I Found A Better Way
by Ashley Elizabeth Hewitt
Once again, I acknowledge the phonebook-sized software manual that sits on the coffee table. And once again, I try envisioning myself working in a cubicle for the rest of my life. Merely the thought causes me such panic I pen a polite resignation letter to my would-have-been boss, who must have me mistaken for someone else. Someone from a two-parent home with a predictable, Christ-centered upbringing–not someone whose life began in a shelter for runaway teens where her mother worked as a social worker and her father a history teacher, who attended more schools than she can count, and moved back and forth across the state during their divorce. Truly an honor to be selected, I decline the position with the state of Mississippi, load everything I own in my truck, and meet my mother for breakfast at Olde Tyme Deli before fleeing the scene.
Settling into our seats, my mother tells me how pretty I looked in my navy cap and gown, how self-assured when shaking the president’s hand as he presented me with my college diploma, and she remarks on how I’d managed to graduate with honors while holding down a full-time job. Before she can tell me how proud she is that I’d been chosen, I inform her I’m returning to my summer job in the mountains of East Tennessee. “I applied to be the cook,” I tell her.
“The what?” she asks. Dishes clank, the room overflows with conversations between North East Jackson’s high society, and the waitresses shout orders to the kitchen then resume bickering with one another. Even still, I’m sure my mother heard me. “But you’ve never cooked a day in your life,” she says and bites into her cheese danish.
A social worker for as long as I’ve been alive, my mother’s response perplexes me when I think back on how she stresses I can do whatever I put my mind to. It seems a meaningless thing to say, maybe even a mean thing to say. At the same time, I recognize this isn’t like my past departures. When the smoothness of her skin grips and the flesh between her eyebrows pinch, I prepare to answer a shit-ton of questions, as is my mother’s way, but she stares into her cup of black coffee and accepts the possibility of letting me go for good.
My mother’s words echo through my mind across Mississippi and into Alabama, then from Georgia into Tennessee, but when Chilhowee Mountain comes into view, it edges out her voice. I wind down Welcome Valley Road and park in front of the timber frame cookhouse, where a blonde woman from France greets me. She’s been the cook for nearly a decade but after three twelve-hour days of baking lessons, studying vegetarian recipes, and familiarizing me with foodservice logistics, she leaves me to feed the seventy-five raft guides all on my own and returns with her husband to renovate his family’s farmhouse in Maine. “You’re a natural,” she tells me before the screen door slaps shut behind her.
How can this be? Never did my mother and I cook together, and for a moment, I blame her for not teaching me to cook as other mothers do. Then, I recall how my grandmother was gravely ill leading up to her death and how she died when my mother was in her late teens. Like me, cooking came naturally to my mother’s mother—the grandmother I never knew. Unless baking, she never followed a recipe. She added a little dash of this or just a pinch of that with a God-given understanding of food chemistry, my mother once said. And I forgive her for not teaching me to cook. She’s never learned how.
On my days off, I visit the Amish farms for honey, butter, milk, and eggs, I hike up GoForth Creek, and I venture into North Carolina and West Virginia without giving any thought to what I’ll do once fall settles in and rafting season is over. What I do know is I’ll miss how it feels when Chilhowee Mountain’s shadow moves across my body as the sun rises then falls from the sky, and how it seems to know my whereabouts at all times.
In my rearview mirror, Chilhowee Mountain is topped with the season’s first snow, and it becomes gradually more distant but not out of sight from the gas station where I fill up my tank and lean against my truck for a look around. From the speakers, Chet Atkins sings faintly to transform Cleveland, Tennessee, into a scenic American small town. Tin-roofed bungalows line the street, all with broad porches and yards of plentiful trees. The air smells sweet from the nearby pie factory, and at the top of the hill is the library. A thrift shop is open on the opposite corner, and the grocery store is next door—plenty for a modest survival. Instead of heading home on I-75, I drive around until spotting a for rent sign. I walk onto the porch just for fun, I think, but an hour later, I sign a lease. The hour after that, I purchase an antique white iron bed and mattresses. The hour after that, I grocery shop. The hour after that, I hunt down a job.
