An Excerpt from “Refuge”

Adam Stumacher

I.

Claire unwinds her scarf and gets to work setting up the metal detector. Her usual job is to search the backpacks while Jackson, the other school police officer, handles the wand. Most days she doesn’t find anything more than a pack of cigarettes, and Jackson, an old man with skin like cracked leather, just messes with the girls as they pass through, moving the wand close around their curves. But this isn’t a normal day. Last week there was a brawl out by the bus stop and some kid got stabbed seven times, and then yesterday Claire caught a boy with a hunting knife stashed in his boot. Today, anything can happen.

Jackson tosses her the keys, and she feels him watching as she makes her way down to unlock the front door. His gaze makes her uniform feel too tight. He is one of those small men who always find a way to mention they prefer large women.

“I still got plenty energy.” He laughs. “Time for you and me to do some desegregation of our own, baby.”

Desegregation is another topic Jackson works into every conversation. Claire figures he’s earned the right: he was the first black cop assigned to South Boston High School back in ’77, just after the busing riots. She was only in third grade at the time, but she is from the Irish projects, so she knows the stories: National Guardsmen on the front steps using riot shields to hold back spitting mothers, kids sneaking up to the rooftop to drop bricks onto school buses. These stories have sunk into the building itself, and they still define this place even after most of the white students fled to Catholic schools and charters, leaving the hallway so many shades of brown, flecked with the occasional freckled face.

Jackson leans against the metal detector, thwacking the wand against his thigh. “Hunting knife, shit,” he says, shaking his head. “Back in the day, I broke up a fight in the cafeteria, found a boy with a fork in his shoulder. So deep just the handle was sticking out.”

Claire crosses her arms, a slow heat creeping across her face. There are details she could add. For example: the kid’s name was Sean, and he never moved his right arm again. He got to be a good shot with his left, though, thanks to round after round at the gun club. Soon enough, he started running with Whitey Bulger’s crew. He would shoot anything that moved, and people started to say the arm wasn’t the only thing that never healed. Claire knows this story because she is from the Irish projects, and because Sean is the father of her child. Not that any of the other guards even knows she is a mother.

“Look alive,” says Jackson. And the first students have arrived: two Somali girls. When the Somalis first showed up a few years back, Claire expected the girls to be subservient, but just the other day she heard one of them cussing out some boy in the hallway, snapping and bobbing her head.

That same girl lines up for the metal detector. Up close, she has shocking green eyes. The kind of girl who knows she is beautiful; you can tell by her swagger as she places her backpack on the table, leans toward Claire to whisper.

“Can you help me with my English?” She cups a hand around her mouth. “Lard,” she says. “I hear everyone call you this word, but I don’t know what it means.” Then she steps back to reveal a radiant smile, a hint of mischief in her eyes.

By way of answer, Claire takes her time looking through the girl’s backpack, pulling out notebooks and loose papers and keys, laying everything out on the table. Digging deeper, she finds a makeup bag, a pair of jeans, a bag of jewelry, and at the bottom, a padded bra. She holds this last discovery up toward Jackson, who chuckles.
“You don’t want to know,” she says, “what they call you.” Then she crams everything back into the bag, bra on top, and shoves it across the table. The girl clucks her tongue and holds herself very erect as she climbs the stairs.

Next the Vietnamese kids arrive, hair spiked like characters in Japanese animation, backpacks heavy with books. Behind them, the first teachers trickle through, middle-aged, bleary-eyed white women clutching thermal mugs. Then it is rush hour, a constant line before the metal detector, kids with headphones under fur ear flaps, stamping ice off shoes and shaking snow out of hoodies, laughing and flirting, shimmying and pushing. Claire goes into a sort of trance, sifting through the backpacks crammed with Hot Cheetos and Mountain Dew, with PSPs and iPods and Sidekicks, then sliding the bags back across the table to kids who don’t even see her.

For a moment the crowd grows quiet, parting to make room for Mr. Claude, that Haitian math teacher, late to work again, not that anyone will say anything. More than a week since the earthquake, and everybody has stopped asking if he’s heard from his family. Claire can’t meet his gaze as he passes. She is grateful when the line comes back to life, grateful for that Puerto Rican girl who tries to slip past with a pack of smokes, the foil wrapper setting off the alarm, Jackson grinning as he pulls out the wand.
As she works, Claire keeps thinking back to that Somali girl, remembering a time when she had that same swagger herself. A time when she strutted down West Broadway in jean miniskirts and stilettos, her red bangs teased up toward the sky. Sean used to say it was her hair, towering above the crowd, that first attracted him. But whatever caught his eye, it wasn’t enough to keep him around after she got pregnant. And so, all alone as the baby grew inside her, Claire hacked her hair short and began to eat. After giving birth to Patrick, she kept putting on pounds, armoring herself like a battleship. By the time she got a job back at Southie High, nobody recognized her. By the time Patrick was old enough for high school, he requested anywhere but Southie, and she told herself it wasn’t because he was embarrassed. And by the time he dropped out and enlisted, she told herself it wasn’t because he wanted to get away.

The line at the metal detector has died down to a smattering of late students, and there are shouts outside. Jackson dashes out the door, agile for such an old man. Claire lingers behind, and at the top of the steps, she pauses, the cold breeze slapping her face, to watch a group of boys sprinting away along the sidewalk, Jackson jogging after them. At the foot of the stairs, a cluster of students is standing around a body on the ground.

As Claire clambers down, the body sits up, staggers to his feet. It’s a Vietnamese boy, but this one doesn’t have a fur-lined parka or spiked hair; he is shivering in a ratty old sweatshirt, and he needs a haircut. Blood dribbles out of his nose, and he wipes it on the sleeve.
“What happened?” she asks.
The boy blinks rapidly, swallowing, and one of the other Vietnamese kids, a pudgy boy with a bleached faux-hawk, turns to her. “He don’t speak English.”

Before Claire can say another word, the skinny kid takes off, running away through the parking lot. The other kids chatter in Vietnamese and start laughing, and then Jackson returns, barking into his walkie-talkie on his way back up the front stairs, but Claire closes her eyes for a moment, breathing the icy air.

When she goes back inside, instead of stopping at the metal detector, she pulls on her coat, winding the scarf tightly around and around, like that Somali girl. Then she makes her way back outside into the wind, standing at the top of the front steps, telling herself she’s there to keep an eye out for trouble.

That kid with the bloody nose reminds her of that time when Patrick was in second grade at the Gavin and she got a call saying he’d been in a fight. This was the first of countless cuts and bruises her son brought home over the years, but at least her boy was scrappy, keeping his fists up, swinging at kids twice his size. That’s what she tells herself when she reads his e-mails from Afghanistan. She remembers his face in the nurse’s office in the Gavin, smiling through his bandages.

Maybe if the scarf weren’t blocking her peripheral vision, she would have noticed motion down by the cafeteria loading dock. Maybe she would have seen that Vietnamese kid, the skinny one in the ratty sweatshirt, slip through the side door, avoiding the metal detectors. But she is swaddled, safe inside layers of clothing and flesh and memory. She looks out across the parking lot and down toward the ocean, breathing in deep, holding onto the frigid blast of winter.

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