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This is What It Means to Say Phoenix

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The short story This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona by Sherman Alexie tells of a trip from the State of Washington down to Phoenix undertaken by two Native Americans Indians, Victor and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, after the death of Victor’s father in order to collect his ashes as well as his old pickup truck and inconsiderable bank savings. The tale of Victor and Thomas’ travel to Phoenix is closely interwoven with the two men’s reminiscences of shared childhood. Although the plotline is not intricate, the story’s characters and the irony employed by the author deserve more than just a cursory glance.

Throughout the story Thomas is described as an outcast in his community, which regards him as a half-wit for talking to himself and trying to tell stories to whoever will listen, but he is also a prophetic figure. When Victor finds out about his father’s lonely death from a heart attack in a trailer in Phoenix, he immediately recalls Thomas’ prediction at the age of seven that his father would die of a “weak heart” and because of being “afraid of his own family” ( ). From that moment on, Thomas stuns Victor with mind-reading tricks that seem to indicate that their trip together was meant to happen. Although, admittedly, Victor and Thomas are not friends, Thomas is the one who offers Victor money for the trip to Phoenix on the condition that Victor take him along. It is when they are already in Phoenix that Thomas provides an explanation for a deeply symbolic link between himself and Victor’s late father. He recalls traveling to Spokane Falls at the age of thirteen in order to have a vision and encountering none other than Victor’s father. Although at first the boy is disappointed with missing his vision, he later perceives Victor’s father, who takes him home to safety, to be his ‘vision’. The incident teaches him a lesson: “Take care of each other is what my

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dreams were saying. Take care of each other". And that is what he does by assisting Victor on the trip to Phoenix. Another striking tale from Thomas’ past refers to his attempt to “fly” by jumping off the roof of a reservation school in view of his peers. Although his daring ends in arm fracture, the children bearing witness to his act distinctly remember it as “flying” and “breaking his wing”. “One of his dreams came true for just a second, just to make it real,” the author comment. Toward the end of the story the reader is told that Thomas is the only child of a mother who died in childbirth and a father who was killed in World War II. However, in spite of this as well as of people’s continual taunts and rejection Thomas is not embittered but sees his mission as continuing to tell stories in hope that the world might change.

The author’s use of irony lightens the gravity of the story’s subject matter, death. At the beginning Thomas’ position as a storyteller facing an indifferent audience is compared to that of “a dentist in a town where everybody has false teeth”. Later on, Thomas first claims to have learnt about the death of Victor’s father by listening, in the best Native American tradition, to the wind and the birds, but then disproves his own claim by adding, prosaically: “And your mother was just in here crying”. At another point in the story Victor remembers stepping into a wasp nest as a child and, upon counting his stings, saying: “Seven… My lucky number”.  One more example of irony is evident as the Indian characters place the two boxes with the remains of Victor’s father onto the pickup truck, putting a cowboy hat on one of them and a Dodgers cap on the other. “That’s the way it was supposed to be,” the author comments, tongue-in-cheek. The final piece of irony is delivered by Victor trying to neutralize the loftiness of Thomas’ comparison of the resurrected dead to the shiny salmon leaping over a bridge. “I thought it’d be like cleaning the attic or something,” his repartee goes.

In contrast to the thoughtful and poetic Thomas, Victor is portrayed as easy-going and down-to-earth. At the beginning of the story he is estranged from his father, but as a result of Thomas’ account of the incident at Spokane Falls, Victor seems to come to terms with the past: “He

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searched his mind for memories of his father, found the good ones, found a few bad ones, added it all up, and smiled”. At the end of This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona Victor gives half of his father’s ashes to Thomas to toss into Spokane Falls. It is a symbolic gesture calling upon the dead to unite the living.

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