“The Girl with the Blue Pocketbook”
[This is an English version of chapter seven, "The Girl with the Blue Pocketbook" taken from Claudia, mi Claudia. It was translated from the Spanish by the author with the cooperation of Priscilla Cohn. Although it appears in some bibliographies, the English translation is not published.]
She walked by the Observer's house every weekday. Mornings, at half past eight, from right to left toward the small square with the tiny garden surrounded by benches for the comfort of senior citizens. Afternoons, around three fifteen, from left to right toward the nearby avenue. Always on the sidewalk opposite the Observer's house, beside the Boutique Bianco and Chez Alfred's. Always with the same gait. Always with the same blue pocketbook.
The same gait. This could be explained easily since she walked at the same pace, and, as the Observer had noticed, gait and pace are complementary. That she passed at the same hours was not surprising, for the street served as a shortcut for a relatively large number of people going to and from work. Although the stores were open, she was never visible on Saturdays. Most probably, then, she worked in an office. "All right, we already know something," the Observer told himself, even if he realized very little was known, it was not completely certain, and perhaps it had no interest whatsoever.
What the Observer did not ask himself, having momentarily pushed it into the comfortable storehouse of his subconscious, was why, among all the people milling about in the street, he was now concentrating his attention on this particular person. Was it because she resembled one of his old and perhaps extinguished flames? This was not to be completely discarded. The girl resembled neither Theodora nor Dorothea, and still less that astounding combination Theodora—Dorothea. But she was not totally unlike Wanda, and there was a smidgen of a resemblance to Celinda. Certainly, she was not a mixture of both. No, nothing like a Walinda or a Cewanda, exotic names like those in the telephone book of the capital of a Central African republic. Perhaps a Wanda without her innocent transparency; maybe a Celinda without her almost magical fickleness. Better to believe she was not comparable to anyone he had known, an aura of mystery lingering only a few seconds though extending before and after her diurnal walk, so that the Observer's interest was, literally, gratuitous. It had no cause, no reason for being. For the moment, the girl with the blue pocketbook was only a target of some possible future exploration.
To begin with, her name. Knowledge starts with baptism. "I will call her Claudia." The privilege of a demiurge, ruler of a subterranean universe. What is Claudia like? For the time being, astoundingly punctual. Otherwise, it would be impossible to predict, almost to the minute, her appearance on the right or left of the screen. Even if Claudia were going to work, and even if she were very punctual, she might still fail to emerge at exactly the same time. Let us assume she works only half a day, from ten a.m. to two p.m. It is possible that she is not punctual arriving at the office, or leaving it, yet she still passes at precisely the same hours. Possible, but preposterous. Then, why so punctual? What is she looking for in front of Madame Bianco's and Alfred's stores, or in front of the Observer's still unrented main floor? Why would she walk faster or slower before or after crossing the area swept by the Observer's cameras? The possibility still lingered that she might loiter on the nearby avenue before eight thirty, but what would she do at that early hour when not even bars were open and the only thing you could see was cars trying to double—park? She might, of course, dawdle in the neatly gardened square, but why would she sit on a bench just to kill time and run the risk of arriving late for work? No, the most probable thing is that a young woman who walks with such a regular and firm stride does not change it for no reason at all. Punctual, surely, and furthermore, well organized. Uniformly well organized. This can be seen in her bearing. Erect, although not stiff, her figure crosses the screen with a perfect rhythm. The Observer had even estimated how long it took her to glide across the monitor. About 15 seconds. She was obviously walking at a swift, but by no means hasty, pace. Claudia: extremely punctual and highly organized. End of the story.
Not so fast. Claudia passed by in the morning at about eight thirty, and in the afternoon around three fifteen. Surely in the office—it has already been agreed that she is employed in an office—the workday is from nine to three, five times a week. Six times five, thirty. Thirty very concentrated hours, very much to the liking of many white-collar workers—who now, with so many women holding office jobs, should be given some other name. Even among men, white collars are less and less conspicuous—being increasingly replaced by turtleneck sweaters and T-shirts. But let's not digress. Claudia enters her office at nine a.m. and leaves at three p.m. Problem: why does she need half an hour in the morning to get there, and yet only fifteen minutes to come back?
First hypothesis: the office opens at nine a.m., and Claudia, punctual as she is, wants to be there early. Perhaps she wants to arrange papers on her desk. Although, on second thought, why should I assume Claudia has anything to do with papers? She might be a receptionist or a telephone operator, or perhaps even one of those ambitious young women unwilling to settle for anything less than an executive position. On the other hand, if I think of her hands (and since I have a close-up in a video cassette I am quite familiar with them), I realize that her fingers are long, tapered, dexterous, the fingers of a typist or of a pianist. I conclude, therefore, that these delicate hands often alight on the curved keys of a modern typewriter. Or since Claudia is obviously too clever to be a mere typist, her fingers must often be busy on the keyboard of a computer terminal.
Second hypothesis: Claudia does not reach the office before nine because she wants to arrange papers or whatever, but just because she wants to be absolutely certain not to be late.
Which is the right hypothesis? The second, of course. It explains why she passes the Observer's house every afternoon at three fifteen sharp despite the fact that the distance to and from her office is always exactly the same.
The second hypothesis, let's face it, is somewhat contrived, but with a little bit of luck it might do. Let's go over it again.
