A Lot of Woe

by Mark Silcox


The shy weird chick from my bio class was sitting next to Jordan halfway down the bus. She was leaning a little sideways into the aisle reading a paperback. Her arms were wrapped round that shiny blue plastic backpack she lugs around the hallways every damn day. Jordan was staring out of the fogged-up window with a Jesus, save me look on his face.

Normally I would have just caught his eye and laughed as I strolled past to grab a seat at the back. But there was nowhere left to sit down – the bus was packed that day, probably because of the ugly grey rain that’d been falling since morning. Also, I guess I felt a little sorry for the dude – his stop was the very last one on the route, so he’d be stuck next to Sweetie Pie until she hopped off.

I walked down to where they were sitting and grabbed the metal bar overhead, then reached across the girl to tug out one of Jordan’s earbuds. “Hey,” I said.

The girl totally ignored me. She smelled of something chemical: cough drops, or maybe formaldehyde. We’d chopped up a fetal pig in bio earlier that afternoon.

Jordan jerked his head round to look at me. “Hey, Wendy! No ride home today?” The bus lurched away from the curbside shelter.

“Nope. Mom’s pulling a double.” My mom was covering a shift for a friend of hers at the pharma plant. Normally when the weather was this crap, she’d have picked me up in the school parking lot after my last class.

Jordan gave me an up-and-down stare, sort of halfway between standard pervy male and nervous small animal. He had on those fuck-awful bottle thick glasses his parents made him wear to school. Usually when our squad got together at the mall after classes, he’d take off these massive goggles and slip them into his back pocket. Without them, he had a habit of bumping into stuff, but it made him look a bit less like a lemur than he did right now.

Jordan had been part of the scenery for me ever since kindergarten. But we’d only started hanging out around tenth grade, when Stockholm High got closed down for good and all the kids from our subdivision got shifted into the new charter school. I liked him a fair bit. He was quiet and geeky, but often funny, and never too cool to laugh at other peoples’ jokes. We’d never actually made out – I had considered it a couple of times, but hadn’t ever been quite ready to commit. Especially after Lexi told me she thought he was maybe a bit gay.

We Stockholm people had to stick together.

“So,” I asked him, “what you got planned for the weekend?” It was Friday.

“Nothing much I guess.”

I nodded. “Mm.”

He tilted his head like a curious small dog. I glanced over at the girl – Callie, her name was, actually. I knew because the bio teacher was always calling on her in class. Jordan rolled his eyes and shrugged again, like he’d already made peace with the dark side of life as a hardcore public transit user.

“You want to maybe go out later and look around for Jimmy Z?” I asked him.

He blinked, then grinned up at me. He looked a lot less like a feral tarsier when he smiled. “Oh, hey, yeah! We could do that, for sure.”

‘Jimmy Z’ was the name we all had for a fictional local drug dealer. I think it was Gary who first starting using it. One night when we were stuck in the parking lot – probably after Denny’s had closed and there was nothing on Netflix worth going home for – he had spun out this long-ass, totally made-up story about his dealings with ol’ Jim during his own former life as a junkie. It took almost half an hour of listening to him before any of us were confident enough to call bullshit. Which of course it was: Gary got better grades than any of us. His parents took him to the art museum for his birthday, for fuck’s sake. But ever since then, whenever we were all super bored someone would always say “Let’s go visit Jimmy Z!” Lexi used to mention him over the phone when she thought her parents were listening in on her through the bedroom door. My mom was less nosy, so I never had to prank her like that, fortunately I guess.

I had a pretty lively image of the Jimster in my head. Skinny thirty-something dude with sunken cheeks, facial piercings, and a bunch of metal rings on one hand. No gun, but maybe a short, nasty knife tucked into one of his worn cowboy boots.

“I’ll need to get hold of a little cash first, though” I said to Jordan. “I’m broke right now, but maybe I could sell a couple of my textbooks. Or my new winter gloves.” It was late October, and there was already a frosty bite in the air. Callie had an expensive scarf tucked underneath her coat collar.

“That’d suck,” said Jordan, getting right into the spirit of the game. “That new shit he’s been selling is killer, though.”

“The yellow powder, you mean? The stuff that looks like broken glass?”

“Uh huh. It’s, uh…it’s nice.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I’ve heard it’s pretty tight. Darryl tried some last week. He said after the first couple of minutes, it felt like Jesus was kissing his nipples.”

I almost busted out when I saw Jordan’s reaction to this, but I managed to clench my teeth together and give him a quick look of warning. He had a high shrieky laugh, and I knew if he let it sneak out even once, the game would be up for us.

Damn!” he managed to choke out after a few painful seconds.

