Short Fiction Contest winning story #45 — “Last Stop with Louis Armstrong,” by Laura Hawbaker

July 18th, 2017



New Short Fiction Award


Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.

Laura Hawbaker of New Orleans, Louisiana is the winner of the 45th Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on July 18, 2017.



Laura Hawbaker




Originally from Chicago, Laura Hawbaker has lived in Prague, Poland, Hawaii, and now New Orleans, where she works as a teacher and artist. Laura has written for The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, Time Out Magazine, Newcity Magazine, and several literary publications. In 2012, she was awarded a Fulbright Grant from the U.S. Department of State. She displays her art at Pirate’s Alley in the French Quarter of New Orleans. / Twitter: @laurahawbaker









Last Stop with Louis Armstrong


Laura Hawbaker





Wade missed the sweat. The sticky air that hugged you like a fat friend. The languid, dirty stench of swampy gutters. Of Bourbon street piss and puke. Of Dat Dogs at three in the morning, and the street mutts that cawed at the Mississippi. The rats and cockroaches scuttling around your shoes. The humidity. The heat.

He missed all of it.

New York was cold. Not just the weather, but the people, too. Hardened pedestrians crushed the MTA platforms like stone statues, eyes glazed onto their phones or the wall or the floor. No smiles. No inward space given away to strangers. They hugged into their hoods and parkas, their hats, gloves and scarves. Bundled away from everyone else.

Designer shoes and thrift store boots sank in the dirty snows of city winter.

Wade wanted swamp mud, not street slush.

The train doors were open, though no currents of people flowed over the gaps. It was past the allotted linger time, and Wade needed to close the doors, to push the sleek silver R160 on to Third Avenue. Whenever he operated the L train, it was important to stick to the schedule. Manhattan lines ran tight, and the crowd heading into Williamsburg and Bushwick , even at this late time of the night, could overwhelm the platforms.

Ready to disembark, Wade leaned his head out the window to double-check that the platform was clear.

That’s when he spied a lone teenager with a frayed green messenger bag sprinting down the stairs. The boy clutched a black leather case, big and boxy, to his chest. Wade could see his face, beet-red with that manic flush of blood that only comes when you rush to catch the train.

“Don’t worry, kid,” Wade said. “I see ya.”

He waited, and the kid’s sneakers flopped like dog tongues in the ice puddles. The rhythm of it sounded like the snap of a snare. In his mind’s ear, the beat kicked out a lyric: A banana-colored woman in an orange Cadillac…

Wade’s fingers itched to cradle a horn, to press upon the keys. To lick his lips and puff out his cheeks. He heard the melodic baritone of Andre Williams in his head like the ghost of a dead neighbor: … in a pea-green suit, and a pocket-full of 100 dollar bills….

But that song was from another time. From sunny Sundays in Armstrong Park with the Congo Square Preservation Society. The local Treme kids would step in front of the band and the tourists—too shy to dance—hung back on the benches. The leaves of the oaks whispered against one another, and the bright blue eye of the sky was an open dome.

Wade hadn’t seen the sun in a while. He spent his days underground in New York. In the employee manual, he read that the air shafts and ventilation system moved hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of fresh air every minute, but the world down here still stank of stale, dead ether.

Back home, nobody lived underground. If you dug four feet down you’d hit water. No cellars or basements, no graves dug into holes in the dirt.

Belatedly, Wade realized the platform was empty.

The kid must’ve slipped into one of the cars.

Clearing his throat, Wade held the microphone of the com to his lips and crackled, “Next stop: Third Avenue.” This train’s system was out, so he’d been announcing stops—old school—all day. Now his voice sounded like ground rocks.

Up ahead, the approach signal’s green light stared him down like a cat eye. It glowed devilish in the dark.

He eased the slick, silver bullet of a train down the track. It cut through the wire-laced dark, scuttling rats from its headlights. The third rail spat venomous sparks, 625 volts guarded beneath a cover no wider than a binder.

It wasn’t until they’d crossed the river and gotten over the hump at Bedford that the crowds finally began to thin. Wade checked his watch. The rest of the line all the way to Rockaway should be smooth sailing.

This was his last run. He hoped he’d be done his shift by a decent hour.

At the tail end of Rockaway, all the commuters disembarked. Wade ran through his final tallies and walked the line of five cars, checking for homeless, gutter punks, and other loiterers.

That’s when he found the kid.

The boy lay fetal-like across two seats in the last car. He didn’t look homeless. The blue hood peeping over his parka had a frayed hole in it, but his Adidas were new and his cheeks were clean.

