Her stupid, old American car wasn't working again. So now Luz Lopez was sitting on the bus with her sick son, Ramiro, dozing beside her. This time of day, midmorning, the streetcar wasn't crowded, and she was glad of that. Ramiro, small for eleven years old, had room to curl up with his head on her lap. She stroked his cheek gently with the back of her hand. He opened his eyes and smiled at her weakly.
His skin was warm to her touch, but not really burning. She was more concerned about the cut on his lip than the sore throat. There was something about the look of it that bothered her. He'd banged it on some playground bars on Monday and today, Thursday, it was swollen, puffy, yellowish at the edges. But when the sore throat had come on yesterday, Ramiro had complained not about the cut lip, but the throat. Luz knew her boy wouldn't make a fuss unless there was real pain. He was up half the night with gargling and Tylenol. But this morning, he told her it wasn't any better.
She had to take the day off so he could see a doctor. Time off was always a risk. Though she'd been halfway to her business degree when she'd left home, now she worked as a maid at the Osaka Hotel in Japantown, and they were strict about attendance. Even if the reason was good, Luz knew that every day she missed work counted against her. The clinic said they could see him before noon--a miracle--so maybe she could get his prescription and have Ramiro back at school by lunchtime, then she could still put in a half day back at the Osaka.
She had lived in San Francisco for over ten years now, though she would never call the place home. After the opponents of land reform in El Salvador had killed her father, a newspaper publisher, and then her brother Alberto, a doctor who had never cared about politics, she had fled north with her baby inside her. It had taken her husband, Jose, almost three years to follow her here, and then last year La Migra had sent him back. Now, unable to find work back home, he lived with her mother.
She shifted on her seat on her way to the Judah Clinic, which was not on Judah Street at all, but two blocks before Judah began, where the same street was called Parnassus. Why did they not call it the Parnassus Clinic, then? She shook her head, these small things keeping her mind from what it wanted to settle on, which was the health of her son.
And of course the money. Always money.
Ramiro's tiny hand lay like a dead bird in hers as they walked from the streetcar stop to the clinic, a converted two-story Victorian house. When she opened the front door, she abandoned all hope that they'd get to her quickly. Folding chairs lined the walls of the waiting room. More were scattered randomly in the open space in the middle, and every seat was taken. On the floor itself, a half dozen kids played with ancient plastic blocks, or little metal cars and trucks that didn't have all the wheels on them.
Behind the reception window, four women sat at computer terminals. Luz waited, then cleared her throat. One of the women looked up. "Be just a minute," she said, and went back to whatever she was doing. There was a bell on the counter, with instructions to ring it for service, but the computer woman already had told Luz she'd just be a minute (although now it had been more like five), and Luz didn't want to risk getting anyone mad at her. They would just go more slowly. But she was angry, and sorely tempted.
At last the women sighed and came to the window. She fixed Luz with an expression of perfect boredom and held out her hand. "Health card, please." She entered some information into her computer, didn't look up. "Ten dollars," she said. After she'd taken it and put it in a drawer, the woman continued. "Your son's primary care doctor is Dr. Whitson, but he's unavailable today. Do you have another preference?"
Reprinted from The Oath by John Lescroart by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, John Lescroart. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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