Rick Bailey’s brilliant essays on life’s messiness, humor and awkwardness leap, spin and dazzle in American English, Italian Chocolate. He expounds with eloquence about the horror of house flies, the joys of microfiber underwear, the psychological egoism of donating blood, the ringworm infection which happily kept him from attending Boy Scout camp, love at first shite, and kissing…
About that kissing…
In “Kissing Age,” Rick gamely asks his wife one evening if she wants to suck face. He said it to get a rise out of her, admitting it is “not our usual nomenclature.” (I have a feeling his wife has a terrific sense of humor. She would have to). Rick then tells us the history of the first movie kiss, 1896, and his embarrassment over today’s film kisses, “so earnest and hungry, so noisy. Do they have to slurp like that?” He recalls a party in a garage rec room when he was an eighth grader:
We played records and milled about for thirty minutes, whereupon the lights were dimmed and we got down to serious kissing. From couches in corners, large La-Z-Boy recliners and a few treacherous beanbag chairs came the sighs and sounds of slippery wet mashing. Again and again that evening, I had the sensation of looking at myself from above, both participant and spectator. So this is what it’s like, I thought.
At intermission a female friend I was not kissing asked me how it was going. What I wanted to say was “It’s actually kind of boring.”
“Does she like it?”
I told her I wasn’t sure.
“Did you feel her up?”
“What?” I felt my face go hot and red. Didn’t she know I was a Methodist?
Rick then wonders how people learned to kiss in the first place. He read that an anthropologist said kissing probably happened by accident. He muses:
Like other creatures, humans must have checked each other out by sniffing. Then one day Moog’s lips brushed against Gorga’s:
She said, “Hey, what was that?”
And he said “I don’t know but I liked it.”
They got right to work. The rest is history.
At the end of “Kissing Age,” he writes of his wife (who didn’t respond well to sucking face): “She’ll give me a signal. Something obvious, like, ‘Kiss me, you fool.’ And I will be there.”
In memories, such as “The Man from Glad, Car Crash, Amnesia” (I love the title) Rick retells witnessing a man being tossed from a moving car one late night in his normally quiet hometown when working at his father’s gas station. He writes, “We closed the gas station that night, watching for the man, both thrilled and worried that he might come back, that we might have witnessed some skullduggery and were now involved in its sinister aftermath.”
I applaud anyone who can use skullduggery in a sentence.
“Sound Off” had me laughing out loud. It starts with a prickly after-school sitter, a sullen elderly neighbor whom Rick and his brother would just as soon ignore, except for her unique talent. After guzzling a mix of baking soda and water, she’d burp. Loudly.
Without warning she would raise the deepest, most resonant belches we had ever heard. The first time it happened I’m sure both my brother and I blushed and looked at each other, horrified, unable to believe our ears. Just about every day, unembarrassed, she eructed in our living room, delivering sonorous, roaring belches, while we hovered, nearby, out of sight, within easy earshot. One time, after a particularly powerful one, she said, as if putting the matter to rest for us, “I have heartburn.”
Details that matter
Donuts, bad break ups, Fava beans, helping his daughter pick an “edgy” cake for her wedding, a dream about President Jimmy Carter. The soft imperative. Feet (in particular, his father’s foot). His father’s loss of hearing, which was so funny I had tears.
Rick excels at details that bring every scene and conversation to life. Here’s his take on the doctor who examines his suddenly deaf father:
He has a thick, bristly mustache. He is burly and prematurely gray and diffident, almost ill at ease. He’s assisted by a thin woman between fifty and seventy with lots of suntan makeup and a hair that looks like a wig. Her gaze, which follows the doctor, is nothing if not adoring. Wearing a white shirt with a bad tie and baggy black stay-press pants, he seems like a hesitant Wilford Brimley. He looks in my father’s ears, asks how he feels in a soft voice–he better than anyone knows shouting is futile, and explains what he thinks we should do. My father gives him a look that’s more blank than encouraging.
“He doesn’t read lips very well,” the doctor says, turning to me.
“You have a mustache,” I say. He smiles, taking it as a joke, which is not how I intended it.
His essays about his aging parents are humorous, yes, but tender and bittersweet. Most importantly, the humor is well earned. He strikes the right balance, never preaches or becomes pedantic. His tone is conversational and personal. The essays read like dialogue where you are a dear friend.
In fact, in “Buongiorno,” Rick admits “I’ll talk to anyone.” It must be true.
I believe he also listens acutely and notices details others do not, from the sublime to the the absurd. He experiences life deeply and fully, and shares it in this charming, intelligent and thought-provoking memoir. Don’t miss it.
Rick Bailey grew up in Freeland, Michigan, on the banks of the Tittabawassee River. He taught writing for 38 years at Henry Ford College in the Detroit area. While writing textbooks for McGraw-Hill, he also wrote with classes he taught, a work habit that eventually led to Tittabawassee Road, a blog of essays on family, food, travel, and current events. His blog became the basis for American English, Italian Chocolate. A Midwesterner long married to an Italian immigrant, in retirement he and his wife divide their time between Michigan and the Republic of San Marino.
Linda K. Sienkiewicz is the author of the award-winning novel In the Context of Love, a gripping story about one woman’s need to tell the truth without shame.
Angelica Schirrick has been running from her past ever since the devastating discovery that her life is not what she thought.
Sarton Women’s Fiction Finalist
Eric Hoffer Book Award Finalist
Readers’ Favorite Finalist
USA Book News Best Book Finalist
Great Midwest Book Fest Honorable Mention.
“…at once a love story, a cautionary tale, and an inspirational journey.” ~ Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of National Book Award Finalist, American Salvage, and critically acclaimed Once Upon a River,and Mothers, Tell Your Daughters