NOT THE MAN I MARRIED
by R. A. Busby
He was not the man I married.
I don’t mean like those ladies on Divorce Court who
complain to Judge Lynn that their high school
quarterback hubby went fat and bald. Charles had been a star player, but the
years since his last touchdown had treated him pretty fair. My cheerleader days
weren’t coming back anytime soon, though.
No, when I say that, I mean it literally. He was not the
man I married.
The day it happened, I found myself in the middle of eating
dinner. I call it dinner like there
was silverware involved, but it was just me and Bella watching Hallmark Channel
and finishing the baby’s Spaghetti-Os so I wouldn’t have to wash more dishes.
Because Charles wasn’t due until Monday, I hadn’t exactly prepared a fancy
I can still see that fork of mine frozen in midair between
the plate and my mouth. Since then, I’ve found that these moments where your
memory pauses like a broken DVD are when things usually get decided.
I heard the front door slam shut, and then he was beside
the couch before I even had time to ask myself why or wherefore.
“Came back early,” he said. “Daddy’s coming in Tuesday.” He
glanced about the kitchen. “House needs cleaning. Especially the downstairs.
What the hell you do here all day besides watch TV?”
And it was right then that something went ‘ping’ in my head
as I looked at his face, and I knew in a flash that this man wasn’t Charles. He
might look like Charles, but he wasn’t.
My first thought was to grab a gun. Charles had guns,
naturally—what warden wouldn’t?—but he kept them in his room out of the little
ones’ reach. There was a kitchen drawer full of knives, but I reconsidered that
plan right quick. This man didn’t look surprisable.
My fork clunked into the bowl, and
backed up deep into the sofa cushions. On the TV, a handsome flower shop owner
wrapped a bow around a perfect romantic bouquet for his ladylove.
“Darlene?” He snapped his fingers under my nose. “Get it
done soon, baby.” He turned to Bella at the far end of the couch, her feet gathered
close in. “What the hell you doing down here so late? Go on. Get.”
“Yes, Daddy,” Bella whispered, scuttling out of the
With that, he put down Charles’
and phone on the table, hung up Charles’ jacket, headed up to Charles’ room,
and shut the door with a small click of the lock.
The moment he was truly gone, I dashed upstairs, but the
kids were safe, little Charlie with his arms wrapped around Baby Yoda, and
Bella with her coppery hair spread across the pillow. He hadn’t come in here,
whoever he was.
Whatever he was.
Charles and the children and I lived on a large property
halfway up the mountain range near ____, a desert city whose name I won’t
mention. The place had been in his family for decades, and honest, I never
dreamed I’d be living in a house so grand. Hell, I’d’ve been happy for a
I’d known from forever that Charles’ people had money.
Their men had run the prison since the get-go, each son taking the place of his
daddy. I wasn’t aware being a warden made you so much long green, but I suppose
you could add that to the shit-ton of other things I didn’t know.
Although the facility was surrounded by layers of
chain-link topped with silver swoops of shining razor wire, the real fence was
the desert. In all directions, nothing grew but creosote and sagebrush. In
places, the bare bones of the land rose from the dust in hills bleached beige
and wrinkled as the backs of ancient albino elephants. It wasn’t the same
prison that housed men like O.J., but it’d been built along the same lines. In
summertime, the temperature soared beyond a hundred eighteen, and folks opened
their car doors with oven mitts.
It was almost summer now. The days trembled on the verge of
it. Down the long thirty-mile stretch of road where our dirt drive ended, the
air danced and shimmered as lithe as a dream of water above the black asphalt.
Out here, of course, it was Charles and me. And the
When he started courting, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
He had money, and I had pretty, and there are worse foundations for a marriage,
I guess. He could’ve had the pick of anyone, so when he sent flowers, held my
elbow to guide me as we walked, called all the time, and texted at the wee
hours to see if I was okay, I really did feel as if I was Cinderella.
He said he’d never loved any woman like he loved me,
especially since his first wife had fucked him over so bad. We’d gone to the
same high school, her and I. She was a ginger girl with a cloud of copper hair,
but she was real quiet, even mousy, the kind of person who turned in science
reports in neat plastic covers.
She’d been crazy, Charles told me. A slut. She’d up and
disappeared out of the blue, not so much as taking her own baby. Finally, he
pulled strings to have their marriage dissolved or annulled or whatever you
call it when your wife runs off with her side piece and no one knows where.
It’d be easy to say he wed me because he needed a mama for
Bella, or I wed him because Mama’s disability and my Big Box job didn’t buy
more for dinner than five-for-a-dollar Happy Fun Ramens, and both of those
would be true. The fact is, though, the man I married danced with me in a real
restaurant and murmured that God gave him a woman who could heal his broken
heart. We said our vows a few weeks later with only Mama and his father in
attendance. He wasn’t big on friends.
