For the second poem in this series, I’m posting a poem called “Bankrupt,” which, as I explained in the first part of this series (found here: ), borrows everything from a Raymond Carver story. This time the story is “Are These Actual Miles?”
after Raymond Carver
Fact is the car needs to be sold in a hurry.
Toni dresses up. But Toni takes her time,
puts on a new white blouse, new heels.
Leo stands in the doorway and taps his lips
with his knuckles. Open at nine hundred,
he says. I know where to start, she says.
Things are going to be different, he says.
We start over on Monday. I mean it. She
gets into the car and accelerates—the tires
give a little scream. In the kitchen Leo pours
Scotch. His undershirt is wet; he feels
the sweat rolling from his underarms, listens
to the traffic on the highway, and considers
whether he should stand on the utility sink
in the basement and hang himself. Instead
he makes a large drink, turns the TV on.
Nine. She’s been gone nearly five hours.
At ten, he hears the telephone ringing.
I wanted to call, she says. Where are you?
he says. I don’t know, she says. Did some-
body buy the car? he says. I have to
go now, she says, . Wait, he yells.
The line goes dead. He turns the empty
glass in his hand and considers biting off
the rim. When she calls again, she says,
Everything is all right. I have to go, but
I wanted to call. I told him everything,
she says. I think I had to. Please honey,
Leo says. Come home. I’ll be home
in a little while, she says. He waits. Two,
three hours later, the telephone rings
again—no one at the other end, only
a dial tone. Near dawn he hears footsteps
on the porch. She bumps the wall coming
in, grins. Go ahead, she says. Swaying,
she makes a noise and lunges, tears his
shirt down the front. Bankrupt, you son
of a bitch, she says, clawing. She stumbles,
and he hears her fall on the bed and groan.
He’s reading the check when he hears
the car come into the drive, its motor running,
headlamps burning. He opens the door
cautiously, and sees her makeup pouch
on the top step. The man looks at Leo
across the front of the car, gets back in.
Wait! Leo calls and starts down the steps.
I want to tell you, he says. Monday, the man
says and watches for sudden movement.
Leo nods slowly. Hey, one question, the man
says. Between friends, are these actual miles?
Look, it doesn’t matter either way, the man
says. I have to go. Take it easy. Leo tucks
at his shirt and goes back inside. In bed he
runs his fingers over her hips and feels
the stretch marks. They are like roads, and
he traces them in her flesh. They run every-
What I love most about this story is the different tensions at play. Toni and Leo corkscrewed themselves into a situation where they’ve gotta hawk their car for cash before they have to file for bankruptcy, but the best way to sell the car, or so Leo and Toni think, is to have Toni go out and sell it. This increases the tension because we have to sit with Leo as he’s waiting for his wife to return from this sale. After she calls and quickly hangs up and then he can’t get her back on the phone, I’m fraught with panic just as Leo is.
The situation’s already desperate, but this uncertainty, which never really gets answered, about Toni’s fidelity amps up the stakes of the story. The initial question of whether or not she made the sale takes a back seat to our question of what she’s doing out so late with strange men who have fat wallets. By the end of the story, we can’t do much more than assume, which is exactly the position Leo’s in. But the way Toni comes home drunk and upset, the guy returning her makeup bag…it seems to suggest some kind of infidelity.
Carver’s story gets its title from the question the guy asks Leo as he’s dropping off the makeup bag the following morning. It’s just more salt for the wound. Not only did this guy probably sleep with Leo’s wife, but his question just highlights how good a deal he got on their car. By the end, when Leo walks back inside, I’m half expecting him to burst into a fit of unchecked rage, but the final gesture, the image of him tracing the stretch marks in her legs, it’s so goddamn sweet and unexpected and perfect. The road simile ties in not just the car they just sold, but their past, the roads they’ve traveled together. The story sings on both concrete and symbolic levels. Just so so good.