‘They Built the New Jerusalem on the Ruins of the Old’, William Squirrell

Illustrations © 2018 Rachel Linn

 [ Haile Selassie Coffee © 2018 Rachel Linn ] Mo was late for her shift at the Haile Selassie Coffee Bar on 7th but nobody cared. It was just Emily and the regulars. And one new customer in a booth, flipping through the menu: attractive, young, decent shirt and shoes.

“Don’t you be looking him over like that,” said Emily.

“Like what?” laughed Mo.

“He’s a bluebottle,” Emily yawned.

“A bluebottle?”

“Like the fly: a bluebottle. A drone pilot, sits in the cop shop basement with a VR helmet on his head peering through the steamy windows while you shower, looks down your top when you’re waiting for the bus.”

“How do you know what he is?”

“Never mind how I know. Just keep your distance. Bluebottles: dirty perverts; stalkers; rapists.”

“Have you taken his order yet?”


“How’s your Mom?”

“They upped her dose. Costs a little more but she slept through the night.”

“Well that’s good, right?” said Mo.

“Sure,” said Emily. “See you tomorrow.”

Mo grabbed a pen and a notepad. By the time she was at the bluebottle’s booth Emily was looking back at her from the open door.

“Dirty, dirty bluebottle” she mouthed and was gone.

The door swung shut.

“How are you doing today?” Mo asked and he smiled.

“Good,” he said, “yourself?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” said Mo. “You ready to order?”

“What’s your accent?”

“Generic refugee,” said Mo. “Bit French, bit London, bit Arabic, mostly just the Camps.”

“Really?” the smile again. “You’re a DP? It sounds so sophisticated.”

“Was a Displaced Person,” said Mo. “This is home now.”

“Well,” said the man. “We’re lucky to have you.”

“Are you ready to order?” asked Mo.

She woke up late, had a quick shower –the water was brown and sulfurous again, washed the dishes in the sink, and grabbed an apple for the road. Her mom had left the TV on. A man was standing in front of a chart showing a precipitous increase. He was talking about the Dow.

“TV off!” she shouted. Nothing happened.

“TV off!”

“Fuck it,” she said and was out the door.

Charlie and Sam were on the steps smoking weed.

“Hey, Mo, what’s up?”

“Late for class,” she said.

A long, multi-jointed city bus snaked its way down the street.

“Don’t go, Mo, you work too hard. Stay home and get high,” Sam held out the doobie.

“Work is hope, guys, hope is work,” she said but took a quick hit.

The bus was almost at her stop.

“Stay home,” said Sam. “We miss you. We can watch some movies. Charlie can cook us up something good to eat. Be like old times.”

She held in the smoke, shook her head, handed Charlie the joint: “Gotta go!”

She exhaled and leaped down the steps. The bus slithered to a halt. It had recognized her and was waiting but she ran anyways, bursting through the doors as they opened. It was a quarter full, people scattered down its length, leaning against windows, staring at phones, listening to music, half asleep. The bus hissed forward and she swung onto a seat. Outside the tenements and the apartments slipped past, the parked cars and the pedestrians. The drones circulated against the backdrop of the sky. A block later the bus climbed the onramp to the raised highway. It picked up speed. Soon they were high above the sprawl and heading towards the hills. It was a sunny day, not a cloud in sight. There was a stretch of forest between the township and the research and business zone, a wide alley had been cut through the trees for the power lines, and there were a few maintenance roads, but to Mo it was a wilderness. She knew there were deserted coal mines down there, and gravel pits, and old fracking wellheads, but she imagined it as an arcadia of wildflowers and sun dappled glades, populated only by deer and raccoons and squirrels. Emily’s uncles and cousins still hunted in there, as people from these parts had been doing for generations. She’d brought some venison sausage to work once and laughed at Mo’s wide-eyed delight. The sunlight shone through everything, it was liquid, dripping down the bus windows, splashing on to the cars and trucks speeding along beside, the concrete abutments and corrugated steel barriers were aglow, the trees below a seething chaos of green.

The last class of the day was Compulsory Humanities. Dr. Price was trying to get them to talk about a short story. No one disliked her, she was sweet and generous, even a favorite, but this was a technical college and no one cared about anything except getting a job. Dr. Price had tried to flatter their practical minds with science fiction but there was no science in the story she had chosen.

