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Laura Lynn Smith Moorer and Vernon Franklin Moorer
I first saw the briefcase on a shelf in the closet to the right of the fireplace in the Frankville house. I always wondered what was in it when I was a little girl, but I never got it down and opened it. I would’ve been called a meddletail for that. Sissy kept it with her for a while, but I became its custodian sometime during my late twenties. I don’t remember exactly when or why.
The briefcase now lives on the top of the bookshelf to the right of my desk. I look up at it from where I sit. It’s brown leather, but obviously not expensive. I stand up, walk across the room, and take a chair from the dining table to use for a step stool. I place it in front of the bookshelf and climb on it to get the briefcase down. The old fireplace smell wafts into my nose, musty and slightly ashy. I set it down on the floor and push the left and right buttons simultaneously. The latches pop open. The briefcase is full of papers—mostly song lyrics—and three reel-to-reel tapes. I shuffle through.
• A scrap of paper from one of those notepads that says “Memo from the desk of…” with Pete Drake’s name and address on it. Pete played the steel guitar on “Lay Lady Lay.” He was also in the publishing game in Nashville when Daddy first tried to get something going with his songs.
• A huge Mother’s Day card in a pink envelope from Sissy to Mama.
• Some of Sissy’s early stabs at songwriting.
• A lyric to a song called “Living in the Sun,” written in Daddy’s hand.
I don’t want no work day job making me a slave,
nor some landlord telling me give me what you save.
• A song list written on yellow legal-pad paper with seventy-six titles on it in Mama’s handwriting.
Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone
I’m Leaving It Up to You
Brown Eyed Handsome Man
• A letter of recommendation for Daddy from the principal at Joe M. Gillmore School in Jackson dated July 1, 1972. That was just days after I was born.
• A birthday card to Mama from Sissy and me, and another Mother’s Day card from me dated May 8, 1983.
• The lyric to “A Good Day Coming On,” handwritten by Mama on loose-leaf notebook paper. A letter from Window Music Co. in Nashville mentioning it and two other titles.
• A typed lyric to “Kinfolks,” a song of Daddy’s I don’t recall ever hearing.
• Another letter of recommendation from the principal at Jackson High School dated July 5, 1972. Frank Barbaree. The same man who was principal when Sissy and I went to school in Jackson twelve years later.
• A business card with Huey P. Meaux’s name on it. He was a record producer and a pretty successful one, but went to jail for drugs and child pornography. I’m glad Daddy didn’t take up with him. He did produce “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” so he had to have had some redeeming qualities. My second ex-husband says he is the only person who ever got a song back from Huey P. Meaux. Second ex-husband was also once on Meaux’s Crazy Cajun show on KPFT in Houston. It’s a small world, and there are only about two degrees of separation in the music business.
• Lyrics in manila envelopes sent registered mail to Daddy from Daddy. Copyrights.
So many songs. Love songs, traveling songs, longing songs.
These pages tell me more about him than he ever let me see. He loved playing music more than anything else. He had trouble keeping a job. The business cards and contracts tell me he thought he was good enough to make it and he wanted to be acknowledged for his talent. The writing shows me he wasn’t great, only okay, but it is good enough to reveal his gypsy soul, or at least his want of one. Am I to believe he had a tender heart buried underneath the misery he showed the world so much of the time? Of course I am. Of course I do.
These papers are history: his and ours. Verses and choruses, dreams and plans.
I can hardly resist putting a shiny, aspirational periodical in my shopping basket when I’m at the store for something else. I wouldn’t be surprised if she spent thousands of dollars on magazines during her life. I know I’ve spent at least that in mine. I have to cull my ever-growing stack of beautifully bound bait wrapped up in fashion, home, music, and literary matters almost constantly.
