The Exchange

They finally hit our unit this afternoon. Full shakedown. Drug sniffing dogs. The works. We were evacuated from the building into an early winter squall and subjected to pat downs before being released to the rec yard where we competed for warmer space indoors. I was fortunate to secure an empty seat near the pool tables, just beside the wheezing stationary bikes.

We knew our time would come eventually. All of Echo and most of Foxtrot had already suffered their turns. So we prepared. We hunkered down. We emptied our mattresses of all contraband—tattoo guns, cell phones, weaponry, porn, dope—and stashed them away in those units already searched.

And then, one week before Thanksgiving, the front line advanced. Foxtrot-three was hit. Elijah's cell was dismantled entirely, the contents of his locker piled in the floor, each item audited one at a time. Food containers were opened and inspected, ointments and lotions sniffed and scrutinized, institutional clothing counted. When the unit reopened, Elijah returned to his room to find himself short a bell pepper. He'd bought it off a kitchen worker for use in a Hanukkah meal he'd been planning to cook for us. Strangely, the COs left behind an onion. Was this an oversight or a small act of mercy in light of the holidays?The meal, despite the missing pepper, was delicious. Elijah sautéed the onion in the microwave and layered it with tortillas, fried rice, beef sausage, cheese, mackerel, green olives and leftover Thanksgiving turkey that he'd shredded and marinated in soy sauce and lemon pepper. The Tupperware was still warm when he handed it to me that evening on the yard. In return I gave him a Gillette triple-blade razor and a cartridge of replacement blades.

"Happy Hanukkah," I said. "I would have wrapped it somehow, but I know you've said you hate surprises.

"With some self-consciousness, he thanked me and slipped the gift into the pocket of his khaki jacket, a larger but otherwise identical version of my own.

Sitting in the rec center watching the men shoot pool, I ask Brother Travis beside me how the shakedown might impact him. He anticipates they'll take his locker buddy, a collection of hanging pockets sewn from a pillowcase. I perform a mental survey of my own locker. Technically they could fault me for keeping my Tums in an aspirin bottle; commissary items, especially pharmaceuticals, are supposed to be stored in their original containers. There is also the matter of books. We are allotted only ten, barring religious and educational titles. Excluding my dictionary, thesaurus, study Bible, and a fiftieth edition of Struck and White's The Elements of Style that I bought off a guy for a box of Pop Tarts, my locker contains thirty-six books, well over the limit. Fortunately our warden's policy with regards to literature is lenient.

There is one item in my locker, however, that might be threatened. Once while walking the track field together, Elijah picked from between the gravel a single flower, small as a baby's breath. I keep it beside the Tums. Its saffron stamens have dried to brown, its lavender petals to black.

I wonder if it will be there when I return, as plant clippings are strictly prohibited. Or will it be discarded along with the locker buddies, illicit clothes lines, scrap cardboard, and unmarked bottles? Or, in its smallness, will it be displaced by blundering gloved hands, to be trampled, lost, forgotten?