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Raymond Carver's "Are These Actual Miles?" Q&A

Raymond Carver's Are These Actual Miles? Q & A

Raymond Carver, an American writer, published his first collection of short-stories in 1976 entitled Will You Please Be Quiet, Please!. These short-stories were originally written between 1960-1974, and were written during the period that Carver termed as "Bad Raymond Days." Raymond Carver was an alcoholic, but he got sober after he was hospitalized three times from June 1976 to February or March of 1977 due to his alcoholism. 

Are These Actual Miles? is a prime example of Carver's literary style; he is known for his minimalist fiction and stories depicting the realities facing the American working class. This short story was most likely written in 1971. 

Who is narrating the story?


This story is narrated by a third party; however, the narrator chooses to make Leo the prime focus of the day. This is evident in the first line of the story: "Fact is the car needs to be sold in a hurry, and Leo sends Toni out to do it" (583). 

What is the main conflict of the story?


The main conflict of the story is bankruptcy. Just like other mid-century Americans, Leo and Toni have fallen prey to consumerism, and lived so far above their means that they are now faced with
losing everything. "But there were some big parties back there, some fine travel. To Reno and Tahoe, at eighty with the top down and the radio playing. Food, that one of the big items. They gorged on food. He figures thousands on luxury items alone" (586). On Monday, they are to appear in bankruptcy court to hear their fate. The convertible is the last luxury item that they have, everything else has been repossessed by their creditors, "The portable air-conditioner and the appliances, new washer and dryer," were taken back a few weeks before (585-6). The only reason the car hasn't been repossessed is because Toni went back to selling after the kids were in school and paid off the car within a year (keep in mind they have only had the car for three years). Leo fears that if they keep the car, either the court will take it or one of their creditors will put a lien on it (the letter of intention to file bankruptcy had been mails the day before)(583). Leo blames Toni and Toni blames Leo for their current predicament. The man that Toni ends up selling the car to, sees bankruptcy as the ultimate embarrassment: "he'd rather be classified a robber or a rapist than a bankrupt" (588). 

Toni grew up poor, so when she became an adult she never wanted to be poor again; thus, explaining her hustler spirit. "Toni would go to the grocery and put in every-thing she saw. 'I had to do without when I was a kid,' she says. 'These kids are not going to do without'...she joins all of the book clubs. 'We never had books around when I was a kid..."(586). Was it her fault that they were now losing everything? It is unclear, but as the saying goes "it takes two to tango."    

What is the story's time-frame?


This story takes place over twelve or so hours. It begins around 4pm ("Toni dresses up. It's four o'clock in the afternoon" (583)),and ends at dawn the next morning ("He looks at the bedroom door, outlined now in the faint outside light" (590)). 

How is Toni described?


When he first met Toni he was overtaken by how smart and personable she was, "she used to sell children's encyclopedias door to door. She signed him up, even though he didn't have kids" (583). She was always a go-getter, and a great saleswoman. Toni is "a tall woman with a small high bust, broad hips and thighs" (584). 

How is Leo described?


Leo worked six days a week at the fiber-glass plant, while Toni was at home with the kids. He was the sole breadwinner until Toni went back to work after the kids were old enough to go to school. She no longer needed to rely on him financially. He is an average man, "he scratches a pimple on his neck" (584) while Toni oozes charisma, there seems to be an apparent mismatch between them, at least physically. Leo is stressed, and nervous about their upcoming court date, and is also desperate to sell the convertible before it is taken from them; "this deal has to be cash, and it has to be done tonight" (583). Leo feels emasculated, his wife is having to sell the car because she is a better salesman than he is, plus "it's her car, they call it her car, and that makes it all the worse" (584). He is supposed to be the man of the house, the provider, and the protector; but, he has failed at his husband and fatherly duties. 

What function does Ernest Williams play?


Ernest Williams is a sort of moral pillar, he is their neighbor and seemingly knows everything that is going on. "Once, last winter, during the holidays, when Toni and the kids were visiting his mother's, Leo brought a woman home. Nine o'clock the next morning, a cold foggy Saturday, Leo walked the woman to the car, surprised Ernest Williams on the sidewalk with a newspaper in his hand. Fog drifted, Ernest Williams stared, then slapped the paper against his leg, hard" (584). Slapping the paper against his leg was Ernest Williams way of showing his disapproval and criticism of Leo, and it had the desired affect on Leo as he still hunches his shoulders in shame and/or guilt. "Ernest Williams turns the hose in their direction. He stares at them through the spray of water. Leo has an urge to cry out a confession" (584). 

How does Toni feel about Leo?


Toni feels resentful towards Leo, which comes out in a passive aggressive comment: "'You look fine,' he says. 'You look great. I'd buy a car from you anytime.' 'But you don't have money,' she says, peering into the mirror. She pats her hair, frowns. 'And your credit's lousy. You're nothing.'" (583). I would call this a Freudian Slip-"a slip of the tongue that is motivated by and reveals some unconscious aspect of the mind" (Merriam-Webster). She then tries to justify her comments by saying that she was only teasing, but her comments were in fact hostile. Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology states it best in her article Teasing: Just Joking?: "Hostile teasing, picking, biting humor or sarcasm too often are insults poorly disguised as humor. They also are "double bind" communications which cause confusion, frustration, personal pain and anger in the recipient. The disguised message runs as follows. 'I'm making fun of you and belittling you, but it's only humor. I don't really mean what I just said. There's something wrong with you when you don't accept my statements at face value as teasing even though my words are in fact critical and hostile.'" She believes that he is worthless, "You take it out, you'd be lucky to get three, four hundred and we both know it. Honey, you'd be lucky if you didn't have to pay them" (583); he has already failed, so it is up to her to fix things. 

