"Preservation" tells the story of Sandy, who has a job, and her unemployed husband. Ever since his firing three months before story's beginning, her husband has been lying on the couch. When he first came home, with Valentine's Day candies and a bottle of whiskey to announce his bad news, they talked and tried to come up with a solution – "but they couldn't think of anything." That night, he slept on the sofa and now spends almost all of his time there.
He has gone to the unemployment office, but there are no jobs in roof construction, his field. He was daunted by the number of people there, which drove him to his current condition in which, Sandy observes, he actually "lives in the living room." He looks through magazines and a big book called Mysteries of the Past, though she sees he never makes much headway in the latter. One day she looked at the spot where he seemed stuck, and saw it was a profile of a man who was found encased in ice. He'd been frozen 2,000 years but was still dressed as he was when he died and looked only mildly shriveled.
His daily routine is rather static. He reads the entire newspaper each day. He uses the bathroom and turns on the coffee and TV before she wakes. He seems cheerful enough then, but when she returns from work, he is still on the sofa watching TV, sometimes in the clothes he used to wear to work, and he isn't as cheerful.
Sandy loves him and is empathetic, but is frightened about their prospects. Her friend isn't terribly surprised by the husband's behavior, since her friend's uncle once got into bed and hasn't gotten out in 33 years. The friend thinks her uncle was scared of getting old. The prospect of 33 years on a couch scares and shames Sandy more, especially since her husband has no disability to explain his behavior. She decides not to tell anyone else about it.
One afternoon, she comes home to find him lying on the couch as usual. He doesn't move, so she heads to the fridge for some yogurt. But the fridge has stopped working, and ice cream has melted all over everything. Three pounds of hamburger and pork chop will go rotten soon. She yells for her husband, who joins her to survey the problem. He troubleshoots but finds it's still plugged in. As he looks around, Sandy imagines what her night will be like, having to fry all the meat to make use of it.
Together, they empty the fridge and he pieces together that the fridge has lost its Freon. She wonders aloud whether they can live without a fridge, but he refuses the idea, and looks in the paper to find options in the classifieds. Over his shoulder, she sees that he had marked some opportunities in the "Jobs Available" section but she doesn't note what they are. "It didn't matter."
She notices a mark for "Auction Barn," where appliances are sold at discount on Thursdays. She decides they should go, since it's Thursday. He is hesitant to commit, but she redoubles her efforts, seeing in it a chance to get him out of the house. She insists she'll go alone if she has to, and he agrees.
He heads back to the couch, looking at his book for a moment before he lies back down. She watches him as she begins to fry the meat, and then remembers how she used to go to auctions with her father. It was a source of joy in their relationship, and it leads her to remember how he died from a faulty car that leaked carbon monoxide.
The meat starts to smoke, so she calls him in to eat the food. The pork chops are a bit unsightly, but he doesn't mention it. She asks him to sit and eat, but he just stands there. She suddenly sees water on the table and hears a puddle forming. She looks down at his feet to see a pool of water gathering there. She knows she needs to get to the auction, but she can't take her eyes off of the bizarre sight until he finally heads back into the living room.
This story is unique in the collection, as it is one of the few that features a metaphor intense enough to affect the action. The metaphor is, of course, that of the frozen man, discussed below.
The general theme of the story is inaction, or stasis. Once Sandy's husband is laid off, he doesn't pursue any action. What action he tries – going down to the unemployment office – frightens him and he retreats to the safety of the couch. Sandy observes this behavior to the point that, even when she notes that he is somewhat seeking for jobs, she doesn't think it matters. She knows that whatever he marks in the classified ads will not lead her husband to take any action at all.
It is telling that that the auction means so much to her. This is explained in two ways. The first is that it would force her husband to make an active move. He has already suggested his willingness when he takes the lead on the fridge problem, searching for what has made it break. She wants to push him into the auction in hopes that it will lead to more action. The auction is also special because it makes Sandy think of the past, specifically her father. She looks back on his death, and even thinks fondly of her mother, "though the two of them used to argue all the time." On some level, Sandy seems to understand this compulsion to dwell even if she doesn't let it consume her as it does her husband.
One passage that illustrates the theme of stasis occurs when her husband joins her to survey the fridge. He says, "Tell me what's next," and then "a bunch of things suddenly flew into her head, but she didn't say anything." There's no telling what's next, because it requires movement and action, whereas he is fully committed to his stasis.
These themes reach their crux in the final moment, which, while it does bring back the metaphor of the frozen man, is somewhat forced by Carver. The frozen man metaphor is simple enough when Sandy first finds it in the book. Like the man who was trapped still in his clothing, her husband continues to wear his work clothes and live a semblance of his own life even though he is 'frozen' in time. The question raised by the final imagery – when he seems to be thawing before her eyes – is uncertain. Are we to think that this merely illustrates her awareness that he is the frozen man and that he will never change? Or does it indicate that perhaps, because of the action she has forced on him in the guise of the auction, that he is beginning to thaw? The last moment, where he returns to the couch, suggests it is not the latter, though a case can certainly be made either way due to the ambiguity. Regardless, the image also speaks to the thawing of the goods in the fridge. Where Sandy takes action with these – cooking the meat to make it useful, throwing her bad yogurt away – her husband is more interested in dwelling on the problem. It is a microcosm of their relationship.
There are two other elements in this story worthy of note. The first is the motif of economic limitations, which runs through Carver's work. Part of the reason for the husband's stasis is his lack of training. They can't think of any job for him other than fixing roofs. They obviously face a lack of social mobility, which not only reinforces the theme of stasis, but also serves as Carver's larger observation that men and women are trapped by their economic limitations.
The final element to consider is that of faulty appliances, which as a motif also works as a symbol for imperfection. Not only does the refrigerator bust – an occurrence rare enough that Sandy's husband says he's only heard of two fridges ever breaking – but Sandy's father was also killed by a carbon monoxide leak in his car. One could argue that this illustrates the American's dependence on commodities, but that's too easy. More likely, the elements work together to suggest that in everything exists the possibility of breaking down. Sandy could break down same as her husband had circumstances forced it; what matters once a breakdown happens is what action we take, whether we commit to stasis or to moving on the next stage. The story considers these questions through its myriad elements.