Claudia takes twice as much time "going" as "returning." If one morning she happened to pass, say, at a quarter of nine, and some other morning at ten past eight, or if some afternoon she happened to pass, say, at five after three and some other afternoon at four o'clock, everything would be clear: Claudia comes and goes when she wants. Fortunately, what is known about the prevailing customs in large corporations makes the problem less complex. Offices close promptly—indeed, everything stops before closing time; clerks begin to clear their desks, cover typewriters, copiers and computer keyboards, and hang up phones. The staircases and elevators are jammed before the minute hands of the big electronic clocks have reached the zenith, or when the digital clocks indicate 59. Even before they leave their desks, women reapply their lipstick and carefully smooth down or fluff up their hair. At any rate, in the past almost all of them did, then practically none of them did, and now almost all of them do it again, all according to the peculiar rhythm of history. No time is wasted. People pour out of the buildings at three o'clock sharp, so that —"marvels of arithmetic"—if they work an extra quarter of an hour in the morning, they recoup that quarter hour in the afternoon. "Everything explained," the Observer told himself with the tone of voice that engenders conviction and ends by changing it into complete certitude.
The pocketbook. Always with a pocketbook. And always blue. Her attire is quite varied: solid—colored pants, sometimes jeans; multicolored skirts; pearl—gray jackets; white blouses, with or without ruffles. She does not seem to be one of those devotees of fashion who combine the colors of their costume according to the periodically changing rules promulgated by glossy magazines. Claudia, therefore, does not need to change her pocketbook, nor its color. Nevertheless, her persistence in carrying this bag is not thereby explained—although it is not mandatory to explain everything, or is it? The Observer had asked himself these questions scores of times and had ended by indefinitely postponing the answer. In any case, the pocketbook—its size, shape and color—might reveal its owner's personality. A very important point, since this is what is at stake. Why is the pocketbook blue? Why is it so large? If Claudia did not walk so winsomely, the huge blue pocketbook might clumsily bump her hip like an oddly shaped suitcase. Why does Claudia vary her outfits so frequently and yet continue to carry the same pocketbook? Maybe she owns several pocketbooks, all of exactly the same size and color, but she probably always carries the same one. After all, there are not that many pocketbooks of such an ungainly size and, furthermore, of that particular shade of blue. Of course it is not clear why the fact of always carrying the same pocketbook should reveal anything about a woman's personality. Claudia's personality is interesting enough by itself not to need such an extravagant addition. If it were simply a matter of revealing a flamboyant personality, surely there would be other ways than constantly dragging around an eye-catching pocketbook. By the way, was it given to her by someone whom she remembers when she caresses it as if to make sure it's still there? Is it a memento of a romance that went to the dogs and is still hurting? A symbol of a very special, but not yet reciprocated, friendship? Or just one of those possessions one gets so used to that they are relinquished only when they become completely worn out? Is the blue pocketbook like a pair of old shoes? Does one feel as comfortable carrying an old pocketbook as wearing a pair of old shoes? Why not? One may realize how convenient a pocketbook is in which one haphazardly throws all sorts of little things and yet finds them so easily! The fact is I am paying too much attention to this pocketbook. Maybe Claudia likes it not only on account of its color, but also because of its size, and its many compartments. She bought it on impulse and now she can't bare to give it up. She has looked everywhere, but has not found one she likes better. One day I will try to find another similar blue pocketbook, but if I come across one, what am I going to do with it? Bump into Claudia and offer it to her? She would probably think I am crazy, or worse, fresh?
The Observer was so accustomed to Claudia's passage he could not imagine there could be any changes in the by now firmly established schedule. Claudia was like the seasons. Or better, like the phases of the moon. Seasons are supposed to be regular, but, as neighbors complain, it is so unseasonably hot in the fall and so unpleasantly cold in the spring that one can't tell what season it is any more. On the other hand, the moon proceeds inexorably. Furthermore, the moon has a romantic aura. Just like Claudia! The Observer compared Claudia with the moon, while he equated himself with its phases. The moon is always the same, and so is Claudia. But it has several phases, and so did the Observer as he was thinking, or dreaming, of Claudia. The joy of seeing Claudia (full moon). The fear of not seeing her again (old moon). The emptiness produced by her absence during the weekends (new moon). The hope of seeing her again next Monday (crescent moon). At his fifty odd years of age, Claudia was rejuvenating him. He even began to gaze in the mirror every morning in order to reassure himself he was still "presentable," thus proving that Elenita's flattering remarks about him were due to a special feminine insight concerning the passage of time: time affects men differently from women, as if, instead of playing the usual tricks, it would make the former more and more "distinguished." And if one day—here we go again—I buy Claudia another pocketbook? The Observer anticipated the moment. With his brand new present delicately wrapped and tied with a matching blue ribbon he would approach Claudia and say, "Pardon me, Miss. I am one of Madame Bianco's neighbors. The Boutique Bianco, you know, the shop you pass so often. Both she and I have noticed you carry a pretty, blue pocketbook. Madame Bianco"—by mentioning the name of the shop's owner the encounter would look a little more natural—"Madame Bianco and I are fond of blue pocketbooks. We"—by using the plural the offer would look less gratuitous, or less suspicious—"we thought you wouldn't mind owning another blue pocketbook. Will you, please, accept our gift? And if you have the opportunity to visit Madame Bianco's store, right here —he would point to the display filled with lipsticks and perfume flacons—I'm sure she would be very pleased to help you. The Observer—who would now have to figure out how to convince Madame Bianco to go along with him—was already envisioning Claudia smiling broadly, pretending she was truly ("and pleasantly") surprised, thanking him profusely for his—their—generosity, coming to the conclusion this street was overflowing with friendly people, what a good idea to have chosen it as a shortcut! Would he dare? Would his preposterous offer spoil forever his chances of seeing Claudia again five—really ten—times a week? "The Musical Offering," he called his idea of giving Claudia a new blue pocketbook, while pacing his studio-library, taking a record from the rack, looking at it and rediscovering the perfect title. Perfect? Well, it all depends upon the day, the weather, the state of one's glands.
