As a responsible parent, I immediately recognized the signs of choking: eyes bulging out; hands around throat; tongue swollen; lips turning blue; pale complexion on the cheeks and forehead; inability to name important dates, places, and people. I slapped my daughter on the back. “Get it together,” I said. “Who was the thirteenth President of the United States? When was the War of 1812?”
It was a week before her second birthday. She looked up at me, silent, pulling at her lips.
I swept my finger through her mouth, finding nothing. I knocked her hard between the shoulder blades, like I’d learned from videos online. “Try to dislodge the object,” a woman had whispered calmly through my computer speakers. “It’s probably stuck in there pretty good. Don’t be afraid to rough the child up a bit.”
I gave my daughter one last whack, and she spit something silver onto the floor. Bending down, I could see the object was a casino token, roughly the size of a quarter. On one side it had a picture of a horseshoe and on the other a tomahawk. It was sticky with phlegm.
There was only one casino around in the area, an oversized building next to the interstate, its windowless walls towering over six lanes of traffic. The music from the slot machines was a constant source of irritation for the neighbors, programmed to include subliminal messages at nearly-imperceptible frequencies. The newspaper ran a series of human-interest stories about children growing up in the shadow of the casino. Residents reported that the quality of their sleep had degraded to the point that they no longer dreamed.
I had never taken my daughter to the casino. It was dimly lit, and the daycare was staffed by old men in checkered shirts. The air conditioning system did a poor job of filtering the cigarette smoke, and the kids in there always looked sickly and ready to go home.
I checked my daughter’s breathing with the back of my hand and her pulse with my middle and ring fingers, then put her down on the floor. She pushed her toy car around in circles. Outside, storm clouds blocked the light from the living room window. I turned on a lamp.
When I dropped her off at daycare that morning, I pulled the teacher aside to show her the token. “Have you ever seen this logo?” I asked. “A horseshoe and a tomahawk? Pretty kitschy, right? Like something you’d see on the side of the highway in the desert.”
She leaned in to look closer. “It’s like it’s trying to make a point about irresponsible signifiers. It wants us to ask, ‘What does it mean?’ Also, ‘When does it mean?’”
At work I put the token on my desk and between typing angry emails I picked it up and turned it over. “Your payment was due three weeks ago,” I wrote, my fingers punching down on the keys harder than I intended. “Get it in here now, or else I’m going to come over there and play you like a slot machine.” I liked that last part and forwarded the email to my supervisor, who came over to my desk shortly afterward.
“Great work this morning, Hinton. Something’s really gotten into you. I can hear your typing all the way from my office. Try to include more gambling metaphors. I think it really reinforces the precariousness of our clients’ positions. Makes them imagine the worst. Stroke of genius. I’ll include it in our next staff meeting.”
I nodded my head and punched even harder on the keys. I tried out other gaming references all morning.
“If I were red, I’d put all my money on you.
In the game-of-life-blackjack, one must hit to know where one stays.
You can’t spell ‘Bingo’ without the letters B-I-N-G-O.”
They were too literal, unlikely to dig into my clients’ psyches, unlikely to compel them to mail their payments in on time or, as was preferred, give us a credit card number for automatically recurring payments on the first and fifteenth of every month. Still, it felt like I was onto something.
That afternoon my daughter’s teacher handed me a plastic bag filled with urine-soaked clothes and more coins, all with the same logo. “Someone had a little accident,” she said, patting my daughter on the head, “but we got it cleaned up. It’s hard to make it through the day.” The bag jingled as I carried it at my side.
My daughter looked fine. One would hardly guess that she was coughing up casino tokens. Still, I took her to the emergency room.
The doctor performed an X-ray of her torso, then handed her a light-up toy in the shape of a cartoon princess. My daughter pushed the button. The plastic woman spun around and around, small LEDs at the hem of her dress making circles in the still air of the examination room. The room smelled like infection and disinfectant.
“See here,” the doctor said, pointing to a dark gray area on the x-ray. “This is what we call a mineral deposit. You can make out the rounded edges of the coins.”
“What’s the prognosis?” I asked. “Is it expensive? Invasive? Will it interfere with our summer plans?”
“Yes and no,” the doctor said. “Have you seen the forecast for this week?”
I hadn’t. We were well into hurricane season, and the afternoons were taken up with thunderstorms. They were predictable in a way that made the days feel like a tire that needed rotating.
At home that night my daughter complained that her stomach hurt. She grabbed my hand and pressed it into places on her abdomen. When I applied pressure she stopped squirming and we fell asleep in the recliner with my hand covering her belly button. She woke up in the middle of the night coughing, her breath catching in her throat, but nothing came up.
“Spit it out,” I said. “Big girls don’t carry around coins in their bellies.”
She coughed and wiggled and fell back asleep, but I was awake. I turned the TV on. A reporter stood on the edge of the seawall that protects our town from waves and storm surges. He put a finger to his ear.
“The water has been inching up this evening, and although authorities tell us there is nothing to worry about, we know better than to trust the opinions of bureaucrats.” His yellow rain slicker waved in the wind.
The shot cut to a woman behind a news desk. “Thanks, Tom. For our viewers just tuning in, we’re following the landfall of the seventeenth named storm this hurricane season, Hurricane Quality Assurance, which is anticipated to reach Tampa Bay sometime before morning.”
