Ole Miss may have had a few drinks. One, two, or seven, it really does not matter, because LSU has had more than a few drinks. There are not enough policemen in the state of Mississippi to arrest everyone driving with an open container.
Traffic creeps into campus at a speed well below the posted 18-mile-per-hour speed limit signs. LSU fans trudge in toting huge, blue rolling coolers and suitcases of beer, or they squat in parking lots next to their cars while wearing purple and yellow tracksuits and tiger print coats. A plush tiger languishes on a truck hood.
Ole Miss is trucks, or more accurately, a long line of SUVs people call "trucks" because "truck" sounds cooler, more masculine, and more country, and yet with better cupholders and room for the kids and their hunting gear. Ole Miss thinks the new tailgating rules are bullshit: you used to be able to breeze into campus before there were cops slowing everything down. You could be at your spot in less than 10 minutes from the periphery of Oxford. Ole Miss might be feeling a bit peeved right now at Ole Miss and everything separating it from its tent, its chicken fingers, and its pimento cheese sandwiches.
Ole Miss fiddles with the stereo, because Ole Miss wants to piss Ole Miss off a little. Anthemic synth horns sound from the speakers. 808s sound, and Young Jeezy is blasting from the windows of a truck or SUV or whatever you want to call it.
My president is black, my Lambo's blue
And I be goddamned if my rims ain't too
My momma ain't at home, and daddy still in jail
Tryna make a plate, anybody seen the scale?
A few LSU fans in line nod along. Ole Miss bobs along, or it doesn't.
Ole Miss is colder than it should be today, and Ole Miss apologizes for that because Ole Miss is polite. Unfailingly polite, and not in the despicable way your evil church ladies used to be. This Ole Miss wants you to know that, sir, your ticket just fell out of your pocket, and that you might want that if you need to get to the game against LSU tonight. This one will spend 10 minutes combing the Grove for Bill, only to find two other friends of yours, and then ask, "but what about Bill?" when you forget Bill. He'll just have to find you.
This is not an exaggeration: somewhere in the Tailgating Shire that is the Grove, a total stranger asked me if I was sure I didn't want to find my lost friend, whom he had never met, and did not know from Bo Wallace or Adam. "Why don't you call him and tell him to come to our tent?" Ole Miss thought this was a good idea, so I did, and he asked us if we needed drinks. They had Coca-Cola and bourbon. You could have either or both. Or water, if you were sick or in between drinks.
There is no open flame at the Grove by rule, so nothing cuts the smell. Everywhere else in the SEC something in the air mitigates the stench of alcohol: wood smoke at A&M from the sausage stands, the swampy reek of Gainesville's rotting vegetation, the distinct odor of frying oil at LSU. At Ole Miss nothing diminishes the rocket-fuel odor of bourbon. In the Grove, at the right angles and with the right breeze, it smells like a late-stage William Faulkner exploded and is just off camera being cleaned up like a beached whale by smiling sorority girls in color-coordinated hazmat suits.
"I just spilled bourbon on my phone," Ole Miss says. It doesn't matter: cell service craps out before you ever hit the Grove. This Ole Miss went to its grandmother's funeral yesterday, where it learned weirdly Southern Gothic stories to tell you as you walk through the tents, flags, and slashes of sunlight of the tent city. (Did you notice the hay on the ground? And the little dust motes in the air, a touch which by title is really, really Faulkner, whether you want it to be or not?)
An LSU fan tries to put a cigarette in his mouth. He is too drunk to smoke. It falls out of his mouth and lays smoldering on the hay as he stares at it.
Ole MIss' grandmother had a secret first husband who died flying over the Himalayas, it turns out, and no one was supposed to know about it. She kept the secret until her death, when Ole Miss had to go into her house, go through her things, and discover the letters and the pictures of the guy, a handsome dude with schwoopy, pomaded hair who more than looks the part of Daring Young Man who Crashed a Plane into a Mountain. Ole Miss went to the funeral yesterday, but he's ready to go for the Grove today, because that is how team players play.
Behind us, a pair of kids, no older than seven and wearing full Ole Miss football gear, beat the living hell out of each other, wrestling for a football as other children watch. "YEAH. GIT THAT BAWL."
Ole Miss also got his grandmother's snack foods in the impromptu run on her estate. He is passing out a dead lady's snacks to anyone who will take them. We reach a tailgate by the stadium. Someone mentions State -- not Mississippi State, or MSU, but just "State" -- and Ole Miss, the one with the dead grandmother's story and the bag full of individually wrapped legacy cookies, laughs.
"Did you know Buck Showalter puts ketchup on EVERYTHING? That's the most State shit EVER. Oh, would you like a biscotti?"
Ole Miss does not expect Ole Miss to beat LSU. Not the cluster of Asian ladies wearing bug-optics sunglasses and sundresses in the Grove, not the black students wearing full bow tie-and-sport coat Tom Wolfe attire, not the floppy-haired white guys whom you think of as Ole Miss before you even get a chance to entertain the thought that this is something slightly different now. Ole Miss now has people who are not those white guys. Not just at Oxford. It also has them in the Grove. Weirder still, they Grove harder than anyone else, right down to the makeup, boots, ties, and patterned slacks.
Ole Miss thinks they will lose, and lose painfully, to LSU, a 6-1 team with hard-hitting running back Jeremy Hill, a resurgent Zach Mettenberger at quarterback, and a defense coming off a win against Florida in which it allowed only six points and suffocated an ailing offense. Ole Miss usually thinks it will lose everything but the party regardless of the evidence, but tonight goes past superstition. The Rebels were missing six players on defense before the suspension of cornerback Senquez Golson on Friday night and will face the SEC's most balanced attack while wearing bottle caps for body armor.
