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Neighbors Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The Millers and the Stones live in apartments across a hallway from each other. The two couples appear to have lives fundamentally alike. Bill and Arlene Miller, however, feel they are missing out on the better things in life. They believe that the Stones’ lives are more satisfying, more exciting, than theirs. The Millers particularly envy the fact that the Stones frequently socialize and travel. When the Stones leave on a ten-day trip, they ask the Millers to care for their plants and cat. In the few days after the Stones depart, both Bill and Arlene are transformed by their explorations of the Stones’ home.

The responsibility of caring for the Stones’ household becomes an opportunity to take over their possessions, to occupy the spaces of their most private lives, to become the Stones. During the first evening of the Stones’ absence, Bill Miller enters their domain, delights in its very air, ogles at their ordinary treasures, pockets a bottle of Harriet’s prescription medicine, swigs their Chivas Regal, and stakes a strangely thrilling proprietary claim on their way of life.

Bill’s initial incursion into the Stones’ world arouses his sexual energy and leads him to break his own routines at home and at work. During a second visit to his neighbors’ apartment the next day, Bill rummages through their cupboards, refrigerator, and bedroom. He takes a pack of cigarettes before he is interrupted by his wife, who is sharply curious about his long stay. The next day, Bill is so preoccupied he does not go to work. Again he enters the Stones’ lives, and his violation of his neighbors’ personal privacy is still bolder. Reveling in his dominion over their most intimate spaces, he locks up the cat and masturbates on his neighbor’s bed, then dons Jim’s clothing, and finally changes into Harriet’s underwear, skirt, and blouse, losing his sense of his own identity in the process, or perhaps merging with their identities.

Bill’s sexual arousal and long journeys next door do not escape Arlene’s notice. She also takes a trip into the Stones’ world. When she answers Bill’s impatient knock and steps into the hall, she appears flushed and flecked with white lint as if she has duplicated Bill’s indulgences in the pleasures of the Stones’ bed. Standing close to each other, aroused, on the brink of thrilling sexual travel together in this magic realm of their neighbors’ apartment to look at pictures that Arlene has found, Bill and Arlene discover she has left the key inside. Abruptly, they find themselves locked out of their new lives. They both appear stricken; Bill utters what seem to be inappropriate words, “Don’t worry.” One would think this is merely a brief delay of their gratification. However, they cling together, apparently paralyzed by emotions powerful but not explicit. Is it loss, fear, excitement, shame, guilt, or something else that they feel as they brace themselves for what is to come?

Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Neighbors” is one of the most puzzling and shocking stories in Carver’s collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? It focuses on Bill and Arlene Miller, a young couple who feel that the lives of their neighbors Harriet and Jim Stone are somehow brighter and fuller than their own. The story begins when the Stones go on a trip and ask the Millers to look after their apartment and water the plants. When Bill begins routinely to perform this task, however, his visits to the apartment make him sexually aroused. Moreover, he begins to stay longer and longer in the apartment, taking trivial things such as cigarettes and a container of pills, and nibbling food from the refrigerator.

Bill’s fascination with the apartment becomes more bizarre when he secretly takes time off from work and slips in to spend the day alone there. He first tries on a pair of Bermuda shorts belonging to Jim Stone, then a brassiere and pair of panties belonging to Harriet. The story comes to a climax that evening when his wife goes over to...

(The entire section is 1,061 words.)