Story — From the August 2014 issue


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A dead man twists around one of my Doric columns. I chose these columns for their plainness, their strength. I liked imagining people looking up at my home, its smoky leaded windows reflecting their city back at them, the classical Greek proportions held up by simple, democratic design. Tasteful. No frills. The dead man’s arm trembles oddly in the water, out of rhythm with the rest of his body. It’s most likely dislocated at the shoulder. Perhaps more than dislocated, but I won’t investigate. A brown gull does a number on his eye.

The man doesn’t look familiar, so I don’t believe him to be one I’ve turned away.

Illustration by Simon Pemberton

Illustration by Simon Pemberton

When the world first flooded, the men who came to my door asking for handouts calmly went away when I said no. They’d survived once before and would do it again. There were other options still. Colonies remained above water with homes to take refuge in. They speckled the rising sea. Now those colonies are underwater, most of their inhabitants drowned.

The other day a man in what looked to have once been a pretty fine suit knocked on my door. The suit, now, was in ruins, the arms shredded like party streamers from his shoulders. Sea salt ghosted his face. Some sand, or maybe a barnacle, clung to his neck. A blue crab scuttled under his pick-stitched lapel. But I mostly noticed his loosed tie because it was definitely designer — it was a kind of damask-rose pattern, but nontraditional. Of course, only designers change designs. It’s why we used to pay so much for them. We paid for innovation.

This man in the nice suit asked for food and water, then tried to strangle me, choked back tears, apologized, asked to be let in, and, when I refused, tried to strangle me again. When I managed to close the door on him he sat on my veranda and cried.

I’ve gotten used to these interruptions. I don’t blame these men. If I’d been one of the unprepared, I’d be desperate, too. They come to my door, see that I am clean, are dazzled by the generator-fed lights. They sense I have rooms full of provisions, that my maid’s quarters are filled with bottled water, cords of wood are in the exercise annex, and gas is in the garage. They ogle my well-fed gut. I am dry. They are embarrassed, filthy, smell of fish. They get back on their driftwood, or whatever they use to keep their heads above water, and paddle next door to my neighbor’s. If I were them, I would overtake someone standing dry in the doorway of a fine home. I wouldn’t give up so easily. But these men are not me. For starters, they’re awfully weak from not eating. But still. I don’t like the change. I miss the old days when, though they happened to be begging, they were gentlemen who understood that hard work was their ticket to success. I’ll need to carry a knife to the door next time.

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’s collection Man V. Nature will be published in October by Harper. This is her first story for Harper’s Magazine.

More from Diane Cook:

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