And then I murdered a drifter. Blessed Be.

I received an email this morning from a national Pagan organization, announcing that my ministerial credentials had been renewed. I sent a quick thank-you in reply, then sat around shuddering at the thought of how I got them.

Perhaps I should explain. Also, I swear I’m not making any of this up.

It started, as these things often do, with the best of intentions. Trothwy — the lovely lady with whom I run a Wiccan coven — had gone through a minor medical scare, and while everything turned out to be fine, it occurred to her that if someone in the coven ended up in the hospital, the rest of us wouldn’t be able to visit.

“We need accreditation,” she reasoned. “That way, if I’m in the ICU or something, I can put the rest of you down as my spiritual advisors.”

We all agreed that this was an excellent plan that couldn’t possibly go horribly awry, and Trothwy got to work researching Pagan clergy affiliates. She finally settled on an established 501(c)(3) with a refreshingly scandal-free history and fired off a query letter to begin the vetting process. Shortly thereafter, she was contacted by a representative, innocuously named Joe, who offered to meet with us for an introductory chat. Trothwy suggested a quiet, out-of-the-way, Tolkein-themed restaurant, and we set a date for a few days hence.

When meeting with lecherous serial killers members of the greater Pagan community, Trothwy and I usually get to the venue a few minutes early, so that we can compare notes or debrief or whatever we need to do to present a united front. As such, I was a bit surprised when I walked into the restaurant to find Trothwy already sitting across from a burly, bearded stranger, who was gabbing animatedly at her. Determining that this was the organization’s representative and not an unhinged psychopath, I walked over to the table just in time to hear:

“… but he bled to death on the porch before he could make it into the house.”

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Thomas.” And then I looked to Trothwy for direction, because I was sure she would have a perfectly logical explanation for the conversation I’d just interrupted.

“Hi Thomas, I’m glad you could make it,” Trothwy replied. “Joe was just telling me about the time he shot and killed a burglar.” Her smile was pleasantly neutral, but her eyes were panicked and desperate, like those of a rabbit warning off the rest of the warren while actively being mauled by coyotes: It’s too late for me, but you can still save yourself!

“Wow, I… can’t wait to hear about that,” I said. “Could you excuse me for just a sec? I need to run to the restroom.”

Once safely locked in a stall, I whipped out my cell phone and sent Trothwy a text that read, We need to get out of here immediately.

Her response was instantaneous: Do NOT order anything.

I returned to the table right as Joe’s lunch, a double cheeseburger platter, arrived. (Him: “Are you sure you aren’t hungry?” Us: “Positive.”) He tucked a napkin into the collar of his grubby flannel shirt, removed the bun from the burger and began tearing the meat apart with his hands, drenching each greasy morsel in ketchup before popping it into his mouth.

“Anyway, like I was saying, we don’t just let anyone in. There’s a long application process, and of course not everyone makes it through. Do you perform your rituals skyclad?”

Caught off guard but still maintaining her balance, Trothwy said that some Wiccan traditions do practice ritual nudity, and that it was a concept with which we were not unfamiliar.

“Oh, good,” Joe said with a carnivorous grin, bits of beef and ketchup speckling his beard. “Because I would dance naked with either of you.”

“OH MY GOD, LOOK AT THE TIME,” Trothwy yelped. “Thomas, we’re supposed to get together with that friend of yours.”

“Which friend?” I asked, still trying to process the unexpected omnisexual innuendo. “What are you talking about?”

Did you know that people really will kick the shit out of you under the table if you’re not playing along with a cover story, just like in the movies? Because they totally will.

OW. RIGHT. I REMEMBER. WE LEAVE NOW.”

Joe was too caught up in the bloodied remains of his cheeseburger to give us anything more than a cursory wave goodbye, which meant we could leave without (may the Gods be ever this favorable) having to hug him. And eventually, Trothwy tracked down another chapter of the same association (“Oh, you’ve met Joe? Don’t give him our number.”), which we were able to join with only the barest of dog-and-pony shows. We got the credentials we were looking for, and of course we’ve all been in perfect health ever since.

