Songs in Ordinary Time: A Novel

Songs in Ordinary Time: A Novel

by Mary McGarry Morris


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This New York Times bestseller of a troubled family in 1960s Vermont is “teeming with incident and characters, often foolish, even nasty, but always alive” (The New Yorker).

It is the summer of 1960 in Atkinson, Vermont. With no help from her alcoholic ex-husband, Marie Fermoyle is raising three children on the edge of poverty. Her seventeen-year-old daughter, Alice, is becoming emotionally involved with a local priest in a staunchly Catholic town that disapproves of Marie’s divorce. Alice’s brother Norm is a hotheaded sixteen-year-old, and twelve-year-old Benjy is isolated and full of anxieties, looking with yearning at the Klubocks next door, who seem to live an orderly, peaceful life much unlike his own family’s.
Now, Marie has met a new man: Omar Duvall, who talks about opportunities and riches but so far seems only to sponge off the Fermoyles. A lonely, desperate single mother like Marie is easy prey for con men, but she resists the temptation to doubt him. Young Benjy, though, may eventually reveal a disturbing secret that could shatter all her hopes.
A portrait of a family as well as a town and its secrets, Songs in Ordinary Time is “a gritty, beautifully crafted novel rich in wisdom and suspense” (The Miami Herald). An Oprah’s Book Club selection from an author nominated for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, it is “extraordinary . . . a deeply satisfying story” (USA Today).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504048118
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 12/12/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 732
Sales rank: 497,170
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Mary McGarry Morris grew up in Vermont and now lives on the North Shore in Massachusetts. Her first novel, Vanished, was published in 1988 and was nominated for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. A Dangerous Woman (1991) was chosen by Time magazine as one of the “Five Best Novels of the Year” and was made into a motion picture starring Debra Winger, Barbara Hershey, and Gabriel Byrne. Songs in Ordinary Time (1995) was an Oprah’s Book Club selection, which propelled it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list for many weeks, and it was adapted for a TV movie starring Sissy Spacek and Beau Bridges. Morris’s other highly acclaimed works include the novels Fiona Range (2000), A Hole in the Universe (2004), The Lost Mother (2005), The Last Secret (2009), and Light from a Distant Star (2011), as well as the play MTL: The Insanity File.

Read an Excerpt


On the day that Duvall came Benjamin Fermoyle was twelve. In a year he had not grown an inch or gained a pound, and no one had noticed. He was not sick, but fixed, immured in the vastness time becomes when you are twelve, when a month's events can flash by in a day, when certain days, certain hours, even moments can seem to last, to go on and on and on for weeks, indeed forever.

Untouched, and for days on end, ignored, he was not a child and not a man. His only friend was six-year-old Louis, who lived next door. At home he had the television with its tears and love and death, lives he could turn on and off at will, much in the way he mastered his own existence, perceiving himself as a kind of image lodged in the airwaves of visible space somewhere between stars and rooftops, a voiceless speck that by the touch of a button or a word might be summoned, briefly, safely. It was in his dreams that he felt most threatened, so often lately pursued by the relentless drumbeat of dark footsteps and the warmth that oozed sticky and shameful and nameless, and always so unexpectedly, that he did not dare sleep in pajama bottoms, but in a towel, the same towel by morning hidden damp and wadded behind the bureau, then taken out again at night and wrapped stiffly coarse around his hairless groin and thighs.

It was late May on the day that Duvall came. It had been a raw, rainy spring in those mountains, where spring was never a season proper, so much as a narrow passage, a blink of the eye, a flicker of light from ice to green, where even in the valleys every bud, sprout, and shoot held so tight and fast that it seemed certain nothing more could ever bloom or thrive again. Nothing.