Wade recognized the green messenger bag and the black case. The kid curled around the case like a teddy bear as he slept.

Wade cleared his throat. He nudged the kid’s shoulder.

The boy blinked awake.

“End of the line,” Wade nodded his head at the door. “Gotta get off, kid.”

Mumbling syllables, the kid shuffled upward and scuffed his sneakers. He found himself a bench just outside the door and sank upon it. His shoulders were tight, his arms clutching the black case like a lifeline.

Curiosity shot through Wade. He couldn’t help it. That case. The familiar shape of it, the dimensions and durable hard plastic. The two jumbo-sized silver clasps on either side of a handle worn down by a hundred smudgy hands.

“What you got in that case?”

“Nothin’,” the kid answered, too quick. His eyes bugged out a bit.

Wade smiled. “I’m not comin’ down on you. I just know a music case when I see one. What’s in there? It’s too small for a sax. A trumpet?”

“Yeah.” The kid’s gaze narrowed to slits. “You play or somethin’?”

“Used to, a bit. Down in New Orleans.” Wade said it the right way. Not “Orleans” like greens but like suns. “You ever been there?”

“Nah.” The kid’s shoulder bopped up in a shrug. “It’s too hot.”

Wade chuckled at the irony of it. He wasn’t about to argue with a Queens kid about cold being too cold. “Hot it may be, for sure. But I played with some good people down there. Recorded backing tracks for Trombone Shorty and Russell Batiste. Used to gig with the Swamp Donkeys too, over at Bamboula’s. Subbed in once or twice for the Soul Rebels.” Wade’s eyes glimmered, shining, imagining the hot lights and the smoke-filled air, the crowd glistening like blue ghosts beyond a tiny, cramped stage and a tip jug half-filled with crumpled dollar bills.

He felt the kid staring at him, and when he looked, he saw a curled lip.

“You don’t know who any of those people are, do you?”

“Nah. I mean, no sir. Sorry.”

Wade’s breath plumed out like a smoker’s exhale. This side of the platform was still empty, but across the tracks a bundled shape ascended the stairs and leaned in next to the stop’s sign. Wade figured he had about five minutes before he’d have to move the train.

He still had some time. He reached over and opened the case. The felt lining had worn down nearly to the plastic interior, and atop it lay the raggedy horn. Smudged finger buttons and a chipped mouthpiece. Just looking at it, Wade could tell the 2nd tuning slide was loose. The gold finish on the bell had faded to its silver core. It reminded Wade of his first horn, the one he used to play back in the band room at Edna Karr.

“You any good?” Wade asked.

Another bop of the shoulder. The kid stubbed his sneaker at a crack of ice and sent it skittering.

“That’s OK. You’ll get there. It takes practice.”

“My fingers don’t go fast enough. And my lips are too soft.” The kid sighed. “Anyway, I can’t practice anymore.”

“Why not?”

“They closed the program. They’re not gonna teach music anymore.” The kid’s fingers thrummed on the case, and the sound was a nervous, hollow beat. “That’s why I took this one. Some charter school bought up all the instruments. They’re shipping them all out tomorrow, but I wanted to keep this one.”

“You stole it?”

“It was mine. Mr. Kellner assigned it to me at the beginning of last year. I been playing it every day.” The kid shook his head, and his voice quivered. “It was stupid. I shouldn’t a done it. Kellner’s gonna know I’m the one who took it. It’s an old trumpet anyway. It doesn’t even play that good.”

“This old girl?” Wade gingerly plucked the instrument from the case. Fitted his fingers and fiddled with the slides. The metal squeaked a bit. She needed some oil and a cleaning, but the root of her held true. “She’s still got some zing in her.”

“Nah. Damn thing isn’t even worth the trouble.”

“Come on now. She’s alright. Can I prove it to you?”

The kid’s brow furrowed. Wade held up the trumpet, indicating he wanted to play. After a moment’s contemplation, the kid nodded his approval.

Wade slipped the mouthpiece into the lead pipe. He blew a few experimental notes to check the tuning. He hadn’t played in a while, not for months. He wondered if his hand memory was still there.

But some things are inborn. Some things are such a part of you, they linger in your blood long after you’ve left them behind. He could feel the callous on his lip, the toughened bubble hard-won from years on the circuit.

He thought of the Gulf, Pontchartrain, and the salty water inching ever inland, gobbling up a city perched upon its end days.

