Mavis Gallant’s “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street” (1963)

Reading this story might change your reading life forever.

That’s what happened to Peter Orner, whose essay on Mavis Gallant’s stories is mesmerizing: “The Way Vivid, Way Underappreciated Short Stories of Mavis Gallant”, published in The Atlantic’s “By Heart” series.

“The first story I read is called ‘The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street.’ It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it changed my reading life forever. The story is about how the love of a couple changes over a long period—from early hope to beautiful, even comic, resignation. No, all their dreams didn’t pan out, but hell, we’ve got our stories and they’re good stories, and nobody can take those away from us. Rather than belittle her characters’ failures, Gallant celebrates them. It’s the sort of story that makes you pause, breathe, and take in all that you have as opposed to worrying over what’s missing.”

While Orner writes about the experience of his beginning with Gallant, here, Francine Prose writes about the ending of this story in a 2013 issue of Brick.

She writes:

“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.”

While Peter Orner discovered this story in My Heat is Broken (1964), it was also the first story of Mavis Gallant’s which Jhumpa Lahiri read, but she discovered it in Home Truths. 

Lahiri bought this 1981 collection in a library booksale in her hometown in New England. She describes her experience like this:

“The first story I read, ‘The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street’, broke something in me – something about my prior understanding of what a story can do, and how. The story was a masterful chiaroscuro at once dense and nimble, urgent and orderly, light-hearted and dark; about experiences both pedestrian and profound. It was virtuosic without fuss, compassionate without sentimentality. It seemed to have been written in a radically different way than any story I’d read before, a live wire that crackled from start to finish on the page.”

(This piece in Granta 106 is terrific but, be warned, the time-to-read estimate in the margin is 61 minutes.)

This, then, is a celebrated and well-known work. But one which remains more about the questions it contains than the answers its author provides, even after many rereadings.

For contemporary readers, it’s easy to figure that the story is rooted in the past. But it’s not only a matter of the past for readers but for its characters as well.

“Their big old steamer trunk blocks a corner of the kitchen, making a problem of the refrigerator door; but even Lucille says the trunk may as well stay where it is, for the present. The Fraziers’ future is so unsettled; everything is still in the air.”

What is solid for the Fraziers – at least for Peter Frazier whose experiences form the heart of things here – is the past.

It, too, is still in the air – in the early morning air, in the air of memory.

Like Miss Horeham’s trunk, the Fraziers have packed up their memories and they can pull them out layer by layer, like the black Balenciaga afternoon-dress which Sheilah drags out to wear, with its memories of happier times.

“Peter’s wife had loved him in Paris. Whatever she wanted in marriage she found that winter, there. In Geneva, where Peter was a file clerk and they lived in a furnished flat, she pretended they were in Paris and life was still the same.”

Now that they are back in Canada, they are still revisiting their memories of Paris. At least, we know that Peter is, and we suspect that Sheilah was happier then too.

But there is a character of equal importance who exists outside this marriage but also in the past. Readers meet her via Peter’s memory of their meeting.

“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.”

In his memory of the event, Peter is presented as an authority and he and Agnes are presumed to have a connection based on their nationality. It’s easy to assume, in a country the size of France, that belonging to Canada implies more similarities than difference, although the reality is that Halifax and Whitehorse and Vancouver can seem worlds apart.

But what Peter and Agnes actually bond over is something simultaneously more concrete and more ephemeral. This remains unrealised through a series of ordinary and usually predictable encounters, but is finally expressed when both Peter and Agnes have been temporarily removed from the stuff of their everyday lives and their usual patterns of relating (with each other, but also with significant others).

After having attended the same party, Peter drives Agnes home, where they remove their costumes (Agnes, literally, Peter metaphorically) and reveal themselves in unexpected ways. For Agnes, this revelation circles around a memory of having gotten up early enough in the mornings of her childhood to see the ice wagon making its rounds.

“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.”

This moment is pure. It is filled with security and promise. It is solidly in the past but the memory of it still holds great power in the present-day for Agnes, and one presumes that it continues to hold that power as more years pass and separate her from that moment (as it remains powerful even for a listener in that moment).

There is a vulnerability in the sharing of it, in the admission that things were once perfect, given that they are no longer perfect.

Peter’s wife, Sheilah, in contrast, does not seem to attach a significance to this kind of pure potential. She does not seem to see wonder in the ordinary details of life.

“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.”

(Not, at least, according to Peter’s understanding of her. Even when he accounts for the fact that she might prefer to see spring as a portent for new beginnings, he sees her as deflecting such ideas rather than reflecting on them. Although the black dress could represent another memory of Sheilah’s which readers cannot access – and which Peter cannot imagine.)

In Peter’s memory, the moment between him and Agnes is unshaped. It is unpredictable, the kind of narrative that falls short of a story.

“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.”

But in Mavis Gallant’s fiction, this is the stuff of narrative, that which falls between.

“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.”

Peter is back in Canada, in an unfamiliar kitchen on a Sunday morning, a room crowded by a steamer trunk and memories of happier times (but, also, memories of incomplete stories).

But even there he can inhabit that strange beauty of Agnes’ memory. And as the sentences fall forwards and backwards in time, he sees the ice-wagon.

And, yet, there is another reality, which Peter observes and which readers observe Sheilah inhabiting (but, quite possibly, she is living in some past memory of happier times, too).

“Sheilah is here, it is a true Sunday morning, with its dimness and headache and remorse and regrets, and this is life.”

Somehow, this is not overwhelmingly sad. Perhaps it is the sound of the city awakening, the noise of the cartwheels turning, which allows the disappointment to fall into the background.

Or, perhaps it is simply that I have reread this story on a Sunday morning, one bright and promising, which allows me to read it this way.

How about you?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the last story in My Heart is Broken. It also appears in Home Truths, The Moslem Wife and Paris Stories. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next up: The Cost of Living (also titled Going Ashore), beginning tentatively November 7, 2017.

2017-08-08T13:54:19+00:00

3 Comments

  1. Naomi September 4, 2017 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    I didn’t find this overwhelmingly sad, either, but there was definitely something sad about it. I know I was feeling relieved I was not any of them. I’m starting to think that most (or all) Gallant’s stories have a sad quality to them. Have you read a happy, or even neutral, story yet?

    Agnes was the character who interested me in this story. I want to know what happened to her… Did she become more independent? Did she go home? Did she continue on the way she was? I also thought what she said about “educated” people was interesting – she found they didn’t hold up to what she imagined.

    I like the last sentence. It makes me think about the ending/story in a way I might not have.

    • Buried In Print September 5, 2017 at 8:24 am - Reply

      Agnes is very interesting. Despite Gallant’s experience as a travelling Canadian, which seemed to make her more like the narrator at first, I wonder if she didn’t put more of herself into Agnes overall. Did her desire to recapture that early morning sense of promise take her to other work in other European countries or did she lose hope and stay in that office like a Barbara Pym character until she retired sad and lonely? (Not that all Pym characters are sad and lonely all the time!)

      All of the stories seem to have a note of longing in them, which leaves a thread of sadness in them for me as a reader. Some of them are about younger people, and I suppose one could say that they might not end up with that sadness if one wrote ahead for them, but, in some ways, those seem the saddest stories to me. I don’t remember the same sense of sadness from the later stories (which I read before these), but I do recall a sense of loneliness there too. You and Mel have the same edition, and I always look forward to the stories which I know the two of you are reading too; it’s so nice to have company when reading stories about lonely people!

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