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
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
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
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,
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
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
marvelous. 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
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
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
Thurber, James. "The Catbird Seat." Literary Selections. Compiled by J. Massengill. 18 June 2005. http://coastalbend.home.att.net/lit