I drive to the only restaurant in town that I know serves beer. A family-owned restaurant and sports bar, Jenkins Deli’s top-secret chicken salad recipe had become regionally famous, but it’s their Friday night all-you-can-eat catfish dinner Cleveland, Tennessee, turns into a weekly social gathering. Hoping they need a waitress, I prepare myself to take any job and stand inside the doorway. An upside-down decorated Christmas tree hangs from the ceiling, and two friends sit at the bar waiting for noon to arrive so they can order a beer. Framed memorabilia covers the walls as it would at a Ruby Tuesday, only these images are real. Members of the Jenkins Family pose on their travels abroad and in candid moments with life-long patrons or any Republican politician or celebrity passing through town to raft the Ocoee River. When I see Dolly Parton, I ask the unfriendly manager standing at the register counting money for a job application.
She sends a bored waitress to find Brenda, the kitchen manager. A round-faced, thirty-something-year-old woman with dark, deep-set eyes and a square jaw, her hair smells of perm solution. “We aren’t hiring any waitresses,” she informs me, “but I do have a spot in the kitchen.” She hands me an application and a pen, and we sit down at the nearest booth, but before I can complete it, Brenda asks when I can start. “Be here at 4:30 on Friday and ask for Thomas,” she tells me.
I park in my driveway on Ocoee Street—a change so new, it is only known by me. And knowing not a single person knows, besides the retired Army Colonel who rented me the bungalow, is a sacred form of freedom. I wonder how long I can carry on before telling anyone else, and I light a sage smudge stick a raft guide from Colorado gave me. I scrub the tub, unpack my stereo, guitar, knives, and boxes of pots and pans. Then, I chop celery, onion, garlic, bell pepper, jalapeño, and parsley, then add it to the chicken and sausage browning in the cast iron Dutch oven my mother gave me. After everything sautés together, I measure out the broth and bring everything to a boil together before adding bay leaves and rice. As my pot of jambalaya simmers, I sit on my front porch and watch the cars pass down Ocoee Street with my bare feet propped on the banister, warming in the sun. The leaves of the yellow poplars flutter in the autumn breeze, and Chilhowee Mountain towers in the distance. Hopeful clouds pass across its snowy peak.
It’s four-thirty on Friday, and Thomas hurries by and tosses me an apron. “This is Ashley, everyone. Ashley, this is everyone,” he says. He flips on the fryers and stocks the prep lines while the others stand aside, awaiting something I can only sense. “Okay, boys, time for our dress rehearsal,” Thomas says, and they follow him out the back door. I look around the kitchen for something to chop, clean, or pretend to be doing when the door squeaks back open. Thomas peeks his balding head through. “Aren’t you coming?” he asks, and I slip through the cracked door into the parking lot.
They huddle by the dumpster passing around a Mason jar and motion me over. Thomas gives it to the next guy, and they all take a turn introducing themselves. The next guy takes a swig and introduces himself as David Hodges, but they all call him Hodgey. He still wears his navy Maytag day-job shirt and looks like he hadn’t slept in weeks but could instantly whip anybody’s ass if he felt so compelled. The next guy wears a Philadelphia Flyers jersey and introduces himself as Mark Stanboli at the top of his lungs, and the next guy introduces himself as Adam—“just Adam.” The last guy to introduce himself is John Gasparian, who takes my hand, bows his head, and kisses it.
“Glad to know you, Miss. Ashley,” he says and passes the Mason jar to me. “Care for a sip of Hodgey’s moonshine?”
“I believe I do, John Gasparian.”
“It’s Gaspo!” Stanboli insists, stomping his foot. “Nobody calls him John.”
I take a sip and pass it back to Thomas, who starts the process again, but this time he assigns our functions for the night. “Hodgey, you’re on the grill. Stanboli, you’re on the first line. Gaspo, you’re on the second line. I’m on the fryer, which only leaves dish-dog,” he says, which I assume to mean I’m the dishwasher.
“Goddammit. I ain’t doing dishes again,” Adam demands. “I was dish-dog last Friday night!” he reminds Thomas and lights a cigarette.
“Well, it’s either you or her,” Thomas argues, pointing in Adam’s face, then Thomas darts across the parking lot toward the kitchen back door. He leaves it up to Adam to decide whether he’ll give me extra consideration on my first night, but Adam doesn’t know me well enough to comfortably determine whether to treat me as he would anyone else or make it easier on me. An inner conflict seems to arise in Adam as if part of him hears his mother telling him to act like a gentleman, as bad as he hates being on dishes, but the other part of Adam, when he studies me more closely, considers I might be the type of woman to get offended if viewed as a charity case. Gaspo steps in on my behalf, telling Thomas he’ll take my turn since it’s all-you-can-eat catfish night, but Gaspo’s skills are needed in other high stakes areas, Thomas insists.
