Tea in Coburg
Fiction by Henry Alley
Noah Aiken’s family lived on some filbert acreage just north of us. Their nearest town was Coburg, center for antiques. The Aikens people had been there for years, first running a dairy, and then later retiring into gentleman-farmership. Mrs. Aiken, Noah’s mother, oversaw what she thought was a proper household in a place that had been active all the way back to the 1880s. This glowing homestead was white with two stories, along with an attendant cottage which they sometimes rented out. When Mrs. Aiken got wind that he and I were “seeing each other” seriously, we were invited over there for tea one Saturday afternoon. Noah, very closeted even for the 1980s, made it plain, in his own mild way, that I, a veteran of the Seventies and early Eighties San Francisco and Portland disco scene, was never to mention the word “gay” in his mother’s household. She knew what we were, so no need to mention it. Noah’s older brother Mel was gay, too, had been in San Francisco where I had been (although we had never run into each other), and might well be joining the soiree.
The yard behind the farmhouse was a single plane of soft green lawn, with the perfectly gathered filberts in the distance to the south across the road. There was nothing like those dark emerald shadows between the trees on a summer’s day. One afternoon, Noah had shown me the place when his mother was gone. We had stolen into the furnished cottage between renters, and had made heated love in the summer light which came through the lace curtains, reflections spinning everywhere. Its being early in our romance back then, I remember going wild with this quiet red-haired lumberjack, who went out on arborist calls for trees all over the county, this man with the heavily squared chest, even though he was lean. His skin had had a nutty taste, as though he had assimilated the whole filbert orchard in the years of growing up.
I was driven wild—which was completely consistent with the way I had been back then in the mid-1980s, the best time ever for disco. Just ask anyone. Being in a frenzy of grief over my lost wife and children, I was looking for something, anything, to ease things. I had been a loose cannon out on the dance floor, also an admirer of Loose Cannon Beer. And everything else that could be labeled as beer. Then one time, drunk in the afternoon, I had handed out teddy bears to children who were just getting out of school, and I was jailed for that until it was clear no one could prove I had suspicious motives. Which I hadn’t—I was just trying to assuage a general sense of guilt.
But Noah was absolutely solid. February brought a hugely unseasonable snow storm (eight inches’ worth) which predictably melted suddenly and caused numerous trees in our town (we lived ten miles apart) to collapse into one another like frozen glass. Noah was out sawing, stacking, and hauling, enabling Carleton Park Water and Electric, eventually, to restore people’s power. I saw him as my means of getting the energy back into my life, too, even while I was ruthlessly ignoring our education gap (he never finished high school, and I actually taught it), and the huge conversational black holes which came with the relationship.
Toward the end of these two years that we were together, I would just about get the nerve to end things, and the green shadow of the Coburg Hills would fall over us while we were out secretly enjoying casing his family’s property, and I would slip into the delirium of kissing him. The neighbors down the road, summery and friendly, knew about us and would flag us down on our bike rides with an invitation to go floating out in their pond—anytime we wanted—behind their farmhouse, which belonged to the 1880s as well. Then with our hosts gone. Noah, naked, would sit on the mud on the edge (ironically, he had never learned to swim, even with that name), while I would float, also naked, out to the center on my back, with an emerald mountain in view and the luxurious water underneath.
As the tea in Coburg neared, things seemed full of promise. With Noah saying that some of his “investments” were going well and that his tree service was bringing in much more money than he expected, I thought I could let him down easy and say that his life, successful as it was now becoming, could separate from mine. Truth was, if we went through one more blank conversation, I was going to scream. Just let me stay out of the delirium of making love, and I could keep my head on straight and guide us out. My routines were helping me stay on task. Weekends, when Noah was working during the day, I would go dumpster diving, especially across our university campus, fishing out all the still usable clothes and knick-knacks and bedding and even food. I could spend up to twenty hours a week on my travels (rubber gloves and knapsack), then clean everything up (those industrial sized washers and dryers at the laundromat) and then give everything to the Oregon Gift Drive or Goodwill or Clothes for All. There was a penurious side of me which wanted to squeeze the most out of the least (take my house for instance, something I bought for $30,000, because it was going to be demolished otherwise)—this was the side which came from my penurious mother, who would save breadcrumbs—but I could turn my grasping hand toward giving, too. I was like a gambler whose winnings could have been vicious had he not have them raining down like golden coins on the poor. Recently, I had been written up in the local paper, because I had hit, in all that trash, on a stamp book, which, after one appraisal, might bring in up to $4,000, which all could go to Clothes for All.
