The Devil is a lot of things to me and my four housemates: he’s our boyfriend, our employer, and our master. For the rest of the world, he’s a fashion photographer known as Scratch – a middle-aged man with deformed eyes and a few unusual physical abnormalities, which may or may not be the product of plastic surgery. His signature appears on the upper right-hand corner of each of his photos, in lurid red. It’s blood, according to Scratch. He develops only thirteen prints of every picture and, supposedly, burns the negatives in an occult ritual involving goats.
We’ve never seen a goat around here, though there was a Doberman chained up in the basement – with Gregory – for three or four days last February. Gregory never complains about anything, but the dog whined and barked incessantly. Scratch gave it away to one of the production assistants.
Most people assume that the Devil thing’s a gimmick. And it works. One of his early photos sold last week in London, at an auction, for half a million bucks. As usual, Scratch will give a chunk of that money to controversial theater troupes and undiscovered artists. His detractors say he needs the tax break.
Those of us who sleep with him know why he gives away his cash.
Money is what attracts us.
We’re his slaves.
Scratch shoots photos for fashion spreads and slick magazine ads. Designer suits. Designer handbags. Designer lingerie. Financial success has ruined his reputation. Last year, before his retrospective at the Whitney, there was an article in the New York Times about him. It quoted an anonymous curator who called Scratch “a third-rate photographer turned con-man”.
In any case, I believe Scratch is who he claims to be. I’ve stroked the two stubby hard lumps on his scalp. Covered by his thinning hair, they’re located half an inch behind his pointed ears. I’ve had my neck scratched by his claws and my foot stepped on by one of his cloven hooves. It sure feels real to me.
The five of us live with Scratch here in Milan, Italy, where his photography studio is based. He owns this four-story building – a squat, ocher-colored structure on the waterfront by the naively, canals. The neighborhood, once working class, is in vogue with fashion insiders. Gregory thinks it’s so hip and romantic. The rest of us are less convinced. I admit I liked the place when I first arrived here last November. The cobblestone streets were covered in a thick fog, then, and I couldn’t see too clearly. Also, I was more or less delirious.
I had an idea that I was going to get rich,
When it comes to money, I am stupid.
Before Scratch took me to Milan, I’d lived in New York City for nine years. There, I’d led the humbling, wretched existence of an aspiring novelist. I’d been marginally employed as a freelance copywriter for a publishing company that specialized in coloring books. My wages were laughable, so low that I took perverse pride in them. I’d cite the figure to well-dressed, overpaid acquaintances. I enjoyed their stunned reaction.
“How do you survive in New York?” they’d gasp, sounding horrified.
“I guess I have a masochistic streak”, I’d say, joking. (It seemed funny, then.) By the time I turned thirty, I’d developed the self-deprecating and slightly paranoid personality of an outsider. My career had showed some early promise, as the saying goes, but was failing to materialize. Mysteriously, one by one, my friends had been absorbed by the middle class. They joined up with that amorphous group, Professionals. I could no longer follow their conversation; it was filled with jargon. As far as I was concerned, they did vague things, in conference rooms, that concerned computers, the law, and television. They owned houses and apartments, furniture, and matching plates. They acquired husbands, wives and children. I saw how they eyed my second-hand clothes, and watched me count out dimes from my change purse to pay for drinks. They’d invite me over to their four-bedroom colonial houses in the suburbs to feed me what I thought of as a “pity dinner”. In my apartment, I dined on toast and instant soup.
By the time I met Scratch, I’d written two “literary” novels: Miracle at the 23rd Street Laundromat and Odor of the Swamp.
Needless to say, I couldn’t sell them for my life.
Four days after I hooked up with him, Scratch handed my landlady a cheque from a Swiss bank and removed me from my roach-infested, one-room apartment on West 121st Street, where drug dealers convened on one street corner and drunken vagrants on another. He hired three handsome moving men to pack up my belongings and ship them to Milan. They called me “Ms. Bellamy”, and they handled my chipped coffee mugs and paperbacks as if they were priceless, wrapping every object, including my sneakers, in a sheet of newspaper, cushioned by shreds of white Styrofoam which they referred to as “the snow”.
The day before we left New York, Scratch took me shopping at Barney’s, the trendoid department store. It was cold out, so he bought me a red vinyl baseball cap with fleece-lined ear-flaps. Now I keep it on the window ledge in the studio, in my office alcove, next to the futon mattress which I unfold at night to sleep on. I don’t wear it much, and I never wanted it in the first place.
It cost Scratch $248.00.
It’s a number I remember, because it was my weekly salary at Dunn and Bradworth Publishing Co.
Fucking price tag. It impressed me.
I work for Scratch eight hours a day, seven days a week. My desk is a card table equipped with a portable computer in an alcove. I’m separated from the photography studio by a wall of rectangular glass bricks. Back in New York, Scratch and I made a deal to produce a book which would wind up on the bestseller list, or even lead to a lucrative Hollywood movie option. In exchange for room, board, a one-way plane ticket and that useless shopping trip to Barney’s, Scratch commissioned me to write a book based on his character. I’m supposed to be his first official, authorized biographer, with exclusive access to his correspondence and private papers.
Unfortunately, the book I’m writing sucks.
It’s a fictionalized biography, or what Scratch calls “bio-fic”. The working title is I, Satan. But Scratch refuses to tell me anything about himself. So I have to take wild guesses and tell lies.
When I objected to doing that, Scratch lost his temper. “Don’t be an idiot!” he yelled, stamping the floor with the heel of his motorcycle boot. “Make it up. That’s what you’re here for, stupid girl.” It was one of the few times I’ve seen him lose control. Usually, he keeps his voice low. Scratch often smiles when he’s angry.
My relationship with him is fairly twisted.
I expected that, I guess.
“Candles are in”, Scratch told the four of us this morning. He looked up from the latest edition of Italian Vogue. We were all sitting at the long dining table, eating our usual breakfast of bread and water. Some of us – including me – were allowed to have a cup of instant coffee. Katrina, the Austrian dancer, was feasting on scrambled eggs and a slice of toast with butter. The rest of us, half-starving, were trying not to watch her eat. My mouth was watering, and I knew that, when she performed for Scratch last night, he’d liked her choreography, for a change. Probably, she’d gotten laid in some way which was pleasurable instead of humiliating or painful. That’s part of the reward when he approves.