TRISTANO’S LEFT HAND

The hand was missing from the coffin. The funeral director informed the family, but the family said to go ahead with the burial. 

At the funeral, Tristano’s dexterity was eulogized. You should have seen all the things he built and welded and mended. All the fixtures he replaced over the years, the speakers said. His widow and his children nodded. Tristano had made sure that his son could afford to go to college and his daughters to secretarial school and come out not owing anyone a cent. Tristano’s widow dressed and rode around in style; his earnings paid for late model Lincolns and a maid who took the widow shopping.

At the factory, Tristano rose from line worker to foreman, and from foreman to union rep before management co-opted him. Contrary to what his detractors said, Tristano didn’t start seeing the big bucks until he put on a three piece suit. And even though he didn’t finish the eighth grade, Tristano knew chemistry, understood how to mix chemicals and perform all kinds of wonderful services that his wife adored, such as bringing in thousands of extra dollars repairing chrome bumpers, and providing paint jobs to hot rods and luxury sedans in a shed he built at the back of the property.

Even though Tristano’s skills with his hands was no secret, no one could figure out why one of those hands was missing. The undertaker noted that the hand had been removed with precision, the work of someone skilled in the operation, possibly a surgeon. But who would do such a thing? And what use could Tristano’s left hand be to anyone? It hardly seemed like a trophy from a man who didn’t know any mafiosos.

About a year later, an item appeared in the local paper: “French Spy Ring Operating in Cleveland Suburb.” The story said that someone in Shaker Heights had been distributing tapes, jazz piano recordings made for the French spy service, SDECE. Embedded in the recordings was a code transmitting intelligence through chord progressions. The code relied heavily on minor 7s and Tristan chords. The agent, it was alleged, was American.

That agent turned out to be Tristano. Or so the local papers alleged. Soon coastal papers took up the story, and a search for the missing left hand began. Tristano’s widow was contacted by internal revenue wanting to take a look at all of the books Tristano kept at home. They were conducting a joint investigation with the Bureau, they said. Tristano’s widow did not know where he had kept those books, though she assumed they were in the big black file cabinet in his home office. When the revenue agents were at the house, Madam Tristano served them Tom Collinses in the back garden once they finished their work. 

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the lead man said. “I know your husband was highly respected. All of this speculation, all of these stories by an irresponsible press must really rankle.”

“It’s not the stories so much,” she said. “It’s the fact that I just want his hand returned to me.”

“What’ll you do with it, ma’am, once you get it back?” a younger agent asked.

“Shut up, McGee,” the lead man said. 

“I will have it buried with my late husband’s body, agent,” Madam Tristano said. Then she snapped her fingers, and the maid freshened everyone’s drinks. 

Neither the local nor the national papers reported the fact that internal revenue found no irregularities in Tristano’s accounts. There were no mysterious payments, no accounting tricks that anyone in Washington could spot. Tristano stories dried up in the press. When the Tristano children threatened to sue internal revenue for defamation of character, they were told by the family lawyer to go after the local paper that first broke the story.

Lou Tristano, the only son, managed to procure a bootleg copy of one of the alleged SDECE tapes. He brought it home and played it on his HiFi. The piano player was clearly a prodigy, a Glenn Gould-Oscar Peterson level player whose fingers worked at fantastic speed. Then Lou’s sister pointed out that he was playing the tape at the wrong speed. After he adjusted the dial, Lou discovered that the piano playing was nothing more than standard jazz played by a competent hand. It bored him.

“Father didn’t play piano,” Cindy Tristano told her brother. “How much cash did you blow on this tape?”

“Dad could play by ear, or didn’t you know that?”

“But he couldn’t speak a lick of French.” Cindy responded. 

“Who says he had to?” Lou spat. “You gotta stop thinking like a secretary.”

“And you need to start thinking like a Tristano and believe in our father’s good name.”

“Then how do you explain his missing hand?” 

“No one can explain the missing hand,” Cindy said. 

As it turned out, someone could. 

She was a young woman Cindy’s age. She came forward and gave an interview to the Plain Dealer. “I was Tristano’s lover, and he was a marvelous lover,” she said. “He needed someone who could truly appreciate his hands.” She stood up and walked to the freezer, removing a Ziploc bag with a frozen hand in it and placing it on her kitchen table. The reporter lit a cigarette even though she had not invited him to. “He used to woo me with this hand,” she said. “That’s why I have it.”

“Excuse me, madam,” the reporter asked. “But what is your name?” 

“Françoise,” she said. “Françoise Bouterre.” 

“Are you French, ma’am?” 

Oui,” she said. “And you know what makes us unique, we French? We are the only people who truly appreciate American jazz. A man who makes music must come to one of us to receive his due. Tristano came to me.”

When the police arrived, Françoise said that she did not expect anything from Tristano’s estate, but wished to speak to his widow about keeping the hand as a souvenir. “I mean ‘souvenir’ as we French use the word,” she said. It was her willingness to negotiate over the hand, and the willingness of Tristano’s widow to meet with her which rekindled newspaper interest in the affair. 

— Jeremy Nathan Marks lives in Canada. Recent poetry and prose appear in places like 365 Tomorrows, Free Flash Fiction, Poetic Review, Garfield Lake, Flash Fiction Magazine, Microfiction Mondays, Dissident Voice, Bluepepper Poetry, Sip Cup, and Unlikely Stories. His poetry collection, Of Fat Dogs & Amorous Insects is published by Alien Buddha Press (2021).