"Where I'm Calling From" is narrated in present tense by an alcoholic who is in residence at "Frank Martin's drying-out facility." He has recently checked himself in for his second stay at Frank Martin's, and in the story he listens to and relates the personal background of J.P., another alcoholic. All the while, he thinks back on his own situation.
He introduces the story on the front porch of Frank Martin's, where J.P., a 30ish chimney sweep, is telling his story. They have only been there a few days and are "not out of the woods yet." He notices how J.P. trembles a bit, and explains how he faces his own sporadic shoulder jerk and dry mouth. The fright over such physical symptoms leads the narrator to tell how Tiny, a fat patient, had a seizure the morning before. He has been recovering well, and looking forward to spending New Year's Eve with his wife. Tiny had been clowning around the breakfast table when he suddenly had his seizure and fell to the floor. Frank Martin called the ambulance, and then the next day (the day of the story), Tiny exhibited no appetite and no humor. He is not going to make it home for New Year's Eve after all.
J.P. talks for a while, which the narrator appreciates since it kills time until lunch. He isn't entirely sure what J.P. is "talking about, anyway," but he encourages J.P. to talk. J.P. tells how he once fell in a well as a boy, and had to be rescued by rope. J.P. then tells how, when he was nineteen, he and a friend were hanging out when a young female chimney sweep came to clean his friend's chimney. J.P. nearly went "nuts" watching her work, attracted both to her and her work. When she finished, she offers the friend the chance to kiss her, an old tradition for good luck. He does, but J.P. then follows her out and asks if he can have one; she kisses him "right on the lips." He then asks her out on a date, and she agrees.
The narrator looks out over the hills near Frank Martin's, and J.P. continues. He and Roxy began to date, to the chagrin of her father and brother, who manage the chimney sweep company. But they were in love. They got married, had a kid, and J.P. was hired to work as a chimney sweep. Everything was good, but for some reason – "who knows why we do what we do?" the narrator asks – he began to drink more heavily, until he was missing dinners and drinking before work in the morning.
J.P. grows quiet and the narrator encourages him to continue, mainly because it is taking him "away from [his] own situation." J.P. continues, and tells about how the problem escalated to violence. Roxy broke his nose, and he dislocated her shoulder. The father and brother could do nothing to curb the problem. Likewise, her infidelity only angered him to the point that he cut her wedding ring with wire-cutters. The next morning, he was arrested for driving drunk, which was good since he'd been almost killing himself at work by drinking in high places.
The narrator then tells the reader a bit about his own situation. Frank Martin's is a voluntary establishment, and he recently signed himself in, after his girlfriend (who was also drunk) drove him there. When he signed in and paid, Frank Martin suggested he "think in terms of a couple of weeks" since the holidays are difficult. Later that day, he saw J.P. carried in between two men (who he later realized were Roxy's father and brother). The current moment is two days later.
Frank Martin joins them on the porch and smokes a cigar. The narrator describes him as "short and heavy-set," and watches him "stand there like a prizefighter, like somebody who knows the score." J.P. is quiet a while, and then Frank Martin tells them how Jack London used to live over the hills, "but alcohol killed him." He tells them to take it as a lesson, and suggests they read Call of the Wild, after which he returns inside. J.P. confesses that Frank Martin "makes [him] feel like a bug" and wishes he had a name as colorful as Jack London's, "instead of the name [he's] got."
The narrator then relates his first stay at Frank Martin's, when his wife brought him. They were still trying to make the marriage work, and she stayed for a while to help. This current time, his girlfriend left immediately, drunk. He tells about how she has a "mouthy teenaged son," and how he hasn't heard from her since she checked him in. He isn't hurt, though, since he knows he is a burden to her and that she received "not cheery" news following a Pap smear. It was this news that led them to the recent bender, which ultimately ended with the narrator back at Frank Martin's. After having drank through Christmas and more, he asked her to drive him to the facility, which she did, while enjoying some champagne and fried chicken in the car. They "tried to make a little party" of the drive, to no avail. He recognizes that he could have called her as easily as she him, but he wonders how she is doing. The bell rings for mealtime and he and J.P. head inside.
On New Year's Eve morning, the narrator tries to call his wife, and nobody answers. The last time they spoke, it was antagonistic, but he wants to talk to her now. He tells the reader about a patient at Frank Martin's who claims that he travels all over the world, and is unsure why he's there.
That night, they eat steak and baked potatoes at Frank Martin's. Tiny barely touches his food, so the narrator eats Tiny's steak. While watching the Dick Clark special later, Frank Martin reveals a cake that reads "HAPPY NEW YEAR-ONE DAY AT A TIME." It's a bakery cake, but well appreciated, and J.P. has two slices. He tells the narrator that Roxy is coming the next day and offers to introduce them. The narrator heads out to the phone and tries calling his wife again; no answer. He is about to call his girlfriend when he realizes he doesn't want to hear her bad news if indeed she has bad news.
The next morning, the narrator and J.P. return to the porch. J.P. tells him Roxy considered bringing the kids, an idea he vetoed. Roxy pulls up a bit later, and the narrator watches them embrace near her car. On the way in, J.P. introduces the narrator as "my friend." The narrator notices that she has no wedding ring, and they chat a bit. Roxy is very tender with J.P. Before they head inside, the narrator stops them and asks Roxy if he can have a kiss – "I need some luck," he says. She kisses him.
