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Melvin at Six AM


Melvin often decided that he no longer wanted to leave for his office at six in the morning. It was usually four degrees below zero when he made this decision. At six in the morning and at four degrees below zero, it took ten minutes for the ice crystals on his windshield to soften and then melt. When he pulled out of his parking spot on Kimball Avenue, the brakes made a chunking noise -- a noise he knew he would likely have to spend money to have examined and then fixed. And Melvin hated dealing with auto repair guys, who always managed to extract more money from him than he thought could possibly be necessary to fix whatever was wrong.

There was usually no traffic at six in the morning, but at six in the morning the Dan Ryan Expressway was peopled exclusively with tense and not-yet-caffeinated early risers, who were -- like Melvin -- trying to beat everyone else to the interstate and ultimately to their office. To what end, probably none of them knew. Soon, robots would drive everyone to work: even-tempered machines that didn't care about the cold and knew how to manage the finicky brakes. But for now, Melvin sometimes wanted to lower the window and shout to the other drivers on the road, "Hey, are you as unhappy as I am that we are on this road together at six in the morning?" He looked over at other drivers on the Dan Ryan. They often had their mouths open, probably yawning, but Melvin imagined that they were screaming. Screaming as loudly as they could. Letting it out.

He had done that once on the Dan Ryan, at six in the morning. He had spent the entire night at the office and, without sleep, had stopped home to shower and change into a new suit. On the drive on the way back to his office, he had screamed as loudly as he could so that he didn't fall asleep. It almost didn't work, but he made it safely enough, and sobbed into his steering wheel when he did.

Every morning at around 6:20, he exited the Dan Ryan and made for the Stevenson Expressway and ultimately Lake Shore Drive. To his left as he drove south, there was the flat white expanse of ice toward Gary and the thin gray line of Michigan on the horizon. It was impossible not to look at the lake, the respiring ice, the red brush stroke of dawn as it began to crack through the clouds. These counted as the fifteen-ish minutes of the day in which Melvin permitted himself to think about dawns he'd seen, about celestial bodies, about vast freezing bodies of water, and about the kinds of hopes raised by such contemplations of nature's largeness.

"Wow!" Melvin often said to himself. The heat, by this point, would finally be warming the car.

He frequently exited Lake Shore Drive too quickly, his tires squealing into Fifty-Seventh Street. In Hyde Park, he often parked his car on Woodlawn Avenue and sat with his eyes closed, waiting out in front of the coffee shop. At 6:45, the coffee shop opened every day and he went inside, and hung his coat and his fur hat and his scarf on the coatrack. The barista Dan greeted him, with Bowie on the speakers at the lowest audible volume. Melvin ordered a sixteen ounce coffee and a croissant. As always. And tipped Dan fifty cents. And then he took a place at one of the tables, removed his laptop from his bag and began to answer emails that had already started coming in.

Well, so, one day, while eating his croissant and drinking his sixteen-ounce coffee, Melvin decided he didn't want the croissant he was eating or the sixteen-ounce coffee he was drinking. Nothing against Dan, or against breakfast, or against Bowie. But something began to crack.

What was it?

He wanted to go somewhere warmer, of course. But that was a feeling he had every winter, beginning toward the end of January. And he didn't want to have to fix his brakes, or to drive south on the Dan Ryan in the morning. But this did not feel like a the right problem either. This was something else. He wanted to go somewhere where he wouldn't have to eat breakfast shivering and alone. He wanted to go somewhere where no one would be emailing him at 6:15 AM asking for his analysis of Japanese financial markets overnight. He didn't want anyone else to be up, working, at all. He wanted to be, not in a different geographic somewhere, but in a wholly alternate professional and personal somewhere. And he knew he could only do these six in the mornings for so much longer.

So, blowing warm air into his hands, he started to plan his escape.