Analysis of "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" by Sherman Alexie

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In Sherman Alexie's “This is what it means to say Phoenix, Arizona” a man named Victor finds out that his father has passed away. Being next of kin, Victor is responsible for gathering his father's assets together, which requires him to make an out of town trip. In order to accomplish this Victor needs help. This help comes from the town outcast, Thomas Builds-the Fire. Victor and Thomas were childhood best friends but as they grew older, Victor turned his back on the one that always looked out for him. A trip to gather his father's remains turns into a journey of reviewing his life and choices.

Shortly after losing his job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Victor is informed of his father's death. Although they haven't had contact in years, Victor is left responsible to claim the cremated remains as well as his father’s truck and savings account. The remains are in Phoenix, Arizona and Victor lives on an Indian Reservation near Spokane, Washington. The trip is over 2000 km and Victor has no money to get there. He turns to the tribal counsel for financial assistance. Unfortunately all they will give him is $100.00. This isn't near enough to make it. Almost everyone on the reservation is financially struggling, so borrowing money is not an option. With no one to lend him the funds required, Victor knows he needs a miracle.

While at the reservation post office, to cash his $100.00 cheque, Victor spots Thomas-Builds-the-Fire standing by a rack of magazines. Thomas is the town outcast and he helps to fulfill that 'role' by constantly talking to himself. Thomas is always philosophizing and trying to share his 'visions' with anyone willing to listen. Unfortunately for Thomas, people stopped listening years ago. Yet even with no one listening, he keeps on speaking. Victor and Thomas were childhood friends and Victor can remember Thomas story telling from the start. When the boys were seven, Thomas predicted that Victor's father would one day abandon his family. He was right. As the boys grew older, Victor turned his back on Thomas and started to partake in the ostracizing and ridiculing of his once best friend.

Thomas approaches Victor and offers his condolences. He tells Victor that he has money to lend him so he can make it to Phoenix. The only condition is that Victor must take Thomas with him. Victor tells Thomas that he can't accept his money and that they aren't even friends. Thomas replies “I didn't say we were friends. I said you had to take me with you.” (249). Victor says he'll think about it and goes home. When he arrives home, he is flooded with memories. After heavy consideration, Victor knows the only way he'll be able to claim his father's remains is to borrow the money from Thomas. He agrees to take Thomas along for the trip and the two men catch a plane to Phoenix, Arizona.

Throughout the story Victor replays moments in his mind. Times when he and Thomas were best of friends. Times when he loved listening to Thomas' visions about life and stories with hidden lessons. Times when Thomas was there for him and even a time when Thomas helped to save his life. The good memories turn to visions of Victor turning his back on his best friend. Victor is faced with the reality of his cruel actions and choices. Of how he chose to go with the rest of the 'pack' and attack the 'weak' one. Victor recalls being drunk when he was fifteen and beating up Thomas for the fun of it. How all of the other boys on the reservation just stood and watched and how he may have continued beating Thomas till death if an elder wouldn't have broken it up. Victor wonders what his motivation for acting this way was. Is it just what kids do? Pick on the underdog, make fun of the ones who don't fit in? Regardless of why, Victor is left feeling sick to his stomach, the reality of his actions haunting him. He can't believe that the person he let down the most, is the one who offered to help him....
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