blue Bayou Restaurant. The surroundings there are calming for two reasons. First, the interior is realistically designed in the fashion of a terrace overlooking a peaceful bayou, which happens to be part of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. The second reason the restaurant is calming has to do with the prices being too expensive for most folks with kids.

After a review of the menu to remind ourselves of the Blue Bayou's bill o' fare, we kicked things off with appetizer bowls of ”N'awlins Gumbo" over rice. Annie followed the gumbo with Vegetable Pasta and I picked Roasted Chicken Maison.

While we ate, our conversation turned to her upcoming Spring Semester at UCLA. According to plan it was to be her final semester of courses required to earn a BS degree in Forensic Science. I asked how her class schedule was shaping up.

"I have all the units I need, but I have three more required classes. One of them is another writing course in the English Department, but I can't decide which one to take. The choices are "Writing for the Professions" and "Persuasive Writing." You were an English major. Which would be best for me?"

"I recommend Writing for the Professions. You're too darn persuasive already."

She gave me a look full of coyness. "Is that so?"

"Yes, that is so."

"Well, I'm pretty darn sure any powers of persuasion I have over you do not involve English, unless body English counts."

"Careful there, young lady, your vixenish tendencies are showing."

Without missing a beat, Annie looked down at the front of her blue and white striped T-shirt, and then right back at me. "Oh my goodness, so they are! If they bother you, I can button my jacket."

"I rest my case . . . and you can leave your jacket just the way it is."

A shared Crème Brûlée desert, a pair of non-alcoholic Mint Juleps, and a reasonable tip for our efficient server brought our lunch tab to a grand total of one-hundred-and-twenty-five dollars. The food at Blue Bayou is good, but not that good. I suppose the bayou ambiance and lack of screaming kids is meant to make up the difference.

After lunch Annie went on a window shopping spree through New Orleans Square's swanky shops and I did a little actual money shopping, buying Annie an extra Christmas present of Chanel Coco Mademoiselle Eau De Parfum at the perfume shop. The woman behind the counter assured me it was all the rage right now. At $80 for a puny hundred milliliter bottle, it had better be!

From there our FastPasses kept us hopping for the rest of the afternoon. First came the Haunted Mansion. Following the grinning ghosts, we took a soggy ride on Splash Mountain's log flume. Then it was across Frontierland for a thrilling journey on the Big Thunder Mountain mine train.

By the time we staggered off Big Thunder Mountain, the sun was sinking in the west. It was already dark enough for the Mark Twain riverboat's lights to be on, and that is a sight to behold. Feeling the need for something a little less exhilarating than log flumes and roller coaster mine trains, we climbed the Mark Twain's gangplank and found ourselves a good spot at the railing on the second deck.

After our captain gave the command to cast off all lines and the boat began it's circumnavigation of Tom Sawyer Island, I gave Annie a peck on the cheek and got a full-fledged kiss on the lips in return. Either the kiss or the cooling southern California evening air had the pleasant effect of causing her to snuggle a little closer. With the lights on the banks and the wilderness scenery slipping by, it was all quite romantic.

Softly, Annie said, "I love this boat ride. It's one time in life when we can go around in circles and not care."

"Yeah, it seems like most of our lives are spent either going to or coming from someplace. That's why being here is a nice change, even with the annoyances."

"It is. Too bad we can't hide out in a fantasy land all the time."

"Ah . . . this is Frontierland."

My insistence on accuracy earned me another elbow nudge in the ribs. "Oh, you know what I mean, Derek. It's just that life has gotten so complicated we have to constantly be taking care of business or the world will fall apart around us."

Knowing I was about to open Pandora's box, I took a deep breath and said, "Well, in that case, I guess we should get on with this marriage business."

Annie looked up at me, probably to judge my mood. "If you're serious about making an honest woman of me, that would be a good idea."

"Oh, I'm serious about it. I've just been waiting for you to get your degree in that f'rensic stuff so you can support me in the manner to which I would like to become accustomed."

Chuckling, Annie said, "In that case, I've got some bad news for you. Even with an advanced degree, eighty-thousand is about the top of the salary range for forensic scientists." With a grin, she added, "Besides, you make more than enough to support us."

Even though I knew she was kidding, this was getting harder by the minute. "Well . . . "

Annie ignored my unfinished thought and stuck with the idea I made enough to support us, which was the understatement of the year. "You had a great season last year, wining the championship and all, and you're only twenty-seven. They say you're the next Parnelli Jones or Mario somebody. Plus, Chevrolet has guaranteed you another ride for the 2018 season. If we can't get by on an annual income of twenty-two-million after taxes, I'll cut back on my lingerie expenditures."

"Well . . . "

I didn't finish my thought again, and this time Annie noticed. With a suspicious look on her pretty face, she said, "Well, what?"

I sighed. I'd put it off as long as I could. No matter what she thought about what I did, the time had come to break a big piece of news. "Well . . . I'm afraid I turned that Chevrolet contract down."

Now looking at me with a mildly surprised expression, Annie asked, "Care to tell me why?"

Quietly, I said, "I'm retiring from racing."

On hearing that, the cute redhead in the blue denim jacket threw her arms around my neck and said, "Thank God!" loud enough for everyone aboard the Mark Twain to hear her. She followed up with a kiss I'd swear rocked the big riverboat on its keel.

Her reaction shocked me. "'Thank God?' You don't mind if I quit?"

"Mind? MIND? I never would have told you this, but I've been wishing you'd stop racing from the very first race I went to with you. Honestly, it scares the hell out of me!"

"I know."

Frowning, Annie said, "Now don't you dare tell me you're doing this to please me! I've never tried to influence . . . ."

"I'm not going to tell you that. This was entirely my idea. It just seems like I'm ready to take on some new responsibilities in life--like you, if you'll have me, and a family. To do that, I need to grow up and walk away from some of my risky behaviors. I've talked to NBC about doing color for their race coverage. I don't have a deal yet, but it looks promising."

Then, even in the darkness on the Rivers of America, I noticed tear tracks glistening on Annie's face. "Are you crying? What's the matter, Darlin'?"

That brought on a smile to go with the tears. "These are tears of happiness, you big goof. You just made me the happiest woman on earth."

Handing Annie the small black and gold box I'd been carrying in my pocket all day, I said, "Oh. Well, if that's all it takes to make you happy, I can return this and save a pile of money."

She opened the box, stared at the diamond engagement ring inside it for several seconds, and then looked up at me. "Not on your life, buster! You put this gorgeous ring on my finger right now and it's going to stay there darn well forever."

I did as she instructed and Annie took a selfie with her cell phone so, as she put it, she had photographic evidence of my intentions. A young woman standing nearby overheard the whole thing, and after congratulating us, asked if we would like her to snap a picture of us with Annie's phone. The result of her kindness is a photograph we'll treasure always.

Joining the throng of folks walking up Main Street toward Disneyland's exit a little later, I noticed a lot of tired kids. Most of the smaller tots were being carried in the arms of their parents. Just ahead of us, a particularly cute little girl peeked over her daddy's shoulder and smiled shyly. Annie and I looked at each other and smiled back at the kid.

In that moment I knew I was hooked. The little princess smiling at us had way more appeal than a Corvette CR7 GTLM race car . . . even a bright yellow one with my name below the driver-side window.


Story and design, Disneyland images © Steve Eitzen
Header graphic & HPO logo © HPO Productions
"Annie" images © 123RF used by license
Chevrolet Corvette images © Chevrolet Division of General Motors
Ring and child images modified from public domain sources

All rights reserved by copyright owners

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, locations, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.