Mrs. Weiss was too busy to die. She backhanded the doctor, a good five years younger than her still-finding-himself son; the chicken scratch notes from her medical chart went flying everywhere. She leapt off the examining table in a single bound.
“Mrs. W, try to remain calm,” the doctor said while still on his hands and knees collecting papers. “We need to come up with a plan of attack.”
But Greta was already out the door, pushing past nurses and paying no heed to the receptionist’s cries. “Get bent, y’all!” she muttered in the underground parking lot as she limped up and down the rows of cars, trying to reconstruct where she might have parked an hour before.
Finally she spotted the classic green fins and got herself inside. “What he don’t know won’t kill him,” she muttered aloud as she fished for her keys. Would it kill her? “No wait-and-see for me. I’ve got no time to lose.” Key in the ignition, she floored the gas. “Purring like a baby!” She pulled out smoothly and headed for home, resolved to dedicate her remaining time to The Mission.
Greta Weiss knew she loved her husband too much.
“I don’t mind,” Harry claimed. And he didn’t.
She loved the deep crevices that ran on either side of his nose, down to his chin. She loved the silvery hairs that decorated his scalp and even the short baby ones that poked out of his left nostril. His coffee-colored complexion, deep-set eyes that sat like two chestnuts above and off to the sides of his majestic nose, his slightly pointy ears, dimpled chin—she couldn’t get enough of him. And he smelled so good. Old shoe polish? Or was it something else warm and inviting and darkly familiar? Cabbage boiling on the stove? Melted chicken fat?
They met not at the apex of their lives; the downward spiral had already commenced. She preferred to picture a lighthouse and the two of them gently descending the metal stairs, stopping at will to peer out the tiny windows or rest their ample bottoms on the alcove steps.
Each had had a child before they discovered each other: She, a boy; he, a girl. And therein lay the rub. The girl, Lulu, was as striking in looks as her father. Though her skin was no longer gently overlaid with peach fuzz nor her face aglow in the first light of day, she steadfastly refused to marry, becoming very clever instead at exchanging old boyfriends for new.
The boy, Jake, though extravagant in his masculinity, kind and giving and adept at most anything he could lay his hands upon, could not or would not settle in with one female and roost.
For a while now Greta had been beside herself, chagrined and heartsick. How am I ever to be a grandma? Harry, in this instance, was of no use to her. “Be happy,” he advised her again and again. “We still have our feet firmly planted on the steps; we still see the shining coastline and the surf when we lean out the lighthouse windows.”
“Be happy? I can’t,” Greta complained, knowing her days were numbered. She sunk into herself, alternately sulking and scheming.
“Don’t you love me anymore?” Harry asked, heart thumping.
“I do. I do. But . . .” And after that exchange she found nothing further to add. At any time now she might lose her footing and slip to the bottom of the stairs or get stuck in between. Death is one thing. Another is infirmity. I love Harry too much to let this happen without putting up a fight.
Her anxiety centered on this baby that refused to will itself into existence. She longed to gaze into the chestnut eyes of a miniature Harry, bathe and clothe him, breathe in his baby essence, comb his thick ringlets of chestnut hair, run her fingers over the points of his ears.
She was no fool. She could see this was never going to happen naturally. I love Harry too much not to grant him some measure of immortality.
Harry liked to read. He had history books, art tomes, science abstracts by the bookshelf. Greta preferred to watch animal shows and took mental notes about their behavior in less-than-ideal habitats. She also favored tabloid exposés on very fat men and women or very short men and women or those with life-threatening conditions or deformities or orphan illnesses who, by dint of hard work, faith, and conviction overcame their circumstances. Most saw monsters; she saw individuals willing to put up a good fight to get what they wanted. She sensed that these lost animals and lost souls might provide her with the solution to her predicament.
More and more Harry found himself moaning, “What’s become of my wife? So loving of yore yet now so remote?” He had exhausted himself trying to grasp the nature of her sorrows. True, they had no grandchildren and every one of their friends and neighbors and countrymen seemed on the very verge of being trampled by hordes of little ones. But how many of their friends, neighbors and countrymen had a love like theirs? Or like they once had? For Greta had started clocking many hours on the TV or at the library and seemed to be plain googling herself into a coma. She had a lot less time for him and his needs. How would this all end? Well, what can I do about it?
