Winning Short Story: Bedside Manner by Paula Carlson

We hope you enjoy Ms. Carlson’s story as much as we did!

 

“BEDSIDE MANNER”

by

PAULA M. CARLSON

 

Sean Flanagan hasn’t seen his brother Patrick in about three years, and that time wasn’t much of a joy since it was to bury their mother. She never recovered from her broken heart when their father left before they were even teenagers. Now in his thirties and happily running his own indie film company where they grew up in Brooklyn, Sean is meeting Patrick so they can travel home together and see their father for the first time since he walked out onto Clinton Street never to look back.

Sean stares out of the cab window as the gritty female cab driver makes her way from Pittsburgh International Airport into the Strip District. Sean can see why Patrick loves it here so much—it’s like Brooklyn, but spread out over an entire metropolis. The sun has been up for a few hours, but a gray mist still hangs over the rivers as they make their way out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel. The City of Bridges opens up in front of them. The city that once was covered in the smoke from the labors of those who called it home now almost glistens new.

“Coming home for the holiday, hun?” The woman sounds like a pack of Marlboro Reds.

“Ahh, no, picking up my brother and his girlfriend and heading home to Brooklyn. My brother’s a professor at the university.” Sean clears his throat subtly so that maybe, just maybe, the cab driver will do the same.

“Brooklyn, huh? Too fast for me. This your brother’s place?” She pulls up in front of an old factory that’s been converted into lofts.

He looks and sees a bar to the right, a Vietnamese pho restaurant across the street, and a church converted into a music venue at the end of the block. “Yup, this is the place.” He grabs a fifty and hands it to the woman.

“Your change, hold on.”

“Happy Thanksgiving.” He checks his pockets to make sure he still has his phone before stepping out into the frosty morning.

“Thank you, hun. Happy Thanksgiving.”

Sean slams the door shut and makes his way into the large foyer of the building. “Little brother’s doing well for himself,” Sean says out loud as he runs his hand through his dirty blond hair. “Ahh, I forgot to pack my hat.” Since Sean was just in LA, his favorite flat cap was the last thing he thought to grab.

He enters the building and walks to the desk. “Hey, morning. Ah, my brother left a key for me. Sean Flanagan.”

The very new concierge almost knocks over his Sheetz coffee grabbing the key. “Good morning, sir. Here you go.”

Sean takes the key and remembers when he was a lowly assistant on his first film and he did knock over the coffee on the director’s screenplay. He turns. “Hey, have a good one, ‘k?”

As he makes his way to the stairwell, he remembers the last time he saw and spoke to his brother. It was right after their mother’s funeral. They had just closed their uncle’s bar where Patrick had worked his way from bar back to one of the senior bartenders. He told Sean he’d been offered a job teaching at the University of Pittsburgh. Their oldest and most settled brother, David, was happy Patrick was finally growing up and moving on with his life. Patrick had taken their father leaving the hardest, and David was convinced Patrick would stay close to home until their Pop showed up again.

To Sean, leaving Brooklyn was an insult to the family as well as the family business. He not only accused him of abandoning them like their father did, but he might also have drunkenly mentioned he was sleeping with Patrick’s fiancée at the time. What ensued was a brawl with broken bones, glasses, bottles, cuts, and severed ties between the brothers.

It was actually Patrick’s current girlfriend, Rose, who had a hand at bringing the two back together. She was herself the product of a broken marriage, but in her case, there were eight brothers and sisters to take care of each other. She spoke to David, who convinced Sean to finally call Patrick. Their father coming home to visit, well, Patrick doesn’t know that part just yet.

Sean reaches the third floor apartment and unlocks the door. He is met with the smell of a simmering fireplace and a hockey stick that has fallen over in front of the door. Sun filters into the river-facing apartment and onto the brick walls and hardwood floors.

Sean puts his bag down and looks around in the kitchen. If there’s no coffee, it means his brother isn’t awake. He knows his brother hasn’t changed that much. No coffee means he’s asleep.

