Published in Overland Issue 246 Autumn 2022 Fiction New face in the fight against poverty Andy McQuestin Several things happen. I wake up. I hear the appeal of the advertising cruisers creeping past my building. My skin flames where it rubbed against the grainy sheets. Still two more days before I can do a load of washing. My Palm lights up with messages from work, Mum and (surprise, surprise) no men. And my mind remembers too late my affirmation principles: today is a good day. I am good. I am today. And all that. But I feel like death, or worse, like life gone on too long. Mornings like this, with the abrupt awakenings and the too-late affirmations, I fall into a mood made up of a single thought: is this all the apartment my hard work can afford? Later I will admit it’s nice enough. I’ll think of Mum’s conditions and know I’m lucky. But at the same time, I know Jackie and Jacques enjoy ensuites while I pad down the corridor to the community showers with the promise of thirty seconds hot water followed by a cool, two-minute rinse. It’s for the planet, for all of us. I don’t mind, really. I keep my hair short. All Palms are waterproof now, so there is really no excuse to be unreachable when you shower. Mine is feeding me the weather and messages from Kan. Too many this early. Something must be up. But I’m not ready for all that yet. Instead, I try to masturbate but the shower just doesn’t last long enough, plus the water’s too cold to feel hot, plus the woman on the other side of the divide is hocking up phlegm that sounds green and amorphous. * Back in my room I dress quickly, do star jumps to get the chill off my skin. I read the messages from Mum, checking on me, buzzing around me. She’s like a mosquito, a mosquito who cares. I call her. People her age, they always seem to fuck with their Palm settings so its super zoomed in. I can see the hairs on her nose, the puffy iodine-coloured clouds beneath her eyes. In the background, a carer fusses with her bedsheets. And yet, we talk about me. My worries, my desire for more space, for more time. My work. ‘Ugh, that job,’ says Mum, as though my work were a son-in-law. ‘Money, Mum.’ ‘Money, money, money. Your generation—’ ‘They say the first person to live to one hundred and fifty is already born. Imagine the savings you need for that. It could be me. God help me.’ ‘Don’t blaspheme, Ruby.’ Oh yeah, that. God. In this day and age. ‘Mum, don’t.’ Now a new face appears in the background. ‘Belinda, the showers for your wing shut in ten minutes.’ ‘Gotta go, love.’ ‘Me too. Have a nice day.’ ‘Yes, you too. Speak soon. Go with God, honey—I mean, be good to yourself.’ * The tone is in my ear before I even step out into the grey dawn. ‘Ruby, Ruby?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘It’s not good, Ruby, not good! Emergency meeting, oh seven hundred.’ ‘Okay. Pre-brief?’ ‘Ready? We’ve lost him.’ ‘Who?’ ‘Who? Who the fuck do you think? Welles Truman. The fucking beautiful Face of the Fight Against Poverty. He’s … just get here, yeah?’ My ride share is crowded, new faces, big round bodies. ‘I paid premium,’ I say, indicating the other passengers, but the driver just shrugs. I squeeze in next to a large man who does his best not to lean on me. I try not to think about the smell of the bodies but then I think about the emergency. Truman, the snake. I remember what it took for me to sign him. And now he’s gone. Kan said lost, not left, so we’ve been forced to let him go. Maybe the rumours were true. Who am I kidding, they weren’t rumours, just concealed facts. I’m the one who concealed them. * I ride the elevator up with Chet who works for HeartWaters, the anti-river-pollution firm on level forty-seven. ‘How’s it going?’ he asks, with a little smirk. ‘So you know?’ I say. He nods, still smiling, but I see a glimmer of sympathy. He’s been in my shoes before when their Face, Beatrice Gee, was filmed clinking glasses with an oil tycoon in Qatar. She’s the Face for Don’t be Rude to Crude Oil now. Kan is shifting his weight like he needs to pee. ‘Let’s go-let’s go-let’s go. They’re waiting.’ He refers to our Presidents, Jackie and Jacques. Jacques is on hologram link from our hub in Marseille. Jackie is here and she is visibly pissed off. ‘You’ve all had the sitrep,’ says Jackie, ‘This is an Official Crisis. We must have a resolution by this time tomorrow.’ ‘Are we making an announcement re Truman?’ I ask, instantly regretting the question. Jackie looks into my soul: ‘I’m not announcing anything re that useless cunt until I have a happy ending.’ ‘Of course, yes.’ ‘Kan has a shortlist of North-Am options. As you know, we’d like to stay close to Hollywood on this one. Jacques, anything in the European market we should be looking at?’ ‘All cyclists and filmmakers, I’m afraid.’ ‘Cyclists are very thin,’ says Kan, pausing when he shouldn’t, mid-thought, raising Jackie’s ire. Thankfully, he continues, ‘Thin is what we need. Nobody wants a fat Face of the Fight Against Poverty.’ ‘Everyone’s thin,’ says Jackie, dismissively. ‘Name one fat person worth knowing.’ ‘But they’re really thin,’ Kan persists. ‘You can drop them into a mob of hungry kids and they don’t look bovine.’ Jackie thinks on this. ‘Jacques, what do you think? Any good ones?’ ‘They’re just not worth the risk, Jackie. They’re blood dopers, controversy is always waiting around the next bend.’ ‘Right, fine. Let’s stay in North-Am. US preferably.’ Jackie assumes her power stance and addresses us all. ‘Talent attraction and acquisition, people. Twenty-four hours. What are the qualities we’re hunting?’ Kan: ‘Upward trajectory.’ ‘Yes! No has-beens. If there is even a sniff their last day in the sun was their brightest I don’t want them supporting zero hunger or sustainable rural communities.’ Jacques: ‘Thin, we’ve covered. Also single, or at least with someone who isn’t linked to McDonalds, et cetera. Also, a little colour, I think.’ Jackie: ‘Absolutely. Brown. Or very tanned at a minimum.’ Me: ‘Don’t forget malleable.’ ‘Good one, Ruby. No crusaders or independent thinkers for fuck’s sake. Kan, the candidate list please.’ Kan walks over to the far wall as it syncs up his notes. We see an image of a recognisable face, cheekbones like twin skulls, a deep yet mysterious sadness in her eyes, as though recalling the suffering of a past life. ‘Marta Van Horn. Drew big bucks in the eyeliner industry. Bailed out of a cosmetics contract because of animal testing concerns—’ ‘No, no, no, Kan, no risk taking on fucking moralists, not at this crucial stage.’ Kan laughs. ‘Never fear, she only did it to protect the film she was promoting, one of those cutesy anthropomorphist animations, Mabel My Love.’ ‘She was in that?’ ‘She voiced the mouse,’ I say. ‘The one that loved the monkey.’ Kan resumes his notes. ‘Household name, on the rise, available if we act quick.’ ‘And thin,’ I say, unsure if I think I’m being helpful. ‘Very thin,’ Kan agrees, ‘A very disciplined dieter.’ (Bulimic, he means.) ‘That waistline is here to stay.’ Jackie says, ‘Good. Next.’ ‘Rory O’Reardon,’ Kan says, and we see the Irish heart-throb’s deep-set eyes and crazy-fucker smile materialise before us. ‘High credibility—active as the Face of, um, Homes4All so he has credibility but isn’t a cause-slut. He’s free now. Recently announced his intent to take on more serious film roles.’ Jacques grunts. ‘Serious is good. Looks lean enough. In the flesh?’ ‘Never met him. I’ll ask our sources.’ ‘Do. Because sometimes the sexy-eyed ones can be a bit lax with the weight watching. Think they don’t need it.’ We all nod, thinking of a stream of examples, all the way back to Brando. Such a waste. ‘Definite candidate,’ says Jackie, ‘Show us the last one.’ His face and bare chest appear and I gasp. I’m a fan from waaay back. Months. ‘De-Maah Duke,’ Kan says, pausing to let us appreciate the kaleidoscopic impact of his name intoned over the vision of his abdominal muscles. ‘A consistent star, he’s sold more sneakers than any other ‘baller for three years straight, but is still young, still rising. His hair styles become overnight trends—the Maah-hawk, Duke Braids. He has dozens of nicknames that catch on but aren’t too sticky—a perfect canvas for our branding. Brash, a clever mouth, empathetic, outspoken on several causes, that body, perfect calves and the best pull-up jump shot the game has seen.’ ‘Music to my ears,’ says Jacques. ‘There’s more,’ says Kan, ‘He is controversial in the good ways. You may have heard, there’s two sex films. He expressed regret, of course, but they’re still out there. No legal action. You can see his penis in one of them. You won’t forget it.’ Jackie makes a humming sound, as if she is being shown a graph of improving quarterly returns. Kan looks at each of us, in turn. ‘The value of the sex films is hard to overstate. We can sell Duke’s freshness and his worldview but people will automatically make the connection to his naked body. That’s money, without compromising our Values.’ ‘They’ll equate starvation with his penis?’ I ask. ‘No, they’ll equate his penis with themselves, filed away in their mind under things I like. The starvation is … I guess you’d say, separate. They’ll care about that because he cares about it.’ ‘I like it,’ says Jackie. ‘We could make any of them work. Jacques?’ ‘Agreed.’ ‘Right. Ruby, sound them out. Charm. The works. You will have a recommendation by this evening, so we can prep for an announceable this time tomorrow. Kan, warm up the socials.’ Kan and I nod and walk out together. Out of sight from the Presidents, we face each other. ‘Need anything?’ Kan asks. ‘No—well … Do any of these people care about poverty?’ ‘Of course.’ ‘I’ll ask them, I guess.’ ‘Don’t ask them.’ * I need a place away from the office to talk to the three candidates. I work better unsupervised. It needs to be quiet. I wrack my brain trying to think of one. There’s the introvert lounge on level twenty-four but I never got around to registering as one. I settle on the one place you can expect few patrons and appalled silence. I go to a modern art gallery. The gallery’s little more than a few nooks hooked together. It leads me to think of Mum again. If there were enough hours in a week, a month, I could be in that room with her more often, absorbing some of the dead hours, sponging up the solitude. If only loneliness were a cause. I used to care about plenty of things. Polar ice caps. Child abuse. Domestic violence. Not anymore. Not officially, not on my profiles. Conflict of interest. Jackie and Jacques won’t stand for it. The work of two artists is on display. One is a photographer who has taken ultra-close-up shots of native animals, printed postcard-size, so it is up to the viewer to identify the parts or guess which animal it is. The second artist has hung power tools on pieces of string. They sway in the draft. I like the fear I experience ducking away from the large-toothed bandsaw. A couple gapes. They speak in the super-hush of polite criticism. They hate the exhibit but are too sophisticated to say so; what happens if they’re wrong? Once they hurry out, I am the only patron left. I’ve messaged ahead to each candidate’s PA and have back-to-back chats lined up with Van Horn and O’Reardon. I bring up my Palm and log in suitably early, waiting for Van Horn. The gallery attendant coughs, their way of saying, I hope you don’t plan to chat in here. But they won’t do anything, so glad are they for the company. It doesn’t go well. They are both lovely, just lovely, as we say in the business, but I can’t talk them around. Marta has been attracted already, from my own building, the crowd way down on level seventeen, Eradicataract, who aim, if it isn’t obvious from the name, to eradicate cataract vision impairment throughout the world. A good little cause. And with her beautiful, cloudless gaze, a smart investment by the team. But bad news for me. Then Rory, who, after small talk, refuses on ethical grounds. He says, ‘I don’t really care about that.’ ‘About poverty?’ ‘Right. I mean, please don’t publicise the fact. It’s just. Yeah. Don’t give a toss.’ It’s refreshing really, in my trade, to hear such honesty. I’m so impressed I don’t bother explaining that nobody truly does. Except the impoverished, I suppose. So that leaves one. I can only hope he is as advertised—and available—or the Presidents will be pissed. I try his PA again. She tells me the Dream-Maah (his latest nickname) is in town and can meet me old-fashioned after his game tonight. It’s a condition that I watch him play first; they’ll leave my name and a ticket at gate two. Yes, he is open to offers. * It’s a full house. Listening to the conversations of those seated around me I realise I am among friends and family of the players. I feel very white, unathletic, a little overdressed. The only thing I can be certain we share is a great view of the game and an interest in De-Maah Duke. Many of the others leap from their seats when he cuts to the hoop. They direct complimentary remarks about Duke to a stunning-looking young woman with a long bare neck, sitting up impossibly tall beneath an empire of curled hair. This is the Duchess, I assume. Duke is glorious. He dominates, which is good for the people near me, good for his team and good for me. I’ll have him upbeat, optimistic, open. Men are like that after sports victories, after sex. When the game ends the people around me embrace. The Dream-Maah’s PA messages me: cum courtside, Ill take u 2 Him. I meet the PA and she leads me under the stands and into the locker rooms. ‘Over there,’ she says, signalling across the room with one arm and a forced smile. I cross the floor slowly. The players and their minders linger back near the lockers, looking at me, a woman, in this place. Laughter breaks out in one corner. A high five. Towels drop from some of them. They all know who I am there to see, so as their eyes shift from me to the end of the locker room, I follow the trail until I find De-Maah Duke, dressed, thankfully, designer earphones in, back turned. I stand and wait. When he turns his eyes widen in what appears to be genuine surprise. He says, ‘Sorry,’ far too loud and then rips at his earphones and repeats himself quietly. ‘Sorry, you got here quicker than I thought. Please, follow me, we can talk over here.’ His voice is soft; he looks at me with a shyness I could never have expected. I’m caught off guard, which is rare. It feels warm. We walk out of the locker area to a small room with two massage beds. In the corner stands a small coffee table and two plastic chairs. De-Maah strides ahead and arranges the chairs either side of the table. He gestures me to sit. Says, ‘Please—sorry, they told me your name but I, I’m hopeless really—’ ‘Ruby.’ ‘Alright, Ruby. Nice to meet you. I’m De-Maah.’ We talk and it’s comfortable. He asks me what I thought about the game. I compliment him as best I can. I repeat the few things I understood from the people sitting near me in the stands. He smiles easily, immune to my words, conditioned from years of idle flattery. I drop the pretence. I talk about our firm. I run through some of our routine corporate lines and throw in a few easy statistics about poverty in North Am, other places, the world. His eyes stay steady on me. No longer shy. No change in his face as I outline the poverty problem. Not everyone cares for data, I guess. I try a personal appeal instead. Impassioned accounts. Stories. De-Maah is smiling. I’m unnerved. I try a new tack. ‘Is it an issue that concerns you?’ ‘Huh?’ ‘Poverty.’ ‘Oh sure, sure. Of course. You know I came from very little myself. I’ve been hungry, baby.’ Baby … ‘Um, right. So you know what I mean th—’ ‘What I want to know is, why do you want me?’ ‘Well, our firm really admires you on many levels. You have charisma. Talent. You speak your mind. People relate to your—’ ‘And you, Ruby? Why do you want me?’ And just like that he’s in front of me, on one knee, but towering above me still. He leans in, only just in focus, and shows me his teeth. His eyes fill mine. My hand is trapped in his. After a moment, he seems to register that I don’t want him this close. The smile stays but it’s not a window into anything; it’s a façade. A serpentine warning. ‘It’s okay, Baby,’ he says, stepping back to sit on the nearest massage table, his feet still touching the floor, ‘I’m interested. You can tell your crew. We need to talk money, of course. Terms. Arrange some time with Mia, my PA.’ ‘Okay,’ I say weakly. I hate that I’m rattled. ‘But Ruby,’ he says, some joy returning to his smile, ‘I want to see you again. That’s a condition, Baby.’ * Outside, it’s a dark night. The stadium blinks out but the lights of the universe are held at bay by invisible clouds or the smog from all the manufacturing this side of the river. It’s here because people still want things. Everything. But why do we need carpets, hub caps, jet skis? I don’t take a ride share home. I can’t stomach the thought of close bodies. I walk for as long as I can in these shoes, then go into a bar to rest. I get a vodka and tell some guy about the walk over. ‘You walked here from there?’ he says, making a big deal of it with his arms and eyebrows. ‘Give your feet a rest. Let me drive you home.’ For fuck’s sake. Is it just tonight or is it all of them? Out in the street I call Kan. No answer. This is a nice neighbourhood—share housing, but most of it owned or leased. The homeless here nod at you. Hold their hands out but don’t say anything. They know you can’t afford to give them anything. They have teeth; they were like me not so long ago. But it’s a one-way street. There’s no safety net if you fall, only nets to keep the outside out. I can become them but they will never be like me again. * My Palm lights up. ‘How did it go?’ Kan sounds excited, apprehensive. ‘It was, um …’ I really want to tell someone. My mother would overreact. There’s only Kan. I so want to trust him. ‘It was okay.’ ‘Okay good?’ ‘Okay not bad.’ Under the streetlamps, I can see the water damage on the community buildings, green like slime, toxic like us; the eighty percent of us who aren’t them. We who need them to tell us what is wrong with the world, what we should do about it. I sigh. ‘He’s everything you said, Kan. He’s willing to talk terms.’ ‘I’m hearing good, Ruby. Why the sad act?’ ‘It’s just, once you, y’know, see behind the veneer …’ ‘Behind the veneer? Ruby, what the fuck is up with you? We are the veneer. Our job security depends on it. Am I hearing “good”? Can I brief “good”? I have to update Jackie right now.’ The water damage reaches the ground. If you were really thirsty, you could kick at the cracking in the render and see if some water springs out. Maybe you could fill your cup. A teenage girl limps past with her belongings in a plastic bag; she’s tall and thin, like the Duchess, but crooked. ‘Yeah, Kan. He’s good.’ * His eyes are hot lights, searching, searching. He’s so sexy. It’s antiquated talk but there’s no other way to put it. He wasn’t this sexy before … And just like that he’s naked and leaning into me. As he inclines, I recline, like we are falling together, slowly. But Mum is in the corner of the room. She seems calm but her whole body disapproves. She turns away and kneels as if to pray, then she does pray and of course she should because Father Bernard is there muttering over the rosary and De-Maah must have released me because he is beside Mum now, hands joined in prayer, and as I sink into the floor I know something isn’t right, because they have accepted De-Maah and turned their backs on me, even though he is naked, shameless, kneeling low to the floor, his glorious waxed scrotum prominent between his legs, like a third perfect calf, like a purse holding untellable riches … I wake with a jolt. My stomach cramps. I roll off my mattress onto the cold floor to wait out the pain. It means nothing, the dream. We know that now. For so long people studied dreams like there was something to learn from them. Old-time folly. We don’t even know what things mean when we’re conscious. Thoughts gathered can be boxed and burnt, forgotten. I collate the shards of the last few days, all the weird, unhelpful thoughts, until they are smoke, air, nothing. I think about what I value: I value having my own bathroom one day. Maybe a rug for my floor. Money. It’s time to call the Presidents. Tell them what we all want to hear. Read the rest of Overland 246 If you enjoyed this piece, buy the issue Or subscribe and receive four brilliant issues for a year Andy McQuestin Andy lives in Melbourne with his family, writing when he gets the chance. He would love to do it more often. More by Andy McQuestin Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. 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