With Apologies to the Walt Disney Company
by Sean Trolinder
At the Hall of Presidents, Emma fires spitballs at animatronic Donald Trump. Our parents do not catch onto this until Trump lifts his hand, as if bestowing an honor, and the announcer says, “Abraham Lincoln.” The wads peg onto Trump’s coat like baby food on a sleeping dog. I feel it coming—our second attempt at enjoying Magic Kingdom would be cut short.
“Show some respect,” says a dude with a ponytail and holes in his Wrangler jeans.
Mom snatches the straw from Emma and slaps her hand.
Our entire summer trip to Disney World was like this. At Animal Kingdom, Emma threw fruit snacks at a sleeping hippopotamus. During a brief roam around Magic Kingdom two days ago, Emma tried snatching Jack Sparrow’s hat off his head. Heck, when returning to the Dolphin Hotel one afternoon, Emma saw Princess Jasmine leaving the lobby and called her a “hoochie mama” for sporting a skimpy outfit. After each encounter, our parents took her into the hotel room for a spanking. Emma, who was seven years old, insisted that this was child abuse and decided to make the trip about how many bruises could be applied to her behind.
“Terribly sorry,” Mom says to the ponytailed dude. “Lincoln was a great president.”
“Damn right, and so is Trump.”
Emma snorts before kicking the seat in front of her.
My face flushes. How embarrassing. All I want to do is enjoy the show, experience “the magic” Disney has to offer, and see my favorite president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, get a shout out, but my little sister can’t make it through one event without spoiling the fun.
Emma kicks the seat one more time, so an older woman twists around and raises a fist. Right before the spotlight could flash on FDR, Dad stands up, yanks on Emma’s arm, and orders the family to leave. Emma cries and screams at the top of her lungs before Mom flings open the exit door.
“I greatly apologize, folks,” says Dad.
I swim underwater to hide from the blazing Florida sun. My eyes focus on the shimmer of white spreading at the bottom of the pool, despite the chlorine burning. I kick and glide my way to the deep end where the adults hang out. My father’s legs are extremely hairy and plastered with a farmer’s tan, since he worked on a plantation every day for the past eighteen years in Wapanucka, Oklahoma. A woman with red toenails and a grapevine tattoo around her right ankle rubs her heel against Dad’s leg.
Emerging, I blink three times to ensure that I’m not hallucinating. Folks swinging toy lightsabers march by veering palm trees. Most wear Mickey Mouse t-shirts. Spring mint, coconut scented suntan lotion, and freshly cut tangerines engulf my nose. Sandals pitter-patter along the pool deck.
Even though I’m certain about reading a sign that says, “No drinks in the pool,” the adults hold all forms of beverages. A margarita here; plastic containers of beer there. Dad’s nursing a rum and coke so faint that I see the leg of a lounge chair through the plastic cup.
“Where’s Mom?” I ask.
“With your sulking sister,” Dad says before sipping his drink. It’s strong. I can tell because he winces. “They’ll be down soon.”
An hour ago, Dad delivered the worse whopping that I ever seen in my life. It was so bad that he required Emma to put on a pair of jeans to cushion the blows. Between swats on Emma’s behind, he said, “How dare you disrespect our president like that.” I’m not sure what my parents saw in Trump. Politics have no place in vacations. I just want to see Goofy give kids fist bumps.
“Can we go back to Magic Kingdom?” I ask. “We haven’t ridden Splash Mountain.”
“Go play,” Dad says. “I need to relax. Your sister’s got me all wound up.”
I take a good look at the woman with the grapevine tattoo. Her face is pudgy, but she has a slender nose and thin eyebrows. Her brunette hair races between her shoulder blades. Her hand presses against Dad’s neck.
Dad yanks a ten dollar bill from his swimming trunks and orders me to get whatever I want from The Fountain. Part of me feels paid off and I get an ice cream, but I really need the escape Disney promises in its ads. Upon return, I lick my cone and see Ms. Grapevine whispering something in Dad’s ear and I imagine it as a false promise.
Growing up as a fourteen-year-old boy in Wapanucka, I felt trapped by boredom. There was nothing to do but run around the farm, read history books on presidents, and watch television. With a population of roughly four hundred fifty people, everyone knew each other. After school, my neighbor Billy Jonally and I would rewatch Disney classics like Robin Hood, Pinocchio, Fox and the Hound, Aladdin, and The Incredibles, picturing a life much more adventurous than staring at grain growing or the sun rising and setting. Sometimes we popped in Mary Poppins to appease Emma, but we just imitated Bert swinging around chimney brushes, acting like a clown on stimulants.
