Chapter Four: "What Would Ludwig Think?"
Charlie drove his borrowed car through the increasingly familiar streets days later. His objective was a small, artsy section of town presumptuously called the Village, a pretender to the influential, creative importance of New York's Greenwich Village. At present, it was peopled only with conceited, sensitive and arrogant delicate geniuses. Charlie drove alone, as Violet had opted to run some errands, allowing the friends to reminisce.
Several clubs lined the tired streets, their marquees advertising performances of live jazz, fusion, reggae; a whole variety of styles. Charlie followed Schroeder's telephoned directions to the Loaf of Rye, an unremarkable downstairs jazz club in the basement of a dingy, exhausted-looking bistro, with peeling paint on the outside walls and cracked sidewalk pavers in front of it. Upon descending the iron stairway into the shabby establishment, Charlie discovered that it was bigger than it at first appeared.
Inquiring for his friend at the door, Charlie was directed to a table against a dark back wall. A tall, slim figure rose to greet him.
"Charlie!" the strange, familiar voice called, "Long time, my friend, long time!"
Schroeder's transformation in appearance from their last meeting both startled and saddened Charlie.
Schroeder, a young man only in his early twenties, had already lived a life full of experiences, a life that he himself would describe as high-mileage. His normally fair complexion had grown still more pale, the result of many a late hour. His gleaming blond hair had thickened, curled and lengthened. Schroeder wore his facial hair in a style of intentional sloppiness, a sort of fashionable untidiness. It invaded and spread over his face as an unkempt, four-day growth of beard and an uncombed moustache. Schroeder extended his hand, revealing a tattoo on his forearm. Upon closer inspection, Charlie noticed a glittering jeweled earring nailed to one ear lobe. Burdened with an affected worldly weariness, his indifferent facial hair, and his calculated rumpled elegance, he seemed much older. Charlie's memory of Schroeder as the clean-cut boy of their youth suffered a fatal wound.
Schroeder spotted the uniform, and a reaction that began with aversion changed with a shrug to a friendly smile. He offered Charlie the chair opposite his own, and they sat down after their hearty handshake. Schroeder's grip, the product of nearly twenty years of piano-playing, impressed Charlie with its muscular firmness.
"I was glad to get your call, Charlie," he said, brightly, as they sat down. Schroeder's voice sounded deeper, but it had lost none of its clever arrogance.
"How've you been?"
"I'm good, Schroeder. And you?"
Charlie could tell by his expression that Schroeder relished the contrast they presented; a bedraggled, unreconstructed late-model beatnik sharing a drink with a soldier in uniform.
Schroeder leaned back indolently in his chair.
"I suppose Patty has already told you about my work with the Orchestra," Schroeder said, still smiling. "It's the greatest thing, Charlie; sonatas, concerti, solos, just classical music all the time! I love it."
He turned to the waiter as their drinks arrived. The waiter set their mugs down and smiled at Charlie, jerking his thumb toward the bartender.
"Boss says the first round's on the house, Lieutenant."
Charlie nodded gratefully and smiled.
"Tell him thanks!"
As the waiter left, they sipped their beers, pausing to savor the first taste, and then they resumed.
"When I'm alone," Schroeder said by way of explanation, "I prefer white wine, but on such a special occasion I like a beer once in a while."
"I hear that your career's going well," Charlie said, setting his mug on the coaster. "You've even cut a disc. Congratulations!"
"Well, it's the Orchestra's disc," Schroeder said, shrugging, "although I do have a few solos in it."
"They have another one coming out soon," he added. "I'll send you a copy when it's released, if you'd like."
"I'd appreciate it." Charlie looked around the dim, gloomy club.
"So, what's all this about?"
"Oh, it's just a little something I like to do on the side," Schroeder said, indifferently.
"My work with the Orchestra, the rehearsals, the performances and the occasional recording we do, doesn't take up all my time. So, I come here to relax and play some jazz on my nights off. Just for fun."
