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The adult son has big lips and big cheeks and he chews his finger, and lies on the sofa like a baby with an erection, you know, a reminder of the animal nature of the body, the innocence of other days, unselfconsciousness, and all that. Not that he really ever has an erection as he lies there watching television. That's just metaphor.

Sometimes there are questions, like Why is such a big boy still living at home? What's the story with the soft pants?

His sister used to be the very same, and people used to remark on it, saying: those two are the very same, sort of. She had a sheen on her skin, that certain sheen, a dewy and menstrual look as in the advertising photos for the feminine products that the mother buys and leaves in the bathroom cupboard with no discussion. But she had that sheen all the time, every day, and she didn't help very much around the house. It was troubling, these two sort of sexualized adult babies, always on the couch, so lazy.

None of this is very important in anyone's larger scheme of things, but all of the neighbors were interested. The neighbors all thought the adult son should be working. About the sister, they said, Well, she could certainly get a job too, if she wanted.

About the mother they didn't say anything bad, but the withholding of comments meant that the two grown children had been spoiled, spoiled. They must have been, otherwise they would know better than to be so shameless, to sit around in their pajamas all day licking spoonfuls of French-style yogurt puddings from the expensive section of the supermarket and picking at the same kinds of cookies sent to Windsor Castle by the famous industrial bakers of England.

You can find this same situation all over the place, which is why the details hardly matter at all, except to other people living close enough to be irritated.

The mother isn't irritated, though. She just continues. She shops at the supermarket, always buys the TV Guide and too many delicacies that common opinion says her children don't deserve. Her only personal indulgence, apparently, is that she has her hair washed and set every two weeks in the beauty parlor. She does not seem wash it or touch it in between. In these last years she has become so dry, so odorless, so slim, and so patient that the two-week intervals pass by like nothing, like no time at all.

This is where the description could very reasonably end, unless you want to know what they live on. This ever-more elderly mother, and the two unemployed adult children? Everybody has to live on something, it would be normal to wonder. The neighbors can tell you about it. They know about the life insurance, and the settlement, her husband their father killed in an accident, not a freak accident either, just a regular, normal accident that could happen to anyone, any day. And they know about the money?  Enough for the three of them for all of their lives. The condition of the adult children is interpreted as proof of the danger of too much of this kind of money. It is seen as a moral failing, somewhat, but an understandable one, given the persuasive power of such a passive income. And then there’s the tragedy of the accident; of course that counts for something.

And that is another point where the story easily peters out--it has gone beyond the casual interest of the unconcerned already.

But one day the daughter gets up from the couch and she undergoes some kind of a change. She washes her hair and she puts on a clean pair of soft pants and a blouse, laundered and folded by her mother. She has no fashion sense but she goes to the beauty parlor because it is the only place that she can think of going. The women who work there recognize her, of course--she has been the subject of enough speculation over the years. This adult daughter is awkward and out of the habit of making conversation. Her heavy, unplucked eyebrows rise expressively, but she does not know how to explain what she wants; her reference points come from the soap operas she has been watching for so long with her brother. So many significant pauses, decisions, reversals, avowals.

Do you want your hair done, honey? No, that's not what she wants. Anyway, when she asks for a job they give her one, from surprise but also as a way of making good on all they've said about her in the past. Out of curiosity and to see what she will make of work, they tell her she can wash hair part-time at the scalloped pink sink in the back, to get the lady customers ready for the hair-cuts and curly-sets.

She draws her fingernails along the fragile skulls of the old ladies and never, ever complains; she can feel the flushing pulse, the humming of their brains. She enjoys rubbing and scratching them and seeing the flesh of their faces go smooth as they lie back in the chair. If the truth be told, the ladies like it too, because she has a gentle, thorough, courteous, and curious way about her.

While wrapping them up firmly in the terrycloth turbans, she talks of television, and in time she is a success. The ladies step along to the hairdressing stations, relaxed and with tingling feelings that linger.

Of course she washes her mother's hair in this way too, when her mother comes in for her appointments, and their conversations are much the same as those the daughter has with other customers. The mother blinks, nods, comments, acquiesces. No one ever asks whether the daughter offers to wash her mother's hair at home; that's private. But still, it is nice to see them at the sink like that, together. It is very nice, all agree.

This is how it comes to be told: that the daughter is the one who came through all right in the end, who roused herself, became productive and even social, and is clearly the most normal one in the family.




a positive outcome

maile chapman