The voice on the answering machine was that of my favorite cousin — a sweet, always assuring voice I’d known since earliest childhood. It was just as slow and Southern as ever but this time you could hear the strain and hesitation in it, not just the always present consideration.
It was the voice of a woman with many calls still to make and many details still to arrange. I could see her face in my mind as I played the message again and again.
"Hi, Paul, this is Janice in New Orleans. I’m afraid I’m calling with some sad news. Uh, Dad hadn’t been doing well for a while, and it was a steady decline, and, uh, this morning, he died a little before breakfast. We didn’t come back from the funeral home until late this afternoon, and I’ve just spoken to the rabbi, and made arrangements, so I just wanted you to know, I don’t expect you to come in, but I wanted you to know. We’re going to have dad’s funeral Tuesday at 11 here, and, uh, I’ll be talking to you another time. Hope all is well with you. Bye-bye."
I can’t say I was shocked. Just regretful that I wouldn’t get to take Pinky to Galatoire’s one more time. It’s an old lesson mortals tend to forget: Never hesitate to follow up on a good impulse. We really don’t have all the time in the world. We have very little, really.
The shock had come a couple of months ago — was it Thanksgiving or Christmas? — when Janice had called to say thanks for some Arkansas peanut brittle I’d sent her. (The best thing about sending holiday goodies to family is you get to hear from all of them.) When I’d asked about Pinky, she’d told me that they’d moved him from Assisted Living at the retirement home to Nursing Care — and he needed help to get into his wheelchair.
Pinky in a wheelchair? Impossible. Pinky unable to get out of bed? Outrageous. Couldn’t be. Not if you knew Pinky, and I could swear just about everybody down there did. I told Janice I couldn’t believe it.
"But, Paul," she said, "he’s 98!"
I didn’t care. He was Pinky Gardsbane! Indestructible. He’s always been around. Always will be. He’ll always have one more story to tell, one more sure tip to offer, one more fine vintage to sell, another steak to grill, another fund-raiser to organize for the synagogue or the high school cheerleading squad. . . . I refused to believe he wasn’t the same old Pinky he’d always been.
That’s when I heard Janice laugh, or maybe sigh, or maybe both.
"Paul," she said, "that’s exactly what everybody else says when I tell them."
And there were a lot of everybody-elses. At the funeral, the stories flowed like the wine Pinky used to sell all over Louisiana — wholesale, retail and just for the heckuvit.