28 pages 56 minutes read

Sherman Alexie

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1993

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”

The short story “This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” by Spokane/Coeur d’Alene author Sherman Alexie, appeared in Alexie’s 1993 collection of stories titled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. This collection, which was the primary inspiration for the 1998 feature film Smoke Signals, is implied to take place on the Spokane Indian Reservation and consists of a series of interconnected narratives exploring themes of cultural alienation, storytelling and memory, and substance abuse. “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” features several characters who recur throughout the collection, including Victor, his father, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, and Norma Many Horses.

This study guide refers to a reprint in the sixth edition of Backpack Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing (2019) by Kennedy et al.

Content Warning: The source material uses terms for Indigenous Americans that some readers may find offensive or outdated. This guide refers to the story’s characters as Spokane, as other stories in the collection make clear that this is their tribal affiliation.

“This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” takes place on an unnamed reservation near Spokane Falls. The protagonist, Victor, loses his job at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and soon after finds out his father has died of a heart attack. Victor’s father moved away from the reservation years before his death and had a distant and strained relationship with his son. Nevertheless, Victor must travel to the place of his father’s death—Phoenix, Arizona—to collect his father’s ashes and a small amount of money from his father’s bank account.

Unable to afford the trip, Victor calls on the Tribal Council and requests funds. He explains that he only needs money to get to Phoenix because he can drive his father’s pickup truck home to the reservation. The council is hesitant to help Victor, explaining that they themselves are struggling financially. However, when Victor says that he thought the council had funds set aside for the return of tribal members’ bodies, they offer him $100. Though Victor knows this is not enough for the trip, he takes the check to the Trading Post to cash it.

At the Trading Post Victor sees his one-time friend, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who is unpopular on the reservation: Thomas is a storyteller, but no one is interested in Thomas’s stories. Thomas is talking to himself (as he often does), and Victor remembers an encounter with Thomas when they were both seven years old. Thomas told Victor, “Your father’s heart is weak. He is afraid of his own family. He is afraid of you.[…] He wants to run and hide. He doesn’t want to be found” (319-20). Victor realizes that Thomas knew his father would leave and wonders if Thomas knew about his father’s passing. Thomas spots Victor and offers him condolences on the loss of his father. Unprompted, he also offers Victor the money he needs to travel to Phoenix on the condition that Thomas join him for the journey. Victor refuses, reminding him that they have not been friends for years. Thomas replies that they do not have to be friends but that Victor must let him come along. Victor says he will think about it and goes home, where he recalls a childhood Fourth of July spent with Thomas. The boys shared a single bike and rode to see a disappointing fireworks display. Later that night Victor asked Thomas to tell him a story. Thomas told the story of two Indigenous boys who wanted to be warriors but had no horses, so they stole a car and drove it to the city.

Victor knows that he needs Thomas’s help to get to Phoenix. He opens his front door to find Thomas waiting for him. Thomas enters, making himself comfortable, and says that he can get them to Phoenix if Victor gets them home.

Another flashback depicts Victor and Thomas at 15. Victor had gotten drunk and beaten Thomas up for no apparent reason as the other boys from the reservation cheered. Norma Many Horses broke up the fight, potentially saving Thomas’s life.

On the plane to Phoenix, Thomas engages in conversation with the woman sitting next to him and Victor; her name is Cathy and she was the first alternate for the 1980 Olympic gymnastics team. Victor is embarrassed because he believes Thomas is flirting with Cathy. Cathy complains about the Olympic boycott of 1980, accusing the American government of failing its athletes. Thomas remarks that the 1980s Olympics team seems to have a lot in common with Indigenous Americans, but no one laughs.

The men arrive in Phoenix and travel to Victor’s father’s trailer. Before they enter, Victor apologizes to Thomas for beating him up. Thomas brushes off the apology, but Victor insists he is sorry. When they open the door to the trailer, a horrible smell greets them. Victor recalls that his father lay dead in the trailer for a week before anyone found him and had to be identified by dental records. Despite the smell, Victor insists on entering the trailer to look for “something valuable” (323). Thomas is confused, knowing Victor’s father’s money is in a bank account. Victor clarifies that he means letters, photos, or other mementos.

Victor remembers when he was young and his foot became trapped in an underground wasp nest. He believes he would have died from wasp stings if Thomas had not come along and freed him.

Thomas tells Victor he remembers Victor’s father. He had a dream that told him to go to Spokane, stand by the falls, and wait for a vision. Thomas walked to Spokane and waited at the falls for an hour before Victor’s father found him and asked him why he was there. Thomas explained, and Victor’s father insisted he leave before he got mugged. He treated Thomas to dinner and then drove him back to the reservation. Thomas explains to Victor that he had been angry, thinking his dream lied to him. He now realizes that his dream was a message to “Take care of each other” (324): Victor’s father agreed not to tell anyone that Thomas was at the falls as long as he promised to look out for Victor. This is the reason Thomas helped Victor with this journey.

Victor keeps a photo album, a stereo, and his father’s pickup truck. Victor and Thomas take the pickup to the bank and withdraw $300.

Another flashback tells of a time in Victor and Thomas’s childhood when Thomas jumped off the roof of the tribal school, attempting to fly. The boys all saw Thomas suspended in the air and believed he was flying for a moment, but they mocked him after he hit the ground. Victor recognizes that there was an element of jealousy among the boys: “They hated Thomas for his courage, his brief moment as a bird. Everybody dreams about flying. Thomas flew” (325).

Victor collects his father’s remains. The ashes overflow a wooden urn, so he pours the rest of them into a cardboard box. Victor and Thomas begin the drive back to the reservation, planning to take turns driving. However, Victor ends up driving for 16 hours before pulling over and asking Thomas to take the wheel. Thomas drives for a short time, and the two of them remark on how the desert seems empty, lonely, and lifeless. Victor then spots a jackrabbit. They congratulate each other on finding life in the desert just as it darts in front of their truck. They pull over and discover that Thomas struck and killed it. Thomas says that he thinks the jackrabbit died by suicide. Victor agrees and, at Thomas’s request, takes over driving.

In another flashback Thomas is walking alone through the school hallways, telling a story about how his father died for his country in World War II. His mother died in childbirth, and he has no brothers or sisters: His stories are all that he has and all he can do.

Back at the reservation, Victor dops Thomas off at his house. Victor wants to thank Thomas for his help, but before he speaks, Thomas tells him not to worry about the money. Victor realizes that his treatment of Thomas will not change because of this experience: He will still treat Thomas unkindly because Thomas will always be a “crazy storyteller.” Sensing this, Thomas acknowledges that he doesn’t expect their dynamic to change. Victor feels ashamed and in Thomas’s debt, so he gives Thomas the cardboard box with his father’s ashes. Thomas tells him that he will take them to Spokane Falls and put them in the water. Victor tells him he was thinking of doing the same with the other half of the ashes.

Before Victor leaves, Thomas asks for one favor: to stop and listen to one of his stories sometime. Victor agrees to do this “just once” and drives home.