By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
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Jeff, meanwhile, had a roof over his head, but in other ways, he was no better off than he'd been before. He had agreed to help Jonathan with the Journal article, a copy of which he usually carried with him, and he said he'd pitch in with the book and the movie. But he hadn't experienced a windfall: He received half of the $10,000 option amount for the film rights, but he wasn't part of the Random House pact, which included a $50,000 advance for Jonathan. Sheila was sending Jeff money--$250 a month to start, increasing to $600 a month--but his need for pot was such that he still couldn't afford a decent place to live most of the time. According to Gary, Jeff understood that Jonathan's projects might eventually pay him dividends, but that didn't stop him from feeling that his little brother was taking advantage of him to a certain degree. Sometimes he didn't mind. For example, he greatly enjoyed helping Jonathan put together a story about cost overruns and assorted boondoggles associated with Denver International Airport that made page one of the Journal in September 1991: "I read him the drafts, and we would go over the details of it," Jonathan says. "He was a very good writer and a spectacular editor." But, Gary says, he sometimes became so angry at perceived injustices that even pot couldn't make him feel better.
Love and bitterness, bitterness and love: After Jonathan took a leave from the Journal in 1992 and moved to Denver to work on the book, Jeff showered him with both. "It was just a lot of unbelievably wasted energy," Jonathan says. "One minute everything would be great, and the next minute we would be screaming at each other."
Jonathan wanted to absorb the essence of Jeff's downbeat life. So rather than set up shop in an office or condominium, he flopped at Jeff's latest ratty apartment. They slept side by side on bare mattresses, ate virtually every meal together and seldom went anywhere without the other.
It was the kind of enforced closeness they hadn't experienced since their boyhoods, but this time it didn't go down smoothly. On a daily basis, Jeff was asked to delve into the most agonizing experiences of his life, which he recalled all too clearly. In spite of his marijuana smoking, his memory was sharp and precise--so much so that Jonathan, aided by occupancy records from shelters and jails, was able to compile a virtual day-by-day record of where Jeff was during his lost years. Jeff also wrote accounts of his experiences; Jonathan says they were stronger and more revealing than any of his own writing. And there was also Jonathan's omnipresent tape recorder, which seemed to be whirring 24 hours a day. Gary recalls that during a drive to Estes Park, one of Jeff's favorite places, Jonathan immediately repeated almost everything Jeff said into the recorder in case the microphone hadn't picked up the bon mot the first time around.
Putting so much weight on Jeff's every word inevitably led to fights--epic fights. They argued about everything from their father to negotiations with Hollywood (Jeff was certain they weren't getting the best possible deal). "It was very combative," Gary says. "It got to Jeff after a while--having to relive all his horrors and having to do it in front of his brother, who had this great job at the Wall Street Journal. They got into huge arguments about that. I never had to pull them apart, but I sure thought I was going to have to." Jonathan confirms Gary's description: In the midst of one scrap, he says, a man in an apartment that adjoined Jeff's yelled through the thin wall, "I know you guys love each other, but could you just shut up?"
Shutting up wasn't Jeff's forte, but oftentimes his blather was utterly charming. When a screenwriter who'd been assigned to turn "Missing in America" into a workable script arrived in Denver to quiz the Dahl boys, Jeff was at his most magnetic; Gary and Jonathan agree that the astonished young writer was soon trailing after Jeff like a faithful puppy.
Over the phone, Jeff worked the same magic on Sheila. At one point she agreed to travel to Denver--they still hadn't seen each other--but a bout of dysentery that struck her just before flight time forced the postponement of the trip. Jeff kept after her during their conversations, though, and she finally arranged to join him for a Colorado Thanksgiving in the company of her new fiance, a businessman named Albert Cozzi whom she later wed.
Sheila and Jeff's first embrace in a decade was affectionate but awkward. Sheila was caught off guard by Jeff's new haircut (a radical punk crewcut) and the overalls he wore; he tried to explain the look away by claiming that he'd affected it to further his music career. But after the initial shock had worn off, she believed they got along well--far better than she had expected. When Sheila and Albert retired to their hotel room, she was brimming with good feelings. But her optimism soon began to dissipate. Jonathan and Jeff were staying next door and, like the man in the apartment building, Sheila spent the next several hours listening to their aural fireworks. She says she was distressed by this sound and fury, but Jonathan was by then used to the fights--they came with the territory. As he said at his brother's eulogy, "An hour with Jeff was like all night with anybody else."