For Mother’s Day, I buy myself the Deluxe Scrabble that comes with a lazy Susan. I delete the Amazon confirmation from my Inbox because Harry will freak if he realizes I spent $119 on a board game no one in our family besides me will play. It comes in a blue box with a cream-colored border, reminding me of the fancy placemats we had when I was a kid, and the fancy cloth napkins, each a different color. My mother would fold them into pretty shapes that looked like half-peeled bananas. My mother used to starch and iron those napkins. In contrast, my napkins are wrinkled around the edges. When Harry folds and puts away laundry, he mixes those napkins up with the tea towels. He and our son, Noah, are seemingly indifferent to the distinctions and will pull out whatever’s on top of the stack and use it to wipe their greasy hands during meals.
When I was a kid, I had this friend named Sunshine. Sunshine’s house was filthy, and if I walked barefoot on her family’s tile floors, the soles of my feet would turn gray-black. Always there was a stray grape or blueberry on the floor in the kitchen or the papery red husk of an onion, sometimes a grocery receipt, a twisty tie, a hairpin. But I spent nearly every day of the summer at Sunshine’s house because her mother Desiree was what people in those days called a housewife, and she loved games. The three of us, Sunshine, Desiree, and me, would play games for hours at a time: Yahtzee, dominoes, Sorry, and, my favorite, Scrabble.
I thought Desiree was the most beautiful name I’d ever heard. She insisted I call her Desiree, whereas my mother went by “Mrs. Brock.” It’s a formality she maintained. She never told Harry to call her Livia, so he avoided calling her anything at all, which made dinners with my mother awkward, Harry waiting until he could look her in the eye to address her. “It’s too bizarre to call my mother-in-law of fifteen years ‘Mrs. Brock!’” he used to complain.
The few times Sunshine visited my house, I felt self-conscious about how formal everything was. I saw it all through her eyes: it was like sinking into an underwater world. Without really speaking aloud why, the two of us soon settled into a routine of spending all our time together at Sunshine’s house.
After we played a game of Scrabble, Desiree and Sunshine and I would look at the completed board and pick out our favorite words, the coolest words, not the ones that scored the most points. I remember feeling proud when Desiree chose my word “banshee.” She maintained it was worth getting fewer points, or even wasting an “S,” if you could spell something interesting like “fiasco,” or line your word right on top of another word, so the two words looked like prone lovers, or neat shelves. “That’s so elegant,” Desiree would say, and I realized that despite her sticky house she embodied an elegance materially different from my mother’s napkin folding.
Desiree taught me that being good at Scrabble was all about memorizing the two-letter words. “Cheating,” is what Harry calls those words. Nothing will annoy him more than when I admit I don’t know what “Xi” means, but I know it’s a word.
Some summer mornings when I entered the kitchen through the screened door in Sunshine’s garage, I was greeted by the warm, burnt-sugar scent of homemade blueberry crumb cake. Those were the best days. Desiree had no rules about portion size or the number of servings we were allowed to eat, or how close it was to dinner time. Sometimes we polished off an entire cake, playing round after round after round.
But eventually, after a honeymoon of perfect days, there came days when Desiree was distant or a little short-tempered or just strange. The first time, I remember there weren’t more than a few words on the Scrabble board when Desiree pushed herself up from the table and said, “I’m done.” She disappeared down the hallway that led to her bedroom, and we didn’t see her again that day. I’d been the last one to play before she quit: “ice.” I remember the word because, ridiculously, I wondered if I’d disappointed her, if I was the reason she abandoned us.
I had always been a little scared of Sunshine’s dad. In fact, I tried to keep an eye on the clock in the afternoons to make sure I left before he returned home from work. He seemed made of stone, or encased in stone, like it might take a pickaxe to chisel him out. He didn’t seem like the kind of man who’d have a daughter named Sunshine.
Once in a while, though, he’d come home smiling and laughing. His cheeks seemed rosy on those days, his hair fluffier. The day that Desiree said she was done was one of those days. I stayed at Sunshine’s house late into the afternoon because her mother had already abandoned her, and I didn’t want to do the same.
When Sunshine’s dad walked into the kitchen, leaving his umbrella in the garage to dry—it had rained all afternoon—he patted her on the head like she was a dog. “How are my girls?” he said, and for a moment, I thought he meant me and Sunshine. Then he said, “Where’s Dez?”