Suddenly, a change. Nothing alarming. Quite the contrary. This uncommonly sunny Tuesday—as if to celebrate the young woman's appearance—she became visible, as usual at a quarter past three in the afternoon, but instead of proceeding toward the avenue with her measured and rhythmical pace, she stopped just in front of the Boutique Bianco. The Observer could see her from the back: waves of auburn hair fell about her shoulders; her waist, girdled by a black patent leather belt, initiated a harmonious curve which, revealed by her tight skirt, merged with her hip and the beginning of her long legs. Her little maroon boots seemed to radiate an intense sexuality—unless it emanated from the Observer, who made it emanate from her. She gazed at the display in the window, slightly bending her head towards the variety of lipsticks now arranged in the shape of a tiara. A passer—by from the right paused near the young woman and also began to look at the window. A rather short, chubby guy stuffed into a spring coat of an indefinite color. He placed himself in such a way as to hide an essential portion, among all the other essential portions, of Claudia's body. Stupid people, always in the way, they don't know how to walk! As Uncle Al would have said. They don't even know how to pause properly. The man gazed through the glass as if extremely interesting objects were on display; he then turned his head slightly toward Claudia. The Observer imagined her perfume wafting through the air into the nostrils of the chubby intruder. What a waste of smells! Vanish, you monster! As if obeying the inaudible command, the man veered toward the left while Claudia, who seemed unaware of his presence, turned around on the heels of her little boots, and with the extremely enticing cadence of her thighs, she entered the Boutique.
The door was open. Madame Bianco was standing behind the counter, near the window. The Observer could see the young woman approach Madame, who surely was uttering the phrase she never failed to use when a pretty girl entered the store for the first time: "What can I do for you, darling?" "This gives them confidence," she often argued. "Some"—she was thinking of Alfred—"believe that I'm too familiar too fast, but the fact is girls are always very pleased to be called 'darling.' Well, they are darlings, aren't they?" Whether or not Claudia was pleased by Madame calling her 'darling', the Observer saw her approach the counter and place her enormous pocketbook on it. To judge from the innumerable vials which Madame Bianco began to display a few moments later, Claudia was asking about brands and prices. Even with the help of his longish Sennheiser, it was difficult, almost impossible, to pick up the words, but the Observer did not need to hear anything. He knew his Madame Bianco inside out. "For the day, let me recommend so and so, but for the night there's nothing like such and such. No, no, Channel No. 5 is deja vu," and then the little joke: "Well, deja smelt. I know by experience, I mean by what my customers tell me." From what he could see, Claudia did not seem to say much; she merely gazed at a little flacon, tipped it slightly, deposited a few drops on the inside of her wrist, and bent her head to smell the fragrance. Finally, she decided on a minuscule flask. "Very becoming," the Observer could lip read Madame saying, "the best choice for these breezy evenings." Madame made a signal to Elenita, who responded with her usual seductive smile, took an identical flask from under the counter, wrapped it carefully, and handed it to Claudia.. She opened her big pocketbook, inserted her hand and forearm in it, withdrew a change purse, and walked to the cash register. A few minutes later, she reappeared at the threshold of the store. The Observer had often seen her in profile. He could see her now—at last!—full face. A rather blank, almost dreamlike face. Claudia looked in front of her. Was she noticing the camera lenses? Well, no she couldn't; the cameras were so perfectly camouflaged! If anything could be seen at all, it might be easily mistaken for a pair of those nowadays ubiquitous loudspeakers. The Observer zoomed in on the young woman's face. Her eyes were a steely gray. The winsomeness she had displayed when walking seemed somewhat incongruous with these eyes in which, for a few moments, life seemed to come to a standstill. Claudia bent her face toward her maroon boots. The camera followed the movement of her eyes and stopped at her wrist. Zooming from telephoto to wide angle, as if skillfully editing in camera, the Observer saw Claudia glance at her watch, encrusted with tiny sparkling stones. He looked at his own digital chronometer: twenty-five minutes past three. He pressed a control and the liquid crystal display confirmed the day: it was Tuesday, April the sixth.
