The Catbird Seat
The Catbird Seat
Published in The New Yorker
Nov. 14, 1942
Mr. Martin bought the pack of Camels on Monday night in the most crowded cigar store on Broadway. It was theatre time and seven or eight men were buying cigarettes. The clerk didn’t even glance at Mr. Martin, who put the pack in his overcoat pocket and went out. If any of the staff at F & S had seen him buy the cigarettes, they would have been astonished, for it was generally known that Mr. Martin did not smoke, and never had. No one saw him.
It was just a week to the day since Mr. Martin had decided to rub out Mrs. Ulgine Barrows. The term “rub out” pleased him because it suggested nothing more than the correction of an error–in this case an error of Mr. Fitweiler. Mr. Martin had spent each night of the past week working out his plan and examining it. As he walked home now he went over it again. For the hundredth time he resented the element of imprecision, the margin of guesswork that entered into the business. The project as he had worked it out was casual and bold, the risks were considerable. Something might go wrong anywhere along the line. And therein lay the cunning of his scheme. No one would ever see in it the cautious, painstaking hand of Erwin Martin, head of the filing department at F & S, of whom Mr. Fitweiler had once said, “Man is fallible but Martin isn’t.” No one would see his hand, that is, unless it were caught in the act.
Sitting in his apartment, drinking a glass of milk, Mr. Martin reviewed his case against Mrs. Ulgine Barrows, as he had every night for seven nights. He began at the beginning. Her quacking voice and braying laugh had first profaned the halls of F & S on March 7, 1941 (Mr. Martin had a head for dates). Old Roberts, the personnel chief, had introduced her as the newly appointed special adviser to the president of the firm, Mr. Fitweiler. The woman had appalled Mr. Martin instantly, but he hadn’t shown it. He had given her his dry hand, a look of studious concentration, and a faint smile. “Well,” she had said, looking at the papers on his desk, “are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch?” As Mr. Martin recalled that moment, over his milk, he squirmed slightly. He must keep his mind on her crimes as a special adviser, not on her peccadillos as a personality. This he found difficult to do, in spite of entering an objection and sustaining it. The faults of the woman as a woman kept chattering on in his mind like an unruly witness. She had, for almost two years now, baited him. In the halls, in the elevator, even in his own office, into which she romped now and then like a circus horse, she was constantly shouting these silly questions at him. “Are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch? Are you tearing up the pea patch? Are you hollering down the rain barrel? Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel? Are you sitting in the catbird seat?”
It was Joey Hart, one of Mr. Martin’s two assistants, who had explained what the gibberish meant. “She must be a Dodger fan,” he had said. “Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions–picked ’em up down South.” Joey had gone on to explain one or two. “Tearing up the pea patch” meant going on a rampage; “sitting in the catbird seat” means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him. Mr. Martin dismissed all this with an effort. It had been annoying, it had driven him near to distraction, but he was too solid a man to be moved to murder by anything so childish. It was fortunate, he reflected as he passed on to the important charges against Mrs. Barrows, that he had stood up under it so well. He had maintained always an outward appearance of polite tolerance. “Why, I even believe you like the woman,” Miss Paird, his other assistant, had once said to him. He had simply smiled.
A gavel rapped in Mr. Martin’s mind and the case proper was resumed. Mrs. Ulgine Barrows stood charged with willful, blatant, and persistent attempts to destroy the efficiency and system of F & S. It was competent, material, and relevant to review her advent and rise to power. Mr. Martin had got the story from Miss Paird, who seemed always able to find things out. According to her, Mrs. Barrows had met Mr. Fitweiler at a party, where she had rescued him from the embraces of a powerfully built drunken man who had mistaken the president of F & S for a famous retired Middle Western football coach. She had led him to a sofa and somehow worked upon him a monstrous magic. The aging gentleman had jumped to the conclusion there and then that this was a woman of singular attainments, equipped to bring out the best in him and in the firm. A week later he had introduced her into F & S as his special adviser. On that day confusion got its foot in the door. After Miss Tyson, Mr. Brundage, and Mr. Bartlett had been fired and Mr. Munson had taken his hat and stalked out, mailing in his resignation later, old Roberts had been emboldened to speak to Mr. Fitweiler. He mentioned that Mr. Munson’s department had been “a little disrupted” and hadn’t they perhaps better resume the old system there? Mr. Fitweiler had said certainly not. He had the greatest faith in Mrs. Barrows’ ideas. “They require a little seasoning, a little seasoning, is all,” he had added. Mr. Roberts had given it up. Mr. Martin reviewed in detail all the changes wrought by Mrs. Barrows. She had begun chipping at the cornices of the firm’s edifice and now she was swinging at the foundation stones with a pickaxe.
