- from The Real Life Test
The transgender inmate Irene—née John Adams—landed on my psych caseload like a sack of dirty clothing no one else had time to launder. Driving to the prison for another intake interview, I remembered with a shiver Irene's unwavering dark-eyed stare. I felt sure I would get nothing more from her. The muscle-bound prison guard who stopped me at D gate told me "John" had asked to go to the weekly AA meeting and that I would find "him" in the chapel. The guard had a rough, beery-red face. I wondered if he attended AA meetings himself.
I walked as slowly as I could to the chapel, holding my breath against the pervasive stink of old cigarettes, body odor, and industrial coffee. Prison funk. The night before, I had drunk too much wine, and now every slamming gate and jangling key rang directly through my brain. Two skull-capped inmates walked by, one clutching an old basketball, and I involuntarily loosened my sweater. I am small breasted and angular and rarely elicit more than passing attention, but I felt unusually fragile that morning. I watched the two pass through the gate to the edge of the yard, and the basketball court soon echoed with the thump of the ball and the shouts of the men.
No one turned around when I slipped into the chapel. It was a small meeting: nine or ten men sipping their coffee and rattling their knees. Boo James was telling his story, which had something to do with a horse he had let die the year he wrangled in Colorado. I would have bet that he'd never left Washington State, that the whole story had been garnered from movies and other cons, but his tears and regret seemed real enough, and one or two of the other men passed a hand over their eyes at each turn of the tale. I come out to the stable that morning, and Blue Bonnet was just a lyin' on her side pantin' like, and her water was gone dry. Listening to the tense, pliant note in his voice, I was sure Boo had killed something while drinking—if not a horse, then a wife or a child in a car accident—or perhaps he had set fire to an entire office building with a lit cigarette, a crime that had never been discovered. Boo finished with a flourish and mimicked throwing down the reins. [End Page 67]
He sat down in the first row of benches, and the man next to him, whose tattoos made him look as if he wore a long-sleeved green shirt, patted Boo carefully on the shoulder and offered his coffee. Boo took a sip. Instantly, he was composed again, his prison "mask" sliding over his face.
The twelve-step meetings at Twin Streams were always well attended, and there was an infinite variety to attend. There was AA and NA and Smokers' Anon and Cocaine Anon and Al-Anon and Gamblers Anon. I wouldn't have been surprised to come across Molesters Anon or a twelve-step sexual-assault program. At any given time, someone at the Streams was announcing his name and the fact that he was powerless before something higher. You asked forgiveness of everyone and everything, and then you forgave yourself for being weak and human. I would often come across inmates who used the terminology like weapons: "owning" their anger, "mounting" the steps.
Another inmate, Jim the Can, rose and took the podium. His hair had the stiff, greasy look of pomade combined with dirt, and his left eye wandered over the sharp bridge of his red nose, but he was an eloquent speaker. He held his audience so tightly that when an alarm sounded down the tier, no one turned around.
I was alone all my life. I was alone with my bro who raised me, and I was alone with my wife. The night she had my son, I was watching a football game at home with five six-packs around me. Yeah, by then I was too much of a...