“This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona”?by Sherman Alexie?First published in Esquire In 1994?Anthologized in Best American Short Stories of 1994?Adapted with other Alexie stories for the 1998 film Smoke Signals
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“This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona”?by Sherman Alexie?First published in Esquire In 1994?Anthologized in Best American Short Stories of 1994?Adapted with other Alexie stories for the 1998 film Smoke Signals
Just after Victor lost his job at the BIA, he also found J out that his father had died of a heart attack in Phoenix, Arizona. Victor hadn’t seen his father in a few years, only talked to him on the telephone once or twice, but there still was a genetic pain, which was soon to be pain as real and immediate as a broken bone.
Victor didn’t have any money. Who does have money on a reservation, except the cigarette and fireworks salespeople? His father had a savings account waiting to be claimed, but Victor needed to find a way to get to Phoenix. Victor’s mother was just as poor as he was, and the rest of his family didn’t have any use at all for him. So Victor called the Tribal Council.
“Listen,” Victor said. “My father just died. I need some money to get to Phoenix to make arrangements.”
“Now, Victor,” the council said. “You know we’re having a difficult time financially.”
“But I thought the council had special funds set aside for stuff like this.”
“Now, Victor, we do have some money available for the proper return of tribal members’ bodies. But I don’t think we have enough to bring your father all the way back from Phoenix.”
“Well,” Victor said. “It ain’t going to cost all that much. He had to be cremated. Things were kind of ugly. He died of a heart attack in his trailer and nobody found him for a week. It was really hot, too. You get the picture.”
“Now, Victor, we’re sorry for your loss and the circumstances. But we can really only afford to give you one hundred dollars.”
“That’s not even enough for a plane ticket.”
“Well, you might consider driving down to Phoenix.”
“I don’t have a car. Besides, I was going to drive my father’s pickup back up here.”
“Now, Victor,” the council said. “We’re sure there is somebody who could drive you to Phoenix. Or is there somebody who could lend you the rest of the money?”
“You know there ain’t nobody around with that kind of money.”
“Well, we’re sorry, Victor, but that’s the best we can do.”
Victor accepted the Tribal Council’s offer. What else could he do? So he signed the proper papers, picked up his check, and walked over to the Trading Post to cash it.
While Victor stood in line, he watched Thomas Buildsthe-Fire standing near the magazine rack, talking to himself. Like he always did. Thomas was a storyteller that nobody wanted to listen to. That’s like being a dentist in a town where everybody has false teeth.
Victor and Thomas Builds-the-Fire were the same age, had grown up and played in the dirt together. Ever since Victor could remember, it was Thomas who always had something to say.
Once, when they were seven years old, when Victor’s father still lived with the family, Thomas closed his eyes and told Victor this story: “Your father’s heart is weak. He is afraid of his own family. He is afraid of you. Late at night he sits in the dark. Watches the television until there’s nothing but that white noise. Sometimes he feels like he wants to buy a motorcycle and ride away. He wants to run and hide. He doesn’t want to be found.”
Thomas Builds-the-Fire had known that Victor’s father was going to leave, knew it before anyone. Now Victor stood in the Trading Post with a one-hundred-dollar check in his hand, wondering if Thomas knew that Victor’s father was dead, if he knew what was going to happen next.
Just then Thomas looked at Victor, smiled, and walked over to him.
“Victor, I’m sorry about your father,” Thomas said.
“How did you know about it?” Victor asked.
“I heard it on the wind. I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight. Also, your mother was just in here crying.”
“Oh,” Victor said and looked around the Trading Post. All the other Indians stared, surprised that Victor was even talking to Thomas. Nobody talked to Thomas because he told the same damn stories over and over again. Victor was embarassed, but he thought that Thomas might be able to help him. Victor felt a sudden need for tradition.
“I can lend you the money you need,” Thomas said suddenly. “But you have to take me with you.”
“I can’t take your money,” Victor said. “I mean, I haven’t hardly talked to you in years. We’re not really friends anymore.”
