Ace Butler and His Long, Tricked Out Lincoln
By Elam McKnight
We had always called him Ace, since we were little and when he used to jump so high, into the air of the gym during a basketball game, it seemed his long, dark fingers would touch the steel beams that supported the gym’s roof. Ace was not his God given name, it was actually Fredrick, but the old men in town tagged him with Ace when he was little, back when he would run errands for them down at the pool hall where they played cards and snooker.
He’d usually be propped up against his car that sat on Freemont, three streets over from the school, and sometimes he’d holler “Hey young boy, go get me a pack of Kools!”
We’d march on down to the little market on main with our instruction and ask Mr. Jenkins, an ancient man with a balding scalp and horn rimmed glasses, for a pack of Kools.
He would say “ boys you know I can’t sell you no cigarettes.”
And we’d answer “they are for Ace.”
And he’d give them right over and reach for his green, cloth, ledger book and mark Ace down. We’d return with them and Ace would say something like “cool young brothers, solid.”
Once, one of the older black boys in the group said “Christopher ain’t no brother, he white.”
And Ace shook his head and said “Naw bruh, he cool.”
That made me smile.
To me and Black Dan there was no cooler cat we had ever known, short of Dr. J and Prince (but they were on T.V.), than Ace Butler, period. He had one of those bubble Afros and he still wore stacks, when he was not wearing his high top Chucks to play ball. The car he would be propped against was a super long, mint green, 1978 Lincoln Continental he had supposedly gotten for playing ball up in Illinois, back when he scored 20 points on the Indiana Hoosiers.
Ace was smooth with a voice like Don Cornelius, but louder. You could be coming down the street, even late at night, in the cut between the yards, and its bass frequency would register all around. It carried outside. Go inside a house nearby and it would disappear, come back out and it was still there, like a steady breeze. If Ace was out, propped up on his car, there was a good chance you would hear his voice.
He’d say “Hey young boy” and give you a little wave with his two long fingers of his right hand and thumb extended out, like he was flashing a baseball sign. He’d be at our little league games and all the folks would gather around him. He’d cheer for us little kids, tell us “get some dirt and rub it on your hands. Choke up on the bat young boy!” His bass heavy voice, with its bottom end, resonating through the chain link of the backstop. And even if you struck out he’d say something like “That’s OK young’un. You get em next time!”
Ace had played in the big time, been to school for two years up in the middle of Illinois. But then he came home and never went back. We had all been sure he would go pro and be playing against or with Dr. J or Magic Johnson one day. We thought he might even ‘D up’ Larry Bird, who I was supposed to like, because he was a white boy. It made my uncles yell at me when I said “Dr. J is the best.”
When we played pretend ball there was always a fight over who said “I’m Ace Butler” first.
Ace would hold court most afternoons next to his car or on the courts. We would pass by his lonely car in the mornings and we’d hear, from the word on the street, Ace was usually sitting against the mint green Lincoln by about one in the afternoon. When we got out of school we’d always pass by and see him and a group huddled around jiving. You always heard him before you saw him, right before you rounded a corner, his voice in the trees, echoing off the houses and buildings. And his laugh took over his whole body then it seemed to take in the street and all its surroundings.
And on the courts, behind the big Baptist church, was Ace’s prominent domain. Before Ace some of the older white men from the church would run off the black kids in the afternoon but after Ace made our little town a name no one said a word, especially if Ace was there. He was a draw. People would come from as far as Memphis to try their luck and always leave with their tail between their legs. They would play 3 on 3 and Ace used two older guys who had made it to state years before, but they were strictly role players because no one, and I mean no one could hold Ace.
The losing three and their folks might get mad, talk a little bit and I guess nowadays it might be sort of dangerous with the way folks tote guns, but back then the worst thing might be a little threat here and there. The rule, with the older players, was once you lost you laid your money on the court, by the free throw line, and left the same way you came into the court. I never saw Ace lay a dime on that line, not once.
Then one day, on our way to the courts, Ace wasn’t there. His car was in its same spot and there were even some folks gathered about, but no Ace. Someone said they thought he was sick. Then, the next day, no Ace. Then the next the same, no Ace. This went on for weeks. The talk started around that Ace had gone to try out for the NBA. Some folks said he was wanted by the sheriff and skipped town or the whole of Northwest Tennessee, but none of us believed that. And the days passed until we stopped hoping to even know.
The Lincoln sat there on the side of the street the whole time, like a dog waiting on its owner to return. The city made Ace’s folks move it off the street that spring and the grass grew up around the perimeter of it and two of the tires went flat, sitting hard on their rims. Black Dan and I started taking a different path across town so we did not see it.
But missing most was his voice. The streets seemed silent. The crew that used to congregate still did but it was never the same and at night the lonely street was the worst. The street lights from the city utility poles seemed dimmer and you could hear their lonesome hum where before there was laughter and a booming voice.
Summer passed and when fall gloomed towards winter the perennial bush’s dried brown foliage seemed like would never come back to green. And when we ignored the nightly buzz of the utility lights and the crush of winter leaves beneath our feet there was this silence, and it was no good.
The spring did return and later, summer and the days without school. Black Dan and I had worked up a job mowing some yards with a borrowed push mower with my father furnishing the gas. We just had to push that blamed thing all over town. One June morning, passing by Ace’s house we heard something. Both of us, with our habit of not wanting to even look over there to the house if we had to pass that way, looked straight ahead and walked as though we had not. But I knew what I had heard.
“Hey young boy” in a soft, almost whisper and Black Dan turned and looked at me, searched my face. Then I peered past the overgrown Lincoln and saw a shadow of a figure sitting on the porch swing.