Mama wanted pretty things. She wanted a life less haunted by a dysfunctional marriage and unfulfilled promise and promises. A life that gave her a car with working headlights, not ones that required her to jiggle the switch so they would come on again after they suddenly went off as we drove down the two-lane, black-as-pitch highway on our thirty-mile drive home at night. A life that gave her a nice house she wasn’t embarrassed to have people see, instead of the one that always seemed to be in disrepair. A life that gave her a husband she could talk to, one without a drinking problem, a mean streak, and a death wish. A life that made her less depressed. Magazines are full of dreams. I don’t know what hers were.
I have some pieces from a set of china that belonged to Mama. It isn’t by any means fine, no need to do the “can I see my fingers through it” test on it, but it is pretty—ivory with delicate silver trim and tasteful pink tulips. Most of the set I keep tucked away in the closet with pieces from others I’ve picked up through the years—some from my first marriage, some I’ve found in antique stores. All of it mixes and matches and that’s okay with me. The last time I moved, some of the pieces got broken. I cut my thumb deeply while unpacking them and probably needed some stitches, which, of course, I didn’t get. I bled for hours into paper towels I wrapped around my hand and kept on working on the things I was working on, periodically checking it, distractedly fascinated by how wounds try to close almost as soon as they are made. It healed nicely, though I have a small scar to remind me to be more careful. I take heed in my physical actions less often than I should. I wonder if that’s a trait of orphans.
I keep four teacups from her set in my kitchen cabinet to use for my afternoon or early evening espresso. The cups make me warm from the inside, sort of like the coffee does. When I hold one it feels soft, as soft as her voice was when she would whisper good night and tuck the covers under my chin. I imagine her holding one in her hand and standing in the kitchen with me as we sip and thumb through a magazine or catalog. She reaches up to brush the hair from my brow and we talk about this or that. There are parts of a heart that never heal once they’re broken. There is no glue that will hold.
My Hands/Her Hands
I make my way to the kitchen when I wake in the mornings. It’s usually still dark outside. It doesn’t take long for me to get there, New York City apartments being what most of them are.
I start breakfast for my son and coffee for myself. I put the kettle on to boil. I grind some coffee beans. I rinse the French press from yesterday—I hardly ever wash it properly. I look down at my hands. I’ve never forgotten what hers looked like—almost just like mine. My mama’s hands were sort of wide and her fingers were much shorter, almost exact replicas of her daddy’s. The nail beds were nearly flat. The backs of them had just started to get a few dark spots by the time she died but only a few—she was just forty-one that August, younger than I am now, so she hadn’t had time to get many.
She was younger than I am now.
My own hands look big to me and my fingers are long—artist’s hands, I’ve been told. But there’s something about them that holds the memory of hers, much like my face holds expressions that she would’ve made with her own.
My hands are like hers when I make my son’s breakfast. When I put money for a field trip in his backpack and remember hers, digging around in her purse for our lunch money.
When I wipe his tears.
When I fold his clothes and tie his shoes.
My hands are like hers when I make a list of things to do. She made list after list on sheets of legal-pad paper and would present Sissy and me with one every now and then. I wish I had saved them. Her rules would still apply.
• Your rooms shall be picked up at all times. Toys put away, clothes folded and in their drawers or hanging in the closet.
• There will be no back talking. Any sassing will not be tolerated.
• You will each be assigned chores to do around the house and these shall be completed with no complaining.
• Homework will be done as soon as you get home and finished before supper.
My hands are like hers when I pull thread through a piece of fabric. My hands are like hers when I type these words and do this job.
Brown cowboy hat hanging
on my closet door
Daddy’s hat travels with me from residence to residence just like his briefcase does, and it has for at least twenty years. I kept it, for a while, in a mothproof bag and always stuck it on a shelf in a closet somewhere. I didn’t want it out where I could see it. A few years ago, I decided differently. I hammered a nail into the exterior of the closet door in my bedroom and hung it there. It has become part of the room, but I almost never fail to notice it and think “Daddy’s hat” when I do. Am I foolish to keep hats on my doors and rings on my fingers? Am I a glutton for punishment or a sentimental fool?
