“Now that they were out of world affairs and back where they started, Peter Frazier’s wife says, “Everybody else did well in the international thing except us.”
So begins Mavis Gallant’s story, “The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street,” first published in the New Yorker in December of 1963. It is contained within the story collection Paris Stories, published in 2002. Last time, I threatened to look for symbols, metaphors, allegory and rhymes in this story, and I intend to do that. But first, let’s consider things more broadly.
(whiny voice) Scuse me, Mr. A.I. What’s an ice wagon?
You again. Well, I will explain for my younger readers.
It’s a wagon made of ice.
No. Before the days of electrical refrigeration, blocks of ice were delivered to homes and businesses by a horse-drawn wagon, to be placed in iceboxes to preserve food.
No—you’re kidding, right?
We will see that this symbol of the ice wagon going down the street is key to the story.
Probably why it’s the title.
Voices is not a story about Linnet Muir. It concerns Peter Frazier, a Canadian who was worked in various low-level jobs in Europe, always dreaming of material success. In the course of one of these positions, his supervisor is Agnes Brusen, a young woman who affects him profoundly. It is Agnes who relates the episode of the ice wagon coming down the street, a childhood memory of hers.
At the beginning of Ice Wagon, Peter, his wife, and two young daughters are living in his birth country Canada with his sister after an unsuccessful season spent in the Far East. And this season occurs after an earlier unsuccessful time in Geneva, where he encountered Agnes. Prior to that there was an unsuccessful time in Paris. You get the idea, yes? Peter (and his wife) is someone who expects success and acclaim but does not work for it. Also, Peter and Sheila are perpetual exiles without a home. But Peter maintains a brave front.
“He had tried to tell Sheila why he cannot be defeated. He remembers his father saying, “Nothing can touch us,” and Peter believed it and still does. It has prevented his taking his troubles too seriously. Nothing can be as bad as this, he will tell himself. …as if his office were a pastime, and his real life a secret so splendid he could share it with no one except himself.”
He is arrogant and resentful. But meeting Agnes Brusen provides him with a haunting sense of his own moral bankruptcy.
Here’s how the story ends:
“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.”
Let’s look at how the central symbol/metaphor of the ice wagon coming down the street leads us to this bleak end.
Peter and Sheila attend a party where Agnes is present. Agnes drinks too much—very rare for her—and the hostess asks Peter to take her home. As they search for his car, Agnes says: “I’ve never been alone before. When I was a kid I would get up in the summer before the others, and I’d see the ice wagon going down the street. I’m alone now.”
The next day, at their office, Agnes says: “I told you about the ice wagon…that was the best. It’s the best you can hope to have. In a big family, if you want to be alone, you have to get up before the rest of them. You get up early in the morning and it’s you, you, once in your life alone in the universe. You think you know everything that can happen…nothing is ever like that again.”
In her small apartment, Agnes emerges from the bathroom and clumsily embraces Peter—although this is not a bid for seduction. Peter “saw her back and her profile and his own face in the mirror over the fireplace. He thought, this is how disasters happen…He saw floods of seawater moving with perfect punitive justice over reclaimed land, he saw lava covering vineyards and overtaking dogs and stragglers. A bridge over an abyss snapped in two, and the long express train, suddenly V-shaped, floated like snow.”
My read of this is that, looking in the mirror, his world cracks apart. All the lies and pretending, the narcissistic resentment that his undeveloped abilities are ignored, are exposed, and he sees his double for who he really is—a failure. What Agnes unknowingly communicates to him is that he is like a child watching the world in wonder but that nothing is ever like that again. He is spending his adult life in the mistaken belief that it can be. He returns home.
Peter “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. Nothing moves except the shadows and the ice wagon and the changing amber of the child’s eyes. The child is Peter…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’s day?”
The image of the ice-wagon coming down an empty, early morning street, watched in wonder by a child, is marvelously evocative and magical. And it “holds” much meaning. Peter may have been the child observing, but he is no longer a child. He is alone with Sheila.
“…Agnes went on and did—what? They lost each other. Peter is lost.”
And there are other metaphors we should consider in this story.
Till next time.