A Long Way from Chicago

by Richard Peck

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Chapter 5 Summary

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Chapter 5: "The Phantom Brakeman—1933"

It is 1933, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the nation's new president. Shirley Temple is the new entertainment sensation, and Mary Alice, like every other girl in America, is learning to tap dance in imitation of the child star. Joey is thirteen, a teenager at last. He likes to be called Joe now, not Joey.

During their annual trip to Grandma's, Joe and Mary Alice go down to the Coffee Pot Cafe one day to enjoy some Nehi sodas. Mary Alice befriends Vandalia Eubanks, a skinny, pale seventeen-year-old who works there as a waitress. While they are talking, the girl's mother comes in and demands her daughter's wages. Later, Mary Alice tells Joe that Vandalia's mother is like a jailer and wants to rule her daughter's life.

Back at home, the children help Grandma with the laborious process of making homemade soap. As darkness falls, Grandma suddenly looks up from the steaming pot of lye she is stirring and peruses the skyline where the road and the Wabash tracks seem to meet. She relates the tale of a terrible accident involving a freight train and a train full of firefighters that occurred on the tracks back in 1871. Legend has it that the brakeman of the freight train and both engineers were killed; the ghost of the brakeman still appears sometimes, wandering along the tracks in the early evening, when day turns into night.

That night, Joe is awakened by a snuffling sound that seems to come from Mary Alice's room. Getting up to investigate, he knocks on the door, only to be told by his sister that she is hiding a puppy in there. Joe does not quite believe this, but he is too tired to argue. He returns to bed.

Mary Alice appears at breakfast the next morning looking "perky and innocent," but when Grandma's back is turned, she slips a biscuit and a sausage patty into her shirt. She tries to be secretive about it, but as she returns to her room when the meal is over, Grandma studies her with a long look. Later that morning, when they are again all outside working on the next step in the soap-making process, Mrs. Eubanks comes roaring up in her buckboard and accuses Mary Alice of sheltering Vandalia, who has run away. When she demands to be allowed to search the house, Grandma replies, "If you set a foot over that doorsill, I'll wring your red neck."

Around noon, Joe is out by the privy when he is accosted by a middle-aged man in a tight suit and a silk necktie. The man introduces himself as Junior Stubbs, and he asks Joe to deliver a message to Vandalia. The message is a love note, asking her to "steal away" with him. Junior will be waiting for Vandalia in back of the cobhouse that night after dark.

Joe surreptitiously gives the note to Mary Alice. Later that afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. Stubbs come by. Their son is on his way to a prestigious career as a lawyer, and they want him to have nothing to do with Vandalia Eubanks, who they think has bewitched him. As they accuse Grandma of aiding Vandalia in her evil scheme of stealing their "boy," there is a thud outside. Mrs. Eubanks has propped a ladder against the sill of a back bedroom window and is trying to loosen the catch on the screen. Grandma unceremoniously knocks away the ladder, sending Mrs. Eubanks tumbling down into the bushes. The Stubbses flee, and Grandma orders Mrs. Eubanks off her property....

(This entire section contains 751 words.)

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As the meddling woman retreats, Vandalia Eubanks appears briefly in the upstairs window.

Rumor spreads that Junior and Vandalia are going to elope on the Wabash Cannonball train that evening. A crowd, hungry for excitement, gathers at the depot. The "lovebirds" do not appear, however, and the train departs without them. When the Cannonball passes Grandma's house, however, a shadowy figure appears by the tracks, lurid in the dim glow of the lantern it holds. The train stops with a piercing shriek of brakes, giving Vandalia and Junior just enough time to scramble aboard the open platform at the back. When the Cannonball resumes its run, they are on it, "together at last."

Joey returns Grandpa Dowdel's old black overcoat and lantern to the cobhouse where they had been stored. When he comes back into the house, Grandma dryly asks him if he has "everything squared away," and he responds that indeed he has.

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