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The Mysterious Grilled Cheese Left in the Night

2009 story submission by Amber Hatt

Carol Johnson eyes the clock and closes the link to KGW.com. Today’s high is a predicted 82 degrees; perfect sleeping weather.

At two minutes past seven, Sue enters the vast maze of cubicles. Carol squints her eyes against Sue’s perky morning energy.

“Morning Carol,” Sue sing-songs setting her BIG GULP diet Pepsi down on their shared desk, “anything good happen?” she teases.

Carol works the graveyard shift at the Multnomah County Mental Health Crisis Line. The day shifters never get the good calls. They mostly get people asking for referrals and phone numbers. The overdosing, bridge jumping, knife wielding calls happen during the grave yard shift.

“Pretty quiet night” Carol responds standing to give her seat over to Sue. Carol grabs her lunch bag from the break room and smiles a goodbye to Sue who is now questioning Mark about the night’s calls. Carol Johnson is not one to stand around after work gossiping and all her co-workers seem to do is gossip. Carol believes half the crew took the job just to bear first hand witness to other people’s misery. Carol wants nothing to do with any of them.

She walks two blocks west towards the bus mall, gives a half smile to the lady bus driver and shows her county bus pass. Carol chooses a seat in the middle of the nearly empty bus. She opens her purse and pulls out a worn copy of the Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary, 4th edition. She opens it to the letter K and studies the first page: Ka, Kaas, Kab, Kabab. Her mind quickly wanders, a habit she’s cultivated since grade school.

Her mind takes her to the red carpeted conference room at The Red Lion Inn. She scrutinizes the seven letters on her rack, noting the heat of the camera’s harsh light. After hundreds of players and four days of competition it’s down to Carol and the award winning five time world scrabble champion, Joel Edly. All eyes are on her, Carol Johnson the 46-year-old life time scrabble player, first time competitor in a major tournament. The score is 426 to 340. There are no letters left in the bag. Steadying her hand Carol picks up four letters from her rack and with purpose snaps down the V, I, C and T to spell Victor. Smirking she returns to her rack and picks up the remaining three letters I, O and U and connects them from Victor to a dangling S to spell VICTORIOUS for the win.

Carol is grabbed and twisted towards the camera by the firm hand of KGW News Channel 8’s Matt Zaffino as his booming voice announces her the winner. Just as he moves to give Carol a congratulatory peck on the cheek she turns her head so that his moist lips awkwardly meet her rather chapped lips and they kiss for half (or was it a whole) second. At any rate, Carol recognizes the moment and knows in her heart Matt Zaffino does too.

The bus exhales a long sigh and opens it’s door to Carol’s stop in front of Ed’s House of Gems. She hurriedly drops the dictionary in her purse, pats down her hair and smiles her thanks to the driver for remembering her stop. Carol inhales the cool morning air of summer and welcomes the arousing feeling that something is about to happen.

Once home, Carol changes out of her work clothes into her poly blend silk nightgown. Slipping her calloused feet into her fuzzy slippers she pads into the kitchen for breakfast. She evenly covers two toaster strudels with smooth peanut butter and pours herself a short glass of whole milk, adding Strawberry Quick.

Carol’s house is a modest ranch style home located on 77th Avenue just south of Sandy Boulevard. The home had been foreclosed on in the late 90’s and Carol purchased it from the bank with money she withdrew from her PERS retirement account. Inside the house is as clean and tidy as if it were for sale and prepared for unannounced visits by potential buyers. The home looks staged, pillows are placed not tossed in the corners of the couch and framed prints are spaced just so on the beige walls.

Even the study barely gives clues of Carol’s life. Her desk displays a second hand PC given to Carol by a co-worker. Next to the PC are stacks of word lists. Q words without U’s, all 103 two letter words and page after page of seven letter words ending in “ING”. There are several copies of word builder books and various Scrabble related word books. Oddly enough there was not one Scrabble board game to be found anywhere.

Now in her bedroom, Carol props herself against the maroon bolsters in her bed and picks up the remote. Turning on Tivo, she scrolls through the recordings and plays last night’s KGW ten o’clock news broadcast. She fast forwards to the weather report, watches it, rewinds it and plays it again. She pauses right as Matt Zaffino begins to laugh. She just loves his laugh, the way he tilts his head, his boyish smile, how his eyes light up. She hits play and laughs with him. Together Matt and Carol laugh as if they don’t have a care in the world.

This is Carol’s morning routine. She watches the recordings of the ten and eleven o’clock KGW broadcasts waiting, and hoping for Matt Zaffino’s infectious laugh.