Each day he closed the book he had been reading, sighed, and dove right into a new book he picked up from the stacks on the floor. That didn’t leave him much time for concerning himself with the mysterious reasons behind his daughter’s abhorrence of being married, his stepson’s incapacity to snare a partner, and their mutual distaste for raising little ones. As Greta grew more absorbed and obsessed, he found he had little interest in commiserating with her, and, it must be admitted, little desire. Their cottage became a silent place with each of them lost in their own thoughts.
Greta was no slouch. She noticed the changes but loved her husband not a notch less, and was determined to right the wrongs in their family while her footing held. She’d concocted a preposterous scheme, The Mission, she hoped was devious enough to work. Could she pull it off? Required: great reserves of patience coupled with inhuman determination. Piece of cake.
When her son visited next, she started in as soon as she’d served him his favorite meal of lamb chops and mashed potatoes with a couple of glasses of red wine. “Jake, I’ve decided to freshen up our living quarters, put in a new wood floor, and custom-made bookshelves for all of Pop Two’s collections. You know how I love what your way with wood.”
“Sounds good, Mom. Ambitious. I’m rather busy right now. But you have all the time in the world to get it done.”
“Well, funny you should say that, Jakey. But I am in a terrible hurry.” She lowered her voice so Harry wouldn’t overhear them and continued, “Pop Two’s birthday’s next month. So . . . I’ve come up with a plan.”
“Oh, Lord save us!” Jake put down his fork and swallowed what was in his mouth. “Not one of your plans.” He glanced nervously over at Harry, snoozing in his armchair.
“You need to move into your old bedroom and start work immediately. We will pay you handsomely of course. Don’t deny that you could use the spare change.”
“Well . . . I don’t like to leave my apartment for so long,” he said, shuffling his feet under the table. The thought of being held captive in his mother’s house was not appealing. “The bird, the dog, the cats—”
“You must have a new girlfriend. Ask her to watch them. But you must start tomorrow.” She stood over him, brandishing her skillet. “Is it a deal?” When he hesitated, she added, “Have I ever asked you for anything?”
He feared she was on the verge of listing the many sacrifices she’d made in his name during the long years she’d been a single parent, before she met Harry. “Stop!” he commanded as he forked in a last bite of lamb. “I’ll get started tomorrow.”
Greta kissed her boy on the back of his neck, something she’d done ever since he was a baby coming out of his bath, and started reminiscing. Jake tried to join in her festive mood, but his eyes kept closing on their own. After clearing the table, she woke Harry and headed toward their bedroom. She turned to add, “Jakey, you can watch movies all night. Don’t worry about us. We can’t hear a thing outside our room anymore.” She tapped her eardrums. “Wood,” and laughing, disappeared down the hall with Harry in tow.
“Weirder than ever,” Jake mumbled, as he retired to his old bedroom. He immediately noticed an oversized flat screen TV hanging on the wall opposite his bed. What an extravagance, he thought, so unlike these frugal people. Tired though he was, he turned it on and the whole screen in all its pixelated sharpness showed him an enormous rear end: obviously female, obviously fit, firm, and prime real estate. He jumped into bed, settled under the covers, and did what came naturally.
Nice of Mom to reward me in advance for my labor!
While Jake was collecting his tools from home the next day, Greta examined his sheets: success! From here on in, however, she knew she was likely to meet more resistance. Spilling his seed on the sheets was not going to get anyone pregnant. That night after a dinner of pot roast and pumpkin pie, she excused herself and left the two men to tackle the dishes and clean up the kitchen.
When she returned an hour later, she had changed into her oatmeal-colored flannel nightgown and pulled her hair back with a gray hairband she’d knitted herself. Having no soft brown curls to soften her face, Greta looked every inch her age. Deeply etched lines crisscrossed her face like routes on a map; her cheeks migrated south; her eyes sunk deeper into her skull. She marched right up to her son, tilting her head so he could survey the situation up close. “Jakey, look. I’m so old.”
Harry let out an exasperated “Oy,” and left the room. Jake kept his head averted while he said, “Mom, you’re not.”
“I’m so unhappy. . .”
“Oh, stop it, please. You look like you’re supposed to look at your age.” He picked up his tablet and started playing a game.
“Why go on if it must be like this?” She collapsed onto Harry’s recliner and let out a soul-piercing shriek. “AIEEE.”
“Mom!” Jake dropped his tablet. “What’s come over you? I’m going to bed. I have a full day’s work tomorrow, starting on the floor.” He shook his head, disappointed in his mother and frankly, appalled. Would his new girl, Gia, look like her one day? What had his mother done to herself? He’d never noticed anything amiss before.