Almost as soon as we tied the knot, I came up pregnant.
When Mama drove me home from the hospital and helped me into bed, she swore
she’d watch the baby, but when I woke up, she was gone and the house was silent
except for the murmur of voices coming from Charles’ study downstairs.
He was talking to his father. I’m a fool, but not always,
and I knew Charles hated the man like poison. For the longest time, he tried to
please that mean bastard, but his daddy’s goalposts were forever on the move
and anyone but Charles could see it was a lost cause. He almost cried about it
once, his blue eyes red with unshed tears, the day he asked me to marry him.
Even early on, though, I understood it was best never to
interrupt the men if they were talking. Don’t trouble trouble, as my mama often
“Goddamned shame,” the old fart was saying. “Y’know, a man
with a girl-baby’s just life’s ultimate bitch.” He chuckled.
Charles fell silent for a moment. “Yes, Daddy.”
“You feed her and school her and pay for her little fancy
furbelows, and for what? For some other fella to come along and stuff her holes
fulla cock. You figured that out already, though, didn’tcha?”
Charles kept silent.
“Well,” said Daddy at last. “You did better this time
around. Maybe. Got a boy out of it at least.”
But it had been a tough birth. Ultimately, the doc took
Charles aside and explained that if I had more babies, it’d kill me. When I got
home, I found my room empty of his belongings. In my absence, he’d moved to the
large bedroom at the end of the hall, a grand suite with a view of the prison.
“I did it for you,” he said, “so I can have some peace and
quiet. And you can stay near the kids.”
I apologized again. I slept like a rotisserie chicken,
tossing and turning and plagued by scream-dreams. One of the last ones I’d had,
I came awake to Charles shaking me by the shoulder. The bright glare of the
security lights outside streamed in the windows and glinted off the barrel of
“You need to not be crying out at night, Darlene,” he said.
“I’m worried about you. It’s not safe for a woman to be screaming around a
He was always so careful.
That evening after the fake Charles came home, I lay alone
and awake. Whoever that man was, he’d not emerged, and the kids hadn’t stirred.
Out of habit, I alarmed the security system and turned on the outside lights
just as the real Charles would want me to. At that witching hour when the
sounds of the house seemed to settle around us like a weight, my mind jibbered
and jittered with whims and megrims.
The more I wound my thoughts about, the more I guessed that
whoever that man down the hallway might be, he surely had Charles’ permission
to do this. He must have. For one, this explained why Charles’ phone and keys
and jacket were in his hands. If I’d figured out anything about the man I
married, it was that you never want to take what’s his. You don’t even want to
So, maybe it was a test. He’d done this fucked-up
switcheroo with Charles’ by-your-leave, coming home early maybe to surprise me,
see what we were up to. Hell, maybe the fake Charles was even a by-blow of
Daddy’s. That last I thought most likely, given that this man didn’t merely resemble
Charles; he looked exactly like Charles, right down to the
I did not want this man in the house. I didn’t want him
down the hall with Bella and little Charlie between me and him. My door had to
remain open at night for the littles, and of course, if the real Charles came
home to find my bedroom closed and locked against him with another guy around--well,
I suppose I don’t need to say much more about that, now do I?
But what if this man was an inmate, a Ted Bundy, a Scott
Peterson, or a psycho like Ed Kemper who’d shoved his mama’s tongue and larynx
down the kitchen disposer ‘cause he grew sick and tired of her bitching?
I guess I could have texted someone for advice, but who? In
the Lifetime movies, the woman always has a best coffee friend, but apart from
the ladies at church, who were mostly for inquiring whether crock pot liners
were on sale at Dollar Giant, I didn’t really have anyone. Besides, since
Charles got all my texts on his own phone anyway, I might as well just save my
breath. Not for the first time, I wanted Mama alive again, but to be honest,
I’m not sure what guidance she could’ve given.
I wished the real Charles would tell me what to do.
Up until the moment I found that thing in the basement, I
kept my mouth shut. It was always the best course of action. Go along to get
along, Mama always said. I got up and made the kids’ breakfast and Charles’
coffee and pretended this was just a day. The new man took his morning cup
black like Charles, and slid his keys in his left inner pocket like Charles,
and when he came home in the evening, he speared his meat by turning the fork
tines downward the same way as him.
I have to admit he was impressive. He’d gotten all the
details right. All except for one. When he ate, and sometimes when he talked,
he clapped his lips together in a soft plip
that felt somehow raw and fleshy, a sound that made you think of holes and
orifices. It made me shudder.