“I didn’t say we were friends. I said you had to take me with you.”
“Let me think about it.”
Victor went home with his one hundred dollars and sat at the kitchen table. He held his head in his hands and thought about Thomas Builds-the-Fire, remembered little details, tears and scars, the bicycle they shared for a summer, so many stories.
Thomas Builds-the-Fire sat on the bicycle, waited in Victor’s yard. He was ten years old and skinny. His hair was dirty because it was the Fourth of July.
“Victor,” Thomas yelled. “Hurry up. We’re going to miss the fireworks.”
After a few minutes, Victor ran out of his house, jumped the porch railing, and landed gracefully on the sidewalk.
“And the judges award him a 9.95, the highest score of the summer,” Thomas said, clapped, laughed.
“That was perfect, cousin,” Victor said. “And it’s my. turn to ride the bike.”
Thomas gave up the bike and they headed for the fairgrounds. It was nearly dark and the fireworks were about to start.
“You know,” Thomas said. “It’s strange how us Indians celebrate the Fourth of July. It ain’t like it was our independence everybody was fighting for.”
“You think about things too much,” Victor said. “It’s just supposed to be fun. Maybe junior will be there.”
“Which Junior? Everybody on this reservation is named junior.”
And they both laughed.
The fireworks were small, hardly more than a few bottle rockets and a fountain. But it was enough for two Indian boys. Years later, they would need much more.
Afterwards, sitting in the dark, fighting off mosquitoes, Victor turned to Thomas Builds-the-Fire.
“Hey,” Victor said. “Tell me a story.”
Thomas closed his eyes and told this story: “There were these two Indian boys who wanted to be warriors. But it was too late to be warriors in the old way. All the horses were gone. So the two Indian boys stole a car and drove to the city. They parked the stolen car in front of the police station and then hitchhiked back home to the reservation. When they got back, all their friends cheered and their parents’ eyes shone with pride. You were very brave, everybody said to the two Indian boys. Very brave.”
“Ya-hey,” Victor said. “That’s a good one. I wish I could be a warrior.”
“Me, too,” Thomas said.
They went home together in the dark, Thomas on the bike now, Victor on foot. They walked through shadows and light from streetlamps.
“We’ve come a long ways,” Thomas said. “We have outdoor lighting.”
“All I need is the stars,” Victor said. “And besides, you still think about things too much.”
They separated then, each headed for home, both laughing all the way.
Victor sat at his kitchen table. He counted his one hundred dollars again and again. He knew he needed more to make it to Phoenix and back. He knew he needed Thomas Builds-theFire. So he put his money in his wallet and opened the front door to find Thomas on the porch.
“Ya-hey, Victor,” Thomas said. “I knew you’d call me.”
Thomas walked into the living room and sat down on Victor’s favorite chair.
“I’ve got some money saved up,” Thomas said. “It’s enough to get us down there, but you have to get us back.”
“I’ve got this hundred dollars,” Victor said. “And my dad had a savings account I’m going to claim.”
“How much in your dad’s account?”
“Enough. A few hundred.”
“Sounds good. When we leaving?”
* * *
When they were fifteen and had long since stopped being friends, Victor and Thomas got into a fistfight. That is, Victor was really drunk and beat Thomas up for no reason at all. All the other Indian boys stood around and watched it happen. Junior was there and so were Lester, Seymour, and a lot of others. The beating might have gone on until Thomas was dead if Norma Many Horses hadn’t come along and stopped it.
“Hey, you boys,” Norma yelled and jumped out of her car. “Leave him alone.”
If it had been someone else, even another man, the Indian boys would’ve just ignored the warnings. But Norma was a warrior. She was powerful. She could have picked up any two of the boys and smashed their skulls together. But worse than that, she would have dragged them all over to some tipi and made them listen to some elder tell a dusty old story.
The Indian boys scattered, and Norma walked over to Thomas and picked him up.
“Hey, little man, are you okay?” she asked.
Thomas gave her a thumbs up.
