I still remember the whole thing like it was yesterday. Summer of '73 and me standing on the kitchen table in my Uncle Dan’s house in Forest Park singing Bad, Bad Leroy Brown and the whole place jumping. Thinking back on it now I’d say it was the three gin and tonics on top of the Jack Daniels that did it.
Well the South side of Chicago
Is the baddest part of town
And if you go down there
You better just beware of a man name of Leroy Brown.
And it's bad, bad Leroy Brown
The baddest man in the whole damned town,
Badder than old King Kong
And meaner than a junkyard dog.
What a number! By the time I got to the third verse I was gone, transported to the Vic down in Central Lakeview in front of a thousand foot-stomping folk rockers. And it was somewhere in the middle of verse five I think that I fell off the table, juiced as a stewed newt. They caught me before I hit the floor and carried me to the couch and somebody gave me another gin and tonic to bring me round. I may have been down but I was far from out. Because whatever number of verses came after that I was able to render them horizontally.
However, I had the murky impression Dan wasn’t well pleased. Here was his favorite nephew after all, his favorite sister’s son to boot, over for a two week stint as Derry’s ambassador to Chicago, and he was letting the whole clan down, not able to hold his drink. Or his water, as it turned out. But maybe I’d better not go into that right now. Some other time.
I took two large glasses of ice for my breakfast and still the inside of my mouth felt like a beachcomber’s glove. So I went to the fridge for some more cubes. That’s when Dan appeared in his dressing-gown and said “Morning, Colm. We’re gonna go to The Halfway House after lunch. OK with you? How you feeling?”
I pointed to my mouth and he waited till I’d finished eating the ice. Then he said “I unnerstand kid. The Halfway will soon sort you out.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. To my knowledge The Halfway House was some sort of a rehabilitation place for recovering alcoholics and prisoners and psychiatric patients. Now as I hadn’t yet been to prison or the mental I figured by means of tortuous elimination that Dan’s plan was to do with my spirited performance of the night before.
He seemed thoughtful as he drove me to The Halfway House. “That was a heavy night you had, kid,” he said. “Tell me this and tell me no more. Did you ever taste the poteen, did you?”
“Once,” I told him. “Just the once. I’m not a real drinker you know. I normally only go out to the pub once a fortnight. Or month sometimes.”
“Right? You’re really gonna like the people at The Halfway House. Great people there. Where was it you got the poteen?”
“Place called Lettermullan. Wee island off Galway. Me and this guy Celestine Scanlon were let into a shebeen there one night and took a dose of the stuff. Christ, it was something.”
To tell you the God’s honest truth, at that particular moment I was torn between playing down my Lettermullan misadventure and bonding macho-wise with Dan. Turned out to be no contest.
“Shebeen you say?”
“Mary Rose’s, it was called. Shutters and black blinds on every window. After about three hours, me and Celestine reckoned we’d had enough and made to go but Mary Rose wasn’t having it. Every time we went to the door she kept shouting to us that the Gardaí were on the prowl and if they saw anybody coming out they’d know the building was occupied and that would be the finish of her. Court in the morning and no more Mary Rose’s. We tried to fight our way out but this big brute the size of a combine harvester barred the way. Celestine and me ended up unconscious on the floor and Mary Rose kicked us out in the morning. No breakfast nor nothing.”
“I heard of that place,” Dan said. “I think it might still be going.” He laughed the way he does, chin wagging and shoulders shaking and not a sound out of him. “Your grandfather back in the Hillside was a great man for the moonshine you know.”
“Big James the Fox? I always thought he was a teetotaller. Soberest man in Donegal was what I always heard.”
“Well now, he was known to take the odd wee nip but it was more the way he used it.”
“I never knew that now.”
“I remember him telling us one time that poteen could be a very handy bargaining tool. You know the big stretch of land between our house and Anderson’s in the Hillside? Well, that belonged to Thomas the Mean down the road and this time anyway about twenty acres of it were being auctioned. Your grandfather didn’t want the thing to go to auction because he knew if it did that he hadn’t a cat in hell’s chance of outbidding these big farmers from all round Inishowen. So the night before it was to happen he went down to Thomas the Mean’s with a half a bottle of poteen in his coat pocket. The two of them talked about this and that for half the night and by the time big James went back up the road the deal was done.”
“No auction. The auctioneer was jumping mad and there were rows and ructions from these other farmers that arrived in the morning but the deal was done.”
“Of course. There was all the handspitting and handshaking you’d expect but big James made sure Thomas filled up the dotted line. Sure that’s how our family had the name Fox put on them.”
“I always thought it was because your family all had big noses.”
“How dare you!” Another fit of silent laughter from Dan and after the shoulders and chin settled he said “Well I can’t deny that but the name stuck for good after the deal James did.”
Dan slowed the car and before I knew it we’d stopped.
“Here we are. I know you’re gonna like the guys in here.”
As I got out of the car my heart was so heavy it had gone to the pit of my stomach. But in a moment all that changed. THE HALFWAY HOUSE sign looked down at me and below it on a stained glass window were the words MILLER LITE. And suddenly my heart was like a beaded bubble winking at a Miller’s brim.
We were here for the cure. And Dan was right. I did like the guys inside.
But that’s another story.
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Thank you for reading. – Colm