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Maxim Loskutoff | from:English

End Times

Introduction by Tal Nitzán

Every literature lover is familiar with the long-awaited feeling, a certainty, from the very first line, that one is in the presence of a talent, the best that literature can offer. I was bestowed this rare feeling when I started reading Maxim Loskutoff’s story. “End Times” is a twist on the traditional travel story genre by the hand of an undoubtedly gifted writer. Nature, and zoology in particular, have a prominent presence in Lostukoff’s stories. In “End Times” a couple wolfs down the vast planes stretching between states (in the US) on their way to a vet, who might save the life of an unusual pet – a coyote, a prairie wolf. The coyote serves at least three purposes. It’s a live animal, illustrated faithfully and realistically, but it’s also the vertex in an emotional triangle. There are many commonalities between the coyote and the girl. She is described as having “animalistic” features, and the emotional bond between the two is not without erotic subtext, contrary to the hostility between the coyote and storyteller. The coyote is also a wonderful symbolic element, as the impending death in the backseat is parallel to the dying relationship between the couple. Although this is a story with a foreseen end, it is tense and suspenseful, and eventually manages to escape the predictable. Much like the title, it expands beyond the boundaries of the specific narrative.

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Elli wouldn’t let me stop until we’d crossed the line into Utah. She was a nail in the passenger seat—rigid, sharp, her blue eyes darting back and forth between the speedometer and the double yellow lines. Dry rivers of makeup connected her eyes to her chin. Leon lay where I’d put him across the backseat. His chin was propped on a pile of Carlos Castaneda books. Strands of drool hung from the orange spines. His haunches trembled whenever we went over a bump. His glazed, suffering face was fixed on the back of Elli’s bare shoulder. We’d gotten most of the blood out of the slate-colored fur on his back but there were still flecks on his pale belly.

Route 89 flanked the scrub brush and dust of Nevada for thirty miles before turning north through Kanab. A half-empty bottle of Popov rattled in the cup holder. Elli lifted it by the neck. “We might need that,” I said. She paused, considering, and then sipped it anyway. Power lines, suspended from transformer towers, were strung across the sky as far as I could see. Probably they ran all the way down to Mexico, like bandits.

Kanab only had one gas station, a neat little Sinclair with a scrubbed forecourt and gleaming green pumps. I pulled in, parked. It hardly even smelled like gas, the air was so fresh. A pine forest came right up behind the store. “Home of the State Champion Lady Rams” read a banner on the window where the beer advertisements should’ve been. I put my foot on the concrete plinth beneath the pump, swiped my credit card, and lifted the nozzle from its holster.

Elli got out and stretched. Her long torso gave her a snaky, undulating look as she leaned right and left, her arms over her head, her bare feet on the pavement. She walked stiffly to the bathroom at the side of the store, rolling her neck. ‘Put some shoes on,’ I wanted to yell after her, but I knew she wouldn’t. She was free-spirited about germs, money, underwear, and directions. Everything else she worried about.

A clump of fur clung to the hem of her orange dress. One of the shoulder straps had fallen. It hovered above her elbow. Clothes had a way of slipping off her frame, unable to disguise the girl beneath. My shoulders ached from driving all day, and from carrying Leon.

She came out with a wad of wet paper towels, her face radiant with worry. She opened the Sentra’s dust-sprayed back door and started dabbing the fur around Leon’s wound. We’d doused it in vodka and bandaged it up as best we could with athletic tape and a clean t-shirt from my gym bag. The bullet had gone in through his hip. I wondered if it was a bad place for a coyote to get shot—if they kept any organs back there.

“He’ll be fixed up by this time tomorrow,” I said. “He’ll make it.”

Elli didn’t answer. She just kept dabbing. Her thin arms were surprisingly muscular. She didn’t work out, but she was tense all the time. Even in sleep she ground her teeth. Leon didn’t complain about her touching him. He never did; never growled, not so much as a snort. Elli put her cracked lips against Leon’s nose. Their eyes met.