The most exciting thing to happen in Wapanucka was when Billy Jonally got a hold of a bootlegged DVD of Song of the South, also known as “Disney’s bastard masterpiece” because of its racist content. Without watching Uncle Remus’ tales of Br’er Rabbit, I might’ve never understood the dark history of Splash Mountain.
Emma walked in on us watching Br’er Rabbit punching Tar Baby in the mouth. Billy rolled on the floor, laughing at how Br’er Rabbit’s hand stuck to the mouth. He accused Br’er Rabbit of being a “prejudice mo-fo.”
“What is that black thing?” asked Emma.
“Something buried at the bottom of Disney’s vault,” said Billy.
“Shut up,” I said. “This is just a film with a character from Splash Mountain.”
Emma clapped her hands. “I want to watch! Does it have princesses?”
“It has a Tar Baby,” said Billy, staggering to stand up.
I shoved him onto the couch, but the fool couldn’t stop cracking up. It took every ounce of dignity not to knock Billy’s teeth out. I didn’t want to corrupt Emma’s mind, so I turned off the DVD.
“And it was just starting to get good,” said Emma, cupping her hips. “Not fair.”
I hugged her and walked her toward the dining room. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
“But it’s a Disney movie. Nothing’s worse than Bambi’s mom being shot. Nothing!”
When we stepped into the kitchen, I stopped and shielded Emma’s eyes. Mr. Jonally, Billy’s dad, wore corduroys and a scarf around his neck. His fingernails flashed streaks of dirt and corn smut, but they massaged Mom’s bare shoulders and a button was undone on her blouse. Before I could say anything and piece together what might’ve been going on, Mr. Jonally stepped away and grabbed an empty glass. He attempted to drink the air, but I wasn’t deceived.
“Heard y’all are going to Disney,” said Mr. Jonally. “Mighty fine vacation. Y’all be the first family from Wapanucka to go.”
I nodded, still shielding Emma’s eyes, and said, “Let’s go find Dad.”
I decided not to say anything about the kitchen incident in fear of losing the Disney trip. Based on the way things were going, I wished that I had said something earlier.
Mom’s kissing Goofy’s cheek while Dad snaps a photo. Her sunglasses hide the sweat leaking into her eyes and she kept wiping them for the past hour. Vacationers waltz around the asphalt, fanning each other off with maps and brochures. Some suck down overpriced water bottles and sip from plastic cups with mouse ears. The whoosh of rollercoasters and echoes of laughing children surround us. This marks our third attempt at exploring Magic Kingdom and I keep my fingers crossed that Emma remains calm.
Emma clutches my hand, her grip growing tighter as Mom double checks the picture quality. I know Emma’s waiting for her turn and a memory, but given her recent stunts with cast members, it seems highly unlikely she will get the opportunity.
Dad orders me to stand next to Goofy, excluding my sister. I offer my knuckles, which the goof pounds. I shoot the cheesiest grin ever, and as the flash pops, I know this memento would be one of the few highlights of the vacation.
“Perfect,” says Mom, enlarging the screen. I look as satisfied as a baby after being fed milk.
“What about me?” asks Emma. “It’s not fair Jeremy gets a picture.”
“You ruined it after swiping Sparrow’s cap,” says Dad.
Emma huffs and folds her arms. Goofy’s a good sport and waves at her, anyway.
“I’m heading back to the hotel,” says Mom, pulling off her shades. Mascara blotches over her eyelashes. Is it just the sweat or has she been crying?
“I want to go back, too,” says Emma. “It’s too hot and we should be together.”
“No,” yells Mom, her eyes bugging out. “Mommy needs alone time. Be good to your father.”
“I know what you’re up to,” says Emma. “Stop thinking I’m stupid.”
“What an awful thing to say to your mother,” says Dad, kissing Mom on the cheek. “We’ll be fine. See you at seven for dinner.”
