Prologue and Chapter 1 Summary
Joey Dowdel and his sister Mary Alice spend a week in August with their Grandma every year. The two are "just kids" at the time of their first few visits, but though Grandma remains constant, their perception of her changes as they grow up.
Chapter 1: "Shotgun Cheatham's Last Night Above Ground—1929"
Joey is nine and Mary Alice is seven the first time they go to stay with Grandma Dowdel. Their parents put them on the Wabash Railroad's Blue Bird, which leaves Chicago's Dearborn Station bound for St. Louis. Somewhere in between those two points, Grandma lives in the last house of one of the many small towns lying along the tracks. Mary Alice hates the place because at Grandma's, one has to go outside to use the bathroom, and there is never anything to do.
Joey and Mary Alice often stroll "uptown," which is a short block of brick buildings—a bank, insurance agency, store, and The Coffee Pot Cafe. It is during the height of Prohibition, and though there are a few automobiles, most farmers come to town on horse-drawn wagons. Things are definitely slow in Grandma's town—until the burial of Shotgun Cheatham.
Shotgun Cheatham was "just an old reprobate who lived poor and died broke," and he might have been buried in the same obscurity in which he lived had it not been for his distinctive name. A big city newspaper notices Shotgun's obituary in a local newspaper and sends a reporter to Grandma's small town in search of a story. Rumors abound at the Coffee Pot Cafe, as townspeople welcome the hapless investigator and vie to tell all they know about the deceased; most of their tales are exaggerations. Mrs. Effie Wilcox, "a real old, humped-over lady with buck teeth," tells the most outrageous whoppers of all, until Grandma has her say.
The reporter, going door-to-door in search of more information, comes out to Grandma's house. Joey and Mary Alice...
(The entire section is 680 words.)