Clothing comprised another difficult part of their lives. Their pants would wear out, their skirts, their petticoats. Their jackets and blouses wore out less, but after a certain amount of time they had to be changed, even for security reasons. Tailing one of them one morning I learned more about their customs and the relationship they maintained with the surface. It was as follows: they would descend one by one in the designated station on the designated day and at the designated time. Someone would come from the surface with a change of clothes (I would later confirm that this was a complete service, clean underwear each time, and a suit or dress ironed every so often), and the two of them would get on the same car of the next train. There they could talk, the package would pass from one to the other, and at the next station they would change clothes – this was the most grueling part – in the filthiest of lavatories. One station later the same agent was waiting for them on the platform; they would travel together until the next station, and the agent would return to the surface with the package of used clothes.
Having convinced myself that I knew almost all the possibilities on this terrain, I discovered by sheer coincidence that, in addition to the periodic exchanges of clothes, there was also a warehouse. Here they precariously stored garments and items in case of an emergency, perhaps so as to cover the basic needs of the novices when they arrived. I could not calculate the number of novices but it must have been extensive. A friend introduced me on the street to an old man who worked a bookseller in the arcades of the Cabildo. I was walking around looking for an old edition of Sur; to my surprise and perhaps due to my admission of the inevitable, the bookseller made me go down to the Peru station and twist around to the left of the platform where I found a very busy passageway with little air of the subterranean. Here was their storehouse full of motley stacks of books and magazines. I didn't find Sur; instead there was a little door, left ajar, which gave onto the neighboring room. I caught sight of someone's back, crowned with that snow-white nuque that all of them had; at his feet I made out a pile of overcoats, a few handkerchiefs, and a red scarf. The bookseller thought that I was a retailer or a concessionary like he was; I did not disabuse him of this belief and bought Trilce off him in a fine edition. Yet in this matter of the clothes I came to know horrible things. How they had some money left over and sought to spend it (I believe it is much the same in more civilized prisons), placating inoffensive whims with a violence that shook me. Then I followed a blond lad. Every time I saw him, he was in the same brown suit. The only thing he changed was his tie: he entered the lavatories two or three times a day to do so. One time around noon he went down at Lima to buy a tie at the kiosk by the platform. He spent a long time there making up his mind. This was his great escapade, his Saturday night party. In his jacket pockets I saw the bulges of other ties and felt something that was no less than horror.
The women would buy themselves little kerchiefs and toys, key-rings, everything that fit in both the kiosks and their handbags. Sometimes they would get off at Lima or Peru and stay staring at the shop windows of the platform, where furniture was displayed, dressers and beds, and they looked for a long time at those dressers and beds with humble and contained desire. And when they bought the daily paper and Maribel they remained absorbed by the ads for blowout sales, perfumes, figurines, and gloves. They were also on the verge of forgetting their instructions of indifference and I took off when they saw mothers taking their children for a walk. I saw two of them a few days apart; they abandoned their seats and went on foot near the children, almost grazing against them. It would not have surprised me overmuch if they petted on the head or gave them a caramel, things that are not done in the subway of Buenos Aires and probably not in any subway.
For a long time I asked myself why the First One had chosen, of all days, one on which a check was being conducted to go down with the other three. Knowing his methods if still not knowing him personally, I thought it was a mistake to attribute this to boastfulness, a desire to cause a scandal if the differences in the numbers were published. More in keeping with his reflective wisdom, it was more likely that in those days the attention of the Anglo line staff was diverted, purposely or unwittingly, into running the checks. In this way, the capture of the train became much more feasible. Even the return to the surface of the replaced conductor would not entail dangerous consequences. Only three months after that casual encounter in Lezama Park between the ex-conductor and chief inspector Montesano, and the latter's silent inferences, were they able to piece it all together and bring me closer to the truth.
For this, therefore – I am speaking of almost the present time – they had three trains in their possession and I believed, without any certainty, a position in the coordination booths of Primera Junta. A suicide eliminated my lingering doubts. That evening I had been following one of the women. I saw her enter a phone booth at the José María Moreno station. The platform was almost empty and I pressed my face into the side partition pretending to be as fatigued as those coming back from work. This was the first time that I saw one of them in a telephone booth. I was not surprised by her furtive air, or how scared the girl was, or her moment of hesitation before looking around and entering the booth. I heard a few things, crying, the sound of a handbag opening, a nose being blown, and then: "But the canary, you'll take care of him, right? You'll give him birdseed every morning, as well as a piece of vanilla?" This banality stunned me, because this voice was not a voice transmitting a message based on some kind of code; her tears moistened this voice and suffocated it. I boarded a train before she was able to notice me and turned all the way around, continuing my check of schedules and changes of clothes. When we came back to José María Moreno, she hurled herself in front of the train after (they say) crossing herself. I recognized her by her red shoes and brightly colored bag. An enormous throng gathered, many of them surrounding the conductor and the guard as they waited for the police. I saw that both the conductor and the guard were two of them (they were so pale) and thought that what had just happened there would test the solidity of the First One's plans. For it is one thing to impersonate someone and quite another to resist a police examination. A week passed without incident, without the slightest consequence from this banal, almost everyday type of suicide. It was then that I started to be afraid of going down.