It won’t fit on my head all the way. It’s not the black one he wore when he was a teenager that his grandfather Kervin said improved his looks by fifty percent, but instead a brown one with a tall crown, narrow pinch, and a thin grosgrain ribbon band. A taller crown than I like for myself. I have my own collection. He would’ve found it jaunty of me that I’m a regular hat wearer. Mama and Daddy both liked hats and had good hat faces. The kind of faces that hold up even through aging—good, strong jaws and high foreheads. Not that I would know about how they would’ve aged; I’m just imagining.
Some moths got to Daddy’s brown cowboy hat, maybe before it went in the bag—there are a few holes in the felt. Sometimes I take it off the nail and plop it onto my head. I wonder when he wore it because it’s so small. If it’s one of those certain days, I think about his head a little bit longer than other days, and wonder, when he was the exact age I am now, why he had to go and blow it off.
THIS IS MY VERSION OF THE STORY.
It is the only one I can tell.
Tuesday morning, August 12, 1986. It was still dark outside and they were gone, just like that.
Daddy had called the house on Barden Avenue over and over the night before. Mama, in typical fashion, kept answering, though each time the phone rang I tried to talk her out of doing so. She eventually took it off the hook and we all went to bed. I slept on a pallet on the living room floor that night because Mama’s friend Carolyn stayed over out of fear of what Daddy might do.
The air felt dangerous—glitchy and staticky—as if there was electricity running through everything. It had rained all day, but the downpour provided no cooling effect and only made things feel angrier than they already did. Maybe you have to have lived in the deep, thick Southeast to understand what angry air feels like.
Mama seemed worried, and Daddy was desperate. She was trying to talk him down from the ledge again, but even she couldn’t do it this time. Her side of the conversation dwindled to repetitions of “I know” and “Well, Frank” by the time she gave up. I don’t know what sort of things he said but I can imagine. There wasn’t anything she could’ve done to soothe him but go back to him, to make it like it had been before we left. How it had been before we left wasn’t good.
I woke up and saw him standing in the kitchen. It wasn’t unusual for him to come around in the mornings; he often did after Mama and I moved out of the trailer, but he had never been there quite so early. Daddy had always been one to stay up all night and sleep late into the day, but by that time he was so fraught he couldn’t settle down or quiet his mind enough to let it or his body rest.
I gazed across the room through sleepy, half-open eyes. Daddy leaned against the breakfast table that he’d made a few years earlier. I saw Mama’s right side. She was wearing her winter housecoat, a strange choice for August. The cabinet where she kept the coffeemaker obscured her left side as she made the day’s first pot. Since she had to be at work at 8:30 in the morning, she’d probably decided to just go ahead and start her day since Daddy wasn’t going to let her have any peace. He’d obviously gone to her bedroom window and knocked on it to wake her because I was the closest to both entrances to the house and hadn’t heard him bang on the door.
Her winter housecoat was navy blue velour. She’d had it for years. She used to get home from work, take off her clothes, and swaddle herself in it when it was cool weather. The summer housecoat that she should’ve been wearing was white with yellow and orange flowers. She’d made it out of seersucker in a wrap-dress style, with cap sleeves and orange binding. I didn’t see if she had on shoes. Knowing her, probably not.
Neither of them saw me stir. There was nothing out of the ordinary going on. I went back to sleep.
I think it was around 5 a.m. when the gunshots woke me. There were two. They came very close to one another. Imagine the sound of a .30-06 rifle firing, and then think of the time it takes to snap your fingers four times to the tempo of “Thirteen” by Big Star. Then imagine it firing again.