Mr. Martin came now, in his summing up, to the afternoon of Monday, November 2,1942-just one week ago. On that day, at 3 P.M., Mrs. Barrows had bounced into his office. “Boo!” she had yelled. “Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel?” Mr. Martin had looked at her from under his green eyeshade, saying nothing. She had begun to wander about the office, taking it in with her great, popping eyes. “Do you really need all these filing cabinets?” she had demanded suddenly. Mr. Martin’s heart had jumped. “Each of these files,” he had said, keeping his voice even, “plays an indispensable part in the system of F & S.” She had brayed at him, “Well, don’t tear up the pea patch!” and gone to the door. From there she had bawled, “But you sure have got a lot of fine scrap in here!” Mr. Martin could no longer doubt that the finger was on his beloved department. Her pickaxe was on the upswing, poised for the first blow. It had not come yet; he had received no blue memo from the enchanted Mr. Fitweiler bearing nonsensical instructions deriving from the obscene woman. But there was no doubt in Mr. Martin’s mind that one would be forthcoming. He must act quickly. Already a precious week had gone by. Mr. Martin stood up in his living room, still holding his milk glass. “Gentlemen of the jury,” he said to himself, “I demand the death penalty for this horrible person.”
The next day Mr. Martin followed his routine, as usual. He polished his glasses more often and once sharpened an already sharp pencil, but not even Miss Paird noticed. Only once did he catch sight of his victim; she swept past him in the hall with a patronizing “Hi!” At five-thirty he walked home, as usual, and had a glass of milk, as usual. He had never drunk anything stronger in his life–unless you could count ginger ale. The late Sam Schlosser, the S of F & S, had praised Mr. Martin at a staff meeting several years before for his temperate habits. “Our most efficient worker neither drinks nor smokes,” he had said. “The results speak for themselves.” Mr. Fitweiler had sat by, nodding approval.
Mr. Martin was still thinking about that red-letter day as he walked over to the Schrafft’s on Fifth Avenue near Forty-sixth Street. He got there, as he always did, at eight o’clock. He finished his dinner and the financial page of the Sun at a quarter to nine, as he always did. It was his custom after dinner to take a walk. This time he walked down Fifth Avenue at a casual pace. His gloved hands felt moist and warm, his forehead cold. He transferred the Camels from his overcoat to a jacket pocket. He wondered, as he did so, if they did not represent an unnecessary note of strain. Mrs. Barrows smoked only Luckies. It was his idea to puff a few puffs on a Camel (after the rubbing-out), stub it out in the ashtray holding her lipstick-stained Luckies, and thus drag a small red herring across the trail. Perhaps it was not a good idea. It would take time. He might even choke, too loudly.
Mr. Martin had never seen the house on West Twelfth Street where Mrs. Barrows lived, but he had a clear enough picture of it. Fortunately, she had bragged to everybody about her ducky first-floor apartment in the perfectly darling three-story red-brick. There would be no doorman or other attendants; just the tenants of the second and third floors. As he walked along, Mr. Martin realized that he would get there before nine-thirty. He had considered walking north on Fifth Avenue from Schrafft’s to a point from which it would take him until ten o’clock to reach the house. At that hour people were less likely to be coming in or going out. But the procedure would have made an awkward loop in the straight thread of his casualness and he had abandoned it. It was impossible to figure when people would be entering or leaving the house, anyway. There was a great risk at any hour. If he ran into anybody, he would simply have to place the rubbing-out of Ulgine Barrows in the inactive file forever. The same thing would hold true if there were someone in her apartment. In that case he would just say that he had been passing by, recognized her charming house, and thought to drop in.
It was eighteen minutes after nine when Mr. Martin turned into Twelfth Street. A man passed him, and a man and a woman, talking. There was no one within fifty paces when he came to the house, halfway down the block. He was up the steps and in the small vestibule in no time, pressing the bell under the card that said “Mrs. Ulgine Barrows.” When the clicking in the lock started, he jumped forward against the door. He got inside fast, closing the door behind him. A bulb in a lantern hung from the hall ceiling on a chain seemed to give a monstrously bright light. There was nobody on the stair, which went up ahead of him along the left wall. A door opened down the hall in the wall on the right. He went toward it swiftly, on tiptoe.
