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

 

Only six people had arrived in costume. Madge Burleigh was disguised as Manet’s “Lola de Valence,” which everyone mistook for Carmen. Mike was an Impressionist painter, with a straw hat and a glued-on beard. “I am all of them,” he said. He would rather have dressed as a dentist, he said, welcoming the Fraziers as if he had parted from them the day before, but Madge wanted him to look as if he had created her. “You know?” he said.

“Perfectly,” said Sheilah. Her shoes were stained and the snow had softened her lacquered hair. She was not wasted: She was the most beautiful woman there.

About an hour after their arrival, Peter found himself with no one to talk to. He had told about the Trudeau wedding in Paris and the pot of azaleas, and after he mislaid his audience he began to look round for Sheilah. She was on a window seat, partly concealed by a green velvet curtain. Facing her, so that their profiles were neat and perfect against the night, was a man. Their conversation was private and enclosed, as if they had in minutes covered leagues of time and arrived at the place where everything was implied, understood. Peter began working his way across the room, toward his wife, when he saw Agnes. He was granted the sight of her drowning face. She had dressed with comic intention, obviously with care, and now she was a ragged hobo, half tramp, half clown. Her hair was tucked up under a bowler hat. The six costumed guests who had made the same mistake—the ghost, the gypsy, the Athenian maiden, the geisha, the Martian, and the apache—were delighted to find a seventh; but Agnes was not amused; she was gasping for life. When a waiter passed with a crowded tray, she took a glass without seeing it; then a wave of the party took her away.

Sheilah’s new friend was named Simpson. After Simpson said he thought perhaps he’d better circulate, Peter sat down where he had been. “Now look, Sheilah,” he began. Their most intimate conversations have taken place at parties. Once at a party she told him she was leaving him; she didn’t, of course. Smiling, blue-eyed, she gazed lovingly at Peter and said rapidly, “Pete, shut up and listen. That man. The man you scared away. He’s a big wheel in a company out in India or someplace like that. It’s gorgeous out there. Pete, the servants. And it’s warm. It never never snows. He says there’s heaps of jobs. You pick them off the trees like … orchids. He says it’s even easier now than when we owned all those places, because now the poor pets can’t run anything and they’ll pay fortunes. Pete, he says it’s warm, it’s heaven, and Pete, they pay.”

A few minutes later, Peter was alone again and Sheilah part of a closed, laughing group. Holding her elbow was the man from the place where jobs grew like orchids. Peter edged into the group and laughed at a story he hadn’t heard. He heard only the last line, which was “Here comes another tunnel.” Looking out from the tight laughing ring, he saw Agnes again, and he thought, I’d be like Agnes if I didn’t have Sheilah. Agnes put her glass down on a table and lurched toward the doorway, head forward. Madge Burleigh, who never stopped moving around the room and smiling, was still smiling when she paused and said in Peter’s ear, “Go with Agnes, Pete. See that she gets home. People will notice if Mike leaves.”

“She probably just wants to walk around the block,” said Peter. “She’ll be back.”

“Oh, stop thinking about yourself, for once, and see that that poor girl gets home,” said Madge. “You’ve still got your Fiat, haven’t you?”

He turned away as if he had been pushed. Any command is a release, in a way. He may not want to go in that particular direction, but at least he is going somewhere. And now Sheilah, who had moved inches nearer to hear what Madge and Peter were murmuring, said, “Yes, go, darling,” as if he were leaving the gates of Troy.

Peter was to find Agnes and see that she reached home: This he repeated to himself as he stood on the landing, outside the Burleighs’ flat, ringing for the elevator. Bored with waiting for it, he ran down the stairs, four flights, and saw that Agnes had stalled the lift by leaving the door open. She was crouched on the floor, propped on her fingertips. Her eyes were closed.

“Agnes,” said Peter. “Miss Brusen, I mean. That’s no way to leave a party. Don’t you know you’re supposed to curtsy and say thanks? My God, Agnes, anybody going by here just now might have seen you! Come on, be a good girl. Time to go home.”

She got up without his help and, moving between invisible crevasses, shut the elevator door. Then she left the building and Peter followed, remembering he was to see that she got home. They walked along the snowy pavement, Peter a few steps behind her. When she turned right for no reason, he turned, too. He had no clear idea where they were going. Perhaps she lived close by. He had forgotten where the hired car was parked, or what it looked like; he could not remember its make or its color. In any case, Sheilah had the key. Agnes walked on steadily, as if she knew their destination, and he thought, Agnes Brusen is drunk in the street in Geneva and dressed like a tramp. He wanted to say, “This is the best thing that ever happened to you, Agnes; it will help you understand how things are for some of the rest of us.” But she stopped and turned and, leaning over a low hedge, retched on a frozen lawn. He held her clammy forehead and rested his hand on her arched back, on muscles as tight as a fist. She straightened up and drew a breath but the cold air made her cough. “Don’t breathe too deeply,” he said. “It’s the worst thing you can do. Have you got a handkerchief?” He passed his own handkerchief over her wet weeping face, upturned like the face of one of his little girls. “I’m out without a coat,” he said, noticing it. “We’re a pair.”