I lay there for what feels now like a few minutes, terrified to move even a centimeter or even to breathe. My eyes darted around the barely lit living room for a clue about what to do. I knew without question what I’d heard—the unmistakable sound that takes a life—but I couldn’t quite comprehend that I’d heard that sound coming from the front yard that was just on the other side of the living room wall. I was only a few feet away. I wondered if it could’ve been thunder left over from the storm that came the day before or maybe another one coming. I wondered if it could’ve been something else that might imitate the vibrations from a cannon. No. I knew it wasn’t anything but what I knew it was. I’d been close enough to guns to recognize exactly the sound they make—a pop but a little longer than a pop. A burst, violent and hard, then the reverberation.
I told myself no, it couldn’t be what I knew it was, even as I simultaneously started rearranging every cell in my body to start accepting that, yes, it was. Yes, I knew that it was.
I got up off the floor where I’d slept and shook myself to the kitchen door. I was fourteen years old. I opened the door, which opened onto a carport, and called out into the thick early morning for Mama.
I didn’t turn my head to the left, where I knew they probably were, and the darkness was merciful enough to give me no peripheral vision. I just stared straight ahead as I called her one time and not again. I knew there was no need to repeat myself and I wasn’t surprised there was no response. I couldn’t step outside.
I turned around to go back to the living room and met Sissy and Carolyn headed in my direction. Carolyn said something about hearing what she thought might’ve been a gun and that she’d looked into Mama’s bedroom and it was empty. I knew Mama wasn’t in her bedroom. I knew she was outside, though I hadn’t confirmed it with my eyes.
Sissy did. She walked straight out the front door into the approaching morning. She then walked back inside.
“Carolyn, keep Allison in the house. It’s Mama and Daddy. I’m gonna go get help.”
I could see the fuming energy running through her but she delivered the news like someone might mention something that was just a little more than a minor inconvenience. Maybe some kind of grace put the winter housecoat under Mama’s hand and guided it onto her body in her darkened bedroom before she got up and let Daddy in the house, otherwise Sissy would’ve been able to see even more than she did.
Daddy might’ve pulled the gun out of his van with the intention to kill only himself. Mama might’ve fought with him over it, begging him not to do it, and might’ve gotten shot accidentally if she pulled on it in an attempt to get it away from him. I don’t know why a person would do that but of course a person would. If that’s what happened, he would’ve panicked and turned the gun on himself immediately. He would’ve taken himself out as quickly as possible because each passing second would’ve allowed the reality of what had happened to sink into his brain and he wouldn’t have been able to stand that. He’d never been able to tolerate the thought of living without her, of not possessing her, so if she were dead, any shred of willingness he had to stay alive would’ve vanished. There wasn’t much willingness in the first place. Mama told Sissy and me a few months before that Daddy had begged her more than once to put him out of his misery and just kill him, then put the gun in his hands so it would look like a suicide.
That he wanted to die did not and does not surprise me. I’ve heard tell of a time when he was a different kind of man but I didn’t know that person. I only saw hints of him every once in a while.
I’ve known since they died that Daddy blew his head off, but I’ve never known how Mama ended up dead with him. There are only suggestions. Some days I think it doesn’t matter, because any scenario that I can dream still leaves them both gone, but some days it very much matters and I want to know. I wrestle around with the few facts I have—imagining, wondering, going over the sights and sounds I remember from that morning so long ago. Sights and sounds plus a few other facts I’ve managed to get my hands on.
THE WEBSITE FOR THE ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF FORENSIC SCIENCES provides a form to acquire death records. Send them a completed one with a self-addressed, stamped envelope plus a ten-dollar check, and in about a month they will send you what they have on the death or deaths in which you are interested.
On December 20, 2016, I called the number on the website and spoke to a nice woman named Alice about whether she thought they’d still have something on deaths that occurred over thirty years ago. She told me if they did, they’d send it to me, and if they didn’t, they’d send my money back.
