A black and white photo of the skyline of new york city.

Peace: a short story by Michael Fine

By Michael Fine, contributing writer

Copyright © 2024 Michael Fine

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.


He hated the old man.  There were no two ways about it.  It wasn’t disdain, dislike, or distaste.  The old man didn’t annoy him.  He didn’t think the old man was awkward.  Even so, it was a deep, abiding hatred, so fundamental to Richard’s being that he could almost taste it.  It was there on his tongue, in the back of his throat, in his spine, and in his chest when he got up in the morning. It was there in all those places and, also, in his gut and in his brainstem when he lay down and tried to sleep at night.

You could argue that the old man hadn’t done anything to him to deserve this hatred, and to a certain extent you’d be right.  No violence or abuse.  The old man hadn’t taken his money – in fact the opposite was true.  He paid for college and law school, leaving Richard to pay for living expenses and incidentals, which Richard had been able to do by working summers and part-time during the school year.  Nor had the old man been verbally abusive.  Their life hadn’t been a life of anger or threats, of slammed doors or broken glass.  The old man treated Richard’s mother and sisters with respect.  He was distant but always polite.  Chillingly polite, perhaps.  But always appropriate and proper.

            Richard’s sisters didn’t feel the same way about the old man.  They respected and loved him, in their own way, which was more about respect and gratitude than it was about love.  Their home was warm in the winter, cool in the summer and there was always food on the table.  The lawn was always mowed, and the hedges clipped – flat and even.  The edges of the sidewalks and flowerbeds were crisp and straight.  The old man did most of it.  Richard did his turn mowing the lawn when he was young.  Yes, he had to be asked, even reminded.  But his mother had done the reminding.  So, there wasn’t any friction.  He and the old man never really got into it.  They didn’t fight.  His father had never cursed him or disparaged him.  Nothing like that.

But he hated the old man just the same.  The old man stuck in his craw.  The old man was always right.  He was always on time.  He always knew the right answer.  He didn’t talk much, but you always knew what he was thinking.  The old man thought that Richard didn’t amount to much and never would.  That Richard was a light weight.  Insubstantial.  Somehow less than a man.  That Richard couldn’t saw a board, hammer a nail, reline his own brakes, or even change the oil in his own car.  None of what Richard had done with his own life changed that – the financial success, the corporate boards, the time in Washington, the books, and the prizes.  None of that mattered to the old man.  The old man knew in his soul that Richard was a disappointment, and nothing Richard ever did or ever said would change that. 

The old man worked at Brown and Sharpe, a tool and die maker.  He never made more than a thousand bucks a week.  They had one car, which he bought new and kept for forty years, changing the oil every three thousand miles, washing it once a week in the summer, and keeping the interior spotless, keeping it garaged all winter in their tiny little one car garage which the old man kept neat as a pin.  To the old man, working with your hands mattered.  Being disciplined and deliberate mattered.  Being able to read a blueprint or a mechanical drawing mattered.  Keeping your workshop clean and neat with everything in its place, the floor swept every night and so clean that you could eat off it, that mattered.  World peace, not so much.  Social justice, not at all.  It was an illusion, all that hope and change and peace and justice stuff.  We never see any of it.  Human beings are selfish and corrupt.  That’s all there is and all she wrote. Protecting the environment, silly.  God gave man fossil fuels so they could be burned.  Who are we to question what we have been given.  Public transportation, a waste of the taxpayer’s money.  Civil rights?  We are all created equal, with equal chances and equal responsibilities.  A man makes his own life out of his choices, and every man, every person, starts life with certain roadblocks and challenges, which is each person’s challenge and opportunity to surmount.

We’ve made progress.  Every working man can now afford a house and a car.  All you had to do was take responsibility for your actions and your choices.  If you didn’t or don’t, that’s your problem — you can walk if you can’t get your act together enough to earn a decent living and buy your own car, or sleep in the street if you can’t make the rent, for all the old man cared.  That’s the natural order of things.  If there aren’t consequences for people’s choices, people will make the same bad choices over and over again.  Some people have to suffer so that other people can understand the importance of personal responsibility.  Everyone starts out in an apartment.  But then you save, put together a down payment, buy a house and take care of it, buy a car, and take care of that, and build your nest egg.  That’s the miracle of compound interest, which makes America the greatest country in the world.

But even what the old man believed, well, that wasn’t really the problem either.  People have different beliefs.  The endless sense that Richard had been judged and found wanting, that he was marked in his soul as inadequate, as less than, that wasn’t the problem either, not entirely.  You grow up, you find your own place, you cope.  You struggle a little, quietly most of the time, inside yourself, but you cope.

