The End of a Rotten Day

Five ayem. I awake with another splitting headache. It goes from the back of my head into my right eyeball. This makes five days in a row.

Maybe it’s brain cancer, I worry. I tell myself to quit being a nutcase. I roll over. I’ve got to get back to sleep, but can’t. It’s been like this for a week now. No wonder my head feels like an egg that’s been dropped on the sidewalk.

I toss and turn for two hours, but sleep won’t come. Exhausted, I finally drag myself out of bed.

I feel like death warmed over.

The house is freezing. It’ll be another six days before the furnace is serviced. In the meantime, pneumonia lurks like a mugger, ready to pounce as soon as my insomnia renders me helpless.

I stagger to the bathroom. I stare into the mirror and groan. Brad Pitt won’t feel threatened today. My hair looks like Don King’s. My eyes are bloodshot. I glare at the face that for years has inspired women to think, “Not if he’s the last man on Earth.”

Today is Friday. Usually that calls for jeans at the day job, but I’m covering a game tonight — the first of the season, no less — and will need to be reasonably dressed.

I exhale loudly. My root canal of an attitude does not befit dress clothes. I pull on jeans and a T-shirt and toss the dress clothes in the direction of my gym bag.

I check my email. Several readers are disappointed that this week’s column didn’t include a trivia question. They say that is the best part of my column. The trivia question is the best part of my column? There’s a shot to the family jewels. A trivia question being the best thing you write is like a woman falling in love with you because of your toenails.

It’s going to be one of those days.

I drop my son off at school because his own car has been totaled and we’re still getting the runaround from the insurance company. I think of the woman who almost killed us and my blood pressure soars.

Forget brain cancer or pneumonia. I’ll be a goner thanks to a blown gasket in my brain. It’ll be the ultimate irony, a self-inflicted termination after surviving the crash. I am officially a basket case.

I stop at the coffee shop, in dire need of a caffeine hit to clear the cobwebs. I am such a zombie, I walk past my own nephew. His high school French class has come for reasons I can’t fathom. To order French vanilla, extra, extra? Why weren’t my French classes more like that? Sadly, I know the answer to that question. When I was in high school, coffee shops hadn’t yet been invented.

Somehow I make it to the day job. Why do they insist on having the lights on? I need to sleep.

I resolve to exercise at lunch time. Get the blood pumping. Nothing could possibly make me feel any worse than I do already.

Then again, I’ve underestimated my boss. He sends an email to the entire lab informing us that the project is in trouble. Of course, it has been in trouble since the Eisenhower administration. The boss says that it’s vital that we all work this weekend. Again. Both days.

To show his solidarity with us peons, he has even cancelled his business trip to Europe. He thinks this is good for morale, but he’s mistaken. Now I have to cancel the order for the keg.

Nonetheless, I maintain my faith that the company will eventually make all this extra work worth my while. If I’m lucky, I might even get a free T-shirt.

Soon it’s lunchtime, but I can’t go to the fitness center until a guy gives me a file so I can start a test. Two hours ago, he said it would only take him five minutes. I’m still waiting, paralyzed, unable to do anything productive until he shows up.

I go to my web browser. I check out my 401.k. It looks like my retirement will include eating Alpo three days a week.

I check out my latest column. Not because I’m narcissistic. No, not me. I just want to see how it looks. With my brain cells dying at an alarming rate, I can almost wonder, “So what did the old buzzard write about this week?” and then be surprised at the result.

I fear that this is the season I plummet into flat-out senility and write total garbage. That is, instead of the partial garbage I’ve become semi-famous for.

After all, my best writing is the trivia question. Somebody, please, shoot me.

But the column looks okay. That is, until a foreign word leaps out at me. My editor has changed a word. The impudence! Where exactly do editors get the idea that they can change my words? I know which one did it. If he were in the room with me right now, I’d strangle his neck.

And then, of course, end up in the electric chair.

But at least in that case, my death won’t have been in vain.

Eventually, I get the necessary file from my co-worker and start the test. But now the cafeteria will be closed by the time I finish my workout. Should I just skip the exercise like I’ve done so many other times? And let my posterior continue to be best measured in degrees of longitude?

No, I need to get the blood pumping and the gut receding. So I go to the cafeteria and decide for a healthy double-feature. I’ll not only exercise; I’ll get a salad for lunch, too. I’m so proud of myself. Someone should put a star on my forehead.

I load the cucumbers, carrots and tomatoes into a small container that the cashier weighs. She announces that I owe five dollars and five cents. Five dollars for this swill? Five dollars for the taste equivalent of chewing cardboard? I’d have been better off getting a cheeseburger and fries. The coronary infarction would kill me, but at least I wouldn’t die penniless, starving and miserable.

I modify the old joke to fit vegetarians. They don’t live longer. It just feels that way.

I stow the priceless vegetables in the refrigerator and head for the fitness center. I’ll get the blood pumping. I’ll get the fat burning. I’ll get an exercise high.

Maybe, maybe not.

