Events of 1985, Leah

Computer keyboard

Leah Walker, age sixteen, descends into the basement of her family’s home in Buckhead, in Atlanta, a box of Lucky Charms in her hand, and sits at one of the computers she’s set up. Since it’s Saturday, Leah is wearing her typical household attire, cargo shorts, an oversized rugby shirt with the sleeves pulled up, and white Reeboks. The computers were purchased by her father, Paxton, with the idea they’d be used to connect him to his office, or allow him to work from home, but so far, Leah has been the only one to figure out how to use them, so they’ve more or less become hers to do with as she pleases. Her father still gives her assignments, such as connecting to his office network to post messages, or download files, but these don’t take up a lot of time, so she’s free to pursue her own interests.

Lately, her interests have included connecting to computer bulletin boards on the West Coast. A few months earlier, Leah saw a report on a network news magazine show about teen hackers in California who compromise the phone companies and invade computer networks. Two years earlier, she’d been enthralled by the film War Games, and ever since her father brought home the first computer, a Commodore 64, she’s been trying to tap into groups who could teach her how to pull off some of these tricks.

She switches on the stereo, and the room is filled with the Thompson Twins, from rotation at WRAS 88.5, Georgia State University’s radio station. She sits at the Amiga 1000, which her father recently purchased, and waits for it to power up. On another table is a Macintosh, Leah’s personal favorite for schoolwork, and on a portable stand nearby sits the Commodore 64, which is used mainly for gaming since the Amiga came along, with its new operating system, Windows 1.0, that Leah has been learning on her own, though she’s been badgering her parents to let her take a course at the Learning Annex on the Windows system.

“Hold me now, hold me in your loving arms,” Leah sings along with the radio. She opens the cereal and takes out a handful, which she pops into her mouth, then clicks on the modem software and selects a number from the list. The modem makes its usual wavering and staticky noises as it connects her to a box just outside Los Angeles, which, she’s recently learned, is a meeting point for several hacker groups. She logs in with her handle, JoeMamba, then begins exploring what’s new since her last visit. So far, she’s mainly lurked, following various threads without contributing more than a few questions. Not wanting anyone to suspect she’s a high school kid from Georgia, she’s set up her profile as Lee Johannes, a male college student from somewhere in the Midwest. As she explores the message board, she keeps notes on a yellow pad by the computer.

After about twenty-five or thirty minutes, Leah disconnects, and slides the yellow pad over, so she can see it. For the past several days, there’s been a discussion about a “backdoor” someone left on a server in Texas, and Leah’s anxious to see if she can get in using it. She keys in the modem number and waits for it to connect. Once she gets the prompt, she uses the credentials mentioned on the board, and this allows her access. From there, she has no idea what she’s supposed to do. It’s a Unix machine, and Leah has had even less experience with this type of system, than with Windows. She starts trying out some of the commands she has learned to see what they do.

Her sister, Alyssa, a tiny, blonde girl, four-years-old, appears at the door, standing on her tiptoes, which she’s in the habit of doing when she’s not wearing shoes. She has on a long, My Little Pony nightgown.

“Leah,” she says. “Can I play the bear game on the computer?”

“Sure, Princess,” Leah says. She pats her left knee. “Want to see what I’m doing?”

Alyssa hurries over and climbs onto Leah’s knee. “What is it?”

Leah leans toward one of Alyssa’s ears and says in a low voice, “It’s called hacking, so don’t tell Mom and Dad.”

“Okay,” Alyssa says.

Leah holds the cereal box for Alyssa, and she takes out a handful, which she eats one piece at a time, while she watches what Leah’s doing.

“This is a computer in Texas I’m not supposed to be logging into,” Leah says.

“Why are you doing it?” Alyssa asks.

“I think the main reason is because I can,” Leah says, “but beyond that I’m not real sure.”

“I want to play the bear game,” Alyssa says, sliding off Leah’s lap.

“All right,” Leah says, “it’s still there from last time, but use the headphones, okay?”

“I will,” Alyssa says.

“Remember how to turn it on?” Leah asks.