The problem was that the old man never looked at the beauty of the world, never saw the beauty of things as they are, never looked at a sunrise or a sunset, never drove to the beach at dawn in the summer to see the sunrise and then plunge into the waves, never sat on a stool at a dive bar and watched the purple and orange and red and golden clouds, never saw the sun break through the clouds in shafts of sunlight which Richard understood meant that God was present in the world, never watched a hummingbird flit from flower to flower in the garden his mother planted, from the cosmos and the lilies to the echinacea to the rudbeckia to the white and pink hollyhocks which stood tall against the house, from red to orange to white with purple and red again.  He hadn’t lived.  The old man had wasted his life, and Richard hated him most for that.

So, when the old man showed up at Richard’s house in Western Cranston on a day in the early spring of 2017 carrying flowers, Richard was both flabbergasted and deeply suspicious. 

The old man almost never came to his house.  It was always the other way around.  All those years when Richard’s kids were growing up, before they went as a family to Washington for three years and in the years after they came home, they and Richard’s sisters and their families and/or partners (and even partners of the moment, sometimes, the world changing more and more as time went by and Richard and others learning slowly not to judge lest you be judged yourself, that blood is thicker than water, and the relationship you have is always better than no relationship at all, even when things are awkward) went to their parents’ house on Sunday afternoons and on holidays, and Richard’s mother would cook a big meal while Richard and his sisters and brothers-in-law, the others, and all the kids would cluster in the old sun porch that the old man made over into a TV room, to watch football on TV while the old man stayed hidden in his shop, in the basement, with a grandchild or two who snuck down to watch what he was working on at the moment.  Watch.  Don’t touch.  Speak only when you are spoken to – I have to concentrate on the work.  Clean up after yourself.  No food or drink in the shop.  Crumbs attract mice and other vermin.  No, you can’t sit down.  Watch and be silent if you must watch.  No, I don’t need any help.  If you want to learn how to work with your hands like I do, watch what I do and remember.

The old man would come up when he was called for dinner, and would wash his hands at the kitchen sink and dry them for what seemed like hours, the assembled family waiting at the table, but none of that was likely necessary, because his hands and his clothing were always immaculate, his shop apron taken off, dusted off and hung from its nail in a corner of the shop, his work shirt and his work pants still pristine, still creased from having been washed and folded, his hands kept soft and clean by the thick white creamy hand cleaner he used before he came up the stairs.

The old man had been in Richard’s house only a few times before.  He came when Richard and Esti bought the house in 1993, just after Richard had made partner.  There was a little party, and the old man and Richard’s mother drove out in the Plymouth Valiant which was then twenty years old, had 45,000 miles on it and still looked as new as it had when Richard’s father drove it home from the showroom.  Slant-six engine, the old man said.  You can’t beat that engine.  Smooth as silk.  It will run forever if you take care of it.  Richard’s mother sat in the living room, on the edge of an ottoman, and ate delicately from a plate of cut melon and little sandwiches, while the old man went downstairs to inspect the basement.  “Full basement,” he said, when he came upstairs.  “Walk out.  That’s good.  Looks dry.  What are you going to do with all that space?”   And Richard just shrugged and turned away because he didn’t want to get into it with the old man.  He knew what was coming and didn’t need the lecture: a man of substance works with his hands, and fixes what’s broken himself.  A man of substance builds things, and you need a shop for that.  You just moved in, and your basement is already a mess, with boxes everywhere.  It needs straightening out and everything needs to be put in its place.  All your tools need to be laid out, each in their own places, where you can see them. 

The old man came out only a few more times, for a few graduations and other special occasions, but he never stayed long.  The old man would go into the basement each time, as if on an inspection tour, and then would beg off and head home long before the rest of the guests.  He was tired, he said.  Or he didn’t like driving at night.

Then, three years before, Richard’s mother died.  You could say her death was sudden.  But the death of an eighty-three-year-old woman who had born five children and worked endlessly to keep a spotless house for her husband, work that had worn her out, is never really sudden.  She faded quietly for five years.  She became quietly vacant, even absent, as she went on doing what she had always done, cleaning and scrubbing and making big dinners as her daughters and daughter-in-law quietly did more and more, until one day when her heart gave out, and she died, quietly as she had lived, in her favorite chair, in the sunlight streaming over her with the TV on with one of her shows.

For the three years after Richard’s mother died, the old man had been lost, in his own way.  Everything is under control, he said.  I’m fine, he said.  I’m totally self-sufficient.  Always have been.  Always will be.  A man knows how to take care of himself.  You don’t depend on other people.  You do for yourself.