How tempting to inquire about Claudia from Madame Bianco or from Elenita! Who is the girl with the blue pocketbook? What is her real name? Where does she come from? Where is she employed? No doubt Madame Bianco and Elenita would instantly know whom he was talking about. Their memory for these things was prodigious. The amount of information they were capable of gathering in just a few minutes of casual talk proved they either had a sixth sense or else were endowed with a special talent for extracting people's secrets. It would be enough to allude to the huge pocketbook, which probably had also caught their eye. No need to ask questions directly. Rather something like this: "A few days ago—or was it yesterday?— when I was leaving home, I saw a girl with a big pocketbook enter your store. At first, I thought it was the same girl who works in the insurance company where I have a policy. Yes, yes, now I'm almost certain she is the same girl! She has always been very nice to me whenever I've needed information, particularly last January, when they changed their insurance rates, but the last time I was in the insurance office to renew my policy I didn't see her, and it's a shame, because I wanted to thank her again for her help. Could you believe she succeeded in making my policy retroactive for two weeks? A very convenient thing, because later they gave me a rebate, which is surprising in these companies— you know how tough they are. Maybe she thought I didn't appreciate. . . Of course, I could call the company and ask about her, but would you believe it: I completely forgot her name. Or I could simply go there and thank her in person, although she may have been transferred to another department—in those companies they change constantly—but even then it would be difficult to find her because they have very strict rules, and the employees are not supposed to contact clients from another section, so that . . ." And thus, with this chitchat, so innocent, so roundabout, so periphrastic, the Observer hoped Madame Bianco and Elenita would tell him whatever they knew about "Claudia" and would even think well of his desire to show "the insurance girl" his appreciation. It was possible, of course, that the two busybodies would not grab the bait, or else would bite it with great gusto and become all excited at the idea that he might have "other designs" on her. Why discount the possibility that a man of his age and refinement might be attracted to a woman as young and beauteous as Claudia? It was, then, necessary to proceed with utmost caution, not ask questions directly, but "just talk," let words such as "pocketbook" or "blue" slip into the conversation and "wait for the results," as in some verbal games, or tests, where someone says one word—say "apple"—and the other person has to mention the first word that comes into his head—say "temptation," "Eve," or "a computer." But since the Observer had very recently asked about the gentleman in the gray suit, he wondered whether inquiries about Claudia might arouse the suspicion of the two gossipmongers. Furthermore, since Madame Bianco and Elenita had presumably seen the girl only once, it was likely that not even they could have found out much. Convenience, and not only prudence, suggested waiting.
The Observer abstained for the moment, therefore, from talking with the owner of the Boutique and her faithful employee, and confined himself to his own means of research. He could not follow Claudia for two reasons: first, because this might prove to be slightly embarrassing; second, because his "professional pride" led him to rely entirely on "observation." From all he had seen, he derived a number of conclusions, all of them, to be sure, provisional. He wrote them down, preceding each with the letter "C"—which might mean simply "conclusion," but which could also stand for "Claudia"—followed by a number indicating the order in which these "Conclusions" had come to him. His notes, scrutinized after his death, gave the impression he had been in close contact with Claudia, an impression that functioned as evidence, because through some extraordinary chance—unless it was a stroke of genius the name he had "given" Claudia was, in fact, her real name. To be anything more than hearsay evidence, there would have to be agreement between what the Observer wrote about Claudia and what came to be known concerning her life and ventures. Furthermore, the various "Conclusions" should have been compatible. When the moment came to ascertain "the role played by the Observer" in the series of events covered by the Police Report, the deputy in charge of preparing the official statement for the members of the Parliamentary Commission that controlled—or had the illusion of controlling—the most basic activities of the "Group for Anti-Terrorist Activities" (GATO), evaded the difficulty raised by the aforementioned disagreements and incongruities by emphasizing that, after all, the notes written by "AJ"—the Observer's police code—were merely meant to trick the police. No astute person would describe things exactly as they are; in these matters, subterfuge, codes, and, in general, "disinformation" is mandatory.
It is not impossible—indeed, it is most probable—that the Observer had written many notes on the matter. Only fifteen in all were found. Of these, the most important were "C-1, C-2, C-3 and C-35" the "last" one, obviously written "after the fact." This was the note enabling the police to put two and two together to reach a crucial "conclusion." Here are the Observer's first three notes:
"C-1. Claudia proceeds in an absolutely regular manner. She does not appear to deviate one iota from the route she has chosen. She has not missed a single weekday from the first Monday, always appearing at exactly the same hour. Her bearing is so incontestably elegant one can only think of a girl with an exquisite upbringing. After watching her talk with Madame Bianco or with Elenita, there can be no doubt about her refined manner, neither contemptuous nor condescending. This girl has a mysterious air about her; she is enveloped in an indefinable aura, reminding one of a distant princess. If Claudia is always as orderly and punctual as she has been up to the moment, she will certainly go far in her career. If she cherishes any specific intentions, they remain for the moment in the penumbra. How can I investigate them without calling attention to my own interest? In this neighborhood everyone knows everyone else, and one false step can arouse suspicion. Up to now I have been faithful to my role of "not letting myself be seen." I am sufficiently pleased simply to see Claudia. That may not seem much, but I don't want to risk any possible future opportunities to watch her again. And again."
"C-2. Claudia's visits to Madame Bianco's store make me believe she does not, or does not always, display the coldness that I am afraid some people may see in her and which her glance, with those steely gray eyes, seems to confirm. The charm of those glacial eyes! At first they look forbidding—two swords protecting their owner from all intrusion. Soon one realizes these eyes express a resolute will. Compare Claudia's eyes with Elenita's simpering eyes or with the ebullient eyes of Chiquita. No one knows how trustworthy Elenita is yet, although we all know about Madame Bianco's fiasco with Chiquita—for which she paid dearly—and all because of her enchantment with "the windows of Chiquita's soul," as she called the girl's eyes, ready as Madame Bianco always is to use any cliché at hand. So a person's eyes may be deceptive. But Claudia's steely eyes are not made for deception. Claudia is reliable, dependable, forthright. Anyone who employs her can be sure that she will scrupulously fulfill her duties. In our fickle and volatile times this is no mean thing. It is not, as Uncle Al used to say, 'merely the icing on the cake.'"
