single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie

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This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona Summary

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” is a short story by Sherman Alexie in which Victor and his friend Thomas drive to Arizona to collect Victor’s father’s ashes.

  • Victor receives word that his absentee father has died in Arizona. He asks his friend Thomas to accompany him on the trip to claim his father’s ashes.

  • Thomas recounts how, when he was thirteen, he traveled to Spokane Falls, expecting to have a vision. Victor’s father found him and treated him kindly.

  • Victor gives Thomas half of the ashes, and they agree to spread both halves at Spokane Falls.


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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 598

“This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona” describes a physical and spiritual journey shared by two friends in adulthood. While their physical journey—from the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State down to Arizona and back—is told by means of a chronological narrative, their spiritual journey unfolds as a series of flashbacks. Through these flashbacks, the relationship between the two friends, Thomas Builds-the-Fire and Victor, as well as their respective relationships with Victor’s father, is gradually revealed.

Victor needs to travel to Phoenix in order to collect the ashes and savings of his recently deceased father, for which he requires financial support. He discovers that Thomas has already learnt of his father’s death and is only too happy to finance their trip. As the pair proceed south by plane, take a taxi to Victor’s father’s trailer, and then drive back to Washington in Victor’s father’s truck, the conversations they have reveal their different perspectives on a mutual past.

Victor is shown to have had turbulent relationships with both Thomas and his father. He recalls incidents—such as when he unfairly beat Thomas when he was drunk and when Thomas rescued him from a wasp’s nest when they were boys—that have left him with a nagging sense of guilt. He holds a conviction that he needs to pay Thomas back somehow so as to even the score.

Victor is a melancholic character, troubled not only by his own past mistakes but by what he sees as the decline of tribal ties and traditions with which he identifies. However, Victor has many qualities that make him an unsympathetic character. For instance, he is given to drinking alcohol, is idle in his attempt to obtain enough money for his trip to Phoenix, and is given to acts of violence (as is evident in his beating of Thomas). However, he feels genuine remorse for such actions that leads him to apologize—an apology which Thomas readily accepts.

Thomas is characterized by a healthy regard for his Indigenous heritage, and he holds a position of prestige within his tribe as the storyteller. However, he also has a dry humor akin to that which Alexie himself exhibits (especially in relation to stereotypes about Indigenous culture). For instance, early in the work, when Victor enquires how Thomas had heard of his father’s death, the other man replies as follows:

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.

As the storyteller for his tribe, Thomas has an important role as an avatar of the past, responsible for reconciling the younger generation to the actions of their parents. This role he fulfills by helping his friend reconcile himself to his father. Though Victor’s father had abandoned him as a boy, Thomas’s recounting of an instance when Victor’s father helped him when Thomas was in need enables Victor to think of his father in more positive terms:

He searched his mind for memories of his father, found the good ones, a few bad ones, added it all up, and smiled.

The story concludes with Victor giving Thomas half of his father’s ashes, a symbolic action that binds the pair together in the spirit of their traditions and acts to assuage Victor’s guilt for how he treated Thomas in the past. The two agree to scatter the ashes at Spokane Falls, and Victor promises to listen to one of Thomas’s stories one day.

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