single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie

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Characters

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Victor

Victor loses his job at the BIA and is broke. His father left the family some time before, and Victor had little contact with his father before he dies. After his father has a fatal heart attack in his trailer (where his body rots for in the 100-degree temperature for a week) Victor feels he needs to claim his father's body. To do so, he asks the Tribal Council for money, but they can only give him $100.

In the end, Victor relies on Thomas, whom he knew growing up, to get to Phoenix. Victor does not really like Thomas, and he thinks Thomas's stories are strange. In the end, Victor feels strange about not being able to pay Thomas back, so he gives him some of his father's ashes and promises to listen to one of Thomas's stories. Victor clearly has a conscience, as he feels compelled to claim his father's body and to repay Thomas for his help.

Thomas Builds-the-Fire

Thomas grew up with Victor. He always wants to tell stories, but no one wants to listen to them. When the boys are young and attending a Fourth of July fireworks display, Thomas told Victor a story about two young Indian boys who wanted to be heroes. They steal a car and park it outside the police station in a quest for recognition. It is revealed that, when they were young, Thomas also helped Victor escape from a wasp's nest.

Thomas is described as someone whom the other people of his tribe find strange. He is always speaking with animals and listening to the wind. When he was young, Thomas jumped off the schoolhouse so that he could achieve his dream of flying—which only resulted in him breaking his arm. He is described as having ratty braids and blackened teeth. He isn't someone who Victor feels that he can really be friends with. In the end, Thomas has the remarkable idea of placing some of Victor's father's ashes into Spokane Falls so that Victor's father's spirit will rise.

Cathy the Gymnast

When Victor and Thomas are on the plane to Phoenix, they sit next to a tiny white woman who twists her body into a pretzel. Thomas asks her about her background, and she tells them she was an alternate in the 1980 Olympics. She is a friendly woman who spends the flight speaking with Victor and Thomas.

Characters

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Victor

Victor, a young man who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, is the story’s main character. At the beginning of the narrative, he has lost his job at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and is broke. His father left the family when he was very young, and Victor had little contact with his father before he died. After his father has a fatal heart attack in his trailer in Phoenix, Arizona (where his body decomposes in the hundred-degree heat for a week), Victor feels he needs to claim his father’s remains. In order to do so, he asks the Tribal Council for money, but they can only give him $100.

In the end, Victor relies on Thomas Builds-the-Fire, whom he knew growing up, to travel with him to Phoenix. Victor does not really like Thomas, and he thinks Thomas’s stories are strange. In the end, Victor feels he needs to pay Thomas back, so he gives him some of his father’s ashes and promises to listen to one of Thomas’s stories. Victor clearly has a conscience, as he feels compelled to claim his father’s ashes and to repay Thomas for his help.

Thomas Builds-the-Fire

Thomas grew up with Victor. He always wants to tell stories, but no one wants to listen to them. When the boys were young and attending a Fourth of July fireworks display, Thomas told Victor a story about two young Indigenous boys who wanted to be heroes. They stole a car and parked it outside the police station in a quest for recognition. It is also revealed that, when they were young, Thomas helped Victor escape from a wasps’ nest.

Thomas is described as someone whom the other people on the reservation find peculiar. He is always speaking with animals and listening to the wind. When he was young, Thomas jumped off the schoolhouse roof so that he could achieve his dream of flying—which only resulted in him breaking his arm. He is described as having ratty braids and blackened teeth. He isn’t someone whom Victor feels he can really be friends with. In the end, Thomas has the remarkable idea of placing some of Victor’s father’s ashes into Spokane Falls so that Victor’s father’s spirit will rise.

Cathy the Gymnast

When Victor and Thomas are on the plane to Phoenix, they sit next to a tiny white woman who twists her body into a pretzel. Thomas asks her about her background, and she tells them she was an alternate in the 1980 Olympics. She is a friendly woman who spends the flight speaking with Victor and Thomas.

Victor’s Father

Victor’s father left Victor and his mother when Victor was seven years old, and he and Victor have been in infrequent contact since then. When the story opens, Victor’s father has died in his trailer in Phoenix, Arizona. Victor retrieves his father’s remains along with his $300 in savings and a few items from the trailer. Thomas Builds-the-Fire also has a connection to Victor’s father, whom he encountered at Spokane Falls one day after experiencing a vision. Throughout their trip, Thomas tells Victor stories about his father, allowing Victor to reconcile himself to his father’s life and death.

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