I was out to dinner when the pain slid up the scale from one to three and I figured out, for the first time since college, I had a urinary tract infection–the steady march of fire ants up my urethra to set up camp in my bladder. Apologies were made. The check was paid. The Lyft was called to take me to the medical center on Cadillac that took my insurance. Dropped off, marched stiff-legged across the brick plaza to urgent care and found it locked. Dark. It was only 8:15. On the glass, the “summer” hours read “8 to 8.”
I jogged the handle and fought panic while the UTI surged to a robust pain scale four and the problem-solving part of my brain dropped its paperwork. Hurt, scared, and unprepared–I hadn’t even brought water.
Did you know a pharmacy can run out of UTI pain meds? The one on Cadillac had. Did you know a 1-800 nurse helpline can have a three-hour wait? It can. The plaza’s options included a very full emergency room lobby, where a blood-soaked young woman held a towel to her face and placidly leafed through a magazine.
The fire ants intensified.
As I bonked my head against the emergency room window, a calm female voice behind me said,
“Do you need help?”
I snapped to attention. “Yes, please.”
She was in her sixties, Mexican, with steel-gray curls, khaki slacks, and azalea pink track jacket–an Adidas Abuelita. She compressed her crimson lips into an em-dash of perfect compassion. “What seems to be the trouble?”
“UTI.” No hesitation. No pride.
“Have you had one before?”
“Then you don’t need all this.” She stretched her arm like a maître d’ and steered us toward the street. “Let’s get you fixed up.”
I went without question. I can tolerate pain, stay calm, and be curious, but I can only do two at once.
She led me up La Cienega between the church and the auto parts store. There was no one on the street but homeless people and nothing open but Yum Yum Donuts.
“What’s your name, angel?” she asked.
“Melinda Vargas.” I didn’t ask if she was a doctor because I didn’t want to hear her say ‘no.’ This is why sheep go off cliffs.
We turned onto Guthrie and came upon a food truck parked in a loading zone. It was short, flat-faced and cute–a French bulldog of a truck–with faded yellow popsicles printed on the side. Abuelita stopped in front of it. “Here we are, Ms. Vargas.”
“Popsicles?” I squeaked.
Too short to reach the order window, Abuelita rapped on the counter and called out, “UTI.”
The slim young white man in the truck wore a teal button-down shirt like a milkman’s uniform. He leaned out and handed me a paper menu. “Gallon of water, five bucks. Urinary analgesic, one box, fifteen bucks.” He raised a well-groomed eyebrow. “Cash only.”
My brains wrestled for control. Abuelita’s phone rang a Taylor Swift tone, and she circled away to take the call.
“Can I see the box?” I asked.
Smiling, Popsicle Man handed down a box of phenazopyridine hydrochloride–the beautiful, reliable pain pills that make urine red and life bearable. It was name brand, factory sealed, and far from expiration. The good stuff.
“You want ’em?” he asked.
“Yes, please.” I dug through my handbag for cash.
Through the window Popsicle Man handed me a gallon jug of water. I knocked back the pills and half the jug.
“That should take the edge off.” He pointed to the menu. “Pain scale on the back. Where are you?”
I turned the menu around to a familiar row of smile-to-sweat faces. “Four.” ‘Squiggle frown with half-lidded eyes’. Taking orders was a balm. Someone was paying attention. Someone had a solution.
“Okay. Here’s the deal.” He leaned on both elbows. “Where it is now, if you want to stick it out until morning, it’s not going to kill you. Keep pounding water, and you’ll be up every hour to pee, but you can probably kick it on your own. But just in case you don’t,” he gestured to the truck interior, “do you want antibiotics?”
“You can give me antibiotics?”
Amused, he cocked his head 45 degrees to show how slow, how special, truly highlight-of-the-night slow I was.
“Are you a doctor?” I asked.
“No, ma’am. But the question remains.” He pointed past me to the plaza. “Do you really want to find yourself back there tomorrow?”
I sensed motion behind me and found Abuelita ushering over a skinny old woman cupping a nosebleed. At the end of the sidewalk, in a leather coat, a man built like a tombstone gave me a weary look.
Abuelita patted my arm. “It’s safe.” She rounded the truck and opened the back door. “For antibiotics, you have to go inside.”
I bobbed on my toes, feeling out the future: client call in the morning, and traffic’s never good.
