William Cass
Judgment

Molly didn’t know about Peter’s disabled dog until their third date. That evening, he had her over for dinner and got her situated with a glass of wine under the umbrella table on his back deck while he worked the barbecue. After about fifteen minutes, the dog made his slow way out through the slider onto the deck, shuffled over to where Molly sat, and licked at her hand while Molly scratched him behind the ears. The dog nuzzled closer, the little cart that carried his back legs and hind quarter shifting behind him.
      Peter exchange smiles with Molly while he turned skewers on the grill. ‘Gus likes you,’ he said.
      ‘That his name?’ Molly asked.
      Peter nodded. Gus whined happily, turning his head into her scratching.
      Molly waited several moments before asking, ‘So, was he born like this?’
      Peter shook his head and closed the lid on the barbecue, smoke trickling from its vents.
      ‘No,’ he said. ‘Car accident about two years ago. Hit and run. Spinal cord injury just above his hips. Paralysed from there on down.’
      ‘Permanently?’
      Peter nodded again.
      Suddenly, Gus raised his right front paw and waved it towards his shoulder; the motion was disjointed, awkward, clumsy, odd. He stumbled as the motions became more pronounced.
      Molly felt her eyebrows knit as she looked from him up to Peter.
      ‘And then there’s that, too,’ Peter’s lips pursed before he went on. ‘Caused by the same accident. Some kind of neurological condition, the vets explained, called “random scratching”. Doesn’t happen all the time.’
      Peter stepped over next to Gus and ran his hands affectionately along the fur beneath the harness strapped around the dog’s middle running from his neck back to where the cart’s support began. He made kissing sounds as he did, and Gus’s tail thumped in pleasure. ‘Yeah,’ Peter said leaning down closer to him. ‘You like that, don’t you, boy?’
      Molly took her own hands away, folded them in her lap, and watched Peter with growing fondness. Truth be known, she’d started falling for him during their first date, but seeing him with what she knew now about Gus completed her tumble. Later, she’d come to find out that Peter’s fall paralleled her own, a surprise for both since they’d each all but given up on finding true love after having turned forty not long before.

They were married a little over a year later, though they were basically inseparable after that night. At first, Peter commandeered things when they took Gus for walks or on outings. But Molly quickly realized that aside from trying to ignore the curious or uncomfortable stares from others—particularly when the random scratching occurred—there really wasn’t too much different about handling Gus than any other dog, and she was soon taking him out by herself and dealing with his other needs without Peter. The exception was when Peter removed Gus from his harness and lifted him up onto the couch to snuggle while they were reading or watching television together. As a full-sized golden lab, Gus was just too big for Molly to manage that manoeuvre, with his hindquarters nothing but dead weight and dangling limbs.
      Molly and Peter were both thrilled when, just after their third wedding anniversary, they made the unlikely discovery that she was pregnant. Even Gus seemed to understand that a happy change had occurred. He began following Molly around almost all the time, nestling nearby in what seemed a protective and comforting response; as those emotions increased, his random scratching seemed to do the same. Peter fawned over Molly, too, making virtually all their meals and taking over most household duties so she could rest and stay off her feet. He accompanied her to all her doctor’s appointments as well, including the amniocentesis she had done early in her second trimester.
      Their obstetrician had them in to meet with him once he had the test’s results. They sat in two chairs across from him at his big desk and watched him remove his wire-rimmed glasses before he spoke.
      ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid I have some potentially troubling news. The results from your amniocentesis indicate that there might be some difficulties with your unborn child. Some complications. Challenges, if you will.’
      Molly felt something in her fall. She put her hand over her mouth and felt Peter’s tightening on her knee. His voice was hushed when he asked, ‘What sort of complications?’
      ‘Well,’ the obstetrician said, ‘birth defects, to be blunt. There’s a higher risk that your baby will have some.’ He lifted a few pages from his desktop. ‘Per these results, quite a bit higher, in fact.’
      Molly and Peter stared straight ahead. It seemed to Molly as if it might be impossible for her to ever move again. The only sound was the slow, steady ticking of the big wall clock behind the desk.
      Finally, the obstetrician said, ‘So, you have a couple of options. You can continue with the pregnancy while understanding the potential complications involved, or you can end it. Should you decide on the later, it would be safe to do that for about another month.’ He slid a brochure across the desk, looked back and forth between the two of them, then said, ‘This will give you more information about the decision you’re facing.’ He paused. ‘Whichever you choose, there will be no judgment here.’

