The Old Place

The Old Place

by Bobby Finger
The Old Place

The Old Place

by Bobby Finger

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Overview

Notes From Your Bookseller

You won't soon forget Mary Alice Roth or Billington, Texas anytime soon after reading Bobby Finger's The Old Place. This big-hearted novel about small-town life, family secrets and how it's never too late to change your ways will surprise and delight readers of all ages and backgrounds.

Winner of the Crook’s Corner Book Prize

One of Vanity Fair's Best Books of the Year

A bighearted and moving debut about a wry retired schoolteacher whose decade-old secret threatens to come to light and send shockwaves through her small Texas town.


Billington, Texas, is a place where nothing changes. Well, almost nothing. For the first time in nearly four decades, Mary Alice Roth is not getting ready for the first day of school at Billington High. A few months into her retirement—or, district mandated exile as she calls it—Mary Alice does not know how to fill her days. The annual picnic is coming up, but that isn’t nearly enough since the menu never changes and she had the roles mentally assigned weeks ago. At least there’s Ellie, who stops by each morning for coffee and whose reemergence in Mary Alice’s life is the one thing soothing the sting of retirement.

Mary Alice and Ellie were a pair since the day Ellie moved in next door. That they both were single mothers—Mary Alice widowed, Ellie divorced—with sons the same age was a pleasant coincidence, but they were forever linked when they lost the boys, one right after the other. Years later, the two are working their way back to a comfortable friendship. But when Mary Alice’s sister arrives on her doorstep with a staggering piece of news, it jeopardizes the careful shell she’s built around her life. The whole of her friendship with Ellie is put at risk, the fabric of a place as steadfast as Billington is questioned, and the unflappable, knotty fixture that is Mary Alice Roth might have to change after all.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593422366
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/29/2023
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 65,146
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 5.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Bobby Finger is a writer and cohost of the popular celebrity and entertainment podcast, Who? Weekly. A Texas native, he lives in Brooklyn, New York. The Old Place is his debut novel.

Read an Excerpt

1
 
Mary Alice Roth woke up and stared at the big old trunk, which may as well have been a reflection. Unmoved for years, the hunk of carved, glossy hardwood sat under the window in her bedroom because she'd lost the only people strong enough to lift it somewhere else. At her age, the number of able bodies in a household doesn't tend to change, and neither does the way you sleep, which meant Mary Alice-the sole inhabitant of 4 County Road 1818 for over ten years and a left-side sleeper since she was in a crib-knew that for the rest of her life, the first thing she'd see in the morning would be a hideous antique trunk she hated more than just about anything else in the world. And now she couldn't get rid of it even if she tried, unless she wanted to throw out her back and spend hours moaning on the floor hoping someone would knock on the door and check on her. It was that sort of terrible, bottomless pit of a fact that made her wish she were dead. But she wasn't, not today at least. So she silenced the buzzing clock and began another week of living. What else was there for her to do, anyhow?

For most of her sixty-three years, Mary Alice held a grudging respect for mornings and the way they provided a solid foundation to the structure of her busy days, but lately they'd felt absurd. Starting a new day knowing you had nothing to make or do was utterly ridiculous, maybe even sinful. Monotony was only acceptable if imbued with some sort of greater purpose-like providing for a family or teaching math to the bright-eyed youth of small-town America-and Mary Alice hadn't figured out her new one yet. But a tiny, if fading, speck of hope that she would eventually sort out this stage of her life remained, so she flipped off the covers with a grunt and twisted her tall, bony body out of the four-poster. Seated, feet on the floor, she kept her eyes on that trunk as she offered the house a single droning sigh, a reminder that she was still here, and stood. Her joints were old, but they didn't creak. Her body was tired, but it didn't ache. Frailty would have been a welcome excuse to let herself wallow horizontally a little longer, but like all the women in her family, who had been growing old in this part of Texas since arriving from Germany some 150 years ago, she was cursed with good health and a revulsion to wasted time.

