This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” by Sherman Alexie, is a short story based on the friendship of two Native American men, who over time lost the bond they once shared, but because of a recent event, are brought together again to recount old memories, and create new ones. Alexie does an outstanding job bringing forth a friendship all can relate to, and also he shares the bond that these two men still have. Throughout the short story, Alexie uses present action, and also flashbacks to share with readers the hidden meanings that are buried deeper within the text.
Furthermore, his short story seems to tie in with his own heritage of growing up a Native American on a reservation. The short story begins with the introduction of the first main character named Victor. Victor just lost his job, and also found out his father, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, has recently died from an apparent heart attack. Victor, who is broke, needs to get down to Phoenix to retrieve his cremated father, and also grab an old pickup truck and a few hundred dollars his father has left behind.
He turns to the Tribal Council in hopes to get some cash for his trip, but is disappointed when all they can do is give him a hundred dollars. Here, Alexie depicts Victor as a poor, sheltered Native American living on a reservation. Alexie himself has also been self described as a “sheltered, small town, rez, Eastern Washington kid” (Capriccioso). Victor wanders off to cash his check when he bumps into his childhood friend, Thomas Builds-the-Fire. Thomas Builds-the-Fire is the second main character in this short story.
Thomas is basically a town outcast who nobody wants or needs around. Like a dentist in a town where everybody has false teeth (Alexie 910). Thomas is always outspoken and always has a strange story to share. In an piece Alexie writes in Time magazine, he talks about the character Thomas-Builds the fire. He states that Thomas “suffers a brain injury at birth and experiences visionary seizures into his adulthood”(Alexie). Since this information is not presented in the short story, readers are left to draw their own conclusions to the mental state of Thomas.
Although the two grew up together and were best friends, times have changed and Victor is now more of a new-age Native American, and acts towards Thomas the same way as the rest of the reservation does. Victor would be embarrassed to be seen even talking to Thomas now. “Victor, I'm sorry about your father,” Thomas said. “How did you know about it? ” Victor asked. “I heard it on wind. I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight. Also, your mother was just in here crying”(910-911). Thomas offers to help Victor with the cash he needs only if he promises to take him to Phoenix with him.
Thomas states he needs to think about it and wanders home where his mind takes him back to the days when the two were young and the memories they shared. Alexie does an excellent job bringing the short story back in time to the days when the two were just boys and the best of friends. While these flashbacks seem to just tie in with the short story, their actual meaning is much deeper than that. Victor's first flashback is brought on by a memory of Thomas, and the fact he “always had something to say” (910).
At the age of seven, Thomas shares a vision with Victor stating he knows Victor's father is going to leave the family, even before it actually happened. This statement leaves readers wondering about the mental state of Thomas, and questioning if maybe there is more to him besides just being a crazy story teller, and that he actually is a visionary who does see the death of Victor's father in the winds. It also further contributes to the fact of Thomas being a crazy story teller. Victor agrees to the help Thomas offers and they head off to Phoenix.
Another flashback takes place at a time when the boys are fifteen. Victor gets drunk and gives Thomas a beating. Readers can see this has an effect on Thomas. It gives the impression of a sadness, or a defeat Thomas feels. So much so that when he closes his eyes “no stories came to him” (913) After they arrive in Phoenix, Victor stops in front of his father's trailer and apologizes to Thomas for beating him up that time. Readers are given the first glimpse at the remorse Victor feels for the way he's acted toward Thomas over the years.
Another flashback recalls an event that took place when Victor was twelve and got his foot caught in a wasp nest. Thomas would have been hurt badly if not for Thomas showing up and freeing him from the nest. Just like Thomas is here for Victor now, Victor is realizing this, and readers are beginning to see the change in Victor's attitude towards Thomas. The next flashback is brought on by a question Victor asks Thomas about what he remembers about Victor's father. Once again Thomas shares a story of a time when he was thirteen and he has a dream that told him to go to Spokane.
In this dream, Thomas is suppose to go to Spokane, “to stand by the Falls in the middle of the city and wait for a sign” (915). While waiting at the falls, Thomas encounters Victor's father who wonders why Thomas is there. Figuring Thomas will be mugged, Victor's father picks him up, buys him dinner, and drives him back to the reservation. Victor's father tells Thomas he will not tell on him for running away as long as Thomas makes a promise to him to always watch over Victor. Readers are given another glimpse at the character traits behind Thomas and to the reason why he needed to come to Phoenix in the first place.
This is just one more example of the hidden meanings Alexie uses to build on the personality of the characters in his short story. The last flashback takes place during their drive back to the reservation. It tells of a time when Thomas is in school and no one wants to be near him because of all the stories he tells. “Story after story” (917). The flashback touches on the hurt Thomas feels regarding all the rejection he receives from his own people. Also, it gives reason for all the stories he tells. “My mother, she died giving birth to me, died while I was still inside her. I have no brothers or sisters.
I have only my stories which came to me before I even had the words to speak. I learned a thousand stories before I took my first thousand steps. They are all I have. It's all I can do” (917) This flashback brings a new light to Thomas. Readers are given a deeper understanding into the person Thomas is, and also it shares even more the tradition and values that Thomas holds deep in his heart. The short story concludes with them arriving back to the reservation, to “the beginning of a new day on earth, but the same old shit on the reservation” (917) Nothing is going to change between the two characters.
Victor is still going to treat Thomas the same way as he always did. Victor does end up giving half of his father's ashes to Thomas apparently in a way to make peace with the past and the present. Thomas accepts and says he will spread them at the falls where Victor's father found him that time. Thomas does ask for one favor though. “Just one time when I'm telling a story somewhere, why don't you stop and listen” (918)? This short story has many meanings hiding between the lines of the text. Alexie is an outstanding author who uses his own heritage and culture to create this story.
This short story in particular, gives readers a glimpse into the lives of two Native Americans, and may change the perception of how some may see them as a whole. The use of the flashbacks in this short story are meant to give readers a deeper look into the context of the story. Alexie's use of them turns an ordinary story into a vivid tale of a friendship that was lost, and under the circumstances will probably never be mended. It shows the growth in both of the characters. For Victor, readers can see he matured, and with the death of his father and the time he spent with Thomas, he gets a closure to a part of his life.
For Thomas, well he will still go on being the crazy story teller, and he will also go on with his promise he made to Victor's father; to keep an eye on Victor, and to keep him safe.