“You awright, sir?”
Jack was on his hands and knees, face to the ground with an expression of desperate agony.
The little African American boy asked him again, “you awright, sir?”
Everyone else on the playground kept their distance. Many staring at Jack. Some pretending not to notice him. But no one, save the little boy, made any effort to help.
“Please. Please, forgive me,” Jack croaked. “Huh?” The little boy replied.
“Forgive me my sins. I’ve been awful and I want to repent.”
The child put a hand on Jack’s back and lightly patted him.
A crowd was starting to form a rim around Jack, about 20 feet from where he supplicated himself. It was an urban playground. Jack was on the asphalt where kids played four square or tether ball. There were basketball courts a few yards away and a baseball field adjacent. The playground took up most of a city block and was surrounded by small homes and low income housing. At night the playground was often a scene of drug use and drug deals. The police patrolled it regularly.
Two blocks from the playground was a main strip with car dealerships, fast food restaurants and lots of liquor stores. This portion of the city had not yet been gentrified. The city’s poorest lived here. The surrounding neighborhoods were 80% African American. The playground was in the western portion of the city about five minutes by car from the bay. The city was on the West Coast in Northern California. The climate was temperate. Today the sun seemed especially high and the day especially bright. There was no breeze. It was late March, 2016. This was the United States.
Jack was on the verge of tears. He choked them back. The little boy patted him again and said, “that’s awright.” The little boy’s name was Jerome, he was five and lived two blocks away in a tiny two bedroom house with his mother, grandmother and older brother and older sister. His older brother Darnell, age 9, had walked Jerome to the park but was now playing basketball and oblivious to the scene on the asphalt. Many others were not. They watched but no one either knew what to do or cared to do anything.
In a much louder voice than before Jack said, “please forgive me. I know I don’t deserve it but please try to find it in your hearts to forgive.” Then in a softer voice he added, “god knows I’ve been awful, terrible, all my life, all the lies and the deceptions and the cheating. Oh god, I’m sorry.” Then he began to sob.
Once again Jerome patted him.
“Get away from that crazy white man,” a woman yelled at Jerome. She was his next door neighbor. They called her Aunt Nisha although she wasn't really their aunt. She had passed through the playground on the way to the market and had stopped to see what the fuss was about. Aunt Nisha had babysat Jerome many times and along with his mother and grandmother was one of three people who played a part in his upbringing.
At the sound of Aunt Nisha’s voice Jerome ran to her, but not before a final pat on Jack’s back. He looked back as he ran and said “bye.” Aunt Nisha scolded Jerome and asked what he was doing talking to and touching “that fool white man.”
Jack’s knees were beginning to hurt so he stood up. Slowly. Two dozen people were watching him as if Jack was about to do something wonderful or horrible. Jack stood and stretched. Tears were streaming down his eyes. Jack wasn’t sure how he’d gotten here. He just knew that he wanted to repent, to change his ways. After so many years of being and doing so much wrong and hurting so many people he wanted a second chance. Jack started to walk to his car which he somehow knew was across the street. The crowd parted for him and watched him in wonder.
Jack found his beat up old Toyota, though still having no clue how he had gotten to this part of town. His keys were still in the ignition and Jack thought it a wonder that the car hadn’t been stolen. Looking back toward the playground he noticed that the crowd that had watched him had dispersed and gone on about their day. Jack yelled out the window: “I’m sorry everyone. I truly am. For everything and for anything else and for…” There Jack stopped and blew his nose into a dirty hanky that was in the passenger seat. “I’m such an awful jerk, even to myself, using a filthy rag like this to blow my nose.”
A few blocks into his ride home Jack stopped at an intersection. It was a four way stop and no cars were coming in any other direction but Jack came to a complete stop nonetheless. Then it hit him. A full blown panic attack. From the tips of his toes to the top of his head Jack felt total fear and complete abandonment from reality. It was like he was floating, unmoored from his soul from Earth from anything familiar. Jack had experienced panic attacks before but this was infinitely worse than any of its predecessors. Jack stuck his hand into the glove box and pulled out the bottle of ativan he kept there for just such emergencies. His hand shook so that Jack dropped the bottle twice before securing it firmly in his hand. Unscrewing the top was a labor and one pill dropped to the floor before he got one down his throat, dry swallowing it. Jack looked at his watch, it was 10:32 meaning it would be 11:02 before the pill kicked in. But just taking it had relaxed Jack, if only a little. He wanted to scream, he wanted to die, he wanted to drive straight to the hospital. Jack thought it better that he not drive for awhile so he pulled over. It couldn’t have been more 60 degrees out but Jack was sweating profusely. Jack gripped the steering wheel as tightly as he could, it was his base of security. Jack again thought about the fact that he couldn’t remember having gotten to the park. This started to really worry him now. Surely he was losing his mind, the panic attack was just one symptom.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry,” Jack repeated while banging his head against the steering wheel.
“Where the hell was I last night? I didn’t drink, not a drop, where, what happened, what did I do?” These questions tormented Jack. The only thing that Jack could be certain of was the need to apologize, make amends, to repent for all the sins he’d committed for so many year. Stealing money from his brother’s coin collection. Cheating on a high school exam. Lying to girlfriends. Lying to his parents. Lying to friends. Stealing petty cash at work. Having an affair during his first marriage. Side swiping that parked car and just driving away. Skipping out on a restaurant tab. The list just went on and on and that didn’t even begin to count the rude remarks, the insults, the crude remarks to women the nonstop lies he’d told everyone. Jack was 43 years old and reckoned himself to be about as bad a human as existed. Okay, he hadn’t killed anyone or committed rape or incest or molestation but he was a grade A jerk, an asshole, a douche bag. At least as far as he could tell.
But finally Jack was feeling remorse. Finally Jack was feeling guilt. The problem was he was now overwhelmed by it.
At 11:02 Jack was feeling exhausted, shaky and monumentally depressed. But he was well enough to drive home.
He pulled into the driveway and walked to the front door. His wife Carolyn was standing in the kitchen. His sons Neal and Allen emerged from their room and leapt into his arms. Carolyn asked, “Where’ve you been? Where did you take off to so early this morning. Even the kids were asleep when you left.”
“I’m sorry, Carolyn. I’m sorry kids. I really am,” Jack replied. He then went over and gave Carolyn a kiss. “I’m so, so sorry,” he repeated.
“Goodness Jack, its not that big a deal. But where’d you go?” Carolyn asked again.
“For a ride. Just felt like it.”
“Say are you all right? You look wiped out. Are you up for taking the boys to soccer? And remember, we’ve got a date tonight. The sitter’s expecting a big payday.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I’ll just need a nap later this afternoon.”
“Why don’t you take it now and I’ll bring the boys to soccer?”
Neal and Allen complained -- they wanted their dad to take them to soccer -- but their mother insisted. Jack dutifully flopped onto bed and had a good sleep. He dreamt of sliding down a rainbow into a clear blue pool. It was a wonderful dream and Jack awoke feeling much better.
“Sorry I couldn’t take the kids,” he said to Carolyn afterwards.
“Don’t apologize, I volunteered to take them. You have nothing to apologize for, you’ve been under a lot of stress lately. Just make sure you’re fresh for our night out, and what I’ve got planned when we get home.” With that she winked.
“Maybe,” he thought, “I should go back to my psychiatrist before I really flip out.”