Unlike many of the stories in the collection, this story is narrated in the third person. Victor’s father dies, and he is devastated although he has not seen him in a few years. Victor wants to go to Phoenix, where his father lived, to close his father’s savings account and pick up his ashes, but he doesn’t have enough money to do so. The tribal council normally puts money aside for situations like this, but they are low on cash and can only give him $100.
Thomas Builds-the-Fire offers to lend Victor the money on the condition that he accompany Victor to Phoenix. Victor is reluctant because Thomas is known for being eccentric - he tells the same stories over and over again, and sometimes talks nonsense. They were friends as young boys but haven’t been close for years. Victor remembers spending the Fourth of July with Thomas and listening to his stories. With no other option - and some guilt over his behavior towards his once friend - he decides to take up Thomas’s offer.
Victor remembers a time when he was 15 and beat Thomas badly while drunk. The other boys watched and did not intervene. Victor only stopped when Norma Many Horses, an older woman, intervened.
On the plane to Phoenix, Victor and Thomas sit next to Cathy, a former Olympic gymnast. Although Victor is initially embarrassed at Thomas’s attempts to converse with her, Cathy is friendly and they all enjoy talking to each other. When the plane lands, Victor apologizes for beating up Thomas. They arrive at Victor’s father’s trailer. Because Victor’s father’s body was not found for a week, the trailer reeks and it is difficult for Thomas and Victor to go in to sort through the man's things. Victor recalls how Thomas helped him when he got his foot stuck in a wasp's nest at age 12.
Thomas tells Victor a story about how when Thomas was 13, he had a dream that told him to walk to Spokane so he could have a vision. Victor’s father found Thomas there, and drove him back to the reservation on the condition that Thomas promise to watch out for Victor over the years. Victor remembers a time Thomas jumped off a roof because he believed he could fly, and did seem to fly for a second before falling to the ground.
After collecting Victor’s father’s ashes, money, and car, Victor and Thomas drive back to Spokane. As they pass through Nevada, they note that there is no plant or animal life. They finally see a jackrabbit, and Thomas accidentally runs it down with the car. When they arrive back in Spokane, Victor and Thomas acknowledge that the trip probably won’t bring them closer together. However, Victor gives Thomas a portion of his father’s ashes. Thomas promises to scatter them at the waterfall in Spokane, and asks Victor one favor - to listen to one of his stories, just once.
“This Is What It Means...” has an episodic, non-chronological structure. This means that the story is related as a series of anecdotes from different points in Victor’s life. Although the main plotline of Victor and Thomas traveling to Phoenix is related chronologically, Victor’s many flashbacks to his relationship with Thomas are not. By presenting a single narrative interspersed with flashbacks, Alexie mimics memory - triggered by free association rather than strict chronology.
Alexie draws on his poetry background throughout the story, especially in Victor’s conversation with the tribal council. The recurrence of the phrase “now Victor” (60) adds a repetitive rhythm to the discussion and reflects Victor’s frustration with the bureaucracy. In the scene in the Nevada desert, Alexie also uses personification, another technique often associated with poetry. Victor notices that the air is imbued with “emptiness and loneliness” (72). By giving the desert air human characteristics, Alexie emphasizes the differences between the places that Thomas and Victor visit on their journey and the reservation back home. For all its problems (which the other stories in the collection describe and critique in great detail), the reservation is still a place where life can grow and flourish.
Although “This Is What It Means...” focuses on Victor’s point of view, it can also be read as a character sketch of Thomas Builds-the-Fire. Thomas appears in many stories in the collection, but this one gives a detailed explanation of why Victor remains friends with Thomas (and harbors a sense of grudging respect toward him) despite the fact that he dislikes him and his stories. However, Thomas remains something of a mysterious figure. Although most of the collection’s main characters - including Victor, Junior Polatkin, and Norma Many Horses – change and develop over the course of the stories in which they appear, Thomas Builds-the-Fire remains largely unaffected by his experiences. In the flashbacks to Victor and Thomas’s shared adolescence, Thomas demonstrates the same tolerance, love of storytelling, and otherworldly qualities that he has as an adult, unlike Victor, who has become a great deal more compassionate and responsible since he bullied Thomas as a teenager.