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The Art of Marriage
Soft Stroke: A Tragic Comedy
by Ryan Smith

The boy in the basement is frothing mad, and he keeps banging on the goddamn cellar door, little splinters of red paint driving out into the living room. I’ve had to start wearing shoes in my own house, for Christ’s sake. The little splinters bury themselves in the shag and really cut the fuck out of my heels. There’s still about a dozen little blood spatters I haven’t been able to Bissell out, Lilliputian drag trails. I expect to find tiny mass graves in the den.
      But I have to keep him there, otherwise my catchphrase, "I love you more than the Arab boy I have locked in the basement," is completely useless. And let me tell you, nothing wins a woman over more than that little line, and when I open the Lexan peephole and let her see the splendor my boy lives in, well, she knows the kind of man I am. The peephole used to be regular double-pane, but somehow the little S.O.B. fashioned a type of blackpowder, tried to blow the thing out and escape. So now the Lexan, and a steel reinforced door. But he can still pound those splinters out, maybe he has some kind of hydraulics down there.
      So the other night, I’m down at Hangover Square, preferred watering hole of the architect and pro-dom social scene, and I’m working on my eighth bourbon and ammonium nitrate. The place looks dead, the many blueprints spread over the small tables scattered generously about aren’t even fluttered by the passing of latex and leather clad legs as they glide about looking for work. There was a woman here a few weeks ago wearing a vinyl sandwich board, advertising her wares. The letters consisted of those little spikes that young punkers have all over their jackets, very hip I thought.
      I’ve just about decide to leave when Tazurbu Ozone walks in, plonks down next to me, sighs, orders a tequila with genetically modified lime. The things are scary, they have teeth.
      We've spent some time together. She is incredibly intelligent and vicious. With a professed love for Idi Amin and Qaddafi, she has made a passion out of what is just a hobby for the most of us: the study of African geo-politics and the mechanics of genocide. I published a monograph or two on the subject, I mean, haven’t we all? But she wrote a twelve-volume examination of how the direct democratic processes of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya are a precursor to a new type of ethnic warfare that will occur only within that country’s army, split along tribal lines that were redefined over negotiations for the uranium rich area of the Aouzou strip, which in turn will lead to a new war with Chad, which will inevitably draw in the French, hence Europe. Really fascinating, the first volume is appearing next month in a watershed partnership between University of Minnesota Press and the Christian Coalition’s political theory imprint, Joshua’s Spearhead. So, I’m in some type of awe over her, to say the least.
      We sit at the bar and do shots for a few hours. The crowd thickens as dawn grows closer, and the noise and heat get oppressive. The night-cooled desert air is getting denser, so we decide to adjourn to the nearby Breton restaurant across the street. But it's still closed, the notice says there has been a death in the chef's family, so the bistro will not be open for a week.
      “What a pansy,” I say, “how can you be devoted to your art if you feel the need to run off and visit corpses? I mean, food preparation is a craft, a sacred trust between you and cuisine, you and the fabulously attractive patrons who need to eat crudités at dawn.”
      “Lay off,” spits Tazurbu, “Maybe he had an intense sexual experience with this family member, maybe he was like Rousseau. A harsh beating from an attractive aunt at the age of eight, a lifelong welding together of sensuality and discipline, a passion for observation, political theory, exile and powerful ejaculation. This could be his last chance to commune with this person, cement all those guilty desires. Did you ever think of that?”
      Of course, I haven’t thought about it at all. It’s a personal weakness, I see conspiracies all around me. I assume that the closed restaurant is the endmove of an elaborate plot aimed at my death, so I am a little worked up over it. We decide to hold off on eating for the moment, but we are beginning to feel the first stirrings of monumental passion, so we adjourn to the parking lot out back of Hangover Square, where we approach Tazurbu’s intestinal-pink Boxster.
      “Hold up,” she warns me as pulls the alarm key from her purse. She presses a button, and an electric pulse ripples over the vehicle. Large blades scream out from under the chassis, arcing across both sides of the car. I make a face, secretly repulsed by this display of Bondesque ostentation. I guess I’m not careful enough with my disdain, she catches the look.
      “Hey, what the fuckin’ fuck is that look for?” she raves, “I bought this car at a police auction in Cape Town. Do you have any idea what carjacking and auto theft statistics are like there? This shit is standard, no company will insure you without it. I know it’s a display of Bondesque ostentation, and I tried to take it all off, but it’s already killed three mechanics, four alarm technicians and a U.S. customs inspector in Miami, so what would you suggest I do?”