I remember wincing, to hear Desiree’s beautiful name chopped into something that sounded like a pill you’d pop in a glass of water, which would make the water cloud and fizz. But also, it made me think about how my father always called my mother “Your mother,” as in, “Where’s your mother”? As if she had no name or independent identity aside from that role, her production of us, her folding of napkins into their lovely, stiff shapes.
“She’s in the bedroom,” Sunshine said, and her father nodded and said, “Will you hang up my coat, Princess?”
Funny: the things one does and doesn’t remember. I remember his coat, the color of toast, lined in red plaid, and I remember noticing, for the first time, the coat-hooks on the wall of the foyer, not hooks at all, but round like doorknobs. But I don’t remember the name of Sunshine’s father. I don’t remember why he frightened me, though I certainly remember watching the kitchen clock to see if it was getting close to 5:00, and I remember how much I wished that clock was in my bedroom. It was one of those cat-shaped clocks with a long tail and eyes that slid from left to right, like the cat was thinking, weighing possibilities. I wondered: if I could see all that cat saw when I wasn’t at Sunshine’s house, would I understand her parents any better? Would I understand my own?
When Sunshine’s father disappeared into her parents’ bedroom, Sunshine suggested we go outside and look for frogs. There were almost always frogs in the grass after a good rain. Some of them were as small as Scrabble tiles. Sunshine said they fell from the sky. That didn’t make any sense to me, but I couldn’t offer up a better explanation of where they’d come from. When we placed them on our palms, the frogs peed, but we didn’t mind. They were so delicate. They tickled our skin.
I imagined back then that whatever was going on with Desiree on the days that she retreated from us was of soap opera proportions. She watched Days of Our Lives, which was on in the background for an hour each day. Usually, we played something kind of brainless during Days so that she wouldn’t miss anything important—new developments about the Salem Strangler or various love affairs. When she clicked on the television, Desiree would say, “I know it’s dumb.” Or, “It’s my one vice.” I don’t think I had any particular plot in mind when Desiree hid out in her bedroom all day, but I imagined her bedroom as dark and kind of sinister. I pictured Desiree in a satin nightgown, something sexy as opposed to the frilly, fuzzy nightgowns my mother wore.
When Sunshine and I went back inside and washed our hands after handling frogs, there was a frozen pizza on the kitchen counter, along with a sticky note that read, “For you and Millie. You can watch a movie.” I knew the tiny, neat print was Sunshine’s dad’s handwriting because I knew Desiree’s handwriting from her keeping score. Her handwriting was sloppy, like her kitchen floor. Her handwriting took up space.
“You like pepperoni, right?” Sunshine asked me, but even though I did, I was seized with an urgent desire to leave. It was as if that dark, sinister bedroom had reached out to encase everything else. Even the cat clock on the wall, the clock I’d always loved, seemed menacing instead of vigilant. The ticking noise its tail made was signaling to me go, go, go.
“I promised I’d be home for dinner,” I said.
Sunshine looked at me, surprised and then unsurprised. It was as if my defection was something she’d been waiting for: like those characters on Days when they receive some awful but long-anticipated news.
That same summer, my mother’s little Yorkshire terrier, Boswell, who had a face like a Muppet, died. He was fourteen. She earnestly referred to him as her “firstborn,” as though he had come into this world the same route I had. But the way she loved him was starkly different from the way she loved me. She dressed both of us up in ridiculous, uncomfortable outfits, and she tried tirelessly to train us to obey, but she doted on that dog. Practically the only time I saw my mother smile was when Boswell sat on her lap, and she scratched him behind his ears. When I was really little, I was so jealous of Boswell that I schemed about ways to murder him.
But Boswell’s death taught me that murdering him when I was younger wouldn’t have made my mother dote on me more. I was the one who found him that June morning, his legs stretched out stiffly, so he looked like a footstool tipped over on its side. “Mom!” I’d called, though I usually called her Mother. She cried when she saw him, but when I said, “Poor Boswell” and tried to hug her, she shook her head and crossed her arms protectively. In bed that night I cried, not because I felt sad about Boswell particularly—he’d always ignored me, except when I was near the cabinet where my mother kept a cookie jar of dog biscuits, and then he’d whine and nose the back of my legs. I cried because I kept visualizing my mother’s wet, cold eyes. I was convinced she blamed me for finding him.
One evening when I returned home from Sunshine’s house, my mother said at dinner, “I don’t know that I like you spending every day at that girl’s house. I bet her mother would like some peace and quiet.” With her long dark hair and erect posture, my mother reminded me of Morticia Addams, but with less charm.
