Happy Fourth Day

Everything but the fireworks.

“Patriots smile in Boston today,” said the young Pakistani doctor with his hand on my knee. Like most of what he had been saying, I had no idea what he meant. Did he mean the New England Patriots? Or was it a Boston Tea Party reference, because today was the Fourth of July? I coughed, smiled, and waited for him to give me drugs.

Ironically enough, it was a series of White Russians that caused my body to revolt on this Independence Day. “White Ruffins?” asked the doctor in the emergency room, stopping his legal pad scribbling long enough to get this confirmation.

“Russian,” I replied, “they were White Russians.” He cocked his head, confused. I still wasn’t sure of his name; it was a very long name tag with at least one “eesh” and an “ash” in the middle. Whatever his name, he seemed genuinely concerned about the word “Russian.”

“And they hurt you, did they?” The doctor was now scanning my body for bruises, regardless of the fact that the nurse had already written down that I was in to get treatment for a sinus infection.

“It’s a drink — Kahlua, vodka, and milk.” He was now lifting my shirt and pressing a bony finger into my ribs. “But really it’s my sinuses that …”

“They were drinking, you say?” he interrupted. “Is that when they hurt you?”

It was not my best Fourth of July. I was a full week into building a new deck, a surprise for my wife who was on a bike tour of Italy with my mother-in-law. I’m a “While You Were Out” junkie, addicted to this founding father of home improvement reality TV shows. I’m not proud of it, but there you are. The premise of the show is that ordinary people surprise their spouses by redecorating a room without their knowledge and with the help of professionals. We then see the reaction of those spouses upon their return to the new room, usually accompanied by champagne and the occasional tear.

It was my intention to use the 12 days that my wife was gone to build our dream deck in the back yard, and what more appropriate time than the Fourth of July, the quintessential deck cookout holiday? Unfortunately, I vastly overestimated both my ability and my self-discipline when it came to major construction work. What started out as an earnest attempt at building a hurricane-friendly bastion to my manhood quickly degenerated into a sweat-filled series of bent nails, mistaken measurements, and thrown power tools.

On top of this, I had been battling a sinus infection for three weeks, a fact I conveniently ignored in the knowledge that eventually it would have to “just go away.” It didn’t. In fact, the combination of 90-degree heat, physical exhaustion, and the apparent salvation of a legion of cold Budweisers only seemed to encourage this infection to new heights. The apex occurred at about 3 a.m. on the morning of the Fourth, right in the middle of my friend Chris’s drunken eulogy to his latest failed relationship.

“She was the one, you know? Fuck-all, she was the one!”

He had come to visit, which meant he needed a new place to drink and vent about women. He arrived around noon from Philadelphia, vastly disappointed to find that I had not yet finished the deck. He watched me fumble around with the nail gun for a while, then silently slipped inside the house and began drinking to “The Andy Griffith Show.” When I found him on my couch after I’d come inside to keep from passing out in the heat, he told me that he was performing some elbow exercises that his physical therapist had given him. He even had the instructions on a crumpled sheet underneath a few empty beer cans on the coffee table. By the time I had finished for the day, he was on to “MTV Cribs” and a second six-pack. By the time Conan O’Brien came on, he was hammered.

“How can she be so inconsiderate?” he’d mumble while opening the next bottle. As the night wore into morning, his voice faded and my stomach began to turn, an obvious sign that my latest attempt at holistic medicine was not working. In my infinite wisdom, I had decided that beer was not helping the gallons of phlegm that lurked inside my chest like skateboarders outside a 7-Eleven. “Drink lots of fluids,” my mom always said whenever I caught a cold, yet the medicinal qualities of Mr. Busch’s barley were not getting the job done. I turned toward that most wholesome of liquids, milk, to see me through. I figured that adding the Kahlua and vodka to the milk was a reasonable truce between my health and a healthy holiday buzz.

Like a tulip in May, my sinus infection blossomed the next morning. Gasping for breath between the endless bouts of coughing, I knew I couldn’t put off the doctor any longer. Unable to rouse Chris, I managed to get in the car and drive to the emergency room. The waiting room was covered in American flag decorations: a red, white, and blue explosion on the walls and desks.

I quickly came to realize that Betsy Ross picked out one of the most disturbing designs possible. Surrounded by a sea of vertical stripes and stars, row upon row, I began to grow dizzy amid this room made up to look like one of those optical illusion puzzles.

“Robert?” the nurse asked, peering into the crowd of unfortunate souls in the waiting room who were stupid enough to need emergency medical care while the rest of the citizens in the country were enjoying themselves. I was taken to a small room without flags and asked a series of important-sounding questions like “What color is your phlegm?” The nurse filled out some forms and told me the doctor would be right in, leaving me to read last year’s People magazine (man, that J-Lo and Ben marriage is gonna be fantastic) and the diagram of the inner ear that decorated the wall.

“Happy Fourth Day!” beamed the doctor in a vague Middle Eastern accent as he walked into the room. “What brings us to you?”

By the time I’d explained that I had not been beaten up by a rogue Russian gang and that my drinking had simply worsened an existing sinus infection, it was almost lunchtime. The doctor prescribed antibiotics after leafing through an enormous picture book of drugs, a scary proposition but one about which I was powerless to complain. As I arranged my co-pay at the billing counter, a perky nurse said, “We just need your John Hancock here.” The irony was lost on her, but the fucking flags were making me sick all over again, so I left.

The real irony was that I couldn’t drink on the Fourth of July like every other American; I was stuck with tea instead. Somewhere in Boston, a patriot smiles.

Article © 2004 by Robert F. Walsh