We're in Fredericksberg, a town founded by German settlers in 1846 and built with local limestone. Owing to the parallel time and material, the place bears a disconcerting resemblance to Moreton and Stow, English market towns in the Cotswolds just down the road from where I grew up; and Fredericksberg is likewise given over to gift shops, the sort of labyrinthine indoor mazes which would be termed arcades if it didn't lower the tone.
They sell objects of the kind which you pick up, examine, will probably describe as neat if asked, and then set down again - some quite nice in their way, some pretty crappy, and all with the same folksy handcrafted quality. We browse key-rings, polished rocks containing fossils, ceramic farm animals, slightly bewildering paintings showing assembled presidents Kennedy through to George W. enjoying whisky and cigars together, even rusty old horseshoes presumably dug up from around the surrounding country and signifying the old west. Punchlines to old jokes or corny observations made as guests depart were once limited to spoken media and other features of the moment, but one can now find such phraseology painted, stamped, scored, printed, embossed, and even branded onto tidily stressed rectangles of wood suitable for hanging around the family home: don't let the door hit ya where the good lord split ya, or everyone is entitled to my opinion, or always kiss me goodnight - which someone other than myself gave Bess one Christmas. We considered the thing as it emerged from its wrapping, exchanged a shrug, then left it to gather dust on top of the display case in which my wife's running trophies are roughly assembled if not actually displayed, and there it has remained ever since as a monument to good intentions, poor judgement, and the guilt generated by tacky presents.
On the other hand, my dad very much seemed to enjoy the rusty horseshoe I gave him a few Christmases back, presumably through having grown up with tales of the old west as the most commonly available form of entertainment. With this in mind, here we are back in Fredericksberg with just a couple of months to go to Christmas - time enough to have something packaged and sent off.
The woman behind the counter is called Brandy, going by her name tag. 'Well, I can tell where you're from,' she chuckles, taking my purchase and hunting for the price sticker.
As usual, I'm wearing a stetson because the sun in Texas is hot and I burn easily - should an explanation be necessary. I'm also wearing the shirt I bought from Victoria's Thrift Mart on the Blanco Road - short sleeves, red, white and blue with the lone star of the state flag. It's one of my favourite shirts. They had a job lot of them when I bought mine, and my guess is they originated either with some steak joint or a gas station that went out of business.
'I'm not really from Texas,' I confess, feeling suddenly as though I've been caught trying to pull a fast one. 'I'm from England. I'm just trying to blend in.'
Brandy seems delighted and amazed. 'Where are you from in England?' My wife later tells me that she added we get a lot of Australians in here, but apparently I missed this particular footnote.
'I'm from London,' I say, 'sort of - well, I lived there for twenty years.' Every time someone asks, I have to take a moment to work out where I'm from, and answers might legitimately include Coventry, Kent, London, or Stratford-upon-Avon depending on which seems least likely to invite further questions.
Meanwhile, the other cashier has finished giving a demonstration to a fellow customer. The other cashier is a little guy. He looks vaguely Latino and wears a device of moulded plastic across his knuckles. He squeezes his fist and tiny sparks dance around the metal strip along the front, repeating the demonstration.
'What is that?' I ask.
'It's a stun gun.'
'I could have done with something like that when I was a postman.'
Brandy is similarly impressed, and gets to talking about guns, how it might be safer to carry one of these things than a firearm, then turning back to me to offer something sounding like an apology. 'It must be kind of weird, I mean with the guns here—'
'It's no big deal,' I say.
'I mean you don't have them in England but, we—'
I've already heard the disclaimer, and I always recall the testimony of my friend Stuart from Scotland. He has relatives in Dallas and whenever he comes over to visit it seems they're queueing around the block to show him their assault rifles. I've a sneaking suspicion he may be paying for some offhand remark made many years ago expressing reservations about the NRA.
'I've been here five years,' I tell Brandy, 'and I've seen one openly carried gun in all that time.'
It was a guy I passed on the Tobin Trail. He was cycling along with a rifle of some description in one hand. I didn't find the encounter scary, just weird. I've seen cops with guns in holsters of course, but I'm not sure they count in the same way.
Stun gun boy raises the front of his top so we can both see the handgrip of a small pistol protruding from his pants.
'Well, now I've seen two,' I say.