Grilled Cheese Comfort Zone

Someone else's sandwich can offer solace and cheer

Anyone who knows me well is surprised when they learn I spent the better part of a decade as a freelance writer. I worked from my light, airy, and profoundly disorganized home here in South Knoxville. By myself. That surprises even me; I am a person who needs people. In those days, Wade would leave for landscaping, his love and stock in trade, our children would be dropped at school, I'd walk a dog or feed a cat, and then, me. Just me, and a phone, and a sometimes taunting, sometimes alluring keyboard, waiting for me to tap out the words that would keep the air conditioning on and the mac 'n' cheese on the table.

Most days, I did just fine, kept organized, checked off that to-do list, though the sounds of people coming through the door were always welcome, sometimes desperately so. And some days, an upheaval in the extended family, or a particularly petty and damaging teacher chipping away at my pre-teen's school career, or even just a garden-variety argument about fixing the fence, would throw me into a tailspin. All by myself, I was prone to staring at the keyboard, with endless opportunity to mope, and consider, and reconsider, and to get angrier and angrier. But I had a weapon: I could ring my friends Kathy and Kelli at their school-office jobs on a wild-eyed, sad-sack morning, and they would let me tag along for lunch and do 80 percent of the talking and I could reach equilibrium once more.

One time we went to Frussie's Deli, the tiny linoleum-floor and four-square table oasis at a strip mall off Moody in South Knoxville. My friends were already known by name, had a standing order, the first time I went. I think that's why I tried the grilled cheese to begin with, at a deli. Those two were sharing a large sandwich, and I had somehow missed that we'd need to pay cash. My limited funds covered just the grilled cheese, and a drink. What a wonderful coincidence. The sandwich was crispy, and filling, with fresh-shaved American cheese on a home-baked marbled-wheat or rye bread. It came with a crunchy pickle, and this odd little garnish of a square of sweet bread, maybe poppy seed. I loved that grilled cheese, and, being me, never varied my order the next 10 or 12 times we came in, which were probably spread over two or three years.

I could surely have just made the same lunch for myself at home. It's a family joke, the time I offered the kids a grilled cheese that had no cheese, but I'm actually pretty good at it, both the real-butter, yellow-cheese, dense-white-bread kind, and my more modern-day offerings like seven-grain bread with horseradish-beet and Swiss cheese. I can't remember learning how. I think you're supposed to be born knowing, and the part that determines whether you melt the butter first or butter the bread is environment.

At Frussie's, I can't say I really thought about who was making the sandwich, or ever asked if they used butter, or how they found that fresh cheese. It doesn't matter now. I learned this week that Frussie's is no more, and was greatly saddened that the reason was that owner James Dicks, who surely created that simple marvel of a grilled cheese, is battling cancer.

I hadn't been there for a year or more when I heard news of a "for sale" sign on the door. I've got a bustling office to report to these days, can stroll down the block with Kathy and Kelli if we want lunch. My youngest daughter left for college in late August, and now I fret about making the coming-home noises by myself, with only Wade to hear. I don't need that lunch-time hour's solace any more, or the sandwiches. But I'm grateful they were there.

I wish I could pay forward to James Dicks, in thanks for being there with a sandwich, when that's what I needed.