The smoke from crackling fireworks clung to a crisp, autumn air as I walked out of Williams-Brice Stadium with Kelsey on my arm. The Carolina Gamecocks had just dominated their fiercest rivals, the Clemson Tigers, in a 31-17 man-handling, and the city of Columbia was out of control. The streets outside the stadium were packed with students screaming and dancing and vomiting. One side of the mass chanted, “GAME!” while the other echoed, “COCKS!” As I passed through the crowd, I saw more than a few grown men in Clemson apparel wiping tears from their faces.
Kelsey was in a little black dress and cowboy boots, the traditional garb for sorority girls at football games. She had a thick southern drawl, a fat ass, and a burning passion for animals. She looked up at me with her big, brown eyes.
“Did you know that cats have only been domesticated for a few thousand years, while dogs have been domesticated since caveman times?”
“Wow! I didn’t know that!”
I held her closer as we wove through the throngs of people crossing the street. Flags bearing Greek letters flew high along the purple horizon. I heard someone shout from behind me.
Before I could turn around, an arm wrapped around my neck and a fist rubbed into my scalp. It was Balls, my little brother in the fraternity. He yelled at a nearby family sitting under a bright orange Clemson tent.
“We measure our Cocks by the yard, baby! Woooooo!”
The family reeled in disgust. Balls took off.
“See you back at tailgate, Boosh!” he called over his shoulder.
Kelsey and I reached the first row of fraternity tailgate lots. The smell of grilled meat and bushels of hay filled my nose. The crackling bumps of overworked speakers blasting rap music punctured my eardrums. Guys wearing suspenders and bow ties dry-humped women wearing dresses on wooden stages, the beds of pick-up trucks, and the tops of U-Hauls. I heard Kelsey call out.
She took off towards a random fraternity tailgate. I followed her under the tent to find her kneeling down, petting a rooster through a chicken wire fence.
“Isn’t he just precious!?”
A brother of the fraternity we were intruding upon walked over and picked up the rooster.
“What’s his name?” Kelsey asked.
The man rubbed the rooster’s wrinkly gobbler and made a kissing sound.
“Cocky, of course,” he said.
It wasn’t the official school mascot, Sir Big Spur. Stealing that guy would be next to impossible to pull off. They probably got this guy from a nearby farm.
“So is he y’all’s pet?” Kelsey asked.
“Kinda. Just for today, really.”
“Oh, then it’s back to the farm?”
He looked over at the sizzling grill, which was manned by two pledges. The rooster bawked. Kelsey’s face dropped.
“You monsters! What gives you the right!? That’s our school mascot!”
She slapped her hand on his chest. He looked straight at me. I felt the piercing glares of dozens of his surrounding brothers. I took Kelsey by the hand.
“Come on. Time to go.”
She pulled back as I led her quickly out of the tailgate.
“No, Alex, No! You have to do something! They’re going to eat that pretty little bird!”
I continued to pull her away.
She shook my hand off, looked at me with her big, brown eyes, and started to cry.
“Kelsey, I can’t do anything. You saw how many guys were there,” I said.
Her cries turned into wails. People started to stare.
“Okay, okay. Shhhh. Tell you what. Let’s go back to my tailgate, I’ll talk to some of the guys, and I’ll see what we can do.”
She bit her lip and nodded. My concession seemed to have appeased her for the time being. We continued to walk hand-in-hand.
“Did you know that sloths always mistake their own arms for tree branches and fall? It’s their number one cause of death!” she said.
When we reached my fraternity’s tailgate, the scene was similar to the others. Drinking. Screaming. Dry-humping. My fraternity brother, Scott, had a dog named Levi, who was running amuck in the crowd of tailgaters. A girl dropped her hot dog on the ground, and Levi took off in hot pursuit, knocking over an older alumni. Scott quickly grabbed Levi by the collar, scolded him, and led him into the back of the U-Haul.
“Whaddup Boosh!” Balls called me over. “Where you been, man?”
“Actually, I’ve got a bit of situation,” I said. “I’m gonna need your help.”
Night had fallen, and the impromptu dance floors at each tailgate were still in full swing, illuminated with floodlights. Balls and I walked toward the tailgate that held the rooster captive. I hoped they hadn’t already hacked its head off and thrown it on the grill.
“You got the diversion, right?” I asked Balls.
He held up a packet of Black Cat firecrackers.
We reached our target and ducked behind a large F-150, peering over the top of the truck bed. I saw the rooster clucking about in its pen. One pledge sat nearby on a bale of hay keeping guard, but he was clearly distracted, his face sucking on the mouth of a girl, both of his hands firmly grasping her butt cheeks.
“Alright, you flank around the other side of the tailgate and light those off,” I said. “I’ll grab the cock.”
“Break,” Balls said, before sprinting off into a crowd of people.
I sat behind the oversized pick-up truck, waiting for the signal. I saw a flicker of sparks on the other side of the tent. Then nothing. I waited for about 30 seconds, heart pounding in my chest. Balls ran up next to me.
“Shit! Was it a dud?” he said.
“I don’t know, man. Maybe it got we –“
There was a loud pop and a flash of white light. Then two more. Then a barrage. People near the succession of explosions scattered, spilling their drinks. All eyes were on the unexpected fireworks display. Under cover of chaos, I made a mad dash for the pen, where the terrified rooster was hopping up and down and flapping its wings. I grabbed him by the sides and retreated, sprinting back towards our home base with Balls on my six, both of us laughing hysterically. As we ran through the crowd, I hoisted the rooster above my head and howled.
I felt a wet, smelly substance plop on my head and trickle onto my shirt.
Back at our tailgate, a flock of girls approached the rooster in my arms, ooing and awing.
“Where the hell did you get that?” Scott asked. “And why are you covered in shit?”
I craned my neck above the gatherers, trying to find Kelsey. I felt someone tap my shoulder.
“Yo Boosh, heads up,” Balls said.
I looked behind me to see a golf cart driving between the rows of tailgates, shining a spotlight through the crowd. I recognized the driver –- it was the guy from the other fraternity who said they were going to eat the rooster.
“Shit. We gotta hide it,” I said.
“Back of the U-Haul. Quick!” Balls said.
I threw the rooster in the back of the truck and pulled the hatch closed. Balls cried out in victory.
“Yeaaaaah, they’ve come to snuff the rooster…but it ain’t gonna die!”
I figured I would leave the rooster in the back of the U-Haul till the golf cart patrol had given up. Eventually, I found Kelsey and gave her a hug. She pushed me away.
“Blech! What are you covered in?” she asked.
She sat me on the couch and brushed my shirt with a wet paper towel.
“I got a surprise for you,” I said.
I led her to the back of the U-Haul, hoisted the door up, and flicked on the light.
She screamed in horror.
Confused, I looked into the back of the U-Haul. Blood, guts, and feathers were smeared all over the walls and floor. In the middle of the mess sat Levi, a yellow leg sticking out of his mouth. He sat over a pile of mangled, de-feathered flesh. I heard Scott shout from behind me.
“Levi! Bad dog! Bad dog, Levi!”
Kelsey started to wail inconsolably. Balls put his hand on my shoulder.
“Well, there’s only one thing we can do now,” he said.
I looked at him.
“What?” I asked.
Balls motioned for a kid in suspenders and a bow tie.
“Pledge, fire up the grill!” .
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