Opening day.At Katz's Delicatessen on Houston Street, which had been around forever, there was still a World War II sign that read, "Send your soldier boy a salami." Seeing it and grinning, Harry Steinhardt ordered two pastrami and two corned beef sandwiches, four pickles, a large container of coleslaw, and a couple of cans of cream soda. He and his friend of more than fifty years, Lionel Kirshbaum, would be lucky for each to ingest a single pickle plus a sandwich, even luckier not to suffer heartburn later that day. But eating sandwiches from Katz's and watching the Yankees' home opener on Lionel's TV in Baldwin was a venerable tradition with them.
From Katz's in lower Manhattan out to Lionel's would take about an hour, provided the traffic on the Long Island Expressway wasn't a nightmare. Harry usually drove listening to WQXR, because a little Mozart went a long way. This time, however, he traveled to Lionel's without turning on the radio.
For the last ten years, Harry had been sending Lionel checks totaling twenty thousand dollars annually. Lionel, a painter, had been experiencing, he said, a terrible time selling his work this past decade, and Harry, who'd done exceptionally well in the stock market, had promised to help out as long as he could. Today Harry was going to tell Lionel that he could only afford to keep sending him ten thousand a year. The reason being, Harry had taken a number of recent hits, and his money manager had advised to quickly cut down on expenses or his financial situation would start to seriously deteriorate.
Two Jewish boys from New York, Harry and Lionel had served in the Army together, beginning in 1943. Each spoke Yiddish fluently, which was why they'd been assigned to a military government detachment based near Munich. There Lionel fell in love with a German-Jewish girl, Trudie. Yet he decided not to marry her because she'd had a kid a year before with a German officer who was later killed. It was Trudie who'd introduced Harry to her cousin Lisel, and rather a miracle that both girls had survived the Nazis. In truth, it wasn't really a miracle but for the German officer who, at great risk to himself, had saved them. Why save them--guilt? infatuation? perversity?--Lord only knows. But talk about irony, luck, talk about surprises.
Another was that the more conventional Harry wound up marrying Lisel. Two years later, back in New York, Lionel married a Bronx girl, Sylvia Roth. While Sylvia was neurotic, possessive, and congenitally unhappy, Trudie had loved to laugh. She ended up marrying a Canadian soldier and lived in Toronto. Lisel kept in touch with her, although they'd had a falling-out a while back and were no longer close friends.
Because Sylvia was aware of Lionel's wartime affair he was the kind of man who couldn't help telling everyone-she wasn't wild about either Lisel or Harry. Besides, she knew they both thought Lionel had made the mistake of a lifetime not marrying Trudie, even if Trudie had been saddled with a kid.
'You guys planning to make yourselves good and sick this year, or just anticipate some mild indigestion?" said Sylvia, who had watery eyes and long gray hair she wore in a bun.
"How are you, Sylvia?" Harry said, as the enveloping smell of brine and garlic quickly perfumed the kitchen. In the old days, he'd kiss her on the cheek to be polite. Now he no longer went through the motions.
"I ought to be back by five," Sylvia told her husband. She was on her way to meet her sister and go to a movie. "Don't forget to take your pills after you eat, Lionel. Not that they'll do you any good today."
God forgive Harry, but he was always happy to see her leave, and Lionel seemed to exhale gratefully as well.
Lionel was on the short side, heavyset, almost completely bald. He wore bifocals and had large brown eyes and a generous mouth. His appearance suggested a man born to be cheerful, but Lionel had a bad temper. It not only got him into trouble in the Army but unnecessarily complicated his life in the notoriously contentious New York art world.
Harry had been sending him checks because he believed in Lionel's talent. But it was really Lionel's gruff way of speaking and brotherly heart that Harry had found so appealing from the beginning. That, plus the three years they'd shared, spent together in Germany during and after the war. The sheer power they wielded as military governors, dispensing justice, Hershey Bars, and cigarettes, was never greater, and the sex they encountered there never more touchingly desperate. Because of Germany, they considered themselves friends forever.
It was during the seventh-inning stretch, just before the Yankees came to bat against the hated Red Sox, that Harry finally managed to say, "I'm no longer able to send you twenty grand a year, Lionel. But you can still count on me for ten."
At first, Lionel looked shocked, then angry. But recovering his composure, he said, "Gee, Harry, I guess I took advantage and milked you."
"No, it's nothing like that, and I'm just sorry I've got to cut down on expenses."
"If I haven't thanked you sufficiently in the past, don't think I was ever ungrateful."
But Harry waved him off, as if gratitude or even its facsimile was unnecessary. "I feel badly about this, Lionel, just can't help myself."
