It was always August when we spent a week with our grandma. I was Joey then, not Joe: Joey Dowdel, and my sister was Mary Alice. In our first visits we were still just kids, so we could hardly see her town because of Grandma. She was so big, and the town was so small. She was old too, or so we thought—old as the hills. And tough? She was tough as an old boot, or so we thought. As the years went by, though, Mary Alice and I grew up, and though Grandma never changed, we’d seem to see a different woman every summer.
Now I’m older than Grandma was then, quite a bit older. But as the time gets past me, I seem to remember more and more about those hot summer days and nights, and the last house in town, where Grandma lived. And Grandma. Are all my memories true? Every word, and growing truer with the years.
Shotgun Cheatham’s Last Night Above Ground
You wouldn’t think we’d have to leave Chicago to see a dead body. We were growing up there back in the bad old days of Al Capone and Bugs Moran. Just the winter before, they’d had the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre over on North Clark Street. The city had such an evil reputation that the Thompson submachine gun was better known as a “Chicago typewriter.”
Jst added 20 min to #ProjectReadathon w. @PenguinRandom by reading @RichardPeckAuth to support @SavetheChildren
But I’d grown to the age of nine, and my sister Mary Alice was seven, and we’d yet to see a stiff. We guessed that most of them were where you couldn’t see them, at the bottom of Lake Michigan, wearing concrete overshoes.
No, we had to travel all the way down to our Grandma Dowdel’s before we ever set eyes on a corpse. Dad said Mary Alice and I were getting to the age when we could travel on our own. He said it was time we spent a week with Grandma, who was getting on in years. We hadn’t seen anything of her since we were tykes. Being Chicago people, Mother and Dad didn’t have a car. And Grandma wasn’t on the telephone.
“They’re dumping us on her is what they’re doing,” Mary Alice said darkly. She suspected that Mother and Dad would take off for a week of fishing up in Wisconsin in our absence.
I didn’t mind going because we went on the train, the Wabash Railroad’s crack Blue Bird that left Dearborn Station every morning, bound for St. Louis. Grandma lived somewhere in between, in one of those towns the railroad tracks cut in two. People stood out on their porches to see the train go through.
Mary Alice said she couldn’t stand the place. For one thing, at Grandma’s you had to go outside to the privy. It stood just across from the cobhouse, a tumbledown shed full of stuff left there in Grandpa Dowdel’s time. A big old snaggletoothed tomcat lived in the cobhouse, and as quick as you’d come out of the privy, he’d jump at you. Mary Alice hated that.
Mary Alice said there was nothing to do and nobody to do it with, so she’d tag after me, though I was two years older and a boy. We’d stroll uptown in those first days. It was only a short block of brick buildings: the bank, the insurance agency, Moore’s Store, and The Coffee Pot Cafe, where the old saloon had stood. Prohibition was on in those days, which meant that selling liquor was against the law. So people made their own beer at home. They still had the tin roofs out over the sidewalk, and hitching rails. Most farmers came to town horse-drawn, though there were Fords, and the banker, L. J. Weidenbach, drove a Hupmobile.
It looked like a slow place to us. But that was before they buried Shotgun Cheatham. He might have made it unnoticed all the way to the grave except for his name. The county seat newspaper didn’t want to run an obituary on anybody called Shotgun, but nobody knew any other name for him. This sparked attention from some of the bigger newspapers. One sent in a stringer to nose around The Coffee Pot Cafe for a human-interest story since it was August, a slow month for news.
The Coffee Pot was where people went to loaf, talk tall, and swap gossip. Mary Alice and I were of some interest when we dropped by because we were kin of Mrs. Dowdel’s, who never set foot in the place. She said she liked to keep herself to herself, which was uphill work in a town like that.
Mary Alice and I carried the tale home that a suspicious type had come off the train in citified clothes and a stiff straw hat. He stuck out a mile and was asking around about Shotgun Cheatham. And he was taking notes.
Grandma had already heard it on the grapevine that Shotgun was no more, though she wasn’t the first person people ran to with news. She wasn’t what you’d call a popular woman. Grandpa Dowdel had been well thought of, but he was long gone.
That was the day she was working tomatoes on the black iron range, and her kitchen was hot enough to steam the calendars off the wall. Her sleeves were turned back on her big arms. When she heard the town was apt to fill up with newspaper reporters, her jaw clenched.
Presently she said, “I’ll tell you what that reporter’s after. He wants to get the horselaugh on us because he thinks we’re nothing but a bunch of hayseeds and no-’count country people. We are, but what business is it of his?”
“Who was Shotgun Cheatham anyway?” Mary Alice asked.
“He was just an old reprobate who lived poor and died broke,” Grandma said. “Nobody went near him because he smelled like a polecat. He lived in a chicken coop, and now they’ll have to burn it down.”
To change the subject she said to me, “Here, you stir these tomatoes, and don’t let them stick. I’ve stood in this heat till I’m half-cooked myself.”
I didn’t like kitchen work. Yesterday she’d done apple butter, and that hadn’t been too bad. She made that outdoors over an open fire, and she’d put pennies in the caldron to keep it from sticking.
