Tonight he’d plucked an emerald green Mercedes-Benz S600 from the spiraling garage of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. The sky was hung with violet dregs of twilight and the recent rain was held by tire ruts worn in the pavement. Finch piloted the Benz over the stately Lions Gate Bridge, up some switchbacking mountain roads to a turnout with a clear view of the city. Finch parked, careful to leave the car running—it wouldn’t start again without Stanislaw’s laptop. He discovered a set of pristine golf clubs in the trunk and hit nearly thirty balls from the cliff out into the inlet. This took an hour. He held the tall clubs below the grips, took four swings at each, murmuring “boom” with the satisfaction of each connection.
On his way back down, he dropped the stick into neutral, retracted the sunroof, stood, and coasted with his head in the jet-engine wash of night air until his eyes went gummy and his lips recoiled like the muscled dogs Jerzy kept in their yard. Sitting down, he found the sedan’s stillness and grace so deliciously amplified in the aftermath of the roar he executed a jerky three-point turn near a curve and climbed back up to do it again.
While Jerzy and his boys preferred the growling flutes of Japanese or Italian design—sleek as swelling waves and painted in lipstick sheens—Finch liked the quiet ones. Sedans mostly, executive models, the kind diplomats were chauffeured around in, with classical music in their television ads, cars so noiseless, so painstakingly designed to hush even the meticulous whirring of their own engines, they floated over the road with the elegance of celestial things.
Finch took his first when he was twelve and emboldened by a confidence only youth can prop up. It was his brother, Jerzy, who’d retracted the slim jim and swung the door out like a valet. “You going from B.M.X. straight to B.M.W., Ostrich,” Jerzy said as Finch climbed into the leathery cockpit. Though he’d begged his brother mercilessly for the opportunity, Finch had never operated an automobile before—not counting those arcade games you sat in. That first night, Finch ground the B.M.W.’s gears for ten whole minutes while the others bent at their waists laughing, until finally he hopscotched the car out from the buzzing amber of the lot.
He’d driven hundreds since. Getting them was no problem. The expensive ones didn’t even use keys any more. They were too good for keys, as if keys somehow stained a driver’s hand. Stanislaw programmed laptops to open them. Twenty minutes near one was enough—digits and letters flipping across the screen with a shimmering speed.
Tonight, it took only twelve minutes before the locks of the Benz thumped and the engine came alive.
“It’s your brand, I’m right? ” Jerzy said before Finch went for the car, a weighty hand on his shoulder. “But this time no tour.”
“Where do you go with them? ” Jerzy asked.
“What? Speak up.”
“Nowhere,” Finch said, not much louder.
“What’s this mouse-talking? Are you unhappy, mouse? Maybe you have a girl? ”
Finch sunk his hands into his track-pants pockets.
Jerzy regarded him sideways, a grin turning on his lips. “It’s no problem if you do. It would explain much.”
“No girl,” Finch whispered.
“O.K., no girl. Then you tell me, robin, where do you go? ”
Finch knew once his brother got his teeth into something like this he would not back off. Growing up, Finch had seen him take hideous beatings from bigger kids, men even, because he wouldn’t let something drop, once by a giant sauntering man who’d let a door swing closed on them at a movie theatre.
“I just like driving, that all right with you? ” Finch said, shrugging the hand from his shoulder.
Jerzy laughed and cupped the back of Finch’s neck to force an interval of eye contact. Like Finch, he was still a boy, really, but his eyes were pleading and perennially tired, like a pair of deflated blue balloons. Jerzy turned to spit through his teeth onto the concrete floor. Finch saw Stanislaw shoot a panicked look to the stairwell.
“Well this time, my feisty driver-bird, no tour,” Jerzy said. “We need to flip this one quick. There’s people we need to pay.” He released Finch’s neck. “At home in one hour. Not until everything is cool and clean.”
Midnight by the dashboard clock and Finch was back in the city, giddy and ecstatic, his shoulders stiff from swinging the clubs. He’d found four hundreds, crisp and brown like book-pressed leaves, folded into a golf scorecard in the console. Betting money, he decided. He’d seen greater sums piled on his kitchen table and never taken notice, but those bills had not been his own. All he could imagine buying was a Ping-Pong table they had no room for, so he resolved to keep thinking.
