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's receives word that his absentee father has died in Arizona. Victor 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 May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 633

“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.

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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.

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