“What does it mean to be equal?” Dr. Price asked. Students stared out windows, at their hands, at the floor, at the “Work is Hope/Hope is Work” banner over the white board. Mo finally stuck her arm up.

“Mo?” Dr. Price smiled.

“According to this story,” Mo said. “Equality means everybody has the same skills, the same abilities, and the government tries to ensure equality with technology, but that isn’t how things work in real life.”

“Go on,” Dr. Price smiled again. “How is it in real life?”

“In real life,” said Mo, “inequality has nothing to do with skills or abilities…”

The bell rang and the students immediately began gathering their books and pushing chairs back.

“Mo,” Dr. Price said over the din. “Could I have a minute?”

“I have a bus to catch, Dr. Price, I have to get to work.”

“This is important, and it won’t take long.”


“I don’t know what I’d do without you in this class,” Dr. Price said when they were alone. “The other students are great kids, some are really very sharp, but they just aren’t interested in critical thinking.”

Mo waited.

“You are an excellent student, Mo,” said Dr. Price.

“Thank you,” said Mo. If she missed the first bus she would be twenty minutes late, if she missed the second, an hour.

“But the comptroller’s office informed me your account is in arrears and I have to cancel your enrollment in this class.”

Mo said nothing.

“You need this class to graduate,” said Dr. Price.

“Yes, Dr. Price,” said Mo.

“I have a proposal,” said Dr. Price. “It would be a pity to lose such a promising student and I have a small teaching grant, not much, but if you were to help me with my grading and evaluation in other classes we could use it top up your account with the college. It would just be an hour or two of your time once a week. Would you be interested in that?”

“Yes, Dr. Price.”

“Good. I’ll have the monies transferred to your account.”

“Thank you, Dr. Price.”

“And we begin next week?”

“Yes, Dr. Price.”

“And Mo,”—the smile again—”What were you going to say? Before the bell interrupted you? About inequality?”

“I forget, Dr. Price.”

“I don’t believe you,” she laughed. “We’re colleagues now, we can talk to each other honestly, and I’m curious what you think.”

“I really can’t remember, Dr. Price,” Mo said. “And my bus, I’ll be late for my job.”

“Oh! Your job! I’m so sorry, of course, run along.”

Mo’s mother was irritated. They were at the old folks’ home stripping sheets from a bed. The room’s occupant, Mrs. Hatcher, was perched on her chair, staring out the window at the sweep of the lawn.

“You should be concentrating on your studies, not picking up more jobs. We don’t need a bump up. Between this and the coffee shop and the government payments we’re fine.”

“We’re not fine, Mom, I need that course.”

“Compulsory Humanities,” her mom was disgusted.

Mo shrugged and threw the fitted sheet onto the mattress.

“I guess I’ll pick up your shifts,” said her mom.

“I’ll keep working them. You’re already worn out. It’s just a couple of extra hours a week and it looks good on a resume. And they’re paying me for it.”

The clean sheets cracked as her mother shook them out.

“They aren’t. You’ll never see any of that money. They’ll move it from one of their accounts to another and you’ll never get a sniff of it. Mrs. Hatcher likes the blue quilt on top. There, by the side table.”

“It’s not like that. Dr. Price is doing me a favor.”

The shift boss stuck his head in the door as they straightened out the quilt.

“She’s getting you to do her work for her,” said her mom.

“Less chatter, more work,” said Mr. Farley and glanced at Mrs. Hatcher. “What’s she doing in here? Residents are supposed to be in the rec room. It’s bingo night.”

“Mrs. Hatcher doesn’t like crowds,” said Mo’s mom.

“How would you know? Did she tell you?”

“She likes to stay in here and watch the sunset, Mr. Farley.”

“I don’t care what you think she likes or doesn’t like. No residents during clean up.”

“I’ll take her,” Mo’s mother said to her. “You start the next room.”

Mo brushed past Farley.

“Come on, Mrs. Hatcher,” her mom said, “time to visit with your friends.”

The bluebottle’s name was Connor and he liked the whole shebang. Mo would light the burner at the table, roast the beans, grind them in the mortar and pestle, sit with him while the water boiled, test the brew until it was ready to pour.

