The Argentinean geologist’s wife was a Russian who married to stay out of Russia. They met and hit upon that plan in a bar in Buenos Aires, and in the course of the night were engaged, married and conceived the first of their three children, all in the delirium of white rum. After marrying and the birth of her first child, a beautiful blond boy with the angular strong face of his mother, the Russian woman was established in the country and had no fear and she took anyone she chose to her bed. When her second and third children were born, a daughter and another son, nobody could say whose they were, but they all shared the blond hair and angular strong faces of their mother. The Argentinean geologist delighted in the children and in his beautiful wife and hated that he often had to leave for weeks at a time to prospect around the continent for the Fly-By-Night Mining Company. He comforted himself with the thought that all his work was to support his family and buy his wife the things she wanted, and, comforted, he drank in salute to Russia at night. He had never been in love before, had never felt the blessings that he’d heard in songs and read in books, and once it had happened to him he resolved to never take it for granted and to never let it go. So when he sat in the late afternoons in the cafes he refused to hear the increasingly spreading, vulgar stories of a Russian woman living in Buenos Aires; stories that, as time went on, were ever more descriptive. He closed his ears to the information friends and neighbors gave him; he ignored a rowdy song some inventive children began to sing at him when he walked by.
Coming home from a job earlier than expected, the Argentinean geologist found his wife in bed with a taxi driver, whose vehicle was parked outside the yard where the children played. Seeing his wife for what she was, the Argentinean geologist screamed at her and threw a lamp at the taxi driver, who sprang out of the bed and tried to pull on his shorts and shoes at the same time. The Russian woman was irritated, mostly with herself for being caught.
“Get out!” she screamed, and she picked up the dented and crushed lamp from the floor and flung it at her husband’s head.
He ran back from the door to avoid the missile, and she ran to the door and closed and locked it, and wouldn’t let the taxi driver out until they had finished what they had started. When she opened the door the Argentinean geologist was gone and she sent her children out to a park while she waited for him patiently, thinking that he would beat her, as she believed all husbands did whether their wives were guilty or not. She held a knife in her hand as she sat on the couch in the front room, so that she could kill him if he went too far. She waited for him to be a man but he didn’t come to beat her. He went out and drank rum and Bull’s Blood and watched himself growing tough in the bar-room mirror. But he never once thought of beating her.
Deciding that she had married a weak man, the Russian woman up and left, thinking to make a living on her own. At first she regretted this, finding the future less secure without her husband’s money and connections, but she was proud and despised the Argentinean geologist too much to return to him. Everybody knew that she would never return. People said this to him. The Argentinean geologist, however, knew that she was only testing his love, and that she would come back, and so he waited for her. Though he doted on them, he sent the beautiful children to his mother—he couldn’t bear to look at them while he suspected that they might not be his. He wanted his wife to return and say they were his. He sat around waiting for her to return. He ignored the letters from the Fly-By-Night Mining Company and he ignored his mother’s letters, which said that she hated to be old and saddled with the brats of a whore, though the Russian woman sent money regularly for their welfare. His mother wrote that she wouldn’t mind the children if they were truly her flesh and blood. These were painful letters to read and eventually he ignored them and wouldn’t take her calls. He stopped going to see his children. He wondered if he had ever been a father. He sat in the growing filth of his home and invented cocktails and sexual positions for him and his wife to try, when she returned. He dreamed of her return, when she would restore his life to him.
Finally somebody told him to get off his ass and do something. He took this to mean that he should go out and find the Russian woman. He asked around, made guesses, followed reports and rumors of her, and finally went to Brazil, ending up in Rio de Janeiro, when he decided he’d never go back to Argentina again, unless he had the Russian woman with him, to salvage his pride and his reputation there. He took an apartment and went back to work for the Fly-By-Night Mining Company, and when drunk he wailed and carried on about his wife. He heard she made spectacular money and that she was too good for the likes of him. He beat his chest with his fists and swore that love was eternal and the men in the bars would hear him and yell agreements and buy him drinks. From village to village he got free drinks after claiming his love and the Russian woman’s. It was difficult to work with him: other geologists knew him to be increasingly boring and lazy and negligent of the terrain. But the Argentinean geologist improved his circumstances greatly by purchasing a small imitation-pearl-handled pistol and telling people that it was the instrument of his death and his wife’s death and her lovers’ deaths. He kept it near his breast and patted it bravely while drinking. He became very adept at story-telling, and it soon came about that the padre in one village even blessed his gun for better aim, though the Argentinean geologist never made a good case for his being the renowned Russian woman’s husband, worthy to commit murder and suicide in the name of her love. Out prospecting in a remote part of the country, he managed to offend the local, impoverished people with a large unpaid bill, and they refused then to allow prospectors of any kind on their land.
