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. …