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Guest Writer

One day since the world turned upside down
by Cordwainer Bird

As a former merchant marine, 82-year-old recluse Cordwainer Bird has spent time in numerous ports of call at numerous jobs, from chopping cotton in Yoknapatawpha County, Miss., to working as a Conrail brakeman in Powersburg, Penn., to pumping gas on the graveyard shift in Castle Rock, Maine. A contemporary of Phillip José Farmer, Kilgore Trout and Harlan Ellison, Bird has made an indelible stamp on the field of speculative fiction. He presently resides in Regina, Saskatchewan.

n a long Wednesday night in the early California spring, downtown Berserkeley feels like a wax museum populated only by drunks. On the camera monitor above the front door, I spy Sadie with my little eye, flitting around picking up empty glasses in the back of the house. We've got two big groups back there. I'm watching the first.

One asshat in that group looks like the meth version of Ronald McDonald, with a PBR T-shirt and a thousand-yard stare. He's doing okay acting sober. In a few minutes, I'll go down and counsel him, tell him to slow the hell down or drink some water for a while so I don't have to throw him out.

Like it'll do any good.

Bouncing at a big club like PJ's (my old job) I got used to handling problems before they were problems. Around here, by comparison, it takes a fight to blow before anyone, customers or staff, actually pays attention.

Especially Mariah the bartender. But she can quit talking when my application at Gotham comes back. My old boss from PJ's works at Gotham now. I ran into him on the street when I was out getting a gallon of gas for some fool who ran out right in our No Parking Zone.

Conor says as soon as he can find me space, I'm in. That will give me a legitimate job somewhere else to hold onto for a short while. If my luck stays in, a very short while. I hope I shall arrive soon.

I focus only on the path ahead and let my body do my job. The rest is all Greek to me.

Mmm ... Sadie ... black hair in a French braid, beautiful twinkly green eyes, spindly white e.e. cummings hands and that body like BLAM. I slap my mental hand away. Yuck. Shame on you for even thinking ...

But it's only been one day since my world turned upside down. I find I have quite a lot to adjust to.

None of this is happening quickly enough. I can't relax anymore. I keep looking at the clock, waiting for the worm to turn.

I'm wound so tightly I snap all the time. When I try to sleep at night, my bed keeps getting longer and shorter. I'm nailed into place, braided and broken again and again on his wheel.

At work, when I'm not spoken to, my lips are sealed. With customers I start conversations I can't even finish. We talk and talk and talk and never say a damn thing, or repeat tired old war stories everyone's already heard.

I gotta get out of this job. But this morning, that concept got a lot more complicated than simply walking out the front door under the cameras and the IF YOU LEAVE THIS BAR FOR ANY REASON YOUR DRINK WILL BE DISCARDED sign and never, ever, ever looking back.

In the life of every human with half a brain there comes a time when, to coin a phrase, you simply have to take the bull by the horns.

I've managed to leapfrog my way back to school on bouncer money. Somehow. Working only 26 hours a week leaves me a hell of a lot of time to twist the teat of financial aid. I'm 29 and killing credits again, choosing electives. Under my own power. Again. Can you believe that? That, in itself, gives me enough hope to think about finishing out this most irregular shift.

My first elective at U.C.-Berkeley started Monday morning at 8:40. Professor DiFillippo's Comparative Mythology, on the second floor of Campbell Hall just past the tennis court with the big Egyptian obelisks. Not that far from this bar, actually. Five minutes on the bus.

The prof has been walking us patiently through the labors of Herakles, showing us films from way up in the mountains of Greece where they still leap the bull every once in a while. Some young fool will grab the horns of the beast and allow himself to be flipped and thrown over its back.

I see bull-leaping as the most ancient of extreme sports. Like bouncing. But I don't know that bull-leaping could ever pay my way through Continuing Ed, even with some kind of weird contract from ESPN.

They'll put anything on ESPN2 if it gets late enough. I should know. I've sat through enough of it here.

Cretan Bull-Leaping, followed by Lithuanian Midget Slap-Dancing, on ESPN2! There's no stoppin' the Cretans from hoppin', when we take you live to sunny Knossos, where ...

