Alexander Long

September 18, 2012

Vehicle, Tenor, Witness

On June 26, 1956, jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown—then 25 years old—jazz pianist Richie Powell, and Powell’s wife Nancy skidded off the Pennsylvania Turnpike en route from Philadelphia to Chicago. Bedford, Pennsylvania Police Department reports indicate they were killed instantly.

It’s a privilege to witness
Those you love
Disappear.  Richie Powell, Bud’s little brother,
Is the one nobody talks about,
Not even that night Clifford died.  My father
Would, though, anytime, anywhere—
Richie’s awkward, gentle stride
Up and down the keys, sure, but also
Up, then down, then up again Broad Street,
Richie calling out in a desperate tenor tone,
Hoping to score some horse for Big Brother Bud.  Anything
For Bud, broken, stoked, and jonesing.

My father would talk about Clifford’s
Shrug, too, that April afternoon in ‘54
When he saw Richie make the deal on Broad,
The timeless handshake.  They both saw it—my father,
And stone sober Clifford—they saw it all,
And for what?  A need
To earn a brother’s love?

My father would always stop there,

You have to see
His face, how distant he grows
At the table in front of you, how he disappears
Right in front of you without
Moving.  You have to see it,
I guess.  It’s a privilege to witness
Those you love

That night Richie died
I imagine a smile becomes his face,
A smile I see in my father’s too, sometimes.
Sometimes, both of their faces become one,
Their gaze beyond bewilderment,
Disappointment, sadness.
Something, maybe, approximating love.

But really, Richie’s face must’ve felt like no one’s
But his own
As the car skidded off
The PA turnpike outside Bedford.

Such a common occurrence—a car,
Some rain, night, something faulty
In the mechanics of things—seems singular,
Sudden, exact, quiet,
A tenor needed,
Despite it all,
To witness such a thing
With a measure
Of dignity.

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