After Mom hugs us and leaves, Emma pouts and continues reaching for my hand. I’m not sure why my sister insists on my attention now, but she’s on the brink of tears, so I pull out five dollars from my allowance and buy her a bottled water from a vender marching by the crowd. In the distance I hear the crashing of water and feel Splash Mountain calling. I think about Billy Jonally showing me that illegal copy of Song of the South, how Br’er Rabbit’s presence is like a black mark to Disney’s legacy, and how avoiding the ride would rob us of the full Disney experience. I imagine Mr. Jonally massaging Mom’s shoulders, caked fingernails and all.
Then I see Dad standing near a park bench in the rest area chatting up Ms. Grapevine and her long, shaved legs. Her right foot presses back on their tiptoes.
Emma tugs on my arm, offering me water. She says, “Are Mom and Dad getting a divorce?”
I should’ve seen the signs on day one of our vacation and it made sense why Emma acted up. At the Dolphin, Emma and I swam under the waterfall and we took turns seeing who could hold our breaths underwater longer. We played “rocket launch.” She smiled and pumped her fists as I let her stand on my shoulders and I blasted her several feet in the air before landing in the pool.
Our parents were not together around the lounge chairs and Dad lay there, basking in the sun, having puddles of sunscreen block his face. Mom’s towel rested on the next chair, unwrinkled. Emma and I had been in the pool for two hours and she needed to use the bathroom.
We ran around the hot tub and spotted Mom drinking a daiquiri with some man with a crew cut, chiseled abs, broad shoulders, and olive skin. She kept flicking her hair, kind of like a teenager in clumsy coming of age movies. Emma sprinted to the bathroom, but as soon as she entered, I felt the urge to go, too.
Three minutes later, I marched out and saw Emma crying while Mom hunched over, scolding her for entering the hot tub. The young man yanked on his trunks, waved them off, and marched right past me. Goosebumps ran across my arm and sickliness overwhelmed me. I forgot to wash my hands, so I backed into the bathroom. While I applied soap, the olive skinned guy took a leak at the urinal.
He shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s not polite to stare, dude.”
“Why is my sister crying?” I asked, rinsing my hands.
He flushed and tightened the string along his swim trunks. “Here’s a lesson, kid. When two adults are in a hot tub, it’s best not to enter.”
“It’s a free country,” I said. “Franklin D. Roosevelt said—”
“Kids and books. You don’t know reality.”
He stepped past me and it would be the last I ever saw of the guy.
Alone in the bathroom, I uttered, “Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own mind.”
“What’s your name?” Emma asks Ms. Grapevine. “And where did you get that tattoo?”
Glancing down at her ankle, Ms. Grapevine blushes. “That was a present I gave myself on my eighteenth birth. I grew up on a vineyard in California. And the name’s Cheryl.”
“California’s stupid,” says Emma. “Daddy says a bunch of good for nothing, Trump hating liberals live out there.”
Dad cups her mouth and says, “She gets that from her mother. You’ll have to excuse her. The heat’s making her cranky.”
We stand in line for Splash Mountain and people wedge against one another to lean against the walls. They stick together closer than olives clumped inside an aluminum can. Plastered on one end is a warning sign that says, “FIFTY FOOT PLUNGE AHEAD! SPLASH MOUNTAIN IS A TURBULENT FLUME ADVENTURE WITH HIGH SPEEDS, HEIGHTS, SUDDEN DROPS AND STOPS!” I wonder if Emma’s tall enough to ride it. Upbeat banjo and harmonica music blasts from the speakers. The wooden barriers facing the walls feel like worn plastic and gunk. The clanking of gears from Big Thunder Mountain Railroad bang in the distance.
“I want to sit with you, Daddy,” says Emma.
“Sit with Jeremy,” says Dad, taking a step away from Cheryl in order not to make it obvious that this was planned.
“You’re not going to sit with her, right?” asks Emma.
“I don’t want you sitting with strangers, so quit it,” says Dad.
Emma stomps her foot, demanding, “I want Mom!”
I blush, not because of the way Emma’s acting, but for the shamelessness of my father. Disney always promised a grand, family experience full of fantasy and dreams. What Emma and I got are our parents’ shenanigans being fulfilled, my sister and I unwilling participants to this sideshow. I understand history, presidents, and Disney, but don’t know the word for parents who agree to cheat on each other.
There comes a time when a brother must ease the blow of a sister’s pain for the greater good. Emma deserved better than witnessing Dad debase himself for the attention of a younger woman, so I wrap an arm around my sister. I do it for her, not Dad.