Omar Duvall had been in Woodstock the night before he came down over the mountain into Atkinson. He had sat in his car that last cold night, sleepless and shivering as he waited across the street from the little jailhouse, its white paint shimmering in the moonlight. How many times had he turned the key, countless, countless times, ready to flee, but then stayed instead, went on sitting, shivering, waiting, and did not know why. Later, he would tell how he had heard summer's first cricket. In here, he would say, striking his breast. It was a stirring, he said, feeling it before he heard it, and then had not really heard it at all, he would insist, but had felt it; no, not even felt it, for it was like a heartbeat, and who ever hears the beat of one's own heart, much less the beat of another's, he would say, his piercing eyes on the boy's mother. But Duvall said he had, and Benjamin would believe him, because through that same rawness had come the midnight dream of his father's drunken fists demanding entrance at every door and window, while inside the house, the boy dared not breathe or move on his scratchy towel, but lay listening to his mother's dead voice at the door, "Go home, Sam. Leave us alone." And then his sixteen-year-old brother, Norm, the man of the house for ten years then, his voice cold and menacing: "Get the hell outta here before I call the cops!" And then his seventeen-year-old sister Alice's quick gasp down the stairs: "No! Oh please, Norm, no!" her small voice quick like the sputter and hiss of a brief wick doused as the glass shattered inward onto the cellar floor. The shards would fall, they fall, they fell, piece by piece, all night long like the faucet's steady plink, plink, plink.

Benjamin lay awake listening to the floors creak and the strapping ping, and he began to hear from outside the faint sigh of warming sap race through the trees, from root to root, as the earth buckled with sudden shoots that tore through the ground all night long as that plink, plink grew nearer with dawn, and louder. Plink plink plink as the grass greened and thickened overnight with the same suddenness of the new leaves that had not been at his window the night before, but were there then, that morning of the day that Duvall would come.

So of course the boy would believe Duvall when he described the stirring in his heart that night. There seemed no mystery in any of it, for he had always known that Duvall was on his way, his coming as inevitable as the summer's fiery sun, and as unstoppable.

It was early morning on Main Street. In the second-floor window of the big brown boardinghouse sat Judge Henry Clay. From here could be seen the roofs of the stores downtown on Merchants Row, and distant church spires, and farther on, the woolly green mountaintops hugging the valley. The Judge's right eye was closed, his left eye fixed blankly on the park across the street with its graceful elm trees and the pagodaroofed bandstand built thirty years before, when he was mayor of Atkinson.

On the corner of the park, in his leased stand, was Joey Seldon, the blind man who sold popcorn and soda. On the opposite corner a dusty station wagon idled noisily at the red light. Inside the car were three dark men and a tall man in a white suit and straw hat. Suddenly the tall man threw open the back door and ran down the street. The car screeched around the corner after him in a burst of fumes and querulous voices. Joey Seldon cocked his head curiously.

Up in the window, the curtain fluttered, then blew across the Judge's face. A moment later, a tiny woman with bluish-white hair backed into the room with two stemmed glasses of orange juice on a mahogany tray. This was May Mayo, who with her younger sister, Claire, ran the boardinghouse. May quickly set down the tray on the table by the bed, then hurried to lock the door. "Oh dear," she gasped, seeing the Judge's head swathed in curtain gauze. She unwound the curtain, then wet her fingers and patted his mussed gray hair. She sat in the floral chintz chair next to his and drank her juice. When it was gone she picked up the Judge's glass and sipped daintily as she stared out at the empty park.

The Judge had been one of the town's most respected and influential citizens. But now only a handful of his old clients ever called him and even fewer came here. In this last year the Judge had failed rapidly; his legs buckled easily, and his mind grew keener with the past than the present as he fell in love over and over with every sweetheart, wife, and mistress he'd ever had, never noticing how each one spoke in May's shy giggly voice.

One evening as she was straightening his room, the Judge had seized her hand. "Lie down," he had whispered from the bed. "Lie down with me." And so she had, that night and every night until the last. In the morning she would steal down the hall in time to be roused by Claire's demanding knock on her own door.

She reached over now and touched his cold rigid hand. From time to time voices and footsteps moved along the corridor past the locked door, and in a light gay tone, she would address the Judge. "Such a day! At last! Summer's finally here. Really? I didn't know that. Well, what can one —"

Her voice broke off, and her hands cupped her ears. From the Judge's innards, there seeped another eerie hiss and with it, now, this first foul smell. Locking the door behind her, she hurried down the dim corridor to her own room, then tiptoed back with her cut-glass atomizer of Sweet Lily. First she sprayed the rose-papered walls, the stained Persian carpet, the Judge's soft bed, his wardrobe of limp dark suits, his oak filing cabinets inurned with a half century's pledges and breaches and secrets, and now, finally, she sprayed the good Judge himself, now entering his thirtieth hour of death.

Through the dawn and the pale empty streets, their voices rose and fell like squabbling birds.

"Slow down!" he said.

"Mass starts in five minutes and we're late," she said, hurrying on.