"Jazz? You?" Charlie stared in mock amazement.
Schroeder looked pleased.
"A recently acquired taste, Charlie."
"And how did you 'acquire' it?"
Charlie, enjoying the light-hearted sparring, smiled mischievously. It was irresistible.
"Schroeder, what would Ludwig think?"
Schroeder looked at him with merry eyes, threw his head back and laughed heartily, causing heads in the near-empty room to turn his way.
"God, I missed you Charlie!" he said nudging his friend's shoulder.
They shared another laugh and a quaff, and then Schroeder settled down before he continued.
"But, you know Charlie," he said considering it, "I really think he'd have approved. Beethoven was many things, but he wasn't a snob, contrary to what many believe."
"And what about you?" Charlie pressed. "Do you still idolize Beethoven, and aspire to be like him? You used to be such a nut about Beethoven, remember?"
Schroeder, his profile resembling that of a disheveled Nineteenth Century poet, shrugged.
"I still play Beethoven, but not as much as before, not exclusively," he conceded. "His music inspires me, Charlie, but so does others'." He took a breath.
"For instance, I used to find Chopin tedious. So much of his work was for teaching; you know, all those Etudes. But now when I play Chopin, it relaxes me. You see, in my work, I have to stay in practice for many composers, but I still prefer Beethoven. I'm not the obsessed, fastidious little acolyte I used to be, Charlie. I've put away my Beethoven t-shirts, and I haven't been to Bonn-am-Rhine for some years, but yes, Beethoven still inspires me."
Charlie nodded in the dim half-light.
"Why?" Schroeder asked leaning forward, eyes gleaming, "Were you worried that I'd changed too much?"
Damn these friends who knew you too well!
"A little, I guess," Charlie said, grinning.
"As much as I've tried to keep the buried past where it is, I guess a part of me is still nostalgic for my childhood."
"You worry me, Charlie," Schroeder quipped, frowning complacently. "For you of all people to be nostalgic for your childhood, as unhappy as it was, is truly alarming."
"Fair enough," Charlie said, nudging his friend again.
"So, are you in town for long?"
"Just for a few months. I have some personal business to take care of," Charlie said, evasively. "Listen, Schroeder; I've got some news, but I want to visit for awhile first."
"Yes, Schroeder said, sipping his drink smugly, "'Patty the mommy' hinted that you might have some announcement or other to make. Have you seen anyone else yet, besides the 'Happy Couple'?"
His evident disdain for Shermy and Patty goaded Charlie.
"Schroeder, why are you so hostile to them?"
"They annoy me," he said, frowning. "Their lives are just so dreary, so bourgeois, so-"
"-perfect?" Charlie interjected.
"That's what they're always telling me," his friend grumbled impatiently. "It's all so wonderful. The house, the ring, the kids, the mortgage!"
He grimaced with sublime artistic distaste.
"They act as if everyone else should want what they want. Well, I've got news for them; we don't!" He shook his head, his eyes full of light-hearted derision.
"I love them Charlie, but sometimes, they can be so tedious!"
"Schroeder, they're working hard to have the things they want, and the life they've planned," Charlie said, quietly reasonable.
Schroeder started to retort, but Charlie cut him off.
"They're after the same thing that you are," he continued, "to live as they please. Just because you don't have the same goals they do, doesn't mean you can't be happy for them."
Schroeder laughed again, but softly. He held up his hands.
"All right, Charlie! Truce!"
They shook hands again, and taking up their mugs clinked them together and took another long, reflective gulp.
"You know, I've never shaken hands this often without having to sign something!" Schroeder said, eliciting a chuckle from his friend.
"So, answer my question Charlie," he added, returning to his subject. "Have you seen anyone else yet, besides the Brookses?"
"No, not yet, but I've heard a little gossip," Charlie answered, "and I wanted to know if you've heard any more?"
"About Linus?" Schroeder asked, taking another sip.
His friend's needle hit the mark and Charlie flinched a little from the pinpoint.
