Ben Ailing

Ben Ailing sat hunched over the wheel of his Chrysler Gran Fury, inching his way down a long gravel alley in a rundown section of the Republic South Hills—past boarded-up brick houses and junked washers and dryers—looking for sign of something familiar—wondering how in the hell he’d wound up here of all places. He’d thought it had something to do with his boys. But then he’d remembered that all three had left town for the winter: Will finishing his senior year of college across state, Ben. Jr. trading futures on the Nikkei market in far-off Singapore, and, Jerry, his youngest, playing guitar with a rock n’ roll band somewhere in Texas.

It was the second time in as many months he’d “gotten lost” driving around Republic like this. And he felt a little wave of panic welling up with the realization he might be experiencing the same early onset of dementia that had plagued his own mother near the end of her life.

Ben hit the brakes midway down the alley, and backed up the Chrysler. Something had caught his eye through a gate hanging wide-open at the back of one of the houses. Leaving the engine idling, he stubbed his cigarette and stepped out of the car to investigate.

“I’ll be damned!” Ben muttered beneath his breath.

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In the waning light of a December afternoon, Ben identified the strange scurrying blotches of movement on the inch of fresh snow that blanketed the little backyard lawn and had first caught his attention.

“Pups!”

A half-dozen or more newborn puppies were littered across the yard, blindly nosing through the snow like survivors of a plane wreck.

Ben stepped up to the open gate, looking for the bitch, when a frail old woman wearing an oversized man’s parka appeared from behind a wooden shed and called out to him.

“Can you help me, mister? The mother dog refuses these puppies … she bares her teeth and snaps at me …she’s right here in the shed…”

The old woman’s eyes were glassy with tears.

Ben entered the yard, and told her he would help.

He asked her where she wanted the dog to be with the pups.

“Right here in the shed,” the old woman answered. “There isn’t any room in the house…”

The bitch was lying on her side on a tattered sleeping bag just inside the open door of the shed. Ben thought she was a cross between a Lab and a Doberman. She bared her teeth and growled at him.

Ben spotted an old San Francisco 49ers sweatshirt atop a stack of boxes and asked if he could borrow it.

“Yes,” the old woman said. “Use anything you like…”

Ben wrapped the thick sweatshirt around his left hand. Scooping the nearest pup out of the snow, he allowed the bitch to clamp down on his wrapped hand while he forced the first pup onto its mother’s teat. He waited patiently until the dog slackened her bite on his hand, and then repeated the process until all seven pups were reunited with their mother.

“That’ll keep you busy,” said Ben.

When he stroked the top of the dog’s head with his unwrapped hand, she no longer growled back.

The old woman had left the yard, and returned now with a small change purse in her hands. She offered to pay Ben for his services—her gnarled fingers fumbling to unfurl a ten dollar bill. Ben refused her. She asked him if he would like any food or drink, and he refused that as well.

“I’d best be going,” Ben said. “Forecast is for a good three inches of the white stuff tonight.”

Ben returned to the idling Chrysler. The first swirling flakes of the forecasted storm were already drifting out of the darkening sky. He’d intended on asking the old woman for directions, but his own sense of direction had returned while working with the pups.

As he drove towards the downtown and the work awaiting him there—the restaurant accounts to balance, employees and customers to placate, deadlines to meet—Ben’s mind wandered back to those pups worming through the snow in search of their mother.

And he thought that while this world is indeed one struggle after another, it is not without its joys.

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