THE ICE WAGON GOING DOWN THE STREET
written by Mavis Gallant and narrated by Lorna Raver

 

In Geneva Peter worked for a woman—a girl. She was a Norwegian from a small town in Saskatchewan. He supposed they had been put together because they were Canadians; but they were as strange to each other as if “Canadian” meant any number of things, or had no real meaning. Soon after Agnes Brusen came to the office she hung her framed university degree on the wall. It was one of the gritty, prideful gestures that stand for push, toil, and family sacrifice. He thought, then, that she must be one of a family of immigrants for whom education is everything. Hugh Taylor had told him that in some families the older children never marry until the youngest have finished school. Sometimes every second child is sacrificed and made to work for the education of the next-born. Those who finish college spend years paying back. They are white-hot Protestants, and they live with a load of work and debt and obligation. Peter placed his new colleague on scraps of information. He had never been in the West.

She came to the office on a Monday morning in October. The office was overheated and painted cream. It contained two desks, the filing cabinets, a map of the world as it had been in 1945, and the Charter of the United Nations left behind by Agnes Brusen’s predecessor. (She took down the Charter without asking Peter if he minded, with the impudence of gesture you find in women who wouldn’t say boo to a goose; and then she hung her college degree on the nail where the Charter had been.) Three people brought her in—a whole committee. One of them said, “Agnes, this is Pete Frazier. Pete, Agnes Brusen. Pete’s Canadian, too, Agnes. He knows all about the office, so ask him anything.”

Of course he knew all about the office: He knew the exact spot where the cord of the venetian blind was frayed, obliging one to give an extra tug to the right.

The girl might have been twenty-three: no more. She wore a brown tweed suit with bone buttons, and a new silk scarf and new shoes. She clutched an unscratched brown purse. She seemed dressed in going-away presents. She said, “Oh, I never smoke,” with a convulsive movement of her hand, when Peter offered his case. He was courteous, hiding his disappointment. The people he worked with had told him a Scandinavian girl was arriving, and he had expected a stunner. Agnes was a mole: She was small and brown, and round-shouldered as if she had always carried parcels or younger children in her arms. A mole’s profile was turned when she said good-bye to her committee. If she had been foreign, ill-favored though she was, he might have flirted a little, just to show that he was friendly; but their being Canadian, and suddenly left together, was a sexual damper. He sat down and lit his own cigarette. She smiled at him, questionably, he thought, and sat as if she had never seen a chair before. He wondered if his smoking was annoying her. He wondered if she was fidgety about drafts, or allergic to anything, and whether she would want the blind up or down. His social compass was out of order because the others couldn’t tell Peter and Agnes apart. There was a world of difference between them, yet it was she who had been brought in to sit at the larger of the two desks.

While he was thinking this she got up and walked around the office, almost on tiptoe, opening the doors of closets and pulling out the filing trays. She looked inside everything except the drawers of Peter’s desk. (In any case, Peter’s desk was locked. His desk is locked wherever he works. In Geneva he went into Personnel one morning, early, and pinched his application form. He had stated on the form that he had seven years’ experience in public relations and could speak French, German, Spanish, and Italian. He has always collected anything important about himself—anything useful. But he can never get on with the final act, which is getting rid of the information. He has kept papers about for years, a constant source of worry.)

“I know this looks funny, Mr. Ferris,” said the girl. “I’m not really snooping or anything. I just can’t feel easy in a new place unless I know where everything is. In a new place everything seems so hidden.”

If she had called him “Ferris” and pretended not to know he was Frazier, it could only be because they had sent her here to spy on him and see if he had repented and was fit for a better place in life. “You’ll be all right here,” he said. “Nothing’s hidden. Most of us haven’t got brains enough to have secrets. This is Rainbow Valley.” Depressed by the thought that they were having him watched now, he passed his hand over his hair and looked outside to the lawn and the parking lot and the peacocks someone gave the Palais des Nations years ago. The peacocks love no one. They wander about the parked cars looking elderly, bad-tempered, mournful, and lost.

Agnes had settled down again. She folded her silk scarf and placed it just so, with her gloves beside it. She opened her new purse and took out a notebook and a shiny gold pencil. She may have written

Duster for desk

Kleenex

Glass jar for flowers

Air-Wick because he smokes

Paper for lining drawers

 

because the next day she brought each of these articles to work. She also brought a large black Bible, which she unwrapped lovingly and placed on the left-hand corner of her desk. The flower vase—empty—stood in the middle, and the Kleenex made a counterpoise for the Bible on the right.

When he saw the Bible he knew she had not been sent to spy on his work. The conspiracy was deeper. She might have been dispatched by ghosts. He knew everything about her, all in a moment: He saw the ambition, the terror, the dry pride. She was the true heir of the men from Scotland; she was at the start. She had been sent to tell him, “You can begin, but not begin again.” She never opened the Bible, but she dusted it as she dusted her desk, her chair, and any surface the cleaning staff had overlooked. And Peter, the first days, watching her timid movements, her insignificant little face, felt, as you feel the approach of a storm, the charge of moral certainty round her, the belief in work, the faith in undertakings, the bread of the Black Sunday. He recognized and tasted all of it: ashes in the mouth.

