I. Albuquerque Is a Fine Place for a Wedding

by a contributor

This is part I of Andrew Brininstool’s three-part series “Reader Response Theory.”

Andrew Brininstool

That is her sense of American communities: The psychopath who sits next to you on a Greyhound bus and who will not stop talking, and who has plenty of theories to fill up the time between here and Albuquerque.

– Charles Baxter, referring to Flannery O’Connor. From the chapter “Counterpointed Characterization” in Burning Down the House.

He started in near Tucson, roughly an hour ago. You felt him glancing over, trying to discern whether or not you were asleep. You had your headphones on, listening to the new Radiohead album with your eyes closed and your head jostling against the window—hoping he wouldn’t say anything and knowing it was only a matter of time before he did; you couldn’t pretend to be asleep for twelve straight hours. Also, you knew almost immediately he was a psychopath. You knew he’d saved at least one human body part—a digit, a testicle—in a freezer or a rented storage unit.

He has a smell to him, something akin to bleach. His fingernails are long and clean.

“—but that of course assumes the market is always self-correcting,” he says now, “and I’m not necessarily arguing that it is, per se. There exists a certain need for oversight and regulation; I’ll grant you that. I think the issue at hand is who, who is in charge of oversight, who is in charge of regulation?”

You are traveling to New Mexico to attend your mother’s wedding, her third. This time it’s to a man who wears Lucchese’s and turquoise bolo ties and fly fishes with the lieutenant governor. His name is Ron. You haven’t met him yet. Your mother tells you you’ll like him, that the two of you will get along. She’s right, but you don’t know it yet. You’re nineteen: doubt is your habit of being.

“All I’m saying is that collectivists overlook one crucial matter: The Invisible Hand. Let me put it this way. If wealth is to be evenly distributed, who does the distributing? Who decides what is just, what is important? Ho, boy. Now we’re getting into some hardcore applied ethics. Tell me. I’d love to know.”

It was near Tucson that you made the mistake of telling him you were in college and considering a major in political science. Mostly the psychopath has been affable, explaining to you why he is a libertarian, why he fears the federal government (which he has taken to calling Big Brother). He served in Desert Storm, he’s told you, an experience that changed his beliefs in centralized power. The more he talks, the more agitated he seems to become.

He is staring at you now, waiting for a response.

“I don’t know,” you tell him.

“Exactly. That’s exactly what I’m driving at.”

The psychopath slouches back into his seat and crosses his arms and sighs and cranes his thin neck out into the aisle as if searching for somebody he knows. He is clean-shaven—there’s a razor nick near his Adam’s apple—but his hair looks as if it hasn’t been washed in days. He wears a pair of thick glasses, the kind enlistees are given during basic training. Birth Control Goggles. That’s what they’re called. Bruce, your mother’s second husband, told you that just before he was arrested for statutory rape.

“So what’s bringing you to Albuquerque?”

“My mother. She’s getting married.”

He smiles. “Congratulations. That’s wonderful.”


“No, really. Mothers are important. Take it from me.”

He goes quiet then, as if recalling a fond memory from his past. For a moment you believe you are in the clear. You turn your iPod back on and look out the window. It’s bright outside, and a little chilly. You yawn and close your eyes.

But it isn’t long before you feel him tap your shoulder.

“Don’t listen to anybody who tells you a child must reject the notion of being his mother’s phallus—all that Lacanian gobbledygook. A mother is an important thing, theory aside. You understand?”

“Okay,” you tell him. “I understand.”

“Repeat it,” he tells you. “Repeat what I’ve just said: A mother is an important thing.”

“‘A mother is an important thing.’”

He nods. He looks pleased.

Then the psychopath puts a hand in his coat pocket and pulls out a thick square of tinfoil. He places it on his lap and carefully peels the foil back, one section at a time. He spreads it with his palms until it is smooth against his thighs. Inside is a sandwich cut diagonally and thick with cuts of dark red meat. “Liverwurst,” he tells you, and raises half to his mouth. Suddenly you are struck with a sickening image, a vision of the man at home with a deli slicer, tarps spread out on the floor.

He pauses. “Hey,” he says. “I’ve got something, something I want you to have.”

He wraps the sandwich back up and puts it in his pocket. He reaches down beneath the seat in front of him. He keeps his eyes on you; a wild leer spreads across his face. He pulls out a small canvas bag and sets it between the two of you. His grin reaches a near euphoric state. What teeth he has are tiny and sharp and bound together with braces. Your mouth goes dry. You look around the bus. Everybody else is asleep. It’s as if they’ve been gassed. You can see the driver’s fat head jolt up and down in a desperate attempt to stave off the relentless tug of sleep.

“Here,” the psychopath says. “Give this to your mother.”

It is a copy of F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.

“This book will change her life,” he says.

You look at the book’s cover. You have seven more hours to go.


A graduate from the MFA program at the University of Houston, Andrew Brininstool’s work has appeared in BarrelhouseGreen Mountains ReviewQuick Fiction, the Tin House blog, Best New American Voices 2010 and has received the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award from Mid-American Review as well as the Editors’ Prize from /nor.