They didn’t speak in the car on the way home, nor did they when they’d gotten inside the house where Gus was waiting for them, giddy at their return, pulling his little cart back and forth between the two of them and slobbering on them as they took off their jackets. It was late afternoon; Molly allowed Peter to embrace her briefly in the gloaming before going up to their bedroom and laying on their bed facing the wall. She heard him downstairs go outside onto the back deck and sit down in one of umbrella table chairs. She heard Gus whine and prance some more at the foot of the stairs, then hobble out onto the deck. She was aware that Peter must have removed Gus’ harness because of the familiar thump of Gus’ body as he collapsed onto the deck’s floorboards. She was aware of the sound of sprinklers going on in a neighbour’s yard and of them shutting off again a little later. She was aware of the sound of an ice cream truck’s jingle pass somewhere nearby in the neighbourhood and of it gradually dying away. Molly was aware of those things and others, but only vaguely. She felt numb, empty. She closed her eyes, shook her head, opened them again, and couldn’t quite believe that the same wall was still there that she’d been gazing at. Unmoving, unsympathetic, stoic in the dwindling light, staring back at her with no answers at all.

That night in bed, Peter waited until he heard Gus rustle into sleep in his own bed at the foot of the stairs to say into the darkness, ‘So, what are you thinking?’ When Molly didn’t reply, he said, ‘About today’s doctor’s visit, I mean.’
      ‘I don’t know.’ Although it was too dark to see it, she shook her head. ‘I don’t know what to think.’
      He blew out a long breath. ‘Yeah, me either.’ He turned on his side so he was facing her and found her hand under the covers. ‘You’d be such a fantastic mother. No matter what.’ At the foot of the stairs, Gus made a familiar contented grunt in slumber. Peter caressed Molly’s hand, then said, ‘But I’ll support whatever you want to do. As long as we’re together, we’ll be fine.’
      She closed her eyes tight. Earlier that evening after she’d finally gotten up off the bed, read the pamphlet the doctor had given them, and a shiver had passed over her when she’d gotten to the part about the percentage of serious birth defects increasing dramatically as the age of the mother did. She’d be nearly forty-four at her due date. If their child lived to the age of twenty-five with whatever limitations might be involved at that point for living independently, they’d both be almost seventy, the age her mother had been when she required assisted living. Molly made more tiny shakes of her head in the darkness before bringing Peter’s hand up beside her cheek, and saying, ‘Let’s be quiet now and try to get some sleep.’

