"Are my dad and mom ever going to get back together?"
I looked at the young boy and noticed the small tears forming in his eyes. He was working overtime on controlling his breath but wasn't succeeding. His hands gripped and ungripped the claws on the ends of the arms of the dark oak chair, and he trembled, not a lot, but kind of like a leaf in a light breeze, just enough to notice.
At first I didn't know what to tell him. I always thought that these questions were above my pay grade. I had started this whole advice business as a kind of a joke. I never expected that people would actually seek me out for real advice.
"I don't know, Joey. I'm not a fortune teller. The sign on the door says that I give advice; I don't predict the future. Now, if you had asked me what you could do to help your parents get back together. I would answer probably nothing. I would advise you above all other things to just be yourself and work on being as understanding as you possibly can. Life is hard for parents too, especially for parents. You kids have youth on your side. If you had asked me what you should do if your parents don't get back together; I would advise you to adapt to the new situation with as much positive energy as you can muster. Treat it as an opportunity to grow, to learn how to overcome frustration and anger. There's a very good chance that you can help make things better for your parents and your sister. Remember though, that sometimes, things happen for a reason that will only be revealed at a later date and being as positive as you can be might determine if its a good reason or a bad reason. You get what I'm saying?"
The tears were still there, but he nodded. "Max, is it okay if I cry about it tonight and start working on all that positive stuff tomorrow?"
I smiled broadly, "Joey, that's actually the best advice I could have given you. You'll be okay. It'll be hard, especially at the beginning, but you'll be okay."
Joey slowly stood up and reached in his pockets and pulled out four crumpled dollar bills and laid them on the table. I picked them up, smoothed them out, and handed them back to him. "This one's on me. Use your imagination and tell yourself that those are four magical dollar bills. Do something nice for yourself like buy an ice cream or something, or better yet do something nice for your sister."
He bent over and retrieved his backpack from behind his chair and left. Sandra, my beautiful, athletic, brunette girlfriend entered the darkened room. She was wearing a black skirt and white blouse. Her long brownish blonde hair was in a ponytail, her professional look. "Man, I was almost bawling when he came in, Max. He looked so sad and lost. I don't know how you deal with stuff like that."
I stood up and kissed her before I answered, "Poor Joey, he's going to be alright though. I can see it in his eyes. Then there's the fact that he came in at all. It shows that he knows that he needs help."
"Yeah, but what do you tell him when he's looking at you with those sad eyes?"
"Usually, the best advice is the simple truth."
She smiled and looked at me with her beautiful brown eyes laughing, "And people pay you for the truth?"
"Four dollars! It's a bargain. Besides I gave it back anyway. It ain't like I'm asking for a fortune. And for your information I give the best four dollar advice around."
"Well, you still owe me one remember."
I held her at arm's link and looked her over closely. I liked the professional look and how the tight black skirt and heels displayed her fabulous legs, "Nope, don't get the boob job."
She looked me puzzled, "Who said anything about a damn boob job?" She looked down at her chest and her confusion turned to faux rage. "You are a no good son of a bitch." She started pummeling me before I could pinion her arms and begin kissing her anew.
I had always been a know-it-all from the beginning of time. When I was a kid, all my friends would always tease me about it, but when they needed advice, it was me they came to. I read a lot more than a normal kid but there was also something very instinctive about how I knew things. I would be watching movies with my mom and when the hero would get himself into a jam, I would turn to her and tell her what I would do, or how I would have avoided the situation in the first place. She would look at me for moment and grin before telling me to be quiet and watch the movie.
Thinking backwards, there was this one moment in time where I knew it all began, where I first knew that I was different. I was about seven years old and had come home from the elementary school around the corner from our house and found Mom sitting in her reading chair. She was dressed in a long white gown, and she wasn't moving. She didn't even know that I had entered the room, and she looked like a statue sitting there. She was reading a letter, two sheets of paper sat next to each other in her lap, and she had another sheet in her hand draped over the soft blue fabric of the arm of the chair. That page hung in the air slightly trembling. I didn't know where her head was; her eyes, covered with clouds, were staring out the windows behind me.
After watching her like that for over a minute, I walked over to the dining table and put my books and lunch pail down. When I turned around she was back.
"Hi, Max. I didn't hear you come in. Come over here and give me a big kiss." I willingly obeyed and jumped into her open arms. "I have been sitting here reading a letter from your father. It's a rather long one, three pages front and back, and I've been having trouble keeping all the pages in order."
"Did Dad mention me and Athena?"
"Of course he did, Honey. He said to tell you guys how he misses you and is always thinking about you. He asked if you had been flying your kite. He also told me this funny story about how he and a friend had entered a village and saw two dogs, each biting the other's tail, chasing each other in a circle. Isn't that a funny thing?"
She cleared her lap and gestured for me to sit upon it. She held the three pages of the letter in her left hand, and tousled my hair with her right. I noticed the writing on the page; it wasn't my dad's, and I intuitively knew that there was something she wasn't telling me.
"How's Dad doing?"