I completed a form for each of the two people whose deaths I am interested in, one for Laura Lynn Smith Moorer and one for Vernon Franklin Moorer. In a large manila envelope, I included two ten-dollar checks and a self-addressed, stamped envelope for each report I hoped they could return to me. I marched it to the outgoing mail slot downstairs. I counted my steps as I walked from the elevator. Fourteen, the age I was when the deaths occurred. I’m always attaching meaning. I slid the envelope into the narrow opening and sent it off to Auburn, knowing I was entering new territory. Auburn, where Daddy had gone to college. More meaning.
In over thirty years, I had never seen the reports. I wasn’t even sure they existed anymore. I had reached that point in this process, in the poring over all of the details, in the asking of the questions, in the staring at the photographs, in the riffling through the briefcase, in the mental and emotional exhaustion. I needed to see something concrete about their deaths, some details that came from somewhere other than my faulty memory. I didn’t expect to find any big revelations—in fact, I don’t know what I expected—but I knew the time had come to find out everything I could and that seeing their autopsies was all of a sudden important. This is no murder mystery, but I still needed more, something tangible, with which to try to sort this out besides the sound of the two gunshots that still ring in my head. I thought the facts might be the more I was looking for. It’s hard to argue, excuse, or reason away black and white.
I received the reports on January 30, 2017. I knew they were coming because I looked at my bank statement that day and saw that the two ten-dollar checks had cleared the previous Friday. “They found something,” I thought. I turned my head away from my computer screen and told H. that the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences had cashed my checks.
I picked up my son from school at the usual time that afternoon. We walked home and stopped by the mailbox in the lobby of our building, just two steps from where I’d mailed the requests. The reports were both there, sitting on top of the other mail. There was no indication of which one was in what envelope. I gathered them up with the catalogs that would soon be put in the trash and the annoying flyers I hate for trees to be wasted on, and tucked them into the crook of my arm as we rode the elevator upstairs. I held on to my son’s hand with my free one. I plopped the envelopes on my desk after we walked through the door. I got my boy sorted with his afternoon music therapist and opened one of them at random.
August 12, 1986, 10:30 AM.
64 inches, 126 pounds.
The body is received with a royal blue with white and navy blue trim robe, a dark beige with pink trimming nightgown and a pair of black panties. There are defects in the robe and the nightgown from a gunshot wound.
They didn’t take her housecoat off of her. I guess clothing is evidence.
Chest: Slightly asymmetrical, due to a perforating gunshot wound. There is a large 8-inch in greatest dimension zone of contusion over the entire anterior portion of the chest. There is a ¾ inch in greatest dimension incision type scar with sutures scars in place 1-inch below the lower outer quadrant of the right breast.
Why are there sutures? Why did they sew her up? Was she still alive when the paramedics got there? Or is that something they just do when there’s a hole from a bullet?
Various little bruises on her body are described. She was always bruised up like I am. Everything shows on skin so pale.
There is a small ½ inch in greatest dimension abrasion over the medial surface, almost symmetrically placed on the medial surface of each foot, 1 inch below the middle malleolus.
She must’ve worn some shoes that hurt her feet. She loved shoes. She called those that were torturous “bear traps.” Sounds like the ones that bruised the tops of her feet would’ve qualified for that designation.
The toenails are painted with peeling lavender polish.
I’d wondered if she’d had her toenails polished. She did. Though I sort of doubt the polish was really lavender—that wouldn’t have been a choice she’d have made. The examiner might not have known what to call the color of polish on her toes. I bet it wasn’t lavender.
Upper Extremeties: There is a 4½inch in greatest dimension contusion on the anterior surface of the left forearm, 2 inches above the hand. There is a penetrating gunshot wound to the left arm, to be described in more detail subsequently.
The size of a man’s hand, if you measured it across the palm, would probably be around four inches. Two inches above the hand is where one would grab another to exert control. A hard, three-and-a-half- to four-inch grasp would leave something like a four-and-a-half-inch contusion on the arm.
I didn’t know there was a gunshot wound to her left arm.