The Argentinean geologist could no longer find work, not even with the Fly-By-Night Mining Company, and so he sat in his apartment in Rio growing poor and haunted by rumors. He worried about what he heard and yet, despite the oaths, the promises he’d made when drunk in bars, the wild and distraught gestures he’d made with his little pistol, still he couldn’t bring himself to want to die. One day he sat in his apartment for hours, drinking. He looked out of his window and saw a blonde, angular-faced American tourist family walking on the street with wide-eyed expressions. They appeared to be happy as they were, and ignored the poor children who followed them, and this happiness looked so easy, so innocent to him, that he decided he should forget the Russian woman. He continued looking out of the window long after they had passed, and he drank.
An hour later he saw a yellow Volkswagen Beetle taxi drive into the side of a building, and the driver got out swearing and walked to a passenger door and opened it, so that a large wire birdcage rolled out as the old woman inside screamed angrily, the large pearl earrings that pulled her lobes down swinging as she moved. The door of the birdcage opened and the two small yellow birds inside flew out with shrill whistles and landed on a business sign hanging nearby. Their companionship struck the Argentinean geologist. They watched the commotion from above, little pretty spots of color dabbed against the city-grey, and they sang. It seemed to him such a sweet sight, so uncommon and so odd. It reminded him of the omens that true lovers follow in stories, in which the lover is reminded of his love by God Himself. Such things are a blessing. “A sign!” he said. “It is a sign!” He would no longer wait. He left his room and went out to the street.
The taxi driver had left the car running. Neither he nor the old woman screaming at each other and waving frantically at the two birds were bothered by the crowd gathering around, or by the addition of the Argentinean geologist’s weaving frame. The Argentinean geologist went round the cab door and sat in the driver’s seat. Nobody seemed to notice at first, and then one man said, “Yeah, back it out of the building a few feet. Let’s see the damage.” The car lurched out and zoomed back into the crowd, which panicked and scattered, and the old woman shook her hands in the air wildly as the wire birdcage bent under the tires. A man jumped in front of the car to stop it, and the Argentinean geologist pulled out his pistol to wave him out of the way. He shifted into drive and in a rush the city went careening by as the Argentinean geologist drove through the wealthiest developments, where he had heard that his wife was living richly with a movie star. He struck a woman crossing the street at a red light, and blindly and fearfully, dimly aware that he had done a horrible thing, the Argentinean geologist made his way to the Fly-By-Night Mining Company’s Rio offices. Stopping the car a foot away from the glass front door, he rushed in past the secretary and motioned with the pistol and gibbered wildly to an American geologist, stunned, sitting at his desk. The American geologist gave him what money he had in his wallet and the Argentinean geologist promised to repay him. He went out the back door to avoid the people swilling around the crumpled hood of the taxi. He threw his gun into a dumpster and made his way down the streets until he came to a busy intersection; flagging down a taxi, he demanded to be driven to the airport, but first to the liquor store, where he bought cachaca. Drinking while leaning back in the car and watching the lights turning on as it became dark, he tried to think of destinations. He didn’t have money enough to go far.
Arriving at the Mexico City airport he was astonished to see the Russian woman there, sitting in a lounge wearing an elegantly tailored dress and coat and long gloves, her blonde hair beautifully waved, and smoking a long, thin cigarette. He ran to her and crying pulled at her sleeves, stroked her hair, and put his hands around her face, caressing its angles with his thumbs. “Natasha, this must not be,” he said. She shook her head, and as security pulled him away he saw a strikingly handsome young man bend over her, speaking close to her ear. Outside the airport he stood against a chain-link fence and watched as the big planes took off, to where he did not know. There were no birds in this place, no bird-songs to be heard in the traffic and the roar of the plane-engines, no colors in the pollution, and the dark, and the flashing brightness of all the car lights and all the neon signs.