Exerpt from Minimum Security
© Copyright 2002 by Judith Nakken
Across the compound behind yellow brick walls, eleven inmates waited for Director Georgia Kuhne-Clark, M.S., C.A.C. A semi-circle of multicolored pillows faced the door. All but one of them cushioned a quiet woman in denim. An ornate, natural bamboo chair with tall, rounded back and velvet seat was on the right of the gathering, a nondescript bamboo table at its side. In the exact center of the large room was a low bamboo stool, the infamous hot seat.
Windows were skimpy in Oz. All were barred or screened with steel. In this room they were at the top of the north wall, behind the silent women. Four of them, they were baby coffin-shaped, four feet long and two feet high. Their old iron bars were just beginning to cast faint stripes on the room’s east wall. Another fierce summer sun began its decline to the west and it was possible to read in the room at the moment, if one wanted to read anything badly enough. Three fluorescent, six-foot light fixtures hung on heavy chains from the high ceiling and could blast the room with light at the touch of a switch.
The director swirled into the room, a controlled, pale blue dynamo. Learned sadness encompassed her countenance as she took ceremonial note of the empty cushion and halted in front of the eleven who waited.
"A place in the group is empty. Marian Masterson will be Sent Back on Friday. I appeared with her before the Hearings Officer, but there are no second chances with Cedar Woods’ rules. So, Marian will serve at least five more years before being eligible for any kind of parole. And we, the Holistic Community, are lessened by her absence!" Georgia continued to her throne and placed a clipboard and file folders on its side table with delicate precision.
"Manners. Place the cushion in the hallway, please." A lanky black woman arose from her lotus position next to the empty place. She cradled its turquoise pillow to her flat chest and hurried to the door. Tyra Manners placed it reverently outside the door and returned to her cushion. She did not resume the lotus; a reunification ceremony would follow. Three inmates had been Sent Back in this class alone. Tyra knew the drill.
Tyra Marreen Manners, like Sarah Leffert in the morning class and another woman in this class, was a "pure" alcoholic. They toked or sniffed or snorted occasionally during their short addicted lives, but these women discovered their drug of choice at early ages. They were hooked on easy to get, relatively inexpensive, legal ethyl alcohol.
This pilot program for addicted female offenders was 24-year-old Tyra’s third treatment center. At seventeen she went to a 28-day program in King County instead of to jail. At twenty-one she opted for a long-term program instead of a sure prison term and spent six months over here in an Eastern Washington rehab center. Fear of a prison sentence was strong inducement, and she did the whole, tough one hundred eighty three days without a hitch. She stayed sober four hours after her graduation ceremony.
Alcoholics Anonymous meetings were an important element of that long-term rehabilitation plan. Two a week was mandatory, and one had to be the woman’s meeting. All the girls in treatment met in the same room there at the center. Women members of A.A. came from the Spokane community. The men met in another room at the same time. Tyra then had a choice of mixed meetings there on Friday night or Sunday afternoon. She usually went to them both for the opportunity to look at the guys.
The patients were allowed to go out to regular A.A. meetings in the community after two months of treatment with no rules infractions. Tyra could attend one or both for which the facility provided transport on Wednesday night and Saturday afternoon. Several African-American men and women wandered through the treatment program during her stay, yet there was rarely a black face in the outside crowd at the meeting. And never was that black face a woman.
How she had hated the enforced attendance at the women’s meeting! She faked two stomachaches before the floor counselors got wise to her and she was not allowed to miss another for the whole six months.
Tyra, usually silent, exploded in Group in the Holistic Community last week. Miz Nance was talking about the class becoming eligible to attend the Friday night women’s A.A. meeting here at Cedar Woods.
"It’s bullshit!" Tyra volunteered when the counselor asked for anyone’s prior A.A. experience. "Three or four up-ward-ly mo-bile white women with perfect makeup, wearing their oldest clothes so we won’t be ashamed, talking about how wonderful their lives are now. They got creases in their blue jeans, for Chrissake, and snowy white shoes that cost more than lots of people’s rent. And that’s the best ones!"
"The other ones, you can tell, they just want to be sure they’re still better than somebody. They come to the inside meeting whenever they need to get a lift without drinkin’. You can see it in their eyes, they don’t give a shit about the inmates, except to measure how much better off they are with what miserable lives they got their own selves. I ain’t goin’ to no A.A., that’s for sure, since I got a choice!" Her voice lowered, saddened. "No black women go, anyway."