"Late 'cause of you," he called ahead. "Settin' pin curls jest to clean house and wash winders for a dollar an hour," he scoffed.

"Windues, not winders," she said.

"Windues, winders, you still gotta wash 'em," he muttered.

These were the Menka twins, Howard and Jozia. Howard was the Monsignor's handyman at Saint Mary's. Jozia worked across the street from the church for the Fermoyle family, whose housekeeper she had been for thirty years.

They began to climb West Street hill, Jozia's long legs carrying her yards ahead of her shorter brother. Every now and again he trotted to catch up. This morning she walked even faster. Today was trash day, and she wanted to finish her work early so she could go down and visit with Grondine Carson, the muscular garbage man. This time she'd make sure it was all done so Mrs. LaChance wouldn't get mad like last week when she came out on the porch and yelled down to Grondine, didn't he know a standing swill truck drew flies and oughtn't he hurry it up and move on, instead of bothering people that had plenty of work to do?

"Slow down!" Howard ran up to her. "What's your big rush?" He glanced away sadly when she did not answer. He knew what her big rush was, just as he knew the reason for the pin curls under her yellow kerchief and the blue perfume bottle in her pocketbook. He had seen her gooney-eyeing that old pigman Carson over the Fermoyles' barrels enough times now to know what was happening. Last Friday Carson had given her the blue perfume bottle. All weekend long, it sat on the kitchen table staring at him like a cold watery eye. He shivered.

"Lookit them geraniums," he chattered now in a high-pitched nervous voice. "Not half's big as the ones I did." He trotted up to her again. "I put manure on mine. Miz Arkaday said not to, but I did." He giggled into his palm. "I did anyways."

Jozia glanced down at him. "You oughter do like you're told," she said. "Specially to Miz Arkaday."

"She ain't my boss," said Howard. "The Monsignor's my boss. Not her!"

"Miz Arkaday runs the reckery," Jozia said. "So she's your boss to the Monsignor. Jest like Miz LaChance's my boss to her mother. It's called a ... a change of demand, Miz LaChance says." She flicked him a haughty smile, then strode briskly on.

Howard paused, fists clenched, mouth trembling. He ran up to her. "You think you're so smart. You think you know everythin', don't ya?"

"Shet your mouth," Jozia snapped. "Or I'll shet it for ya." She did not break stride.

Hurt swamped his sluggish face. "Least on my job I ain't got four bosses!" he yelled after her.

She turned. "Who's four?"

"The two ya got and Sam and Mr. LaChance," Howard said, pleased that she was waiting.

"Sam Fermoyle ain't my boss. You know that! And Mr. LaChance, he don't count. He ain't nobody's boss," she huffed, and started walking again. Secretly she considered herself Mr. LaChance's boss. She liked to think that Mr. LaChance was as scared of her as he was of his wife, Helen. "And pretty soon," she called back to Howard, "you're gonna have three bosses. Monsignor's getting a new priest."

"I know that!" Howard said. "I knew before you did!" "You did not!"

"I did too!"

"Did not!"

"Did too!" he shouted, running up to her.

They were in front of the armory. Across the street on the corner of the park, Joey Seldon was stocking his red cooler with cans of soda. Like the milk truck rattling by and his radio songs, their voices were such a part of the blind man's morning that he did not raise his head as they passed.

"Then how come you never said nothin'?" Jozia demanded.

"'Cause!" Howard's chin went out. "Monsignor said I'm not sposta say what I hear. What I hear's God's business and nobody else." He looked up slyly. "And I hear all kindsa good stuff."

Jozia rolled her eyes. "You're jest full of it. Fack, you're so full of it, I got to laugh. Ha ha!"

With Jozia in the lead, they continued across Main Street.

"There's the Judge," Howard said as they approached the Mayo sisters' boardinghouse, where the familiar figure in the upper window stared past them.

"Finer man ever live," Jozia sighed in the same tone Mrs. LaChance always used. As they passed the gabled and turreted house with its weedy front lawn and its striped awnings faded and torn, Jozia's eyes blurred and her mouth sagged in a wet smile.

Her faraway look frightened Howard; she was thinking about that pigman again. He nudged her. "I know somethin' else too. Somethin' about Miz LaChance," he said loudly.

She blinked. "You don't know nothin' I don't know," she sniffed. She held up two knobby crossed fingers. "'Cause Miz LaChance and me're jest like that. Jest like sisters almost."

