An Inquiry on Croup

Justin Noga

Long ago we had produced a child who, in his first year, fell into a fit of croup. Sweating, wheezing, crying, but also, perplexingly, coughing out coins. Each cough begat coinage we spent the better part of our days deciphering: coins machine-stamped and hand-flattened, ancient and modern, golden and silvered and coppered. Where are they coming from? Did this hurt our baby? Peering inside his mouth, thank God, we saw only minimal tonsillar swelling, a kind of punching-bag rawness around the uvula. Our sweet babe was just a bit under the weather — another problem, we had to admit, that again threw our routines off track. We had hoped he was finally old enough to handle playdates, sandbox romps, quick bjorns to the beloved grocer — Here he is finally! This thing we made! Look at the joy he spreads around town!–but he had just evolved into a new type of suckling baggage we had to keep quarantined due to cough. Bent over the crib to dry his forehead at all hours, we would often reminisce on better days. Remember when we wanted a dog? At least be able to get some fresh air, sickness or no. Pukey dog pukes on the grass and no one bats an eye. Lock the cage and take a nap. Throw it a chicken bone. Throw it at a chicken. God — just imagine if that was the street we strode upon. What a dream, what a dream. The child looked up at us and blinked and spit up into his blankets. A wet wooden nickel. Commemorative and worthless, but the message noted: he felt that disappointment in himself, too, and we knew as parents the coins he produced were his true apology. A single puff of steroids was to fix the child, our doctor said. It is not so complicated a cure these days. As he periscoped the inhaler toward our child, we looked at each other over the kneeling doctor and thought, So soon? We huddled by the tongue compressors and spoke up: We prefer to do it at home, Doctor. And at home, we doctored the child ourselves, a privacy costing us only two gold yuanbao. Cold compresses were laid upon his brow whilst his face blotted and veined. Soup to soothe. Boppy to squeeze. That screaming cure of an inhaler we hushed away in a fireproof safe each of us only knew half the code for. Below the child’s highchair we placed a pink bucket into which the child barked new coins, a bucket often overflowed, a bucket often missed. Sometimes the child shot coins across the room like one of those neon plasticked coin-guns you could once buy at novelty shops, sending us happily crabbing along the pergo for a glimmering surprise. Other times: just an in-drawing chest, just the intimacy of one’s lungwork now filmed on bib, on floor, in bucket, on coin flecked with opals. Foregoing the medication for currency had to be questioned. We asked ourselves, When was enough enough? Okay, we are not rich. Okay, but we are not poor. It’s just a quick sickness. It’s been four months. Do you remember being in hospital as a child? No. And you’re fine. Am I? Are you? So we’ll make it up to the child? Oh dear, he’s crying again. We’ll make it up to the child, yes? That crying. It goes away. Okay. You mean yes? Okay. Okay what? Okay. We’ll make it up to our boy. We decided on two more weeks. Good weeks. We called off work. We fed the child ash and dust. A dozen dehumidifiers chalked the air — imagine how well we could snap our fingers. Pre-croup child loved a good snap in the sandbox, though this crouped child stuck indoors less so. The new coins, due to weak air or more likely impudence, understandable as it might be, the new coins often had to be tonged from the child’s poor wilted tongue. Hum a little tune and it makes the job easier, see, honey? The sheer quality of that time: punch-marked karshapanas, silvered siglos, thalers of the Brunswick-Wolfenb├╝ttel variety, even unvarnished Weimer marks. There was no end to the coin — no end, no end. Then of course an end, expected but the shock palpable anyhow. Only one good week, too. At the hospital we sensed something sour in the way this new doctor spoke to us about our child, our old doctor on unexpected leave. On his desk a portrait of a narrow dog, on his pants the sheddings of its coat — this is all he allowed us to know about himself. It unnerved us. We showed him pediatric records from the old doctor, explaining we knew nothing of this supposed dehydration, only that the old doctor, that imbecile, he determined it to be nothing more than croup. Perhaps, we said, it still is? And when this new doctor saw the silver didrachm we placed in his palm, heard the offer of a steel drum filled with all our earnings in our minivan, the car-keys slipping into his hand to prove we would not lie about such a thing, this new doctor agreed it was simply croup that killed our child. Soon the doctor disappeared, and with it our weeks of coin. On the table lay our cold child. We asked ourselves, Now what do we do? Our baby. Our nest egg. Of course this is how it ended. What times we live in. I feel sick. Croup? Oh God. I joke. I know it to be a baby thing. I need to be alone. We are alone. Alone alone, do you understand? Wait — remember this? Its first florin? I’ve held onto it. Why, it’s no bigger than the hand that clasped my thumb. But it’s not nothing, is my point. What does that mean to you–“nothing”? It means we still have a chance. And that, too–“chance”? We were spent. We tried to see the same side — the child’s death not as a thing we did, just a thing that happened — but our better half peeled off, slunk away, refused our calming touch. Seeing that half trying to blend into the opposite wall, we grew so confused. I grew, she grew — I didn’t know anymore. What was going on in that poor wet skull over there, mascara clowning down her cheeks? That groan, that clawing at the walls. Of course the doors here were locked. Of course the windows at the ends were bolted, however much she yanked at them. She would not listen. And throwing one’s body at the windows and the doors? Of course a body would bounce off into a bruised heap. It hurt just to look at this thing, this horrid little pillbug curling on the ground nursing her own wounds. Do you think this doesn’t hurt me? I said. There. Now there is a crack in the wall and my shoulder is wrenched just like yours — do you not see the blooming welt? I asked our better half who it was this pain served, if anyone, and she had no answer besides the one I suggested: Certainly not us. Certainly not the memory of our child. Then the echo of a door clicking, the doctor nearing. For God’s sake, I said, Get up. Things aren’t so bad. See that smile across the doctor’s face? Hear that jingle in his pocket? It is hope, thick and eternal. And through the hurt I spread my arms to let her back in. We found ourselves sucked into heavy squeeze. We refused to let go. Our arms tensed, shook, numbed. Our legs went limp. A sound floated away from our center, a whine, a moan, a forgettable whimper we could never risk parsing, for we were together again. There in the nook of an eye wash station we did some conciliatory necking. Necked as patients hobbled by. Necked as gurneys of bodies trucked to and fro. Necked until an idea slicked off each other’s skin as ideas once did in our better days. We were whole again. Our blood ran the same course. The doctor, watching, we invited over. We want to talk, we said, pressing that final gold florin we had held back from the steel drum. We said, We have asked one thing of you. We said, Now we ask another. And it was agreed upon. Within the hour, we snuck out our child’s esophageal tract in an apron. This new doctor helped deposit the tract in that long-necked Great Dane rescue of his who we called Susan. We loved Susan. She recovered from the croup and lasted years and years, romping, rolling, eating biscuits from the hands of grocers. Susan still produced coin not unlike the child once did, yet now on command. Susan, come. Susan, speak. Susan, is this really a Sardian croeseid? Look us straight in the eye, Susan, and tell us how we can make you feel at home.

Justin Noga is a writer out of Akron, Ohio, who lives in Tempe, Arizona. He was a 2019 fellow at Vermont Studio Center, and currently teaches writing/neurotic rewriting at Arizona State. His work can be found in Conjunctions, Witness, and Reed Magazine.