He drove five under the limit, captivated by the pavement’s glisten and the innumerable signs—the Benz like an exquisitely tailored coat he wore. He squirmed and adjusted the pillow he’d brought to boost him. Back when Jerzy took cars, his brother brought CDs—soaring orchestral samples over subsonic bass eruptions peppered with barking lyrics baroquely detailing the joys of wealth—that he let ring from opened windows with a strange pride. But it wasn’t just rap, it was all music. It grated Finch, seemed to demand a response from him he could not give. As long as he could remember, he’d found contentment in the world’s quiet places: pillow forts, closets, churches he’d visited as a boy with his father in Łódź, but nothing compared to the sedans, and their stillness was moveable: you could take it anywhere in the city you chose, especially when it was late, with the roads empty as fresh sheets of black paper.
After a couple more hours of aimless, blissful driving, Finch arrived home to find a few of Jerzy’s boys on the porch, bottles of Zywiec pendulous in their hands. The Benz insulated him from the thud of bass, but Finch could see it flexing the picture window of their house.
He should have killed the engine, but he needed to feel it. He half-yawned and removed his glasses to rub his eyes. He was beyond late. Jerzy would be more scathing with his boys looking on. It was doubtful Jerzy needed money. He’d always got paid, even in bad times. Four years previous, when Jerzy was fourteen and Finch was ten, their father, who worked security at the airport, had been killed in a dispute out front of a nightclub. The hospital called and they spoke to Jerzy, who passed the cordless from one hand to the other like it’d just come out of the oven, clearing his throat mechanically. They waited weeks for someone from social services to come. When nobody did, they’d simply carried on. Jerzy had been a goofy, raucous boy, but this stopped when he became guardian. He built a bunk bed out of two weather-beaten doors they found in the basement and made Finch sleep above him in his room. He quit school, sold stereos, gram bags, bikes, shoes, fake pills, even umbrellas for a while—all of which he kept padlocked in Finch’s old bedroom. This was before he ordered a fifty-two-piece lockout toolkit online and moved onto cars.
Then, two years ago, Finch was hassled on the way to school by some Hindu kids, and Jerzy and Andrzej went and beat them with leather skipping ropes. Later, Jerzy got worried when people said the Hindus had gang-affiliated brothers. He pulled Finch from school, stowed his crew at the house, and reinforced the doors with sheet metal. At home and bored, Finch pestered his brother to bring him along at night, a privilege he was finally granted by suggesting he’d be safer with them than at home.
In the idling Benz, Finch considered inventing a story—he’d been followed, chased by cops—then let it go. Jerzy had a keen ear for fabrication. Yet in other ways his brother was a fool. It’d been two years, no Hindu gangsters, and his paranoia had not abated. Lately, Finch found less and less reason to obey his brother, whose darkening demeanor increasingly reminded him of their father. Finch slept on the couch and locked himself in the bathroom to read encyclopedias. Now he saw Jerzy’s warning for what it was: a desperate attempt to impose his will, a bluff really, because violence was his only remaining option, but one he would never use, if only because their father had employed it with such zeal.
Perhaps it was the bills in his pocket, or the impending reprimand, or the idea of another night on the top bunk, a pillow wrapped about his ears, the bass erasing any peace he’d gained that night that rendered Finch incapable of leaving the Benz. He dropped it into gear and eased quietly from the curb.
After a string of deliberately careless turns, Finch found himself on a dark freeway, a greenish sea of city light churning on the clouds in his rear-view. He wasn’t tired any longer. He felt sharpened and jittery and electric, like he would after emerging from an arcade or drinking a two-litre of discount pop. He supposed he was driving east—west was ocean, south was America—but wasn’t sure. The sedan had a G.P.S. he didn’t activate for fear it could locate him. Just a short trip, he told himself, luxuriating in the joys of freeway driving: the way speed slowed the landscape, the geometric perfection of banking corners, the cinematic sweep of headlights, the thought of a million engineered parts spinning in unfathomable synchrony.
It was mostly trucks on the road, towns passing like fallen constellations. The night went blacker and Finch bent closer to the wheel. A light appeared in the dash. It looked like a robot pointing a gun to its head. He puzzled over this until a beeping sound came. Something was wrong with the car, and he felt a boy’s sob gather in his chest. Then the same suicidal robot flashed by outside on a sign that read Gas and he swerved into the turnoff, nearly throwing the Benz into a ditch.
