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The Happiest Place on Earth




Adam Strassberg


          Though Elías was entering the Happiest Place on Earth, he was feeling both unhappy and displaced. Since the accident, he had forgotten how to feel much of anything else.

          It was Saturday morning on a long weekend and so hundreds of cars crawled into the enormous parking lot. An attendant lifted a guard rail and waved their truck down a curved path behind a row of short bushes. Dad pulled into a wide blue handicapped space near the entrance, then shut the engine. Are we gonna get ticketed? towed? It had been a year since his accident but it still felt weird to Elías whenever they used “accessible” parking. Are we cheating?

          Oliverio unfolded the wheelchair from the back of the truck and Elías lifted himself with hand bars up from the passenger seat, then out and down into his chair. Dad handed them each a backpack, with a lunch and snack packed inside, hugged them each, then drove off to start his weekend job. The two brothers entered the park.

          They had been once before, about a decade ago, after mom had won tickets at bingo. Oliverio had no recollections as he was still in a stroller, but Elías was just starting middle school, and so he remembered the visit well. The rides were pure magic - with so many details, both small and large, moving parts, special effects, actors, robots, lights, sounds, even smells sometimes. Each ride told a story and it was like you entered the story whenever you entered the ride. Elías recalled one about a spaceship inside a mountain, another about a haunted mansion, there was some sort of boat ride with singing puppets from every country, and then there was the one with flying elephants which Oliverio had loved.

          Tickets were too expensive, even with a local discount, so even though they lived just miles away, most of their neighbors had similarly only been to the park once, if at all. But Elías knew that people came from all over California, even the world, to visit this amusement park. It was famous. So when dad’s boss at the factory gifted him two tickets after his own son had an accident, really just a broken leg, Dad was grateful to receive them. “Elías, a day at the park will lift your spirits. You and Oliverio need some time together to just have fun.”

          A stocky white girl, not much older than Elías, smiled at the two brothers as they moved beneath the entrance sign. “Welcome guests, will you be needing a disability access pass?”

          “I don’t know. Does it cost extra?” Elías looked at Oliverio, who looked everywhere else in awed silence. The park was enormous, intricate, crowded, clean, busy, beautiful.

          “Oh no, not at all, it’s complimentary.” The girl waved over to a nearby desk, “Bobby, will you please escort these treasured guests to the in-person registration for DAS at guest relations.”

          A tall thin man with a blue collared shirt and a mouse ear hat darted over. He placed mouse ear hats on both Elías and Oliverio’s heads. “Welcome - the disability access office is right this way - please let them know how we can help you enjoy the park.” They were led behind the main service desk to a small white door hidden behind two large bushes. The man opened the door and guided the two brothers inside.

          An older lady greeted them in Spanish. “Bienvenidos.”

          “Gracias, pero no se necesita que hablar en español.” Elías gave her their entry tickets, which she stamped, then returned. She pressed a lamination machine and hung a yellow pass with a large script “D” around Elías’s neck. “This will get you, your brother and anyone else with you directly into the lightning lane at any E ticket attraction. I’ll just need to borrow your ID for a second.” She looked down at her desk, then tapped at her keyboard. “You can offer us details about your disability though that’s entirely optional. We’re not allowed to ask directly for that sort of information. But the main thing is that I need to document why being in line at the park would cause you to need a disability access pass?”

          “You mean besides the wheelchair?”

          “Actually the wheelchair itself doesn’t count, I need something more.”

          “I—”, Elías started, but then stopped. His lips tightened and his jaw clenched. He lowered his gaze. “It’s—”, the words would not come, despite his best effort. His face reddened and his eyes started to water. But just as suddenly, he dried his face on his sleeve and gritted his teeth. “I’ll have to show you.”  Elías quickly unbuttoned his pants and pulled down the zipper. A thick rubber bag was strapped to the inside of his thigh, with a tube that trailed into his boxer shorts.

          “I understand. You can button back up.” The lady completed several more strokes of her keyboard and returned Elías’s ID card. She rose, grabbed two sets of maps, and then escorted them out the door and back into the park. “You two have a magical day!”

