How does Victor change in "This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona"?
Victor changes by reidentifying as a member of his tribe. He reconnects with his father by retrieving an old photo album and his father's ashes and truck. Victor also resurrects remnants of his friendship and Indian culture with Thomas-Builds-the-Fire.
Author Shermie Alexie foreshadows this reclaiming of identity and love in the story's exposition when Victor is informed of his father's death: " . . . there still was a genetic pain, which was soon to be pain [sic] as real and immediate as a broken bone." Because Victor does not have enough money to travel to Arizona, he goes to the Tribal Council and requests financial aid. However, the council is unable to provide Victor the full price of an airplane ticket; they can only give him one hundred dollars. When the suggestion is made that he could drive there, Victor replies that he has no vehicle, but he intends to drive back after picking up his father's truck which is in Phoenix.
Fortunately for Victor, when he goes to the Trading Post to cash his check, he encounters his former friend, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who is talking to himself at a magazine rack. Thomas tells Victor that he is sorry about his father's death. "How did you know it?" Victor asks. Thomas tells him, "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." Although Victor is embarrassed to be seen talking with Thomas because the others in the Trading Post do not, it occurs to Victor that Thomas may help him. "Victor felt a sudden need for tradition."
Thomas Builds-the-Fire does offer to help Victor but insists that Victor take him along. When they arrive at Victor's father's trailer in Phoenix, Arizona, Thomas suggests that Victor find any pictures or letters that can be valuable to his father's memory. Later, Thomas relates a story about his being found by Victor's father when he had a vision that told him to go to Spokane and stand by the Falls to wait for a sign. Thomas was saved from being mugged by Victor's father, who saw Thomas and later took him to a restaurant to buy him a meal. Thomas tells Victor, "I was mad because I thought my dreams had lied to me. But they didn't. Your dad was my vision. 'Take care of each other' is what my dreams were saying." Having listened to this tale, Victor quietly searches his memories. "He searched . . . and found the good ones, found a few bad ones, added it all up, and smiled." Like the mythological Phoenix, Victor reclaims his love for his father.
On the drive home in Victor's father's truck, he and Thomas-Builds-the-Fire rekindle the bond that they had as boys. But, "Victor knew that he couldn't really be friends with Thomas, even after all that had happened. It was cruel, but it was real." Nonetheless, Victor knows that he " . . . owe[s] Thomas something, anything."
In Sherman Alexie's story "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" Victor must go to collect his father's remains. His father left when Victor was a child and he hasn't seen or heard from him in all that time. He is filled with bitterness and anger, and that anger is often directed toward Thomas Builds-the-Fire, whose character is almost a polar opposite of Victor's, yet who also had a kind of relationship with Arnold, Victor's dad. Through the process of his journey with Thomas, Victor gains awareness of what happened to his father, why he left, and why he has let his life go in the direction it has gone. He learns forgiveness and acceptance, and, although he is still conflicted and has to deal with the same situations at home that he left when he went to Arizona, he has matured and his relationship with Thomas has also shifted to the point that he understands Thomas a little better along with a new understanding of himself.