Victor loses his job working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and shortly thereafter learns that his father has died of a heart attack in Phoenix. Victor has not seen his father in years, and has only spoken to him by phone a couple of times in those years—still, though, he feels “a genetic pain” at the news of his father’s passing.
The “genetic pain” that Victor describes feeling upon learning of his father’s death is a major theme, first introduced in such plain language here. Victor’s journey to plumb the depths of that pain spans the entire collection.
Victor has no money at his disposal. He knows that his father has some money in a savings account, but, in the meantime, Victor needs to find a way to get himself to Phoenix. Victor contacts the tribal council, and they say that they have money set aside for the return of tribal members’ bodies, but not much. Victor assures them that because his father died alone in his trailer and was not found for a week, he’s been cremated—so getting him back to the reservation, Victor says, “ain’t going to cost all that much.” The tribal council offers Victor one hundred dollars, and advises him to ask someone to either drive him to Phoenix or lend him the rest of the money. Victor accepts the hundred dollars, and heads over to the Trading Post to cash his check.
Victor’s life has been calibrated by poverty and loss; now, the two converge around Victor’s grief, feeding each other and exacerbating his already dire situation.
At the Trading Post Victor sees Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who is talking to himself “like always.” Victor recalls a time, when he and Thomas were seven, that Thomas told Victor a story that seemed like a prophecy or vision: “Your father’s heart is weak. He is afraid of his own family. He is afraid of you…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.”
Only after the loss of his father can Victor see the truth in Thomas’s visions. Victor—and everyone else on the reservation—are quick to dismiss Thomas and his stories, but in this new light Victor is able to see that perhaps Thomas has been right all along.
Thomas approaches Victor and apologizes for his loss. He tells Victor that Victor’s mother was just in the Trading Post, crying. Thomas offers to lend Victor the money he needs to get to Arizona if Victor will take Thomas with him. Victor refuses. “I can’t take your money,” he says; “We’re not really friends anymore.” Thomas insists. Victor tells Thomas he’ll consider his offer. He cashes his check and heads home, where he sits at his kitchen table and remembers “so many stories” from his and Thomas’s childhood.
Victor, who was cruel to Thomas during their adolescence, feels incapable of taking him up on an offer of a loan. However, upon returning home to solitude, he’s forced to reckon with the past, and to consider what he and Thomas owe one another.
Victor remembers one summer when he and Thomas shared a bike. On their way to watch Fourth of July fireworks, Thomas told Victor a story of “two Indian boys who wanted to be warriors,” who stole a car, drove to the city, parked the stolen car in front of a police station, and hitchhiked their way back to the reservation. Upon their return, their friends and families eyes “shone with pride,” and the boys were congratulated on their bravery. At the story’s conclusion, both Victor and Thomas wish aloud that they could be warriors.
In the present, at his kitchen table, Victor counts his hundred dollars again and again. He knows he needs more. He places the money into his wallet and heads out his front door in search of Thomas, who is waiting on his front porch. “I knew you’d call me,” Thomas says. He tells Victor that he has enough money saved to get the two of them to Phoenix, but that Victor will need to get them back. Victor agrees. Thomas, excited, asks when they’ll set out on their journey.
In a moment that mirrors Victor’s earlier memory of his father opening and closing his wallet repeatedly in hopes of money might appear, Victor counts and recounts the money the tribal council offered him. When Thomas shows up on Victor’s doorstep, we again see that his powers of prophecy may be more real than Victor has ever given him credit for.
Victor remembers a time “when [he and Thomas] were fifteen; they had long since stopped being friends,” and got into a fistfight. Victor, intoxicated, beat Thomas up “for no reason at all.” Their friends, including Junior, stood by and watched, until Norma rescued Thomas. The boys obeyed the “powerful” and warrior-like Norma, who asked Thomas why he was always getting picked on, but received no answer from him.
Norma exhibits the characteristics that Victor and Junior wish they could; she is brave and honest, and when she “saves” Thomas from Victor, she highlights how far from achieving those values he really is. In reflecting on this memory, Victor realizes that not only does he still fall short, but he owes Thomas a debt.
In the present, Victor and Thomas sit side-by-side in coach on their flight to Phoenix. A gymnast who’d been “first alternate on the 1980 Olympic team” sits next to them, and Thomas flirts with her. Victor is amazed, and knows that if he ever told anyone back on the reservation, they wouldn’t believe him.
Thomas’s reputation as an eccentric storyteller belies who he is as a person, and Victor realizes that this trip will be different than he imagined it.
After arriving at the airport in Phoenix, Victor and Thomas take a taxi to Victor’s father’s trailer. When they get there, Victor apologizes for hitting Thomas all those years ago, and Thomas forgives him. Victor can smell the trailer from outside, and tells Thomas that he doesn’t have to accompany him in, but Thomas insists that Victor is going to need help. When they open the trailer door, both of them are overwhelmed by the smell. Victor’s father had lain alone in his trailer “for a week in hundred degree temperatures, and the only reason anyone found him was because of the smell. They needed dental records to identify him.” Victor, thinking there might be items of sentimental value in the trailer, presses on, and Thomas follows him inside.
Victor finds himself caught between the past and the present. He lingers in his bad memories of being cruel to Thomas, not totally able to exist in the present moment they’re sharing. He’s then brought back to reality by the horror of visiting the site of his father’s death, and realizing the extreme poverty, unhappiness, and isolation his father must have faced. Still, Victor longs for the tangible aspects of his father’s memory, and that pushes him forward into the trailer.
