This Might Hurt a Bit
THE THING THAT BOTHERS ME most about Upper Shuckburgh—and it’s hard to pick only one—is that there’s no Lower Shuckburgh. Why didn’t the founders simply name this rustic rolling valley Shuckburgh? Of course, a better question is why didn’t they give it a name that wasn’t so close to Sucksburgh or Upchuck or so many other delightful variations, but maybe curse words were different in the 1700s.
Dad said our town is named after a city in England. I looked it up on a map, to see if there’s a Lower Shuckburgh in England, and there is indeed—north of Upper Shuckburgh.
The laws of logic hold no sway here in Upshuck County. Our mountain is blue, our dogs are the size of horses, and right
now it’s colder inside Dad’s hangar than outside. We haven’t spent a winter here yet, but I’m sure that when we do, hot snow will rise from the ground and fall up into the sky.
My phone says it’s forty-eight degrees outside, but the big thermometer on the wall—a glass tube in a rusted frame that says VIN FIZ over an engraved biplane—says it’s forty-three degrees in here, and even though that’s impossible, I believe it, because all things are possible in Sucksburgh.
I pull my arms inside my sweatshirt like a turtle and nudge the useless propane heater a little closer with my shoe. The hangar smells like gasoline and oil, a rich aroma that reminds me of all the times Dad and I used to go flying together.
Dad’s white sneakers and clean blue jeans stick out from under the Phantom like the Wicked Witch of Walmart, the ultralight’s sleek black cockpit and aluminum landing gear jacked up so he can work on the wheels. The left wing waggles over my head as Dad struggles with a stubborn bolt.
“Can you hand me a wrench?” Dad extends a greasy hand from under the plane and flaps it expectantly, a surgeon waiting for his scalpel. “Three-sixteen—no, uh . . . I guess three-sixteenth.”
My knees crack like icicles as I stand up off the stack of spare tires and examine the twenty identical wrenches lined up in Dad’s toolbox.
“How am I supposed to know which one is the—”
“Or a half inch,” Dad corrects.
“Okay, well, which one is the—”
“I guess gimme both.” The soft clink of a bolt falling onto the gravel under the plane. “Ah shoot,” Dad says, and I hear him searching through the gravel for the lost bolt. “And gimme a bolt, too.” Another clink. “Make that two.”
I realize the sizes are engraved on the wrench handles, hand him the right ones, and retake my chilly seat beside the space heater, giver of life.
Dad built the hangar himself when we moved in over the summer, pronouncing it complete after falling off the roof twice but before putting in any insulation. The inside looks like an aviation-themed Applebee’s, every inch of wall covered in tools, spare parts, old tin signs, propellers, and tacked-up photos of Dad’s ultralights over the years. Blurry snapshots of small, bright planes swooping low over farmers’ fields, of Dad standing proud with his arm up on the exposed engine, smiling behind aviator glasses.
Ultralights are small planes that seat one or two people, and they’re very light because they’re made of hollow aluminum tubing with fabric stretched over them. You don’t need a pilot’s license to fly them, and you can even fly them out of your own backyard, assuming you’ve got enough backyard to do it, which—now that we live in Sucksburgh—we do. Our “backyard” is nine acres of grassy field that stretches back to a horse farm. The horses hate the ultralight and run back into their stable every time Dad takes off or lands, the Phantom buzzing low over our house like a giant dragonfly.
It’s a beautiful little plane, and flying in it is a real kick.
Takeoffs are especially thrilling. Dad pushes the throttle wide open and the prop becomes a blur, the engine so loud we have to wear earmuffs under our helmets. My teeth clack together as the Phantom bumps over the field until suddenly the ride gets totally smooth, like we’ve hit a patch of ice—but really the wheels are floating just an inch above the ground. Then the plane floats up and backward a little bit, weightless as a leaf, and we’re flying.
Everything looks small from up there. We climb past cotton-ball clouds, soar over patchwork farm fields and model-railroad towns. Every now and then an eagle or a goose will fly along with us for a little while, and Dad wags the wings at them before they peel off. He gets a big kick out of it. “Did you see that, bud?” he asks over the intercom built into the earmuffs. “Roger,” I reply, trying to sound all business, like pilots do in the movies.
Dad’s bummed that I haven’t gone flying with him since we moved. I told him it’s because it’s been so cold, but he must know that’s not true. I mean, we were here all summer, too, and I didn’t fly with him then, either. I told him it was too hot. I’m like an antisocial Goldilocks.
Dad’s still always trying to drag me out to this dirty freezer. I swear he asks every night after dinner, “Hey, bud, wanna come out to the hangar with me? I could sure use an extra set of hands.” I said yes tonight only because Mom whispered to me as I was putting my plate in the sink, “Do you hate your father?”
The question shocked me. “What? No.”
“Well, he thinks you do.”
I don’t care what Dad or Mom thinks, but I didn’t feel like getting in a fight in the kitchen with my arms in the suds and Mom glaring at me with those lion eyes she gets when she’s determined, so I just said, “No, of course I don’t hate Dad,” to which she replied, “Great. Have fun helping him in the hangar.” I know she’s upset because tomorrow is Melanie’s anniversary—she found a way to bring it up twice during dinner—and from the look on her face, it seemed like she might be going for the hat trick, so I was more than happy to retreat out here.
Is this heater even on? The coils are glowing red, but my hands are turning blue.
Dad is so happy I’m hanging out with him that it’s getting on my nerves. He’s humming “Poor Boy Blues” as he wrenches and screws and clangs. He hasn’t said much to me since I came out here, but I realize now that Mom wanted me to visit the hangar so Dad could talk to me about Melanie. He begins his attack while he’s still under the plane, a boxer throwing soft jabs to test his opponent’s defenses.