A gust of wind came in from the north and I shivered as I replaced the nozzle. We were climbing into winter latitudes. “Montana,” she’d said, when I’d emerged from the canyon with Leon a bleeding bundle in my arms. She knew a vet there, a friend of her father’s. She’d seen him bring a shot wolf back from worse, apparently, and he wouldn’t report us to animal control.

“Everything okay out there?” the cashier asked, when I went in to buy some water and chapstick. She was prettier than most women who work in gas stations. Tan, with feather earrings and a mother’s worried smile.

I nodded, realizing there was blood dried on my shirt. “Spilled some coffee.”

Mountains began to break through the desert. Red ones first: mesas, buttes, hoodoos. I told Elli about the time my father took us to Zion. We stayed in a Travelodge in Hurricane. It had HBO, and my brother and I just wanted to stay in the room and watch. My dad got so angry that he broke the TV screen with his fist and we went home two days early. Elli traced triangles on the window with her finger as the yellow-brown landscape blurred by. She wasn’t listening. Her lips, wet now with chapstick, were pressed together. Freckles shone through the makeup carelessly dusted on her nose. She was beautiful in a wrung-out, haggard sort of way that I couldn’t get over.

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Leon peed. It hissed onto the floor, soaking the carpet and empty Styrofoam cups under my seat. The sweet toxic vinegar stink made my eyes water.

Elli turned and watched him struggling to get out of his mess. He knocked two of the books off the seat. His paw flailed the air. His hind leg was soaked, the wet fur matted to the bone. Yellow drops slid down the plastic seat cover onto the floor. “It’s okay,” she said. “It’s okay.”

I rolled the windows down and let the dry air blast my face. We merged onto I-15: four wide lanes running north all the way to Butte. I kept my eyes away from the rearview mirror. In a day or two, three at most, I’d be back home, freshly showered, lying on my couch with a cold beer, watching women’s tennis. Brown grass grew through gravel in the median. Semis rattled as we passed them, spitting diesel from their dark underbellies.

An hour went by before Elli spoke. “He needs food,” she said.

“It’ll just make him shit,” I answered.

She looked at me like I was a half-squashed insect.

“I’m kidding,” I said. “C’mon.”

I took the Nephi exit and drove up and down the quiet Mormon streets, past rows of white clapboard houses with blue trim and lawns mowed down to a military stubble. There was a hardware store, a confectioner’s. I didn’t know what we were looking for. Leon liked to eat cats, and he liked to eat them when they were still alive. I suggested using catnip as chum to lure one into the car.

“It isn’t funny,” Elli said.

We found a shaded parking spot behind The Country Kitchen, between a dumpster and a waxed red Mustang, probably the manager’s—some kind of hotshot. I changed shirts, gathered the piss-soaked cups in the old one, and threw the whole mess into the dumpster. Elli cracked the windows. She opened the back door and promised Leon we’d be back soon. I came and stood beside her. I’d need new floor mats, maybe new seat covers. Her head barely crested my shoulder. If she ever left, it was the fresh coral smell of her scalp that would haunt me. “Be good,” she said, like he was her own son. “Stay.”

He lifted his head off the books, blinking. His amber eyes were wider than usual, glowing in the short white hair around them. His mouth was clamped shut. He was embarrassed, hurting. When he was happy, his mouth lolled open toothily.

Damn coyote. I reached out to touch his face. He whipped his jaws at my fingers, snapping.

“Goddammit.” I jerked my hand away. He’d bit me once, when he was just a pup, and I still had two small scars beneath my thumb. He was five times that size now. His incisors were a half-inch long and I’d seen what they could do to a cat’s skull. My ears rang. I wanted to hit him. I turned and walked quickly toward the restaurant.

Elli murmured to him, gently shut the door, and followed me inside.

The waitress led us to a booth in the corner. Each of her thighs was as wide as Elli. Her blue apron was stretched tight across her groin like a linebacker’s jock. I hoped the Mustang was hers. The vinyl covering the booth squeaked when I sat down. There were paper placemats and a cup of crayons. Elli looked out the window at a gray steeple knifing into the sky. Her blond hair was cut one length all around, at her chin. Her face was drawn and gray at the edges, marked by exhaustion, physically beat, but also lit by it, as if she were becoming more alive.

She ordered a cherry malt and a steak.

