Thank the good Lord my daughters’ friends (these friends, at least) are good girls. They’re black girls who make really good grades in school –not a “C” in sight. They don’t speak fluent “Ebonics.” Their parents (the couple that is K’s parents and the couple that is A’s parents) are married. They live in two-story houses in mixed (okay, predominately white) neighborhoods. They’re as different as night is to day, though.
K is eleven, Goobs’ friend. She’s light-skinned, not quite skinny, and endowed with thick, long, wavy hair, the kind of hair many black women –and, let’s face it, many white women, too-- would kill for, unless, of course, it grew out of their heads. (I see K, down the road, cutting off all that gorgeous hair. Like her mother did.) K is intelligent and personable. She’s also giggly, bouncy and goofy. She’s about as self-aware as a daisy, but that’s quickly changing because she’s giggly, bouncy and goofy. And other girls (and women) who notice her make faces. They don’t like her, even though they don’t even know her, because they think she thinks she’s cute. The fact that she is cute is beside the point, of course. (She wore a two piece, black and white swimsuit –not a bikini, but a two-piece-- to the park. Didn’t expose anything, really, but her tummy. But she was just as cute as she could be.) But you oughta seen these girls (and women) lookin at K up and down, as if to say, “How dare you think you’re cute?” K paid ‘em no attention whatsoever. She was havin a good time, a great time, and nobody was gonna spoil it. She skipped most of the time we were on our feet. (I threatened to send her back to sit in the car for the rest of our outing, but the threat didn’t work. Chile kept skippin.)
A, Juice’s friend, is fifteen. She’s dark-skinned, slim and shapely, funny and quiet. You have to lean forward if you want to hear what she says. We all leaned forward a lot, and when we missed the opportunity to lean forward, we asked each other, “What’d she say?” Cause it was always good stuff. A has been to Busch Gardens many, many times, and she served as our map. (“I know this place like the back of my hand,” she said, and Goobs quoted Robin Williams lookin at the back of his own hand: “Huh.That’s new,” and K giggled loudly for a long time.) A rolled her eyes at K a lot, but I got the idea the eye-rolling was about the behavior of eleven- and twelve-year-olds, not for any other reason. She wore her relaxed hair pulled back in a small pony tail. A is intelligent and personable. When she laughed, it was a warm chuckle, but although she smiled a lot, her laughter was rare. I didn’t notice anybody paying attention to A. Certainly, boys (and men) watched her as she came and went by. She is quite lovely, but really self-effacing. (She wore a bright yellow halter top, over a black halter top from a two-piece, and tight, three-pocket jean shorts. Not short shorts, like skinny, skinny Goobs wore, but the kind that come down past the knee and don’t quite make it to the ankle, so the girl cuffs them. The kind Juice wore.) Her eyes seemed to take in everything --to file it away for further perusal.
Both girls were respectful to me and more. They listened to me be silly and laughed in the right places, told me stories, asked me to go on the rides with them. I had told Juice and Goobs that I would stay with the younguns and let the teenagers go on where they would, but when we all got to the park, they all decided we’d stay together as a group. Now, depending on the ride, thirst, or craving, that changed from time to time (Goobs just refused to ride any roller coasters, and I rode only one; K just had to buy an over-priced bottle of water from time to time), but, aside from that, we hung out together. Nobody walked away without permission, and when I said it was time to go, “Johnbrownit, my dogs are screamin,” A showed us the way to the exit.
It was a beautiful day, clearish skies with only the fewest, whitest, lofty-whipped, downy clouds, and just a little too hot with a nice breeze blowin through not often enough. The park was thick with families and couples of every age, color and nationality (I mean really: sometimes I looked around and thought, “What in the world do they want here?”), but folk behaved (if you didn’t count the babies and toddlers), so that was all right.
First ride was the Loch Ness Monster, and I rode, but that wasn’t as interesting as The Legend of DarKastle. See, I kept telling the girls that the main reason I wasn’t riding a lot of roller coasters and such was my weight: “I’m afraid the seat I’m in’ll break loose and fly off.” After the girls rode Escape from Pompeii, we were walking past the thang, and water flew everywhere. (In fact, there’s a little steel and glass lean-to where you can stand and let the log riders douse you thoroughly as they plunge –in their vehicle—splashingly into the water. Goobs stood there a lot of times. She talked me into standing there with her once, even. Got soaked to the bone.) I said, “See? If I’d been in that thang, so much water’d be displaced, folk’d be drowned everywhere.”
