By Pablo Agrio
We arrived late afternoon, after stops at several different penitentiaries in the immediate area. CDC bus rides in handcuffs and leg chains were always a nightmare. There was still the matter of processing but at least I could use the restroom without having to deal with all the restraints.
It is the little things, didn’t you know?
The classification officer told me I was going to B-Yard. It was the smallest yard in the Colony. The Colony was home to old lifers like me and inmates in protective custody. It was said that for lifers The Colony was the place where you either went home on parole or died.There were four yards with two housing units in each. However, one of B-Yard housing units served as the hole. The hole is the prison within the prison. The place where rule-breakers went to cool off.
I was issued my linen and assigned a cell before evening count. I faced the yard so had time to wash up and stand at the window to survey the place during count. Count cleared on time, a good thing since I was starving.
I followed the herd to the chow hall. You were required to take the next available seat regardless of who was sitting at the table. I did. My new garb told everyone I was a fish. Naturally that elicited a certain curiosity. When you first experience this unwanted attention in this kind of setting it can be a bit unnerving. But with years under your belt you just rolled with it. Whenever I rode into a new pen I said as little as possible and kept my expression neutral. You wanted others to wonder as much as possible until you could get a feel for the place.
I was trying to make the best of the food on my tray when I sensed a shift in the dining hall vibe. I looked up to see what was happening. A he-she had entered the mess hall and stolen all the attention. She was about 6’2” with Gabrielle Union hair, Alicia Keys tits and Serena Williams’ ass. Caramel complexion and walked with a sense of purpose. It was hard not to look at her even if you weren’t gay. I found out later she went by Octavia.
The days went by as I worked to settle in. It was imperative I find a job before the system found one for me. If I didn’t hustle I’d end up picking up trash on the yard or wiping tables in the mess hall for free.
The story of Octavia came to me in bits and pieces. My Central American folks delighted in filling me in. Octavia was “married” to and living with a 5’6” Mexican fellow named Manny. He fancied himself a gangster but in reality he was a pee-cee drop out that commanded no respect. He was also absolutely positively madly in love with Octavia. He followed her like a puppy all over the yard and was ready to fight anyone who stared at her too long.
The Manny and Octavia soap opera was the prime entertainment of the yard. I came to discover that guards, administrators and other inmates all played a role in keeping the drama alive. It was disturbing and fascinating all at once. They quarreled daily. There were fights, arguments, blow-outs, misunderstandings, all culminating in apologies and professions of love.
After a while I grew tired of the updates. It was up to new arrivals to marinate in the stuff. As for me, I had my own issues to deal with. I tuned out and lost track of the story. Calendar pages kept turning. The days all looked the same. Hopelessness and despair kept coming around wanting to hang out. I would give them the finger and busy myself with anything.
One weekend morning I came out to the yard to do a little workout. I was doing pull-ups and push-ups and in between sets watching the guards at the gate admit guys from other yards there to play sports.
Octavia came out of the Housing Unit and sauntered toward the gate. This was opposite of where I was exercising near the phone booths. I noticed Manny was not tagging along. Moments later Manny himself came out and angled towards my spot. Very unusual.
Octavia was greeted by one of our visitors. She stopped to talk to him. Manny was watching her while pacing back and forth. He was like a bull getting ready to charge. He mumbled to himself and clenched and unclenched his fists. Folks stayed clear of him.
Octavia was enjoying whatever it was the visitor was saying to her. She played with her hair, looked at him sideways and giggled a lot. Manny saw the same thing I saw and was close to the tipping point. He began walking towards her.
The whole yard sensed something bad was getting ready to happen. Guys got into position so that when the alarm sounded they could prone out in a comfortable spot. No one tried to stop him. On the contrary, they gave him a wide berth.
Octavia saw him coming but she didn’t move. Her friend walked away from her perhaps sensing danger. Manny rushed her and pushed her hard against the wall. He was yelling and screaming and got into a fighting stance. Octavia recovered, got her balance and landed a tomahawk right square on his face. Manny flew backwards and landed on the ground like Joe Frazier after getting hit by George Foreman. Octavia fell on him and just went off. I was certain she would kill him. He was covering up but not fighting back.
Everyone on the yard had gotten down but the alarm hadn’t sounded. The guard in the tower was oblivious to the action. The place was so quiet you could hear the blows landing. Finally, the Sergeant came out of the office, the alarm sounded and the guard in the tower announced through a bullhorn, “All inmates down, all inmates down …”
The guards trotted towards the combatants. Octavia saw them coming and proned-out. Manny wasn’t moving.
Octavia was placed in handcuffs and taken to the office. Manny was carted off to the infirmary. The yard was recalled. Once in the cell I stood at the window hoping for a glance at the final act. I was certain they’d both end up in the hole. It was only fitting that the last act of this private opera would play out before a live audience.
It was now lunch time and nothing new had happened. Guys on the tier were speculating Manny had died. The cruel jokes came rapid fire.
I saw the doors to the office open. Octavia came out followed by a guard. She was not in handcuffs and was not walking towards the hole. With her hands in her pockets she was coming back to the housing unit. Normal program was resumed. On my way to lunch I saw Octavia moving her stuff to another cell.
Hours later Manny came back to the yard visibly injured, walking head down. He stopped at the office before returning to his cell.
The divorce was apparently official.
Weeks later I saw Manny heading to R&R for transfer. For him that was bad news. Wherever he went he was a marked man.
My prison job consisted of talking to, and sharing information with the inmate population on how to prevent HIV, TB, Hepatitis and other sexually transmitted diseases. My shop held support groups and my supervisors did counseling in extreme cases. Months later, on a regular Friday afternoon I was at the counter checking-in the inmates for the HIV special group. Who walks in but Octavia herself? She gave me her real name and looked away. It took a lot of work to keep a neutral expression on my face. I felt like saying something but nothing felt appropriate.
I never had a conversation with Octavia. I was polite when she showed up and gave no indication that the changes in her appearance were noticeable. Then, the same way she’d just showed up at group one day, I didn’t see her anymore. I figured she either paroled or was transferred. She was deleted from my consciousness.
Every couple of months or so the Protestant Chapel held a memorial service for those inmates who had moved on to another life. I was sitting in the audience when I heard Octavia’s real name called.
I thought of Manny.
(Bio: “Pablo Agrio is a former Marine and police officer who spent time in prison for murder. During his incarceration he obtained a law degree. His award-winning essays have appeared online and in print. He is a member of the UCLA Wordcommandos Creative Writing Workshop for Veterans.” His book “In Pursuit of Happiness” can be found here, and in our bookstore.)