Fritz and Dolph: a remembrance

by Jeff Oaks

Fritz and Dolph, Doberman-lab mix puppies, arrive in the middle of Christmas Eve, 1974, carried in my drunk father’s arms. Snow swirls behind them as I imagine it now, making unfortunately my father seem more Byronic than he perhaps ought to be. My mother rolls her eyes hard because she knows this gift can’t be refused and in fact I’m already on my knees in gratitude, so she can’t say no without breaking my heart on Christmas. And yet if she says yes, she’s got yet another responsibility on her hands. Because my father will not be responsible. She says this out loud, but I give my heart to them immediately she also sees. One for my brother Steve, who is frankly almost out of the house, and one for me who has many more years to go. In the years that follow, the dogs become an identity for me–the boy with the two dobermans–and I feel invulnerable to threats because in fact they do growl at anyone who threatens me, even my parents, who joke about it. We treat the dogs like family, train them in the basics. My brother has Dolph’s ears docked. I decide not to do it to Fritz. Dolph was the more nervous dog. Fritz was more easy-going, his face rounder like a labrador’s. At night they sleep with me, getting down at some point to pee on table legs and door jambs downstairs in the darkness. When my parents’ fight, they sit with me at the top of the stairs listening, panting. We are a pack of three waiting to see who can most be trusted. At the right moment, I go downstairs to quiet my father when his rage begins to turn toward the gun in the closet. At some point in the day, I take them both for walks to abandoned places where they can run wild. They always come back when I call them. Usually I run with them and sometimes they treat me like another dog and run around me, jostling me and look back smiling. Occasionally they suddenly, for no reason I can see, explode into fights in the house in which they stand on their hind legs like monsters.