The Trap of Beauty
Alice Whittenburg
My mother, who was not a good-looking woman, always said things like “Pretty is as pretty does” and “Beauty’s only skin-deep.” Maybe she was just trying to console herself, but that’s not the way I feel about beauty. Beauty is the lure that draws me and the trap that holds me like nothing else can. That’s why the first evening Tony came to my door, smiled at me and said, “Hi, I’m your new nephew,” I could barely speak a word. I was shy like a young girl and in awe like a groupie. I knew my sister in Ohio remarried last year and that Tony is her new husband’s son, but when she told me he was coming, I wasn’t expecting anybody so golden-skinned and hard-bodied. “He’s got a thing about the West,” she said, “and he’d just like to stay with you for a while to see if he can find a job.” That was four months ago, and he never did much looking, though he borrowed a lot of money and gave me just enough attention that I’ve wanted to let him stay. A handsome man is irresistible bait in the trap of beauty. Once I spring it I spend most of my time struggling and wanting to tear my own heart out.

But then last Monday I found beauty that made Tony seem plain by comparison. That was the day I worked breakfast shift, and he came to pick me up at the restaurant, then drove my car too fast through downtown Tucson, zipping past traffic cones and maneuvering around double-parked cars on Congress Street. Through the open sunroof, the February sun felt like a warm soothing hand on my head, and I felt good because I was with Tony. In front of me, hanging from an overpass, I could see a sign advertising the Gem, Mineral, and Fossil show, and I laughed and said, “I can’t believe it’s time for the Gem Show again.”

Then Tony said, “Old people always say shit like, ‘I can’t believe it’s time for this or that,’” and he told me he’d be leaving in the morning to visit Geena in Ohio for a week. I was really hurt, and I said, “I thought it was over between you and Geena.” He smiled and said, “Wishful thinking on your part.”

“You know what?” I said suddenly. “Instead of taking me home, why don’t you take me to that motel up on St. Mary’s so I can look at what the mineral and fossil dealers are showing there? I’ll take the bus home.” He sighed, did as I asked, then drove away to get his hair cut for the trip. At first I just walked around, not really seeing what I was looking at, because my thoughts were on Tony and my hopeless feelings for him. Then I remembered that I had Geena’s number, so I called and told her Tony hadn’t found a job yet, wasn’t really looking, and that he and I were romantically involved, which of course wasn’t true. After I hung up I felt really bad about myself.

In spite of what I’d done, I tried to focus on the beautiful things on display at the motel: fiercely blue lapis lazuli; fossil ferns and trilobites; geodes like inside-out jeweled eggs; and lots of crystals. By the time I got to the agates and ocean jasper, I realized it was dinnertime, and I decided to head for home so I could see how the stylist had treated Tony’s luxuriant copper-colored hair. Lost in thoughts of Tony, I almost stepped on a very thin man sitting on the ground. Next to him were an old red cooler and a woven blanket on which he had spread his own peculiar, low-budget version of the Gem Show. There were glass marbles that had been “fried” to make them crack and craze, bits of mostly beer-bottle-brown polished beach glass, a few shopworn salt-crystal lamps, and lots of spindly wooden animals.

The man saw me looking at his wares and asked, “See anything you like?”

I politely said, “Not today, thanks.”

“I have other stuff that isn’t out. Would you like to see the tumbleweed stones?”

“Sounds like a rock band.”

He smiled, showing many crooked teeth. “The tumbleweed stones change color and then they roll around like tumbleweeds. I got them from a Russian mineral dealer who got them from Peruvian traders who got them from a Texan who was tired of them because he never saw them change color or move. I bought them because they have beautiful potential. I’ll let you have them for fifty bucks, though they’re worth a lot more.”

I don’t know why this story intrigued me; I’d just seen lots of incredibly beautiful minerals and fossils. But I said I was interested, and the man reached into the dirty red cooler, which was mostly full of beer cans, and pulled out a chamois bag that was inside a plastic bag that was dripping ice water. He dumped six walnut-sized unpolished stone spheres into his hand, and I asked to hold them just to be polite. They were a muddy dark-green color, smooth and very cold, and I could see tiny iridescent patches on them. I held them in the heat of the sun, warmed them with my breath, rubbed them briskly between my palms, and after several minutes of this the stones had turned uniformly rainbow-iridescent, with a lustrous, pearly sheen. “You’re asking $50 for these?”

“I would love to get $50 for them. If you gave me $50, it would be like a miracle for me.”

I knew I had that much money on me, so I held the stones close to my heart in my left hand, and I fished my wallet out of my purse with my right. I gave the man two twenties and two fives and said, “They’re amazing.”

He laughed and said, “Actually, ma’am, I’ve been keeping them in the cooler, and this is the first I’ve seen them shimmer like that. I thought I was fooling you.”

“Oh, it’s hard to fool an old fool like me,” I said. I put my treasures in the chamois bag and race-walked all the way to the bus stop. I was glad I would have something beautiful to look at while Tony was away.

At 4:00 the next morning Tony took a cab to the airport. For a short while I felt nearly inconsolable, but after the sun came up, I took the stones out into the yard and put them in a plastic container lined with a white towel. I sat beside them, drinking my morning coffee, and watched as six dull green stones, rough and dimpled like balls of dough, gradually took on a lustrous, iridescent quality, something like an opal, something like a pearl. They shimmered beautifully in a way that made my heart glad.

