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GONZO GIRL—Chapter 1
By: Cheryl Della Pietra
Everybody is laughing except for me. I’m scanning the faces, trying to remember names, as they listen to Walker Reade recite from his novel in progress. To my right sits Devaney Peltier—that’s how she introduced herself to me, first and last name, like she’s kind of a big deal. She’s Walker’s full-time girlfriend, and she’s braying like a donkey, the act made more absurd by the rings of white powder encircling her nostrils like two tiny powdered doughnuts.Claudia Reynolds, the aging assistant, is curled up across from me, gazing at Walker in adoration, laughing the hardest. To my left sits Rene Wang—or enfant terrible artist Rene Wang, as he’s been described, without fail, in the New York City media since the day in 1983 when he famously set dozens of roosters loose in Times Square in a performance art piece he called Koch’s Cocks Can. He’s chuckling lightly, his lips pursed, eyebrows up—his “hysterical” look, I will later learn—as he taps a long ash from his Davidoff cigarette into the mermaid-shaped tray on the table before him. I don’t have to work to recall the names of the other two people here. They’re undeniably famous. Crushed up beside Rene, almost sitting in his lap, is former vice-presidential candidate George Stains, his head thrown back, lips glossed with scotch, a small drop of blood dried at the bottom of one nostril. And next to Claudia is Larry Lucas, former teenage heartthrob, now Oscar-winning actor, doubled over like a man passing a kidney stone. Everyone is in hysterics. The only problem is, I’m not sure what they’re laughing at.
Devaney passes a large tray of cocaine to me—if it were flour, it would be enough to bake a small cake—and I smile and nod, as if she were handing me a plate full of mini-quiche. I have, to this point in my life, done exactly two lines of coke, with an ex–college boyfriend. He was filthy rich, and coke is what the filthy-rich college boys did when it was time to do drugs. I did those lines to try to fit in with his crowd—the same conundrum I’m weighing right now. To stall, I daintily perch the tray on my knee and listen politely. A notebook sits on the table in front of me. I brought it here to Colorado from New York City. It’s a reporter’s notebook, the kind I sometimes use for my own writing. I think it will be good for taking notes. I think it will show I am serious about wanting this job.
“That is so . . . fucking . . . funny, Walker,” says Larry, as I try to keep my face from flushing. Larry Lucas, it’s worth noting, played the leading man in several of the teen comedies of my adolescence and, suffice to say, played a leading role in more than a few of my teenage NC-17 fantasies. Under other, less overwhelming circumstances, I might be breathless about the fact that I can reach out and touch him.
“Y’all’re’funny, Walker, baby,” says Devaney, threatening to turn an entire sentence into a contraction.
When, after several more seconds of collective howling, my gaze drifts back to Claudia, I notice something: her eyes are open wide, unblinking, pleading. I can be a little dense in moments like these—too caught up in processing my surroundings—but I sense that she might be signaling me to do something. She’s smiling at me wide and crazy, like some kind of insane puppet. Then it occurs to me a second too late.
I’m supposed to be laughing, too.
“Hey, new girl.” My head snaps toward Walker, and I reach for my notebook, still balancing the enormous tray I’ve yet to partake from.
Rene, sensing opportunity, reaches for the coke. “Let me help you out with that, honey,” he says, his face entirely too close to mine. He snorts two quick lines and passes the tray to George, barely looking at him. The room is eerily quiet as I scan the facesonce more. We’re in Walker’s living-room- cum-kitchen, the six of us arranged on his perfectly circular couch like numbers on a leather clockface. A round coffee table is at the center of the couch, and it holds the group’s detritus: George’s scotch glass and bottle of Dewar’s, Rene’s pack of Davidoffs, Claudia’s Dunhill blues, Devaney’s Newports, Larry’s Heineken, an enormous unsmoked joint, the aforementioned mermaid ashtray, a matching dolphin ashtray, my highball of Wild Turkey, Claudia’s glass of red wine, Rene’s Metaxa sidecar, which I helped him mix in an effort at chumminess, and Devaney’s vodka and cranberry. The tray of coke never really settles on the table. It just keeps getting passed around like it’s crowd-surfing at a Hole concert.