“I’m gonna give you a little Louis,” he told the kid, then wet his tongue and puffed his cheeks. In his head, he heard the opening measures of an invisible piano and soft bass. Counted out the beat, then slipped into the walkabout blow of a pure D note. The first measure of “La Vie en Rose” trickled up from out of him, a burbling stream that skidded over rocks in Bb. His fingers danced atop the smudged buttons, two small for his fingers, maybe, but he’d always had a delicate hand.

The music circled up into that frigid New York night, and with it painted the air so it wasn’t cold and clear, but foggy and lit by oil lamps. Spanish balconies loomed overhead like hunched giants, nodding their heads in time to the beat, and the Creole cottages with their wide shutters winked. Shadows pooled around the sunken streets, the sidewalks being taken back by the swamp. The cicadas sang, and the frogs chirped, and for the space of two beautiful minutes, New York wasn’t New York but New Orleans.

And the music drifted out across the alleys of trash and the cracked ice sidewalks, skidding across the metal chains of battened down fire escapes. The notes circled upward like a murmuration of starlings, swallowed by the horns and sirens of the city.

Somewhere, some place far away down south, some ghost in New Orleans heard Wade playing Louis at Rockaway… and they missed him, too.










Short Fiction Contest Details





Share this:

4 comments on “Short Fiction Contest winning story #45 — “Last Stop with Louis Armstrong,” by Laura Hawbaker”

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In This Issue

Painting of Clifford Brown by Warren Goodson
The 43 poets who contribute to the Summer Collection of jazz poetry communicate their heartfelt passion for the artistry and inspiration found in jazz music, and help readers, in the words of Art Blakey, “wash away the dust of everyday life” – a special gift to share during this restless summer of discontent…and hope.


photo courtesy John Bolger Collection
Philip Clark, author of Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time, discusses the enigmatic and extraordinary pianist, composer, and band leader, whose most notable achievements came during a time of major societal and cultural change, and often in the face of critics who at times found his music too technical and bombastic.

Publisher’s Notes

Grant Park, Portland, Sep 16, 2020
On a challenging summer in Portland, the passing of Stanley Crouch, and upcoming opportunities for writers

Great Encounters

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
“Great Encounters” are book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons. In this edition, Will Friedwald, author of Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole, writes about the 1940 Lionel Hampton/King Cole Trio RCA Victor recording sessions.


photo of James Baldwin by Allan Warren
In our interview with Nicholas Buccola, author of The Fire is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America, the author tells the story of the historic 1965 Cambridge Union debate between Baldwin, the leading literary voice of the civil rights movement, and Buckley, a staunch opponent of the movement and founder in 1955 of the leading conservative publication, National Review. The evening’s debate topic? “The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.”


Mood Indigo by Matthew Hinds
An invitation was extended recently for poets to submit work that reflects this time of COVID, Black Lives Matter, and a heated political season. 14 poets contribute to the first volume of collected poetry.


photo by Russell duPont
The second volume of poetry reflecting this time of COVID, Black Lives Matter, and a heated political season features the work of 23 poets


Dreams of Freedom, by Vakseen
Thirty-three poets contribute to the third volume of "Poetry reflecting the era of COVID, Black Lives Matter, and a heated political season"

Short Fiction

photo FDR Presidential Library & Museum
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #54 — “A Failed Artist’s Paradise” by Nathaniel Neil Whelan


Red Meditation by James Brewer
Creative artists and citizens of note respond to the question, "During this time of social distancing and isolation at home, what are examples of the music you are listening to, the books you are reading, and/or the television or films you are viewing?”


Ornette Coleman 1966/photo courtesy Mosaic Images
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Ornette Coleman: The Territory And The Adventure author Maria Golia discusses her compelling and rewarding book about the artist whose philosophy and the astounding, adventurous music he created served to continually challenge the skeptical status quo, and made him a guiding light of the artistic avant-garde throughout a career spanning seven decades.

Short Fiction

Image by Martin Briones from Pixabay
“Balboa," a short story by Matt Sweeney, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 54th Short Fiction Contest


photo by Veryl Oakland
In this edition of photographs and stories from Veryl Oakland’s book Jazz in Available Light, Dexter Gordon, Art Farmer and Johnny Griffin are featured


Frits De Jong / CC0
“Nocturne in a Whirling Fan” — a poem by Joel Glickman


painting of Louis Armstrong by Vakseen
In Dig Wayne's "Iconolast," Louis Armstrong is responsible for saving the lives of every man, woman and child on the ball bearing line at the Radio Flyer wagon factory...


photo by John Vachon/Library of Congress
“Climate Change” — Ten poems in sequence by John Stupp

Book Excerpt

In the introduction to Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time – the author Philip Clark writes about the origins of the book, and his interest in shining a light on how Brubeck, “thoughtful and sensitive as he was, had been changed as a musician and as a man by the troubled times through which he lived and during which he produced such optimistic, life-enhancing art.”