He doesn’t snoop around too much before heading to the closed bedroom door. Three years of avoidance is about to end. He turns the knob and sees the sleeping figure under the covers. As quietly as possibly, he walks into the room and sits on the bed.

“I haven’t seen you in three years and you aren’t even awake to welcome me?“ With this, he pulls off the covers. Instead of his brown-haired, scruffy brother, he is met with a black-haired beauty wearing nothing but a Metallica shirt.

“Isn’t this what got you in trouble with your brother last time, Sean?” She holds out her hand. “Roisin Dovzhenko, everyone calls me Rose. Your brother is in the shower. Why don’t you go make some coffee?”

“Yes, why don’t you go make some coffee?” Patrick towers in the doorway.

Sean closes his eyes tight and hangs his head.

“He meant well, Paddy.” She tosses the sheets aside and gets out of bed.

She kisses Patrick good morning and steals the towel that is wrapped around his waist, teaching him a lesson by leaving him naked in front of his brother.

“Hey, that’s my Metallica shirt.” Sean crosses his arms like he’s five.

“You’re lucky she didn’t shoot you when you snuck in.”

The Metallica shirt gets thrown back into the room. “Give it back to your brother.”

“Shoot me? She’s a nurse.” Sean rips the shirt out of Patrick’s hands. “Can you please put on some pants . . . Paddy?”

“She’s also an Army medic with a temper worse than Pop’s.” Patrick finds a pair of jeans on the floor and puts them on.

“Pops thought he was off fighting with Michael Collins half the time. He wasn’t pissed off; he was crazy. She’s hot, bro. How’d you score her?”

Patrick tackles his brother, pins him down to the bed, and points a finger in his face. “You so much as have one dirty thought about her . . .” Patrick grabs his brother’s face.

Sean manages a smile and grabs his brother’s hand off his face. “You mean starting now, right?”

Rose, wearing only a towel, briefly enters the room and stands near the two brothers.

“Sean, apologize to your brother so we can get this over with now.” She exits the room with the following, trailing off behind her, “And don’t roll your eyes at me, Paddy.”

“She’s got one hell of a bedside manner, Pat. I’m sorry, for everything. And for Clara.”

“Cara.”

“Yeah, Cara.”

“I didn’t like her anyway.” Patrick stands and puts his hand out for his brother. Sean takes it and allows Patrick to pull him off the bed. Standing face to face, three years and six inches between them, the brothers hug.

After the formalities of meeting, Rose goes to the gym, leaving the brothers to catch up. They sit across from each other at the kitchen table. Sean breaks the news about their father’s visit just as Patrick lifts a spoonful of oatmeal to his mouth.

“And you were planning on telling me this before we got on the plane?” Patrick shoves the spoon into his mouth and purposely scrapes it against his teeth.

“Could you not do that?” Sean slams down his coffee mug.

Patrick stares at his brother before picking up his bowl and walking it over to the sink. In silence, and with his back to his brother, he washes the dish and the spoon. Then he begins to wash anything else he can find, even the clean dishes.

“He’s bringing his girlfriend with him.” Sean looks at the floor. His finger traces the top of the mug several times before Patrick acknowledges him.

Patrick doesn’t turn around. “Is she the reason he left?” Between the clock ticking and the riverboat horn, the only other sound is Patrick’s increasingly heavy breathing.

“Yes.” Sean grips the mug and looks up at his brother.

Finally, Patrick turns around. He walks to the refrigerator and opens it. “You want one?”

Sean hears the glass beer bottles rattle. “It’s nine o’clock in the morning.” He wishes he could stuff the words back in his mouth.

Patrick laughs to himself. He grabs a bottle and removes the top in one quick pop against the counter. The cap falls to the floor. “You just told me that our father, the man who left without a good-bye or a reason, is going to stop by David’s house for Thanksgiving Dinner. He hasn’t seen us or spoken to us in years. And, he’s bringing the woman that he left us for.” He takes a long drink of the beer. “Sean, if I want to stand here smokin’ a bowl while getting a blow job, I think I’m pretty much fucking entitled to it right now!” He slams the beer down.

“That is not an image anyone needs in their head.” Sean pushes the mug away. “I’ll take a beer.”