A little smile perked Howard's face. "I know that house ain't hers. Not really."

"'Course it's hers," Jozia said. Now that they were a block from church she pulled off the kerchief and slipped the bobby pins from her hair. The little curls clung to her head like shiny round worms. "Hers and old Miz Fermoyle's, and someday, all hers."

"Oh no, it ain't," Howard whispered. "Nossir!"

"Oh you're jest so full of it, you make me wanna puke sometimes."

Howard shuddered. Jozia knew he hated that word, puke. Just the sound of it turned his stomach.

"Whose house is it then if it ain't hers?" Jozia smirked.

"Never mine," he said, lagging behind.

"Never mine 'never-mine'!" Jozia snapped. "'Cause you don't know, that's how come 'never mine.'"

"I do so know! I know better'n you!"

"You don't know nothin' better'n me! Fack, you don't know nothin' better'n anybody. Fack, you're 'bout the dumbest person I ever knowed!"

"Oh yah?"


"Okay! Okay! Then I'm not tellin'! And next time you wanna know who was that comin' outta the reckery crying, go and ask ... somebody else." Howard blinked. He had almost said, Go and ask Grondine Carson.

"See! You're jest making things up again to get my goat."

"Okay, then. It's Sam's house, that's whose house!" he blurted.

"Is not!" Jozia said bitterly.

"Is so!" His chin went way out this time. "And Miz LaChance's scareda him finding out. She told Monsignor, she said it's all a trust. That only the Judge knows. And her." There were a lot of things only Mrs. LaChance knew, like poisoning her husband's nice dog Riddles and making Howard bury him out in the backyard before Mr. LaChance got home from work. After that he'd quit working for Mrs. LaChance. A lady that could do that to such a nice dog could do anything to anyone.

Jozia shook her head so violently that her lips trembled. "You're crazy. You got it all messed up. It's old Miz Fermoyle's house. Then when she dies, it's gonna be all Miz LaChance's house. Jest yesterday Miz LaChance, she said to Sam, 'This is my house,' she said. "And I don't hafta put up with no crazy drunks.'" Jozie nodded vehemently. "That's what she said and everybody knows what a holy woman Miz LaChance is."

"She ain't holy," Howard muttered. "Jest cheap."

"Cheap!" Jozia laughed that shrieky superior laugh of hers that so rankled her twin. "Cheap don't go buying two new doors for the church!"

"That's when I heard her!" Howard said. "After the man from the paper took the picture of her and Monsignor with the doors, and Monsignor said thanks, and Miz LaChance said it was least she could do. 'Beside,' she said, 'better the money be going to the church than the barroom.' And Monsignor said, 'Acourse not,' she could trust him. And Miz LaChance said she knew that, and Monsignor said how the church needs a new roof and the convent boiler's not gonna make winter and the Bishop's all outta money to help, so's the only way to do all them repairs is bake sales and bingo, only he don't have a church hall. And then he said how she and her mother's house being right across the street'd be perfeck and would she ever thinka selling to the parish. Acourse he shouldna even ask, 'cause he could never pay the whole price it would cost. And Miz LaChance said she was awful shamed to say it, and how nobody knew but the Judge and now him. She said the house was her brother's and her mother's, and after her mother dies, it's all Sam's house, and not one bit hers, after all her work, all her slaving. And Monsignor said how that ain't fair, and Miz LaChance said her mother spoiled Sam rotten, and how he was always the favorite and she was always the one to pick up the pieces, and Monsignor started saying he thought the phone was ringing, so he'd better go get it, like he does when he's sicka talking. And Miz LaChance started crying and saying how all she ever got was leftovers her whole life, nothing but everbody's leftovers, and if anything ever happened to her mother, she'd be out in a street. And Monsignor said, 'Well, probably you'll be getting your mother's three tenement houses, Helen.' And Miz LaChance really started bawling then, and she said no, she wouldn't even get them. She said they's going to Sam's kids. Each kid'd get one."

Jozia blew her red nose into her kerchief. Tears streamed down her face. "Poor Miz LaChance," she sniffed.

"How 'bout poor you?" Howard said. "Soon's old Missus Fermoyle's dead, they ain't gonna be no more job left. And then watcha gonna do?"


Excerpted from "Songs in Ordinary Time"
by .
Copyright © 1995 Mary McGarry Morris.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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