“How come it’s always jazz?” he asked. “How come never Bob Marley?”

“It’s not that kind of Haile Selassie.”

“There’s more than one kind?”

“This is an upscale establishment. We value respectability.”

“You value fat wallets.”

“Haile Selassie Coffee Bar and Associated Services doesn’t care about fat wallets. Haile Selassie Coffee Bar takes great pride in offering its clientele an authentic precolonial Abyssinian experience.”

“You’re very clever, Mo, so very clever. What’s such a clever girl as you doing working in a place like this?”

“Paying the bills.”

“What bills? I watch the news. You DPs get your Universal Basic Income just like everyone else.”

“Not just like everyone else. Homeland Security need their cut, and the immigration lawyers, plus resident aliens pay an extra fee to the borough for the pleasure of living in a building with bad water and intermittent electricity, our insurance fees are not subsidized, nor my college tuition. The banks charge extra processing fees to clients who are not citizens and lend only at exorbitant rates. And every month we transfer funds to my brother in Tangiers, cousins in the Italian Camps, an aunt in Miami. Without that money they might not eat.”

“Ok,” laughed Connor. “I get it, I get it.”

“So few of you people do.”

“So few of which people?” asked Connor sharply.

“Citizens,” said Mo. “Usually they just tell me to be grateful for my UBI or go back to where ever it is I’m from. Go back to the Camps.”

“Well you can’t blame them, can you? It’s their tax money.”

“I wasn’t blaming, I was describing.”

When Mo got back to the counter Emily asked what she had said to the bluebottle.

“Nothing,” she said.

“He looks like you filled his cup with cat piss.”

“No piss: just coffee.”

“Be careful with that guy,” Emily said. “I mean it. You can’t trust a cop.”

“Even one that’s crushing on you?”

“Especially those,” said Emily.

Sometimes Mo played checkers in the park with the old men. Her favorite was João, who let her win occasionally, and told her stories about faraway places, about a golden past, about the early days after a revolution, when he was a child. All he remembered was dancing and singing, people working in the fields, the flash of hoes and machetes, Cubans in their olive uniforms, brutalist architecture in shining cities, the smell of diesel and cow shit and frying dough.

She rolled him cigarettes between games.

“There were terrible things before that time,” he laughed, “and after. During too, maybe, but I can’t recall, it was a long time ago and all I recall is never being too hungry, never too sick. Like you now, maybe, like these people here.”

There was always music in the park, someone playing a trumpet or a guitar, kids dancing to the hits, working out their moves. And on the basketball court was an eternal game, players came and went but the drumming of the feet never stopped, the slapping of the ball against the concrete, the hiccup of the backboard, back and forth, back and forth, the trash talk and the jeers and the cheers, players came and went, the game never stopped.

Emily’s brother Rick came by to pick her up. Their mom was in the hospital. He was scrawny with bad teeth, the twisted ropes of his arms were covered with fading tattoos, and his eyes glittered.

“You the one that’s in love with the pig?” he asked Mo.

“That’s no way to talk,” said Mo.

“It’s the pig that’s in love with her,” said Emily.

Mo tut-tutted and they laughed at her.

“He grew up down the way from us, you know,” said Rick. “Was always standoffish, always acted like he was better than where he was from.”

“Nothing wrong with a little ambition,” Mo said. “Don’t you have any ambition?”

Rick looked her up and down.

“Not so much as him,” he said.

 [ bus sleep work © 2018 Rachel Linn ] Dr. Price invited Mo to a working supper at her home. They sat at the table grading essays and comparing notes while her husband Gerald cooked what he called a Bolognese. Mo missed a shift at the nursing home for the occasion but she told herself that technically she was getting paid. It was an hour past the college on the bus, up in the hills, not quite to the big houses at their crowns, but close enough she felt nervous. She couldn’t see them but knew they were there: just beyond her sight, massive, influential, like distant planets, like Jupiter and Saturn. She was followed by a drone on the short walk from the bus stop to the Dr. Price’s apartment, the thin hum of rotors trailing after her, but she couldn’t see it the dark sky.