"C-3 Claudia's character gives a clue, but it is difficult to know, or even guess, of what. In some way, I am in Claudia's service. I mean, during the last days I have given up practically all other affairs to concentrate almost exclusively on Claudia's comings and goings. Her providential visit to Madame Bianco's store has given me a clearer idea of the mental furniture in her pretty head. But since my information up to now is rather scanty, and I have decided not to ask questions, I am still in the dark. In point of fact, I don't know why I am writing all this; if discovered, it will make me look like an idiot."
C-1 and C-2 are merely subjective appraisals. Here is a series of conjectures.
Claudia is employed in one of the offices in the Crystal building, at some ten or twelve minutes distance on foot—if I can judge from her gait and pace. She holds a position of responsibility and will soon be promoted to an executive level. She lives near this street. She rents an apartment in one of the large buildings three blocks from the corner, perhaps the very same building Chiquita once occupied. Her flat is elegantly furnished; less chi-chi than Chiquita's—according to Madame Bianco's reports—with fewer deep pile rugs and fewer silk cushions. A rocking chair where she rests in the afternoon, listening to music, finely reproduced by the latest model hi-fi. What kind of music? The second movement of Brahms' quintet in B minor for clarinet and strings; the adagietto of Mahler's Fifth Symphony; the lento con molto sentimento of Cesar Frank's quintet in F minor for piano and strings; Gabriel Faure's ballade for piano and orchestra, opus 19. The reticent sadness filling the heart with joy. Claudia reads the financial section of the newspaper; the state of the economy is the state of the world. She opens the pages of a book, Carson McCuller's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Salinger's Franny and Zooey, Moravia's The Contempt, Thomas Mann's The Transposed Heads. To amuse herself, the cutting lines of Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies. To understand this dog's life, Celine's Death on the Installment Plan. To explore the secret corners of the heart, The Story of O. At night she goes out with a boyfriend. Or with a girlfriend, for that matter. What are they like? Do they resemble Claudia? Or are they exactly the opposite, poles of a magnet? She has one boyfriend who takes her out more often than anyone else. He is handsome, athletic, naive. She pulls all the strings. She plays with him like a pretty cat playing with a frightened mouse. Claudia's ferocious, deliciously cruel side. She does not suffer from insomnia; she sleeps deeply, with serene and orderly dreams. Her only very infrequent nightmare is being stranded in a desert haunted by mirages. When she makes love, she never surrenders herself entirely, not even at the moment of ecstasy. She relishes every single moment of lovemaking, her consciousness constantly alert. She feels the peak of enjoyment in her breasts; they swell with pleasure, the hard nipples biting the surrounding air. She usually has two orgasms; the second one produces the most bliss. Without embarrassment, she drives her nails into a pillow on which an enormous "C" is delicately embroidered. She always leaves her blue pocketbook next to the door so she'll never forget it. Definitely, the pocketbook was a present from her mother who died relatively young and whom she loved tenderly. It is a most commodious accessory; there's room for everything: lipstick, a magazine, a little mirror, the remote control for the telephone answering machine, another remote control to turn on the lights of the staircase before she opens the door of the apartment building, and at the same time to turn off the alarm system in her flat. . . .Yes, space for everything."
When he reread his "Conclusions," the Observer was perfectly aware they were to a large extent projections of his own dreams. This was especially true of his descriptions of Claudia's apartment, the music she enjoyed, the books she read, the swelling, lengthening sexual pleasure. None of this, however, prevented the author of the Police Report from pointing out that AJ's "Conclusions" were the work of an expert perfectly capable of intermingling truth with fantasy. Obviously he had at his fingertips cunning methods to confuse investigators. The Observer's notes were meant "to erase traces" so sniffing hounds would lose the scent. Nevertheless, truth nestled there; it just needed to be patiently culled with delicate tweezers. During the police investigations of Madame Bianco—in her only moment of lucidity, still convalescing—and of Elenita—frightened as a little bird—it transpired that Claudia herself had said she was working in a nearby office—an outright lie—and lived alone in a small apartment—a misleading claim—that she experienced sexual pleasure above all in her breasts—which might or might not be true but was of little, or no, importance for the proceedings, despite Madame Bianco's insistence on this point: "She told me she had very, very sensitive breasts; well, she didn't tell me that exactly, but just a hint and a little woman's intuition." If the Observer did not bother to hide his notes, it was probably—the author of the Report had commented—because the author shared Edgar Allen Poe's insight: everyone would look in all sorts of hidden places for a letter without being able to find it precisely because it wasn't concealed, but right in front of the searcher's eyes on the mantelpiece! Moreover, that recluse was probably a maniac. So many notes of all kinds, so many memoranda, reflections and conjectures, tapes and videocassettes, all classified according to date and content, fastidiously double—indexed in a floppy disk. Yes, indeed, a real lunatic, driven mad by the idea of the power he thought he could exert almost without ever leaving his hideout; a screwball who went beyond the strict fulfillment of his dubious duties, profiting from his assignments in order to surround himself with screens, cameras, transreceivers, short wave radios, the works; someone had to pay for all that expensive equipment; the pension he drew as a retired bureaucrat would not suffice, not even with the addition of some savings; although, on second thought, he could have afforded all that without recourse to suspicious funding, but we, the police, know quite well not everything can be fully clarified.
