“And the Dogs, They Bark” by Sophia Drapeau
Robert Drapeau was twenty-two years old and stationed at the Isabela, Puerto Rico Air Force base when he saw the Cortes sisters through the window of the house across the street. He was sure of it: on the Island of Enchantment, he had found the most enchanting women in the world.
The townspeople all knew the four sisters, beautiful and untouchable, like flowers grown in someone else’s garden. Their father, strict and protective, made sure that no man came near his blooms.
Later that day, when the Cortes family dog ran out into the street, Robert was there to rescue him. He brought the beloved pup to the front door of the house and was met with the praise and gratitude reserved for heroes. Mr. Cortes insisted he stay for dinner. By the night’s end, Robert sat with the third Cortes Sister, Brenda, on the front porch bench.
She was buzzing with youth– just eighteen when she became Brenda Drapeau a month later.
They would have a stillborn daughter and name her Angelita. Two years after that, twins: a girl and boy, my auntie and my dad. “We lost one so God gave us two!” Brenda would say.
Eventually, their baby boy would grow up, meet my mother and have me, their first child. My parents would have six more afterwards, seven grandkids total for Bob and Brenda.
But The Cortes Sister and The Soldier didn’t know any of that when they sat together on the bench. Life was a mystery then.
Years later, Bob would lie comatose in a hospital bed as Brenda held his hand. Life would be a mystery then, too.
“You have to hear how my grandparents met,” I’ll tell friends. “It’s like a movie.”
The thing is, I don’t really know how accurate the movie is. It’s the dreamiest cut, the one I screened when I was young and projected time and time again, until it was perfect. I wouldn’t dare ask my abuela to confirm my version now, afraid that she’ll tell me that it was a cat, not a dog, or that they sat on the back porch and not the front, and shatter this crystalline thing I’ve held in my head for so many years. I like thinking that I came from people in a story, those fresh-faced kids, mad for each other. Their love story is a fairytale and I’m in the sequel.
When I was born, Brenda became “Boola” (I couldn’t say the Spanish word for Grandmother, “Abuela”.) Robert became “Pepere” (“Grandfather” in French). We collect names as we age. Here is how I remember Pepere: a large, perpetually smiling man, jovial in the way that only big people can be. Think Santa Claus, if Saint Nick shaved and walked with a cane. His blue eyes never looked sick, even when his body did. See, for as long as I knew him, Pepere was afflicted with a myriad of health problems. He was sick even when he was well. Diabetes caused the most damage, though, weekly dialysis sessions and regular insulin shots for the last decade of his life.
This was all normal to my siblings and me. We grew up hearing that Pepere was in the hospital every couple of months. I never worried. We all knew the routine– a few days in then release, and then he comes home. We go over for dinner and Boola makes rice and beans and we all play cards and nothing has really changed since the last visit. We’re all happy and unsurprised. This is what my grandfather did best: bounce back. Except for the time he didn’t.
I remember what I wore that day: a salmon t-shirt and long, floral skirt. We knew this was the day– Pepere was in the hospital but this time it was different. This time nobody was talking about his coming home. He’d been there for about a week; he was in a coma now. Things looked bad. What are you supposed to wear, the day your grandfather is going to die? I thought the t-shirt and floral skirt would do just fine.
The hospital was so un-extraordinary. All hospitals look the same. I remember the nurse– a kind man, really good at his job. When I think of that day, I see the hospital room, cramped with my abuela and parents and aunts and uncles and friends, all of us loving Robert Drapeau until that kind nurse said “I’m sorry, but he’s passed.” I thought of the weirdness of that word. You passed a student in the hall or a car on the freeway. Passing meant movement. My grandpa had laid right there in front of me. He hadn’t moved, but he had passed.
A few minutes later, the kind nurse brought a basket of snacks into the hospital room. I took a Fritos bag. How nice, I thought. What a nice thing. I didn’t know you get a bag of Fritos when your grandfather dies.
Once, when my grandfather and abuela were newly married, he punched a guy out of a window. They were in Thailand, I think. It was only a second-story window, so don’t worry. I think. The man was harassing a woman in the bar when my grandfather confronted him. It escalated until Punch! Shatter! And my grandpa was a hero again, just like when he rescued my abuela’s dog. I think.
I wish I had asked about this story. I wish I could digitize it in my mind and add it to my viewing shelf. But I can’t. I have to make do with what I remember and stuff fiction in the gaps. You know what you know about someone. It’s only after they die that you become so keenly aware of everything you don’t.
There’s one photo of my grandfather that looks like the album cover of some band I’d probably like. He’s in his twenties, sitting at a table smoking a cigarette, a white coffee cup and saucer next to him. He looks impossibly cool.
His hair was curly. His hair was on his head! I’ll never know him like that, cigarette in fingers, hair on his head. I first saw this photo on a poster-board collage my dad and aunt had put together for his funeral. It surprised me. Here was a man I’d known all my life, and it taught me something new.
Once we left the hospital, my family and I went with my Boola back to her house to spend the night. I saw their queen-sized bed, too big and too empty now. Boola let their dogs out of the crate and they started to bark. She sobbed.
“Are you barking for him? Are you?”
She fell to the ground.
“Stop barking. Stop barking. He’s never coming home again.”
For the first time in my life, I understood grief. Boola, so small on the carpet, shrunk and shrunk into something smaller, then smallest. I wonder if she always saw Pepere the way he looked in that photograph: young, handsome, and unsick.
When I was growing up, a woman named Denise Decker ruled the Phoenix, AZ children’s gymnastics scene. It was the only gymnastics program–at least the only relevant one–and I took her class for a month when I was eight.
Denise created a currency for her students: little white strips of paper she called “Denise Dollars.” When students did something well, they were given one as a reward. I think you could buy things from some sort of gift shop or concession stand. I can’t remember. We were split into small groups one day, and were learning how to do roundoffs (cartwheels but harder.) I was last. I watched every other student ace their roundoff, smile, and collect a Denise Dollar. My turn came: I choked. I couldn’t do it, though I tried and tried to no avail. Finally, the group leader said “Just for trying, I’m gonna give you a Denise Dollar.”
If that was how life worked, rewards for having a big heart and trying really hard, my grandpa would be alive. If you were given more years to live for every really cool thing that you did, like rescuing a dog or punching the bad guy or falling generously, endlessly in love, my grandpa could have lived forever. But that’s not how life works; Death, that bastard, doesn’t give a shit about Denise Dollars.
Every June 22, my family and I visit the soldier’s grave at the military cemetery. Robert died a day before my youngest sister’s birthday, which is a good day to die. Our sadness lasts only a day before turning to celebration. Pepere would have liked that. Two years have passed: my abuela can laugh, cook, play cards with us.
She can tell stories and even jokes about her dead husband, host Thanksgiving dinner and sleep in that big bed. She still hears the dogs barking but it’s quieter now.
Once, when I was maybe six, Pepere gave me a Christmas ornament: a little glass angel with a shiny blue heart in the center. The ornament isn’t a metaphor for anything. I’m not going to say my grandpa is my glass guardian angel, or that his heart was blue and shiny. He had a normal human heart that beat and beat until it didn’t.
I hang that ornament on our family tree each year and think about my own heart, how it will beat and beat until it won’t. I’m just like him in that way. Everybody is.