"He's fine." She lied, and I knew instantly that she had lied. It was the first time that either her or my dad had ever lied to me. My dad had always been starkly honest even on the day when he pulled me aside and told me that he was going to war in Korea and had even said that there was a good chance that he might not come back.
I was stunned to the point of tears, and asked him if he stilled liked us, and he hugged me tightly and said, "I love you and your Mom and your sister more than life itself. It's why I can go and do this thing, Buddy. I need you to be strong for your mom and to look after your sister."
Mom quickly moved away from the lie, "Papa wrote about this beautiful experience he had where he was crossing an ancient bridge over a small mountain stream in a strange looking forest and looked up and saw the moon and the sun in the sky together. He said that something about it reminded him of me, and he cried because he misses me so much."
"Do you miss him, Mom?"
She looked down softly and tousled my hair again, "More than you'll ever know, Max. At least, I hope you'll never know what it's like to miss someone you love this much."
There was something about that experience that made me into who I am today. I thought about it often and came to the conclusion that it was the two anomalies, Mom sitting trancelike when I entered the room, and the different writing on the page that triggered the understanding that things weren't right with my father. When in doubt, I always say, look for the anomalies.
It was a week later when we got the news.
Cheap Advice, my business had started out as a big joke. My friends were always asking me for advice, and yet would always tease me when I gave it unsolicited. One day, as a lark, I put a sign on the front porch of the spacious Victorian that I was renting in artsy- fartsy section of the city. The sign had a picture of two mysterious looking eyes and below them were the words written in big red letters:
Cheap Advice- $2
Better Advice- $3
Good Advice - $4 or two for $6
I had intended to make a joke, but life had other plans for me. After two weeks, I had to get a business license. I was inundated with people seeking advice. Many of my long haired, dope smoking buddies came by seeking answers to dumb questions as a part of the joke, but then a lot of others started dropping by who weren't a part of the joke; then they came in droves seeking real answers to real questions. In the beginning, I tried to explain that I wasn't being serious about the advice giving, but there was always a silent plea in each of their eyes that wore me down. Besides, I finally admitted to myself, I had always liked giving advice.
Yet, I've always had a feeling of inadequacy when I gave these people advice, but I soon discovered that I was surprisingly good at it. They all kept coming back. I had taken a few psychology classes in college, but other than that, I did what I did that day when my mom read the letter from Korea; I looked for the anomalies in their stories.
Giving advice at a few bucks a pop does not put food on the table or pay the light bills for that matter. Early on, I figured that was probably how it should be. I didn't want to make money for giving advice, at least not that way. I do write a column that runs in a couple of papers. They give some advice too, but are also mixed in with a lot of other things. For example, I talk about life, romance, movies, and sports, but never about politics. The columns along with some other writing that I do pays the bills. I also went back to school and became a licensed therapist, so I wouldn't feel as guilty as I always do when I dish out a dose of bitter water.
Joey came back a couple of weeks later. He told me that his mom and dad had filed the papers, and that his mom had cried the whole night afterwards.
"Joey, that's to be expected, but it's not the important thing."
He looked at me puzzled, "That's not important?"
"I didn't say it wasn't important. I said it wasn't the important thing. What you did because your mom was crying is what's important. Tell me what you did?"
He thought it over for a moment before answering, "I guess, I just let her cry." The answer clearly troubled him.
"You need to know that there was nothing else you could have done. What did you do after that?"
"I got up real early and me and my sister made her breakfast and served it to her in bed. We even did all of the dishes."
"I bet she liked that?"
For the first time in the months that I had known him, Joey mustered up a smile. "She sure did. Mom loves bacon and eggs and strawberry jam on her toast. Athena's coffee was so bad, but Mama pretended that she loved it anyway."
"She wasn't pretending, Joey. My guess is the coffee could of tasted like burnt motor oil and she would have loved it. For the record though, it wasn't the bacon and the eggs or the jam she loved. It was your reaction, the fact that you didn't spend the morning moping around or crying yourself. You did something nice to show her that you and your sister were going to tackle the problem head on."
I watched with wonder as those words fanned his smile into a flame. "Now you gotta ask me a question, Buddy, something about advice, that's how it works here."
"But you already.."
The look in my eyes cut him off. "Question?"
He finally blurted, "What do I need to do to become as wise as you, Max?"
That one got me. I could feel the tears welling up behind my eyes as I wrestled with the decision of whether or not Joey needed, at that particular moment, a heavy dose of my father's stark truth telling, to tell him about how suffering often engenders wisdom, or whether I should just let him bask in the glow of his own smile for the time being.
The smile won out. I knew there would be a lot of time in the future for the rest. The biggest lesson I had ever learned was that it was man's need for immediate answers to things that causes most of problems in the world. The need for answers is a part of life. The time we have ain't much, but it is, at least, enough to let us know that there's always the future for the unveiling of truth.
"I'll tell you what, Joey. Go home and tell your sister what a damn fine thing you guys have done, and someday in the near future, I'm going to tell you about my dad."
As he was leaving, I saw Sandra hand him a purple lollipop from the bowl on her desk. She also escorted him to the front door and opened it. For a brief moment, I saw Joey standing there outlined by the morning sun.