How to Be Weightless


by Nicole Overy



There is a boy who lives on Bishop Street. He doesn’t live there in the way that most people associate with living someplace. His parents don’t have a house on Bishop Street, for example, where he sleeps and eats and does homework at the kitchen table, like a normal boy might. If the boy has parents at all they most likely live in a house on another street, because Bishop Street runs through a commercially zoned area. Rather, the boy lives on Bishop Street in the sense that he is, simply, always there.

If a boy is always on the same street, you might think that he is homeless. And if he is homeless, and since he is a boy, you might think to call the police. In the middle-class town of Graysville, several residents had thought just that. Mrs. Marston thought so last Sunday, when she passed the boy on her way to the market. But then, she thought, she passed the boy every Sunday, and he had always been there, and, well, he didn’t look very dirty, and how embarrassing would it be if he were just some kid playing in the street and she called the cops on him? Herb Geller had a similar thought on Wednesday during his lunchbreak, when he decided to walk to the deli on account of the sunny weather. When he passed the boy, he slowed and opened his mouth so as to ask a question—shouldn’t you be in school, perhaps. But then he recalled that it was summer, and boys don’t go to school in the summer, and on closer inspection the boy might not have been a boy at all but a short eighteen-year-old who hadn’t lost his baby fat. Just yesterday, Friday, Debbie Lawrence experienced a thought that was barely a thought, it flitted through her mind so quickly. She figured that, since the boy had been there so long, someone must have investigated already and found there was no problem at all. And so, she continued on to the town animal shelter, where she adopted a cat.

The boy saw them all walk by as he read his book or listened to his iPod or drew on the sidewalk with chalk. He was still there when they went to bed at night, long after they’d stopped thinking of him.

There is a new resident in Graysville and her name is Karen Loews. She has straight brown hair, dimpled cheeks, and a runner’s body, probably because she is one. Two days ago, she moved into the little house at the end of Maple Ave—the one almost hidden in the woods, right up against the state park. The house belongs to Karen’s uncle, and before she’d arrived had been empty for ages. The first time Karen stepped foot in the house she’d turned heel and walked right out again, then rented a motel room until a cleaning crew did the place over. There had been creatures living inside.

Karen is the talk of the town because she’s “famous.” At least that’s what Mrs. Marston told Steve the gossiping barista. Mrs. Marston is a family friend and she’s proud of Karen, even though the whole reason Karen is in Graysville is because she’s a failure. If Karen hadn’t been so slow at the Prefontaine Classic last month, maybe she would be famous. But she had, so she’s not.

It’s Saturday morning and Karen is preparing for a run.

Sitting on the porch, watching sunlight filter through the Douglas firs, Karen feels glad she’s come to Graysville. This could be a good change, she tells herself. She leaves hot packs on her shins while she finishes her coffee, then begins her activation exercises. Bear crawl, stork, calf raises. She does ten different exercises before putting in earphones and turning on a Metallica playlist. Comfort music. She runs in place until she can hear her heart thumping, until her legs are screaming go, fly, disappear. Then, just when she needs it the most, she runs.

Karen is a machine. Her legs pump, her feet hit the pavement, her diaphragm contracts and her lungs fill with cool morning air. She runs past the postman, the house with the barking dog, and little old Debbie Lawrence, who waves from her front porch. Karen doesn’t wave back. She barely even sees Debbie. When she runs, the world blurs on either side of her and she only looks straight ahead. Another thing happens, too: When she runs, she becomes less solid and more like the wind. It’s the closest thing to becoming weightless.

Last night, sitting cross-legged in the near-empty bedroom, she mapped out a route. Straight down Maple Ave, right onto Lincoln Street, a trail through the park, a jaunt along the river, and a left onto Ventnor. Graysville really is a pretty town, Karen thinks. That is, until she turns onto Bishop Street.

It’s the sort of street that feels abandoned, as if it had been full of thriving businesses not long ago, but they had suddenly left all at once. There’s an antique store with an X on the door in blue tape, a snowblower repair with a torn flyer on the window: MOVED TO—. There’s a deli that looks like it’s open, but an empty lot next door gives Karen the chills. She wants to sprint, but she makes herself keep a steady pace. Sprinting is for Wednesdays, and it’s important to stick to a schedule. She was looser with her schedule before, and maybe that was why she failed.

Karen is thinking about her failure when she runs past the boy, so she is too preoccupied to notice him at all.

The boy thinks about Karen.