Evidence of Major Trauma to the Body: There is a perforating gunshot wound to the chest and a penetrating gunshot wound to the left arm. This latter entry is a re-entry from the wound to the chest.
The entrance wound and exit site are described in detail. The bullet went into the front of the right side of her chest, ten inches below her shoulder, and made a half-inch hole. It came out of her upper left breast, five and a half inches below her left shoulder, leaving a one-and-a-half-inch oval-shaped hole. That’s about the size of an apricot. It then went into her left arm, where it stopped.
Direction of Missile Track: The missile track is from back to front, from right to left, and upward.
Path of Missile Track: The missile track perforates the skin, subcutaneous tissues, produces a 4 inch x 3 inch defect in the anterior chest wall, involving the fifth and sixth ribs, costal cartilages, the muscles and pleura between the fourth and fifth ribs, fifth and sixth, and sixth and seventh ribs. The missile lacerates the liver, lacerates the heart, pulpifies the middle lobe of the right lung and exits in the thoracic cavity in the region of the fourth left intercostal space. It then perforates the left breast and exits at the site noted.
Comment: As a result of the gunshot wound, there is a large defect noted in the chest. There is an estimated 1200 ml of blood and clot within the right thoracic cavity, 1000 ml in the left thoracic cavity; the pericardial cavity has been virtually destroyed.
"Beautiful, heart-wrenching . . . Moorer's masterful, comforting storytelling may serve as solace for those who've faced abuse, a signal for those in it to get out, and an eye-opener for others."
—Publishers Weekly starred review
"Moorer's memoir is full of backstory-memories, current notes and thoughts, and well-described metaphors that come together fluidly, all told with grit and lyrical prose. ...Her writing is beautiful and gripping and will stop readers in their tracks...a must-read."
—Booklist starred review
"There is much wisdom in her experience as well as in her reflections on what she has read and heard....Much different from most musicians' memoirs and of much interest to all who wrestle to understand tragedies of their own."
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Allison Moorer is known for songs of ragged, poetic honesty -- and for the emotional clarity of her country western ballads. Her debut memoir exhibits these qualities and more."
—LitHub, one of the most anticipated books of 2019
"There are few writers -- few people, in fact -- who could examine with such profound bravery the immense suffering and trauma in her story, infuse it with a lyrical sense of timelessness, and make us feel grateful for the telling. Blood is both unflinching and redemptive: a song of loss and courage."
"Like her songwriting, Moorer's prose is steeped in a rich sense of place, vivid characterization, and a story you will never forget. Not since Joan Didion's Blue Nights has grief been explored with so much beauty and complexity."
—Silas House, author of Southernmost
"Grit and grace, beauty and pain, on every wise page. Allison Moorer has given us a memoir as bloody, rich, and complex as red Alabama clay."
—Alice Randall, author of The Wind Done Gone
"Blood reveals the complicated mess of love and hurt that all too many readers will recognize. Moorer herself survived the unimaginable, and her poetic testimony should summon vigorous new attention to the public-health crisis that is male anger."
—Sarah Smarsh, author of Heartland
"Blood is the most vulnerable work you're likely to read for quite some time."
—Rick Bass, author of For a Little While
- "[A] harrowing debut."—Elle
"Her voice rings with equal parts defiance and vulnerability."
"[Moorer's] written this book like a symphony. It is expansive, and its three parts feel like movements. Moorer fills them with prose that has the sharp honesty of the greatest songwriters."
—The Bitter Southerner
"Written with brave, clear-eyed compassion for all involved, Blood is an astonishing and moving meditation on family inheritance and acceptance. Despite her family's singularly tragic circumstances, Blood tells a universal story about the things our parents pass down to us -- what we learn to be grateful for, what we release ourselves from, and what we simply leave alone."
—Jennifer Palmieri, author of Dear Madame President
- On Sale
- Oct 27, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Hachette Books