As I Make My Crooked Way by Jules Hogan
“PTSD is a displacement. It’s basically the experience of trauma taking over the present […] You literally risk the present—you forsake the present—in order to go back.”
—Ocean Vuong, Good Life Project, July 2021
In their short story “As I Make My Crooked Way,” Jules Hogan’s protagonist Heather exists in a state of displacement—physical, emotional, and mental. Approaching her thirties, she’s returned to her parents’ home, sleeping in her childhood bedroom and working at a local pet store, her PhD on hold. But for Heather, there is no comfort in the familiar. No easy nostalgia in the photographs and collages that fill the space where she spent her adolescence, no sense of safety in the family lunches after church. Rather, she finds herself at odds with the beliefs—religious and political—of her family and their inability to fully confront the brutal reality of the trauma experienced by both of their daughters—one revealed and one still hidden. As Heather narrates, “[M]y father prefers to live in ignorance of the things he cannot face.”
As is a constant truth for so many, sexual assault does not exist merely in the past for Heather. It’s a possibility that lurks, that has its roots so deep in the culture of our society that it’s capable of grasping at us again and again, even on a Sunday afternoon among the fuzzy innocence of hamsters and mice. In the narrative present of the story, Heather struggles with existential questions of happiness and worth before defending against this possibility once more. Her present, it seems, is infinitely interrupted.
Written in a voice that manages to be both frantic and restrained, direct yet uncertain, “As I Make My Crooked Way” illustrates how the aftermath of trauma seeps into everyday life. Hogan’s sharp language and superb awareness of how specific details impact the mood and tone of a story combine to create a world so absorbing that readers will feel their own sense of detachment by the time the last line arrives and they must step away. As Hogan writes in their author’s note, they “didn’t shy away from the messiness of life.” Instead, they thrust us into the middle of it, and the result is phenomenal.
Content Warning—sexual violence
I want to be a better person, so I hide my bad habits. When I lived alone, in a chilly, oceanside city, I let the evidence accumulate like flotsam around me. Now, I’m twenty-seven and I live in my childhood bedroom, my PhD on hold for “personal health.” I bury my cigarette butts in my mother’s begonias. I want to be clear: I have many reasons to be grateful. My parents took me back under wing. The purposelessness of my life is a privilege. But, since June, I have wasted here, watching the college kids leave and return to the local campus, following the migration of the swifts in the chimney. The Gulf Stream of my own life suspended.
My family goes to church on Sundays. We pray; we sing. I have no faith in holiness or forgiveness. The sanctuary is the oldest room in my memory: the past dances in the refraction from the stained glass, the pews smelling of citrus polish. I watch dust create oblong halos around people’s faces. My brother Silas and his wife Clarice sit three rows in front. My nephew daydreams between them, kicking the pew. Silas nods, murmurs along with the preacher. His scruffy brown beard surprises me each time I see it. The room thrums with Lorna’s ghost, though she isn’t dead, she just lives in DC, working at a lobbying firm. Their youngest digital content manager ever, whatever that means.
After church, we eat lunch at Lou’s Diner, a place with wood-panel siding and the faint odor of tobacco tracing the air. The waitress takes our drink orders and Quinn snaps the pale wax crayons she gives him. Right now, he’s all giggles and sticky cheeks. I know he’ll grow up to be one of the boys I hated in high school. Too pretty and golden for his own good; my brother was the same.
“I wish Lorna would come visit,” Silas says. “Big city sister too good for us, now?”
His wink tells me he’s joking. Silas is what some would call a “good ol’ boy,” an over-simplification. He gives the eighty-six-year-old woman with thirteen parakeets free HVAC tune-ups, because she mostly just calls him over to have someone to talk to. “We only got each other, and maybe God,” he likes to say. But don’t get him started on tariff wars with China or the Iranian nuclear deal.
Lorna devotes her life to Causes, working on the macro level, turning ideas into revenue for politicians she thinks can save the world. Or something like this—I’ve never been too sure what her work entails, exactly. She left home even younger than I did, and sometimes I wonder what it means that Silas was the only one who stuck around.
“I wish she’d meet a nice man,” my mother says.
