This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
Sherman Alexie’s “This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona” is one of the most fulfilling short stories of times. Victor as named in this particular story had lost a job. Immediately after this, he also received the sad news of his father’s demise from heart attack in a distant city named Phoenix, Arizona. As it turns out, he had not met his own father for a long period of time. This however does not prevent him from feeling the pain of the lose as still there was the link in the blood. The time of the occurrence being so unfair on him, he had no money with him to go over to make the necessary arrangements. It can also be seen that fireworks and cigarette form a major part of the lifestyle of the people of this neighborhood. According to the story, people who have money in excess are those selling the two commodities. He may have not been so broke anyway as his dead father had some savings which could take victor a long way in performing the necessary ceremonies and the burial. However, there was the challenge of getting to Phoenix to retrieve the remains which had badly rotten due to the body staying for a week in the vehicle where he died in abundance of heat before being finally found. The most final option according to him was to request for assistance from the Tribal Council of his community which was ‘ill funded’ (Sherman Alexie’s Short Stories).
This particular Tribal Council had some funds always set aside to tackle problems of their community members in such situations as Victor’s. However, the distance between them and the city Victor wanted to travel to was so enormous that they could not afford to fund him with their reserved money. Eventually, only some one hundred American dollars could be availed to him and though it was too little, he accepts it and cashes the cheque he is given after signing the necessary papers. He had little option; he could not be assisted according to his need.
Where he goes to cash his cheque, he encounters one man with a low profile in his community named Thomas Builds-the -fire or simply Thomas ‘the story teller’ (Sax 20). As it is written in this story, this man always talked to himself because no body ever gave attention to his stories whenever he told them. In fact in this story, a simile is used to describe him; ‘That’s like being a dentist in a town where everybody has false teeth’ (123HelpMe.com. 1). In this simile, the meaning as comes out is that he offers services that are not appreciated by the locals. This two had grown up together in this same neighborhood ‘childhood friends’ (123HelpMe.com. 1). Thomas, as usual, had something for people’s ears. From here there is a series of flashbacks about the days and times they had as children and what Thomas actually was made of.
First to be mentioned is the childhood experience at about the age of seven when Thomas told a story about Peter’s father to his age mate Peter. He had referred to Peter’s daddy as being weak in that he did not want to get quality time with his own wife and children (family). He talked about the old man wanting to buy himself a motorbike and run away. In this same story, there is a flashback to a time when together they used one bicycle then aged about ten years old. Thomas was quick to surrender the bicycle to Peter his friend and cousin as they went forth to attend a fairground where they would watch the fireworks in the dark and then walk back home. This were celebrations for fourth July which was the independence of the Indians a very much fought for liberation. In this flashback, there is the mention of Junior being a very common name with the inhabitants of the reserve. There surfaces some symbolism in this remembrance that at some point during that time as they sat in the night and were attacked by mosquitoes, victor still went back to Thomas for assistance by requesting a story just like in the situation of need, only Thomas would be available to offer him help. The story told to victor by his cousin Thomas in this context more or less just brought out the realities of their lives late on when they became kind of heroes after the departure of victor’s daddy. They shared a common wish of being heroes at that tender age in their lives. The ‘shadows and light from streetlamps’ referred to here symbolizes the ups and downs that eventually they had to endure together in the course of their lives even when everybody else felt that Thomas was an insignificant person.