She is fast—he’d like to be fast like that and he considers running up and down the street a few times, just to try it out, but then decides against it. Instead he stays in one of his spots; on the bench with the peeling blue paint, or the pavement right in front of it, or leaning against the derelict phone booth with the phone dangling from its cord. Sometimes he wants to pick the phone up and place it in its cradle. But he doesn’t. He watches Mrs. Marston walk to the market on Sunday, and Herb Geller walk to the deli on Wednesday, which is sunny again, and Debbie Lawrence walk her cat in a stroller on Friday. Karen runs by every day except for Thursday.

Soon, she starts to think about the boy.

“Rose lavender latte, please.”

“With honey?”

“Sure.”

“You got it. Some honey for my honey.”

Steve talks like that—like they’ve known each other a while, and not just the ten days since Karen moved to Graysville. She watches him foam milk and grind espresso, and he looks up and winks.

He’s asked her out twice and she’s said no three times—once pre-emptively—and now it’s a bit. She can’t decide whether she likes it or not. Steve is attractive, and funny in an annoying sort of way, which isn’t always so bad. Anyway, she wants to keep Steve on her good side because he knows everything about Graysville, and that can be useful.

“Steve? You know that deserted street?”

“Bishop street?” Steve bends over the latte foam, swirling it with a thin metal rod.

“Yes. Well—odd question, but do you know that boy who’s always on that street?”

“I know of him.”

“Well…he’s always…there.

“How do you mean?” Steve draws the rod away with a flourish, then frowns. “This needs something…”

 “I mean, who is he? Is he a resident of the town? Is he homeless?”

“Not sure. Oh! I know!”

“Yes?”

Steve opens a drawer and sprinkles rose petals over the latte.

“That’s…nice. You don’t know anything about the boy?”

Steve shrugs. “He’s just always there.”

“No one thinks that’s odd?”

“We all think it’s odd.”

Karen takes the latte, her head aching a bit. She’s already had a similar conversation with her neighbors, and Mrs. Marson, and her uncle on the phone last night. Each time is like running in a circle but never actually going anywhere.

“Okay. Thanks, then.”

Karen sits at a table that has become her table and looks at the sun, high above the trees. It was difficult to wake up this morning and now her whole day is wrong. She shouldn’t have stayed up so late last night, but she is waiting for a call from her agent and that makes it difficult to sleep.

After her latte, Karen goes for a run.

It’s one of those days where tiredness pulls at her limbs, making her slower, heavier, more solid. She forces her legs to lift and fall. She forces her breath into rhythmic inhales and exhales. Even so, a growing weight fills her. It is the same feeling that infested her body in the days leading up to the Prefontaine. She slows to a stop and doubles over, hands on knees.

“You’re late.”

Karen straightens so quickly that her head spins a little. The boy is standing in front of the bench with peeling blue paint, hands in pockets, looking at her with a round, expressionless face. They are five feet apart, maybe the height of the boy if he laid down.

“What?” she says.

“You usually run past in the morning. Except on Thursday.”

Karen shifts back and forth on her feet, an instinctive habit to keep her muscles warm. “Thursday is my rest day.”

“Oh,” the boy says. “But it’s Saturday.”

“I…was tired this morning.”

It occurs to Karen how plain the boy looks. He is so plain, in fact, that it’s hard to keep the image of his face in her mind, even when she is staring right at him. She can’t tell, for example, if his hair is brown, or blond, or red. His gaze is unflinching, making her think that he is younger—but then his eyes look tired, like an old man’s. He is like a faded photograph from the twenties or thirties, one that never developed properly in the first place.

“Why do you run?” the boy asks.

“I—well—it’s my job.”

“I thought about trying it out, but then I wasn’t sure why to bother.”

Karen remembers what she’d told a kid at one of her meets. “It makes me feel like I’m flying. Like I’m weightless, and could lift right off the ground.”

“But it’s not working anymore.”

The boy’s reply is so matter of fact, so true, that Karen feels she’s been punched in the gut. She stares at the boy, her vision fading in and out of focus. A feeling starts at the bottom of her spine and creeps up. This is when the phone in the ramshackle booth rings.

The both turn to look at the phone. It is dangling from its cord.

“I think it’s for you,” the boy says. “Your agent.”

This is too much for Karen. She mutters something about having to go and then sprints away, even though it is not Wednesday.

She avoids Bishop Street for the next three weeks.

The boy likes Karen. It’s not just because she’s new, and new is good in a place that is mostly the same. It’s because she understands the boy in a way most people don’t. He spends a lot of time thinking how to help her. He’s sure that, other than running, there are many ways to become weightless.

If you went into outer space, for example, you would become weightless.

More realistically, you might go into a zero-gravity chamber. Or, this thing he read about on a discarded newspaper: a zero-gravity flight.

Paragliding might make you feel weightless.

Or going on a roller coaster, at the point right before you drop.

You would become weightless if you turned into smoke.