      I have no idea what to say to her, so deep is my embarrassment. I should have known there would be a good reason. So, all defensive measures deactivated, we sink into the car, put the top down and roar off onto the freeway, headed west, of course, for the Hi-Cap Mon Amour, the 24-7 firing range that was on the city limits, operating in the perpetual economic din of casinos, bestiality brothels, clock-radio wholesalers, and the occasional crack house.
      Seeing as I have membership, we valeted the car, and walked in past the lines of wannabes, sashaying into the deluxe executive area of the range. I had my fetus skin range bag in my left hand, my right was slowly caressing Tazurbu’s hip. As we walked up to the sign-in desk, I could feel eyes like flashbulbs popping all around. I was somewhat of a legend here, my accuracy unapproachable. My sexual prowess thus assured, I had no trouble attracting bevies of beautiful women with a powerful interest in automatic weapons.
      “Good morning, Mr. Bauman,” the range-flunky says. All the employees are dressed in starched khaki, high collars with range insignia on the left side. They use a system of rank similar to Voltaire's 18th century Jesuits. The guy who’s checking my weapons to make sure they’re all clean and legal is a subaltern and a corporal. I’ve never met the owner, he’s some type of Father General whose huger than life portraits are everywhere, always out on stadium tours, attracting the faithful.
      “Looks like everything is in order here, sir. Which of our lanes would you like today. We have . . .let’s see . . . the Kafka lane is free.”
      “Did you replace the motorized vermin?” I inquire.
      “Yes. And you’ll be pleased to note that The Castle is much more imposing now, the sense of dread and faceless horror is very evident.”
      I glance at Tazurbu, she winks at me and coos. I can really feel her heating up, and I think that the Kafka lane, while arousing, might be the wrong move. The darkness of the Central European motif may get more tiring than erotic.
      “No, not this morning. What else do you have?” I ask.
      “The Boer range is free."
      Tazurbu gets a sour expression. After having spent the last year buried in study for her last book, I’m sure she wants nothing to do with faux colonial strife.
      “That doesn’t sound right either,” I say. The subaltern looks confused. I’m known for my decisiveness, my quick to action demeanor. I can’t afford to show hesitation, even in front of this probationary employee. I quickly tell him, “I’m feeling like something classic yet modern. Something with an air of empire. The Regency lane is open, yes?” I say.
      He glances at his computer screen, taps some keys. “Yes, it is. Would you like the A.I. dueling opponents, or the less responsive timed ones? Better for novices,” he glances at Tazurbu.
      “What the fuck do I look like, you piece of cum-filled maggot shit? A NOVICE?” She leans over the desk and cracks him between the eyes, hard. He staggers back, blood dripping onto his shirt.
      “N. . No, ma’am, of course not. A.I., right away, the lane’s set up. Go in whenever you’re ready.” His eyes are watering, but he retains most of his composure. I reach over and grab a comment card. I write, “Slightly presumptuous, takes a punch well, nice sideburns,” and slip it into the comment box. I pick up my bags and lead Tazurbu down the hallway, and another employee hands us our Zara shooting glasses and hearing protection.
      I open the ornate door that leads to the lane, motion Tazurbu inside, and flip on the red light to let everyone know the lane is in use. We’re greeted by bird song, the scent of forest air. Frost crunches underfoot as we move along the wall to the livery hooks, put on thick woolen cloaks and warm hats, and grab the lane remote. I know this lane was designed to look like the meadow in New Jersey where Alexander Hamilton was killed, even though that happened in July. The range designers felt that winter was more dramatic.
      I open my bags and remove my .50 Automag, which is about as close as I can get to a .56 dueling pistol, you have to make allowances. Anyway, I prefer it to the Desert Eagle, which has too much recoil to be accurate. I pull back the slide, lock it and insert one round, then let the slide forward. I thumb the remote switch that activates my opponent, who slowly strides out of the mist. The rules the opponent uses are based on the Code Duello, devised and agreed upon in 1777.
      “You, sir,” he intones, “have insulted the lady’s reputation, and I demand an apology on her behalf.”
      “I will not, I said your sister was a dirty slut; I stand by it,” I reply.
      “I choose pistols. What distance do you choose?,” he replies.
      “Thirty paces,” I yell.
      “Then I leave it to our seconds to fix the time and turns of firing.” He motions forwards two other men, who yell,
      “We say fire at pleasure, once each.”
      I nudge Tazurbu, who pips, “I agree.”
      My opponent and I face each other across the morning. We both raise our pistols at the same time, but I fire first. The bullet slams home, mid sternum but a little right. I’m off my game by two inches. Must be my aroused state, my pulse is throwing off the timing. But it's good enough. He falls to the ground, his seconds drag him away.