The car stayed parked in the garage.  His shop floor stayed so clean you could eat off it.  The old man went to work every day even though he could have retired long ago, until Brown and Sharpe closed, until the Chinese bought up all the machinery and tools and shipped them all to China, with all the jobs of the men who had spent their entire lives there.

            Then the old man began to work on the house.  He reroofed it.  Himself.  He painted every room and then painted the exterior.  Himself.  He built an addition onto the porch.  Himself.  He took down six old oak trees that had grown from saplings into monstrous beasts, huge old elephants of trees, during the time Richard’s parents lived in the house.  Those trees were now blocking the light, so the house was always dark, and nothing could be grown in the garden, so he took them down.  Himself. 

The old man never said a word about any of his projects to anyone, never bragged or showed off.  These changes just appeared.  Richard would drive by and see him on the roof or taking down a tree, and think to himself, that old man is crazy.  But he also knew enough not to interfere.  An eighty-year-old man, up on a pitched roof on a hot day in late spring by himself, that’s nuts.  But the old man was a thing unto himself, a force of nature, never to be trifled with.  Or talked to.  Because he was a wall and didn’t know how to listen.  Didn’t want to hear it.  Didn’t want or care about anyone.  Didn’t know anyone else was out there.  Didn’t know Richard existed, as Richard, ever.

Esti was in the kitchen, so Richard went to the door.  Slowly and carefully.  The world had changed, and no one ever rang their doorbell anymore.

Richard opened the door.  Slowly and carefully. Ready for trouble.  Ready to shoo away the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons in their starched white shirts, or some street hustler with a sucker story who’d found a new neighborhood to work.

But there was his father, standing on the stoop, on the other side of the storm door.

The old man stood there holding flowers.  He wore his old sky-blue spring jacket and the same gray fedora he had been wearing for sixty years, the one with a tiny yellow and green feather in the brim.  He had glasses with thick lenses now, bifocals that made his blue eyes look twice as large as they were.

He opened the storm door himself when Richard hesitated.

“There you are, son,” he said.

“Dad,” Richard said.

“May I come in?” the old man said.

“Sure. Sure.  Come in.  I didn’t, I didn’t, we weren’t expecting…” Richard said.

“I wasn’t just in the neighborhood,” the old man said.  “I drove out here on purpose.  With a plan.  Everything is under control,” the old man said.

“I see,” Richard said.  “Let me take your coat.”

“That won’t be necessary,” the old man said.  “I can only stay a minute.”

Esti came into the foyer from the kitchen and kissed the old man on the cheek. He stood ramrod straight as always, blinking, and didn’t move, as if he had on a raincoat and was standing in a sudden rain shower in the city, trying to decide whether to keep walking or duck under an awning for cover.

“I’m moving,” the old man said.  “Pulling up stakes.  Selling the house. Selling the car. Going away for a while.”

“Don’t you want to take your coat off?” Esti said.

“No need,” the old man said.

Richard eyed the old man warily, as if he was looking at some new species of being, some wild animal or mad dog that he didn’t want to go near but didn’t want to turn his back on either.

“You’re selling the house?” Richard said.

“Listed it this morning. I’ll take the first realistic offer.  No need to haggle.  We had fifty-three good years there.  It doesn’t owe me a penny.  You can have anything you want from it.  I’m trying to sell it furnished.  But if the buyer doesn’t want what’s there, I’ll call the Salvation Army and let them haul it all away.”

“Your shop?” Richard said.

“It all goes.  Take it if you want it.  Just bring a truck.  Though I can see you don’t have much use for tools and hardware.  If you don’t want it, out it goes with the rest.  Speak now or forever hold your peace.”

“Huh,” Richard said.

“I have a sound mind, in case that’s what you are thinking.  I know that today is Thursday.  That Trump is the president.  I can count to a hundred.  To a hundred thousand, if you want.  Aren’t you going to ask me what comes next?”

“What comes next?” Richard said.