"Don't feel badly," Lionel told him.
Because he seemed to take the news with equanimity, even graciousness, Harry experienced a sense of relief.
Yet when Lionel moved his car from the driveway after the game, presumably making it easier for Harry to subsequently pull out, he almost ran Harry over. Fortunately, his friend managed to scramble clear of Lionel's Buick at the last second or Lionel's fender would have smashed into his knee.
"What the hell's the matter with you?" a shocked Harry said when Lionel emerged from the car. "Have you gone nuts?" Of course Lionel apologized, said it was an accident, he was really getting too old to continue driving. But there had always been something violent, unpredictable, even wild about Lionel. It was there in his paintings as well. While this quality drew you toward his work, it often left you shaken rather than satisfied, as though the emotion binding the pigments encapsulated only anger.
"It's not because you cut down on the money," Lionel insisted.
"Yeah, right," Harry answered, making a fist without realizing it.
Harry didn't tell his wife about his near-miss. But then, he never told Lisel about sending Lionel money over the years either. He was one of those men both generous and suspicious, which explained why he'd give Lisel a blank check any time she asked but always refused to purchase even the most innocuous form of life insurance.
They lived in an apartment on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their daughter, Miriam, was a writer whose second novel was slated to be published the following month. They'd had a son, Robert, but he died in a plane crash several years before. Learning about the crash via a phone call from his wife, Lionel had immediately arranged to board an overnight flight and returned from a Los Angeles art show, arriving bleary-eyed at Harry's apartment before nine the following morning.
Surprised to see him, Harry had said, "I thought it was important for you to remain in L.A. with your paintings till the end of the week."
Lionel shrugged. "Turned out it wasn't that important," he said.
Harry was just under six feet, slender, had a long, aquiline nose, a high forehead, and thinning, sandy-colored hair. While he genuinely enjoyed acquiring a lot of money, he believed that freedom and art were just as valuable, another reason he'd felt so attracted to someone like Lionel.
Yet Harry didn't hear from him after the incident involving the car, although Lionel usually called to thank his friend for the pastrami sandwiches.
Grudgingly, it was Harry who called the last day in April, and they talked pleasantly for almost a half hour, neither of them mentioning the money nor Lionel's car. They talked, in short, as if nothing had changed between them. But hanging up, Harry promised himself he would not call again if Lionel didn't return his call. "I've bent over backwards," Harry thought. "If he can't find the courage or grace, get over his embarrassment or anger, well, the hell with him."
May came and went without their speaking. This was the first month, excluding when either went on vacation, they hadn't spoken since they were discharged from the Army, and it depressed Harry to think that their friendship had suddenly gone awry.
He remembered their wild nights in Germany, recalled the Knick games they'd attended at the old Garden, meals they'd shared in Chinatown and Little Italy. He remembered taking in Lionel's art shows down in the Village and going to Lionel's parents' funerals, even recalled Lionel visiting his mother at Mount Sinai Hospital after her heart attack, making her smile and laugh. And who could forget Lionel showing up early that morning after Harry's son had been killed?
"Lionel, for God's sake!" Harry muttered.
In June, he tried to entice a call by sending Lionel a copy of his daughter's recently published novel. It was inspired by her brother's death and told through the eyes of a terrorist planning to blow up a plane filled with American tourists. Lisel absolutely refused to look at the book. Harry thought it was brilliant but found it excruciating to read. Unfortunately, Lionel never acknowledged even receiving a copy.
Not hearing from him that summer was hard to take, as if Harry had lost someone he'd come to think of as irreplaceable.
It wasn't until the end of October when Lionel finally called, blithely telling Harry, as though the connection between them had remained alive and well the last six months, "Guess what today is?"
Harry cautiously answered he hadn't the faintest idea.
"It's my birthday. Can you believe I'm seventy-five? I can't. That a meshuganah guy like me actually made it this far is a bloody miracle."
"Happy birthday," Harry said without his usual enthusiasm. "Mazel Tov."
"I guess you're wondering why I haven't phoned for a while," Lionel responded. "Who's kidding who? I was teed off about the money. Now I'm over it. You want to know why, Harry? Because life's too short not to be. Hell, life's too short, period."
Neither of them mentioned Miriam's new novel, yet they spoke for almost an hour, catching up on what each had done over the summer. Lionel and Sylvia had spent a couple of weeks in the Poconos. Harry had finally convinced Lisel to get away for the first time since their son died, and they'd stayed with old friends in Maine.
"So, what do you think the Yanks will do next year?" Lionel asked, and he resumed phoning Harry during the next several weeks, signaling that the call on his birthday was not a one-shot affair.