The point here is that you have options, guys. It can be fairly easy to convince ourselves that any given opportunity is divine providence, regardless of warning signs and alarm bells, when what we want starts overshadowing the route we take to get it. And that’s when the frauds and the predators and the squelchy Joes out there start seeing opportunities of their own.

Hold out for the right fit, with the person or group that is right for you, and I promise you’ll be more fulfilled in the long run. In the meantime, just so I’ll sleep better tonight, please place your hand on the holy book of your choice and swear a solemn oath that you will never dance naked with Joe.

Like a Boy Scout with Better Patches

Contrary to popular perception, retail is more that just slouching behind a register and letting the merchandise sell itself. You have to have extensive product knowledge and an instinctive, welcoming presence, but also be fully aware that weird shit is going to happen in your store, and that you will be expected to deal with it while coolly maintaining a steadfast facade of cordial service.

So when a customer decided to try on a metal cock ring and five minutes later leaned out of the dressing room and said, “Um… it’s stuck…” I was right there with a calm, collected disposition and sample packets of water-based lube for him to apply (on his own) in order to slip (almost) painlessly from the situation into which he had (literally) shoved himself, because I am a retail employee, and I am prepared.

And after my shift, as I was pulling out of the Ripcord parking lot, a drag queen jumped in front of my car and yanked up her skirt to show me her tuck while screaming, “WHITE BOY!! I LOVE YOU, WHITE BOY!!”

I was… not prepared for that. But it’s nice to feel appreciated.

The Witch Doctor Wears Prada

A shamanic crisis occurs when a member of a tribe is stricken with an illness that can’t be cured by physical means. The afflicted individual is taken to a shaman, who puts him/her through an initiatory ordeal: Should the individual pass the test, he/she is healed and becomes a shaman him/herself, vested with the ability to guide others through said crisis.

The relationship between sponsor and sponsee in 12-Step recovery mirrors the shamanic process, in that the sponsor has gone through the Steps and has (hopefully) had a spiritual awakening, thereby gaining the wisdom and experience to lead by example and show his/her sponsee(s) how to navigate the same path. With this in mind, here’s a list of things my own sponsor has said to me since we started working together:

“I want you to relapse so that I can talk about it in meetings and get sympathy.”

“I’m in New York for a little Gucci, a little Barneys; you know, the essentials.”

“What are you going to do? Whore at me?”

“That thing you do–what’s it called, compassion? I don’t do that.”

“You need to change your profile to say, ‘Seeking active alcoholic with no interest in recovery,’ because that’s all you’re ever going to get.”

“Do you have any idea how many people have touched the cheese samples at Whole Foods? And you ate one? You’re going to die.”

“Are you feeding the good dog? You’re not feeding the good dog. Feed the good dog.”

“You are a terrible person. I love it.”

“I just want to control your life.”

“I probably shouldn’t be encouraging you to act like this, huh?”

“I don’t know whether I should apologize, or if you should thank me.”

“I’m the Worst. Sponsor. Ever.”

People who don’t know me will see this and naturally assume I’m going to smoke crack at any moment. Regular readers, on the other hand, will recognize why we make a simply fabulous shamanic pairing.

Mannequin Takes Queen

Customer: [holding up a pair of rubber shorts] “Could you try these on for us?”

Customer’s Friends: [anticipatory leering]

Me: “You want me to put these on?”

Customer: “Yesss.”

Me: “Sorry, I can’t do that.”

Customer: “Really? You won’t let us see you in them?”

Me: “Nope.”

Customer: “But how will we know how they fit if you don’t wear them for us?”

Me: “By trying them on yourself.”

Customer’s Friends: [defeated wincing]

Customer: “Oh. But I… that is… we… oh.”

Good game, Mr. Smarmy-Pants. But check and mate.

Close Encounters of the Nasal Cavity

[A conversation with Douglas, who is currently suffering from an unidentified sinus plague and intermittent brain fever.]

Douglas: “I never knew the human body could produce so much snot. No wonder the aliens won’t come back.”

Me: “I am both grossed out and intrigued. Please continue.”

Douglas: “Well, ancient history does show evidence that aliens visited this planet, but they haven’t made contact in the modern times, so it must be because the human body produces a butt-load of mucus when the human gets sick. That’s why they won’t return. They want nothing to do with us.”