Oh, my mind is starting to wander and it's not even 5:30. The sunbeams fall long through the front windows. One twinkles on the gumball machine full of cashews against the pillar straight back from my booth. On the other video monitors above and to my left, the light over Telegraph Avenue is honey gold. The clouds of an Atlantaean sunset drift across the bay. Over the giant speakers in the back of the house, the jukebox kicks immediately on.

BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-thump ... BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-thump ... Doo ... DEW-doot-doot ... dum ... dummm ... Doo ... DEW-doot-doot ... dum ... dummm ...

The White Stripes. "Seven Nation Army." When I first started here, I was so out of touch with music I actually thought that one was a Rolling Stones song. That's what going back to school does to you.

But everyone who works here long enough catches wise. I've only been here a few months, and already I'm telling customers things like: "No, that song was by Garbage. From 'Romeo and Juliet.'" And running off to refill the ice wells before they have time to respond. The owner still won't hire a bar back.

This is his little thalassocracy, here. Just shy of 30 years ago, his brothers gave him the smallest bar they owned in town. And from the vast workshop downstairs, he rebuilt it into a showplace ... for jocks and sketchy street drunks. The polis is him and he is it. No aspect of the bar escapes his mad little gimlet eyes.

But selective perception is a hell of a drug.

The boss called here once from Greece to tell J.J. the cook to quit sitting at the bar drinking coffee even when there were only five of Krus's street drunks in the place. Krus's ... uh, second-eldest ... boy Jason buys his coke out of the back parking lot when the dealer gives him a high sign on camera from the front door and Krus isn't in the house.

Krus, Prokrustes Tsilikoudis, is a dog who built his own manger. If we're too big for our britches, he cuts us down to size. If we're not outgoing enough, he hammers us and cracks our bones and stretches us on the rack. No matter what size we are, he'll never see eye to eye with any of his staff.

He keeps an old, flyspecked "Help Wanted" sign in the window and fires people whenever he feels like it. California is an at-will state. Employment contracts may be terminated by either party, with or without notice, for any reason, at any time. And boy, does he know it.

For a little while I was okay with always being the outsider here. But I just found out I'm not. Not really. I never was. So now it's personal. I wonder who Krus assigns to watch the world while he's sleeping. We're about to find out.

Even the tiniest bug bites back when pushed. Midway through a shift I can't change, I accept the serenity to find the right road while all about me are failing to exercise their authority and making that my fault.

Boss man doesn't know I went to film school for a while, for all the good the degree ever did me (besides the roadie jobs that started me off in the trade of bouncing). He doesn't know that when he goes in the back office he's not the only one watching.

I put a splitter on his camera feed, outside where the wire comes down from the one over the door that shows part of the block. He rents out rooms upstairs. The cameras are everywhere.

The splitter goes to a digital recorder, hidden up between the bricks where someone with spindly hands can get at it. His wife, Europa, has very spindly hands but Krus does not. I'm safe. Every night before I go on, I slap in a fresh minidisk while leaning against the wall and smoking an early cigarette. I told you, I went to film school. Beating Krus's cameras is just a line-of-sight issue.

Boy, is it ever. I'm going to make him lie down in the bed he's made.

On the wall at my right is the classical representation of Herakles riding the Bull of Marathon to the ground during his Seventh Labor, as Theseus did when he was still a young, itinerant traveler like me.

A traveler, returning to the scene of a crime ... DiFilippo's testing us on all this shit Friday.

The bull that Poseidon offered King Minos to give him back for sacrifice was so beautiful that the king kept it for his own herd, then sent Poseidon back some Grade-D reject.

I can hear Krus now: We can't give steak tips away like my idiot brother does at the Aepytania! Four-seventy-five a plate? I'd lose my shirt!

The same shirt people say he would give you off his back. But that's all just public relations. Like I said, the labyrinth is him, and he is it.

I can hear old Sophokles now, too: You'd make a fine king of a desert island, you and you alone ...

I look at the painting for a long time. Mariah's busy making some kind of flaming coffee lodge for a yuppie on the other side of the stage-left pillar behind the bar.

The music changes. Now it's the Ramones. "I Wanna Live." I think about the outline disk I've been gleaning.

At Edit Point One on that disk, we have Mariah over-serving two separate parties so that I can go herd the concomitant mess out the door later on. We're not supposed to ever, ever call the cops unless someone is dead or mangled.