Hoping to re-energize their hemorrhaging friendship and wanting to keep his decade-old promise, Harry sent Lionel a check for ten thousand the first week in January.
When Lionel stopped calling that February, Harry thought, "My God, he played me for a jerk, a shlemiel just to get one more check," and enraged, he phoned Lionel. But it was Sylvia who answered. Lionel wasn't home, she said nervously, but she'd tell him Harry called.
A week passed, ten days, two weeks. When Harry called a second time, Sylvia said Lionel was indisposed and quickly hung up.
Slamming the phone down, Harry wanted to kill them both.
"Your old friend gives and takes offense too easily," was Lisel's reaction when Harry bitterly criticized Lionel without going into detail. "But that's exactly the way he was in Germany fifty years ago." Lisel never really forgave Lionel's disappointing her cousin.
It was Sylvia who phoned the following month to say that the reason Harry hadn't heard from Lionel was that Lionel had been ill and didn't want anyone to know. Now, the diagnosis definitive, there was no point any longer in hiding the truth. "Lionel's going to die this spring," Sylvia announced. "He's got pancreatic cancer."
The news stunned Harry, who asked if Lionel could come to the phone.
"No," said Sylvia, "because the prospect of talking to you seems to particularly upset him." It was as though she'd chosen the precise words she knew would hurt Harry most.
Still, desperate to hear about his friend's condition, Harry began to call at least twice a week, and Sylvia would report ad nauseam that her husband was too sick to come to the phone. As for visiting Lionel, actually seeing him, Sylvia pronounced that out of the question. "If he's too weak to talk on the phone, Harry, how could he possibly find the strength to tolerate a visit?"
Putting the receiver down, Harry told his wife, "He's been my closest friend for fifty years. How can she make me sound like a perfect moron? And forget about me, doesn't she realize what that says about her husband?"
Fortunately, Harry happened to call once when Lionel's son answered the phone. The last time they'd spoken had been at David's wedding ten years before. Harry clearly remembered, because a clumsy photographer had accidentally pushed Sylvia, almost knocking her down. Losing his famous temper, Lionel angrily demanded an apology. When the photographer refused, Lionel uncorked a right and sent the guy flying. It was a family scandal, typical Lionel.
"How's your father doing today, David?" Harry asked, knowing the news wasn't going to be terrific.
"About the same." David, an accountant who didn't always get along with his father, had Lionel's gruff voice. "He's sleeping now, Harry."
But just then, Lionel woke, and when David told him it was Harry on the other end, Lionel asked to speak to him.
"I'm sorry I wasn't up to talking to you before," Lionel apologized, covering for Sylvia.
He sounded painfully weak, and Harry felt helpless, worse than how he'd felt when his mother was at Sinai after her heart attack. "I wish to God there was something I could do for you, Lionel."
"Don't give up on me yet, okay?" Lionel answered.
"For crying out loud, Lionel, when have I ever really given up on you?" Harry said.
But two nights later, when David called, Harry was sure that Lionel had just died. Instead, David said that his father had asked to see Harry. 'You're welcome to come any time." David added, however, that people from the local hospice had begun administering morphine to Lionel since the day before, and he wanted to tell Harry that if and when he came he might find his father sleeping.
Because Harry no longer drove at night, he decided, "I'll be out there late tomorrow morning."
"My father said to tell you that you don't have to bring any sandwiches from Katz's this time, whatever that means."
Harry explained that he and Lionel used to celebrate the Yanks' home opener by watching the game on Lionel's TV while eating pastrami and corned beef sandwiches, and weren't the Bombers opening at the Stadium that week?
"You flaky old guys, talk about heartburn heaven," David said, and couldn't help laughing. "See you tomorrow."
Yet when Harry showed up the following morning, Sylvia practically refused to let him enter the house, and if David still wasn't around, Harry would have been forced to leave.
David had grown a heavy black beard since his wedding, and it made him look fierce when he told his mother, "I don't know what you've held against Harry all these years, but Dad asked to see him, and you're not going to prevent it even if I have to drag you out of here kicking and screaming. You're too possessive, Ma, you always were."
"Go to hell, both of you!" she told them, storming out of the house. Her husband was dying and that morning Sylvia, a born dyspeptic, hated the whole world.
Lionel was dozing when they entered his bedroom. He must have lost thirty pounds since Harry had seen him almost exactly a year before. He was lying in bed, freshly shaven and propped up on a couple of pillows, wearing a long-sleeved red golf shirt rather than pajamas. Three of his paintings hung opposite the bed. The most striking, least characteristic, and one of Harry's favorites, showed a boy and dog running past a deserted house on a sandy hill. The contrast between the boy's innocence and the forlorn, abandoned house somehow broke your heart.
