Smoke & Mirrors with Alexander Cendrowski

by Ahsan Butt December 16, 2019

Your use of second person present tense gave us these beautiful vivid details in place of inner monologue. Why the choice to stay (mostly) out of You’s head, and what power did second person present afford you?

The danger of using second person in a story is also what’s enticing about it: narrative distance. In my fiction classes, we talk about the “focal length” of the story, or the distance between the reader and the action (usually mediated by a narrator or central character, who we might call the lens). This plays into other narrative elements easily, since you can use focal length as a way to talk about things like voice and perspective and free indirect speech. With second person, the focal length is short, but the picture is warped, since the lens is Othered. You’re close to Gator Bait, but he won’t let you in. The You overpowers an implied I. Gator Bait’s the focal character, but he distances himself from any actions he takes, keeping him from acknowledging what makes him Other.

The detail of the older boys brazenly watching hardcore porn really brought home that the stakes around inappropriate sexual behavior, when heteronormative, are relatively low (“boys will be boys”), whereas for You, there’s a retributive violence hovering over any suggestion of queerness. So much of this story’s subtext, in fact, is pervaded with that threat of violence. Did the story idea start there? If not, where?

You’re right—the stakes of sexual behavior aren’t just assigned but assigned unevenly. I’ll add that the threat of violence on queer bodies is especially present in male-dominated spaces. When I was a Boy Scout (“Oh no!” I imagine readers exclaiming, “Autofiction!”), the boys in my troop “played” a “game” during meeting breaks called Smear the Queer, where everyone would try to tackle one poor boy, who (after his smearing) would name another boy to be tackled. It was a game built around Othering and violence. And self-hating retribution. A close friend had his collarbone broken during the game, and I was the one who had named him, after my smearing. We were 13, and there was no sitting out.

I don’t know that the story started with that violence. I think for me, it started with the Scout Law, the emphasis on Cleanliness. The word, in that context, derives its meaning from both military and religious connotations—homophobic and domineering. It stands with other words, like Obedient, that make clear the uniformity expected in body, mind, spirit. If not the Law, then it started with the bloated alligator corpse. It’s an image that’s been in my head a long time, from a canoeing trip years ago.

The piece feels very cinematic —crystalline imagery, its build of tension. (Honestly, maybe this is stupid, but I was reminded of Jaws—vulnerable flesh and all that.) Do you see flash as a form being particularly conducive to that single cinematic moment? What drew you to flash for this story?

Flash shares qualities with poetry in that way, circling an image (or a set of linked images). The story’s shrunken container forces you to constantly cut away glut, homing in on the things that matter. Of course it’s still fiction, so conflict reigns supreme. The form just invites that conflict to meld completely with the image, so that as we get closer to understanding that image, we get closer to understanding the characters and their struggle.

These days my struggle is writing anything outside of flash and my (nearly finished!) novel manuscript. In “Gator Bait,” I never imagined the story as anything but flash; the place, story, and characters fit in a small package. Plus, second person has limited stamina. It fit. 

In the story’s climax, Adrien, the homophobic bully, is drowning and You snaps into action—once he remembers he’s the lifeguard—to rescue him. Was there a You that considered not saving him? What does it mean to save one’s tormentor?

I think about this a lot. Victims of abuse—sexual, mental, physical—don’t owe their abusers forgiveness. We don’t have to save them from the guilt of their actions, and Gator Bait doesn’t have to save Adrien, outside of the pressures of his role as a lifeguard.

But there’s a part of me that knows there are young men, of around the age I imagine Adrien, who are both abusers and victims of patriarchal expectations of masculinity (here passed down by the scoutmaster, Adrien’s father). bell hooks writes, in The Will to Change, “Masses of boys and men have been programmed from birth on to believe that at some point they must be violent, whether psychologically or physically, to prove that they are men.” She explains that patriarchy demands “… psychic acts of self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves.” I think in part what Gator Bait is wrestling with, in that scene, is knowing that Adrien is suffering too, even if he’s wreaking havoc in the process. So that’s part of what I’m engaging with when he finally rushes in to help—even if it’s not ultimately successful here.

Being from a nondescript beach in Florida, have you or someone you know ever had a moment with a gator? Any epiphanies?

If you go near freshwater almost anywhere in the state, you’re bound to run into a few alligators. They’re fairly docile (despite the ending paragraph of “Gator Bait,” it’s true that they’re mostly afraid of humans, unless they’ve been fed by ignorant tourists or should-know-better kids), but they can still be intimidating, especially when they sneak up on you or sink into dark water feet from your canoe.

My most striking memory is this: New to the neighborhood, “husky” in my mother’s words, and eager to earn a friend, I pedaled my way to a nearby cul de sac’s retention pond, where two brothers I’d played a game or two of basketball with held fishing poles and hollered and laughed. My own younger brother trailed behind, GameBoy in one hand. The boys called us over: in the pond, sticking mostly out of the water, was a gator. It looked thirteen feet long to 10-year-old me, though it was probably more like six. The boys had strips of raw chicken, half-frozen, and they were attaching them to their lines, drawing the gator closer to the shore where, they said, they would wrestle it.

By the time both their lines had snapped, chicken and hooks swallowed, it was right next to the bank. It locked eyes with me—or at least in my memory, now, it did—and then I felt two sets of hands on my back, shoving me towards it. I shrieked. The gator fled. The boys fled, too, knocking my younger brother to the ground as they sprinted back home before the neighbors could catch a glimpse of them. We walked our bikes back to our new house, ashamed.

I don’t know if that’s quite an epiphany, but it’s what I have.

About the Author:

Alexander Cendrowski is an attempted novelist, queer feminist, and octopus enthusiast from a nondescript beach in Florida. Clones of Alex’s body can be found in the classrooms of the University of South Florida, where they teach creative writing and literature. Clones of Alex’s brain can be found in Passages North, Hobart, Cleaver Magazine, and elsewhere, if you believe hard enough.

About the Interviewer:

Ahsan Butt was born in Toronto, is of Pakistani descent, and currently lives in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in Barrelhouse, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Massachusetts Review, The Normal School, The Rumpus, Pacifica Literary Review, The Offing, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @ahsanb_.

About the Artist:

Paul Bilger's photography has appeared at Qarrtsiluni, Brevity, and Kompresja. His work has also been featured on music releases by Dead Voices on Air and Autistici. When not taking pictures, he is a lecturer in philosophy and film theory at Chatham University. He is the art director at SmokeLong Quarterly.