The only way to get on and off the couch is by climbing over the back. The only person not on the couch is Walker, who is perched behind us on a barstool tucked into a long counter. There’s little doubt about the message the seating arrangement sends: he’s the captain on this ship of fools.
“Hello? Is she alive?”
“Yes, Walker, sorry,” I say.
“What are you sorry about?”
I look around the room for another cue. Claudia is now focused on rolling a piece of lint between her thumb and forefinger.
“Go easy on her, Walker. She’s just getting the lay of the land,” Larry says.
Walker ignores Larry completely and fixes his aviator sunglasses on me. “Speak, for Christ’s sake!”
My heart begins pounding so hard I can feel it in my ears. The strangers here probably wouldn’t offer me more than mildly detached concern under normal circumstances. But now that everyone is coked up and drunk, I am little more than a buzzkill. I knew this outburst was coming one way or another. I knew from the books, the articles, the interviews. I have done my homework. Walker Reade does not suffer fools, and no one—not presidents, CEOs, law enforcement—gets a pass. I also know from said research that caving is worse. I square my shoulders to him and try to remain calm. “I was just listening, Walker. If I’m going to be your assistant, I need to know the story.”
Walker stares at me now from over his sunglasses. His eyes are a pale steel blue. “That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, too.”
“But I was enjoying it. Very much.” Walker worries his Zippo around in his hand. I can make out the skull and crossbones on the front of it every other turn. He grabs a Dunhill red from the pack in front of him; the room is so quiet that the schk of the lighter visibly startles Rene, who appears to run at two speeds: aggressively engaged or disconcertingly spaced-out.
“Then crack a smile, dumbhead.”
George clears his throat and passes the tray of coke to Claudia, who immediately passes it to Larry. Everyone is quiet, waiting to see what’s going to happen next, including me. “I’m not dumb,” I stammer back, sounding far less convincing than I had hoped.
“Oh, that’s right,” Walker says. “Alessandra here went to an Ivy League school.” Devaney shifts uncomfortably on the couch. I can actually hear her teeth grinding. “It says so right here, on her thin résumé.”
Walker pulls a piece of paper from a folder on the counter in front of him, and I visibly recoil. I’m a year out of college. The last thing I want is a staged reading of my résumé in front of this crowd.
“I thought it was great,” I say.
“Which part?” He blows a cloud of smoke directly in front of him, seemingly unaware that it wafts directly onto Devaney’s head.
In truth I cannot recall a single coherent passage from what has just been read to me, and I briefly wonder what superman at Burch Press is tasked with making this book readable. “All of it, Walker. It’s really funny.”
“All right. What does it remind you of? Which of my works does it remind you of?” He takes off his Tilley hat and sunglasses and downs the rest of his Chivas and water. Without his signature armor—aviators and hat—he’s suddenly transformed from iconic writer/drug-addled playboy to unexpectedly sexy middle-school math teacher. He’s only in his early fifties; I didn’t expect him to be almost completely bald.
I can feel the clock ticking. What does it remind me of? I’ve read all of Walker’s books many times over, except the last two—the penultimate one a collection of political essays regurgitated from various magazines, and the most recent one so poorly reviewed that I couldn’t justify allocating even a fraction of my meager financial resources toward it. The previous five were so fluid and tight that nothing about what he’s just read reminds me of any of them.
I glance back at Claudia. She’s trying—and failing—to subtly mouth something to me. I look to Larry, who simply scrunches up his face and runs his hand through his thick, dark hair, winking, a gesture that I assume is intended to convey that this drill is somehow par for the course. Larry passes the tray of coke to Walker, trying to distract him.
