There was a man and a dog, Reveille, too this time. Two beasts, counting Tony, the landshark, and two men, counting his father and his father’s friend Sawyer. The boy was eighteen. For ten years now he had been coming to games with his father. For ten years now he had seen Ole Miss win and lose games, had heard the shouts and calls of fans in Vaught-Hemingway, had heard in the long drive back to Jackson after a win the best of all talking. Now, though, the talk was of the wilderness, the long bowl drought, stretching to its fourth year, longer than any stretch he’d yet endured in his fandom. He sat in the Grove with his father and his father’s friend Sawyer and spoke of these things now, before the game, before the Aggies came to the field. In these tailgatings there was always a bottle present, so that it would seem to him that those fine fierce instants of heart and brain and courage and wiliness and speed were concentrated and distilled into that brown liquor which in the Grove’s expanse was drunk greedily by women and men, that condensation of the wild immortal spirit, drinking it immoderately, humbly still, not with the pagan’s base and baseless hope of acquiring thereby the virtues of cunning and strength and speed but in salute to them. Thus it seemed to him on this October morning not only natural but actually fitting that this should have begun with whiskey.
In the stadium, he passed through the bag check and into the student section where he spoke to his pledge brothers and his pledge trainer and his pledge trainer’s date and at last he walked from the party tents and he saw for the first time the beer counter where his father and Sawyer and the others stood in a line that wrapped half of the Vaught, it seemed. He had already inherited then, without ever acknowledging it, the tremendous desire for beer during a game, in an area already scented with bourbon and fireball, but the promise of the beer, a Landshark, named before the mascot, called to him deeply, and he knew he must stand in the line, must offer up the fake ID his pledge brother got him two weeks earlier, must drink long of beer before returning again to the student section.
He had listened to it for years: the long legend of purchased alcohol, of tallboys bought and paid for and downed in the concourses of NFL stadiums, but in these first months of the new season, he’d been forced into slipping to the bathroom and unwinding tape from thigh and removing secreted flask and pouring the sneaked bourbon, the covert bourbon, the banned bourbon into the emptied coke cup and downing half point-blank and with no more effect than so many peas blown through a tube by a boy as he stumbled back to the half-inhabited student section—a corridor of wreckage and destruction beginning back before he was born, through which sped, not fast but rather with the ruthless and irresistible deliberation of a locomotive, the shaggy tremendous shape of Matt Luke’s Ole Miss football team. It ran in his knowledge before he ever saw it. It looked and towered in his dreams before he ever saw the bust of Chucky and left its crooked print, shaggy, huge, redeyed, not malevolent but just big—too big for the Commodores and the Razorbacks and the very country which was its constricting scope, though still too small for the Tigers and the Tigers and the Tide and the Golden Bears. He seemed to see it entire with a child’s complete divination before he ever laid eyes on the first poorly called timeout—the doomed wilderness of loss whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by line coaches who feared it because it was wilderness, men myriad and blameless since the third season was really the first season and so they trudged on in the stadium where the landshark had earned a name, through which ran not even a team any longer but an anachronism, out of an old dead time, a phantom, epitome and apotheosis of the old championship-winning life at which the puny masses swarmed and hollered in a fury of abhorrence and fear, like pygmies about the ankles of a drowsing elephant: the old memories of victory solitary, indomitable and alone, widowered, childless, and absolved of mortality—old Priam reft of his old wife and having outlived all his sons. This was the life the boy found himself in as a freshman newly moved from Jackson.
Now the line ahead of him and the crowd noise were one uproar. It rang and clamored; it echoed and broke against the concrete of the stadium around him and reformed and clamored and rang until it seemed to the boy that all the fans which had ever hollered at games in this stadium were yelling down at him. He took a step forward as the line moved. Ahead of him his father and Sawyer stood in powder blue pullovers, talking amiably of the new chancellor. The boy and the line moved ahead, and men with freshly opened beers walked past the long snaking of the line and the boy could smell that crispness on the cool October air.
“Damned IHL ain’t worth a shit,” his father said.
“It ain’t Boyce,” the other replied, “It’s the daggum process.”
The boy had stood earlier in the week on the steps of the Lyceum, holding a sign and shouting, though now his mind has already started to drift from what he’d been angry about to other concerns, the need for an athletic secondary, a head coach who could hold to his timeouts for longer than a wink, a date to the next home game, one of the eight dollar beers he was standing in line for now, his tongue dry and throat parched so that he didn’t feel he could shout and call in the stands even if the team remained competitive.
His father turned to look at a passing cluster of maroon-clad men. “That was Bjork,” he said. “Fucking Bjork still walking around like he owns the place.” The line moved ahead, and the boy wondered and wondered and the line moved and his father and Sawyer paid for their beers and moved back off to their seats and the boy stepped to the counter, handed fake ID to the woman, asked for a Bud Light, remembered himself and said “Landshark, no, Landshark,” but the woman was already squinting into the face of his ID, shifting it to see the hologram inlaid beneath the lamination, the one his pledge brother had assured him would pass muster, and in a whorl the ID was taken from him and he shouted and raged against the injustice and security removed him and he found himself outside of the stadium as on the field the Aggies scored again and the Rebel secondary faltered, and the boy walked back towards the Grove and his father’s tent.
He couldn’t tell when he first began to hear the sound, because when he became aware of it, it seemed to him that he had been already hearing it for several seconds—a sound as though someone were hammering a gun-barrel against a piece of railroad iron, a sound loud and heavy and not rapid yet with something frenzied about it, as the hammerer were not only a strong man and an earnest one but a little hysterical too. Yet it couldn’t be in the stadium because, although he’d only just departed, it was at least 200 yards back and this sound was not a hundred yards away to the front. But even as he thought that, he realised where the sound must be coming from: whoever the man was and whatever her was doing, he was somewhere near the edge of the Grove, not far from the tent to which the boy was walking. So far, he had been meandering as he advanced, moving slowly and quietly through the October evening and watching the ground and the trees both. Now he went on, his mouth still parched, through empty tents and stands of camp chairs, approaching as it grew louder and louder that steady savage somehow strangely hysterical beating of metal on metal, emerging from the tent he could now see in the distance was his father’s, with a solitary oak directly beside it. At first glance the tree seemed to be alive with frantic grove squirrels. There appeared to be twenty of them leaping and darting from branch to branch until the whole tree had become one green maelstrom of mad leaves, while from time to time, singly or in twos and threes, squirrels would dart down the trunk then whirl without stopping and rush back up again as though sucked violently back by the vacuum of their fellows’ frenzied vortex. Then he saw the man squatting before his father’s Yeti beating viciously at the lock with a piece of metal rod taken from some disassembled tent with the frantic abandon of a madman. He didn’t even look up as the boy approached. Still hammering, he merely shouted back at the boy in a hoarse, strangled voice:
“Get out of here! Don’t touch it! Bourbon! Bourbon and not beer! Beer is not enough! The weight of all this horror! The weight of fandom! Don’t touch it! It’s mine!”