"Another passing score," he said. He poked his head through the open door of the cafe. He was pretty sure that his friend at a side table couldn't hear him, so he waved. A moment later, he gave the thumb's up sign.
His friend and mentor motioned for him to come over.
As he crossed the floor, he took a deep breath. Taking the certification exam had tensed him. The smell of coffee attracted his attention. Other scents in the background felt even better. He felt ready to recover from the emotional crash of finishing the test.
He pulled up a chair. Flowery traces from steeping teapots wafted over his face. His friend's two companions nodded at him over their teacups. They were his friend's adopted daughter and daughter's schoolmate. His daughter had dressed in a white outfit with pink trim. Her school friend wore yellow with pink.
"Are you having a good breakfast?" he asked them.
"I take it you passed?" his friend said. That answered his question about being heard from the front door. He hadn't been. The two girls nodded in response to his goodwill inquiry about food and he smiled and nodded in return. He didn't really expect to talk with them.
"Of course." It had been a close score, this time. He sniffed. The cafe had baked sweet pastries and sourdough breads. The anticipation of food made his fingers tingle.
"Good for you." His friend dug into the pastry on his plate.
The older fellow had already raised a set of three children. His wife had passed away and he'd been forced to continue his parenting job alone for a while. The last of those children had left home. Instead of taking a break from caring for others, he'd remarried and started raising a second family.
It all seemed a bit hectic to the younger man. He liked talking with the old fellow, though. He knew his stuff.
"Now I have four certifications," he said. He rubbed his hands together. "Most people in our profession have only one."
"Some don't even have that."
"I know." He shook his head. That seemed so irresponsible. With his right arm, he gestured for the waiter.
"Congratulations. You've gotten two new certifications in only three weeks. What will you do with them?"
"Get better jobs. Get more money."
"Huh." His friend gave him a disappointed look. "You're doing pretty well. I've shown you how to do a thorough job. You're great at it. You've studied for more. Wonderful. You deserve better pay. But why such a focus? You don't have children to support. Your parents don't depend on you. What will you do with the extra money?"
"I'll hire tutors, study more, and get more certifications." He raised his water glass to his own words. He hadn't thought about it until he answered. Keeping on with the process made sense.
"It goes on forever?" His friend put down the fork. "You never develop, say, a skill for loving kindness?"
"That's not a skill."
"Really? Maybe you're already good at it. I wouldn't know. Have you performed acts of kindness recently?"
"It's not a skill, so that's not the point."
Something in their tones of voice made the girls look up. They'd been coloring with crayons and drinking their tea. Now he had their attention. He didn't want it, really.
"Did you help someone with groceries?" his friend continued. "Help a friend move?"
He shook his head no. The girls smiled.
"Have you volunteered to watch someone's children so that they could go to work?"
"Oh, so that must be what you're doing now." Suddenly the second girl's presence made sense. It wasn't just a play date. This was baby-sitting duty. His friend was on the job. Some neighbor or work friend had recruited him. The girls frowned.
"Nah. But sometimes I donate my job skills." When the older fellow gestured to the waiter, the waiter noticed. He bowed his head and gave an acknowledging grin. "You know, I give some time to non-profits around town. You could do that."
"I suppose I could." Lazily, he allowed for the possibility. A moment later, he panicked. He sat up straight as he realized that his mentor could be planning to assign him to a charity. He wasn't sure if he was ready for that. Yes, he owed his friend. But did he really want to end up benefitting a cause he didn't like just to pay the debt?
To his left, the two girls traded whispers. The dark haired one that his friend had adopted resumed her drawning and coloring. He resumed ignoring them.
"What good will all of your skills do?" insisted his friend.
"They'll pay the bills." He shrugged. He supposed the act of being a mentor revealed something about the type of person his friend was. For himself, though, it was enough to devote energy to becoming the best. It felt similar to the way some clergy focused on saintliness or some politicians focused on power. To him, excellence was plenty. It was more than enough.
His friend kept talking even as the waiter strode over to their table.
"Real acts of kindness take some practice. You can't buy your way out of them. Even donating money to a charity takes care. Some are better than others."
The waiter asked if the girls needed more tea and they said, 'Yes please.' They seemed delighted to have been noticed. When the man asked if there was anything more, he reacted with a smile to learn that another order of food was needed. He took out his pad and pen.
Things could be different, he reflected. Even as he gave the waiter his order for a sandwich, he wondered why the waiter hadn't studied more in school. More work to learn a difficult skill would have enabled any restaurant worker to do something better. There would be no more need for fake optimism. Or maybe that was the man's real outlook. It was very convincing. Nevertheless, more skills could get him a better job.
After the waiter turned away, the girls finished a drawing. They turned it around so the men at the table could see. When that wasn't enough, they held it up. It was a wobbly rendition of a diploma. The word KINDNESS had been printed in the middle. There was a horrible imitation of calligraphy at the bottom in black crayon, possibly their signatures.
"Ta da!" they said together.
"If we make a certificate for it," said his friend's daughter with suspicious sweetness. "Will you study?"