[Today’s column comes to us from Luke Babb. Luke Babb is a storyteller and eclectic polytheist who primarily works with the Norse and Hellenic pantheons. They live in Chicago with their wife and a small jungle of houseplants, where they are studying magic and community building – sometimes even on purpose.]
The old man likes to corner me.
I worked for a while in high end kitchen retail – the sort of small business that can only exist in big cities, where the wealthy come to buy designer pots and “give back to the community.” One of those stores that really wants customers to access those ancestral memories of the general store they saw on Anne of Green Gables as a kid. Playing into that hometown feel, once a year this store participates in a neighborhood street festival and sells something that is only available on that weekend – apple pies.
Now, these pies aren’t regular store-bought apple pies. They’re the real deal, homemade in cast iron, great bulging things that kept a whole team of chefs busy working for a solid week before the festival. Imagine them – the crisp crust, tender apples, the brown sugar cinnamon glut of a real family apple pie? That’s these bastards. By the time the festival rolls around they fill the entire store, every surface, ten-inch cast iron pans packed close, with two inches of apple and crust and caramelized sugar rising up above them. We would bring in new shelves, the metal kind, made for storage, just to fill the window with that sight – and oh, how people stopped to look. e couldn’t sell any until the day of the festival, though. Didn’t want to run out of them too soon.
Now, this story happened on the first year that the festival moved from a one-day to a two-day event. That’s a big change in production, and taken in tandem with some changes in management, it was maybe not the smoothest preparation I’ve ever seen. Not to say that we did not have enough pies, but somewhere a few wires got crossed, and some of those pies did not quite come out the network-worthy beauties that we prided ourselves on. A few were a little underdone. A couple were a little overdone – nothing ruinous, they were certainly all edible, but not up to our standards to sell.
All of which meant that there were almost thirty of us working on that first day of the festival, and each and every one of us was glutted with apple pie. Whole pies that we couldn’t sell, with nowhere to go but our stomachs, all while the crowd came on – stress eating ain’t nothing on kitchen eating. I came in halfway through the day, right as we were shutting the festival portion down, and I had a piece of pie when I showed up, a piece of pie right before I clocked in, a piece of pie for break, and then I socked away a couple of pieces of pie to take home. I set them in one of fridges in a little container and went about cleaning up, thinking no more of them.
It was a lot to clean up. We had sold through quite a few pies that first day, but there were still pies on every surface, some of them already cut up. (We couldn’t sell those pieces either. What a pity.) I stood at the register, ensconced in a veritable vault of pies, including one right next to my hand. My manager made it very clear that I could not, was not allowed to, on any circumstances, sell them. Not to the few stragglers from the festival, not to our customers that night, not at all. If people wanted pie, they would have to come in and get it tomorrow.
No sooner had this been made clear, repeatedly and at length, than one such straggler came in. He was older than most of us there: he could have been anywhere from a prematurely gray forty to a very well-kept sixty-something – and neatly dressed. He had a hat on. He seemed to be one of the festival goers who had just managed to hit us a bit too late. And oh, but he wanted some of that pie.
Anyone who has worked retail knows this guy. There’s a certain sort of pleasant attitude that, if pushed, turns in a flash to “I want to speak to your manager.” He had it in spades – that inability to see why he couldn’t buy some pie. His money was perfectly good; he was leaving on a plane and couldn’t come back tomorrow; he was so looking forward to it. I didn’t believe a word of it, but we were busy, and I didn’t currently have a task to hand, so I stepped up to run damage control. This was the sort of fellow that, mismanaged, I had seen stand outside of the store and declaim our service to the passerby. Frankly, I didn’t have time for that.
So we took to bullshitting. I was firm, but polite – “No sir, I’m sorry, I can’t sell this to you” – and he was all grins and wheedles – “Just a small piece, just from one that was already cut,” or he offered to buy a whole pie if that worked better. We bantered on all sorts of things along the way – his travels, the festival, the weather- as he worked his way slowly toward a real temper. And then I remembered the pieces I had tucked away for later.
My manager, who had been standing there next to me for this whole thing, would not let me sell this man anything – but they couldn’t stop me from giving him something, not when it was already mine, not when I’d sharpied my name on the lid. I ran and got those two pieces that might have been my dinner and gave them to him as a present, with well wishes for his (probably imaginary) trip back to Vegas. He was so pleased by this – he shook my hand warmly, thanked me kindly, asked me my name.
“Luke,” I said. “What’s yours?”
He looked at me, and for the first time in nearly thirty minutes of wild stories, he paused and thought of the lie he was going to tell me next. I could see the shift in his features – just a little guarded, deciding exactly what he wanted me to hear.
“Mr. Wolf,” he said.