Or maybe if you died.

If you stopped existing, you would become weightless.

The call from her agent never comes. Karen has a feeling she lost the Nike sponsorship, which was already on shaky ground before the Prefontaine. This thought fills her up. She stares at her phone constantly and jolts awake at night to the sound of ringing. She develops a twitch. It seems that the troubles she’s hoped to leave in Oregon followed her to Graysville, after all. So maybe it’s time to leave.

Karen plays with this idea. She spends a day cleaning her uncle’s house and doesn’t go outside. She looks online for apartments in various metropolitan cities. She goes on a date with Steve. It’s not as bad as she thought it would be, though she feels nothing.

Running is nearly impossible. She maps out new routes, ones that avoid Bishop Street. But, as it turns out, Bishop Street is a highly convenient road. Any other route is too long or too short, which makes running even harder.

Karen avoids thinking about the boy.

Also, she can’t stop thinking about him.

It’s like a puzzle she can’t solve, no matter how she tilts her head or turns the pieces. The boy had looked inside of her. He knew things. And the phone rang. This, in particular, drives Karen up a wall.

It’s just past 3AM on a Saturday when Karen wakes with purpose. She leaves Steve in her bed, snoring with the comforter pulled up to his chin. She has coffee on the porch and does her activation exercises. Ten of them. Then, for the first time in several days, she runs.

She runs past the care package on the stoop, delivered by Mrs. Marston last night.

She runs past the house where Herb Geller is awake, unwrapping leftovers from the deli.

She runs past Debbie Lawrence, who is singing to her cat.

She runs to the boy.

He is there, of course, leaning against the phone booth shuffling a deck of cards. He looks up at her, smiling with his eyes but not his mouth.

“I thought of something,” he says. “How you can be weightless.”

“I can run,” says Karen.

“Not anymore.”

“Why not?”

When she says this her voice breaks, and she realizes that she’s asking, really asking. The warehouse across the street cries. The empty lot begs for answers. The deli is closed, but even it has a curious glint in its windows, the reflection of a traffic light that just turned red.

The boy, whether he knows why or not, doesn’t answer.

The phone in the booth rings.

“It’s off the hook,” Karen says, confused.

“It’s been ringing for weeks,” replies the boy. “Ringing and ringing.”

Karen steps up to the phone booth and touches the cool metal. The phone has a rotary dial, she realizes. It is old, like the boy.

She picks up the receiver and puts it to her ear.

 It is mid-fall, and the town of Graysville is having a fair. It all started when Mrs. Marston got to talking with Herb Geller after a book club meeting. She said the town needed cheering up, and Herb, who had a well-procured vegetable garden in his backyard, thought a farmer’s market might be in order. The idea generated some interest with the town council, who elevated the event to a fair, and Karen Loews’s uncle even said he’d sponsor it in his niece’s honor.

It had been a real hit to the town when the famed runner disappeared. There came the feeling of discomfort—of not knowing who to trust. Debbie Lawrence was the last to see Karen. “The strangest thing,” she’d tell anyone who’d listen, “out running in the middle of the night. Running like the devil was after her.”

The fair is a nice way to lighten the mood. There’s whack-a-mole and a cotton candy stall and a dunk tank. There’s even a giant pop-up Ferris wheel, right in the middle of the old empty lot. It’s such a success that there’s talk of doing it again. It becomes something to look forward to: The Annual Bishop Street Fair.

At the center of it all, there is a nonfunctional phone booth that nobody pays attention to. Teenagers hover nearby, crowding over text messages. A little girl runs past with a caramel apple. They all keep a wide berth from the nearby bench where the boy and the woman are sitting, the boy reading a book, the woman listening to an old iPod. One of the teenagers thinks, who uses iPods anymore?

The boy and the woman sit on the bench all day. They don’t talk to one another, although sometimes they smile faintly, or share a knowing look. Herb Geller has it from Steve that the woman is the boy’s mother. This strikes Herb as a bit odd, and Mrs. Marston agrees, because the woman appears to be quite young. But Steve is rarely wrong and it would be rude, of course, to ask the woman directly. So Herb accepts this truth, and so does Mrs. Marston, and so does Debbie Lawrence’s cat.

In the evening it begins to rain. Parents bustle their children out of lines for the Ferris wheel or the merry-go round, feet splash in puddles, cotton candy sticks wetly to fingers and cheeks. The rain starts as a drizzle but then comes down hard, pattering loudly on the canvas tents erected over food stands and carnival games. The woman opens an umbrella, large and black, and holds it over herself and the boy. The two huddle together under its protection. They do not leave Bishop Street. As far back as anyone can remember, they never have.

They are, simply, always there.