This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

“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.

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” a story about reclamation, focuses on the relationship between Victor and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, two young Native American men who have grown up together on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Estranged from each other since they were teenagers, Victor is presented as the modern Indian, a man who has lost faith in himself and in everything Indian and traditional. Thomas Builds-the-Fire is Victor’s antithesis, a dreamer and a traditional storyteller.

The central action of this story is a journey these two men take together to Phoenix, Arizona, where Victor’s father, who left Victor and his mother when Victor was seven, has died of a heart attack in his trailer. They take this journey to claim Victor’s father’s “savings” and ashes. Having just lost his job at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and financially unable to make the trip with the one hundred dollars given to him by the Tribal Council, Victor runs into Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who offers to lend him the money he needs on one condition. Thomas says Victor must allow him to go along, since Thomas had promised Victor’s father that he would “watch out” for Victor. Aside from their childhoods, Victor’s father is the link that ties these two men together.

The two men take a plane to Phoenix, and on the plane, they meet and talk to a passenger named Cathy, a gymnast who says she was first alternate on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team. Thomas Builds-the-Fire initiates contact with her, and this impresses Victor. As they ride in a taxi to Victor’s father’s trailer, Victor apologizes to Thomas for beating him up when they were children. They both go inside the trailer where Victor retrieves a photo album and a stereo. With three hundred dollars from his father’s savings account and his father’s pickup truck, Victor and Thomas drive back to the reservation through the Nevada desert.

Back at the reservation, Victor gives Thomas half of Victor’s father’s ashes. Both Thomas and Victor plan to travel to Spokane Falls to throw the ashes into the water. Significantly Thomas tells Victor that his father will then “rise like a salmon, leap over the bridge, over me, and find his way home.” The story ends with Victor promising Thomas that one time, “just once,” he will stop and listen to one of his stories. Victor acknowledges this as a “fair trade,” and they part with Thomas going into his house to hear a “new story.”

Imbedded within the story are six flashbacks, four of which tell the story of a more innocent time, when Victor and Thomas were children and close friends. In one flashback, Thomas predicts that Victor’s father will leave, and tells Victor why. In the second, Victor asks Thomas for a story, and he tells him a story about two modern-day Indian boys who could still be warriors but in a different way. In the third, Thomas saves Victor from being stung to death by wasps. In the fourth, Thomas “flies” by jumping from the roof of the tribal school to the cheers of all the Indian children. Though Thomas crashed and broke his arm, he was a hero to Victor that day.

As Victor gets older, he loses his belief in Thomas’s visions and, while drunk, beats up Thomas for no apparent reason. In this flashback, all the Indian boys sit back and watch, and Thomas is saved only when another character, Norma Many Horses, comes along to stop the fight.

In the last flashback, presented right before Victor and Thomas arrive back at the reservation, Thomas is all alone, an orphan and a storyteller to whom no one on the reservation listens anymore.