"I'm not ready to talk about Linus just yet, Schroeder."
Something in Charlie's tone warned Schroeder that further wit in that direction would be unwelcome.
"Then who, Charlie? Did you know for instance, about Peppermint Patty and her odd little friend?"
"Marcie Johnson? No, I didn't." Charlie shook his head, curiously. "Know what?"
Schroeder paused, and then lifted his mug to his lips before saying:
"Gay; both of them!"
Charlie looked surprised and leaned closer.
"Really? Where did you hear that?"
"I didn't hear it, old friend, I saw it," he said, setting down his mug.
"They were in the club one night, holding hands. I talked to them afterward, and they told me everything. Curious thing, though," Schroeder said, eyes narrowing playfully, "When we were kids, I'd always thought they both had a little crush on you."
"I wondered about that myself, actually. But gay, huh? Hard to believe."
Schroeder looked critically intent at his friend.
"Charlie, Peppermint Patty was always playing boys' games and talking so tough and little Marcie was so devoted to her. Didn't you ever suspect?"
"No," he admitted, "I guess I was so involved in my own anxieties and hang-ups that it never occurred to me."
Schroeder gave an indifferent shrug.
"Well, fortunately for their sakes, it occurred to them. They've been together for two years," he took another pause, and a long sip, "and by all accounts, still happy!"
"What about you, Schroeder?" Charlie asked, as he took a mouthful and listened.
Schroeder's eyes, always full of mischief, danced in the light.
"What about me, Charlie?"
"I mean are you happy? Are you seeing anyone?"
"Seeing anyone, hmm," Schroeder repeated, leaning his head back as if trying to count them all.
His expression brightened as an answer occurred to him, and he turned to Charlie.
"No, at the moment I appear to be seeing everyone!" Charlie responded with a weak grin, which compelled Schroeder to be serious.
"Candidly though, old friend, I'm in great demand. Women come up to me and come on to me, all the time. Not in a rock-star way you understand," he said, "but I'm only alone when I choose to be." He sighed complacently.
"You'd be surprised what a little romantic piano music will do to a woman's resistance. Very useful."
"I never know when you're joking," Charlie said, shaking his head.
"Always, Charlie. Always."
The table quieted for a moment of reflection.
"Look at us, Schroeder," Charlie said, after another sip. "We're two friends from the same town, the same neighborhood, but how very different we are. So much for environment!"
Schroeder looked steadily at his friend.
"We're not so very different Charlie, you and I, if you think about it."
"What do you mean?"
"When you were young, you were awkward, clumsy, and so you thought, inadequate; a total failure," Schroeder began, eyeing his friend with sympathy.
"But then you went to middle school, and there were coaches to teach you all about baseball, hockey and soccer, and how to play them properly. With practice you got much better at all of those things, and being better gave you confidence. That confidence made you feel more at ease with the brats we went to school with, and as a result you were able to fit in with them better."
Schroeder nodded, taking sips while talking.
"It was the same with me essentially, Charlie.
"When I was young, the piano was everything to me. I practiced on it for hours. Music was the wall I erected to keep the rest of the world out. Lost in the zone of performing, I honed my skill and shut out that world.
"Now some people, my parents included, thought all of that playing alone, isolated from other kids might have made me shy, self-conscious, or maladjusted. Well, I can't argue against 'maladjusted,' but knowing I could do something so well, something most people couldn't do at all, gave me confidence. And because of that, I didn't have much trouble fitting in, either. So you see, Charlie, we're much alike."
"Guilty, I guess," Charlie said, laughing to himself. "But to change the subject slightly, I did come with some news, and a jam I find myself in."
"Tell me the news," Schroeder said easily, "and I'll get some bread for the jam!"
"A moment of seriousness, please," Charlie chided.
"All right," Schroeder said, chuckling soberly. "Tell, Charlie."
Charlie took a cautious breath before replying.
"Do you remember Violet?"
