It's Sunday afternoon and we're in La Madeleine, which bills itself as a French bakery and café. It's a chain restaurant which does a fairly good job of acting like it isn't - in so much as that the food is decent and suggests both human agency and the possibility of someone at head office actually having been to France. I usually have the chicken friand - as it's called - because pastry encasing anything savoury is a novelty in Texas and should therefore be cherished. Instead I have a croque monsieur with a parfait for after. I'm not even sure what a croque monsieur is, but I vaguely remember the name from French lessons at school.
The cashier has a strong French accent, which I find quite exciting. I make a mental note to introduce myself once I've been sorted out with coffee and everything. She will be the first French person I've encountered on this side of the Atlantic, and I will introduce myself as a fellow European. But the moment never comes. My Gallic cashier is busy and in any case, Bess has already spotted the other women of her rock group, which is why we are here.
Six months ago, Bess began painting rocks, decorating small stones with colourful mandalas of acrylic paint. It was something she'd seen on facebook. People have taken to painting rocks and leaving them to be found in public places. The idea is simply to brighten the day of some random stranger. Bess often protests that she has no artistic ability and can barely manage a convincing stick figure, but her recent efforts cast doubt upon such a claim. The first rocks she painted now seem primitive and unfinished, just cheery coloured spots in haphazard configurations; but she's kept at it and developed her talent, and now turns out pseudo-fractal designs of astonishing beauty and precision. They have the look of patterns grown upon the shell of a sea urchin expressed as a firework display. The random strangers who have found them in parks, malls, diners, or on walls have been mostly delighted and have expressed their admiration for my wife's work on facebook. Her fame has become such that the aforementioned random strangers now make specific requests for one of her rocks, even offering to pay. The problem is that such offers miss the whole point of the rock being something found and unexpected, a little bit of magic in what might be an otherwise colourless day for someone you will never meet. Nevertheless, we've now met a few random strangers in parking lots, encounters co-ordinated through social media with me tagging along just in case one of them turns out to be a nutter. Usually my wife will exchange rocks rather than just dish them out because it seems more fair and places the two parties on an equal footing, although those rocks she receives in return tend to score higher for enthusiasm than craft. Society being what it is, we've seen plenty of them decorated with poorly rendered Disney characters. I suppose it's the thought that counts.
Today is probably the next step up from an exchange of painted rocks in a parking lot, because there are five of us and we're in a café. As usual, I'm here for support, although thankfully the other three seem approximately sane, just middle-aged women who like to paint rocks. Examples of our work are passed around, notes are compared about what's been going on in the wider world of giving painted rocks to random strangers, and then they all get out their paints. This is something I hadn't anticipated. My wife is taking a class. She has become a guru.
I hadn't really given much thought to how long we were going to be here, but I didn't anticipate it being for much longer than it takes to eat a chicken friand and drink a coffee. I need something to do because I'm not a middle-aged woman and am as such perilously close to the perimeter of my comfort zone.
'Give him a rock to paint,' one of the women suggests.
Someone hands me a couple of small rounded stones and a brush. Bottles of liquid acrylic are being passed around the table so I take dabs of what I need - yellow ochre, black, cadmium red, a yellow of some description. First I paint the Mexica sun symbol representing the current age of the world by agency of the red and blue ollin glyph at the centre. It's the first thing that comes to me because I've painted it so many times. Next I paint a traditional gnome with beard, boots, and a tall conical cap. I feel that gnomes have been under-represented in much contemporary fiction, so I've written them into a few of my own things and they're never too far from my thoughts.
After twenty minutes or so we all seem to have enough done to show everyone else. Bess has been demonstrating her technique to the others. They seem to be getting it, although their efforts are not quite so polished.
'It's an Aztec sun,' says the woman to my left, and they all coo over my efforts.
'He's an artist,' my wife explains.
Technically it's a Mixteca-Puebla style sun that I've painted, but I'm not a dick so I don't say anything. Thankfully the gnome doesn't really require explanation.