Patrick grabs his brother a beer, removes the cap, and hands it to him, and then he finally smiles. Patrick sits down in the chair next to him. “I mean, why now?”

“He just said it was time.” Sean relaxes and slouches in his chair.

“What do we say to him?” He twirls the beer around in the bottle before taking another drink.

Sean looks at his younger brother, sees the scars caused by too many hockey brawls, some possibly from their fight three years ago, and he also sees the lines starting to form around his green eyes. “Shit,” he thinks to himself, “he’s starting to look like Dad.” Just as he is about to answer, the door opens and Rose walks in carrying a gym bag and groceries.

“Good. It’s nice to see you haven’t killed each other.” She begins to put things away.

“Don’t let me stop your conversation. I’ll keep my good ear on this side.” She points away from the two sitting at the table and then goes about her business putting groceries away.

Sean looks puzzled.

“IED. She can’t hear well out of her left ear.”

“When you said Army medic, you meant like, for real? She messed up?”

“But I’m not totally deaf.” Rose turns around. “You know what, I’m gonna go pack.” Rose looks at them both and then gets a beer for herself.

“Hey, I didn’t mean anything by it.” He gives Rose the “I’m really sorry” look he’s perfected over the years.

Rose walks over to the table. She holds her beer out for a toast. As Sean clinks his bottle with hers, she adds, “I know, I just wanted to see you squirm a little.” She runs her fingers through Patrick’s hair and then walks away.

“How the hell did you find her?” Sean watches her walk into the bedroom.

“I needed stiches after a game. Met her at the hospital. How about you? Find anyone yet?”

“As a matter of fact, you’ll meet her over Thanksgiving.” Sean smiles as if he’s very proud of himself.

“Good for you. You happy?”

“I think. She makes her own living, doesn’t ask about my every move.” He takes a sip and leans in toward his brother. “She the one, Pat?”

“Yeah. She is.”

 

The flight from Pittsburgh the next day is relatively short. Rose sits between the brothers. Sean glances over to see Rose holding Patrick’s hand as he nods off to sleep. He also notices a trinity knot tattoo on her neck, easily hidden when her hair is down.

“You’re all doing the right thing. First, you apologizing and then going home to see your dad.” Rose doesn’t look directly at Sean but instead stares ahead of her at the seat.

“You don’t like me, do you?”

She snaps her head toward Sean, this time, their eyes meet. “Don’t confuse my uncertainty about you for all-out not liking you, Sean. By the sounds of it, you had a bit of growing up to do.”

“Listen, you don’t know me . . .”

“You’re right, I don’t. So you should start working on first impressions. And yes, I’m fucking messed up. But, unfortunately, your brother understands what that is all about.”

Sean stares at this woman who is so beautiful but so invisibly scarred. He remembers the dark rooms their father would sit in, crying, screaming, wanting to be held and left alone at the same time. Vietnam never left their father.

“So, when we get off this plane, let’s start over, shall we?” She offers her hand to him.

He takes hers and squeezes it. “Thank you for giving me my shirt back. I’ve been looking for that for years.”

Rose smiles. “You’re making it difficult for me to be a bitch to you, you know that?”

“You’re not used to charm. Pat just bullies everyone into liking him.”

The plane lands at LaGuardia on time. Sean impatiently waits for a cab. “Finally.” They pile their luggage into the trunk, and when Sean opens the door . . .

“We’ll meet you at David’s. I want to take Rose to Central Park.”

“It can wait, really.” Rose looks back and forth between the two brothers. Sean is really trying to be patient. Now all he can think about is being stuck with the cab fare.

“Here.” Patrick hands his brother a twenty. “Dad gets in at three, right?” Patrick grabs Rose and they hail the next cab, leaving Sean to take the long ride to Brooklyn.

 

Sean sits in his old room. He never thought his brother would buy the house they grew up in, but he and his wife seem to have exorcised the bad memories. Not that their childhood was extremely awful, but the house did hold some bittersweet moments. The bad grades, getting caught with girls in his room, not getting caught with girls in his room and not quite sure what he was supposed to do with them, listening to their mother cry, and trying to figure out what to do with his life.