I knew that many things were still not clear to me, even main things, but the fear was stronger than I was. In those days I hardly went near the subway entrance at Lima, which was my station. I would smell that hot odor, that Anglo odor that rose to street level, and I would hear the trains pass. I would enter a café and tell myself I was a fool: how could I refuse, I asked myself, total revelation just a few steps away? I knew so many things; I could be useful to society by reporting what was happening. I knew that in the final weeks they already had eight trains and that their number was rapidly increasing. The novices were still unrecognizable because the discoloration of the skin was very slow and, doubtless, extreme precautions were taken. The First One's plans did not seem to have any flaws; consequently, it was impossible for me to determine their number. Mere instinct told me, when being down there and following them still captivated me, that the majority of the trains were already filled with them, that ordinary passengers were finding it increasingly difficult to travel, no matter what the time. And it wouldn't surprise me if the newspapers called for new lines, more trains, and emergency measures.
I saw Montesano. I told him certain things and hoped he would divine others. I had the impression that he mistrusted me, that he was following some lead on his own or, rather, that he preferred elegantly washing his hands of something that was drifting far past his own imagination, not to mention that of his superiors. I understood that it was useless to talk to him again about the matter and that he could accuse me of complicating his life with almost paranoid fantasies. This was especially my sense when he told me, slapping me on the back: "You're tired, you need to take a trip somewhere."
But the trip I needed to take was on the Anglo. It surprised me a little that Montesano did not intend to take any measures, at least against the First One and the three others, to cut off this tree at the top, this tree that was plunging its roots deeper and deeper into the asphalt and the earth. A stuffy smell lingered, the brakes of a train could be heard, and then a handful of people traipsed up the escalator with the bovine air of those who have been traveling on foot, crammed into cars that were always full. I would have approached, separated them one by one, and explained matters to them. But it was then that I heard another train coming and I turned around in fear. When I recognized one of the agents who had been getting on and off with a package of clothes, I went to hide in the café, and for a long time I had no desire to go out again. I thought that after a couple of glasses of gin my courage would rise and I would go down to assure myself of their exact number. I believed that now they had all the trains, the administration of many of the stations, and a part of the workshops. Yesterday I had believed that the saleswoman at the sweets and candy kiosk at Lima could inform me indirectly about the forced rise in her sales. With an effort hardly greater than the cramp which was plaguing my stomach, I was able to go down to the platform. I kept repeating to myself that this did not mean I would be getting on a train or mixing in with them. Two questions and barely anything more and I would be up on the surface again, safe and sound again. I tossed the money in the turnstile and approached the kiosk. I was about to buy a Milkybar when I saw that the saleswoman was staring right at me. She was pretty, but pale, so pale. In despair I ran towards the stairs and stumbled climbing up. Now I knew that I could not go down again. They recognized me; in the end they had come to recognize me.
I spent an hour in a café without making up my mind as to whether I wanted to take that first step down the stairs or stay here among the people going up and down. All the while I would ignore those looking askance at me without understanding that I still hadn't decided to move in a zone where everyone was moving. It seemed almost inconceivable that I had completed the analysis of their general methods and was still unable to take the final step that would reveal to me their identities and their purposes. I refused to accept that fear was seizing my chest. Perhaps I would decide; perhaps the best thing to do was to lean against the handrail and shout out what I knew about their plan, what I thought I knew about the First One (I would say it, although Montesano would be disgusted were I to ruin his investigation), and, most of all, all the consequences of all of this for the population of Buenos Aires. Until now I had kept writing in the café, the tranquility of being in a neutral site on the surface filled me with a calm I did not possess when I went down to the kiosk. I felt that in some way I would go down again, obliged to descend the stairs step by step. In the meantime the best thing might be to finish my report to send it off to the mayor or the chief of police, with a copy for Montesano, and then pay for my coffee and safely and securely go down there. Of this I was sure although I didn't know how I would do it, from where I would get the strength to descend step by step now that they recognized me, now that in the end they had come to recognize me. But it no longer mattered. Before going down I would have my rough draft ready, and I would tell Mister Mayor or Mister Chief of Police that there was someone walking down there, someone who walked along the platforms and who, when no one realized what was happening, when only I could know and listen in, would lock herself in a poorly lit booth and open her bag. Then she would cry. First she would cry a little and then, Mister Mayor, she would say: "But the canary, you'll take care of him, right? You'll give him birdseed every morning, as well as a piece of vanilla?"