Carver, Raymond. "Are These Actual Miles?".
Leo, Toni, and their children are an ordinary American family living in a suburban house. Leo met his wife when she was selling children’s encyclopaedias and made him subscribe even though he did not have any children.
Toni is a smart woman and an excellent seller. She returned to her job when the children went to school and she started to earn a lot. They at first did not know what to do with the money but then they started spending incredibly. They gorged on food, Toni insisted on buying her children the luxurious items that she could not have herself when she was a child. They subscribed to all kinds of clubs, a book club, a record club; they bought a very expensive pedigree dog that got run over by a car a week later. When they did not have the cash, they bought on credit.
Now the couple is bankrupt. They have a court on Monday after which they will start over. All they have now is some furniture and clothes, Leo’s little car, and Toni’s big convertible. The latter must be sold immediately for cash, sooner than some of their creditors puts a lien on it. Toni is naturally the one who will go to sell the car. She takes a whole afternoon preparing for the deal, putting on all-new clothes and carefully fixing her hair and make-up. She knows the ropes and knows that a dinner and a drink are a part of the deal.
The children are with Leo’s mother. Leo waits for his wife to call and tell him how things are going. He drinks heavily throughout the evening. He fixes himself a meal and watches TV. He considers hanging himself because bankruptcy is associated to him with suicides. When Toni calls, she announces that she was successful but that she is with the sales manager in a restaurant, half-way through their dinner, and that she has to go. Leo is not satisfied with the information, he seems to be jealous, though he was unfaithful to his wife last winter. He brought a woman to the house when Toni was away and he was caught with her by their neighbour Ernest Williams.
Toni returns near dawn. She looks drunk. She assaults Leo, tears his shirt, and blames him for being bankrupt. Then she collapses on the bed and falls asleep. Leo undresses her and examines the check for the car in her purse. He hears a car coming and sees a man getting out and putting something on their steps. It is Toni’s make-up pouch which she forgot. He runs to the man but when he sees neighbour Williams at the window, he does not do anything. The man asks him whether these are actual miles but Leo does not say anything. He goes to bed, traces the stretch mark on his wife’s hips with his fingers and they remind him of roads. He recalls one Saturday morning three years ago after they bought the convertible. They woke up and saw the car standing outside and gleaming in the sun.
The story portrays a thoroughly materialist family and the pitfalls brought upon it by their consumerist way of life. It shows a society in which money are valued more than morality: the sales manager observes that he would ‘rather be classified a robber or a rapist than a bankrupt’. It shows consumerism as a mad obsession: the family keeps on buying things and subscribing for products that they do not need at all. It also shows how little remains of a marriage when the purchased things are removed.
A more optimistic reading allows the couple for a brand new beginning and a chance to consider their values once again and perhaps find an even more satisfying substitute for the material things that they lost. Leo may also feel expiated for his infidelity, as it seems that his wife succumbed to the charms of the sales manager for a while. The discomforting atmosphere of the story is relieved also by slight strokes of black humour, as when Leo considers committing suicide or biting off the rim of a glass.
AuthorCarver, Raymond. (1938 - 1988).
Full Title"Are These Actual Miles?".
First PublishedIn: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? NY: McGraw-Hill, 1976.
Carver, Raymond. ‘Are These Actual Miles?’. The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. 583-90.