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"The Rockpile'' begins with a description of the natural rock formation that gives the story its title. The rockpile is located across the street from the apartment of John Grimes and his African-American family. John's half-brother, Roy, plays there sometimes and watches as other African-American boys fight on the rockpile . Elizabeth, John's and Roy's mother, has forbidden them to go near the rockpile, which does not bother John, who is afraid of it. John and Roy have a habit of sitting on their fire escape every Saturday and watching the church-members, whom they consider redeemed, and the others, whom they consider sinners, walk along the street. The neighborhood in which they live is filled with dangers, including the Harlem River, where a boy drowned once.

One Saturday, John and Roy are sitting on the fire escape. John draws a picture while Roy is bored. Some of Roy's friends call for him, and Roy decides to go downstairs, which worries John, who thinks their mother will find out. Roy encourages John not to tell her and then sneaks outside. John becomes absorbed in his drawing and does not look up for a while. When he does, he sees a gang war on the rockpile and watches as Roy, who is at the top of the rockpile, is hit with a tin can—which cuts open his forehead and knocks him to the ground. John tells Elizabeth, and she and her church friend, Sister McCandless, bring Roy back to the apartment and dress his wound. The two women question John, and he tells them that Roy said he would be back in five minutes. This answer is not good enough for McCandless, who suspects that Gabriel, John's stepfather and Roy's father, will be angry with John. McCandless catches Gabriel on the stairs as he is coming home from work and warns him about Roy's injury.

Gabriel comes into the apartment, deeply concerned about Roy, who is his favorite. Roy is upset and begins to cry when he tries to tell Gabriel what happened. Elizabeth tries to explain for Roy, but Gabriel only gets angry with her and teases her about her physical features. He also criticizes her for not watching Roy, although she says that she cannot possibly do all of her chores and keep an eye on Roy, who has a mind of his own. Gabriel then tries to blame John, but Elizabeth sticks up for John and prevents him from getting beaten, telling Gabriel that Roy got his injury because Gabriel spoils him. Gabriel looks at Elizabeth with pure hatred, which scares her. She composes herself and leaves the room.

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