"Violet Gray? Yes, I remember her," Schroeder said, his eyes lighting up. "She was the prettiest girl in school! I haven't seen her in years."
"I've been in contact with her for the last few months."
Schroeder's eyes opened, suddenly interested.
"After all these years?" he asked, curious. "After what she did to you? What prompted this?"
"A healing of old wounds, Schroeder. We've decided to be friends again, to forget the past, and things have warmed up a lot since then. So if you're performing anywhere with the Orchestra and you have some extra tickets, I will need two."
"Meaning...?" Schroeder leaned closer, expecting interesting news.
Charlie's expression gave it away.
"You and Violet? The girl you once called, 'tattle-tale Gray?' Bravo, my friend!" He laughed, genuinely happy for his friend, and slapped him on the shoulder again.
"I mean it, Charlie. I know how you used to feel about Violet. The whole school did! But only she and God knew how she felt about you."
"Well, I guess now I'm in good company, then. We're making plans to be married!"
"Splendid!" his friend said, pleased.
Schroeder leaned back in his chair, considering Charlie closely. He brought his hands together reflectively at the fingertips.
"So, you came here to give me this news, and to ask me…what?"
"Schroeder, I want you to be involved in the wedding, although I don't know how. We haven't set a date. I haven't even proposed to her, yet! But we both know where we're headed. It just makes sense to plan ahead."
"Naturally. I'll be glad to be a part of it, whatever you think appropriate for me, Charlie. Count me in!"
"But first Schroeder, there is something I need to get straight with you about all this."
Schroeder gave his friend a patient, knowing look.
"I know what you're going to say Charlie, but before you do, I think you should be talking this over with Linus."
"Linus?" Charlie's face fell.
Was it that obvious?
"Any wedding I've ever heard of needs a Best Man," Schroeder reminded him.
"You haven't asked me to be an usher, or to play the 'Wedding March' on the piano, so obviously you're trying to tell me that I shouldn't expect that office either," Schroeder explained.
"You're trying to tell me in your subtle, transparent way that Linus, if he accepts, would be your choice for Best Man, and not me. Well, I can understand that, and I couldn't agree more. But before you ask him to do it, Charlie, you and I both know that there's something else you need to discuss with him. You have a fence to mend, my friend."
Charlie nodded unwillingly. He dreaded that inescapable confrontation with his former friend.
"How did that rift happen, anyway?" Schroeder asked, edging closer. "I was never quite clear on that."
Charlie explained in one word.
Schroeder's expression turned sour at the mention of the name. He nodded, knowingly.
"Say no more. She was behind that despicable trick on prom night too, wasn't she? It seems that bitch has been the source of a lot of misery for you through the years."
"I didn't want to talk about her," Charlie said, as his soft eyes turned bitter. "I only wanted to explain about Linus."
"I'm sorry, go on."
"He and I were like brothers, don't you remember?"
Schroeder nodded, encouraging Charlie to keep going.
"We were close, Schroeder. At the time, I didn't think anything would break that friendship. We had the same sensitivity, the same awkwardness and insecurities. I think we understood each other better than anyone. I even talked him into playing baseball with us, remember? He later told me that if it hadn't been for my coaxing him out of doors, he might never have had any fun."
"You did the same for me." Schroeder's eyes shone with gratitude.
"Thanks." Charlie took a sip from his neglected beer.
Schroeder gestured for him to continue.
Charlie stared straight ahead.
"It was on a dreary summer day, when we were practicing for a game," Charlie said, sipping slowly. As the door had been left open, memories flooded in at once.
"I yelled at Lucy for missing an easy fly ball, and she started in on me like always, but this time it was worse. She really screamed at me! She called me names, laughing at me, mocking and ridiculing me there in front of the whole team, and I blew my stack."
The expression on Charlie's face changed, his eyes became grim, and he was back on that field. He turned to his friend.