Me: “…”

Or, it could be that they thought we were incubating other life forms within our noses and were sure that’s what all the fluid was, and therefore they couldn’t impregnate us, so we were useless to them.”

Me: [awed silence]

Douglas: “I think the fever is back.”

You would see the biggest gift would be from me, and the card attached would say, “Thank you for selling me socks.”

Picture it: Houston, January 2017. An innocent yet devastatingly handsome customer, on his way to a statewide leather competition, ambles into the Montrose Forge for some last-minute purchases.

Salesclerk: “Buy stuff.”

Customer: “I did buy stuff.”

Salesclerk: “Buy more stuff.”

Customer: “No. I bought enough stuff.”

Salesclerk: “But it’s my job to sell you more stuff. Do you need socks?”

Customer: “You know, I used to have these really cool, gray Nasty Pig socks, but I wore holes in them.”

Salesclerk: “Oh, they discontinued that line, and we sold out of them.”

Customer: “Ah. So I guess you won’t be selling me more stuff.”

Salesclerk: [pulling gray socks out of fucking Hammerspace] “Except for this one last pair…”

Customer: “SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY.”

Readers, that customer was me. And that salesclerk [dramatic pause] was Nuke Willam Belli.

And we’ve been siblings ever since. The End.

Harnessing Heritage

Customer: “I have a question for you.”

Me: “Yes?”

Customer: “So, I’m black, right? And you know how there are different colors of harnesses, and camouflage harnesses and whatever? Well, I’m, like, really black, and I want a kente cloth harness.”

Me: “OH, MY GOD. THAT WOULD BE EPIC.”

Customer: “I KNOW.”

Me: “One of our owners does a lot of custom work. Go into our main store during the week, and I’ll bet he’ll be able to figure something out for you.”

Customer: “Excellent!”

Me: “And you know what else? I’m Irish and Scottish. We should have him make a tartan harness too.”

Customer: “HOLY CRAP. THAT WOULD BE AWESOME.”

Me: “WE’RE GOING TO OWN THE MOST MAGNIFICENT HARNESSES IN THE WORLD.”

Customer: “YES. WE. ARE.”

Poor Rok is going to have his work cut out for him, but he’ll totally thank me when the Forge becomes the new Benetton.

In Which I Throw the Book at Them

My best friend Douglas (whom I’ve called Catman for years, which we both think is hysterical, although neither one of us remembers why) wanted to run by our fair city’s most prominent occult bookstore, and being nothing if not a good sport, I tagged along, even though I’m not a big fan of the place. Actually, I take that back — the store itself is fine, with a good selection of merchandise at reasonable prices. It’s the employees I can’t stand.

And actually, let me take that back as well — some of the employees are really cool. There’s one girl who’s hilariously sarcastic and always in a good mood, and there’s a friendly if oddly put-together fellow on whom Douglas has a harmless if inexplicable crush. The rest of them, though, are my least favorite type of Pagan: haughty and pretentious and doing their best to project auras of voluminous magical (magickal/majikal/mahzheegahl) power, even when it is excruciatingly clear that they have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about.

Of these employees, Lady Crushed Velvet reigns supreme. (I don’t know her real name, but my compatriot Veles and I have always referred to her as Lady Crushed Velvet, so why stop now?) Draped in the finest yep, you guessed it, Lady Crushed Velvet makes damn sure her customers understand how grateful they should be that a Mistress of the Ethereal Arts is taking time out of her busy schedule to ring up their smudge sticks. I once witnessed her berating an underling for heresies unspecified before turning to a co-worker and stating, “That’s how you talk to a student.” Hopefully, said student was able to drop the class with his transcripts intact.

Lady CV was not in residence this day, but her second-in-condescension was: a wizened, older woman serving Been There, Croned That realness. If asked to list her occupation, she would probably put down “cunning folk.” Douglas and I were poking around the display cases near the front of the store and checking out the jewelry we couldn’t afford didn’t need, when a twenty-something young lady hesitantly approached the counter.

“Hi, I’m looking for information on Wicca,” she said.

“Wicca or Witchcraft?” Croned That asked, in a tone suggesting they were sitting under a bare light bulb in an unpainted, cinderblock cell.

