I liked dressing up because of my background, which was poor and secondhand. But it also gave me a secret pleasure to see Newgate look me up and down, comparing my clothes to his.

“Where have you been?” the jade-eyed principal asked me.

I shrugged, not having enough respect for the man to lie.

“That’s not an acceptable answer.”

“What’s the fire report, Archie?” I asked my custodian.

“Fire captain’s down in the yard,” the small man said.

“Mr. Rawlins,” Principal Newgate sputtered. “I’m speaking to you.”

“Sorry, Hiram,” I said as I walked away. “But I’m late and there’s going to be a lot of paperwork around this fire.”

“What?” he exclaimed. He probably said a lot more, but I touched Archie’s arm and we went quickly toward the stairway that led down to the lower campus.

*   *   *

THE METAL SHOP bungalow was slightly scorched when the firemen arrived. They had reduced the building to splinters by the time they were through.

It was a strange vision for me. A burnt and shattered building surrounded by white men dressed in red. They were all young and grinning. Outside the nearby chain-link fence were dozens of men and women among the displaced students—all of them black or brown—staring wide-eyed at the demolition. I could feel my heart thumping and my hands getting hot.

A fireman approached us. He was hatless and haggard, no older than I, but he looked to be ready for retirement. He was making his way toward us with a deliberate and tired gait.

“You the principal?” the old-looking fireman asked. His gray pupils were watery, almost white.

“No,” I said. “My name is Rawlins. I’m the plant supervisor.”

“Where’s the principal?”

“Mosta the kids’re on the upper campus. He’s makin’ like a general on his horse up there, keepin’ the troops from deserting.”

That got a laugh from the fire captain. He reached out to shake my hand.

“Gregson,” he said. “I’m the shift commander. Looks like you got a problem here.”

I glanced at the poor colored people looking in at those uniformed marauders. I wondered if Gregson and I saw the same problems.

“It’s arson,” the fireman continued. “We found a scorched gasoline can under the building. It’s a pretty sophisticated incendiary smoke bomb.”

“They set it off with people in there?”

“Weren’t you here?” Gregson asked me.

“I was late today.”

“Oh. Well, somebody pulled the fire alarm and then set off the device, or maybe they set it off and then pulled the alarm. Maybe someone else saw the smoke but I doubt it; the people in the classroom hadn’t even seen it yet. They pulled the alarm on the wall of the janitors’ bungalow.”

I BORROWED SOME LINED PAPER and a pencil from one of the students, through the fence, and took down all the information: Gregson’s phone number, the police number to call to give information to the arson squad, and the names and numbers of the forms I had to fill out. He told me that an inspector would show up in the afternoon. All the while the firemen prowled around the shattered building, using their axes just in case some embers still burned.

I went up to Principal Newgate’s office after that. I detested the man but he was still my boss.

“I’ll buzz him, Mr. Rawlins,” Kathy Langer said.

Everything about her was brown except for her skin: eyes, hair, dress, and shoes. She was a young white woman, a new transfer to Truth. Hiram’s secretaries were always new, because they never lasted very long. He was always complaining about how they filed or typed. The last one left because he yelled at her for forgetting to put three sugar cubes into his coffee.

“It’s Mr. Rawlins,” she said into the phone. Then she looked up at me and said, “Just a minute. He’s finishing a call.” She smiled when she saw me looking at her drab clothes. It was the kind of smile that had gotten many young black men hung down South.


“No,” she said as she inclined her head, showing me her throat. “Some guy who’s been calling. I think it’s personal business.”

A moment later the buzzer sounded and she said, “You can go in now.”

I hadn’t been in Newgate’s office for a few weeks and was surprised at the change in decor. I suppose the shock showed on my face.

“What?” Newgate said. He was sitting behind a beat-up ash-blond desk.

“What happened to all your fancy furniture?”

When Newgate became principal, he had brought expensive ebony wood and teak furniture with him. Along with the carpeting, his office had looked like a rich man’s den. Now the floors were bare, the desk looked to be due for disposal, and his books and papers were in stacks along the walls.

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