By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Are These Actual Miles?’ is a short story by the American writer Raymond Carver (1938-88), which appeared in his debut collection, Would You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976). The story is about a married couple who live beyond their means and rack up debt, so they are forced to sell their convertible. While the wife goes into town to find a buyer, the husband stays home and starts to fret about what his wife is really doing.
‘Are These Actual Miles?’ is about a number of things: among other things, it is about consumerism and the urge to borrow more money to acquire material goods, but it is also about how such an attitude spills over into, and infects, our human relationships, with the husband wondering what else his wife was prepared to ‘sell’ in order to get them out of financial trouble.
‘Are These Actual Miles?’: plot summary
The story is about a couple, Leo and Toni, who live beyond their means. They are due to appear in court for failure to repay their debts, and a number of household items have already been seized from their house. Now, Toni is preparing to go and sell their convertible so they have some cash.
Their children are with Leo’s mother, so Leo finds himself at home all evening on his own while Toni goes and finds a buyer for the car. Their neighbour, Ernest Williams, is hanging around outside, watering his garden, and Leo recalls when Ernest saw a woman leaving their house last year while Toni was away. Leo has never confessed his infidelity to Toni, though seeing his neighbour outside makes him want to do so.
While Toni is out selling the car, Leo finds it hard to settle down to anything. He makes himself numerous drinks, and even gets out a clean glass to make a new drink, apparently forgetting about the one he’s left in the sink. He starts to entertain dark thoughts, including the idea of taking his own life. At one point, he considers taking a bite out of the glass he’s drinking from.
Toni phones him from a restaurant downtown, telling him that she has found a buyer for their convertible, but the man insists on sealing the deal over dinner. Leo is uneasy about this, but Toni hangs up as she has to get back to the table. It becomes clear that Leo, who was himself unfaithful to Toni, is now worried about what his wife will be prepared to do to sell their car and raise some cash.
His wife phones again and he tells her to come home straightaway, but she says she cannot jeopardise the deal. Growing increasingly restless, Leo phones the restaurant but is told it’s closed. While he’s on the phone to the manager, a car pulls up, but it turns out to not to be his wife.
Shortly before dawn the next day, his wife arrives home. She is clearly heavily drunk and insults Leo, repeating the word ‘bankrupt’ several times. He puts her to bed, checking her underwear for signs of adultery. Their convertible, which Toni has sold, pulls up outside and a man leaves something on their doorstep.
Leo goes out to confront him, and the man tells him that Toni left her makeup in the car so he’s just dropping it off. The man asks Leo if the miles displayed on the car’s odometer (commonly known as the ‘clock’) are genuine, but he says it doesn’t matter and drives off.
Leo goes back into the bedroom, gets undressed, and climbs into bed with his wife. He runs his fingers over the stretch marks from her pregnancy and then remembers waking up the morning they bought the convertible they had just sold, and he recalls how it shone in the sun.
‘Are These Actual Miles?’: analysis
‘Are These Actual Miles?’ is a story about financial trouble and adultery, but on a less material level, it is about projection and mutual distrust. It’s clear that Leo and Toni are used to living beyond their means, especially Toni, who has recently bought new clothes despite their dire financial straits.
They own two cars, one of which is a convertible, associated with luxury and excess rather than mere functionality. But when she returns from selling the car, Toni is angry with Leo, as though it’s his lack of economic prudence which has brought them to such a pass.
By contrast, the unfaithful Leo projects his own adulterous inclinations onto his wife, jumping to the conclusion that, as well as selling the car to some man in a restaurant, she is also selling her body. The man’s question at the end of the story which provides ‘Are These Actual Miles?’ with its title may technically refer to how many miles the car has travelled (and therefore how ‘new’, or how worn out, it is likely to be), but the idea of ‘mileage’ is also associated by Leo with his wife, whose stretch marks are likened to ‘roads’.
The buyer may have professed indifference to how well-travelled and well-worn the car was, but did he consider Toni to be in good enough condition for a go around the block?
There is a long-established association between cars and women, particularly in the American male psyche, thanks to advertising which has often depicted cars as, essentially, extensions of a man’s virility or sexuality, with the right kind of car making a man more desirable to the opposite sex.
Both Leo and Toni are governed by deeply materialist mindsets. Toni appears to be continuously buying herself new clothes, whether to make herself feel better or to make herself look more desirable to men (and perhaps, not just her husband). Meanwhile, Leo virtually treats his car and his wife as indissociable.
The consumerist mentality has robbed his life of all meaning, to the point that he even, in his desperate unhappiness, contemplates ending it all. Things cannot bring you deep and long-lasting happiness; it has to come from something more abstract and less superficial.
Of course, Carver leaves the matter of whether Toni does sleep with the salesman open to doubt. Leo may be merely projecting, but on the other hand, his wife doesn’t return until nearly dawn the following day, and when she does turn up, she is almost too drunk to make sense. (Did she get herself so blind drunk to make it easier to go through with something she knew she’d regret?)
There is also the question of what happened while she was out for so long. Where did she go once the restaurant closed the night before? And what did she do with the man who bought their car off them? It is certainly suggestive that Toni told the salesman everything about their dire straits, so he was aware of how desperate they were for money. Could he have made her an indecent proposal?
‘Are These Actual Miles?’ is, like many of Raymond Carver’s stories, an early example of what is known as minimalism. Minimalist fiction is characterised by an economy with words and a focus on surface description, and this approach works well for a story which reveals the superficial lives of Leo and Toni – themselves governed by the veneer of appearance over any deeper substance – while only hinting at the turmoil raging under the surface.