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Careful Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Lloyd and Inez have recently gone through what Inez calls “an assessment.” The outcome of this assessment is that they decide to separate. As the story opens, Lloyd has recently moved into a two-room and bath attic apartment in Mrs. Matthews’s house. The ceilings in the apartment are low and slanting, so much so that Lloyd has to stoop to look out the windows and has to be careful not to hit his head when he gets out of bed.

The reader first meets Lloyd as he enters the building in which he lives, carrying his groceries—some lunch meat and three bottles of Andre champagne. As he passes Mrs. Matthews’s door, he looks in and sees that she is lying on the floor. He thinks that she might have collapsed, but her television set is on, and he does not venture to find out whether she is all right. She moves slightly, so he knows that she is not dead.

Lloyd’s cooking facilities are minimal: A single unit contains his two-burner stove and a tiny refrigerator. Sometimes he makes himself instant coffee on the stove, but he is more likely to have a breakfast of crumb doughnuts and champagne. He switched to champagne in an attempt to wean himself away from hard liquor, but now he is drinking three or four bottles of champagne a day.

On the day of the story’s action, Inez, Lloyd’s estranged wife, comes unannounced to see him. Because he does not have a telephone, she has not been able to forewarn him of her visit. When she arrives at eleven o’clock in the morning, Lloyd is sitting in the apartment, not yet dressed, banging his head with his fist. His right ear passage has become blocked with wax, which he is trying to dislodge. The blockage makes all sounds seem distorted. When Lloyd talks, he hears himself talking like someone in a barrel, and his balance is affected as well.

Inez has come to talk with him about the details of their separation, some of them having to do with money. It soon becomes evident, however, that little can be accomplished until Lloyd’s ear is fixed, so Inez immediately leaps into the role of mother-nurse. Lloyd recalls that one of his schoolteachers, who was like a nurse, years ago had warned her students not to put anything smaller than their elbows in their ears, and he tells Inez of this warning. She responds, “Well, your nurse was never faced with this exact problem,” and she proceeds to search for a hairpin or some other implement to stick into Lloyd’s ear to dislodge the wax.

Finally, after an abortive attempt to work with a small nail file wrapped in tissue, Inez goes to ask the landlady to borrow some oil, which she heats and pours into...

(The entire section is 729 words.)