“Stop talking like that, Mommy,” Juice said, while the other girls cracked up.
So when our DarKastle “chariot” just stopped right before the end of the ride, I knew why the good folk at Busch Gardens were having “technical difficulties:” against my best instincts, I had decided to come along on the ride. Honey, that DarKastle ain nothing but the trufe, as was evidenced by the ridiculously long lines leading up to it. (I know we stood in line for a half hour.) While we stood in line, we got to hear the spooky story of the monarch of DarKastle over and over and over, but the girls ignored it. They were people-watchin and talking and laughin. And the whole time, just the slightest bit above everybody’s conversation, was this dark, foreboding music that seeped right into your head. A little girl in pink, about seven or eight, I reckon, clearly rattled by something, had wandered off from her group of mama, auntie and grandmamma (all young women, of course) and stood up against a wall while everybody else maneuvered the serpentine line to the attraction. Eventually, mama or auntie or grandmamma noticed her absence and called her back to the group. Soon the little girl was being comforted by them all, tears streaming down her face. But they didn’t get out of the line. As we entered the vestibule, we could see that the spooky narration about the monarch of DarKastle had been accompanied by a spooky, animated video. And the air was getting cooler.
This is why, I thought, the thang’s such an attraction: it’s cooler here. But the whole time, I was feeling what I thought the little girl was feeling, so I kept asking A, who knew this joint like the back of her hand, what to expect. But, like the very best of guides, she refused to reveal the secrets.
“Yes. It’s a ride, not a show.”
“No. There are no dead bodies walkin around.”
“Yes. We’ll all be able to sit together in the chariot.”
(All answers to my questions, with absolutely no visible sign of the patience A had to have been accessing.)
We were directed to borrow wet 4-D glasses from a bin on our left.
“These are wet,” I said, kind of disgusted.
“They wash all of them down after each ride,” said A.
So we got to the ride and climbed in. The “chariot” was roomy, I was happy to see. The "chariot" began to move. Then it speeded up. The lights were garish, phantasmagorical. Of course. Characters from the spooky story showed up before us, over us, leaping in among us. The “chariot” sped up some more, stopped, spun, seemed to go through fire, gusts of ghost breath and the very floor. My heart pounding, I had long ago removed my 4-D glasses and put my hands over my regular glasses, and I was screaming and yelling –but, you know, just to add atmosphere.
And then everything stopped. The bellowing of the ghosts, the images of the dead, undead, and evil, the flames, the laughter, the screams. What happened? A less-than-ghostly voiceover: “DarKastle is experiencing technical difficulties. The ride will continue in a moment.” A moment passed. Another moment. Another announcement, identical word for word. I thought it was a trick. I began to feel sorry for folk with undiagnosed heart conditions. I wondered about the little girl in pink. But I didn’t hear any screaming or crying.
“What’s going on, A?” I asked.
“I dunno. This has never happened before,” A’s voice came from behind us, quietly, as ever. Then Goobs, who was sitting in the front of the chariot with me, yipped and jumped.
“What was that??”
K, sitting next to Goobs, yipped and jumped.
“Stop poking us, A! That’s not funny!” she said indignantly –and gigglingly. A and Juice , sitting behind us, fell out laughing, the maniacs. We sat and we sat. We waited. We made promises to Jesus. (Specifically, I prayed, “Jesus, if you ever get me out of this thang, I’ll never ride it again!”) Goobs pointed out a panel parked a few feet ahead of us.
“That’s another chariot.”
“No, it’s not. It’s too flat.” And the folk in it, if any, too quiet.
“Is too.” Turned out she was right. We were the source of all the human noise in the joint. I felt slightly embarrassed, and we went silent. Finally, the chariot moved --a little, and then –thank the good Lord-- away to the end of the ride uneventfully. The voice of the king spookily admonished us to "Rest in Peace." We ignored it. As we climbed out of our “chariot,” we could hear one of the Busch Garden younguns say, “Hey, guys, we’re gonna compensate y’all for the ride.” Two younguns, a girl and a boy appeared, from somewhere in the midst of the milling, exiting crowd. She organized the crowd, and he passed out “compensation”: a card entitling us to the front of any line before the one ride of our choice. Today. I heard one woman say, "We're never coming back here, so it makes no difference."
“At least it was cool in there,” Goobs said as we walked toward Alpengeist.