NBC Radio-photo by Ray Lee Jackson / Public domain
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, acclaimed biographer James Kaplan (Frank: The Voice and Sinatra: The Chairman) talks about his book, Irving Berlin: New York Genius, and Berlin's unparalleled musical career and business success, his intense sense of family and patriotism during a complex and evolving time, and the artist's permanent cultural significance.

Book Excerpt

In the introduction to Maria Golia’s Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure – excerpted here in its entirety – the author takes the reader through the four phases of the brilliant musician’s career her book focuses on.


Art by Charles Ingham
"Charles Ingham's Jazz Narratives" connect time, place, and subject in a way that ultimately allows the viewer a unique way of experiencing jazz history. This edition's narratives are "Nat King Cole: The Shadow of the Word," "Slain in Cold Blood" and "Local 767: The Black Musicians’ Union"


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection
Richard Crawford’s Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music is a rich, detailed and rewarding musical biography that describes Gershwin's work throughout every stage of his career. In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Crawford discusses his book and the man he has described as a “fresh voice of the Jazz Age” who “challenged Americans to rethink their assumptions about composition and performance, nationalism, cultural hierarchy, and the racial divide.”

Jazz History Quiz #140

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Although he had success as a bandleader in the 1930’s, he is best known for being manager of Harlem’s Minton’s Playhouse (where Thelonious Monk was the pianist) during the birth of bebop. Who was he?


photo unattributed/ Public domain
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview with The Letters of Cole Porter co-author Dominic McHugh, he explains that “several of the big biographical tropes that we associate with Porter are either modified or contested by the letters,” and that “when you put together these letters, and add our quite extensive commentary between the letters, it creates a different picture of him.” Mr. McHugh discusses his book, and what the letters reveal about the life – in-and-out of music – of Cole Porter.


photo by Fred Price
Bob Hecht and Grover Sales host a previously unpublished 1985 interview with the late, great jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz, who talks about Miles, Kenton, Ornette, Tristano, and the art of improvisation...

Pressed for All Time

A&M Records/photo by Carol Friedman
In this edition, producer John Snyder recalls Sun Ra, and his 1990 Purple Night recording session


photo by Bouna Ndaiye
Interview with Gerald Horne, author of Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music


The winter collection of poetry offers readers a look at the culture of jazz music through the imaginative writings of its 32 contributors. Within these 41 poems, writers express their deep connection to the music – and those who play it – in their own inventive and often philosophical language that communicates much, but especially love, sentiment, struggle, loss, and joy.

Spring Poetry Collection

A Collection of Jazz Poetry – Spring, 2020 Edition There are many good and often powerful poems within this collection, one that has the potential for changing the shape of a reader’s universe during an impossibly trying time, particularly if the reader has a love of music. 33 poets from all over the globe contribute 47 poems. Expect to read of love, loss, memoir, worship, freedom, heartbreak and hope – all collected here, in the heart of this unsettling spring. (Featuring the art of Martel Chapman)

“What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?”

"What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?"
Dianne Reeves, Nate Chinen, Gary Giddins, Michael Cuscuna, Eliane Elias and Ashley Kahn are among the 12 writers, musicians, and music executives who list and write about their favorite Blue Note albums

In the Previous Issue

Interviews with three outstanding, acclaimed writers and scholars who discuss their books on Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter, and their subjects’ lives in and out of music. These interviews – which each include photos and several full-length songs – provide readers easy access to an entertaining and enlightening learning experience about these three giants of American popular music.

In an Earlier Issue

photo by Carol Friedman
“The Jazz Photography Issue” features an interview with today’s most eminent jazz portrait photographer Carol Friedman, news from Michael Cuscuna about newly released Francis Wolff photos, as well as archived interviews with William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, Lee Tanner, a piece on Milt Hinton, a new edition of photos from Veryl Oakland, and much more…

Coming Soon

photo of Erroll Garner by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
The historian and most eminent jazz writer of his generation Dan Morgenstern joins pianist Christian Sands -- the Creative Ambassador of the Erroll Garner Jazz Project -- in a conversation about Garner's historic legacy. Also…an autumn collection of poetry; Will Friedwald, author of Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Life and Music of Nat King Cole is interviewed about the legendary pianist and vocalist; a new Jazz History Quiz; short fiction, poetry, and lots more in the works...

Contributing writers

Site Archive