“I never drink,” said Agnes. “I’m just not used to it.” Her voice was sweet and quiet. He had never seen her so peaceful, so composed. He thought she must surely be all right, now, and perhaps he might leave her here. The trust in her tilted face had perplexed him. He wanted to get back to Sheilah and have her explain something. He had forgotten what it was, but Sheilah would know. “Do you live around here?” he said. As he spoke, she let herself fall. He had wiped her face and now she trusted him to pick her up, set her on her feet, take her wherever she ought to be. He pulled her up and she stood, wordless, humble, as he brushed the snow from her tramp’s clothes. Snow horizontally crossed the lamplight. The street was silent. Agnes had lost her hat. Snow, which he tasted, melted on her hands. His gesture of licking snow from her hands was formal as a handshake. He tasted snow on her hands and then they walked on.

“I never drink,” she said. They stood on the edge of a broad avenue. The wrong turning now could lead them anywhere; it was the changeable avenue at the edge of towns that loses its houses and becomes a highway. She held his arm and spoke in a gentle voice. She said, “In our house we didn’t smoke or drink. My mother was ambitious for me, more than for Harry and the others.” She said, “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. Mrs. Burleigh’s found me an apartment. It’s only one room. She likes it because it’s in the old part of town. I don’t like old houses. Old houses are dirty. You don’t know who was there before.”

“I should have a car somewhere,” Peter said. “I’m not sure where we are.”

He remembers that on this avenue they climbed into a taxi, but nothing about the drive. Perhaps he fell asleep. He does remember that when he paid the driver Agnes clutched his arm, trying to stop him. She pressed extra coins into the driver’s palm. The driver was paid twice.

“I’ll tell you one thing about us,” said Peter. “We pay everything twice.” This was part of a much longer theory concerning North American behavior, and it was not Peter’s own. Mike Burleigh had held forth about it on summer afternoons.

Agnes pushed open a door between a stationer’s shop and a grocery, and led the way up a narrow inside stair. They climbed one flight, frightening beetles. She had to search every pocket for the latchkey. She was shaking with cold. Her apartment seemed little warmer than the street. Without speaking to Peter she turned on all the lights. She looked inside the kitchen and the bathroom and then got down on her hands and knees and looked under the sofa. The room was neat and belonged to no one. She left him standing in this unclaimed room—she had forgotten him—and closed a door behind her. He looked for something to do—some useful action he could repeat to Madge. He turned on the electric radiator in the fireplace. Perhaps Agnes wouldn’t thank him for it; perhaps she would rather undress in the cold. “I’ll be on my way,” he called to the bathroom door.

She had taken off the tramp’s clothes and put on a dressing gown of orphanage wool. She came out of the bathroom and straight toward him. She pressed her face and rubbed her cheek on his shoulder as if hoping the contact would leave a scar. He 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. He thought amiably of every kind of disaster and thought, This is how they occur.

Her eyes were closed. She said, “I shouldn’t be over here. In my family we didn’t drink or smoke. My mother wanted a lot from me, more than from Harry and the others.” But he knew all that; he had known from the day of the Bible, and because once, at the beginning, she had made him afraid. He was not afraid of her now.

She said, “It’s no use staying here, is it?”

“If you mean what I think, no.”

“It wouldn’t be better anywhere.”

She let him see full on her blotched face. He was not expected to do anything. He was not required to pick her up when she fell or wipe her tears. She was poor quality, really—he remembered having thought that once. She left him and went quietly into the bathroom and locked the door. He heard taps running and supposed it was a hot bath. He was pretty certain there would be no more tears. He looked at his watch: Sheilah must be home, now, wondering what had become of him. He descended the beetles’ staircase and for forty minutes crossed the city under a windless fall of snow.

The neighbor’s child who had stayed with Peter’s children was asleep on the living-room sofa. Peter woke her and sent her, sleepwalking, to her own door. He sat down, wet to the bone, thinking, I’ll call the Burleighs. In half an hour I’ll call the police. He heard a car stop and the engine running and a confusion of two voices laughing and calling good night. Presently Sheilah let herself in, rosy-faced, smiling. She carried his trench coat over her arm. She said, “How’s Agnes?”

“Where were you?” he said. “Whose car was that?”

Sheilah had gone into the children’s room. He heard her shutting their window. She returned, undoing her dress, and said, “Was Agnes all right?”

“Agnes is all right. Sheilah, this is about the worst …”

She stepped out of the Balenciaga and threw it over a chair. She stopped and looked at him and said, “Poor old Pete, are you in love with Agnes?” And then, as if the answer were of so little importance she hadn’t time for it, she locked her arms around him and said, “My love, we’re going to Ceylon.”