“How lovely you could make it!” Dr. Price said when she opened the door. As she was showed around the modestly furnished rooms Mo’s nerves settled. There were a few art pieces on the wall, some travel tokens, and a cat asleep on the couch. Everything was in its place. Gerald too, understood his role perfectly, and talked to them briefly from the kitchen before letting them get to work. He looked like his wife: indeterminately young, understated clothes neatly pressed, good shoes, moderately expensive glasses, well moisturized skin.

At dinner he kept their wine glasses filled and explained to Mo that Dr. Price was only working until he finished his novel and then, if that didn’t generate a big enough bump to their UBI, he’d return to the classroom and she would take her shot at the fiction market. He told stories about the radicalism of his youth, poetry slams, his first graduate school flirtations with Dr. Price. He told her the name of the firm that managed their UBI for them, and their other earnings.

“You can’t trust the government contractors that distribute the payments,” he said. “They are as crooked as hell. Give our people a call. Ask for Lyle. For a small fee he takes care of everything. You don’t have to count your pennies like some sad irredeemable. We hardly have to think about money at all anymore.”

Mo fell asleep on the way home, having refused the ride Gerald offered, and woke to find the bus parked at her stop, empty, a long tube of white light and stain proof fabric. She stumbled out the door into the muggy night and it slid away. When it was gone the frogs started up, and she could hear the mosquito hum of the drones on their endless circumambulations. An almost subliminal humping bass line suggested a quiet party nearby. There were still plenty of lights on, including at Sam and Charlie’s. She paused on the apartment steps and peered in their window, thinking about joining them for a toke or two before bed. Charlie was on the couch smoking a fat joint, he turned his head as Sam walked into the room wearing nothing but briefs. She could see him through the cotton, thick and semi-turgid. Charlie must have said something, because as he reached for the joint Sam laughed.

Mo’s mom was making a chicken stew and watching her preachers.

“Smells fantastic,” Mo grabbed a spoon.

“Get out of there!” her mom said. “Greedy child!”

“… they think more of gold and silver than their God…” said the man on the TV.

“Get yourself a bowl,” her mom gave her a smack.

“No time, Ma,” it scalded the roof of Mo’s mouth but she took another spoonful. “Got to go to work, got to go to work.”

“There is time for one bowl.”

“… the trumpet of the Christian jubilee…” said the man.

“No time, no time.”

“Just one bowl!”

“… a blast so loud and dread…”

Mo was out the door and down the steps. Some kids across the street were in their Sunday best. An old man in a blinding white shirt was waiting at the bus stop, brown leather bible in his hand. In the blue sky the drones glittered like shards of glass.

Mo woke up with a start.

Connor was leaning over her.

“Hey, you ok?”

“What?” she was at the counter. No one else was there.

“You were asleep,” said Connor.

Mo wiped some drool away from her mouth.

“Oh my goodness,” she said.

“Why don’t you lock up and go home? It’s not safe, falling asleep like that with the door open.”

“I can’t,” said Mo. “I can’t lose the shift.”

“Come on,” said Connor. “Lock up and I’ll walk you home.”

“I promised Emily I’d cover for her,” said Mo.

“There’s no customers.”

Mo glanced at the clock.

“The night shift at the organ farm is nearly over. There’s a couple of guys that always stop by.”

“They’ll be ok with Starbucks for a change.”

“I need the money.”

“No you don’t.”

“I need the money.”

“OK, but I’m staying here until the end of your shift.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“I’m staying.”

“OK,” said Mo. “Fine. Some coffee? The usual?”

“Sure,” said Connor, “the usual.”

Mo was playing checkers with João when she saw Rick. He was by the basketball courts talking to some of the players. The conversation looked heated. A few pushes were exchanged and a drone was suddenly hovering just above their heads. They all separated and Rick, looking around, saw her. He nodded and wandered off. After João beat her she found Rick on a bench, arms crossed, watching a kid keep a soccer ball in the air.

“I hadn’t pegged you for a basketball player,” Mo said.

“I hadn’t pegged you for a narc.”

“A narc?”

“Yeah: a rat, a snitch.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Spying on me in the park for your pig boyfriend.”

“Don’t be stupid. I’m just trying to be friendly.”


“I don’t know. I love Emily. You’re her brother.”

