The way she used to be: Chapter 4

There are those who say that Equestrian culture is just, well, different along the coasts; the seafaring ponies who settled in places like Manehattan and Vanhoover had markedly different interests than the farmers on the central plain, or the movers and shakers high atop Mount Canterlot. You can be reasonably certain, for instance, that nopony in Dodge Junction worries about the price of kelp.

Then there’s Detrot, an industrial town about a day’s journey by train inland from the east coast, located there because it’s that much closer to the rest of Equestria — and because it’s far enough away from the Eastern metropolises that it can enjoy a certain amount of cultural and financial autonomy. (Similar considerations led to the founding of Whinnipeg, farther north and west.) After growing for several decades, the population of Detrot eventually leveled off, and the carriage/wagon industry, while still dominant, is today far from the only game in town.

The old pony liked Detrot. In his younger days, he’d say it was because they had fewer unicorns, but that sort of utterance wouldn’t help anypony’s business connections, so he revised his assessment to “more down to earth,” reasoning — correctly, as it turned out — that pegasi wouldn’t care one way or another. Still, his first hire in Design at Baltimare Carriage was a unicorn, a very talented one, who stayed with him for twelve years, until Mustang’s operation in Detrot hired her away for, he found out later, roughly twice the salary.

And Detrot appealed to the old pony’s sense of design, its wider-than-normal streets and squared-off city blocks better suited to the carriage trade than were the narrow alleys in his section of old Baltimare. So coming up to visit several times a year, inconvenient as it may have been, didn’t bother him much anymore.

He did, however, book his room at a different hotel this time around. If you asked him why, he’d tell you that Equestrian Express was offering several thousand reward points for staying for those two nights, and would offer no further explanation.

|—-|

As always, Torqué greeted him at the door to Sorraia. “Good evening, Mr. Spoke. Just yourself tonight?”

“I … I expect to be meeting someone a bit later. A small table for two should be quite sufficient.”

“Very good, sir,” said Torqué. The best hosts, thought the old pony, say the least. And Torqué was one of the best: a former long-distance flyer, forced into early retirement by one too many accidents, he conducted himself as gracefully on the ground as he had in the sky.

The table offered was, by a small margin, the farthest away from the door. The old pony chose not to speculate on what that might mean. He thanked the host, and out of force of habit took the seat facing the door. It was six minutes until seven.

Seven minutes later, he saw her. It couldn’t have been anypony else. Her mane and tail were carefully groomed, her glasses fashionably small — and her nose perfectly ordinary. I wasn’t prepared for this, he said to himself, but he rose to his hooves as Torqué brought her to the table.

“Doctor Twist?”

She smiled at him. “Just Twist will be fine.” Neither of them made any sudden hug-like motions, but she did offer a hoof, which he happily took.

“I’m so glad you could make it,” he said.

“I admit, your letter was something of a surprise. I remembered that day in line at whatever the name of that orchard was, but I really never expected to see you again.” She bit her lip for a second, then went on: “I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to go through with this.”

“What changed your mind?”

“Just then the regular mailmare showed up, and she had a letter for me about you.”

He stared. “About me? From whom?”

“From Pinkie Pie, back in Ponyville. She said she’d checked you out thoroughly and that you were a perfect gentlecolt, and that she hoped we had a wonderful time together, and a few other things that didn’t entirely make sense.”

“I could ask for no better recommendation,” he said. “And tonight, I could ask for no better company.”

“I’ll try not to disappoint you.”

“Why would you think I’d be disappointed?”

She looked off into the distance for a moment, as though she were awaiting an offstage cue. “I’m nothing like the filly you met that day,” she finally said. “If you’d been fixating on what I looked like back then, you’d already have said something about it.”

“I did notice a few things,” he said, “but who hasn’t changed in forty years?”

“I may as well tell you the whole story. It’s not like I need to keep secrets anymore…”

My parents had saved up some money so I could go to college in Canterlot. They were very upset when I used half of it to pay for a muzzle job and some overbite correction. My dad said “All of a sudden you think you talk funny?”

And I cried. “I’d like to have at least one date before I die.” It was a pitiful scene. But parents, I guess, are required to tell you that there’s nothing wrong with you, that you look just fine, that whatever’s bothering you, it’s all in your head. It was two years before they’d even speak to me again. I got a part-time job as a confectioner, so I could still carry half my class load. I eventually bought out the store, and that took up all of my time, so I dropped out of school.

After four or five years I went back to my old boss, who’d retired, and asked him if he’d like to buy the store back, so I could go back to school. He said he would. I got my degree, my parents were happy to watch me get the diploma, and I went off to Manehattan for graduate work.

