»Kratz« said he. He held his hat lifted and his head slightly cocked to the left which made him seem look upward although we were the same height. My first, spontaneous impression was: the name suits him. But had you asked me in what respect, I would have been at a loss for an answer.
For one thing, the man did not look peculiar. Or rather: he did not have anything at him that would bring a particular vocable to your mind. He had quite long legs sticking in one of those very tight trousers that I had deemed well out of fashion, but then: ask me about fashion! The cut of his trousers, at any rate, increased the somehow grasshoppery appearance of the man’s legs. But the rest of him was anything but conspicuous in any way. A stout rump with two arms, and a round head with a pointed chin and a long pointed nose. Thin hair, combed over his pate in dark streaks, from the left to the right; melancholy brown eyes; a thin moustache. That was all about him. Only his neck seemed disproportionately strong and short. But this was made up for by his legs, right? So, all in all here stood a man, elegantly but unostentatiously clad, whom I would not have recognized had he passed by me in the street half an hour later.
Secondly, I had never heard the name Kratz before and thus it could hardly evoke any associations in my mind. The German language, as I knew from my amateurish literary studies, has a word kratzen, meaning to scratch. Which would make the man’s name the imperative: scratch! And what type of person, for all the world, do you associate with the order »Scratch!« …?
Nonetheless I cannot but note that my very first thought on hearing him utter his name was: oh, how appropriate. My second thought was: Viennese. A Prussian would have pronounced Kratz like nuts. The Viennese, however, makes it the accoustical sibling of hoard and board. The man standing before me purred his introduction like a fat and very content and peaceful tomcat. Viennese, no doubt.
I looked at him rather puzzled and with the unease that situations like this arouse, that is when something unasked-for suddenly demands reactions and decisions from you while you want nothing but pursue your petty private affairs and follow your unexciting daily routine. Mr Kratz smiled a quiet smile and bent his head a little more. Presumably a versed door-to-door seller. I looked down to make sure he had not pushed his foot between door and frame already.
»Be assured, Sir, that I am not going to requite your kindness with any undue encroachments upon your time.« He lowered his arm, keeping the hat pressed against his right thigh. »So please take my being brief not as an act of discourtesy but the very contrary. Allow me thus, getting straight to the matter, to offer you my services as your confidant and in this role to take care of your little problem.«
He was all courtesy and humility and his droning purr had almost succeeded in soothing my apprehensions. His last words took a second to hit home.
»Prob…? What do you … – what in God’s name are you talking about?«
It would have been the simplest thing on earth to shrug and slam the door in Mr Kratz’s face. Discerning and above all choosing the straight and simple path was not one of my strengths, however. It’s why Annabelle would not let me handle any transactions, interhuman or human-to-whatever, that might require saying no. My strolls over the flea markets came to a sudden end with our marriage. Annabelle, though, was at work now and could not extricate me from the grip of Mr Kratz and his pernicious civility.
And as if to add to my predicament, I heard steps coming up the staircase, steps I knew. The heels of Ms Stokes’s shoes hammered against the wooden stairs evoking thoughts of a derwish’s drum.
»Be assured, Sir, that I will handle your little problem with every decency and discreetness and no one will ever receive even the slightest hint from my living self,« purred Mr Kratz.
The next moment Ms Stokes shoved her head and then her body into sight. You would not have expected a veritable Valkyrie from the staccato steps but here she was, already having fixed her piercing eyes upon us. If she had heard Mr Kratz’s last words … – my guts sagged. One more flight of stairs and she would be on our platform. Had she …?
Scanning Mr Kratz she slowed down her stampede pace by an almost indiscernible degree, just enough for her to galvanise all her senses to the utmost alertness and glean the least bit of information on passing; but not too much so, lest no one could have imputed to her unpleasant things like curiosity or eavesdropping.
Before I could do or say anything Mr Kratz who had been throwing uneasy glances at Ms Stokes blurted out: »Oh! … That’s …« Then, turning to me again: »My dear Sir, I am deeply sorry. I should not have discussed your affairs in public. I would be inconsolable if I should have let slip … – Well: I will not trouble you any further – let me just offer you my versatile services a last time. Even if only to undo any damage, however insignificant, to your unblemished repute.«
I saw Ms Stokes’s ear grow to double size as she sidled by us and inched towards her door, opposite mine. Had she had one more second, I swear she would have made her body’s genes and cells let sprout a third eye on the back of her head.
With a determined hitch, I pulled Mr Kratz into the corridor of my apartment and slammed the door shut, not forgetting to warble a (slighly too exuberant) »Good day, Ms Stokes!«
I pressed my ear against the door while waving my hand frantically toward that infernal Mr Kratz indicating him to keep his mouth shut and pass through to the parlour. I waited to hear Ms Stokes’s door but there was no sound out on the landing. She was listening, too. Of course, she was. There is a human gazette in every tenement block of the world and Ms Stokes is ours.
I moved down the corridor as noiselessly as possible and joined Mr Kratz in the parlour who was watching eagerly, his head cocked again and his expression half that of a compassionate priest, half that of the interested natural scientist.