Afterwards she sleeps and wakes to watch Matt Zaffino live at five, five-thirty and again at six. In between news casts and especially on her days off Carol plays Scrabble. She doesn’t just play Scrabble, she excels at it, master’s it. She can play an entire game in five minutes and score 400 points. Carol plays all her Scrabble on-line. Although not a professional, Carol does have the overall ranking of one. But she has never bothered playing in any real tournaments; hasn’t even made it to the Rose and Raindrop for the club games on Monday nights. She imagines those people to be too serious, too uptight, too high and mighty to play against her. She knows she could beat them but doubts she could stand them.

Carol did recently subscribe to the National Scrabble Associations Newsletter. In fact, it was on the occasion of her very first news letter that Carol learned of the up coming Labor Day Tournament to be held in Portland, Oregon. It was not so much the thrill of competition that had Carol tossing her pillow in the air and doing a little dance for joy. No, it was the unbelievable fact that the Labor Day Tournament was to be hosted by KGW’s Matt Zaffino.

Carol believes in luck, fate, and destiny.  She believes in  God and all his miracles and she believes God has answered her prayers. Since  February 2001, when Matt Zaffino did the live broadcast from the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City Utah, Carol has been in love. Sure, he had been her weatherman for years prior but it was during the Olympic games she first saw his spark. That excited smile, the way he lifted on his heels to exclaim a point, the enthusiasm he brought to the games, Matt Zaffino brought joy to Carol’s life.

“It’s not every day that God gives such a blatant sign that he is working a miracle for you” Carol thought with full intentions of carrying through with God’s plan. Believing in every inch of her being that winning the tournament would win the heart of Matt Zaffino, Carol studied for weeks.

On the morning of the tournament, Carol pays extra attention to grooming, lingering in the bathtub, lathering her smooth legs in cocoa butter. She starches her blouse and chooses the shorter of her skirts. She only owns sensible shoes but guesses Matt will appreciate that little fact about her. Her hair is impossibly straight and mousy brown but Carol does not have time to worry about that now.

She arrives at the Hotel on foot from the near by Max stop. She is early but already the room is buzzing with people. The room is smaller than she imagined and filled with more people than she had hoped. She begins to perspire and takes a seat next to the wall and begins studying her word lists. The room continues to fill with people. They all seem to know one another and to think something is particularly funny. Carol looks up to see a fat man snickering in her direction. She forces herself to scan the room and sure enough the people are whispering about her and laughing. She can even make out some of what they are saying. Words like silly, frumpy, and backwards are being used to describe Carol. She seethes at the cruelty as she stands to exit the room. She feels a strange sensation of being outside of herself. She sees her arms shaking wildly at her sides and feels as if she is going to puke. The crowd’s laughter intensifies as she makes her exit.

Once home Carol feels defeated and absolutely exhausted by the day’s events. She slips into her bed not bothering to change out of her clothes. She picks up the remote and scans the recordings stopping at the 2001 Live Newscast of Matt Zaffino at the Winter Olympics. She closes her eyes, imaging Matt coming home from work- to their home. She has made his favorite meal,  pork chops. Matt is in one of his perpetually good moods and invites her to go skiing with him the next morning. He knows Carol does not ski but is good natured about it and always encouraging.
In bed, Carol wraps herself around a large body pillow kissing it where she imagines Matt’s head to be. She sleeps and does not wake until well past dusk.

Carol wakes to a feeling of urgency. She must meet Matt Zaffino. Today was the day and it will remain the day. She did not need a God given plan. She would simply go to his house, ring his door bell and meet him. Carol had known Matt’s address for years. She happened upon him one day with his poodle at Mt Tabor’s dog park. She followed him home from there. She meant no harm, no ill intentions. She was simply mesmerized and kept walking behind him until he arrived at his home. She had no thoughts of disturbing him or invading his privacy. In fact, she had not gone by his house once since that day.

Tonight she is going to his house. She will not give it a second thought. “Eight years, this has gone on long enough” Carol thinks as she walks south towards Mt. Tabor. Carol feels radiant and giddy. “I am walking towards my destiny, our destiny” she giggles to herself.

Finally, she arrives at his house-a beautifully updated 1920’s Colonial on a lovely low traffic street two blocks from Mt. Tabor Park and only a short walk to Hawthorne shops and restaurants.

“I will not let doubt get in my way” Carol repeats to herself as she marches up and knocks on his door. She waits. She rings the doorbell and feels a rush of blood pulsate through her body. There is no answer. She rings the doorbell again and knocks with more force than necessary. “Where could he be?” wonders Carol. The tournament was scheduled to end over two hours ago.

Having started a chain of events that could not be undone Carol refuses to leave. She stands and walks to the side gate and pushes it open. Tensing the muscles in her legs and arms she walks through the back yard. She sighs repeatedly and feels silly for having worked herself up like this. Once they are together this will be a moment Matt will tease her about. Then he will confide in her how he was desperately lonely and depressed. He will credit her for saving his life.