“I’m happy for you,” Noah said, when we met one evening at the one gay bar in town.
I stared at him directly, but as usual his natural shyness always caused him to look away.
“I’m happy for you,” he went on. “But we never get together anymore. And you don’t move in.”
A common argument. His hands were cupped around his drink. He had also wanted us to adopt a child.
I still didn’t have anything to say. In the silence, I had recognized that after my wife, I’m not the marrying kind. Over in the corner, three television sets percolated with images of naked men, working out, in the fashion of the mid-Eighties. “We could think of other ways of spending time together,” I answered at last.
“When we can go over to Coburg and see Mom, that will be time,” he said. “Time together.”
So that when we finally arrived out at the farmhouse and Mrs. Aiken seated herself beside the teapot, I knew this was serious business, despite the fact that Noah’s good fortunes had given him a much better fallback position. I had told myself back at the bar that if I had any courage or any humanity, I would say something then, and not go over to be previewed by “mother.” But I hadn’t had the heart or the courage.
The living room of the homestead had been ruthlessly updated—knotty pine and plush black leather chairs and sofa—but the fireplace, even though it was summer and nothing was lit in it, still cast a certain antique spell. I believe I was thinking of my own mother.
“Noah,” Mrs. Aiken said, “bring that chair over here so that you and Colin can sit together.”
By sitting together, she meant side-by-side, I suppose. So now we were to have the conversation where no one was to mention the word “gay.”
Noah moved the chair, and we cozied up some, but not too much. Two weeks back, when attending the Ashland Shakespeare Festival’s The Tempest, Noah and I had huddled in the open-air Elizabethan Theatre and held hands underneath the blanket. The stars had formed a lovely archway over the rainbow set on the stage. Prospero was quite young for the part, somewhat in the manner of Jesus Christ Superstar, with beard and long hair. Still, he seemed capable of magic.
She started pouring from the antique tea pot. It was white porcelain, with red scrolls at the center, forming a kind of double heart. It seemed to vibrate a little. “What do you think of my antiques?” she asked. “Noah’s brother’s friend Rudy when he brings him along always likes them. He’s a specialist.”
She spoke her “r’s” as though they were “w’s.” It sounded like “Wou-dy” rather than “Rudy.” She was a slender woman with snow-white hair and a blue gaze that seemed a little silly. Unlike her son, she kept her eyes on everything.
“Very impressive,” I said. “I covet those gold enameled teacups on your shelf.”
The shelf put them on display.
“Those my great-cousin painted,” she said. “With real gold. I don’t use them because it might come off.”
Noah’s father came in. He seemed dusted from the orchard. He was on a larger scale than Noah, more sinewy, and the attraction in me was instantaneous, especially when my glance caused him to look down shyly, in perfect imitation of his son, and in complete contrast with his wife. “Pretty big party down the road. They’re eventually on their way to the Fair,” he said to me, without an introduction. Or perhaps this was his way of an introduction. The breeze from the open front door blew through his hair.
“All these antiques in this room are mine,” Mrs. Aiken went on. “I have the names of my family on the bottom of each piece on a piece of tape, so that everyone knows who they belong to when I croak off.”
It sounded like “cwoak out.” At first I heard “cloak off."
“What does that mean?” I asked. “‘Croak out?”
“I didn’t say ‘croak out,’” she answered. “I said ‘croak off.’”
There was a silence. That was supposed to set everything in good order. All when “gay,” my principal identifier for being here in the first place, couldn’t be mentioned. I remembered trying to have a conversation with Noah just after our seeing The Tempest. “Well, that was delightful” was all that I could get out of him. When I complained about this to a gay mentor of mine, he said, “Well, he’s just a man of few words!”
She said, “Noah may not be able to afford to stay in that place of his. I said I would sell a few of his antiques for him bewore I cwoak off, but he said not to do it.”
A glance from the two of us at Noah caused him to look away. His father smiled and stared at the floor. “You don’t have that right, Mother,” his father said. “Noah’s life has turned around recently.”