“Yep,” Alyssa says. She sits at the console, and starts the computer. She loads a program with cartoon bears in it, then puts on some headphones. As she plays, she occasionally hums along with the music in the game.

From the top of the stairs, her mother, Melinda, announces, “Leah, Gita’s here.”

Leah rolls to the door in the swivel chair and yells back, “Tell her I went to the North Pole.”

“She’s standing right here,” Melinda yells back.

“Oh. Don’t tell her that, then,” Leah says. “Are her legs working?”

There’s a pause, followed by Melinda saying, “They appear to be.”

“Well use them, Gita,” Leah calls back. She rolls back to the computer. A minute or so later, Gita, an Indian girl with short, black hair, and wearing sandals, cut-off jeans, and a bulky Frankie Say Relax T-shirt, enters. She stops, regards Leah with frustration, and says, “Why are you screwing around on the computer? We’re supposed to be going to the park.” She glances at Alyssa and says, “Hey, Aly.”

“She can’t hear you,” Leah says without removing her eyes from the screen. “Headphones.” Leah looks at the clock. “It’s ten forty-two. The park will still be there.”

Gitanjali Ramachandra or Gita, as she prefers to be known, is the daughter of the chief financial officer at Bickering Plummet, and has lived in Atlanta since her parents immigrated there when Gita was three-years-old. She and Leah met at school, and their families have gotten to know one another since Paxton’s firm won the bid to design an annex to Bickering’s corporate headquarters scheduled to be completed around the time she and Leah graduate in 1987. She jostles Alyssa’s hair, which prompts Alyssa to look up and say, “Hey, Gita!”

“Want some cereal?” Leah says, offering the box to Gita.

“Lucky Charms?” Gita says, with a sour look.

“Hey, they’re magically delicious,” Leah says, withdrawing her offer. “Never mind, then.” She eats another handful.

Gita plops down in an overstuffed chair nearby and sighs.

“Is that the Amiga?” Gita says.

“Yeah. My father likes to be on the cutting edge of the computing revolution,” Leah says. “The only problem is he has no idea how any of this works. That’s where I come in.”

“That’s convenient,” her friend says.

“It’s practically the only time Dad talks to me, when he needs something done on the computer,” Leah says. “Have you ever heard of the Arpanet?”

Gita shakes her head. “What is it?”

“Near as I can figure, it’s this gigantic network that connects the military with colleges and government agencies,” Leah says.

“Why would they need to be connected like that?” Gita says.

“I don’t know,” Leah says. “I guess schools that do research need to connect with the places that fund them. I read someplace the Arpanet was built to withstand a nuclear war.”

“That’s helpful to know,” Gita replies with more than a hint of sarcasm.

Twenty minutes later, Gita has shifted in the chair, so her feet, sans footwear, are over the back, and her head is hanging back over the seat. “How long are you going to be screwing around on that computer?”

“Sorry,” Leah says. “Once I get going, it gets addictive.” She disconnects from what she’s doing and shuts down the Amiga. She rises. “What’s the plan, Piedmont Park?”

Gita maneuvers in the chair so her feet are on the ground, then slips on her sandals, and stands. “That’s what I thought.”

“Anyone meeting us?” Leah says.

“I said something about it to Stewart,” Gita says.

“Stewart, the ass wipe who calls you Rama-lama-ding-dong?” Leah says. “Honestly, Gita, what do you see in that guy?”

“He’s cute,” Gita says. “Besides, he said he’d stop calling me that.”

“When’s he going to start? Monday?” Leah says.

Gita rolls her eyes.

“Why are you even looking at Stewart, anyway? Aren’t you supposed to be getting married?” Leah asks her.

“Not before I’m twenty,” Gita says.

“I cannot believe there’s a guy sitting over in India waiting for you to come over and marry him,” Leah says.

“No. Raja’s in Canton,” Gita says. “His family moved here five years ago.”

“Still, what do you know about this guy?” Leah says.

“Our families go way back,” she says. “They matched us up when we were six months old.”

“Well, good luck with that,” Leah says. “I’m never getting married.”