Carol knows all about desperation and loneliness. Those are the calls she receives at work in the middle of the night.
Then a terrible realization comes over Carol. Matt has overdosed and he is alone in his house and has no one to save him. Right now he is slumped on his bathroom floor having ingested an entire bottle of Xanax. This is why she was led here not just to meet Matt Zaffino but to save his life.

Carol clenches her teeth and feels as if something has lodged in her throat. She turns the handle to the french doors but finds them locked. She scans the manicured lawn looking for a rock or a tool. Her eyes stop on a sledgehammer leaning against the wooden shed. Feeling an unusual heaviness in her limbs, Carol grabs the sledgehammer and lets out a wild and painful cry as she swings it towards the door.

Once inside, Carol feels as if she is under water or in a dream. She searches the house in what feels like slow motion. Matt was no where to be found. She stops at the mantle in the expansive living room and gathers her breath. She picks up a heavy silver picture frame and studies the picture. It is a photo of a younger Matt with a full head of kinky black hair. He is wearing a white tuxedo and embracing a woman wearing a wedding gown. The year 1993 is engraved at the base of the frame.

Carol looks at the other pictures lining the mantle. One is of a boy who has Matt’s smile. The other is a beautiful young girl playing piano. There is a smaller picture of the four of them at the beach. Carol recognized the poodle in the picture.

Carol walks back towards the kitchen. It’s a gorgeous eat-in kitchen with stainless appliances, tile and an island. Carol stands with her hands on her hips surveying the kitchen. “This is my kitchen” she says out loud and goes to the sink to wash her hands. She marvels at the heaviness of the refrigerator door as she opens it. She peeks inside. Matt had forgotten to defrost the pork chops. Carol shakes her head at the thought of him and smiles. She opens the crisper and grabs for the block of cheese. Before shutting the door she thinks to grab some cream. She opens all the cabinets until she finds the pantry. “Ah there you are” she says to a can of tomato soup and sets it on the counter. Carol rummages for the pots and pans and finds a spatula in the dish washer. She feels her mood lift and brighten. She begins to hum a little tune. In between flipping the grilled cheese she dumps the can of tomato soup into a pot. To it, she adds half a can of water and half a can of cream. Satisfied with herself she turns the burners on low and heads back to the living room. She pauses and considers the pictures. “Oh my!”, she exclaims as she finds the perfect one, “aren’t you a handsome devil”. She picks up a framed picture of Matt on top of Mt. Hood in his ski patrol uniform. She carries the picture into the kitchen and sets it at the table. She grabs the vase of flowers from the island and puts them on the table next to the picture. Next, she finds two plates and two bowls from the cabinet above the dishwasher. The dishes are fiesta ware and Carol matches the red plate with an orange bowl and the green plate with a blue bowl. She admires the way the colorful plates enhance the look of the simple meal.

With the plates in her hands she pivots to face the picture of Matt on the table. “Here you go my sweet boy” Carol teases him. “A bowl of tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich ought to warm your chilled bones”. She places the food in front of his picture, sits down in the chair next to him and smiles. “The flowers were very thoughtful” she says and reaches to feel the dahlia petals. “Tell me all about your day on the mountain” she says caressing the side of Matt’s face in the picture. Carol stares into Matt’s smile as she listens to him talk about his day.

Just as Carol picks up her grilled cheese sandwich to take a bite she sees the headlight from Matt’s SUV shine through the front window. “Oh, I guess you’re home” she says to Matt matter-of- fact. She stands and wipes the corner of her mouth with her napkin. She pushes in her chair and pauses to take in the room. She grabs the flowers from the vase and gently lays them at the base of Matt’s picture as if laying flowers on a grave.

She walks towards the french doors,  turns to blows Matt a kiss good-bye, steps over the broken glass and exits into the night.

© 2009 Amber Hatt

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9 Responses

  1. woo-hoo!

  2. “This is my kitchen….” I love this story so much. Thanks for making me laugh and smile and crave a grilled cheese.

  3. Freaky. This could give Matt chills, but I was fascinated. And Thanks, Amber. I was going to make it tonight without a bedtime snack, but now I want a grilled cheese.

  4. I loved it!

    What brand of cheese does Matt buy?

  5. Great story, Amber. Funny, sad, quirky, all at the same time. Very poignant. You rock!

  6. amber. i remember calling you at work and having you answer the phone “multnomah county crisis hotline”. i never call anyone at work, but you, i couldn’t resist. i love your story.

  7. very disturbed character. very well developed character in such short format. Incredibly well executed. I found it easy to read. Two thumbs up and a devil horn

  8. i loved your story. i loved the character development, and the gradual building of suspense. you are a fine writer, my friend.

  9. loved the character…sad and pathetic but so real! this story could go so many directions 😉 kudos!

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