“You don’t love Emily. You don’t know her. You’re a fucking DP.”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“You don’t know what it means to be born here, in these hills, to have roots here, you don’t know what it’s like to come from a family that spent generations in the mines and the foundries making this country rich, you don’t know what it’s like to be forced to share what little is left with a bunch of fucking freeloaders.”

Dr. Price stopped Mo in the hall.

“Where’ve you been?”

“I’ve had to work extra shifts.”

“You’re falling behind, Mo, and you owe me grading.”

“I know, I’m sorry, I had to help out a friend at work.”

“I’m sure that’s very admirable,” said Dr. Price. “But you need to think about your future, and helping out a coworker in a nursing home may help you feel good about yourself today, but it can hurt you tomorrow.”

“The coffee shop.”


“It was a coworker at the coffee shop.”

“It doesn’t matter. They’re both dead end jobs. Don’t waste your talent, Mo. Don’t blow this opportunity.”

“You’re right, Dr. Price. I’ll try harder to stay focused on what really matters.”

“So I’ll see you in class tomorrow?”

“Yes, Dr. Price.”

“And we can stay a little later and get those papers graded?”

“Yes, Dr. Price.”

“Great, see you then,” and she turned to leave.

“OK,” said Mo. She would have to cancel the shift at the nursing home. Her mom would be furious.

“Oh, and Mo!” Dr. Price looked back. “Gerald said to say ‘Hi’!”

“‘Hi’ to him too,” said Mo.

Connor was watching her grade papers.

“I thought you were going to school to learn how to code,” he said, “why you wasting your time with this literary bullshit.”


“They pay you per paper?”

“No,” said Mo. “They just knock a little off my tuition.”

Connor snorted.

Mo worked in silence until a couple came in. When she had them settled and was back to the counter she was too tired to grade.

“Did you grow up in the same neighborhood as Emily?” she asked Connor.

“Yeah,” he said. “I ran with her older brother. She thinks I don’t remember her, but I do. I came in here because I saw her working and felt nostalgic but she pretended like she didn’t know me so I played along.”

“You always want to be a cop?”

“I’m not a cop. I’m an independent contractor. They pay me to fly drones but I don’t arrest people or anything like that.”

“So you didn’t want to be a cop?”

“Hell no, I just knew I wanted to be something more than a basic income troglodyte. I joined the army, got some skills, and put them on the market when I left. I’d be just as happy working security for some corporation as I am doing this shit.”

“Are those your drones over the park?”

“Some of them.”

“You ever see me there?”


“That’s creepy. Do you follow me around?”


“Do you see me playing checkers with João?”

“I’m uncomfortable with this discussion, Mo.”

“Did you see Emily’s brother there last weekend?”

“I don’t know.”

“By the basketball courts?”

“Couldn’t say.”

“What was he up to?”

“Christ, Mo, I can’t talk about this stuff to you.”

“Is he a drug dealer?” Mo asked. “A loan shark? A bookie? A pimp?”

“He’s just a punk, a harmless scumbag, an irredeemable.”

Emily was crying to Mo over the phone.

“They have my mom on life support,” she said. “She’s brain dead but it’s illegal for them to turn off the machines.”

“Does her UBI cover the cost?” Mo asked.

“Only about half,” said Emily. “They’re going to garnish my wages.”

“For how long will they keep her alive?”

“As long as they can. My Auntie Misty has been in storage at the deadhead warehouse for seven years. Nobody has seen the body for five but they keep getting the bills.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. Get another job, I guess. Rick isn’t helping. He’s just talking about all kinds of crazy schemes, growing weed in the woods, blackmailing people. He’s talking about shooting cops. I’m scared he’s going to do something stupid. I can’t stand the thought of losing him, I can’t stand it. He’s all I have left.”

Mo nodded off in class a couple of times but she still managed to answer a few of Dr. Price’s questions. Then they commandeered a table in the cafeteria and had a light supper while they worked. Dr. Price was upset at Gerald, something to do with investments or retirement plans or long term savings. Mo was too tired to think it through, to make sense of Dr. Price’s irritation, but she did know whatever didn’t get graded at school was coming home with her.

Her mom had mercy on her when she got to the nursing home. They found an empty room with a stripped bed where Mo could sleep through her shift. She passed out almost as soon as her head hit the mattress and only woke once in the pitch black, and again when an old lady opened the door and peered in.