When I told her that Desiree played board games with us, my mother raised her eyebrows, but said nothing more.
This was sometime after Desiree abandoned Sunshine and me in the middle of that Scrabble game in which I played “ice.” It was also after the game of Scrabble in which Sunshine tried to play “passion,” but she spelled it wrong, and Desiree laughed and said, “Passion with one lonely ‘s.’ That’s hilarious.” Sunshine had said, “Don’t make fun of me.” She’d crossed her arms and sulked. Desiree had looked startled. “Oh, hon, I wasn’t making fun of you.” She’d leaned over and kissed Sunshine on her head. “You are the most important thing in the world to me.” Not long after that, though, Desiree said she didn’t feel good and was going to take a bath. She slid her remaining tiles back into the black pouch.
I believe I told my mother about Desiree playing games with us to defend myself—to clarify that I wasn’t imposing—but once I said it, I thought about those two abandoned games and I wondered if maybe my mother was right.
It certainly didn’t occur to me that anything about that exchange could be upsetting to my mother. I’d forgotten all about it when my father knocked on my bedroom door later that night, sat on my bed, and said, “Hey, Chicken: you made your mother feel bad.”
That summer, I kept oscillating between having a grandiose sense of power and feeling utterly insignificant. As an example of the first, I felt responsible for Boswell’s death, because years ago, I’d fantasized poisoning him. When my mother looked at me with her red, teary eyes, she’d seemed to accuse my jealous, seven-year-old self. On the other hand, I was shocked that anything I could say would wound her. I had no idea what my father was even talking about that night. That was long before I was trained in couples counseling, as well as in required so-called personal development classes at work, to take ownership of my feelings and to separate my feelings from facts. Back then, I had no qualms with the idea that other people, my mother especially, could be responsible for my feelings, but the reverse was unfathomable. And why wouldn’t it be? My mother had trained me to raise my hand if I needed to speak to her and to wait to be called on. This wasn’t just for occasions on which she had company and so to prevent my interrupting conversation. My mother explained that she startled easily and that children were abrupt.
Even when my father explained himself, I just stared at him.
Then he said, as he had several times over the years, “Your mother had a rough childhood. It follows her, you know?” I didn’t know. My father never elaborated on this statement. I pictured a hooded, shadowy figure, like a jailor, standing in the corner, its eyes tracking my mother.
Sunshine’s birthday was on the solstice. “The longest, hottest day of the year,” Desiree said as she brought out a white-frosted cake covered in rainbow sprinkles.
For the occasion, Sunshine’s father had set out a blue tarp and covered it in soapy water so that if we ran and leaped onto it, we slid all the way across. He’d put out buckets of water and blue sponges that Sunshine and her cousins threw at each other.
It was a family birthday party, except for me. That could have been awkward, especially since I didn’t know Sunshine’s cousins, and Alexandra in particular was intimidating, with her purple eyeliner and feathery bangs. But Desiree put her arm around me, and said, “This is Millie. Millie’s honorary family.” It’s hard to describe how special that made me feel. It made me want to cry.
My memory, as noted, is unreliable: it’s like a piece of linen that moths have gotten to, full of lacy holes. But just today, when I was sitting by myself at our dining room table (Noah at soccer practice, Harry who-the-fuck knows where), playing myself at Scrabble (Millie against Amelia, no one has called me “Millie” for at least fifteen years), that whole party unfurled in my mind. I was arranging the letters in Millie’s rack—HORROR, HONOR, HOAR—and then I realized I could use them all if I played on the Y. Once that clicked, the memory clicked as well, like a Scrabble tile locking into a slot. I saw the wet blue tarp, I heard the smack and slide of bodies, I felt Desiree’s warm arm around my shoulder.
I remembered how Sunshine said my present was the prettiest of the bunch—shiny rose-colored paper wrapped in a fancy white bow that reminded me of a sea anemone. The wrapping was pretty, I suppose, but the word that came to my mind was gaudy. My mother wrapped it. She picked out Sunshine’s gift, too. I had wanted to buy Sunshine a bracelet kit I’d seen at Target, but from across our dining room table, my mother had frowned. She said, “She’s your best friend. Let’s get her something special.”
