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Authors: Marilyn Nelson

American Ace

BOOK: American Ace
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Also by Marilyn Nelson

Lyric Histories

My Seneca Village

How I Discovered Poetry

Sweethearts of Rhythm

The Freedom Business

Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies & Little Misses of Color (written with Elizabeth Alexander)

A Wreath for Emmett Till

Fortune's Bones

Carver: A Life in Poems

Other Poetry Collections

Faster than Light: New and Selected Poems

The Cachoeira Tales and Other Poems

The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems


The Homeplace

Mama's Promises

Picture Books

The Ladder (translated from the Danish of Halfdan Rasmussen)

Beautiful Ballerina

Ostrich and Lark

A Little Bitty Man (translated [with Pamela Espeland] from the Danish of Halfdan Rasmussen)

Snook Alone


An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street

New York, New York 10014

Copyright © 2016 by Marilyn Nelson

I'd like to thank Solomon Ghebreyesus, William Timmins, and John Stanizzi for their helpful suggestions, and Jacob Wilkenfeld for his research on Connor's behalf. Thanks to the Air Force Historical Research Agency for their help in locating the photos used in the book. And I'll add here another shout-out of gratitude to my friend Pamela Espeland. —M. N.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Nelson, Marilyn, date.

American ace / by Marilyn Nelson.

pages cm

Summary: Sixteen-year-old Connor tries to help his severely depressed father, who learned upon his mother's death that Nonno was not his biological father, by doing research that reveals Dad's father was probably a Tuskegee Airman.

ISBN 978-0-698-40790-9

[1. Novels in verse. 2. Fathers and sons—Fiction. 3. Family life—Fiction. 4. Identity—Fiction. 5. United States. Army Air Forces. Bombardment Group, 477th—Fiction. 6. Racially mixed people—Fiction.] I. Title.

PZ7.5.N45Ame 2016 [Fic]—dc23—2015000851

Cover art: plane © 2016 Ronnie Olsthoorn; sky © Ekspansio, iStock; head and shoulders shape © Leontura, iStock

Jacket design by Lori Thorn


To the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of the Tuskegee Airmen, and to those who wish they were their children or grandchildren

Table of Contents
The Language
of Suffering

y dad went weird when Nonna Lucia died.

It was like his sense of humor died with her.

He still patted my back and called me buddy;

we still played catch while the mosquitoes rose.

He still rubbled my head with his knuckles.

But a muscle had tightened in his jaw

I'd never seen before, and the silence

between us in the front seat of the van

sometimes made me turn on the radio.

I knew he loved his mom. We all loved her.

But when he smiled now, his eyes still looked sad,

all these months after Nonna's funeral.

Maybe there was some treasure he'd wanted,

that she gave to one of his brothers in her will?

Maybe he'd wanted some of the furniture?

But he got the embroidered tablecloth

Nonna and Nonno brought to America,

which she spread out at family festivals

under platter after platter after platter.

He wasn't a movie dad with another woman:

He was an oldish husband who'd just moved away,

a dad who didn't hear you when you spoke.

Me and Mom and Theresa could see his pain,

but we don't know the language of suffering.

Uncle Father Joe

ne of Dad's younger brothers is a priest,

so we thought he could be the one to break

into Dad's silence: It's part of his job.

But he was so busy finding common ground,

preaching compassion, and working for justice

and human liberation that the small

curling-inward of his own big brother

got only his occasional hug, and prayers.

I couldn't ask, because I don't believe;

or don't know if I do. The difference

is moot, since anyway I've been confirmed,

like all half-Irish, half-Italian kids.

But Dad was spending another joyless night

sipping Chianti in front of the TV.

He looked like he might have been physically ill:

his face gray, his eyes lightless. He sat there

in his reclining chair sipping red wine,

letting Theresa control the remote.

Mom and I avoided each other's eyes,

each of us aching with mute, helpless love.

I went to my room and called Uncle Father Joe.

Do you know how depressed my father's been?

I asked.
Should he be on some kind of drugs?

He said we should let Dad's mourning run its course.

Driver's Permit

hree months later Dad smiled a little more,

but that's the only improvement I could see.

Mom and Theresa and I tiptoed around

as if his silence was glass that could shatter.

Uncle Frank, Uncle Petey, and Aunt Kitty,

his partners in the restaurant business,

kept Mama Lucia's Home Cooking afloat.

They said the regulars were asking how Tony was.

Uncle Rich insinuated that maybe he should see a shrink.

Theresa whispered that Nonna Lucia

wouldn't have wanted Dad to take on so.

Nonna lived a good life. She was ready to die.

My half brother, Carlo, Dad's son with his ex,

who seldom visits, brought his wife and kids

to see their grandfather and cheer him up.

But nothing seemed to make much difference.

I googled
. And I got scared.

A blue glacier was growing between us.

The melt started on my sixteenth birthday.

(March 17: St. Pat's. Mom's family

says it means I'm 51 percent Irish.)

Dad said I should get my driver's permit!

He promised me forty hours behind the wheel!

That was the best birthday present I ever got!

Hot Cocoa

ive o'clock Saturday morning: Dad's idea

of the safest time for driving practice.

It's pretty cool to be up and out together

while the day's still dewy and birdsong-y.

I got the hang of driving pretty quick,

except for the hyper-responsive brake pedal.

We drove around in my high school parking lot,

then drove aimlessly in the neighborhood.

At six o'clock Dad turned the radio on.

There was talk of illegal immigrants.

Dad mused about building a border fence:

To fence them out, or to fence ourselves in?

I told him we read a poem about that,

that I bet he would like, by Robert Frost.

Is he the one on the less traveled road,

with miles to go before he sleeps?
Dad asked.

We read him in my eighth-grade English class.

I always wondered what the hell that guy

had promised, that made him stay on the road

instead of going home for hot cocoa.

I said
My teacher thinks he was in love.

And for the first time in a year, Dad laughed.

Behind the wheel with two lives in my hands,

I felt the wall between us start to fall.

BOOK: American Ace
4.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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