          They moved together down the main street entering into the park. A barbershop quartet sang on one sidewalk, two unicyclists juggled on the other, an aroma of caramel candy and popcorn engulfed them, and a large fairytale castle towered above them several blocks up ahead.

          Oliverio smiled and giggled, he felt the magic. Elías tried, but it kept slipping away. The park had a mouse theme, with mousehead shapes hidden everywhere, but none of this seemed whimsical to Elías, it reminded him too much of the accident. His past kept blurring out his present.

           After all, it had all been because of that damned rat, or maybe it was just a mouse. He remembered arriving home from practice, then climbing onto the roof to clean out the gutters. Since freshman year, it had been one of his easier chores and he was proud to have taken it over from his exhausted father. There would have been just enough time to clean the gutters and then get to his evening job at the supermarket. He dug out clumps of wet leaves, then used the hose to flush what remained from the downspouts. That was when it happened. He reached up and over to grab the last bit of the hose as the tip had wedged between the downspout and the gutter. One leg rested firmly on the top rung of the ladder, the other leg rose off the step as he reached upward. He released the hose tip, then slowly lowered that free leg back down. But instead of planting firmly on a flat metal ladder rung, his sneaker spun on top of a soggy fur pelt. There was a squish, then a squeal. Elías watched as a little ball of fur climbed up the ladder, ran across the rooftop, then jumped into the big birch tree. The rat—or maybe it was just a mouse—had scurried off safely. Elías had watched this all, calmly, seemingly in slow motion, all while he himself was falling backwards onto the pavement.

          He never lost consciousness—though the doctors insisted that he had—his limbs however did stop moving and also went numb. The worst part had been the waiting. Dad was at the factory, Mom was at a cleaning job, and Oliverio was still in school. He gazed upwards as the sun set, all while his breath sent small puffy clouds into the cooling autumn air. The weirdest part had been the smell. A sudden terrible odor of strong vinegar which never quite went away. Finally, there came the frenetic blur of sirens and bright lights.

          The doctors called it “incomplete L2 traumatic paraplegia”. Elías understood this to mean that he had broken his back and was now a cripple, though his counselor at the time urged him to improve his self-talk. His arms returned to normal in just a few days. Throughout that first week, he shat himself and peed his bed near daily, but this too improved, mostly. He still wore an adult diaper at night, and often used a condom catheter, like today, when he was out and about. The doctors—so many doctors—could agree neither on how much function Elías might recover nor when. After two weeks in the hospital, he spent three months at a rehab facility, followed by three more months of daily PT and OT appointments from home. Their consensus was that his legs would never move again, or at least they had not moved since.

          The district allowed him to complete his senior year remotely. In addition to his regular high school subjects, his curriculum now included the memorization of critical how-to lists: how to prevent pressure ulcers, how to reduce muscle atrophy, how to manage spasticity, how to maximize functional independence. This last one was fancy language for learning how to use an ADA bathroom and how to work a wheelchair. He preferred manual over motorized. And the electric ones were way too expensive anyways.

          Really everything had become too expensive. There were endless co-pays and deductibles, cost-sharing and co-insurances, with often only out-of-network providers available. His care exceeded his lifetime coverage limit in less than a month. “Explanation of Benefits” letters explained how there would be no more benefits. Dad refused to tell him how much they owed, but Elías knew his father now had both a second mortgage and a second job.

          “Elías, Elías” Oliverio tapped his brother on the shoulder. “¡Despiértate hermano!

          They had passed through the fairytale castle and looked up now at a large white structure, studded with spires and cones, resembling a space station on top of a mountain. The entrance to the ride was beneath a large circular sign with a mountain silhouette set against a galactic background. A line of people extended out the entrance and snaked through a well organized maze of ropes and stanchions. An attendant waved Elisa and his brother over and under a separate entrance with a lightning bolt affixed above it. He scanned Elías’s laminated yellow “D” pass and the two brothers entered.

          After a short wait for two other disabled guests ahead of them, the two boarded a special cosmic-themed coaster car with accessibility adaptations. There was a slow climb in near total darkness, followed by a dramatic plunge downwards, with twists and turns and loops to produce the experience of all matter of weightlessness. A projection of stars, planets, comets and other stellar phenomena beamed and pulsed upwards, onto the inside of the domed ceiling. Blasts, bursts, beeps and other spaceship sounds echoed around them. The ride completed an illusion of space travel through a simulated galaxy. If only for a few moments, Elías and his brother had been astronauts.

