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A young Indian man, John-John, counts dollar bills he’s been saving in a shoebox. He counts out two hundred stacks of ten dollars each, and wonders “How much is enough?” He packs his money into a suitcase along with clean underwear, a toothbrush, and a worn photograph of his older brother, Joseph, in “full military dress in front of an American flag.” John-John remembers receiving a letter which informed his parents that Joseph, a jet pilot, had been taken prisoner during a military operation.
This story, entrenched in dream logic and hazy, fantastical visions, unpacks themes of storytelling and imagination and how they intersect with memory. John-John dreams incessantly of his brother’s return, and of escape from the reservation—two things that seem impossible or intangible. Not also the bitter irony of Joseph fighting (and possibly dying) for a flag that, arguably, represents much of the oppression and suffering Native people have historically faced.
John-John recalls waiting at the window “for years” after his brother’s disappearance. While his friends lived their lives—grew up, married, had children—he “lived” by the window. John-John waits on the porch with his suitcase, “watching the sky for signs.” He then has a vision of a jet “ripp[ing] through the sound barrier,” and he can “see vapor trails stretched across the sky.”
John-John is consumed by a deep sense of loss, pain, and isolation in the wake of his brother’s disappearance. He retreats into dreams and visions, imagining that his brother’s return is always just around the corner.
John-John runs down the highway, chasing the jet; it touches down in front of him. He wonders if Christopher Columbus has come back. John-John sees his brother Joseph climbing from the jet, and his brother removes his helmet to reveal his scarred face. Joseph does not remember John-John, and John-John cries, thinking that “memory [is] like a coin trick; like an abandoned car.”
John-John’s comparison of memory to “coin tricks” and “abandoned cars” cements the idea or theme of memory as ethereal and difficult to hold onto. Memories trip Alexie’s characters up, intrude on their lives, and reinforce the cyclical nature of violence and loss on the reservation.
John-John, having fallen asleep, dreams of all the ways his brother might return to him. Upon waking, he revels in memories of their childhood, and the jokes they told. He waits a little while more at the window. He eventually goes back to sleep and “dreams of flight,” and of finding Joseph in the woods. Upon waking, he returns to the window. He watches vapor trails form in the sky, counts his dollar bills, and dreams of “escape.”
John-John becomes mired in dreams, which, for him, are a form not of forward-thinking imagination but of inability to escape from memories. Longing for escape and feelings of isolation drive John-John further into the recesses of his dream world.