“That’s right, Esmerelda,” the reporter on the seawall said. “People here are prepared for the worst. The most responsible citizens of this area moved away years ago because a disaster of this magnitude was simply inevitable. The ones who remained are optimistic to the point of delusion.”
“Fascinating stuff, Tom. Now for our report on brain swelling and your budget.”
In her sleep, my daughter scratched at a small bite on her calf until she drew blood. In the blue light of the TV, the bite looked purple. I fell asleep with the copper smell of her blood in my nose.
The hurricane grew stronger overnight, and in the morning I woke up to a phone call. It was the daycare. “We’re closing for the day due to weather,” a recorded voice told me. “Please stay tuned for further updates.”
I had to take the day off work, but when I called no one was there. “Our offices will be closed for the duration of the storm,” a recorded voice said.
Even though the newspaper told me to prepare a hurricane readiness kit, I had not stockpiled any bottled water or canned goods; I had not replaced the batteries in my flashlight; I had not duct-taped the windows to prevent shattering or filled our bathtub with water for toilet flushing; I had not drawn a map of the predicted path of the storm; I had not called distant relatives to tell them that I loved them.
Our power went out within the first fifteen minutes of the storm. The trees outside our window twisted and bent. Water oaks with shallow root systems crashed onto power lines. Tornadoes, I knew, sounded like trains. We listened for the sound of trains. My daughter held her breath, then coughed into my chest.
With the air conditioner off the house was muggy and hot. The air was moist. We sat on the floor of the living room with the blinds drawn, trying to keep our distance from the windows. The room was darker than it should have been. My daughter pushed her toy car around on the carpet, stopping after each lightning strike to cover her eyes with her hands. We were both sweating. Her breath grew shallow.
Rain beat against the windows. A tree fell nearby. The floor shook. I wrapped my daughter in a towel. “We have to leave,” I said. “It’s going to rain on our heads. Can you be a big girl?”
She put her fingers in her mouth and nodded, then exhaled, wheezing.
I opened the door and ran to the car as fast as I could, but we were both soaked anyway. I buckled her into her car seat, then looked around. The neighborhood was covered in small limbs and Spanish moss. A snapped power line lay in the middle of the road. I drove slowly around it, waiting to feel the electricity through my seatbelt buckle or the steering wheel, but it never came.
The streets were empty. I pulled into the lot of a department store, cutting through parking spaces, looking into the front windows to see if anyone was there. The lights were out except for red emergency exit signs. I pulled onto the freeway, gripping the steering wheel tighter each time a gust of wind blew the car toward the shoulder. We passed exits lined with closed gas stations and fast food restaurants. My eyes scanned everywhere for signs of life.
I stopped at the casino on a hunch. The building was strong, built to withstand hurricane-force winds. I held my hand over my daughter’s face as we ran through the storm, trying to keep the rain off her. Inside, rows and rows of slot machines sat unused, blaring their theme songs into the smoky room. The carpet was burnt orange. Less than a dozen patrons wandered around the floor. They looked confused, long cigarettes dangling from their thin fingers. Smoke stung my eyes. My daughter coughed.
I went up to a cashier and put my daughter on the counter. My pocket was heavy with the coins she had coughed up. I held one in the light. “Is this yours?” I asked the cashier behind the bulletproof glass.
“Yes, we can take this,” she said.
“My daughter has more inside her,” I said.
The cashier leaned forward and eyed my daughter’s swollen belly. “Has she been waking up coughing?”
“Did you think it was just a viral or bacterial infection, or maybe exposure to second-hand smoke?”
“When she’s asleep, does she turn fitfully over and over, waking you up, giving you an urge to watch late-night news broadcasts?”
“Does she sometimes cough the coins up, choking on them before they clear her airway? Has her daycare sent home more incident reports than usual? Do her classmates seem jealous? Does her teacher greet her less enthusiastically in the morning?”
I thought back to when I had picked her up the day before. There had been more paperwork than I expected, but what did it say? As usual, I had just signed it all without reading.
The cashier leaned in close to the bulletproof glass and whispered through the hole. “Listen, we’ve got cameras everywhere in here, but I’m assuming you know the Heimlich maneuver? I suggest you make good use of it, then come back here, and, who knows, you could just hit it big. This could be the best thing that ever happened to you.”
I drove us out to a street facing the bay, lined with multi-million dollar homes directly in the path of the storm. Huge windows facing the water were covered with metal storm shutters, making the houses look like they were wearing surgical masks. Inside, I knew, families would be seated on leather sofas, watching the weather on TVs powered by gas generators. I could hear small engines, faintly, over the sound of the wind.
The seawall was keeping the waves back, but white foam splashed into the street. We parked the car in the road. There was no traffic. The wind blew into our faces as I walked my daughter out to the edge of the seawall. My pants were wet with salt water.
“This is the storm surge,” I told my daughter, even though they had not yet covered tropical systems in her lessons at daycare. They were still working on colors. “The wind pushes the tide higher and farther inland. This is where the flooding happens.” I held her out over the water so that she could get a better view of the waves. One broke and splashed us in the face. She began to cry.
I hit her square in the center of the back with my palm. She coughed, then grabbed at her throat. A coin worked its way loose from her airway, then fell into the water.
I whacked her in the back again, and another coin dropped into the sea. Plink. The water was around my ankles now. The sky grew darker as the clouds churned above us. Far out to sea, I thought I could make out a circle of light, a break in the clouds, the eye of the storm. I whacked her again.