Victor remembers a time when he was twelve, and stepped into an underground wasps’ nest. Thomas helped him to pull his foot out and run away, and Victor escaped with only a few stings—“seven, [his] lucky number.”
Victor realizes more and more with each intruding memory what a good friend Thomas was to him, and has always tried to be.
There is not much in Victor’s father’s trailer worth keeping, since everything stinks, Victor says, of death. Thomas tells a story of Victor’s father. Once, as a young man, Thomas had a dream that “told” him to go to Spokane, stand at the Falls, and “wait for a sign.” Thomas, thirteen and without a license or a car, walked all the way to the falls from the reservation. After an hour, Victor’s father ran into him and asked what he was doing; Thomas replied that he was waiting for a vision. Telling him that “all you’re going to get here is mugged,” Victor’s father drove Thomas to a Denny’s for dinner and then took him home to the reservation. “For a long time,” Thomas says, he was angry, because he felt betrayed by his dreams; however, he says, he came to realize that Victor’s father had been his vision all along. What his dreams were saying was “take care of each other.”
Thomas reveals that he had an important moment with Victor’s father, one that had a profound effect on who he was, and what his relationships to others—namely Victor—would be. Thomas has strived his whole life to care for Victor and for their community as a result of this encounter with Victor’s father, but his efforts have gone largely unnoticed and unappreciated. This moment allows Victor to see his father in a different light, and to understand that he had a positive effect on the lives of others, even if his presence in Victor’s life was unsteady at best.
Victor is quiet, and then confesses to Thomas that his father never told him that story. Thomas tells Victor that his father, not wanting Thomas to get in trouble, promised never to tell anyone, but that Thomas had to “watch out for [Victor] as part of the deal.” Victor realizes that Thomas had deeper reasons for accompanying him to Phoenix. Together, the two of them climb into Victor’s father’s pickup truck and head to the bank, where they claim the three hundred dollars his father had left to his name.
The deeper revelation that Victor’s father charged Thomas with caring for him explains to Victor, and to the readers, why Thomas was so insistent on shepherding Victor to Phoenix and taking care of him, emotionally and monetarily, throughout the trip.
Victor remembers a time when, as a child, Thomas jumped from the roof of the tribal school, flapped his arms, and “flew.” “For a second,” Victor remembers, “he hovered.” When Thomas fell, he broke his arm in two places. The boys jeered at him, chanting, “He broke his wing, he broke his wing” and flapping their arms in mockery. Victor knew, he says, that “everybody has dreams about flying,” and that the boys hated him because “one of his dreams came true for just a second, just enough to make it real.”
Thomas’s unique relationship to his visions and dreams made him the envy, and enemy, of many of his classmates. His ability to access a cultural rite of passage that has largely faded away separated him from the other children—and moreover, he realized a dream, something that may never come to pass for many children growing up on the reservation.
Victor’s father’s ashes don’t quite fit in one box, so Victor divides them into two. Victor and Thomas carry the ashes to the pickup truck and settle in for the long drive home. Victor drives for upwards of sixteen hours, then pulls over and asks Thomas to drive. Their journey so far has been devoid of sights of water, animal life, or any “movement” at all. As soon as Thomas gets behind the wheel, the two see a jackrabbit on the side of the road. It jumps out into the road, and Thomas, unable to stop, hits it. The two decide that it had to be a “suicide,” but that Victor should rive the rest of the way, anyway.
The jackrabbit appearing as soon as Thomas takes the wheel seems to indicate a deep connection he has to nature. However, this trope is quickly overturned when Thomas hits it with the truck.
Thomas recollects walking through the hallways of the tribal school all alone, day after day; “nobody wanted to be anywhere near him because of all [his] stories.” He realizes, though, that “it doesn’t matter as long as I continue to tell the stories,” since they are all he has. He continues to tell his stories, “long after people stopped listening.”
Thomas shouldered the burden of his storytelling gift at an early age, understanding the importance of the larger stories he had to tell in the face of the small slights of his everyday life telling them. Though his gift has isolated him, he still values it.
Victor and Thomas arrive back home at the reservation “just as the sun ris[es].” Victor stops his truck in front of Thomas’s house, and the two of them “search for words to end the journey.” Before Victor can thank Thomas for his help and offer to pay it back to him, Thomas tells him not to worry about it. Victor knows that Thomas will “remain the crazy story-teller who talked to dogs and cars,” and that he will never “really be friends with Thomas, even after all that had happened.” Thomas, as if reading Victor’s mind, tells him that he knows things will stay the same between them. Victor, ashamed, wonders “whatever happened to the tribal ties,” noting that “the only thing he share[s] with anybody [is] a bottle and broken dreams.” Desperate, he offers Thomas one of the boxes of his father’s ashes.
Victor and Thomas, both lonely and isolated, have found strength in each other over the course of their journey; however, Thomas knows that Victor’s behavior won’t change so easily, and, just as he has shouldered the burden of being the tribal storyteller, he preempts Victor’s apology and offers to accept things as they are, as they have been, and as they will continue to be. Victor, though, contemplates the true role of community and the gradual loss of love, understanding, and selflessness that has affected the world around him.
Thomas accepts, and tells Victor that he will go back to the Spokane Falls and scatter the ashes there. He describes a vision he has of Victor’s father “ris[ing] like a salmon, leap[ing] over the bridge, and find[ing] his way home.” Before Victor drives away, Thomas asks him a favor. “Just one time,” he says, “when I’m telling a story somewhere, why don’t you stop and listen?” Victor agrees, and drives away. Thomas goes into his house, and “hear[s] a new story come to him in the silence.”