“My compliments to the surgeon,” said the old pony. “You’re quite lovely.”

“Thank you,” she said. “But now I’m kind of embarrassed by it. I was getting asked out, and that was wonderful at first, but eventually I decided that I really didn’t want that much of a social life.” She shook her head. “When nopony wanted anything to do with me, at least I had time to do things.”

“It just seems unreal to me that you’d never attracted any attention.”

“You’re still remembering that sort of cute little filly. You can get away with looking like that at twelve. Not so easy at sixteen.”

“I remember cute,” he replied. “But I also remember sweet and sincere. And that’s worth a lot more in the long run.”

She laughed. “It never occurred to me that you’d be smitten, right then and there.”

“I never imagined I’d stay that way, either.”

“Tell me you didn’t just say that you’ve spent all those years just waiting,” she said.

“Well, I have had dates. Not a lot of them, but I have had them.”

First course arrived: a bowl of potato and kale soup for him, a chestnut salad for her.

“How did you even know about this place?” she wondered.

“Needs of the business. I used to come up here several times a year, and eventually I learned where to find the good stuff.”

“Used to? Why did you stop?”

“The business,” he said slowly, “decided it didn’t need me anymore.” He shook his head. “I probably never should have gone public.”

“Then why did you?” she asked.

“I thought it would be easier to finance expansion by selling shares than by borrowing bits. And it worked, for a while.”

“The stock went down?”

“Worse. Manehattan hotshots who never built a wagon in their lives were making quarterly earnings estimates, and we missed three in a row, and the board got nervous.”

“So they asked you to leave. It figures.”

“It was my own fault. I still owned fifty-one percent of the company. I told them, if you want me gone, you’ll have to buy me out.” He shrugged. “The next day, they sent me a tender offer for fifty percent at a twenty-percent premium. I couldn’t believe it. But, hey, if they want it that bad, let ’em have it. I cleaned out my desk and went home.”

“How much did you get for it?”

“Enough,” he said airily.

She looked sheepish. “I’m sorry. I guess that made me sound like some kind of golddigger.”

“Let’s put it this way. After I left work, Equestrian Express raised my credit limit.”

“Do you miss it?”

“I did at first,” said Broken Spoke, “but not anymore. It was probably time to move on.”

|—-|

“Did you always want to be a speech therapist?” asked Spoke.

“I’d never thought about it,” Twist said. “I figured I’d just go into pre-med and then pick a specialty later. And then the guilt kicked in.”

“Guilt? Over what?”

“I’d never really learned how to fix my own problem. I just forked over a bag of bits and told them to redo my mouth.”

“Does it matter? I mean, the problem was fixed, wasn’t it?”

“It matters to me,” she said. “I felt like I’d taken the easy way out, and that’s just not the way I prefer to do things.”

He pondered for a moment. “Your patients. Do they get non-surgical treatments?”

“If at all possible. If a foal has a cleft palate, well, obviously she’s going to have to have surgery, and that’s somepony else’s department. But with a simple frontal lisp, there are repetition drills, and we have a little plastic device that’s worn in the mouth like a retainer. It forces the tongue into the correct location to say sibilants, and eventually it becomes habit.”

Spoke seemed to be looking at her jawline. “Would that have worked for you?”

“It would have, I think. Of course, I didn’t find this out until several years and several thousand bits later.”

“That figures,” he said. “What would you have wanted to be, if you hadn’t followed this path?”

“For a while, I was thinking about clinical psychology. I think I’d have been good at it, too. But a faculty advisor talked me out of it. He said that nopony would accept me in that position, because I’m an earth pony. Apparently only unicorns can handle this sort of thing.”

Spoke grinned. “And was he a unicorn?”

Twist smiled back at him. “Of course.”

“Absolutely indispensable, they are. And don’t think they don’t know it.”

“But of course we are,” said their server, seemingly appearing out of nowhere. “Fine dining would be nothing without us unicorns.”

“Okay, Prandial, you got me,” Spoke said. “I’ll drop a couple extra bits into your tip. But you’ll never beat Pegasus Pizza in Baltimare.”

The waiter recoiled in mock horror. “They make pizza out of pegasi? How ghastly!” He turned and retreated to the kitchen.

“Thank you,” said Twist.

“For what?”

“For joking around with the waiter. I once dated a pegasus who went totally berserk when our orders got slightly messed up. I figured that was not a good sign.”

“It’s never wise to pick on the staff, especially if you have any intention of ever coming back. They have long memories.”

She smiled at him. “Sometimes long memories are … good.”

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