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.”

Ned Branch

Edward Abraham Branch, III, called “Ned” by his family to distinguish him from his grandfather, “Big Ed” and his father, still called “Eddie, Jr.” despite the elder Edward being dead for ten years, carried on the fine tradition of Branch men playing football at UGA. A quarterback, Ned was a natural player, and, as such, had not been much in the habit of working very hard in high school, despite his winning record on the field. When he arrived at the University, he found he could no longer get by on talent alone, and spent his first year on the bench, developing a work habit that would, eventually, earn him a starting spot on the team. His coaches recognized him as a solid, if not stellar player, who could be depended upon to go the distance, and elicit enough occasional brilliance to pull out the wins. About the same time he gained his starting spot, Ned married his high school sweetheart, Lindsay Maddox, who was also taking classes at UGA in financial planning. They decided to forego starting a family until their studies were behind them.

Ned’s attendance at UGA had been cast in doubt, when a local girl, Charlotte Sanger, identified him as the father of a child she was carrying. Charlotte was considered a mousy little thing, who was mostly known for singing in her church choir, and for being the sister of that guy who’d been caught fooling around with the son of the pastor at their Baptist congregation. She also had some weird disorder that caused her to repeat things people said to her, which earned her the nickname Echo at school. She’d befriended Ned and Lindsay their senior year, which led to her unexpectedly being named Homecoming Queen. Not wanting to involve the family in any messy controversy, Eddie, Jr. called Ned’s coach, Harold Ricketts, into his office at the car dealership, and impressed upon the coach a need for him to handle things. Coach Ricketts came up with a sweet plan to shift responsibility away from Ned and onto a teammate, but Charlotte made the issue moot by sneaking off in the middle of the night one evening, leaving behind no trace of where she’d gone.

In the Fall of 2000, Ned and Lindsay, expecting their first child together, move to Suwannee, in the Metro Atlanta area, where Ned, a fourth-round draft pick for the Falcons, is beginning his tenure as the backup quarterback. It’s here the couple learns what became of their friend, Charlotte, as they discover that the singers who’ve been invited to perform the National Anthem at the season opener are Charlotte and her brother, Brian, who call themselves Echo. The team does not interact with the opening duo, but Lindsay finds herself in the Skybox with them, and after a few awkward moments, during which she meets the boy Charlotte introduces as her son, they reconcile, and Lindsay promises to have the family over to their home in Suwannee. When Lindsay tells Ned of the encounter, he’s secretly somewhat relieved to learn Charlotte did not name the boy fully after him, as he has no intention of being the father of Edward Abraham, IV.

Ned finally meets the boy, Edward Ishmael, who his family calls Izzy, when Charlotte, her brother, Brian, and Izzy visit a few weeks later. In their discussions leading up to the visit, it was decided that they weren’t going to hide the fact that Ned is Izzy’s father from the boy, but when they introduce Ned as such to Izzy, he seems to take it in stride, being far too young to realize the implications of it all. Izzy turns out to be an energetic child, with a natural curiosity about the world around him, and no shyness toward new people. He and Ned hit it off immediately, and Brian and Ned spend nearly an hour chasing him around the yard and playing catch with him, while Lindsay and Charlotte chat in the kitchen.

After the meeting with Izzy goes well, Ned discusses with Lindsay the possibility of Ned formally acknowledging Izzy as his son. Lindsay voices no objections, though she is concerned the timing might overshadow the arrival of their child, who, they’ve learned from the ultrasound, is also a boy. Ned agrees to discuss it with the team’s legal counsel, and to bring Charlotte into the discussions before they go very far. They both agree, however, to leave his family back home out of the conversation, until after decisions have been reached, since they would almost certainly object and cause difficulties.

Lawyers for the team outline the process of acknowledging paternity, but caution Ned that he should confirm with a paternity test that he is Ishmael’s father. Ned doesn’t believe Charlotte will appreciate this step, since he believes she’s telling the truth about Ned being the only man who could be the father, but agrees to broach the subject with her. Officials with the team express concerns over the publicity such a move might bring, but Ned argues that his position on the team will only become more visible as time goes on, and Charlotte can be counted upon to be discrete, especially if she’s respected throughout the process. Acknowledging this, the team gives him leave to quietly pursue the matter.

Ned leaves it up to Lindsay to approach Charlotte with the idea, since the two of them get along a bit better than he and Charlotte do. As it turns out, Deanna Savage, the mother of the family Charlotte’s living with is a social worker in Gwinnett County, and is well-acquainted with the process. Charlotte arranges a meeting with Deanna where she and the Branches discuss the matter in more detail. During the meeting, Ned mentions the idea of a paternity test, and Deanna agrees it would help establish Ned’s role as the father. While she doesn’t totally feel it’s necessary, Charlotte agrees to it, as well as amending Ishmael’s birth certificate to add Ned and to change Ishmael’s name to Branch. Deanna recommends several attorneys who specialize in such cases. After some discussion, everyone agrees Izzy’s name will become Edward Ishmael Sanger Branch.

Before any of this can take place, Lindsay goes into labor, and delivers a healthy baby boy, who she and Ned name John Isaac, though, from the start, they nickname him “Ike”. Izzy is thrilled to have a baby brother. Ned’s family is disappointed the child isn’t named after his father, but otherwise welcomes his arrival. Shortly after Ike’s birth, Charlotte receives the results of the test, which yield no surprises, and Ned completes the Paternity Acknowledgment form, has it notarized, and sends it off to Vital Records. Over the next several years, Ned and Lindsay have two daughters, Ansley Mae, and Emily Kaitlyn.

A year and a half into his contract, Ned, who’s being considered for a trade to Buffalo, gets his first and only start, in an away game against the Dolphins in Miami. He leads the team to a respectable 24-20 score, but in the final drive of the game, he gets tackled hard by a defensive end, just as he’s completed a long pass for a touchdown. The momentum of the opposing player, along with the angle Ned hits the ground, combine to give him a serious head and neck injury, which proves to be career-ending. Fortunately, Lindsay had the foresight to insure Ned has good personal injury coverage, over and above what the league provides, plus she’s been very prudent in investing his guaranteed earnings, which are considerable. As his rehabilitation begins, wheels start turning behind the scenes to capitalize on his popularity in the community. Officials with both political parties send out feelers to gauge his interest in running for local or county office. At no point is mention made of Ishmael’s existence.