COMPANY by Patricia Bidar

There’s a tap at the door – too soft to be called a knock. The Equity and Inclusion meeting is ending, so I jab the “LEAVE” button as I smile and wave: Goodbye!

My legs have stiffened in the sitting position. It’s still early, but already getting purple out there. The tall hedge my father planted outside the front window years ago renders my at-home work corner winter-dark.

I crack the front door to reveal an old man with a drooping mustache. Beside him is a pony, brown and white. A horseshoe of synthetic red roses hangs from the pony’s neck. On a strap around the man’s own neck hangs a camera. His eyes are lugubrious.

“Are you serious?” I say.

“Old fashioned, I know,” he says. “We live not far from here. Around from the liquor store. Are there any…children in the home?” It turns out he’s making a little money taking Polaroid photos of neighborhood kids atop his tiny horse. I am old enough to remember such photographers, such businesses. But barely.

“No kids. But I grew up in this neighborhood,” I say.

The block has changed. There used to be a lot of pride here. Now it’s all burnt lawns, cracked stucco and steel security doors. The palm trees seem drained of their life force. “This was my parents’ place,” I say. I don’t add, “And now I’m back.”

“Madam, I can see you’re otherwise engaged…” His sad eyes take in my eyeliner, my blouse and earrings, my sweats and bare feet. His jacket is thin. Door to door photos? Failure lives behind those eyes. He’s not even making a pitch.

His little horse shifts and blinks. “She’s thirsty, you see,” he says at last. To demonstrate, the man lifts the horse’s upper lip. He presses gently on her gum near the upper teeth. “The pink should return more quickly than this.”

“You could have just asked for water,” I say. I have never been this close to a horse. Their giant eyeballs have always unnerved me. “Hang on.” In the kitchen I fill a cereal bowl with tap water. When I return, the man and the horse are in my living room, standing in front of the Christmas tree. The little horse nuzzles fallen pine needles.

“She sure seems to enjoy that water,” I say as we watch her drink. These two are the first living things in here all year, other than me and last summer’s mosquitos. I discreetly inhale, trying to find the man’s scent. English Leather?

“This old girl and me, we’re best friends,” he is saying. His voice is felty. “We take care of each other.” Tears spring to my eyes and I squeeze them back in.

The horse finishes her water and I take them on a tour of the house. That’s what people do now, isn’t it? Give tours of their houses when people come over? I don’t remember anyone doing that when I was growing up.

The man nods and murmurs appreciation for my spare rooms, one of which still houses my father’s home bar with its unlit Hamm’s and Olympia beer lights. I’d created a decoupage sign for him when I was twelve: magazine-ripped images of a naked flapper, a fanned-out royal flush, and a bottle of Hennessy. Above the pictures, I’d stenciled, “What’s Your Pleasure?” The other guest room is just my mother’s Hammond Solovox organ, coated with a thin layer of dust I haven’t noticed before.

“Well, I have a meeting,” I say, and I hear in my voice the regret that our visit is ending so soon. The old man says cheerfully that they’ll see themselves out. It really was good, the normalcy of having someone in here. I turn my office chair around so I’m riding it cowgirl style. That feels off, so I remove my underpants and sweats and try again. I must have the time wrong for the meeting because the camera returns only my own face, looking pallid. I sit there breathing in my square. I utilize a feature that adds coral lipstick to my mouth, and prettily shaped brows above my glasses. But I see now that when I move my head, the simulated lips and brows drift fractionally behind.

When I hit LEAVE, I worry I’ll find a mound of horse droppings in the vestibule, or the front door yawning wide. Instead, the living room is neat as always. The only trace of them is a Polaroid photo of the man and the horse. The man is waving and smiling. I sniff the air hard for English Leather but detect no trace.  The old-fashioned scent would have been company of a sort.

In the bathroom, I climb onto the sink, press my face close to the mirror. I manually lift my lip. I jab with my pointer finger the upper gum, watching the color recede and fill. White then pink then white then pink.

Photo by Su-May, used and adapted under CC.