He had begun to think of Faust. Moreover, he had begun to understand Faust. He had read Faust as an undergraduate and, although he was taken by the metric flow of Goethe’s verse, he had not fully appreciated the depth of Goethe’s characterization. As he grew older, he began to understand more fully the impulse that tempted Faust into his bargain with the Devil, a bargain which would allow Faust to live until the moment when he could truly say, “I am satisfied.” In the meantime, the Devil was a sometimes pimp, sometimes entrepreneur to Faust’s pursuit of all of life’s experiences. In the end, God nullifies the contract. Good, it seems, always triumphs. Thinking about it, he understood that it was a bargain he knew he couldn’t make. As you are forbidden to bargain with God, so even more are you forbidden to bargain with the Devil. Besides, Satan also has read Goethe’s Faust and likely is wise to the scam. Still ?
It was the song September Song which set his mind in this direction. Kurt Weill’s love song from the Broadway Comedy Knickerbocker Holiday, in which a middle aged man (Charles Coburn) declares his love to a young woman. She of course, has eyes for a man nearer her own age. Speaking in pride, Coburn chants “When I was a young man courting the girls, I played me a waiting game ? and as time came around she came my way, as time came around, she came.” Faust in his pride; Faust as he beguiles the young Gretchen; Satan who clinches the seduction as he fulfills his part of the bargain. The song pauses at this point. Coburn was speaking of what was. He now sings of what is as the song moves from the confident to the tentative. “But it’s a long, long time from May to December, and the days grow short when you reach September?”
The words ran through his mind when he attended the funeral of a friend. Photographs were grouped on a couple of tables at the back of the room. A black and white and color collage of the deceased’s life. Here the black and white photo of a marriage, a young couple looking hopefully into the camera. Time is compressed as we see a mother with a newborn, an older mother with the same child at graduation, the child’s marriage, grandchildren and, finally, great-grandchildren. The chronicle ends at this point. The subject lies silently in another part of the room. In between were hushed knots of people.
Old photographs, frozen instants of time, he thought. You look at the pictures of ancestors, stark figures whose blank emotionless eyes stare unsmilingly at the camera. You may have known their children or their grandchildren at one time and you can imagine a tenuous link between the strangers in the photograph and yourself. But they remain other and you are uncaring.
Remembering photographs of his wedding, he recalled one that was not posed. Standing outside of the church, the wedding party had formed a receiving line to greet the guests. It was a warm August day and a sharp breeze spoke of storms later in the afternoon. The bride’s hand was on her veil, to hold it in place, and everyone had turned their backs to the wind. Those are but incidental details, for remembering the photograph, he could see them all again, parents, grandparents, in-laws, all alive again for the brief second it took to snap the picture. The children of this marriage cannot look at the picture in the same way. There is love for parents and care for grandparents, but the great-grandparents, for the great-grandparents is the same uncaring glance at ancestors in a picture. It is, he realized, the fate of us all.
“And the autumn weather, turns the leaves to flame, and I haven’t got time for the waiting game.”
Faust exemplifies a flaw in the genetic makeup of men. Most, retaining a semblance of sanity, are able to overcome the fiction which causes some to flatter themselves into thinking that they are attractive to younger women. May, December romances, of course, are not that rare and some, a few, seem to work. He often thought that older men considering marriage with younger women should seek counseling. More to the point, older men who seriously consider starting a second family should be required to undergo serious therapy and perhaps institutionalization until the impulse passes. Still, time is a cruel master and for those that choose this road the man’s lover more often than not becomes his nurse.
“Oh the days dwindle down, to a precious few, September, November?”
More often, the image which came to his mind was that of Professor Rath in The Blue Angel. Emil Jannings portrayal of a teacher who gives up everything for the love of the amoral Lola, the role that made Marlene Dietrich a star. It is painful to watch the professor’s descent from the respectability of a teacher through that of a purveyor of risqu? photographs of Lola, to the rock bottom degradation a vaudeville clown. She seduces him in the beginning with her shy singing of Falling in Love Again and he is giddy, almost girlish, in the sexual tension of the moment. Later she openly cuckolds him, an act that drives him mad. As Lola once again sings Falling in Love Again, no longer a song of seduction but a song of defiance, he stumbles from the theater, down dark streets, to his old school. Back to his classroom and back to his desk which he embraces in a death grip. Not Faust redeemed, but Faust lost.
“And these few precious days, I’ll spend with you; these precious days I’ll spend with you.”
His mind caressed the bride in that photograph. Their years together had sped by in a jumble of children and travel and friends. Faust and photographs pulled him away from that windy August day to a particularly raw day in Germany. As always when he was away from her, traveling, he filled his days with movement to drive out the loneliness of her absence. There was, and may still be, an antique shop in Hoechst, just on the other side of the river from Frankfurt. The shop was a kaleidoscope of memorabilia, most dating to before the war and mixed with a few items belonging to the early 50s. To walk into the shop was to walk back in time, surrounded by the discarded memorabilia of other people’s past. All of it chaotically stacked, here books and sheet music, there a pile of old magazines. Odd pieces of bric-a-brac led perilous lives on tilting shelves. All of it waiting for the right buyer to walk in; someone who would give life once more to some forgotten piece. Someone like him.
The owner was a collector and restorer of phonographs, the old wind up kind with the large bell-shaped speaker. The back of his shop was stacked floor to ceiling with them in various states of repair. Whenever he was in poking around, the owner was always at his bench, working on one. He asked the man once if he worked on clocks, hoping to strike up a conversation on a shared interest. No, the man told him, they were too complicated. Yet there arrayed before him were the innards of a phonograph. Gears and a large spring awaited cleaning before reassembly. Not much different from a clock. Well, one exceptional difference. A clock pushes you into the future; his phonographs pulled you into the past.
On that gray winter’s afternoon, he had gone in as much to get warm as to look around, hoping to find some treasure to take to her. There were just the two of them in the shop and other than giving him quick nod, the owner paid him no mind. He had walked to a part of the shop where the owner had an old 1920s touring car wedged in between a player piano and stacks of books and movie posters when he heard a record begin to play on the phonograph the owner had just restored. A reedy, slightly nasal female voice sang “Every time it rains, it rains, pennies from heaven”. For a few brief moments, the shop became another time, another place; back before the war, back to when the books and knick knacks sat new in the house. Back to when parents and grandparents putting their backs to the wind on an August day stood at the beginning of their lives. “So when the rain starts falling, don’t sit under a tree. There’ll be pennies from heaven for you and me.”
The crackling of the needle as it danced at the end of the record brought him out of his reverie, brought him back to the present. He thanked the owner for the song and stepped out of the shop into the late afternoon rain. He had forgotten his umbrella.