Billy patted the mound of dirt with the back of the shovel then wiped his brow with his sleeve. It was done. He grabbed his pick and shovel and headed to his car through the thick covering of trees. He blamed the dog for this. A chocolate lab. 6 months old and still so much puppy. It was impossible to get her to sit still. ZuZu. As in ZuZu’s petals from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, the one where George Bailey dives into the water to save his guardian angel after his guardian angel jumps in the icy water to save him. Then he gets a chance to see how his life affected the lives of those around him for the better. Billy wanted to see himself as George, but really, he was more like Ernie the cab driver. A minor character. Not integral to the plot. Charming in his own way, but ultimately dispensable. It was the reason he asked her if he could “shoot her dog for the competition.” This longing. It seemed like a sign. Like this was the chance to change his life’s path.
“Excuse me?” she said.
“You know, take her picture,” he said. “I’m a photographer. Pet photographer.” He showed her his Pet Photographer’s guild card. She scrutinized it carefully, turning it over a few times before handing it back. It was a strange thing to ask on a second date he knew, but he was so struck by the origins of the name that it seemed like Kismet. And ZuZu was gorgeous. Full bred. Luxurious floppy ears. Golden eyes. Healthy coat. It’s the only reason he asked the girl out in the first place. For the dog. But he wasn’t the only one who did this. Ted, the unassuming, scrawny guy with those glasses that turn to shades in the sun, who managed the Rite Aid at the end of his block, and the reigning Middlesex County Pet Photographer champ, invented the move. He was so smooth. He’d have a girl’s permission to shoot her pet before the first date was even set. He could spot a pure bred at half a mile. He’d be across the street and through two cross walks against the red just catch up with her before you even knew what it was he was after.
Billy blamed the dog, but he knew that wasn’t right. He had been distracted. The girl, ZuZu’s owner, was pretty. Really pretty. At one point he found himself plotting out their third date. He caught himself daydreaming about holding her hand in a movie or sharing an ice cream on the esplanade. He even caught himself imagining just how he’d propose to her. He’d think about her at work, while sorting the mail, which had gotten him in trouble with his manager, who insisted he “get his head out of his ass before he put it in there for him.” Which didn’t particularly make sense but was still effective for helping him regain his focus, which was on winning this year’s Middlesex County Pet Photography shoot off. The problem was, he let her help. First rule of Pet Photography is you never let the owner help you “stay” the pet. Everyone knows this. It only takes one blurred shot, or one dog who won’t sit up, or who won’t stop wagging its tongue to get it out of your system though. There is too much at stake.
It was over dessert when he asked. It all happened in slow motion. He heard himself asking as if he had no control of his own voice and before he knew it she had said yes. He couldn’t take it back. He tried to convince himself it would be okay. She’s good with the dog, he said. She can handle the pressure. And, really, what happened could have happened to anyone. But they had just gotten ZuZu steady after nearly 20 minutes of working with her when the girl coughed. It was dry in the building where the competition was being held, and when she coughed she raised her hand to her mouth politely, which distracted ZuZu the exact moment Billy took the shot. ZuZu had only flinched a little, but it was enough. The red ribbon hanging by his photo in the finalist’s gallery, watching Ted take home yet another trophy and the $10,000 cash prize didn’t compare to the betrayal he felt, though, and couldn’t return the ring he’d bought on sale that he’d plotted to give to her while standing on the winner’s stand, trophy in one hand, her ring bejeweled hand in the other. When he got back to his car, he glanced at the backseat where ZuZu had been lying peacefully moments before. He paused briefly before tossing the shovel and pick into the trunk. He knew he couldn’t keep her. But he needed some sort of prize. Something that felt like this was a wonderful life.
Ralph Pennel is the author of A World Less Perfect for Dying In, published by Cervena Barva Press. Ralph’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Iowa Review, Literary Orphans, F(r)iction, Tarpaulin Sky, Reality Beach, Elm Leaves Journal, Rain Taxi Review of Books and various other publications. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart, and he was twice a finalist for Somerville Poet Laureate. Ralph is on the board of the New England Poetry Club and teaches poetry and writing at Bentley University.