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Prologue to the Office Romeo’s Tale

The city picnic table is fraught with sparrows

as sunlight spreads its crumpled lunch bag 

– yellow egg salad on brown. Elm

and poplar are running up green flags – 

downtown’s summer bunting.

 

Coveys of secretaries, cotton-frocked,

are lured outdoors to corner parks

by the season’s fresh jollity. Giggle 

after giggle of girls. Squirrels dart

at opportunities

 

in the shadow of leaves. A sparrow lights

on Aphrodite’s arm, cocky courtier,

bright-eyed as the young, sun-visored knights 

of the road construction crew

who lounge

 

in battered helmets and fluorescent vests 

on grassy cushions, whistle mating calls.

Go away! Aphrodite suggests

pertly to the sparrow. But he perches 

as if enthralled

 

by her sandwich. They always come to you,

Pandora muses, drawing in a breath of spring

like smoke from a cigarette. 

Sparrow flicks a careless wing

at the obvious.

 

A businessman ambles by, dark jacket slung

from his fingers’ crook’d peg, 

a shadow in the garden. He passes among

the lunchers, beside a blonde girl

in fetching denim.

 

Hi, Norm!  Aphrodite twitters.

He hoists his jowls into a smile and nods

towards their table with its litter

of wrappings. Pandora pointedly

turns her back.

 

What’s your problem? wonders Aphrodite,

watching while the manager escorts

his leggy young companion, politely

protective past the raucous guerdon

in their hard hats.

 

Pandora scowls downward at her sandwich.

Don’t you know that story? she says loudly,

sending her voice out like an officer 

of the law against the jocund, rowdy,

squawking bachelors.

 

Four clerks from the company downstairs

got fired last week, because

they were passing pornographic pictures

on their e-mail.  Pandora’s jaws

clamp a crust

 

and chew fiercely. She swigs her orange crush,

continues. But that guy, Norm,

does he get the boot? No, not him.

He’s the manager. But he’s the one

who downloads stuff

in the first place.  Two girls lose their jobs

but he sits pretty. Sheherazad

puts down her sandwich. Girls? 

she asks, amazed. 

Exchanging porn?

 

Aphrodite shades her eyes and gazes

past the flexing pecs of the construction crew

at the dark jacket. Norm Januarius? 

Her face perplexed. Why would he do

something like that?

 

And why did the company get so prudish

about some sexy pictures? It’s not as though

they take up any more computer memory

than those photos of her kids that Zoe

sends me all the time.

Sheherazad still looks stunned.

She doesn’t really like pornography – 

pictures of women degraded, caparisoned

in leather. They stick, take up too much 

space in her head.

 

Aphrodite’s cheeky sparrow pecks

merrily at their leftovers while Pandora watches it

resentfully. Men just want power and sex,

she states. The more that they want power,

the more they crave

sex too. Look at all those presidents

who can’t keep their pants up.

As one who holds these truths to be self-evident,

she shuts her eyes against rebuttal.

Sparrow moves 

 

on her crust. Oh, get real. Aphrodite sweeps

crumbs from the splintered, sun-scarred surface

of their picnic table. A heap

of small birds joyfully converges,

cheeping and cheerful.

 

Lots of guys want sex who couldn’t care

a button  for promotion. 

Impartially, she superintends 

the sparrows’ plump commotion. 

Take my Claudio

for example. As long as he can bang 

dents out of car doors, he doesn’t need

to rule the world. And there are presidents 

whose dicks are nearly atrophied

for lack of use.

So sex and power are not the same. 

Pandora shakes her head. Well, maybe not

exactly. She eyes a squirrel issuing

furious challenges – a furry Lancelot

tilting at a rival.

 

But they’re like trees so close together

that a squirrel running up the trunk of one

is jumping in the branches of the other.

From the sun-split junctures overhead

the squirrels utter

 

ultimatums and rapid-fire rebukes.

Tsit-tsit-tsit. Tsit-tsit … cheet-cheet-cheat.

Their tails arch like indignant coat-hooks 

for their dark jackets. They have a flare

for the dramatic.

 

But even then, power cuts both ways, 

says Aphrodite. I remember when

I was in this meeting taking notes. 

There were three men

in the room

and I’d had sex with all of them. 

They could talk of quality improvement

all day long. But I knew more

about their product movement

than they knew.

 

I had as much power over them

as they had over me. She suddenly

realizes what she’s let out of the lunch bag

and adds apologetically,

I wasn’t married

at the time.  A pink suffusion

blooms on her face. She looks down to hide

this token of clandestine confusion.

Don’t ever mention this to Claude,

she murmurs

 

as though a hammer-hauling husband

hulked jealously behind a tree,

mistrustful and cudgelled.

Pandora sighs elaborately. See?

That’s what I mean.

That’s not power – something that you sneak

around with. Something you have to keep

hidden in a pocket. Only the weak

do that. Look at that guy Norm.”

Scorn scores her voice.

 

He doesn’t have to keep his trophies

secret. He puts them on display 

at lunch time. Aphrodite laughs.

But that’s his daughter, May,

He dotes on her.

 

Taken by surprise, Pandora turns

to watch the couple pacing on the grass,

safely past the tilting males. And anyway

adds Aphrodite, Norm’s wife would have his ass

if he played around.

 

Sheherazad shivers. And yet he downloads porn.

Pictures of some girl his daughter’s age. 

Her silver moonlet swivels, forms

a question mark suspended from 

one whorled ear.

 

What keeps males in line at all? 

it seems to ask. The question walks the path

past the jousting squirrels, the wall

of wolf-whistling workers, the billowing

skirts of girls,

 

past the traffic of sparrows, immersed

in twittering transactions. The question

crosses into the shadow of Commerce

Place, enters the castle’s raised portcullis,

makes its way

 

to the acreage of a desk. Meanwhile

Aphrodite gathers up the wreckage

of wrappings, piles them in the trashcan, smiles

at her friends. Tell us a story, Sherry,

she suggests.

 

Sheherazad squints, trying to think,

until a short, red-headed man strolls by

with a squirrel-eyed girl. She grins,

glances at her wristwatch

and begins.

 

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