Then came the call.  Mama walked quickly to the phone: “Hello,” she spoke sharply . . . .   “Hello . . .  Howell, is that you? . . .  .    Say something! . . .  All right.”  She set the black phone on its cradle.  “Roger, get up.”    
            The boy, who was not sleeping well, anyway, stood up from the couch, where he had spent the past few nights.  He pulled his sweatshirt over his pajama top–it was an early Fall– and stepped into his jeans and came and stood next to Mama, who was now looking out the slightly parted green curtains. She wore jeans and blue work shirt, speckled with white paint. By now, Roger was two inches taller than she, and his arms were hard after a summer of baling hay. His hair was red, and his Beatles haircut covered the pimples on his forehead. 
            Mama didn’t need to tell Roger, but she did: “It was Howell. He’ll be here in an hour.” 
            “Where’s he been?”
            “I don’t know.”
            “What did he say?”
            “I told you.  He’ll be here in an hour.”
            “What are you going to do?”
            She sighed and didn’t answer. 
            “Shall I call Sister?”
            “No, let her sleep.” 
            “I’ll go to the basement and get that ball bat.”
            “All right, son, but be careful.”

            Roger brought the bat and leaned it against the wall, to the right of the door.  He and Mama stood together and looked out the curtain, to the road and the cornfield.   Neither spoke.  Mama lit a cigarette.  
            “Let me have one of those.”
            “No. You know what I’ve said, you get to Purdue, you smoke all you want.”
             Roger sneezed, pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket, and blew his nose.
            “What am I supposed to do? Let it drip?”
            “Don’t talk like that.  And  I don’t need you to argue.”
             “It’s okay.” Then, “I’m going to call Mr. Ritchie.”  She dialed, silently.
            Five minutes later, Mr. Ritchie stood in the weeds behind the Elm, a few yards from the drive.  He held a brick in his right hand.  Mama pushed open the door and took a step.  Her voice shook: “Thanks, Harold.” 
            Mr. Ritchie glanced toward Mama and nodded.
            “Smoke?” she offered.
            He shook his head, twice: “No, thanks.”       
            Mama stepped back inside, closed the door, and again parted the curtain.  She switched off the outside light, and Mr. Ritchie and the cornfield became shadows. She lit another cigarette and coughed.  “Get ready, Son.”
            The crawl of low beams turned into the driveway. Toward the house crept the black and white ’59-Chevy.  At a distance, Mama and Roger saw only its white stripe, gray in the dark, along the length of the car.   Roger looked  at his mother: “What are you going to do, Mama?”
            “I don’t know.”  She took a drag on her cigarette and coughed.  “And I don’t want you to get any bright ideas.”
            “I don’t want him here.” 
            “I know you don’t.”
            Gradually, the lights grew closer and then disappeared as the car curved right and began to circle the stand of White Ash trees to the west of the house.  Mama and Roger barely heard the engine’s quiet growl, and they saw the silhouettes of the four gray-brown deer running from the driveway into the woods.  Mama’s voice was barely more than a whisper.
            “All right, let’s go. “
            Roger picked up the bat. They stepped out the door; the lights were coming toward them.  Muddy, the Chevy came on, as if the green stucco house drew it with an invisible rope.  They heard the crunch of gravel.  Incipient dawn was slipping over them.
            “You don’t want him back, do you, Mama?”
            Mama said nothing.  She dropped the cigarette.  “I’m going to hear him out.”
            “I don’t like him, Mama. You know what he’s like.”
            “I know you don’t, Son.  Now, hush.”
            Another minute and he whispered, “I wish Granddad were here.  You know what he would do, don’t you.”  Roger held the bat behind him.
            “Don’t you try to be a hero, Son.”
            The Chevy rolled on and stopped in front of them, four feet to the left of the green Nash station wagon.
            Now, in the early morning light, not yet dawn, they saw Howell slump, his face against the steering wheel.  All they saw was his gray flattop grown thick.
            Mr. Ritchie stepped out from behind the black tree and stood next to Mama.  He was the same height as she, his hair twenty years grayer. “What do you want me to do, Martha?” he whispered.
            “Let’s see what he does.”
            Howell, his face still against the wheel, did not move.
            “Why is he here, Mama? What does he want?”
            “I don’t know.”
            “He scares me, Mama.”
            They saw Howell lift his head.  He stared, as if he didn’t see them, toward the creek that ran behind the house.  They saw his brown overalls, caked with mud.  The sleeves of his blue work shirt, torn at the collar, were rolled up to his elbows.  A cigarette hung from his lip, and ash fell on his front.  Another rested behind his ear.  He was sweating.  He put on his green army cap, turned to his right, leaned over, and picked up something from the seat. 