“Oh, she’ll settle,” Clarice offers. I wonder if we’re all talking about the same woman. The Lorna I know cannot survive stasis, like some species of sharks.
“God bless whatever man she chooses,” my dad says. Silas snorts.
My mother frowns at my father from across the table. “I think Lorna would—”
“It’s a joke, hon, just a joke.”
“Any man would be lucky—”
“I know,” my father clutches at the paper napkin shrouding his silverware and lets the fork and knife clatter to the tabletop. My sister has never dated. Never brought anyone home. There’s no telling, really, if it would be a man or a woman or someone else.
“Did you try that app I was telling you about?” Clarice asks me.
“What?” I have the distorted hearing of someone deep underwater.
“That dating app. How my friend Marissa met her fiancé. It’s really easy.”
“Oh, Heather’s not looking to date anyone,” my mother says, clicking her tongue. “She’s going back to school soon.”
The food arrives—fried chicken, cream potatoes with hillocks of butter, green beans steeped in bacon lard. Dad leads the blessing and we cut in, passing vinegar peppers and hot sauce, salt, golden packets of butter for the corn muffins.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a little fun,” Clarice says.
“Did you hear back from your boss?” my father asks me.
He means my PI, back at the lab in Rhode Island. “Not yet.” I don’t tell him I haven’t even reached out.
“Well, you might want to get on that. I’m sure they’ll want to know what your plans are for next semester.”
I pinch my thigh under the table, willing myself not to implode, not here.
“You’ve hardly touched your chicken,” Mama says.
I peel the skin away and take a bite from the soft white breast.
She smiles, pleased.
“Collards are good,” Silas tells us.
“Bean,” Quinn says. He slaps his palm into the potatoes.
I have a shift at Patricia’s Pet Paradise that afternoon. I like the work. It’s mindless and the animals are good company. It’s a job that lets me forget myself. In my childhood room, I squeeze myself into the store uniform. I feel seventeen again. The room looks the same as when I left for college—lavender walls, an Audubon print of Carolina parakeets, torn-out collages from National Geographic and Time. The mirror above the dresser is flanked with pinned photographs and notes—a snapshot of me and my friends at the beach, a dried-out starfish from Huntington Island.
Lorna’s bedroom is also untouched, walls a pale blue, books lining the shelves in alphabetical rows. Her volleyball and track trophies on the dresser, in front of the mirror. Sometimes I go in there and it’s like being in a museum. I sniff her shirts.
In my previous life, I learned that some oceanic phytoplankton grow silica shells, called tests. Lorna is also sharp, built for survival. I wonder how my own chromosomes failed so spectacularly, if I’ll ever put myself back together, become the type of person I wanted to be, someone who makes a difference, who discovers new things about the world, who has passion. I wondered where I turned astray. Was it some integral part of me? Can I become someone new?
In the mirror, I look old, my face tinged with acne, bloated. Like the after photo from a celebrity breakdown. I went to college on full scholarship; my name haunts the pages of research journals. Yet here I am, a wasted thing.
“The contractor called. For the porch,” I hear my mother say, through the thin wall.
“Is he going to finish on time?”
“He didn’t say, Phil.”
“Can’t get anything done in this economy.” He turns up the volume. “Everyone’s just looking for a handout!”
“Lower your voice, please, Phil,” my mother says.
My father believes in work and God. I don’t know what my mother believes anymore. I watch her pray and it seems empty. Is faith anything more or less than scientific certainty? I want to feel deserving of the life I’ve been given. What does it feel like to matter? Sometimes, I want to call my sister. Ask her if she’s happy. I’m afraid of her reply.
Before I clock in, I smoke two cigarettes back-to-back on the bench between our store and the Sav A Lot. My coworker Troy tells me about his baby girl, Valencia.
“I’m telling you, she’s a genius,” he says. He pinches his cigarette into the trashcan and shakes his head. “She started walking at nine months. Talking at six. I want to get her one of those special tests when she’s older.”
I clock in, and Troy and I clean the small-mammal cages. I spray bleach into the blood splatter that decorates the back wall of the mouse tank. Sometimes, male mice turn cannibalistic and must be “adopted” at a low, liability-free price. They usually go to a pale man who owns a lounge of carnivorous lizards. I scrub at the blood until the glass squeaks beneath my rag. My sister is a vegetarian, has been since eight; she feels pain for beetles drowning in puddles.
