The Smoking Cuban Woman

Tammy Wilson

Kim Walden interprets dreams so I just had to tell her about the one I had the other night. It was a doozy. Kim's one of those waify, touchy-feely types with frizzy hair in need of relaxer, but she's studied tarot for years and is up to speed on symbolism, which is essential to interpreting dreams.

I first met Kim on girls' night out at the House of India. She's Muriel's friend and while they talked about old times, the rest of us were enjoying that Indian flat bread you can't stop eating, like potato chips. During the evening, Muriel mentioned something about a call-in show on reincarnation, how they did past-life regression. "I've always thought I had a past life," she said. "When I see a Jane Austen movie, I feel like I lived in Regency England."

Kim said, "Some agree with Edgar Cayce that there's past life regression."

I'd heard of Cayce, the "sleeping prophet." He prescribed all kinds of mumbo-jumbo readings for ailments from hemorrhoids to cancer before he died way back when of God knows what. All that knowledge and he couldn't heal himself!

That evening at the restaurant, somebody asked Kim to interpret a dream and she went into a spiel about chakras, energy forces that have to be in line, like room arrangements in feng shui. And I got to thinking how Butch probably messed up our life big-time when he enclosed the garage to make my beauty shop.

"Do you really believe in that stuff?" I asked her.

Kim glared at me like I'd asked her weight, credit rating and annual income. "It's my work," she said. Before I knew it, she was claiming to be an old soul who had lived several lives, including one back in England.

Muriel broke into a grin that I haven't seen since the Cuban Woman lit up.

Cuban Woman was my friend's little wooden figurine that's about four inches high and smokes her own little cigarettes. No kidding. Like the Century Flower that blooms once every hundred years, she's allowed to smoke one Saturday in December, right after the Christmas Parade. There's always a crowd over at the Johnsons and all of us ooh and ahh at her little smoke rings.

Roxy Poole gave the Smoking Woman to Muriel for her birthday some time back. We girls always give each other cheesy trinkets and somehow Roxy horned in on the fun. She's this brunette-turned-blonde who used to be in our circle of friends. She fell out of favor when she turned thirty-nine, bleached her hair, joined the spa, had plastic surgery and bought a red Miata. Inside of six months she had left her husband and their eleven-year-old twin sons for a face jock named Clint with more polo shirts than a Ralph Lauren outlet. I've seen him from a distance. He's a golf pro who manages a club down toward Pinehurst. A few years ago he came into some serious money, so I guess that was the attraction - that and the fact that he found Roxy attractive at forty. We took Sam's side because he was the injured party, taxiing the boys to ball games while Roxy was out catting around.

Roxy said she found Cuban Woman while cleaning out her aunt's house and it reminded her of how the old lady used to cruise the Caribbean during the Batista days. She'd ferry her Studebaker Golden Hawk from Key West to Havana and drive all over the island, which is a good ways. I can imagine her with a lot of makeup like Roxy, stopping in front of a roadside trinket shop and spotting a display of little wood Cuban Women with tiny gold earrings and bowls of carved fruit on their heads like miniature Carmen Mirandas, blowing smoke rings to lure customers over to buy. It was frisky, the notion of women smoking in public, but there's something cute about a doll doing it.

Cuban Woman's little smokes are made for a mouth the size of a pinhead and even if you got permission to visit Cuba, I'll bet they couldn't be had for love or money. I've checked Ebay and they don't have anything remotely close, which makes Cuban Woman and her smokes extra valuable. It's a wonder the cigarettes haven't been lost, waterlogged or burned up in forty years. They're no longer than your toenail! I've seen Muriel use tweezers to pick them out of their little package so they won't get damaged. She keeps them in a cough drop tin so the humidity won't ruin them, like a humidor in reverse.

I told Muriel that it's a miracle they're still around.

"Lucky them and lucky us," she shrugged.

It takes Cuban Woman no more than a couple of minutes to finish a cigarette, so you have to be watching or you'll miss the show. And everybody, adults and kids alike, loves to watch. If Muriel and Duane let her smoke once a year, she'll go for another fourteen.

"We'll be grandparents by that time," she said.