Claudia entered Madame Bianco's store three or four times during the month of April, each time staying longer. Obviously she found things to her liking, because she always dropped a small wrapped package into her blue pocketbook before leaving. The last time she remained in the Boutique for almost thirty minutes, now chatting with Madame Bianco and now with Elenita. They could be seen in lively conversation through the open door or through the shop window. Madame Bianco was probably saying humorous things, because Elenita and Claudia often giggled. Yes, no doubt the three women had formed what could be labeled "sorority ties," with Madame Bianco as a kind of ringleader. All of this was a further incentive for the Observer to finally set in motion his planned, and later rejected, inquiry "chez Bianco." "It would be absurd to wait any longer. The very first day I see Claudia entering the Boutique, I'll wait until she leaves, and then I'll entice her secrets from Madame."
Three days after he adopted this firm resolution something unexpected happened—or rather, something that was expected did not happen. Tuesday, May the third, the Observer was, as usual, waiting in ambush, staring at his monitor. All the digital clocks marked 15:15, but no Claudia. Let's give her ten minutes more. 15:25: of Claudia, nothing. No Claudia at 15:30, 15:45, 16:00, 16:15. What happened to her? The Observer was restless, perhaps an overreaction, because sometimes even very punctual people are not, or cannot be, punctual. After all, Claudia might be ill—hadn't he noticed last week her face was unusually pale? There had been a flu epidemic which, on account of its real, or assumed, origin, had been named "the Icelandic flu." The city had not yet recovered from the epidemic—the more so as, "This is not the time for flu; the world is out of joint," as Ignacio, Rosa, and other grumbling neighbors had put it. On their front pages, all the newspapers asserted that "The abnormal humidity this month seems to have fostered the spread of the flu epidemic in the North. Its effects are devastating, particularly among the working populations. Some plants have been temporarily closed and a few stores have curtailed services. Bad news for a government already beset by all kinds of problems." Yes, Claudia might well be ill. Wouldn't this be the right moment to ask Madame Bianco, most discreetly, of course, a couple of questions, while sending a bouquet of flowers to the convalescing girl? She would not know for the moment who sent the flowers, but there would be plenty of time to set the matter straight. Really, no; it's preferable not to send flowers now; it might spoil everything. The Observer imagined Claudia two days from now, already recovered from her illness, wearing a little scarf to protect herself from a relapse. Wouldn't this be the perfect opportunity to meet her? Also wearing a scarf to look casual—less pretty than Claudia's, needless to say—the Observer would visit the Boutique and initiate a conversation with the girl, the beginning of a friendship, the beginning of, etc., and all this just because both had belonged for a few days to the confraternity of those scourged—or threatened—by that Icelandic misery! The Observer was already considering which scarf he would wear when it occurred to him that Claudia—he no longer called her "the girl with the blue pocketbook"—might, after all, enjoy perfect health. The paleness of her face might well have been a product of his shameful romantic fantasies. And if she had been fired? A most unlikely event, because would anyone in his right mind get rid of such a charming creature? Perhaps—perhaps—the boss had propositioned her and made lewd advances—not just a normal, and reasonable request, but something bolder, like anal coitus or cunnilingus, things that in his day were not done at the drop of a hat, although the Observer remembered some of his old flames had not been at all prudish in these matters. Claudia would have been offended by such concupiscent propositions and later her boss would have found a reason, which was no reason at all, to fire her. Yes, yes, that was it!. . . But why that? Many other things might have happened: the firm where Claudia worked went bankrupt, and all the employees had been dismissed. Precisely because she is so clever and pretty, she would have immediately found another, more appealing, or better remunerated job, so by now she was presumably working elsewhere and had no need to use the Observer's street as a passageway. Or perhaps she had not been fired, but had simply changed her residence so that this street was no longer on her route to work. Her last visit to the store had been longer than usual. Surely she had discussed the impending changes with Madame and Elenita. If all this were true, goodbye to Claudia's comings and goings! To be sure, she might still visit the Boutique from time to time. The problem was the Observer would have to be on his guard, watch the monitor the entire day, just in case. The only alternative to this tedious prospective was to initiate, at long last, his "inquiries." After so much turning and twisting, this might be the most sensible choice.
He was brooding over all these matters while sitting on his swivel chair. His eyes roved over the ceiling when his subconscious called him to order, as if pointing out the time had come to put an end to these useless vagaries. The subconscious knew exactly what it was doing because as soon as its owner heeded its injunction, he saw on the monitor, who? Who else but Claudia, she herself, in person, namely, in image, wearing a gray tailored suit, with a pink blouse, high—heeled gray shoes, and a white scarf, as well as, of course, the sempiternal, incongruous, big blue pocketbook. "A scarf around her neck; I didn't imagine anything too preposterous. Not the flu, but possibly some slight irritation, nothing serious." All the digital clocks marked the same hour: 16:30. One hour and fifteen minutes late." No packages or bags so I have to discard the idea she went shopping. But one can shop and have one's purchases delivered." All is perfectly clear, and the best thing is Claudia is here again, ready to be watched. As she entered the Boutique she offered the marvel of her buttocks, modestly confined, but clearly revealed by the tight tailored skirt; no wonder her obnoxious boss had made lewd advances of the kind some malicious people call "unnatural," but why should they be against nature at all? The Observer himself would not mind making them if there were not this difference in age. But that dim-witted boss is probably such a jerk it wouldn't even enter his obtuse mind to make such interesting advances.