“What about Mitchell?” Gita says. “You’ve been seeing him for a while.”

“He’s okay, but creepy,” she says. “Always pestering me to come over to his house. Says he wants to show me something.”

“Like what?” Gita says.

“Oh, take a good guess.” Leah takes the cereal and goes over to Alyssa, who’s engrossed in her game. She pulls one of the headphones away from Alyssa’s ear, and sets the cereal beside the keyboard.

“You’re on your own, Princess,” Leah says, then bends down and kisses Alyssa on the forehead.

Alyssa laughs. “Okay. Bye, Leah. Bye, Gita.”

“Did you drive?” Leah asks as they head into the hallway toward the stairs.

“I just live across the street,” Gita says.

“Ha!” Leah says. “Maybe we can get the Mercedes, then.”

They go upstairs into the kitchen, where Melinda is sitting at the counter reading the Constitution. A cigarette is burning in an ashtray nearby.

“Is Dad using the Mercedes today?” Leah says. She goes to the counter and takes a draw from the cigarette. Melinda takes it from her, and gives her an aggravated look, then puts it back in the ashtray.

“What’s wrong with Margaret’s car?” Melinda says.

“The Karmann Ghia doesn’t have a phone,” Leah says.

Leah learned how to drive in her aunt Margaret’s Karmann Ghia, and she’s been letting Leah drive it ever since Margaret purchased a sedan. One of the stipulations of Leah using it is that she service it herself, since Margaret doesn’t trust mechanics in the area, and Leah has become adept at most repairs.

“I think he’s golfing at noon,” Melinda says, “but I’m not sure if he’s driving or riding.”

“Let’s just take the convertible,” Gita says.

“Oh, all right,” Leah says. “But if we get stuck someplace and can’t call for help, don’t blame me.”

“What’s Alyssa doing?” Melinda asks.

“Playing that bear game for the five thousandth time,” Leah says.

“I’ll check on her in a minute,” Melinda says. “What are you girls doing today?”

“Piedmont Park,” Leah says. She kisses Melinda on the cheek. “Love you, Mom.”

“Have fun,” Melinda says.

Leah and Gita head out to the garage.

Axe Man

Baseball sculpture, Medlock Park, Decatur, GA, 8 July 2017.

Ishmael Branch enters the hallway at Tucker High School where his home room is, and strides toward his locker. At fourteen, he’s already over six feet, taller than his uncle Brian at this point, though with his head and shoulders slumped, as usual, it’s not always easy to tell. Looking at him, one might imagine he’s a grunge rocker from Seattle in the early 90s, rather than a high school freshman in Tucker, Georgia in 2011, dressed in well-worn jeans, a flannel shirt tied at his waist, with a Neil Young T-shirt covering the remainder of his skinny frame. A backpack is slung over one shoulder, and he’s carrying an expensive Martin acoustic guitar in a hard case. His hair is styled in dreads and he’s wearing a thin mustache with a soul patch.

Halfway to his locker, he passes Midori Collins, leaning against her locker, intensely staring at her cell phone, texting. Without looking up or otherwise acknowledging Ishmael, she pushes away from the locker and falls into step with him as he passes. They continue, silent, down the hall. Midori is nearly a foot shorter than Ishmael, with black, frizzy hair and a deep olive complexion. Her facial features seem vaguely Japanese.

“Band practice after school?” Ishmael says.

“Hmm,” Midori says in an affirmative manner.

“If you’re up for vegetarian, Mom invited you over for dinner,” he goes on.

“Sounds good,” she says without looking up.

“Is that Jordan?” he says.

“Pics from the Cake show at Variety Playhouse,” she says.

They stop at his locker and he sets the guitar case down and swings his backpack off his shoulder and onto the ground.

“Got your English homework?” she says, still engrossed in her phone.

“Of course,” he says.

As he’s switching out the books in his bag, a group of guys, led by Jeff Chambers, a pitcher on the baseball team come around the corner. Seeing Ishmael, one of the guys says, “Hey, it’s the Axe Man.”

