If you're impatient to read more about Clay Dillon, check out the links at the bottom of the chapter for other books in the series. You can also click on the cover images on the right.
Announcement: In addition to this chapter of Imaginary Friends going live, I also have a poem up at Barking Sycamores this week. It is the final poem in the "Thoughts on Writing" series, which began life as an introduction to this novel.
A long time after he finished the rosary, but not so long after that he forgot that he had done so, Clay found himself being picked up from school by Grandma Bayleigh. He itched at the thin scar inside his palm where his scab used to be and thought about those beads and the way they seemed to make his prayers stronger as they cut into him.
Then the worry started. Bayleigh was not taking him away from his mother, after all. She was picking him up instead of letting Grandpa Harry do it.
Clay knew that his mother had not relented and agreed to allow the Dillons to take care of him, because she grew louder and louder as his father continued to push the issue, and the last couple of times it had even sounded like she was throwing things. His father ran out of their bedroom once when it happened.
Bayleigh smiled. Clay shrank inside, suddenly worried about all the things his mother had said about Grandma’s propensity for cruelty and hatred. Maybe she was a bad example. Maybe his mother was right.
You know her better than anyone. You know she isn’t. Van’s voice was soothing.
Clay ran to his grandmother and hugged her.
“Your grandpa had to go to a sales meeting that was moved to a new time on him,” Grandma Bayleigh said. “So he asked me to come and get you.”
“Is A.J. in the car?” Clay asked.
Bayleigh shook her head. “Marci came by to pick him up at lunch. She’s been planning on that for a while. Said she wanted to take him to the zoo, and honestly, I’m ready for that. Your little brother is good at digging in the dirt, but if I can’t keep his muscles working and his attention on a project, then he gets wild.”
Clay nodded. It felt like his soul was in that nod.
“He likes animals,” he said.
“So, I’m about to go home and make Clif some pizza. Do you want pizza?”
Clay nodded again. Somewhere, Van went to sleep.
* * *
The thing that was in front of him was not a pizza. It was covered with cheeses, somehow combining slices of deli colby with the soupy remains of shredded cheddar and a little of what, from the smell, had to be the viscous, mostly-liquid nacho cheese they had at the 7-11. He wrinkled his nose at the smell before he realized that it was due, at least in part, to the coney sauce, kidney beans, and canned mushrooms embedded in its surface.
“I bet you never saw pizza like this,” Grandpa Clif said. “We only eat pizza at home when Bayleigh is trying to get rid of leftovers. I don’t eat leftovers, but I eat pizza.”
“Next time she asks you if you want pizza,” Grandpa continued, “You make sure to ask her if we’re going to Fred’s. That’s the only place she likes to get real pizza.”
“Okay,” Clay said.
“I forgot to ask today, or we might not be having this talk,” Grandpa said. “It’s okay, though. I like chili and I like nachos. What about you?”
“I like those things,” Clay said.
“Then eat up,” his grandfather pushed the plate closer to him.
The smell drifted up. It wasn’t bad if he closed his eyes and thought about chili and nachos. It was only bad when he was expecting pizza.
Grandma Bayleigh cackled.
Clay took a bite.
“This is really good if you stop calling it pizza,” he said.
* * *
After they finished with the pizza, Grandpa Clif went outside to work with his tools in the garage. He asked Clay if he wanted to help, but Clay did not feel like listening to the saw and the yelling, and he did not like the way the sawdust bit his skin. He was very grateful, though, that his grandfather wanted to give him a choice about participating. At home, his father either demanded his help with home improvements or commanded him to stay away.
Instead of going to help with the tools, Clay watched daytime television with Grandma Bayleigh as she clipped coupons.
“The trick,” she said, “is that the mail-in rebates give you your best dollar value. You give ‘em a week or two after the coupon comes out but before it expires, and then you use it when the item’s on sale and you wind up getting all of your money back. Or else, you wait and then they offer a rebate in store, and you use a discount coupon for the same thing. How do you think you got all those coloring books? Your mom and dad didn’t buy those. They got them from me, and I got a dollar more than I paid for them once I got my rebate check.”
Clay watched, fascinated. His grandmother’s ability to turn the newspaper into money seemed very useful. He wondered why Grandma Doris called the newspaper garbage and threw it out every night. It seemed to be worth using. He knew his mother used it, and he knew that she learned that and canning from Bayleigh.
She never taught him, though. Bayleigh taught him. Why did mother think Bayleigh was evil when she taught all these things that made life easier and set aside food for the winter?
As he wondered, his grandmother kept clipping coupons. She wasted no motion, sliding the scissors forward without even closing them, then snipping the short side and setting each in a stack. Food, office supplies, cleaning supplies, doodads, and candy. Those were the piles. The scissors she used to cut them were from late night TV commercials that Clay had seen when he woke up in the middle of the night and snuck downstairs to see Dobie Gillis. Grandma Bayleigh did not have cable, though so he wondered where she had gotten them if not for the commercial with the ordering information. Then his vision tracked to the pile of doodad coupons, and he knew.
Sitting there, listening to the rich people on television kissing and watching his grandmother find ways to make money out of the newspaper, Clay began to wonder if he had perhaps been wrong about God. In this place, with people who were learning and who knew how to be quiet, he could almost believe that there was something capable of protecting him in the universe. He tried to go to that place where he was sure of it, like he did in science class when concepts made sense, but it eluded him.
In his mind, he kept pitching his field of perception forward, searching for the polyhedral arches that would allow him to hold onto God like other concepts. Everything he found was still himself, though, even when he ran into Van in the castle.
It was odd to be there while still watching polyhedrons, because the two states each made the other less real and less opaque, even though only one was, strictly speaking, a visual phenomenon.
“Do you believe in God?” he asked his grandmother. “I know you don’t go to church, and you always make jokes, but you also pray.”
“That’s how you know I believe in God,” another coupon in another pile interrupted her speech. “Because I don’t believe in churches.”
“At church, they say they feel God, and that’s how they know. I don’t feel anything.”
“I don’t feel anything either,” Bayleigh said. “I just realized that when I believe in God, I don’t need to feel anything. It’s just something I do, and it works. See this house? My good husband? Do you have enough to eat? I don’t need evidence that God is real, because I got what I needed already.”
“Do you think you’d stop believing in him if you lost those things?” Clay asked. His mind flitted back to the Book of Job.
“Wouldn’t you stop believing in the president if he started losing wars?” she shot back.
Clay did not know what to say to that. He supposed he would stop believing then, if it mattered, but he did not believe in the president anyway. President Bush talked like he wasn’t sure of himself, and every time he smiled he looked a little confused. The last president had also looked a little confused, but he never sounded like it. He also felt a difference between the two ways his grandmother used the word ‘believe,’ but he was not sure whether she felt that difference or not, and he was afraid to point it out. Grandma Bayleigh did a lot of things and taught a lot of things, but she did not tolerate sass, and Clay knew that his own father’s approach to it had been honed and refined in the laboratory of his grandmother’s childrearing.
Instead of answering, he thought about where he was, and he wondered if it was enough reason to start supposing that God was something more than the story in his head that resisted pressure to change when his mother tried to retell it.
Next: Thunder Under Ground
If you're new to the series, get caught up with Nothing is Right and Defiant.