“I bet it feels different for everybody, though. Like Ex, y’know, or…uh…PCP. The way they make some people all mellow, while others are rolling around pulling at their faces.”

Callie was still just sitting there with a finger stuck between the pages of her flimsy novel. Under her fall jacket she was wearing a sweatshirt with an artsy painting of flowers on the front. She was a chubby girl, but her clothes always did a good job of hiding it. Probably designer stuff. All those kids who lived in detached houses and had been in charter since they were little had lots of Mom-and-Dad money to throw around on stuff like clothes, or brand-new paperbacks. The book’s front cover was all shiny, with a bright painting of goblins or something. And it wasn’t the first one I’d seen her carrying around. She hadn’t turned the page once since we’d started talking.

“One good thing about the stuff he sells me, though,” I said. “It totally kills your appetite. I’ve lost, like, seven pounds since school started!” I tugged up the edge of my jacket to just above my midriff, and Jordan leered appreciatively. “My mom keeps asking me why I don’t finish my dinner.”

“Mm-hm. Have you tried the blue stuff? That shit turns me into a major horndog. I get a boner like a…like, a really big one, sometimes for hours.”

That was totally disgusting – typical Jordan. But also maybe a good addition to the story. “I know what you mean. Last time I dosed up out behind Chelsea Mall, I ended up practically grinding on one of the dumpsters. I’ve been having way, way too much sex. And I can’t afford to buy condoms! Last week I had to steal a pair from my uncle’s wallet. He likes the see-through kind.”

This set Jordan off. He spat out a harsh yelp of a laugh, but then did a decent job of acting like it was just a half-finished sneeze. He wiped his nose on the sleeve of his rain-spattered jacket. Callie shifted around in her seat. She was holding her paperback at a sideways angle now. Still trying to pretend she was reading, but only barely.

A couple of old ladies got onto the bus and shuffled down the aisle in sopping plastic ponchos. They stopped where I was standing, and both of them looked at me like I was going to burn their house down that night. I gave them my Sunday school twinkle, and spoke in the fake BBC accent my Aunt Grace had taught me. “I am so velly solly; am I blocking yoah pawth?”

The lady in front’s eyes bugged out, but the other one kept her surly expression as they pushed past, dripping rainwater onto my shoes.

By that time, the bus was rolling past the outer edge of the bougie neighborhood we had to travel through every day to get to and from school, into the crummier part of town where the Stockholm kids all lived. You could feel the wheels start to leap around over the crevices and canyons in the tarmac. I had skipped lunch that day, and all the jouncing was making me nauseous. But I didn’t want to bail on Jordan halfway through our performance.

“Do your parents know you use the stuff?” I lowered my voice a bit to give the whole discussion a gloomier feel.

He was right there with me. “I think my mom is figuring it out. She gave me this look while I was eating my cornflakes this morning like…you know how your parents can get, sometimes?”

“Like they have something they want to say, but they’re too chickenshit to say it, so they just sit there with their mouths all funny?”

“Uh huh. Exactly! Just like that.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I’ve seen that look. My Dad totally knows I’m using too. He can’t really criticize me though, cause he’s got his own thing going.”

“What does he take? I’m guessing meth. He seems kinda twitchy.”

I shook my head. “Vodka. And pills sometimes. Little orange ones.”

Callie had closed the book at last, and was staring straight ahead. Her eyes were wide and round, just like they sometimes used to get in bio class before she’d ask a question about DNA, or membranes, or something else nobody else there would understand. I’ve never been that much of a drama queen, but I’ve got to admit it was fun having such a good audience.

“It’s a shame they have to worry so much about us. I guess I’ll never kick the habit, but I wish I could sometimes. Y’know?”

Jordan turned toward the rain-drenched window with a perfect, world-weary shudder. “Uh huh. I really hate to see my mom cry. It sucks being this way, sometimes.”

“It sure does. It’s sort of ironic, isn’t it, how something that feels so amazing can also cause such a lot of woe.”

All of a sudden Callie jerked upright in her seat and gave a violent snort. At first, I thought she was maybe having some kind of seizure. Then she squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her lips together, and produced a quieter, snuffling noise. She hugged her backpack extra-tightly and started swaying just a little back and forth.

“What the fuck?” Jordan slid further away from her on the seat.

She was laughing. It took me maybe fifteen seconds to be able to tell.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said in a breathy voice. “But you guys…I have to admit, you had me there for a few minutes.” She turned to look up at me. Her face was bright red, but she was smiling. “You blew it though, just now. ‘A lot of woe!’