“I’ll be dish-dog, Adam,” I tell the guys, relieved to have a job at all.
Before assuming our respectful positions, Gaspo locates the radio. He stretches out its antenna, plugs it in, and winks. “Ahhhhh. This works,” he says. “You won’t last in here without music.” To Credence Clearwater Revival, I slide back and forth on the slick dish room floor to the beat while waitresses fling ketchup-smeared plates until they stack overhead. Every chance he gets, Hodgey refills my Dr. Pepper spiked with moonshine while Thomas hurries through on make-believe errands to make sure I haven’t walked out.
Weeks later, the guys invite me to their Saturday night card game at Gaspo’s house, and it dawns on me Thomas’s plan to run me off has only evolved into our bond. He shows up with hot dogs and baked beans, Stanboli rolls a joint, Hodgey brings more moonshine, Gaspo opens an envelope of hash a friend had mailed him from overseas, I’d picked up a six-pack, and Adam comes empty-handed. We all light cigarettes and sit around Gaspo’s kitchen table.
Gaspos’s cigarette dangles from his lips, and he squints to shuffle the cards. I can smell the extra strong coffee with five creamers and four sugars that flares up his diabetes—a threat that at any moment will claim him. His hair had grown down his back since retiring from the Navy decades before and stationed in the Philippines—a place where he claims the women are crazy. After having sex with his girlfriend one night, he tells us she went into the backyard and dug up a fermented egg she’d buried weeks before then ate it. After she fell asleep, Gaspo vanished into the night but had no trouble finding another lady-friend without such nauseating rituals around secretly wanting to conceive. Never have I seen Gaspo in anything but a t-shirt, jeans, and leather sandals, and he strolls everywhere he goes since making peace with a past that includes a stint in federal prison. That’s where he became born again, and now, the only thing that arouses Gaspo’s sense of urgency is talk of the rapture.
We all anti up our ten bucks as Gaspo slides the deck to his left for Thomas to cut, then deals our first hand from the right. My hand is good, but it’s safe to assume Gaspo’s is better. Stanboli smacks his cards down and walks into the kitchen to mix a drink, but Thomas holds his cards tightly to his chest and scoots his chair closer. Adam curses under his breath but refuses to fold, and Hodgey is expressionless. Under no circumstances does Hodgey give away with his eyes what passes through his mind. We all anticipate Gaspo’s next move, but instead of laying his cards down, he asks me if I’ve been baptized. None of us quite know what to make of his question, and the guys all study each other’s expressions to gauge whether or not Gaspo is serious. They’ve all been had by Gaspo before.
“You must have a hand of biblical proportion, Gaspo,” Thomas jokes.
“Of course, she’s been baptized!” Stanboli shouts, reappearing at the table. “Everybody’s been baptized. Back in Philly, you have no choice. I think they do it before you leave the hospital. It’s the law!”
“It’s not the law, you dumb ass.” Thomas insists. “But maybe it oughtta be.”
“Naw.” Adam shakes his head. “THAT’S what should be against the law. It’s illegal or unconstitutional. Un-American! Or whatever the Hell,” Adam says. Again, he resists folding and taps his foot. “That shouldn’t be up to nobody else but me,” he says mostly to himself, then reveals he hasn’t been baptized.
“I’ve never been baptized either,” I say, somewhat embarrassed my parents never once brought it up. Back home, baptisms are a weekend-long celebration of tulips and daffodils and hydrangea attended by family members and neighbors bringing casseroles and desserts made from recipes passed down for generations and who line up for a peek at the sleeping baby cradled in a lace-trimmed gown.
“I figure it’s much too late,” I say, studying my three queens and hoping for another.
“It’s never too late,” Gaspo says, setting me straight. “Unless you wait ’til the very last minute,” he adds, laying down his straight flush and collecting his pot. “Y’all meet me at church in the morning,” he says, sliding the deck to his right for Adam to deal.