I missed the next part of the conversation, but I guess the girl said Wicca, because I heard Croned That say, “Wicca is a religion. You’re looking for Witchcraft.”

“I… didn’t realize there was a difference,” said the young woman.

“Oh, there most certainly is,” Croned That replied. “Come with me.”

Croned That escorted her new protégé over to the book section, while I shot Douglas a look that was all, I am morally obligated to prevent whatever is about to happen, and he shot me a look back that was like, I need you to not be you until after that customer pulls out of the parking lot. So I glared at him all, You’re not my real mom, and he glared back like, I drove us here and will happily abandon you, so I shot him one more look that was all, Touché, and then I waited until he was distracted by a fantasy-film replica sword and scampered across the store.

I caught up with Croned That and pretended to browse as she thoughtfully scanned the titles and tapped her lips and went, “Hmmm, let’s see, what should we start you with?” Her stance and demeanor implied that she’d read every book in the stacks and was mentally comparing them chapter by chapter, but I work in retail and could see through her act, it being the same one I used when I took a job at health food store without being trained on any of the products we carried.

“Hmmm, let’s see, a gluten-free option,” I would say, facing a rack of whole-wheat pastas. “What’s the right gluten-free option for you?”

Croned That eventually made some decisions. “Here’s what I recommend,” she said. “Sit on that bench, right over there, and begin reading these, and find the one you most identify with.”

And she handed the girl three books on Wicca.

Douglas managed to wrestle me out of the store before I started kicking, but if there’s one major downfall to modern Paganism, it’s the emphasis on assumed expertise over actual education. Everyone’s got to be a freaking adept right out of the gate, and anyone who dares admit ignorance is immediately dismissed. It hurts me in what’s left of my soul when students feel like they have to apologize for being students, and that happens because people like Croned That and Crushed Velvet define “student” as “lesser than.” And that happens because people like Croned That and Crushed Velvet are afraid to step out from behind the curtain and admit that they do not know everything; that at best, they are students themselves.

And it is okay to be a student. It is even more okay to be willing to learn. And it is the mostest okay to say, “I don’t know, but let’s go find out.”

I say all of this as a horrible hypocrite, since within the two traditions I practice [Ed. Note: It’s also okay to not practice any traditions], I will often catch myself smiling and nodding instead of asking for clarification. But I was recently besieged blessed with students of my own, and I want them to be excited about what they’re learning, as opposed to beating themselves up for not already knowing it.

I’ll leave you with one last thought, using the Judeo-Christian religious model as an analogy: From a scholastic standpoint, getting ordained into the Catholic or Anglican priesthood is the equivalent of earning a PhD. Feel free to point this out the next time you encounter a Pagan positioning himself as an authority with no sanction other than willpower. Feel free to hand him a book on the subject.

Women Who Run with the Lap Dogs

Straight Female Customer: “What is this?”

Me: “That is a cock cage.” [Ed. Note: Link severely NSFW. Please don’t get fired.]

SFC: “Would it go on when the guy is, like, limp?”

Me: “Yes, and then it would prevent him from getting an erection.”

SFC: “But wouldn’t that be painful?”

Me: “Well, that’s kind of the point. It’s used for forced chastity.”

SFC: “Oh, okay! Women have the same thing, except with a lock and key. And, y’know, CLAMP CLAMP CLAMP.”

Me: “… Ah. Yes.”

SFC: “I bought my Chihuahua a cock ring.”

Me: [stunned silence]

SFC: “There used to be a store down the street from here called Lola’s.” [Ed. Note: It was called Lobo.] “They had studded leather cock rings, and I got one for my Chihuahua to wear as a collar. Do you have any studded leather cock rings?”

Me: “I’m afraid we do not.”

SFC: “Oh. Well, he was adorable. And very passive.”

Me: “Undoubtedly.”

SFC: “CLAMP CLAMP.”

Instead of wrapping things up with a clever one-liner, I’d like to share a quotation from the greviously underrated romantic comedy The Truth About Cats and Dogs:

“This is a good time to talk about limits. You can love your pets, but just don’t love your pets.”

Let that be a public service announcement to us all.