“I bought a new house,” he said. “I took the furniture for the living room.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? I coulda come up with a decent desk and some shelves.” I knew the answer to my question before I finished asking it. He didn’t want to ask me for anything. I was too uppity and confident for him to request my help. It’s not that he had a problem with my color; Newgate wanted everybody to treat him like the master.

“What do you have on the fire?” he asked.


The principal paled visibly. “While the students were in class? They could have been killed.” He was talking to himself more than to me. “That’s, that’s horrible.”

“I don’t think anybody coulda been killed,” I said. “Fire captain told me that even though they used a gasoline can it was pretty much just a smoke bomb.”

“A kid’s prank?”

“Naw. He said the bomb was very professional-looking.”

Newgate and I stared at each other for a moment. “What do you think, Mr. Rawlins?”

What I thought was that Hiram Newgate had never asked me what I thought about anything. But what I said was, “I hope that it’s just a one-time thing. Not some kind of craziness.”

“What do you mean?”

“I wish I knew.”

“Well,” he said, still shaken. “I’m sure that it’s just some kid with a problem. If he does something like this again we’ll find him.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“I have a doctor’s appointment at noon so I’ll be out midday. If the police come you give them what they need.”

THE REST OF THE DAY was pretty noneventful. No more fires or fire alarms. No plumbing or electrical disasters. It was actually a good day because Newgate wasn’t around looking into everybody’s business. He bothered the teachers as much as he did the custodial staff. He often walked into classrooms unannounced to make surprise evaluations. That might have been a good idea, but Newgate was rude and rough. He loved Truth more than anyone, but not a soul there cared for him.

*   *   *

THAT AFTERNOON I was out inspecting the lower yard when First Wentworth called me. First was a small boy, thirteen at the time. Like many of the young children, he spent his summers hanging around the schoolyard, taking advantage of the facilities we offered for daycare. He played caroms and tetherball from ten, when the playground opened, until two, when it closed. After that I let him work with me, moving desks out of the classrooms so that my custodians could strip the floors and seal them for the new school year.

“Mr. Rawlins,” he called from halfway down the eighty-seven stairs leading to the upper, older, campus. At least I think he said my name. I just heard his voice and saw him running down the granite steps.

While he ran I continued my inspection, looking into the trash cans on the yard. In one can I found a beaded white sweater that some child had discarded. It was a nice sweater, one hundred percent cotton. It represented a few days’ labor out of a poor woman’s pay, I knew. But clothes for children are like skin on snakes: to be shed now and then, allowing the new child to emerge.

“Mr. Rawlins,” First said when he reached me.

I put the sweater under my arm. “Hey, Number One.”

“I don’t know what he was doin’ over there.” First was talking as if we were already in the middle of a conversation. “But I saw him.”


“That white man.”

“What white man?”

“The one who put that thing under Mr. Sutton’s classroom.”

“What thing?”

“A big red can,” the boy said. “I don’t know why.”

“Why didn’t you say anything before this?” I asked.

“I forgot that I saw’im. But then later Mr. Weston said that the school might burn down.”

I could have asked him why he came to me, but I knew the answer. I was the only black person on the campus who had any authority. Most of the children came to me with their problems because bill collectors, policemen, and angry store owners were the only white people in their daily lives.

“And it was a white man?” I asked First.

He nodded, looking at my feet.

“Was he wearin’ a suit?”

“Uh-uh. Just some pants and a green windbreaker.”

“Have you seen him around here before?” I asked. “Does he work here sometimes?”

First shook his head. “No. I mean I seen’im but he don’t work here.”

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