"Careful" tells the story of Lloyd, who has recently separated from his wife Inez and moved into a small attic room where he unsuccessfully attempts to curb his drinking. His landlady lives below him. He observes the old woman occasionally, noticing her infirmity. To try and address his drinking (which is at least a partial cause of his marital discord), Lloyd has committed to drinking only champagne, but throughout the story, he drinks several bottles.
His situation is nearly destitute. He has only a small refrigerator that houses his champagne and lunch meat, and a small stovetop. He spends his days drunk, sometimes forgetting to drink coffee, occasionally drinking from the moment he awakes. He thinks sometimes how such antics would once have seemed amusing but no longer "matter much one way or the other." He leaves the television on all day since he doesn't pay electricity, but doesn't watch it.
The story is primarily about the day Inez comes to visit, two weeks after he moved there. She arrives at 11:00 a.m., and he hears her downstairs while he is hitting himself in the head, trying to remedy an ear trouble he's having. He believes it must have filled with wax over the night, and he can neither hear nor keep his balance. When he hears Inez's voice, he knows the meeting is "important," so he finishes his glass of champagne, cleans it, and hides the rest of the bottle in the bathroom.
Inez arrives wearing an outfit he's never seen before, a "bright spring outfit." It seems as though she recognizes he's been drinking though he thinks he is hiding it. He tells her about his ear being plugged up, and reminds her about how it once happened before, and how they'd gone to the doctor. But he can't go to a doctor now, presumably due to finances.
They sit on the couch, and he becomes aware of how disheveled he must look. But he doesn't care since "she knew everything there was to know about him." They discuss options for the ear, but he has neither Q-tips nor Wesson oil to pour in. He has trouble hearing her through his stopped up ear, and remembers the joy of holding his breath underwater as a child, and how it would temporarily create a similar sensation.
Inez tells him they "have things to talk about" but she is willing to deal with the ear first. She has him sit in the kitchen, and considers using a hairpin and tissue paper. He is frightened about that, and tells her about a health teacher who once warned them of sticking things in their ears. It's a moot issue, since she can't find a hairpin in her purse. He refuses to let her use a nail file, even though she promises to be "careful."
She moves to the bathroom to wrap the file in tissue paper, and is gone "for a time." Meanwhile, he thinks about what he wants to tell her – how he's limiting himself to champagne, getting better, etc., but he can't think of where to start. When she returns, he is looking out the window and cannot hear what she says.
He returns to the chair, warns her to be careful, and then she digs with the nail file for a bit. He hears a "squeaking sound" and complains. He says he needs to use the bathroom, and she says she'll ask the landlady for Q-tips or Wesson oil. In the bathroom, he has a long drink of the now-warm champagne and then brushes his teeth. When he returns to the room, he has to ask her to repeat herself, and she says, "I found your stash in the bathroom." He tries to talk but can't hear her replies. She reminds him finally that they have things to discuss – "Money is one thing" – but will first use the oil she has borrowed from the landlady in his ear.
He sits and hits his head some more. She uses a champagne glass to prepare the oil to pour, and he tells her he'd "rather be dead" than weather this discomfort much longer. He tilts his head, and thinks on the new perspective of seeing things sideways. She pours the warm liquid in his ear and massages his ear for several minutes, after which she sits him straight and catches the liquid in a towel.
It works. He can hear, and offers to make her coffee. But she tells him she's late and that they can go to lunch later to talk. He tells her he won't sleep on his side so as to keep the problem from happening again, but immediately begins to fear the moments before bed when he might make the same mistake again. He tells her that his reverie was a "terrible nightmare" but she has to go. He doesn't listen to what she tells him before she leaves.
He dresses in the bedroom, and then listens at the landing as Inez thanks the landlady. They exchange numbers, and he hears her car leave. He puts on his shoes, but decides to lie down a while. He is worried about sleeping on his side again, but tells himself that he'll "manage" to keep it from happening again.
When he realizes he has "the better part of the day ahead of him," he opens a fresh bottle. He cleans the glass but when he drinks he finds it still tastes of oil, so he drinks straight from the bottle. This is another act that might have been funny in the past but is normal now. After a while, he puts his pajamas on, and turns on the TV. He sits there thinking and then looks out the window, thinking it might be 3:00.
