The kissing booth loomed in the shadows at the back of the warehouse, a Pepto-Bismol pink eyesore covered in cherry red hearts and comically oversized lips.
Eddie maneuvered his way towards it through a jumble of jutting metal struts and black rubber cables. He held an inventory list loosely in one hand, frowning in thought, as he climbed over and through the disassembled rides. Cardboard boxes filled with costumes, prizes, and decorations were stacked haphazardly along the concrete walls.
He surveyed the bones of the carnival he’d worked for his whole life and legally owned now that his dad, Eddie Sr., had passed away. It looked so pedestrian and humble packed away like this. Nothing like the vibrant spectacle it had been, or the one he knew it could be again.
Beth, his mom, tottered over, leaning heavily on a chipped and battered wooden cane. “Well, the rides should be fine. Just close off some of the seats and mark the ground every six feet for the lines. I just wish the county had given us more than 24 hours’ notice that we could reopen. What about concessions?”
Eddie shrugged. “We’re a carnival; we’ve got to sell food. People will riot if they don’t get their funnel cakes and corn dogs. The new guidelines aren’t too bad. I think we’re fine as long as everyone eats outside and wears masks otherwise.”
“What are we going to do about that?” asked Beth.
They both turned to look at the pink stand. Eddie shrugged. “Quick paint job? We can use it to sell popcorn or something.”
Beth gasped. “Eddie, we can’t! It’s such a big draw for the crowds. Your father used to say that it was worth a full star by itself on the Yelp reviews.”
“Just another COVID casualty.”
“It’s not quite that easy. How are you going to tell Svetlana?”
Eddie put an index finger along the side of his nose. “Not it.”
Beth shook her head and smirked. “You’re not just the heir apparent anymore. Welcome to the joys of carnival ownership.”
The running joke was that the Frank Family Carnival had two major attractions: the Gravitron and Svetlana. The Gravitron was a circle of padded walls that spun fast enough that the riders stuck right to the walls. It made you feel like you were defying gravity. Svetlana was a former Eastern European beauty queen who looked like a cross between Queen Elsa from Frozen and a valkyrie. She also had some gravity-defying allure.
“Listen, Svetlana; there’s so much more that a woman of your ample, um, ample-” Eddie cleared this throat and forced himself to maintain eye contact, “talents could do for the carnival.”
“Is anyone else being forced to change roles?” asked Svetlana, her accent thick with anger. Her blue eyes narrowed.
“Don’t think of it that way. It’s a chance for you to expand your repertoire. You could be the Master of Ceremonies for our shows. Or run some of the new concessions ideas we’ve been kicking around. We open in eight hours. Work with me here.” A muscle twitched in Svetlana’s jaw as she clenched her teeth. Eddie knew he was losing her. “You could perform! People would still be coming to see you.”
Svetlana crossed her arms and stuck out her chest. Eddie wondered if she was doing it just to torment him. “Unless you breaking my contract, the kissing both stays.”
“The one your father and I signed. The booth is mine.”
“But nobody owns their booth! That’s not how it works.” All of the workers were at-will. Labor was the carnival’s main expense, but thankfully a variable one. Eddie needed the flexibility to rightsize if revenue fell off too much in a post-pandemic world. If someone was under contract...
Svetlana looked at him levelly.
“I’ll be back,” said Eddie, before walking away double-time to hunt down his mom.
Beth just laughed when he relayed the conversation.
“I had forgotten all about that,” said Beth, wiping tears from the corner of her eyes. “When your dad came up with the idea of a kissing booth, we all thought he’d gone round the bend. It’s like that old Groucho Marx line about him not wanting to join any club willing to have him. Who would want a kiss from a person willing to kiss anyone?”
“Yeah, yeah, what’s that got to do with a contract?”
“Well, when Big Eddie found Svetlana, he promised her the moon to come work for us. She had three conditions: She kept every penny made from sales and tips, her booth got a prime location on the Midway, and she had sole discretion over what counted as a kiss. Your dad agreed in a heartbeat. Told me it cost him nothing more than a patch of dirt in a field he didn’t own. She brought in a crowd every night single-handedly.”
Eddie felt himself beginning to sweat. “Are you saying she’s got that in writing?”
“Probably. It might have been written on the back of a napkin, but I’m guessing your dad signed it.”
Eddie looked up at the sky in exasperation. He loved his dad and was grateful for everything that the man had built, but his business style left a great deal to be desired. “So I can’t get rid of the booth?”
“Not without convincing her.”
Eddie sighed loudly and trotted back to find Svetlana.
He tracked down Svetlana out on the field with her booth already positioned along what would become the main thoroughfare in a few hours. She never had trouble finding a few guys to help her carry the damn thing around. She was wiping a year’s worth of dust and grime off the wood from its time in storage with a wet rag.
“Svetlana, I’m begging you, we’ve got to find something else to do here. What if you just blow kisses?” Eddie grimaced and slapped his forehead. “No, that’s stupid. Nobody wants you blowing air at them. You’re wearing a mask anyway. What if you distributed masks and hand sanitizer?”
Svetlana ignored him. She finished cleaning and stepped behind the booth to lift a transparent sheet of plexiglass and fit it against the booth opening. Eddie noticed that she had already hammered a few nails along the sides to hold it flush.
“Oh, thank God,” said Eddie. “Wait, so what are you planning?”