“Well, for God’s sake, look who’s here!” bawled Mrs. Barrows, and her braying laugh rang out like the report of a shotgun. He rushed past her like a football tackle, bumping her. “Hey, quit shoving!” she said, closing the door behind them. They were in her living room, which seemed to Mr. Martin to be lighted by a hundred lamps. “What’s after you?” she said. “You’re as jumpy as a goat.” He found he was unable to speak. His heart was wheezing in his throat. “I–yes,” he finally brought out. She was jabbering and laughing as she started to help him off with his coat. “No, no,” he said. “I’ll put it here.” He took it off and put it on a chair near the door. “Your hat and gloves, too,” she said. “You’re in a lady’s house.” He put his hat on top of the coat. Mrs. Barrows seemed larger than he had thought. He kept his gloves on. “I was passing by,” he said. “I recognized–is there anyone here?” She laughed louder than ever. “No,” she said, “we’re all alone. You’re as white as a sheet, you funny man. Whatever has come over you? I’ll mix you a toddy.” She started toward a door across the room. “Scotch-and-soda be all right? But say, you don’t drink, do you?” She turned and gave him her amused look. Mr. Martin pulled himself together. “Scotch-and-soda will be all right,” he heard himself say. He could hear her laughing in the kitchen.
Mr. Martin looked quickly around the living room for the weapon. He had counted on finding one there. There were andirons and a poker and something in a corner that looked like an Indian club. None of them would do. It couldn’t be that way. He began to pace around. He came to a desk. On it lay a metal paper knife with an ornate handle. Would it be sharp enough? He reached for it and knocked over a small brass jar. Stamps spilled out of it and it fell to the Boor with a clatter. “Hey,” Mrs. Barrows yelled from the kitchen, “are you tearing up the pea patch?” Mr. Martin gave a strange laugh. Picking up the knife, he tried its point against his left wrist. It was blunt. It wouldn’t do.
When Mrs. Barrows reappeared, carrying two highballs, Mr. Martin, standing there with his gloves on, became acutely conscious of the fantasy he had wrought. Cigarettes in his pocket, a drink prepared for him–it was all too grossly improbable. It was more than that; it was impossible. Somewhere in the back of his mind a vague idea stirred, sprouted. “For heaven’s sake, take off those gloves,” said Mrs. Barrows. “I always wear them in the house,” said Mr. Martin. The idea began to bloom, strange and wonderful. She put the glasses on a coffee table in front of the sofa and sat on the sofa. “Come over here, you odd little man,” she said. Mr. Martin went over and sat beside her. It was difficult getting a cigarette out of the pack of Camels, but he managed it. She held a match for him, laughing. “Well,” she said, handing him his drink, “this is perfectly marvellous. You with a drink and a cigarette.”
Mr. Martin puffed, not too awkwardly, and took a gulp of the highball. “I drink and smoke all the time,” he said. He clinked his glass against hers. “Here’s nuts to that old windbag, Fitweiler,” he said, and gulped again. The stuff tasted awful, but he made no grimace. “Really, Mr. Martin,” she said, her voice and posture changing, “you are insulting our employer.” Mrs. Barrows was now all special adviser to the president. “I am preparing a bomb,” said Mr. Martin, “which will blow the old goat higher than hell.” He had only had a little of the drink, which was not strong. It couldn’t be that. “Do you take dope or something?” Mrs. Barrows asked coldly. “Heroin,” said Mr. Martin. “I’ll be coked to the gills when I bump that old buzzard off.” “Mr. Martin!” she shouted, getting to her feet. “That will be all of that. You must go at once.” Mr. Martin took another swallow of his drink. He tapped his cigarette out in the ashtray and put the pack of Camels on the coffee table. Then he got up. She stood glaring at him. He walked over and put on his hat and coat. “Not a word about this,” he said, and laid an index finger against his lips. All Mrs. Barrows could bring out was “Really!” Mr. Martin put his hand on the doorknob. “I’m sitting in the catbird seat,” he said. He stuck his tongue out at her and left. Nobody saw him go.
Mr. Martin got to his apartment, walking, well before eleven. No one saw him go in. He had two glasses of milk after brushing his teeth, and he felt elated. It wasn’t tipsiness, because he hadn’t been tipsy. Anyway, the walk had worn off all effects of the whiskey. He got in bed and read a magazine for a while. He was asleep before midnight.
Mr. Martin got to the office at eight-thirty the next morning, as usual. At a quarter to nine, Ulgine Barrows, who had never before arrived at work before ten, swept into his office. “I’m reporting to Mr. Fitweiler now!” she shouted. “If he turns you over to the police, it’s no more than you deserve!” Mr. Martin gave her a look of shocked surprise. “I beg your pardon?” he said. Mrs. Barrows snorted and bounced out of the room, leaving Miss Paird and Joey Hart staring after her. “What’s the matter with that old devil now?” asked Miss Paird. “I have no idea,” said Mr. Martin, resuming his work. The other two looked at him and then at each other. Miss Paird got up and went out. She walked slowly past the closed door of Mr. Fitweiler’s office. Mrs. Barrows was yelling inside, but she was not braying. Miss Paird could not hear what the woman was saying. She went back to her desk.
