Conflict in This is What it Means to say Phoenix, Arizona
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This is What it Means to say Phoenix, Arizona
Walking down the hall, you notice him. Everyone avoids him and ignores the fact that he exists. You know who he is but your are hesitant in approaching him because you know of the consequences. He’s not part of the crowd and to acknowledge him will mean turmoil for you. It’s starts out with teasing and joking and slowly develops into bulling, but you can avoid that if you just turn around. In the story, “This is What it Means to say Phoenix, Arizona,” Sherman Alexie explores life by including generally recognized conflicts. Although typical, the conflicts that Victor encounters occur in more than one aspect of life at once. Some are resolvable, but true to life, some are not. The most apparent conflict in the story is the relationship between Thomas Builds the Fire and Victor. Through the death of Victor’s father, they have come together.
As the story begins, the narrator, Victor not only “lost his job at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he also found out that his father had died of a heart attack in Phoenix, Arizona” (181). Having little money to make the trip to Phoenix, Victor decides to ask to Tribal council for assistance. However, the tribal refuses to provide the full amount of his request because they did not “have enough to bring [his] father all the way back from Phoenix” (181). In desperation, Victor turns to Thomas Builds-the-Fire, an old childhood friend, for help. At first, Victor refuses help from Thomas because of his strange and unpopular reputation. Thomas is known as the reservation’s storyteller who shared stories and continued telling stories even after people stopped listening. However, as he becomes weary, he finally is able to negotiate a plan with Thomas. The plan includes Thomas traveling with Victor to and from Phoenix.
During the trip, Victor reflects on his past experiences with Thomas. At fifteen, they “had long since stopped being friends [and] got into a fistfight” (183). As adults, though they would often see each other on the reservation, however they would rarely interact. As an opportunity arises, when they arrived to his father’s trailer in Arizona, Victor finally apologizes to Thomas. He adds, “I never told you I was sorry for beating you up that time” (185) and accepts him for who he is.
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Phoenix Arizona Heart Attack Childhood Friend Sherman Alexie Reservation Tribal Encounters Storyteller Desperation
In attempt to relinquish any grudges, Victor agrees to hear just one more story, as their trips comes to a close.
With inheritance money in mind, two childhood friends traveled to Phoenix for a pick-up truck, a few hundred dollars, two boxes of ashes, but most importantly an understanding of one another. In “This is What it Means to say Phoenix, Arizona,” Alexie, using conflicts of everyday life, adds an inside glimpse of life on an Indian reservation as he presents a parallel between the two characters in the story.
The meaning of Sherman Alexie’s “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” is amplified by the story’s symbolism. The story’s title, among other elements in this story, is significant. Phoenix is not only a city in Arizona but also the name of a bird in Egyptian mythology that rises from its own ashes and is reborn, making it a symbol of immortality and regeneration. Victor and Thomas Builds-the-Fire travel to Phoenix and, in the hot Arizona summer, step inside Victor’s father’s trailer to reclaim, literally and figuratively, that which has been lost. It is not only Victor’s father’s ashes, but also the ashes of Victor’s own life, which Victor seems ready to grasp by this story’s end. Thomas Builds-the-Fire is the character and agent, as his name literally indicates, who has built the fire under Victor.
Fire is a symbol of the passions and of the heart. Though Thomas is an outsider, even on the reservation, his “fire” is the transforming agent for Victor, for Thomas is a man filled with magic, dreams, and visions. When he tells Victor the story of his journey to Spokane Falls to find Victor’s father, Victor recognizes the tie between his father and Thomas and that Thomas is a part of Victor’s own story. When Victor abandoned Thomas, he abandoned a part of himself; this is part of what Victor reclaims.
This story embodies a journey motif that literally takes place via the plane ride to Phoenix, the stop at Victor’s father’s trailer, and the road trip back to the reservation. On the plane they meet Cathy, the gymnast, whose physical flexibility stands in contrast to Victor’s mental inflexibility. With Cathy, an athlete involved with the 1980 Olympic games—which the U.S. government boycotted—and the only “white” character in the story, Alexie implies that the U.S. government is self-serving, whether it is dealing with athletes or Indians.
Once in Phoenix, Victor goes into his father’s trailer because “there might be something valuable in there.” He is not talking about something that will be valuable in the material sense but sentimental things—letters or photographs. After entering his father’s “house,” Victor is then able see his father in a more human light.
On the way home, Victor drives his father’s pickup for sixteen hours. When Thomas takes over at the wheel, halfway through the Nevada desert, he accidentally runs over a jackrabbit. Victor and Thomas both agree that the jackrabbit committed “suicide,” which alludes to both Victor and his father, men who both had the ability to escape the symbolic “desert” of their own lives but refused. With this realization, Victor takes back the wheel and drives home, for now, he, unlike the jackrabbit and his father, is more consciously in charge of his own path.
The real journey takes place inside Victor, the protagonist and initiate, who emerges by story’s end not as an obviously changed man but as one who now has the capacity for change. During the course of this journey, Victor recalls his childhood innocence and his pain, remembers what is bad and good about his father, acknowledges that his actions have hurt Thomas, and gives Thomas half of his father’s ashes. Significantly, Thomas and Victor return to the reservation “as the sun [son] was rising.”