"Vitamins" is narrated by an unnamed narrator, who works a "nothing job" at the hospital, doing maintenance at nights. His wife Patti manages a small door-to-door vitamin sales business, a career path she began when feeling restless.
The narrator begins with the backstory. He tells how Patti excelled quickly from being "just another girl who went up and down blocks" selling vitamins to owning her own office and managing girls.
As part of her job, Patti has to recruit saleswomen. The narrator explains how the high turnaround is emotionally draining for Patti, who "blamed herself" for not having inspired them. "There was no end of girls," though, with whom Patti supplements the "core group" of girls who have shown aptitude and commitment: Donna and Sheila. As the narrator sees it, they are "medium-pretty." He also recalls one night where Sheila confessed romantic love to Patti, who gently repudiated her advances.
Around the previous Christmas, the narrator and Patti had thrown a party "to cheer everybody up" after a "pretty bad" vitamin-sales season. They drank themselves to oblivion, with Sheila passing out. Later that night, after everyone goes home and Patti goes to sleep, the narrator stays awake drinking. When Sheila awakes, suffering from a massive hang-over and a broken little finger, she complains nobody cares for her and threatens to move to Portland. After nursing her finger a bit, she demands Patti drive her to the hospital. She also wants to tell Patti she's moving to Portland and say goodbye. He offers to drive in Patti's stead, since Patti is asleep, but Sheila refuses to ride with such a drunk driver. He in turn refuses to let her wake Patti, thinking with resentment of the pass she'd made, and ultimately calls her a "lesbo bitch." She leaves the house and "nobody saw any more of Sheila after that."
It's only after relating that story that he confesses that he "had the hots for Donna," the other salesgirl He shares some separate memories from the night of the drunken party, first how they danced closely, and then how they hugged for a while in private, in the kitchen. When he made a further move, she said, "Don't. Not now." Taking that to mean "later," he let it go. Later that night, after Sheila had left and he found Patti still passed out, he "started in," forcing himself sexually on her. "She didn't wake up. Afterwards, [he] closed [his] eyes."
A few weeks later, "into the new year," the narrator and Patti are drinking together. She complains to him about the poor market, and says they should move to "Arizona [or] someplace like that." She is dejected about her life and career, and tries to communicate the depth of this to him. His attempts to change the subject are only marginally successful, even when he asks about Donna. Patti tells him in a rant that she's "sick as hell [herself]", but doesn't notice when he asks her what's wrong. She tells him he "doesn't care about anything." They continue to drink until he has to leave for work.
The narrator tells about a place he often goes after his shift called Off-Broadway, a dive with live music that he calls "a spade place in a spade neighborhood." He continues to use the racial epithet for African Americans. He tells how there are occasionally fights but how the owner, Khaki, is able to generally control the crowd through diligence and physical size. He enjoys being recognized by Khaki.
This is the place where he takes Donna on "the one date [they] ever had." After leaving the hospital the night of his and Patti's talk, he saw Donna parked there. She's awkward but clearly interested in a date. So he gets in her car and drives her over to Khaki's. On the way, she talks about her guilt over betraying Patti and her dejection over the poor vitamin business. When they get out of the car at Off-Broadway, they see three "spades" passing a bottle, which makes him a touch nervous. He asks her if she's "thinking about moving to Portland," which confuses her.
They find a booth in the back area of the bar, order drinks, and then snuggle a bit, "kissing each other's face," and other such flirtation. They listen to the music, while he thinks about eventually heading to her place to "finish things." While they're listening, a big fellow named Benny walks over with a "big, dressed-up spade…wearing a three-piece pinstripe." The narrator and Benny have talked a bit over music before, so know each other casually. Benny introduces Nelson to them, who'd returned from his tour in Vietnam that morning. He introduced Donna to them, and Nelson immediately says "Hello, girl."
To the narrator's chagrin, Benny and Nelson join them, and Nelson starts in on Donna: "You real good friends with him, I bet." His behavior remains aggressive even as Benny tries to calm him, in the meanwhile reminding them that he "just got off the plane from Nam." Nelson openly drinks from a flask, and his aggression becomes progressively worse. He tells the narrator "she ain't your wife, I know that," and that his wife is probably engaged in her own infidelities. The aggression continues to escalate in intensity, and the narrator wonders why Khaki will not intervene.
Benny changes the subject by telling Nelson to "show them that ear." It's a shriveled ear he had brought from Vietnam, and though Donna tries to discourage him, he finds and exhibits it. He then offers Donna two hundred dollars to "French" him. When Donna dismisses him, he turns to the narrator, and then Khaki intervenes.
The situation is controlled immediately, and Khaki shows interest in the ear. Donna and the narrator use the occasion to sneak out. His "legs were crazy." As they quickly leave the bar, Nelson yells after Donna" "It ain't going to do no good! Whatever you do, it ain't going to help none!"
Back in the car, on the way back to the hospital, Donna stays quiet for a while, and then confesses "I could of used the money. That's what I was thinking." She begins to cry, and he tries to talk her down. She tells him she isn't going to work the next day. They don't touch when they part, and when he asks "What are you going to do?" she says maybe she'll go to Portland.
The narrator heads home and has a drink. While brushing his teeth, Patti runs from the bedroom in a sleep-walk, thinking she'd overslept. It's just a nightmare, and he tries to find some aspirin while he tries to talk her back to bed. He can't "take any more tonight."
