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.”