For three nights running, Greta kept up her act which drove Harry into their bedroom earlier and earlier. She sat on the couch with her head in her hands, wailing,“Why can’t anyone help me?”
“What do you want me to do? Anything,” Jake pleaded. “I can’t take this.”
“So glad you asked,” Greta said, recovering quickly. She reached into her pocket and thrust a paper at him. “Here, read this article on the—let me see how they say it—‘Transformative Effects of Spermatozoa on the Sub-Cutaneous Health of Elderly Patients.’”
Jake grabbed the article and reread the title slowly. “Geez, Mom. This is sick!”
“I can’t ask your stepdad. His is no good any more, too little to go around.” She shoved a small paper bag from the druggist his way. He pocketed it without looking before escaping to his room where he eagerly tuned in to another night of Bad Girls from Around the Globe. As he stepped out of his clothes, the paper bag fell onto the bedspread revealing three test tubes labelled with the date. “Huh?” Jake muttered, picking up the article from Scientifica and quickly scanning it. “What the hell?” He threw the article in the wastepaper basket and settled in for the evening’s entertainment.
Morning came. Greta was chipper as she stood in the kitchen chopping onions for Jake’s omelet. She held out her hand.
“What? I got nothing for you.”
Her eyes filled with tears, but she said nothing. That night, however, she pressed upon him another paper bag, and every night that week she did the same until Jake pleaded with her to stop. She agreed only if he’d let her explain. She recited from memory: “Massage into your face nightly and regain your youthful appearance.”
“Mom, that is just plain gross.”
“Do it for me. I don’t want Harry’s eyes to go wandering; I don’t want to be alone again.” Jake beat a retreat to his room and called Gia to get her take on the situation. Gia was a practical girl: “Make her happy. It’s a little thing. I might even have heard of this treatment. Maybe I’ll give it a try. . .”
Next morning as Greta held up the three vials of viscous liquid to the light, she declared, “Step I of The Mission is complete.”
Harry looked up from his breakfast. She’d forgotten he was within earshot. These days, though, he couldn’t decipher much unless she hollered directly into his ears. “Eat your breakfast, dear.”
She’d sent Jake packing. The floors looked great. There was no rush for new bookshelves after all.
Step II was going to be a hell of a lot trickier. She hadn’t worked out all the moves but she’d dug out her trusty turkey baster.
Lulu was overdue for her yearly weekend visit. “Come out, dear. Wait until you see what Jake’s done with the renovations.”
“Well. . .”
“Pop’s birthday, don’t forget. Your being here means a lot to him.”
Greta reasoned: If Lulu had her monthlies, she wouldn’t have agreed to visit. Everyone knew she spent a few days every month curled up in bed with cramps. Therefore she might be ovulating!
Lulu would never consent to what Greta had in mind. Greta had no choice, did she? She would do bad for the greater good. And what could be a greater good than bouncing a baby on my knee? She knew she was doing wrong, but she didn’t lose any sleep over it. Still—how was this going to work anyway?
Knowing that Lulu wasn’t much of a talker or eater, wasn’t social really, but boy, liked her mimosas, Greta invented reasons every night of her stay for the two of them to sit around and get plastered. While Lulu drank, Greta ran into the kitchen to dump her drink back in the pitcher and fetch the turkey baster for the moment when Lulu lost consciousness.
Greta was not proud but facts are facts: Step II went according to plan. A few weeks later, Lulu called her up and asked if she had a natural remedy for queasiness. Now what?
Greta realized she needed to work fast or Lulu would get suspicious. She’d done her research and figured her best chance was to go abroad. “Harry, lovey, we are going on the trip of a lifetime!”
“But we just spent so much money on the floors. . .”
“You love to travel to distant lands, don’t you? We’ve never been to Africa. Now’s our chance. Before we’re too old.”
Harry was always so easy to please. “I see your point. Okay, plan away!”
A week later Lulu was crying on the phone. “Greta, I’m pregnant. I can’t believe it. I am so careful.”
“Darling, these things happen. Maybe it’s a good thing?”
“Don’t start, Greta. You know my feelings on the matter. Are you going to help me or not?”
“Pack your bags; you’re coming with us on a trip,” Greta announced. “I’m taking you to my doctor—he happens to be in South Africa.”