Don't remind me! I've got three stair steps in grade school, so I have all I can handle right now, with my husband Butch and the beauty shop, which he set up in what used to be our garage. He's handy with routers and band saws, but when it comes to romance, forget it. Eat, work, sleep, snore. My life's nothing exotic like Roxy's or even the Johnsons', so when I had that strange dream, it really haunted me. I hadn't thought about the Cuban Woman for months.

Muriel suggested I call Kim. It felt like calling the Psychic Hotline, but I dialed her number and Kim said it would be best to meet me rather than interpret over the phone. She said it had to do with having our "chakras" in order, which sounds like something Butch might tighten on his pickup.

Monday's my slowest day at the shop so I met her that afternoon at this little cafe downtown. She was there waiting for me in a corner booth with her hair frizzed out and wearing one of those gauzy peasant blouses that's never met an iron. I ordered regular coffee, none of that fancy latte like she was ordering. Then I told her what I dreamed.

"It was weird," I said. "We've always been protective of that little Cuban woman. She sits on Muriel's kitchen shelf all year until it's time for her to perform. Only in my dream, she smoked until her head burned off. All that was left was the body and her pack of cigarettes. Her neck was nothing but a black stump!"

Kim's the patient type who sits like a sponge, sucking up the spill until you're ready to wring her out. She agreed that my dream was weird, which was the pot calling the kettle black. Sitting across from her and that latte, she was taking her time sizing me up.

"Do you hold hostility toward Roxy?" she asked. "After all, she's the one who had the figurine in the first place."

Actually Roxy's aunt was the first, but I decided not to split hairs. "No," I said. It was gall for her to insinuate I'm jealous. Roxy never was one of my customers and I never knew her that well. "That little wooden figure sits up on her kitchen shelf, just something for fun," I said.

She took a sip from her tall cup. "Dreaming of death, or in this case, disfigurement, can mean rebirth."

"You mean the Cuban Woman will grow a new head? In case you're wondering, I've already called Muriel and told her what I dreamed and she said the Cuban Woman's still intact."

She chuckled. "No, but maybe your friendship with Roxy will be rekindled, no pun intended."

There she was bringing up Roxy again! "I hope I never see that hussy, especially since she's moved off with Pretty Boy."

"So you do resent her."

I sat my cup down. "What decent person wouldn't resent a woman runs off and abandons her children?"

I didn't like the way she was trying to let on like everything was about Roxy. Roxy could go to hell for all I cared.

"I see," Kim said. "Is there anything else going on in your life that might change, say a new job? A new love? A new baby?"

New baby? Is she crazy? I had my tubes tied four years ago. Butch isn't the most romantic man in the world, but he isn't the lousiest either. We've had our differences, but I'm not traipsing off with another man, that's for sure.

"Lord no," I said. "One husband's enough and I'm not changing jobs either."

"Were you reading anything disturbing, watching a TV program about murder before you went to bed?"

For someone who's supposed to be so bright, none of her suggestions seemed to click.

"How about your customers? Since your dream involved a woman's head, it's possible that you're afraid you'll " burn" them with a chemical treatment."

She was getting on sensitive ground here. I'd like to fry the hair off some of those bitches, but I'm a professional.

She asked me more questions and I kicked all of them out of the ball field until she said, "I'm afraid I don't know exactly what your dream means. Maybe you should mull it over so something will focus."

That's a tarot-reading dream interpreter for you!

Well, I've mulled it over for several days now. The only thing I can come up with is that dream was telling me to wake up and see the forest for the trees. Here we are concerned about details - budgeting those little cigarettes to make them last. We're worried about that more than the fact that they're no good without the proper head to smoke them. Like worrying about having enough diapers and ignoring the baby. Fretting over the little things when what we need to be worried about is the head of the matter.

Take Sam Poole. I'll bet he was concerned about his boys' games and everyday stuff while Roxy was out running around behind his back. He should have woke up and smelled that rat a lot sooner. Look out for the big picture, that's what my dream's saying. Chakras or not, I figured that out on my own.

© Tammy Wilson

Tammy Wilson's short fiction has appeared in the North Carolina Literary Review and Kay Allenbaugh's Chocolate series, among other publications. She is a 2002 North Carolina Blumenthal Writer and recently completed her second residency at Vermont Studio Center.

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