"For the first time in my life, Schroeder, I fought back. I got in her face myself, yelling back at her, and I just lost it. I was so furious with all the vicious, sadistic things she said to me. It was like everything she'd ever said or done to me was pounding into my head all at once. I exploded, and I hauled off and slapped her!"
"You slapped her, really?" Schroeder didn't bother to conceal his amusement.
"Yes, I smacked her right in the face! I'm not proud of that moment now," Charlie said uneasily, "but then, I was jubilant! Have you ever done anything that thrilled and humiliated you at the same time?"
"No Charlie, I lead a dull life."
Blunted by Schroeder's self-indulgent sarcasm, Charlie's story lost momentum.
Schroeder took another sip of his beer. Charlie did likewise, causing the story to wait.
"Anyway, the other kids were aghast," he said, remembering.
"I can imagine."
Charlie turned his sad face toward Schroeder.
"I didn't want it to happen, Schroeder, but it did. She had always been so belligerent and hateful to everyone, and they were all afraid of her. They'd never seen anyone stand up to her like that, least of all me. Then, out of nowhere, Linus came at me." Charlie shook his head, deeply remorseful.
"There was real hatred in his eyes. He cursed at me and pushed me away from her. I knew he was just defending his sister, but I thought I was in the right. She'd been attacking me for years, Schroeder, and I felt justified in finally fighting back. I started yelling at him, and it just got worse and worse. We even came to blows, Schroeder. We came to blows!" Charlie's face looked mortified.
"That's hard to imagine," Schroeder said, his eyes widening. "Linus was always so easygoing."
"I know," Charlie agreed, "but he jumped me, and I was just so filled with adrenaline that I fought with him. We really went at it! The other kids had to pull us off of each other."
Charlie shook his head, and hung it down.
"I've never been so sorry and ashamed for anything I ever did, Schroeder. I went from being a meek kid pushed once too often, to a hero, and then I went back to total humiliation.
"When it was over, so was our friendship. Linus and I had both said and done things we couldn't take back. We walked away from our friendship when we walked off that ball field. Linus and I never played ball together again, and we haven't spoken since. "
Charlie let the next moment's silence punctuate his tale, and end it.
"That's quite a story," Schroeder said, after a pause.
"I always wondered what happened between you and Linus," he added, "but none of the other kids would talk about it. I must have been away on one of my devotional pilgrimages to Germany, because this is the first I've heard of it. But you realize, Charlie, even if you weren't getting married you should try to patch things up with Linus."
"I know," Charlie said, nodding his head, "and I intend to. But I'm not looking forward to that conversation."
"Do you know how I can get in touch with him, Schroeder?"
"Sure, wait there!" Schroeder got up, walked over to the bar and picked up the telephone book. He returned with a dead-panned expression and laid the book before an incredulous Charlie Brown.
"He's in there," Schroeder said, pointing. "Look under 'V' for 'Van Pelt.'"
"He's in the book!" Charlie said, astonished. "He was here, out in the open, all this time."
"I guess Shermy and Patty didn't think of it. Maybe they'd been alienated by Lucy too, and they hadn't stayed in touch with Linus, themselves."
Charlie nodded, and his mind was far away.
"What a tragedy Lucy is!" Schroeder said. "Here she makes your life miserable and you strike back at her; completely justified in my opinion, and you're the one who feels ashamed. She tormented Linus for years in much the same way as she did you, but instead of taking your side, he defends her!"
"I was determined not to speak to her, or even about her, and yet…"
"And yet, she keeps popping up her little troll head."
Charlie sighed deeply. There was such a thing as too much reminiscence.
"I think of all of us Schroeder, you may know best how it felt to be in her cross-hairs," He said finally.
"Yes," Schroeder said, taking a sip and draining his mug. He gestured for two more. "Not as much as you Charlie, but I know your pain very well."
"Lucy pestered me for years, leaning on my piano and making her idiotic comments. She drove me crazy with her bossiness and her relentless jealousy! I tried everything Charlie, indifference, sarcasm, hostility, and every form of verbal abuse to get rid of her. You talk about life being ironic; it sure played a joke on me I'll never forget."