She hefted a bulk size bag of Hershey’s Kisses wrapped in their silver foil onto the table behind the booth. Then another, then a third.
Eddie grinned despite himself. “Okay, that’s clever. But you’ve got way too many unless you’re giving out handfuls. There must be 400 chocolates in each of those bags!”
Svetlana lifted another bag onto the table. “One dollar, one kiss. Same as always.”
“Nobody’s paying a buck for one of those. Trust me. I know exactly how much you can rip somebody off on food before they storm away.”
Svetlana cocked her head slightly to one side. “Did you read my contract?”
“No, but I talked to my mom. I believe you.”
“Then you know that this is my booth. My rules.” She pulled out a notebook and a pen, pausing with the tip of the pen hovering next to her lips. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
Eddie threw his hands up in the air. “Fine, but don’t come crying to me when you realize I was right.”
Getting ready in time was no sure thing. Eddie worked as hard as anyone, lugging equipment, setting up attractions, and dealing with costumes that had somehow “shrunk” over the year that everyone had been sitting at home, apparently eating donuts. His mom gamely chipped in. She couldn’t carry much, but her ability to organize a bunch of unruly carnies was a blessing.
At 5:00 pm on the dot, Eddie signaled the ticket-takers at the gates. The crowd milling about was even bigger than he had dared hope. They’d roped off enough parking on the dirt and grass for what would have been a typical night before the pandemic. He wondered if he should organize an overflow lot.
His dad always watched the early arrivals make their way through the fair, analyzing where they congregated and what they skipped. Eddie chose to do the same. He strolled along the midway, letting the sounds of electronic music and excited chatter wash over him. The vanguard of customers flowed before him like a river. The air smelled like popcorn and burnt sugar. It reminded him of everything he loved about his childhood.
Although it was hard to tell with the reduced seating and socially distanced lines, the rides looked like the biggest draw. It was still too early for the crowd to drift towards concessions for dinner and evening snacks. Eddie continued his stroll but stopped when he came to the kissing booth.
Before the pandemic, most of Svetlana’s customers were either little old men with walkers or tight knots of high school boys, egging each other on. More often than not, the crowd was big enough to snarl traffic across the midway.
Today, however, the crowd was small. Only a few old men waited for their turns at the plexiglass window across the front of the booth.
Eddie watched as a hunched white-haired fellow pushed his dollar through the slot along the bottom. Svetlana smiled at him and slid out a silver Hershey’s Kiss and a folded slip of paper. The man took the chocolate and opened the note. A surprised grin spread across his face. He shuffled a few steps away to allow the next man to approach the window. The same transaction happened, down to the expression on the second man’s face.
With a shrug, Eddie turned away. If a few old geezers were willing to pay a dollar for a smile from a pretty girl and a bite of candy, who was he to stop them? He continued on his walkabout, making mental notes of the things he wanted to change for the next day.
Over the next hour, he resolved a dispute over ring toss rules, fixed a cotton candy machine malfunction, and identified some counterfeit tickets printed on the internet. On the way back, he noticed that the line at the kissing booth grown. Not just a little either. It extended as far into the path as it ever had.
At the front, Svetlana continued handing out her tiny silver kisses with a note and a smile. The crowd skewed older than usual, fewer teenage boys, but business was booming. With a crease cutting across his brow, Eddie walked on.
Other than the puzzle of the kissing booth, the evening was a roaring success. Beth told him not to get a fat head over one night, but Eddie couldn’t stop grinning. It was probably just been pent-up demand after months of quarantine, but he’d take it.
A few minutes after midnight, Eddie found himself standing in front of the pink kissing booth as the last of the crowd shuffled towards the exit. He sighed and walked up to the plexiglass window.
Svetlana cocked an eyebrow and waited. The empty bags that held the Hershey’s Kisses lay in the corner, with just a few scattered chocolates remaining.
Eddie reached into his pocket and pulled out a dollar. He slid it through the window.
With a wry grin, Svetlana pushed out a piece of chocolate and a scrap of paper.
Skip the Line Pass for Next Year’s Kissing Booth. Good for 1 Kiss.
Eddie read it twice. He shook his head. “I don’t get it. Most of the people here will lose this paper by next week. Who’s going to save it for a year? Heck, half the old fogies might be dead by then, even assuming we bring the carnival back through this town. All for a kiss on the cheek a year out?”
Svetlana popped a chocolate in her mouth. “You never understood the appeal of the kissing booth, did you? Your father could have explained it.”
He waved away her comment. “What’s to understand? Who wouldn’t want a kiss from a pretty girl?”
She shook her head gently. “They weren’t ever buying romance. I’m not some prostitute, performing in the middle of a crowd. They were buying a feeling.”
Eddie raised an eyebrow, and Svetlana chuckled. “Not like that,” she said. “The old men were buying the chance to feel young, just for a moment. The high school boys were buying a fun memory and bragging rights. After the pandemic, that’s not what they’re looking for anymore. Get it?”
He chewed and swallowed, thinking. Finally, he shook his head.
“Today, they’re buying hope. Sometimes we all need a little hope.”
“Fine, you win,” said Eddie, reaching into his pocket to pull out a five. “I need all the hope I can get.” He slid the bill under the plexiglass.
“Look at this place,” said Svetlana. “You’re bringing a bit of joy and normalcy back to the world. You’re trying to rebuild a business after a devastating global catastrophe.”
She handed the bill back to Eddie. “You already have all the hope you need.”