Outside—it was late June—some early fireworks went off. I thought I saw a flash through the door. Down the road, someone was practicing violin, against the sound of some chickens, and then the sound of a car approaching.
Mel, Noah’s older brother, bounded in. I hadn’t met him before—the man was pale with a skimpy beard, and I thought, in comparison, how healthy Noah looked. Noah introduced us.
“So,” Mrs. Aiken said, looking at me, “I told Noah he could live with you in the cottage if he wanted to. You both could move in together.”
Mel smiled. “Sounds like a plan.”
“But it was my understanding,” I said with exasperation, “that things were going well for you—moneywise.” I tried to catch Noah’s glance.
“Ha!” Mel answered. “Our flower shop over to Corvallis had a car run right straight through the front window. Going well? No.”
“Is that where most of your money is?” I asked Noah directly. “In a flower shop?’
“A demolished flower shop,” Paul added.
“This is all news to me,” his father said. “Demolished flower shop.”
I sat back in my Princess Anne chair, and felt as though I were being forcibly arrayed for the bridal. I could run straight out of here, followed by Noah, and jump into the neighbors’ pond naked, and eventually fuck Noah silly in the woods or have him fuck me, but that was simply to play out the old scenario.
Suddenly I heard disco music of the diva Sylvester out in the car in glorious falsetto. The car had brought Rudy. The song was “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real.”
“Rudy got that music for you,” Mel said to his brother. “He heard what demons you are out on the dance floor. He just out there test-listening to it.”
Well, one thing I could say for Noah, he knew how to dance. He was crazy about going down to the bar and kicking up his heels in his running shoes, under the shower of colored lights. I could keep up with him but just barely, and that challenge (I was in good shape with swimming and weight lifting) kept our romance going. When Rudy, then, came running into the living room with the Sylvester tape, and Noah’s face lit up, it was not altogether a surprise, and certainly a relief, even though this tea party was turning into something of a mad one.
Mrs. Aikens sent a cup across to Rudy and then to Paul. I felt as though this would be a perfect time to announce that I was a demon on the dance floor with no one. So no cottage for me, thanks, since dancing and choice of extended play disco singles seemed to be the only thing we had left in common outside the bedroom.
Just then, a woman with an avian face came flying into the room. She seemed dressed all in light rose diaphanous scarves—a true hippy—and she was yelling about her son. I couldn’t make it out at first, but then I recognized her as the woman of the couple who owned the pond. “I can’t find my boy,” she said. “Where is my boy? Is he here?”
We were all up at once. The teapot went down with a crash. “Just like the piano store window,” Mrs. Aiken said. We learned quickly that the woman’s pre-Fourth of July party had exited from her home and gone on to the Festival in downtown Coburg. She and her son Dylan had been left behind. She had just turned her back to take some of the plates and things into the house. When she returned, she had found him gone.
“He’s not here,” Mel said, “so he must be back down at your place.”
“Go down there on a ‘w’un,” Mrs. Aiken said, excited, pointing toward the door. “And you’d better look in that pond. He thinks he’s a tuwtle.”
And I did remember he was wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Tuwtles) T-shirt last time I saw him. However, he was hell on two legs, scampering everywhere.
We ran down the road, which was ribboned with the green of outlying Coburg. We reached the pond, with the two bowed, dark jade willows in front of it, just in time to see a triangle of white at the center begin to sink. I stripped myself to my shorts, and threw myself in. The water was frigid, even for June. Mel and Noah were suddenly in their shorts, too, and were following me.
“Noah,” I called, “remember you can’t swim!”
Mrs. Aiken and her husband had finally caught up with us. “Remember! Remember!” (but with the “w’s” for “r’s.” The sight of Mr. Aiken holding the needy Noah back, nearly slowed me down as I turned toward the bit of white once more. The bottom of the pond was so slick, I nearly fell face-forward in the brackish water. This swimming hole had now lost all of its romantic trimmings. Mel was nearly up with me, and was being waved to by his boyfriend. “You Make Feel Mighty Real” kept going through my head.
