Sunday, January 4, 2015

Deal Me In 2015, Week 1: "This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona" by Sherman Alexie

Even though this was a weird half-week to begin the Deal Me In adventure for 2015, I decided to go ahead and read my story and start off with a bang. The two of diamonds led me to a story from The Best American Short Stories 1994: "This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona" by the famous Native American writer, Sherman Alexie.

I am not that familiar with Alexie's work, although I did read his novel Reservation Blues many years ago when it first came out. It didn't make a huge impression on me at the time, so I may have read it at the wrong time of my life or something. I really should go back and read it now, however, since it involves some of the same characters that show up in this story. As a side note, this story first appeared in Esquire, and was later incorporated into his collection entitled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (one of my all-time favorite titles for a book!).

Victor, who lives in Spokane, has just learned that his father has passed away in Phoenix. He just lost his job, so although he can get $100 from the tribal council to help with his father's arrangements, he doesn't have nearly enough money to get to Phoenix and back. His former friend from his childhood, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, offers to lend him the rest of the money to travel to Phoenix, but on one condition: Victor must take Thomas with him. No one likes Thomas because he is a storyteller and tells the same stories over and over to people, or even to himself. He's just weird:

While Victor stood in line, he watched Thomas Builds-the-Fire standing near the magazine rack talking to himself. Like he always did. Thomas was a storyteller whom nobody wanted to listen to. That's like being a dentist in a town where everybody has false teeth.

They travel by plane to Phoenix, and then travel back to Spokane in Victor's father's pickup. Along the way, Victor has flashbacks about his relationship through the years with Thomas. He finds out that, when Thomas was 13, he had run away to Spokane because of a dream he had had. There, Victor's father found him and rescued him, helping him get back to the reservation. But he never told anyone about it, in return for Thomas' promise to watch out for Victor and help him when he most needed it.

There is much more to this story than I am telling you, of course, because I think you need to go find it and read it for yourself. It's an affecting story of friendship (the good and the bad parts of it) and also about the nature of stories in our lives. And it's really just flat-out funny, to boot:

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 car," Victor yelled, and Thomas did stop and backed the pickup to the dead jackrabbit.

"Oh man, he's dead," Victor said as he looked at the squashed animal.

"Really dead."

"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."

This is a great story by a great author, and a fantastic way to begin the new year of Deal Me In!

Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.


  1. This sounds hilarious! I'm going to have to find this collection.

  2. We both drew the two of diamonds this week.

    I have Alexie's "War Dances" on my short story shelf and have read a few. Some were funny, but not like the passage you shared. I lol'ed at that.

    Reading posts today, it seems like many DMIers got off to a great start this year.

  3. I was intrigued by this title because, well, I live in Phoenix. That is a hilarious passage. I haven't spent much time in Nevada, but the AZ desert isn't much different, east and west of here.