After five days their working relations were settled. Of course, there was the Bible and all that went with it, but his tongue had never held the taste of ashes long. She was an inferior girl of poor quality. She had nothing in her favor except the degree on the wall. In the real world, he would not have invited her to his house except to mind the children. That was what he said to Sheilah. He said that Agnes was a mole, and a virgin, and that her tics and mannerisms were sending him round the bend. She had an infuriating habit of covering her mouth when she talked. Even at the telephone she put up her hand as if afraid of losing anything, even a word. Her voice was nasal and flat. She had two working costumes, both dull as the wall. One was the brown suit, the other a navy-blue dress with changeable collars. She dressed for no one; she dressed for her desk, her jar of flowers, her Bible, and her box of Kleenex. One day she crossed the space between the two desks and stood over Peter, who was reading a newspaper. She could have spoken to him from her desk, but she may have felt that being on her feet gave her authority. She had plenty of courage, but authority was something else.

“I thought—I mean, they told me you were the person …” She got on with it bravely: “If you don’t want to do the filing or any work, all right, Mr. Frazier. I’m not saying anything about that. You might have poor health or your personal reasons. But it’s got to be done, so if you’ll kindly show me about the filing I’ll do it. I’ve worked in Information before, but it was a different office, and every office is different.”

“My dear girl,” said Peter. He pushed back his chair and looked at her, astonished. “You’ve been sitting there fretting, worrying. How insensitive of me. How trying for you. Usually I file on the last Wednesday of the month, so you see, you just haven’t been around long enough to see a last Wednesday. Not another word, please. And let us not waste another minute.” He emptied the heaped baskets of photographs so swiftly, pushing “Iran—Smallpox Control” into “Irish Red Cross” (close enough), that the girl looked frightened, as if she had raised a whirlwind. She said slowly, “If you’ll only show me, Mr. Frazier, instead of doing it so fast, I’ll gladly look after it, because you might want to be doing other things, and I feel the filing should be done every day.” But Peter was too busy to answer, and so she sat down, holding the edge of her desk.

“There,” he said, beaming. “All done.” His smile, his sunburst, was wasted, for the girl was staring round the room as if she feared she had not inspected everything the first day after all; some drawer, some cupboard, hid a monster. That evening Peter unlocked one of the drawers of his desk and took away the application form he had stolen from Personnel. The girl had not finished her search.

“How could you not know?” wailed Sheilah. “You sit looking at her every day. You must talk about something. She must have told you.”

“She did tell me,” said Peter, “and I’ve just told you.”

It was this: Agnes Brusen was on the Burleighs’ guest list. How had the Burleighs met her? What did they see in her? Peter could not reply. He knew that Agnes lived in a bed-sitting room with a Swiss family and had her meals with them. She had been in Geneva three months, but no one had ever seen her outside the office. “You should know,” said Sheilah. “She must have something, more than you can see. Is she pretty? Is she brilliant? What is it?”

“We don’t really talk,” Peter said. They talked in a way: Peter teased her and she took no notice. Agnes was not a sulker. She had taken her defeat like a sport. She did her work and a good deal of his. She sat behind her Bible, her flowers, and her Kleenex, and answered when Peter spoke. That was how he learned about the Burleighs—just by teasing and being bored. It was a January afternoon. He said, “Miss Brusen. Talk to me. Tell me everything. Pretend we have perfect rapport. Do you like Geneva?”

“It’s a nice clean town,” she said. He can see to this day the red and blue anemones in the glass jar, and her bent head, and her small untended hands.

“Are you learning beautiful French with your Swiss family?”

“They speak English.”

“Why don’t you take an apartment of your own?” he said. Peter was not usually impertinent. He was bored. “You’d be independent then.”

“I am independent,” she said. “I earn my living. I don’t think it proves anything if you live by yourself. Mrs. Burleigh wants me to live alone, too. She’s looking for something for me. It mustn’t be dear. I send money home.”

Here was the extraordinary thing about Agnes Brusen: She refused the use of Christian names and never spoke to Peter unless he spoke first, but she would tell anything, as if to say, “Don’t waste time fishing. Here it is.”

He learned all in one minute that she sent her salary home, and that she was a friend of the Burleighs. The first he had expected; the second knocked him flat.

“She’s got to come to dinner,” Sheilah said. “We should have had her right from the beginning. If only I’d known! But you were the one. You said she looked like—oh, I don’t even remember. A Norwegian mole.”

She came to dinner one Saturday night in January, in her navy-blue dress, to which she had pinned an organdy gardenia. She sat upright on the edge of the sofa. Sheilah had ordered the meal from a restaurant. There was lobster, good wine, and a pièce-montée full of kirsch and cream. Agnes refused the lobster; she had never eaten anything from the sea unless it had been sterilized and tinned, and said so. She was afraid of skin poisoning. Someone in her family had skin poisoning after having eaten oysters. She touched her cheeks and neck to show where the poisoning had erupted. She sniffed her wine and put the glass down without tasting it. She could not eat the cake because of the alcohol it contained. She ate an egg, bread and butter, a sliced tomato, and drank a glass of ginger ale. She seemed unaware she was creating disaster and pain. She did not help clear away the dinner plates. She sat, adequately nourished, decently dressed, and waited to learn why she had been invited here—that was the feeling Peter had. He folded the card table on which they had dined, and opened the window to air the room.