Daddy was coming that afternoon. Although I never said much
to the man besides “Want some peas, Daddy?” or “Here’s the remote, Daddy,” I
knew if anyone could tell true from fake, it was him. I wanted to witness that
second he clapped his eyes on the new fellow wearing his son’s hat. Maybe we’d
have more than usual to say to each other, him and me.
While the kids played outside, I cleaned out the basement
in kind’ve a rush, not taking time to do more than air the place out and change
the sheets. With its giant-screen TV, game consoles, and custom-made neon signs
like “Iron Bar Bar” above the liquor rack, the downstairs had never been my
territory. Off the main area with its pool table and one-man bath lay a guest
room kitty-corner from a tall oak bookcase, a room with a thick door designed
to keep out sound. Along the east wall, a narrow glass-block window let in a
strip of light.
After a quick swipe of the bathroom to clean off the
inevitable piss-mist on the walls and toilet, I changed the sheets and added
another pillow for Daddy. As a final touch I shifted the smaller TV nearer on
the credenza so he could see the screen from the bed, then called it a done
I pushed the door closed a bit hard and jumped back as the
bookcase gave a threatening wobble. It butted right up against the intersecting
wall, but the concrete below it was uneven, raised a little in a broad ridge
that reminded me a bit of a nearly worn-down speed bump, so the heavy-loaded bookcase
sat just a bit off true. Some years ago when Bella went through her climbing
phase, I’d waited until Charles had his dinner and a piece of homemade pie
before asking him would he please mind bolting the case to the wall if he had
some free time. He hadn’t done it yet. My husband is a very busy man.
As I said, the basement never was my territory, but now it
had become his. The fake Charles’. I heard him down cellar sometimes, moving
below in the darkness, rooting in the damp and musty black, his brusque, angry
tread audible even against the concrete of the floor Charles had poured all by
himself to make the place into a proper man-cave after his first wife left.
The new one shut himself down there in the shadows, and the
kids and I understood better than to turn that basement knob or touch the door.
We gave it a wide berth. Nevertheless, I could feel him behind it, sense the
dark force of his pacing to the low pulsing sounds of explosions and screams
from Call of Duty or Red Dead Redemption.
But often there would be just a brooding silence. For
hours, it would be quiet down there. It was a loud silence, if you know what I
mean, a silence that lingered in the corners of the kitchen and puddled in the
angles of the room. I tried drowning it with the TV, the stereo, the sound of
the kids playing, but that silence roared down the hall so our laughs and
chatters all lost air and fell flat down, and the silence remained.
Now and then, I caught Bella looking at the basement, her
eyes big, her arms wrapped around her knees hugged close to her chest. Little
Bella, with her hair that lovely color of copper like her mama’s. I think she
knew. To this day, I think she knew.
“I had the dream again, Mommy,” she said the morning after
the fake Charles came. “The monster one. It was almost up the stairs.” She
stared at the basement again.
He was silent down there now. Sleeping. Dormant. After all,
I thought, it must be tiring to be Charles. I mean, if you ain’t Charles,
you’ve gotta give it some practice. There’s so many details to mind: how to tap
the remote against the arm of the couch with your left hand, how to flick your
wet fingers at the bathroom mirror and leave little spots all over the glass. I
guess after a while it might want to linger down there where it could just
relax and unbuckle its face. To regenerate.
But still, there were signs. Little tells, as they say in
“You see something, Darlene?” fake Charles asked one night,
laying aside his fork (tines down, of course) and staring at me over the
remains of his tuna casserole. He’d picked out all the mushrooms and heaped
them in a pile on the side of his plate exactly like the real Charles always
“No, baby,” I murmured, and turned my eyes to my food. Just
like that, the room felt ten degrees colder. Little Charlie grabbed at his
big-kid sippy with Patrick Star on the outside and took a gulp of milk. Bella’s
fork stopped halfway to her mouth the way mine had the day fake Charles first
“Good,” he said. And then he pressed his lips together.
Done with the bathroom at last, I poured the dirty toilet
water in the sink. Outside, the air had begun to press and shimmer with heat
even though it was still early morning, and just as soon as I got back from the
mailbox, I’d be asking the kids to come inside. Down the end of the drive
leading to the highway is a bank of mailboxes for the houses around here. The
mail had slipped my mind yesterday--things were happening like that more and
more--and I thought I’d better grab it before Daddy’s arrival made me forget
The breeze from the passing cars on the road stirred my
hair as I unlocked the box, and just as I reached in, I saw him.