“Maria?” the old lady called. “Maria? You in there?”

Then the door clicked shut and all was delicious darkness.

When her mom finally shook her awake she was overwhelmed by memory: early morning in the Camps, the smell of wood smoke, diesel, human shit; falling asleep on a crowded bus, her head on her mother’s lap; the exhausted fluorescent lighting of late night airport lounges and detention centers; the sound of her mom in the kitchen getting ready for work.

“Time to go, baby,” said her mom and Mo felt like crying.

Rick kept showing up at the park and watching her from a distance as she played checkers with João. One week João talked about slave rebellions and colonial wars, about magic that made freedom fighters bullet proof and weed that made them invisible. Another week he told her about studying engineering in the USSR, about how cold it got, about relationships with local women and racist beatings. For a while he was obsessed with AK-47s. He described them in precise detail, told her how to clean one, maintain it, love it. He compared the Chinese to the Russian. He described the sound of them firing; the feel; the smell. He sang songs in Portuguese about the AK-47, in Shona.

Emily was washed out and thin. She worked all day at the organ farm and then crossed the street to the Haile Selassie. Rick was gone. She didn’t know where. Someone said they’d seen him on the outskirts of town, lurking in the trees on the other side of the sewage treatment plant.

Connor no longer ordered the full shebang. He sat at the counter drinking espresso, telling Mo how much more money he was making now that he had upgraded his drone fleet. Telling her he could see through walls, into vehicles, into the forest. He told her how lonely he was and how lonely she seemed.

Dr. Price was very unhappy in her marriage. Mo graded papers at school, at the coffee shop, in nursing home custodial closets while her mother did her work.

One night Rick was waiting for Mo in the shadows near the coffee shop. He stepped out of the darkness and grabbed her arm but she was too exhausted to be alarmed.

“Come with me to the hills,” he said.

She looked at him blankly and he let go of her.

“We can start again. We’ll vanish. We can disappear up there. We can dissolve in the fog, in the acid fog. No one will find us. No one will see us.”

“Go home, Rick,” said Mo. “Go home to Emily, she misses you, she loves you.”

“We can start again,” he said. “We can build a new Jerusalem in the wilderness.”

“I’m too tired, Rick,” said Mo. “I’m too tired to start again. I have to keep going. I have to keep going in the direction I’m going.”

Up above they heard the hum of drones. They could feel eyes crawling over their shoulders like ticks, crawling through their hair, getting under their skin.

“Go home,” said Mo. “Call Emily, she loves you.”

She had forgotten to set the alarm and was woken by the phone. She let it ring. It was Dr. Price. She couldn’t cope with that disappointed voice. She would listen to the message on the bus. Quick shower, breakfast, Mom had left the TV on again. The man was excited about growth. Something was increasing, inflating: coltan reserves in the Congo, floating boomtowns in the Spratleys. Sam and Charlie were getting stoned on the steps: “Stay! Relax! Unwind!”

“Gotta go to work! Gotta go to school! Gotta get free!”

The bus snaked down the hill. The bus waited. The bus climbed the ramp. She fell asleep against the window. She was walking through the forest, through the hills. The shuddering canopy obscured the sky. The detritus of ages covered the ground. A foot and a half of rotting leaves, scuttling beetles, rodent bones and deer skulls, fallen trees alive with ants and lichen, grey rocks stained with rust. She made her way up the slope, towards sunlight, the blue sky. The air quivered with the screams of the cicadas. In a clearing there was a structure, a constellation of thick metal pipes, massive bolts, welding scars, splitting seams. She smelled gas, it coated her tongue, burned her eyes. There were flies everywhere, glittering in the sunshine, a spinning cloud of bluebottles with a million dazzling eyes. She looked up and saw, far above her, the concrete underbelly of the highway, a massive bridge that reached from horizon to horizon. Driverless cars and trucks rushed along it, back and forth, back and forth, the white bus rushed along, back and forth, a scurrying centipede carrying her sleeping body inside it, she was rocking back and forth as it hissed along, she slept, her head on her mother’s lap, her mother’s hands in her hair, her mother singing her a song, a song about the future, her mother sang in Portuguese, her mother sang in Shona, her mother sang her a song about a revolution.

© 2018 William Squirrell

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