By Katie Williams
All day her lips received kisses—pecks, smacks, presses and startling suctions. Late at night, when the carnival music played slightly out of key, the kissing-booth woman brushed flecks of the booth’s red paint from her forearms, flicked the hook and brought the shutter down. The booth would open again the next morning. She never missed. Even when she was sick, she’d be there, leaning forward on the counter, her nose rubbed pink from tissues and her lips chapped and peeling under her lipgloss. Kisses were at a discount on those days, two dollars instead of three.
She kept a jar on the counter for payment. Teenage boys stumbled forward, the bills squeezed in their hands like wilted bouquets, and the blush on their necks making a dash for their chins.
“Um…can I?” the shy ones stammered.
Or, if the boy was cocky, his bills would be crisp, and he’d say, “Give me.”
The kissing-booth woman rested her fingers under their jaws where, no matter how fearless they’d acted, their pulses fluttered like caught moths. The boys tasted the same, all of them. Maybe it was something in the milk of the city’s cows that made them taste this way—like butter slightly turned. She gave her nicest kisses to the shy boys, figuring the braggarts would like it better if they felt she was holding a little back.
One slow afternoon when the tilt-a-wheel had broken and tipped, leaving its riders dangling and waiting for a tall ladder, the teenage boys’ mothers marched up to the kissing booth accompanied by a minister and a list of signatures. The mothers looked like their sons only older and more pinched. The kissing booth woman matched them up by faces and was amused to find that the shy boys had cocky mothers, and the cocky boys had shy ones. The shyest boy’s mother slammed the list of signatures on the counter and began to yell about youth and lips and some man named God.
The kissing-booth woman laid hands on the mother’s pinched cheeks and drew her in. The other mothers gasped, the shy ones clamping their hands to their mouths, the cocky ones balling their fists on their hips. The minister swept off his funny black hat, drew it over his chest, and worked his mouth in a series of dry prayers.
As they kissed, the mother’s pulse beneath her fingers was brave and fine, like the hoof-beats of a horse she had ridden as a little girl. Her breath tasted of cloves. The kissing-booth woman was not surprised when the mother opened her mouth and, for a moment, let her tongue slip in. Only after the funny black hat had floated to the ground did she release the mother, who smiled shyly and paused before pulling away, giving the kissing-booth woman time to whisper in her scrubbed shell of an ear, “This is the life for you.”
Katie Williams has been published in Indiana Review, Subtropics, Austin Chronicle, and has a story forthcoming from Prairie Schooner.