      “Are we gonna have to go through this every time we wanna kill something?” I hear her whine behind me.
      “Of course not, love.” I walk over to the phone, call the desk and let them know that we’ve changed our mind, we want one stationary target, no return fire, and project us an orange organ map over the torso if you please. I hang up and walk back over to her, she’s got the weapons all laid out and is examining them like an Amsterdam jeweler grading diamonds. She picks up the Beretta 92SF first, checks out the barrel, lays it back down. She barely glances at the revolvers. I knew she wasn’t that kind of woman anyway.
      Her attention shifts to the different rifles and subguns. She selects a Skorpion machine pistol that I bought in Peru.
      “That was a favorite of European terrorists in the Seventies and Eighties, particularly the Bader-Meinhof and the Red Brigade,” I tell her. “.32, 50 round clip, low recoil matched with an excellent rate of fire. Take out a prime minister and his bodyguard in about 4 seconds. Great gun.”
      Tazurbu walks over to the firing line, gets down into a kneeling position.
      “Hey, could you set it for twilight?” she asks.
      I dim the sunshine, the frost shines under the stars, the birds are quiet. The orange glow of the target is easily seen. I can make out the lines representing the spleen, spine, gall bladder.
      She rips loose with a three round burst. Through the targeting scope I can see she’s put all the rounds through the cerebellum. She continues firing longer and longer bursts, but remains remarkably accurate. With each shot, I can feel myself getting more and more turned on, my huge metallic cock throbbing in time with the weapon’s chattering, threatening to rip out of my Kevlar chinos.
      She burns through two magazines before the dummy falls apart. I can see she’s breathing heavily, bathed in sweat despite the cold. I take the pistol from her, place it back in the bag. I lift out a customized FN-FAL from DSA Arms.
      “Hey,” she says, “you probably shouldn’t shoot that. The aluminum receivers sometimes explodes from . . .”
      “I know, babe, I read the same article in Soldier of Fortune,” I reply, “that’s why I had the faulty aluminum receivers removed, and replaced them with heat-treated 4140 stainless steel ones.” She’s impressed.
      I seat a magazine, press the button for a new dummy. When it appears I immediately let fly. When I’m empty, I display my quick reloading form, getting a new mag in and resuming fire in less than four seconds, faster than any candy-ass Green Beret. All told, I cycle through about 500 rounds of 124 grain 7.62x 39 full metal jacket NATO military spec. ammo. When I take a good look at the target, I can see that I’ve completely obliterated the chest, some shreds of organ meat are still listlessly hanging on, but for the most part it's just perfect.
      As I turn around I see Tazurbu’s amorous looks pelting me like acid rain, sizzling their way through my dick. We shoot some more, I let her try out the various exotic weapons, the MG-34, an original first production run model of the AK series, my many 19th century derringers. She decides to finish off the morning with the Beretta, but it keeps jamming. I think something must be wrong with it, but it looks clean. I assume it’s a feed problem and curse my domestic magazines, swearing I’ll only buy Italian from now on.
      While we wait for the barrels to cool down, we decide to make snow angels, delighting in the mounting attraction between us. When we’re laughed out, I pack up the guns and leave them with one of the range lieutenants for cleaning. Normally I do it myself, but I figure I probably won’t have the time today. He assures me he’ll clean the weapons immaculately, and I arrange to pick them up the next evening, and make a reservation for the Kafka lane, too.
      Before I leave, I ask him to double check the magazines on the Beretta, because I think they’re defective. They may need a new spring or follower. He examines it.
      “Were you getting jams?” he asks.
      “Yeah, but only when she was shooting,” I reply, nodding at Tazurbu, who looks embarrassed.
      “Well, it was probably soft-stroke," he says. “You see, since this a delayed blowback, short barrel recoil stroke system, proper feed and ejection of cartridges requires that you have your wrists locked. If they’re loose, then there’s not a fixed point for the locking block to cycle against, hence the round fails to chamber or eject properly. Happens sometimes with women, their wrists are weaker.”
      I think, uh-oh, and sure enough, he gets socked between the eyes just like the last guy. I grab Ms. Ozone and hurry out while she’s screaming before I lose my membership executive keys.
      We rip out of the parking lot in her car, easily punching it to 130 on the straight-aways, decelerating to 80 for the curves, rocketing up through the gears as we come out of them. I can feel the blood pooling in my shoes, and I know we’re pulling real G’s. From the look on Tazurbu’s face, I know she wants all that blood in my, uh, lower extremities.
      “So,” she purrs, “your place or mine?’ Then hocks up a huge bloody loogie. I could never resist a heavy smoker. In fact, she’s been smoking non-stop this whole time, did I mention that? Nothing beats licking crystallized nicotine off a woman’s fingers and upper lip.