          The two brothers exited the ride in a happy daze.

          “It is good to see you smiling.” Oliverio hugged his big brother, “Let’s go again!”

          As they looped outside the main line to return to their special entrance, a pink cell phone fell from the back of a lady’s purse, it tumbled from the regular line and out into their lightning lane. Elías nearly zoomed over it, but stopped his chair just in time not to crush it.

          “Hey Oliverio, hold up a sec,” he yelled, then used his grabber stick to pick the phone up off the ground.

          The woman had turned at a corner stanchion and now both she and her son had their backs to the two brothers.

          “What you got there?” Oliverio backtracked in their empty lightning lane, then extended his arms towards his brother. Elías released the handle and then the cell phone dropped from his gripper into Oliverio’s cupped palms.

          “I think it’s that white lady’s phone.” Elías pointed to a tall middle-aged woman in jeans and a pink duck sweater. She was holding hands with a boy about Oliverio’s height. “I have a mission for you—go return this to her—politely please—and I’ll wait right here.”

          Oliverio walked over to the outside of the regular line. “Excuse me, ‘mam,” He whispered at first, staring at the floor behind the lady and her son. Neither responded, so then he yelled it, “Excuse me, ‘mam, I think you dropped this!”

          The lady and her son turned around. She was tall, so tall that she needed to kneel down on one knee to meet Oliverio’s gaze. Her blue eyes stared into his brown. Then she looked down at her cell phone in his hands.

          “Oh my god, thank you!” She removed a ball of tissues from her purse to blow her nose, then dry her eyes. “I’m not upset, really, these are tears of joy. You stopped a bad day from getting so much worse. You’re my little hero.” She slid out a twenty dollar bill from a thick stack of money in her purse. “Please, may I give you a reward?”

          “I didn’t find it, Elías did.” Oliverio looked away, down towards his sneakers and shoved both his hands into his front pockets. The woman folded the bill and pushed it into his open shirt pocket.

          Elías wheeled up behind his brother, the lady lifted her head from Oliverio to meet Elias’s gaze.

          “He’s a good boy—your son, or nephew, or brother.” She pulled her long blond hair back into a thick cord, then secured it all with a twist into a tight ponytail. “Sorry. I didn’t want to presume.”

          “He’s my baby brother. Thank you ‘mam.”

          Elías tried not to notice that her eyes were puffy and red, her mascara streaked down her cheeks, and her lipstick blurred at the edges. But it was impossible not to notice that her breath smelled from some sort of alcohol.

          She grinned awkwardly at Elías, “It’s supposed to be the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’ but I’m not feeling very happy in this place.” She gripped down hard with her hands, clenching onto the red rope separating their lanes. “These lines! These lines are ridiculous, how is anyone supposed to get on any of the rides?! We’ve been waiting here for over an hour.”

          Oliverio shrugged his shoulders, “We don’t have to wait in my brother’s special line.” He moved the folded twenty dollar bill from his shirt pocket into a zippered pocket on his pants.

          “Hmmm.” The lady grunted, paused, then leaned over the rope and whispered to Elías, “Look. We’re only here today and tomorrow before we fly to Cabo for the break. I’m at my wit’s end.” She slid out a crisp hundred dollar bill from the stack in her purse and crushed it into Elías’s gloved hand. “How about…if I give you a hundred cash, would you let my son and I join you in line? We can pretend to be your family.”

          That’s more than Mom makes in a day of cleaning! Elías blinked, then closed his eyes. He could see the big mural on the rehab wall, “No guts, no glory!” He could hear his physical therapist’s daily chants, ““No pain, no gain!” A hundred dollars would be both glorious and quite a gain.

          He smiled at this lady and she smiled back.

          The lady gave him a final slurred whisper, “That’s one hundred dollars cash for each ride we go on together.” Then she lifted the rope and scooted herself and her son under it, both hopping into the lightning lane with Elías and his brother.

          Elías hid the money inside his backpack and shook his benefactor’s hand, “New gringa mom, new gringo bro’ - let’s go on a ride - ¡Vámonos!