“Why they always picking on you?”
Thomas shook his head, closed his eyes, but no stories came to him, no words or music. He just wanted to go home, to lie in his bed and let his dreams tell his stories for him.
Thomas Builds-the-Fire and Victor sat next to each other in the airplane, coach section. A tiny white woman had the window seat. She was busy twisting her body into pretzels. She was flexible.
“I have to ask,” Thomas said, and Victor closed his eyes in embarrassment.
“Don’t,” Victor said.
“Excuse me, miss,” Thomas asked. “Are you a gymnast or something?”
“There’s no something about it,” she said. “I was first alternate on the 1980 Olympic team.”
“Really?” Thomas asked.
“I mean, you used to be a world-class athlete?” Thomas asked.
“My husband still thinks I am.”
Thomas Builds-the-Fire smiled. She was a mental gymnast, too. She pulled her leg straight up against her body so that she could’ve kissed her kneecap.
“I wish I could do that,” Thomas said.
Victor was ready to jump out of the plane. Thomas, that crazy Indian storyteller with ratty old braids and broken teeth, was flirting with a beautiful Olympic gymnast. Nobody back home on the reservation would ever believe it.
“Well,” the gymnast said. “It’s easy. Try it.”
Thomas grabbed at his leg and tried to pull it up into the same position as the gymnast. He couldn’t even come close, which made Victor and the gymnast laugh.
“Hey,” she asked. “You two are Indian, right?”
“Full-blood,” Victor said.
“Not me,” Thomas said. “I’m half magician on my mother’s side and half clown on my father’s.”
They all laughed.
“What are your names?” she asked.
“Victor and Thomas.”
“Mine is Cathy. Pleased to meet you all.”
The three of them talked for the duration of the flight. Cathy the gymnast complained about the government, how they screwed the 1980 Olympic team by boycotting.
“Sounds like you all got a lot in common with Indians,” Thomas said.
After the plane landed in Phoenix and they had all found their way to the terminal, Cathy the gymnast smiled and waved good-bye.
“She was really nice,” Thomas said.
“Yeah, but everybody talks to everybody on airplanes,” Victor said. “It’s too bad we can’t always be that way.”
“You always used to tell me I think too much,” Thomas said. “Now it sounds like you do.”
“Maybe I caught it from you.”
Thomas and Victor rode in a taxi to the trailer where Victor’s father died.
“Listen,” Victor said .as they stopped in front of the trailer. “I never told you I was sorry for beating you up that time.”
“Oh, it was nothing. We were just kids and you were drunk.”
“Yeah, but I’m still sorry.”
“That’s all right.”
Victor paid for the taxi and the two of them stood in the hot Phoenix summer. They could smell the trailer.
“This ain’t going to be nice,” Victor said. “You don’t have to go in.”
“You’re going to need help.”
Victor walked to the front door and opened it. The stink rolled out and made them both gag. Victor’s father had lain in that trailer for a week in hundred-degree temperatures before anyone found him. And the only reason anyone found him was because of the smell. They needed dental records to identify him. That’s exactly what the coroner said. They needed dental records.
“Oh, man,” Victor said. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Well, then don’t.”
“But there might be something valuable in there.”
“I thought his money was in the bank.”
“It is. I was talking about pictures and letters and stuff like that.”
“Oh,” Thomas said as he held his breath and followed Victor into the trailer.
When Victor was twelve, he stepped into an underground wasp nest. His foot was caught in the hole, and no matter how hard he struggled, Victor couldn’t pull free. He might have died there, stung a thousand times, if Thomas Builds-the-Fire had not come by.
“Run,” Thomas yelled and pulled Victor’s foot from the hole. They ran then, hard as they ever had, faster than Billy Mills, faster than Jim Thorpe, faster than the wasps could fly.
Victor and Thomas ran until they couldn’t breathe, ran until it was cold and dark outside, ran until they were lost and it took hours to find their way home. All the way back, Victor counted his stings.
“Seven,” Victor said. “My lucky number.”