“You need food too,” I said.

“I’ll eat the potatoes.”

The steeple didn’t have a crucifix but it was a church, sure enough. I’d heard somewhere that you had to be a Mormon to go into a Mormon church. I wondered if that was true, and if so, what was inside. I drew Richard Nixon in green on my placemat—all glowering jowls.

The waitress brought the malt on a silver tray. A cloud of whipped cream floated on top. Elli gave it all of her attention. The tendons in her neck stretched tight as she worked the straw. The skin on her right shoulder was sunburned a deep red from the car window.

“Slow down,” I said. “Your brain will freeze.”

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When the glass was empty, Elli folded the straw into a triangle. She filled the triangle with salt—a white pyramid. Dry blood was crusted around her nails.

“He tried to bite me,” I said.

She broke a grain of salt with her thumbnail. “He’s hurt and scared.”

“Well they’d kill him here. All these hunters.” I nodded at the empty street.

Country music was playing softly and the waitress snapped her fingers just once as she pushed through the swinging steel doors into the kitchen. My burger came out separated into components on the plate: lettuce, tomato, onion, bun—all lined up next to the patty. Elli watched me put it together and then she watched me eat. The steak in front of her was shaped like Nevada and just as barren. I could tell she was counting the seconds in her head—tick, tick, tick. The waitress was leaning on the counter by the pies, watching me too. I hardly chewed.

When the check came, Elli didn’t ask for a box. She just wrapped the steak in a paper napkin and carried it out, dripping, in her bare hand. I left a tip and followed her, smiling apologetically.

The air outside was sharp with the coppery smell of exhaust. Goosebumps rose on her bare arms. A drop of steak juice ran down her calf. It had been hot in Phoenix when we left. Now, dusk was settling over the Wasatch Mountains. The snowy ridges made a jagged pink EKG running north. I put my hand on her shoulder, feeling the bones.

“It was Rod,” she said, opening the back door. “I know it was.”

I shook my head. “There’s lots of people it could have been.”

“It was Rod.” She held the steak out to Leon. I told her to be careful, but it wasn’t necessary. He ate it gently, keeping his teeth away from her fingers. He nodded his head back after each bite, gulping down the meat. Juice clung to his whiskers. He glanced at me, smugly.

“Rod’s a fag,” I said. “They don’t have guns.”

Leon finished and licked Elli’s hands clean. “They have cats.”

“Had.” I laughed, despite myself.

Elli exhaled, long and slow, and I pictured myself as a chart inside her head. Two sides: good and bad, with scraps of conversation, things I’d done, memories, posted on either side. The bad side just kept filling up.

“I’m doing this for you, you know,” I said. “Skipping work, driving all this way. I mean, I care about Leon.”

“Do you?” she asked.

“Of course.” Anger warmed my chest. “But he’s a wild animal.”

She squeezed his skull, massaging the base of his ears. “So you’d let him die?”

“You know that’s not what I meant.” But maybe it was. He’d been trouble since the day we brought him home. He stank up our bed, gnawed the baseboard, shed everywhere. I’d find cat parts strewn around the yard: a paw wedged in the gate, innards on the tomato plants, a half-chewed skull on the welcome mat. He’d start to growl whenever I raised my voice at Elli.

He pressed his long bristly chin into her hands and licked her wrist. “We’re almost there, love,” she whispered. “Just a few more hours.”

I turned the heat on and we continued north. I held the needle at seventy-five for a while—I didn’t know what I’d say if a cop pulled us over—but Elli kept staring at me so I edged it up over eighty. The big empty plains closed around us until the only light was the wedge of the high beams. I was exhausted. My head hurt. The muscles in my thighs ached from climbing up and down the canyon walls, tripping in the dark. Leon had been well hidden in a dugout between two boulders. I’d found him and carried him out. Elli seemed to have forgotten that.

She sat with her feet up on the passenger seat, her arms wrapped around her shins, her thighs against her stomach. Her chin hovered above her knees. The dashboard lights shone hazy and green on her drawn face. Her left eye twitched, the pinched skin revealing the pattern of future wrinkles. We listened to the radio until it crackled and turned to static. I knew there were farmhouses and pastures not far off but it felt like the world could end and we wouldn’t know till morning.

