‘Heathen’ by Mike Wilson

Heathen by Mike Wilson, 2022

The magic trick:

Positioning a grieving narrator on a unique timeline – five years after the death he’s memorializing in the story

I’ve read many stories that recount the final days of a parent’s life. I’ve also read many stories that find a narrator reflecting back over decades to paint a loving portrait of their mother or father.

This might be the first story that finds the narrator considering his father’s death from an odd interim position on life’s timeline – about five years after the fact. It might seem like a strange story characteristic to call out, but I think it really makes this thing work.

The narrator’s pain is no longer raw, of course. But just the fact that he’s still sorting through memories and meaning five years later indicates a certain level of sadness or still-unprocessed emotion that makes the story very affecting.

And that’s quite a trick on Wilson’s part.

The selection:

He never imagined getting sober, which he did three years before he died. I always imagined I’d get a call one morning after he’d tied his car into a knot around some cottonwood while hauling ass over the country roads he liked to cruise when he was wasted. Instead, he had a massive heart attack one Saturday night after dinner, the kind they say you don’t even feel. He dropped softly where he stood like crank addicts do after a five day meth bender. He went out quietly, drowned where he stood. His last meal was hot dogs.

I push away from the desk again and tell my wife to put something good on the grocery list. I tell her that I’m going to make sure every meal we have from now on is something better than trash meat with cheap ketchup and watery mustard and relish. “Relish is fucking gross,” I say. “Let’s have ribeyes or something.”

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