            Howell turned back and, again, laid his head on the steering wheel.  After a minute, he slowly sat up and pushed open the car door. 
            What followed was a rush, one instant folding into another:
            First they saw Howell’s black left work boot, and then they saw the shotgun.  Howell set its butt in the dirt and pulled himself up, as if with a cane.  He lifted the gun and cradled it in the crook of his left arm, pointing downward.  As dawn began to spread, they saw scratches on the barrel and the scarred maple stock. Howell stared down and said nothing. Mama spoke quickly: “What are you doing with that, Howell!? Get that out of here!” 
            Roger took a breath.  He stepped in front of Mama, and faced Howell, barely three feet away.  He held the  bat as if ready for a fastball.       
            She reached to pull him back, but Roger stood firm; he kept his eyes closely on Howell.  He held the bat tight.  “We don’t want you here, Howell.”
            Howell was silent.  Mama stepped next to Roger and held her right arm in front of him.  Mr. Ritchie stepped forward and put his left hand on Roger’s shoulder.  He whispered something Mama didn’t hear.
            Roger took a deep breath: “You are evil, Howell.  Everybody knows it.”
            Howell was sweating; his eyes were small and black.  He glanced down at the gun.
            Roger stepped closer. “That gun doesn’t scare me, Howell. I bet it isn’t even loaded!”
            Mama’s face was white: “Roger, stop!”  Roger, his face also white, stepped back.  For an instant, no one moved.. Howell whispered, as if chewing gravel, “I’m not here to hurt you, boy.”  Then suddenly, he aimed the shotgun straight toward the tops of the trees.  They jumped at the flash and thunder in the howling dawn. Roger dropped the bat.  Mama and Mr. Ritchie yelled “Hey! What are you doing!” Before anyone could move, Howell threw the gun at the boy’s feet.
             Roger gasped and picked up the gun.  He held it pointed upward, as far in front of himself as his arms would reach, pivoted, and handed it to Mr. Ritchie, who set it in the weeds behind him, pointed toward the barn.  Roger quickly picked up the bat.  Mama and
Mr. Ritchie stood on either side of him, both very close.  Roger shuddered.  Tears ran down his face.  Mama, also crying, put her arm around Roger’s waist.
            They could hardly hear Howell’s growling, halting: “That gun was for me . . .  But I didn’t have the guts to use it.”  
            “Get out of here, Howell!” Roger shouted. 
            Mama jerked Roger backward: “Stop, before you get hurt!”
            Mama took three breaths, then spoke quietly, as firmly and clearly as a spear chases a buck in the forest: “How dare you, Howell! How dare you bring a gun on this property! And shoot it! And throw it at my son.!”
            Howell didn’t move.  He looked like the runt of a litter of pigs.  He mumbled, “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry for everything.” 
            “Please . . . .  Let me talk to you, Martha.”  Howell looked toward Mama and  held his face in his hands.  He was crying, sobbing. His cigarette dropped; he drew the other from behind his ear, but it dropped, too.  When he finally spoke, again, they hardly heard him: “I’m here, Martha,”
            “I see that.”
            Howell didn’t move, and he didn’t say a word.  He stopped sobbing, he just cried silently.  His breath caught. He pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes and blew his nose, loudly.  His head was still bowed.
            “Why are you here, Howell? What do you want?”
            “I want to come back.  Please.”
            Mama’s face was as hard as the barrel of the shotgun. 
            “Please, Martha, please.  I’ll change.  I promise, I’ll change.”
            “Don’t let him, Mama!”
            “You’ve had plenty of chances, Howell. Why should I give you another?!” She began to cry, softly.  “Look me in the eye, and tell me why you want to come back here, Howell?  What do you want from us?”

            A phalanx of three, still and waiting: Roger squeezed the bat and rocked  on his feet.  Mr. Ritchie shifted the brick, slowly, from hand to hand.  Mama stood, hands on hips, and cried harder and harder.  Now she leaned against the Elm.  Roger could almost smell the mix of tears and sweat.  Howell’s eyes were red; again, he stared at the ground.  “Please, Martha.” 
            Mama caught her breath and stepped toward Howell.  Her voice halted: “I said, why did you come here, Howell? What do you want?”
            “Please, just let me talk to you.”
            “All right,” now she was whispering. Her arms were folded in front of her. “Have your say, Howell.”
            “Mama, no!”   

            Sister stood at the window and looked through the slightly open curtain.  She tightened the belt of the tattered white robe she wore over her pink flannel pajamas.  Her feet were bare.  She grabbed the window sill to stop shaking. 
            She knew why Howell had come.  She knew what he wanted. 
            And she knew Mama would let him have it.