He came upon the station—an island cut in the blackness by a punishing white light—and pulled in. He’d never kept a car long enough to require refuelling. He studied a man filling his half-ton, then hoisted the heavy nozzle from a pump, unscrewed the cap, inserted the nozzle and squeezed. Nothing happened.
“Need a hand? ” a woman said with a wrecked voice.
“This doesn’t work.”
“You didn’t select your grade,” she said, approaching the pump to smack a button. She gripped the handle and digits spun. She didn’t have a uniform. She wore a filthy puffy jacket and a mountaineering backpack with plastic bags strapped to it. She was middle-aged, about as old as Finch’s father had been.
“Oh, hey,” she said, “you gotta kill the engine!”
Finch had never heard of this before.
“I can’t,” he said.
Her forehead gathered into ridges.
She glanced around the station. Finch realized then that she was alone and didn’t have a car.
“That’s what they say, anyways,” she said, “doesn’t bother me.”
“What could happen? ”
“Your car could explode!,” she said in a voice like a pot bubbling over.
Finch knew adults often said things they didn’t mean, like how his father had always declared his love for his job at the airport, even though he’d been an engineer in Poland, not the kind that drove trains, but the kind who built them. He hoped what the woman had said was the same sort of thing.
Finch turned to the bright kiosk, the attendant already looking in their direction.
He extracted a brown bill from his track pants.
“Can you pay? ” he said, his ears turning hot.
“You bet,” she said.
She went in, stood at the counter, and returned with his change.
“Here, keep this,” he said, pushing back a twenty, which she took without thanks.
She paused for a moment.
“Actually, I wouldn’t hate a ride,” she said.
The attendant was outside now, inspecting pumps and scribbling on a clipboard. Finch itched to escape the bright scrutiny of the lot. He was old enough to know there was no respectable reason for a woman to be stranded at a freeway gas station, but in her face he glimpsed the same desperation, the same doe-like vacancy, he had seen in the girls Jerzy’s boys brought over, or the glitzy women his father had shepherded home from clubs, and in this he took a strange comfort. He popped the trunk and she tossed her bags in with the golf clubs. “Where you going? ” he said, merging onto the freeway.
“Just to Merritt,” she said. “My kid—,” then her breath cut off like a valve and she turned her face to the window.
Finch held off on more questions and watched the gas needle’s deliberate rise.
“This is a whole lot of vehicle you got here,” she said, eyeing the pillow beneath him.
“My brother’s,” he said, checking his mirrors.
Then a quiet overtook them, and Jerzy loomed in Finch’s mind. He was going to be furious, more so if he found out Finch had picked up a hitchhiker. Finch could see no boundary in his brother between anger and concern. Jerzy would either kick him out or further tighten his grip, neither of which seemed endurable. Finch just needed a little more time in the car, to think. He’d come up with a way to fix everything.
“You talk funny,” she said as though he’d just spoken.
“I have an accent,” he said, recalling the blunt comfort of his father’s voice.
“I meant you whisper,” she said, unwrapping a fresh pack of cigarettes, lighting one with a barbecue lighter pulled from her coat.
“I don’t like noise.”
“Makes sense, sweetie.”
She reached for the radio and a bright breeze of enveloping sound—a hive of guitars, organs, and voices—leapt from speakers hidden on every side. Soon she began twisting in her seat, throwing her head in odd ellipses, unwashed hair draped into her eyes.
He tried to not let her see him looking. He’d never driven with a passenger before, or with a real destination. He liked her there beside him, this dancing woman. He knew the car would have exploded by now if it was going to. It was the last sedan he would get, but they had three hundred dollars, a gas gauge that promised it was more than full, and he was taking this woman to Merritt, wherever that was.
As they shot through the dead-flat valley, dawn lifting shadows from the weary shoulders of everything, the music reached out through the lightly tinted windows of the Benz, touched the signs and trucks and sulfurous lights and roadside buildings with no discernable function, enmeshed itself with this whipping landscape, enlivened it, and Finch was struck with an unfamiliar and almost stupefying sense of beauty.
“I like this,” he yelled into the fury.
“Sure you do,” the woman yelled back. “It’s a classic.”