Interviewed by John Haggerty

Read Douglas W. Milliken’s fiction piece, Perfect Water Aglow

John: There are some interesting observations about power here. Officer Dan has it, and Jaylee and the narrator don’t and resort to small, essentially impotent acts of rebellion in response. But is there a power in that powerlessness? Is there a freedom in having nothing left to lose?

Douglas: There certainly can be. The Marxist adage “you have nothing to lose but your chains” springs immediately to mind. That said, the obvious imbalance of power here (adult male police officer versus two queer teenage girls of color) doesn’t necessarily translate to powerless, at least to me. Jaylee and narrator (her name is Nala)’s strength springs from the nature of their relationship, their individual vitalities synergizing to create a will with which they can—and must—fight against this imbalance. In a sense, theirs feels more like a bushido mindset: they’ve buried their lives and gone to war. Capitulation isn’t an option. Neither is defeat. How can you defeat someone who believes they’re already dead?

Does power, in fact, always corrupt? Does it inevitably turn us into assholes? And is it then, karmically, better to be among the Jaylees of the world?

Well, there are a lot of different kinds of power. The power Officer Dan wields with his badge and gun is completely different from the power Jaylee and Nala find in their love of and devotion to one another. And each of those kinds of power can be abused. Officer Dan clearly abuses his power (whereas he could be one of those proverbial “good cops” we’re often told must exist), and to an extent, the girls abuse their power, too (after all, they convince Abel to buy them booze, then steal back the money, a one-two play that sounds very much like a charmful manipulation). The power itself is neutral.

There are plenty of people with relatively little power who each day choose to be assholes. (It’s actually the easiest way to maintain power over another person: be a raging asshole. In my personal experiences witnessing and enduring domestic abuse, the foundation is almost always a—figuratively or otherwise—impotent dude trying to control something in his otherwise closed-in life.) So if anyone at any station in life can be an asshole, I guess being an asshole is a choice. Being kind is a choice, too. 

In a letter to my youngest nephew, I recently pled the case for kindness. “Love can be complicated and understanding takes work. But kindness is simple (usually).” If what you crave in your life is a sense of power, though, being an asshole is probably your go-to method. 

There is an excellent sense of place in this piece—the claustrophobic summer heat, the fading houses—and I love how it resonates with the dead-end feel of the protagonists’ lives, and contrasts with the cool beauty of Jaylee’s delirium. Did you start this story with this setting in mind, or did this come later?

The setting was the kernel from which the rest of the story grew. I wrote the first draft at a sort of ad hoc artist residency in New York’s Hudson Valley. For two November weeks, I bivouacked in a farmhouse-cum-­studio and alternately wrote stories, composed music, and finished drafting my novel Enclosure Architect (forthcoming with West Virginia University Press). Surrounded by denuded trees, frosted earth, and a family of ducks sheering the morning ice with their breasts as they sculled the pond outside my studio window, I drew inspiration for this piece of summer swelter from a book of Dan Murphy’s street photography called Stuck on the Map, something I bought from the merch table after a Need New Body show in, like, 2003. It’s not the first time I’ve used the pictures in this book to jumpstart a new story: often my writing practice involves looking at photographs, reading poems, and/or scanning my copy of Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend until a particular combination of images triggers something. Then I start writing and see where things go. In the instance of “Perfect Water Aglow,” once I had a clear idea of the setting and the narrator, the action followed its own particular (albeit brutal) logic. 

Where did the pigeon prank come from? Have you ever heard of anyone doing this, or is it straight from your imagination?

When my oldest sister was in high school, someone began regularly stealing her bag lunch from her locker. After a week or more of these daily raids, my mother suggested packing a castor oil sandwich. The decoy worked. That was the last time my sister’s lunch was stolen.