Redefining north.

The Eleventh Annual Tuscola County Kissing Contest by Laura Citino

The Eleventh Annual Tuscola County Kissing Contest by Laura Citino


Associate fiction editor Annie Bilancini on today’s story: I'll just come right out and say it: I'm a sucker for the collective-we narrator. It's ancient, right? The Greek chorus trudging around in the back of the scene, lamenting and ever-present. I love the idea that an entire place or community can own a story and take part in the telling because, as readers, we often become participants in the action in the most satisfying way. But in this story, Citino raises the stakes. Surreality bites at the edges of Tuscola County, the ever-so-Lynchian reflection of a town we may have passed through once or even lived in for years. Don't let the sun-shot skies and neighborly prattle fool you: we are complicit here.

The Eleventh Annual Tuscola County Kissing Contest

We get up early, loaded with coolers and camping chairs, to get a good spot. Come too late and you have to settle for the parking lot at the blood bank. The mayor hosts the contest every year, and every year embarrasses himself by reading love poetry from his high school days. We boo at him but it's good-natured. He fumbles with the starting pistol. He shoots. Among the black gum trees lining the river, the couples embrace and we cheer for the start of things.

It is a hot day and a long one. We sit and watch for awhile, then wander to play euchre with neighbors or shoot the shit with our uncles. Deep fried candy bars melt on fingers and faces. The solitary old men, who have no business here, are shuffled off by security guards with roses tucked behind their ears. The couples give us a good show. Some ass grabs and over-the-shirts to keep our attention. We appreciate that kissing is hard work as every few minutes another pair flags, staggers, and falls apart. The losers join us at our portable barbeques.

We soon pick our favorite. They are not so young they seem foolish but not so old they break our hearts. Hands slip in denim back pockets but remain chaste. Lips roll over lips like fog on a country road. They look like they can go the distance. We lean across to our neighbors and gossip in voices made booming by drink:

They have loved each other since they were children.

No, they are newlywedssavoring the longest foreplay of their lives.

The woman, see the pallor in her face? She has cancer. He has loved her forever and there is no time to waste.

When they win, the Junior League presents them with a handmade garland of honeysuckle. The mayor makes his annual speech about how we will be sustained through the hard year ahead by this new symbol of love. Though poor, etc. Though wretched, etc. We squint into the last bronze bars of the sun. The woman's lipstick is gone except for a grapefruit streak on her chin and he wears a t-shirt with a faded Confederate flag across the front.

Whispers: they are divorcing.

She is married and he is the sleazy paramour skilled at cunnilingus.

They never met before this moment.

We rub sunburned noses, our bellies stuffed with charred meat and liquor. We can never really know our neighbors and our children go without their shots and the homeless are beaten in the streets, etc. The river stinks. The air is cold. It is time to go home, etc. The mayor says something about how the true beauty of the contest is that never just one person wins. We drift back to our cars and fan out arm's length apart, cigarette smoke and cricket drone filling the spaces between our hunched shoulders. We call out for our children. We cannot find them in the dark.

Laura Citino is a fiction writer from southeastern Michigan. Her short fiction has appeared in The Intentional Quarterly, Midwestern Gothic and Bluestem, and is forthcoming from Cheap Pop. She received her MFA from Eastern Washington University and currently lives with her partner and teaches English in Terre Haute, Indiana.

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