»Kratz, Sir! At your service.« He bowed slightly and beamed his catlike smile.
»Mr Kratz. What in all the world are you doing? What is all this fuss about: services and discreetness and – problems? What do you want from me?!« I let myself fall into an armchair and shook my head.
»I do not want anything from you, Sir, quite the contrary, I …«
»No, please, Mr Kratz, spare me! I can’t stand any more of this talk. Pray, do tell me what’s the matter, and straight if you please.«
Mr Kratz’s face did not betray any surprise or indignation, not to mention the slightest sign of remorse. He seemed to be at ease again and his smile was back. (I’m not sure if it was ever gone.) With the smooth twist of a dancer he turned to the book shelf and began to study the titles. His hands were folded in his back, the right one still holding the hat and wagging it playfully.
»You are a collector?«
»No, these are … – these are not mine. That is, they are but we inherited them from Annabelle’s uncle. – So, it’s about books, is it?«
»Oh, excuse me for seeming to dodge your question, Sir! I have a passion for books and a collection like yours can all too easily divert the bibliophile from matters of more import.« He turned to me again and purred: »You do not trust your neighbour – Ms …«
»Stokes? No, that is: yes. She is a respectable lady. But please, can we just …« I reached for a bottle of cognac and the glasses. Another swift dancing step brought Mr Kratz next to my armchair and he took the bottle before my hand had gripped it.
»Thank you. Get yourself a glass, too. And please take a seat.«
The cognac looked like honey in a sudden bright beam the sun shot through a hole in the shapeless February clouds right in this second. Mr Kratz smiled and maybe I saw a wink even.
»You want me to be straight and you have all the right in the world, Sir. Of course, you do. But may I ask you to kindly consider that there might be matters, for elucidating which brevity would be not only inappropriate but detrimental?«
I sipped from the cognac. It made my mood rather conciliatory again. You see, I flatter myself to be without any really bad habits or character flaws of the graver kind, but maybe I indulge in too many slighter imperfections – like being too forgiving.
»I’m afraid I still do not quite follow, Mr Kratz,« I said with a rather friendly resignation.
»Gibbon,« he pointed to the book shelf, »Had he squeezed his “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” into one or two volumes, would it have become a classic? Would it even have been true to the subject?«
»I found him quite circuitous to be honest.«
The noise of a key pushed into the hole pulled me out of this more and more dreamlike conversation. Thank goodness, my wife was back home. She would handle this awkward situation with her wont resoluteness and I could finally get back to my paper work.
»Darling, I’m back. Brought you the envelopes.« Annabelle set down a bag in the kitchen. »I got us some fish and clams from the market hall. I’ll prepare them for dinner. Guess whom I met …« Annabelle appeared in the door frame.
In this very moment, Mr Kratz wheeled around, his eyes wide open and staring at my wife aghast. The cognac glass slipped from his hand and dashed on the parquet with a tinkle.
»Oh!« Mr Kratz yelped. »I – I was just – it’s not – I was just about to leave anyway, wasn’t I?!« He turned to me in pure panic, then put his hat on and dashed past my puzzled wife.
»Excuse me, Madam! Please excuse … – I really … I wasn’t … – I’m sorry!« Then the door slammed and he was gone.
All this happened in three or four seconds, and I suppose that the face with which I stared after what seemed to be an apparition did no honour to the human species and its claim to reason.
»What was this?« Annabelle asked and showed the palms of her hands.
»If only I knew.« I shrugged and laughed faintly. »Really, Annabelle, I don’t have the slightest clue what this guy wanted«
»You were drinking cognac.« Annabelle had not moved but still stood in the door to the parlour.
»The cognac. Yes.« And this was the moment when it occurred to me that Mr Kratz might not at all have been in a panic, not even a second. And that his clumsiness at Ms Stokes’s arrival had been similarly questionable.
If you are a married man or have ever been, you know that uttering the words »It was nothing« – no matter how totally free from guilt you might be – means the sure end of harmony or of any rest or semblance of it whatsoever. The very syllables of this assertion are the passing bells for your wedlock. Like Death, the damage cannot be undone. – The best, the only possible expedient in situations like this is to just invent some minor sin, some venial breach of trust and to confess it to your spouse so that she would be assured of knowing everything and still having access to any patch of your heart and mind. She would scold you, perhaps cry. She might be angry for a day or a week. But harmony would be preserved.
However, I was never good at saying the right thing at the right time and not saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. I just keep mixing the two up.
»It was nothing,« I said …
This was how I met Mr Kratz. Nothing much has changed since that day. I saw him once more. The very evening of his entering into my life, I had a cab take me over to his quarters in the Bristol Grand. I handed him a contract and sent a quick prayer to the ceiling of his study. And since that evening, Mr Kratz has been working for me. He takes care of my little problems, making sure that they stay small and that nothing much changes (even Annabelle is still with me – maybe, this was Mr Kratz’s work, maybe, she came to the same conclusion which I myself arrived at: perfect harmony wouldn’t have lasted anyway).
There’s nothing more to say about that man whose name makes you scratch yourself.