Harold sucked on his chocolate malt, making a loud, slurping sound when Martin plopped on the neighboring stool.
“How did you find out, Harold?”
“How do you think?” Harold rolled his straw through his drink’s thick remains.
Beside him, Martin doffed his fedora and set it on the silver countertop. “Mom talks too much.”
“Only about those who don’t show up for Sunday dinner.”
Martin winced and adjusted his lean on the counter when his elbows covered in slick tweed slid. “What’d she say?”
“She just described this girl you’d been eyeing. I might not be smart enough to work in the big city but I can put two and two together.”
The double doors swung open, elevating the sizzle of bacon and clatter of pans in the kitchen. “Well if it isn’t the Dalton brothers.”
“Mr. Baker,” they said in unison.
Baker flung a dishtowel over his shoulder. “Is it that time already?”
“Third weekend of the month.” Martin loosened the thin tie lassoing his neck. “Can I get a malt?”
“The usual strawberry or have your big city taste buds changed your mind?”
“No, strawberry’s fine.”
Baker lumbered off for the icebox, his steps making the dishes on the back shelf clink.
Staring into his drink, Harold let the cold frost his voice. “Sticking to your own schedule as always.”
“Some of us don’t yoke ourselves to the sun. Up at dawn, out at dusk.” Martin shook his head. “I can’t see how you stand it.”
“Which is why you left.”
“I left because I could get a job using my brain instead of hefting hay or scooping sh—”
The front door chimes tinkled. Harold swiveled, the creak from Martin’s stool indicating the same. Exhaling his held breath, Harold tipped up his chin in greeting as Mr. Adamson and Terry Waters made their way to their booth, the chessboard box tucked under the older man’s armpit.
Baker set a glass onto the counter, turning both Daltons on their stools. “Sorry boys, she took the morning off.”
Martin assumed the innocent face Harold remembered from their pranks through town. “Who?”
“Why do you think I’d be wondering about her?”
Baker snorted. “She’s been the apple of everyone’s eye since she won that singing competition at the county fair at nine. Sloppy as a happy pig but the voice of an angel. Every one of you boys has been doe-eyed after her. It doesn’t take a bloodhound to sniff that out.”
Snagging his drink, Martin circled the straw through the soft pink foam. “I’m just caught a train home for the weekend.”
“Sure.” Baker left a spoon then wiped his hands on his dishtowel. “Anything else on the menu I can get you?”
Harold shook his head and tapped his fingers along the damp sides of his fluted glass. Baker sidled off to Waters and Adams, leaving the kitchen’s rattling filling the lull.
“She have anybody?”
With a sidelong glance, Harold found Martin staring through his drink, through the countertop, through the floor, and beyond.
“Not that I’ve heard but I don’t get into town much.” He swallowed his chastisement about real work with a slug of chocolate and licked his lips. “You haven’t found anybody in big city?”
“Not like her.” Martin fingered the brim of his fedora. “Luanne has a soul. She’d give that place so much heart. I’d be able to buy her whatever she wanted.”
“Except a home.”
Martin balked. “I have an apartment.”
“An apartment?” Harold shoved his drink aside and stabbed his index finger at the counter. “A girl needs a picket fence, a garden, a tree your kids can swing on, and a yard for the dog. A real job that’s stable. Farming—”
He stopped his rant and pointing when a familiar squeal filled the kitchen and froze his heart.
Luanne burst through the double doors, an unfolded page and two stiff sheets flapping in her hand. She flew past the counter and dashed to Baker’s side.
“He did it, Daddy!”
Frowning, Baker skimmed the outstretched page. “Who did what, kiddo?”
Luanne bounced on her toes, her lower body hypnotizing beneath her trim khaki skirt. “He got me a job. A real job, singing, in Hollywood!”
Surfacing from his trance, Harold stiffened on his stool. Beside him, Martin fought a gag on his last mouthful.
Plucking the letter, Baker squinted and tromboned to an appropriate reading distance. “You sure he’s not up to something.”
Luanne rocked back and forth, her blond ponytail swishing. “Freddy’s a sweetheart, you know that, Daddy. And Mary’s out there too. I’m sure she’s keeping her little brother in line.”
“I don’t know.”
“He sent me tickets.” She presented them, top edge up, the rectangles jutting out of her delicate hands. “They’re round trip tickets just in case things don’t work out.” Snatching back the letter, she crushed the page and tickets to her calico blouse. “But it will, Daddy, it will.”
Baker’s scowl returned. “We’ll talk with your mother about it tonight.”
Luanne rolled her eyes, the bright blue as clear as a summer day. They skimmed over the other occupants of the diner for the first time and landed on the pair of occupied stools.
“Harold?! What are you doing in town at lunchtime?”
Harold shrugged as all his words buried themselves in the center of the earth.
Luanne skipped over. “And Martin Dalton. You’d understand.” She thumped the letter and tickets onto the counter between their glasses. “You know what it means to get out of this place.”
Martin grinned without giving the page or train tickets a glance. “New York’s definitely a sight. Be more than happy to take you around sometime.”
Luanne stuck out her tongue. “Sounds like a concrete jungle to me.” With a bash of her finger, she pounded on the letter. “Have you seen all the pictures of Hollywood? All the beautiful new homes with the hills off the backyard.”
“We got hills here.”
“Hills?” She laughed, warming Harold’s cheeks. “Gopher mounds maybe.” Harold hunched but her beaming smile softened the jab. “Hollywood’s got everything and more, Harold. Think about all the films being made, each studio their own little world, and thanks to Freddy I’m going to flit between them like a humming bird.”
“Amazing I know! I knew you would understand Martin. Oh I just can’t wait!” Scooping her letter and the tickets, she bubbled toward the front door. “I’m going to go to the bank, Daddy, I’ll be back for the supper rush.”
“Don’t bother your mother at work.”
She shooed Baker with the paperwork. “Mr. Grant can give her five minutes.”
The chimes tinkled as she spun out, the door closing with a boom behind her.
Harold swiveled to the counter and bent the end of his straw between his fingers. “Frederick Redding.”
“I guess so.” Martin shoved his drink away. “The Gin still opens at four?”
“They don’t change their happy hour.”
Martin stood and slapped Harold’s back. “Then let the city boy buy the first round.”
With a sigh, Harold rose and handed his brother his fedora. “Even this farmer can’t argue with the most sense he’s heard all day.”