Michael Burke

The Young Man Trying to Find His Way

The young man trying to find his way pulled into an empty parking lot save for a small white trailer. He parked in the corner beside a bare birch tree. The rearview mirror reflected the cedar logged walls of Bear’s Diner and a neat row of windows. At five to 3, he got out, tucked in his shirt, and walked towards the trailer. Thirty minutes later, he came out with a bundle of clothes under his arm. They gave him the job.

He was taken back by the offer. He had no experience, didn’t even really expect to be hired. Part of him wished they had offered him to be a dishwasher because he had done that before and had liked it, but they desperately needed servers for the grand opening. They assured him he would be great and told him told to come back tomorrow for orientation. Later at home, the young man laid the shirt and suspenders on his bed for inspection. The shirt was simple, a white cotton polo with a black bear print embroidered on the right chest. The suspenders were complicated, a black jumble of elastics, spotted with white bear claws. He tried them on and looked into the mirror. What he saw was a tragic comedy.

In the morning, he made sure the house was clear before he left his room and hurried to his car. The young man trying to find his way parked in the same corner next to the birch tree when he arrived at Bear’s. For a moment he hesitated, almost turned the car on again. Then, with a deep breath, he reminded himself everyone else would be wearing the same outfit. He opened the car door, stood up, and looked around. His reflection in the door made his ears feel warm. His shirt had become untucked on his hip and as he fixed it the suspenders unclipped where the shirt was untucked. He cussed, put himself together, and walked to the entrance.

He was greeted in the lobby by one of the men who had interviewed him. The man smiled a welcoming smile and pointed to the adjacent dining room filled with rows of cushioned chairs. The young man felt eyes watching him as he made his way to the back row. He sat down and subtly checked his fly. The newly hired servers seated in front of him looked comfortable, some even talked to each other. Each wore the white shirts, black pants, and suspenders stamped with white bear claws. They talked as if they didn’t notice how dreadful they looked. The young man slouched and hoped nobody would sit next to him. He glanced out the window at his car parked beside the birch, watching the lot fill. When everyone was there, the man who conducted the interview began speaking. He gave a proud speech about Bear’s future success, introduced some of the higher-ups, and set the ground rules. The suspenders were mandatory, he said, and told them not to worry how they looked, but he didn’t wear them. The hired servers were then broken into groups and taken for a tour of the diner. The young man’s ears got warm again.

His guide took the group into the dining area and rattled off a list of condiments and their inventories. Cups were to go on the left, utensils on the right. Something else about milk and honey was briefly passed over.  The young man tried to write something down, but the group started for the kitchen. They pushed through the doors and meandered through a maze of white jackets, finally arriving at a heap of industrial metal, thumping and misting at regular intervals. The young man put is fingers in the warm soapy water as he regarded the shine of the silver washing machine. As the group went ahead to test some carrot cake, the young man pulled the guide aside and asked if they needed more dishwashers. No, he said, they had enough. The young man knew it was a wishful proposition. When he filled out the application, he thought he wanted to be a server. Everybody had always told him that you could make a lot of money if you were good at it, but he hadn’t imagined feeling this uncomfortable. Now he knew for sure he would rather polish dishes than serve them. That was a step in the right direction for a young man trying to find his way.

The group barged out from the kitchen and on to the front entrance. Next to the host’s stand was a glass pastry case. It was empty and its glass shone clearly, not sullied yet by fingerprints. From where the young man stood, he could see his black dockers and the attached suspenders in the case’s reflection. The sight made his hands clammy, his ears pulsed warmly. The guide droned about how important it was to sell the diner’s signature pastry, bear claws. It was all impossible now, but when the guide was done, the young man tried one last plea. They didn’t need more hosts, either, the guide said. He could sense now that something was wrong in the young man. His uneasiness was transparent and the guide told him to just stay with it and everything will work out.

The young man stayed with it a moment longer, then pivoted towards the door. It was over now. As he pushed through, a familiar furrowed brow stared back at him. Nobody called out, but their eyes followed him as he strode through the lot. The suspenders came off in one swift motion. The smoothness of this performance humored him. He was finding his way. He looked up at the sad birch tree with its limbs naked and thin, the suspenders dangling from his hand. He grinned. They would make a nice ornament for the tree, he thought, then got into his car and drove away.

Michael Burke is a student of writing and literature. He lives happily in a small New England town.