Since the case for the Martin is too large to fit in a locker, whenever Ishmael has it with him, he has to carry it around from class to class. This has prompted certain of his upper classmates to refer to him as “The Axe Man”, usually in a taunting manner.

“Hey Axe Man, you going to let me play your guitar?” Jeff says. The guys with him start to snicker.

“This guitar is worth more than that car you drive,” Ishmael says.

“Mommy buy it for you?” one of Jeff’s cohorts says.

“No,” Ishmael says. “A friend gave it to me for my birthday.”

Another of the guys plays an air guitar. “Look at me. I’m the Axe Man.”

Laughing , the group starts to move on. Ishmael calls after them. “Hey, Jeff, when are tryouts?”

“Why you asking about tryouts?” Jeff says. Holding up his right hand and fluttering his fingers. “You want to be like me, Axe Man?”

“So what? You throw a baseball,” Ishmael says. “I can throw a baseball.”

“Think so?” Jeff says. “Tryouts start Monday.”

Once the baseball players are gone, Midori says, “You’re really trying out for the baseball team?”

“Why not?” Ishmael says. “Brian says I can pitch.”

“Why would you want to be on the team with those assholes?” she asks.

“To show them I can,” he says.

The following Monday, Ishmael arrives at the field for tryouts. An assistant coach has one list for the returning players, and a sign-in sheet for newcomers. Ishmael arrives with his own glove, but without the guitar.

Jeff Chambers is standing near the dugout as Ishmael heads over to the area designated for infielders. He calls out, “Hey Axe Man, where’s your axe?”

“Today, I deal in strikes,” Ishmael says.

Coach Lloyd Murdoch introduces himself to the new players. He’s a man in his early forties, trim and well-built, wearing a cap, a team T-shirt, with a warmup jacket over it, that’s unzipped, with the sleeves pulled up. He gives a short talk about his team philosophy, then tells the players to take positions on the field. He points to Ishmael. “What are you here to try out for, son?”

“I’m not your son,” Ishmael says, which elicits a look of surprise from the coach. “I’m here to pitch.”

“All right, then,” the coach says, amused. “I see you brought your own glove.” He points to the mound. “Take the mound.”

As Ishmael walks to the mound, the coach puts on an umpire mask and moves behind the plate. He indicates the catcher. “Jerry’s your catcher.” He signals to a large guy with a bat, who’s approaching the plate. “Ron here’s our best hitter. Let’s see if you can get a few past him.”

“No problem,” Ishmael says. He takes some signals from the catcher, then goes into his wind up, and releases the ball. The batter swings, but the only sound is the pop of the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt, followed by the catcher howling as he rips off the glove and grabs his hand.

“Damn!” he screams. “Put some heat on that one.”

The coach takes off the mask and walks over and picks up the ball. He shakes his head. “Right down the middle, Ron. You couldn’t hit that?”

“Hit what?” Ron says.

Coach Murdoch picks up the mitt and places it on his hand. “Take five Jerry. Go ice that hand.” He tosses the ball back to Ishmael. “Let’s see you do that again.”

He crouches down, and nods to the batter, who returns to the plate. Ishmael winds up and delivers several more fast balls. The best Ron can manage is a foul tip and one line drive straight back to the pitcher, which Ishmael handles easily. This time, the coach says, as he throws the ball back, “You got speed, no doubt about it. How’s your finesse?”

This time, Ishmael’s pitch is slower, but wobbles erratically in the air and curves away from the batter.

The coach dives sideways to make the catch then stands with the ball in his glove. “Where’d you learn to throw a knuckleball?”

Ishmael shrugs. “My uncle took me to a clinic with Joe Neikro once.”

“Just once?” the coach says.

He has Ishmael throw a few more, including a slow curve, a change up, and a slider. Afterward, the coach asks, “Are you as serious about baseball as I hear you are about playing your guitar?”

“Yes, sir,” Ishmael says.

“Welcome to the team,” the coach says.

As Ishmael walks off the field, Jeff Chambers says, “Good arm, Axe Man. You’re going have to show me that knuckleball sometime.”

Ishmael nods with a smile. “Maybe, someday.”