The Pale Kid by the Coke Machine
One father shares how his daughter with ADHD and anxiety conquers these challenges and treats others with compassion and understanding.
In drizzling December rain on the shoulder of I-85 South in North Carolina, a Good Samaritan stops behind our overloaded minivan to help my wife, daughter, and me with a blow-out. The rolling hydraulic jack he pulls out of the trunk of his Oldsmobile makes quick work of getting the blown tire switched to the tiny donut spare. The guy, Mike, won’t take the $20 I offer for his trouble. But he does say that donut will never get you home to Georgia. That where you headed? Noticed your plates, he says. Yeah, I know, I say. Know any tire stores around here?
Not many open on a Sunday, but Mike knows one place that could fix us up. Next exit, not far, just follow him. A half-hour later, trailing Mike’s Oldsmobile as it turns down one unmarked road after another under lead skies, I start to wonder, “What kind of guy drives around with a big old hydraulic jack in his car?”
Neither my wife nor our daughter is saying a word. And I’m beginning to understand why. Our 18-year-old daughter Coco, who, like me, is ADHD of a wound-tight type, and my decidedly non-ADHD wife, Margaret, have realized what I just have. With each turn down these long winding and rain-slicked pine-shrouded roads, I’m driving my family farther into a dark, no escape Stephen King novel. We’re the first characters, the ones that don’t make it out. We’re the ones that suffer horribly because of the sins of the bossy know-it-all dad who had to have a bargain. But there are no bargains where you’re heading are there? No, the only things that are cheap here are your lives. And it’s your greed, Dad, that’s doomed you and your innocent family to unspeakable terror and death.
Then the pines recede. The drizzling rain has turned to snow again and we pull into Best Deal Used Tires, a small run-down ex-gas station on the edge of a closed-up North Carolina town that doesn’t look like it’s been open for a while. But Best Deal Used Tires is open, and they have a used Dunlop tire our size. So now Mike’s back out on the Interstate trolling for customers and we’re inside waiting for a “guaranteed to get you home safe and sound” used tire to be put on our minivan by a guy who’s Mike’s best friend. By my watch it’s been an hour and seven minutes, not counting the drive here. But I’m not doing that. Other people are waiting too. Be patient. Breathe in and out. Nice and slow.
A pale kid sits by the Coke machine in a T-shirt with food stains on the front, his too-big jeans cinched tight at his waist with a canvas belt. He holds his hands in his lap, pulling on each of his fingers of one hand with his other hand, switching hands when he gets to the thumb of one, then back again with the other, as he squeaks his new black Velcro sneaks on the cracked linoleum. Then he jumps to his feet, and stands staring hard at the eight or nine people in the room, one by one, taking about five seconds per face. Nothing against the kid, but when his gaze falls on me I immediately avert my eyes, nervous and embarrassed for him. Maybe I’m also irritated at being bothered by him, and maybe I should be more understanding because my kids and I each have our own big bag of neurological snags, but I’m tired and I don’t care. He should be taught not to do that thing with his eyes. It’s invasive. Margaret’s resting with her eyes closed, the woman has a sleep switch that’s the envy of all us insomniacs, so the kid passes over her and gets to Coco. My protective father mode surges, no eerie-eyed kid is going to upset my daughter especially with the day we’ve been having. But before I can stand and do what – I don’t know, stand in front of Coco, block his evil eye-beam – I notice that Coco is looking back at the kid and smiling.
“Hi,” she says, “I’m Coco. What’s your name?” He doesn’t answer, doesn’t smile back, but he doesn’t break eye contact.
“Did you have a good Christmas?” Coco asks. Still no reaction. But his fingers aren’t pulling so hard. They’ve been looking at each other for nearly a full minute.
Then the kid breaks the gaze and goes to the next face. He continues around the room until he eyes a thin, tired-looking woman in jeans and a faded Carolina Tar Heels sweatshirt sitting next to him. I think she’s probably his mom because, except for the dark circles under her eyes, she’s got his same pale skin, and because she hauls off and whacks him on the arm.
“Sit your fidgety ass back down, Earl Junior. You’re about driving me crazy out of my mind,” she says. He sits, fingers still working. He’s maybe eight years old and does what he’s told. For a couple of minutes. Then the switch goes off in his head, he stands up and the routine starts again. Ignoring him, his mother looks over to a gray-bearded guy in a dirty ball cap squinting at a computer screen and typing on a keyboard behind the counter and asks, “How much longer did you say ‘til Eldridge is finished up, Jake?”
“Didn’t say, Cassie,” Jake says. “He’s gotta get the tire on and done for these folks y’alls pal Mike pulled in off the Interstate…”
“He’s not my pal,” Cassie says, throwing a dirty look at the corner where we’re sitting, then looks back up at a family fight on Dr. Phil on the TV hanging on the wood-paneled wall two feet above our heads.
“Don’t matter,” Jake says to the back of Cassie’s head, “Eldridge still has to unload and stack all those truck retreads before he’s done here today. Not my fault he takes on some freelance.”
“You get your cut,” Cassie mutters.
His fingers pulling faster now, Earl Junior’s eyes have reached his mother again. Cassie whacks him on his arm again. “Earl Junior, PLEASE!” She pulls him down to the plastic waiting room chair next to her. Then her eyes still on Dr. Phil, she puts her arm around Earl Jr., hugs him, and pulls him onto her lap.
Eldridge, lanky, looks kinda like his boy, but without the fidgets and tics, steps in from the garage. “South family? Got your van set,” Eldridge says. Margaret’s awake in a snap. On our way out, Coco stops near Cassie and Earl Jr. “It was nice to meet you, Earl Jr.” Cassie’s looking at the TV, Earl Jr. looking at other faces.
“We don’t put up with people making fun of Earl Jr.,” Cassie says.
“I wouldn’t either,” Coco says, “And honest, I was just saying hi.”
I stop at the door and turn back to my daughter. “Coco, come on, let’s leave these people alone. It’s time to go.”
“Go ahead,” Coco says, “I’ll just be a minute. Really, we’re fine Dad.”
Outside, Eldridge shows me the tire, which looks fine for a used tire I guess. We settle up, shake hands, and then join Margaret looking back at Coco, Cassie and Earl Jr. inside the Best Deal waiting room. Cassie is talking, Coco nodding. Earl sits and stands a couple of times, quick, like a jack in the box. Cassie and Coco laugh, they shake hands, and Coco comes out, joining us at the minivan.
“What are you two smiling about?” she asks.
As we all pile in to the car, Margaret and I tell our daughter that she’s, you know, amazing. She has more compassion and understanding than most people her age, and more than me, for sure. And it took courage to engage like that.
“Well, I’m going to be a Special Ed teacher, how did you think I’d act?” she says. Margaret squeezes he daughter’s hand. Coco begins giving me directions back to the Interstate from the GPS on her phone.
“It’s sure lucky we had that flat before we picked up Nana,” Coco says, “She would’ve freaked right out.”
Margaret laughs, “Right out of her skin and through the roof, definitely lucky that we were spared that.”
“See, Dad?” Coco says, “There’s nothing for you to worry about.”
Next: There is a storm on the horizon. But if we pull together, we just might make it home.