“I want you to sit with me,” I say to Emma. “Let’s go in the front row, so that we can see everything.”
Emma’s pout curves into a smile and, for a brief moment, a twinkle comes into her eye, that magic this vacation sells.
“Won’t we get, like, really really wet?” Emma asks.
“The water will go right over us and drench Dad worse than any hurricane,” I say.
Emma hugs my waist tight and says, “Good. He needs a baptism.”
After the first little dip on Splash Mountain, riders scream behind us and we coast toward a plastic beehive above a cave. Emma and I sit in the front row. Dad and Cheryl, who shouted the loudest, seem cozy behind us. Out of the corner of my eye, Cheryl plants her head on my father’s shoulder, but I do everything to make sure Emma looks forward.
Banjo music strums over the hidden speakers and light fades over green and yellow leaves from blue tree trunks. Emma smiles, pointing at the “No Fishin’” sign. Frogs with straw hats and a stork sing. Up ahead, Br’er Bear holds a club while Br’er Fox flashes his mischievous teeth.
“Are they going to kill Br’er Rabbit?” asks Emma.
It occurs to me that Emma only saw parts of Song of the South and she remains innocent to the full scope of the story. She clings to tragic moments in Disney history, like Bambi’s mom being shot or Mary Poppins leaving after Mr. Banks agrees to fly a kite with his children. In her mind, there is always the possibility of disappointment, even on a Disney ride.
“If Br’er Rabbit were to die, they’d never let you on the ride,” I say.
“I only made it on the ride by this much,” Emma says, lifting her hand up, showing two centimeters of space between her thumb and index finger. “I’m scared of the big drop.”
The cave dims at patches and smacking kisses reverberate behind us. I’m not sure if Dad’s kissing Cheryl or the water keeps plopping and licking the sides of our ride. A minute after witnessing Br’er Bear’s ankles caught and hanging from a rope, our boat glides into total darkness. I grip Emma’s hand as we accelerate. She screams, but points at the plastic bees flying in perfect circles around hives. Five meters from us is Br’er Bear with a hive stuck to his nose. He’s barreled on his back, unable to regain any footing. Emma laughs and claps her hands.
We witness spouts of water shoot from large pots and bowls. Some moaning creeps behind me. I don’t dare look. Emma keeps leaning forward. If this vacation gives one positive result, it would be this moment—Emma, my seven-year-old sister, happy.
At the end of the cave, a slope with railings climbs logs ahead of us up and Emma makes me promise nothing bad will happen to her. She clutches my hand for dear life as chains pull our ride to the light at the end of the tunnel. We accelerate down, past another dark hole with tangled, torn branches above the entrance. Emma shrieks and as our boat slams into the water, most of it splatters behind us. She turns around to check how drenched Dad is, but we’re both surprised to see Cheryl with lipstick splotched across her chin and mascara trailing down her cheeks.
Near the end of the ride, a riverboat with flashing bulbs on the side appears in the distance. A banner hangs above that reads, “Welcome Home Brer Rabbit.” The animatronics sing Uncle Remus’ famous “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” song.
Emma tugs on my shirt and asks, “Where’s Tar Baby? I want to see him!”
I wrap an arm around Emma and say, “Tar Baby’s there. He’s just hidden. Trust me.”
After our family returns from dinner, we walk into our room at the Dolphin. The sheets on my parents’ bed are a tangled mess and the comforter hangs onto the corner, an inch away from falling. Two bathrobes lay on the floor and I never recalled Dad showering today, even after Splash Mountain.
“Look at that,” says Emma, pointing at the fireworks exploding from Epcot.
Each one bangs a different color—blue, red, pink, green, purple. Dad swings open the balcony door, so Emma and I follow our parents. We stand there for ten minutes in silence, watching the ribbon trails streaking through the night sky, stuck in awe through its majesty, and at some point Dad hugged Mom from behind and Emma wrapped an arm around my waist, as if we all came to some unsaid agreement to enjoy the moment and ignore the past.
Sean Trolinder received his MFA in Fiction from Texas State University – San Marcos, where he was a W. Morgan and Lou Claire Rose Fellow. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Louisiana Literature, Map Literary, Midwestern Gothic, Cagibi, The MacGuffin, MARY, The Sand Hill Review, Oracle and many other journals. Currently, he teaches IB English Literature at Celebration High School in Florida.