Did Toni cheat on Leo?


I'm not sure, it certainly appears that she did, but she could have just been trying to get back at him by letting him believe that she had. She ends up going out with the sales manager for a drink and dinner in order to close the deal, or so she wants him to believe. Toni calls twice, the first time is at around 10pm, and the second call is not long after the first and she tells him that she was able to sell the car for $625. Leo calls the restaurant just after Toni hangs up on him for the second time that night and finds that the restaurant had already closed. A little while later, a car slows down in front of the house but then speeds away. The phone rings about three hours later, but there is only a dial tone (588). Was that Toni and the sales manager? Who knows, but it is very suspicious; either way she wants to punish him. She came home at dawn and she is drunk and groggy. She grins at Leo when she comes in and he "cocks his fist" she tells him to "go ahead," after a moment she lunges at him and tears his shirt down the front and screams "Bankrupt!...you son of a bitch" (588-9). She goes into the bedroom and passes out on the bed, Leo undresses her and when he gets to her underwear, he "looks at them closely under the light, and throws them into a corner" (589). He is certainly suspicious of her. Leo then notices that the convertible has pulled into the driveway, he goes out to find a man in a white linen suit had left Toni's makeup bag on the porch. Leo opened the door and the man said to him: "I have to go. No offense. I buy and sell cars, right? The lady left her makeup. She's a fine lady, very refined" (589). The man saying to Leo "no offense" leads me to believe that she did in fact sleep with him. 

Why does Leo keep repeating "Monday"?


When Toni leaves, Leo yells after her "Things are going to be different!...We start over Monday. I mean it" (585). This is an act of desperation on his part, he wants her to believe him, but he is still trying to convince himself that things are going to be different. Leo tells the sales manager "Monday" (589), meaning Monday will change everything, he and Toni will have a fresh start. He doesn't need anyone feeling sorry for him, because this chapter is about to come to an end and they will live happily ever after. 

What are Blue Chip stamps?


Blue Chip stamps are a type of loyalty program that was popular in the 1960s. Customers would purchase items at participating stores, which were usually grocery stores, gasoline stations, and pharmacy chains, and they would be given a number of stamps proportional to their purchase. Customers would take these stamps and place them in a book, in order to, eventually redeem them at a special redemption store for items like: lawn furniture, dining tables, table ware, etc. Today, loyalty cards have taken the place of these stamps. 

Why are their kid's staying with Leo's mother?


I believe that they are staying with their grandmother, because Leo is embarrassed by his current predicament and doesn't want his kids to see him as the broken-down man that he has become. Leo even reflects on a time when he was a kid, his dad pointed out a beautiful house and admiringly told his son that the house belonged to Finch, he had been in bankruptcy "at least twice" (585). His father was in awe of the fact that the man was able to have this beautiful house even though he was unable or unwilling to pay his bills. Leo also wanted to protect some of his children's items (i.e. their bikes) from the court, so he took them to his mother's house for safe keeping (585). 

What does the guy mean when he says, "Between friends, are these actual miles?" (590).


The man is asking if the odometer is correct, probably because the mileage is lower than he would expect it to be for a three-year-old car. Mechanical Odometers could be easily manipulated by consumers (If you have ever watched the movie Matilda then you might remember Matilda's father reversing the mileage on one of his cars), this is done to increase it's market value. This was a huge issue for consumers before they became digital, the last car to have a mechanical odometer was a Pontiac Grand Prix in 2003. The man just wanted to know if he had been cheated or not. 

Is Leo suicidal?


At one point in the story, Leo seems to be detached from reality, "he should to the the basement, stand on the utility sink, and hang himself with his belt. He understands he is willing to be dead" (586). He thinks about suicide, but he doesn't actually want to go through with it. 

What is the significance of the glasses that have playing cards printed on them?


Leo and Toni gambled with their lifestyle and lost, metaphorically speaking. At one point, their life was good and fun, but now lady luck has turned sour. 

What is the meaning of Leo's dream about the gray-haired woman?


"He shivers for a time and thinks of going to bed, though he knows he will dream of a large woman with gray hair. In the dream he is always leaning over tying his shoelaces. When he straightens up she looks at him, and he bends to tie again. He looks at his hand. It makes a fist as he watches" (587). No matter what he does it is not good enough. He is not good enough, and the realization of that makes him angry. This old woman makes him feel the exact same way that his wife makes him feel, inadequate. 

What is the symbolism of Toni's stretch marks?


"He runs his fingers over her hip and feels the stretch marks there. They are like roads, and he traces them in her flesh. He runs his fingers back and forth, first one, then another. They run everywhere in her flesh, dozens, perhaps hundreds of them" (590). Her stretchmarks are the equivalent of their relationship, they are the road map of their past and the roadway to their future. 

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