“It’s not the same cold as Canada, but you feel it more,” he said, for something to say.

“Your blood has gotten thin,” said Agnes.

Sheilah returned from the kitchen and let herself fall into an armchair. With her eyes closed she held out her hand for a cigarette. She was performing the haughty-lady act that was a family joke. She flung her head back and looked at Agnes through half-closed lids; then she suddenly brought her head forward, widening her eyes.

“Are you skiing madly?” she said.

“Well, in the first place there hasn’t been any snow,” said Agnes. “So nobody’s doing any skiing so far as I know. All I hear is people complaining because there’s no snow. Personally, I don’t ski. There isn’t much skiing in the part of Canada I come from. Besides, my family never had that kind of leisure.”

“Heavens,” said Sheilah, as if her family had every kind.

I’ll bet they had, thought Peter. On the dole.

Sheilah was wasting her act. He had a suspicion that Agnes knew it was an act but did not know it was also a joke. If so, it made Sheilah seem a fool, and he loved Sheilah too much to enjoy it.

“The Burleighs have been wonderful to me,” said Agnes. She seemed to have divined why she was here, and decided to give them all the information they wanted, so that she could put on her coat and go home to bed. “They had me out to their place on the lake every weekend until the weather got cold and they moved back to town. They’ve rented a chalet for the winter, and they want me to come there, too. But I don’t know if I will or not. I don’t ski, and, oh, I don’t know—I don’t drink, either, and I don’t always see the point. Their friends are too rich and I’m too Canadian.”

She had delivered everything Sheilah wanted and more: Agnes was on the first guest list and didn’t care. No, Peter corrected: doesn’t know. Doesn’t care and doesn’t know.

“I thought with you Norwegians it was in the blood, skiing. And drinking,” Sheilah murmured.

“Drinking, maybe,” said Agnes. She covered her mouth and said behind her spread fingers, “In our family we were religious. We didn’t drink or smoke. My brother was in Norway in the war. He saw some cousins. Oh,” she said, unexpectedly loud, “Harry said it was just terrible. They were so poor. They had flies in their kitchen. They gave him something to eat a fly had been on. They didn’t have a real toilet, and they’d been in the same house about two hundred years. We’ve only recently built our own home, and we have a bathroom and two toilets. I’m from Saskatchewan,” she said. “I’m not from any other place.”

 

Surely one winter here had been punishment enough? In the spring they would remember him and free him. He wrote Lucille, who said he was lucky to have a job at all. The Burleighs had sent the Fraziers a second-guest-list Christmas card. It showed a Moslem refugee child weeping outside a tent. They treasured the card and left it standing long after the others had been given the children to cut up. Peter had discovered by now what had gone wrong in the friendship—Sheilah had charged a skirt at a dressmaker to Madge’s account. Madge had told her she might, and then changed her mind. Poor Sheilah! She was new to this part of it—to the changing humors of independent friends. Paris was already a year in the past. At Mardi Gras, the Burleighs gave their annual party. They invited everyone, the damned and the dropped, with the prodigality of a child at prayers. The invitation said “in costume,” but the Fraziers were too happy to wear a disguise. They might not be recognized. Like many of the guests they expected to meet at the party, they had been disgraced, forgotten, and rehabilitated. They would be anxious to see one another as they were.

On the night of the party, the Fraziers rented a car they had never seen before and drove through the first snowstorm of the year. Peter had not driven since last summer’s blissful trips in the Fiat. He could not find the switch for the windshield wiper in this car. He leaned over the wheel. “Can you see on your side?” he asked. “Can I make a left turn here? Does it look like a one-way?”

“I can’t imagine why you took a car with a right-hand drive,” said Sheilah.

He had trouble finding a place to park; they crawled up and down unknown streets whose curbs were packed with snow-covered cars. When they stood at last on the pavement, safe and sound, Peter said, “This is the first snow.”

“I can see that,” said Sheilah. “Hurry, darling. My hair.”

“It’s the first snow.”

“You’re repeating yourself,” she said. “Please hurry, darling. Think of my poor shoes. My hair.”

She was born in an ugly city, and so was Peter, but they have this difference: She does not know the importance of the first snow—the first clean thing in a dirty year. He would have told her then that this storm, which was wetting her feet and destroying her hair, was like the first day of the English spring, but she made a frightened gesture, trying to shield her head. The gesture told him he did not understand her beauty.

“Let me,” she said. He was fumbling with the key, trying to lock the car. She took the key without impatience and locked the door on the driver’s side; and then, to show Peter she treasured him and was not afraid of wasting her life or her beauty, she took his arm and they walked in the snow down a street and around a corner to the apartment house where the Burleighs lived. They were, and are, a united couple. They were afraid of the party, and each of them knew it. When they walk together, holding arms, they give each other whatever each can spare.

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