Foundling Review, which published “Ray’s Juice” in Issue 1, March 2016, has sadly closed. I’ve reprinted “Ray’s Juice” here.
(reading time 15 minutes)
It was one of the last farmer’s markets before winter, six o’clock and already dark. The stand canopies fluttered like sloppy moths lifting skyward, while bare bulbs cast shadows over kale and carrots and reflected off the coruscating asphalt, wet from a passing shower.
Billie stepped beneath the Itty Bites awning and found Ray standing in front of a pyramid of individually wrapped Harvest Pumpkin brownies.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to buy one,” she said.
“I’m celebrating. I just got back from Florida, the Center for Integrated Holistic Healing. Another six months without the cancer advancing.”
“That’s fantastic.” She held up her hand to give him a high-five, wincing at the insensitivity of her brownie comment. If anyone had a good reason to eat especially healthy, it was Ray. The Itty Bites lady chimed in with an appreciative murmur.
“Whatever you’re doing,” Billie said, “it’s certainly working.”
Ray, as always, looked good—like George Clooney only ten years younger and without the thin upper lip. His eyelashes were also longer, a fact of which Ray was no doubt aware. Billie had stopped bringing her car to R&R Auto Repair when Ray moved his shop one town over, to Averhill. Even though he was a good mechanic, and it wasn’t his fault that he was gorgeous, she didn’t want to become one of his groupies. She knew herself too well, how easy it would be for her to mistake his friendliness for a different kind of intimacy. He was also married. So was she. She found it confusing, though, the way his illness shape-shifted around their words so she never knew what he was really telling her when he shared the discrete, private details of his latest treatment.
Billie had only seen Ray at the market with his wife one time. She had been wearing a pink blazer that set off her dark, wavy hair and creamy complexion above voluminous hips and tiny hands at the end of her dimpled arms. At one time she must have been very pretty. Maybe she still was. Who was to say that Ray, with his dulcet gaze, didn’t desire his wife precisely because of her abundance?
Billie had stood at the periphery of the market watching the two of them together, wondering if Ray, with his dallying eye—or was he really just that friendly?—drove his wife to eat vast quantities of food, each, in their own way, trying to master the cells multiplying in his blood. As Ray’s wife had rolled through the market gathering turnips and slabs of pasture-raised beef, Billie wondered if she knew that the housewives of Merrimak blew-dried their hair and put on mascara before bringing their cars to her husband’s shop to loiter in the oily air, in their yoga pants and Pumas, while he explored their vehicles with sun-kissed hands. Surely Billie was not the only one who had imagined his attention straying from the car’s enamel to her own lacquered lips?
This evening Billie had nowhere she needed to be. Frank never got home before nine-thirty, Jeannie and Gus were away at college, and it wasn’t winter. Not yet. The pluck of a mandolin wafted through the dusky air as the farm stalls packed up their wares for the night. She waited while Ray paid for his brownie, and then they both stepped from the booth’s glare into the soft bleed of night.
“That’s wonderful that the leukemia’s in remission,” she ventured.
“It’s not really in remission. It’s always there, but it hasn’t spread. My whole family gets this kind of cancer. My uncle, my grandfather. They’ve all died from it. I’m convinced the reason mine hasn’t progressed is that I’m not doing chemo. The doctors at Sloan Kettering wanted to remove my lymph nodes, but when I flew down to CIHH I learned that without my lymph nodes, my body has no way to fight the cancer.”
Billie nodded, skating over these words and what they implied, the choices Ray had to make. She recalled a conversation she’d had with him in the spring.
A gust of mild air had ushered Billie in the front door of Lombardi’s Deli. Filthy crusts of pocked and scarred snow, like tar-filled lungs, had clung to the sidewalk. The first thing she saw when she stepped inside was Ray standing by the juice bar talking to Lydia Hovan and Amy Reynolds. Billie made a bee-line for the meat department.
Great, she thought when she saw that they had ground turkey. She peered at the plastic wrap, reminding herself that the puffiness was not caused by off-gassing from the meat’s decay, but by inert gases that had been injected into the package to preserve shelf life. Or so she’d been told. Snatching up the package, she headed to the register only to find herself stuck behind a woman with a baby on her hip and a counter piled high with what looked like a week’s worth of groceries. She could feel Ray watching from across the aisle.