After I drank my second cup of coffee, I went inside to take a shower and get ready for work, and when I came back out to take the stones into the house, I saw that they were moving. I knew I was seeing something more important than a day’s worth of bad tips, so I called and told the manager I was sick. I poured another cup of coffee, and I sat there watching the stones. By noon, when the sun was hot and bright, the inside of the box was filled with their iridescent colors and their tumbling, gliding motion. They darted around, ricocheting off one another, and then suddenly they would all roll together into a quiet cluster before spinning off again. It occurred to me that maybe there was some kind of motor inside them, like in one of those radio-controlled cars, but when I looked at them closely, I saw nothing but a slightly dimpled, unmarked surface. Their movements were so complex and life-like, I just couldn’t believe they were controlled by a hidden stranger with a radio transmitter.

The stones seemed to be enjoying themselves (I was already thinking of them as creatures rather than things), and I left them for a while to do an online search on stones that move. I found a couple of articles about the Traveling Stones of Pahranagat Valley, which turned out to be a hoax story by a 19th century writer named Dan De Quille. People, including P.T. Barnum, were convinced that the stones must be real and kept clamoring to buy these nonexistent treasures.

I alternated between watching my stones and searching the web until around sunset when the stones stopped moving and turned dull green again. At that point I was happy to realize that I hadn’t missed Tony all day.

The next day was my scheduled day off, and I spent it with my stones: I continued to alternate between watching them and searching for more information about them. I found a site about the sailing stones on the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley, which is a true and scientific story about large rocks that move around during the night, probably because of wind and ice. Both Pahranagat Valley and Death Valley are in Nevada, so I had a hunch that Nevada was important to my stones.

That evening, after the stones went dormant, I spent more time looking for Nevada connections. I found a sort of technology-conspiracy-theory discussion board where somebody named pr00fadd1ct posted this comment: “Near Battle Mountain, Nevada, evidence of a sudden flip-flop of the geomagnetic field is preserved in the rock itself, which has very special properties. Over the years millions of pieces have broken free and rolled themselves into stone spheres. According to reports I’ve had from old prospectors and native people, the spheres have evolved a sort of non-biological intelligence. Catch-22: you can only find these silicon-based critters if you have some of them already. The captured stones will call out to others of their own kind for help, and anyone who traps enough of them can write their own ticket.”

My first thought was that I would have dismissed that comment as crazy raving just a few days before. My second thought was that I had to protect my stones from people who might exploit them.

The next afternoon after work, I sat in the shade of a tree and let the stones do their colorful dance in the sun. I felt like a privileged scientist watching a just-discovered species; I felt like a protective teacher and a grateful student all at once. I was enchanted and entranced. And that was why I didn’t hear Tony until he walked right up on us.

“What the hell are those?”

I let out a little shriek and the stones stopped moving. “Tony! You’re back early.”

“Geena and I fought the whole time I was there, and she finally asked me to leave,” he said in a fake-sweet voice. “And I think you know why. But you didn’t answer my question. What the hell are those?”

“Toys!” I said brightly. “Solar-powered toys I got from a mineral dealer at the motel the other day.” Tony didn’t believe me.

A few terrible and frantic hours followed in which I tried to convince him that the stones were solar-powered trinkets, but he watched them for a while and then went online to see what he could learn. He checked my browser history, found pr00fadd1ct’s comment and decided the stones were going to make him rich. When he called Geena to tell her about them in the hopes that he could win her back, she was intrigued by the idea of the stones’ money-making potential and said she’d come to Tucson if Tony made a successful business deal out of them.

“We have to go to Nevada tomorrow to find more of these things,” he said. “And if you don’t want to go, I’ll take your stones and use them myself. Even if I don’t find more of them, these six have to be worth mega-bucks. You should come along to make sure I don’t do anything bad to them. I have a good reason to be very pissed off with you, you know.”

And that was how we ended up going on a road trip together, with me agreeing to pay and to let him do the driving. But from the moment I first got into the car with Tony, I knew what I was going to do. And when we were heading down the hot stark Nevada highway on our way to Battle Mountain, I opened up the window, took my stones out of their chamois bag, and threw them out into the desert landscape.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Tony screamed, and I said I was saving my stones from greed and exploitation.

“You made a big mistake,” he said, giving me a malicious smile, and he pulled the car over to the side of the road and stopped. Then he let me know just what he really thought of me: I was an old pervert, he had always known what I wanted from him, hated how I looked at him, was in love with Geena and I could forget about ever hooking up with him, he knew I had called Geena and knew what I told her, and now that I’d made a fool of him with the stones, he was going to make me pay.

He grabbed my purse and my phone, and he said, “Get out of the car.” When I refused, he manhandled me out the door, slammed it behind me, then turned my car around and drove away.  So I was on the ground in the middle of nowhere in the Nevada desert, and I knew I should get up and scan the road for signs of a vehicle I could hitch a ride from. But after a while, I walked into the desert until I found a rocky overhang, then stood in that little bit of shade gazing longingly into the distance where I thought my stones might have landed. I knew they were out there, and I knew they were beautiful, and I didn’t want to leave them. I imagined watching them become opalescent, begin to shimmer, begin to whirl. Then after a while, in a way I couldn’t understand, they would call other stones, and I would be in awe of the beauty of the iridescent flow as a rush of glistening, pearly stones came to greet their lost cousins.

So even though it was getting late and I had no water, no food, and no phone, instead of walking back to the road and possible rescue, I headed into the desert, aching to see my precious and beautiful stones one more time.  

Alice Whittenburg's

short fiction has appeared in web and print publications, including Eclectica, Word Riot, Pindeldyboz, 42opus, and Doorknobs & BodyPaint. She has spent a number of years in the Czech Republic, and three of her stories appeared in the anthology, The Return of Kral Majales, Prague's International Literary Renaissance 1990-2010. She is coeditor of The Cafe Irreal, a magazine of irreal fiction. She also coedited the newly released anthology, The Irreal Reader, Fiction and Essays from The Café Irreal.

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