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

July 18th, 2017

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New Short Fiction Award

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Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.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

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Laura Hawbaker

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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. 

LauraHawbaker.com / Twitter: @laurahawbaker

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Last Stop with Louis Armstrong

by

Laura Hawbaker

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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.

 

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Short Fiction Contest Details

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