* * *
Victor didn’t find much to keep in the trailer. Only a photo album and a stereo. Everything else had that smell stuck in it or was useless anyway.
“I guess this is all,” Victor said. “It ain’t much.”
“Better than nothing,” Thomas said.
“Yeah, and I do have the pickup.”
“Yeah,” Thomas said. “It’s in good shape.”
“Dad was good about that stuff.”
“Yeah, I remember your dad.”
“Really?” Victor asked. “What do you remember?”
Thomas Builds-the-Fire closed his eyes and told this story: “I remember when I had this dream that told me to go to Spokane, to stand by the Falls in the middle of the city and wait for a sign. I knew I had to go there but I didn’t have a car. Didn’t have a license. I was only thirteen. So I walked all the way, took me all day, and I finally made it to the Falls. I stood there for an hour waiting. Then your dad came walking up. What the hell are you doing here? he asked me. I said, Waiting for a vision. Then your father said, All you’re going to get here is mugged. So he drove me over to Denny’s, bought me dinner, and then drove me home to the reservation. For a long time I was mad because I thought my dreams had lied to me. But they didn’t. Your dad was my vision. Take care of each other is what my dreams were saying. Take care of each other.”
Victor was quiet for a long time. He searched his mind for memories of his father, found the good ones, found a few bad ones, added it all up, and smiled.
“My father never told me about finding you in Spokane,” Victor said.
“He said he wouldn’t tell anybody. Didn’t want me to get in trouble. But he said I had to watch out for you as part of the deal.”
“Really. Your father said you would need the help. He was right.”
“That’s why you came down here with me, isn’t it?” Victor asked.
“I came because of your father.”
Victor and Thomas climbed into the pickup, drove over to the bank, and claimed the three hundred dollars in the savings account.
Thomas Builds-the-Fire could fly.
Once, he jumped off the roof of the tribal school and flapped his arms like a crazy eagle. And he flew. For a second, he hovered, suspended above all the other Indian boys who were too smart or too scared to jump.
“He’s flying,” junior yelled, and Seymour was busy looking for the trick wires or mirrors. But it was real. As real as the dirt when Thomas lost altitude and crashed to the ground.
He broke his arm in two places.
“He broke his wing,” Victor chanted, and the other Indian boys joined in, made it a tribal song.
“He broke his wing, he broke his wing, he broke his wing,” all the Indian boys chanted as they ran off, flapping their wings, wishing they could fly, too. They hated Thomas for his courage, his brief moment as a bird. Everybody has dreams about flying. Thomas flew.
One of his dreams came true for just a second, just enough to make it real.
Victor’s father, his ashes, fit in one wooden box with enough left over to fill a cardboard box.
“He always was a big man,” Thomas said.
Victor carried part of his father and Thomas carried the rest out to the pickup. They set him down carefully behind the seats, put a cowboy hat on the wooden box and a Dodgers cap on the cardboard box. That’s the way it was supposed to be.
“Ready to head back home,” Victor asked.
“It’s going to be a long drive.”
“Yeah, take a couple days, maybe.”
“We can take turns,” Thomas said.
“Okay,” Victor said, but they didn’t take turns. Victor drove for sixteen hours straight north, made it halfway up Nevada toward home before he finally pulled over.
“Hey, Thomas,” Victor said. “You got to drive for a while.”
Thomas Builds-the-Fire slid behind the wheel and started off down the road. All through Nevada, Thomas and Victor had been amazed at the lack of animal life, at the absence of water, of movement.
“Where is everything?” Victor had asked more than once.
Now when Thomas was finally driving they saw the first animal, maybe the only animal in Nevada. It was a long-eared jackrabbit.
“Look,” Victor yelled. “It’s alive.”
Thomas and Victor were busy congratulating themselves on their discovery when the jackrabbit darted out into the road and under the wheels of the pickup.
“Stop the goddamn car,” Victor yelled, and Thomas did stop, backed the pickup to the dead jackrabbit.
“Oh, man, he’s dead,” Victor said as he looked at the squashed animal.
