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The Lonely Voice: 'The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street' by Mavis Gallant

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Mavis Gallant
Alison Harris
Mavis Gallant

“The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street” is one of Mavis Gallant’s most beloved stories.

Protagonist Peter Frazier is a Canadian married to a British wife, Sheilah.

On a languorous Sunday morning in Toronto, they lounge in Peter’s sister’s kitchen where they’ve lived for 17 weeks with their two children.

They’ve traveled in Europe and lived in Paris and Geneva. They’ve also lived in Ceylon.

During part of that time away, Peter held some low-level jobs, including as a filing clerk in an office in Geneva.

Just a few mere lines into the story, Peter thinks about Agnes Brusen. We later learn she was a co-worker in that office in Geneva. She was a “mole-faced, round-shouldered” young woman, inexperienced at life and from a large family where she was the oldest of many children.

Agnes has a misstep: she gets drunk at a party. Peter’s wife and the party hostess urge Peter to see the girl home.

What occurs then is as mysterious and intimate as almost anything else we would find in a love story. It’s odd and unlikely. But it’s honest. It is perhaps the most honest exchange Peter has had with another person.

But so much time has passed by the time we see Peter and Sheilah passing the time on that early Sunday morning.

What’s on Peter’s mind in quiet moments there? Agnes.

But why? There was nothing between them. There were no kisses or words of love. They didn’t sleep together.

What did happen is that in that moment of drunkenness, Agnes tells Peter a simple story from her childhood. It is a story of longing for something ineffable that she cannot easily name. And perhaps Peter felt this yearning, too, even if he didn’t recognize it as such. And all that remains instead is remembering Agnes.

Mavis Gallant is the author of “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street.”

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.
Peter Orner is the author of the essay collections Still No Word from You and Am I Alone Here? His story collections are Maggie Brown and Others, Esther Stories, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge. His novels are Love and Shame and Love and The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo. He is a professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College where he directs the creative writing program.