She rubbed the back of her sleeve against her nose a couple of times, still giggling in a strange, silent way. “I mean, maybe if there were junkies at the Renaissance Faire, they’d talk like that. But two kids from Thomas Paine High riding a transit bus?” She shook her head. “Nuh-uh – sorry.”

Jordan’s eyes locked with mine. Embarrassed and furious at the same time, in that special way that only dudes can get. I took a quick breath like I wanted to say something, but realized I was fresh out of words. He turned toward the dripping window, pulled the collar of his jacket up high, and sunk down very low in his seat.

Callie was still staring up at me.

What?” I said.

She shrugged and went back to reading.

A space had opened up near the rear of the bus, so I went and plopped myself down there, behind an old dude wearing a moist fedora. I wanted to just put in my earphones and listen to something loud. But for some reason I felt too bundled-up and sluggish to even bother reaching into my jacket pocket. The rain had gotten heavier, clattering down like bullets on the metal roof.

Three stops later, at some random street outside a row of duplexes, Jordan suddenly jumped up, shoved his way past Callie, and got off the bus. We were nowhere near his house. I couldn’t imagine what the hell he was doing. I thought about opening the window and calling out to him, but that would have been pretty lame of me with all of the other people around. The last I saw of him, he was disappearing around the corner of an abandoned strip mall, with his shoulders all hunched and water streaming down the back of his neck.

More massive heaves and shudders as the bus crunched over a giant pothole. The geezer in the fedora sneezed a couple of times into a cloth hanky, then looked straight down at it. Admiring his work, I guess.

My stop was still about fifteen minutes away when Callie stood up, turned around in the corridor, and walked along the slick floor of the aisle, straight toward me.

I faced outward, pressing my cheek onto the cold glass, but watched her coming from the corner of my eye. We were drifting among the weedy boulevards, discount stores, and blotchy grey apartment complexes near the fringes of the suburbs. No way in hell did she actually live out here. She wasn’t going to sit next to me, was she? What was she even up to, staying on the bus this far into our nasty, non-bougie neighborhood?

She must have seen the question on my face. “Got a babysitting job for the weekend with some people from my church,” she said. Then she slid in beside me, shiny backpack and all. She gripped the seat in front of us and stared straight ahead as the wheels juddered around a sharp corner.

Neither of us said anything for a couple more stops. I tried to just keep staring out at all the black rain puddles and broken-up parking lots. But I couldn’t stop myself from glancing over toward her a couple of times. She had put her book away, and was chewing on something.

“Sorry I bummed out your friend,” she eventually mumbled.

I gave the most minimal shrug I could manage, short of not responding at all.

“Want a Swedish Fish?” She held out a wrinkled plastic bag of squashy candy. I shook my head.

The bus pulled up outside the huge windowless medical mall where all the local doctors had their offices. A bunch of the oldsters we’d been traveling with started wobbling their way out onto the curb, including fedora-head and the two grumpy shopping-bag ladies. I watched the wet wind blow the flaps of loose clothing around their bodies. What a crap way to spend a Friday afternoon, I thought to myself.

Callie pointed toward the window, apparently willing to give it one more try. “So, is this where ‘Jimmy Z’ hangs out?” The look she was giving me was tough to read. Was she about to laugh, or did she just have some sort of facial tic? For moment I tried to think of a snarky comeback, but nothing even halfway good enough came to mind. So I just rolled my eyes and turned away from her as firmly as I could.

I heard her give out an enormous sigh. “Look, Wendy” she said, “you can talk to me or not talk to me – it’s up to you. But you can’t hide it forever, y’know.”

The straight-up oddness of this remark made me turn back to face her. “What? Hide what? What the hell are you even talking about?”

She let go of her backpack with one hand, leaned closer, and gave me a sharp jab below the ribs with her elbow.

I flinched, but it didn’t actually hurt. She’d hit the fat paperback I had been carrying in the inside pocket of my jacket.

It was a thing about dragons or hobbits or something – I don’t remember now what it was called. I had been reading it for the past week or so. Second or third book in a series. Aunt Grace had bought me the full boxed set for Christmas, one of the best presents I’d gotten from anyone. I read every book she recommended, and to be honest I’d been enjoying the hell out of this one. Privately, I had thought – at school, I only took it out and read a few pages when I knew I was going to be left completely alone.

But as the bus rolled under a noisy underpass, Callie jabbed at the book again and raised her eyebrows at me. “What’s that inside your coat pocket, huh?” She was smiling by this point, all wide and wolfish. “That your stash of hard drugs?”

She had known that it was there all along. She must have seen me reading it somewhere, somehow, in spite of how careful I thought I’d been. And now she had me right where she wanted me.