“Sit while you think.” Abuelita beckoned me to the door. “What can it hurt to look?”
Not more than a UTI. I circled behind her to peer inside the truck. The interior was pearl-white, spotless, and outfitted with wall-mount drop-seats like a C-130. On one, a Desi man in pajamas dry-heaved into a reusable shopping bag. The IV bag beside him jostled as he nodded hello.
Across from him, a petite Black woman in a motorcycle jacket bent over her bare leg–jeans scissored off at the knee–as blood streamed from her calf to the metal pan under her toes. She gave us a shy wave.
Popsicle Man slid the window shut. “Ready for stitches, Ms. Mercer?”
The woman tweezed a piece of gravel from her flesh and dropped it in the pan with a plick. “Almost.”
“You’re doing great.” Abuelita aimed me at the seat beside her. “Here.”
The truck rocked as I boarded, making Ms. Mercer pause work, as Popsicle Man ran his hand down the rainbow of toolboxes on the overhead shelf. Taylor Swift toned again, and Abuelita swerved out of sight as he found a red toolbox with “ANTIBIO” in Sharpie on the lid.
“For what you’ve got, you want a quinolone,” he said. “You have epilepsy?”
He planted the toolbox on my lap. “Good. Find a ‘flox.'”
A boy’s voice piped up through the glass, “What kind of popsicles you got?”
“Excuse me.” Popsicle Man stepped back to the order window, and Ms. Mercer had to lean aside to give him room. “What kind do you want, kid?”
“You got chocolate?”
“No. Look at the menu.”
For a moment, the only sounds were the Desi man’s wet retch and Ms. Mercer’s gravel plick. I opened the red toolbox to find rows of paper cartons with fish printed on them. One labeled “Power Flox” had a picture of a red Siamese fighting fish. The back read “Ciprofloxacin” right above “NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION.”
“You don’t have chocolate?” asked the boy.
“OK. Then… coconut raisin.”
“Nobody paying four dollars for a raisin popsicle!” His voice softened as he moved away from the truck. “Let’s go to Yum Yum.”
Mission accomplished, Popsicle Man turned back to me. “Find one?”
I held up my carton of Flox. “These are for fish?”
“Sure are. Same chemical. No prescription.”
The tight space of the truck made me feel hot and woozy. The Siamese fighting fish winked. “This is nuts,” I said.
Ms. Mercer looked up from her bloody work. “Please, Miss. Either take it or go. I’m trying to concentrate.”
Popsicle Man laid a finger on the carton. “If you don’t want it–”
“I do, but–”
Abuelita popped her head through the door. “I’m going back out. Do you have what you need?”
“Fine, yes, just wait one second” I opened my handbag. “I have a lot of questions.”
“Questions are good,” said Popsicle Man.
“Better to have it and not need it, right? How much?”
“Forty-five for fourteen tablets. One morning and night for seven days. Don’t stop just because you feel better. For the next day, drink a soda bottle’s worth of water every hour at least.” He squatted to stretch his back. With his face below mine, he didn’t look older than twenty. “Follow instructions. Use your head.”
“Of course.” The fire ants had scattered, and the panic was gone. In their wake flooded relief and lovely, lovely endorphins.
I paid, disembarked, and jogged to catch up with Abuelita at the corner. The man in the leather coat moved toward us, but Abuelita waved him off. “She’s no problem.” She looked at me. “You’re no problem, right?”
“No, no. I’m grateful. If it wasn’t for you…” I gestured toward the popsicle truck, but it was gone. The loading zone was empty. I didn’t even hear an engine rev. “Where did they–?”
“Have to keep moving.”
“So many questions. Time to get back to work. And you want a bathroom, yes?”
“Yes, very much so.” I kept pace with her back to the plaza. “Is this legal?”
“Are you… God, are you working for someone? Is it just you? Is there a network?”
“Very good questions.” She came to a halt outside the emergency room and gestured toward the pharmacy. “The bathroom is over there.”
“I have so much to ask you. Will you be here when I get back?”
The woman glanced away, and when she looked back at me it was with no recognition, no sympathy, only clean, professional indifference. “What seems to be the trouble?”
BIO: Tory writes, draws, and codes in Los Angeles. Her fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Drabblecast, and PseudoPod, and her art has appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex, and Spellbound. She is art director for Strange Horizons and editor-in-chief of sub-Q, a magazine for interactive fiction.