Kylah Nance wasn’t a recovering addict of any description, but had great respect for twelve-step programs. She knew that addicts and alcoholics had a far greater chance of recovery if they followed up with regular meetings. She racked her brain and could not remember ever seeing a black face in the open meetings she’d attended as part of her training, and she prayed it was because skin color did not register with her.
"You remember that thing they say, Manners? That prayer? ‘Change the things we can?’ If I were a recovering African-American woman, I’d make it a point to be in the meetings so it would be easier for the next one who comes. Huh?"
"Yeah, well, you ain’t me!" Tyra Manners raged. Group concluded with another person sharing her personal experience with Alcoholics Anonymous. Tyra didn’t listen. She was remembering graduation day at that last treatment center.
The A.A. meeting place was on the way to the halfway house where she was to live for at least three months. She went there first, her whole life in the canvas on her shoulder.
Inside that club, Tyra put the duffel bag by one of the raggedy sofas in the common room and sat for half an hour. A white girl about twenty was behind the coffee bar, exchanging wisecracks with three nondescript guys on stools. A woman passed Tyra and went to the bar. An old white guy snoozed in front of a horizontally-impaired television set in the corner and at two of six small, round tables, foursomes played pinochle. The smoke was dense, and Tyra inhaled with deep, grateful breaths. Cigarettes were not in her budget until she got her first check.
With halting, six-months-sober courage she asked one of the card players when the next meeting was. The woman flung one arm at the wall beside her, not missing a lick in the play. Tyra expanded her vision to include the wall and was immediately shamed. A black and white schedule of all the meetings held there dominated the wall.
Yes, there was one at 5:15. She’d go to the meeting and be at the house long before curfew. Dinner would be over, but there would be leftovers. Tyra was anxious to start the ninety meetings in ninety days her counselor said would insure her sobriety. Dry-mouthed, she decided to wait the ten minutes until the meeting to have coffee. It was free in the meeting and cost money in the clubroom.
At exactly 5:15 Tyra rose and followed a lot of people back to the meeting room. She went to a far corner of the dance-hall-sized room and huddled on the long bench, duffel bag between her feet. Most of the thirty other people seated themselves in chattering clumps around the long tables that formed a square round in the middle of the room.
The big coffeepot was now too far away, on a table across the room. Tyra looked longingly at the hot pots from which the steaming liquid issued into Styrofoam cups at the center gathering, but could not move. She was frozen to the scarred bench, her bare toes in their sandals seeking comfort beneath lumpy canvas.
The young chairperson was responding to cross-talked exchanges with others at the center tables and reading haltingly at the same time. "Is there anyone new in the room," he asked, blind to everything but the plastic format in his left hand and the espresso cup in his right. Tyra was mute and invisible in her corner, a lone, black island.
"Ruthless" Johnson came into the room at half time. Big, black, bald and scarred, he strode the bare wood to sit sideways on the bench facing her corner. "You okay, Baby?" His ruined voice sounded as if he cared. She had her first drink in six months in his car at eight o’clock. He had robbed a mini-mart and roared out of town with her by ten.
The star-crossed pair had a drunk and glorious time in three states until Ruthless shot the Korean storekeeper in Tacoma ten days later. A black and white was stopped to make a routine check of the black girl parked with the motor running, just as shots resounded inside the little market and a big man thundered through the swinging door into the black rain night.
Confusion engulfed Ruthless’ wet face when he saw the patrol car. He ground to a halt. Confused, shamefaced, he took a slow-motion look at each of his huge hands, then let the brown paper sack fall from his left. Bottles clinked and crashed.
The three-five-seven had just begun to rise in his right hand when the first of thirteen official rounds flew toward the inhalation of his final breath. Tyra cried as the Mad Dog leaked onto the tarmac and mixed with the blood and the rain.
Over a year’s hard time at Purdy and now she was here, given the final second chance of her young life. Tyra changed places with another woman and gave up her plummy cushion for red velvet with golden tassels, as the rigid little color-coordinated director led the reunification drill. Hands crossed in front and clasped with the women on either side, she chanted softly with the group. "We are the Holistic Community. United we are invincible. Holistic Community. Holistic Community. Holistic Commmmuniteeeeee."
Tyra Mareen Manners
darted a glance at the bamboo stool in the center of the room and felt
less than reunified. Taking up the lotus on her scarlet pillow, she prayed
fervently that it wasn’t her turn to take the hot seat and make up some
shit to satisfy Miz Kuhne-Clark today.
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