I wear the only dress I have, a red paisley velvet frock I had worn to my high-school homecoming. I pick up Adam, and we arrive at The Full Bible Gospel Church of Cleveland, Tennessee, where Gaspo waits for us by the front door. He introduces us to Pastor Michael, a Paul Bunyan-sized man in a white, gathered robe whose voice is deep and familiar like a distant relative’s. When the organ chimes, Pastor Michael disappears into the crowd, then suddenly reappears at the pulpit as Gaspo leads us through the sanctuary to our pew. The carpet is Byzantine blue, and running along the entire back wall behind the pulpit are curtains in the same color. The ceilings are abnormally low, the lights dimmed, and in each stained glass window is a depiction of Jesus with a votive candle on the ledge. In the panel closest to me, Mary weeps in agony at her son’s feet, and a dove hovers above his bloodied, drooping head.
Pastor Michael delivers his sermon on Jesus’s baptism by John in the Jordan River and goes as far as to explain why Jesus needed to be baptized in the first place, in light of the fact he had never sinned. He shares how Jesus hung out with people that no religious leader in his right mind would be caught dead with–tax-collectors, married women, prostitutes, drunks, the diseased, the deformed, and the lost and forgotten. “Upon hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’”
The organ chimes again, and when the curtains part, Adam’s manners suddenly kick in. Never have our genders dominated our treatment of one another, but “ladies first,” he insists. Just short of drawing attention to ourselves, he takes my next shift as dish-dog and steps aside for me to pass. I ascend the pulpit as Pastor Micheal leads everyone in “I Found A Better Way,” and he continues singing as he approaches me, then he rests his heavy hands on my shoulders. I turn toward the congregation and see Gaspo swaying along with his arms outstretched, but Adam, Thomas, Hodgey, and Sanboli stare down at their hymnals. From Gaspo’s lips flow words of an ancient language that seem unknown even unto him. His eyelids flutter, and when they fully open, I only see the whites of his eyes.
The organ repeats the chorus as Pastor Michael leads me down the steps into the baptism pool. He pinches my nose, and with his other hand, he cradles me back until my feet float and my red dress billows around me. I close my eyes. “You are baptized in the name of the Father,
His Son, and the Holy Ghost. May you be released from your earthly burdens.”
Being released from my earthly burdens brings me such comfort, I float until Pastor Michael nudges me, signaling me to open my eyes. I exit the baptism pool, looking for Adam, who searches for the closest exit but realizes it’s far too late. And as he did for me, I sit in the ladies’ lounge where I dry off and listen through the loudspeaker to his baptismal blessing and the closing of Pastor Michael’s sermon on underestimating the power of caring for just one person, just one sinner—the outcasts of society. “Have a radical love for one another and a fellowship so deep, so real, and so rich that other people are drawn toward you. People want fellowship and to be part of a group that is willing to love them back. Offer this to each other at the expense of your reputation. How will you dine with sinners this week?
Let us pray,” he concludes, and I lower my head.
In His spirit, everyone from Jenkins Deli gathers at Gaspo’s house. Hodgey checks the temperature on his smoked pork chops, and Gaspo douses his pot of freshly-picked turnip greens with hot sauce. I whip my potatoes and simmer the brown gravy. Brenda takes her baked macaroni and cheese from the oven, and Kat stirs her field peas and pops open her canned tomatoes as Tabitha butters her biscuits. Stanboli puts the finishing touches on his coconut cream cake, and Thomas ladles his Southern Comfort spiced punch while Adam rifles through Gaspo’s records.
At day’s end, Gaspo walks me to my truck and gives me a white leather Bible with a card I wait to read from my bed on Ocoee Street. The afterlife would have been Hell without you, Miss. Ashley. Your now eternal friend, Gaspo.
I switch off my lamp, waiting for my mother’s voice, listening and seeking myself to sleep in the shadows of Chilhowee Mountain.
Born in Jackson, Mississippi, Ashley Elizabeth Hewitt has lived in New Orleans for 20 years and recently received her MFA in Creative Writing from the Mississippi University for Women, where she served as editor/cover designer for Ponder Review and assistant editor for Poetry South. Live music performance, walking through the woods and the photographic image are also passions of her heart and heavily influence the nature of her writing. “The Little Yellow House” (published in February of 2018 for Abstract Magazine and TV) is a flash fiction piece written from her mother’s point-of-view but was the impetus for a collection of essays now underway. “I Found A Better Way” is the closing piece of that collection and examines leaving Mississippi for the mountains of East Tennessee.