T.I. is playing over the PA. On the way in, Ole Miss tucks a fifth of Evan Williams Green into its pants and prepares for the game, or the worst, or whichever comes first. During a TV break in the first quarter, after Ole Miss' patchwork defense has shocked the crowd by not giving up two quick touchdowns, a man tries to kick a field goal for a year's worth of free chicken. He misses. I am enraged, because it's only something like a 25-yarder, more than possible if you direct kick deliberately and slowly.
"THAT'S FREE CHICKEN! HOW COULD YOU MISS THAT?" I scream. Ole Miss understands though, because it has missed on that kick for free chicken for years, metaphorically speaking. Ole Miss also understands I am drunk in the first quarter and unreasonably outraged at someone else missing out on a year of free chicken. (Ole Miss keeps a steady level of liquor in your stadium cup at all times.)
Then something truly strange happens to Ole Miss: it starts playing football well. Improbably well. The patchwork holds Hill to perfunctory, insignificant yardage. Mettenberger launches two interceptions into the hands of the secondary in the second quarter alone, both into baiting coverages. Ole Miss and I are in a sit-down section of the stadium. Three generations of Rebels are next to me, and Ole Miss wants me to know this is weird, this standing up in the middle of the second quarter and this tentative optimism.
When Ole Miss scores a touchdown to go up 10-0 on LSU, I go to the bathroom. Ole Miss takes off his headphones as he spots an LSU fan in line, and Ole Miss yells, "HEY I HEARD METTENBERGER'S INJURED, OH NO."
"Nah, I'm just fucking with him."
Two young LSU fans stumble in, one slumped over the other's shoulder and with a seasick face obviously seconds from puking. They cut in line. Ole Miss protests loudly. The able-bodied LSU fan yells out an apology.
"SORRY Y'ALL. GROVE 1, LSU 0."
They are allowed to pass without complaint.
Bo Wallace cannot miss, throwing back-shoulder tosses and nerve-wracking completions into coverage over and over again without a hiccup. At the half, Ole Miss has the most unnerving thing of all: a 10-0 lead.
Some time in the third quarter the fear sets in, the 100-proof stuff poured directly into the veins. Ole Miss begins doing things Ole Miss fans would regard as inevitable: allowing LSU to score a quick touchdown, then I'Tavius Mathers fumbling a ball into LSU's hands, then the obvious second score to narrow the gap. LSU and the horseshoe with permanent residency in Les Miles' ass get a muffed punt early in the fourth and convert for an easy field goal. They also block an Andrew Ritter field goal attempt in the fourth and tie the game with a Mettenberger pass with six minutes to go.
And Ole Miss does not and will not believe this could end well. They're trying, switching hats back and forth to appease whatever gods need hats to be switched. They're talking about the time in 1962 when they beat LSU 15-7 in Baton Rouge and had to flee a hail of whiskey bottles and furious Cajuns to get out of town alive. It's fear, but it's a live, anxious kind of dread, the kind when a quiet stadium has no other choice but to get loud or explode and die.
A burly, red-haired guy rushes up to us in the stands.
"Here, take some."
He takes the thin part of his neck tie and funnels more whiskey into our drinks, squeezing the fat part like a Basque wineskin into our drinks. I assume he's related or a friend or someone, because nearly everyone in Oxford on game day can plot out a relation of some sort by two degrees. He nods and walks off into the stands. I turn to ask who it was.
Ole Miss shakes his head. "I have no idea who that was."
When Ritter hits a 41-yarder to win the game 27-24 for the Rebels, Ole Miss just starts ... running. Running up the stairs, running down the breezeways, high-fiving the concessions ladies who are leaning out of the service window and cackling, running into a congested spiral rampway (where Ole Miss screams out "ARE YOU READAAYYYYYY" every 30 seconds or so to start another Hotty Toddy), and running across the parking lots to the Square, which will devolve into a drunken shitshow of outmanned bouncers and more Hotty Toddying down the way. They're running past LSU fans hustling to leave Oxford in all that Faulknerian dust in the rearview mirror.
Even with zeros on the clock, Ole Miss is not sure it really won the game. They are streaming out in battered dresses, running makeup, and hair in various stages of disarray. Shirts are untucked, ties are misplaced. Losing unravels a lot of fan bases, and starts fights in the bars, panic in the streets, and gets the occasional piece of furniture burned in the street. Ole Miss is wired backwards: it is winning that freaks it out, in the best possible way, rumpling the collars, getting old men to their feet in a frenzy and turning mothers of young children into hooting riot-eers.
That Ole Miss will not be going back to the Grove. The Grove closes at midnight because it has rules, order, and a decorum that most mistakenly confuse for the school and even the community itself. The full portrait of Ole Miss is in the stadium, where random strangers pour whiskey out of neck ties. Or it's the guy who'll happily tell you about every excruciating loss to LSU while hoping Bo Wallace completes one more pass to get in position for a dignified failure that will never come.
That Ole Miss is the dad to my left who so badly wanted to tell his son that they were going to win. He was the one who looked at me with a 27-24 lead and two seconds on the clock and said, "THERE ARE STILL TWO SECONDS TO SCREW THIS UP." That Ole Miss is the one who flipped out like a toddler when LSU's last run ended, screaming around high off of the most powerful drug of all: survival.
That Ole Miss is queued up and waiting in the long line of traffic -- past the stadium, past Archie's place, past the long stream of stunned, excited people heading no place in particular -- and playing Def Leppard's Hysteria loudly. The Grove is closed for the night. Ole Miss is wide awake and open for business, and formal gear, thrown somewhere in a tree or lost on the lawn somewhere, is no longer required.
I ask for a beer from no one in particular from the window of the truck. Out of nowhere, Ole Miss hands me two and wishes me good night, because no one is saying no to anything tonight in Oxford.
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