While "Careful" is as much a character study as anything, it evokes Kafka's work in the way that it centers so strongly around a central metaphor. Lloyd's ear buildup serves as a way to understand the essential dilemma of the character. It is a problem that on its surface is quite commonplace, and comes from ordinary circumstances. And it nevertheless poses a debilitating problem. Even though the ear stoppage seems easy to deal with, it is not. Attempts to force it to go away – Lloyd hits himself in the head over and over – are no good, and only through a considered, deliberate process of being "careful" can the problem be remedied. It is useful to think of all the story's details in terms of this predicament.
The symptoms of the ear buildup are metaphoric as well, in that they reflect the main theme of communication. In the same way that the buildup prohibits Lloyd from hearing, so is his essential problem that he and Inez are unable to bridge their gap and truly communicate what they are feeling. The use of the word "assessment" on the first page indicates that Inez probably subscribes to a 'self-help' way of thinking, where rational assessment of problems is believed to produce results. Carver italicizes the word in order to emphasize that it is foreign to Lloyd.
But the fault for poor communication is hardly limited to Inez. In truth, Lloyd is dislocated from everyone – including himself – which suggests another common Carver theme, that of disaffection. The story makes it clear that Lloyd wants to get better and resume his prior life. But this desire does nothing to curb his habits, and he blinds himself into believing that "cutting back" to champagne is a step forward in battling his alcoholism. His disaffection is also reflected in his behavior; he keeps the TV on all day but doesn't really watch it, and most of the life he observes is seen through his attic window. It is as though he is watching and reflecting on his life through a lens, watching himself but never connecting honestly with his problems. Physically, this suggests a type of vertigo or inebriation, or, more poignantly, the lack of equilibrium created by an inner ear problem.
What is sad about the story is that there is implication that the marriage was once healthy. While Inez is working on his ear, Lloyd remembers how "they used to feel they had ESP." And yet now, he can no longer hear her. Obviously that's only literally true because of the wax, but at the end of the story, he finds he is not listening to her words even when the problem is remedied. Likewise, he has so much he wants to tell her, about cutting back to champagne, about his life, but "he didn't know where to start" and he never gets around to it. Words don't seem to capture what it is he truly wants to say.
Thinking of the story as a picture of a relationship where the partners can no longer communicate leads to perhaps its saddest theme: the passage of time. While this theme runs through a lot of Carver's stories, so full they are of regret and longing, it is particularly pronounced in "Careful." Early on, Lloyd recollects how, once upon a time, his drunken hijinks might have been funny, but they no longer are. There is the implication of a faded youth. And what's more, time continues to step forward. He notices that Inez is wearing a nice outfit he doesn't recognize, which suggests she might have a date of some sort after her visit. While reflecting on his problem, Lloyd remembers how he used to feel inner ear pressure as a child when he held his breath under water. But when young, he could head to the surface and enjoy the pressure of release. Now, he must wait it out, and hope that careful behavior will suit him. He wants to resume some life of affection with Inez – he "reached for her hand" at one point – but that's past. She pulls her hand away. At the end of the story, Lloyd looks out the window and wonders if it is 3:00. Knowing that Inez arrived at 11:00, this is impossible but it indicates that time is slipping away from him. He regards its passage but no longer can make himself be a part of it.
Of course, the larger problem is tied in with the theme of alcoholism. Lloyd's alcoholism is out of control. He drinks champagne in the mornings, steals warm sips from the bathroom when Inez is around, and ends up drinking directly from the bottle. While he laments the passage of time, he has committed himself to a stilted life where he doesn't leave, stays in his pajamas, and turns on a TV he doesn't actually watch. One poignant detail is his shopping list – "champagne" and "lunch meat." It's an ugly picture of how a dependency can separate one from one's own life.
For all of this, the story does posit a subtle optimism that is often absent from Carver's work. The fact that the ear problem is cured suggests that Lloyd can gain control of his life. However, he will have to do so through "careful" consideration. He cannot simply force the problem to be fixed – as he tries with the ear problem by hitting his head over and over. He will have to gain control of himself. He will have to learn to listen not only to what Inez says but what he needs to tell himself. The pressure of relief that he loved so much as a child, when he would swim to the surface, awaits him if he can handle the pressure of moving one day at a time. At one point, Inez turns his head to pour wax in his ear, and he enjoys the new perspective of seeing things sideways. If he can learn to look up, stop seeing days as days to waste, then maybe he will one day again know the pressure of release from a persistent problem.