It was particularly easy that day to see what was happening inside the store because the glass door was wide open and the window was empty of merchandise on account of "Spring Inventory," as a sign warned. Claudia, Madame Bianco and Elenita greeted each other with effusive expressions of friendship, or love or whatever. "We thought you weren't coming!" "So late, but it's still quite early for us." "They're exploiting you! If I were you, I'd quit. With your brains and your little angel face you could have any job." "By the way, we've received the new Guerlain, if you want to try it, and a mascara by Rabanne; it makes your eyes look almond—like, absolutely divine." "What about going to the movies tonight? They're showing Casablanca. I never get tired of watching it; they say people don't go for romantic stuff, but there's standing room only at Cinema 16." The Observer didn't really know whether they were saying these things, but it really didn't matter. It was as if they were saying them, for if they weren't, they were surely saying equally frivolous and enticing things.
While the three were chatting, a woman of about fifty entered the Boutique. She was wearing a flannel, ultra-Finnish-style dress. Because of its multicolored stripes—the print actually displayed drawings of snakes coiling around the body—the wearer looked as if she were encased in the coils of a boa. These Finnish designers are obviously nuts about flashy colors! The fiftyish-year-old woman greeted Madame Bianco and Elenita, and then Claudia—"do they know each other? But even strangers spontaneously speak to each other when shopping." More chat, more talk about the new Guerlain and the Rabanne, especially the Guerlain, which the newcomer was holding in her hands, tipped by very elongated, heliotrope nails, perhaps more plans to go to the movies—"the four of us"—to see Sam play the piano and sing that melancholy tune promising that a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh, as life goes by, and so on. In the midst of the chat, the gentleman in the gray suit, as stiff and ceremonious as ever, entered the store. Madame Bianco stopped prattling and waited on the gentleman. The cologne water, the after-shave lotion; the two unequal flasks came to rest, almost before he had asked for them, on the counter. He already had his hand in his pocket searching for his wallet when the fiftyish-year-old woman hurriedly left. Sheathed in her multicolored Finnish fantasy, the Observer saw her cross the threshold of the door. The camera focused on her décolletage, a large expanse of flesh offered without fear and trembling to the drizzle of that gray afternoon. Her slenderness, presumably achieved by starvation diets and daily exercise on the treadmill, sharply contrasted with her generous breasts, more than just guessed through the cleavage. I bet that woman is giving the eye to the guy in the gray suit; no doubt her sudden departure is meant to suck him in. He doesn't seem to be indifferent to her evident charms, because now he's shooting sidelong glances at her—of course, in the "discreet" manner fitting his exalted position.
Well, then, would the fiftyish-year-old woman and the gentleman in the gray suit soon be a couple? Nothing really too exciting, or worth the Observer's time. Yet, it might be interesting to investigate whether Madame Bianco is going to recruit the brand new pair for a temporary occupancy of the love nest. If this happens, it will probably be at night, because the gentleman in the gray suit surely has to consider his position, which demands "utmost discretion." "I'll have to let the VCR run throughout the night at ultra-slow speed, because I don't want to lose sleep on account of such a trite affair. On second thought, it may not be that banal, if the gentleman is who Madame Bianco told me he is. If I liked scandal, or wished to take advantage of my privileged position of unobserved observer, I could even threaten him with the evidence of his licentiousness—inoffensive to me, of course, but surely not to him. He must be mortally afraid of being accused of immorality, particularly under the present government, so worried about the purity of moerurs—lip service, because the authorities are disgustingly permissive, an understandable state of affairs at a time when hard core pornography and drugs are big business, probably helped, if not promoted, by a lot of highly placed officials. . . . So, my dear gentleman, don't worry. Don't worry at all. Even if yours truly sees you enter and leave the building by the little staircase, followed at a discreet distance by your newly acquired pick-up, I'm not going to souffler mot!"
The Observer had no need to promise the gentleman in the gray suit he would hold his tongue, because he never had an opportunity to catch him and his fiftyish-year-old babe in flagrante delicto. Furthermore, he was soon beset by new anxieties concerning the behavior of the senescent, soi-disant Colonel.