I was at the point where I could lift off the mud and swim without my toes striking the bottom. Dylan’s body was within reach—it eluded me once and disappeared—but I snatched at the T-shirt and pulled the little body to the surface. His blond hair shone. He spat and coughed water, and then Mel was up with me, We spoke calming words. I pushed him forward into Mel’s arms, as though he were a toy boat, and Mel, taller and still on his feet, turned and walked toward the group on the pond’s little beach, floating the Ninja turtle beside him. I hadn’t realized it until now, but Dylan’s mother had been yelling hysterical instructions the whole time.
Drawing up to dry land, we tried to get Dylan to lie down, but he scrambled up into his mother’s arms. They both broke into tears. A heavy wind crossed all of us, as I stood shivering there in my shorts. The willows were making a scything sound. I looked over at Mel’s body—it was not his brother’s. He was white and thin and bony. By then we heard the ambulance, and although Dylan seemed perfectly all right, the burly medic, emerging from the white and red van, insisted on whisking him away. The mother rode along with him.
* * *
Back at the house, Mrs. Aiken swept up the ruins of her teapot, and ordered Mel and me to the two separate showers in the place. Noah sat in his former chair, and looked despondent. I found myself in a bathroom with small fish painted on the walls. They were bright crayon colors. There was a similar motif on the shower curtain. The flood of hot water was soothing, and I realized how over-amped I had become by nearly losing Dylan. Thank God for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle T-shirts. I don’t know how long I just stood there, but I felt blessed again by the sight of the green Coburg hills outside and the sound of wind coming from the orchard. I felt almost sexy. At last I stepped out of the tub, and coming into the master bedroom where I was to dress, found Noah there.
“My mother says you’re supposed to have these.” And held out a pair of his own underpants, Calvin Klein, Waist 30.
I smiled. “They’ll never fit. I’m so much bigger.”
“I don’t know. I don’t like walking around without underwear on myself. It’s kind of nasty.”
Just then, Mel busted in with a towel around his waist, holding his own pile of clothes in the crook of his arm. He was followed by Rudy, who had a tape in one hand and a ghetto blaster in the other.
“Get to watch a couple of hunks get dressed to disco,” he said.
Evidently this was the room which Mrs. Aiken had assigned to all us gay guys. Sylvester started up again on the tape.
I drew on my jeans, which I had brought back from the pond, along with my polo shirt.
“Hell, Noah, your boyfriend belongs in Playguy with arms like that,” Paul said.
“No doubt about it,” Rudy said. “A definite ten. We all agree.”
I self-consciously put on my T-shirt.
“You can rescue me any day, Sir,” Rudy said. And I have to say he was in his own way attractive. African American and nimble and looking like the lead in Village People. There was a beautiful luster to his skin.
We heard the sound of Mrs. Aiken out in the living room. “Boys, hurry up! We’re going to start tea all over again. Then we’ll visit Dylan in the hospital.”
Mel and Rudy led the way out, but I detained Noah a minute. “I’ve ignored you today somehow, and I’m sorry,” I said. “Even before Dylan happened.”
He held his head as he sat on the bed again. I put my hands on his back.
“I just feel so useless,” he said. “I should have been out there in the water with you.”
“Not if you’re going to sink like a rock,” I answered.
At last his gaze meant mine. “We’re not going to adopt, are we? And you’re not moving in, not here or anywhere else?”
Despite myself, I could feel right now in my very tight loins, the old stirrings for every vulnerability I had seen in him, from his reddish skin when he was embarrassed to his wrong grammar (“had went”), to his charming gold chain which he only took off for lovemaking and then a shower.
“No,” I said, pushing up against him, and putting my hands on his bowed shoulders. I remembered the moment out in the pond when I had tried to soothe Dylan with touch and soothing words. Just beyond the door now, I could hear Mrs. Aiken say, excitedly again, above everything else—”Wudy, Wudy, turn down that music!”
But it was still going on, the gay disco. I kept my hands on his shoulders until the song stopped.
Henry Alley is a Professor Emeritus of Literature in the Honors College at the University of Oregon. He has four novels, Through Glass, The Lattice, Umbrella of Glass, and Precincts of Light, which explores the Measure Nine crisis in Oregon, when gay and lesbian people were threatened with being made silent. His short story collection, The Dahlia Field, will be published next year by Chelsea Station Editions. He lives in Eugene, Oregon, with his husband, the poet and teacher Austin Gray.