Harlan Ellison

The Late, Great Arnie Draper

WE HAD ALL GOTTEN THE NEWS by seven o’clock. I’d heard it first on the early news, and rushed to tell the other kids. We somehow wound up at the Campus Malt Shop, about twenty of us, all sitting around gloomy and sick and miserable about it.

Charlie Draper was dead. He had cracked up in his Valiant, on the highway. Charles Arnold Draper, whom some called Charlie and some called Arnie. Funny about that: the girls all called him Arnie, I was one of them, and the guys all called him Charlie. Funny about that, but just typical of Arnie Draper. Friendliest guy in the wide world. Number-one man on campus, with everybody. Not stuck up or self-centered, though God knows he could have been, what with being star quarterback on State’s Big Ten championship team, a brilliant student, head of the Jazz Committee, president of his fraternity, and a dozen other accomplishments. He could have been the most egotistical slob in the world, but he wasn’t. Wanted everybody to call him Arnie, as though he’d known them all his life. Just like that; Arnie. Or Charlie.

Now he was dead. Just like this, he was gone from our lives, and we’d lost a good friend. Not just another kid we were sorry to see die, but a real honest-to-goodness swell fellow, who had figured prominently in our lives.

We sat around the Campus Malt Shop, not ordering anything, just dragging on cigarettes, and staring at each other, as each one of us told what we felt about Arnie. Not that we felt we had to say anything, but it seemed as though we were reciting in a class we liked very much, and we wanted very much to be very much a part of it; we had to let out what we felt about Arnie Draper, now that he had been taken from us.

Verna Abernathy, a tall blonde English major was talking. “He was so … so … so damned refined He always seemed to know just what to say at just the right moment. He had a ready action for any situation, you know what I mean?”

Everybody nodded, because we all agreed.

Finley Withers coughed and stared down at the tiny pile of ashes he had been accumulating, chain-smoking since we’d gathered. “It was more than that,” he added, “just the knowing what damned movement to make just when.”

“What I mean is, he was poised, relaxed, as though he didn’t have a worry in the world, even during finals week, when you knew damned well he was worried. It was — ” he waved his hand absently, as if to finish the sentence visually.

Everybody nodded, because we all agreed.

Grant Lawson, who had been his roommate at the fraternity house, spoke up. He had a deep voice and a distinctly masculine way about him. “Not only that, but Charlie was a fine person. I saw him pick up a cat that had been struck by some kid’s bicycle, and nurse the animal, actually, really nurse it back to health. It’s still at the House. We call it Satyr. And Charlie wouldn’t let anybody help. It was his own good deed, and he wanted it to be that way all the time.”

Everybody nodded, because we all agreed.

From the end of the five tables we’d shoved together, Annie Vester, moved I suppose by the honesty everyone had in their voices, and the sorrow of the moment, said, “He was a gentleman, Arnie was. He went steady with me for three months, before he met you, Pauline,” she explained unnecessarily to me. I knew Arnie had been going with her before me, but it had just been a slight campus flirtation, like a million others, and there had been no real hard feelings, though I knew Annie had still cared a great deal for him. It hadn’t been the real thing with them, as it had been between Arnie and myself. Real love for us, the real thing.

She went on. “Arnie could have taken advantage of me a couple of times. I wouldn’t have minded at all, I even, uh, encouraged him slightly,” she added, blushing slightly, “but he was a gentleman. We made love the way all girls want to make love before they’re married. I’ll — I’ll never forget him …”

She sank into a soulful silence, and we all nodded, because we all agreed.

Brant Pinch, with whom Arnie had collaborated on several group science projects, said, “Not to mention his genius. Charlie would have been a great leader some day. His grasp of science was phenomenal. We never could have gotten in those projects on time if he hadn’t done a hell of a lot of the work on them.” Everybody nodded, because we all agreed.

“Francine Hasher and I were always amazed at how well-read, how rounded he was,” Margie Poole stuck in. “He could talk on any subject from Plato to … to Presley. He knew what was going on in the world, and he was seriously interested in what he could do about it.”

“And migod, when it came to the arts, Arnie seemed to be able to do any thing. We used to go to Iris Pedlang’s sculpture classes, at her apartment, you know, and he used to come up with the most exotic, I mean exotic forms, you can believe me!” Everybody nodded, because we all agreed.

It went on for over an hour, with everybody chiming in, retelling some little anecdote, spotlighting some feature of his personality, lauding him, and then abruptly, it was my turn.

Silently, it was my turn, because they knew how much I had lost. Charlie and I had been going steady. We were going to be engaged next year, both in our senior year at State. They knew I was crying inside, and shattered, and they turned to me for the capper, the final words that would sum it all up, now that we had lost our Arnie. Our Charlie. He was gone.

“He was so big,” I said, trying to explain a concept I hardly had words to explain. “He was a gentleman, and a genius, and a leader, and kind, and good, and everything everybody says, but beyond that,” I stumbled for words, “he was … he was …big! Do you, can you, know what I mean?”

Everybody nodded, because we all agreed.

Then — we hadn’t even seen her till then, or if we had, we hadn’t paid her any attention — a girl in a booth near us spoke.

She couldn’t have helped overhearing everything we’d been saying, and she had been there since before we arrived, so we knew it hadn’t been contrived, but she said:

“Arnie was a lousy bastard.”

We all just sat and looked at her. There wasn’t even any violence in us, so calm had she been in saying it. We sat and stared at her, with her pale face and haunted eyes. No one knew her, no one knew her name, though we’d seen her around the campus, of course.

We stared at her silently for a few moments, the quiet of the Campus Malt Shop broken only by the sounds of cars, just like our Arnie’s, going by in the street.

Then …

Everybody nodded, because we all agreed.