          The new family of four marched together into the lightning lane and zipped into the famous space coaster. Once, twice, three times. Then the haunted mansion, four times, the boat ride across the world, three times, and ended the day with the flying elephants, twice. As the day ended, Oliverio and the boy Zachary were giggling together over everything.

          “This was fabulous—your little brother and my son seem to have made quite the connection.  They’re nearly the same age. We’re here one more day—how about you two come to the park again tomorrow and I’ll pay for your admissions, our lunch and snacks, and give you the same hundred dollars cash per ride.”

           And so Elías and his brother rode more rides the day after and kept earning and earning. Over $2500 cash in just two days. Their “family” parted as friends and he exchanged contact information with the lady. She and her son were from some city up north in the state.

          “This was great. Thank you. I’ll text you when we schedule our next visit.” She shook Elías’s gloved hand, gripped it, then swaddled it with her other hand, giving a final affectionate squeeze of gratitude. “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to give your number out to some of the other moms I know in Palo Alto?”




          And thus a decade passed. A wildly profitable decade for Elías.

          He was self-employed as a “park tour concierge” in a cash-only business. The profits had paid off the second mortgage and settled his medical debts. His dad now worked only his one main factory job, and his mom returned to cleaning just part time. They even had saved enough money for Oliverio to go to college—the first in the family!—he started just last week as a freshman studying computer science.

          This was particularly exciting to Elías as he knew that the internet was insanely profitable. His customers—his rotating “families”—they were the wives and children of founders and investors from an area up north called Silicon Valley. …Google, Yahoo, Netflix, Hulu, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Cisco, Uber, Lyft, Salesforce, eBay, Amazon… Elías learned the names of so many companies though he understood little of what they did.

          What he did understand however was that people either had too much money or too much time, and only very rarely both, even in Silicon Valley. His service exchanged their extra money for his extra time. No one was harmed, each was helped by the other. His brother called it “free trade capitalism at its finest.”

          Despite his profits, or maybe because of them, money was still an issue for Elías. He would be turning thirty soon. He would have loved to declare his income, pay taxes, invest in retirement, all like a regular person. But he was trapped in a Catch-22. His paraplegia qualified him as “disabled” with the state, this allowed him to receive crucial medical health insurance benefits—to pay for his expensive physical therapy and other medical care—and this also allowed him to receive modest monthly SSDI payments. If he demonstrated any "substantial gainful activity" all of these critical benefits would be cut off immediately and entirely. Any legitimate employment would paradoxically delegitimize his benefits. And so he was trapped in this weird position that if he declared his income, he would impoverish himself.

          Besides, what other job was there for him where he could make anywhere near as much money as he made now! He was not booksmart like his little brother and he had barely finished high school, even before the accident. His only plan had been to join the Coast Guard, like his uncle, as soon as he graduated. He had no backup plan. And so that fall off the roof had not only pushed him into the chair, but also now deep into the depths of the underground economy. He was trapped here. Too rich to be poor. Too poor to be rich. Working but not working.

          And it was working on an ordinary Saturday at the park when the incident happened.

          “Excuse me, Mrs. Lee. You and the kids just wait here and I’ll be right back.” Elías spoke slowly to her due to her accent. “I need to use the restroom and the special one for me is right over there.”

          “Oh, um.” She hesitated, then blushed, “Do you need help with anything in there?”

          “No thanks, I’ve got this. You three just stay by the bench and I’ll be right back.” He had to empty his leg bag, and possibly also his bowels.

          Elías turned the corner and spotted his favorite bathroom. The blue sign was mounted over a blue door, somewhat camouflaged, as this part of the park had a blue and white decorative theme. Elías knew that this particular restroom had more support bars than the others, and the turning radius from the entry door was just easier, for whatever reason.

          A short line formed—though it was unusual to have a line at any handicapped bathrooms. More and more disabled people seem to be coming to the park over the last few years. Or maybe being disabled himself, Elías had just been noticing them more. He rolled toward the end of the queue.

