Arsenic Hour

Helen Sinoradzki

Judith merged onto the interstate. In the rearview mirror, three red, sweaty faces. Nathan scowling. Zoe in the middle, her feet stuck out straight. Jasper asleep, head lolling to one side. The squealing noise was getting worse. Dan had said he’d get it checked out before he left. “They see a woman coming, Judy, they get dollar signs in their eyes.” In some other life, she’d liked him calling her Judy.

The desert flew by—clumpy sage, bare brown dirt, grazing cows. Semi in her way. She signaled. The guy in the Dodge Viper wouldn’t let her in, and she was tempted to flip him the bird. Dan had wanted a Viper, had joked about strapping the kids to the roof.

Two hours to home. The day was a jangle—Albuquerque August hot, construction traffic, the ridiculous cost of school supplies, Nathan refusing to let her in the dressing room at Mervyn’s, the fight at ToysRUs. Dan had promised he’d take them this year. King of broken promises.

Nathan kicked the back of her seat. “Zoe’s looking out my window!”

She tried imagining a future when this would be funny. “Zoe’s in the middle. She doesn’t have a window.” Maybe they could get ice cream at that place the kids liked in Santa Fe. It cost an arm and a leg like everything there, but she’d have to stop to nurse Jasper someplace. The shop would be cool. Her nipple throbbed. Jasper had chomped it that morning.

A steady one-footed thump right in her kidney, probably the left foot. “I’m hot.”

“We’re all hot.”

A harder thump. “Dad would have gotten me Laser Challenge.”

And played with it, too. The buddy theory of parenting. Easy when you kept getting on a plane. She pressed her fingers hard between her eyebrows. Dan was probably in a lounge chair sipping a sundowner, watching flat-bellied blonds in bikinis. “I got you the Zord you wanted.”

“I don’t like Florida. There’s alligators.”

She caught Nathan’s eye in the rearview mirror. “Tampa doesn’t have alligators.”

He batted back the dark shock of hair that brushed his eyebrow just like Dan’s did. “Like you’d know.”

Dan turning from his suitcase, holding a stack of the hand-tailored shirts he didn’t trust her to iron. “Tampa’s the real thing, Judy. I land this one and we’re on easy street.” Did Tampa have alligators? Hurricanes?

She turned on the radio. Ross Perot’s voice. Dan supported him, thought she liked Clinton for his looks. She clicked the radio off.

A siren. Flashing blues and reds behind her. Shit. She slowed and eased onto the shoulder. Popped the glove compartment latch and rooted around. The registration was under the first aid kit. Her purse was jammed—she tossed used wipes, Dum-Dum wrappers, a burping cloth, a yo-yo, a baggie with three Cheerios. “Shit.”

“You said a bad word, Mommy. You have to put a quarter in the jar.”

“The jar’s at home, Zoe.” If they ever got home, she was raiding the jar and buying a bottle of Sauza.

She rolled down the window. The cop bent down. Domed hat. A state trooper.

“How fast do you think you were going, ma’am?” He managed to sound bored and righteous at the same time. Maybe he practiced while he was putting on the hat.

“Uh, 65?”

He drummed his fingers on the door frame. “I clocked you at 75, ma’am.” He looked at the registration. “Los Alamos, huh?” He scanned the back seat. “You all glow in the dark?” A snicker as though he’d thought up the line.

She stopped herself from saying yes, you asshole and we’re contagious, too—another quarter—and tried the adults vs. kids card. “Sorry, officer. It’s so hot and the natives are getting restless.” A tilt of her head toward the back seat.

His mouth was back to its straight line. “Your license, ma’am.” No bags under his eyes. No kids.

Another thump. “Nathan.” She glared in the mirror.

“You said not to interrupt when grown-ups were talking.” That aggrieved reasonable tone, as if he were the parent. If her dentist were here, he’d stop asking why she ground her teeth.

“What is it?”

“Jasper’s waking up.”

“Give him his binky.”

The cop was drumming on the door frame again.

“I don’t see it.”

She pawed in her purse. No binky. Her license. She handed it out.

The cop studied the photo, then glanced at her. “You look a lot younger here.” He straightened and walked back toward his car.

The first wail. “Zoe, feel around in Jasper’s seat.” Another wail. He was working up to the eagle shriek. She looked down. Big wet splotches on her shirt.

“I can’t find it, Mommy.”

She breathed. In. Out. In. Out. “Okay, sweetie.”

A thump. “You always call her ‘sweetie.’ She’s a poophead.”

They were coming up on what her friend Ellie, mother of five, called the arsenic hour. You killed one of them or yourself.

“Nathan punched me!” Zoe’s wail joined Jasper’s.

“She grabbed my Zord.”

“Stop it! Now!” She pounded the steering wheel and her fist hit the horn. It blared. She hit it again. Total silence from the back. She turned. Three sets of scared eyes, all hazel like Dan’s. She blew her bangs off her forehead. “Nathan, please find the binky.”

The cop was back. “I can take American Express, Mastercard, Visa, ma’am. Not Discover. Or you can follow me to the next town.”

A thump. “Dad never gets a ticket.”

Dan would have charmed the cop out of giving him one.

“Ma’am?” The cop’s face was close to hers.

The last thing Dan said. “Don’t use the Visa, Judy. I’ll need to do a little wining and dining to pull this off.” Then he had winked at her, slung his bag over his shoulder, and walked away.

She found the Visa, ran her finger across the raised letters of her name. Judith. She didn’t like alligators either. She handed the cop the Visa.


Helen Sinoradzki’s writing has appeared in various journals including Alligator Juniper and the fall 2016 issue of Bellingham Review. She has written a memoir about her experiences in a Catholic cult. An English teacher turned technical writer turned indie bookseller, she now writes full-time. She was prose co-editor for the last three issues of VoiceCatcher. A native Ohioan who has lived in nine states, she moved to Portland, Oregon, with her husband almost twenty years ago and plans to stay for the rest of her life.