Troy tells me Valencia is a dancer. She just bops around whenever he puts on a good track. He pours handfuls of dusty pine bedding into the cleaned tanks. The surviving mice squeak and paw at the corners of plastic terrariums. Troy fills ceramic bowls with food. He won’t touch the rodents—gerbils and hamsters and guinea pigs with their sharp front teeth.
“Deanna got her LPN certification,” he tells me, scrubbing dried mouse shit off the food bowls with a sponge. “She’s making twenty-two fifty an hour now.”
“I thought she hated wiping asses.”
“She’s got people for that. Now she’s certified and everything. She can work anywhere. She’s gonna apply for the hospital, work her way up to the maternity ward. She loves them babies.”
I think of all the people I know, building lives I can’t imagine. A stability I can’t claim. Why? What’s the difference between us?
“With the raise, I can quit this gig,” Troy says under his breath.
“What are you going to do?”
“Take Val to the park, or that new kiddie museum they built in town. Feed ducks down by the lake. Learn our ABCs. All that good shit.”
If he asked me the same, I wouldn’t have an answer. Come into this shithole every day for thirteen fifty an hour, so I can buy weed and cigarettes and sleep in my childhood bedroom. I wish I knew what I wanted.
“Did you know,” I say, “some species of fish have bits of metal in their brains, like biological compasses, to help them find their way to their breeding ground each season?”
Troy drops his sponge in the bucket of ammoniac water and grins at me. “See, Red, this is why I like working with you. You always say crazy shit like this.”
I release the mice one by one back into the cage. They are soft and nervous. I can feel their hearts, frantic between my fingers.
Patricia herself is seventy-six and has paranoid delusions featuring the thermostat, so the store is managed by her son, Randall. He spends his shift in the back office, picking his nose and googling pictures of Anne Hathaway in Brokeback Mountain. We close early on Sundays, like blue laws apply to fish or geckos. Randy double counts Troy’s drawer and triple counts mine.
“You’re missing ten dollars,” Randy says to me. He leans against the counter and crosses his arms. His polo shirt is too tight, and it cuts into the soft flesh of his biceps.
“Awh, shit, really?” I groan. I have issues keeping money straight. I only work the register on our slowest days, when Randy thinks he can trust me to not fuck something up. My hope sags as Randy shakes his head.
“We can’t keep having this problem.”
“Maybe I should count it,” Troy says.
Randy turns to him. “That’s not protocol.”
“But you might have miscounted.”
Randy seethes, but lets Troy count the limp ones and fives in my register. I know it’s pointless, even before he finishes. “It’s short,” Troy admits, shrugging at me.
“Count it again?” I don’t know why I’m so desperate. I don’t need this job. There are a million better things I could be doing. There are a million things I cannot bring myself to do.
“I’ve got to get home, pick up Val,” Troy says.
“You can go.” Randy turns to me. “Come on. I have to take this to the safe.”
I watch Troy disappear into the wet hiss of the parking lot, the smell of rain and gasoline leaching into the store behind him.
The store office is cluttered, papers stacked everywhere, rows of plastic dolls from a popular superhero franchise, sample bags of cat food, a nest of empty Mountain Dew cans, a hulking desktop computer older than most of the staff.
“Sorry about the short drawer,” I say. “I really am trying—”
“I’m sure we can figure something out,” Randy says, sneering at me. It’s a look I’ve seen before. Won’t mistake a second time. Something in my stomach curls. Deeper than instinct, than fear.
He bends over the wall safe. I think about pushing him over. Cutting off the tips of his fingers and feeding them to the mice, filleting him into steaks for the pale man’s lizards. I don’t, because I’m too fragile for even my own inner violence. Someone must love this man, even if only his mother.
He chucks the bag into the safe. Slams the iron door.
“I need to get going,” I say, sidling toward the exit.
Randy moves, faster than I expected. Now he’s standing too close. “Look,” he says. “I’m sorry, but this is a business, and in a business, you have to make tough decisions.”