Today was the first day of classes at Billington Independent School District, a sprawling complex of small-to-smallish redbrick buildings and rusty tin just off the old highway, which itself was just off the new highway-the past butt up against the present. Had this been a normal year, Mary Alice Roth would have been among the scores of other employees, getting there early to memorize a handwritten seating chart she hid in the locked top drawer of her matte green metal desk, drinking warm coffee out of a thick mug stamped with a faded BHS logo, and basking in the light from the wall of windows she refused to obscure with decorations. But today, Mary Alice was exactly where she'd been for the past three months. She was home.

Earlier that summer, a few weeks into her district-mandated exile-or compulsory leave, or forced retirement, or whatever flowery term they ultimately chose to call it once that Josie Kerr swooped in and took over her old classroom-Mary Alice confronted two fundamental things about herself. The first was that she hated doing nothing. The second was that, without a job, she had nothing to do. That her next-door neighbor, Ellie Hall, happened to call at the very moment of her epiphany one June morning was lucky for the both of them, as the friendly check-in-one of their long-standing regular chats that was comforting, if superficial and always the same-quickly became an even friendlier standing invitation.

Here's how it happened: Ellie asked about Mary Alice's summer plans now that she was unemployed, and Mary Alice laughed. Mary Alice asked about Ellie's work, knowing full well that she hated talking about work, and Ellie laughed. So they did what Texans always loved to do, though they may deny it if asked: they complained about the heat. This led to complaining about the new priest, which eventually transitioned into gossiping about the family who moved into Margaret Rose's old house. He was a former Billington High School prom king, she was a city girl he dragged back home along with their son, and they must have gotten a great deal because Margaret Rose smoked at least a pack a day in that living room for eighty years. That place didn't just need a coat of paint, they decided. It needed new walls. Every old house comes with ghostly memories of its former inhabitants, but Margaret Rose's walls were a sickly yellow with tar caked onto every surface. Billington got noticeably quieter the day she died, they agreed just before their chatter began to wane. They'd never expected to miss the sound of her wheezing cough.

After even considerable time spent apart, the best of friends can usually start back up again as though only seconds have passed, but there was more than just time between Mary Alice and Ellie's last long chat. There was loss, too much of it. But this morning meant something, Ellie decided, so she tried her best to regain momentum, and there was no better way to do so than with gossip. She asked if Mary Alice had heard the news about the wife. No, Mary Alice had not heard that the wife had been hired at BHS; she'd deliberately avoided all news about that den of cowards and thieves masquerading as educators, and her casual acquaintances knew better than to say anything that might cause her ruffle-hungry feathers to as much as twitch. Ellie didn't need to explicitly mention that the wife was given Mary Alice's old job; it was obvious in her anxious delivery and confirmed by the silence that followed. And Mary Alice knew in that empty moment that Ellie regretted bringing it up and was about to say goodbye, so she blurted out, "Would you want to come over for coffee tomorrow morning?"
 
"You know the last time I had coffee at your place?"
 
"No, I don't."
 
"That's 'cause it's never happened before," Ellie said with a hearty laugh that made Mary Alice smile so big she got nervous someone might see. When was the last time anyone else had been in her house?
 
"Well, I'm sorry for being such a crummy neighbor all these years. How about I make it up to you tomorrow morning. All you have to do is show up."
 
"Well," Ellie said, with a hesitation that made Mary Alice's smile fade.
 
"Does seven-thirty work?"
 
Ellie said it did, surprising both of them.

***

The next morning, Ellie pushed open the gate on the south side of Mary Alice's house, its rusty hinge casting out a piercing squeak, and followed a short trail through the bushes onto her back patio, a covered, polished concrete rectangle with tiers of potted plants on wrought iron shelves in every corner and two large white Adirondack chairs in the center, facing the fenced backyard. A plastic side table was between them, with just enough room for the hot plate and coasters Mary Alice brought out from the kitchen. She removed her glasses and started filling two mugs as soon as the hinge squeaked.
 
"What, no eggs and bacon?" Ellie said as she stepped into the shade.
 
"Coffee's enough breakfast for me," Mary Alice said.
 