I have to admit, as a bouncer, that it is very satisfying to see Krus propel major problem customers off the block with a few punches to the head. He used to be a wrestler, though, and the older he gets the more he prefers to grapple. Fine technique ... and he does the things I cannot legally do. Breaking a few fights with him made me respect him. But not for very long.

At Edit Point Two, we have Jason and a group of four buddies clearly taking turns to go into the bathroom and snort coke. Jason doesn't even bother to wipe his nose in between takes. We're not supposed to say anything to Jason or any of his friends no matter how rowdy they get. I used to put WD40 on all the flat surfaces in there. And I got yelled at.

I wonder what Krus does in the office himself, when he locks the door. He's so twitchy. During the interview, he had the nerve to ask me if I had a drug problem!

Maybe Europa knows more about all this than I reckon. She married Krus when she was 19 and he carried her across the sea when this bar was new. She must put up with so much shit from that temperamental little Napoleon that I can't even begin to imagine its magnitude and scope. She loves to watch Mose and me break fights on weekends. She acts like she understands.

I almost called her "mom" last Friday night. I don't know why. It just slipped out.

'Ropa must have been a pistol, in her day. Still is. She might listen. She might remember ... but that was almost 30 years ago.

She can't not know all the stuff I'm only just beginning to learn about what goes on here. Can she?

I just found out that Krus is giving the bar to Jason when he finally decides to retire to the summerlands of Knossos and the sun setting on his remote-controlled labyrinth. One day Prokrustes will have even the sun on remote control, just like one more bar TV.

His long-suffering daughter, Sadie, is the one who actually deserves ownership of the Knossos Taverna. But the Old World law of primogeniture holds for the first-born male child.

Only seven more hours on this shift. My marathon is nearly won.

Oh, this guy across from me. Lives at the Empire Hotel on Shattuck, gray mullet haircut gone white. Horn-rimmed glasses. Ray Bradbury-lookin' motherfucker. Leroy. Holding forth.

"Now, her parents ..." He's on two small pitchers of Miller so far. It shows. The Cirrhosis Gnomes have been sandblasting Leroy's liver for a Tolkien age. It doesn't take much to flip the brain behind that to Idiot Potential. "They want her honored in their way, and the guy is just flouting this ..."

To her credit, Mariah steps in as she pours his next pitcher. "Leroy, Terri Schiavo isn't Jewish. She's a Roman Catholic. Like me."

Leroy is silenced by this. He goggles at her. He goggles at me. I shrug.


"Well." He sneers, and changes tacks. "I wonder what the blacks have to say about all this. You know, they kill their own babies if–"

"Out!!!" Finally something to do. Leroy doesn't really know me yet. He's about to.

I lock him up at the arm (no sport in it) and run him out the door, him screaming "Politically Incorrect!" the whole time. Mariah is throwing me bad looks when I get back inside.

"He's a regular," she lisps. "Krus is gonna be mad."

"I know who Leroy is. I've been here three months. Don't tell me my job."

"What do you–"

"Go call Krus and tell him, if it's an issue. He'll be here soon, anyway. Tell him to his face." I shrug, standing in the middle of the floor by the front door. "My give-a-shit tank is low."

Somehow, while pouring three pitchers simultaneously, Mariah manages to give me the finger. I honor her for that. A direct reaction beats the hell out of her usual obliviousness. I beam, and get back to my post. Sadie glides by.

"You doin' all right, Hank?"

"It's early." Then Della's on my 12 o'clock.

Her frizzy red hair is coming out of its long French braid. Her eyes are going back in her head. She's lost another tooth. If I ever see that black lace bodystocking and Catholic schoolgirl skirt on her again, I will claw out both my eyes.

"You know, that women's bathroom smells like somethin' died?" she screeches. She smells like a chemical refinery whose management decided to start brewing beer. "This is the third month I've–"

"You're cut off, Del." I barely even look at her. "See you tomorrow."

She goes to the coat rack to get her coat, snarling over her shoulder. I feel like I'm announcing a soccer match. Deee-NIED!

Another old dead man I've been reading for extra credit in DiFilippo's class is Master Sun Tzu.