Schroeder turned to Charlie.
Would you believe, Charlie, she and I actually went together for a while?"
The look on Charlie's face showed that he couldn't. He shook his head in disbelief.
"You and Lucy? No, Schroeder, I can't believe that!"
"Yes, it's true. We were a couple for about a year and a half," he said, laughing sheepishly and nodding. "We were a year behind you, so that's why it escaped your notice."
"How could such a thing happen?"
"She just wore me down, Charlie. I was in tenth grade, and she'd been a nuisance to me for years." Schroeder shook his head, bewildered at his own conduct.
"I was at that age, you know, and I thought, I have to start with someone, why not her? I asked her out, and of course, she jumped at the offer. So we went out together. Well, Charlie, I screwed her nearly every day of that year and a half!"
Charlie said nothing, his mouth going slightly agape.
"I was her first, can you believe it?" Schroeder said, shrugging reflectively. He had a rakish smile, as he remembered those days. Spurred on by Charlie's astounded expression, he went on.
"Lucy was, as I'm fond of saying, 'a dreadful bed full,' but it was worth it! She was so hungry! It wasn't easy to get any privacy, and she would never shut up or be discreet about our lovemaking. I'm sure she bragged about it to all of her girl friends."
Charlie fell silent. The conversation had taken a most unwelcome turn, and he grew uncomfortable with Schroeder's graphic, salacious narration. It was a side of his friend's personality, an aloof, thoughtless insensitivity that Charlie had always disliked. His friend seemed not to notice, telling the tale of his first conquest with conspicuous and disagreeable relish.
"Anyway," Schroeder said, wrapping it up, "after all that time, I tired of her demanding pettiness, her crabbiness, and her dramatic scenes and we called it quits. I haven't seen her since and I don't miss her."
"What is she doing now?"
Schroeder shrugged uncaringly.
"I don't know, Charlie, riding around on her broom overhead. Who cares?"
Another sip from their mugs bridged the next moment's silence.
"Let's get back to the good news, all right, Charlie? As I said, I'll be happy to be in your wedding, wherever you want me to be. And the best way for you to make it a joyful occasion is to talk to Linus and clear the air. I'll bet he's as anxious to talk as you are."
"That's just what Patty said I should do."
"Well," Schroeder said, "you should do it anyway!"
Charlie let Schroeder's jab go unanswered.
"Are you playing here tonight?" he asked, instead.
"Yes, I was planning to," Schroeder replied vaguely. "Why?"
"I was going to invite Violet to come with me and listen for awhile, is that okay?"
"Sure, I'd be glad to see her again. And, Charlie? Forget what I said about Shermy and Patty. I'm happy for them, I really am. Why don't you ask them to come, too?"
The conversation seemed to have lost its momentum, so they both rose to say their goodbyes.
"It's great to see you again, Schroeder!"
"Same here, my friend."
Charlie attempted to shake Schroeder's hand once more, but his friend instead responded with a hug; friendly, heartfelt, and a little eager.
That night, Charlie, Violet and the Brookses made an appearance at the Loaf of Rye. Owing to the seedy location, Shermy kept joking that someone was breaking into his car. Patty waved to Schroeder, who sat at his piano. He trilled the keys in salute.
"Good evening, everyone," he said from the mike, as his fingers strummed over the keys. His voice, smoky and insolent, mocked himself as much as it made fun of his audience.
"I'd like to extend a special welcome to my friends sitting over there," here he gestured, "Patty and Shermy Brooks, Violet Gray, and Charlie Brown, excuse me, Lieutenant Charlie Brown. Welcome all, to this cozy little fire hazard!" His regulars, accustomed to his droll wit, gave him a warm smattering of applause.
"And now, I'd like to dedicate a new composition of mine to those old friends present here tonight. It's in honor of a mutual friend of ours.
"Please enjoy, 'Fussbudget!'"