It was Charles. He was riding shotgun in a red Ford headed
down the mountain toward____, one arm resting casually on the open window. The
morning sun glinted off his sunglasses, and that’s what caught my eye. For a
moment he turned and his eyes met mine. Then he moved on. I ran down the
highway waving my arms, but the truck never stopped. The driver didn’t even hit
Now I knew.
Charles was testing me.
He wanted to be sure of us, to do a quick little drive-by,
and hadn’t expected me to be getting the mail at that hour, that was all.
Like I said, he was always so careful.
The man we met at the airport wasn’t quite the Daddy I
remembered. Three or four years past when he retired to a senior home in Green
Valley, he’d been old but vigorous, sharp, and piss-mean.
This one was still mean. But sharp? Not so much.
The attendant wheeled him down the security corridor. In
the chair was a shrunken, weary version of Daddy who blinked at the sunlight
and could hardly see, a Daddy with the air let out.
Twice on the way home he called my girl by her mama’s name
till Charles told him to shut up, but it didn’t stop Bella from coming in that
night with another dream of that monster stomping up the stairs. At dinner,
Daddy’s food dribbled halfway down his shirt-front. Charles hissed, “Clean him
up, for Chrissakes,” but he needn’t have whispered. The old man couldn’t hear
shit. He spent the week before the incident propped upright in his basement
room with the TV turned on full. With the door closed, though, you hardly heard
a thing, thank God.
But before he left for the airport, while the kids were
watching SpongeBob and I was hefting
his suitcase into the back of the truck, Daddy grabbed me with an abrupt
strength I hadn’t known was still in him. His bony fingers dug into the meat of
my upper arm between the muscles, and I bit my lip not to cry out. With a few
quick breaths, his clouded eyes sought out my face and Charles’.
“Who the fuck are you?” he rasped, looking from one to the other.
“Who the fuck are alla you?” Then Charles loaded him into the seat and he was
It turned out we didn’t have much to say to each other
I took a broom downstairs.
I’d wanted to do a better job down there now Daddy had
left. A bit like locking the barn door after the horse got stolen, I know, but
it needed doing. Since it was so damn dark, I waited until the light sat right
in the morning to let in a shine through the strip of glass block and went to
work cleaning, starting with the guest bedroom, which still held a lingering
tang of old man smell.
I ran a Swiffer over everything, the TV, the game console,
and began sweeping the whole basement once the dusting was done. That’s when I
Between the bookcase and the guest room in a corner usually
hidden by the door I’d just closed, I spotted a dust bunny. I poked at it with
the broom and swept out a quantity of dirt, but the bunny remained fixed to the
floor. I recalled for a minute how Mama’d called them ghost turds or slattern’s
wool, and that might’ve made me smile except there was something about this
side of the basement that always set me off-kilter. The uneven concrete, maybe,
the sense that the earth was lifted the wrong way beneath your feet. I dashed
the bristles at the dusty clump again, and it still didn’t budge.
I turned on a desk lamp, the bright kind with that white
light, and aimed it at the corner.
The thing was fully embedded in the concrete, poking up
from the grey, uneven surface like a sidewalk weed, a few little tufts that had
probably gotten slicked down when the floor was laid and then popped back up
over time as it dried. They’d attracted cobwebs and a quantity of dust and sat
there covered to invisibility by the powdery dirt I’d just brushed out.
With the desk lamp throwing my shadow against the wall in
stark-edged relief, I knelt to the concrete and took the little tuft of hair
between my fingers and stared at it. In the white light, the coppery red hairs
shone out like blood.
Upstairs, I spent a long time staring out the window down
the dusty expanse of our drive, not seeing it at all. I was thinking of how
baby Charlie’s stroller would rattle against the rocks until we got to the
asphalt of the highway, me holding onto Bella and steadying an overstuffed
backpack and my old purse across my shoulder.
If this were a Lifetime movie, now
would be when the woman’s best coffee friend would take her hand and exclaim,
“Oh, honey, you should call the police.”
That was funny.
How can you go to the police when
he was the police?
Yeah, sure, I could explain he wasn’t the man I married,
but I could see the side-eye they’d be trading the minute my words were out.
Why, that man would just stand up there in the court with his hand on the Holy
Bible and declare, “Your Honor, I do solemnly swear and affirm that this
woman’s a crazy-ass bitch,” and who was the judge to believe? Me, or the guy he
camped with every September during dove-hunting?
Besides, those papers with phrases
like term life insurance this and
determination of ownership that, or acquired
or jointly held property and
fiduciary responsibility he’d told me to sign to keep things safe might
mean a thing or two to a judge even if they sounded like gibberish to me. Hell,
I don’t need a law degree to understand it boiled down to “You ain’t gettin’
For myself, I could care less. Been
poor before, and I’m not likely to forget how it works.
