“This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” which several years after it was written provided most of the plot underpinnings of Alexie’s first movie, Smoke Signals, presages some of the later concerns of Alexie’s novel Reservation Blues (1995), in which Victor and Thomas and several other “skins” create an all-Indian blues band known as Coyote Springs, and they go on the road. This story, however, is neatly structured around news of Victor’s father’s death in Arizona and the task of retrieving his ashes, old pickup truck, and modest savings and returning north.
Thomas is perhaps Alexie’s most compelling character in terms of being deeply esconced within his tribal traditions yet still willing and able to critique those traditions and articulate various ironies. As Thomas greets Victor at the tribal trading post and expresses condolences for his loss, Victor asks how Thomas learned of Victor’s father’s passing. Thomas, the tribal storyteller, says: “I heard it on the wind. I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight. Also, your mother was just in here crying.” Thomas continues throughout the story as both an avatar of traditional practice and an ironic commentator on it.
Although Victor had a problematic relationship with his father, as well as with Thomas, part of their trip to Arizona involves Thomas recounting experiences with Victor’s father. This creates a sort of modern storehouse of new tales, set in cities and at national-chain restaurants. Thomas recalls having a vision at age thirteen, causing him to travel more than fifty miles to get to Spokane Falls. Although Thomas expects to have a vision at the falls, it is Victor’s father who finds Thomas on the bridge overpass, feeds him at Denny’s restaurant, and drives him back to the reservation, allowing Thomas to infer that his vision consisted of the understanding that people are here to take care of one another.
This insight and vision provide the essential meaning of the story. Even though Thomas’s mother died in childbirth, and he was raised by his grandmother, he knows the loss that Victor feels in losing even an absent father. Thomas’s money and companionship are freely given to Victor in order to care for him in this literal, physical passage toward adulthood. The story concludes with the two young men back in Washington State. As they part after their long journey, Victor gives one-half of his father’s ashes to Thomas, and both men plan to return the ashes to the river at Spokane Falls, continuing to add chapters to the stories which Thomas has already been telling and retelling.