Then it spoke again “Hey young boy.”
The bright light of the sun was rising over the houses and we walked closer to the porch to let our eyes adjust to the shade. As the light dimmed and I could focus I saw him, it was Ace sure enough. ‘Ace was back!’ I thought but he looked really different. Gone was the bubble Afro and it was replaced with a close crop. His voice did not have the strength it usually had. And gone was what seemed like half his body weight. But I was overjoyed to see Ace again, back on his block.
“Hey young boys. Go get me some Kools” and we obliged. Ace was back!
We motored down the street as fast as we could, leaving the mower in Ace’s yard. When we asked for the Kools at the counter Mr. Jenkins looked back at us through his horned rimmed glasses, it had been over a year.
“Boys you know better than that.”
“But they are for Ace.”
“Ace?” he said.
“Where he been?”
“Don’t know but he sent us.”
He grabbed a pack and handed them over.
“You boy’s tell Ace to come see me when he can” he said as he made his markings in his ledger.
We nodded and ran down the street, back to where Ace sat on his mother’s porch. He peeled the cellophane from the hard pack of squares.
“Where you been Ace?” we asked, almost in unison.
He tamped the box into his hand, three hard pops.
“We haven’t seen you.”
He stuck one of the Kools between his lips.
“Maybe I didn’t want to be seen?”
“What for?” I asked.
“Youngboy” he pulled the smoke into his lungs as he lit it with a match he struck off the coarse stone of the porch “you ain’t gotta know everything.”
He said it firmly, but not mean.
“We missed you Ace” Black Dan said weakly.
Ace pulled at the Kool again then turned and spit over the ledge of the porch from his seat on the swing.
“I missed you too. ” he said and stared down into the worn green paint of the porch.
“Now let me be.”
We sauntered away, down the street, pushing the cling clanging mower. I was not sure how to feel and neither was Black Dan. He did not say so but we both knew and we did not talk about it for a long time as we finished our last two yards in the heat of the summer sun.
Later we stowed the mower in the alley behind my father’s store and walked to our hiding spot, an empty train car on the tracks behind the baseball fields. We sat with our feet dangling over the ledge of the box car, not saying a word. In our silence we sat until Black Dan sprung up and said
“I know what we can do!”
That night we gathered up the things we needed after Black Dan told me his plan. I crept out of my house and fetched an air tank from the shed. I had to be really quiet or my father would skin me bad. I felt like Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer sneaking out to wade the Mississippi or go play pirate along its banks. But we were not doing something quite so daring.
I met Black Dan at the corner where he waited with a bucket filled with the supplies we needed. Black Dan’s uncle was the best car detailer in the town. We quietly made our way to Ace’s neighbor’s house. They had a hose and we had told them we wanted to use it late that night to surprise Ace. The owner, a man new to the town, frowned at first and then we coughed up $10 and he said “alright as long as you don’t make too much noise. I work first shift at the factory and need my sleep.”
We eased the hose over to Ace’s car and as silently as we could we doused it with water and washed the year’s worth of dust off of it. There was not much light from the utility pole but just enough to see what we were doing. We wiped and soaped up the car two times, slowly rinsing it until all the dust was gone and it started to shine with the reflection of the water on its mint green skin.
We had four large towels and we hand dried it and then used them to buff the clear coat wax that Black Dan’s uncle swore by. We shined everything and even scrubbed the wheels with brillo pads and then waxed them too, after I aired the two flat ones up. We were both surprised they still held air. Then, to make the plan complete, we slowly opened the door to the driver side, slid the gear into neutral and both of us pushed it out into the street and turned it back into its old home, right in front of the house.
We stood back and admired our work. It shined like never before, bathed in the yellow light from the buzzing street lamp. Both of us agreed he would love it and we parted ways, sneaking back to our houses. I thought I was caught for sure going back into my bedroom window when I thought I heard by father’s footsteps in the hall. I lay really still on my bed and then the house became silent again except for the hum of the air conditioner in the front room.
The next morning we met up at the corner of Ace’s block. And there the car sat, even shinier than the night before with the morning sun reflecting off the clear coats of wax we had put on the night before. We brought a towel a piece and started buffing it again to make sure it was even more sparkling. As we wiped the slick surface of the car we heard Ace’s voice from the porch.
“What ya’ll doing?”
We both froze and looked to the porch. Ace was standing there on the top stoop. He ambled down to the sidewalk and slowly paced out to the street to where we stood.
My mouth did not want to work at first as I watched him take in the car,as if he was counting it by inches. He walked to the rear and looked it over. Then he looked down to the both of us.
“You did this?
We nodded and then I managed “we both just wanted to do something nice for you Ace.”
He stared away from us, as though his eyes were focused on some distant vista that only he could see.
“That was real nice young boys. Real nice” but he did not smile.
“We thought you might want to ride around in it sometime Ace.”
It was then that his eyes got foggy and water pooled up in them.
“Well young boys… I don’t have much need for it anymore. But thank ya.”
He looked off again.
“I’ll be seeing you later” and without saying anything else he turned towards the house.
We stood there for a little bit, not knowing what to do and then turned ourselves. And as he walked away, about halfway down the street, Ace’s booming voice returned once more.
“That was real solid!”
We turned to look for him but he was gone back inside. We both smiled.
Two weeks later Ace was dead. No one ever said what was wrong other than he was just gone. They loaded his car up on a wrecker a week after they buried him and we never saw it again. We stopped going down that street for a long time until one day it didn’t matter anymore.