My mother perked up then. She said we’d make a day of it. She’d take me to lunch at that restaurant that does the tea service with the platters of little sandwiches with their crusts cut off and mini quiches and pastries, where your tea is served with a bowl full of sparkling sugar cubes. She said, “Doesn’t that sound fun?” My father smiled. He gave me a pointed glance. I thought of poor little Boswell when my mother tried to trick him to get inside his dog carrier to go to the vet. She’d place a dog biscuit all the way in the back. Boswell knew it was a trick. He’d look at the treat, then look at my mother and whimper.
That’s how I ended up giving Sunshine a Precious Moments figurine of two girls holding hands. The base on which the girls stood read, “Two Friends, One Heart.”
When Sunshine lifted the figurine from the box, her cousin Alexandra smirked. One of Sunshine’s aunts said, “That’s just darling.” It was probably a hundred degrees outside, but I was mostly sweating from embarrassment.
Sunshine was sweet about it. She thanked me and gave me a hug. Maybe she really did like the figurine, but that wasn’t the point.
The point was I had been too worried about my mother’s feelings to insist on picking out my best friend’s birthday gift. Standing there in my dripping swimsuit in Sunshine’s yard, I hated my mother.
That evening, when my mother asked what Sunshine thought of her gift, I said, “She liked it.” I even smiled at my mother. But I wasn’t really seeing my mother at all. I was imagining Desiree across the table from me—Desiree, my honorary mother. I was thinking how she loved me like I was her own daughter; how she loved me in a way my own mother was incapable of.
The following March, right before I turned twelve, though, that illusion was shattered when Sunshine and Desiree moved to Montana. As they got into their packed station wagon, my and Sunshine’s faces wet with tears, Desiree spoke only of my and Sunshine’s friendship: “You’ll write each other letters. You’ll talk on the phone. Distance will make your friendship all the more special, you’ll see.”
And it comes to me today, this strange, sad, lonely Mother’s Day—a holiday that my husband and son didn’t even remember this morning, because let’s face it, it’s stupid, created by Hallmark to sell cards; a holiday my own mother always disdained, though ironically, this is the first anniversary of her death—that here’s another meaning for “honorary”: a family member that only contingently belongs.
Interview with Kim Magowan and Michelle Ross by Keith Lesmeister, editor at Cutleaf
“Deluxe Scrabble” is a story about a woman who, on Mother’s Day, plays a game of scrabble with/against herself. The gift—the Deluxe Scrabble, which she herself purchased—evokes a memory from when she was a child, and what unfolds is a complex rendering of meaningful, heartbreaking, and sometimes humorous moments when the narrator, as a child, started to learn about her relationship with her mother by observing her friend’s relationship with her own mother. All the while, the narrator offers observations/insights to her current role as a mother/wife.
Keith Lesmeister: This is a fantastic story, and while I’d love to talk about the story itself, what I’m most interested in discussing is your collaborative process. This is a brief story of roughly eleven Microsoft pages, which means both of you have to be writing with the same commitment to brevity while also committed to developing these very complex characters. This is difficult enough while negotiating with oneself (as a writer), but I’m not sure if I can fathom doing this with another person. Perhaps you two could elaborate on your collaborative process.
Kim Magowan: Very occasionally, we will have a sense before we start a story of how long it will be—we have a story that was published in Colorado Review where Michelle said in advance, “Let’s try something longer.” But for the most part, we don’t discuss length or plot (or anything at all) about the story in progress. We just write. One of us will write a paragraph (or so) and then lob it to the other person, who adds on and then lobs it back. We decide when the draft is done (someone will say, “I think this is the ending?”), and then we revise until we’re satisfied. Regarding your observation about commitment to brevity, both of us independently write a number of very short stories—our most recent collections are both mostly flash fiction. Crisp, lean writing comes naturally to both of us. When in doubt, I cut.
Michelle Ross: It’s mysterious why collaboration works. It feels like sorcery. But it’s far from difficult. Honestly, writing a story with Kim is easier for me than writing a story solo. I can’t really explain it other than to say that I’m a scattered, distracted, and indecisive writer, so when I’m working on my own and hit a moment of indecision or uncertainty, I will often toss the story aside for a while (hours, days, weeks, months, years) and pull out one of the many other stories I’ve already tossed aside and see if I can make progress on it. Sometimes I’ll work on half a dozen stories in a single morning. When I write with Kim, I have the luxury of tossing the story to her when I don’t know what to do next, instead of to my massive in-progress folder. And when it comes back from her, with a new paragraph or several added on to what I wrote previously, I’m inspired by what she’s added: there’s always something there for me to build on or, sometimes, push back against, but in a way that moves the story forward.