Though "Vitamins" shares several themes with other stories in Cathedral, it is unique in how intensely it digs into its situation. The narrator's disaffection from his wife and his world is arguably more intense than the disaffection of other similar Carver protagonists, and as such it is harder to sympathize with his decisions. Every character in the story (with the exception perhaps of the Off-Broadway patrons) is desperate in "Vitamins," which makes its perspective particularly ugly.
The main theme of the story is disaffection. Nobody has what he or she wants, and nobody seems to have any sense or "dream" about what else be. The narrator works a dead-end job that neither challenges nor edifies him, but he expresses little desire to look outside its confines. As he confesses to Patti, "maybe I don't dream." He then tells the reader that he "didn't care" what goes on in his dreams. The conventional sense of dreams as projection of a brighter future suggests that he no longer thinks that he can rise from the repetitive mire of his life. Patti accuses him of this as well, telling him, "You don't care about anything." The fact that the narrator never provides his name helps to establish this sense of him as 'faceless,' to be without any strong defining qualities and hence devoted solely to his impulses.
Of course, following his impulses does not seem to provide him any significant joy either. The way he introduces Donna – "medium-pretty" is the first detail he shares – paints her as ultimately of little consequence. And yet he pursues her: more, it seems, as something to do with his time rather than an expression of any passion. Though he is typically forthcoming with the reader, he never bothers to share any emotion regarding Donna, but instead just matter-of-factly tells how they "hugged" in the kitchen on the night of the party. It is telling that the one connection the narrator speaks highly of is that with Khaki – he says he likes how Khaki recognizes him – and though it is a minor relationship probably based solely on Khaki's good business sense, it shows how fully he has divorced himself from personal connections.
While Patti is significantly more successful, she feels equally dissatisfied and trapped. Her speech when they drink together is strong evidence of this. While her worries usually begin grounded in the economic difficulties of vitamins, there are deeper undertones to her concerns. As she says, "I'm sick as hell myself." She considers moving to Arizona, but it comes across as just a random idea – she has nothing to recommend it. Patti has come to represent herself by her job, but perhaps this is only because it's her only alternative. Her personal life is confined to the two friends she has from her working life, as we see when their celebration only lists them as invitees. She seems to be a more empathetic person than the narrator, which is clear when he describes how she takes the failure of her charges "to heart." She wants others to succeed, and is upset when they don't. And yet the world turns, and "there was no end of girls," most of whom disappear from her life. Similarly, witness the tenderness with which she responds to Sheila's confession of love The irony is, of course, that she is very good at the very enterprise that depresses her. A further irony is that vitamins, meant to bring and sustain health, are a symbol of her lack of options. As she puts it, she has "overdosed on vitamins."
The husband and wife are not the only two divorced from connection. Donna seems as equally uncommitted to the narrator as he is to her. And, while hungover and nursing her finger, Sheila expresses a litany of grievances, most of which suggest how lonely she is in a world where no one cares for her. Because of the narrator's cruelty, she is unable to speak to the one person who does seem to care for her: Patti. It is Sheila who introduces Portland, which becomes a metaphor for restlessness and the desire to break free. Though nobody in the story admits to any knowledge of Portland, the narrator is obviously struck by it, since he mentions it so many times. He is possibly struck by this desire to move, since he doesn't admit to himself the existence of any such desire. Donna tells him when he drops her off that maybe she will go to Portland (an idea he put in her head), but "Portland's as good as place as any. It's all the same." On some level, the narrator would probably claim to share this philosophy, but the fact that he is telling the story belies this somewhat. There's a reason he is telling this story – like many of Carver's characters, he lacks the vocabulary to express that reason, but it could be argued that he is attempting to speak to the heart of his disaffection, to try and determine whether he too could one day yearn for Portland.
This compulsion towards a lack of ambition reflects the philosophy in Nelson's final words as the narrator and Donna leave the Off-Broadway: "It ain't going to do no good! Whatever you do, it ain't going to help none!" Indeed, why would we think Portland will be any different? The traditional theme of wanderlust applies, since going to Portland is attempt by these people to escape themselves by wandering, without addressing their own personal demons. The narrator has worked out a way to deal with his demons: simply refuse to say aloud that they exist.
There are three other themes in the story, one of which is rare for a Carver story: racism. The narrator's consistent use of the word "spade" illustrates how little he empathizes with others. Were he a fully committed racist, it could be argued, his language about the African-Americans would be much harsher. And he does go to the Off-Broadway willingly, even when there are other bars available. The point is that racism often serves as a way for people to separate themselves from one another, and so it makes sense that the narrator would exhibit such a tendency.
The other two themes are more common to Carver's work: marriage and alcoholism. The relationship between the married couple is a perfect example of co-dependency, wherein two parties enable each other to poor behavior but are unable to function without each other. They barely address one another in their long drunken conversation, and Patti ignores his query as to whether she is indeed sick. And yet they seem to show no signs of explicit unhappiness, and he never mentions to the reader any thought of leaving her. They are stuck together, a sick marriage that is nevertheless firm. This is extremely tied to their alcoholism. It isn't just the amount of drinking but the timing – he drinks before work, she drinks herself to sleep, etc.
These themes work in tandem with the theme of disaffection to make this a remarkably ugly story in Carver's canon, yet with more than its share of profundity in the intensity with which he allows the reader to see through the eyes of man so terribly trapped in a life that offers nothing for him.