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The Left Hand Chord
It's mid-afternoon in dreadfully humid Havana. A cooler refuge beckons across Avenida Maceo. I slip into a dark corner booth in the Hotel Libertad lounge to sip on their famous 'te frigo', a tallish iced tea, chilled thoroughly, but no ice. I add a soupcon of local honey for character; a thimble of very old rhum for my character.
A gentleman silhouetted against the whited out door catches my eye. He hesitates, then limps into the twilight of the lounge. The panama hat leads the way, followed by a suit, white shirt and tie. Rather formal for the heat. He's elderly, a bit shaky, but he goes purposefully to the upright piano and snaps on the light.
This Steinway has to have seen most of Cuba's recorded history; hand-carved, rum-dipped; keys a mellow yellow.
He folds his jacket, drops the panama on the top for tips, and sits. He sniffs the atmosphere for musical inspiration. Does the room need a lift? Or is he thinking melancholy, maybe a waltz or a popular aria? He surprises with Erik Satie. Then a segue into a slow and building tango; he loves flourishes but I begin to sense the odd incomplete chord.
Two songs later, my seven years of wasted lessons tell me that the culprit is his left hand. On my way out. I pause to drop a few pesos into the hat.
"Gracias" he nods and waves. I easily note his hand is missing the pinky and ring fingers.
80 plus years
a buried past
I go next door to the tobacconists and fetch a Romeo y Julietta.
His set is over. 'El Pianista' accepts the cigar. Fires it up and gestures to sit.
"Accidente?", I point. Blowing smoke, he eyes me for some hidden agenda. His face says I'm accepted. "No accident", he went on. "I was young, very popular. My playing led me to friends, ' los passionatas' ( those who detested Fulgencio Batista. A bad choice. I was 'disappeared'.
After the victory, Fidel allowed my freedom minus these two . One was chopped: I could tell Batista's men little. The other because they were frustrated and desperate to know about the rebels in the mountains."
"How did you manage?" I inquired softly.
"I swept streets to rebuild my muscles. An amigo asked that I play at his wedding party. Raul Castro was a guest. I played badly. Enough. I think to warrant some therapy perhaps?" A lifted eyebrow, a sardonic smile.
He gestured around, " Now you see what I am today. I still play badly."
"What about Cuba?' I ask.
He lifts his left hand over the keys." See this? It is Cuba. Tired, missing many parts, hurting, not working well." He then shows his right hand, clenched very tight." This is also Cuba. Closed to the world. Watching it pass by".
He turns back to the keys.
I ease away.
At first, dreams . . .
a loud crow squawking
in havana square