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Finalist for the 2020 World's Best Short-Short Story Contest

Selected by Robert Olen Butler

Mean to Me

This is the part where the white girl cries. You tell her no she can’t touch your hair and explain to her why it’s not cool, but she’s not listening because she’s collapsed into tears. Right before your eyes her bangs flatten, her chin droops, and her thin lips quiver. Why are you being so mean to me, she whines; but you can’t answer because her question brings up memories of record albums with Lady Day’s face on the cover, white gardenias framing her from temple to cheek, and with the first petal you hear Billie Holiday’s bruised, brave, addicted, and addicting voice drawling that famous song; but you can’t answer because that song reminds you of the fight with your college boyfriend over whether Lady Day or Sarah Vaughan sang it better and he thought the answer was obvious—Vaughan’s voice was so much smoother and more controlled, after all, and he was enrolled in a history of jazz course so he should know—but you didn’t give up so easily because Billie Holiday had been your bread and butter as a child when every other kid was eating Froot Loops or Cream of Wheat, which is to say that your mother fed it to you—literally—whenever she wanted to keep you quiet, which is to say that when she pulled the record from its cardboard sleeve and touched the needle to it, and Billie Holiday’s voice leaped from the vinyl, you sat beside the hi-fi and brought the record’s sleeve to your mouth and clenched it between your teeth so you could hear the song better, and, later, when someone told you in grad school that Thomas Edison chomped the wood of his phonograph to better hear the music, you understood completely, even though you are not now and have never been deaf, yes, your mother fed you Lady Day’s music and you consumed it all just as you read the autobiography Lady Sings the Blues and watched the movie with Diana Ross so that you know all there is to know about Lady Day who clearly sang the song better than Sarah Vaughan despite her voice’s lack, and you know this despite your decision not to take the history of jazz class with him, which is really what the argument was about beneath all the posturing and the chatter; but you can’t answer because you listened again to Sarah Vaughan’s version years later when there was no college boyfriend to argue her case and her voice argued it all by itself so that you weren’t sure anymore and declared it a tie; but you can’t answer because for a second you almost think of the Doris Day version and have to force yourself to think about something else; otherwise this would be a completely different story.


AMINA GAUTIER is the author of three award-winning short story collections: At-Risk, Now We Will Be Happy, and The Loss of All Lost Things. At-Risk was awarded the Flannery O’Connor Award; Now We Will Be Happy was awarded the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction; The Loss of All Lost Things was awarded the Elixir Press Award in Fiction. More than one hundred and fifteen of her stories have been published, appearing in Agni, Blackbird, Boston Review, Callaloo, Coffee and Oranges, Glimmer Train, Hypertext, Kenyon Review, Latino Book Review, Mississippi Review, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, and Southern Review among other places. Her work has been honored with the Blackwell Prize, the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 21st Century Award, the International Latino Book Award, and the PEN/MALAMUD Award for Excellence in the Short Story.


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