I’ve put earplugs in and am peddling away on the stationary bike, reading a short story by David Morrell. Within a page and a half, however, the woman on the bike next to me goes to the TV and cranks the soap opera up to full volume. The short story I’m trying to read is soon being pulverized to bits by words from the soap opera that blast through my earplugs. They’re trapped on a stalled elevator. They kiss, softly at first and then with great ferocity. They tell each other that, oh, this is wrong. Then they do it some more. Very, very wrong. Oh, oh, oh. More, more, more.

I toss the book aside. I give up. I tell myself to enjoy the workout. Remember that exercise high, I tell myself.

Instead, I think about what I am doing. Exerting great energy, but going nowhere. Sounds like the day job.

Eventually, I am back at my desk, luxuriating over my five-dollars-and-change vegetables. I think that if I’d been eating these at five ayem this morning, I’d have had no trouble getting back to sleep.

Not to worry, I tell myself. Heading into Boston for the game tonight, I’ll be picking up my daughter to bring her into the city. We’ll stop at a favorite Thai food restaurant, no doubt joined by her boyfriend. The pad thai will make up for the expensive cardboard I’m enduring now.

Well, so much for that idea. I get a message that my daughter needed to get into the city earlier than planned, so she took the train.

This is awful news. I’d been looking forward to being told by my wonderful daughter that I have an I.Q. of zero. She loves me, but now that she’s a college student she has become aware that intellectually I am a turnip. This is why I am paying staggering sums of tuition? So that my daughter can learn that I am a nincompoop? Her mother would be happy to teach her that for free.

Oh, well, I tell myself, I’ll get the Thai food all by my lonesome.

I leave two hours before game time for a drive that typically takes less than an hour.

I almost leave the tape recorder on my desk. Since I can’t read my own writing, taping is a must. I always double-check that I have the recorder, but almost forget this time. Do those dying brain cells just build up inside my skull or do they leak out somehow? Either answer seems repugnant.

Southbound traffic should not be a problem this far north of Boston. I should be going against all the flow. Yet the entrance ramp onto Route 93, which has never taken more than three or four minutes, takes almost an hour. I sit powerless to stop all the cars cutting in line.

Tonight, if I weren’t such a calm, well-adjusted individual, road rage would put me six feet under.

As I sit there and the clock advances while my car does not, I realize that there’ll be no time for Thai food. My stomach growls. There goes the reward for the veggies of great price and limited taste. I suddenly wonder if all that roughage might not have been such a good idea.

The pounding in my head, which had subsided earlier, is back. I feel as old as the pyramids.

Eventually, I get past the bottleneck, a horrifying-looking accident that strikes too close to home. I look the other way. I recite this past month’s mantra, “Lucky to be alive. Lucky to be alive.”

Soon I return to form, though, and resume grumbling about insurance companies, bosses and vegetables.

I park and see that I’ll be on time for the game, but as I rush through the rain toward the arena, my stomach is growling, my head is pounding and I wonder what I’m going to write about. My colleague and good friend, Jim Connelly, will be writing the game story. I’ll be writing a game-day feature.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Jim, but this might not be a good day for it. Every time I see him, he’s with a different attractive female. Perhaps tonight I’ll die of envy.

I get something to eat inside the arena, but no one would confuse it with pad thai. I scurry to the press box, say my hellos and take my seat. I rub my pounding temples.

The band is blaring and the students are cheering, which should be toxic twins for my reverberating cranial cavity, but instead I begin to feel better.

A female’s bare midriff catches my attention. My mood brightens.

But I digress …

In the student section, I see a face painted with the school colors. I smile.

The players are introduced. The visitors are treated with the customary rudeness. The home team is greeted with rousing cheers.

The singer of the anthem is introduced and I look down from my position above the ice. My eyes involuntarily swivel to the cheerleaders to my right. My eyes involuntarily linger.

Once again, I digress …

The puck is dropped. Before the game is a minute old, the visitors pick up a penalty. The students chant, “Get off the ice! Get off the ice!”

My headache has receded into the background.

At the 12-minute mark, Brian Tudrick scores the first goal for Northeastern. I love kids like “Tuddie,” who’ve been given limited physical tools — he’s 5-10 — but scratch-and-claw their way through redshirt seasons, games in the stands, and tough-to-shake fourth-line status. My own son, with much the same physique, was once told to watch Tudrick and learn from him. He’ll later score yet another goal, earn third-star honors and be signing autographs for the kids downstairs.

I smile broadly.

It’s all coming back to me. The bands … the fans … everything that makes up this unique atmosphere … the games played at full intensity … coaches who are not only intelligent and articulate, but also considerate … players who are still a pleasure to talk to even if they’re the stars … hard-working players who aren’t usually the stars, but through perseverance still get their moment of glory … and all of college hockey’s many delightful subtleties.

That’s why we come back every year. That’s why we love the game.

And so even though this contest isn’t much of a contest — Northeastern thumps Connecticut, 10-1 — there’s still a smile on my face.

As rotten days go, I could at least appreciate the finale.