Return to Richmond

Tony Press

Photo Credit: Alpha/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Zeke followed the crowd off the train and into the streets of Richmond. It was his first visit in six years. It things went as planned, or, perhaps better to say, as hoped, his next trip would be with all his stuff, not that he possessed that much. He ordered a Lyft and gave an address in the Carytown neighborhood. It was a good place to have lunch, he had heard from two locals sitting across from him, and he didn’t remember anything better, so why not?

Yellow roses held sway on the small table beneath her bedroom window. Their scent, their shape, their fragile solidity, Annie appreciated all of it. She treasured the line from the Willa Cather story: The roses of song and the roses of memory, they are the only ones that last. May it be so, she requested, of the universe and anyone who might be listening. Even the letter carrier, just now walking by.

Xavier Puentes was Annie’s father, and he was dead. Annie had cared for him his last four dreadful months and, as is often the truth, relief had come only with the final breath. He had lived merely fifty years but had packed decades into some of those years. He was tired. His body was tired. Time was up.

When Annie’s call came, Zeke had been dozing in his tiny studio in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, listening to the Mets and Pirates. He woke, spoke, listened and spoke again, and within minutes was planning his journey south. The Amtrak schedule offered two choices from Penn Station: 3:25am and 10:35am. The early one would be perfect, giving him a late morning arrival in Richmond.

Very few people had come to the funeral, which had surprised Annie. Her surprise, too, surprised her. True, there was no family in town, or even within a three days’ drive, but she’d guessed some of her father’s old co-workers would show. Apparently, they hadn’t reached the “forgive and forget” stage yet. Or maybe they’d gone straight to the forgetting.

Under ordinary circumstances, Zeke wouldn’t have been home when Annie called. He would have been at his job in lower Manhattan, slinging hash—the vegetarian version—at a joint that had been running too long to be called “up and coming” but still hadn’t made a name for itself. Maybe the owner shouldn’t have called it The Nameless, but that was her call, not Zeke’s. Still, it was fortunate he was home, thanks to an unexpected private party that chose to bring in its own cooking crew. A night off with pay was a rare and beautiful thing.

Technology, like most swords, most doors, most fences, had two sides, but neither had helped Xavier. Not in the end. Not in the hospital, not at home with hospice, and not with his old career. Once television repair was a solid career, and so it was for him, until it wasn’t. Then the boss had everyone train in VCR repair. A bit later, the boss, with Xavier’s help, had torched the place, planning to split the insurance 80/20.

It turned out that a custodian named Wally Covington, who’d been the last of the cleaning crew to be laid off, had kept his key, continuing to sleep most nights in the backroom. Including that night. Three days later, the boss confessed, though not giving up Xavier, before killing himself. Xavier’s co-workers, however, had a well-founded suspicion of his complicity. And, it turned out, they had liked Wally more than Xavier.

Reflecting on her father’s next to last set of words: Mija, estaba con mi jefe. Tengo culpable. Soy un asesino, Annie recalled the days immediately after the fire: boss’s arrest, the jail suicide, and the embarrassment of the sheriff that such a thing could happen on his watch. The stories in the paper focused more on that than on the death of Mr. Covington.

Quicker than quick, a Lyft driver named Stuart appeared in a bigger than necessary car, and off Zeke went toward Cary Street, and Weezie’s Kitchen. Both of his train neighbors had urged it upon him, though they each threw three or four other names in his direction. If you like good food, you’ve come to the right place. One added: “The Rich in Richmond is really for the food. Maybe it didn’t use to be, but now, yes. Trust me.”

Picking through her father’s clothes, Annie created three piles. One for garbage, one for Goodwill, and one, much smaller, for grasping, though she couldn’t have said why. Well, she could say why for one of the items, her father’s grey-and-red Richmond Flying Squirrels T-shirt. They’d been at the ballpark together when he bought it, only last season, and it was still in good shape. They shared shirt size, too.

On the ten-minute ride with Stuart, a friendly tour guide, Zeke began to think the whole town was secretly paid by the Chamber of Commerce. “Yeah, the wife and I have been here five years and we ain’t going anywhere. Good size, good people, good weather… oh, and the food. The food. What brings you down here, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Next week, Annie knew, required some semblance of normalcy. Her school had granted a week’s personal leave, and also placed an excellent substitute in her classroom, but on Monday, she’d be back. It was Spring, Steinbeck time: Of Mice and Men for the freshmen and, for the juniors, The Grapes of Wrath. It was her favorite time of year. And bingo, she realized yet again, each book ended with a kind of beauty in death.

A menu could be a beautiful thing to read. Twice, Zeke asked his server to please give him more time, he was having such fun savoring the pages. He had been wrong before, but this time he suspected the product would match the promotion. He chose the “Traditional Bennie” but with veggie sausage, and Kate-the-server agreed it was a good pick.

Longing, longing was a word she never used, laughed when she heard it or saw it, and yet. And yet, she was longing for Zeke. She must be. Why had she called him if not for that? When had they last talked—two years? Three? She considered “confessing” her use of the word “longing” to her juniors, a word that was omnipresent on the right side of the board, on the list of words to avoid, or, at a minimum, to think twice before using. Especially in writing. Especially in her class.

Killer food, that’s what Zeke would say if he were to Yelp this place. Flat-out killer. Even if he were not a professional, “New Yawk professional,” at that, he would have appreciated this food. Anybody with half a brain would, as long as their taste buds were intact. The vision, too, was important: the food arrived well-displayed on the plate. This was a nice landing. The rest of the day, he confessed to himself, about that, he was nervous. He walked out to the sunshine and soon was in another car

Jumping at the sound. A black SUV in her driveway, a Lyft sticker on the window.

It was happening. Zeke grabbed his bag and jumped onto the driveway.

He’s here. Look at him.

God, she’s beautiful.

Finally, they thought.

Even now, five years beyond, they relive that moment.

Dad is a memory, and they focus on the good parts, not his hatred for Zeke.

Catalina is three.

Billy is one.

All is well, in the small house, the classroom, and at Zekes Heartland Café, Fine Food from Z to A.


Tony Press tries to pay attention. Sometimes he does. His story collection, Crossing the Lines, was published by Big Table. He claims 2 Pushcart nominations, 12 years in one high school classroom, and 25 criminal jury trials. He lives near the San Francisco Bay. Email: tonypress108[at]

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