“Down at The Coffee Pot they say Shotgun rode with the James boys.”
“Which James boys?” Grandma asked.
“Jesse James,” I said, “and Frank.”
“They wouldn’t have had him,” she said. “Anyhow, them Jameses was Missouri people.”
“They were telling the reporter Shotgun killed a man and went to the penitentiary.”
“Several around here done that,” Grandma said, “though I don’t recall him being out of town any length of time. Who’s doing all this talking?”
“A real old, humped-over lady with buck teeth,” Mary Alice said.
“Cross-eyed?” Grandma said. “That’d be Effie Wilcox. You think she’s ugly now, you should have seen her as a girl. And she’d talk you to death. Her tongue’s attached in the middle and flaps at both ends.” Grandma was over by the screen door for a breath of air.
“They said he’d notched his gun in six places,” I said, pushing my luck. “They said the notches were either for banks he’d robbed or for sheriffs he’d shot.”
“Was that Effie again? Never trust an ugly woman. She’s got a grudge against the world,” said Grandma, who was no oil painting herself. She fetched up a sigh. “I’ll tell you how Shotgun got his name. He wasn’t but about ten years old, and he wanted to go out and shoot quail with a bunch of older boys. He couldn’t hit a barn wall from the inside, and he had a sty in one eye. They were out there in a pasture without a quail in sight, but Shotgun got all excited being with the big boys. He squeezed off a round and killed a cow. Down she went. If he’d been aiming at her, she’d have died of old age eventually. The boys took the gun off him, not knowing who he’d plug next. That’s how he got the name, and it stuck to him like flypaper. Any girl in town could have outshot him, and that includes me.” Grandma jerked a thumb at herself.
She kept a twelve-gauge double-barreled Winchester Model 21 behind the woodbox, but we figured it had been Grandpa Dowdel’s for shooting ducks. “And I wasn’t no Annie Oakley myself, except with squirrels.” Grandma was still at the door, fanning her apron. Then in the same voice she said, “Looks like we got company. Take them tomatoes off the fire.”
A stranger was on the porch, and when Mary Alice and I crowded up behind Grandma to see, it was the reporter. He was sharp-faced, and he’d sweated through his hatband.
“What’s your business?” Grandma said through screen wire, which was as friendly as she got.
“Ma’am, I’m making inquiries about the late Shotgun Cheatham.” He shuffled his feet, wanting to get one of them in the door. Then he mopped up under his hat brim with a silk handkerchief. His Masonic ring had diamond chips in it.
“Who sent you to me?”
“I’m going door-to-door, ma’am. You know how you ladies love to talk. Bless your hearts, you’d all talk the hind leg off a mule.”
Mary Alice and I both stared at that. We figured Grandma might grab up her broom to swat him off the porch. We’d already seen how she could make short work of peddlers even when they weren’t lippy. And tramps didn’t seem to mark her fence post. We suspected that you didn’t get inside her house even if she knew you. But to our surprise she swept open the screen door and stepped out onto the porch. I followed. So did Mary Alice, once she was sure the snaggletoothed tom wasn’t lurking around out there, waiting to pounce.
“You a newspaper reporter?” she said. “Peoria?” It was the flashy clothes, but he looked surprised. “What they been telling you?”
“Looks like I got a good story by the tail,” he said. “‘Last of the Old Owlhoot Gunslingers Goes to a Pauper’s Grave.’ That kind of angle. Ma’am, I wonder if you could help me flesh out the story some.”
“Well, I got flesh to spare,” Grandma said mildly. “Who’s been talking to you?”
“It was mainly an elderly lady—”
“Ugly as sin, calls herself Wilcox?” Grandma said. “She’s been in the state hospital for the insane until just here lately, but as a reporter I guess you nosed that out.”
Mary Alice nudged me hard, and the reporter’s eyes widened.
“They tell you how Shotgun come by his name?”
“Opinions seem to vary, ma’am.”
“Ah well, fame is fleeting,” Grandma said. “He got it in the Civil War.”
The reporter’s hand hovered over his breast pocket, where a notepad stuck out.
“Oh yes, Shotgun went right through the war with the Illinois Volunteers. Shiloh in the spring of sixty-two, and he was with U. S. Grant when Vicksburg fell. That’s where he got his name. Grant give it to him, in fact. Shotgun didn’t hold with government-issue firearms. He shot rebels with his old Remington pump-action that he’d used to kill quail back here at home.”
Now Mary Alice was yanking on my shirttail. We knew kids lie all the time, but Grandma was no kid, and she could tell some whoppers. Of course the reporter had been lied to big-time up at the cafe, but Grandma’s lies were more interesting, even historical. They made Shotgun look better while they left Effie Wilcox in the dust.
“He was always a crack shot,” she said, winding down. “Come home from the war with a line of medals bigger than his chest.”
“And yet he died penniless,” the reporter said in a thoughtful voice.
“Oh well, he’d sold off them medals and give the money to war widows and orphans.”
A change crossed the reporter’s narrow face. Shotgun had gone from kill-crazy gunslinger to war-hero marksman. Philanthropist, even. He fumbled his notepad out and was scribbling. He thought he’d hit pay dirt with Grandma. “It’s all a matter of record,” she said. “You could look it up.”
