I got my summer job in college the old-fashioned way: pure, uncorrupted nepotism. The collection agency hired me entirely because my mother was a supervisor at a bank the agency did work for; I guess they found her good graces to be worth nine dollars an hour. That's the only explanation I can think of, since I was a miserable collector—they pulled me off the phones after less than a month—and I spent the rest of my time there doing whatever they could find to occupy me.
I ended up as the underling of a guy I'll call Mike, the company's compliance officer. I remember seeing Mike on my first day at work: a tall guy with a crew cut and a goatee, wearing a leather jacket that, to the best of my knowledge, disappeared and was never mentioned again after that day. I imagined he had a motorcycle and occasionally got into fistfights at roadside bars. In reality, he had played in the world championships of the Star Wars Collectible Card Game and had Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" as his ringtone; he was usually harmless.
I spent most of my workday trapped in an office with Mike, alternating between creating spreadsheets, screwing around on the internet, and being pelted with Nerf weaponry. Since we had less than two feet separating us, we naturally noticed everything the other one did. I heard all his conversations with his wife and his excursions into celebrity gossip websites; he found me running an online D&D game during company time. (To reiterate: I had this job solely as a favor to my mother.) We had no real conflicts—he joined the D&D game—until 3:33 p.m., one day in early July.
You see, I pray at 3:33 every day. I take my Thor's Hammer pendant and tap myself on the forehead and each cheek three times, and then ask Thor for strength and Odin for wisdom. This is not an Ancient Heathen Secret or anything; it's simply something that makes sense to me. (It's all the nines, you see.) Since the whole process takes less than twenty seconds it's rarely noticed. But as I was whispering the prayer to myself that day in July, I heard Mike's chair squeak, and then his voice.
"Eric, what are you doing?"
I'm more or less "out" as a pagan these days, as evidenced by the biweekly plastering of my mug on this fair website, but that wasn't the case back then. Mike, on the other hand, was a proud Christian who went on missionary trips and organized Guitar Hero nights for Youth Ministry. He wasn't a fundamentalist—the legend of his visit to the late-night IT crew while wearing nothing but an American flag Speedo proved that—but I had never mentioned my religion to him and hoped I never would.
"Nothing, Mike," I said. "Just praying."
He squinted and saw me holding the hammer. "Praying?"
I sighed. "Yes. I'm praying to Thor. I do it every day."
I wasn't sure what response to expect—whether he would find it strange, or not care, or start trying to convert me from my evil ways. But he didn't do any of those things. Instead, he started laughing. "No, seriously, what are you doing?"
"I was praying," I said again. "Just like I said."
"Thor, the Viking dude?" A grin spread across his face. "The guy who fights giants and stuff?"
"Yes, that one."
Mike looked at me, still grinning, waiting for me to burst into laughter myself and tell him the truth. After too long a moment the smile faded and he blinked in amazement. "Wait, really?"
"Yes, Mike, really." I looked intently at my monitor and tried to display just how highly I regarded the legal audit I was theoretically working on. "It's not that big a deal."
He called out into the hallway. "Hey, Cesar! Come in here!" Cesar, like us, had an ill-defined job with little oversight, and so even though he didn't have to crowd into the office with us, we considered him part of the team. He came in with an eyebrow raised. Before he could ask what was going on, Mike pointed to me. "I just caught E-Scott over here praying to Thor."
"What, the Viking guy?" asked Cesar.
"Yes, the 'Viking guy!'" I wheeled around in my chair. "It's how I was raised. Can we move on?"
Cesar seemed less surprised than Mike. "Why didn't you say something about it before?"
"Because I didn't want to get my mom in any kind of trouble. You know how it is. What if it got back to the bank and her bosses took offense?"
Mike looked at the ceiling. "It's stupid that you should even have to worry about that. I mean, I understand why you're worried about it, but you shouldn't have to in the first place."