Trying to stay awake, I pictured her naked. Right there in the passenger’s seat, like she was, except the dress and underwear gone. Her thin muscled arms wrapped around her knees. The skin over her ribs scratched and bruised from clambering through the canyon. Her body folded over itself, pressed together, the color of wheat.

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I put my hand on her knee. I let it slide down to where I could feel the rough lace hem of her underwear. She shifted away from me, pushing down my hand and her dress.

Fine, I thought. Fine fine fine.

Salt Lake City was a ghost beneath the freeway: silent buildings forming the uneven steps of a skyline at night, the slow blink of airport lights. The temple, with its turrets and balustrade, looked like a lost castle, stranded on the wrong continent. An American flag hung motionless on a hilltop, lit from below.

Past city limits, the houses gave way to fields lined with huge crouching sprinklers. One of them was on, throwing arcs of mist into the night. Time sped up and skipped forward. I thought of the women I’d known, the places I’d been, bandits, wolves. The car was so warm. My head fell, then jerked upright.

“We have to stop,” I said. “Get some rest.”

“I’ll drive.”

We switched places at another gas station. The clerk watched us through the window, a toothpick rolling between his lips. He was black. Black in Utah. It couldn’t be easy. The motel next door was a long low twenty-roomer slung around a parking lot. ‘Thunderbird,’ read the blue neon sign. I knew the mattresses were probably thin with stained yellow sheets and sharp springs, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to stretch out. Leon’s eyes gleamed in the rearview mirror. Part of his tongue hung between his teeth, pink as bubblegum.

Elli drove with both hands on the wheel, ten and two. Her lips moved every once in a while. Pursing into an almost kiss, then pulling back over her teeth.

“Does this vet have beds?” I asked.

“At his house,” she said. “Go to sleep. I’ll wake you.”

I let my head roll against the seat. It smelled like fur and piss. The engine hummed beneath me and I imagined giant horses and giant natives, a hundred feet tall, thundering over the dark mountains.

The car was stopped when I woke. We were on the shoulder, a vast plain all around. The headlights were off. Pure black, and above, a field of stars. I blinked, trying to swallow some moisture into my parched mouth. “Look,” Elli whispered.

Leon was sitting up. His front paws were underneath him, propped unsteadily on the shifting covers of the books. His nose was pushed against the window. His scrawny body—only two, still a puppy—was angled down to where his wounded hindquarters rested on the seat. His eyes were fixed on the waning thumbnail of moon as if it held the answer to all suffering.

The dark southern hills rose and fell like waves. His breath fogged the glass.

He pressed his long gray ears flat against his skull, opened his mouth, and howled. High and sharp, the sound sliced open the roof and carried into the night. He held the note. Piercing. Desperate. It was so loud it hurt my eardrums.

“No,” I said. “No barking.”

His haunches shook. He slipped and fell against the door.

Elli was twisted around in the driver’s seat, stretched toward him, her face contorted, her skin the same color as the moon.

“Where are we?” I asked.

She paused, staring at me. Her bared eyes held something frightening: disgust, maybe, or the beginning of hatred.  “Get out,” she said.

I looked at her blankly. A few strands of her hair stuck to the headrest, straight out beside her, taut with electricity.

“Please. Just give us a minute, alone.”

I fumbled with the door; I kept yanking the handle until she reached across my chest, shouldering me back, and unlocked it. I pushed open the door. The cold night air stung my face. I stood up, dazed, then leaned back into the car. Elli stared at me, her lips pulled tight, the tendons in her neck raised against her skin. Leon’s claws scrabbled the plastic seat cover in the back.

“He’s going to die,” I said, and slammed the door.

Pebbles crunched beneath my sneakers. I walked away from the highway, down into a ditch, and back up again. I smelled snow, trees. Idaho, maybe. I thought I’d walk until I found a place to fall down. Orion’s Belt and The Big Dipper hung at opposite ends of the sky. I couldn’t remember any of the other constellations. Just a mess of stars.


*This story originally appeared in Narrative magazine, 2013. Copyright © Maxim Loskutoff. 

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