One Night at Brighton Beach

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Andrew Kuhn

One night at Brighton Beach



    One night at Brighton Beach we went drinking
    With a Russian writer, mostly short stories,
    Who was just getting semi-famous at that point,
    And his sad, estimable, ex-pretty wife—drinking
    Too much!—in a place with mirrors on every wall
    That made the room which was already big seem vast
    As a hangar for cargo planes in the Soviet era,
    With squadrons of waiters and dark-eyed women, everybody
    Dressed up shiny and plump but plainly hard, a USO
    For KGB, with pickles and herring and rye bread
    And beets and eggplant salad and sausage we ate,
    And varieties of nose-clearing mustards, but not enough
    To keep pace with the vodka he poured from the bottles,
    In glasses I’m guessing were thick and squat and surprisingly roomy
    But I can’t remember, though I must have sighted over the rim
    Dozens of times while drinking the health of the short story writer
    Who didn’t say much—seemed distracted—gazed over my shoulder
    So hard I thought there was something wrong with his eyes,
    But when I finally looked behind me,
    I saw he’d been staring at a waiter,
    A frightening man, short and thick with a face out of focus,
    Blurry somehow, even more so than would have been due
    To the disco balls shredding bands of red light
    And the nimbuses of cigar smoke swirling,
    Like a man with a stocking pulled over his face,
    And when I journeyed at last towards the men’s room
    I saw the smear was from webs of scars
    On his scalp and cheeks and broken eyebrows
    And a smile that wasn’t a smile on purpose
    But the continuation of a slash from his ear.
    Later—much later—the writer hailed him,
    And the waiter strode towards us across the room, not as if to take
    An order but to answer a call he’d known would come,
    And the writer stood and embraced the waiter and I saw
    For the first time how large he was, the writer looming
    All in black, as big as the trunk of a livery cab,
    And the waiter grinned beyond his scar and they thumped each other
    Hard on the back, taking turns, speaking Russian,

    Almost courtly but rough, familiar, laughing a little,
    Not rushing anything, then at the same time
    They were finished. The writer sat, dropping quickly,
    And the waiter walked off to bring someone more bottles.
    That guy was a guard at my old prison camp, the writer told us,
    As if the writer had been the proprietor, as if the waiter
    Had been a counselor at the summer camp they’d known
    And loved, and the waiter a hire that worked out alright.
    That guy would beat me like a rug. Let’s drink!
    The writer said, as if we hadn’t been drinking til then,
    And in a while the music got louder,
    Belly dancers appeared from the back,
    Some of them gorgeous, some scary and old,
    And that’s pretty much all I remember.
    There’s a picture that the restaurant took,
    We ended up with it, I guess we paid:
    We’re ablaze with good spirits and wild surprise,
    But the Russian writer beside his wife,
    Stiff and still as if for a camera
    That would make a blur if you smiled or stopped smiling,
    Together they look like their dog has died
    And they wonder if they should bury or eat him.
    The stories he wrote, which were not that many,
    Were funny and lucid, sudden, cruel. Inside of a year
    He had drunk himself dead, so not knowing anything
    Better to do we climbed at night to a Brooklyn rooftop,
    Nowhere close to Brighton Beach, taking the restaurant picture along,
    And awkwardly poured some Stoli from a bottle
    Down the dark airshaft, not seeing, not hearing
    Where it would land, and drank to the limits
    Of understanding.