Although she was still awake when Peter arose the next morning, she stayed in bed facing the wall and listened to him get ready for work. She heard him strap Gus into his harness and take him for his morning walk, something she always did, but still she remained where she was. After they returned, he quietly set a cup of coffee for her on her bedside table while she feigned sleep. He kissed her forehead and left the house. Molly heard his car start in the driveway, back into the street, and drive away. Still, she didn’t move. Since she worked remotely from home with no set hours, Molly felt no pressing need to arise. She lay there thinking and dozing on and off until Gus began making his late-morning whines indicating that he needed to be taken out again.
      Molly dressed haphazardly, took a couple swallows of cold coffee, brushed her teeth, and avoided looking at herself in the bathroom mirror. She went downstairs and found Gus prancing in circles by the front door, his leash already pulled from its peg and dangling from his mouth and his right paw waving up towards his shoulder.
      ‘All right,’ Molly told him as he licked at her and she got his leash attached. ‘Hold your horses.’
      They left through the front door, went down the short ramp that Peter had fashioned for Gus against the steps there, and he tugged her on the sidewalk along their familiar route through the neighbourhood. Molly moved in a kind of daze even after Gus had done his business and she’d dropped the plastic bag in a nearby trash can. Instead of going home, she let him pull her farther along, as she only occasionally did, to the park at the far end of their neighbourhood. They wandered through the park’s tree-shaded pathways until they came to the children’s playground. Molly sat on a bench there and Gus nosed around at the full extension of his leash.
      Not yet noon on a weekday meant the playground was full of only toddlers and their mothers. Most of the children scrambled on a Big Toy that dominated the centre of the playground, but a few played in the sandboxes or on the swings along the sides. One of the sandboxes was only a few steps away from Molly’s bench, and a small girl sat alone in it playing in the sand with a tiny shovel. She stopped her digging to watch Gus explore. After a few moments, she climbed out of the sandbox and tottered unsteadily towards Gus, grasping her shovel above her head and grinning. Gus whined happily at her approach, tugging towards her on his leash, and his right paw started its random scratching motion.
      A woman sat reading a magazine on an adjacent bench. When the little girl gave a squeal of delight as she leaned down towards Gus, the woman quickly surveyed their interaction, gasped, and dropped the magazine. She jumped off the bench and hurried towards the little girl saying, ‘No, Aubrey. No! Leave the doggy alone.’
      ‘It’s okay,’ Molly told the woman. ‘He’s very friendly and gentle.’
      ‘No!’ the mother shouted, closing the gap and scooping her daughter up into her arms.
      ‘Truly,’ Molly said. ‘He won’t hurt her. He loves children.’
      The mother squeezed her daughter against her shoulder, rocking her back and forth. Gus scooted his cart awkwardly in their direction, his right paw waving, and the woman retreated further. She looked from Molly to Gus, then back to Molly again. What Molly saw in her eyes then wasn’t curiosity or uncomfortableness, but something closer to disgust. Something, Molly understood immediately, that bordered on revulsion and repugnance.
      ‘Come on, Aubrey,’ the woman said to her daughter, then made cooing sounds to her. She turned away, and Molly heard her say, ‘Let’s go get you cleaned up.’
      Molly watched the woman use one hand to snatch a satchel off the bench where she’d been sitting, stuff the magazine into it, and walk off quickly in the opposite direction. The little girl waved her shovel at Gus until they’d turned at the Big Toy. As they did, the mother gave a last look his way, the same expression of disdain dominating her face. Watching the woman disappear down the pathway into the trees, she was reminded suddenly of a late afternoon when she was in college and sitting in the window of a coffee shop as an older woman passed by pushing a young man in a wheelchair. The top of the young man’s head was flattened slightly on one side, and his eyes stared off in opposite directions. His tongue lolled out of one side of his mouth and he drooled onto a bandana tucked into the collar of his shirt that was bunched around a tracheotomy. The young man tapped a crooked wrist under his chin, and the distorted grin on his face had seemed to Molly both nonsensical and off-putting.
      She’d sat perfectly still in the café watching. In a moment, the woman and the young man had passed, and Molly was left staring in their wake at her own reflection in the window. What she saw there wasn’t unlike what had been on the woman’s face who’d retrieved her daughter. Molly remembered being startled by that reflection, forcing her lips in it to uncurl and her eyes to widen from their troubled squint. She remembered shaking her head and whispering to herself, ‘Why?’
      Gus had shuffled over to her at the bench and had lowered his head onto her knee. From habit, Molly began scratching him behind the ears. As she did, his tail thumped at her feet and his right paw gradually slowed and lowered back to the pavement. Molly felt her heart lighten at those changes in him. Gus squirmed and tried to move closer, but one of his cart’s wheels became stuck in a crack in the pathway as he did. Molly reached down, released the wheel, and Gus lowered his head more fully onto her lap.
      Molly resumed her scratching, and watched as he gave one of his soft whines that was full of pleasure. She smiled down at him and whispered, ‘Doesn’t take much to make you happy, does it?’
      When Gus closed his eyes and nuzzled closer, Molly put her hand against her mid-section and thought about the life that was just beginning inside of it. A life that she and Peter had created. One, like all lives yet to be determined, that would have its flaws and its obstacles to face. Not the least among these, she realized in that moment, would be judgment. From other people, but most importantly, from her and Peter. Their own judgment: first, foremost, and ultimately, last. Molly thought about how, unlike in that coffee shop, her judgment had so quickly adjusted, vanished really, after she’d first met Gus on that back deck a few short years ago. She rubbed her belly, letting those memories tumble over themselves and thinking of the future, her heart lightening more and more as she did. AQ