When you are strong, appear weak. When you are brave, appear ignoble. When ...

Yeah, yeah, yeah. When you see what's right there in front of you and can't say a damn word ...

Then you're the little boy who cried wolf. But something I have now says otherwise. Something I still can't process, or even begin to wrap my mind around.

Something which dictates that the playa is about to get played.

On camera two, whose wires snake up and over my subterfuge around to the back lot, a black Subaru SUV is swinging into the last parking space on the left, the one simply labeled RES. (Like any idiot who comes here knows what the hell that means.)

I find I am holding my breath as the little kallikanzaros glides down the walk and into the bar, graying hair slicked back, dark eyes twinkling. He's dressed in his usual uniform of a western shirt, blue jeans and shoes that are almost too nice for the laid-back persona he portrays for customers. The bell dings over the door. He asks his standard question with no smile.

"How you dooooing, Hank?" His eyes poke, test and sweep over me, looking for something I've messed up, something I've forgotten. Searching for weak spots to push me back into my place, if in fact he can determine I've stepped out of it.

He's one of the smartest men I've ever met.

I should know.

Then the routine cracks down the middle, and I can do no more.

My eyes fill with the timeless white haze that gathers in the wild valleys of the Lefka Ori, the exhaust smoke eating away the Parthenon ... Time has gotten late. He's getting old. And I'm getting older, too.

"Mariah, watch the gate for a minute," I say in a voice that sounds nothing like mine.

"Okay, why–"

But I am looking at Prokrustes. "Can we talk in your office?"

My usual obsequiousness is gone. In its place is the hungry, crafty spider of my wit that Conor saw emerge a few times, back before PJ's closed.

Krus's eyes narrow. "What is happen?"

I jerk my head at Mariah and make a vague gesture in Sadie's general direction. Not in front of the womenfolk, my eyes say. The old-school Greek chauvinist pig in him agrees 100 percent.

We snake through the dead crowd, his hard-soled shoes and the heels of my jump-boots reverberating on the hardwood floor of the labyrinth. His key ring snakes out from his pocket and the old metal office door opens into his Ocho de Dios, the wall of cameras behind his desk like the multifaceted, unblinking Eye of God.

The door shuts. Krus puts his thumbs in his belt loops. "You need to do a draw? How much you need–"

I hold up one hand flat. My voice is soft and raspy and unsteady. My hands shake a lot.

"Do you remember a woman named Jessica Triantafelakis?" I ask. "When you went back home in 1975? It was two years after you married 'Ropa, if Mose told me right–"

"Son of bitch! Son of bitch!" He has me by the collar, propelling me up against the wall and moving to swing.

Both my hands come up and in. I slide easily out of the clutch and duck, popping upright several feet away and circling him defensively. Waiting. I can't believe I'm talking this much shit out loud.

"Wanna wrestle?"

"You're fired!" He glowers at me. "You think you gonna get money out of me? You don't blackmail me! You have no idea who you fuck with–"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa." I am amazed. "Touchy, aren't we?"

He calms down a bit. Just a bit. I don't break eye contact the entire time.

"Somebody must have ripped you off bad. Was it a waitress or a bouncer who made you not trust anyone ever again? Or was it–"

Now he's in full Greek Mafia mode: calm, terse and pragmatic. "Get to the point."

My bark of laughter shows my amazement. "If you say so. You wanna know why you can't stand me, Krus?" I unfold the 8-1/2 x 11 Deplorable Word from my wallet. It's a photocopy. I have the original under lock and key with a law-student friend at school who's just about to pass the bar.

"Because we're exactly alike," I tell him. He won't look at the sheet of paper.

"Greek Evangelical Church Orphanage," I tell him, snarling out the sender's address. "Katerini, Macedonia. Last thing I ever expected to turn up when I finally got the agency to come through for me."

"So where is the child–"

Rosy fingers of dawning horror creep across his face, more delicious to me than fresh spanakopita.

I put one spindly hand on his shoulder. He looks at it, staring for a long time into my dark, close-set eyes.

"Dad," I tell him. "We gotta talk."

For Konstantin Karaghiosis and Edward Waldo. Correspondence and inquiries should be routed through www.harlanellison.com. Meanwhile, visit our archives.

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