“Oh hello,” she said, pivoting on her fuchsia sneaker to smile at him.
He was uncharacteristically alone, his navy-blue mechanics outfit immaculate, R’nR embroidered on his right breast pocket, a twelve ounce cup of green, sludgy liquid in his hand.
“You’re still doing your juicing, I see. I’m definitely going to have to try that one of these days. So what do you do, call ahead so the juice is ready when you come to pick it up?”
“Yup. Just ask for Ray’s juice. It’s right there on the menu.” Ray pointed above a display of baked goods to the chalkboard, Ray’s Juice: kale, cucumber, celery, garlic, ginger written in script at the top.
“I eat all those things,” Billie said. “I just don’t usually juice them. How much does a cup like that cost?”
“That’s kind of expensive.”
“Not more than what you’d spend on something else.” Ray settled his glance on the ground turkey in Billie’s hand. The smooth, pink, tightly-packed spaghetti rows of meat reminded her of something that had been squeezed out of a Play-Doh factory playset.
“I think I’d get hungry if all I had for lunch was juice,” she said.
“I never get hungry,” Ray said. “This is all I eat. Two of these every day.”
“Maybe a little something for dinner just to be with the family. If I skip a day—” He held up the plastic cup, “I feel crappy, lethargic, no energy.”
Billie opened and closed her mouth, feeling like a fish blowing bubbles, whatever words she might have thought to say descending like silt to the pit of her stomach.
This evening, though, Ray was alone, and no one was waiting at Billie’s house for dinner. She had called Frank earlier in the day to ask if he might want to leave work early so they could eat dinner together.
I can’t think about it now, Billie. I have a meeting I need to prepare for.
Okay, well, all you need to tell me is whether you want to catch an earlier train. I can go to the farmer’s market, make something fresh and healthy.
I have a meeting in fifteen minutes! What do you not understand?
She had lowered the phone, listening for the soft click as it hit the receiver.
The streetlights, meanwhile, beamed over the market like overzealous moons as Ray talked about his sports injuries from playing soccer, and how he had gotten burned in the shop. When he treated his injury with some kind of special solution that he seemed to have already told Billie about, the doctors couldn’t believe how miraculously he had healed. He told her that since he started drinking this liquid he felt stronger, more fit, and faster than ever before.
“That’s amazing,” Billie replied. “I do believe the human body has a remarkable capacity to heal. I have a back injury from all my years of playing tennis as a kid, but now that I do yoga, which is so much about inner core work, my back is dramatically better. I also go to the chiropractor.”
“You should try the saline solution I was telling you about, the one I order from the Center. It re-balances the body’s electrolytes and hormones, rehydrates and purifies the blood.”
“Cancer cells can’t survive in an alkaline environment. This water has a pH of 9.”
“Normally the body has a pH of 7.4.”
“I see. So this makes your whole body more alkaline?”
“Exactly. I get it delivered by the case. What’s your phone number?”
“My phone number?”
“Oh, okay…” She fumbled for her phone, which had slipped beneath the kale and radishes in her re-usable bag and was now wedged against a sweating bottle of kombucha and the brownies, but then she realized that this was not what he had asked her.
“I’ll text you the name,” he said, smiling with mild amusement.
“Of the solution.”
“Right. Of course.” She told him her number, and she was glad it was dark so he couldn’t see the sudden heat in her face.
“And it’s Billie…?”
“Needham. Billie Needham.”
He finished typing in her contact information, an awkward silence settling over them as a high, keening wind whistled through the branches of the sugar maples bordering the lot.
“Well, I should get going,” Billie said.
“Yeah, yeah, me too.”
“Enjoy your brownie!” She walked across the street, the kombucha bottle banging against her side, waiting until she got to the corner of Gotthardt Street before stopping to look at her phone. She was startled, but not exactly surprised to see a new message icon perched at the top of the screen. So this was how it happened, she thought, how the membrane separating them became thin enough for one of them to step through. She tried to imagine Ray’s clean, calloused fingers brushing over her collarbone, pressing her pelvis to his, but she couldn’t, so she clicked open the message instead. There were no words, only a web address. When she tapped the link the screen unfurled to reveal a display of shimmering blue bottles of saline water. She stared at the small, aqua square of light in her hand, this pixilated beacon in the deepening folds of night, and she knew that unlike Ray, she had not yet found the thing that would save her.