The film noir posters have been pulled down, and in place of his old bedroom, Sean sits in David’s office. The last time all three brothers were in this house was the day of their mother’s funeral. The drunken brawl of that night was the catalyst for Sean. Well, actually, David kicking him out of the house was the catalyst for Sean.

He thinks to himself, “If Rose only knew me then.” He knows he’s grown up. He knows the only impression she has of him is whatever Patrick told him, and he’s sure it didn’t flatter him.

As he stares at the photos of his sister-in-law and nieces, Patrick and Rose arrive downstairs. Out of curiosity, Sean opens the closet door. It still dons the same paint from when he used the room. He reaches his right hand to the door jam, finds a rough patch, and pushes hard against it. After all these years, no one ever, ever found his old pot stash.

“Hey, Sean,” David yells from downstairs.

Sean slides the wood back into place and shuts the door behind him. For the first time in three years, all three brothers occupy the same room. Before anyone can realize that, Patrick introduces Rose to everyone.

“Everyone, I’d like you to meet my fiancée, Rose.”

Sean makes eye contact with his brother, who can’t stop smiling. David, who could pass as Sean’s twin, is the first to hug Patrick. Sean casually walks up to Rose. He puts his arms out to her.

She welcomes the hug from Sean. “Did you have any idea?” She doesn’t take her arms from around him.

“Not a clue.” He hugs her again. He’s shocked at how welcoming she now is to him. “Congratulations,” he whispers in her ear.

Rose is quickly whisked away by David and his wife, Sarah. Of course, she wants to see the ring.

“Holy . . .”

“Watch your mouth, Uncle Sean.” Sarah quickly stops Sean before he can say something a five and three-year-old might repeat.”

Sean gives his brother a hug. “I’m happy for you, bro. I’m kind of afraid of her, so you don’t have to worry about me stealing this one away. Besides, I couldn’t afford that ring.”

Because he knows he hates it, Patrick messes up Sean’s hair. “Thanks. It feels good to be back here, doesn’t it?”

David joins his brothers. “Well, look at us. They gonna have Walkers open later, Pat? Maybe we’ll even bring the girls.”

“Yeah, I kinda promised them I would work the bar in return for letting me in this morning. And speaking of girls, where is yours at?” Patrick punches his brother on his shoulder.

“She’s actually picking up Dad. She’s driving from Long Island.”

The hours go by with wine, conversation, and cooking. Finally, the anticipation is over. They all hear footsteps coming up the stairs.

“Maybe you should stand back here, Pat, in case you go to punch him.”

“Maybe I’ll punch you.”

“Maybe you should both shut up,” Sarah interrupts the two acting like they are teenagers again.

Sean watches as Rose stands by Patrick, not knowing how anyone is going to react. Sarah also comforts David, leaving Sean to wish that maybe he had gone with his girlfriend to the airport.

They hear his voice before they see him. Years of feelings flood back. Even the good times are there all rushing at Sean. And then, he sees him.

His hair is gray, and he is Patrick in thirty years. His height, inability to shave every day, even the rasp in his voice. That’s their father.

Behind him is a woman that looks strangely familiar. Her hair, a homogenized mix of black and silver strands, is pulled up into a bun. Her white shirt and jeans compliment this very attractive older woman. Sean’s initial thoughts of hate and anger melt a little. She looks kind—not like the husband-stealing whore he imagined.

A sound comes from Rose. Patrick doesn’t catch it, but Sean does. She excuses herself from the room just as she and their father’s girlfriend makes eye contact. David looks to Sean. He tilts his head in Rose’s direction and follows her.

Upstairs, Rose sits at David’s desk. She’s obviously upset as she sits with her hands to her mouth.

“Hey.” Sean shuts the door behind him. He’s met with a distant look from Rose.

“This is supposed to be your day.”

Sean sits beside her. “I know this must not be easy on you. Patrick told me about your mom.”

She looks at him with tears in her eyes. “I am so sorry.” Her breathing gets heavy as Sean waits for her to have a full-on meltdown.