KL: When talking the other day at AWP, I marveled at the idea, mentioned by Kim, I think, that the two of you have your own distinct writerly voices, but when you come together to collaborate your own voice moves out of the way and what emerges is this harmony of voices that the two of you share, thus creating an entirely new narrative voice. How long did it take for you to achieve this kind of harmonization that has allowed for yet another distinct voice to emerge separate from your own?
KM: Keith, this is a really uncanny thing about these collaborations! I find it fascinating and bizarre. And that “third voice” doesn’t just apply to our first person stories (first person of course is always in a character voice, not quite the author’s own): it also applies to our third person stories. I really don’t know how to explain it, other than to compare writing with Michelle to Improvisation. Collaboration requires that “yes and” flexibility and fluidity one adopts in Improv when one’s partner is suddenly turning into a tree or has sandwiches for hands. When Michelle sends me a paragraph, I “hear” the story voice and ventriloquize it.
MR: I think the other piece of this is that we’ve been each other’s first readers pretty much since we met, which was in late 2014. At the time, I think we’d each published about seven stories. Now, over seven years later, I think we’ve each published over 130 or so pieces individually, as well as about 30 stories we wrote together. In so many ways, our writing has evolved in tandem. While we have different styles and obsessions, for sure, we also know each other’s styles and obsessions intimately. I think that makes it easy to lean in toward each other, to ventriloquize as Kim put it.
KL: For this eleven-page story, how long—start-finish—did it take you to complete?
KM: I just looked up the email thread, volleying the story back and forth. I started this one on May 26, 2021. We had it mostly drafted by May 31. And then for some reason we shelved it for two months (Michelle might remember why?), and then picked it back up July 31, when Michelle added a penultimate paragraph, we revised it, and slapped on a title. So the two unusual things about this story’s composition are that long delay where we didn’t look at it for two months, and also that when we were first putting it together (and writing nearly all of it), we were simultaneously working on another collaboration, a story called “Sun Spots.” Usually we only have one story cooking at a time.
MR: I remember feeling a little uncertain about this story, particularly the ending, wondering if it needed a bit more. I wanted some distance on it. But also, it’s my natural inclination to put stories aside even when I think they’re possibly done. It’s rare that I’m confident enough about something to send it out immediately.
KL: How might you settle disputes over critical aspects such as language or structure?
KM: I honestly can’t recall ever having such a dispute! Well, I’m more impatient and lazy than Michelle. I will sometimes agitate for a story being done when she thinks (rightly) that it needs another scene. We both edit, and I feel as free to cut a Michelle sentence as one of mine. Sometimes one of us will say “I think we should put that sentence back in,” but it’s not in a proprietary way—that is, I’m as likely to want to reinsert a Michelle sentence as a Kim sentence. Though as I write this, I realize that dichotomy doesn’t apply. I don’t look at our stories and mentally break them into Michelle paragraphs and Kim paragraphs. It’s just our story, a fluid, entangled thing.
MR: What Kim said. Again, I think this works as well as it does because we know each other’s writing so well, because we’re so practiced and comfortable giving each other feedback, because we admire each other’s writing, and because we trust each other
KL: What advice might you share for writers interested in collaborating with another writer?
KM: Pick a writer whose judgement you trust and whose writing you love! Pick a writer who has skills you can lean on. It’s like finding a great doubles partner. Ideally, pick your first reader, someone who already knows your work and your voice cold.
MR: Ditto again. Also, you have to be willing to let go of some of the control over where a story goes. That means that you have to also be selective about what you collaborate on. I’m not going to send Kim the first few paragraphs I write of a story I already have preconceived ideas about, in which I already have some sense of what story I want to tell.
KL: Are there other collaborative written projects that you might recommend?
KM: I love a collaboration flash story co-authored by Meghan Phillips and Amy Rossi called “A Girl’s Guide to Being Rhonda.” It appeared in Gravel Magazine and was selected for Wigleaf’s Top 50. Dana Diehl and Melissa Goodrich have a great collaboration collection called The Classroom, published by Gold Wake Press.
MR: I second these! Dana Diehl and Melissa Goodrich are the original inspiration for why I wanted to try writing collaboratively with Kim. I love their collaborations so much. Here’s one of my favorites: theadroitjournal.org/issue-twenty-one-dana-diehl-melissa-goodrich-the-adroit-journal.