"I'm only pickin' on you." She sat and faced the pale yellow cornfields that began just past the fence and stretched all the way to the horizon. Mesquite trees dotted the edges of their view, jagged reminders of the land's fraught history. The tinkling from the wind chime came to an abrupt stop, as if the wind realized it was interrupting something momentous.
 
Mary Alice's mind raced. Another person on her patio! Was Ellie here out of pity or loneliness? Would it happen again or was it just going to be today? She used her own voice to drown out her thoughts. "You don't take milk, do you?"
 
"Heavens no."
 
"It's 'hell no' in this house, you know that," Mary Alice said. "So the coffee's good then? Tastes fine?"
 
"Better than what they've got at the hospital," Ellie said. "And even if it weren't, I'd drink every drop anyway."
 
And with that, after twelve years of awkward pleasantries, they were friends again. Not just neighbors, but actual friends. Friends who met face-to-face, who made each other laugh, and who could be happier than they'd been in years simply by sitting side by side in silence. All it took was a phone call and a pot of caffeine. Mary Alice turned her gaze to Ellie, eager to change the subject. She looked her friend up and down and squinted, craning her neck over the hot plate as she examined the pattern covering Ellie's body. "I never see you in your scrubs. What's all over those? Kittens?"
 
"Puppies."
 
Mary Alice's eyes narrowed even further, then popped wide open. "Oh, I see now."
 
"Kittens are Tuesdays."
 
They laughed a gentle, early-morning laugh and looked back to the sky, which had gotten a little brighter, as the dawn sky always manages to do. Thirty minutes later, Ellie was gone. Three hours after that, Mary Alice finished her book-a meandering experimental novel about a beloved radio host preparing for his final shows-wrapped the cord around the hot plate, and went back inside. Every time this new version of their friendship began to excite her and feel like something that could become permanent, Mary Alice snuffed out all flickers of optimism from her mind. She would enjoy their moments together as she was in them but would not yearn for more than Ellie was willing to give. She would distract herself from intrusive thoughts with another book, something propulsive and surprising. She would keep tabs on her neighbors, which was easier than keeping tabs on herself. Avoiding disappointment was a full-time job, and her schedule had just opened up.
 
Two beams of light burst through the living room window that night as Mary Alice stabbed her fork into the final piece of steamed broccoli resting on her plate. Ellie was home from work. Not ten minutes later she phoned Mary Alice to tell her about a child with a broken arm who thought her scrubs were kittens, too, isn't that funny? And then, to suggest that they have coffee again tomorrow.
 
A week of mornings later, Ellie said she'd bring the coffee the following day; all Mary Alice needed to do was turn on the hot plate and bring out the mugs. At some point, an egalitarian schedule just sorted itself out without too much talking, the sort of thing that marks a friendship as true, even if it took a decade or more to get there. Mary Alice would make the coffee on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; Ellie would take Tuesdays and Thursdays, transporting her own carafe the two hundred feet or so from her back door to her neighbor's. "It takes thirty days to create a habit," Mary Alice often told her son, Michael, when confronted by his unmet potential. Turns out she'd been wrong. Sometimes it took just under ten.
 
Every morning since their meetups began some two months ago, Mary Alice walked downstairs into the kitchen, removed the hot plate from a drawer beneath her old coffee maker-whose once white plastic had aged into a pale sepia-and grabbed two mugs from the cabinet above it. Then, as she walked to the sliding door, the saying came to her as it always did. Every morning I wake up alive, she thought. I celebrate with coffee.
 
Twenty-four years earlier, she and her husband, Samuel, had driven two hours, plus a miserable hour-long detour, to take Michael to SeaWorld, which he didn't enjoy as much as they wanted-or needed-him to. In his defense, though, the park was a little awful. Overcrowded, overpriced, and impossible to navigate without overheating. Lines for its few rides, if you could call them that, were an hourlong apiece; all three of them got sunburned. And the main attraction-the show with the poor, imprisoned orca who seemed thrilled in all the commercials-was cut short when an employee tripped on the stage, knocked his head on a fake rock, and rolled into the tank. They soon found out that the giant cloud of blood made his injury seem worse than it was, but the show was still canceled for the remainder of the day for draining and cleaning. "Blood," Samuel said, covering his own eyes along with Michael's. "I can't look at the blood."