His breath smells like a three-day-old ham sandwich. His tongue laps at his chapped upper lip. I can see the flecks of dried spit, flaking dead skin. He leans closer. One arm snakes down to the wall near my hip, hemming me further. I think of the mice, scrambling at the walls of the cage, slippery with their own blood. He lifts his palm and pinches my chin, forces my face up to his.
Looking into his eyes, I am reminded of water salty on my lips, slipping over my tongue, unoffered; a man’s palm pressed down against my mouth; the river cold and heavy as another body, flowing into a second skin; the pressure and heat between my thighs, a sharp peeling pain; his voice offering immaculate salvation; my blood spilling onto cold white tile; the fingers over my nose, commanding me to hold my breath; I am being lifted and the water sheds from me, my skin pink and raw and not holy, not new, just the same brackish river flowing south, to its own crooked end.
I lift my leg and knee Randy in the groin, hard. His privates are soft and fleshy. I can feel them shudder. He moans, falling to his knees, and I back out of the office.
I expect him to scream. To bellow. To follow me, hands searching. I run between the dark aisles of dog food and chew toys that seem grimly phallic. Past the cash registers, the floor shining, and I am reminded of the nightmare I have over and over, where I cannot move, cannot run.
But I do. I do run, and when I reach the door the lock is slippery and my hand shakes, my breath catching in my throat—too many damn cigarettes—I push the door open and burst into the cool air like a moth throwing itself away from the florescent addiction of light.
I come home sweaty, smelling like blood and cigarettes.
“Go take a shower,” my mother says. “You stink.”
I look at her and my father, paired on matching leather recliners they bought on lien at Walmart, eighteen years ago.
“Really, Heather,” my mother says, before I leave the room. “It’s a disgusting habit.”
My father is sipping a whiskey and coke. He avoids my eyes. “Not this hag again,” he groans when an image of a woman appears on screen. She says she was raped by a soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice. Dad reaches for the remote control and I flee to the bathroom.
It’s painted the same soft yellow of my youth. A basket of potpourri and seashells sits on the toilet. Above the mirror, a flowery script reading: AND IN THIS HOME, WE PRAISE THE LORD. In high school, Lorna would spend hours in here, for reasons none of us understood till later. Purging. The word feels strange on my tongue. As if by shrinking herself, there would be less for the memories to cling to. I was only home for summer and Christmas vacations, swimming headfirst into my own future.
I scrub my skin, between my fingers, under my chewed nails. I wonder what my parents will say when I tell them I’ve failed yet again. When I told my father I dropped out of graduate school, he was empathetic, probably because he never understood why I bothered studying something as unbelievable as climate change.
I never saw myself growing old. The lines and rivers of stretchmarks on my hips and chest. The hair between my legs is long and dark and tightly curled. Running my fingers through it is comforting, like petting a sleeping animal. I wonder if Lorna shaves, or if she goes—as my mother says—as God intended. I remember the conversation—Lorna was nine, I thirteen, and our mother took us to Olive Garden after I bled through my Hello Kitty nightgown. While we gorged ourselves on endless breadsticks, she baptized us into the church of our bodies.
Clean, in the kitchen, I watch as my mother chops onions for spaghetti sauce. She is deft and quick with her movements. She sweeps the garlic into the hot oil and it pops.
“If I’m ever having a bad day, this smell always makes it better,” she says. She pushes a wooden spoon. Smiles at me and reaches for the cooking wine. Sets the spoon down, grinds pepper into the pan. The meat she adds is pink and yielding. I imagine it’s all those ground-up mice, all the “adopted” ones. I imagine it’s Randy’s fingers. I imagine the lizards like Komodo dragons, with poisonous mouths.
At supper, Mama says blessing. She holds my hand for a beat longer than necessary, squeezes it and lets it fall. The clink of forks on our plates is the only sound. My father eats quickly, shoving pasta into his mouth, sauce dripping onto the table and his shirt front. He leaves the television on.
“I quit my job,” I say. “It just wasn’t working out.” I separate the granules of beef from sauce around it, a mountain of gristle on the side of my plate.
“So, what will you do now?” my mother asks.