Step III: the scariest step of all. Greta let Lulu into the plan. Dr. Koketso would remove the fertilized egg from Lulu and implant it into Greta. Though way past childbearing age, Greta would carry the baby to term. Boatloads of hormones would make this possible. She wouldn’t even be the first woman to give birth to her own grandchild, but decidedly one of the first. Truthfully, she cared not a fig for her place in history and had the doctor promise there would be no publicity.
“Well, I don’t know, Greta. Seems like a lot of trouble. I could just—”
Greta covered her ears and walked away, “I can’t hear you!”
Lulu knew how stubborn her father’s wife could be. She’d always wanted to go on a safari. As long as I don’t have to deal with the little critter myself. She called out, “Whatever.”
Greta jumped up and down and ran to give her stepdaughter a big hug. Lulu tried hard not to flinch at her touch. “I’m going home to pack.”
On their arrival at the clinic in Johannesburg two days later, Dr. Koketso examined both women. He questioned Greta, “You’re 55, right? Mrs. Weiss? In good health?”
He shuffled through some papers and without waiting for her answer, continued, “You’ll do. Do you have the money?”
Greta started slowly counting out the bills. And recounting them.
Lulu thought she saw the doctor salivate at the sight of all that money. She felt a freakout coming on. “Greta, I need to get back to my baking business. Just get it out!”
“How soon can we do this, doctor?” Greta asked.
Dr. Koketsu narrowed his eyes. “What’s the hurry?” he asked.
By way of answer, Greta threw in another wad of bills.
Days later the fetus was relocated without a hitch. Lulu immediately caught a plane back home to resume her blissful child-free life. She opted to forego the safari in exchange for cold cash. Since Greta would require close medical supervision for the next nine months, she decided to rent an apartment near the doctor’s offices. Harry, though surprised, did not protest once. He’d never lived in Africa before. “Tomorrow, our safari!” he said. “Isn’t this wonderful?” He gave Greta a big smackeroo kiss on the lips.
“You have no idea,” she whispered, grinning to herself.
As the months passed, Greta grew larger and larger. Harry tried telling her to cut down on the local fare. “Those twisted pastries aren’t good for you. Or maybe it’s the frikkadelle meatballs? Could also be those Boerwors sausages.” When that had no effect on her waistline, he questioned whether ostrich meat might be fattening.
About a month before the birth, when Greta looked about to burst, she told him the truth. Well, some of it. Not the part about how Lulu got in the family way. Nor how she had to rely on Jake’s jism. Certainly not about the fetus relocation.
“Funny how these things happen,” she said, ruffling his hair, kissing him all over his face and neck, and melting into his arms.
“I guess you’re right,” he said, though something nagged at the back of his mind. He didn’t quite follow. Isn’t Greta too old to have a baby?
In the spring, baby Jonas came into this world via Caesarean section, looking more like the ex-spouses of Greta and Harry than either of them. He had blond ringlets tinged with red, startling blue eyes, and a strong personality like his mother/grandmother. Jake was appalled and outraged at his mother’s level of trickery, but eventually came to realize that thanks to this determined little brother/son of theirs, he and Lulu were permanently off the hook. Sworn though he was to secrecy, he nevertheless realized he now had a trump card when it came to his mother. He would have nothing more to fear from her. Ever.
He visited a bit more often to help spell his parents with childcare duties. He had to admit he was getting fond of the little fella. . . .Even Gia was coming around. Lulu visited once and barely looked at the baby. She couldn’t understand why he bore no resemblance to any of her past lovers. If anything, when he threw a tantrum, he looked a little like Jake. Maybe because Jake is spending so much time over at Harry and Greta’s? She flashed back to her drunken reveries with Greta the year before. Nah, that’s even too twisted for Greta. She vowed not to think about it a minute longer.
Harry was getting to be an old guy. He puffed out his chest, assured he was the father of little Jonas. What a woman I have! He saw his wife with a halo of light encircling her—maybe due to one of his cataracts. He was thrilled to have her attention once again, even if it meant holding his grandson while she readied his bath or spooning vegetable puree into his bird mouth while she warmed his bottle or assembling the baby carriage in preparation for their daily promenade to the local park. Greta would kiss his balding pate and Jonas’s soft sparsely-covered head and make a sound not unlike a kitten purring. She couldn’t have been happier.
For Greta had no worries. Following the baby’s birth, Dr. Koketso had removed her uterus and the small cancerous tumor embedded therein, and pronounced her well and amazingly fit for her age.
She’d bounced back to the top step of the lighthouse stairs with a clear unblemished view of all that lay before them. “All’s right with the world,” she said at least five times a day. (And her skin just glowed.)