Two days later, when Peter strolled into his office, Agnes was at her desk. She wore the blue dress, with a spotless collar. White and yellow freesias were symmetrically arranged in the glass jar. The room was hot, and the spring snow, glued for a second when it touched the window, blurred the view of parked cars.

“Quite a party,” Peter said.

She did not look up. He sighed, sat down, and thought if the snow held he would be skiing at the Burleighs’ very soon. Impressed by his kindness to Agnes, Madge had invited the family for the first possible weekend.

Presently Agnes said, “I’ll never drink again or go to a house where people are drinking. And I’ll never bother anyone the way I bothered you.”

“You didn’t bother me,” he said. “I took you home. You were alone and it was late. It’s normal.”

“Normal for you, maybe, but I’m used to getting home by myself. Please never tell what happened.”

He stared at her. He can still remember the freesias and the Bible and the heat in the room. She looked as if the elements had no power. She felt neither heat nor cold. “Nothing happened,” he said.

“I behaved in a silly way. I had no right to. I led you to think I might do something wrong.”

“I might have tried something,” he said gallantly. “But that would be my fault and not yours.”

She put her knuckle to her mouth and he could scarcely hear. “It was because of you. I was afraid you might be blamed, or else you’d blame yourself.”

“There’s no question of any blame,” he said. “Nothing happened. We’d both had a lot to drink. Forget about it. Nothing happened. You’d remember if it had.”

She put down her hand. There was an expression on her face. Now she sees me, he thought. She had never looked at him after the first day. (He has since tried to put a name to the look on her face; but how can he, now, after so many voyages, after Ceylon, and Hong Kong, and Sheilah’s nearly leaving him, and all their difficulties—the money owed, the rows with hotel managers, the lost and found steamer trunk, the children throwing up the foreign food?) She sees me now, he thought. What does she see?

She said, “I’m from a big family. I’m not used to being alone. I’m not a suicidal person, but I could have done something after that party, just not to see anymore, or think or listen or expect anything. What can I think when I see these people? All my life I heard, Educated people don’t do this, educated people don’t do that. And now I’m here, and you’re all educated people, and you’re nothing but pigs. You’re educated and you drink and do everything wrong and you know what you’re doing, and that makes you worse than pigs. My family worked to make me an educated person, but they didn’t know you. But what if I didn’t see and hear and expect anything anymore? It wouldn’t change anything. You’d all be still the same. Only you might have thought it was your fault. You might have thought you were to blame. It could worry you all your life. It would have been wrong for me to worry you.”

He remembered that the rented car was still along a snowy curb somewhere in Geneva. He wondered if Sheilah had the key in her purse and if she remembered where they’d parked.

“I told you about the ice wagon,” Agnes said. “I don’t remember everything, so you’re wrong about remembering. But I remember telling you that. 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 in the summer 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.”

He looked at the smeared window and wondered if this day could end without disaster. In his mind he saw her falling in the snow wearing a tramp’s costume, and he saw her coming to him in the orphanage dressing gown. He saw her drowning face at the party. He was afraid for himself. The story was still unfinished. It had to come to a climax, something threatening to him. But there was no climax. They talked that day, and afterward nothing else was said. They went on in the same office for a short time, until Peter left for Ceylon; until somebody read the right letter, passed it on for the right initials, and the Fraziers began the Oriental tour that should have made their fortune. Agnes and Peter were too tired to speak after that morning. They were like a married couple in danger, taking care.

But what were they talking about that day, so quietly, such old friends? They talked about dying, about being ambitious, about being religious, about different kinds of love. What did she see when she looked at him—taking her knuckle slowly away from her mouth, bringing her hand down to the desk, letting it rest there? They were both Canadians, so they had this much together—the knowledge of the little you dare admit. Death, near death, the best thing, the wrong thing—God knows what they were telling each other. Anyway, nothing happened.

 

When, on Sunday mornings, Sheilah and Peter talk about those times, they take on the glamour of something still to come. It is then he remembers Agnes Brusen. He never says her name. Sheilah wouldn’t remember Agnes. Agnes is the only secret Peter has from his wife, the only puzzle he pieces together without her help. He thinks about families in the West as they were fifteen, twenty years ago—the iron-cold ambition, and every member pushing the next one on. He thinks of his father’s parties. When he thinks of his father he imagines him with Sheilah, in a crowd. Actually, Sheilah and Peter’s father never met, but they might have liked each other. His father admired good-looking women. 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. Peter and Sheilah are back where they started. While they were out in world affairs picking up microbes and debts, always on the fringe of disaster, the fringe of a fortune, Agnes went on and did—what? They lost each other. 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 says, “We have the Balenciaga.” 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.

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