          “On the left, hot wheels!” A woman’s voice shouted at him from behind, then zipped around and cut in front of him. She had a red low-rider sports wheelchair, with large angled gray wheels. A rainbow flag mounted on one arm rest, an oxygen tank hung across the back. A plastic tube looped over her shoulders, then connected to a nasal cannula.

          “So many rides, so little time, am I right?” She tossed her head back towards Elías and her hair was remarkable. She had the longest dreadlocks he had ever seen. Each rope-like strand was dyed a different color, with matching colored beads at the tips, and flushed together, these locks formed several rainbows.

          The young woman did an actual wheelie in her chair, twirled around for one complete turn, then settled in line in front of Elías. The two exchanged polite smiles.

          Elías needed to save more time for Mrs. Lee and her children. And so while he waited in line, he draped a blanket over his lap, then detached the bag strap from his leg, and the inlet tube from the bag. He held the full bag in his hand. It felt warm and squishy, it smelled ready to be dumped out. As he lifted his gaze, he noticed a pink cell phone on the floor in front of him, it must have fallen when that young lady did her wheelie. He reached behind his chair, for his gripper stick, so he could grab it for her.

          Then Elías froze. He watched as that same woman stood up from her wheelchair, removed the oxygen from her nose, darted over between them in line, and kneeled down to grab her cell phone. As she lifted her phone, she met his eyes, placed her index finger across her pursed lips, and then whispered, “Shhh”. She next trotted back to jump quickly into her chair and place the oxygen back into her nose.

          Elías had heard rumors of this, but never believed it could be true. How could anyone be this shameless? How could anyone lie about such a thing?! This woman was pretending to be disabled to get on the rides without having to wait in line. She is cheating. She’s a cheater!

          Elías dropped his gripper stick, then pointed at the woman, “She’s a fake! She’s not disabled!

          “How dare you! You know not every issue is visible.” She stared hard at Elías, without blinking. “And it’s not disabled, it’s ‘differently-abled’” She flexed the fingers of both hands to exaggerate her point with air quotes. “I identify as ‘differently-abled.’”

          “Let’s see if you can identify this!” Elías screamed—he threw his bag of urine at the imposter's face—she screamed.

          Everything followed in a frenetic blur of sirens and bright lights. Park security arrived and separated the two combatants. Elías was furious and also somehow fully paralyzed again. After the throw, his arms stopped moving and his whole body went numb. Also, he couldn’t speak. He tried, but no words came out. No words existed to equal his rage.

          Maybe if the weapon had not already been in his hand. Maybe if it had not been Saturday, his busiest work day. Maybe if he had not been feeling rushed to get back to his customer. There were so many maybe’s that afternoon, followed by that one singular violent regret.

          He was brought to an actual police station hidden on the park property. His speech returned and his arms moved again, but now everything around him was spinning. The officer explained to him that the park had no tolerance for violence, harassment or discriminatory behavior. The guest he assaulted had agreed to drop criminal charges, but nevertheless park policy was that he would be banned from any future visits. The captain of park security placed a signed letter in his hands as she pushed him in his wheelchair out the park exit. There were only two short paragraphs, but they were devastating:


This letter is formal notification that you are not authorized, licensed or invited to be on park property as a guest or an employee. This trespass warning is in effect from this date for an indefinite period of time.


Should you return to our property prior to the termination of the aforementioned period of trespass, you may be arrested in accordance with state statutes 810.09 and/or 509.141.


It was a trespassing order.

         Elías was banned.




          Later on that night, Elías was lucky to already have had a session booked with Maria. Sometimes it took weeks to get in to see her. He needed to be heard and she was an exceptional listener. His mental health benefits quickly exhausted after the accident, and so he struggled without therapy for several years, all until Oliverio connected him with Maria, just six months ago.

          She had no license, at least not for therapy. She advertised on the internet as a massage therapist, though Elías suspected she had no license for that either. He met her in the evening in her usual room at the motel.

          “I just got so furious. I’m pretty sure she was faking it. She was cheating. She’s a cheater.” Everything about their relationship had to be confidential and secret and Elías found this honesty comforting. “It’s like Oliverio with his books. He loves to read, but whenever he finds a story with a Latino character written by a white author, he just gets so mad, like I did today. He calls the author a cheater.”

          “Why you think that?” Maria set two chairs opposite one another by the side of the bed.