They stopped for a late lunch on the way home at a Cracker Barrel near the park. Every other Shamu fan must have had the same idea because the line for a table was endless and the waiting area-cum-gift shop smelled like chlorine and SPF 50. Mary Alice didn't even want to bother putting their name on the list, but Michael was hungry and Samuel very sternly reminded her that they wouldn't be home for at least two more hours anyway. "We're not going to get him addicted to chicken nuggets and French fries," he said as a closer. Mary Alice almost argued that a place like this was just as unhealthy as fast food, only more expensive, but knew it would only make things worse. Plus, Michael was more excited by the kitschiness of the restaurant than any of the animals at SeaWorld, and she liked seeing him happy. Seeing him happy was the whole point.

She and Samuel ambled through the crowded aisles behind Michael without saying a word to each other as he darted from display to display, first zoning in on the cheaply made plastic toys in one corner, then transitioning to home decor. He picked up one sign and stammered through its factory-printed message word by word. "'If... Momma... a... uh... a-neet... '"

"'Ain't,'" Mary Alice said. "That's OK, it's a new word. A confusing word, too. 'Ain't' means 'is not.'"

"'If Momma ain't hap... py... ain't no . . . body happy.'" He lowered the sign and looked up at his mother, searching her eyes for praise.

"What do you think that means?"
 
His face dropped. The excitement, gone in a poof. "It means," he said, lingering on the thought for a few more seconds, "if you're happy, then me and Daddy are happy."

"That’s right," she said, hoping that would be the end of it. But Michael was an inquisitive child, his head permanently swimming with questions, and Mary Alice knew one was liable to jump out and bite the silence between them at any moment.

"Are you happy?"

It was one of the mst dreadful things she could think of, being asked that question by her own child, even if he didn’t mean to upset her. The hum of despair she’d felt all day – no, longer – calcified in that moment, and she imagined herself scooping Michael into her arms and running out of the restaurant, running all the way back home, running for a hundred miles and not stopping until she was laying beside him in his bed, making sure he was asleep, and hoping he’d forget he’d ever asked her such a dreary, unanswerable thing. But then again, maybe she was overthinking it, as usual. Maybe nothing was as awful as it seemed – not his question, not the park, not this godforsaken gift shop. She remembered the blood of that Sea World employee, and how it looked so much worse than the injury itself. He was probably at home by now, touching the bandage on his forehead and feeling like a fool for slipping in front of all those people.

"Of course I’m happy," she said before pointing at a sign beside it. "Now can you read me this one?"

"Every morning I... wake up... alive,” he said, sounding out each word before committing to it. "I celebrate with coffee.”

"What do you think that means?"

"It means," he said, fingering the words once more as if scanning them for clues. "You don’t drink coffee if you’re dead."

Mary Alice laughed for the first time that day and wrapped her arm around Michael, who beamed at her delight. "Can we buy it?" he asked.

"I don’t think so."

"Why not?"

"I don’t think we’re the kind of people who put that sort of thing on their walls."

A woman to her left who was just about her age overheard and snipped back, “And what kind of person is?”

Mary Alice looked down and noticed she was holding the sign about dead people not drinking coffee, along with plenty of other items with similar sentiments. "Oh, I didn’t mean anything by it."

"If you didn’t mean what you said," the woman growled, "you shouldn’t have said it so damn loudly." She marched off towards the cash register.

Mary Alice yearned to tell her to wait, so she could explain herself. But what would she have said? How could she have convinced this angry stranger of how embarrassed she would be if people could read all the tchotchkes filling up the walls in her head? The ones she’d never dream of hanging in her home, where everyone could see them? She couldn’t. So she just shouted back, "Just so you know, I love coffee!" People turned their heads at the noise, and then turned back. The incident had lasted mere seconds, but Mary Alice knew her whimpering retort would haunt her for years. Or maybe she just decided that it ought to.

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