"Dad, you awake?" David asked. "Harry's come to visit you."
Lionel opened his eyes, focusing on Harry. "I'm not going to be my usual charming serf," he warned, his voice sounding less gruff than usual.
Harry smiled nervously. "That's okay, Lionel. I've seen you uncharming before."
"David, I want to be alone with Harry for fifteen, twenty minutes. Don't want you or your mother up here, okay?" "Whatever you say, Dad." And starting to leave, he added over his burly shoulder, "I'll be downstairs. If you guys need anything, just give a holler."
"Sit down, Harry, take the load off," Lionel said after David left them alone. The blinds were up and the room, which smelled of witch hazel, was filled with bright sunlight.
What a day for a ball game, Harry couldn't help thinking, and pulling up the nearest folding chair, he asked if Lionel was in any pain.
Lionel said the hospice people had been giving him enough morphine to knock out a horse, and he was only sorry he hadn't gotten in touch with them sooner. He could have saved himself a lot of unnecessary suffering. Then he closed his eyes.
He seemed to be drifting in and out, and sitting there, Harry tried to engrave his memory with his friend's features---Lionel's blunt nose, sensitive mouth, his stubby, muscular fingers.
"I hope I haven't disappointed you too often, Harry," Lionel muttered without opening his eyes.
Reaching for Lionel's hand, Harry said, 'You've been my dearest friend, Lionel. Sometimes difficult, but always interesting, always interesting."
Lionel smiled, opening his eyes. 'You wouldn't con a guy on his deathbed, fight?"
Grinning, Harry refused to flinch. "Not a chance."
Instead of going to Katz's that morning, Harry said, he'd stopped off at Sherry Lehmann's where he'd purchased a bottle of Mouton-Rothschild. He'd read somewhere, he told Lionel, that the French used to wet the lips of their newborn kings with wine of the finest quality, and he was hoping they might share a drink together now.
"I'll need a straw," Lionel said, "if that's okay," and he couldn't help laughing. "Imagine, Mouton-Rothschild drunk with a plastic straw--probably first time in the history of the Medoc."
Lionel managed a sip or two with Harry's help, after which Harry lifted his own glass. "Here's to friendship," he toasted with a shaky hand.
Lionel nodded, and Harry kept looking at him as he enjoyed sipping the wine which went down like nectar.
"I apologize for not acknowledging your daughter's book last year," Lionel said. "I wanted to hurt you badly, Harry. I know I've mentioned it before, but cutting down on the money infuriated me. It's especially embarrassing to admit now, because I'm about to ask for another favor."
Harry stiffened but didn't pull back. "What's on your mind, Lionel?"
"After I'm gone, I'd like you to notify Trudie," he said. "I can't ask Sylvia to do that and I'd rather keep my son out of it." He added that he knew Lisel occasionally corresponded with Trudie, so Harry could get her Canadian address from his wife.
Harry was surprised that Lionel knew the cousins still corresponded infrequently. "Sure," he said. "I'll take care of it."
"I've never told you before, Harry, but I've been in touch with Trudie for the last ten years," Lionel said. "Her husband ran off, disappeared with all their money, and she was ashamed, didn't want you and Lisel to know. But she was also desperate, which was why she contacted me." Here Lionel paused, as if he was about to add something; but thinking better of it, he shook his head, saying, "No, I've covered everything I want to tell you, Harry. You can figure out the rest for yourself. And now I need to say goodbye. Actually, what I really need is to take a wicked leak, and would you ask David to come up when you get downstairs."
Standing and nodding, Harry blinked twice. "I'll leave the bottle here, Lionel, in case you want another drink."
When Lionel thanked him for the wine, Harry leaned over and kissed his friend's forehead. "My lawyer'll keep sending money to Trudie that I would have sent you and write that it's from a trust you left her," Harry promised. "That sound okay, Lionel, what you maybe had in mind?"
Sighing, Lionel nodded again before closing his eyes. "I guess I named out to be an expensive friend. But tell you what, Harry--I'll put in a good word for you when I get to where I'm going."
Lionel always could induce a bounce from him, even now, and Harry smiled. "Oh, hell, Lionel," he said, his heart banging away. "What am I going to do without you?"
IVAN PRASHKER's short stories have appeared in Harper's, Playboy, Bellevue Literary Review, Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. His last publication in Midstream was a short story called, "The Minyan," which appeared in the November/December 2007 issue.