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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 trees

and poplar are running up green flags –

summer’s 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 at ease

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 in 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 answers loudly,

sending out her voice 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

fiercely. She swigs her orange crush,

continues. But that guy, Norm,

do they give him the boot? Nope. Gosh,

he’s the manager. But he’s the one

who downloads stuff


in the first place.  Two girls cut loose

from paycheques, but he’s still sitting pretty.

Sheherazad puts down her box of juice.

Girls? she asks, astonished.

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 straight-laced

about some sexy pictures? It’s not as if

they take up any more computer space

than those photos of her kids that Zoe

keeps sending round.


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. Pandora

still frowns after Norm. Men want power and sex,

she states. And 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 rivals.

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 Claudio,

she murmurs

as though a hammer-hauling husband

is 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 for the trashcan, turns to smile

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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