The elderly gentleman continued to behave courteously and circumspectly—Madame Bianco's enthusiastic descriptions were, indeed, quite accurate. None of this, however, endeared him to the Observer, who soon began to regard him as a fathead, an imbecile, a cretin, a moron and, last but not least (as Uncle Al never failed to say), as a disloyal competitor, unworthy of comparison with himself, the Observer, who, no doubt, was already past the age of childish amours, but was a very respectable citizen, and above all, above all, had a sophistication that was not derived from torturing whatever poor devil might fall into his hands. He couldn't be positive; it was too soon to make hasty judgments, but. . . . But he had "intuitions," and these were confirmed when he saw the two wind-bags introduce the so-called gentleman to Claudia, yes, Claudia! Damn the circumstances that let her depart from her "regular schedule" and visit the Boutique that very fateful Tuesday at exactly the same hour when the gray bird of prey was about to arrive! The pompous jerk started to converse with that gorgeous creature. What could the old fart tell her except that just the night before he had mercilessly whipped some poor soul to make him confess he was the leader of the international terrorist band subsidized by the Irish, the Israelis, the Libyans, the Soviets, the Saudis, the Cubans, and the South Koreans! Probably he was not telling her anything like that because such people know how to conceal their dirty dealings, and above all because Claudia was listening with her clear eyes wide open, an insinuating smile on her perfect lips, gently nodding her head as if acquiescing—none of which could happen if the conversation consisted in a detailed description of State-supported felonies. Yet it was somewhat puzzling that Claudia would even pay attention to the excretions of that lascivious goat. There was only one explanation: the girl was polite, gentle, and patient enough to endure even the insipid babbling of an inveterate and callous murderer who, as if that were not bad enough, was also a solemn hypocrite.
But was it really worth worrying about? Could that be anything other than a brief encounter? It was stretching the imagination to the breaking point to think that Madame Bianco and Elenita would try to recruit both customers for their "parallel business." From now on things would surely return to normal. The dullard in the gray suit would visit the store every Tuesday at four thirty, and perhaps some Fridays a little after four. Claudia would reappear every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday according to her usual schedule, with an occasional early afternoon visit to the Boutique for the entertainment of the two procuresses.
The Observer's forecast was correct with respect to the gentleman, if the name still applied. Tuesday seemed to be his day and four thirty his hour. Unfortunately, Claudia chose the very same day and hour to make her extended visits to the Boutique.
So, after all, there was reason for alarm: if Claudia had appeared any other day at any other "abnormal" hour besides the fateful Tuesday at four thirty, many things could be explained more easily. But Tuesday was "the day." Too coincidental, the Observer grumbled, when four weeks later, at the beginning of June, he could anticipate with almost complete certainty the weekly encounters. The girl and the repellent fossil—as the Observer called him, among other innumerable epithets—remained in the store for quite a long time, perhaps half an hour, engaged in lively conversation. Madame Bianco and Elenita occasionally joined the incongruous couple, but much too often the two women waited on other customers or were busy pasting new, and always higher, prices on a variety of items. The fatuous bore and Claudia could be seen talking in a corner, next to the door, ignoring everyone else. Claudia sometimes raised her left arm and with it the enormous pocketbook, while the stupid Methuselah looked at her in ecstatic rapture, senile and bleary-eyed. The close-ups revealed that both seemed to enjoy this weekly conversation. It was, of course, understandable that the blood-sucker would enjoy looking at, and listening to, that young woman whose charms increased with time. But, what about Claudia? How could one explain her odd behavior? Occasionally the Observer tried to persuade himself that Claudia was unlike the woman he had constructed in his imagination. He concocted arguments to prove to himself that behind Claudia's charming forehead, embellished by a tiny curl, there was nothing but sawdust. He did his best to convince himself she was not that enthralling, after all. To no avail. Unless the body is a deforming mirror of the soul, it seemed impossible not to conclude that Claudia was what she seemed to be: a girl whose face revealed intelligence and wit, a young woman with a body constantly emanating gracefulness. But if this were the case, it was incomprehensible, if not downright preposterous, that she responded, even if only verbally, to the impostor. There is, of course, a solution to the enigma. Claudia is not only pretty, beautiful, attractive, elegant, gorgeous, exquisite, dazzling, ravishing, bewitching, glowing, radiant, and so on, and so on, but also kind. Yes, that's it! Claudia is so kind, so respectful of everyone else's feelings, so patient with other people's faults, that instead of saying arrivederci to the bore and never coming back, she has chosen precisely this day and hour, Tuesday at about four thirty, to visit the Boutique, even—or is it above all?—knowing he will be there, feigning that she is fascinated by the repellent odor of his cheap cologne. The phony is probably telling her lies: his wife—whom he probably murdered after slow, refined torture—is seriously ill, or died of cancer, and he is alone, "widowed and alone," as an old tango lyric used to say—so he is thankful to this tantalizing girl for her kindness, gentleness, and forbearance; after all, she devotes these afternoons to him simply to listen to his monstrous lies, and as if that were not enough, she tells him lively stories about her own life, her work, informing him of how tough her boss is, how difficult it is for women to advance in their careers in a world men have brutally conquered and plundered—although, of course, there are always exceptions, because the "gentleman" is certainly not like "other men," one can easily see that, always polite and courteous, surely if he were an office manager, he would not object to promoting women, especially young women, who know how to handle important affairs as well as, if not better than, men. Claudia, so pretty and kind, so affable and engaging, so . . . so many other things that could be said of that pure soul. The whole thing is ridiculous, in particular when, after this incongruous dialogue between Beauty and the Beast, the Beauty fixes her little curl, waves her dainty fingers, takes leave of Madame Bianco and Elenita, fastens her blue bag, and saying a few words to the scurrilous rat, something like "Till next Tuesday, don't forget"—as if the asshole could forget!—smiles luminously while coming out the door and begins to tap the pavement with her pointed heels, walking toward the nearby avenue, swinging with inimitable grace her big, blue pocketbook.
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