Richard was beginning to develop a picture in his mind, a picture of the telephone calls he would have to make to his sisters and a lawyer or two, and of the work that lay before him, the work he would need to do to stop all this and get control of their lives, the lives that were being disrupted right before his eyes.  Flowers, he thought, looking at Esti, who was still holding the bouquet of purple and white lilies and sunburst yellow spider mums nested in babies’ breath and wrapped in brown paper.  The old man has never brought flowers to anyone in his life, before this.  He edged the garden beds, so they were straight and square, Richard thought.  But it was my mother who planted all the flowers and who cut them, so there was a bouquet on the dining room table most of my life growing up, from the later spring until the first frost.  My mother who got on her hands and knees every fall, wearing lime green gardening gloves and a sunhat, and planted tulips and daffodils for the spring.  It was my mother who lifted the old bulbs in the fall, divided and then replanted them.  That was the only time Richard ever saw his mother wear jeans, and he never forgot the brown stains on the knees of her jeans that came from kneeling in the soil, and he remembered being surprised to see those brown stains on her knees, on the knees of his mother, who was always tastefully made up and who never had a hair out of place.

“Cruise around the world,” his father said. “See all the great places.  The great cities.  All that art.  The most beautiful vistas.”

“Ok,” Richard said. “Then what?”

“No then,” the old man said. “No plan.  No stress.  I can go to a port, get off the boat, live for a while, see the place, go to the museums and the piazzas, eat in the best restaurants, visit the hardware stores, and machine shops, until I get bored.  Then I’ll hop another ship to the next port.”

“Until the money runs out?” Richard said.

“The money isn’t running out.  Municipal bonds.  The money from the house goes into Munis.  Tax-free income.  My little nest egg was built by the miracle of compound interest.  With social security, and no real estate taxes and nothing going out for the upkeep of the house and car, I can live for a hundred years and not run out of money.  They feed you on cruise ships.  And the cost of living in most of the rest of the world is a fraction of what it is here.”

“But a single occupancy cabin must cost an arm and a leg.” Richard said.

“Not a problem,” the old man said, and for the first time in his life, Richard saw what he thought was a grin on the old man’s face. “It’s all taken care of.  Double occupancy if you must know.  Everything is under control.”

“Un huh,” Richard said. “Do you want to tell me more about that?”

“Information will be provided on a need-to-know basis,” the old man said. “All in good time.  Everything is under control.”

Richard paused as he worked out a strategy to stop all that, to get control of their life again.  You need a psychiatrist first.  Actually, two or three psychiatrists to make an airtight case.  But a family doctor’s opinion can also be useful.  Even an ER doctor’s opinion, if you can get one.  All they need is an MD degree, to be able to write a clearly worded letter but also be willing to be subpoenaed and come to testify in a guardianship hearing.  You need the court to award power of attorney and guardianship if you are going to make arrangements that can stick.  You need that power of attorney to get all the financial stuff done.  You need it to sell the house and arrange for assisted living.  You need guardianship because you’ll need a little muscle, if the old man refuses to do what you say and refuses to go where you tell him to go.

But the immediate problem was what to say right then, in the moment, with the old man standing right there.

“You want to tell me her name?” Richard said.

All at once, Richard realized the severity of his, and their problem.  What if the old man had married someone, some woman?  If there was no prenup and there was no will, then all his assets would go to her, this woman, this interloper.  Richard hadn’t planned on much of an inheritance, but he hadn’t planned on no inheritance either.  Anything that remained after his father died would have to be divided between Richard and his three sisters.  His mother would have wanted the estate to be divided equally among them.  His mother understood the importance of family and of keeping the family together, of protecting their assets.  She would be rolling in her grave if she knew about this.  Richard could only imagine what his sisters would say when they heard about this.  One wasn’t quite as well off as Richard and the others, and they needed to stick together, if just to protect that less well-off sister.

“Mark,” the old man said.

“Mark?“ Richard said.

“Mark,” the old man replied. “And don’t worry.  I have a will, a copy of which I brought.  And your interests and the interests of your sisters are protected.”

“Oh,” Esti said, quickly, as if she hadn’t really heard what the old man said and didn’t recognize its significance.  “Sounds lovely.”

Richard looked at Esti and was still for a moment.

            Esti was smiling sweetly.

 She was clueless, completely clueless.  She had none of Richard’s feelings or thoughts or history with the old man and had no idea what all this news meant or how serious their situation was after all.

And then, as quickly as all those thoughts and feelings rose up inside Richard, they vanished.

A dam broke inside Richard.  All his anxiety and unhappiness washed away, taking his anger with it.

“Good for you, Dad,” he said.  “I’m proud of you.  When do you leave?”

“As soon as the house is sold,” the old man said.  ‘You’ll be the first to know.”


Many thanks to Carol Levitt and Catherine Procaccini for proofreading and to Brianna Benjamin for all-around help and support.

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  1. Julie Herard on February 25, 2024 at 2:02 pm

    Wow, what a great story. Family is never easy and this story shows how family in one small action can turn everything around.

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