“Rose? What . . . what do you have to be sorry about? I can understand how emotional this must be for you.”

She shakes her head no. As she is about to speak, David walks into the room.

“Rose, you okay? None of us had any idea.” He gives her a hug, leaving Sean clueless.

“So, what’s going on?”

A few whimpers are muffled by David’s sweater. “Sean, that’s her mom downstairs.”

The air is ripped from Sean’s body. This would have been a perfect screenplay for him, but seeing that it’s his reality, not so much. What are the odds? What are the odds that the woman his brother fell head over heels for is the daughter of the woman responsible for tearing their life apart?

Rose pushes herself away from David and attempts to dry her eyes. “I should just go. There is no way this can go well for anyone.”

Sean puts his arm around her while David walks over to the closet. “You obviously had no idea. It’s just, wow, what a coincidence.”

“Pat’s downstairs? How is he?” David has recovered what Sean thinks is his old stash of pot from the closet.

“He’s okay. He’s comforting your mom, actually. She’s pretty much in shock, too.” David proceeds to light a joint.

“Dude, that shit’s like ten years old.”

“Sean, give me some credit. I used to steal yours. You think this was really a secret? I just bought this last week. Think we all could relax a little right now.”

After all three have taken exaggerated hits off the joint, Patrick walks in. He shuts the door immediately and starts laughing. “This is exactly what I hoped you were all doing.” He immediately goes to Rose.

David nudges Sean. “Come on, let’s go downstairs.”

Sean offers the joint to Patrick. “Cheers.”

Pat takes one, long inhale. Instead of exhaling, he kisses Rose. The two are lost in each other immediately. Tears, pot, Patrick’s scruffy face.

“I can’t believe this. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for her. For you.” He wraps his arms around her.

“Shhh. At least we can be comforted in the fact that when we’re their age, we’ll be a damn fine looking couple.” He waits for a response.

Rose laughs, half out of relief because she thought in her anxious mind that one of the brothers would be upset with her by default, the other half out of being high. “Do we go downstairs?”

“She’s actually on the other side of the door waiting to see you.” He places his hands on her face. “You can do this.”

“I’d rather run away from the Taliban right now. Doesn’t seem like I have a choice though, does it?” She places her hands on Patrick’s and gently removes them from her face. “Tell her to come in, please.”

Patrick kisses her forehead and walks to the door. “I would stay away from your bedside manner. It might have impressed me, but I don’t think your mother would appreciate your colorful use of the English language.”

Rose flips him off. “I love you, Dr. Flanagan.”

“Love you, too, soon-to-be Mrs. Flanagan.” He exits.

Patrick shuts the door behind Rose’s mother before going downstairs to reunite with his own past.

 

 

Be sure to check out Ms. Carlson’s interview here.

 

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eb (1)About the author: Paula grew up in western Pennsylvania the daughter of a WWII Veteran coal miner and nurse/hotel bellhop. Paula was heavily influenced by music and her two Brooklyn neighbors. With the initial intentions of becoming a sports physician and working for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Paula discovered that instead of chemical formulas, she had a passion for dialogue and politics, and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and political science. Paula did some travelling to Sydney and Belfast before hitting up NYU for a graduate degree in some more political science. She met and married a New York City Firefighter who grew up in NYC. Paula and her husband are both avid runners, music enthusiasts, and both volunteer at a camp for children who are burn survivors.

So what does one do with degrees in creative writing and political science? Work for the New York City Emergency Management, of course! Since 2004, Paula has been developing disaster drills and high level tabletop discussions as well as preparing for and responding to the City’s emergencies. Writing has become an important part of her career. The need to clearly communicate information is important when writing situation reports during events and evaluations and summaries following drills. It is precisely this job that made Paula re-discover writing. Long hours and stressful events call for some mental time off. Paula has two blogs to exercise her writing skills. She has both a short story blog, No Evasion to Reality, and a music blog, Paula’s Music Journey.

 

 

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Comments

  1. HI everyone. Thank you again! Would love to hear your feedback. It is an honor to share this story with you all.

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