Alone on the porch, he confesses he's been thinking about chimneys, and about where he and his wife used to live. He remembers an incident where, one morning, he heard something scrape along the side of the house in the morning, and opened the shades to see the landlord painting. He felt in that moment "a wave of happiness…that I'm not him-that I'm me." It was only then that he realized he was naked and exposed through the window.
On the porch, he smokes and thinks about whether he'll try calling his wife and girlfriend later. He hopes the girlfriend's son won't answer. He tries remembering if he's read Jack London, and can only remember "To Build a Fire," a story where "this guy in the Yukon…[is] actually going to freeze to death if he can't get a fire going." As he recalls, the guy succeeds, but some snow puts it out.
He decides to try his wife on the phone first, and he promises himself he won't bring up any business, he'll only try to talk. He knows he'll tell her the truth if she asks where's he calling from. After that, he'll try his girlfriend, he decides. When she picks up, he decided that he will say, "Hello, sugar...It's me."
The narrator of "Where I'm Calling From" is unusually articulate for a Carver narrator. There are fewer uses of the common lines that express inability to communicate (i.e. "I didn't say anything"), and he seems to understand his problems rather well, even if he lacks the strength to forcibly control them.
Instead, the issue facing the narrator suggests the common Carver theme of disaffection. The journey of the story is that of a character who wants to escape himself, to feel disaffected from the life he's led, but ultimately comes to accept who he is. But his attempts to detach himself from his life are many in this story. The most obvious way is that he never gives his name. This suggests that he wants to escape his identity rather than reinforce it. Further, the majority of the story, while narrated by him, is actually the story of J.P. He listens not to be entertained but to be taken "away from [his] own situation." He tells the reader that J.P.'s story interests him but that he "would have listened if [J.P.]'d been going on about how one day he'd decided to start pitching horseshoes." He isn't looking for an epiphany in the telling; he's merely hoping to keep away from himself, from having to face his own seemingly-insurmountable problems.
Of course, the theme of disaffection resonates with more characters than the narrator. J.P. at one point expresses a wish to be named "Jack London…instead of the name [he] got." Likewise, the alcoholic who pretends to be a world traveler is an instance of delusion; he claims not to know why he's in rehab and yet Frank Martin's is voluntary, meaning he simply won't admit to himself that he needs the help.
The theme of alcoholism is indeed intense in this story. While it weaves through many of Carver's story, the details in "Where I'm Calling From" are arguably the most nuanced. The narrator describes the physical symptoms of drunkenness. He mentions that patients at Frank Martin's often have nicks on their faces, suggesting a lack of control. He makes mention of his (and others's) lack of appetite. But perhaps the most damning observation comes when he describes first being brought to the facility by his wife: "Part of me wanted help. But there was another part."
It is in this quote that the particulars of alcoholism become more universal, hence making alcoholism a metaphor for disaffection in the story. The narrator's inability to control his warring impulses speaks to a running conflict: action vs. inaction. Even a basic understanding of the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous makes it clear that an addict must want to help himself, and yet this is so difficult because it requires the addict to take action. It is this compulsion, to take action while feeling disaffected and drawn to inaction, that is the narrator's central internal conflict. J.P.'s story about being caught in the well is a good symbol of their dilemma – they are trapped down in the dark, seeing a glimmer of light above, but can do nothing without help. And yet, even if they persevere, problems can resume. The narrator's recollection of London's "To Build a Fire" expresses this point. In his remembrance, the protagonist of that story is successful at solving his problem by building a fire, but then snow falls onto the fire and puts it out. It is out of his control. Even action is not always a final solution.
And yet action is all they have. J.P.'s story exhibits his tendency to take action. When he was attracted to Roxy, he pursued her until she was his wife. He made the life he wanted through force of will, much as these alcoholics have checked themselves into Frank Martin's by force of will. Even J.P., who was initially forced by Roxy's father and brother into the facility, chooses to stay. When Roxy comes to visit, she suggests they go into town for lunch, but he insists they ought to stay for his recovery. It is perhaps because he sees the power of such action that the narrator asks Roxy to kiss him. He hopes that, if he does like J.P. and takes action towards what he wants, good things might follow.
Of course, even J.P. is not always in control. The narrator's observation on why J.P. began to drink even when he was happy with Roxy sums up his understanding of human nature: "who knows why we do what we do?" Even if our intentions are noble and firm, the snow can still fall on the fire. However, this leads to the story's ultimate point: if all we can do is try, then we must try. The narrator is paralyzed by different elements of his relationships with his two women: with his wife, he is scared of becoming antagonistic; with his girlfriend, he is scared of hearing that she will die. Both will potentially force him to look at himself more closely, something he is trying not to do. And yet the story ends on an optimistic note. Perhaps he can only move "one day at a time," like the mantra Frank Martin has written on the cake says, but that is what he will do. He will call his wife and he will not scream. He will call his girlfriend, and when she picks up, he will say "It's me." It doesn't mean that his issues of disaffection – of wanting to be someone different, outside of himself – have gone away, but it does mean that he will try to embrace who he is, in hopes that day by day, he can move forward and get better. In terms of the Jack London story, he can either willingly freeze to death or do his best to build a fire. He chooses the latter, and the fact that the last line of the story is a statement of identity leads us to believe that perhaps he will succeed.