Also when young, aged about fifteen, they had already lost their friendly touch and so they picked up a fight with literally nothing being the specific cause. A lady named Norma stopped the bitter fight because of the respect she commanded. This is also a clear reflection of Thomas’s life in his adult age as no one seems to take whatever he says seriously just as the other boys would stand around and watch him get a beating. The memory of their experience at the age of about twelve years old brings out a symbolic encounter in the story where Thomas saved Victor from wasps that would have otherwise badly injured or even killed him. This reflects later on in the story as it is found out that at the point of need, only Thomas is willing to come close to Victor and offer some assistance. He literally pulled his foot out the hole of wasps for Victor to escape. An even funnier memory about this story-telling friend of Peter is the attempt to fly where according to the story he managed to sustain himself in flight for about a single second without fear like other boys did. A simile is also used in describing his flying when it is said, he ‘flapped his wings like a crazy eagle’. As well, it is said, ‘As real as the dirt when Thomas lost attitude and crashed to the ground’. Thomas Builds-the-Fire was lonely even in his school but yet he describes himself as one who was offered the gift of telling stories. At this point it is understood that the father died in the Second World War and the mother during his birth so he never had anybody for him. Away from the memories of the lives of this two men in their past, we get to consider what they encountered together to and from Phoenix, Arizona.
Thomas had foretold the departure of Victor’s daddy to a place far from his family and as things turn out as Victor stood at the Trading Post to cash a cheque, Thomas walked over to him and condoled him as one who knew every occurrence to do with his late father. He made claims that he got to learn about it from such communicators as birds, wind and Victor’s crying mother. Since Thomas was not regarded nicely by the locals of this area, many were surprised that the two were even having a conversation. Victor was to a great extend embarrassed of Thomas but much to his surprise, just to fulfill the symbolism of the wasps, Thomas offered to assist him yet again from some savings he had been making over the time. From perhaps embarrassment or mere pride, Victor was very reluctant to take the offer from his childhood friend, to the extent that he requested time to ‘think about it’. According to him, they were not to be referred to as friends at this time because it had been years since they last talked.
Thomas followed Victor over to his place as though he knew that he would decide to take the offer and also take Thomas with him to the place. They flew over next to one another in the plane where the social nature of Thomas is revealed. He manages to engage a white woman in a free conversation and even pulls Victor along to it as they continue which shows actually that he was an open minded person. They even perform some gymnastics as directed by the lady and talk about matters of governance. The humor displayed by Thomas continues to carry the two and their new made friend named Cathy. Victor came to acknowledge talking to people was nice and apologized to Thomas over the happenings of the fight when they were fifteen. The body was stinking and the fact that dental records were needed for the identification meant it was even harder a task than it first looked. With the understanding that there could have been some valuables in there, they had to do it. Again with his eyes, just like the usual way, closed, Thomas remembered the fallen old man as having taken him from Spoken where he was standing and cautioned him against being mugged, bought him dinner and took him home. There was a prior deal that Thomas takes care of Victor in exchange for the favor as it shows out in the memory.
Respect is accorded to the dead as even a wooden box containing part of the ash from the cremated body had a hat on it while the rest in a card box had a cap on it. They then drove a long way in turns through regions devoid of life until eventually a jackrabbit appeared only to be killed by the car in what they referred to as suicide.
They arrived in the morning as the tribe awoke with all that had taken them away for some time up until then. Thomas did not want the money back from Victor but rather an ear during the telling of his usual stories. The friendship could however not continue in this neighborhood. A simile is used to back up this as being, ‘As real as the ashes’ where the ashes symbolized Victor’s daddy behind the car seats. Victor only thanked Thomas with the content of cardboard box. Thomas with his usual many ideas planned to spill the ash into the water at Spokane where he said Victor’s father would, ‘rise like a salmon, his teeth will shine like silver, like a rainbow.’ All these are similes. Victor also uses another when he says, ‘I thought it’d be like cleaning the attic or something.’ The conclusion of this story as the two part shows just how much sometimes people reject good people because of pressure from others (Ariana 10). Victor had a debt to pay, listen to stories.
Richard, Sax. “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” Magill’s Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition. Salem Press, 2007.
Ariana, Todd. “This is what it means to say Phoenix, Arizona.” 2008.
123HelpMe.com. Conflict in This is What it Means to say Phoenix, Arizona. 7th May 2010.
Kelly, Jermaine. “Conflict Within The Mind” 2007.
“Sherman Alexie’s Short Stories” 7th May 7, 2010.
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