A Long Way from Chicago

by Richard Peck

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Prologue and Chapter 1 Summary

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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 are astounded when their not particularly sociable grandmother regales him with a tale about how Shotgun Cheatham was a decorated Civil War veteran who had broken the heart of Effie Wilcox in his glory days. To the further astonishment of the children, Grandma announces that, rather than allow the deceased to go to his grave unrecognized, she will host a wake for the him, right in her own front room.

At Grandma's direction, Shotgun Cheatham's body is brought to her house, where he lies shielded by a veil in an open pine coffin. The townspeople, who cannot believe that Grandma is holding open house, drop by to pay their respects. When the crowd disperses, only the reporter and Mrs. Effie Wilcox remain. They will join Grandma, Joey, and Mary Alice in keeping vigil over Shotgun Cheatham until dawn.

The five sit in silence through the long hours, and the children begin to doze. Around midnight, there is a sudden rustle and whisper, and, except for Mary Alice, who is sleeping, the mourners are startled to see the gauze hanging down over the corpse begin to twitch. Grandma leaps up from her seat and runs to fetch her twelve-gauge Winchester. When she returns, she squeezes off both barrels in the direction of the coffin, hollering:

"Whoa, Shotgun...you've had your time, boy. You don't get no more!"

The reporter leaps headfirst out the window, while Mrs. Wilcox runs out the door and into the night. Grandma stands in the smoky room and regards the coffin; though the body inside is relatively intact, the white veil is black now, and the lid has been blown clear away. With a satisfied look and her shotgun still in her hand, Grandma turns around and says nonchalantly to her grandchildren, "Time you kids was in bed." Only Joey had seen Grandma's snaggle-toothed tomcat streak out of the coffin and out the window when she had blasted her twelve-gauge; it was the cat who had creeped in and batted at the gauze, giving Grandma the chance to "[flesh] out her reputation and [give] people new reason to leave her in peace."

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Chapter 2 Summary