          “I’m not sure. Maybe he thinks it’s wrong because they’re pretending to be somebody they’re not.” Elías threw his mouse ear hat onto the floor. “Imagine if some writer who knows nothing about being handicapped gave a character a random disability just for the fuck of it. That’d be ridiculous. That’s the way I felt today when I saw that woman was faking. Only this was in real life.” Elías sighed and shook his head. “I still just can’t believe it.”

          “Lucky I know how to make you feel better.” Maria nodded at the bed.

          Elias removed his shirt, then rolled between the chairs. Bracing himself between their two top rails, he lifted his body up and onto the mattress.

          “It’s like my mama say – ain’t nobody got no shame no more.” Maria removed his shoes for him, then his pants.

          “Can you imagine faking being disabled just to get on a bunch of rides?!” Elías unstrapped his leg bag, then enjoyed the relief of unrolling his condom catheter.

          Since the accident, he still suffered the urges of a man, but had no way to satisfy them. Maria was patient and understanding, and for that Elías was grateful. She even made an exception for him, allowing him to kiss her on the lips, and even kissing back. He cherished lying naked with her. Her smooth dark skin stretched tightly over her large curves. Her voice had a lisp and her broad smile had two gap teeth in the center. Even her sweat, sweet and damp, tasted and smelled irresistible to him.

          Maria gently rolled her naked body over Elías, pressed her nipples against his, then caressed his ear lobes in small circles as they kissed.

          Elías loved holding her and being held. His breathing relaxed. He closed his eyes. He fell into a happy daze as he began his usual fantasy.

          But then his eyes snapped open. “I’m banned.” He caught his breath, swallowing back an urge to cry. “My brother only just started college. How am I going to pay his tuition now?”

          “Don’t worry, sweetie.” Maria rolled over and lay next to Elías. “Something will come up.”

          The two looked up at the ceiling together. They were silent for a time. Maria rested her head on top of Elías’s chest. He was inhaling and exhaling, deeply but rapidly.

          “Well,” Maria broke the silence with a hand clap, “seem to me like there might be some money in hooking folks like you up with the folks who need you.” She stroked the thin line of hair from Elías’s chest down the center of his belly. “Me and the girls use the internet to find customers - we pay that website to advertise and our customers pay that same website to find us, so the one website be makin' money on both ends of the deal.” She rubbed his flaccid penis with her hand. “And what you wanna do ain't even illegal - maybe you should try makin' a website or somethin' like that?"

          “Maria, that’s genius!” Elías turned and stared directly into Maria’s eyes. “I can’t enter the park anymore, but maybe I can launch a website to connect disabled people, the ones with line cutting privileges like me, to wealthy families on vacation.” The pupils of Elías’s eyes suddenly dilated and his breathing slowed. His mind cleared as he did some quick calculations. With just a tiny broker fee, a website like this could scale dramatically, it could make enough to pay for Oliverio’s tuition, maybe even enough to pay off their parents’ mortgage, if it really took off. “I’m certain my brother and his friends can put a website like this together.” He laughed, then smiled sublimely.

          And just then, on that Saturday night with Maria, one further surprise happened. Maybe it was because of all his rage earlier in the day. Maybe it was a neurological reaction due to the injustice of being banned from the park. Maybe it was a side effect of his rescue from financial distress by the epiphany of a solution. There were so many maybe’s, followed by one astonishing certainty.

          Elías looked down to see his first erection since the accident. He reached down and tapped it in astonishment.

          “Well, look who done come up to join us.” Maria reached down with nearly equal amazement. "I can handle that for you.” She raised two fingers from her free hand. “But it’s gonna cost a lil’ extra.”

          Elias quickly grasped for his cell phone on the nightstand.

          “I’m tempted to take a photo.”

          He removed two more bills from the sleeve on the back of his phone and handed them to Maria.

          She used the opportunity to its fullest advantage. It took some time, and the session went a bit over the usual hour, but Elías finally got his happy ending.



Adam Strassberg is a retired psychiatrist living in Portland, Oregon. He uses the intersection of psychology, religion, mythology and magical realism to explore the human condition through fiction. When he's not writing or napping, he often can be found updating his website at