“Here you go, big guy. Let’s have some fun. When does the game start?” The crowd is ostensibly here for an NBA play-off game.
“Half an hour,” Walker says shortly, passing the tray to Devaney while still staring at me. Rene lights up the joint, choking mightily on the first drag.
“Am I in a time warp here? Is time standing still for anyone else? I asked a goddamn question. What does it remind you of?”
“The second half of The Wake?” I say halfheartedly, referring to Walker’s fourth novel.
Walker actually ponders this for a moment—surprised, I think, that I’ve answered him. After a long pause, he says, in overly dramatic fashion, “Why, oh why, can’t I find someone with half a brain in her head to fucking help me? It’s not like I’m trying to find a neurosurgeon with a pretty face. . . . You would think I was looking for someone to take notes in Mandarin . . . or separate water into its hydrogen and oxygen atoms. But I don’t need any of that, do I?” Although this seems a rhetorical question, several people are, in fact, shaking their heads. “I just need someone who knows my books and has working index fingers to press a few buttons on my fax machine. Why on earth is this so hard . . . ?” He trails off before barking, “Try again!”
“I’m sorry, Walker. I don’t know.”
“What in the fuck do you mean you don’t know?”
“It’s very . . . unique.” My mouth goes dry.
Rene cringes when I say the word. He passes the joint George’s way.
“Well, looks like I have another moron on my hands. Where does Hans find these people?”
“Excuse me?” I say.
George pours himself another three fingers of scotch and takes the joint from Rene. It’s jarring to watch George consume drugs like a cracked-out nickel whore. I mean, the man was once the state of Ohio and a heartbeat away from running the free world.
“Have you even read anything I’ve ever written, missy? You and your stupid notebook.”
“Of course I have.” Not only have I read all of Walker’s early work, I have studied it extensively. You don’t come of age in the 1980s as an aspiring writer without at least a passing familiarity with the oeuvre of Walker Reade. There had been a time, not long ago, when Walker Reade was not just a writer—Walker Reade was a Writer Who Mattered. Regardless, I sense that this is perhaps the wrong moment to tell him Liar’s Dice is what made me want to write, or that his radical social commentary altered my worldview. I tuck the notebook behind my back and try to casually hold my drink. Every move I make now feels conspicuous.
“You hate it,” says Walker.
“If you’re going to be out here, you have to tell me the truth. That’s what you’re getting paid to do!”
I briefly consider reminding him that I’m not getting paid anything until he officially hires me. This is my three-day trial period. Even if I survive this, I won’t get paid until he delivers some real pages. That is what I’ve been told the deal is.
“Walker, go easy. It’s her first day,” Claudia says.
“Walker, baby, let’s go do something fun,” says Devaney, popping up from the couch like a character in a musical. She passes the tray of coke to me.
Walker ignores her, goes into the other room, and emerges with his seven books, every one a hardcover. He stacks them on the counter. Biker . . . bam! Liar’s Dice . . . bam! Ship of Fools . . . bam! The Wake . . . bam! Crossroad . . . bam! Rabbit Hole . . . bam! Traffic . . . bam!
“To the cabin,” he demands, pointing my way out the door. “And don’t come back over here till you’ve read these—no, memorized these. . . . And are you going to do that fucking line or what?” I stare down at the tray of coke I’ve been holding entirely too long for this crowd. I’ve been a bartender for three years. I’m a drinks girl, not a drugs girl. I’m horribly ambivalent about the tray in front of me. Too ambivalent, I think, for this place. I pass the tray to Rene and attempt to scuttle over the back of the couch, thinking I’ve just fucked this whole thing up in less than an hour. My shot. I grab the books, feeling hot down my neck, as I hold my head high—as if my literary hero hasn’t just called me an idiot—and retire to my quarters.
Excerpted from GONZO GIRL by Cheryl Della Pietra. Copyright © 2015 by Cheryl Della Pietra. Reprinted with permission from Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.