“The only thing alive in this whole state and we just killed it.”
“I don’t know,” Thomas said. “I think it was suicide.”
Victor looked around the desert, sniffed the air, felt the emptiness and loneliness, and nodded his head.
“Yeah,” Victor said. “It had to be suicide.”
“I can’t believe this,” Thomas said. “You drive for a thousand miles and there ain’t even any bugs smashed on the windshield. I drive for ten seconds and kill the only living thing in Nevada.”
Yeah,” Victor said. “Maybe I should drive.”
“Maybe you should.”
Thomas Builds-the-Fire walked through the corridors of the tribal school by himself. Nobody wanted to be anywhere near him because of all those stories. Story after story.
Thomas closed his eyes and this story came to him: “We are all given one thing by which our lives are measured, one determination. Mine are the stories which can change or not change the world. It doesn’t matter which as long as I continue to tell the stories. My father, he died on Okinawa in World War II, died fighting for this country, which had tried to kill him for years. My mother, she died giving birth to me, died while I was still inside her. She pushed me out into the world with her last breath. 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.”
Thomas Builds-the-Fire told his stories to all those who would stop and listen. He kept telling them long after people had stopped listening.
Victor and Thomas made it back to the reservation just as the sun was rising. It was the beginning of a new day on earth, but the same old shit on the reservation.
“Good morning,” Thomas said.
The tribe was waking up, ready for work, eating breakfast, reading the newspaper, just like everybody else does. Willene LeBret was out in her garden wearing a bathrobe. She waved when Thomas and Victor drove by.
“Crazy Indians made it,” she said to herself and went back to her roses.
Victor stopped the pickup in front of Thomas BuildstheFire’s HUD house. They both yawned, stretched a little, shook dust from their bodies.
“I’m tired,” Victor said.
“Of everything,” Thomas added.
They both searched for words to end the journey. Victor needed to thank Thomas for his help, for the money, and make the promise to pay it all back.
“Don’t worry about the money,” Thomas said. “It don’t make any difference anyhow.”
“Probably not, enit?”
Victor knew that Thomas would remain the crazy storyteller who talked to dogs and cars, who listened to the wind and pine trees. Victor knew that he couldn’t really be friends with Thomas, even after all that had happened. It was cruel but it was real. As real as the ashes, as Victor’s father, sitting behind the seats.
“I know how it is,” Thomas said. “I know you ain’t going to treat me any better than you did before. I know your friends would give you too much shit about it.”
Victor was ashamed of himself. Whatever happened to the tribal ties, the sense of community? The only real thing he shared with anybody was a bottle and broken dreams. He owed Thomas something, anything.
“Listen,” Victor said and handed Thomas the cardboard box which contained half of his father. “I want you to have this.”
Thomas took the ashes and smiled, closed his eyes, and told this story: “I’m going to travel to Spokane Falls one last time and toss these ashes into the water. And your father will rise like a salmon, leap over the bridge, over me, and find his way home. It will be beautiful. His teeth will shine like silver, like a rainbow. He will rise, Victor, he will rise.”
“I was planning on doing the same thing with my half,” Victor said. “But I didn’t imagine my father looking anything like a salmon. I thought it’d be like cleaning the attic or something. Like letting things go after they’ve stopped having any use.
“Nothing stops, cousin,” Thomas said. “Nothing stops.”
Thomas Builds-the-Fire got out of the pickup and walked up his driveway. Victor started the pickup and began the drive home.
“Wait,” Thomas yelled suddenly from his porch. “I just got to ask one favor.”
Victor stopped the pickup, leaned out the window, and shouted back. “What do you want?”
“Just one time when I’m telling a story somewhere, why don’t you stop and listen?” Thomas asked.
Victor waved his arms to let Thomas know that the deal was good. It was a fair trade, and that was all Victor had ever wanted from his whole life. So Victor drove his father’s pickup toward home while Thomas went into his house, closed the door behind him, and heard a new story come to him in the silence afterwards.