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To Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, Without Whose Help
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, January 24, 1997.
Awarded 1st Place, Personal/Observational Column,
Greater Los Angeles Press Club’s Southern California Journalism Awards.
My brother, Daniel, never formally discussed the question of Property After Death, but he nevertheless requested that if my family really wanted to invest in eternal real estate, we should burn him up first and put his ashes in a teensy metal box. My parents agreed, and further stipulated that the cremation take place no sooner than after his death.
This agreement was entered into just prior to Dan’s 20th birthday, a less-than-traditional celebration with cake and candles and spinal taps and blood transfusions and comas and a luxurious suite at City of Hope replete with inept oncologists and heparin and broviac catheters and plenty of alcohol (though not to drink) and, eventually, morphine, C17H19NO3, Morpheus, god of dreams, son of Hypnos, god of sleep.
Prior to the agreement, Danny had spent a lot of time memorizing and interpreting the life of Groucho Marx. He didn’t impersonate Groucho so much as apply Marxist ideology to ’70s Midwestern situations — mirroring witless and petrified traditions with instantaneous and somehow lovable insults, de-rationalizing the pre-rational, inserting a “Special Thanks to Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, Without Whose Help” title card at the beginning of his 8mm films.
As Danny’s obligatorily pesky and admiring little brother, I memorized Harponess and Chicosity to the best of my abilities. I learned to “throw a Gookie” (cross eyes and, with Beethoven eyebrows, inflate cheeks by plugging tongue tip into lower teeth and blowing); I read Harpo’s autobiography, Harpo Speaks; I rehearsed non sequiturs in a convincingly bad Italian-Manhattan accent.
It helped that I looked almost exactly like Harpo (minus the pink wig; and yes, it was pink) and Chico. Though not twins, they were virtually identical as kids. I noticed this looking at photos in one of my brother’s dozens of Marx Brothers books.
But as much as I resembled Groucho’s big brothers, my big brother did not much — until his last few months — resemble Groucho. Danny went to Uni High, a lab school at the University of Illinois, and he and his friends were young mad-scientist hippie-druggie types — those guys who seem to know the answers to tests without studying and who can hold their own in conversations with professors and that kind of thing. People prohibitionists hate because they can ingest all sorts of drugs and still kick ass on IQ tests. Danny wore Panama hats and Salvation Army button-downs and black open vests. He smoked cigars from Jon’s Pipe Shop and listened to Spike Jones, Benny Goodman and Thelonious Monk. He built a truly makeshift darkroom/editing room in our basement and made short animated and live-action films with his friends and with me.
In college, Danny moved into a noir-y $50-a-month apartment — maybe the third floor — covered with Marx Brothers memorabilia and with red neon throbbing outside the bedroom at night. He and his friends formed the Quasimodo Film Society, which showed movies on campus for a buck, and he collected early Warner Bros. and Fleischer cartoons, Robert Benchley shorts and those Camelot “educational” films — How To Be Responsible, How To Be Well Groomed — to show before the features. To make enough money to buy more films, they showed Deep Throat first thing in the fall — predictably popular among freshly dormed 18-year-olds.
Amazing. Deep Throat wasn’t — at least in the ’70s — copyrighted.
One of those things I have no use for but haven’t been able to toss: my brother’s old Marx Brothers scrapbook. It’s a green vinyl three-ring binder of plastic sleeves, 2 inches thick and stuffed with newspaper clippings, microfilm prints, cartoons, ads for Quasimodo showings at Lincoln Hall and Marie Seton’s essay “S. Dali + 3 Marxes = ” from the October ’39 issue of Theatre Arts Monthly, all chronologized and bibliographized and faded into semi-sepias, ochres and olives. At the end are Groucho’s obituaries, from The New York Times to the Sunday Oregonian, including our local Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, which ran “Master Comedian Groucho Marx Dies of Pneumonia” as its August 20, 1977, lead.
(“Partly sunny, pleasant today. High around 80.”)
My brother said he wanted his body to be burned into ash, so when he died before dawn on December 17, 1978, my parents arranged for that at a mortuary in the Valley. We were living then — somehow and suddenly — in Lancaster, which is a good place for dying, as you don’t see much worth missing. Joshua trees. Air. GEMCO. My parents figured my brother had been somewhat Jewish, and a columbarium down in Mission Hills seemed the closest place a plaque with a Star of David might lead a swastika-free existence for a small chunk of eternity or so. Around 9:30 a.m., two old white men arrived in an old station wagon and drove Daniel’s old body to the building where they burn flesh and bone for, I believe, less than 500 bucks. (The plaque and metal box and rent and all that cost extra.)
Former members of the Quasimodo Film Society and a dozen or so less filmic friends came from all over the country and stayed with us for a week. About 20 of them in our small house in the high desert, sleeping head-to-ankle on the pale green-yellow carpet that glowed like nylon moon dust.
A year and a half back, Danny’s initial diagnosis had been Hodgkin’s disease, a nasty lymph cancer with a survival rate, in his case, of about 50-50. But then there was more testing and a new diagnosis, revealed before patient and family by the most Rockwellian of oncologists in the most bedside of Midwestern hospital settings: We found some inconsistencies in . . . suspicions aroused by . . . further able to determine . . . such that young Daniel in fact has a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, much rarer and with a survival rate of more like 85-15, against.
The doctor then tried on a smile, but finding it to be of the wrong size or shape, he shook a few hands and left. Leaving behind a short silence followed by a comeback that even Groucho might’ve choked on: Nineteen-year-old Danny said simply, “I wish I had Hodgkin’s disease.”
My brother vigorously worshipped nothing; his devotion to the study of Groucho Marx was undertaken without idolatry. Far from city life, there in the ersatz-Athens of the Corn Belt, Danny had found in Groucho what I’d found in Danny: a mentor’s gravity. In financial poverty and creative wealth, Julius Marx created Groucho, someone who, while still a child, had given up on trying to make sense of senselessness and had set out to battle it on its own terms. Half a century later, half a continent away, Danny’d spent his youth preparing to continue where Groucho was leaving off.
I was pretty much out of my mind, but I remember sitting there in Eden Memorial Park, listening to the real estate agent of death make his pitch. Danny was already gone, his body was already burned up and packed into a box (teensy, metal), but we still had to deal with where he’d be placed and what we wanted on the plaque and crap like that.
As a group, we walked — parents, sister, salesman, me — up a hill of dead people under live grass, maybe 600 feet to the columbarium. There, on the far wall, dead center (sorry), was a bronze marker that read
and right above it was an unoccupied niche.
Wow, I thought — because what else could I do — wait’ll I tell Danny.