He was ready to wire in a new story: “Civil War Hero Handpicked by U. S. Grant Called to the Great Campground in the Sky.” Something like that. “And he never married?”
“Never did,” Grandma said. “He broke Effie Wilcox’s heart. She’s bitter still, as you see.”
“And now he goes to a pauper’s grave with none to mark his passing,” the reporter said, which may have been a sample of his writing style.
“They tell you that?” Grandma said. “They’re pulling your leg, sonny. You drop by The Coffee Pot and tell them you heard that Shotgun’s being buried from my house with full honors. He’ll spend his last night above ground in my front room, and you’re invited.”
The reporter backed down the porch stairs, staggering under all this new material. “Much obliged, ma’am,” he said.
“Happy to help,” Grandma said.
Mary Alice had turned loose of my shirttail. What little we knew about grown-ups didn’t seem to cover Grandma. She turned on us. “Now I’ve got to change my shoes and walk all the way up to the lumberyard in this heat,” she said, as if she hadn’t brought it all on herself. Up at the lumberyard they’d be knocking together Shotgun Cheatham’s coffin and sending the bill to the county, and Grandma had to tell them to bring that coffin to her house, with Shotgun in it.
By nightfall a green pine coffin stood on two sawhorses in the bay window of the front room, and people milled in the yard. They couldn’t see Shotgun from there because the coffin lid blocked the view. Besides, a heavy gauze hung from the open lid and down over the front of the coffin to veil him. Shotgun hadn’t been exactly fresh when they discovered his body. Grandma had flung open every window, but there was a peculiar smell in the room. I’d only had one look at him when they’d carried in the coffin, and that was enough. I’ll tell you just two things about him. He didn’t have his teeth in, and he was wearing bib overalls.
The people in the yard still couldn’t believe Grandma was holding open house. This didn’t stop the reporter who was haunting the parlor, looking for more flesh to add to his story. And it didn’t stop Mrs. L. J. Weidenbach, the banker’s wife, who came leading her father, an ancient codger half her size in full Civil War Union blue.
“We are here to pay our respects at this sad time,” Mrs. Weidenbach said when Grandma let them in. “When I told Daddy that Shotgun had been decorated by U. S. Grant and wounded three times at Bull Run, it brought it all back to him, and we had to come.” Her old daddy wore a forage cap and a decoration from the Grand Army of the Republic, and he seemed to have no idea where he was. She led him up to the coffin, where they admired the flowers. Grandma had planted a pitcher of glads from her garden at either end of the pine box. In each pitcher she’d stuck an American flag.
A few more people willing to brave Grandma came and went, but finally we were down to the reporter, who’d settled into the best chair, still nosing for news. Then who appeared at the front door but Mrs. Effie Wilcox, in a hat.
“Mrs. Dowdel, I’ve come to set with you overnight and see our brave old soldier through his Last Watch.”
In those days people sat up with a corpse through the final night before burial. I’d have bet money Grandma wouldn’t let Mrs. Wilcox in for a quick look, let alone overnight. But of course Grandma was putting on the best show possible to pull wool over the reporter’s eyes. Little though she seemed to think of townspeople, she thought less of strangers. Grandma waved Mrs. Wilcox inside, and in she came, her eyes all over the place. She made for the coffin, stared at the blank white gauze, and said, “Don’t he look natural?”
Then she drew up a chair next to the reporter. He flinched because he had it on good authority that she’d just been let out of an insane asylum. “Warm, ain’t it?” she said straight at him, but looking everywhere.
The crowd outside finally dispersed. Mary Alice and I hung at the edge of the room, too curious to be anywhere else.
“If you’re here for the long haul,” Grandma said to the reporter, “how about a beer?” He looked encouraged, and Grandma left him to Mrs. Wilcox, which was meant as a punishment. She came back with three of her home brews, cellar-cool. She brewed beer to drink herself, but these three bottles were to see the reporter through the night. She wouldn’t have expected her worst enemy, Effie Wilcox, to drink alcohol in front of a man.
In normal circumstances the family recalls stories about the departed to pass the long night hours. But these circumstances weren’t normal, and quite a bit had already been recalled about Shotgun Cheatham anyway.
Only a single lamp burned, and as midnight drew on, the glads drooped in their pitchers. I was wedged in a corner, beginning to doze, and Mary Alice was sound asleep on a throw rug. After the second beer the reporter lolled, visions of Shotgun’s Civil War glories no doubt dancing in his head. You could hear the tick of the kitchen clock. Grandma’s chin would drop, then jerk back. Mrs. Wilcox had been humming “Rock of Ages,” but tapered off after “let me hide myself in thee.”
Then there was the quietest sound you ever heard. Somewhere between a rustle and a whisper. It brought me around, and I saw Grandma sit forward and cock her head. I blinked to make sure I was awake, and the whole world seemed to listen. Not a leaf trembled outside.
But the gauze that hung down over the open coffin moved. Twitched.
Except for Mary Alice, we all saw it. The reporter sat bolt upright, and Mrs. Wilcox made a little sound.
Excerpted from A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck. . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.