“So, bud,” he says, the small gear of his ratchet wrench methodically turning, “how’s it going?”
I take a deep breath. “Good. It’s going good.”
“Good,” he says. “Good, good.” He says nothing else, waiting for me to say more, the steady small wrench, wrench, wrench of his ratchet tightening the silence until I’m ready to scream.
“Do you have to keep making that noise?” I ask.
The wrenching suddenly stops. Dad pauses. “Well, only if I
don’t want the wheels to fall off when I’m flying.” A flurry of frantic wrenching and then Dad stops. “Okay!” he announces cheerfully. “All done!”
He slides out awkwardly from under the Phantom and wipes his hands on his high-waisted dad jeans. I love the way he dresses, a businessman’s idea of what a mechanic would wear: dark red chambray shirt tucked into ironed blue jeans. It’s so dorky I love it, and I can’t help but smile.
“What?” Dad asks, grabbing his leather flight jacket from the Phantom’s prop and putting it on. He’s tall and has to duck under the wing as he walks over to me, combing his fingers through his neat salt-and-pepper hair. “What’s so funny?”
Dad smiles, and for a second I’m terrified he might hug me, but he settles for a manly clap on the shoulder. “I’m glad you’re smiling. I was worried that tonight might be tough for you. That tomorrow might be tough for you.”
Oh, fuck you. I never should have given him that smile. I look down. “It wouldn’t be tough if you didn’t keep bringing it up.”
“What do you mean ‘keep bringing it up’?” he asks, honestly confused. “When’s the last time I brought it up?”
I try to remember, and I’m discouraged to realize I can’t think of a single time in recent memory. I’ve been so antisocial with my parents that they’ve pretty much given up talking to me about anything, Melanie-related or not. I want to tell Dad, You don’t have to bring it up; I see it every time I look in your eyes, but that seems true enough to be dangerous, so instead I say,
“All the time, that’s when,” which sounds lame even to me.
I hop off the tires, my ass frozen solid. “Get some fucking chairs in here,” I mumble as I walk toward the door. I hope that cursing will divert Dad from the subject, but it doesn’t. The old man’s as sharp as the crease in his jeans.
“Bud, c’mon, look, if you’re upset . . .”
I turn around and give him an angry glare. I dare him to keep talking.
Dad spreads his hands, gently trying to defuse this bomb. “If you’re upset . . . that makes sense. Mom and I just want you to know . . . you don’t have to be upset alone.”
“I’m not upset,” I say, and I honestly don’t know if I’m lying or not. I would prefer not to know, thank you very much.
As I open the hangar door and step halfway over the threshold, Dad calls, “Last chance,” and without looking back, I say into the dark outside, “Good.”
— — —
I slam the steel door behind me, and the hangar’s frame shakes with a satisfying clang that makes me feel a little better. There’s nothing worse than when you angrily slam a door and it just kind of silently whooshes shut because it’s one of those hollow balsa-wood doors. I want to open the door to slam it shut again, but I know that would be weird.
Breathing the fresh night air feels good too. I couldn’t stand the gasoline stink in there.
I take a deep breath. I need to get inside and fill some pages. That will make me feel better. Turn on some Die Hard. Zone.
I wonder what Dad meant when he said Last chance? Oh, who cares. Trying to figure out my parents is like trying to put a tuxedo on a squirrel: difficult, dangerous, and not worth the photo.
It’s dark in the backyard. There are no streetlights on our long, one-lane road and no other houses within sight. But the moon is almost full, and it bathes our sprawling, low-slung new house in a ghostly light. Despite my desire to get inside and warm up, I linger between the hangar and the house and savor the silence.
Even though Upper Shuckburgh is only an hour north of Bethlehem (and nowhere near Lower Shuckburgh, which doesn’t exist), it feels like a different world. Sometimes—like right now, when I can’t see or hear another living thing—it feels like the moon. We moved here after Melanie died because Mom said our old house had “too many bad memories.”
Even though we’ve been here since the summer, I’m still not used to how quiet and dark the country is compared to the suburbs. Without any streetlights or other houses, the emptiness is a little scary. I didn’t know nothing could feel so big.
I look up and I’m amazed by how many more stars I can see here. Another thing I don’t think I’ll ever get used to. It’s like looking through a telescope. A riot of diamond-white pinpricks crowd the sky, some actually twinkling like in a goddamn nursery rhyme. I follow the curve of the Milky Way, the stars clustering in a band that runs across the sky, from the big hill on the left of our house to the Blue Mountain range on the
right. It makes me dizzy, like I’m riding a cosmic roller coaster, and I look back down at our house to steady myself.
The wind picks up, and I catch the faint cinnamon whiff of dead leaves. It reminds me of the spiced cider Melanie and I always used to get at Scholl Orchards. The association arrives unexpectedly, and grief blows in on that cold wind too as I realize I won’t be going to Scholl’s this year. It’s too far away to bike from here, and I bet Mom won’t drive me. “Too many bad memories.”
I’m so cold that my arms are starting to shake, but I don’t want to go inside. An irrational voice—I know it’s irrational, but it sounds very sensible and convincing at the moment—suggests I never walk back into that strange new too-empty house. It whispers a dark promise: If I can figure out how to let go, the autumn wind will lift me up to the stars, where all these problems will look small. Cotton-ball clouds. Model-railroad towns.
If such magical thinking is possible anywhere, it’s here. The laws of logic hold no sway in Upshuck County.