The kids, though. That was another thing.
If they came with me, what could I give them? The inside
trick of using free McDonald’s ketchups to flavor bowls of Happy Fun Ramen?
Knowing which plasma places gave the best Oreos? Shit. All I had to offer was a
future of yard sale clothing and meth neighbors.
Not like he’d let them go. Not by a long shot. And without
me, what would happen to them?
I stared out at the drive, still imagining the bang of the
baby stroller on the dirt, then on the asphalt. The Lifetime friend said, “But
honey, you can take the car!”
That was funny too. He’d gotten the kind with DriveLink or
RoadBuddy or whatever you called it that sends that info to an app right on
your phone so you know exactly where to send the cops if someone’s jacked your
The Lifetime coffee friend in my head fell kinda quiet
He would surely follow us. It was easy enough to imagine
him at the wheel, the chrome grille flashing in the sunlight, the tires
throwing up a fan of dirt and rocks as they skidded to a stop behind us on the
soft shoulder of that long mountain road. He would be wearing those sunglasses,
the reflective ones like the guy in Cool
And if he took those glasses from
eyes, what would I see?
What would I see when all the masks
But Bella’d had another monster dream. She’d cried, her
head buried in my arms. I looked at the glow of her hair in the lamplight a
very long time.
Afterwards, I went back in the basement. I angled the light
at the corner again and stared and stared at the concrete, the bookshelf, the
ever-so-slight rise in the floor like a worn-down speed bump. The tuft of hair
springing up at its head like a guilty weed.
And then she told me what to do.
That Friday when he came home, put his phone and keys down,
and went looking for me, I was in the basement bedroom. I’d set the TV back in
its place in the far corner and said I thought Daddy messed up the settings,
but I didn’t want to break things trying to make them right.
“Jesus Christ,” he muttered, and pressed his lips together.
When his back was turned, I stepped out of the room and
pushed the door shut with a quiet click. He barked a command, but his words were
swallowed by the sound of the loaded bookcase crashing down to block the
entrance, all eight feet of solid oak.
Didn’t take more than a shove to do it, what with that
The funny thing is, I could almost feel the case being
lifted from the bottom there for a second as if something was pushing upwards
The gnarled, mangled sound of shouting was coming through,
but only if I stood right near. For many minutes, I sat on the floor and
listened to him quite calmly and rationally. In a low, soft voice, I explained
to him what I’d found out. What she’d told me.
I said I knew he wasn’t real.
He slammed against the door over and over, but each time,
it wedged the bookcase harder into the corner. His claws scabbered and
skittered but could get no purchase. The wall shivered, but it held. Behind it,
I heard his curses raging, growling, pleading, murmuring, and bursting out in
howls so vicious I could tell his teeth were biting every word like an animal.
Like the dark thing he really was.
When it was night, I walked upstairs and shut the basement
door softly. From the front hall closet, I took the backpack I’d stuffed with
Bella’s things and mine and unfolded Charlie’s stroller. With some effort, I
managed to get him inside and covered up. It was going to be a long walk.
Bella was silent. She’d been that way since she told me the
monster had been in her room. Right by her bed. Then it had reached for her.
Those were the last words she said to me.
Even at midnight, the black tar holds the heat of the day.
It rises up from the surface in a pulsing wave.
In my mind, I can see him raging, the dark thing, throwing
the television at the wall, clawing at the glass block window, tearing the bed
apart, raving and howling with no one to hear him. When he found me, he
whispered, he would kill me and eat me. He would suck the marrow from my bones.
He would begin, he said, with my cunt.
By then, though, he might be terribly thin. And thirsty.
Along the dark highway we walked all
night as the black tar exhaled its pent-up heat. The moon stared down with its
white, unblinking eye. God’s security light. His camera. The fence of His
We let the stroller go a while back.
They’ll find it, but maybe not right away. In the darkness, the sound of the
oncoming cars and the twinkle of lights made us conceal ourselves in the
scrubby cover of creosote and joshua trees like tiny bunnies, but by the time
the sun rose, we were too tired to hide. We kept walking.
First a single car passed, then
another. Above the mountains loomed God’s other eye, angry and yellow.
The breeze from the cars whirled around our heads and
covered our hair in greyish-brown dust the color of rabbit fur. I lifted my eyes
from the unvarying tar of the road, the mile markers, the rocks. I stared at
the drivers as they passed.
I see them behind their windshields.
At first, they wore sunglasses over their eyes, the mirrored kind, but now
they’re off. They’re off, and I can see.
Every one of them has Charles’
Every single one.
The face of the man I married.