“Dammit, Heather,” my father swears. “You need to take more responsibility.”
My father ignores me. Rants on about personal freedom, choices and will and sin, how we are all drawn from the righteous path by the devil and it’s our job to choose God, always. My mother and I watch each other over the table. I wonder if she’s ever strayed from this path. If she’s ever walked through the world with the taste of blood beneath her nails.
“Women across this nation should be outraged at what these senators are doing,” the Representative from California says, from our living room.
I want to be better. To be good. The soft gray warmth of a lit cigarette, the way the smoke fades away, leaves no trace of itself on the world.
“You aren’t even listening to me,” my father says.
“I’m sorry.” I want to tell him the truth of what happened, but my father prefers to live in ignorance of the things he cannot face. He takes his plate to the kitchen, slams it on the counter, and stalks to the living room.
“Guilt by association isn’t guilt,” the television says.
My mother stares down at the table.
She’s folding her paper napkin into halves, fourths. Hands always busy. Nails clipped short, no vanity, no time. Fingers curled, just slightly, from arthritis. Wrinkles etched like fossilized cobwebs in her skin.
“Did I ever tell you about Hank?” she asks.
“Hank?” My mother is full of people I’ve never met, people she pulls out like shadow puppets. I am not hungry. They’ve returned to the video clip of the President. The President’s words and my father’s anger, a simmering bath of oil.
“He was my boyfriend in college. He was a good man. I wanted to marry him.”
“But you met Dad?”
My mother nods. “I met your father at the deli; he always came in for a pastrami sandwich, mayonnaise, tomato, hold the mustard.” She laughs. “We were engaged, Hank and I, when I met your father.”
I don’t know what to say. To my mother, adultery is a clearer sin than guilt. She crosses her fork and knife on the plate and folds her napkin into a crumpled square.
“I’m just telling you, honey. None of us are perfect.” She squeezes my hand again. I am her most imperfect child.
When my sister was fifteen-and-a-half years old, her volleyball coach assaulted her in the locker room. This was exactly how she told us, two years after the fact, as we all congregated in the stuffy family therapy room at Carolina Residential.
“I ought to kill the bastard,” Silas said.
“Let’s just forget it even happened.”
“He oughta be shot,” he swore. “Hung out on Main Street.”
“I think it would be best,” the therapist said. “If we kept the focus on Lorna, and her healing.”
My mother was crying. My father held her, used his other arm to pull Lorna into their embrace, holding her like he could put her back together if he prayed hard enough.
I looked out the window, at the stretch of dogwoods following the sidewalk, and didn’t say anything, not even sorry, or, I love you.
We didn’t say me too back then. We never talked about it again. We did a lot of praying in church—for her troubles, as Mama said. Dad came home later and later each night, slept on the couch. I wasn’t there, but Silas told me. My parents lived on in this quiet, fractured way, avoiding all the wreckage they didn’t want to think about. On the face, their currents seemed unshifted, but I studied complex systems on the verge of collapse. I recognized the signs. Silas was the one who took Mama to and from the hospital, who helped when the furnace went out. On Sundays I drove three hours from Columbia to meet them at the hospital. Through the seasons, for the better part of a year, I watched the dogwood leaves burnish red and fall, gray branches bud pink, flowers unfurl, stain of the crucifixion on each petal.
Sitting at the table with my mother, I remember these dogwoods.
“The manager tried to put hands on me,” I say.
I look at the table, the same yellow oilcloth, the same wicker-backed chairs perched around its brim. Every truth is on the tip of my tongue and I bite, hard, to keep them from flowing. Blood pools in my mouth, mercurial. I never told my parents my own story; there are too many unanswered questions. Why did you go out? Why did you dress like that? The cold rain on my face as he held me down is a nightmare that clings to me, and sometimes when I have this dream, I see Lorna beneath him. When she told us what happened, I wondered if I could have saved her, somehow. I wonder if my own story would make hers easier to bear, or just compound her grief.
Mama squeezes my hand. “The Lord doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle,” she promises. Wraps her arms around me in a tight, yeasty hug. Same scent of talcum powder and Ivory soap, Tide, pheromones of motherhood, a familiar nest. My mother picks up her plate and mine and carries them to the kitchen sink. I watch her hips sway, as she begins to wash the dishes. The water is hot, I can tell from the steam. She doesn’t flinch.
