In mid-August, our small town puts on a huge potluck supper called the "Ox Roast," which is attended by almost all of the 300 residents. The night before, we start a bonfire in the roasting pit, collapsible lounge chairs pulled up, thermoses of coffee and boxes of donuts at the ready. Early in the morning, about 6 a.m., two of the quarters of a young heifer are skewered with metal rods used for reinforcing concrete and then wired to the makeshift rotisserie, using sheep fencing and metal bed-springs. The motor is plugged into a series of bright orange extension cords from the house. All day, the meat lurches up and down, round and about, the motor clicking and whirring.
During the afternoon, picnic tables are dropped off and table lamps are duct-taped to the crotches of apple trees and to the top posts of the run-down tennis court. A long stretch of hay bales serves as a groaning board for the potluck salads and casseroles. Last summer the salad section alone included four fruit salads, all served in watermelons; four potato salads, macaroni salad, three pasta salads, two coleslaws, two marinated cucumber salads, rice and tomato salad, three bean salad, nacho salad, baked rice salad, and pink cottage cheese and Jello salad. For dessert, there was carrot cake squares, blondies, peach pie, apple pie, snickerdoodles, molasses cookies, two blueberry cobblers, brownies, banana nut bread, date nut bread, yellow sheet cake with peaches and raspberries and whipped topping, chocolate cake, blueberry grunt, orange jello, lemon cucumber pickles, a pumpkin pie baked with no crust, and orange cake. This was all washed down with gallons of sweet iced tea held in a huge metal urn and plenty of Mountain Dew. A few guests brought their own coolers of beer, sitting off to the side, drinking quietly so as not to disturb the unstated rule about no alcohol.
When the meat is ready to be taken off, we unhook one quarter, slide one end of the metal rod out of the rotisserie, and then carry it over to the carving table, a piece of old plywood rescued from the barn just behind us. And there I hack away at the huge steamship round of heifer. Every year, one of my favorite locals works his way over to the carving table equipped with his own pocketful of plastic forks, a good steak knife, and a few napkins. He speaks in a series of half-connected thoughts, ridding himself of prepositions, adverbs, and other unnecessary articles of speech, the remaining nouns and verbs spewed forth in no particular order. "Nice meat, take some, charred bits, best part . . .," he'll say, and then stop to eat, pulling at the blackened, crispy bits on the outside. As he spears yet another piece of charred meat he closes his eyes, chews thoughtfully, and intones, "Lovely, lovely . . . ."
When the meat is carved, it is set out on huge carving boards and ironstone platters. The crowd moves pretty quickly at this point, forming a queue in seconds, hoping to get to a particular dish spied earlier before it's all gone. Metal grates are set over the still-red-hot fire for the soaked field corn, which has been delivered in large, sturdy grain sacks. The kids finish up eating quickly, and then run around in threes and fours, hiding behind the berry patch or running up behind the old henhouse with the metal roof.
When the food is gone, the last cakey bits of grunt scraped from the corners of the dish and the second-string salads finally eaten, we walk down to the tennis court, where the makeshift band is tuning up and sorting equipment. Groups of eight dancers form in circles and then the old fiddle tunes start up. We shuck the oyster and dig the clam. We swing our partners and do the do-si-do. We go back the other way and then on the same way. As the couples become more experienced, the fiddler speeds up the calling, trying to mix us up, like a musical version of red light. Many of the old-timers pull up lawn chairs and watch; others get right into the thick of it, changing partners with city visitors and young kids, swirling in a mix of workboots and sandals, dark green farmer's pants and light blue summer dresses.
As the moon rises over the sharp peak behind us, the crisp night air rolls down into the small hollow. The vast stretch of stars and sky explodes upward from the tennis court, and I walk away from the dancing, up into the pasture. The mountains thrust upwards, dwarfing the bonfire, and the fiddle playing, and our small house set amidst the orchard and the overgrown briars. It is not now or a hundred years ago or anytime or place. We are all floating in time, moorings cut, out over the valley with its cornfields and rivers, free from everything that is heavy and limiting. The country has moments like this, when I am torn from my earthly tether, lifted up and away from all that I know is possible.