      “Mine,” I hack back.
      We fishtail around the gates leading to the house, gravel pelting the security guards stationed there. You can never be too vigilant. She parks in front of the front, and we‘re barely inside the door when we fall all over each other like LSD-crazed weasels, tearing at each other's flesh until we’re bloody. Our shaved and tattooed genitals are warring. It’s epic, it’s brutal. I’m coming on a molecular level, my semen blown apart into the various flavors of quark by the force of orgasm, she’s squirting pure energy, blowing out the lights for miles around, its mind-altering, religions are built around fucking like this, it inspires new governments and becomes legend. Years later, this moment will be encoded on a platinum disk and shot to the extraterrestrial species as a record of everything pure and hot about humanity. What more can be said?
      Afterwards, I show her the Arab boy in the basement. She marvels at the ornateness of the gilded lampshades, the sumptuousness of the red velvet kittens I engineered for him. Just before she turns away, he manages to get off one shot from some type of speargun, the titanium arrow almost piercing the Lexan.
      “Goddammit,” I scream. I flash security, who immediately seal the area and begin replacing the glass in his door.
      “So,” Tazurbu asks, “what do you want to do this afternoon?’
      “Well ,” I respond, “I’ve got to go to Borneo this afternoon for a meeting about importing a new type of biochip that'll enable us to replace the human adrenal gland with devices that pumps us full of methamphetmines in moments of stress. We’re expecting huge sales to the death sports and military markets. I don’t know what you’re doing, but you sure can’t stay here.”
      A thunderstorm of rage is about to break over her features, I know. So before she can belt me, I have security hustle her out, but I yell out that I’ll call her, which seems to settle her down enough so that she only cripples two guards.
      I really do have to go to Borneo, but before that I need some face time, with myself of course. Don’t like anyone else around while I do it. I retire to my bedroom, focus the giant electron microscope and begin going over my face pore by pore, getting to know myself again through this daily ritual. I’ve got all the coordinates mapped out so I can leap to the most reassuring spots: the microscopic hollow above my left eyebrow, the absolute molecular tip of my nose, the enamel coating of my right front incisor. By the time I’ve spent an hour doing this, I’m ready to go. I’m in a hurry, so I dress in my clothes from that morning, since they’re conveniently dangling off the chandelier. I pack my travel bags full of exotic clothing to wow my business enemies with, call the garage and have them bring around my new FührerWagen (Volkswagen figured if they would be forced to suffer through innumerable lawsuits because of their reliance on Nazi slave labor in the 1940’s, they should at least capitalize on the free publicity. They agreed to pay all the import tariffs and I have a lifetime warranty. I thought about buying an SS Coupe or the GoebbelBug, but those are just flash, the FührerWagen is timeless.) I walk to the front door.
      I reach the airport in record time, outrunning two squad cars who are attempting to pick me up, and enter the terminal. I push forward through thick crowds of travelers to the electronic ticket pick up. All seems to be in order. Receiving my boarding pass, I quickly clear a path to security. I drop my bags into the scanner (never check luggage, those people are thieves), and proceed through the body alarm, which begins to wail. Immediately, a phalanx of pre-teen National Guardsmen descend on me, ordering me to remove all metal articles and my shoes.
      “Of course, little hoplites,” I say calmly, “nothing would give me more pleasure than to do that very thing.” They examine each article as I present it: official U.S. Mint plates, pens, some loose change, and a small bronze medallion of Caesar, circa 60 AD (fuck that “Common Era” stuff, it’s A.D. for me or nothing at all.) Nothing out of the ordinary. As I bend down to remove my shoes, a bright clink rings across the terminal. Everyone stops, security slowly looks at me, and we all look down together. Sitting there on the bright white tiling of the security area is a brilliant and gleaming spent 9mm shell casing, which has apparently fallen out of my pants cuff.
      “Uhhhh . . . ” I say. Everyone on the entire planet is looking at me, I can tell. The fear, the sheer terror is showing on their faces. This isn’t Beirut, they seem to say, there is nothing innocent about having shell casings randomly strewn about yourself. He must be evil, EVIL EVIL! I sense that if it wasn’t for the pre-teens, they would tear me organ from sinew. People are hugging their children closer, some are crying. One man vomits.
      “Uhhhh . . . ” I say again, but that’s all I get out before I’m seized and ball-gagged by security. My futile humming noises are in vain as I try to explain what’s been done to me, This is endmove, the final play. As I’m dragged away and kicked repeatedly in the scrotum until I lose consciousness, I remember the most important thing of all.
      At least I saw it coming.


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