I don’t see Troy again for nearly six months. Our town is small, but we move in different circles. I wait tables at Lou’s, handing over plates of greasy food to stingy customers who tip in loose change and Bible pamphlets. In truth, I only think about Troy in relation to my own life. I wonder if all his plans are falling into place, as he wanted, or if he, too, had been set off track. I am an incredibly selfish person, just like anyone else.
“You’ve got table seven,” our host tells me, one cold winter evening. There’s a snow warning and the shift has been slow. I’m the last one to be cut, and the other servers leave me their side work. The night manager keeps the volume on the television up since the restaurant is practically empty. Government officials wage petty wars with airplanes and speeches.
“Welcome to Lou’s,” I say, handing out paper-wrapped silverware. “What can I get y’all to drink?”
“How you doing, Red?” Troy asks. He’s grinning.
“Troy, I didn’t recognize you at first,” I say. He’s got a sport coat on, and a bow tie. Then I realize how this sounds and add, “I mean, you look good.” I think this is, in some ways, even worse, and my face reddens. Deanna’s wearing a bright sunflower-yellow dress, and her makeup is perfect, like those models I follow on Instagram. Valencia sits in the booth next to her mother, coloring on a kid’s menu, a small and serious frown on her face.
“It’s good to see you’re out of that place,” Troy says. “She worked at the triple-P with me, back over the summer,” he says to Deanna. She smiles and looks at me in a funny new way.
“I wondered if you quit, like you were talking about.” I wonder if he heard any rumors about me, why I left, but I don’t want to ask.
“Yeah,” Troy says. Deanna’s looking at the menu.
I want to tell him the whole story, but I don’t know how. Not in this place, not with his girlfriend and daughter watching. He seems like a whole different person and suddenly I’m unsure if I ever really knew him.
“I kneed Randy in the balls.”
Troy glances toward Valencia. She’s focused on her crayons, shading in each tooth on the grinning cow, bright blue.
“I’m glad we’re both out of that shithole,” I say, unable to shut up, my words embarrassing me as they fall from my face.
Troy chuckles in a nervous way and looks at his menu. Deanna watches me, her gaze flat.
“Anyhow, what can I get y’all to drink?” I ask in the awkward silence that follows.
When I return with their diet sodas, Troy sits next to his daughter, helping her with a word search. “Can you find chicken?” He asks her. “C-H-I…”
I set their drinks on the table. “So, Deanna, are you working at the hospital?”
She gives me a strange smile and doesn’t answer my question.
“Did you get Val that test?” I ask.
Troy turns to me, his face creased, holding one hand on Valencia’s shoulder. “Not yet,” he says.
Deanna coughs under her breath and looks pointedly at her menu. They order chicken-fried steak and candied yams, macaroni and cheese, green beans, corn bread. I bring them their food and set it plate-by-plate onto the table, heat blushing my arms. I step back and ask if there’s anything I can get for them, anything at all.
“We’re good,” Deanna says. She puts her hand on Troy’s forearm and begins cutting the meat into pieces for her daughter.
I leave the check on their table and sneak out back for a cigarette. On the loading dock it is cold and smells like dumpster rot and old fryer grease. I want to tell Troy and Deanna I’m sorry, but I can’t figure out how except to comp them a piece of lemon pie. I want to tell my father I’m trying to do better, but I can only hold my tongue. I want to tell Lorna to keep running, but all I can do is send her cat memes. Maybe none of us are static creatures, maybe we all seek certain currents, follow biological cues to find ourselves and each other. Do you see me? Hear me? Do you understand? I lean into the frozen metal railing and watch the empty glitter of asphalt in the parking lot. It starts to snow.
JULES HOGAN is a writer from the blue ridge mountains. They are the 2021–2022 Fiction Meets Science fellow at the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg in Delmenhorst, Germany, where they’re writing a novel about whales. Jules is fiction editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review and a reader for Split Lip Magazine. Find more stories & info at seektheyonder.com.
Featured image by Mohamed Ajufaan courtesy of Unsplash