Perhaps one reason why I so love the ending of Mavis Gallant’s story “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street” is that I’ve never quite understood it. I always think that if I reread it one more time, its meaning will disclose itself. Like the story it concludes, the ending seems perfect, mysterious, profound. It is also wildly original, almost “experimental.” I can’t think of anything else, in fiction, remotely like it.
Compressed, dense, and beautifully written, Gallant’s story is even harder to summarize than most, but here goes. A Canadian named Peter Frazier and his British wife, Sheilah, are spending a lazy Sunday morning in Toronto, at Peter’s sister’s apartment, where they have wound up living with their two children after a long, unsuccessful foray into “world affairs.” That is how they describe their years in postwar Europe, during which Peter held a series of low-level jobs, including a stint as a filing clerk at an international agency in Geneva.
A few lines into the story, “Peter thinks, Agnes Brusen, but there are hundreds of other names.” Much later, we learn that Agnes—a mousy, religious fellow Canadian from a small prairie town—was Peter’s officemate in Geneva.
In an extended flashback, we observe Peter’s relationship (more like a standoff) with Agnes: polite, oddly competitive, rife with misunderstanding and vague mistrust. After a costume party at which the normally teetotalling Agnes gets drunk and Peter is asked to take her home, Agnes tells Peter how, as a girl, she used to wake up early to watch the ice wagon going down the street—a rare moment of privacy for a child from a large, poor family. There follows yet another misunderstanding, this one involving sex, which they don’t have. But two days later, back at the office, they have a conversation that, we feel, is the most honest, revealing, and intimate exchange Peter has had, or will ever have, with another human being in his life. Agnes, we realize, could be Peter’s shadow self, a creature constituted from all the things about himself that he will never admit to anyone, least of all his wife.
When the story circles back to that lazy Sunday in Toronto, we are reminded that his encounter with Agnes has been very much on Peter’s mind. “Agnes is the only secret Peter has from his wife, the only puzzle he pieces together without her help. . . . Peter wonders what they were doing over there in Geneva—not Sheilah and Peter, Agnes and Peter. It is almost as if they had once run away together, silly as children, irresponsible as lovers.” And then the story does the remarkable, unprecedented thing, its point of view bouncing around in time and space, then rocketing off into a universe of irremediable mistakes, inconsolable loss, and endless yearning:
He thinks of the ice wagon going down the street. He sees something he has never seen in his life—a Western town that belongs to Agnes. Here is Agnes—small, mole-faced, round-shouldered because she has always carried a younger child. She watches the ice wagon and the trail of ice water in a morning invented for her: hers. He sees the weak prairie trees and the shadows on the sidewalk. Nothing moves except the shadows and the ice wagon and the changing amber of the child’s eyes. The child is Peter. He has seen the grain of the cement sidewalk and the grass in the cracks, and the dust, and the dandelions at the edge of the road. He is there. He has taken the morning that belongs to Agnes, he is up before the others, and he knows everything. There is nothing he doesn’t know. He could keep the morning if he wanted to, but what can Peter do with the start of a summer day? Sheilah is here, it is a true Sunday morning, with its dimness and headache and remorse and regrets, and this is life. . . . He touches Sheilah’s hand. The children have their aunt now, and he and Sheilah have each other. Everything works out, somehow or other. Let Agnes have the start of the day. Let Agnes think it was invented for her. Who wants to be alone in the universe? No, begin at the beginning: Peter lost Agnes. Agnes says to herself somewhere, Peter is lost.
Francine Prose’s most recent novel is Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932. She is a distinguished visiting writer at Bard College.