Forty-five minutes later, Mrs. Barrows left the president’s office and went into her own, shutting the door. It wasn’t until half an hour later that Mr. Fitweiler sent for Mr. Martin. The head of the filing department, neat, quiet, attentive, stood in front of the old man’s desk. Mr. Fitweiler was pale and nervous. He took his glasses off and twiddled them. He made a small, bruffing sound in his throat. “Martin,” he said, “you have been with us more than twenty years.” “Twenty-two, sir,” said Mr. Martin. “In that time,” pursued the president, “your work and your–uh–manner have been exemplary.” “I trust so, sir,” said Mr. Martin. “I have understood, Martin,” said Mr. Fitweiler, “that you have never taken a drink or smoked.” “That is correct, sir,” said Mr. Martin. “Ah, yes.” Mr. Fitweiler polished his glasses. “You may describe what you did after leaving the office yesterday, Martin,” he said. Mr. Martin allowed less than a second for his bewildered pause. “Certainly, sir,” he said. “I walked home. Then I went to Schrafft’s for dinner. Afterward I walked home again. I went to bed early, sir, and read a magazine for a while. I was asleep before eleven.” “Ah, yes,” said Mr. Fitweiler again. He was silent for a moment, searching for the proper words to say to the head of the filing department. “Mrs. Barrows,” he said finally, “Mrs. Barrows has worked hard, Martin, very hard. It grieves me to report that she has suffered a severe breakdown. It has taken the form of a persecution complex accompanied by distressing hallucinations.” “I am very sorry, sir,” said Mr. Martin. “Mrs. Barrows is under the delusion,” continued Mr. Fitweiler, “that you visited her last evening and behaved yourself in an–uh–unseemly manner.” He raised his hand to silence Mr. Martin’s little pained outcry. “It is the nature of these psychological diseases,” Mr. Fitweiler said, “to fix upon the least likely and most innocent party as the–uh–source of persecution. These matters are not for the lay mind to grasp, Martin. I’ve just have my psychiatrist, Dr. Fitch, on the phone. He would not, of course, commit himself, but he made enough generalizations to substantiate my suspicions. I suggested to Mrs. Barrows, when she had completed her-uh–story to me this morning, that she visit Dr. Fitch, for I suspected a condition at once. She flew, I regret to say, into a rage, and demanded–uh–requested that I call you on the carpet. You may not know, Martin, but Mrs. Barrows had planned a reorganization of your department–subject to my approval, of course, subject to my approval. This brought you, rather than anyone else, to her mind–but again that is a phenomenon for Dr. Fitch and not for us. So, Martin, I am afraid Mrs. Barrows’ usefulness here is at an end.” “I am dreadfully sorry, sir,” said Mr. Martin.
It was at this point that the door to the office blew open with the suddenness of a gas-main explosion and Mrs. Barrows catapulted through it. “Is the little rat denying it?” she screamed. “He can’t get away with that!” Mr. Martin got up and moved discreetly to a point beside Mr. Fitweiler’s chair. “You drank and smoked at my apartment,” she bawled at Mr. Martin, “and you know it! You called Mr. Fitweiler an old windbag and said you were going to blow him up when you got coked to the gills on your heroin!” She stopped yelling to catch her breath and a new glint came into her popping eyes. “If you weren’t such a drab, ordinary little man,” she said, “I’d think you’d planned it all. Sticking your tongue out, saying you were sitting in the catbird seat, because you thought no one would believe me when I told it! My God, it’s really too perfect!” She brayed loudly and hysterically, and the fury was on her again. She glared at Mr. Fitweiler. “Can’t you see how he has tricked us, you old fool? Can’t you see his little game?” But Mr. Fitweiler had been surreptitiously pressing all the buttons under the top of his desk and employees of F & S began pouring into the room. “Stockton,” said Mr. Fitweiler, “you and Fishbein will take Mrs. Barrows to her home. Mrs. Powell, you will go with them.” Stockton, who had played a little football in high school, blocked Mrs. Barrows as she made for Mr. Martin. It took him and Fishbein together to force her out of the door into the hall, crowded with stenographers and office boys. She was still screaming imprecations at Mr. Martin, tangled and contradictory imprecations. The hubbub finally died out down in the corridor.
“I regret that this happened,” said Mr. Fitweiler. “I shall ask you to dismiss it from your mind, Martin.” “Yes, sir,” said Mr. Martin, anticipating his chief’s “That will be all” by moving to the door. “I will dismiss it.” He went out and shut the door, and his step was light and quick in the hall. When he entered his department he had slowed down to his customary gait, and he walked quietly across the room to the W20 file, wearing a look of studious concentration.