Dear reader, I nearabout felt my legs go out from under me. I looked again at the gray suit, the brimmed hat that was very charming but also about seventy years out of style, the small grin – and it was such an obvious lie, such a bad one and for no reason. I played back the entire exchange at high speed, still holding his hand. Had I been hospitable? Had I done everything in my power to make this man’s experience better? At the time I had an unaddressed but vivid fear that dried my mouth right out – and apparently made me a much less entertaining companion. Mr. Wolf took his leave, still holding my pie and a fork I had found for him, and I excused myself to go sit in the basement, have a glass of water, and consider whether this whole Paganism thing was really all it was cracked up to be.
That was the first time I met him.The second time it was raining, and I was at the bus stop. We have stops here that are almost buildings, glass and plastic giving enough room for ten or twelve people to crowd in underneath, if they have to. This time it was just me, firmly focused on my book, and a man in the corner of my eye. He looked to be in a bad way, which, in Chicago, usually means homeless. I was doing the quasi-polite Midwestern thing of making space while not actually acknowledging anyone else’s presence. I could tell from the way he hovered that the man was waiting for me to acknowledge him. I had a little unexpected cash in my pocket, which was rare at that time, and I was looking forward to spending it. It was not my finest moment, but my finest moments very seldom come at times when I’m asked to part with money.
“Excuse me,” he said, finally. “Can you help me get something to eat?” Fake politeness foiled, I looked up from my book and actually saw him for the first time. The grey hoodie, the one eye canted to the side and gone pale. Nobody I recognized, nobody I’d ever seen in the neighborhood. Nobody I wanted to ignore.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I can do that.”
“God bless you,” he said, and I ducked my head and emptied my wallet, not knowing what to do but accept the blessing.By the third time, I already knew him. By then I had started a practice of offering something once a week, on Sundays – a little wine, usually, since it’s a crowd pleaser. This was on a Monday, though, a Monday after travel, with no offerings left for anyone the night before. Call me careless.
Now, I live next door to one of my neighborhood’s more distinguishing characters. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him entirely sober. He’s friendly enough. We talk about the squash he’s trying to grow in his backyard, mostly, the branches that the wind brings down. Neighborly things. Occasionally he will walk into his back yard and howl, or chop a limb off of one of his trees with a chef’s knife while laughing. Then again, sometimes I sneak out to the corner and pour ash down the grate into the sewer. We all have our peculiarities.
That Monday, though, was different. He came up to me by my dumpster, got in close enough that I took a step back. Usually our conversations are across at least one fence, maybe two. Up close, and with him shirtless, it was hard to miss the sores on his arms and chest – big red open things that I did not recognize and did not want to get close to.
“When are you going to invite me in? What do you like to drink? Whiskey? Beer? Ask me in, we’ll have a drink. Don’t you like me? Aren’t we friends?” He went on like that, an unjointed line of words that boiled down to Invite me in and give me liquor.
“I like you just fine. I just – can’t do that, right now.” Not saying “Sir, I don’t even know you by name,” definitely not saying “I may have only seen those little muscle twitches on procedural dramas, sir, but I know they ain’t good signs.”
I had not given the right answer. I had to repeat myself at least three times before he barked “Fuck you” and took off in the other direction, still yelling. “Mars in retrograde,” I thought, “and Mercury too.” I walked inside and locked the door behind me.
Maybe five minutes passed before the screaming started. Angry screams, words twisting into raw sound, punctuated by something slamming into the fence out back. “You’re dead. I’m coming in there one way or the other!” Cracking the window I could just get a glimpse: something wooden coming over the shoulder and against the wire in big home-run swings. I sat down on my couch, out of sight of the windows, and waited maybe five more minutes until the sounds stopped. Then I went over to the altar and poured out some wine. I kept my hand carefully steady.
“If you ever threaten me or my family again, old man, you are off the altar,” I said. “I will not stand for it. I do not care about your reasons. Use another tactic.” I did not mean for the words to make any noise, did not mean to keep on in a harsh whisper for minutes, using words like “you fucking dare” and “hard limits.” I went on until the words stopped, and then I went to sit in my windowless bathroom and call my dad to ask his advice on unstable neighbors.More often than not, when I tell these stories I have to provide a good deal of background – hospitality, and wyrd, and theology, and why the old man pushing my boundaries hitsso close to home. To this audience, I will just clarify one point: I’m not here to say that this was Odin. I do not claim that any of these men were Gangleri incarnate, testing my hospitality, or Grimnir visiting to push me toward knowledge. I am not saying that these events were divine. But that moment of choice and reaction, of ‘how do I deal with this,’ has made them so, to me. Three different moments, but each of them a moment of confrontation, a defining point in my understanding of my relationship with a specific god. So now, when I tell these stories, they are stories of the gods, of giving and asking and deciding when a request is simply too much to fulfill. I tell them as illustrations of tales much older than me. Then, in turn, I tell those older tales as ways to understand what is happening in my life, even while I am in the moment of deciding what to do next.
Pagans aren’t people of scripture, but I think any religion is defined by its stories, and how they are taught, and how they are heard.
Are these enough, or would you like to hear another?
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